Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Mughal Art, Shah Jehan and the Taj Mahal

I have been fascinated with Mughal Art for a while now, all thanks to my dear friend Noorah al-Gailani, Islamic Civiliations Curator for Glasgow Museums. She has a refreshing outlook to art in Islamic civilisations, an outlook which I feel is lost through the murky waters of the rise of political Islam. Let us ponder over what the Taj Mahal is telling us about religion, peace and love...

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Social Justice Philanthropy

This was the paper that I presented at the Nostre Aetate Conference at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome on Sunday 25th September 2005.

All parts of this paper are my copyright and would ask that permission be sough from me before using it in any form. I would like to acknowledge Professor Abdullahi An-Naeem, Emory Law School, Emory University, USA who has greatly inspired me in this field of interest.

It is my opinion that Philanthropy and Social Justice should be understood as thematic tools for actively promoting inter-religious dialogue. It would be true to say that we are all here united in our quest to promote a more peaceful and loving world and what better hosts to have than the Gregorian Pontifical University to mark the fortieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate.

I would like to begin my short paper with some elaboration on the interconnected deep concern for philanthropy and social justice in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I believe that it is time to move from the theological and spiritual roots of the monotheistic faiths to one that is rooted in united action.

Charity is the attitude Christians are expected to develop toward God and neighbour. The term charity is derived from the Latin caritas, which in turn stands for the Greek agape in the New Testament . The position of church as a social service provider and voluntary sector was established as early as 1844 following the Charitable Bequests Act in the United Kingdom. For instance, Bristol’s churches appeared to have exerted a greater influence on voluntary effort than in cities of comparable sizes in the nineteenth-century showing the religious identities of Bristolians to the development of voluntarism . The organisations that have Christian/Western roots such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and the British Red Cross whose donations are used to promote social justice throughout the world.

The giving of charity is a fundamental and significant part of Jewish life. I found some traditions in the law that obligate Jews to give 10% or one tenth of their income in charity. Tzedakah" is the Hebrew word for the acts that we call "charity" in English: giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. However, the nature of tzedakah is very different from the idea of charity. The word "charity" suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy. The word "tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew root Tzade-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.

Islamic Philanthropy is defined as charitable giving or alms giving based on the injunctions in the Qur’an. Several verses in the Qur’an emphasise the act of charitable giving such as in Al-Baqara: 42 “establish prayer and zakah”. A detailed guide on philanthropy is mentioned in Hadith and the Shari’a. The word zakah is generally understood to mean purify or justify through alms giving by giving up a certain portion of a Muslim’s accumulated wealth. Since zakah is one of the five pillars of Islam, it is obligatory on those who can pay. In one verse of the Qur’an it states, “Take zakah from their wealth to purify and cleanse them and pray for them. Your prayers bring relief to them. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing” (Qur’an 9:104). The Prophet said, “If they accept Islam, then inform them that Allah enjoined on them zakah to be taken from their rich, and given to the poor among them.”

For example, one of the basic relevant verses in the Qur’an can be translated as follows:

Sadaqa (alms) shall be for the poor and the destitute, for those engaged in the management of alms and those whose hearts are sympathetic to the Faith, for the freeing of slaves and debtors, for the advancement of God’s cause, and for the wayfarer (traveler) in need. That is a duty enjoined by God. God is all-knowing and wise (9:60).

One point to note about this frequently cited verse is that it can be understood as illustratively rather than restrictive of beneficiaries of charitable giving. Another point is that most the categories of recipients are open to a much broader interpretation than has traditionally been done in Shari`ah manuals. For example, the category of ‘those engaged in the management of alms’ can apply to the establishment and operation of modern philanthropic organizations. The objective of ‘freeing debtors’ is better served by more sustainable poverty alleviation and microeconomic development than simply paying off the debts of those who are unable to pay. But probably the objective of sadaqa that is probably open to the broadest and most creative interpretation is ‘advancing the cause of God.’ This objective can include all sorts of ‘public good’ purposes, like protection of the environment, promotion of the public health of the community at large, or investment in sustained economic development, instead of short term relief in consumer spending. The entitlement of the wayfarer to the resources of the host community presupposes an underlying freedom of movement without discrimination on grounds of religion or communal membership. As these examples show, it is possible to organize charitable giving in order to uphold the fundamental rights of all sorts of people, and move the discourse from one of charity to one of equality, fairness and empowerment (Taha 1987:88, Slim 2001:21).

It is true that such creative possibilities require a different approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an than permitted by traditional principles of usul al-fiqh (the methodology of driving principles and rules of Shari`ah from its sources). But since those principles were developed by jurists and accepted through inter-generational consensus among Islamic communities, the proposed shift can occur through an appropriate methodology and public awareness. In fact, this approach, commonly known as ‘opening the gates of ijtihad (creative juridical reasoning), is already being applied to a wide range of issues, from family law and family planning matters, to democratization and human rights concerns

The categorical obligation to give is strongly emphasized in numerous verses of the Qur’an. In chapter 2 alone reference can be made to some 15 verses. The same theme is repeated throughout the Qur’an. But it seems that this requirement was traditionally seen in terms of a religious obligation owed to God, though human beings and social causes are the material beneficiaries. The distinction between ‘the rights of God and the rights of human beings’ is a familiar one in traditional Islamic scholarship, whereby the former is a religious obligation and the latter a product of some sort of familial or legal relationship. Indeed, the above noted view of various forms of charitable giving (such as zakat, sadaq) as spiritually cleansing for a Muslim will probably remain the primary religious motivation in this regard. We are not concerned here with attempting to displace that traditional view as such. Rather, the question for our purposes here is whether charitable giving can be viewed as a right for the beneficiaries, in addition to being, or probably as a more appropriate way of practicing it as, an obligation to God.

Social Justice
Social justice is a basic value in the life of a community to respect human dignity and provide for the best possible quality of life for all human beings. Social justice is valued within Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This fully inclusive quality is critical for any conception of social justice because of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all human beings, especially those sharing the same space and living conditions. It would be profoundly disruptive of the normal flow of human relationships and daily life to provide for the wellbeing of men to the exclusion of women who are members of the same families, or Muslims to the exclusion of non-Muslims, of some Muslims and not others, or of people of any racial or ethnic affiliation.

Waqf is defined in the British Muslim case study as an endowment of property, which is taken out of private use by its owners and devoted for the use of a specific charitable purpose. Waqf can be devoted to a social, religious, or national objective. A waqf property cannot be reclaimed after the death of its owner in any circumstance and cannot be used for any other purpose other than to provide for its original targeted donation area.

So how can philanthropy and social justice become vehicles for inter-religious action. I excuse the term dialogue here in place of action because I believe that the ground work has been laid by rational scholars of religion and inter-faith on bringing faith understandings together. The bigger task is the real challenge, it is to see if we can find and promote inter-religious action.

Between 2003/04 the Ford Foundation in New York supported a 6 country comparative research on Philanthropy for Social Justice in Muslim Societies. The countries involved were, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Tanzania, Egypt and the UK. I had the good fortune of being selected as the UK Lead Researcher and it was during this research that I realised the potential of social justice philanthropy to promote inter-religious action. The UK case study was the largest research ever conducted on the 2 million Muslims in the British Isles. The most important finding was that a 94% of our respondents stated that they donated to non-Muslim charities. The general perception of British Muslims in support of this was their understanding that Islam does not differentiate between Muslim and non-Muslims especially those who require aid. The distinct opinion given by the respondents elaborates and manifests the teaching that Islam is a religion of humanity and kindness for all human being, regardless of faith and culture. Justice is a central point of Islam and British Muslims felt a necessity to promote this good practice.

Grounding a theory of justice in the contemporary practices of faith communities requires the integration of a wide variety of resources in relation to the pivitol role of justice in the basic tenets of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

A unified religious base in promoting the power of philanthropy for social justice will undoubtedly be a progressive force in globally, with inevitable effects on interfaith progress.

A new era in interreligious relations necessitates the value of what we do in common in addition to our common beliefs. Dialogue must be physically manifested through common actions bringing together unity amongst faiths on a common and important goal – and that being a just society. It is not enough to merely tolerate other faiths.

I would like to end with a Hadith Qudsi in which God says “My servants, I have forbidden myself injustice and I have made injustice forbidden to you. Therefore, do not be unjust to one another.”

Monday, 3 September 2007

Andy Murray, Tennis and Motivation

Amanullah De Sondy
BBC Radio Scotland
Thursday 1 June 2006

I've been worrying about tennis lately - partly because when I started to write this I was quite nervous about a doubles final match in a tennis tournament at my local club.
And partly because of the continuing drama of Andy Murray and his injuries... He's been defeated in another grand slam - the Roland Garros - and I can't help feeling sorry for him.

He's still only 19 years old. As the boy becomes a man we hope his game will mature and become more consistent. Murray said in an interview that he thought the body is stronger against aches and pains in its mid twenties. Not that I want to take over as his next coach, but I feel the lad needs some breathing space amongst all this pressure.

As an aspiring tennis player myself I was pushed by my school friend to play as often as I could. I remember finding it all too much at times, caught between being pressured and supported. From being intimidated and fearing the power of the tennis ball, to the testosterone raging within my male opponents who looked ready to kill, I quickly learnt that a lot of the game was in fact in the head. I knew my supporters wanted me to achieve the best I could but the pressure was really hard. Maybe we fans need to support more and pressure less so that we can see real development in all talent.

Everyone finds their own way of coping with pressure. The French player, Mary Pierce, who won the Roland Garros Ladies title in the year two thousand, says she plays tennis to serve God and whatever happens she leaves in his hands, win or lose.
I believe that keeping pressure in perspective, and seeing the wider picture, is a personal search and a challenge which we may or may not have control over. Whether it’s in sport or everyday life.

And you’ll be wondering about the result of my match - well, maybe God wasn't on my side this time!

Mughal Art, Animals and Humans

BBC Radio Scotland – Thought for the Day - Amanullah De Sondy

The Emperors Terrapin has arrived in Glasgow. I had the pleasure of viewing this beauty loaned from the British Museum at a reception in the Burrell Collection last week. It’s made from jade, no it’s not a big brother breed. It was found in the grounds of a fort in Allahabad in Northern India in 1803. It is associated with various Muslim royal figures from the Mughal Empire who are known for their elaborate forms of Islamic Art and gardens.

As I watched this well carved, female terrapin, I began to ponder the various messages it was trying to convey. That quite possibly the human-animal dichotomy is reversing its roles if we peer closer at the state of our world today. A world where we still have issues with race. A world where we still abuse the environment to the extent that we are now the endangered species. A world where we quite happily seek the ugly within religion and turn a blind eye on its beautiful. A world where the slowest are left behind and the fastest lose sight of their ultimate goal in their haste.

Interestingly, I noticed the terrapin didn’t have a clear smile on its face, but then again neither did Mona Lisa, or did she? In all cases, art conveys a message which texts cannot control. Most Islamic texts assert to curb figurative art in Islamic culture; for fear that it may promote idolatry. But when I was last in Jordan, I could not help notice the figurative frescos, albeit rather erotic at times, lining the walls of an 8th century Islamic palace in Jordan. Art has the power to liberate and challenge our minds in thinking about issues at our own mental level. That is probably why art means something different to us all, adding to the talent of the artisan. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”

Languages, Multiculturalism and Thinking

Thought for the Day – Amanullah De Sondy
BBC Radio Scotland
Monday 15th January 2006
Good Morning
The number of non-Chinese people learning Mandarin has soared to 30 million globally. Student numbers on Mandarin learning programmes has increased from 6,000 in 1998 to 50,000 in America. Many of these students believe that China will be a powerful force in the coming years and so Mandarin is essential to learn.

There are many advantages in learning a new language, be they political, economic or social. Language is for communicating thoughts and ideas, but is that all that language offers us? It’s about more than communication; language embodies a whole different culture. It’s no surprise that when we read religious scripture, such as the Hebrew Tanakh or the Arabic Qur’an, in their respective languages, our understanding of them is somehow richer and more informed. For example the Arabic language has around ten verbs and ten nouns for the word ‘love’, making it literally impossible to translate into English.

It pains me to see how the English language seems to impose itself upon the world, dictating not just the way we communicate but also western culture and values. Shilpa Shetty, the glamorous Bollywood star currently on Celebrity Big Brother, who is fluent in seven languages, is a perfect example of this. Everything about her oozes the colourful South Asian culture, but unfortunately, some house mates are oblivious to this. And I can’t help but notice that she feels the need to fit in by downplaying her foreign background.

At a time when multiculturalism is often headline news, I wonder if there’s an essential need for us all to learn different languages, in order to understand and appreciate each other. The Scottish Executive has committed itself to the learning and teaching of Mandarin across Scotland and a China-Scotland Festival is planned for the near future. This will surely enrich our culture, and improve our understanding of each other. In the words of the influential 20th century Italian film-maker, Federico Fellini, ‘learning a different language is to learn a different way of thinking’.

Great Scottish Run, Philanthropy, Social Justice

Thought for the Day - BBC Radio Scotland – Monday 3rd September 2007
Amanullah De Sondy

The Great Scottish 10K and half marathon run attracted over 20,000 participants yesterday in Glasgow. I was one of those running the half marathon for the third year in a row. The feeling of excitement and nervousness was there on everyone’s faces and the smiles and cheering of those who lined the streets was a welcome show of support. Runners were competing for all sorts of good causes, I lost count at the number of charities that were being supported, Cancer Research, Oxfam, WaterAid, Islamic Relief are just a few of the worthy causes.

As I ran through the great sights and streets of Glasgow I felt this warm feeling of unity and comradery between my fellow runners and supporters. It made me think how the Great Scottish Run could offer us a wider message. That great things can be achieved when we act together. If there was a way of harnessing all that determination and energy think how we could alleviate some of the biggest problems we are faced with today, poverty, global warming and social injustice, just to name a few. These are concerns that we all have, regardless of race, gender or religion.

The three great monotheistic religions have clear ideas on giving. Whether it be the concept of Zakat in Islam, Tsedaka in Judaism, Caritas in Christianity or just plain old love and generosity we all have something to motivate us to work together on these issues. Maybe its time to put words into action. In the Qur’an, God commands the believers to pray to Him but interestingly this command is most often associated with Zakat, the giving of a compulsory charity to those least well off. For me this indicates that mere beliefs and convictions are not good enough in the eyes of God. A well known saying of the Prophet Muhammad springs to mind in which he says, "Indeed, an ignorant man who is generous is dearer to God than a worshipper who is miserly."

Maybe if we acted together to overcome these global problems the race will be longer but the rewards will be greater.