Friday, 22 February 2008

The Miseducation of Muslim Kids

By Pamela Taylor

So my daughter comes home from her new, Islamic Sunday school the other day.

“How’d it go?” I ask.

She rolls her eyes.

“Just great. We learned all about what types of water you can use to do wudu’.”

“Types of water?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Very useful… if you’re ever stranded in the desert with nothing but a humming bird feeder.”

“Humming bird feeder?” I am beginning to feel like a dolt. I hadn’t been aware there were any types of water, other than salt and fresh. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what a humming bird feeder has to do with wudu’, the ritual ablution prior to prayer, nor why anyone would be wandering around in the desert with one.

“The water’s not pure. It’s got sugar in it,” my daughter explains, with only a trace of patronization in her tone.

I am dumbfounded. We live in suburbia. In our house, at all times, fresh, processed, purified water is available within fifteen steps.

If our pipes burst, the neighbor’s house is only twenty-five steps further. If our whole neighborhood were to lose their water, we could go to a public bathroom in the city park, either one of two public schools, the convenience store or the McDonalds, Arbys, Hardees, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Bob Evans, Subway, or Wendys, all of which are within no more than a ten minute bike ride. Even if the entire city were to suddenly be without water, there is bottled water in every store, with more where that came from waiting to be shipped in on trucks and trains.

Maybe, I think, the teachers are under the impression that my daughter and her fourteen and fifteen year old classmates might be preparing to embark on a relief mission to Darfur, the West Bank, or perhaps Tajikistan, places where there are genuine problems finding clean water. Frankly, I think they’re a bit young still – and I’m sure the other parents would agree with me – but I can come up with no other viable explanation as to why they would consider this wudu’ information to be vital enough that they devoted an entire lesson – indeed, the entire first lesson of the year – to this subject.

Seriously, I am dumbfounded. With all the ills of our umma – with violence and corruption, bigotry, intolerance, stagnation, and reactionary extremism hailed as the hallmarks of modern Muslim society, with Muslim women struggling under oppressive customs and laws in the East and in the West, with extravagant materialism marking our “elite” and narrow-minded conservatism marking our “scholars,” with the near total lack of mercy and compassion and commitment to social justice evidenced in our communities – you would think her teachers could find something more relevant to discuss in class.

I am also bitterly disappointed. We abandoned her previous school because the teachers had more interest in how many jinn lived in my daughter’s nose, and how many hairs were sticking out from beneath her scarf, than in substantive discourse on what it means to be a Muslim and to have taqwa, God-consciousness; how to live a life of character and integrity; how to cope with the endless bombardment of evil coming from people who claim not only to be Muslim, but to do these acts with the inspiration and blessing of Islam; how to ward off the pressure – and the temptation – to engage in acts the Qur’an names as sins, but which are part and parcel of American life. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of pressing issues which are largely ignored by our Islamic education system in preference to a myopic concentration on arcane minutiae.

In conferences and conventions, halaqas (study circles) and dars’s (lessons) across the continent, we bemoan the fact that we are losing many, many of our children to non-Muslim culture. Certainly there are a number of factors contributing to that, but our educational focus definitely isn’t helping. The antidote to poor practice, to low self-esteem, to a weak identification with Islam and a feeble connection to Allah lies not in inculcating ever more esoteric legal trivia, but in spiritual and emotional development, of the individual and of our communities. Until our Islamic education addresses essential issues and works to help our children achieve a closer relationship to Allah, we will continue to lose them.

Even more, we will be perpetuating the evils that currently beset the Muslim umma. With our intense focus on legalisms and the “right way” to do things, we are teaching our children to concentrate on trivialities rather than equipping them with the tools to address various social and economic ills that afflict Muslim and/or American society. We are encouraging them to develop a mindset where miniscule differences become divisive, rather than imbuing them with an expansive and inclusive worldview. We are telling them that individual adherence to behavioral norms is more important than activism, philanthropy, or spirituality. We are advising them that they should be concerned about the details of other people’s practice, rather than the state of their well-being.

Part of this failure stems from the fact that the vast majority of our teachers are parent volunteers, not professional religious educators. They have received no training on how to teach spirituality and religiosity to children. Part of it is due to the fact that the resources that are available to them focus on legalism to the exclusion of all else. (Think Fiqh al-Sunna, The Halal and the Haram in Islam, My Little Book of Fiqh, and so on.) If a teacher wants to help her or his students develop their spirituality – it is up to him or her to develop the idea, the lesson plans, the homework – everything – him or herself. And, no doubt, to contend with parents who are not happy their children aren’t being taught yet one more time the particulars of salaat (ritual worship) and sawm (fasting).

Why, you may ask, and it is a valid question, if I am so unhappy with the schools, do I put my kids in them, or why don’t I volunteer to teach myself.

One, I want my children to be around other Muslim children. They are the only kids (other than the ones too young to go to kindergarten) who come to jum’a, the Friday congregational prayer. At our halaqa, they are older than all the other kids by 4-8 years. There are one or two other Muslim kids in each of their various schools, but none in any of their classes. There is one other Muslim family in our neighborhood, but one friend sometimes isn’t enough, and when they are gone on vacation, or busy with homework or other activities, one friend becomes no friend. Sunday school, then, represents a golden opportunity for my children to be around other Muslim children, to develop a network of Muslim friends, and to see a Muslim community in action.

I dream of Sunday school as a warm welcoming place where my kids could relax and simply be Muslim – indeed where they could celebrate being Muslim – without worries of what people will think of them based on how much or how little they are wearing or the actions of people in other countries. A place where they are encouraged to live up to the ideals of Islamic character – kindness, mercy, compassion, honesty, integrity, justice. A place where differences between Muslims are acknowledged and embraced. A place where love of Allah and joy in His creation is the norm. A place where they can see everything that is wonderful about Islam, everything that made their mother choose to follow Islam, put into practice.

Two, my husband and I teach our kids on a daily basis how to live Islam – by our example and by direct instruction. We have made sure they know how to pray, to fast, that they are aware of the restrictions on the behavior of a Muslim. We model for them the character we hope they will develop (ok, we do this most of the time!) as well as the reverence for Allah, His universe and His umma that we believe is essential to human peace of mind. We work to nurture their devotion to Allah, their sense of awe and gratitude, their hope for a better future, their commitment to making the world a better place. At Sunday school, I hope they will find role models beyond my husband and myself, role models that reinforce the lessons we are trying to teach, who model those character traits we are not so good at, who offer reasonable alternatives to our view of Islam. I want them to have access to other adults, especially the older children, since teenagers often find it easier to confide in an adult companion who is not also their mother or father. I want them to feel they belong to a community of caring adults; that at any time there are many people they could turn to for help.

Obviously, we have a long way to go before that is going to happen. In the meantime, here are some suggestions for making relevant and meaningful adjustments to the typical Sunday school curriculum:

1) Read the Qur’an. I’m not talking about memorizing some short chapters. And I’m not talking about working on vocabulary for those chapters (although there is benefit in both). I mean read large sections of the Qur’an in the language the children understand. And discuss it! Not just the teacher dictating what the kids are supposed to think about the passage, but let the kids explore their reactions to it. Talk together about what Allah wanted us to get out of the selection, what the kids actually got out of it, which parts seem most relevant to their lives, how what they have read might change something in their life. Think about how the people in the Qur’an felt and thought and reacted to the events that they lived through. Discuss how the Prophet and his companions reacted to the revelations, what impact it had upon their lives. Many of our kids never read anything outside of juz ‘amma, the final one-thirtieth section of the Qur’an. The Qur’an has A LOT more to offer than that, and by focusing on memorization and vocabulary, we have missed the chance to let the Qur’an touch our kids’ hearts.

2) Read Hadith, the reported traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Not a book of laws with one or two hadith to support each ruling, but a book of hadith. Riyadh Us Saliheen, Sunan Abu Dawood, selected books from Bukhari, the Muwatta. A book which has pages and pages of hadith, a book which shows the width and depth of the hadith literature. And, again, don’t just read them, but discuss the hadith you’ve read. Talk about the character displayed by the Prophet Muhammad and his wives as the underpinning to many of the hadith. Talk about the flexibility and variation shown in hadith, how all these different hadith can be synthesized into a coherent whole. Talk about how these hadith intersect with the lives of the kids, how the thought process, the problem solving methodology, the character displayed in them can be borrowed to make our lives better. Talk about where the hadith come from, how they were collected, acknowledge issues in ascertaining the authenticity of hadith, and reinforce that hadith are always second to Qur’an.

3) Read the Sira, the history of the Prophet and the early Muslim community. Not the twenty page saccharine sweet version of Prophet Muhammad’s life, but a serious biography. Some might think, you got this in the hadith, why bother with a biography? Because a biography gives a chronological account. Talk with the kids about the development of Islam during the Prophet’s life. Does this have implication in our lives as Muslims? What was revealed first, what was left till the end of the Prophet’s mission? Does that have implication regarding our priorities in this life? What can we learn from the Prophet’s life about character, statesmanship? About being a child, a spouse, a parent, a human being?

4) Read the Prophet’s prayers and speeches. I’m not talking about lists of du’a (supplications), the pages of when you do this, say that which kids are often required to memorize, but the full texts of his prayers and his sermons. This should be part of the sira, but is often left out. Prophet Muhammad had an incomparable manner in prayer, and his speeches are incredibly uplifting and inspirational. Read the sermons he gave in Ramadan; read his final sermon. Talk about how he prayed, how he structured his prayer, and the kinds of things he prayed for. Try reading the prayers out loud to one another as well as reading them in print.

5) Study Islamic History. I don’t just mean a triumphal account of the successors to the Prophet or neo-messianic accounts of great warriors, but a serious study of the entire span of Islamic history. They sure as heck aren’t getting it in public school! It is a shame that many of our young people have no knowledge whatsoever of the course of Islamic history, the amazing, wonderful diversity of Islamic cultures, and the darker elements of that history. Look at how minority Muslim cultures adapted, how they managed to thrive in different countries. Look at how the political system developed. Talk about the directions Muslim cultures have taken.

6) Read Islamic Literature. Modern and classic. Don’t just tell the kids the best selling poet in America is Rumi. Read some Rumi! (Gasp!) Read some modern Muslim writers, too. Talk about the issues raised in the poetry, stories and novels. Discuss how characters grapple with the problems they face, and how their struggles can inform our own struggles to deal with the same problems.

7) Engage in dhikr, remembrance of God. Leave some quiet time (5-10 minutes) for the kids to contemplate Allah, the world, their heart. It doesn’t have to be formalized. It doesn’t have to follow any pattern, or use any formulas. It should be a time for personal reflection, prayer, and recollection of Allah. Obviously, there is no way to compel compliance, but we should show our kids that we consider self-reflection and reflection on Allah and His Creation an important part of being a conscientious Muslim.

8) Encourage the kids to be involved in designing the curriculum. Ask them what they want to learn about or to talk about. Maybe they have questions about ritual prayer. Maybe they’d rather discuss how to deal with feeling like they don’t want to have anything to do with an umma that seems to be increasingly polarized by violence, political manipulation, extremism, and intolerance. Maybe they want to talk about spiritual issues such how to resolve the apparent tension between human free will and Divine omnipotence, or why a good and merciful God would allow bad things to happen to good people. Maybe they want to talk about hot button issues – polygamy, slavery, domestic violence, women’s rights and dress codes, jihad, gay rights. Avoiding trouble spots, pretending that Islam has nothing anyone could ever find objectionable, is only setting our children up for shock, disillusionment and rebellion when someone hostile to Islam confronts them with those issues. Addressing those issues, and at times admitting we don’t always have the answer, will give them confidence in our sincerity. Kids don’t expect perfection, they expect, and deserve, honesty, authenticity, dedicated effort and hard work.

The Radical Imams of the West

In appreciation of the radical imams of the West

By Mona Eltahawy

Let us appreciate the radical imams of the West. As a liberal Muslim woman I am generally loathe to express gratitude to conservative men, but the more these imams perfect the ability to say something stupid - often in Arabic, thinking that no one will find out - the more attainable they make my goal: to show that these men do not represent all Muslims.

This is especially important at a time when so many Muslims in the West, particularly in Europe, are being put through the wringer of integration and always found wanting.

Because these radical imams, who have failed to integrate in the West, have unilaterally appointed themselves as our spokesmen - and are so readily accepted as such by the media - their shortcomings are easily projected onto the community as a whole.

Is it any wonder that one study in the United States revealed recently that fewer than 10 percent of Muslims there attend mosque on a regular basis? A similar study in Denmark put the figure there at less than 20 percent.

The imams who are sent from Arab countries usually only speak Arabic and arrive with a suitcase full of stale ideas that are woefully out of touch with the concerns of the congregations they have been sent to tend to and even more out of sync with the culture and mores of their new homes.

Take Sheikh Taj al-Din Hamid Hilaly, Australia's top Muslim cleric who recently asked for an indefinite leave of absence from his duties after he was barred from preaching for three months over having blamed women for rape. The Egyptian-born cleric is but the latest imam whose talent for placing his foot far into his mouth has ironically done the Australian Muslim community a huge favor.

Hilaly's outrageous words - at one point in a sermon he described women who did not dress modestly as "uncovered meat" - earned him the wrath not just of mainstream Australian society, but more importantly, of many within the Muslim community itself, including the board of the Sydney mosque where he preaches. The board should have fired him. But short of that, the three-month suspension was a clear message that many Muslims in Hilaly's congregation refuse to condone such a hatefully misogynistic attitude.

Some Australian Muslims defended Hilaly. While I cannot understand how anyone could defend such views, I can only welcome disagreement among Muslims. What a relief to have our differences so openly aired after years of lazy stereotyping that has portrayed Muslims as a homogenous lump.

You see why I have to thank Hilaly?

The anger directed at him was particularly important because the Muslim world has been so quick to take offense recently. In less than a year, we have seen Muslim anger over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper, comments by Pope Benedict XVI that linked Islam and violence, and former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's view that the face veil, or niqab, prevented communication.
If Muslim offense at any of these things is to be taken seriously, rather than viewed merely as political opportunism by our numerous self-appointed leaders, then that same anger must mobilize and direct itself against "our own." And we have seen just that happen in Australia.

There's a sad but interesting twist to the Hilaly controversy. In a sermon during the holy month of Ramadan, Hilaly told his Sydney congregation that sexual assault might not happen if women dressed in the hijab - i.e. covered all their body except for the face and hands - and stayed at home.

Just days after Australian newspapers first reported the English translation of his sermon, a mob in Cairo went on a rampage, sexually assaulting several women. The assaulters did not distinguish between women who wore hijabs and those who did not.

The Egyptian media has largely ignored the story, but bloggers who posted eye-witness accounts of the assaults were quick to connect the attacks to Hilaly's hateful words. So he has even managed to stir anger in his country of birth.

To further appreciate the positive consequences of the blunders of imams, take the case of Ahmed Abu Laban, the Copenhagen cleric who helped organize a trip to Egypt and Lebanon last year to rally support among Muslim leaders for protests against the Prophet drawings in Jyllands-Posten.

His claims that he spoke on behalf of all Danish Muslims did wonders for the community. For one, it motivated Naser Khader, the first Muslim member of the Danish Parliament, to launch the moderate group Democratic Muslims. More poignantly, the sight of Abu Laban saying one thing to a Danish television crew and then almost in the same breath saying the complete opposite to an Arabic TV crew inspired many to join Khader's group.

I have spent two of the past six months in Denmark researching the lives of Muslims there. Many told me that Abu Laban's duplicity was pivotal in inspiring them to step forward and identify themselves as Muslims who disagreed with the imam. Danish journalists have told me they do not immediately turn to Abu Laban anymore to speak for Muslims. It looks like Muslims in Denmark are slowly being allowed the differences enjoyed by other groups.

So once again, let us appreciate the radical imams of the West.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based journalist and commentator and a frequent lecturer internationally on Arab and Muslim issues. This commentary initially appeared in THE DAILY STAR. Her Web site is

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Umrao Jaan: A Mughal Courtesan

Umrao Jaan, The Mughal Courtesan is a story of a girl called Ameerun who was kidnapped at a young age and sold as a courtesan. She was given the name of Umrao Jaan. Umrao Jaan fell in love with her courters, especially Nawab Sultan but he rejected her. In the end she is left alone. This is a song from the latest adaptation of the highly acclaimed Urdu book by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. I found a few translations of the song but none really satisfied me so I decided to translate this ghazal myself. I wanted to offer the full flavor of the lyrics. Enjoy!

Urdu and English Translation by Amanullah De Sondy
Salaam sung by Alka Yagnik, Lyrics by Javed Akhtar

laakh is dil ko humane samajaayaa
dil yahaa phir bhi humako le aayaa
salaam salaam

A million times I explained to this heart, hope that it would be controlled in reason
Alas, it did not, and so it has led me to here

Salaam Salaam
I offer you an abundance of peace, I offer you an abundance of peace

tumhaari mehfil main aa gaye hai
to kyun naa hum ye bhi kaam karle
salaam karne ki aarzoo hai
idhar jo dekho salaam karle

I have arrived in your gathering
So why should I fail to undertake another task too
To offer you an abundance of peace is my true desire
Just turn my way to experience all that I have to offer

ye dil hai jo aa gayaa hai tum par
magar naa sach hai ye bandaa parwar
jise bhi hum dekhale palat kar
usiko apanaa gulaam karle
salaam karne ki aarajoo hai
idhar jo dekho salaam karle

This heart has truly fallen for you
Isn’t it true that we are but human and not God?
Whosoever we turn our glances to
Surely we take them as our slaves
To offer you an abundance of peace is my true desire
Just turn my way to experience all that I have to offer

bahot si baate hai tumako kehani
bahot si baate hai humako kehani
kabhi jo tanahaa milo kahi tum
to baate hum ye tamaam kar le
salaam karne ki aarajoo hai
idhar jo dekho salaam karle

You have so much to tell me
I have so much to tell you
If you were to meet me in isolation
We will surely be able to say this and so much more
To offer you an abundance of peace is my true desire
Just turn my way to experience all that I have to offer

wo lailaa majanu ki ho muhobbat
ke shirifarhad ki ho ulfat
zaraasi tum jo dikhao jurrat
to hum bhi un jaisaa naam karle

The passion, the love between Laila and Majnun*
Or the intimacy and affection between Shireen and Farhad**
If you were to show even a little ambition
Surely we could also emulate their fate and honour

tumhaari mehfil main aa gaye hai
to kyun naa hum ye bhi kaam karle
salaam karne ki aarzoo hai
idhar jo dekho salaam karle

I have arrived in your gathering
So why should I fail to undertake another task too
To offer you an abundance of peace is my true desire
Just turn my way to experience all that I have to offer

Laila and Majnun

*Wikipedia: The Story of Layla and Majnun in the Ummayad era during the 7th century. There were two versions of the story at the time. In one version, Majnun spent his youth together with his cousin, Layla, tending their flocks. In the other version, upon seeing Layla he fell passionately in love with her. In both versions, however, he went mad when her father prevented him from marrying her; for that reason he came to be called Majnun Layla, which means "Driven mad by Layla". To him were attributed a variety of incredibly passionate romantic considered among the foremost examples of the Udhari school. One quote from Majnun, “I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla And I kiss this wall and that wall. It’s not Love of the houses that has taken my heart. But of the One who dwells in those houses”

Shireen and Farhad

** Shirin and Farhad; From Sidar Ikbal Ali Shah

This is a Persian love story where there was a brave man named Farhad, who loved a Princess named Shirin, but the Princess did not love him. Farhad tried in vain to gain access to the love-cell of Shirin's heart, but no one would dare betray the fact that a stonecutter loved a lady of royal blood. Farhad, in despair, would go to the mountains and spend whole days without food, playing on his flute sweet music in praise of Shirin. She saw him once, and love which lived in his bosom also began to breathe in hers. It was not long, however, before the Shah himself heard some rumor of this extraordinary exchange of sentiment. He was naturally indignant at the discovery, but as he had no child other then Shirin, and Shirin was also pining away with love, he proposed to his daughter that her lover, being of common birth, must accomplish a task such as no man may be able to do, and then, and only then, might he be recommended to his favor.

The task which he skillfully suggested was that Shirin should ask her lover to dig a canal in the rocky land among the hills. The canal must be six lances in width and three lances deep and forty miles long!

The Princess had to convey her father's decision to Farhad, who forthwith shouldered his spade and started off to the hills to commence the gigantic task. He worked hard and broke the stones for years. He would start his work early in the morning when it was yet dark and never ceased from his labor till, owing to darkness, no man could see one yard on each side.

Shirin secretly visited him and watched the hard working Farhad sleeping with his taysha(spade) under his head, his body stretched on the bed of stones. She noticed, with all the pride of a lover, that he cut her figure in the rocks at each six yards and she would sigh and return without his knowing.

Farhad worked for years and cut his canal; all was in readiness but his task was not yet finished, for he had to dig a well in the rocky beds of the mountains. He was half- way through, and would probably have completed it, when the Shah consulted his courtiers and sought their advice. The Viziers suggested that an old woman should be set to Farhad to tell him that Shirin was dead; then, perhaps, Farhad would become disheartened and leave off the work.

It was an ignoble trick, but it promised success and the Shah agreed to try it. So an old woman went to Farhad and wept and cried till words choked her; the stone-cutter asked her the cause of her bereavement.

"I weep for a deceased," she said, "and for you." "For a deceased and for me?" asked the surprised Farhad. "And how do you explain it?"

"Well, by brave man," said the pretender sobbingly, "you have worked so well, and for such a long time, too, but you have labored in vain, for the object of you devotion is dead!"

"What!" cried the bewildered man, "Shinin dead?"

Such was his grief that he cut his head with the sharp taysha(spade) and died under the carved streamed into his canal was his own blood. When Shirin heard this she fled in great sorrow to the mountains where lay her wronged lover; it is said that she inflicted a wound in her own head at the precise spot where Farhad had struck himself, and with the same sharp edge of the spade which was stained with her lover's gore. No water ever flows into the canal, but two lovers are entombed in one and the same grave.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Australia: Hizb-al-Tahrir

Wikipedia: "Hizb ut-Tahrir (Arabic: حزب التحرير; English: Party of Liberation) is an international, Sunni, pan-Islamist vanguard political party whose goal is to unite all Muslim countries in a unitary Islamic state or caliphate, ruled by Islamic law and headed by an elected head of state (caliph)."

Copenhagen Sharia Conference Celebrates “Heresy”

By Mona Eltahawy

COPENHAGEN – This summer at the end of a day-long conference in Copenhagen on freedom of expression in the Arab world a young man with slightly faltering Arabic asked to speak to me.

“Would you give me one example of why freedom of expression and democracy are good things?” he asked after introducing himself as Abdel-Hamid. He apologized for what he described as his basic Arabic, explaining that he was born and raised in Denmark to Arab parents.

At first I thought his question was a joke. The other conference speakers and I had spent hours explaining how the sorry lack of freedom of expression had harmed Arab civil society. And surely as a Dane he appreciated the democracy and freedoms he enjoyed?

“No, really, tell me,” he persisted. “Democracy is the rule of the people. Islam is the rule of the Sharia. So what’s good about democracy and freedom of expression?”

When I realized he was serious – and when I began to see the direction his argument was heading – I dragged out my usual defense to his line of thinking: whose version of Sharia, I asked him? Iran? Turkey? Saudi Arabia? Egypt, my country of birth?

“The Sharia of God,” he adamantly replied.

“There is no such thing,” I told Abdel-Hamid.

That was essentially the message at another conference that took me back to Copenhagen in November at which speaker after speaker bemoaned the Muslim fundamentalist reduction of Sharia to a set of laws.

It has become fashionable among radical Muslims in the West to long for the application of Sharia. Abdel-Hamid, my summer Copenhagen interlocutor and adherent to the idea that there was only one kind of Sharia – that of God -, identified himself as a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the radical Islamist group that wants to reestablish the Caliphate and does not believe Islam is compatible with democracy.

In many parts of the Muslim world, what the State has deemed Islamic is slapped with the label “Sharia”. So when a murderer or a drug dealer is beheaded in Saudi Arabia, it is ostensibly out of adherence to Sharia.

When a dictator or a regime feels the need to burnish their Islamic credentials – often at a time of growing radical Muslim opposition – they make their country’s legislation “more Islamic”. Take Pakistan’s late President General. Zia ul-Haq who in 1979 introduced the Hudood Ordinances, notorious not so much for making Pakistan “more Islamic” but for punishing rather than protecting women who have been raped.
Under the Hudood Ordinances, a rape victim had to produce four male witnesses to prove the crime or face the possibility of prosecution for adultery. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Dec. 1 signed into law an amendment to the controversial rape statute to make it easier to prosecute sexual assault cases. Thousands of Islamists gathered at separate events throughout Pakistan to protest the changes.

One has to wonder what kind of Islam those protestors follow and how it came to be so shamefully reduced to an obsession over sex and women.

As the Associated Press reported, under the new law, called the Protection of Women Bill, judges can choose whether a rape case should be tried in a criminal court - where the four-witness rule would not apply - or under the old Islamic law, i.e. the Hudood Ordinance.

And that is exactly the lie at the heart of the calls for Sharia. Why are there criminal courts in which the old Islamic law does not apply? In many Muslim countries, the justice system has been modernized and has adopted either Roman or Napoleonic law, with the exception of one area which stubbornly remains caught in the cobweb of edicts issued by Muslim scholars who lived centuries ago – family law. In other words, in many Muslim countries Sharia is used only to govern the lives of women and children with regards to marriage, divorce and custody of children.

How refreshing therefore it was to hear Emory University law professor Abdullahi An-Nai’m point out that lie at the heart of the calls for Sharia by saying it was essentially an attempt to “protect a patriarchal system by calling it Sharia”.

“I need a secular state to be the kind of Muslim I need to be,” he told the conference.

As Egyptian liberal Muslim scholar Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid noted, “Sharia” these days means nothing more than the “haram” (forbidden) and the “halal” (permissible).

The definition of Sharia as law is based on 500 verses of the Quran, Abu Zeid reminded us – that is just 16 percent of the Quran.

It was a relief to hear Abdel-Hamid’s adamant theory debunked in his own city – and how I wish he was there to hear. But more importantly, Abu Zeid, An-Nai’m and their fellow speakers were crafting the instruments by which all of the Muslims who were present could take the Sharia argument apart.

In a climate of growing right-wing anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly in Europe, some in the Muslim community find it difficult to stand up to radical Islamist posturing on Sharia. Such hesitation is often based on a mix of reluctance to openly criticize fellow Muslims – so as to not contribute to a further demonization of Muslims – and ignorance as to exactly what the word Sharia means and what the concept entails.

The conference, called “Sharia in a modern context”, was organized by Democratic Muslims, a liberal Muslim group that was launched as an alternative to the voices of radical imams in Denmark during the controversy that surrounded publication of cartoons featuring Prophet Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten.

If the talks given by each speaker represented the tools which we could use to dismantle the Sharia argument, then the lives of the speakers themselves were the starkest examples of the danger of Islamist ideology run amok.

None of the speakers lives in his country of birth. That is a sad testament to the dangerously conservative environment in many Muslim countries today. But the speakers’ presence at the conference and at the various western universities where they teach were testaments to their courage and determination to continue their fearless work.

Abu Zeid, Ibn Rushd Chair of Humanism and Islam at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands, is former Professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University. In 1995 a Cairo appeals court sided with Muslim fundamentalists who raised a case to demand Abu Zeid divorce his wife on the ground of his alleged apostasy. The fundamentalists accused Abu Zeid of apostasy because of his liberal theories on Islam.
The day the appeals court issued its verdict, I was a correspondent with Reuters News Agency in Cairo. I clearly remember typing an urgent bulletin announcing the verdict while thinking it was time to buy a one-way ticket out of my country.

After the court’s verdict against Abu Zeid, Ayman al-Zawahri – who is today al-Qaeda’s number two but in 1995 was head of the Egyptian terrorist group Islamic Jihad – called for the scholar’s murder. Abu Zeid and his wife, fellow academic Ibtihal Younes, left for The Netherlands where they have lived and taught since.
An-Nai’m, an internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, and Mohamed Mahmoud, who teaches comparative religion at Tufts University in Boston, were both students of Sudanese Muslim reformer Mahmoud Taha who was publicly executed for his liberal views by then President Jaafar Nimeri whose introduction of Sharia was opposed by Taha.

Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born German political scientist who is Professor of International Relations in Goettingen, received a death threat in Karachi when he told a conference that Sharia was not divine.

His points were particularly pertinent to a Europe increasingly struggling with ways to react to radical Islamists. While lamenting European governments’ habit of turning to the most conservative in the Muslim community to speak on its behalf he vowed “In the name of multiculturalism I will not accept cultural rights as a cover for Sharia”.

“I believe in Sharia as morality not as state law,” he said. “I am not willing to shut up about human rights abuses by Islamists just because of the right wing. They are my enemy too.”

“Islamophobia is the weapon of Islamists to silence critics. I do not believe Europe will become Islamist – that is the fantasy of both Islamists and the right wing,” Tibi said. “Are European Muslims committed to democracy or political Islam and Sharia? The debate should take place in Europe.”

One of the best ways to stimulate such a debate is to highlight the views of the scholars who spoke at the conference both within the Muslim community and outside it.

It is imperative that non-Muslims hear the vigorous debates that are taking place between Muslims over controversial issues such as Sharia. The argument between Abdel-Hamid and me is the best proof that Muslim thought is not monolithic.

How representative are we? That is the question most often asked of those of us who call ourselves liberal Muslims. I will let An-Nai’m and Abu Zeid reply:

“Is my voice the minority or the majority? That is a value judgment,”An-Nai’m said. “The question instead should be is my voice loud enough? Islamists blow themselves up and they make the news. My lecture on human rights doesn’t make the news.”

“Islamic transformation is underway,” he added. “My view is demographically representative of the majority of Muslims but it is not very loud……Who defines what Islam is? Islam is what Muslims make of it. Heresy? I celebrate heresy.”

Abu Zeid simply asked “Who said reformation comes out of the majority?”

“We shouldn’t be ashamed of being the minority,” he added. “Mohammed and his people were a minority at first.”

And if you’re wondering what example I gave to prove to Abdel-Hamid that democracy and freedom of expression were good things, all I had to do was point to him and say “you are my proof”.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir is banned in most Muslims countries whereas in Denmark the organization is legal and operates openly.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. Her website is at This first appeared on

Sunday, 17 February 2008

In the Desert of My Solitude...

Iqbal Bano

Dasht-e-tanhaai mein, ai jaan-e-jahaan, larzaan hain
In the desert of my solitude, oh love of my life, quiver
teri avaaz ke saaye,
the shadows of your voice,
tere honthon ke saraab
the mirage of your lips

dasht-e-tanhaai mein,
In the desert of my solitude,
duri ke khas-o-khaak tale
beneath the dust and ashes of distance
khil rahe hain tere pehlu ke saman aur gulaab
bloom the jasmines and roses of your proximity

uht rahi hai kahin qurbat se
From somewhere very close,
teri saans ki aanch
rises the warmth of your breath
apani khushbuu mein sulagti hui
smouldering in its own aroma,
maddham maddham
slowly, bit by bit.

dur ufaq par chamakati hui
far away, across the horizon, glistens
qatra qatra
drop by drop
gir rahi hai teri dil daar nazar ki shabnam
the falling dew of your beguiling glance

is qadar pyaar se hai jaan-e jahaan rakkhaa hai
With such tenderness, O love of my life,
dil ke rukhsaar pe
on the cheek of my heart,
is vaqt teri yaad ne haath
has your memory placed its hand right now

yun guman hota hai
that it looks as if
garche hai abhi subah-e-firaaq
(though it’s still the dawn of adieu)
dhal gaya hijr ka din
the sun of separation has set
aa bhi gaye vasl ki raat
and the night of union has arrived.

By Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Translated by Ayesha Kaljuvee