Thursday, 29 December 2011

I'm Sexy and I Know It!

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Thursday 29th December 2011
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

It’s been difficult to get away from Christmas carols and hymns being sung and played this festive season. Thinking about music and lyrics, I’ve been comparing different types of music lately. Growing up in a house where Pakistani and Indian music was always played, I’ve been continually challenged when comparing music from India and Pakistan to western pop.

The song that has really struck me in the last few days is, ‘I’m sexy and I know it’. The video is a parody to those who believe that sexiness is linked to a muscled, perfect body. And to strengthen this message the average bodied men frequently shout, ‘I work out’. At face value, it’s quite hysterical but the academic in me sat back and thought, ‘this is actually quite clever’. Especially when I compared it to a hit Bollywood single titled ‘Munni badnaam hui, darling teray li’ay’ which basically translates as ‘Munni was disgraced, for your sake darling’. In this video you see Malaika Arora shifting the focus of ‘badness’ from her to all the men dancing around her.

Both of these songs seem to be making statements about how we look to define and understand male and female bodies. In a world where ‘body’ seems to be taking over from ‘matter and mind’. I’m all too aware of this important message living in South Beach Miami these days where everyone and their dog is rollerblading down ocean drive, and I do mean that literally. These two songs seem to draw a bridge in values from western pop to eastern bollywood. It reminds me of the powerful statement that Lady GaGa made at an awards ceremony when she wore ‘raw meat’ as a dress, pushing us to think about who we are and what we wear.

As a Muslim, I believe that a healthy body is important for me to carry out the obligations I commit to, yet finding that balance between healthy body and a cosmetic body is a challenge to us all today, especially after we may have indulged in a little too much Christmas pudding. So let’s all start the New Year with, ‘I’m sexy and I know it’!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Nine Lessons and Carols with a Reading from the Qur’an

This year St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow is including a reading from the Qur’an alongside readings from the Bible at one of its main Christmas service. It is traditional for churches to have Carol Services at Christmas with nine readings which usually come from the Bible. This year, a reading from the Qur’an is being included which speaks of the birth of Jesus to Mary.

It can be difficult to find a seat at the hugely popular Service of Nine Lessons and Carols for Christmas in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, but this year an extra seat will be in place for this new dimension to this annual service. The reading from the Qur’an will be given by Dr Amanullah De Sondy, Assistant Professor in Islamic Studies at the University of Miami. Dr De Sondy will read Sura al-Imran 3:42-48 which is just one of the passages in the Qur’an which refers to Jesus and Mary. (Full text below)

The Service will take place at 7.30pm on Thursday 22 December in St Mary’s Cathedral at 300 Great Western Road, Glasgow.

The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, The Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, is delighted to welcome Dr De Sondy to share in the Service with him and says “it is important for us to recognise that lots of people in our society enjoy the Christmas story and give honour to the birth of Jesus. Amongst those doing so are our Muslim friends and it is fitting that Dr Sondy is able to join us in our lessons and carols service.”

St Mary’s Cathedral is one amongst a number of religious groups in the West End of Glasgow and recently was one of the stopping off points in a pilgrimage which took over 50 people to a Christian Cathedral, a Sikh Gurdwara, a Hindu Mandir and a local Muslim Mosque.

Dr De Sondy says “I am particularly pleased and honoured to present a Qur’an reading that builds bridges between Muslims and Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus. I have been greatly enlightened by the interconnectedness between Islam, Christianity and Judaism in our shared traditions yet I’m saddened to see that many bridges are being burnt between faiths today. This is my small contribution as a Scot in strengthening our shared values and wisdom for a prosperous and beautiful Scotland.”

The Christmas Service at St Mary’s continue with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at 11.15 pm. The Cathedral Bells will ring out in celebration before the Christmas Day service which takes place at 10.30 am.

Qur’an Sura al-Imran 3:42-48
And mention when the angels said, "O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds. O Mary, be devoutly obedient to your Lord and prostrate and bow with those who bow in prayer."

That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, O Muhammad. And you were not with them when they cast their pens as to which of them should be responsible for Mary. Nor were you with them when they disputed.

And mention when the angels said, "O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary - distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near to Allah.

He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and will be of the righteous. She said, "My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?" The angel said, "Such is Allah ; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, 'Be,' and it is.

And He will teach him writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Faith, Certainity and Uncertainity

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Wednesday 21st December 2011

A primary school in Ellon, Aberdeenshire brought in real camels for their nativity parade on Monday. The headteacher of the school said that pupils were excited about what they had organised. Reading this piece of news made me think about the various ways in which we Scots look toward Christmas. For some it is a moment of religious significance as the birth of Christ and for others a time for parties and exchanging gifts. As a Muslim, I must say I was rather excited about coming back home from Miami this Christmas. I guess I was finding it difficult to celebrate Christmas in 25 degree heat with palm trees – somehow it didn’t seem ‘right’.

The different ways in which Christmas plays a role in our lives made me think about how just one religious tradition can be understood in a variety of ways. I still remember how confused I was when my colleague told me about Santería, a mixture of Caribbean culture, African Yoruba traditions with foundations rooted in Catholicism. For some religion, others heresy and for the vast majority just life, leaving us to wonder who has the authority for the authentic interpretation? I see similarities when I think about different ways of living and interpreting Islam. Take for example the Scottish governments proposal on same-sex marriage, which has ignited a heated debate amongst all Scottish society, including Scottish Muslims. I guess, dealing with something radically different from the ‘mainstream’ will always be a challenge, especially when trying to understand religious texts in modern times.

I’ve been invited to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral tomorrow to present a Qur’an reading in between their Carol service with Bible readings. It’s something I’m really looking forward to. In a world of differences, I’ve learnt through travel and seeing how we’re all muddling through, trying to live good lives, balancing ancient wisdom and modern living, that in the end we don’t all have to be the same. Maybe our very own Robert Burns hit the nail on the head in his challenge to us Scots when he said, ‘there is no such uncertainty as a sure thing’.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Al Ghazali: 900 Years Later and Still Relevant

by Farah Jassat, Freelance Journalist
Published in Huffington Post, Copyright, All Rights Reserved
December 18th 2011

Exactly 900 years ago today, on Dec. 19, 1111, the world bid a sad farewell to one of its most influential contemporaries: Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. That same world still has a reason to be nostalgic.

Al-Ghazali was a Persian theologian, philosopher, jurist and mystic, acclaimed in both East and West as the most influential Muslim after the Prophet Muhammad. His works shaped how generations of Muslims would understand their religion and even influenced European theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. His great feats include bringing orthodoxy and mysticism into closer contact and leading Islamic theology into an epic battle against Arabic Neo-Platonism.

But perhaps he is most relevant to us today in terms of his personality. Great religious figures transform society by who they are, as much as what they say. His life was one of fame, doubt, confusion, introspection and searching. His journey was riddled with the eternal questions of life and meaning which still face us today.

As a young lad he excelled in all the disciplines of his education and so took the route of academia. By the age of 38 he was at the pinnacle of his career as a university professor in Baghdad, with hundreds of students sitting at his feet and a reputation as a religious scholar that carried far beyond the city.

It was at this point in his life, when he apparently had all the answers, that he realised all he had was questions. He underwent a traumatic spiritual crisis riddled with doubt and confusion. Did he really believe in existing doctrine? Was he sincere in his profession or massaging his ego? Was he ready for the mortal journey of death?

Al-Ghazali later relayed this existential crisis in "Deliverance from Error," a sort of autobiographical account. His inner turmoil culminated in his dramatic exit from the classroom where, in front of his students, the falsity of his state dawned on him, rendering him speechless. He walked out of the class to start a journey of self-discovery and didn't return for 10 years. He left as an academic who had just had a breakdown and returned as a holy man who had tasted the fruits of faith.

He sold most of his possessions, leaving enough to sustain his family and set out for the wilderness. Thus began his spiritual odyssey. Al-Ghazali and Odysseus have more in common than one might think. Both their epic journeys were in order to return home. Whilst Odysseus sought the island of Ithaca, al-Ghazali looked towards his spiritual origin. They both took 10 years to find their way home but never lost sight of the final goal. As we admire Odysseus for his shrewd schemes to outwit the Cyclops and survive hearing the songs of the sirens, we too must admire Al-Ghazali's strategies to master the ego and insatiable search for knowledge which spurred on his journey.

He knew a truly informed decision on how to live his life would first entail understanding the alternatives. He studied the ways of theologians, philosophers and authoritarians before deciding to walk down the mystic path as one which not only knew about faith, but experienced it. His search for meaning was not just ethereal and his great corpus of 40 volumes, "The Revival of the Religious Sciences," explores how to practically tame the ego and foster a good character.

In the noisy rat-race of the 21st century, it's sometimes hard to take a step back. The world we live in seems to function as a great big machine for competition and ego. A sort of envy culture permeates, leaving us always asking for more but not necessarily making us happier. In a time of economic instability and talks of measuring the Happiness Index of nations, it might be a thought to look at the vision of a man who has been known to be the Alchemist of Happiness.

Al-Ghazali speaks to us because he was just as human and confused as us all -- but he never stopped searching. Faith could not be defined by academia, but was a complicated journey of realisation. He wasn't afraid to admit that despite his reputation, he didn't know. Such humility was, and still is, a rarity in a world of both religious and secular arrogance.

On Wednesday, Karen Armstrong spoke at London School of Oriental and African Studies and claimed that despite our technological advances, "our understanding of religion is very simplistic -- even primitive." We are bombarded with political discourse which confines God and religion to a box labelled with sound-bites, as though it is quick and easy to understand.

As Aquinas mentions at the end of his great exposition on the five proofs for the existence of God, we have no idea what has actually been proved because we can't comprehend what we mean when we say God. Armstrong draws an analogy with the end of a great musical symphony. There is a profound beat of pregnant silence before the applause erupts. Perhaps contentment is this serene yet weighty moment of realisation that we have transcended our own understanding and submitted to what has been found.

Al-Ghazali tried to live in this beat of silence.

Muslim Christmas Celebrations Recognize Jesus In Islam

by Jaweed Kaleem, published in the Huffington Post, 16th December 2011.
Copyright, All Rights Reserved

Ani Zonneveld recently invited a dozen families to her Los Angeles home for a festive Christmas party, where guests mingled over shiny red and white desserts while others belted Christmas carols and kids crafted tree ornaments for her family's brightly lit evergreen. There's little unusual about such a gathering this time of year, except for one thing: Zonneveld, a practicing Muslim, had invited mostly Muslim friends, and she had a unique highlight for the evening: a lesson for the kids on the role of Jesus in Islam.

"I think there are a lot of Muslims that celebrate Christmas, but they do it quietly. We believe in not leading that double life," says Zonneveld, 49. "Celebrating Christmas is not really a contradiction to Islam because Jesus is our prophet, too."

As the most-commercialized religious holiday in the United States, Christmas can be a difficult time for Muslim families with kids who grow up surrounded by the holiday's traditions, from Santa and songs to Christmas trees and gifts. It's not uncommon for Muslim parents to take on some cultural aspects of the holiday to help their children feel included. Yet, Muslims such as Zonneveld are taking it further and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

This is the fourth year that Zonneveld -- a singer-songwriter who was born in Malaysia and co-founded a national network called Muslims for Progressive Values -- has hosted such a Christmas get-together for her 13-year-old daughter and family friends.

At her party, she says parents talked with their kids about the "similarities and differences between the Islamic and Christian Jesus," to teach them that Islam is "not all about Muhammad."

The comparisons and contrasts include Muslims believing in Jesus as a prophet and in his miraculous birth, but not seeing him as divine or the son of God. The Quran, in which Jesus is referred to in Arabic as "Isa," also says that Jesus was not killed or crucified, but that God raised him to heaven. Similar to the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming, Islamic teaching also says that Jesus will return to earth near the end of time.

"It would be typical of mosques to have a sermon on Jesus at this time of year, praising him as one of the great prophets but distinguishing Muslim belief from Christian belief, as Muslims must believe and love Jesus Christ as a prophet and Messiah," says Ihsan Bagby, an Islamic Studies professor at the University of Kentucky who researches American mosques. "But in terms of practice and observation of Christmas, that's an on-going debate among Muslims."

For Muslims such as Shireen Ahmed, a 34-year-old social worker and mother of four who lives in the Toronto suburbs, the holiday is a time to teach her kids about their religion and how to respect other religions. While Ahmed does not celebrate Christmas at home, she says she is "open and interested" in the idea. In recent years, she has observed Christmas by attending Catholic Midnight Mass at the invitation of friends.

"I love the Mass, I find it inspiring and uplifting," says Ahmed, who doesn't have a Christmas tree or decorations but does let her young children take photos with Santa. "I'm not accepting of Jesus as the Son of God, I don't take communion, but I will attend, I will respect, and I will kneel when they kneel."

"I look at it from a cultural tolerance perspective. We live in a society that's diverse," she says, adding that she recently used the Christmas season as a chance to talk about Jesus to her 7-year-old. "I explained the Holy Trinity, and my son said 'What do you mean? Allah doesn't have a father or son.' I said "that's what we believe, but others don't and you have to respect that."

Islamic doctrine is strictly monotheistic and some Muslim scholars view any significant celebration of any prophet as risky. Nonetheless, in many Muslim countries, large celebrations mark Mawlid, the lunar holiday for the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, so celebrating Jesus isn't without precedent.

Nouman Safi, a 36-year-old filmmaker who lives in Chicago, says that one reason he doesn't celebrate Christmas is because of its date. Most Biblical scholars agree that Jesus was not born in the winter. Safi, who has four elementary school-aged kids, says he uses the holiday to talk to coworkers and Christian friends about his Islamic beliefs.

"I have spoken to many Christian Americans who have no idea that we believe in Jesus and that we believe he is the savior. We believe will come back and unite everyone together," says Safi. "I say to them, 'I hope you know he is as holy to us as he is to you. We don't believe he is the Son of God, but he is a very important prophet.'"

Crusade vs. Jihad: Which Is Worse?

By Jay Rubenstein, Associate Professor of Medieval History, University of Tennessee, MacArthur Fellow
Published in Huffington Post (All Rights Reserved, Copyright)

The First Crusade (1096-1099) spawned horrors the likes of which none of the crusaders had ever experienced. And they were horrors of their own making. Of the massacre in Jerusalem, a contemporary observed, "The knights could hardly bare it, working as executioners and breathing out clouds of hot blood."

Particularly during the sieges of Antioch, Ma'arra, and Jerusalem, whose populations were brutally massacred, the First Crusaders themselves believed that they had exceeded all the norms of medieval warfare, and the evidence supports them. Even the most brutal sieges of the day ended in mass enslavement of city populations, not in mass murder.

The observation is simple enough, but for modern, Western audiences, it inevitably raises a question (one I have gotten several times on these very pages, in fact): What about Muslim atrocities? Weren't the Muslims just as bad? After all, the Holy Land had once been thoroughly Christianized. What became of those Christians? Surely the Muslim conquests were just as brutal as the crusades?

The short answer is, "No." But, let me explain:

The spread of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. is one of the most astonishing events in history. What started in 622 C.E. (year 1 of the Muslim calendar) as an obscure desert religion on the Arabian Peninsula, 150 years later had established its rule over 5,000,000 square miles of earth. They termed these conquests "jihad," which we often translate as "holy war," though "struggle" would be a more accurate rendering.

Most of these conquests occurred at the expense of two great empires: the Perisan Empire to the east of the Arabian deserts, and the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire to the west. Not coincidentally, these two powers had been engaged in a long and brutal series of wars against one another. Jerusalem, the eventual target of the crusade, changed hands twice during these conflicts.

The importance of the Byzantine-Persian wars in connection with Islam is twofold. First, at the time of the Islamic expansion Byzantium and Persia were hardly at the height of their powers. Their conquest proved much easier than otherwise would have been the case. Second, given the incredible instability that these two great empires had generated, their subjects had very little reason to be loyal to them. Islam might even bring to these lands greater stability--which, in fact, it did.

A similar observation might be made about Muslim expansion into Visigothic Spain, plagued by civil wars in the decades preceding the advent of Islam in 711 C.E.

What became of all the Christians in the conquered territories? For the most part, they stayed put. The Muslims established themselves as governmental leaders, but did not try to forcibly convert their subjects, particularly the Christians and Jews who, in Muslim eyes, had received elements of the same monotheistic revelation that had inspired their faith.

Christians and Jews also paid a public head tax from which Muslims were exempt. Thus from a purely mercenary perspective, Muslim rulers had an actual disincentive to try to convert them--let alone kill them. Christians and Jews, the dhimmi as they were known, provided valuable revenue. Conversion to Islam eventually did occur, but it was a gradual process, not as rapid as the growth of Islamic government.

In other words, the spread of Islam was a very different affair from the crusades. The crusaders aimed to recapture a sacred place from a religion that they barely understood and that they viewed as fundamentally evil. Muslims built an empire.

That is what made the crusaders and their scorched-earth piety so shocking. Here were Christian armies who heedlessly slaughtered entire populations, not in spite of their religion but because of it. After the First Crusade ended, and once the Christians began trying to build settlements in the Middle East, their attitudes necessarily changed. But the crusade itself had introduced into the region a sort of total religious warfare that had not been seen since Old Testament days.

And the Muslims did not forget. In 1187, the Muslim general Saladin seriously considered refusing an offer of surrender from Jerusalem. The reason? He wished to apply the same rough injustice to the Christians there that they had meted out to Islam in 1099. He showed mercy only after the Franks threatened to massacre all of their prisoners and to destroy the city's Islamic holy sites.

The earliest stories of Muslim atrocities committed against Christians, comparable to the First Crusade, in fact, did not occur until the end of the thirteenth century. At that time, the Mamluks (a warrior slave class who became rulers of Egypt) drove the crusaders out of the Middle East, destroying their world one city at a time.

Contemporary descriptions of the 1291 fall of Acre ("Akko" in modern Israel) easily rival any of the horrors of the First Crusade. The Mamelukes made grisly displays of prisoners' severed heads. They won offers of surrender from thousands of the besieged and then reneged on their promises--beheading the men and enslaving the women and children. Eventually they destroyed the city altogether, its ruins still being dug out today from beneath the Bedouin city that grew up its place. With an unrelenting and merciless savagery, driven by a fanatical sense of religious mission, the Mamluks sought to purge the Holy Land of all Christians.

In short, they acted like a bunch of crusaders.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Muslims are not betraying Islam in embracing liberal democracy

Ayaan Hirsi Ali … 'such ultra-secularists have caused only more defensiveness and hence rigidity in the Muslim world.' Photograph: Fred Ernst/AP

It is far better to propose Islam than impose it, for if there is no liberty there can be no genuine religiosity

by Mustafa Akyol, Monday 12 December 2011 10.12 GMT (all rights reserved, copyright)

Last week, during a book tour in London, I spoke to a large group of British Muslims on Islam and liberty. A few of the questions that I received from the audience indicated why discussion on this topic is much needed. "If the state gives the people the freedom to do what they want, then they will follow their temptations," said one Pakistani gentleman. "That's why the Saudi religious police, which you oppose, is a very good system."

In return, I asked him why he relies on state policing, and not individual responsibility, to uphold the morals of Islam. "Isn't is better to propose Islam rather than impose it," I added, "since state dictates can lead not to sincere piety but hypocrisy?"

Such questions are crucial for the future of the Islamic world, and particularly the Middle East, in which the Arab spring is likely to create a new political space for Islamists – such as the An-Nahda of Tunisia or the extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Despite the dark picture drawn by some willful pessimists, including the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the entry of these Islamist parties to the democratic system is not a bad but a good step. (Their very exclusion has been the major source of the radicalisation within their ranks.) Moreover, these parties explicitly call for democracy, and not theocracies run by clerics.

However, as writer Fareed Zakaria warned aptly, there can well be illiberal democracies as well liberal ones. In other words, if individual liberty is not protected with constitutional liberalism, there is the risk of a majority coming to power via democratic elections and establishing a "tyranny of the majority".

The Middle East heavily bears this risk, and one of the reasons is the authoritarian decrees in classical Islamic law (sharia) that incumbent Islamists might wish to impose. For example, the sharia bans apostasy and penalises it with capital punishment. A Muslim who decides to become a Christian, in other words, can be given a death sentence – as it tragically happened in recent years in Afghanistan or Iran. Sharia verdicts against blasphemers (real or perceived), non-practising Muslims, and women can also be very oppressive.

Of course, this problem has been discussed intensely over the years, especially in the past decade, and secularist Muslims have found the solution in denouncing the sharia. (The most extreme among them, such as the self-declared "infidel" Ayaan Hirsi Ali, even denounced Islam all together.) But while they have raised some applause in the west, such ultra-secularists have caused only more defensiveness and hence rigidity in the Muslim world.

A better solution might be not to denounce Islamic law, but to reform it. This is not as impossible as some think, for much of this law is not divine but "man-made", and made according to pre-modern historical circumstances.

The ban on apostasy is good example. There is nothing in the Qur'an that justifies this ban, and like many other authoritarian decrees in the sharia, it comes from the post-Qur'anic literature, which reflects the political context of the early Muslim community. In other words, that community was almost constantly at war with lethal enemies, and apostasy in that context meant changing one's side in battle – something which we still penalise as high-treason. In today's world, however, apostasy is simply an exercise of religious freedom, and Muslims should see it as a right, not crime.

The more conservative Muslims who might find such calls for reform heretical should note that they were realised by none other than the late Ottoman empire, the latest Islamic superpower on earth. In the 19th century, the Ottomans engaged in an extensive modernisation effort, which included many political and legal reforms. Jews and Christians acquired the status of equal citizenship, the slave trade was banned, apostasy laws were rendered obsolete, a constitution was declared and an elected parliament was convened. To be sure, with all such reforms, the Ottomans did not abandon their respect for Islam. They only realised, as Ottoman statesman and Islamic scholar Ahmet Cevdet Pasha wrote, "as times change, laws should also change".

In my new book on Islam and liberty, I draw upon such oft-forgotten historical and theological sources to argue that Muslims need not need to betray their faith in order to embrace liberal democracy. By accepting other people's "freedom to sin", and "freedom from Islam", I even argue, they will be laying the right ground in which their own faith can flourish. For, as I said to that Pakistani gentleman in London, if there is no liberty, there is no genuine religiosity as well.

Can traditional Islam adapt to the needs of western Muslims?

by Nushin Arbabzadah, Friday 9 December 2011 09.00 GMT (all rights reserved, copyright)

As I listened to Arabic recitations at my father's funeral, I wondered how Islam could become more relevant to its diaspora

At my father's funeral the imam's voice echoed loudly through the speakers from behind the thick curtain that divided the congregation hall into a male and a female section. I listened hard, trying to understand his words. This ceremony, after all, was supposed to give me solace and help me find closure. I waited for the mercy and compassion that Muslims referred to every time they said "bismillah". But all I could understand from the recitation was the term shaitan, referring to the devil.

Soon I gave up on listening altogether. The imam might as well have spoken Korean, a language as unfamiliar to me as the Arabic in which the sermon was conducted. I wondered why was I not allowed to hear the words of God in my own language? Why did I have to study Qur'anic Arabic in order to understand what the imam was telling me at my father's funeral? For the first time in my life, I really needed religion to give me solace, but here I was, listening to an unfamiliar language where the word "devil" kept popping up, alarming rather than comforting me.

When the language finally switched to Persian, I hoped to get something out of the Hadith. But to my alarm, even though the Hadith and the imam's interpretation of them were in my language, I failed to understand how they related to the life and death of my father. We were in Hamburg, in the north of Europe, but the imam told a story that took us to the Arab lands of the eighth century, where a group of believers were hiding inside a cave. It was a tale of violence, an attempted mass murder, from which the believers were saved after God miraculously created a spider's net, covering the cave's front and misleading the prospective killers.

Two thoughts occurred to me. Firstly, exactly how was I supposed to relate to the cave, the spider and the desert in this cold German city with its 21st-century high-rise buildings made of glass? Secondly, what had this story to do with my father? I lost track of the Hadith and the next words that reached my ears were, "Not all German TV programmes are bad. Some of them are good." Aha!

I was in the women's part, seated on a chair and greeting a long line of complete strangers who stopped in front of me, before kneeling and whispering words of condolence. When the women kneeled, I noticed their huge, fancy handbags and realised that they were wearing full make-up, complete with foundation, lipstick, and colourful eye-shadows. Cheap Iranian-made Botox was equally conspicuous among women of a certain age, whose eyebrows almost reached the end of their temples with balloon-type cheeks covered in red blusher. I realised that for these Muslim ladies, my father's funeral was a social outing where Eve's daughters felt compelled to compete with each other with Botox, handbags and make-up. Had these women been allowed to be entertained outside weddings and funerals, they would not have turned my father's funeral into a fashion show.

In the women's section, I looked for a chador. The chadors were kept inside a wardrobe and when I opened its door, I discovered utter chaos. The chadors had been shoved into the wardrobe, piled on top of each. One had to go through many in order to find an appropriate one for a funeral.

The chador chaos for me represented the confusion in the minds of so many female Muslims who were the most pious believers and paradoxically also the ones who were excluded from a proper religious education. Their faith was blind, a combination of stories from hundreds of years ago mixed with some memorised Arabic suras and Hadith whose meaning was not entirely clear to them. The older ones muttered words in Arabic, kissed the piety banners with Arabic words embroidered on them, looking terrified.

Muslim clerics have a long way to go in order to make Islam relevant to the needs of the diasporic communities of the west. The religion has travelled hundreds of miles but the imams themselves have a hard time adjusting to the west, let alone being able to offer the community the comfort and guidance it needs in order to live peacefully between two civilisations that seem so hostile to one another. It's the blind leading the blind, I concluded, as I left the mosque, hoping to find solace in solitary contemplation conducted in my own language.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Veena Malik exposes the age-old Pakistani tension

My Own Point of View by Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

Facebook newsfeed seemed to be on fire when news broke that the Pakistani actress Veena Malik had posed nude for the cover of FHM magazine a few days ago with a tattoo stamped across her arm with the letters ISI (The Inter-Services Intelligence agency in Pakistan has recently come under attack for their alleged links to terrorist networks in the country). Subsequently it emerged that Malik was suing the magazine for depicting a nude image of her. The story has continued to escalate after Veena Malik’s father, a retired soldier, gave a statement to the British Daily Mail newspaper disowning his daughter, "I have severed all ties with her and I don't want her to have any share in whatever meager assets I have until she is cleared of the controversy and pledges not to visit India again".

In an attempt to resolve the tension, Veena Malik gave an interview to the BBC. Dawning a loose head covering to make a passionate claim that FHM readers were being duped into thinking that she posed nude and that she was not willing to sit back and accept this.

This is not the first time Veena Malik has hit the headlines in Pakistan. In October 2010 she entered ‘Bigg Boss’, an Indian reality tv show where contestants live in a house for around three months. Due to her popularity she was a finalist on the show. In the aftermath of her participation in ‘Bigg Boss’ she had a fiery exchange in March 2011 with a Pakistani Mufti who claimed she had been immoral and had brought shame to Pakistan. Her courage was to be commended, as Veena Malik was quick to respond to the Mufti by highlighting the fact that Pakistani women seem to be held accountable for all the ills of society.

Pakistanis seem to be divided along two general lines, those who seek a romantacised view of an ideal Islamic state and those who seek something Islamic but not as rigid that it controls their self expression. And yet bridging the divide seems to be the life and soul of Pakistan and Pakistanis who still cherish the qualities of Islam between modesty and submission. This is nothing new, the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted to establish a state that was inclusive to all, cutting short his call for a secular state as it was all too clear that Pakistan’s legitimacy was based on its religious claim. Jinnah was known as a pragmatist who worked closely with Sir Muhammad Iqbal (a poet, Islamic philosopher, academic) to find a way forward that would not let Pakistan be stuck emulating a stagnant historical Islamic Shari’a code and society. So even at the outset the founding fathers tried to build build bridges between different ways of living Islam.

The tension continued with the establishment of religious parties, such as Jammat Islami, headed by Mawlana Maududi (b.1903-d.1979) who wrote his infamous Urdu book ‘Purdah’ in which he highlighted his disgust at Pakistani women trying to emulate ‘western’ ways. Maududi’s conservative formula for clear gendered roles (men as breadwinners and women as housekeepers) still loom strong in Pakistani society and anti-western sentiment has fueled those who seek to limit self expression.

Pakistan seems to move two steps forward and three steps back in this quest for balance and on occasions it makes leaps that leave many baffled. Allow me to highlight just a few examples. Benazir Bhutto was the first Muslim woman leader of a Muslim country. An Oxford and Harvard graduate who led a country dominated by men only to be assassinated in 2007. In 2009, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the transgendered community were entitled to equal benefit and equality in society. Yet Pakistani tv is still awash with heated and damning debates of the controversial Gay pride party held in June of this year at the US Embassy in Islamabad. And then let us not forget that one of the star’s of Pakistani T.V is Ali Saleem aka Begum Nawazish the cross-dressing drag queen who is known for her piercing and highly political interviews.

The tension is also explicit in the music and film industry with a 'push and pull' between those who wish to promote film and the arts and those who believe that they should not be part of their ideal ‘Islamic’ state. So - It is only in recent times that Pakistanis have started to invest properly in their movie industry. This has meant a new wave of more daring, critical and controversial themes in movies. Terrorism, mixed faith marriages, and reform in Islam are just some of the issues people have been making films about in recent years. The puritans of Pakistan have used many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and passages of the Qur’an to curb music and films, but to no avail. Music and movies have always been a part of Pakistani culture. It is then no surprise that many run a mile from any discussion surrounding Pakistan, ‘South Asia’ is ‘safer’ when one concentrates on India.

I can't help but include a word on Madam Noor Jehan who is understood as one of the most prolific singers in the Indian subcontinent. Born as Allah Wasai in 1926 and died in 2000. Noor Jehan is certainly in the league of courageous Pakistani women such as Veena Malik and Benazir Bhutto yet would always shy away from talking politics in interviews. I guess Noor Jehan’s contribution to freedom of expression was through her selection of controversial poets in her songs. Faiz Ahmad Faiz (b.1911-d.1984) was a renowned Marxist/socialist who wrote the nazm ‘Mujhe se pehli si mohabbat meray mehboob na mang’, ‘don’t ask me for that ignorant past love no more, my beloved’. I think Faiz’s poetry expressed in the magical voice of Madam Noor Jehan sums up the Pakistani tension perfectly. In this love poem one begins to lose sight of everything looking into the eyes and demure of the lover (or possibly the ideal beloved – God). Yet the same gaze turns to a history and reality marred with metaphoric bodies oozing pus and ills of society that pushes one to realise the reality, or the search, of love in a world of deep tension between two extremes. Faiz’s poem ‘Bol’ (speak) continues to inspire Pakistanis to express themselves, from all sections of society.

‘Speak…for your lips are free
Speak…for your tongue is still yours
Your well built body…is but yours
Speak…your life is still yours
Look…in the shop of the blacksmith…
Bright are the flames…
The iron is red…
Appearing to open…
Is the locked mouth…
The depth/spread of those chains are/is widespread
Speak…this little time is indeed much…
Before the death of the body and the tongue…
By speaking is this truth alive…
Speak…say whatever it is you have to say’
Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

What's Up With Muslims and Dogs? - Professor Ingrid Mattson of Hartford Seminary (USA)

Published in Huffington Post (Religion), December 13th 2011. All Rights Reserved, Copyright.

I'm not a big follower of reality television, but was happy to hear about TLC's new reality show "All-American Muslim." We know that personal contact is the best way to break down stereotypes, but with Muslims less than 2% of the U.S. population, many Americans will never get to know a Muslim. Meeting us through reality television might not be ideal, but it's better than nothing.

After watching "All-American Muslim" for a few weeks, I now believe that the show is good for our community beyond the way it might lessen prejudice against Muslims. The additional benefit is that the show has engaged our community in discussing some of the many challenges we face making distinctions between critical religious values and flexible cultural practices. In the fourth episode, the issue of Muslims having dogs in the home came up, and this is worth further discussion.

In this episode, newlywed Arab-American Shadia tells Jeff, her Irish-American convert husband, that she does not want his dog to move with them to their new home. Shadia has allergies, and her asthma is exacerbated by the dog's hair. This is an understandable and common dilemma. But Shadia bolsters her position with statements about the impermissibility for a Muslim to have dogs in the home. Her father will not pray in the house if the dog is there, she says, because dog hair is impure and a prayer space needs to be pure. Later, Shadia backs off from the religious argument, admitting that the main reason she doesn't want a dog in the house is "I wasn't raised with dogs; I'm not used to them." I appreciated this moment of honesty. The use of a religious norm as a trump card in an argument we want to win is a temptation we all face.

So what is the Islamic position about dogs? In fact, there are a variety of opinions according to different legal schools. The majority consider the saliva of dogs to be impure, while the Maliki school makes a distinction between domestic and wild dogs, only considering the saliva of the latter to be impure. The question for Muslims observant of other schools of law is, what are the implications of such an impurity?

These Muslims should remember that there are many other impurities present in our homes, mostly in the form of human waste, blood, and other bodily fluids. It is fairly common for such impurities to come in contact with our clothes, and we simply wash them off or change our clothes for prayer. When you have children at home, it sometimes seems you can never get away from human waste. But we manage it, often by designating a special space and clothing kept clean for prayer.

Some Muslims object to having a dog in the home because of a prophetic report that angels do not enter a home with dogs in it. If a Muslim accepts this report as authentic, it still requires an analysis of context to determine its meaning and legal application. Ordinary people are not recipients of divine revelation through angelic messengers, so it is possible that this statement, although in general form, might suggest a rule for the Prophet's home, not all homes. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact the Qur'an states that angels are always present, protecting us and recording our good and bad actions.

Whatever the implications of this report, there is no doubt that the Qur'an is positive about dogs. The Qur'an allows the use of hunting dogs, which is one of the reasons the Maliki school makes a distinction between domestic and wild dogs - since we can eat game that has been in a retriever's mouth. But most compelling is the Qur'anic description of a dog who kept company with righteous youths escaping religious persecution. The party finds shelter in a cave where God places them in a deep sleep; the Qur'an (18:18) says:

You would have thought them awake, but they were asleep And [God] turned them on their right sides then on their left sides And their dog stretched his forelegs across the threshold

This tender description of the dog guarding the cave makes it clear that the animal is good company for believers. Legal scholars might argue about the proper location of the dog - that he should stay on the threshold of the home, not inside - but home designs vary across cultures. In warm climates, an outdoor courtyard is a perfectly humane place for a dog - its physical and social needs can be met in the yard. This is not the case in cold climates, where people stay indoors most of the day for months at a time.

Extreme concern about the uncleanliness of dogs likely arose historically as Islam became more of an urban phenomenon. In medieval cities, as in modern cities in underdeveloped countries, crowding of people and animals leads to the rapid spread of disease and animal control is not a priority. A few run-ins with an aggressive or diseased animal can result in excessive caution, fear and negativity.

I have long felt badly that many Muslims fear dogs as a result of negative experiences and that they resort to confused religious reasoning to shun them. It is one of the reasons why I try to introduce my students and friends to my very sweet, very large dog Ziggy.

Ziggy came into our home to be like the dog in the cave: to keep company to my child who lies in exile from the world because of a debilitating illness. He has been nothing but a blessing - guarding the house while we sleep, forcing me to exercise daily, and showing us, as he happily follows our tiny cat around the yard, that if cats and dogs can get along so well, then we people have no excuse.

There is another reason why I love having my dog around. Ziggy came from Tennessee. He was rescued by an animal control officer who uses her own resources to save dogs who would otherwise be destroyed in a few days. Tina saves as many dogs as she can by bringing them home and putting them up for adoption on the internet. When I called Tina to speak about adopting Ziggy, she had 65 dogs she had rescued out in her yard. After being disheartened by some terrible things that have come out of Tennessee lately - mosque burnings and anti-Shari`ah legislation among them - I love looking at Ziggy and thinking about the woman with the thick southern accent and big heart who saved his life.

Follow Ingrid Mattson on Twitter:

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Islamists vs. The Markets: Egypt’s Election Analyzed Left or Right, the market always seems to win.

By Haroon Moghul
Published in Religious Dispatches ( Copyright, All Rights Reserved.

In Hugh Roberts’ excellent essay in last week’s London Review of Books, he makes a common enough point: “Religion had little to do with the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt.” But to anyone paying attention to the Arab Spring, that might seem an absurd conclusion. After all, it is religious parties that seem to be doing very well for themselves.

Not to mention, “religion” is an incredibly difficult term to capture, especially when trying to analyze volatile and complex movements not even a year old. But let’s see where we stand, electorally.

In Morocco, recent elections have put forward an Islamist party with the same name as Turkey’s governing party—they are not connected, however—and the King has nominated an Islamist as Prime Minister as well. The Moroccan King saw the Arab spring arrived around him, and pushed reforms to preempt any uprising in his country.

In Tunisia, the Islamists won a plurality of the vote; now, the latest news from Egypt suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, as well as the primary Salafi party, al-Nour, are doing quite well. (Jadaliyya has a great and exhaustive round-up, with all the detail you ever wanted). There will be three rounds of voting for the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament, and these results so far only reflect the first round. There will be separate procedures for the upper house and for president.

And, of course, Egypt is still under the control of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF); protesters converged in Tahrir last week to demand their immediate resignations, but that seems to have failed to persuade most Egyptians not to vote—70% seems to be the most recent estimate for turnout.

These results leave many analysts feeling vindicated, in that they predicted that the Arab spring would turn into an Islamist revolution, and see these election results as proof of that. I am not so convinced. In part because I see a distinction between Islamist parties and Islamist political structure; while a governing party may be more religiously conservative, they will not necessarily be able to change the very structure of government.

Egypt, like Tunisia, seems to have developed a consensus around “civil” governance—not military rule, not Islamist, and not explicitly secularist.

Moreover, there are of course a number of practical reasons the Islamist parties may have done so well: they are well-organized, they have great social service and charity programs, and they have won the respect of many of their fellow citizens for their years facing oppression, discrimination, and outright torture. Once they’re actually in government, they will be judged on their performance, and not on appeals to identity, which are far more compelling when one is not in power. Anyway, they have done well—they haven’t won landslides. And in Egypt’s case, the Brotherhood may well end up competing with a party that is ideologically more uncomfortable, the Salafis, but organizationally and popularly far less intimidating.

But the bigger point here is that the winning Islamist parties have shifted their electoral platforms from one set of Islamic values—which are often identified as identity politics, and therefore individual and social, not political: issues such as family law, modesty, and religious behavior in public spaces—to another set of Islamic values, which lend themselves better to electoral politics and governance: clean politics, transparency, economic upliftment, and social welfare. It’s hard to see how the Salafist parties will get anywhere with rigid demands for imposition of (their narrow, unpopular, and historically uncommon) interpretations of Shari’ah.

Predicting the Futures

Realistically, I have no idea where these parties will lead their countries. I think, in Egypt’s case, while the Freedom and Justice Party will have little choice but to support democratic politics, they will not pursue a liberal democracy—they are a right-wing party, after all. I also believe Tunisia is, in the short-run, in much better shape than Egypt, and its Islamist party seems a lot nuanced and ready for government.

The Muslim Brotherhood, if it becomes the dominant force in politics, will immediately and perhaps always be operating from a disadvantage: many major powers around the world (specifically Western powers, but also some Arab and Muslim countries) will immediately distrust that government, no matter what its platform.

Predicting Even More in the Futures

I also think that the value of these democracies is perhaps romanticized. We are currently in a global situation wherein long-established Western democracies are completely powerless before international finance. Who seriously thinks that Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, or Iceland, or even the United Kingdom and Germany, have any meaningful democratic domestic consensus? Who seriously thinks that the people in those countries have any meaningful options in how their countries respond to the current economic crisis—which affects a whole range of domestic social policy and priorities?

And how will the Arab world possibly be any different? The source of much of the Arab world’s recent unrest lies in income inequality, injustice, authoritarianism, and economic stagnation. No country in the world, the United States included, can now pursue domestic policy independent of international financial markets. How much more so the Arab world—considering how much poorer and less developed it is? And in that case, what difference does it make what government you have? Left or right, the market seems always to win.

This is actually where I would locate the greater threat to Arab democracy, and the temptation to slide into some form of authoritarianism, older or newer. As the people of the region confront the reality that they have little say over economic policy, and will be forced to accede to the contingencies of global capitalism, they may well become immensely frustrated by the scale of change and demand something different. Considering how volatile European and American politics have become, and how frequently we now see street protests and even supposedly stable and demure countries, how much more so these new democracies?

And, I might add, the Freedom and Justice Party, like Turkey’s AKP, is a conservative, free-market party; they may, in this climate, simply be best suited to govern, although Egypt—like Turkey—enjoys a far broader social consensus around social welfare and mutual obligation than does the United States (don’t take the economic implications of right-wing too far). Nevertheless, perhaps unexpectedly, it is economic ideology that might give certain parties an edge, however distant these sympathies are from popular socialist demands, which seem these days to become less and less relevant to governments in power. It might be good for some Islamists in the short-term, but eventually it may well alienate them entirely from their peoples.

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights..."

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Muslim States Must Support LGBT Rights

by Melody Moezzi
Author, Speaker, Attorney, UN Global Expert
Published in Huffington Post (All Rights Reserved, Copyright)

Last week, in an historic and long-overdue move, the United Nations passed a resolution recognizing the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people around the world. With South Africa leading the charge, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution by a narrow margin of 23 to 19, with three abstentions. The new declaration holds that no one should be subject to discrimination or violence based on her or his sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sounds like common sense to me, something that ought to go without saying, but unfortunately, it cannot go without saying. According to Amnesty International, 76 countries around the world continue to criminalize consensual same-sex relations, and whether as a result of discriminatory legal systems or hate crimes or suicide, one thing is certain: gays, lesbians and transgender individuals are being killed, tortured and victimized all over the world, simply for being who they are.

If that isn't the very definition of a human rights violation, I'm not sure what is. The LGBT community represents the most vulnerable and marginalized sector of nearly every society worldwide, and as such, it's vital that international bodies like the U.N. speak up in support of LGBT rights. Likewise, because it is so often religion that is abused and misused to justify the assault, murder and harassment of gays, lesbians and transgender people, it is equally important for religious individuals, groups and organizations to stand up in defense of the LGBT community.

As a Muslim, it is my moral obligation to speak out and stand up whenever I see an injustice being carried out, and if I see any particular group that is especially vulnerable or marginalized, it is my moral duty to rush to that community's aid. So, it's especially painful for me to see Muslim majority countries and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) voting against this historic U.N. resolution. If it was, as I suspect, some alleged affinity for Islam that led Pakistan, Malaysia, Jordan, Senegal or other OIC countries to oppose this resolution, I have some words of caution and advice for the OIC.

First, as Muslims, I'm sure you know that it is your religious duty to pursue peace and justice and that there is no sin worse than oppressing another human being. So, no matter your personal theological opinion or your interpretation of the Biblical story of Lot, it is incumbent upon you to resist oppression, and in doing so, to protect those who happen to be most vulnerable to it in any given time or place.

Second, if we, as Muslims, expect our rights to be respected around the world, then we too must respect the rights of other minority groups. This includes the LGBT community. As Muslims, we know what it's like to live in a world that can be hostile and discriminatory. Therefore, we have an even greater obligation to create the least hostile and discriminatory planet we can.

Let's face it, my dear OIC member states, there are alarmingly large numbers of people out there who are convinced that Islam is the devil incarnate, that we Muslims are out to conquer and destroy the world, and that Islam is both "wrong" and "immoral." I know that these people exist because they love sending me emails. That said, I vehemently disagree with all of them, and I thank God that their hatred and bigotry hold no weight in any American court of law. So too, your intolerance and homophobia should hold no more legal weight than any of my pen pals' vicious Islamophobia.

Finally, the LGBT Muslim community, along with their many heterosexual allies such as myself, will not let bigots and homophobes define our religion for us or for the rest of the world. We have scholars and imams in our ranks, and we refuse to be considered "less Muslim" because of our sexual orientation, gender identity or our choice to acknowledge that such distinctions are in fact God-given.

Thus, the OIC member states that chose to oppose the recent U.N. LGBT rights resolution have not spoken for Muslims worldwide, and this is one Muslim who isn't about to let them try.

Follow Melody Moezzi on Twitter:

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

"Thank you Mufti Sahab, for helping me out of the closet" - Tamash Been

by Tamash Been
The blogger wishes to remain anonymous
Published The Express Tribune Blogs

From every angle, I am your typical Pakistani middle class urbanite twenty-something. There is nothing about my mannerisms, wardrobe or grooming that differentiates me from anyone in my social circle. However, even some of my best friends don’t know my deepest darkest secret, a secret that I have been suppressing for far too many years now: I am gay.

This is a story of what made me come out to my best friends: a Mufti sahab.

On Sept 6 2011, on the show Frontline, which is hosted by Kamran Shahid some panelists were discussing personal freedom in an Islamic society.

The debate touched upon a get together held at the US Embassy in Islamabad to celebrate Gay Pride on June 26, 2011. Being in the closet, I was interested in how the panelist viewed sexuality. Two of the commentators, Orya Maqbool Jan and Mufti Abdul Qawi, both of whom represent the ideological right of the country made some rather hurtful remarks about gay people. However, when the Mufti sahab referred to gays as “worse than animals” something snapped in me. In an epiphany, I realized the absurdity, the ridiculousness, the ignorance of the people who think they are the moral compass of the society. Suddenly, my self-worth was independent of their narrative. I got my ‘gay pride’. The very next day, I came out to my best friend, and then to another one, and then to another one.

I had been repressing my sexuality throughout my teenage years. I remained sane and out of trouble by ignoring my urges, and compartmentalizing my life. However, I always ended up facing questions about my sexuality, time and time again. Even though I knew I was gay I could not bear the shame of admitting it – not even to myself. Not to mention, my concept of piety and my basic belief system would have been challenged as well.

I am not the only one with that predicament.

Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) individuals do exist in Pakistan. And they come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life, from every background, from different classes in the society. This is not a Western phenomenon as many contend but a natural one. Given that homosexuality is found in every culture, in every part of the world, throughout history, calling it ‘unnatural’ is a bit naïve. Nobody chooses to be in a minority, especially in an intolerant society like of Pakistan’s.

For most Pakistani LGBT individuals, reconciling their upbringing, social background, religious beliefs, and sexuality, causes mental anguish. The question that faces Pakistani LGBT individuals is, essentially, how much to suppress their inherent instincts, and comply with the societal rules regarding sexuality. Our society is too communal, too conservative, too compliant to be conducive to accepting anyone who is a bit deviant from the heteronormative lifestyle. For the majority, defying these norms is essentially considered an invitation to be ostracized from the community. Many suppress their sexuality, get married, and continue living the lie.

Hence, the hardest thing for me was to accept I was gay.

Usually, LGBT individuals, everywhere, tend to either somehow try to reconcile their beliefs and sexuality or reject their beliefs straight away. In any case, that acknowledgement of self is the first step, very much like with any other problem.

But thanks to one Mufti sahab’s ignorant hate speech, I suddenly became emboldened enough to reject false moral values, with my own.

Mufti Abdul Qawi’s “worse than animal” comment hit a nerve.

Why would I, as a middle class urban individual, choose to be gay? I cannot live that lifestyle openly in Pakistan, so how could I choose to be in that confrontational position? The learned Mufti Sahab did not even consider qualifying his sweeping statement, like a learned man is supposed to do.

Can I live life as an openly gay man in Pakistan? No.

Do I envisage a Pakistan with a tolerant attitude towards its LGBT citizens, which guarantees them equal freedoms and rights?No.

Did I do something revolutionary? No.

Yet, he had called me “worse than an animal.” He denigrated my existence on the basis of something that I have no power over.

I had to take my identity back from these bigots. They shouldn’t have any bearing on what I feel about myself. I needed to reclaim my own identity; as a Pakistani gay man I shouldn’t be ashamed of who I am. Why should my self-worth be based on what someone with no sense of perspective applies to most society who shared his beliefs? I was finally a free man.

The response I got from my friends was far more than I could have imagined. Not only did they understand where I was coming from, but they were also very supportive. Their reaction to my coming out further strengthened that sense of pride within me. For me, it was a cathartic experience, mentally. I was finally starting to go towards a relatively happy place in my mind.

Now, not only do I have support of my friends, I also have people who have my back. When they hear a homophobic rants it might not go unchallenged from now on, as they also have vested interest in this debate now. I would like to believe that this makes a small, albeit important, difference to the people around me, as well.

We are a society obsessed with conservatism, where people rarely come to a common platform especially for liberal causes. How would this society react to someone standing up and demanding rights and recognition for LGBT individuals? Not great, I’m presuming. However, these small steps help, in one’s own personal space.

Thank you, Mufti sahab, for empowering me with your ignorance.

Salat al-Istikhara: God's Answer Key for Sound Decision-Making

Daliah Merzaban
Middle East journalist and analyst
Published in Huffington Pos. All Rights Reserved. Copyright.
Posted: 11/ 7/11 11:01 AM ET

The other day I was talking to my sister about an important decision I am on the verge of making. I have had to overcome a good deal of hesitation in trying to reach my final decision, although events have unfolded in a manner that is pushing me more and more in the direction of taking this next step.

Sensing my indecision, my sister replied with only one simple line: "Sometimes, we just have to follow the path God paves for us."

At that, the sequence of thoughts in my head paused for a moment and I found myself at ease. While my mind may wander at times in worry and uncertainty, it always comes back to this very simple lesson: God's will will prevail. Whether we spend time fretting and worrying or not, we will find ourselves both drawn and pushed in directions we perhaps had not expected, and events will unfold exactly as they should.

It is easy to lose sight of this when we are standing at a crossroads, compelled to make important choices that will fundamentally change our lives. They could be decisions on whether to accept a job offer, move ahead with a marriage proposal, relocate, pursue a new business venture, make an investment or buy a home. Very often, these choices are not clear-cut and are weaved in personal sacrifice, loss and gain. Choosing a certain path may seem less desirable than we had expected good decisions would feel, sometimes precarious and fraught with uncertainty.

While weighing the pros and cons of these decisions, we will often do some soul searching and seek advice from family members, friends and colleagues. Yet I have found that as a Muslim, someone who is striving to live in submission to God, it is important not to underestimate the power of turning to the Almighty for guidance in decision-making, big and small.

While using reason and logic in determining what outcome is better for us, we must also involve God in all decisions through careful prayer and supplications. Muslims will often perform a special prayer for guidance, Salat al-Istikhara, to help us reach important decisions. When offering this prayer, we ask God to guide us to the right choice concerning any affair in life.

The prayer requires that I ask God with sincerity if the action I intend to do "is better for my religion and faith, for my life and end, for here (in this world) and the hereafter then make it destined for me and make it easy for me and then add blessings in it, for me."

And alternatively, "if this action is bad for me, bad for my religion and faith, for my life and end, for here (in this world) and the hereafter then turn it away from me and turn me away from it and whatever is better for me, ordain that for me and then make me satisfied with it."

Istikhara prayer is meant to make evident specific choices that resolve our dilemmas and answer our questions in the most-favourable way. In essence, istikhara requests from God the clarity of a situation so that the appropriate choices rise from beneath our distractions and confusion. At the same time, the prayer also requests that wrong decisions be made indisputable through impenetrable obstacles.

Performing istikhara properly means truly leaving the matter to God and withholding our own inclinations and emotions. It is trusting that once we have put forth the proper, earnest effort toward pursuing our goals, then God will make events unfold in the direction that is best for us.

"You may dislike something although it is good for you, or like something although it is bad for you," God informs us in the Holy Quran (2:216) "God knows but you do not know." To truly embrace this idea is quite challenging in practice, because we can find ourselves persuaded that certain situations, scenarios or relationships are the best for us. When they fail to happen or persist we are often dissatisfied, frustrated and feel a sense of loss or neglect.

There have been numerous times in my life when I have been convinced that one option is right for me. Then, within a matter of weeks or months, an entirely different scenario unfolds, sometimes revealing the inconsistencies of my previous disposition. In the end, we cannot fully grasp why one path we are guided toward is better for us than another.

Striving to live in submission demands that we understand and accept that we lack the foresight to know what is good for us at all times. It involves accepting what life deals us, whether our immediate perception of the consequence is positive or negative. I have tried as much as possible to internalize the idea that every step we take is exactly as it was meant to be, although doing so can be difficult indeed.

The right path is certainly not always the easiest but if we follow His cues, we will be certain about the appropriateness of each choice we find ourselves moving toward. When we involve God in each decision, even in the face of a doubtful outcome, we can say Alhamdulillah (Praise to God), trusting that He will guide us to what is best.

How Will Facebook and Twitter Impact Islam?

by Nidhal Guessoum
Professor of Physics and Astronomy at American University of Sharjah, UAE
Published in Huffington Post, UK. All Rights Reserved. Copyright.
Posted: 11/29/11 08:14 AM ET

During a recent Friday sermon, a young Muslim sitting next to me took out his Blackberry and started to check his messages (while the Imam was giving his speech). I was quite stunned. The young man then put away his smartphone, but 10 minutes later took it out again and typed a few things. That gave me a good indication of both his (short) attention span and the addiction to cyberspace that youngsters have fallen victim to these days.

I could not shake off this little scene from my mind, so I later googled "Twitter and religious services", and lo and behold, I found pages titled "Tweeting during church services gets blessing of pastors" (an article in the Houston Chronicle two years ago) and "Does God Tweet?", an online forum organized by the Washington Post two years ago, where 16 contributors presented their thoughts on whether a relationship with God can be established through Twitter. Can prayer be reduced to a 140-character statement? Can we no longer free our minds, quiet our inner selves, focus on our spiritual dimension, and establish a meaningful religious state of being?

I thus wondered how Twitter, Facebook, and current and future social networking and micro-blogging tools will affect religions in general and Islam in particular. My worries were heightened when I found an article titled "25 Reasons Why Twitter Is Spiritual," but none of the reasons were remotely convincing.

Facebook poses another set of challenges and concerns for Muslims. First and foremost is the freedom of speech that either can be much greater than many Muslims are accustomed to (in their countries) or can be abused to the point of becoming hate speech. There have already been a number of instances where a page was set up to publicly and crudely "criticize" Islam, and last month an Egyptian was jailed for "insulting Islam" on Facebook.

In reaction to this, some Muslims have either waged Facebook-boycott campaigns or just went ahead and created Muslim social networks, e.g.,, or

Other concerns that many Muslims have with Facebook relate to the loss of "virtual modesty," of "correct behavior" and of privacy. The concern over "modesty" refers to images that can be deemed indecent. "Correct behavior" decries the loss of inhibition that people exhibit online, often in stark contrast to their everyday personalities, and the hypocrisy of voicing views online that are quite different from one's beliefs and practices in "real life". And the issue of privacy online is well known.

Finally, there is the huge problem of time waste in social-networking activity. Two years ago, a study was conducted among evangelical Christian college students; these were found to spend an average of 18.6 hours a week on social media, half of that on Facebook. Interestingly, 54 percent of these religious students reported that "they were neglecting important areas in their life due to spending too much time [on that activity]." On the other hand, 43 percent of the students stated that this helped alleviate stress in their lives, and 35 percent reported that their social relationships were improved by that. The authors of the study warned against the negative impact that this time waste will have on the religious activities (prayer, Bible study, attending services, serving others, etc.) of the users of social media.

And indeed, as I mentioned in my last column, an important Iranian cleric recently warned his students of the "dangers and temptations" of the Internet and advised them to "spend more time praying and less time clicking through cyberspace."

Two conferences have recently been devoted to exploring the impact of 'new media' on the discourse among Muslims (worldwide) and with other religious communities (interfaith dialogues).

Last April, an online "conference" was organized on "The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media," which consisted of 60 speakers, who each spoke for one minute on the topic. Most of the speakers spoke enthusiastically about the effects that the new media are having on the Islamic discourse and culture. Some participants, however, expressed some interesting concerns.

The most important effect that was highlighted is that the new media are allowing a larger exposure of ideas regarding Islam and giving people new freedoms to discover or express thoughts that have often been hidden from view. Muslims are becoming more aware of the diversity within their tradition and can now shape their opinions in a more informed way. This democratization of the Islamic opinions, however, has turned into a "fragmentation," a plethora of views with no core or reference frame. Moreover, a "ghettoization of views" has occurred (as has been observed with other obscure views or groups): liked-minded people linking up and reinforcing each other's views.

There is also much greater female participation in the discussions concerning Islam, as Muslim women have avidly taken to blogging, even in the more conservative countries.

The new media also offer interesting opportunities for exchanges with "others," a chance to counter Islamophobia or just plain ignorance, provided that one gets out of his/her "ghetto" or bubble of similar views.

However, one must be careful not to give these new tools more credit or power than they actually have. After all, only a small fraction (10 to 15 percent) of Muslims worldwide has access to the internet, according to the 2011 Global Information Technology Report. Moreover, the internet and the new media, require a certain level of education and sophistication. Thus, the impact that the new media are having on Muslims' views and understanding of their religion is -- for now -- largely confined to the well-educated segments of society.

The organizer of this online conference has now started a second phase of the project, where some of the speakers are brought back for more in-depth interviews. They will be exploring the main themes that emerged in Phase 1.

The other conference I wish to highlight is one that was recently devoted to the exploration of the effect of social networks on interfaith dialogues: "Social Media and Inter-Religious Dialogue: A New Relationship," which was organized in October 2011 in Doha, Qatar.

The conference aimed at addressing a number of themes, including: social media as a tool for dialogue instead of hateful attacks, and how to develop religious frameworks and ethical regulations to protect society from the misuse of these tools -- a 'Global Code of Conduct' for respecting sanctities and religions.

Clearly, the new media and social networks have created a new dynamic within religious communities, including Muslims. Some effects are already being felt, both in the practice and in the formulation and understanding of the religion itself. This is one of the most important developments of our times.

Doha Debates: "This House believes that political Islam is a threat to the West"

Monday, 24 October 2011

Aaloo Andey: Satire with a bite in Pakistan

By M Ilyas Khan BBC News, Islamabad
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
24 October 2011 Last updated at 19:04 ET

Potato and egg curry - the scourge of every Pakistani school lunch box - is the inspiration for one of the most biting and daring satires the country has seen in years. But is it too big a risk? Aaloo Andey (potato and egg curry) is the first single from an underground band called the Bayghairat (Shameless) Brigade and the video has gone viral in Pakistan, with tens of thousands of hits on YouTube.

Its scathing lyrics take on taboo subjects such as Islamic fundamentalism and the Pakistani army chief in a way that no one has done before. “We wanted to create a message against the anti-democratic forces and start a debate, which we have done.”

It also pours scorn on Pakistani society where ruthless killers - such as Mumtaz Qadri who killed a politician for his religious views and Ajmal Qasab the sole surviving gunman from the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks - are glorified as heroes by some. This is a place, the song goes, where a Pakistani Nobel prize-winning physicist, Abdus Salam, is forgotten because he is from the minority, and much reviled, Ahmadi community.

Bayghairat Brigade are three young men with a sense of humour but also, clearly, with a sense of despair about Pakistan. The potato and egg curry of the title is just a way of lamenting how Pakistani society dishes out the same old rubbish year after year.

But do the band members realise that they may have put their lives on the line? After all, journalists in Pakistan are often intimidated for pushing the boundaries of reportage.

"When we were working on the lyrics, we clearly had in our mind that this may happen," says Daniyal Malik, a band member. "But we wanted to create a message against the anti-democratic forces and start a debate, which we have done."
Politicians - 'easy prey'

Ordinarily, satire on Pakistani television is tolerably amusing but not very daring. It only really targets the harmless figures on the political landscape - the politicians. They are easy prey, veteran comedians argue, because they do not truly hold the reins of power.

There are more than a dozen comedy shows that Pakistani channels broadcast weekly. They include skits, rants and Indian film songs adapted to the political situation.
Pakistan"s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar speaks as she adjusts her scarf during a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after their talks Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has been the recent target of satire in Pakistan.

But the more insidious presence of Pakistan's intelligence services and also the army - which many believe are the true power-brokers in the country - are conspicuously absent from comedy fare. One recent sketch centres around Pakistan's extension of the most favoured nation trade status to its neighbour and arch-rival, India.

It shows an elegant woman with high cheek bones and a husky voice addressing what looks like a news conference to give "ten solid reasons" why this was done. This is clearly a version of Pakistan's young and glamorous Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar.

"First reason, the Indians like us more than their own people," the character says. "When I visited India in July, they paid more attention to me than their own foreign minister... their TV channels continued to show my hand bag and my bracelet." This goes on until she reveals that "jewellery and make-up kits are cheaper in India".

Although politician-bashing is the rage, many feel that truly free intellectual debate and parody are lacking as far as TV goes. The youthful Bayghairat Brigade released their song on YouTube pointing to the liberating potential of social media.

But some of Pakistan's best political satire was produced in the 1970s and 1980s, when official censorship was much more overwhelming than it is now. In the 1970s, under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, when politicians really did have power, satire was directed at them.

"We would pore for hours over each line of the script to make sure we put across a point without being hit by the rules, or use words that could be interpreted in other ways than we intended them to," says Arshad Mahmud, a veteran actor and musician, who was part of that scene.

Now the pressures of producing a large amount of material day after day results in repetition and half-baked skits that are more libellous than comic.

So what happened?

Mr Mahmud has an explanation: "Previously you used to end up in jail for some time. Now they give you a bullet in the head." 'Weeks of harassment' But as the level of threat grows, so does the artistic urge to break down the barriers. Music and social media are more convenient vehicles.

A recent sketch by Mohammad Zahoor, one of Pakistan's best known political cartoonists, shows a Taliban militant who has weapons for arms and is wearing an army boot on one foot - a subtle suggestion that the army is a part of Taliban's overall ensemble.

It is an implication the military has long resisted, denying any links or support for militant groups. Nevertheless the cartoon mocks Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a civilian, for asking the Taliban to give up arms - as if a civilian government can order the military in Pakistan.

"I discover their offensive potential only when I see them [the cartoons] in print”
Mohammad Zahoor Pakistani cartoonist

Mr Zahoor recalls living through weeks of harassment in 2007 by some "clean-shaven" men who would come knocking at his door at midnight. "I don't know who they were, but those were the days when I had done a series of cartoons about the military and the Taliban," he says.

He resisted the urge to put his perceptions in a cartoon when Osama Bin Laden was killed in May. But sometimes cartoons can fall off the scales which balance personal safety and judgement with laughter. "I discover their offensive potential only when I see them in print," he says.

Others, like the Bayghairat Brigade, issue more direct challenges to those elements in Pakistani society they seek to mock. "If you want a bullet through my head: like the video," reads one placard displayed at the end of the clip on YouTube.