Friday, 28 September 2007

A Friend Remembered – Miss Floria E. McGlade (b.1915-d.1993)

When I was in first year at Hillhead High School in Glasgow, I often went to my Dad's shop to eat all the chocolates! One day when I arrived for my regular scoff, there was a letter from a Mrs McGlade lying at the side of the cash register. I was immediately struck by the fancy handwriting that reminded me of my English teacher, Miss Small. The letter was addressed to my father and asked him to come and visit her at St Thomas’ Nursing Home in Royston. My father paid little interest as he was too busy but he encouraged me to visit her. My Dad paid for my taxi fare and handed me over a bottle of lucozade and a fruit cake!

Mac, as I knew her, was an interesting woman and a great source of inspiration for me. Floria Elizabeth McGlade was born on 14th March 1915, as far as I know in Glasgow. Mac lived in Afton Street in Glasgow, across from the shop that my Dad owned for 21 years. Mac never married and was trained as a secretary and shorthand typist. Mac worked for Sir Julian Huxley who was the Executive Secretary of the UNESCO preparatory commission and later the first Director of UNESCO. Mac also worked for the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a secretary. She had travelled the world, from Ethiopia, Morocco, Turkey, Europe, the stories were superb and riveting. Mac was also a devout Catholic who often spoke to me about her faith. I remember taking her tuna sandwiches and cake most weekends, as she lay on her bed and I sat beside her we chatted for hours. The Nuns were very kind to Mac and often chatted to me about her health.

A friend and I took her to watch Home Alone at the cinema one night and she was all smiles. I still remember how she saved her popcorn for one of her friends who she said would enjoy them more than her. Mac wanted to take me fishing in the Trossachs one weekend and she had planned it all. However, Mac died suddenly a week after our trip to the cinema. She had suffered a massive asthma attack. I still remember her saying to me on the last occasion we met that the medication was no longer working for her. Mac was buried at sea and I was invited to a remembrance service in the Chapel. I read from the Bible, passages I don’t remember but the solemn air that circled the Chapel that day is with me even today. It was quite a moving experience for me. My Mother went with me to the service and my sister bought flowers that we took with us.

Looking back at this brief but special friendship there is much that I learnt. It was not about me being a Muslim and Mac being a Catholic, it was about friendship, compassion and love. We enjoyed each others company and we had many laughs. Mac left me the remainder of her estate after she died with specific instructions it be used for my education. It was with this money that I went to France for a year between 1997/98 to study Arabic. When I came back I began my studies in religious studies and then on to focus particularly on Islam. Funny how things work out and how people influence our lives in the most special of ways. Mac is one of those special angels who touched my life and gave me that head start in understanding the world around me. In my travels to Jerusalem and Rome I have lit candles in remembrance for Mac in Chapels.  I pray that she is enjoying a beautiful garden with all that she could ever want in a place far from this earth. I thought long and hard before posting this personal story on my blog but I wanted to relate a real life example to my previous blog post which will hopefully make us all think about love and friendships beyond just ‘interfaith dialogue’.

The above pictures are of Mac and Me sitting in her room at St. Thomas’s Nursing Home in Royston. I look awful, but still a very special photograph. The other is of Mac and someone she must have been very close to and the last one is of Mac at a young age.  God rest her soul.

Uncovering the Interfaith Masks

I’ve been thinking more and more about Interfaith and exactly what it means to us all in this current day and age. Many pieces of documents have been signed to show support for this ‘good cause’ but I am still left confused as to why people take part in this.

At a time when there are so many divides between religions, a time when Islam is hijacked by an ugly political Islam, I can see the need for this but are folk involved in interfaith truly sincere to its cause. I sit back watching Muslims who are involved in ‘interfaith dialogue’ who are, as one of my close Christian friend tells me, ‘wolves dressed as sheep’. So why are we still moving closer to them? Well, basically because everyone is disguising themselves very well these days. We wheel out those who are presentable and articulate because we want to be seen as doing the politically correct thing. We all want to promote the view that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. It is seen as a good move to have something ‘positive’ about Islam today. But a lot of people know no better and so select the usual suspects who say all the right things based on narrow minded views on Islam. Someone who is a ‘firm’ believer in Islam, Christianity of Judaism may not want to hear truly progressive thoughts on theology. How all three faiths stem from the same God or how they are so intrinsically intertwined that they are unable to part from one another. Or that when the Prophet Muhammad went to the believers of God at that time with his new message they turned to him and said ‘We were Muslims before you’ – a 'Muslim' here meaning 'someone' who has submitted to God, 'someone' being Jews and Christians!

I think these wolves want defined boxes to categorise each other into because they themselves are not secure and strong in their faith. Another Christian mentor of mine, who happens to be a Methodist Minister, said to me once, ‘Aman, when faith is not strong and secure the barriers come up and one becomes narrow minded. Spoon fed views are a good retreat because folk don’t want to think about the grey areas, it’s either black or white, heaven or hell, right or wrong, but when faith is strong and secure then nothing harms it and you enjoy everything colourful around you’.

Let’s work with this word enjoyment and interfaith for a moment. Enjoyment for me is about understanding, friendships and love. The wolves in interfaith all have an agenda of converting the other, they may have a smiley face at a conference or exhibition on an ‘Introduction to Islam’ but deep down they hold beliefs that the other needs to be saved from hell and converted to Islam which will take them to heaven! You could quite easily change the word Islam for Christianity because I know many who want me to realize that salvation is only through Jesus Christ.

For me as a theologian and believer in God I find this absolutely pathetic! No man (or woman) has the right to decide who will and will not be saved, thankfully this remains in God’s hands. This is why I have huge issues with conversion. My passion for Islamic Studies is not driven with a view that I must convert people but it is for people to ‘enjoy’ Islam and all that is beautiful within it. I don't have an interfaith hat, I just make friends as I enjoy life with them! It is not about being politically correct, ticking the multicultural, multifaith boxes! People convert to religions for all sorts of different reasons and I don’t deny people the right to convert to Islam or away from Islam but that is something I have no interest in promoting.

Finally, let’s end with a Qur’an quote which sums it all up for me. There are many other passages of the Qur'an which could be seen to be very negative towards Jews and Christians too but for me the message of the Qur'an is rooted in peace and love and so the positive messages outweigh the negatives, to arrive at that conclusion is what true faith means to me,

“Those who believe and those who have been Jews and the Christians and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the last day and does good, their reward awaits them with their Lord and no fear shall be on them and neither will they have sorrow.” Qur’an 2:62

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Scots Islamic Terrorist

I wrote a letter to The Herald newspaper ( on the issue of the first convicted Muslim terrorist in Scotland. This was published on 19th Sep 2007)

Dear Sir/Madam,

A shudder went down my spine when I read ‘Guilty: first Scots Islamic terrorist facing 15 years’ (Article by D. Henderson on 18th Sept 2007). A guilty charge in the Scottish court room must be accepted as a guilty charge in the Mosque halls. It is unacceptable and offensive to me, as a Scot who happens to be Muslim, to dodge outright condemnation of any individual who is convicted of having terrorist intentions. Acceptance of this verdict demands a significant response from us all. Sweeping the issue under the carpet is all too common in such quarters but the response of some that Siddique was ‘seeking answers on the Internet’ or that the Internet is the ‘big bad monster’ just doesn’t make sense to me.

The religious arenas may not be preaching a message of terror from the pulpit but their message of peace is most certainly not linked with Scottish society and culture. Could this be the main reason why the new generation of Scots are stuck between two extremes, between acceptance of all that is expected of them from so-called Muslim leaders, which is by and large a highly politicised Islamic view far from their realities, to the opposite end of total rejection, leaving them in an identity crisis and vulnerable from all avenues. What we need are Scots who are a happy medium between these two ends, spiritual and progressive. And so maybe we need fewer platitudes of politics from these Muslim leaders and more expressions of seeking the beautiful in Islam through the beautiful landscape, culture and promise of our dear Scotland. This begs the question, are our Muslim leaders and Mosque Imams up for this challenge or even equipped for this?

Amanullah De Sondy
School of Divinity
University of Glasgow

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Radio Ramadhan: Saturday 22nd September 2007

I was very kindly asked to speak on Glasgow Radio Ramadhan on Saturday 22nd September at 4:30am for the Bazm-e-Seher Program, hosted by my good friend Dr Abdul Quddus Sohaib, who is a visiting fellow at our Centre for the Study of Islam, University of Glasgow.

I was asked to talk about the Qur'an and I pondered long and hard about what angle I wanted to take. It was actually not an easy task. I am so used to giving lectures at university or lessons at school and my audiences are usually non-Muslim but on this occasion I knew that everyone listening was going to be Muslim. Waking up to have their pre-dawn meal they probably didn't want to hear my rants about my critical approach to the study of Islam.

"Why is it you are so critical when it comes to Islam Aman", said my good friend one evening. I just laughed. The answer to this is that I believe that any religion has the capacity and capability to withstand any criticism but most importantly God does not need a defender, infact God has given us so much choice that we can accept or reject Him.

Anyway, so I stayed up most of the night writing my thoughts! At the same time my two Roborovski Hamsters (Mirza and Ghalib!) decided to have the biggest fight in Hamster history! There was blood! They were quickly placed in seperate cages! Phew! So here is what I said on the radio that night.

"I want to talk about building a relationship with the Qur’an and to explore what the Qur’an means to us.

The Qur’an is the focal point of every Muslim’s belief and practice. I think every Muslim child and adult has this message strongly in their mind. Personally my relationship with the Qur’an started when I was reading the Qur’an at a small age but I understood very little. So where we understand little we look for real life examples. The sunna of our beloved prophet Muhammad is our excellent example but we also have many roles models who we look up to. When we are children we emulate the actions of those who we look up to, our mothers and fathers, a good parent or teacher should have all the goodness of the Qur’an within them. As we grow from childhood to adulthood our ideas change and our questions could be more different. We are then outside the safety and security of our closest role models and it is here that we hope that all the teachings create a good person in us all. It is here that we ourselves must seek answers and guidance from the Qur’an.

We must all reflect upon the Qur’an and firmly feel comfortable with the fact that the Qur’an must make sense to us in the context in which we find ourselves in. In education studies there is a theory called the child centred approach, when you link the teaching to the life of the student they understand it better. This is something we must all do when we learn and teach the Qur’an. We must grapple with the text which is the foundation of every Islamic tradition. When we do this we will see the very beautiful way in which the Qur’an will make all the other pictures clearer, be they social, cultural or political. When we delve into the Qur’anic world all the petty issues of the world become minute and the Qur’an becomes our guiding light. However, the academic study of the Qur’an in English works on the basis of ‘no holds barred’, meaning that everything up for grabs, the discussion and debate moves to the extent that some scholars have presented some extremely offensive discussions on issues such as the authenticity of the Qur’an or the compilation of the Qur’an. But contrary to weakening our faith through these discussions it must strengthen it and push us all to seek our own answers to these arguments. It is a two way process, we read and we reflect, reading the Qur’an demands us to utilise our mental capacity also. We will find negative ideas surrounding the Qur’an every where, in the media, on the Internet, but it is our deep love and commitment to the Qur’an that with stands all these arguments, ‘there is no compulsion in religion’, the Qur’an answers it most perfectly, ‘you have your religion and I have mine’. It is a beautiful place to be in when faith is so strong that no matter how negative someone will be it bears no significance on your state of mind and action.

And so when we move towards the Qur’an do we understand our existence and mission on this earth. The Qur’an becomes more than a beautiful book that we wrap up and place on our shelves or place within numerous frames around our house or something we just rote read and listen to in the Mosque. The Qur’an has to be more than just our show piece, it has to be a living entity in our lives. It has to be accessible to us all.

There is a blessing in the recitation and memorisation of the Qur’an and that is something we should all aspire to doing as often as we can but the text has to mean something to us all. The Qur’an must be a source of guidance to us all at every corner of the way. This is where I worry about the place of the Qur’an for the up and coming generation of Muslims. We have placed so many barriers to the Qur’an that we are losing touch with it. We are constantly told that to understand the Qur’an we need a)scholarly interpretation and then b) we must place that within the prophetic traditions and then we must do x, y, and z….by the time we get round to all these places we have lost interest in the initial intention. OK, if you have time to do all these things then brilliant but what if you don’t have time to do this? We must all seek the beautiful within the Qur’an, explore the stories that tell us many different things, in different ways. If God wanted to create a structured legal text he would have provided us with one but he provided us with a Qur’an. A Qur’an that narrates many beautiful stories with which we can learn about the love of God and the world we live in. From the very beginning the Qur’an is rooted to education, chapter [96: verses1-5] Read! In the name of your Lord who created - Created the human from something which clings. Read! And your Lord is Most Bountiful - He who taught (the use of) the Pen, Taught the human that which he knew not.

It is of utmost importance that we actively engage with the Qur’an. Don’t pass the buck to the nearest scholar but take ownership of your own beliefs and duty towards the Qur’an.

And so in conclusion I want to let the Qur’an speak , "Alif Laam Raa. A book which we have revealed to you (Muhammad) so that you may lead the people from darkness into the light by their Lord's leave to the path of the All-Mighty, the Praiseworthy." [Qur'an 14:1]

One of my favorite passages of the Qur'an is in the Chapter titled Kahf, verse 109, ‘If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would be spent before the Words of my lord are spent.’ How vast is the sea yet how trivial is it in the context of the greatness of God. This is very warming that the same God is the most merciful and so much greater than anything we think is 'great' on this limited earth!

So during this blessed month of Ramadhan, the month of the Qur’an I pray that we all reflect on our relationship with the Qur’an in hope that our love for it is not a burden on us but a truly liberating force. The Qur’an must become our source of love and peace between us all and our path to God for He awaits us with a much greater love. May God accept our prayers and sincere actions.

God Bless Humanity! Peace to All!