Thursday, 4 September 2008

Apostasy and Islam: The Freedom to Change Must Be Advocated

Another question which was raised in the media was on apostasy. I don't understand why we dodge this question. Ah, I remember now it is because medieval Islamic Law tells us that apostates should be put to death and Islamists believe that going against medieval Islamic Law is tantamount to blasphemy. Have we really stopped using our brains? This is an ill-informed observation and needs to be challenged.

This article raises some interesting question:

Islam & Apostasy: Can Islam be Liberalized? by Austine Cline
Saturday August 2, 2008

One of the most difficult conflicts between traditional Islam and western Christianity is the radically different attitudes towards people who leave their religion. There was a time when Christians treated apostates horribly, but today apostasy is not greeted with calls for violence. Traditional Islam, in contrast, continues to regard apostates as worthy of execution — not simply in theory, but in practice.

Even many Muslims who live in the West often agree with their fellow Muslims in predominantly Islamic nations that apostasy is a crime which should be punished in some fashion by the state. This is incompatible with liberal Western notions of personal liberty and religious freedom. If Muslims in the West are unable to make a shift in the direction towards personal freedom of conscience, they will remain outsiders and even unwelcome.

There are signs of shifts occurring in Islam, and not just in the West. Egypt’s grand mufti Ali Gomaa announced last year that Muslims should actually be allowed to choose to stop being Muslims. He even dared to quote the Qur'an in support of his conclusion.

In the West, many prominent Muslims would agree with the mufti’s scripturally-based view that leaving Islam is a matter between the believer and God, not for the state. But awkwardly, the main traditions of scholarship and jurisprudence in Islam—both the Shia school and the four main Sunni ones—draw on Hadiths (words and deeds ascribed with varying credibility to Muhammad) to argue in support of death for apostates. And in recent years sentiment in the Muslim world has been hardening. In every big “apostasy” case, the authorities have faced pressure from sections of public opinion, and from Islamist factions, to take the toughest possible stance.

In Malaysia, people who try to desert Islam can face compulsory “re-education”. Under the far harsher regime of Afghanistan, death for apostasy is still on the statute book, despite the country’s American-backed “liberation” from the tyranny of the Taliban. The Western world realised this when Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who had lived in Germany, was sentenced to die after police found him with a Bible. After pressure from Western governments, he was allowed to go to Italy. What especially startled Westerners was the fact that Afghanistan’s parliament, a product of the democracy for which NATO soldiers are dying, tried to bar Mr Rahman’s exit, and that street protests called for his execution.

Source: The Economist

What's truly disturbing is that while some leading Muslim figures are willing to support freedom of conscience in religious matters, there far too many "regular" Muslims who oppose it. Usama Hasan is an influential young British imam who also publicly supported the right of Muslims to cease being Muslims and as a consequence he was not only denounced on Islamist web sites, but his life was threatened as well — and many of those sites are produced by Muslims in the West, not Muslims in the Middle East.

Think about that: there are Muslims who don't merely threaten the lives of apostates, but even the lives of otherwise respected Muslims leaders who dare suggest that apostates be allowed to go their own way unmolested and unharmed. The Islamist impulse is causing many Muslims to degenerate beyond merely wanting to kill those who dare leave their tribe but also wanting to kill those who say it might be wrong to kill those who dare leave their tribe. If you can't tolerate people disagreeing with you, then you share nothing in common with modern, liberal, and free societies.

So at least some Muslim leaders want to liberalize Islam, but too many Muslims in the street don't want to liberalize. Can you liberalize people who don't want it? Unfortunately, there is too much in the history of Muslim communities for them to easily give up the idea that rigorous adherence to Islam must be required. It took a long time for Christians to give this up and it may be even harder for Muslims to progress to the same point. In the long run, though, it will be necessary because a healthy society won't be possible so long as there are mobs threatening violence against anyone who dares not accept their religion anymore.

Saudi Arabia: The Wahhabi Threat to Islam

I've been reading in the Scottish press some members of public asking for Muslim statements on issues such as Saudi Arabia. It seems that the Scottish Islamic Foundation had little to say in response to this question so I found an interesting article by Mona Eltahawy which I thought was excellent.

By Mona Eltahawy

When gunmen killed 22 people in the city of Khobar in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province last weekend, they set off alarm bells in international oil markets. But louder bells should be ringing throughout the Muslim world over the cost to Islam of this conflict between the Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi zealots it helped create and who now vow to overthrow it.

Islam was born in what is now Saudi Arabia. King Fahd calls himself 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques' in Mecca and Medina, which millions of Muslim pilgrims visit every year. If oil has been Saudi Arabia's trump card on the international stage, then Islam has given it plenty of cachet on the Muslim one.

So when those gunmen in Khobar tell terrified foreign oil workers they are looking for 'infidels' during an hours-long shooting spree that leaves 22 dead, including a 10-year-old Egyptian schoolboy, and claim that it is in the name of Islam that they drag the corpse of a 62-year-old Briton through the streets and slit the throats of nine hostages, the Muslim world cannot be silent. It is long past time for Muslims to question the Wahhabi ideology that is pulling the rug out from under Saudi life, for it is that same ideology that has been involved in militant movements throughout the Muslim world for years.

I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years in the 1980s and know how all-pervasive Wahhabism is. It was there in posters that lined the corridors of my women-only university showing how a 'good Muslim woman' should dress in black from head to toe and it made sure that gender apartheid kept those same good Muslim women in the back two rows of the bus.

It was there in shopping malls patrolled by morality police ready to arrest shopkeepers who didn't close their stores for prayer time and it was there in the grim Friday evening news tally of the day's public beheadings.

And it is there today, clearly, in the issues that occupy the time of Saudi clerics. Two weeks before the Khobar rampage, a young Saudi friend forwarded me a copy of a fatwa, or religious ruling, issued by Saudi Arabia's senior clerics. It was a fatwa banning the giving of flowers when visiting the sick in the hospital. 'It is not the habit of Muslims to offer flowers to the sick in hospital. This is a custom imported from the land of the infidels by those whose faith is weak. Therefore it is not permitted to deal with flowers in this way, neither to sell, to buy nor to offer them as gifts,; the fatwa said.

Wahhabi militants operate in that chasm between the mind-set that bans flowers for the sick and life as we know it in 2004. Osama bin Laden may be Wahhabism's most recognizable face but it does not lack for followers or hatred, and not just for the 'infidels' women and non-Wahhabis are equally derided.

While there is little doubt that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and now the U.S. occupation of Iraq fuel many a militant's fire in the Middle East, Wahhabi Islam can be found in most of the embers.

The Saudi royal family has its own reckoning to do with Wahhabism. By giving Wahhabis a free hand over Saudi Arabia's religious and educational sectors, the royal family guaranteed the showdown. Instead of fostering a liberal and intellectual class that despises the Wahhabis and could have been an important ally against them, the Saudi government instead imprisons those calling for liberal reform.

Last year, Crown Prince Abdullah brought together Saudi intellectuals, including women and members of the country's Shiite minority, to debate much-needed reform as an antidote to Wahhabism run amok, but every discussion of reform is tempered with the caveat: 'It cannot be too fast.'

What is 'too fast' when militants carry out two audacious attacks within a month against expatriates in the oil sector? What is too fast when their car bombings kill Saudis and non-Saudis, Muslims and non-Muslims alike?

"I am scared," a Saudi man told me after the Khobar attacks. "There is no clear vision to where my country is heading. We want to progress, but we also want to live like the good Muslims did 1,400 years ago. We want to change, but we believe that change is the road to hell. We want the people to have a role in leading the country, but we don't want democracy. We want to have dialogue with the West, but our preachers are preaching every Friday that all westerners, or non-Muslims, go to hell."

The Muslim world must speak up not only for its religion but for Saudis caught between the rock of the royal family and its absolute rule and the hard place of the Wahhabis and their unforgiving Islam.

Mona Eltahawy is managing editor of Arabic Women's eNews and a columnist for the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

This article first appeared in The Washington Post.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Arguing with God: The Sheikh will get Heaven and I will get Hell?

I have translated a few verses from another of Aziz Mian's wonderful Qawallis. This is my favorite verse in which he shows the tension between the 'puritans' (used as a metaphor in term 'Sheikh') and the seekers of the Beloved (God). Beautiful!

maza aja’ay ga me’shur mein kuch sunanay sunanay ka
zaban to meri ho gi me’shur mein, aur kahani aap ki ho gi

It will be most enjoyable to listen and to say on that great day of judgement
It will surely be my tongue but the story will be yours

yeh kaisa dastoor hai dababundi hai ya rabb teri mehfil mein
Key ankh ko baat kurnay ko tarasti hai zaban meri

What kind of tradition is this, locked in duties, in your intimate gathering
That my eye is longing to say something with my tongue

woh dunya thi jaha bund kurtay tay zaban meri
yeh me’shur hai yaha sun’ni puray gi dastan meri

That was the earthly world where you used to silence my tongue
This is the day of judgement, you will have to listen to my story now

milay gi sheikh ko jannat, mujhay doosakata ho ga?
bus itni baat ki katur tera meshur bapa ho ga?

The sheikh will get heaven, I will be doomed?
For just this case, your court will be instated?

hum itna jantay hai, hashr kay din humsay kya ho ga
sub usko dekhtay ho gay, who hum ko dekhta ho ga

All I know is that on that great day, what I will be doing
Everyone will be looking at Him (God), He (God) will be looking at me

jahannum ho ya jannat, jo bhi ho ga faisla ho ga
yeh kya dum hai kay mera aur unka samna ho ga

Hell or Heaven, whatever there is! the final judgement will be given
The hope is in the fact that I will be faced with Him

rahay do do farishtay sath, to insaaf kya ho ga?
Kisi nay kuch likha ho ga, kisi nay kuch lika ho gay

Two two angels on each side, what kind of judgement will take place?
Someone will have written something and the other something else!

(In Muslim theology there is an understanding that there are two angels on the shoulders of every believer. One writes the good deeds and the other bad, these will be presented to God on the great day of judgement. I think the use of the term 'two two angels' is another play on words which is saying that one angel writing good is on the shoulder and the other 'good angel' are the puritans/sheikhs who constantly tell Muslims that they are right/wrong/good/bad on issues. So, in a sense mocking the earthly 'angels'.)

Ramadhan: What does it mean to me?

Thought for the Day
BBC Radio Scotland
Tuesday 2nd September 2008
Amanullah De Sondy

The holy month of Ramadhan has arrived and Muslims all over the world are fasting for thirty days but to be quite honest I'm worried. Worried because sunrise to sunset in Scotland is the longest it's ever been in my lifetime, as the month of Ramadhan is based on the lunar calendar which goes back ten days every year, and fasting without food or drink for sixteen hours daily is not an easy task.

However, as I woke up this morning to have some food during the night I began to ponder over what fasting really means to us. I remember asking young Muslim kids why they do it and their answer was quite simple, to remember all those who have no food. There are many reasons why Muslims fast and it would not be untrue to state that some fast just because everyone else is doing it, 'in the spirit of things', I'm sure they would say. In the Qur'an it states quite clearly that fasting is solely to strengthen the relationship with God. I believe that the very act of fasting leaves a Muslim in a position of ultimate submission to God. This is when I am at my weakest and it is at this point that I am reminded of humanity.

During this time of hunger and God's remembrance, our thoughts turn to those fleeing hurricane Gustav from the southern US coast. Nearly 1.9 million residents of New Orleans were told to 'get their butts out of the city' by the cities Mayor, Ray Nagin. I wonder how Muslims and non-Muslims are coping in these difficult times? At the end of my long fast when I sit down with my family at home we will pray together for those without homes not knowing where their next meal will come from. In this way I understand that my fast is within a different context than what it means to someone who has lived in fear of the hurricane. And so I am left considering the way in which our daily acts, be they religious or non-religious, can offer us all some food for thought on those ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Ramadhan: Searching for the Face and Light of God

Ramadhan Mubarak – Ramadhan Greetings

I wanted to post something which started this month of God with the name of God. How was I to do that? This was the million dollar question which came to me in the face of the Late Aziz Mian (b.1942- d.2000). Aziz Mian was a Qawal from Lahore, Pakistan. Qawalli is a South Asian form of devotional Sufi (mystical) music/song. Qawalls are known to transform themselves into a trance, as they feel closer to God. Qawalli is often dismissed by the puritans because it is in essence in song form but I believe that there is much to be learnt from Qawallis. Aziz Mian was known for writing his own Qawallis which were often quite controversial. I will at some point translate a few others but in meantime I wanted to introduce this Qawalli which I think is very fitting for the start of the Holy Month of Ramadhan.

“Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed so that you may attain God consciousness” Qur’an 2:183

So, let us unpack this Qawalli in hope that it helps us get closer to God. Firstly, all translations are mine so I apologise in advance if they are not that great. This Qawalli uses the ‘beloved’ as a metaphor for God. This is often the case for the Sufis who see God as their ultimate love and want to get closer to Him. However, Qawallis can be understood at two different levels. The external level, which could push one to understand the beloved as a human being, so when listening someone could remember his or her partner, male or female. At the internal level, and this is most important for the mystic, they are trying to become at one with God. I am going to comment on this Qawalli in the first person, in the sense of it affecting me.

Teri Soorat Nigha’ho Mein Pir Tey Rahay
Ishq tera sita’ay to mein kya karo

Your visage constantly meanders in my eyes, my soul
If your love haunts me so much, what am I to do?

The face/presence of God is constantly meandering in thoughts, what is to be done if this love of God continues to haunt me?

Dil kay bazaar mein daulut nahi dekhi jaati
In the bazaar of hearts, money is not seen
Pyaar ho ja’I to soorat, nahi dekhi jaati
In love, the outer is not seen/important
Ek tabassum pey, do alum ko nachawur kur do
On one smile, I bestow the world
Maal acha ho to keemut nahi dekhi jaati
For something good, the cost is not an important issue
Meinay dil diya, pyar ki hadd thi
I gave my heart, the ultimate boundary of love
Meinay jaan di, aitbaar ki hadd thi
I gave my life, the ultimate boundary of trust/belief
Mur ga’ay hum, kholi rahi ankhay
I died, yet my eyes remained open

Yeh meray intizaar ki hadd thi
This was the ultimate boundary of my waiting/longing

These verses are quite self-explanatory but remember the internal is always important. The way in which the believer longs for God is shown in ultimate limits.

Dil ek mander hai,
aap ek moorat hai,
aap kitnay khobsoorat hai

The heart is a temple,
you are an idol within it,
you are so beautiful

This verse could be seen as rather blasphemous because there has always been an issue with figurative depictions in Islamic culture. However, something clever is done here where the believer is using the heart as a place where God dwells, giving God that ‘beauty’ which the believer constantly enlightens their life with.

Tuj ko tuknay lagay,
tu jo aya masjid mein,
namaz sub nay kaza ki teri ada kay liyay

All eyes were fixed on you,
as you entered the Mosque,
everyone delayed their prayers as they were all enthralled by your presence

This is maybe even more controversial as it seems to imply a homoerotic imagery but could also be the presence of God. Keeping in mind that many Sufis believe that God could be witnessed in objects and human beings and so beauty was something which gave witness to God. So beauty/love stopped the prayers – that the acts of worship are ‘delayed’ to bring forward these acts of love/beauty. I found this very uplifting that quite often we get so enmeshed in the ‘duties’ that we lose sight of the love of God that they should uplift us with.

Tuj mein jo baat hai,
who baat nahi ay’i hai,
kya yeh tasweer kisi gayr sey kichwa’i hai?

What you truly are,
is not evident/forthcoming,
what – is this picture taken by some other?

This verse has left me totally dazed as it pierces the heart with God’s love. In this verse the believer is saying that everything that God is, is still not evident in the ‘talk’ of the world. The talk of the world is what the ‘scholars of Islam’ have presented as an image of God. This is an incorrect image which Aziz Mian is passionately seeking. This hard edged image or rules, doom and gloom, says Aziz Mian, has been been taken by someone who is alien to the beauty and love of God.

Husn aur ishq dono mein tafreeq hai,
kya karo mera dono mein imaan hai

There is a difference between beauty and love,
But what shall I do,
I have faith in both?

Agur khuda rooth ja’ay to sujday karo,
Agur sanam rooth ja’ay to mein kya karo?

If God is upset with me then I will prostrate in front of Him
but what should I do if my beloved is upset with me?

These two verses seem to be linked when Aziz Mian sings them. I heard Aziz Mian in another version say that the question of beauty and love has been one that he has been asking all his life but still has not found an answer. In the second verse he still leaves the question open to debate where he states that when God is upset then the believer knows what ‘duties’ (prostration) they must undertake but what about when the beloved is upset? This is a play on words as the beloved is actually God. However, the former is the image of God that Aziz Mian questioned previously as an image created by the ‘scholars of Islam’. When God is the ‘beloved’ then will ‘duties’ be good enough to make up with Him?

Meray murnay kay tum mangtay ho dua
Lay gula gonth dey mein bhi bezaar ho
Maut ub tak to daamun bachati rahi
Tu bhi daamun bacha’ay to mein kya karo

You keep praying for my death
Here, strangle my neck, I am now without any emotion
Death has been saving my body up till now
If you now save my body, what should I do?

Here Aziz Mian is reminding himself of the certainty of death by imagining that it is in fact God who prays for his death. Death for the mystics was not seen as something negative but a moment of union between them and God. Aziz Mian is saying that his submissive position as a believer wants to place his neck in the hands of God who has full control over his life. The final part is beautiful, that if the concept of death had been keeping the body there was no difference now if God decided to continue that salvation.

Husn ki shaan mein,
ho ja’ay na ghustaki kahin,
tum chalay ja’o tumhay dekh kay pyar ata hai

In the glory of beauty,
there cannot be a misdemeanour,
you must turn away as I desire love when I see you


Aziz Mian is showing the distinction between those believers immersed in reaching God through love and those who use duties/laws to reach God. He is stating that God’s beauty is so immense that he wants God to go away just incase he does something that is ‘incorrect’. Again, another play with words against those so enmeshed in laws, rules, rights, wrongs.

Chayn bin dekhay unko na ayay,
aur dekho to dekha na ja’ay,
bich sulfo kay, wo roo’ay roshan,
jaisay gunga mein sooraj nehla’ay

I am at unease without seeing you,
but when I look at you I am lost,
that bright face surrounded by dark tresses,
as if the sun is bathing in the waters of the Ganges river

Aziz Mian is raising the very real face of faith. That it fluctuates between strength as God’s presence is close at times and far at times. That in between the dark reality of this world, God’s ever lasting beauty is a breath of fresh air.

These are my meagre attempts at trying to understand this Qawalli and it is dedicated to all those fasting during this blessed month in hope that we are all able to strengthen our relationship with God. And as a form of apology to those who have been offended by questioning and criticism in the previous post.