Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Arab/Israeli Conflict

This a piece I wrote about a visit to Jerusalem in February 2007, it was published by the Shalom Hartman Institutes Newsletter.

'No Matter How Much The Three Faiths Try God Cannot Be Quartered'

As the plane touched down at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport the feeling of nervousness and panic was difficult to evade. The first time I arrived here I was questioned for six hours at the airports immigration department. As I walked through the impressive airport halls I rummaged through my bag to find my passport. ‘Her Brittanic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance.’ I wandered if the airport officials would grant this request from Her Majesty. I walked up to the immigration counter to the smile of the official who asked me a few questions relating to the purpose of my visit. I was there for the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Annual Theology Conference at which Muslims, Christians and Jews come together to read each others religious scriptures, especially the problematic passages for religious pluralism to be promoted in Israel and around the world. I handed her my letter of invitation. She asked me to follow her for further questioning. I let out a slight sigh as this was becoming all too familiar. I was asked to sit and wait in an enclosed area for further questioning. There was one other man there, “always questions, questions, questions”, he retorted unannounced. Afraid to pursue the conversation I attempted to bury my head into my bag as if to look for an answer to his questions.

It was now 2 am and I was getting tired. In a space of three hours I was interviewed by three different officers. Eventually an officer came out and handed me my passport and said, “Have a pleasant time in Israel”. I walked towards the exit only to be stopped yet again. This time they wanted to check my luggage which they did pretty swiftly through the scanners. I was once again told to enjoy my stay in Israel.

I exchanged some pounds for Israeli Shekels and headed towards the shared taxi stand. I was stopped midway by an elderly man who shouted, ‘Yurshulaym?’, I followed him to the mini bus and handed him the address of where I was going. The shared taxi idea was a great one and at around six pounds it was great value for money. I sat next to an orthodox Jew who was wearing the traditional attire, probably making his way to the Holy City in time for Shabbat.

The next day I visited the Old City of Jerusalem. I walked in through the Jaffa Gate and headed towards the Armenian quarter where I entered Saint James’ Cathedral. It was apparent that I had walked into an Armenian service. The echo of the priest’s voice was enchanting. I sat in a deep trance. The Cathedral was darkened and the atmosphere was calming. I then moved to the Jewish quarter where I saw a vast number of orthodox Jews scurrying along the narrow streets. Sunset was nearing the start of Shabbat. I walked on to the Muslim quarter and headed towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Muslim quarter is the largest quarter in the Old City but also densely over populated. I heard someone say that there was a problem of Jerusalem identity cards for those who moved away from the Old City so most people made do with whatever they had. I saw many Arab kids running around the streets, laughing and joking trying to find something to amuse themselves with. As I made my way to the al-Aqsa Mosque I was stopped by Israeli security forces who told me that no tourists could visit. I told them that I was Muslim at which they asked me to recite the Qur’an. I recited the opening chapter to him at which he smiled and said “you have said it all wrong!”. I knew that he was joking and without knowing why it made me feel more comfortable with the Israeli security forces. Their main role is to make sure that no non-Muslim enters the Mosque compound as there is a fear that extremists might try and destroy the Mosque in order for the Temple to be restored. Contrary to the scare mongering that goes on around Muslim communities that ‘the Jews want to destroy the Mosque’ this evidence to categorically thwart this accusation. The next stop was to the Waqf Muslim guards who asked me where I had come from and if I was a Muslim. After a few more questions they let me through the gate to the al-Aqsa Mosque.

As I walked through the gates, the golden dome of the rock struck me like a bolt of lightening. Glaring at me in its pristine condition was surely the jewel of Jerusalem. I looked around to see only a few people scattered here and there. There had been significant restrictions on people entering the Mosque after the Israeli authorities announced renovations to the Maghrebi ramp. The area is so contentious that whenever anything is done at the site it hits headline news. I also find the rallying of Muslim masses an indication of the impotent religious leaders and political leaders who find such matters the only means to gain support.

I remembered the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad in which he said that the first place of worship to be established on earth was at Mecca and the second was in Jerusalem. It dawned on me that it wasn’t the golden dome or the beautiful pillars which made this place holy but it was the location. The land was established as a place of prayer and remembrance to God and the rest were human additions. It then makes sense for a Mosque, a Temple or even a Church to be on an area clearly distinguished by God for his glory. Fortunately, God does not work in the same way the Old City has been structured; no matter how much the three faiths try God cannot be ‘quartered’.

Walking past the water fountains and the lush green trees I couldn’t help but think about the way in which politics had altered the face of the Holy Land. It is indeed politics that has created very clear and distinct religious boxes, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Countries are boxed into different categories; liberal, democratic, Asian, American but why are human beings adamant on boxing the three faiths distinctly from one another? I am not saying that all three religions should merge into one but in the current state of the three faiths their connections are lost. Due to the ill-informed agenda of some we hear of the Judeo-Christian traditions but miss out Islamic in this equation of three for they are all part of a wider picture. Surely they are deeply intertwined through their roots and it is only when these roots are explored is the true meaning and message of monotheism experienced.

The conference did not start for another two days so I decided to visit Masada. The route there was scenic by the Dead Sea. The distinct smell of the Dead Sea was hard to evade from my window. Masada holds a special place in my books. My first observed teaching lesson whilst on teacher training for religious education at Stirling University was on the persecution of the Jews at Masada. I was greatly moved by the events at Masada and had made great effort in bringing the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Romans to life for my students by showing them images I had gotten from the Classics Department. The chair lift took me to the mountain top where I saw first hand the way in which a whole society was set up high above the ground. How must the Jews have felt when death or persecution at the hands of the Romans was at their doorstep? In total despair their only escape was to take their own lives. What were their final thoughts? What does this tell us about belief? There were too many questions that came to mind. There was no escaping the fact that the Holy Land brought with it many trials and tribulations for the believers.

The conference opened with a welcome speech by the man behind the vision for religious pluralism in Israel, Professor/Rabbi David Hartman. Hartman made some extremely bold and frank statements. Hartman’s heartfelt plea was for Jews, Christians and Muslims to explore their own moral sensibilities and bring to God ones own understanding. This was a speech seeking self empowerment as opposed to following the established hierarchy which, at times, could conflict with modern standards of progressive thought. In Judaism that would be the Rabbinate and ‘Halakha’ – Jewish Law, in Christianity the teachings of ‘the Church’ and although Muslims would desist from saying there was a hierarchy within its religious tradition, historical Islamic Law could be one such structure that limits the extent to which contemporary Muslims can be progressive. Hartman stated that ‘Halakha’ became a substitute for God which led to the strangulation in understanding God. I could not help agreeing with him from a Muslim perspective as it seems that Islamic Law and medieval traditions seem to create obstacles for contemporary Muslims to seek God and God’s beauty.

I had been asked to present a public paper on ‘The Fundamentalist Impulse and its Religious Correctives’. My co-panellists were a Jewish Scholar, Professor David Novak, and a Christian Scholar, Professor David Burrell. I outlined my thoughts on what instigated the rise in fundamentalist impulses within the Muslim communities by exploring Muslims’ relationship with the Qur’an and the traditions associated with the Prophet Muhammad. I also highlighted that a series of crisis (such as colonialism) had given rise to reactionary Muslims who sought solace in conservative, literal Islamic understandings. In my view it’s easier to be a fundamentalist conservative as it requires little thought on evaluating the situation in the context of our world today. I then developed this thought by exploring some country examples which have seen a rise (and fall) in fundamentalism. I stated that the Qur’an was like any other text and within it one could quite easily find something positive and something negative. It is dependant on the orientation of the reader and what they wish to take from it. It then becomes great ammunition for terror organisations to promote killing and bloodshed or it can help peace activists to promote peace. I also called for people to move out of their comfort zones and learn from ‘the other’. The lack of understanding simple Islamic tenets was a shocking reality which the media is partly to blame for as it churns out everything negative relating to Islam which cuts off the lifeline for anyone to seek the positive. This learning can only take place when an identity feels strong enough to take these bold steps. This is a tall order in the current state of paranoia and scaremongering that goes on in most religious communities.

In the question answer session I was asked by Professor/Rabbi David Hartman if a believer believes that they hold the ‘perfect truth’ must they feel obligated to show or coerce others from their imperfect life? My answer to this question was that if we accept that Jews, Christians and Muslims are rooted together then we must also accept that they all have some truth within them. I feel perfectly comfortable within my Islamic traditions and feel that when one converts to another faith they are not just converting to a faith but are also converting to a different culture. Religion does not function in a vacuum; it requires human beings to give it life. The three faiths are united through their belief in God and that peace, love and justice must be established on this earth. I would feel more comfortable in converting others to promoting and upholding peace and good morals and ethics in society.

The next day we were taken on a tour of ‘divided Jerusalem’. Our guide, Daniel Zeidman, offered some interesting insights into the problems that emerge when trying to find a solution to Jerusalem. I was most disheartened to see the wall dividing Jerusalem and Bethleham – two holy cities divided by a wall. Whether or not it deters terror from either side it still divides two holy cities. In the same day we met with Michael Melchior who is a Member of the Knesset and a Rabbi. He offered us his solution to the Jerusalem issue by stating that Jerusalem has to have its universal presence and appeal otherwise it will not be Jerusalem. Melchior offered his understanding of Psalm 122 which talks about Jerusalem and the way in which it connects diverse people in peace and security. This message was echoed by Samaan al-Khoury who is a Palestinian Christian who worked with the Palestinian Authority on the Geneva Accords. Al-Khoury stated his vision of a united Jerusalem which would see the three faiths live in peace and harmony. I come to the conclusion that there are politicians on both sides who understand Jerusalem’s significance to all three faiths but these voices are muffled out when mixed into the lethal concoction of party politics.

Every time I visit Israel it breaks down a stereotype or prejudice that I had within me. It was rather surprising when a conference attendant stated in the plenary session of the final day’s proceedings that he ‘feared Muslims’. I was unsure how I should react was this to be understood academically or personally? In actual fact this saddened me that Muslims were being lumped together as a monolith without any regard to the fact that Muslims are as diverse as any other religious community. There are fanatics in every religion but it seemed that the fanatics of Islam had hijacked my religion to the extent that any beauty within Islam was difficult to explore let alone accept. The deep mistrust on all sides is indicative within this academic’s statement. For me, as a Scottish Muslim, it made the whole conflict difficult to understand. I had always wanted the Middle East conflict to be simple with a good side and a bad side which finally sees the good emerge as victors. There are many books and arguments that are either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel but who is bridging this gap in order to highlight our shared values as human beings? This is one place where there are not goodies or baddies, everyone is suffering. As a human being I cannot side with anyone on the basis of religious affiliation. For me it is a matter of justice and equality, if I were to base my judgement and support on religious affiliation then I am making a mockery of the human intellect that God has bestowed upon me to uphold peace and justice in the world. Being far from the region gives me that space to deal with the issues even handedly so when I heard a Jewish academic say that Lebanon and Iran should be bombed with nuclear weapons in order to protect Israelis I needed to sit back and think of the effect that daily bloodshed has had on the psyche of the Israelis to call for such desperate measures.

As I sat in the shared taxi on the way back to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport I looked at the streets of Jerusalem thinking about its future. I was listening to the Glaswegian singer Paolo Nutini’s song which reads “these streets have too many names for me, I’m used to Glenfield Road and spending my time in Arkie, I’ll get used to this eventually, I know I know.” We all have to walk the path of unknown streets for a better future. At the airport they asked me a series of question about my stay in Israel. The officers were pleasant and they proceeded to check all my belongings. After the baggage check they checked my shoes and personal belongings for any sign of ammunition. I was then taken by a security official straight through to the departure area. I bought some distinctly Christian and Jewish souvenirs, crosses and menorahs, for my friends in Glasgow but failed to find anything Muslim in the duty free shops, chocolates would have to do, we can all do with some sweetness from the Holy Land. As I walked towards the gate I noticed a familiar face. It was the same smiling immigration official who I had met on my arrival. She looked towards with the same warm smile and said “Hope you had a good time in Israel”, I looked back at her and said “I had a wonderful time, thank you”.

Amanullah De Sondy
Research Fellow
School of Divinity
University of Glasgow

Monday, 6 August 2007

Pope's Speech at Regensburg

This was a piece I co-wrote with the eminent Father John Bollan from the Education faculty at Glasgow University. This was published in the Catholic Herald in October 2006

After Regensburg: Rescuing the Dialogue

Only two weeks ago very few people would have heard of Constantinople. Now, however, thanks to a 600 year old conversation between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian theologian resurrected by a Bavarian Pontiff, the ancient city is now back on the ideological map. Once she was the sole remnant of Constantine’s empire, a rich tapestry of western and oriental thought. At first sight, Glasgow may seem far removed from Constantinople in its twilight years. Yet here, in the shadow of the city’s ancient University, students and academics from all round the world meet in a vibrant dialogue of cultures. It is here that two friends, John Bollan and Amanullah De Sondy, meet to discuss the reaction to Pope Benedict’s comments on reason, religion and violence.

JB Aman, I’m very conscious that we are, in a sense, carrying on that conversation which has caused so much controversy in various parts of the Muslim world. Theoretically, we have gone from being good friends to ideological opponents: is this the case? As a Muslim, what do you make of what the Pope actually said?

ADS John, true friendship will over ride the most harshest of ideological opponent. Lets explore the issues at hand, firstly, this was not a speech about ‘just war’ or about the concept of ‘Jihad’: it was a speech about faith and reason. It was a speech so embedded in theological discussion that one could quite rightfully be lost in the depth with which the Holy Father approached this complex issue.

Interestingly, the Holy Father begins the discussion by quoting a beautiful passage of the Qur’an which reads ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (Qur’an 2:256) and then adds the statement of the Emperor in which he questions if all that Muhammad had brought to the world was ‘evil and inhuman’. The point to note here is that the passage of the Qur’an quite clearly contradicts the question whether Muhammad’s gift to posterity was evil and inhuman. The Qur’an, as the direct word of God, has also been known to rebuke Muhammad for his human mistakes, leaving perfection with God.

JB I don’t think many people would be aware of that aspect of the Qur’an. One presumes that the Emperor (and his learned friend) would have been.

ADS We aren’t given any insight into a Muslim response to Manuel’s words. I am intrigued to know if the Persian would have reacted in the same way that Muslims today have. Would there have been a call to rally the Muslims and burn effigies of the Emperor? Would ambassadors be recalled from the Emperor’s court? In fact, forget the Emperor for a moment: it is well known that Muhammad received many a hostile declarations from leaders but he would always address them with their respected titles in a calm and collected manner. I think we must also place this dialogue between the Emperor and the Persian within a historical context. The Islamic empire was vastly expanding to the great annoyance of the Persian and Byzantine empires. Battles and raids were also a part of the social set up. It is a hard task to place our 21st century sentiments to issues such as war and peace in making sense of war and peace in medieval history.

JB That’s true. Some might even say that the Pope was a little naïve in making those references in the current climate. The points he was making were subtle and closely argued. Sadly, these are unsubtle times. I am concerned, though, about the way this whole episode has been used by some Muslim leaders to further another agenda. Look at the crusader rhetoric, for example. This is all worryingly reminiscent of the recent cartoon controversy, where righteous anger was stoked by those who seem to have much to gain by playing up the ‘clash of civilisations’. What is especially tragic about this latest confrontation is that the Pope was inviting everyone to a rational dialogue about the nature of faith in our world, especially those who argue that there is no place for it. The sight of effigy-burning crowds, churches under attack and, quite possibly, religiously motivated murder would seem to suggest that large sections of the Muslim world are incapable of having this rational dialogue with modernity. Am I wrong here?

ADS I would not go as far to say that the Holy Father was naïve at all. As you know yourself, a committed academic does not make loose statements. It was the practice of all theologians (Muslim, Christian and Jewish) during the medieval period to present some extremely controversial viewpoints but did they react in the same way that we are reacting today? Certainly not. They showed a sense of academic maturity as they were able to further the discussion rather than kill it, and killing it seems to be the easy and cowardly approach to take to such matters. I hope that the words of the Holy Father become a beacon of light to develop and enhance our theological enquiries into faith and reason. In the same vein in which Emperor Manuel II rejects bloodying the image of Muhammad by stating that ‘faith through violence is unreasonable’ we must continue this discussion by exploring how we have got to the stage where some faithful believe violence is a path to God.

JB But how can we continue the discussion without some acknowledgement in Muslim circles that Islam does seem to be wedded to violence? That’s the elephant in the living room as far as religious dialogue is concerned, isn’t it?

ADS We must remember that the Holy Father clearly stated that violence goes against the very nature of God the same God for every Muslim, Jew and Christian. ‘Faith is born of the soul, not the body’ – As a Muslim I take these wise words of the Emperor Manuel II as a wake up call reminding Muslims that faith must begin at an internal level, the external can easily be lead by human egos and endeavours. We must accept that the predominant face of Islam that we see today is one wedded with violence. The silent majority, who are peace loving Muslims, will not make a sensationalist headline to sell media. We need a strong network that will expel this bloody face of Islam and what better companions on this sacred struggle than Jews, Christians and Muslims whose central doctrine of belief is peace and love.

JB So that whole ‘Jihadist’ interpretation is a red-herring?

ADS Well, of course there is no getting around the fact that, in some circles, ‘Jihad’ is one of the first things people think of upon hearing the word ‘Islam’. In the particular context of the Crusades, ‘Jihad’ was given expression in terms of an armed struggle and the killing of one’s opponents. We are no longer living in those times, no matter how much it would please some sections of Islamic opinion to revive them. That said, this is not just a problem for those who subscribe to a benighted interpretation of Islam. There needs to be a shared recognition that recent events on the global scene have politicised Islam in such a way that it risks losing its essential character as a religion of peace.

JB But can we speak of Islam at all? Are there not too many divergent opinions about its true nature for there to be a meaningful conversation?

ADS I would prefer to say that there is only one Islam, but many Muslims. It is this diversity which gives a breathing space to those who wish to reflect. Extremists, by the very definition of the word, will always get themselves noticed and heard. They don’t speak for me, or the vast majority of Muslims. If anything, that is the task which faces our community: to enable a conversation which is honest and open, even when it invites us to exercise a little self-criticism.

JB It’s a pity that the word which has leapt out of this furore is ‘criticism’ when it should really be ‘invitation’. Manuel Paleologos was inviting his Persian interlocutor to step outside the confines of their mutual hurts and explore the possibility of faith free from the threat of bloodshed. They were tired of living in a world steeped in war and its ensuing misery. Surely that was what their dialogue was about and indeed what lies at the heart of what the Pope was saying as part of a wider discourse on the loss of Hellenized culture in the West: the world of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato. We are all impoverished by the loss of this influence – one which was preserved and reintroduced into the European thought-stream by, among others, Muslim scholars. It was Pythagoras, I think, who defined friendship as the love which exists between those who see the same truth. The truth, the logos, call it what you will, must be sought through inquiry and reflection. Both of us, in spite of all that has transpired in recent days, see that same truth. And so, even if there is some theological and political retrenchment as a result of this misunderstanding, our friendship is intact and our conversation will continue.

ADS When we are led by God’s love, John, everything is possible.

Father John Bollan is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Education at the University of Glasgow; Amanullah De Sondy is Research Fellow in the University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

Muslim Schools in Scotland

This was a piece I wrote for the Times Educational Supplement on August 12th 2005 on the issue of state funded Muslim schools in Scotland

Muslim Schools and Religious Identity

The terrorist attacks in London have led us all to seek solutions to the spiralling escalations of violence. Scottish Muslims have unequivocally denounced all acts of terror that in turn create friction and alienation in Scottish society. The war on terror has educated us all to decipher Islam from terrorism. It is through the hard work of sensible and rational scholars of Islam and the interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims that stereotypes and prejudices have been quashed. We are moving from ‘tolerating’ each other to understanding and learning from each other. We stand united in grief and pain through our loss. The death of Anthony Fatayi-Williams, whose Mother is Catholic and Father Muslim, brought faith communities together to mourn and support each other at a funeral sermon led by the Bishop Alan Hopes. This is just one example reflecting the diversity which unites Britain.

So why am I still left bemused to hear the same so-called Scottish Muslim leaders and politicians seeking state funded Muslim schools when we see quite clearly the potential of an inclusive education, beyond faith? Are we, as Scottish Muslims, not learning from this tragedy?

We are witnessing daily accounts of how mutual trust and understanding can solidly be built through strengthening the humanitarian bond. Adult minds can be difficult to change but shaping and challenging the minds of our youth is still in the power of the Muslim parent. The most potent weapon against terror is education and we seem to be approaching a cross road in the Scottish Muslim scene where we can aid the current state education system or adopt a new state funded Muslim education which may take years to ‘get right’. The burning question is do we have years to waste?

It seems to me that the whole lobby is based around seeking that which others have. Firstly, England has state funded Muslim schools – so should we. No one denies the fact that Muslim schools are, in some cases, successful in England but we must recognise that the Scottish education environment is completely different having its own laws and ethos.

The Muslim community is by far much smaller than that of England. London has a total Muslim population of 1 Million whereas the whole of Scotland has around 60,000 Muslims.

Since the Muslim community is much smaller it needs to capitalise on this and establish itself alongside and within the wider society in order for Scottish Muslims to become physical vehicles for breaking down prejudices and fully integrate in society. Thence thwarting any chance for the new generation of Scottish Muslims to establish an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. One cannot pay mere lip service to terms such as Scottish Muslim if one continues to adopt an isolationist approach to education.

Secondly, the Jewish and some Christian communities in Scotland have state funded faith schools – so should we. There is no secret in the fact that Jewish and Christian faith schools are not perfect, far from it, but they are established by faith communities that have a long history in Scotland. Many within these communities would however question the need for and place of such schools in 21st Century Scotland. In addition, these communities have, currently, a different media profile. State funded Jewish and Christian schools do not carry the same stigma that a state funded Muslim school will. The former attracts students from a wide spectrum of society (indeed I was educated at a Catholic primary school in Glasgow for a few years) but in the current state of affairs the latter will attract only Muslims students. Good education cannot be judged merely upon the merits of a good teacher, good school facilities or ample amounts of money, it requires commitment to creating the best educational environment in which a student can feel comfortable and confident. If the environment is not as such, this will lead to catastrophic implications on the learning environment of Scottish Muslims who will inevitably remain isolated from the wider communities during their schooling years. Then upon leaving school, fall into a state of shell shock and identity crisis when faced with the reality of our multicultural and integrated multifaith Scottish community. Leaving a young Muslim vulnerable to extremist pressures.

The closure of Iqra Academy by HMI Inspectors in the south side of Glasgow is a case study we can all learn from. Every school is led by upholding a solid commitment to enhancing the educational experience of its students. Iqra Academy’s aim and objectives were shaped through the drive of preserving a so-called ‘Islamic’ identity. Can Muslim parents and the Mosques not be trusted to transmit Islamic knowledge and identity? When a community seeks to preserve an identity an insular approach seems to be the easiest way to do this. There are many ways of experiencing Islam so the romanticised vision of an ‘Islamic’ identity needs to be understood from this vantage point. Those who believe that a state funded Muslim school would not experience the same problems that the privately funded Iqra Academy did seem to be delusional. As an educationalist, my concern is based upon the real issue – educating Scottish Muslims.

As a Scottish Muslim teacher of Religious Education, I shudder to think how I could develop core themes in RE in an all Muslim classroom. A Muslim student who is taught in a non-faith school may appreciate their "uniqueness" more in such a school as opposed to a faith school. This in turn will allow the student to understand, explore and question their identity in a classroom vibrant with diversity. Such diversity will take a long time, if ever, to establish in a new state funded Muslim school.

It pains me to hear the Muslim lobby for state funded Muslim schools using irrational arguments. As an invited speaker recently at an Islamophobia conference held at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, I, and a large majority of the audience, were shocked to hear an argument put forward that state schools promote gang culture. Islam's peaceful aspirations for uniting communities, promoting inter-religious understanding, are in danger of being diluted by political parties led by so-called representative Muslim bodies.

At a recent public lecture, held at the University of Glasgow, the High Commissioner for Pakistan in London, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, advised Muslims throughout the UK to stand up and voice their opinions rather than sitting back and accepting those who speak for Islam and Muslims. The loudest voices cannot be accepted as the Muslim community's representatives and the political lobby for state funded Muslim schools in Scotland is not representative of the whole Scottish Muslim societies. The Muslim community is not monolithic, never was and never will be. Those lobbying for such a school will naturally seek to establish structures and ethos which are unlikely to reflect the genuine diversity in which the Scottish Muslim societies thrive. Are those who lobby for state funded Muslim schools in Scotland afraid that Islam and Muslims cannot maintain their identity alongside other religions and cultures? Do they want young Muslims ill-prepared to live as Scottish Muslims within the wider society? Have they learnt nothing from the sectarian sub-culture in the west of Scotland? It’s time to ponder, reflect and act through these testing times in order to safeguard a strong and successful Scottish Muslim identity.

Amanullah De Sondy
Research Fellow
School of Divinity
University of Glasgow

Cartoons of Prophet Muhammad

This was a piece I published in The Tablet 11th February 2006 (copyright).

Truth Behind the Images

ON ONE SIDE of the current controversy over the cartoon representation of Muhammad, the press seeks freedom of speech and on the other Muslims are outraged to see illustrations of their beloved prophet. As a Scottish Muslim I feel caught between these two positions as I value the freedom and liberty I enjoy as a Scot but I also understand the anger and sentiment that Muslims are showing.

At the core of the issue is that Muslims do not feel comfortable with figural representations. But does this mean that non-Muslims should also not feel comfortable illustrating prophets? After all there are many religious traditions where images are central. Even for Muslims the issue is not entirely clear cut. At one point the prophet Muhammad says: “The most severely punished people on the Day of Judgment will be the makers of figures.” On another occasion he warns that those who create pictures and statues will be punished by God and commanded to “bring to life what they had created”. But then, in contradiction to these traditions, is the time when the prophet allowed his wife, Aisha, to make pillows out of cloth with pictures on them.

Essentially, the prophet’s teachings need to be understood in the context of his time when his message was aimed at an idol-worshipping nation which he felt had lost touch with monotheism. The prophet wanted to bring back belief that focused on a God who was beyond figural representation and who was uniquely the creator of everything: “He it is who fashioned you in the wombs as he pleased” (Koran 3:6). To reiterate, his main objective was to overturn “idol” worship.

Of course it is not true to say that figurative art has not blossomed during the history of Islam. The Umayyad dynasty, which ruled the early Islamic empire from 661 to 750, had no problem with the representation of images as is evident from wall paintings, at times rather erotic, in their palaces. During a visit to Jordan in 2000, I was amazed at the intricacy of some of the paintings that still remain and then confused at being instructed, by the clearly embarrassed Muslim tour guide, not to look at these “un-Godly images”. Figural representation in Islamic art is also evident in pottery, metalwork, wood and coins. However, when the Umayyads were replaced by the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled in Baghdad until 1258, figurative art virtually died out. There is some evidence for images of the prophet during this time but he is usually represented with a blanked out face. Mosques, however, were then, and remain today, devoid of any figurative art.

Despite some confusion over representation of the prophet in the past, the issue today are drawings that represent him in a negative light with the aim of offending Muslims. Let us be clear, if it is not already clear, fear of idolatry lies behind Muslims’ finding figural representations of the Prophet Muhammad totally unacceptable. But will any Muslim turn to idolatry because of the cartoons? And indeed should Muslims be offended by their negativity? Prophets of many religions, including the prophet Muhammad, were not unaccustomed to being mocked and ridiculed during their lives, as the Koran shows: “Apostles before you were also mocked, but those who jeered were engulfed by what they mocked.” When Muhammad went to the city of Taif to invite its inhabitants to follow Islam he was thrown out and pelted with stones by children until his feet bled. As the prophet walked away, the archangel Gabriel appeared and told him that God was aware of his hardship and had deputed an angel to raze the mountains surrounding Taif and destroy the city and its inhabitants if he so wished. The prophet did not accept this offer and told the angel that the inhabitants were free to accept or reject his message but he remained optimistic that their progeny might one day believe in God.

This message of humility and foregiveness from Muhammad’s life is in sharp contrast to the violence-filled placards and banners that extremist Muslims wave during the current mass demonstrations. The torching of Danish embassies will do little more than cause mayhem and destruction. Muslim communities throughout the world have every right to demonstrate against the offence they feel but surely their objective needs to be one of peace?

Rather than just offence at representing the prophet, in a good or a bad light, it seems that the real issues at stake are power and identity. This whole cartoon affair has given added authority to imams, clerics, so-called community leaders and leaders of the Muslim world, who have seized this opportunity to unite Muslims globally on a highly emotional issue. But in effect it shows little more than their impotence on the real issues affecting Muslims today, and rather than building and securing bridges with the non-Muslim world they are destroying them. It is their aim is to transport Muslims back to a romanticised medieval notion of what is “Islamic”, an indentity of what is “us” and “them”. Maybe the enlightened spirituality of the Umayyad princes has an important message to convey?

An Islamic identity that does not feel comfortable and able to sustain itself within the current state of the world becomes highly emotive, insecure and irrational. Is it any surprise that Islam today is labelled as a “ticking time bomb” in the hands of certain Muslims?

So are the hate-filled demonstrations truly about love of the prophet or are they just indicative of a search for an “Islamic” identity? Surely living Islam is about “beautifying” (Ihsan) one’s relationship with God, so should Muslims even be wasting their time with an issue that does not affect this? In the end, the only winners from this controversy are the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nick Griffin, representing European political parties long calling for the removal of all Muslims from “white Christian” Europe.

I hope that through this frenzy we do not lose sight of mutual respect, and that the voices of reason and peace on all sides prevail. If Muslims really want to show love of the prophet they need to follow his way: “Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.” (Koran 7:199)

Amanullah De Sondy is a Research Fellow in Islamic Studies at the School of
Divinity, University of Glasgow