Saturday, 29 May 2010

Harvard University Press - Muhammad and the Believers At the Origins of Islam by Professor Fred M. Donner

The origins of Islam have been the subject of increasing controversy in recent years. The traditional view, which presents Islam as a self-consciously distinct religion tied to the life and revelations of the prophet Muhammad in western Arabia, has since the 1970s been challenged by historians engaged in critical study of the Muslim sources.

In Muhammad and the Believers, the eminent historian Fred Donner offers a lucid and original vision of how Islam first evolved. He argues that the origins of Islam lie in what we may call the “Believers’ movement” begun by the prophet Muhammad—a movement of religious reform emphasizing strict monotheism and righteous behavior in conformity with God’s revealed law. The Believers’ movement thus included righteous Christians and Jews in its early years, because like the Qur’anic Believers, Christians and Jews were monotheists and agreed to live righteously in obedience to their revealed law. The conviction that Muslims constituted a separate religious community, utterly distinct from Christians and Jews, emerged a century later, when the leaders of the Believers’ movement decided that only those who saw the Qur’an as the final revelation of the One God and Muhammad as the final prophet, qualified as Believers. This separated them decisively from monotheists who adhered to the Gospels or Torah.

Female attacks on religious police show shift in Saudi values

Recent attacks on Saudi Arabia's 'morality police' suggest public support for intrusive religious law enforcement is waning, Wednesday 26 May 2010 15.30 BST
Nesrine Malik

Something's afoot in Saudi Arabia. In the past month, there have been two incidents where Saudi women, when questioned or harassed by the notorious "morality police" from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, have lashed out – literally.

In the first incident, according to the Saudi Gazette, a young couple "appeared to be acting in an inappropriate manner" in an amusement park. A commission member who spotted them suspected they were not married or related and were therefore breaking the law. As the commission member approached them, the young man collapsed – presumably out of shock or fright – but the woman showered him with punches. He was taken to a medical centre to be treated for bruises. In the second incident, which the LA Times calls an unprecedented outburst, a woman caught in "illegal seclusion" with a man shot at the religious police when questioned.

The religious police, or mutawwa (loosely translated as "volunteers", as in the past the role was largely an unpaid one performed by over-zealous busybodies) regularly roam public spaces in the kingdom to ensure that women are appropriately covered, that shops are shut at prayer times, and that as few adult males as possible are absent from the mosque when the call to prayer is announced.

In Riyadh, they patrol in four-wheel-drive vehicles with a loudspeaker shouting at errant worshippers or uncovered women. In the 1990s, the mutawwa were ubiquitous, especially in the less modern parts of the big cities. Lately, however, their influence has been curbed. The momentum seems to be coming straight from the top. The king's niece, Princess Basma bint Saud, recently wrote a scathing and poignant critique of the commission, denouncing its actions as having little to do with Islam and everything to do with the sinister intentions of the institution.

On my last visit to Riyadh, I was surprised to see several women in full makeup with their faces uncovered as they shopped in the city's glamorous malls. But there were some instances when the religious police descended. Sometimes they would ambush a mall, cutting through the crowds – their very presence separating men from women and unleashing a Mexican wave of veils being drawn over faces. To hear the loud, pious exclamations of the squad as they entered a restaurant to ensure that unrelated men and women were not mingling was enough to make the food stick in your throat.

While people generally comply, there is a palpable feeling of exasperation and an erosion of respect, aided by a nominally more liberal approach from the political authorities. Late last year, the head of the commision's Mecca division declared that gender segregation was not mandatory, igniting a debate that originated with the opening of the kingdom's first co-educational university (an institution the government is rather proud of, which has become a flashpoint of conflict between the religious and political institutions).

The authorities are mindful that change must happen organically, through religious bodies backed by the government rather than imposed from above by a monarchy which is keen not to alienate powerful hardline elements. To overrule the religious establishment is dangerous because the clergy commands a strong following that underwrites the monarchy's own legitimacy. Hence a delicate balance needs to be struck between conservatives and reformers.

Ultimately, it appears that a watered-down version of Wahhabism is the aim. While people may be fed up with the mutawwa, this by no means suggests that there is an appetite for wholesale reform. Saudis are proud of the fact that the country has managed to maintain its religious integrity compared with what are perceived to be iniquitous neighbours in the Gulf. However, as these latest attacks on the mutawwa suggest, there is a desire for the clergy to step back from intrusive public order law enforcement.

Let an Arab woman lead way at UN

The UN is creating a unified body to promote gender equality – and who better to lead it than an inspirational Arab woman?, Friday 28 May 2010 08.30 BST
by Hibaaq Osman

When the history of the global struggle for women's equality is written, 2010 may be remembered as the year when the United Nations began living up to its full potential. The general assembly is currently studying reforms to the tangled web of agencies, offices and programmes that work to promote women's equality in order to create a single "gender entity" with an expanded budget, led by an executive at the rank of under secretary-general.

Unified leadership for the UN's gender-equality efforts will allow the women's movement to speak with one voice on the most pressing global issues. But who should lead it? Picking a progressive individual and veteran of women's rights from the Arab region would go a long way towards acknowledging the huge strides activists in the region have made towards achieving equality – accomplishments that are too often ignored at home and overlooked abroad. Consider just a few:

In Morocco, women's groups were quick to press the advantage following a landmark reform of the country's personal status codes and a quota that increased the seats for women on city councils from 0.56% to 12%. A coalition of women's groups raced to field candidates, resulting in the election of more than 3,000 women to municipal councils around the country in 2009, winning 16% of the seats. While the quota system may be imperfect, it is an important tool that paves the way for Morocco's next generation of female political leaders.

In 2008, Tunisia took a major step towards equality for women, following the concerted lobbying efforts of women's groups, when it ratified the optional protocol of the convention to end all forms of discrimination against women (Cedaw) treaty. The protocol allows women to file complaints of gender discrimination directly with a Cedaw committee if they have already exhausted possible domestic remedies, giving women new tools to report rights violations and hold their government accountable.

Last year Kafa, a Lebanese NGO, organised an alliance of local women's and civil society groups to mobilise support for the adoption of the protection of women from family violence bill that it drafted. The bill, which greatly expands protections for female victims of domestic violence, was approved by the cabinet in April and referred to parliament for ratification thanks to Kafa's sustained strategies of support: a parliamentary workshop, 300 billboards, 50,000 text messages, interactive community theatre performances, and inspiring the women's committees of each political party to urge that candidates support the draft law.

There has also been substantial progress in Kuwait, where women went from being unable to vote or hold political office in 2006 to winning four seats (12% of the total) in the 2009 parliamentary elections. While four women parliamentarians may not seem like many, it is a familiar pattern that these first few act as a bridge for the next, larger generation of female leaders, and act as powerful advocates for women's rights in government.

Behind this string of victories are vibrant, powerful leaders who have the courage to challenge their societies and demand change. Take, for instance, the Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein, who in 2009 raised international awareness of abusive laws in her country following her arrest for wearing trousers in public. Hussein could have had the charges automatically dropped by virtue of her being a UN employee. Instead, she renounced her immunity and fought the charges in court, shining the global spotlight on Sudan's discriminatory public decency laws.

Take Dr Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, a senator in Jordan's parliament, who is a tireless advocate for legislative reform, gender mainstreaming and research into how women are affected by – and can reverse – the dynamics of violent conflict in the region.

Finally, take Dr Latifa Jbabdi, who, in over 35 years of activism, has endured detention as a political prisoner, run for office and co-founded several human rights organisations. In 2007, she was elected to the Moroccan parliament, and promises to push even further, following victories in securing women's right to divorce their husbands and petition for custody of their children.

In sum, Arab women are no longer just beneficiaries of a global women's movement that is driven in foreign capitals; they are taking the lead at home, in their region and, increasingly, around the world. Progressive Arab women are more than qualified to run the new UN gender entity; they epitomise its purpose, inspiration and impact. With so many talented, tireless and fearless leaders in the Arab world, the hard question isn't whether an Arab woman should lead the new gender entity, but which one.

Hibaaq Osman is a Somali humanitarian and the founder and chair of Karama, a network of activists across the Middle East and North Africa working to end violence against women. She was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims by the prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for muslim-christian understanding at Georgetown University in 2009