Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The Interfaith Hats

BBC Radio Scotland
Wednesday 28th May 2008
Amanullah De Sondy

Good Morning

An interfaith game show is to be launched in Britain, which will see members of different faiths competing against each other for cash prizes. Faith Off will be shown on the Islam Channel, which is aired on satellite television.

Interfaith is an interesting business. Business, I hear you say? Well, it depends on what interfaith means to you. I've been involved with interfaith for a few years and be it to evangelise the 'religious other' or to overcome ones own stereotypes and prejudices, interfaith can wear different hats depending on who you are talking to. On the subject of hats, I was invited to celebrate the end of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly meeting at a garden party at the palace of Holyroodhouse a few weeks ago and it was here that I felt that maybe for some interfaith is about fancy hats and sipping tea.

Maybe I am too hasty in judging peoples' motives but I feel that my spiritual existence as a Muslim is strengthened through the religious other. My understanding of Islam and the Qur'an is incomplete without reflecting over passages of the Bible and Torah. This may surprise some in our murky religious political climate of the day but I am constantly reminded of those times in the past when Jews, Christians and Muslims have managed to come together not to 'win' against each other but to mutually understand and appreciate God.

I was saddened to read the other day views of Australians at the prospect of having a Muslim school just outside Sydney. "No to Islamic immigration, Muslims do not fit into this town" were just some of the slogans being used at a rally. But is this really about education? I believe that the interaction of people of different faiths can have great rewards if we are prepared to work a bit harder at getting beyond those differences that seem to separate us. Are we willing to be moved from our positions and welcome our neighbours? Maybe it's time to release our fingers from the buzzer of right and wrong and start reflecting on the deeper meaning and reason for interfaith.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Scotland and Its Lost Treasures

Scotland has some of the most beautiful scenic views in the world but I’m beginning to wonder if we do appreciate it as much as we should. I’m sure we are all thinking about summer and how we hope to spend it. But what is that we seek in our most desired getaway? Is it the bright lights of cities such as New York? Or the exotic beaches of the Far East such as Thailand?

Scotland’s most northerly point has become RSPB Scotland's latest nature reserve. Dunnet Head in Caithness, a 27 acre piece of land, is home to seabirds including kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins. Pete Mayhew of the RSPB Scotland said “It really is a lovely site for wildlife, and the geographical significance makes it even more special’. What I found interesting about this area was that it is a land idyllic from human intervention, now that seems a pleasant spot to be in.

I often wondered about the discussion in Islamic theology about experiencing and understanding God through that which surrounds you. Why has God and the land been connected in this way? I believe that through our environment we can better ourselves. Seeking something beautiful in the Corncrake, great yellow Bumblebee and Twite that inhibit Dunnet Head would surely make anyone think about the big questions in life. The search for meaning and goodness is important to all of us. I cannot think of any travels that have not changed my outlook on life in some way or another. I have only recently ventured out to different scenic locations in Scotland. I went to the Cairngorms mountain range at Aviemore a few weeks ago and as I drove there it reminded me of my favorite passages of the Qur’an, "And it is He who spread out the earth, and set thereon mountains standing firm and flowing rivers; and fruit of every kind He made in pairs, two and two; He drew the night as a veil over the Day. Behold, verily in these things there are signs for those who consider."

Sunday, 25 May 2008

The Lost Jihad: Love in Islam

The many words and meanings for love in Arabic are reflective of Islam's comprehensiveness and depth


"At the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow," wrote Egyptian author Adhaf Soueif in her Booker-nominated novel, The Map of Love. She was indulging in a very beautifully written digression about Arabic grammar, comparing words derived from the same root: in this case, qalb, "heart"; and enqilab, "overthrow". At this level, where the interplay of meaning and construction is visible, Arabic becomes an extraordinary language, forcing into cooperation concepts and ideas that are entirely unrelated in English.

Despite the tremendous conceptual range and utility provided by the root-and-pattern system of the language, there is a common assumption among non-speakers that Arabic-and thus, Islam-lacks an equivalent of agapé, a Greek term used by Christians to mean the boundary-less, self-sacrificing love between believers, or between a believer and God. More passionate than filia, less explicit than eros, agapé is love stripped of expectation, in which the lover is humbled and disciplined before the beloved. Running a Google search for 'agapé' and 'Islam' yields literally hundreds of Christian sites claiming there is no such term in Arabic, and painting Islam as a cold, dispassionate religion in its absence.

Over the years, Sufi Muslims have co-opted many of the romantic Arabic words for love and made them serve an ideal very much like agapé: Rumi feels hayam for the absent Shams; al Ghazali explores 'aishq as the union between a worthy believer and a higher Beloved, Allah. The poetry of 10th and 11th-century Sufis helped inspire the troubadour culture and ideals of courtly love that flourished in the medieval kingdoms of southern France, Navarre and Aragonne; one of the positive artistic developments to arise from contact between Christian Europe and the Muslim Near East during the Crusades. But many of the greatest Sufi thinkers, including al Ghazali, were themselves influenced by Platonic, Neoplatonic and Gnostic Christian ideals of love, kept alive in the medieval Middle East by the translation of Greek, Roman and Byzantine texts into Arabic and Persian. The question remains: we know the Prophet Muhammad meant Muslims to love and serve God, but did he mean them to be in love with God-and to reflect this love and service among each other?

The answer is, simply, yes. Though it has classically been overlooked by Islam's detractors, there is a word for agapé in Arabic. It carries the same non-specific 'boundary-less' connotation as the Greek word, and is used contextually in the same way. Better yet, it is entirely original; not borrowed, adapted, or modeled on a word from another language. The Arabic word for agapé is mahubba, and it is fascinating for two reasons: one, because it comes from hub-in its feminine form. Two, because of the prefix ma. Adding the letter mim to the beginning of a word in Arabic means "one who is/does", "that which is/does", or "in a state of" the word that follows it. Junun is mad, and majnun is "one who is mad" or "in a state of madness"; baraka is a blessing, and mubarak is "one who is blessed" or "in a state of blessedness"; Islam is submission, and Muslim is "one who submits" or "in a state of submission". Thus, mahubba is quite literally 'in love', but it is rarely used in an erotic sense. It can describe either love among people or love for the divine, and is used most commonly in a spiritual context in both cases. Implicit in mahubba is service; the lover puts the beloved at the center of the discourse, and submits to his/her demands. Author Fethullah Gulen describes mahubba as "obedience, devotion and unconditional submission" to the beloved, quoting Sufi saint Rabi'a al-Adawiya's couplet, "If you were truthful in your love, you would obey Him/for a lover obeys whom he loves."

While it is, again, primarily Sufis who have propagated the ideal of mahubba over the centuries, the word and the concept have roots in mainstream Islamic tradition: verse 3:31 of the Qur'an is sometimes called 'ayat ul'mahubba', and reads "Say: if you do love Allah, follow me, and Allah will love you." Even ibn Taymiyya, one of the founders of the Wahhabi movement, said of this verse, "There can be no clearer recognition of mahubba than this, and this recognition in itself increases love for Allah. And people have discussed (at length) about mahubba: its causes, its signs, its fruits, its supports and rulings." A hadith qudsi included in the Muwatta of Imam Malik is even more explicit: "God said, 'My love [mahubbati] necessarily belongs to those who love one another [mutahubinna] for My sake, sit together for My sake, visit one another for My sake, and give generously to one another for My sake'."

Mahubba differs from agapé in one crucial respect: because serving and approaching the beloved is a form of ongoing personal struggle, mahubba is a form of jihad. A far cry from the violent and indiscriminate "small jihad" preached by militants, mahubba is a form of al-jihad al-kabir, the greater jihad, or jihad against one's own ego. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in an age of lesser jihad mahubba has fallen out of practice and almost out of memory; it is so universally neglected that when Islam is accused of lacking a concept of divine brotherhood, few Muslims have the intellectual wherewithal to protest. But Adhaf Soueif is right: at the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow. The struggle to serve God out of love, and one another out of love, is the jihad of human potential against the jihad of violent ideology; if resurrected, it has the power to change the world.


G. WILLOW WILSON is a Cairo-based author and essayist. Her articles about modern Islam and the Middle East have appeared in publications including the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and the Canada National Post

"The niqab, or the face veil, terrifies me" - Mona Eltahawy

"The niqab, or the face veil, terrifies me"

Faith dressed in tribal garb as Muslims debate British ruling on niqab

By Mona Eltahawy
Progressive Muslim Union of North America

The niqab, or the face veil, terrifies me. I am a Muslim woman for whom the niqab says very little about religion but a whole lot about the erasure of a woman's identity, her very existence as a human being in any society.

I am the first to admit that my views on the niqab are thoroughly grounded as much in my own very personal struggles with the Hijab, which I wore for nine years, as they are more generally with the obsessive focus on how Muslim women dress - an obsession shared by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

An argument I had years ago - while I still wore Hijab - on the Cairo subway with a woman who wore niqab helped seal for good my refusal to defend the niqab. The woman, dressed in black from head to toe, began by asking me why I did not wear the niqab. I pointed to my headscarf and asked her "Is this not enough?"

I will never forget her answer.

"If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or one that came in a wrapper?" she asked.

"I am not candy," I answered. "Women are not candy."

I have since heard arguments made for the niqab in which the woman is portrayed as a diamond ring or a precious stone and other such objects that need to be hidden as a way of proving their "worth".

And so to this day I unequivocally refuse to defend the niqab, regardless of who is making the argument for or against it. That is especially true in the wake of British House of Commons leader Jack Straw's comments that the niqab prevents communication. He is absolutely right. It prevents a reading of the face and its expressions, vital ingredients in human communication.

While some have grasped Straw's comment as but the latest onslaught against Muslims, others have wisely tried to make the most of the door that Straw kicked down by daring to broach the subject. Just because some British Muslim women wear niqab, it does not become incumbent on every Muslim everywhere to defend the niqab, over which there is no Muslim consensus.

Witness a parallel controversy that erupted in Egypt soon after Straw ignited his firestorm. The dean of Helwan University, south of Cairo, issued an ultimatum warning students they would not be able to stay at college dorms unless they removed their niqab. The dean based his decision on security grounds, saying that men disguised as women in niqab could slip into the female dorms.

In the midst of Egypt's niqab controversy, Soad Saleh, a professor of Islamic law and former dean of the women's faculty of Islamic studies at Al-Azhar University, Egypt, said that the face covering had nothing to do with Islam.

"I don't agree that the veil should be compulsory, and I don't like it," Saleh told Agence France Press. She said she wants to "purge Islam of false concepts: the Quran does not say women have to cover their faces, it's an old Bedouin tradition."

Amnah Nousir, a professor of Islamic philosophy, told the Dubai-based Gulf News that "The niqab was common in the Arabian Peninsula centuries before Islam and was not imposed by this religion."

"The face is one's mirror. So why should the woman hide herself behind this black veil?" she told Gulf News.

Gamal el-Banna, a liberal Muslim thinker, said recently "the niqab is an insult and he who calls for it is backward".

More or less Muslim

Needless to say Islamists, mostly in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, lambasted Saleh and the others who have spoken out against the niqab. But that was to be expected. What was unusual was to hear Saleh and Banna, who is much more liberal, agree that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam.

It is important to hear Muslim women and men take a stand against the niqab so that it doesn't join the ever growing list of identity politics issues that is waved in the face of Muslims everywhere as a sort of litmus test. If we don't check our agreement to every box on the list, we are somehow less authentic or less Muslim.

Such a list is both dangerous and disingenuous because those writing its contents are usually the most conservative in the Muslim community.

If we are not offended by the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed , if we are not enraged at the Pope's comments on Islam and violence, if we are not up in arms over Jack Straw's niqab statement then we're portrayed as at best Muslims who don't care enough or at worst sell-outs and self-hating Muslims. And it is even worse when non-Muslims make such accusations which at their core basically imply that they acknowledge only one kind of Muslim.

Bodily battlefields

While it is true that the furor over Straw's comments can be seen as the latest tortuous twist in the unraveling of what for years has been an unhealthy understanding of multiculturalism in Britain, it is also simply a case that the former British foreign secretary made a legitimate point and there is no getting around it.

That the niqab is even an issue in the U.K. or Europe is quite astounding for this Egyptian Muslim woman who grew up with stories about feminist leader Hoda Sharawi who, upon returning to Egypt from a women's conference in Rome in 1923, famously removed her face veil on a Cairo train station platform.

To see a woman wearing niqab on the streets of Copenhagen as I did just a few weeks ago and to read about the case of the British Muslim teacher Aisha Azmi who insists that her face veil does not hinder her ability to teach is to shudder at how little progress has been made in the more than 90 years since Sharawi so bravely broke with her country's tradition at the time and refused to cover her face anymore.

That more than 90 years later the niqab is still with us and has migrated to the West is a sad indictment of how far the issue of Muslim women's rights has regressed and an even sadder reminder of how Muslim women's bodies have become just another battlefield for those determined to slug out the clash of civilizations.

Azmi was recently awarded £1,000 for being victimized by officials who told her to remove her full-face veil while teaching. But her more serious claims - of religious discrimination and harassment - were rejected by an employment tribunal.

It is incredible that her case came to this. Azmi taught 11-year-olds learning English as a second language. The school suspended her in November 2005 after she refused to remove her veil at work, telling her that students found it hard to understand her during lessons and that face-to-face communication was essential for her job. And of course the school was right on both counts.

That was exactly Straw's point and that was why he said he would ask women who wore niqab to remove it before they met with him in his office. Azmi said she was willing to remove her veil in front of children or other female teachers, but not in front of men. But as Reuters reported, she insisted at a news conference that "the veil doesn't cause a barrier" between teacher and student.

History in reverse

It is particularly difficult for those of us who are used to fighting Islamists in the Muslim world to find ourselves fighting them over the same issues in the West. The Islamist championing of the niqab and the way it has been used as a literal 'in-your-face' way of separating a Muslim woman from the West - by some Muslims who themselves live in the West - is the complete antithesis of the attitudes towards the West that existed during the Egyptian Hoda Sharawi's time.

In early 20th century Egypt, delegations were sent to Europe to learn and bring home to Egypt the modern intellectual tools the country needed to industrialize and develop. The West, back then, was not the enemy.

And so it is sadly ironic that Islamists are now engaged in a reverse kind of export by bringing to the West ideas and practices that are vigorously challenged in the East as both Soad Saleh and Gamal el-Banna have shown above.

For those of us who criss-cross the West and East, our best line of defence against Islamist thinking is to offer our personal experiences with niqab, hijab and other issues that Muslims are assumed and expected to agree on.

I first put on the hijab at the age of 16, a year after my family moved from the UK to Saudi Arabia. I chose to wear it, thinking that I was fulfilling a religious obligation required of Muslim women. But in reading the work of various Muslim scholars, particularly female writers such as the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi and Egyptian-American Harvard University scholar Leila Ahmed, I learned that the verses in the Quran that are most often used to call for the hijab have been interpreted differently.

I have also learned to stop arguing about the hijab. It is a waste of time and energy and distracts from the much greater issues that most Muslim women are concerned with, particularly in the developing world where poverty, illiteracy and the near impossibility of filing for divorce are often much higher on the list of worries.

Not God, but tradition

The only opinion I offer on hijab is to defend a woman's choice - either to wear it or not. But even that is not as simple a position as it once was. Where a woman lives when she wears the hijab, for example, imposes a different set of issues for consideration. The hijab in Turkey, where girls and women cannot cover their hair in government schools or buildings, is very different than the hijab in the U.K. where some schools with a high percentage of Muslim students have incorporated the hijab as part of the school uniform.

My rejection of the niqab however remains absolute, regardless of geography. My years in Saudi Arabia taught me that niqab in that country is a marriage of Saudi Arabia's particular interpretation of Islam and its tribal traditions.

The niqab has no place in mainstream Muslim thought. As Muslims in the West we must resist joining those Islamists who insist on giving it a place in European capitals where hard-won women's rights took decades to establish and enshrine. We must not allow Islamists to so easily erase Muslim women out of existence.