Thursday, 16 July 2009

A Community of Communities: "Because disagreement is a fact of life and will always exist" Dilwar Hussain

Tue 30 Sep 2008
By Dilwar Hussain / Emel Magazine

With all their blessings and immense spiritual experience, Ramadan and Eid still tend to remind us of the sorry state of Muslims and how we cannot even agree on days of public holiday. But actually, if one considers the ethnic, cultural, denominational and class differences within the Muslims of the British Isles, it is little surprise that this 'group' of people cannot find common voices. It is indeed a community of many different communities. What is dangerous is to reduce this amazing diversity down to narrow blocks of identity that can be lazily represented and then pit against each other in identity politics. The real question is how the diversity is managed, for it will not simply go away. And in this regard we Muslims can learn lessons of toleration from others around us.

It is heart wrenching to see the apparent 'blood-thirst' in the way some tend to manifest disagreement in the Muslim world. From violent riots against cartoons, or the latest 'insult to Islam', to the assassination of leaders, to terrorism; these desperate acts seem to hearken back to the intolerance that ravaged Europe some centuries ago.

The Prophet Muhammad (s) pulled a fractured society, ridden with petty clan disputes, together by his tender examples of respect and tolerance. When his companions differed in their interpretation of his instruction, he endorsed both views urging that the one who is ultimately correct will have two rewards and the one who was incorrect would still bear a reward for his mental energy that had been invested. When he was challenged by his enemies to strike out his title as 'Messenger of God' from the treaty of Hudaibiya, he obliged, keeping his eyes on the bigger picture. Even when he knew of the hypocrisy of some in his own community, he kept their identities secret.

The pursuit of unity of purpose can only hope to succeed if we embrace the differences we see around us, and not pretend that we are all one monolithic bloc. There is no such thing as 'the community' in abstract form. Such collectives are formed of groups and sub-groups of real, fallible, diverse human beings. We often hear the statement, 'the community will not accept this' - but perhaps this more accurately refers to that minority of people who go to the mosque regularly, have quite long beards or wear headscarves, etc. Yes, the bearded person that attends a mosque and prays regularly is very important, but also the lady that does not wear a headscarf, the man who is clean-shaven, the one who has never been to a mosque, the person who does not perform the ritual prayers, and many others, all come together to make up the Muslim community. It was always thus, and always thus it will be. These differences are not to be embraced with a grudging acceptance, but with humility and with the dignity accorded to each person by God himself, by the fact that the divine breath lives within each of us.

Most attempts to unite people tend to either cause more fissures, or create a 'lowest common denominator' position, which is not unimportant but is about as interesting as driving though the M25 in rush hour. So perhaps what we really need, rather than a drive for 'unity' is actually a culture of dissent. We need to learn to disagree, not just agree. Because disagreement is a fact of life and will always exist.

And so, when we are presented ideas that may seem a little on the edge, out of the box, the reaction should be a welcome (even if cautious) rather than one of great fear and trepidation. Will this new 'liberal' idea undermine the very fabric of our religion?! In fact, looking at the breadth of Islamic thought and philosophy you could argue that today we are not nearly liberal enough. In reaction to Colonisation and the loss of territorial power, we have passed through one of the most conservative periods of our history. We proudly hail the achievements of scholars of the past such Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd in medicine and philosophy, yet today's conservative 'orthodoxy' would raise serious question marks over some of their ideas. Email after email about their 'dodgy beliefs' would plague cyberspace. The great thinkers of earlier Muslim history were able to flourish because of the confident spirit of intellectual inquiry that allowed people to think, experiment, and God forbid, even make mistakes.

Thus, what the situation today actually requires, rather than a defensive posture, is a more confident approach that allows challenging ideas and thoughts to be debated, and learnt from or indeed rejected if necessary - the Prophet taught us that his ummah "would never agree on an error". This requires a culture of free debate and dissent. Even if it is sacrilege we fear as a most extreme case, rather than censor ideas and try to stifle debate, perhaps the best approach in our age is to discuss, debate and if necessary stare sacrilege in the face and stick your tongue out at it.

Dilwar Hussain is Head of the Policy Research Centre, based at the Islamic Foundation

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan and Islamic Jurist Leading the Way in Tolerating Transvestites

By Nasir Iqbal in DAWN.COM - Pakistan's Oldest English Daily News
Wednesday, 15 Jul, 2009 | 09:00 AM PST |

ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court has ordered that transvestites, being equal citizens of Pakistan, should also benefit from the federal and provincial governments’ financial support schemes such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).

‘They are citizens of Pakistan and enjoy the same protection guaranteed under Article four (rights of individuals to be dealt with in accordance of law) and Article nine (security of person) of the Constitution,’ ruled a three-member bench comprising Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Justice Muhammad Sair Ali and Justice Jawwad S Khawaja on Tuesday.

The bench had taken up the petition seeking establishment of a commission to emancipate effeminate men ostracised by the society for no fault of theirs.

Islamic jurist Dr Mohammad Aslam Khaki, who researched on the conditions of the ignominious merrymakers and discovered them to be the most oppressed and deprived segment of the society and subjected to humiliation and molestation, had filed the petition for the welfare of the transvestites left by the society to live by begging, dancing and prostitution.

Parents give their hermaphrodite children into the care of gurus (leaders of transvestites) at a very tender age who abuse them instead of providing them the opportunity to get education.

Dr Khaki took up their cause after police raided and arrested several transvestites in Taxila recently, pleading before the court that being a welfare state it was the responsibility of the government to look after this community. He told the court that Shoaib Mansoor who produced a blockbuster film ‘Khuda ka Liya’ was also planning to come up with another movie to highlight the miserable lives of the these people.

During the proceedings, Roop and Shazia along with their community representatives appeared before the court to narrate harrowing details of abuse they receive from the society, police and gangsters mainly because of their weak financial conditions, especially when their fathers and brothers did not accept them as family members.

‘My appearance before the court today may cost me my life,’ Shazia feared, saying already she was receiving threats from different quarters. ‘Once I was implicated in a false case and subjected to immense sexual torture by the police in their custody,’ she alleged.

The court asked the federal as well as the provincial governments to help them overcome their financial difficulties by supporting them from programmes like the BISP and Baitul Mal or provincial support programmes so that they could adopt a respectable livelihood.

The court also asked the petitioner to negotiate with the non-governmental organisations working in social sectors to devise some welfare programmes for the transvestites.

The provincial social welfare departments were also asked to come up with suggestions for the uplift of these people to reduce their miseries and difficulties.

To protect them from thugs or goons, the apex court ordered the law-enforcers to provide security to these people so that that their rights were not violated. The court also asked senior police officials to take action against delinquent police officers who harass the transvestites.

The court directed the provincial social welfare departments to complete the survey and registration of transvestites to save them from the life of shame.

Both the petitioner and transvestites present in the court said they were compelled to lead an immoral life by offering themselves for dancing or prostitution and they were also required to pay handsome amount to self-styled gurus or to the police.

‘We are not accepted anywhere in the society and degraded and humiliated everywhere,’ the transvestites said.

The bench remarked that being Muslims as well as human beings, parents of such gender-confused children should look after them without discrimination but, it lamented, they throw them on roads to suffer throughout their lives.

The court also expressed surprise that one of the computerised national identity card of the eunuch bears a photograph of a female but in the gender column, she was recognised as male.

The court adjourned the proceedings till third week of August.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Juergen Wasim Frembgenl: “Unfortunately, the space for this indigenous folk Islam is now shrinking”

Juergen Wasim Frembgen is senior curator of the oriental department of the Museum of Ethnology in Munich and associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Munich. He is author of the book, Journey to God: Sufis and Dervishes in Islam, and himself a devotee of Sufi saints.

By Shimaila Matri Dawood

Q: You are the curator of the oriental department at the Museum of Ethnology in Munich and private lecturer on Islamic studies at the University of Munich. As a German anthropologist, what sparked this interest in Islam – and Sufism in particular?

A: There could be several answers to your question, some are rooted in my childhood even, but first let me emphasise that I had been fascinated by Pakistan as a region of transition between South, West and Central Asia and because of the plurality of its ethnic groups and cultures. Isn’t diversity the real spice in life? My interest in devotional Islam, Sufism, and the veneration of saints began to grow gradually in the 1980s. I became curious after witnessing the intense devotional religiosity and worship at the shrines of Sufi saints in the eastern Muslim world between Iran and India, particularly in Sindh and the Punjab. Then, I started reading and studying the basic texts of Islam and of the Sufi tradition. However, it is important to mention that I did not start as a scholar of Islam, but as an anthropologist interested in the social and political history of the Northern Areas of Pakistan. I began visiting the smaller shrines of majzubs and mast babas in the Potohar region of the Punjab, as well as the larger ones of renowned Sufi saints. Finally, over the last few years, I participated in numerous melas and urs with their intense experience of the divine through all the senses. So there were these two angles of visiting minor shrines and mazars as well as attending festivals at larger shrines with their celebratory rituals, including music and devotional dance.

Q: Is Sufism – tasawwuf – an integral part of Islam?

A: In the words of the great scholar Annemarie Schimmel, Sufism has been the core of Islam, although over time this has sometimes become less apparent. Sufis are interested in the esoteric dimensions of the Quran. We observe the development of the Sufi tradition in the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH) and the development of Sufi orders, especially between the 12th and 14th/15th centuries. It offers a chance for experiencing the divine, to find a personal relationship with God in one’s own heart, without a formalised system of mediators, as we have in the mosque-oriented versions of Islam.

Nowadays, Sufism is undergoing various transformations. For instance, there are transnational networks of Sufi orders – they are very active and also trendy right now in the West, where Buddhism is also being floated as a New Age soft package to satisfy the longing for spirituality, which the materialistic world cannot fill. But, as already noted by Sir Mohammad Iqbal, “Islam is not for the weak.” It is a system of meaning and orientation in life which is taken seriously.

Q: Why is Sufism, then, looked upon with so much suspicion by Muslims themselves?

A: There are a lot of stereotypes and preconceptions about Sufism – first of all from outside the Muslim world, from the so-called Orientalists who viewed dervishes as madmen, as colourful, bizarre and lazy dirty men, almost as lunatics. Of course, within Islam there has been since long a very similar discourse in which Sufism is viewed and judged critically. But we should also not forget that, at times, learned Sufis did become the sought-after advisors of the rulers. In fact, the image of the malang, or the dervish, with the kashkol in his hand and wearing the patchwork robe is, by and large, a marginal trait of the Sufi tradition. Generally, I would like to point out that there is a broad spectrum within Sufism. This is what I have tried to describe and analyse in my latest book.

Q: There is a perception that the West is trying to prop up Sufism as an alternative to radical Islam. Do you agree?

A: I feel generally uneasy with the dichotomous notion of the ‘West’ and the ‘East.’ We should focus more on sharing than on emphasising boundaries and differences. Thus, I observe that not only in Europe and America, but also in Pakistan there are a number of thinkers and politicians who regard the Sufi tradition as a more peaceful and liberal face of Islam – a version of Islam, so-to-speak, which is not directly involved in politics. However, this is, at least partly, an idealistic conception. We know of numerous cases in history where Sufis have been deeply involved in politics, such as in Morocco, Sudan, Iran and Pakistan. There is not always a peaceful side to Sufism – power has been and is still, executed by pirs and murshids. The pious followers of pirs have been quite active in political conflicts. Think, for example, of the Hurs of Pir Pagaro in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, to portray Sufism as a purely peaceful tradition is definitely too idealistic.

In Pakistan, the Sufi tradition has deeply impregnated the localised folk versions of Islam particularly in the rural areas, but also among the urban poor. Normative, orthodox Islam has flourished more in the cities and has been spread through the system of madrassas all over the country. As a museum curator who exhibits Muslim arts and crafts, many modern reformist versions of Islam seem not to offer anything in terms of aesthetics. Consider the effects of Wahhabi-related movements in South Asia and elsewhere: rural mosques with beautiful wood carvings or paintings have been razed to the ground and replaced with concrete structures, devoid of any aesthetic features or embellishments. Sufi shrines, on the contrary, are aesthetic spaces where devotees find sukun or contemplation. They often appear paradise-like with trees, water, animals, free food and a perfect space for prayer and the remembrance of God. They are inclusivist, that is to say they are places of tolerance where non-Muslims are also welcomed. Women are the most regular visitors at shrines, they generally have a strong bond with forms of popular Islam. Unfortunately, the space for this indigenous folk Islam is now shrinking.

Q: Was Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) the first Sufi, as he was the only man to have undertaken the journey to the heavens during Shab-e-Mairaj?

A: If we see Sufism as a movement of divine rapture and of love, of the discovery and development of love for God and for human beings, then this was definitely the message of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as well. If there is no love, there is no life. In his love for God, the Prophet (PBUH) has become the insaan-e-kamil, the ‘perfect man,’ as well as an absolute role model for Muslims. Let me emphasise that Sufism allows individuality, whereby Islam otherwise focuses more on the collective, the ummah. Such a focus on society is not found to this extent in cultures of the western hemisphere. Communal prayers, Hajj, fasting and other rituals reflect collective ideas and experiences which are so important for the development of society. To become complete human beings, we have to combine the individual side with the collective of the Shariah. Both are intertwined and one should not leave this collective path as a Sufi, either.

Q: Why does the Sufi path embody a veneration of saints whereas tauheed is the main pillar of Islam?

A: I look at Sufism as a concrete religious practice from an anthropological perspective, not from that of an Islamic theologian. In my opinion the main question is: Who has the right to define Islam? The concept of tauheed means unity of God, but aren’t there several ways to reach God? The biggest challenge for Islam seems to be the accommodation of differences. From an orthodox and legalistic perspective of Islam, the veneration of Sufi saints may be bordering on shirk. But within pragmatic everyday Islam, masses of people visit the shrines and request the saints to act as mediators in conveying their wishes and needs. The saints’ power, barkat, is thought to help. This is where the Sufi tradition blends with popular Islam. Prayer is one way to get relief, but there is also the idea of wishes being fulfilled, such as receiving good luck and fortune, being healed or having fertility problems solved. Some saints have been said to cure certain diseases.

Q: Has there ever been any study undertaken which proves that miracles have been performed by Sufi saints?

A: Miracle stories evolve from the charisma of the saints; they are basically legends and mythical in nature. Devotees in the past have attributed miraculous powers to their saints and continue to do so even today. On the one hand, saintly charisma can be inherited, as Max Weber, the famous sociologist of religion, has documented. Thus, there were famous saints in the 13th and 14th centuries who are said to have performed miracles and their charisma has been inherited by their male descendants, the sajjda-nasheens. On the other hand, personal miraculous charisma can be passed on as a form of energy to others through close contact with the living saint. Ordinary people feel this power of the saint transferred onto them. As an anthropologist, I think that when this belief and practice of veneration helps people in their daily life, then this facet of religion has a value in itself.

Q: Do you think that people are aware of the tremendous role that the early Sufis played in the spread of Islam?

A: Their contribution in the spread of Islam should be made more public. In some parts of the Muslim world, particularly in the subcontinent, Sufi saints wandered over vast areas and spread the message of Islam in a very peaceful way. By sharing food with former untouchables, they lived the ideals of Islam – of justice, brotherliness and generosity. Thus, common ground was emphasised, not the boundaries between different religions.

Since the late 18th century, and particularly since the middle of the 20th century, we have seen the emergence of reformist Islam, of looking at Islamic identity in a more austere and often intolerant manner. Forms of local folk Islam have been condemned and even attacked, which is a very purist and puritan way of looking at the religion. In fact, it is an attempt to wipe out religious and cultural diversity and to create a monochromatic society.

Q: Why has a distinction been made between different categories of Sufis, dervishes, malangs, etc.?

A: Not only scholars, but homosapiens in general are obsessed with classifying and categorising, and in reality, there is a rich diversity of religious types to be found in the spectrum of Sufism. There is the malamati, the malang, the majzub, the mast baba and the Sufis and dervishes of the various orders. In reality, some of them blend with each other and are often not easy to differentiate. I know malangs who are received by orthodox Sufi scholars, who run a madrassa for instance. In Afghanistan or in central Punjab, many Sufis have their own madrassas and they have no problems welcoming malangs, as they know they lead an ascetic and devotional life dedicated to God. They might not follow all the prayers but they are still accepted.

Q: What about the fakes among them?

A: There has always been a discussion about Sufis being fake pirs or charlatans; in fact, this mistrust has been there since early Islam. Such people were often accused of not being ‘true’ Muslims (whoever seems to have the right to define what is ‘true’ or not). There was disgust with the decadence of the Sufis in almost every age. It has been quite fashionable to talk in this way. I have been frequently living among malangs and devotees for many years now. There could be criminals hiding at the shrines, who mingle with the crowds at melas. But I have travelled with malangs, such as my friend Arif sain, for instance, whom I have described in a book just published in German – it is a narrative of my experiences during several pilgrimages to Sehwan Sharif. Arif sain is a half-naked malang with a patchwork cap and lungi, who has visited shrines since the age of 16 and who is now around 60, and I trust that he will take good care of me and all my belongings. There are very respectful and dignified persons among these dervishes, although they appear to live on the margins of society.

Q: As a foreigner in Pakistan, did you ever experience any fear?

A: People in Germany, at times, asked me if I was a madman to be travelling to Pakistan. In reality, things in Pakistan are very different from the distorted view of this country and of the Muslim world in general. The diversity of Islam and its plurality needs to be emphasised again and again to avoid portraying this religion only as a monolithic bloc. I do avoid certain places in Pakistan, but I have hardly felt any danger during all these years doing ethnographic field research. I try to blend in with the people by wearing the local dress and conversing in Urdu. Finally, coming annually to Pakistan for the last 30 years, this country has become my home, probably more my first than my second home, in fact.

Q: Where have your travels taken you in Pakistan?

A: In the early 1980s, I usually travelled to Nager and Hunza in the Northern Areas to pursue my fieldwork for a PhD; then I did research in Harban, a remote valley close to the Nanga Parbat as well as in the NWFP. Later on, my interest was drawn more and more to the Punjab and since a couple of years, Sindh. This research has been supported over the years by the Museum of Ethnology in Munich, which grants me [unpaid] leave to pursue my work. A few years ago, one of my sons, Milan Nadeem, accompanied me to the mela of Baba Bulleh Shah in Kasur. Right now he works in Lahore.

Q: Why are there so few women Sufis in modern times, while in the past there have been very powerful female Sufi saints such as the legendary Rabia al-Basri?

A: There is a chapter on women and Sufism in my book. There have been women Sufis since the inception of Sufism as a religious movement. We find female Sufi saints in Morocco, Egypt, Sudan and also in Pakistan. However, as you point out, they are not found commonly. Perhaps because there is the male perspective that female Sufi saints are in contradiction to the purity of a saint. But, I have at times, come across malangnis, the female dervishes. What should be noted is that the majority of devotees of the Sufi saints are female, so the aspect of female religiosity cannot be underestimated. If the mosque is a space predominantly for men, a shrine is, by contrast, a place where women can find peace and solace.

Q: Your book cites a story of a 27-year-old female Sufi saint in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Is it uncommon to find such young Sufi women?

A: Personal life stories play a very important role in the makings of a Sufi. Sometimes, there is an event which marks a turning point, such as an illness, which led that particular female dervish to the Sufi path.

Q: It seems that the western world, more than the East, is interested in Sufism as a religious movement. How do you foresee the future of Sufism?

A: This is hard to foretell. Nevertheless, we should note that there is an increased interest in the East – take Pakistani music as an example. The Pakistani young generation finds interest in Sufism through the music of Junoon, Mekaal Hasan, the great Sufi poets and their interpreters such as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers and, of course, through Abida Parveen. The younger generation can find their identity reflected [in the music]. In Germany, there are a number of Sufi groups, but the public appears much more interested in Buddhism, partly because of the hype around the Dalai Lama who has become a kind of pop star. Anything related to Islam, on the other hand, is unfortunately viewed with suspicion. Sufism has a more positive image, but it is often not considered part of Islam. Consider that Rumi’s poetry has been a bestseller in America, but people are then shocked to hear that Rumi had been a Muslim. So there is just a superficial reading of some poetry, but not a deeper study of Sufism and Islam in the West, even though it is being spread by some transnational Sufi orders.

Q: Annemarie Schimmel (who had been your mentor), yourself, Max Weber, Richard Hartmann, they were all German …

A: A lot of German scholars have done extensive work on Islam, but usually from a theoretical and textbook perspective, not as it is practiced today, not in its concrete forms and manifestations. My book, on the contrary, offers an account of Sufism from the perspective of the ethnographer as much as that of the historian. What I have tried to avoid is the ‘top-down’ perspective of textual Sufi theorists. Instead, I have emphasised on lived ‘popular Sufism’ in the Muslim world, between West Africa and the subcontinent, with a special focus on Pakistan.

Q: Is there any one incident that stands out during your journey as a Sufi devotee?

A: Yes, when I had the chance to accompany the malang Arif sain and his group of devotees on a pilgrimage to Sehwan Sharif. This was a great experience and personal challenge for me. I was living there as part of the kafila, as a devotee and as an anthropologist. This, in combination with ecstatic music played continuously at the darbar of Qalandar Lal Shahbaz, opened a space for experiencing the divine for me.

Q: So would you call yourself a Sufi?

A: I have, at best, done half a step and I would never dare to call myself a Sufi!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Aziz Mian: Thrown down from the Beloved’s (God's) sky

Another interesting Qawaali from Aziz Mian which focuses our life on the essentials. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed translating it. It captures the flavor of great Indian Subcontinent Muslim thinkers, Allama Iqbal and Mirza Ghalib, to give us a further insight on the heritage of South Asian Islam.

Pareeshaan, ho kay meri khak akhir dil na bun ja’ay
Jo mushkil ub hai ya Rabb, wohi mushkil na bun ja’ay
Urooj Adam-e khaki sey unjum seh’mey ja’tay hai
Kay yeh toota huwa tara, bahay kamil na bun ja’ay
Mera maqam ursh tha, lekin ub farsh hai
Kitni bulandi’o sey gi’raya gaya ho mein
Aasman sey utaara ga’ya, utaara ga’ya ray

Worry, fear, that my nothingness does not develop into a heart
Dear Lord, the problems surrounding me now,
I fear that they become my only problem
The beauty of Adam’s nothingness, the galaxy, earth, have been humbled
That this broken star, how on earth it can become whole?
The place was the heavens, but now it is the floor
From such an immense distance I was thrown down
I was grounded from the beloved’s sky

Mein to A’dum, ya ni agaya dam
Yeh dum atha raha
A’dum ata raha
Adam mein jub tak dum na tha
Yeh khak tha, Adam na tha
Adam mein akay dam huwa
Yeh khak sey Adam huwa
Yeh bay’t sara dam ka hai
Yeh dham usi hum dum ka hai
Aasman sey utaara ga’ya, utaara ga’ya ray

Adam, meaning soul was placed
The life kept coming
Adam lived on
Until Adam had no life, there was nothing
Only until Adam had that soul
That being came from nothing
Everything is to do with that life, soul
This promise, life, soul is only because of the Beloved (God)

Adam sey hu’i na farmani
Jannat sey utha dana pani
Daana ho kar nadaan bana ek daanay peh itni na dani
Kata shaytaan ki
Adam ko penka bagh-e-jannat sey
Aasmaan sey uthara gaya

Adam erred
Only then was his life removed from heaven
Lifeless he was, innocent he was, that he made a mistake
The error was surely of Satan
Which led to Adam being thrown from heaven
Thrown down from the Beloved’s sky

Aasmaan sey kyo athara gaya?
Jub Na tha kuch to khuda tha
Aur kuch na ho tha to? Khuda tha
Dub’oya mujh ko ho’nay ney
Ho ney nay duboya
Yaha na ho na, ho na hai
Na ho hona e’nay ho na
La’i hai aag a’i thaza ley chuli chalay
Apni khushi na a’i, na upni khushi chulay
Zindagi maut ka nishana hai
Sab ko ek din yaha sey jana hai
Agar behray ma’anish sey nay eh kutra joda ho ta
Na yeh dunya bani ho’ti
Na yeh alum bana ho tha
Woh bunda kis ko kehta, array aur woh kis ka Khuda ho tha?
Aasmaan sey uthara gaya

Why was Adam thrown down from the sky?
When there was nothing there was only God (Mirza Ghalib’s poetry, 19th century Mughal Poet)
And if there was nothing then there would only be God
I drowned only in my being
It was being that drowned me
Here, not to be, is to be
Life comes and goes at his own whim, at its own wish and desire
Life is a key symbol of death
Everyone one day has to leave this earth
If on that great day had being not been conjoined into human life by God
Would this world even exist?
Would the worlds have even existed?
That man, who would he have called God? And whose God would He have been? (i.e, human life is all about God, human beings are but to glorify God’s infinite beauty and greatness)
Thrown down from the Beloved’s sky

Dil ki nishad kya thi, nighahay Jamaal mein
Ek a’ina tur toot gaya dekh paal mein
Dunya hai khwab, haasilay dunya kayaal hai
Insaan khwab dekh raha hai kayaal mein
Aasmaan sey uthara gaya

What was the hearts desire in the beauty that the eyes see?
That same mirror trashes in its perfect upkeep
Life is but a dream, we try to gain, attain life but, the world is but a dream
Human beings are watching a dream

Zindagi kya, kisi muflis ki taba hai jis mein
Hur gari dard kay peh’mund laga kur tay hai
Zindagi kya, kisi humsa’ay sey manga huwa zewar to nahi
Ek darka sa laga rehta hai, koh janay ka
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya

Life, is something of the bankrupt
Every moment the chimes of pain are ticking
Life is not jewelery sought from a neighbor
A fear is always around of losing it
By giving life to me I was killed

Zindagi kya hai? (Allama Iqbal’s Poetry)
Upnay mun mein dhoob kur baja surakhay zindagi
Tu agar mera nahi bunta to na bun, upna to bun
Zindagi kya hai?
Azghat ka pemanay lutf-o Itifaaq
Ek hum aan ki…wasl-o firaaq
Sulh’o nama, sarh ho ka wifaaq
Zindagi bag’e’shri
Zindagi yousuf, zulaykha, lela
Eid, ki mein chaudvin ki raat ki dulhan
Sagar, roop, phool bun
Khudrat mein rukhwali hu’i
Thitli-o ki rasmasti cha’u mein pali hu’i
Buth’ta rashi, raqs, moosiki, kitaab, e-sha’iri, chandni,
Aasmani, zafrani, lajwanti,
Zindagi kya hai? Zindagi murtay hu’ay patho pey boondo ki dhanak
Subhay sarmati ki kiran
Shaam’e’bahar ki dhanak
Bhol thitli ki uraan
Awaz ki lapak
Sarungi ki lachuk
She’her-e tun mein pool walo ki gali hai zindagi
Dharkanay afaaq mein champa gali hai zindagi

What is life?
To be drowned in your self yet unaware of selfhood
Even if you cannot be mine, then be your own
What is life?
A messenger desiring reconciliation
To bring together that which is distanced
Assurances, peace statements,
Life is a parable, story
Life is Joseph and Zulaykha, their desire, their love (Potipher’s Wife)
Eid, the moon, that bridal glow
The shoreline, the waves, the flowers
Life is the way nature guards itself
Life is the bloom that emerges from the shade of the butterfly
Life is a dance, music, books, poetry, moonlight
Life is the sky, colors, a sensitive women
Life is the glow that still emerges from dying leaves
Life is the sharpness, beauty of the morning sunlight
Life is the greatness, spring of the evening
The flight of the butterfly
The mesmerising effect of the voice that surrounds us
The spring of the Sarangi (
In the city of the heart, the streets that sell flowers is indeed life

Aur maut?
Naam jis sey maut se uth tha hai seenay mein doh’wa
Farq-e hasti par tarap uth thi hai desh’at ki ghama
Dil pey rukh deyta hai kauf-e margh o’baray garam
Bholnay lugti hai seh’mi zindagi ki had’iya
Koi nurm awaaz, Koi daastaan, ati nahi
Aray maut yaad a’ja’ay to raato ko neend athi nahi
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya
Zindagi deh kay mara gaya

And death? What is death?
The name with which smoke, fear, emerges from the inner self, chest
The anxiety that emerges in the happiness of life, with the reality of gloom
It places in the heart the fear of great heat
When you begin to forget your wilted life and the bones of life
At this point, even the softest of voices, any fable, tale or story, does not console
Oh the sleepless nights when one remembers death
By giving life to me I was killed
By giving life to me I was killed
By giving life to me I was killed

Monday, 13 July 2009

Sharia across the Pond

Luke W Goodrich, Monday 6 July 2009 10.30 BST

Denying sharia arbitration to Muslims singles them out unfairly. The UK should follow the US example and relax about the issue

Last week the British press frothed over a report that at least 85 sharia tribunals now operate in the UK. British law is supposedly under attack, threatened by the creeping tide of radical sharia.

It's understandable that talk of "sharia" makes some people nervous. Some interpretations of the sharia ban on apostasy clearly violate religious liberty and other basic human rights. There are also legitimate concerns that some elements of the Islamic community in the UK already ignore various civil laws.

On the other other hand, throwing the baby out with the bath will hardly help. The United States has long recognised sharia tribunals. Far from ghettoising Muslims or enslaving women, these tribunals have helped integrate Muslims into American society while respecting their religious liberty.

Recognising sharia tribunals in the United States has not enabled fundamentalist Muslims to stone adulterers, engage in polygamy, or flog drunkards. Rather, the United States treats sharia tribunals like any other private arbitration. Just as a corporation can resolve a labour dispute through arbitration, or a Jewish couple can take a divorce dispute to a rabbinical court, Muslims can voluntarily resolve their private disputes in a sharia tribunal. The sharia tribunal's judgment is then enforceable in civil court just like that of any other private arbitrator – provided the civil court determines all appropriate procedural safeguards have been followed.

What are those procedural safeguards? First, the parties must agree to use the tribunal voluntarily; any force, fraud, or coercion invalidates the proceeding. Second, the arbitrators must be neutral. Third, the arbitration cannot be "against public policy" – if the arbitrator resolves sensitive matters (such as child custody) in a way that undermines important state interests, the decision is unenforceable. Fourth, the arbitration cannot, in the eyes of a civil court, be "unconscionable" or grossly unfair. Finally, the arbitrator has no authority to enforce his decision; enforcement requires one of the parties to sue in civil court.

Despite the uneventful history of sharia tribunals in the United States, many Britons abhor the idea of sharia arbitration. Some objections stem from confusion over what authority sharia tribunals would wield. For example, some worry sharia tribunals could force a 12-year-old girl into marriage, permit polygamy, or punish adultery with stoning. But in America (as in the UK) no form of arbitration – religious or secular – may violate civil law. Arbitration can only decide issues where civil law already gives parties freedom to negotiate, such as division of property in a divorce or shares of an inheritance.

A more serious objection is that sharia arbitration will undermine the rights of Muslim women. Opponents say Muslim communities will pressure women to choose sharia tribunals where they will face disadvantages, such as procedural rules devaluing a woman's testimony, or religious rules giving men a greater share of property in divorce or inheritance cases.

American experience contradicts these claims. First, sharia tribunals don't always disfavour women. In some situations – such as spousal support after divorce – sharia gives women more rights than civil law. In fact, many American sharia cases have involved wives suing to enforce favourable sharia decisions against husbands.

Second, the five procedural safeguards mentioned above have amply protected women in sharia arbitration. If a woman is coerced into sharia arbitration, faces a biased arbitrator, or receives a grossly unfair decision, the sharia decision cannot be enforced in civil court. There is no evidence these standards have failed to protect Muslim women's rights in the United States – especially when coupled with public information campaigns to inform vulnerable women about their legal rights.

Finally, opponents of sharia tribunals completely ignore the fundamental question of religious liberty. Just as Orthodox Jews believe they should resolve certain disputes before a rabbinical court, and some strains of Christianity teach that Christians should resolve disputes through the church, many Muslims (like Zeinab's mum) believe sharia dispute resolution is a religious duty. Britain has allowed Jews to resolve disputes in the London rabbinical court since the early 1700s; denying Muslims the same right violates their religious liberty.

The key is to strike a balance between the laudable (but paternalistic) urge to protect Muslim women from coercion, and the fundamental human right of all persons to follow their conscience. The United States strikes that balance by treating sharia arbitration just like any other form of arbitration – allowing devout Muslims to resolve disputes voluntarily in a sharia tribunal, while invalidating any arbitration decisions that violate neutral civil standards of fairness.

If those standards prove insufficient to protect the rights of vulnerable groups (such as Muslim women), the solution is not to ban voluntary sharia arbitration (sorry Denis) but to strengthen the standards and educate vulnerable groups about their rights.

In addition, standards should be strengthened using neutral secular terms that apply to all forms of arbitration, not just sharia. That ensures the government remains neutral among various religions. It also ensures the government remains neutral between religion and non-religion – treating religiously motivated decisions to arbitrate no worse than decisions made for secular reasons.

The rallying cry of the anti-sharia movement is "one law for all." Banning sharia arbitration does not further that goal. Instead, it provides one law for Muslims (who cannot arbitrate), and another for people of other faiths or no faith (who can). The United States provides one law for all by treating all forms of arbitration equally – a Muslim who chooses sharia arbitration is treated no differently from the Jew who chooses rabbinical court, or the celebrity who chooses civil arbitration. This way the United States gives the right of conscience the respect it deserves. The UK should too.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Irshad Manji and Reza Aslan: What made them write their challenging books on Islam?

Salwa Al Neimi's "Honey Kiss": The Lost World of Arab Erotica

( Dialogue with the Islamic World)

No Arab book has ever been sold for so much money to foreign publishing houses. Though it is part of the current trend that is witnessing both real and fictional erotic confessions by women writers storming the best-seller lists, Salwa Al Neimi's novel has substantially more to offer than the mere lurid sensationalism of some of its competitors.

Born in Damascus in the late 1950s, writer and journalist Al Niemi has lived in Paris for many years. With Borhân al Asal she has written a book with an elusive quality that defies simple categorisations of it as either autobiographic or pornographic and, though it avoids sensationalism, the book's impact has certainly been sensational.

The story is told by a nameless woman whose anonymity is Salwa Al Neimi's only concession to the Arab world's conventions of decency and propriety. The narrator works as a librarian, first in Damascus and then in Paris, but spends her working hours in secret bouts of reading, delving into the world of classical Arab erotica. Though the existence of such material tends to be forgotten nowadays, and it is likely to be sought for in vain on the Arab book market, it does exist, and has done so in copious quantities since at least the 9th century. In classical (as opposed to fundamentalist) Islam, sexual desire, not least female sexuality, is viewed as a gift from God, a foretaste of the delights of paradise.

Eroticism in word and deed

The discovery of these books and a meeting with a man she calls "the thinker" (who later turns out to be more than one) sets a process of sexual self-liberation in motion. Not only does she now become aware of her sexuality, and able to enjoy it freely and uninhibitedly, but, inspired by her reading of the erotic classics, she also discovers a way of putting this into words.

On the one hand we have the narrator's relation of the sexual adventures of herself and her girlfriends, and on the other, what amounts almost to an essayistic plea for the revival or recovery of a language of sexuality, a language that once existed but which has now been lost to the Arab world. "In the 13th century, Sheikh Al Suyuti wrote a book on the art of love especially for women. Modern readers coming across it now would not understand a word – a bit like expecting a caveman to understand computer science! How can we speak of sexual education when the people don't even know the simplest basics of anatomy?"

Ultimately the book is an appeal for change, for putting an end to this kind of ignorance and creating a basis for the sexual liberation of men and women.

Postmodern games

The library director decides to send the narrator to a conference in America where she is to give a lecture on the old Arab erotic textbooks – to air the topic in public. Due to security considerations however, we find out she will not be able to take part in the conference, but Borhân al Asal, the book that contains this story within the story, so to speak, itself represents the essay that the narrator should have written, though, admittedly, augmented by her personal experiences. It also represents, at one and the same time, a revival of, and a postmodern game with, the old erotic literature; the chapter headings reading almost as if they were quotations from the literature itself – "On teaching and learning", "On wiles and ruses". This pattern is broken, however, when we come to the ironic "Sex and the Arabic City" chapter.

Salwa Al Neimi's message has a relevance that reaches beyond the Arab world. Were a feminist to read this plea for sensuality and sexual freedom says the narrator at one point, "she would damn me as a slave to male ideology and declare all out war on me." Salwa Al Neimi's plea for promiscuity may well cause eyebrows to be raised and not just among those who prefer to adhere to the classic concepts of family and relationships. The book is both surprising and provocative, an intelligent mix of essay and narration – what it is not, however, in spite of the subtitle, is a novel.

Stefan Weidner

© 2008
Translated from the German by Ron Walker
Salwa Al Neimi: Der Honigkuss. Translated from Arabic by Doris Kilias. Published by Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 2008, pp. 126 14.95 euros