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 SanterĂ­a, 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.