Friday, 22 January 2016

Burns Supper and Muslim Identity

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day

Friday 22nd January 2016
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland

Burns supper celebrations marking the life and poetry of Scotland’s bard will be organised in Scotland and across the globe on Monday.  In the last few weeks I have been reading up quite a lot about Burns Supper.  I will be attending my very first one tomorrow.  I was given a small book a few years ago that outlined what should and should not happen.  Well, the book actually said that everything really goes in the spirit of Robert Burns being a ‘free spirit’.  Robert Burns life was more than colourful, to say the least, but it was these colours that allows his life to be read, understood and celebrated in various way. 

It was recently announced that Syrian refugees to Glasgow would be welcomed to an alternative Burns Supper at the Celtic Connections Festival.  Festival organisers hope to "highlight the celebration's multicultural dimensions, reflecting Burns's global resonance, and particularly his passionate belief in justice and equality".  And this week a world's first will take place at a star-studded Glasgow Burn's night, with a transgender 'Reply to the Toast to the Lassies'. Playwright Jo Clifford will deliver the performance in response to the toast to the Lassies. 

There are Islamic traditions that detail ways to know a person, mainly - traveling with them, eating with them or doing business with them.  I’ve come to learn a lot about others by eating with them.  When I lived in Miami I was often invited to Jewish Sabbath meals and although I learnt about Jewish traditions from my Jewish host, I actually learnt how the act of breaking bread together helped bridge our differences.  There’s been a lot of heated debate in the last few days about the prime minister’s call for Muslim women immigrants to learn the English language as a way of integrating in to British society and combatting extremism.  Clearly there’s politics to both sides.  I suppose there are many ways of getting to know each other through words or actions. 

Maybe the friends of Burns were on to something when they started the tradition of Burns Supper as we eat and laugh together.    

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ab Kay Hum Bichray | Iqbal Bano | Ahmed Faraz احمد فراز

Translation by Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

Ab kay hum bichday to shaayad kabhi khawabon may milein
As we seperate....part...maybe we will meet in those dreams
Jis tarah sookhay huey phool kitabon mein milein
The way those dried up flowers meet in books

Dhoond ujde huye logon mein wafa ke moti
Seek the pearls of loyalty in those who are broken 
Ye khazane tujhe mumkin hai kharabon mein mile
Perhaps it is in their ruins that you find these treasures

Tuu khuda hai na mera ishq farishton jaisa
You are not God nor is my love angelic
Dono insaan hain to kyon itnay hijaabon mein milein
If we are both human, then why such hidden, veiled meetings

Ghum-e dunya bhi ghum-e yaar mein shamil kar lo
Why not add the sorrows of this world with the sorrows attached to the beloved

Nasha bartha hain sharabein jo sharaboon main milein   
After all when the drinks are mixed, the intoxication increases

Ab na woh main hoon na tu hain na woh maazi hai `Faraaz',
Now, you nor I are the same, nor is the past, O Faraaz
Jaisay do saayey tamana kay sehrabbon mein milein
As if two shadows meeting in the mirage of wishes, dreams

 

 

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Adventures in Islam: The Myths and Legends of Muslim Homogeneity

By
Historian
Published at Huffington Post - The Blog
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
 
 
As we watch the Presidential debates unfold, one could be excused for thinking that there was an imminent threat of an Islamic takeover of the United States. 

According to NPR, at a New Hampshire rally, Donald Trump followed up his proposed ban on all Muslims entering the country with the comment that "there's something going on" with Muslims and "their culture."

Another Republican hopeful, the retired neurosurgeon, Ben Carson told NBC: "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that."
And it is not just the Republicans.

While Hilary Clinton has rightly criticized Trump's alarming Islmophobic comments, she herself has the dubious distinction of being one of the chief architects of the "war on terror"--which institutionalized Islamophobia at policy and programmatic levels. Clinton's personal record similarly does not bear too much scrutiny. As candidate for U.S. Senate seat in New York in 2000, she returned all campaign donation checks from Muslim organizations, totaling $50,000.

Moreover, one of Clinton's vocal allies, the retired General Wesley Clark, has recently called for "disloyal" and "radicalized" Americans to be put in internment camps similar to those which held Japanese-Americans during World War II. Several progressive organizations called for Clinton to disassociate her campaign from such dangerous remarks "at a time when American Muslims are facing a surge in violent hate crimes." That response is yet to come.

Meanwhile, CNN reports that 2015 has been one of "the most intensely anti-Muslim periods in American history." According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), American mosques and Islamic centers have been the victims of vandalism, harassment and anti-Muslim bigotry at least 63 times this year, the highest number since the Muslim civil rights group started tracking such things in 2009 and a threefold increase over the last year alone.

But if the mainstream politicians of all shades are unified in their anxiety over this apparently homogenous social group of "the Muslims", terrorist outfits like ISIL also appeal to a similarly imagined homogenous group of "Muslims" for their own political ends.

After the devastating attacks in Beirut and Paris, British investigative journalist, Nafeez Ahmed, wrote a deeply intuitive piece about ISIS. Daesh's goal, Ahmed rightly argued, was not simply to use spectacular violence to create widespread panic and terror, but to craft a fundamentally new political project: that of drawing "the western world into an apocalyptic civilizational Armageddon with 'Islam.'"

While it seems that both Donald Trump and ISIS agree that there is this preexisting unified group of people called "the Muslims," I would like to spend some time in this column talking about the immense diversity and heterogeneity of Islam and Muslims. How there never was any unitary "thing" called "Islam" in global history, and one can only talk about Islam in its historic specificity. We can talk about, say the Sunni clerics in Ottoman Turkey in the 15th. century, or Sunni women in the Maldives in the 16th. century, or converted Sufi peasants in Bengal in the 17th and eighteenth centuries. But we must also talk about how they all saw themselves as "Muslim" but could not be more different from each other.

In reformatting the smooth narrative about homogenous Muslims as one of bumpy, uneven variegation, I want to retrieve from our global forgetting the story of Islam as a rich palimpsest: how Islam integrated, modified and rewrote local histories and in doing so modified and rewrote itself.

Ibn Battuta and his Dar-Al Islam: Singular or Plural?
 
Between 1325 and 1354, in a world without the steam engine or air travel, the North African Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta traveled by land and sea from his place of birth, Morocco, all the way to China and back. By the time he was done, he had visited an equivalent of 44 modern nations and travelled a distance of 73,000 miles.

It has been Ibn Battuta's fate to be referred to by Western writers as the "Marco Polo of the East" even though Battuta had traveled much further than the Venetian and to far more places. But, as scholars have pointed out, where Battuta differed most from Marco Polo was in the fact that the Italian was a stranger to the lands he visited, while Ibn Battuta traveled through a "single cultural universe", that of Dar al-Islam, or the lands where Muslims were a majority, or was ruled by a Muslim king.
So everywhere Battuta went as a Muslim scholar he was received into a familiar world of Muslim merchants, scholars and Princes with whom he could converse in Arabic on issues ranging from theology and jurisprudence to politics and science.

In some ways then Dar al-Islam was a singular world of Islam or Muslim-ness.

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But it is critical to remember that Dar al-Islam, in Battuta's time, comprised a geographical area from the Atlantic coast of West Africa to China and South East Asia. This is not counting countries where Muslims were an important minority such as Spain and certain parts of tropical Africa.
It is thus quite impossible that such a range of humanity, peopled by so many histories, languages and pasts would be 'homogenous.'

For our times, then, it is important to recapture the 'culture shocks' the Muslim Ibn Battuta encountered in Muslim lands, which testified to the deep veins of cultural plurality in the wider Islamic world of Dar al-Islam.

Anti-Monarchical Islam
 
The question of plural traditions within Islam vexed our cosmopolitan Sunni scholar Ibn Battuta quite a bit. Despite his Sunni moorings, Batuta was very attracted to Sufism, a mystical tradition within Islam. Throughout his travels, he made it a point to visit Sufi shrines wherever possible, such as the famous overnight journey he made to the village of Umm 'Ubaida to visit the tomb of the founder of Sufism, Shaikh Ahmad ibn al-Rifa'i.

Sufi mystics were known for their disregard of secular rulers, irrespective of the ruler's religion. Sufi divines considered any association with Kings and Sultans to interfere with ones primary commitment to god.

2016-01-06-1452053096-2690844-dancingSufis.jpg

It is no wonder then Sufis would not be great favorites with Kings and Sultans, and when he came to India his dabbling in Sufism got Ibn Battuta into trouble.

Ibn Battuta served as a judge in Delhi under the rule of Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughluq (1325-51). As a ruler, Muhammad Tughlug was known for his eccentricity, quixotic projects and contradictions. When he learnt that a famous Sufi mystic in his kingdom had refused to acknowledge him as the supreme ruler, he had the Sufi Shaikh arrested, his beard plucked out one at a time, and finally executed!

Ibn Battuta happened to be close friends with this same mystic. The Sultan had Battuta arrested and kept under close surveillance for several weeks. Sharing the same Sunni faith with the ruler provided no immunity. The Sultan was, despite all his public claims to the contrary, a sovereign first and a Muslim second.

Gender in Dar al-Islam
 
Ibn Battuta had been on hajj and had travelled through the vital centers of Islamic learning and civilization, such as Mecca and Medina. In other words, he was trained in Islam-of-the-Center, if we can call it that, rather than the Islam found on the margins of Dar al-Islam.

So imagine his surprise when he came to the beautiful tropical islands of the Maldives and found pious Muslim women, acting in ways that he found shocking as a Muslim:
The women of these islands do not cover their heads, nor does their queen and they comb their hair and gather it together in one direction. Most of them wear only a waist-wrapper, which covers them from their waist to the lowest part, but the remainder of their body remains uncovered. Thus they walk about in the bazaars and elsewhere. When I was appointed qazi there, I strove to put an end to this practice and commanded the women to wear clothes; but could not get it done. (From The Rihla of Ibn Battuta translation and commentary Oriental Institute, Baroda, India 1976).
To be perfectly honest, Battuta's 'shock' was perhaps more ahistorical then he would himself acknowledge as a scholar. The history of Islam, contrary to some current stereotypes, is teeming with stories of powerful women.

Wealthy women in the Ottoman Empire were known for their role in the urban economy as landowners. Women of the royal harim, such as Hurrem Sultan, shaped the politics of the court and Empire, even though it was her husband who earned from history the title of Suleiman "the Magnificent".

Similarly, the history of women from the urban poor and the peasantry contradict a picture of subservient and sequestered Muslim women. Historian of women and gender in the Arab world, Judith Tucker, has long drawn our attention to working women in the Islamic world:
In Ottoman Cairo, women monopolized the sale of milk and pancakes, worked as attendants in the public baths, and performed as musicians and dancers at both male and female parties. Lower-class women also provided services to the upper-class women of the harims...as entertainers, peddlers, cosmologists, midwives, they linked the hairm to the commerce, know-how, and gossip of the urban thoroughfare. The well-documented presence of these poorer women in the Islamic court, where they often presented their own grievances against husbands, neighbors, and business partners, testifies to their presence in public space as well as their knowledge of...the public institution of the court. (Tucker 1993, "Gender and Islamic History").
Islam, alive in the European Orientalist imagination, as a culture of belly dancers and lascivious Sultans, was in reality, not quite a story of "men who rule and women who submit."
So let us go back to the note of despair in Battuta as he is unable to get the Muslim women of the island to submit to his Islamic 'command.'

On the one hand Battuta's exasperation speaks of one kind of Islam --that of texts. An Islam that trained many theologians, scholars and jurists through centuries in madrasas and maqtabs. This was the Islam that Battuta studied and that acted as his abstract prototype.
But Islam did not stay confined to the Madrasa or the royal court. It travelled on dhows across the Indian Ocean, was carried on camel back across the Sahara and through both poetry and the sword across Asia.

Thus besides a Textual Islam, we can also talk about a Lived Islam where scholar and saint, ruler and ruled, merchant and artisan embedded Islam into their own specific historic context and the result was often an enmeshed cultural tapestry where Sharia law was changed to suit imperial needs (as in the case of the Ottomans), or previously existing gender norms were allowed to happily coexist (as in the case of the Maldives).

For a religious tradition such as Islam with its peripatetic scholars, adventurous merchants, and expansionist military generals, it was always the relationship between the two Islams --the Textual and the Lived--that determined the shape of a particular region's history.

And so while ISIS can quote the hadith as it executes other Muslims, and Trump can inveigh against the "Muslims," we need to continue to look to the multiethnic neighborhoods of Istanbul, Paris and Beirut as lived histories of our times of mutual human coexistence. And it is such lived experiences of multifaith communities that need to be both defended and extended.

Muslims Need More Than Just Symbolic Solidarity

Shenila Khoja-Moolji is a research fellow at Columbia University’s Teachers College specializing in gender and education, and an education affiliate with the Religious Literacy Project at the Harvard Divinity School. She is on Twitter

Updated January 6, 2016, 3:21 AM
New York Times, All Rights Reserved, Copyright
 
As Islamophobia in the United States has grown, Muslim sisters have been verbally and physically abused simply for wearing headscarves, an expression of their faith. Actions like World Hijab Day that call on non-Muslims to don the hijab in solidarity with Muslims are crucial ways to direct attention to this increased violence against women.

I do not wear the hijab, but I staunchly stand with sisters who do and are being viciously attacked because of it. I grew up in Pakistan and have seen Muslim women don the hijab – or other coverings, such as the dupatta – for myriad reasons: demonstrating submission to Allah, expressing modesty, conforming to local patriarchies or resisting everyday injustices.

Wearing the hijab as an act of solidarity with Muslim women then requires recognition of these multiple meanings — particularly since the hijab has historically been deployed to signal the oppression of Muslim women by Muslim communities and to legitimize interventions in Muslim nations. Solidarity through hijab should not be reduced to making a fashion statement or a voyeuristic experience into a Muslim identity.

In addition, the dominant markers by which Muslims are recognized in the West are not just beards or hijabs – but also skin color. Islam in the West has historically been racialized. When we think of Muslims, we often conjure images of bearded men or veiled women who are brown-skinned. This means that brown people can be targets of attacks whether or not they are Muslims. A clear example is the recent attacks on members of the Sikh community.

Similarly, African-American Muslims, who constitute a significant portion of the Muslim population in the United States, experience violence that draws on both Islamophobia and anti-black racism. Even without a hijab, being a brown or black Muslim in America can be precarious. Racism and Islamophobia are deeply entangled in how we experience our worlds.

Solidarity, hence, can begin with donning the hijab, but it should not end there. It must evolve into a deeper engagement with the causes of Islamophobia, racism and bigotry, along with the oppression of women.

It is only then that we will be able to effectively challenge the deeply layered ignorance about Islam in the West, and address gender-based discrimination within Muslim communities.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

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BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Wednesday 30th December 2015
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland

A suspected suicide bomb killed at least 26 people in north-west Pakistan yesterday.  Such events seem to be a regular occurrence in Pakistan.  A land that I am deeply connected to through my parents, who came to the UK from Pakistan in the 1950s.  The stories that my Mum tells me of her life in her Punjabi village, often connected to farming, are so far removed from growing up in urban Glasgow.  I haven’t been to Pakistan since 1999 and a lot has changed in that time yet in some way I’ve always had a connection with the land and the news that comes from it.  The 27th December was also the eight year death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto, the Muslim world’s first women leader who was brutally assassinated.   



I’ve been following the trip of two dear friends from the USA who have journeyed to Pakistan in the last couple of weeks through social media.  They’ve been regularly updating us on the wonderful sights the’ve seen and the delicious food that they have eaten sharing the colours and smiles. In a way this offers me a different sense of a country that we get through the news.  Many conversations of caution to my friends about visiting Pakistan always end with, ‘it’s not that bad’.  I suppose this is the nature of how we understand the world we live in. 



There is a famous saying of the prophet Muhammad in which he stated that one should seek knowledge even if they need to travel to China.  For me, traveling and experiencing a land, culture and its people is a gaining of knowledge that is not just about books.  We may read a lot about a country but if lucky enough to visit or live there, it gives us a very different perspective.  As our year comes to an end, it offers us a chance to reflect on those places both near and far that we may have dismissed – at times we may need to share thoughts and prayers, but we can also seek to share knowledge and insight.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Muslims can reinterpret their faith: it’s the best answer to Isis by Hassan Radwan

Wednesday 16 December 2015



There is a great deal of talk about reform and reinterpretation of Islam these days, in order to counter the views of extremists such as Isis.

Liberal and progressive interpretations depend mostly on nuanced readings of the Qur’an and Sunna, or forcing new meanings out of them. But by playing the extremists’ game of interpreting the texts, we allow them a semblance of legitimacy. We also give them the opportunity to come back with theological workarounds.

In my opinion we Muslims need to take the bold step of challenging the very idea that the Qur’an and Sunna are infallible. This will come as a shock to those of us brought up on the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of God, but some Muslims are already doing this. Thinkers such as Abdul Karim Soroush from Iran, Sayyed Ahmad Al-Qabbanji from Iraq and Saeed Nasheed from Morocco are questioning traditional views about the Qur’an.
 
Saeed Nasheed, in his recent book, Modernity & the Qur’an, said: “The Qur’an is not the speech of God, just as the loaf of bread is not the work of the farmer. God produced the raw material, which was inspiration, just as the farmer produces the raw material, which is wheat. But it is the baker who turns the wheat or flour into bread according to his own unique way, artistic expertise and creative ability. Thus it is the Prophet who was responsible for interpreting the inspiration and turning it into actual phrases and words according to his own unique view.”

Why is this such an essential step? Because once you stop protecting ideas on the basis that “God said it”, you create a level playing field where good ideas can battle it out with bad ideas on an equal footing. It allows reason to be the deciding factor for whether something is accepted or rejected, rather than: “Because it’s written – that’s why!” No more searching for tenuous interpretations or changing the meaning of words into something else, just so we can avoid the problematic and uncomfortable meanings.

As long as we refuse to appreciate that the Qur’an may be divinely inspired but is human-authored, we will be forced to continue playing the game of the fundamentalists and disarming ourselves of the only weapon that can defeat them – reason. Only when we recognise that the Qur’an and Sunna are fallible can we free Islam from the prison of dogma we placed it in.


Islam is far more than the Qur’an and Sunna. Like any major religion, it is the amassed wisdom, practice and beliefs of millions of believers over many centuries. Religion at its most fundamental is man reaching out to the unknown. It is a way of seeking comfort, solace, strength and meaning in a harsh and often cruel world where man finds himself alone and vulnerable. It is not a replacement for reason but an aid to help us get by.

Look at most believers of Islam, or indeed any religion: the vast majority don’t even know what their “holy texts” say. They know little or nothing about the intricacies of theology. For them Islam is what their mother and father taught them – the nice, loving and universal elements. Giving charity, helping others, seeking comfort and strength from prayer, sharing in festivals and celebrations. This is Islam for the ordinary man. The hardline literalists of today want to undermine and destroy this Islam. They want to reduce Islam to the ancient texts and strip away any semblance of progress, human reason and humanity.

They want to strip Islam of the very thing that has made religion relevant to human beings – something to help us along life’s rocky road. They want to take away its ability to respond to the changing problems of life and evolve with time. They want to take us back 1,400 years to a context and place that have no relevance to us in the 21st century, and reduce Islam to a list of Aqidahs and Hudud punishments. That is not what religion is about.


Islam (and religion) at its best should be about being a good human being. About showing love, empathy and charity to others. About seeking strength and comfort through prayer and community. About reaching out to the unknown and seeking a little help to get us by in a difficult world. That is what Islam is for the ordinary man, and that is what we need to wrestle back from the literalists, who are in fact the ones destroying Islam.

Realising the Qur’an is fallible will not destroy Islam. It will destroy the literalists. For the rest of us it will free us and free our reason so we can take what is useful and helpful from religion and ignore what is not. Islam did not come to replace the mind God gave us and turn us into heartless robots. I know some will say that Islam represents a belief in the “truth” – an unchanging and constant truth that does not move with the times – but I would say that while there may indeed be absolute “truth”, from our imperfect human perspective truth is relative: relative to our knowledge and understanding and context, which are always changing.

This is why religion must evolve and change with that understanding. Religion that doesn’t change is not religion. It is just ignorance. It is an ignorance that keeps us hostage to the past and strips people of their reason and humanity.

Friday, 11 December 2015

What Trump and His Supporters Can Learn From Muslim Leaders



Sociologist, Speaker, Writer
Published at Huffington Post
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Posted:

Support for Donald Trump is surging across the United States. This is particularly troubling because in recent weeks, he has called for banning Muslim immigration, shutting down mosques, spying on Muslims, making Muslims carry ID badges, and a few other blatantly Islamophobic things. It's like Hitler, American-style. Clearly, Trump and his supporters (maybe not all of them, but many) see Muslims as a "cancer" to be dealt with by any means necessary.

The truth of the matter is that Muslims have a lot to offer America. Islamic civilization -- if I can call it that -- has a rich history of justice, compassion and humanity. This isn't some ridiculous argument that I'm making up here. This is a historical fact. Trump and his supporters can actually learn a lot by turning to Islamic history and the examples of Muslim leaders.

Let's start with Prophet Muhammad, one of the greatest human beings ever to walk the face of the earth. His Constitution of Medina, which came 1,000 years before the Constitution of the United States, is one of the first legal documents in history to safeguard human rights like freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Also called the Medina Charter, this document provided equal rights to all citizens of the Islamic state. "Strangers," in particular, were to be treated with special consideration and "on the same grounds as [Muslims]." This is a far cry from Trump and his supporters, many of whom want to ban all Muslim refugees from entering the country.

The Medina Charter isn't a one-off document. Prophet Muhammad also sent many letters of peace and goodwill to Christian communities in his realm. In a letter to Christian monks at St. Catherine's monastery in Egypt, the Prophet told Christians that he would "defend them, because Christians are my citizens." The letter also includes advice on how Christian judges should be respected and how no church should be harmed or destroyed. Again, this is a far cry from Trump's idea of potentially shutting down mosques.

Prophet Muhammad left another example for human rights on Mount Arafat in 632. In his Final Sermon, he stated that "an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab... a white person has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action." The Final Sermon shows the Prophet's humanity and care for all people regardless of their ethnic composition. Diversity in Muslim societies is to be celebrated at the request of Muhammad. This is ironic considering Prophet Muhammad cherished diversity whereas Trump and his supporters seem to despise it.

In short, Prophet Muhammad is the anti-Trump. The Prophet is an anti-racist figure who promoted egalitarianism. Without a shadow of a doubt, he advanced democracy in an area of the world that had little experience with this political system. Trump supporters who belittle Muhammad have not considered the examples provided above.

Muslim leaders such as Caliph Umar reflected Prophet Muhamad's love of humanity. Umar advised his predecessors "to treat Jews and Christians well, to defend them against their enemies and not burden them with more than they can bear." He also commanded: "Treat all people as equal... I advise you not to let yourself or anyone else do wrong to Jews and Christians." Umar was simply following his Prophet in treating non-Muslims with respect and equality.

Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar are Arab Muslims, but Arabs aren't the only Muslims extending their hand out to other religious groups. Akbar the Great, the Mughal Empire of South Asia, had great respect for Christianity. His admiration for Christians is visible in the Buland Darwaze, a large gate-structure at the city of Fatehpur Sikri, on which Akbar had transcribed the Qur'anic passage: "Jesus, son of Mary, said: This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but build no houses on it. He who hopes for an hour may hope for eternity. The world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen." Akbar the Great wouldn't have stamped this passage on the Buland Darwaze if he didn't feel that Christianity should be respected.

Akbar's legacy of tolerance is also found in the Ibidat Khana, or "house of worship." Built in the city of Fatehpur, this building served as a forum for religious discussion among people of different faiths. The South Asian historian Muhammad Abdul Baki claims that Akbar "would recognize no difference between [religions], his object being to unite all men in a common bond of peace." Peace. It's a lovely word that seems to be missing from Trump's campaign message.

Trump and his supporters should head to their local bookstore and buy books of Rumi, the famous 13th century Sufi Muslim poet who happens to be one of the most popular poets in the United States. Rumi, who is like a bridge between "East" and "West," also revered Jesus and extended his hand in friendship to non-Muslims. His powerful words echo love and peace:
I am neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim
I am not of the east, nor of the west...
I have put duality away, I have see the two worlds as one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call
(Divan-i Sham-i Tabriz, II)
My favorite Rumi story comes from his funeral in Konya, Turkey in 1273. People from all walks of life came to pay their last respect to the great poet. The story goes something like this... A weeping Muslim man goes up to a Christian man and asks him, "Why are you crying at the funeral of a Muslim poet?" The Christian responded back: "We esteemed him as the Moses, the David, the Jesus of the age. We are all his followers and his disciples." Rumi was popular among his peers because he saw them as human beings before Jews, Christians, or Muslims. The whole of America could benefit from this kind of humanity.

Trump and his supporters can look to these Muslim leaders for guidance on how to treat people in their communities. Americans can only be enriched by their principles and vision. While Trump and his supporters like to divide and conquer, Muslims like Prophet Muhammad, Akbar the Great, and Rumi understood that tolerance and pluralism make communities stronger rather than weaker. It's time for Trump to be trumped by humanity.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Fatema Mernissi, a Founder of Islamic Feminism, Dies at 75


Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist who was one of the founders of Islamic feminism, whose work included studies of the sexual politics of Islamic Scripture and a memoir of her childhood in a domestic harem, died on Nov. 30 in Rabat. She was 75.

The cause was cancer, said her literary agent, Edite Kroll.

A longtime faculty member of Mohammed V University in Rabat, the capital, Professor Mernissi, who wrote in Arabic, French and English, published and lectured worldwide.

Her best-known English-language books include “Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society,” which was first published in 1975 and is still considered a touchstone in the field; “Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World” (1992, translated by Mary Jo Lakeland); and her memoir, “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood” (1994), with photographs by Ruth V. Ward.

“Muslim women are now producing the most exciting feminist writing being published anywhere,” The Guardian, the British newspaper, wrote in 1992. Professor Mernissi, it added, “is the most highly regarded among them.”

Throughout her work, Professor Mernissi, who favored a moderate, inclusive Islam, emphasized that her deep study of religious texts had turned up little support for women’s long subordination. That reading, she argued, sprang from centuries of misinterpretation by male leaders intent on maintaining the sexual status quo.

“Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies,” Professor Mernissi wrote in “The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam” (1991, translated by Ms. Lakeland). “Since all power, from the seventh century on, was only legitimated by religion, political forces and economic interests pushed for the fabrication of false traditions.”

One of the primary ways in which this manipulation played out, Professor Mernissi argued, was in Islam’s time-honored control of the physical space that women are allowed to occupy. The most — or, more accurately, the least — visible manifestation of such control was the domestic harem.
Domestic harems, Professor Mernissi stressed, were nothing like the silk-hung dens of iniquity presided over by sultans and long popularized in Western film and literature. They were instead, quite simply, sequestered multigenerational living quarters for the female members of an extended family. Through his harem, a man maintained his honor by preserving his wives and daughters from the eyes of male outsiders.

“It is the Ottoman imperial harem that has fascinated the West almost to the point of obsession,” Professor Mernissi wrote in her memoir. “By contrast, domestic harems,” she added, “are rather dull, for they have a strong bourgeois dimension.”
It was into just such a harem that Fatema Mernissi was born on Sept. 27, 1940, in Fez, the daughter of a prosperous family.

The harem’s matriarch, her grandmother, had been one of her grandfather’s nine wives. Though Professor Mernissi’s father, a monogamist, was a progressive in many respects, he favored the traditional segregation of the sexes that the harem provided.

The Mernissi harem comprised a set of secluded quarters within the family’s expansive home. The women were rarely allowed to venture outside the house, and when they were, they did so — veiled — escorted by a male relative.

“A harem was about private space and the rules regulating it,” Professor Mernissi wrote in her memoir. “Once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within.” She added, “Ours in Fez was like a fortress.”

Inside, the women dreamed of transgressing its confines. They sustained one another with stories, songs and, when they could spirit away the key to the radio cabinet, quiet news of the outside world.
Many, including Professor Mernissi’s mother, chafed openly.

“I would wake up at dawn,” Professor Mernissi recalled her mother saying. “If I only could go for a walk in the early morning when the streets are deserted. The light must be blue then, or maybe pink, like at sunset. What is the color of the morning in the deserted, silent streets?”
Professor Mernissi added, “No one answered her questions.”
 
Especially popular among the women were tales of Scheherazade, the Arab queen of legend who used her verbal skill to pre-empt execution. Professor Mernissi came to venerate her as a feminist heroine and in 2001 published “Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems,” a book-length study of her influence.

Unlike her mother and grandmother, who were uneducated, Professor Mernissi was a beneficiary of the nationalist fervor that had arisen in Morocco in the 1930s as the country sought to break free of French dominion.

As a young child she attended nationalist schools, where she was educated alongside male classmates. In 1956, when Morocco won its independence, the nationalists’ reforms included the dissolution of harems throughout the country.

Professor Mernissi received a degree in sociology from Mohammed V University, did graduate work at the Sorbonne and earned a Ph.D. from Brandeis University. Her dissertation became her first book, “Beyond the Veil.”

Because of the politically charged nature of her work, Professor Mernissi sometimes found her public lectures interrupted by protests from Islamic fundamentalists. But for the most part — owing in no small measure to the careful phrasing and rigorous scholarly documentation of her writings — she was left alone.

“At least in Morocco, you can’t be put into jail for writing something, unlike most of the other Arab countries,” she told The Toronto Globe and Mail in 1982. “If those fanatics from the Moslem Brothers show up and try to interrupt my talk, they must be thrown out. I know now how to handle them. I won’t let them interrupt my work.”

Nor did she exempt the West from criticism on matters of sexual politics. Where the East subordinated women by controlling space, Professor Mernissi argued, the West created a vast de facto harem by controlling time.
 
“The Western man,” she wrote, “declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look 14 years old. If she dares to look 50, or worse, 60, she is beyond the pale. By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility.”
Long active with North African social justice causes, Professor Mernissi helped found La Caravane Civique, an organization that took educated women to speak in rural communities, village schools and women’s prisons in the region. She also started a writing workshop for released Moroccan political prisoners.

Professor Mernissi, who never married, is survived by a brother, Mohamed, and a sister, Ratida Mernissi.

Her other books include “Women in Moslem Paradise” (1986); “Doing Daily Battle: Interviews With Moroccan Women” (1988), based on her fieldwork in rural areas and translated by Ms. Lakeland; “The Forgotten Queens of Islam” (1993), also translated by Ms. Lakeland; and “Women’s Rebellion and Islamic Memory” (1996).

In 2003, Professor Mernissi, along with Susan Sontag, received the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters, presented by the government of Spain.

After a lifetime spent exploring the relationship of Islam to feminism, Professor Mernissi concluded that there were few irreconcilable differences between the two.

“If women’s rights are a problem for some modern Muslim men, it is neither because of the Quran nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite,” she wrote in “The Veil and the Male Elite.”

“The elite faction is trying to convince us that their egotistic, highly subjective and mediocre view of culture and society has a sacred basis,” she added. “But if there is one thing that the women and men of the late 20th century who have an awareness and enjoyment of history can be sure of, it is that Islam was not sent from heaven to foster egotism and mediocrity.”

Friday, 4 December 2015

“Be Unapologetically Muslim No Matter What” – Linda Sarsour


Pakistan’s Radical Feminists Are Fighting Violence with Activism and Art by Tonje Thilesen

Published in The Vice
June 3rd 2015
Copyright, All Rights Reserved
 
For nearly a decade, Pakistani human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was the centerpiece of a flourishing counterculture in Karachi, Pakistan. In opening the doors of DIY community space T2F (formerly known as the Second Floor) in 2007, she provided a place for women and men to unfold their creative selves regardless of income, class, or age. But on the night of Friday, April 24, Sabeen was brutally silenced. After hosting a seminar with Baluch political activist Mama Qadeer, she was shot dead on the street outside T2F by two unidentified gunmen. Mahenaz Mahmud—Sabeen's mother, who was with her that night—survived the attack with minimal injuries. 

I had originally traveled to Karachi to visit friends and document the underground music scene there. But when I first walked into the T2F conference room in mid April and saw Sabeen surrounded by female associates who all seemed to hang on her every word, in that moment I realized what my story was actually about—the women who make alternative art publicly accessible and freedom of speech possible in Pakistan. In fact, it seemed that much of the underground culture was made possible by the efforts of Sabeen Mahmud.

T2F is situated in a busy pocket of Karachi neighborhood Defense Housing Authorities Phase-II. In the eight years since T2F first opened its doors, it has hosted around 100 events annually, including Pakistan's first civic hackathon in April 2013. Talking with Sabeen in the café that afternoon, I spotted a group of art-school girls sipping on their green smoothies and a middle-aged man browsing piles of international newspapers and feminist zines on the bookshelf. AC units buzzed over quite chatter in English and Urdu. On the wall, a poster of a traffic sign read, "Always keep left."

Sabeen rarely moved out of her signature crossed-arm position as she talked eagerly with co-workers Sana Nasir and Reem Khurshid. "At large, our population is quite politically apathetic," she said, frowning. "We've been under a military rule for most of our history, and we haven't really been able to build democratic movements—for a number of reasons. There is a general distrust of democracy." Reem agreed, adding: "The instability that comes with living here contributes to a testament to people's general drive. But despite that, they have the desire and willpower to be creative." As they spoke, I came to think of the T-shirt I saw Sabeen wear in a picture published online, which read: "I think, therefore I am dangerous."
 
A few days later, I came back to T2F and found Sabeen talking on the phone. "I don't care if it's the ISI, or whoever it is threatening us. I frankly don't care."

It wasn't the first time T2F had been advised by the ISI—Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence—to cancel an event. But this time it was different. On Facebook, a description of the event read, "Unsilencing Balochistan: Take 2. A conversation between Baloch activist Mama Qadeer, Farzana Baloch, Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, Wusat Ullah Khan, and Malik Siraj Akbar." The panel had been designed to springboard discussion around the Baloch missing persons—referring to the allegedly hundreds of people from the neighboring province Balochistan who had "disappeared," likely under a forceful act from the hands of Pakistani security and law enforcement agencies. It was—and still is—a very sensitive political subject in both the Sindh and Punjab provinces. The same panel with Qadeer was forcefully cancelled in Lahore, just a few weeks prior to the event rescheduling in Karachi. The cancellation caused uproar on social media, and Sabeen decided to take the risk of hosting the event in her own hands.

On Friday, April 24, 2015, the panel took place as scheduled. A few hours after Mama Qadeer and hundreds of curious attendees left T2F, two unidentified gunmen pulled up to Sabeen and her mother as they were leaving the building. They opened fire. Sabeen suffered serious injury from five gunshots and died on the way to the hospital.



Mahenaz Mahmudday, Sabeen's mother, after the ceremony for her daughter 

The day after her murder, Sabeen's body rested peacefully in her casket at T2F. She was surrounded by hundreds of friends, relatives, coworkers, artists, journalists, and embassy representatives, who all spilled onto the street outside the community space. After the ceremony, I spotted Sabeen's mother, Mahenaz, sitting on a chair near the entrance. She spoke quietly with Sabeen's close friend, Marvi Mahzahr. A woman checked on her injury, and unwrapped the bandages around her arm to reveal a fresh gunshot wound. Mahenaz seemed unfazed by the pain as Marvi called me over. "You were the last person to photograph Sabeen," she told me.
 
Now, although its leader might be gone, T2F will not cease to exist. Far from it. "Karachi still needs T2F," the community space's graphic designer, Sana Nasir, emphasized to me. "We need it as our haven, untainted by personal agendas and monetary profits. We need this inclusive community space that bridged the gap between people of various social classes. We need this community to grow and explore various disciplines, and not stop at one corner."

As much as Karachi needs T2F, T2F also needs the people of Karachi.
Throughout my month in the heavily populated city, I started searching for other important women who represent the future of the community that Sabeen built, and the future of creative independence and freedom of speech. These are the women I met.

PRESERVING HERITAGE HISTORY: MARVI MAHZAHR
"I met Sabeen at the Arts Council of Karachi Festival three years ago. Of course, like most things in Pakistan, it didn't start on time. I remember her shouting to someone, 'You said that it was going to start at 8:30! It's now 9:30 and my time is very precious!'"

Marvi's mother, a gynecologist turned politician, passed away after a targeted shooting in 1992. She worked closely with the eleventh prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who the country's first, and so far only, female prime minister. Bhutto became a leading icon for Pakistani feminism after her first election, but was assassinated in 2007.

On her own activism, Marvi says it came from her mother. "Because of our mother, my sisters and I are all very strong women," she says. As a female architect, she explains, "Passing your idea or concept is always a fight, and you're always alone on that table. But women also have their own advantage here, I must say—you do get your way, eventually."
 

T2F GRAPHIC DESIGNER AND ILLUSTRATOR: SANA NASIR
"I helped start a design-based organization while I was still in college. Our aim was to create poster exhibits and give 100 percent of the profits from the sales to charity," says Sana. "Our first show was based on the unrest in Gaza, but hardly anyone we knew were willing to give us space to exhibit in. A friend told me he had found a new and unusual space [T2F], and that its owner was willing to let us use it for no charge at all. That was the first time I met Sabeen."

Sana feels like everyone around her "needs to have some sort of an exit strategy now," as opposed to maybe five years ago, when people were "more patriotic, and there were less Taliban influences in the country." Life becomes discouraging, she says, "especially when people get killed. How much can you do when your enemy has actual weapons, and all you have is voice?"

In all the discouragement that the city projects, though, Sana is still optimistic about Karachi's future. "I want to see this place become better," she says. "I know it can, but things might get worse before they get better."

ILLUSTRATOR: SAMYA ARIF
"The first time I met Sabeen she was really friendly, with contagious humor and a wry smile," Samya tells me. "In a city where there's a lack of mentorship, I knew that she was going to become one of my favorite people."

Downstairs in her room, Samya pulls some large sketches and paintings into the window light. She nonchalantly rolls a joint and shows me a series of drawings of a larger woman from her portfolio. "I modeled these after some photographs I shot of my friend on the beach. She was almost nude, and, you know, you're not supposed to expose any skin as a woman here. These men, these religious guys, were walking on the beach in our direction. I had to hide her behind my shawl and a large rock in the water. Just imagine if they had seen some female skin—a naked leg!"

Samya says her parents still ask her, "Where are you going?" and "How long will you be out for?" It frustrates her. "To be a fucking 29-year-old and still have to answer those questions is ludicrous."

STUDENT OF EASTERN CLASSICS: ZEERAK AHMED
Zeerak is, as well as a performer (recording under the musical moniker Slow Spin), a student of Eastern Classical music and has been in school for the last ten years. When asked to elaborate more on her knowledge in the field, she is modest in her words. "It's a lifelong relationship," she says. "Ten years of studying is essentially nothing under my belt. I'm not comfortable saying that I'm a 'classical singer' yet.

She smiles when she recalls her first ever show—at T2F. "Me and my best friend had a growing interest in social satire, street art, and psychedelic content," she says, "and one day found ourselves at Sabeen's house. It was the first time we felt like the adults were taking our opinion seriously."

FEMINIST ARTIST: HAMIDA KHATRI
"My mom is my role model," says Hamida. "But my father doesn't know about my art. If he saw it, he'd think I was completely crazy."

Her work talks a lot about feminism, she says, "and the internal struggles that a woman faces in her life," particularly, "the issues that are visible for almost every girl in this country. It's not very easy for women here to express themselves, and many aren't as privileged as some of the girls you have met. They come from families where the girls aren't allowed to go outside."

In Hamida's solo exhibition at Karachi's Sanat Gallery in February, one of the drawings she exhibited shows an illustration of a woman screaming in pain, as she is seemingly about to cut into her own breast with a kitchen knife. "Someone I know—a very religious person—told me not to do the show," she says. "But I said, OK, I've read the Quran, I know what my religion says, but, at the end of the day, I need a voice. This is the best medium I have."
 

FIGHTING THE INDUSTRY: SEHER NAVEED
"T2F served as a backbone to younger practitioners who were not getting support from other galleries and institutions," says Seher, matter-of-factly. "Cities like Karachi need places like T2F, where there is an open discourse, where one is encouraged to share ideas and thoughts and able to do experimental work." On Sabeen's legacy, she says: "We need more and more young people to be like her, to hold the city together like she did."

Seher explains, interestingly, how comfortable she now is traveling on her own within the city, but that it wasn't always that way. "In school, we were always forced to find alternative ways to travel if we didn't have a car that one day," she says. "So there was something significant about becoming comfortable enough to go out on our own as women.

"When I was studying for my MFA in London, I was pressured by the faculty to do something political, because I was from Pakistan. I have issues with artists doing political work here just for the sake of doing political work, even though the issues don't actually affect them, in any way possible." She also refuses to follow "the road paved by Pakistan's art industry," which she finds compromising in terms of self-expression.
 
SCULPTOR: SEEMA NUSRAT
"When I was studying abroad, I felt lost," says Seema. "I realized that all my subjects were here, in Karachi. But I think that the experience of living away from my city made me closer and more observant to Karachi. When I came back from my studies, I saw a drastic change in the city—one thing was these barricades that started popping up everywhere and they started to become a part of the city. There is a power segregation there."

Seema's sculptural work focuses largely on the structural function of an object and its material. In April, she exhibited an outdoor installation at Frere Hall in Karachi, a former palace from the British colonial era in Pakistan. A labyrinth of sandbags made up the complete installation, and the untraditional shape of the stacked bags allowed the material to subvert from its original, political function. "I think those open art discussions at T2F has helped me a lot in my art exposure," she says.
 
MULTI-MEDIA ARTIST: SARA PAGGANWALA
"There is a certain amount of censorship that we succumb to, both as women and men," Sara tells me over her desk. "And, you know, a lot of women are already liberated as it is, but it is a different kind of independence. It is stigmatized." Not that she'll ever let that deter her. "I mean, what is stopping you? Is it because a man is stronger than you?"

On Sara's work desk is a small, spinning object, projecting red and green light around the room. Looking closer, the spinning object is, in fact, a picture of Jesus, but on the other side of the double-printed cutout, she has covered the upper body of Jesus with a plastic burka. Sculptures made of various materials hang on the walls, while her work in progress is stored in the corners of the room. She points out one of her more conspicuous sculptures, an origami-shaped sculpture of a woman, made up by dozens of small, geometrical pieces.

"I wanted to work with a transient material," she says. "Something that would transform over time. I guess this piece comes down to the fact that I feel like we're often missing real connections with people. I feel like many people here are very superficial."
 

THE WOMAN HELPING ACID VICTIMS: MUSARRAT MISBAH
Musarrat started her career as a beautician, and her first beauty salon opened in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1980. After a few years in the business, her female customers started coming in not just for beauty care, but also for personal consulting. In 2003, something changed. "I was about to leave my office when a young girl in a burka walked into my salon and asked for my help. Underneath the veil was a woman without a face," Musarrat pauses. "She had lost one of her eyes and, instead of a nose, there was a hole. Somebody had thrown acid on her. Soon after, I placed an ad in the newspaper, saying: 'If you're a victim of acid or kerosene oil attack, you can come to my salon and get a free medical check-up.' I arranged for some doctors to come and, the next day, 42 girls turned up."

Musarrat explains that many of the acid attacks happen when "the husband is jealous or suspicious of his wife, or when a young girl says, 'I don't want to get married, I want to continue with my studies,' and that the man then thinks, 'Well, if she can't be mine, she will never be anybody else's.'"

"Today," she continues, "when me and my team hear of recent acid attack on a Pakistani woman, our coordinator will travel there and get in touch with her. We raise money from family, friends, and the public at large to pay for their hospital bills, for the medicine and for the operations needed. At this point, I have 627 girls who are still with me. There's one girl who has become an advocate, there are a few girls who have become nurses and 13 of the girls have gotten married to normal boys." What Musarrat really does, though, although she wouldn't say it outright, is help these women regain control over their lives. She helps them rediscover their pride.

Follow Tonje on Twitter.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities - Book Review


De Sondy’s engaging study, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, provides a timely addition to the emergent field of masculinity studies. As the first monographic book on masculinity in Islam, it also contributes to the growing number of studies exploring the intersections between religious identity and masculine gender. Indeed, De Sondy’s book illustrates how the study of masculinity from the perspective of Islam opens up new vistas on the complex ways in which religion, culture, and politics shape gendered identities in Muslim societies. 

The “crisis” to which De Sondy alludes in the title of his book concerns the contemporary phenomenon by which “theocratic Islamisms” have come to idealize and propagate an “entrenched masculinity defined through familial dominance and shows of power, sometimes expressed as militarism” (1), as the sole authentic, acceptable paradigm of Muslim manhood. This situation has created a crisis in Muslim communities both for Muslim women feminists who are seeking greater gender equality and for Muslim men who do not fit the “cookie cutter” patriarchal model. The author explores these issues by evaluating “constructions of masculinities in Islamic traditions, chiefly the Qur’an, and the impact such notions have on the lived realities of Muslim men (and women)” (5). 
 
De Sondy does a fine job in illuminating the role of a foundational text such as the Qur’an in shaping notions of masculinity while at the same time avoiding over-determining scripture’s role in this process. Equally, in order to avoid the pitfalls of generalizing about Muslim men worldwide, he focuses his analysis on case studies from the Indian subcontinent between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.

In terms of his approach, it is important to note that De Sondy self-identifies from the onset as “a Muslim believer” (7) and makes it clear that he wishes “to trace—but not enter—a theological debate” (5) about Islamic masculinity. He does not wish to “defend or apologize on behalf of a religious culture” but rather begins from the supposition that “Islamic expressions of masculinity are diverse” and that “lived gendered experiences are manifold” (5). In his analysis he employs a “multiform approach that is historical and metainterpretitive.” He reads the silences, reads against the grain, and reads negatively “to expose what is hidden, what is operative but not acknowledged in terms of lived masculinities within Islam” (5). He also takes inspiration from gender and religious studies scholars such as Mary Keller, who study how identity markers of race, ethnicity, and gender inform religious identity, and from masculinities studies theorists who argue that masculinity is dependent upon the premise that it has an opposite or counterpart, normally understood to be the female sex. Whereas in western secular societies the crisis of masculinity stems from feminist questioning of traditional forms of male power and from non-heterosexual forms of masculinity, De Sondy asserts that in Islam “the crisis of masculinity is predicated in a different way” (11) around a “constellation” of others—women, God, and the “West.” In other words, De Sondy seeks to illustrate through his analysis of the Qur’an and his case studies that Muslim masculinities define themselves not only in relation to women but also in relation to God and to the non-Islamic world (11).

De Sondy develops these ideas in six chapters. Chapter 1, “The Knot Mawdudi Tied,” discusses the enormous influence that Mawdudi’s ideas on political Islam had in shaping an Islamic masculinity in India and Pakistan. He begins with a discussion of the key events in Mawdudi’s life that informed his political thought, for instance, his imprisonment by the British four times, which not only increased his vehement rejection of western culture but also hardened his convictions regarding the need to establish an Islamic state based on “authentic” Islamic principles. De Sondy then argues that the cornerstone of Mawdudi’s model Islamic State was the family unit defined according to strict patriarchal gender roles in which “men are expected to be breadwinners and women the homemakers” (18). The result is a model of Muslim hyper-masculinity in which women owe their husbands or male guardians unconditional obedience. De Sondy comes to these conclusions by critically reading Mawdudi’s writings, particularly his seminal book on Purdah. Whereas the Pakistani intellectual claimed to write a book delineating the ideal role and status of women, De Sondy uses this material to show how in so doing, Mawdudi also constructed an ideal of Islamic masculinity. For instance, the restrictions he imposes upon women, such as forbidding them to work outside the home, and the natural biological debilities he ascribes to them (e.g., according to Mawdudi menstruating, pregnant, and lactating women are incapable of clear rational thought) are lacunae that must be filled by men. De Sondy further demonstrates how Mawdudi promoted his ideas that the creation of a model Islamic society rested upon the institution of marriage in which men and women perform their gender roles to perfection using two strategies. First, Mawdudi made effective use of God talk, which facilitated a rhetorical slippage whereby arguing against his model of the family was tantamount to arguing against God himself. Second, he constantly contrasted this Islamic utopia with the worst examples of a debased western society riddled with pornography, divorce, venereal diseases, and wanton sex. De Sondy concludes that any discussion of Islamic masculinities must contend with the gestalt that Mawdudi created.

Chapter 2, “Feminists’ Nonothering Hermeneutics,” analyzes the challenges facing Muslim women feminists who aim to demonstrate that they can be both pro-family and in support of women’s agency (56). Here too De Sondy is careful to illustrate the diversity of opinion, pointing out that they are “not a monolithic bunch” (59) and that some, notably Amina Wadud, do not feel comfortable using the label “feminist.” Rather, she defines her position as “pro-faith, pro-feminist” and elaborates theological theories about gender in order to challenge patriarchy. He observes two methods of Muslim women feminists: self-reflection and critical engagement with their distinct individual circumstances, and reinterpretation of the Qur’an and other religious texts. At the same time, he points out the limitation of these debates to the realm of heterosexual Muslim masculinity since it is this form of masculinity that is most responsible for women’s subordination.

Regarding the first method, he analyzes examples of the “personalized scholarship” of Muslim feminists as a “hermeneutic for understanding and shaping Islamic tradition” (59), drawing upon examples from the lives and writings of women from Pakistan and elsewhere, such as Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and slain Pakistani president Benazir Bhutto. Muslim women feminists such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas combine both methods by writing about their own experiences and by engaging in a “hermeneutics without hegemony.” Thus against traditional Islamic masculinist claims that women should not participate in politics, Wadud reinterpreted the Qur’anic story of the Queen of Sheba to argue that scripture did not forbid women from holding political authority over men. Barlas adopts an “ungendering method” of reading the reading the Qur’an in order to neutralize misogynist conceptions (68). A key example is her exegesis of Q 24:30-31, the verse traditionally invoked to impose and justify veiling and segregation upon women. Barlas emphasizes that the verse enjoins modesty on both men and women, and asserts that the essential parts women must cover extend from the bosom to the private parts; i.e., not the head (81). Women Muslim feminists also engage with examples from the prophet Muhammad’s domestic life, arguing that his renowned humility and gentleness contradict hyper-masculine patriarchal constructions of manliness. Significantly, De Sondy shows how Muslim women feminists challenge the ways that God and the prophet are used to strengthen and uphold Islamic masculinity and, likewise, expose the manner in which Islamic law is deployed to impose rigid notions of gender identities and roles. He concludes that the scholarship of Muslim feminist women points the way toward reconfiguring Mawdudi’s binary oppositions that depend upon the othering of man and God versus women and the “West.” Significantly, gender equality can be advanced by reorienting Muslim life around submission or surrender, the relationship that both men and women must adopt with respect to God.

Chapter 3, “The Failed Search for a Single Qur’anic Masculinity,” examines the Qur’anic rendering of the lives of four prophets—Adam, Joseph, Muhammad, and Jesus—in order to demonstrate the diversity of models of masculinity in the sacred text. Particularly interesting is De Sondy’s identification of the dual aspects of the prophets as prophets and as private men, which reveals “not one ideal Islamic masculinity, but a tableau of exemplary men” (79), many of whom depart from strict patriarchal paradigms and find themselves in a range of situations that do not always reflect idealized families. So, for example, Muhammad’s own family background as an orphan and his relations to his wives undercut conventional images of patriarchy and hyper-masculine aggression; his humility, gentleness, and discretion provide an alternative model of manliness that could be taken as an ideal to be emulated. Another interesting insight from the comparison of Muhammad and Joseph lies in the diverse models of male sexuality: both Muhammad’s sexual potency in the form of multiple marriages and Joseph’s sexual restraint are upheld as exemplary since both were motivated by the submission to God. De Sondy makes the important conclusion on the basis of the multiplicity of prophetic heroes mentioned in the Qur’an that “there is no ideal masculinity in Islam” (119). Rather, he emphasizes that submission is the key concept in defining ideal prophethood such that the male prophet’s perfection derives from his relation to God, not from his patriarchal authority over his wives and family.

In Chapter 4, “Mirza Ghalib’s Hedonistic Challenge,” De Sondy analyzes the life and writings of one of the greatest poets of Mughal India. The author maps the struggles and challenges Mirza faced as a spiritually devout married Muslim man who had fathered seven children (although all of them died) and who also led a courtier’s life of hedonism, wine drinking, and erotic affairs. Another interesting feature of this chapter is the observation that Mirza Ghalib’s involvement in the heterosexual and homoerotic liaisons that characterized Mughal courtesan culture, together with his participation in the gatherings (Mushairas) in which male poets showcased new poems and competed with each other for recognition as the best poet, offer alternative arenas in which Muslim masculine gender identities are constructed and performed. De Sondy sees in Mirza’s life a kind of foreshadowing of the predicament that many Muslims experience today as many self-indentifying Muslim males feel constrained by Islam and especially by the Islamism propounded by Mawdudi and his ilk. De Sondy concludes this chapter with a warning that “strict and constraining definitions of Islamic masculinity like Mawdudi’s encourage defection of pious men…who have interests other than war, dominance, xenophobia, and the heteronormative family” (152).

De Sondy brings to light further tensions and paradoxes of Islamic masculinities in Chapter 5, “Sufism’s Beloved Subversion.” Sufism represents an alternative ideal form of masculinity because of the Sufis’ exemplary submission and servitude to God. De Sondy’s analysis offers a nuanced critique of the tendency of some scholars to overstate the association of Sufism with gender egalitarianism and to see in the master-disciple relationship a feminization of the latter. According to De Sondy, Sufism indeed undercuts the stereotypical association of masculinity with power because submission and subservience to God are the dominant leitmotifs guiding the Sufi’s existence. And yet the Sufi master acquires power and authority precisely because he has mastered submitting himself to God. De Sondy also finds in his treatment of master-disciple relations that “in the fluid and ambiguous state of discipleship, passivity and subordination were practiced without fear of humiliation and loss of manliness, indeed, they were valued behaviours” (144) and that none of the participants in such relationships are considered unmanly. In this way he gets beyond the imposition of binary categorizations that would equate any form of manhood not defined in terms of hegemony as somehow feminized.

With regards to the claims of Sufi gender egalitarianism, De Sondy furnishes compelling evidence from male Sufi sources that assume that women’s gender roles are an obstacle to full time devotion to God and obtaining perfect transcendence. This is especially apparent in his assessment of Sufis such as al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi who “used the ultimate, transcendent submission experience of mysticism not to knock down gender barriers but to reinforce them” (145). We also see further evidence of this in his discussion of sex and marriage, where he observes a pronounced preference for celibacy since, “sex disturbs the pure surrender of the soul” (144). It was also interesting to note that the conceptualization of the Sufi’s death as an ‘urs (wedding) between man and the divine implicitly devalues normative marriage between man and woman. De Sondy concludes that while Sufism provides a space for men and, to a lesser extent, women to defy certain constraints of legalist Islam, he reminds us that constructing a more fluid masculinity and more egalitarian gender relationships were not the goals of the Sufi mystics (178).

De Sondy concludes that his exploration of key figures in the Qur’an and in Indian and Pakistani Islamic history has exposed the tendentiousness and precariousness of Islamic masculinities and has shown that fundamentalist conceptions of Islamic masculinity are not to be understood as the only or the authentic mode of living and performing one’s masculinity. He has produced an inclusive and pluralistic vision of Islamic masculinities that accommodates polar opposite exemplars such as Mawdudi and Mirza Ghalib, that argues that the diversity of Qur’anic masculine paradigms must themselves be taken as proof that Islam does not support a single model of masculinity, and which offers a cogent analysis of the multiple positions Muslim women feminists have adopted and the methods they have employed to remain “pro-faith” while debunking the hegemonic discourses of Islamic traditions. By way of a critique, De Sondy’s analysis of the prophetic models might have included examples of other men whose profiles more closely resemble that of the heteronormative patriarchal models as a way of counterbalancing the alternative and “dysfunctional” paradigms that he emphasizes. 

Otherwise it is a beautifully written (apart from a few minor editing errors) and well documented study that should be read not only by those interested in gender in Islam but by anyone interested in gender and masculinity issues more broadly.


Linda G. Jones
Ramon y Cajal Research Professor
Universitat Pompeu Fabra