Monday, 30 December 2013

Top 5 Religion Stories... Of All Time! by Gary Laderman Chair of the Department of Religion, Emory University and Editor of Sacred Matters Magazine

Published in Huffington Post
All Rights Reserved, Copyright 

We are in the season of lists that look back on the year and designate best books, blogs, films, music, and other items. This is a ritually consoling way of taking stock of the previous 12 months, highlighting those events and stories and products that stood out as special or unique, and reminding folks that as one year passes, another is about to begin.

Religion lists are especially prominent this year, with authors claiming the obvious about what stood out in the world: a new Pope; disappearing Jews; gay marriage; Muslim violence; the death of Mandela, and so on. It's an easy and fun task to pull up these stories, rank them, and say a few words about each to remind readers of the incessant, often easily forgotten, news cycle of current events that fade from view almost as quickly as they emerge in public consciousness.

The real story about religion is that it won't go away, and whatever blips and blasts make it to CNN or Fox or The Huffington Post will inevitably be pushed aside by new stories that fleetingly capture the imagination. Perhaps this year we can look at religion and identify some stories that never die, that are not simply events that happened over the course of 12 months but are, in a sense, eternally returning and deeply rooted in human cultures and consciousness.

So with that in mind, let's dig beneath the surface of things and dredge up some religion stories that are thousands of years old. Here are the top 5 religion stories of all time:

5. The sacred is elementary. The sacred is always present in societies, a basic elemental way of thinking about the world, identifying what is of greatest importance, and unifying groups of people together. Totems, taboos, territories, time, and so on are all tied in to what counts as sacred and how that is differentiated from the profane. Nothing is more important to social identities and solidarity than the sacred -- it is both the glue that binds individuals together and the source for profound and meaningful religious experiences that shape cultural values and ideals. Gods and spirits, texts and flags, animals and landscapes are only a few examples of sacred phenomena found throughout human history.

4. Religious conflict is inevitable. While the sacred can unite groups around shared values and common rituals, unfortunately it can also divide people against each other and justify competition, conflicts, and killing. The engines of human history are fueled by contestations over the sacred; because we can't agree about this elemental fact of social life and so much is at stake in protecting the sacred from threats and profanations, it has been a perennial force in establishing enemies and ensuring warfare. The sad truth about religion through history is its centrality as a source for violence and bloodshed and hatred. History proves this point without a doubt, and anyone informed about current global conflicts knows this fact continues to be so.

3. Religion is inspirational and can transform humans and societies. On the other hand, religion is not all bad and can, at times, bring out the best in people as a force for social justice, individual transformation, and cultural regeneration. The sacred has long been a constant and powerful source in human societies that can heal and restore those who are sick and suffering; inspire leaders and artists to create new ways of seeing the world and its mysteries; and rally individuals to unite and overcome obstacles that threaten the social order. Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and the Buddha, Muhammad and Black Elk are just a few names that come to mind in this regard.

2. The monotheists can't figure out human sexuality. Monotheists have had a lot of problems through history with their one God, but perhaps the most vexing and longstanding has to do with human sexuality. Of course not all Jews agree with each other; no do all Christians; nor do all Muslims, yet even with a variety of perspectives within these monotheistic religious cultures, sexuality remains a heated, contentious, and confounding human reality that leads to contradictions, confusions, and ambivalence. Is procreation the sole purpose of sex? Are gender roles fixed and certain? Can sexual transgressions lead to damnation and divine retribution? Take a gander through the sacred texts and the theologies interpreting them through time to get a sense of the ongoing and vital preoccupation with these questions, and how much is at stake in how they are answered.

1. We all die. Ok, a little depressing for all the holiday cheer, but as the great ESPN sports segment exclaims: "C'mon man!" What would you expect for the number one spot on this list of top religion stories of all time? Death, like sexuality, is a universal reality for all humans. What fuels the fires of the religious imagination and instigates the necessity of religious ritual like death? Mortality is what shapes morals and meaning, challenges the nature and substance of identity, and forces humans to confront and transcend that most sacred of objects, the corpse. Death is at the heart of religion, and how societies have responded to death--how they dispose of the dead, glorify them, keep them at bay, and live with the unavoidable reality of one's own death--is a never-ending collective task that is both compelling and fascinating.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Female carpenter carves new role for women in Jordan

Carpentry is a profession which has long been associated more with men than women.  But Aida Al Qurna is a Jordanian woman who decided to break that mould by becoming her country's first professional female carpenter.  She hopes to inspire women to reshape gender roles by taking on more traditionally male-dominated jobs in her country.

Rafid Jabbouri reports.

Vegetarian Muslim: Turning Away From a Meat-Based Diet

My reasons for moving towards a plant-based diet didn't happen overnight as some people I know. As I gained awareness of the different issues involved in getting that piece of steak on my plate my dietary choices slowly changed. First went the red meat then dairy, chicken, fish and finally eggs.

My first glimpse into the slaughterhouse industry came when I read Fast Food Nation and discovered how animals where treated in factory farms. I was horrified to say the least. Prior to that point in time I was shamefully clueless.

Part of my ignorance may have been due to a romanticized notion I had about how my government would protect farm animals who are used for food. I could understand the abuse of animals and the environment in the U.S., but surely we Canadians were different. Right?

The reality is there is virtually no legislation in Canada to protect farm animals in factory farms from abusive practices. Animals can be beaten, mutilated and cramped together in nightmarish conditions for their short existence. What standards the Canadian Food Inspection Agency expects slaughterhouses to adhere to are often lost in the rush to produce more meat. The little legislative protection that remains is even now being eroded as our government reduces slaughterhouse regulations. The reality is factory farms in Canada, as in other areas around the world, are linked to a host of serious environmental, health, animal welfare issues and rural community sustainability.

As information about the practices of factory farming, its impact on our environment and related issues to human health and animal welfare has made its way to the public, there has been a steady movement of individuals, including Muslims, who have been opting for a plant-based diet.

Is Being a Vegan or Vegetarian at Odds with Being Muslim?

Interestingly enough, the idea of Muslims being vegetarian or vegans has prompted some debate. Islamic scholars such as the late Egyptian scholar Gamal al-Banna agree that Muslims who choose vegetarianism/veganism can do so for a number of reasons including a personal expression of faith or spirituality.

Al-Banna has stated "When someone becomes vegetarian they do so for a number of reasons: compassion, environment and health reasons. As a Muslim, I believe that the Prophet (Muhammad) would want followers to be healthy, compassionate and not destroy our environment. If someone believes not eating meat is that way, it is not like they are going to go to hell for it. It may be the right thing to do."

Hamza Yusuf Hason, a popular American Muslim scholar has been warning against the ethical and environmental dangers of the factory farming industry and the health related issues of over consumption of meat (at 35 min mark).

Yusuf believes the fallout of industrialized meat production -- the abuse of animals, the detrimental impact to the environment and human health, the link of such a system to the exasperation of global hunger -- is at odds with his understanding of Islamic ethics. In his view animal rights and protection of the environment are not foreign concepts to Islam but a divine mandate. And his research indicates that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and most early Muslims were semi-vegetarians, consuming meat on occasion.

Vegetarianism is not a new concept for some adherents of Sufism. Such as Chishti Inayat Khan, who introduced Sufi principals to the west. The late Sufi Shaykh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who did not permit any animal products at his fellowship. Rabia of Basra, one of the most revered female Sufi saints.

The Environment, Animals and Islam 

On the other spectrum there are scholars, such as one at the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments who believe "Animals are slaves for human purposes. They were put here for us to eat, so talk of vegetarianism is un-Islamic."

This unfortunate view of animals, as things to be used and consumed by humans, exists within many cultures. I believe this idea may exist among some Muslims as a direct result of the misinterpretation of the concept of Khalifa in the Quran.

"And lo! Your Sustainer said to the angels: Behold, I am about to establish upon earth a khalifa." (Quran verse 2:30)

"And it is He (God) who has made you successors (khalifa) upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful." (Quran verse 6:165)

A quick reading of these verse may lead to the conclusion that humans are somehow superior to other forms of creations. Hence, have the right to use the earth's resources and it's non-human animals at their discretion.

Israeli and Palestinian Women Crossing the Divide by Diana Bletter Writer, Author, 'The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle'

Published at Huffington Post
All Rights Reserved, Copyright

Against the backdrop of the Boston Marathon bombings, the spiraling violence in Syria and the continuing conflict along the Israel-Palestine fault line, a group of 28 women (mostly Christian with a scattering of Muslims) from Bethlehem, Palestine, made a pilgrimage on April 23 to meet with a group of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze Israeli women in the city of Acco during a four-day visit in northern Israel.

"I was surprised," said Huda Salem, a Muslim social worker from Bethlehem in a telephone interview after her visit. "We always think that Jews think we're only terrorists, but they think differently than what we see on TV."

The women's visit -- a combination of hopeful interchanges and seemingly intractable differences -- was sponsored by the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center in Haifa. Since 1995, the Center has welcomed more than 1,000 Palestinian women to meet with their Israeli counterparts for what the Center's leaders describe as "intensive days of debate, discussion, soul-searching and friendship forging."

"The women don't have to agree," said Bracha Steiner, the Social and Cultural Coordinator at the Center. "But there is a willingness to do things together."

At the Community Center in Acco, funded in part by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the Bethlehem contingent met with Dr. Janan Faraj-Falah, an effervescently optimistic Druze woman who is a professor of Gender Studies at Haifa Teachers' College and leader of a volunteer women's group in Acco that includes Christian, Muslim, Jewish women and Druze women. The 30 or so members of Faraj-Falah's Acco Vision work together to forge connections among the 40,000 residents of the coastal city. The group has held city-wide student writing contests in Arabic and Hebrew, festivals for Jewish and Arab artists and has even built a peace playground in the city.
"I'm very satisfied with this visit," said Faraj-Falah. "If not, I wouldn't spend so much time organizing these events."

The women, coming from in and around Bethlehem, were pulled together by a one-woman powerhouse, Antoinette Knesevitch, a 78-year-old Christian and resident of Bethlehem who remains tireless in her efforts to have women in Israel and Palestine connect with one another. The distance between Bethlehem and Acco is about 113 miles, yet most of the women have never had the chance to meet one another. "Women can change the idea that we can't live together," said Knesevitch. "Because we can."

In Acco, after the obligatory Middle East welcome of fresh loquats, oranges, pastries and drinks, the women divided into small groups to bring the discussion about peace down to a common denominator. Sort of like macro-economics crunched into micro, the women were asked to look at violence in their daily lives. What do they do to stop violence among children, neighbors, spouses and friends?

The atmosphere was friendly and cordial with occasional tense drifts into politics.

During one small group's discussion, for example, a Palestinian woman said that she wants to help people who still carry keys to their houses in Israel -- which they left during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 -- and "they're waiting to go back to them."

"If you're waiting to take back your houses then your goal isn't peace," countered a Jewish woman. "My family was thrown out of Egypt in 1948. They can't go back to their houses there, either."
The inevitable impasse.

The women's words hung in the air until the group moderator moved the discussion to safer ground: violence between husbands and wives. That was one subject about which all the women could agree. Huda Salem, the social worker from Bethlehem, deals with domestic violence in her work in a Palestinian refugee camp outside of Bethelem. "We counsel men that it's better to talk to their wives than to hit them," Salem said.

While the women's encounters have not yet changed governmental policies or even activities on the ground, and some might argue that rubbing shoulders and making nice to one another does not accomplish much, both guests and hosts seemed outwardly content in one another's company, even if it was only to make small talk about children, husbands and family.

"One part of me says that these kind of meetings don't accomplish anything," said Yael Goldenberg, a Jewish participant who lives near Acco. "But then again, it's better to do something than nothing at all."

'Unmosqued' Debate: Muslim Millennials Explore The Problem With American Mosques

Gay Muslim Movie 'Naz + Maalik' Explodes Stereotypes

Associate Editor, Huffington Post Religion
Published at Huffington Post, All Rights Reserved, Copyright

Since 9/11, my "Muslim" name has been the cause for the suspicion of countless airport security agents, the frowns of teachers at my Catholic girls' high school, and the tapping of my home phone line in Phoenix, Arizona, even though my family had absolutely nothing to hide. I'm sure many American Muslims can relate to the stereotypes that spring up simultaneously with introductions.

"Naz + Maalik" share the same experience, growing up under the surveillance that is our post-9/11 reality. However, these two young men really are hiding something-- but it isn't what the FBI agent trailing them thinks it is.

An upcoming independent feature film borne out of director Jay Dockendorf's reaction to hearing about the FBI's program of secret spying in mosques in Brooklyn, "Naz + Maalik" explores the world of two closeted Muslim teens who have their Friday afternoon ruined by FBI surveillance.

Dockendorf was appalled by NYPD and FBI tactics, which cast suspicion on perfectly innocent groups of people without cause. He says, "Mosques and prayer and devotion and love are beautiful things. Per NYPD rules, though, a business can be labeled a location of concern if police can expect to find groups of Middle Easterners there."

"Mosque-goers are not committing a crime. How can you not take issue with the government spying on its own people just because they're praying in a mosque?" he asks.

He interviewed people in Brooklyn about their real-life experiences with surveillance, including some closeted Muslims who must still conceal their lives from conservative communities. The secret of their sexual identity even landed one couple on a watch list in real life.

Their reality requires privacy, though as attitudes progress, more and more gay Muslims are coming out into accepting mosque communities. The face of American Islam is changing, and this film reflects that truth without beating you over the head with it.

Though the American Muslim community is becoming increasingly diverse, the problem of ignorance and bigotry towards Islam is still an issue. In that sense, American Muslims share a history of prejudice with the black and gay communities, which all intersect in this film.

"The film considers Islamophobia through the lens of homophobia and homophobia through the lens of racism," comments Dockendorf. "I know they're very separate issues, but for some people, real people on whom these characters are based, they're completely linked and the balance is delicate. "

The trailer for the film states, "While deciding whether to tell their community about their homosexuality, Naz and Maalik's ambiguous and secretive relationship unknowingly sets an FBI agent on their trail. As the agent grows convinced that the boys are engaged in 'violent radicalism,' her pursuit becomes increasingly menacing and the stakes surrounding the boys' hapless hustling and lies grow." The premise is all-too convincing, and for me, it's easy to imagine something like this happening in real life.

We're all being watched, but some of us have the gaze of suspicion directed squarely upon us as soon our skin meets the eye, or our names fall upon the ear.

"Naz + Maalik" is currently raising funds for post-production, now that shooting has been completed. The team says, "Our overarching goal is to spark dialogue on a macro-level. We intend to reach wider audiences invested in issues of surveillance and civil rights, the social and political difficulties facing minority communities in the United States, and the ongoing challenges of all ranges of expression."

You can donate to their Kickstarter campaign here.
Follow Yasmine Hafiz on Twitter:

Muslim 'Last Supper' Photo Offers Interfaith Tribute To Da Vinci's Masterpiece

BBC News - Egypt's first veiled rapper, Mayam Mahmoud

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Andy Murray, BBC Sports Personality of the Year and Home

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day – Tuesday 17th December 2013
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

I’ve just returned from America and sitting at Miami international airport, I watched live as Andy Murray was crowned BBC sports personality of the year.  Showing good humour at his lack of ability to appear excited as he accepted the coveted trophy from Martina Navratilova.  Andy explained why he could not be back in the UK to receive his award because his commitment to a strict training regime kept him in Miami.  But, he seemed genuinely touched and thankful to his home support.  And said later he’d pay back that support, by winning the forthcoming Australian open.  I found Murray’s speech thought provoking on issues of ‘home’.

My thoughts also wandered to our British troops abroad many of whom are not able to return back home for the holidays.  The Prime Minister yesterday met forces in Afghanistan, for what he’s said will be his last such meet and greet, for by this time next year all British forces should have left the country and returned home.

As a Muslim, I’ve grown up with Islamic traditions that mention home as a centering place, a place where one can contemplate, it’s a bit like Muslim prayer for me.  I think in some way we all need a refuge away from the hustle and bustle of the world that surrounds us, and so a place to reflect may bring us greater inner emotional and spiritual strength.  This could come from places we call home.

At the core of the issue is the ability for individuals to feel safe and secure in being or returning home.  Our thoughts might turn to all those who are unable to do so at this time of the year, especially those who are displaced from their homes.  I believe, that issues of home are deeply connected to matters of the heart.  The oft repeated saying, home is where the heart is – must resonate for so many.  And for all of those who find themselves away from home at this time of year, we should keep them in our hearts and minds.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities

About The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities

Rigid notions of masculinity are causing crisis in the global Islamic community. These are articulated from the Qur’an, its commentary, historical precedents and societal, religious and familial obligations. Some Muslims who don't agree with narrow constructs of manliness feel forced to consider themselves secular and therefore outside the religious community.

In order to evaluate whether there really is only one valid, ideal Islamic masculinity, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities explores key figures of the Qur’an and Indian-Pakistani Islamic history, and exposes the precariousness of tight constraints on Islamic manhood. By examining Qur’anic arguments and the strict social responsibilities advocated along with narrow Islamic masculinities, Amanullah De Sondy shows that God and women (to whom Muslim men relate but are different from) often act as foils for the construction of masculinity. He argues the constrainers of masculinity have used God and women to think with and to dominate through and that rigid gender roles are the product of a misguided enterprise: the highly personal relationship between humans and God does not lend itself to the organization of society, because that relationship cannot be typified and replicated.

Discussions and debates surrounding Islamic masculinities are quickly finding their place in the study of Islam and Muslims, and The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities makes a vital contribution to this emerging field.

Table Of Contents

Introduction\1.The Knot Mawdudi Tied\2. Feminists’ Nonothering Hermeneutics\3. The Failed Search for a Single Qur’anic Masculinity\4. Mirza Ghalib’s Hedonistic Challenge\5.Sufism’s Beloved Subversion\Conclusion\Bibliography


“De Sondy makes an original and rich contribution to the burgeoning literature on Islamic masculinities while engaging productively with Muslim feminist thought.” –  Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion, Boston University, USA., 
“The study of Muslim masculinities is in its infancy, and The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities easily succeeds in laying a secure foundation for this highly significant but neglected field - a major step forward.” –  Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Professor of History, University of Maryland, USA., 
“This book opens the way to rethinking what it means to be a man in the Islamic tradition, showing the intricate ways in which constructions of femininity and masculinity are intertwined. It is a must-read for those wishing to understand the Islamists' obsession with sexuality, their rejection of gender equality, and their invocation of religious dogma as the basis for gender rights.” –  Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, SOAS, UK.,
Available at Amazon

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Why I Call Myself an 'Atheist Muslim' by Ali A. Rizvi, Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician and musician

Ali A. Rizvi
Posted in Huffington Post, All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Posted: 05/13/2013 12:38 pm
Last week, I had an essay up on HuffPost entitled "An Atheist Muslim's Perspective on the 'Root Causes' of Islamist Jihadism and the Politics of Islamophobia."

One of the goals of the piece was to emphasize the difference between the criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry: the first targets an ideology, and the second targets human beings. This is obviously a very significant difference, yet both are frequently lumped under the unfortunate umbrella term, "Islamophobia."

I highlighted this distinction by describing myself as an "atheist Muslim," which drew the single most commonly asked question about the piece by both atheist and Muslim readers: "How can you be an atheist and a Muslim at the same time? Isn't that contradictory?"

Let me explain.

One of the central themes of the essay was that all religious people are selective in their religiosity. This cherry-picking is almost universal, and even inevitable considering the frequency with which contradictions appear in religious texts.

If this selectivity allows people to disregard some of the teachings of their faith, such as the orders to publicly execute non-virginal brides and homosexuals, or behead and mutilate disbelievers, it may not be a bad thing, for obvious reasons -- even if it appears intellectually dishonest.

I once jokingly asked a writer friend how her identification as a "feminist Muslim" was any different from someone identifying as a black white supremacist or a meat-eating vegetarian. She replied that she didn't see this designation as inherently contradictory, because she identified with a range of feminist values as well as many Islamic values. She openly admitted that she doesn't understand or agree with many of the more patriarchal verses in the Quran despite being aware of their various exegeses -- that she was able to disregard them, confident in the belief that Allah sees her as equal to her male counterparts.

I asked her if she saw that as disingenuous. "Everyone cherry-picks," she replied, with a shrug.
This kind of reconciliation and compartmentalization is made possible by a selective reading and following of religion, and is also increasingly seen among groups such as believing gay Muslims. It has long been a phenomenon with other religious groups. A majority of the world's Catholics are cafeteria Catholics (most of them ignoring their Church's positions on birth control and abortion while retaining their Catholic identities), and many Jewish atheists expressly reject Judaism while retaining its cultural elements.

So who decides how far the cherry-picking can go? If everyone cherry-picks, is it possible to do it all the way to non-belief status?

My take is that these things are subjective and relative. Fundamentalist Muslims say that women who work outside the home without their husbands' permission are not true Muslims. Some moderate Muslims say that those who eat pork or drink alcohol are not true Muslims. Violent sectarian conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan have graphically demonstrated that many strict Sunnis reject the idea that Shias are true Muslims, and vice versa.

Even the wildly popular, seemingly moderate Pakistani candidate Imran Khan recently said, disappointingly, that he does not consider the Ahmadis, a community that has suffered decades of persecution in Pakistan, to be true Muslims because they do not believe in the "finality" of the Prophet. I actually found it interesting, in light of this, that a few readers who took issue with my identification as an atheist Muslim were Ahmadis themselves.

So my first point is simply this: If the rest of you can cherry-pick, why can't I?
The second aspect revolves around the question of whether Islam a culture or a religion.
For me, the answer is that Islam is a religion, but the experience of being Muslim, practicing or not, is much more nuanced and complex.

Just like Judaism is a religion that can exist independently from Jewish ethnicity or Jewish culture, Islam is a religion, and even though Muslims are ethnically and racially varied, there really is such a thing as a Muslim culture that can exist separately from Islam.

It's true that Muslims around the world are culturally heterogeneous. Pakistani Muslims, for instance, have more cultural similarities with Indian Hindus than with Arab Muslims. Arab Muslims, in turn, have more in common culturally with Arab Christians than with Indonesian Muslims.
However, some elements of Muslim culture are universal.

The festival of Eid is celebrated across all Muslim societies. The celebratory iftar (fast-breaking) feasts of Ramadan are common to all Muslims. These rituals are among several that I enjoy immensely as someone raised in a Muslim family and society.

As a songwriter, the rich musicality and poetry of the nohas recited and sung at Shia Muslim mourning rituals, with a light beating of the chest providing the rhythm, have had a strong influence on my own music. Like many singers attribute their musical education to singing in church growing up, I learned singing and music from my upbringing in a Shiite Muslim household.

Richard Dawkins has referred to himself as a "cultural Christian", with an admitted fondness for Christianity-inspired art, literature and Christmas carols. "I'm not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history," he once told the BBC.

This is probably why he hit the nail on the head when he described me as a "cultural Muslim with no imaginary friend." He understood that this is precisely what I meant when I called myself an "atheist Muslim."

And I am not the only one who identifies this way. Another atheist Muslim blogger who writes under the name "Re-Enlightenment" also makes the case by drawing a comparison with Christians:

Would you only be prepared to grant someone a Christian identity if they successfully negotiated your questions on church attendance, the Old Testament, and attitudes to homosexuality? You probably wouldn't and you definitely shouldn't. Even if someone considered themselves Christian in a religious sense, again, would you interrogate them on their compliance with what you (religious "scholar" that you clearly are) considered to be the fundamental theological tenets of Christianity? Again, you shouldn't. I know Christians who never go to church. I know Christians who don't believe in God. I know Christians who don't hate homosexuals. I know Christians who never wear a crucifix. I know Christians who don't believe a virgin can give birth to a boy who is his own father who created the universe in six days.
...Why the different treatment for Islam?
"Certainly it's not perfect," writes Saif Rahman, another fellow secular Muslim who has posted a thought-provoking piece explaining what it means to be a "cultural" Muslim. "I would much prefer the description 'secular agnostic utilitarian rationalist reductionist humanist with cultural Muslim influences', but that won't fit on my business card."

And that sums it up. Islam is a religion, and you cannot have an atheistic Islam. But many atheists from Muslim families and Muslim communities identify with the cultural aspects of their Muslim heritage and history, as do atheists with Christian or Jewish heritage.

Progressive Muslims, particularly in the West, may want to consider coalescing around a sense of community (which celebrates commonalities) rather than belief (which varies from person to person). With so many Muslim countries that punish apostasy (leaving the Islamic faith) with death, it is strategically beneficial to allow atheists from the Muslim community to adopt the Muslim label if they so choose. It is less confrontational, helps illustrate the important contrast between a monolithic ideology and a richly diverse people, and could, with time, potentially provide closeted atheists in the Muslim community a platform to come out and speak, adding another dimension to a dynamic internal dialogue that so far seems narrowly limited to the voices of fundamentalists or progressive/liberal apologists. This is our community too. Why shouldn't we also be allowed to speak for it?

"New atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have strong allies in many of us who identify as atheist Muslims, because their valid criticisms of Islam gain further legitimacy when supported and simultaneously voiced by those of us who have lived it, grew up in it, and actually learned about it before giving it up. This is a very powerful and much-needed reinforcement for the promising new atheist movement.

Similarly, progressive/liberal Muslims also have strong allies in atheist Muslims. Sure, our ideological differences can and should continue to be vigorously debated in universities and op-ed columns. However, these differences can be set aside from time to time to pursue our strong common purpose: opposing and eradicating the Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism that have devastated our shared community.

In closing, I leave you with a few more words from my fellow atheist Muslim, Re-Enlightenment:

Let us be clear why Christianity and Judaism, in the twenty-first century, generally lend themselves to a pick-and-mix treatment: it's because they have more or less been wrenched through a two-part grinder called 'Secularism and the Enlightenment'. That metaphor might be a violent one but what has emerged from the other end of the machine is far more peaceful and humane than what was fed in: religions which can be picked apart, consumed and discarded as an individual human sees fit. And that is what is required of Islam, urgently.
How will we know when this job is done? Well, when we meet beer-loving, pork-eating, atheist Muslims who pray exactly no times a day and in no particular direction, and we don't consider that a contradiction, that will be a good start.
I must admit, I am still not a fan of most kinds of pork. But thank God for bacon.

Jews vs. Muslims by Rabbi Levi Welton Rabbi / Cartoonist

 Rabbi Levi Welton Published in Huffington Post, Posted: 08/19/2013 6:34 pm, All Rights Reserved, Copyright

"The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion." -- Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Whether its jihadi terrorists, crusading rapists or holy conquerors, it seems that our history is replete with great religions creating great suffering. As peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians wage in Washington, the media loves to tell us stories of the "Jewish" state committing heinous crimes against the Palestinians and the "Muslim" terrorists committing murderous atrocities against the Israelis. Apparently, this intends to accentuate the ethnic and religious nature of the territorial conflict. It seems that we are witnessing yet again one religious group of humans fearing, hating and killing another group of humans in the name of the Creator of all humankind. As George Carlin said "Thou shalt try real hard not to kill anyone, unless of course they pray to a different invisible man than you."

This was my inspiration for creating this comic. To remind the world that it is not "Jews" vs "Muslims" but criminals vs criminals. In other words, I believe that it is not the inherent religion that spawns religious warfare but the corrupt leaders who twist their peoples doctrine to serve their own agenda. The true face of religion is the love, peace, and spirituality that is taught through the various individual prisms of her origin, culture, and rituals. The terrorists who decide to use religion as an excuse to bring hell upon this world do not deserve the title of "Muslim," "Jew," or "Christian." Remember that not that many years ago, it was the Muslims who welcomed and saved the Jews from the marauding Crusaders. Yet now we see it is the Christian nations of the world that welcome and support the Jewish state against its Islamic enemies. Obviously, the dogma of the religions didn't change as much as the vision of the religious leaders. When religious leaders with a new vision rise to grace, the distinction is palpable to us although they may follow the same rituals, practices, and scriptures as their predecessors. Recently elected Pope Francis may be a case in point. When we can start envisioning a world where we care for more than just our pack or our flock, then we can truly enter a messianic utopia of peace where "the wolf shall lie with the lamb." (Isaiah 11:6).

You might challenge this sentiment and retort "Stop being so stubbornly naive as to the inherent hate that is preached in religious scripture itself?" Does not the Hadith state "Wherever you find [infidels] kill them; for there will be a reward for their killers on the Day of Resurrection."? Does not the New Testament state "But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them -- bring them here and kill them in front of me." (Luke 19:27)? And doesn't the Torah state "However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes." (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18)?

To this I have one thing to tell you. You are right.

Although just a rabbi, I believe that my Jewish, Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters share a similar view of a Creator who created this amazing world for love. I believe that we, who are "created in the image of the Lord" (Genesis 1:27), have been placed upon this earth to pursue peace and "love they neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18). I believe in a God who placed a holy soul into my flesh to "Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it." (Psalms 34:14).

So, when I read these verses, I am presented with two logical options; dismiss it or reinterpret it. Dismiss it as fallacy of a man-made conjuring or reinterpret it to strictly refer to a specific time, person or place.

But there may also be a third option. One that is illogical. One that is irreverent. And one that has been modeled by one of the greatest religious characters of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
To be like Moses who criticized God for His purposed immorality against the sinners of the Golden Calf (Numbers 14:12). To use our God-given brain to argue morality with God. To understand that it is not blind dogmatic adherence that Moses modeled but an audacious trust in his own intrinsic moral sensitivity that caused the Creator of All There Is to say "I have forgiven them, as you asked." (Numbers 14:20). This passage is one of the most glossed over yet most precious passages of the Bible. The moment where a finite human mind relies on its limited intelligence to successfully persuade the Infinite Intelligence of All Time. As Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein of Vanderbilt Chabad once taught me, "It is not so much the dogma of religion that we desire but the ever evolving relationship with God that is our greatest treasure."

Therefore, I'd like to conclude with a call that the Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the world who believe in a God of Peace unite together to openly denounce all forms of violent extremism that has poisoned the true vision of our religions. That Jews be like Moses who said" Why are you hitting your friend?" (Exodus 2:13). To be like Mohammed who said "Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms, and prayers? Making peace between one another." (Sayings of the Prophet Muhammed). To be like Jesus who said "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9).

CORRECTION: The following quote was incorrectly attributed to the Quran: "Wherever you find infidels kill them; for whoever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection." It comes from a Hadith, a report of the sayings or deeds credited to Muhammad.


Pakistani Muslims Form Human Chain To Protect Christians During Mass (PHOTOS)

Hand in hand as many as 200-300 people formed a human chain outside the St Anthony’s Church adjacent to the District Police Lines at the Empress Road, in a show of solidarity with the victims of the Peshawar church attack two weeks back, which resulted in over a 100 deaths. The twin suicide attack on All Saints church occurred after Sunday mass ended and is believed to be the country’s deadliest attack on Christians.

muslims form human chain

men hands 2

men holding up hands

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Burka Avenger

The heroine, Burka Avenger, is certainly an unusual role model for female empowerment in Pakistan: a woman who uses martial arts to battle colorful villains such as Baba Bandooq, a Taliban-esque figure who tries to shut down her school, and Vadero Pajero, a corrupt politician

Monday, 22 July 2013

hazoor aap ka bhi ehteraam karta chalun... Your eminence…let me offer you my respect too

hazoor aap ka bhi ehteraam karta chalun...
Your eminence…let me offer you my respect too
idhar se guzra ta socha salaam karta chalun...
Fleeting…I thought to offer salutations of peace

nigha' dil ki yahi akhri tamana he...
The heart’s focused beat… for want of just one desire
tumhari zulf ke sa'e mein shaam karta chalun...
To spend an evening in the shadow of your tresses
unhay ye zid ke mujhe dekh kar kisi ko na dekh...
It is their incessant insistence to rest my eyes on them alone
mera ye shawq sab se qalaam kar ta chalo...
Yet, my inclination is to deliberate along the way with everyone
hazoor aap ka bhi ehteraam karta chalun...
Your eminence…let me offer you my respect too
idhar se guzra ta socha salaam karta chalun...
Fleeting…I thought to offer salutations of peace
ye meray khwabo ki dunya nahi lekin...
This is not the world of my dreams but...
ab agaya hun to do din qayaam karta chalun...
Now that I’ve arrived…I should remain for a few days
idhar se guzra ta socha salaam karta chalun...
Fleeting…I thought to offer salutations of peace
(Translation: Dr. Amanullah De Sondy) 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Happy Ramadan folks! ;-)

HuffPost Jummah: Ramadan Is About Relationships by Chaplain Tahera Ahmad

Published in Huffington Post
Posted: 07/11/2013 6:02 pm
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Last Friday in nearly every masjid across the world, the khateebs reminded their respective communities about a special guest coming into their home. Remember the basic tag line, 'it's coming, don't waste time, read Quran, pray Salah and do lots and lots of Ibadah.' The basic message of 'take advantage and multiply your rewards' was a repeated theme in many masajid. For most of my life, the days leading up to Ramadan have served as reminders of its immense benefits. As a child I use to sit with my calculator and multiply every act of Ibadah by seventy and record it happily in my journal of good deeds. The calculations included 30 days of fasting x 5 obligatory prayers x 8 sunnah prayers x 6 nafl prayers plus the recitation of 6236 verses, add the 20 rakahs of taraweeh, some tahajjud x dhikr, all multiplied by a glowing 700....yup... I felt like I was really 'banking it' in Ramadan. It was a month of depositing points into my 'Ibadah bank.'

As I grew older, somehow this zeal of recording 'Ibadah points' started to fade and I no longer sat there with my calculator. I desperately searched for the meaning of Ramadan in my life beyond banking in on the 'Ibadah points.'

While I began this quest for finding meaning in Ramadan, I had some sharp views about how the community spent time. I would despise "Iftaar parties" where aunties from the community spent hours preparing food. I would get up for Tahajjud and hear my mother washing the dishes and preparing a meal. In the morning and evening our whole family would come together for meals, eat quickly and then head to the masjid for prayers while my mother cooked, cleaned and then tried to find time for taraweeh. Similarly, the aunties in the masjid made Iftaar for nearly five hundred fasting persons and cleaned up after people and came late to Taraweeh . Even the Khateebs on Fridays seemed to support my sentiment that as a community we were spending time on 'insignificant' things in Ramadan. One Khateeb even remarked, "Sisters, please don't waste time making chutney and read the Quran." I immediately went home and tried to convince my mother to stop 'wasting' time on making samosas for Iftar and instead read the Quran with me. There was only one problem, everyone loved samosas and you simply cannot eat samosas without chutney.

What does Ramadan mean to nearly 1.7 billion Muslims around the world? Is it the aroma of freshly cooked fried bajhyaa, samosas and falafel; smooth yogurt lassis, or the melt in your mouth kunafa or colored water renowned as roohafza? While I didn't want my Ramadan to be reduced to these ethnic foods, I couldn't detach these colorful condiments from the portrait of Ramadan in my memory. These remained vivid delights of how Ramadan has a home with millions of families across the globe. These delights bring individuals, families and community together. Even more so, these delights raise the greater concern for how we view the time we spend in Ramadan with each other and make it a rewarding experience for this life and the next. In order to understand how we can maximize our time, we must first understand the concept of "Ibadah" and "Mu'aamalaat."

Before Ramadan, I heard many Khutbahs about maximizing our "Ibadah" or acts of worship but seldom did I hear about the significance of "Mu'aamalaat" or our relationships with human beings. In fact, we know that majority of our Fiqh (jurisprudence) books focus on the importance of 'mu'aamalaat.' We also forget that while certain Ibadaat remain exclusively in acts of worship such as praying and fasting, indeed there is great reward in nurturing relationships in Ramadan and we learned this from the Prophet Muhammad (s) himself.

It was in the month of Ramadan in which our beloved Prophet Muhammad (s) sat knee to knee with the Arch angel Gabriel (a) and recited the entire Quran. Gabriel (a) was the link between the Quran and the Prophet (s). It was this unique relationship that brought the sacred recitation to life. The Prophet (s) revived this sacred link by reciting the entire Quran with Gabriel (a) once every Ramadan and twice in the year which he passed away. The story of the Quran begins with the relationship of Gabriel and Muhammad (a) and continues until the very end of revelation and the life of our beloved Prophet (s). During Ramadan, the Prophet (s) strengthened this relationship with Gabriel (a). In essence the Prophet (s) honored the relationship that brought the Quran and in doing so he reminded the Ummah that Ramadan is about honoring relationships.

In fact, the story of the Quran signifies the deep relationship the Prophet Muhammad (s) had with his wife Khatija (rd), who supports him even when he doubts himself. She brings him close to her body, covers him and reminds him of why he need not be afraid. This critical bond at the beginning of revelation gives our beloved Prophet (s) hope and rejuvenates him throughout this life. When revelation completes with the end of the Prophet (s) life, he lays in the lap of his wife Aisha (rd) who provides him love and support. Revelation started with a link between Gabriel (a) and the messenger (s), grew stronger in arms of his beloved and came to rest in the arms of his last wife.
Ramadan is special because the Quran was revealed in this month, but we cannot dismiss that this month continued to remain unique through the extraordinary relationships that helped cultivate and motivate the messenger of Allah (swt).

This is why our beloved Rasullah (s) placed so much importance on not backbiting, slander or harming others in Ramadan because while a person was fulfilling an act of worship through fasting, he/she was breaking ties and dishonoring 'mu'aamalaat.' While backbiting doesn't invalidate the fast, it does take away the reward of fasting because how does one expect to remain true to the relationship with God while disregarding and humiliating His creation?

Ramadan is about all about relationships. Ramadan started and continued upon the significance of relationships. The most significant relationship of course is the one between the believer and his/her Lord. The reward of fasting in Ramadan is the exponential pleasure of God, as stated in a al-hadith Qudsi, "Fasting is for me and I am its reward." Interestingly, breaking a fast due to an excuse requires one to feed the creation of God, thus returning us to relationships with humanity. So how can we maximize Ramadan through fulfilling both Ibadaat and Mu'aamalaat? Let's start with some practical suggestions:

First, Ramadan is a time to reconnect with family and friends and remove ill feelings or grudges. Many of you know the hadith of Anas bin Malik (rd) where he said: The Messenger of Allah (s) said, "Do not desert (stop talking to) one another, do not nurse hatred towards one another, do not be jealous of one another, and become as fellow brothers and servants of Allah. It is not lawful for a Muslim to stop talking to his brother (Muslim) for more than three days." [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
So the best way to bring hearts together is to give the person a gift. Start by giving them something special and write them a note that is meaningful. It may not resolve all the issues, but our beloved Prophet (s) advised us to give gifts and speak soft words and this should help alleviate some of the conflict.

Second, spend meaningful time with the closest person(s) in your life. Going to the masjid, praying taraweeh, standing up for Qiyaam is great, but make time to help your mother/father, wife/husband and family. This may allow them more time for Ibadah and you inshAllah you will receive the reward. Furthermore cultivate these relationships. Remember, the wife of our beloved prophet (s) believed in him even when he doubted himself. We need to bring our relationships to that caliber of trust, love and mercy. Give your spouse special attention, cook for your mother/father bring gifts for your siblings. Cultivate these relationships.

Third, explore time to learn and share the experience of Ramadan with our non-Muslim friends. Many of our friends want to understand the significance of Ramadan and would like to participate in the diversity and richness of Muslim life. As Muslim Americans we have the responsibility and pleasure of sharing our rich tradition and Ramadan Iftaars are an awesome start.

Fourth, give time to community activism. Choose a cause, small or big and give some time to serving the creation of Allah (swt). Whether its volunteering in the masjid parking lot, local food bank, serving Iftaar to the needy. Give time to the people who need it most in your community. Select one simple task, like cleaning the masjid after taraweeh and stick to it.

Finally give time for self-care and developing your relationship with God. To deepen our perspective and bring a sense of seriousness and direction, our predecessors taught us that one way to connect with our soul is to visit the graveyard. The great sage Rabiah al-Adawiyah (rh) had her own grave dug out and visited it every day. At least once in Ramadan, we should visit the graveyard to reconnect ourselves with the deepest part of our soul. We should not forget self-care, the prophet (s) said in a sahih hadith that even the 'sleep of a fasting person will be rewarded.' This doesn't mean we sleep all day during the fast but rather we give our body its rights so that we can perform at our peak. Exercise, eat right, sleep well and stand in Qiyaam.

So after all, it's not that women need to stop 'wasting time on making chutney and read Quran' but rather we need to help each other prepare these delights so that they can join us in the Ibadah and share the glory of both spectacular samosas and the glorious recital of Al-Quran. The days of Ramadan are, "ayaamam maduddaat" (limited number of days) like short sprints, but these days give us the impetus to renew relationships with God and creation and continue the marathon of life with honor and dignity.

Shaykha Fest 2013: A personal journey by Prof. Mona Siddiqui

Islam and Politics in Pakistan

Dhul-Qarnayn: An Ideal Muslim Leader by Aamir Hussain

Published in Huffington Post
All Rights Reserved
Posted: 05/20/2013 10:40 am

The political turmoil engulfing many Muslim-majority countries has left many people wondering, what does the ideal Muslim leader look like? Tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gadhafi have demonstrated the depths of human cruelty, while elected leaders like Mohamed Morsi struggle to maintain their legitimacy in the wake of increasing democratization. While classical Islamic political theory focuses on the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his successors (usually caliphs or imams, depending on Islamic sect) as political exemplars, I believe that the story of Dhul-Qarnayn in The Holy Quran also provides insight into the characteristics of an ideal leader.

Dhul-Qarnayn, translated as "the possessor of the two horns," is a legendary king mentioned in Chapter 18 of The Quran, Sura al-Kahf ("The Cave"). The Quran narrates the story of how Allah establishes Dhul-Qarnayn as a powerful ruler on earth and allows the king the freedom to do with his subjects as he pleases. Immediately, Dhul-Qarnayn creates a straightforward legal code wherein the righteous will be rewarded and praised, while the evil will be punished. However, he also acknowledges that punishments on earth can be imperfect, and that Allah is ultimately the final judge of mankind. In this way, Dhul-Qarnayn demonstrates humility, an essential quality of an ideal leader. He recognizes that his power and authority come from God, and that his kingdom on earth is an ultimately flawed attempt to replicate the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven. If only real-world leaders could follow this example. Even though the concept of God's judgment is not universally applicable in the modern world, politicians should acknowledge that virtually every political system is flawed in some way. An ideal modern ruler would understand that his/her political power -- regardless of its origin -- ultimately carries with it a responsibility to establish justice and improve the existing system.

Dhul-Qarnayn exemplifies other good leadership qualities in his dealings with a nation being terrorized by the monsters Gog and Magog (N.B.: these monsters are also referenced in the biblical books of Ezekiel and Revelation). First, when the people offer Dhul-Qarnayn tribute in exchange for helping them, he responds that God's rewards are better than earthly ones. He exhibits self-restraint and does not succumb to greed. Since God has already blessed him with a powerful kingdom, Dhul-Qarnayn considers the tribute unnecessary and decides to help this nation solely due to his sense of justice. However, Dhul-Qarnayn motivates the people to help themselves rather than allowing them to accept a handout. While he supplies the technical expertise necessary to forge a barrier preventing the entry of Gog and Magog, he instructs the people to bring their own raw materials and aid in the construction. In this way, Dhul-Qarnayn models the importance of collective action in tackling nationwide problems. In the modern world, it is clear that governments are not the solution to all societal ills; instead, people from all walks of life must work together to resolve these issues. Politicians may be necessary to supply the required leadership or expertise, but in many cases, the will of a nation's people will dictate an initiative's success or failure.

Dhul-Qarnayn's story ends rather abruptly after the above example, but Quranic exegesis and analysis reveal other important features of his leadership. Since Dhul-Qarnayn is alleged to be a historical figure, scholars over the centuries have continuously debated his identity. Interestingly, a large number of scholars agree that he was a pre-Islamic figure not associated with Jews or Christians, the traditional "Peoples of the Book." In fact, most schools of thought consider him to be either Alexander the Great, a pagan, or Cyrus the Great, a Zoroastrian. In any case, this means that Dhul-Qarnayn's principles of good governance are widely applicable to diverse societies, not only Abrahamic ones. This also references a message of religious pluralism; even though Dhul-Qarnayn may not have been one of the "People of the Book," he still exhibited traits like justice and humility that are central to Islam.

Was Dhul-Qarnayn actually Alexander, Cyrus or a completely different person? We may never know. But since his true identity is a mystery, we can analyze his actions without historical bias. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself must have believed that Dhul-Qarnayn's story was worthy of frequent reading and reflection, since he strongly recommended that believers read Sura al-Kahf every Friday. Indeed, Muslims can be inspired by Dhul-Qarnayn's respect for God's justice and his pious commitment to God's commands. Even non-Muslims (and the non-religious) can learn from this legendary king by striving to emulate his personal qualities of humility, self-restraint and his commitment to justice.

As the "Arab Spring" and its aftermath continue to upset the historical order in many countries, future Muslim leaders would do well to follow the example of Dhul-Qarnayn. Acknowledging the limits of their own political systems and promoting collective action are central to good governance in this increasingly pluralistic age. While it is impossible for anyone to be a perfect leader, Muslims everywhere can benefit from a sincere commitment to Dhul-Qarnayn's governing ideals. After all, The Quran declares, "Let there arise out of [mankind] a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones [who] attain success" (3:104).

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Monday, 20 May 2013

As a Muslim, I Struggle With the Idea Of Homosexuality - But I Oppose Homophobia

Published in The Huffington Post UK
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Posted: 20/05/2013 14:31

'Tis the season of apologies - specifically, grovelling apologies by some of our finest academic brains for homophobic rem
arks they've made in public. The Cambridge University theologian Dr Tim Winter, one of the UK's leading Islamic scholars, apologised on 2 May after footage emerged showing him calling homosexuality the "ultimate inversion" and an "inexplicable aberration". "The YouTube clip is at least 15 years old, and does not in any way represent my present views . . . we all have our youthful enthusiasms, and we all move on."

The Harvard historian Professor Niall Ferguson apologised "unreservedly" on 4 May for "stupid" and "insensitive" comments in which he claimed that the economist John Maynard Keynes hadn't cared about "the long run" because he was gay and had no intention of having any children.

Dare I add my non-academic, non-intellectual voice to the mix? I want to issue my own apology. Because I've made some pretty inappropriate comments in the past, too.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that, as a teenager, I was one of those wannabe-macho kids who crudely deployed "gay" as a mark of abuse; you will probably be shocked to discover that shamefully, even in my twenties, I was still making the odd disparaging remark about homosexuality.
It's now 2013 and I'm 33 years old. My own "youthful enthusiasm" is thankfully, if belatedly, behind me.

What happened? Well, for a start, I grew up. Bigotry and demonisation of difference are usually the hallmark of immature and childish minds. But, if I'm honest, something else happened, too: I acquired a more nuanced understanding of my Islamic faith, a better appreciation of its morals, values and capacity for tolerance.

Before we go any further, a bit of background - I was attacked heavily a few weeks ago by some of my co-religionists for suggesting in these pages that too many Muslims in this country have a "Jewish problem" and that we blithely "ignore the rampant anti-Semitism in our own backyard".

I hope I won't provoke the same shrieks of outrage and denial when I say that many Muslims also have a problem, if not with homosexuals, then with homosexuality. In fact, a 2009 poll by Gallup found that British Muslims have zero tolerance towards homosexuality. "None of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable," the Guardian reported in May that year.

Some more background. Orthodox Islam, like orthodox interpretations of the other Abrahamic faiths, views homosexuality as sinful and usually defines marriage as only ever a heterosexual union.
This isn't to say that there is no debate on the subject. In April, the Washington Post profiled Daayiee Abdullah, who is believed to be the only publicly gay imam in the west. "[I]f you have any same-sex marriages," the Post quotes him as saying, "I'm available." Meanwhile, the gay Muslim scholar Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who teaches Islamic studies at Emory University in the United States, says that notions such as "gay" or "lesbian" are not mentioned in the Quran. He blames Islam's hostility towards homosexuality on a misreading of the texts by ultra-conservative mullahs. 

And, in his 2011 book Reading the Quran, the British Muslim intellectual and writer Ziauddin Sardar argues that "there is abso­lutely no evidence that the Prophet punished anyone for homosexuality". Sardar says "the demonisation of homosexuality in Muslim history is based largely on fabricated traditions and the unreconstituted prejudice harboured by most Muslim societies". He highlights verse 31 of chapter 24 of the Quran, in which "we come across 'men who have no sexual desire' who can witness the 'charms' of women".

I must add here that Abdullah, Kugle and Sardar are in a tiny minority, as are the members of gay Muslim groups such as Imaan. Most mainstream Muslim scholars - even self-identified progressives and moderates such as Imam Hamza Yusuf in the United States and Professor Tariq Ramadan in the UK - consider homosexuality to be a grave sin. The Quran, after all, explicitly condemns the people of Lot for "approach[ing] males" (26:165) and for "lust[ing] on men in preference to women" (7:81), and describes marriage as an institution that is gender-based and procreative.

What about me? Where do I stand on this? For years I've been reluctant to answer questions on the subject. I was afraid of the "homophobe" tag. I didn't want my gay friends and colleagues to look at me with horror, suspicion or disdain.

So let me be clear: yes, I'm a progressive who supports a secular society in which you don't impose your faith on others - and in which the government, no matter how big or small, must always stay out of the bedroom. But I am also (to Richard Dawkins's continuing disappointment) a believing Muslim. And, as a result, I really do struggle with this issue of homosexuality. As a supporter of secularism, I am willing to accept same-sex weddings in a state-sanctioned register office, on grounds of equity. As a believer in Islam, however, I insist that no mosque be forced to hold one against its wishes.

If you're gay, that doesn't mean I want to discriminate against you, belittle or bully you, abuse or offend you. Not at all. I don't want to go back to the dark days of criminalisation and the imprisonment of gay men and women; of Section 28 and legalised discrimination. I'm disgusted by the violent repression and persecution of gay people across the Muslim-majority world.

I cringe as I watch footage of the buffoonish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals... we do not have this phenomenon." I feel sick to my stomach when I read accounts of how, in the late 1990s, the Taliban in Afghanistan buried gay men alive and then toppled brick walls on top of them.

Nor is this an issue only in the Middle East and south Asia. In March, a Muslim caller to a radio station in New York stunned the host after suggesting, live on air, that gay Americans should be beheaded in line with "sharia law". Here in the UK, in February, Muslim MPs who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill - such as the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan - faced death threats and accusations of apostasy from a handful of Muslim extremists. And last year, a homophobic campaign launched by puffed-up Islamist gangs in east London featured ludicrous and offensive stickers declaring the area a "gay-free zone".

I know it might be hard to believe, but Islam is not a religion of violence, hate or intolerance - despite the best efforts of a minority of reactionaries and radicals to argue (and behave) otherwise. Out of the 114 chapters of the Quran, 113 begin by introducing the God of Islam as a God of mercy and compassion. The Prophet Muhammad himself is referred to as "a mercy for all creation". This mercy applies to everyone, whether heterosexual or homosexual. As Tariq Ramadan has put it: "I may disagree with what you are doing because it's not in accordance with my belief but I respect who are you are." He rightly notes that this is "a question of respect and mutual understanding".

I should also point out here that most British Muslims oppose the persecution of homosexuals. A 2011 poll for the think tank Demos found that fewer than one in four British Muslims disagreed with the statement "I am proud of how Britain treats gay people".

There is much to be proud of, but still much to be done. Homophobic bullying is rife in our schools. Nine out of ten gay or lesbian teenagers report being bullied at school over their sexual orientation. LGBT teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Despite the recent slight fall in "sexual orientation hate crimes", in 2012 there were still 4,252 such crimes in England and Wales, four out of every five of which involved "violence against the person". In March, for instance, a man was jailed for killing a gay teenager by setting him on fire; the killer scrawled homophobic insults across 18-year-old Steven Simpson's face, forearm and stomach.

Regular readers will know that I spend much of my time speaking out against Islamophobic bigotry: from the crude stereotyping of Muslims in the media and discrimi­nation against Muslims in the workplace to attacks on Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship.

The truth is that Islamophobia and homophobia have much in common: they are both, in the words of the (gay) journalist Patrick Strudwick, "at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown..." Muslims and gay people alike are victims of this fear - especially when it translates into hate speech or physical attacks. We need to stand side by side against the bigots and hate-mongers, whether of the Islamist or the far-right variety, rather than turn on one another or allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, 'Muslims v gays'.

We must avoid stereotyping and demonising each other at all costs. "The biggest question we have as a society," says a Muslim MP who prefers to remain anonymous, "is how we accommodate difference."

Remember also that negative attitudes to homosexuality are not the exclusive preserve of Muslims. In 2010, the British Social Attitudes survey showed that 36 % of the public regarded same-sex relations as "always" or "mostly wrong".

A Muslim MP who voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill tells me that most of the letters of protest that they received in response were from evangelical Christians, not Muslims. And, of course, it wasn't a Muslim who took the life of poor Steven Simpson.

Yet ultimately I didn't set out to write this piece to try to bridge the gap between Islam and homosexuality. I am not a theo­logian. Nor am I writing this in response to the ongoing parliamentary debate about the pros and cons of same-sex marriage. I am not a politician.
I am writing this because I want to live in a society in which all minorities - Jews, Muslims, gay people and others - are protected from violence and abuse, from demonisation and discrimination. And because I want to apologise for any hurt or offence that I may have caused to my gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

And yes, whatever our differences - straight or gay, religious or atheist, male or female - we are all brothers and sisters. As the great Muslim leader of the 7th Century and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, once declared: "Remember that people are of two kinds; they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind."

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman, where this article is crossposted
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Mohsin Hamid: 'Islam is not a monolith'

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world, each with an individual view of life. So why are they viewed as a unified group, asks Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Published in the Guardian
Mohsin Hamid, 19th May 2013
All rights Reserved, Copyright

In 2007, six years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was travelling through Europe and North America. I had just published a novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and as I travelled I was struck by the large number of interviewers and of audience members at Q&As who spoke of Islam as a monolithic thing, as if Islam referred to a self-contained and clearly defined world, a sort of Microsoft Windows, obviously different from, and considerably incompatible with, the Apple OS X-like operating system of "the west".

I recall one reading in Germany in particular. Again and again, people posed queries relating to how "we Europeans" see things, in contrast to how "you Muslims" do. Eventually I was so exasperated that I pulled my British passport out of my jacket and started waving it around my head. "While it's true the UK hasn't yet joined the eurozone," I said, " I hope we can all agree the country is in fact in Europe."

Six years on, a film inspired by the novel is in the process of appearing on screens around the world, and I am pleased to report that those sorts of questions are a little rarer now than they were in 2007. This represents progress. But it is modest progress, for the sense of Islam as a monolith lingers, in places both expected and unexpected.

Recently I was told by a well-travelled acquaintance in London that while Muslims can be aggressive, they are united by a sense of deep hospitality. I replied that I remembered being in Riyadh airport, standing in line, when a Saudi immigration officer threw the passport of a Pakistani labourer right into his face. If that was hospitality, I wasn't sure we had the same definition.

Islam is not a race, yet Islamophobia partakes of racist characteristics. Most Muslims do not "choose" Islam in the way that they choose to become doctors or lawyers, nor even in the way that they choose to become fans of Coldplay or Radiohead. Most Muslims, like people of any faith, are born into their religion. They then evolve their own relationship with it, their own, individual, view of life, their own micro-religion, so to speak.

There are more than a billion variations of lived belief among people who define themselves as Muslim – one for each human being, just as there are among those who describe themselves as Christian, or Buddhist, or Hindu. Islamophobia represents a refusal to acknowledge these variations, to acknowledge individual humanities, a desire to paint members of a perceived group with the same brush. In that sense, it is indeed like racism. It simultaneously credits Muslims with too much and too little agency: too much agency in choosing their religion, and too little in choosing what to make of it.

Islamophobia can be found proudly raising its head in militaristic American thinktanks, xenophobic European political parties, and even in atheistic discourse, where somehow "Islam" can be characterised as "more bad" than religion generally, in the way one might say that a mugger is bad, but a black mugger is worse, because black people are held to be more innately violent.

Islamophobia crops up repeatedly in public debate, such as over the proposed Islamic cultural centre in downtown Manhattan (the so-called "Ground Zero mosque") or the ban on minarets in Switzerland. And it crops up in private interactions as well.

In my early 20s, I remember being seated next to a pretty Frenchwoman at a friend's birthday dinner in Manila. Shortly after we were introduced, and seemingly unconnected with any pre-existing strand of conversation, she proclaimed to the table: "I'd never marry a Muslim man." "It's a little soon for us to be discussing marriage," I joked. But I was annoyed. (Perhaps even disappointed, it occurs to me now, since I still recall the incident almost two decades later.) In the cosmopolitan bit of pre-9/11 America where I then lived, local norms of politeness meant that I'd never before heard such a remark, however widely held the woman's sentiments might have been.

Islamophobia, in all its guises, seeks to minimise the importance of the individual and maximise the importance of the group. Yet our instinctive stance ought to be one of suspicion towards such endeavours. For individuals are undeniably real. Groups, on the other hand, are assertions of opinion.

We ought therefore to look more closely at the supposed monolith to which we apply the word Islam. It is said that Muslims believe in female genital mutilation, the surgical removal of all or part of a girl's clitoris. Yet I have never, in my 41 years, had a conversation with someone who described themselves as Muslim and believed this practice to be anything other than a despicably inhuman abomination. Until I first read about it in a newspaper, probably in my 20s, I would have thought it impossible that such a ritual could even exist.

Similarly, many millions of Muslims apparently believe that women should have no role in politics. But many millions more have had no qualms electing women prime ministers in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indeed, this month's Pakistani elections witnessed a record 448 women running for seats in the national and provincial assemblies.

Two of my great-grandparents sent all of their daughters to university. One of them, my grandmother, was the chairperson of the All Pakistan Women's Association and dedicated her life to the advancement of women's rights in the country. But among those descended from the same line are women who do not work and who refuse to meet men who are not their blood relatives. I have female relatives my age who cover their heads, others who wear mini-skirts, some who are university professors or run businesses, others who choose rarely to leave their homes. I suspect if you were to ask them their religion, all would say "Islam". But if you were to use that term to define their politics, careers, or social values, you would struggle to come up with a coherent, unified view.

Lived religion is a very different thing from strict textual analysis. Very few people of any faith live their lives as literalist interpretations of scripture. Many people have little or no knowledge of scripture at all. Many others who have more knowledge choose to interpret what they know in ways that are convenient, or that fit their own moral sense of what is good. Still others view their religion as a kind of self-accepted ethnicity, but live lives utterly divorced from any sense of faith.

When the Pakistani Taliban were filmed flogging a young woman in Swat as punishment for her allegedly "amoral" behaviour, there was such popular revulsion in Pakistan that the army launched a military campaign to retake the region. As my parents' driver told me, "They say they beat her because of Islam. This isn't Islam. Islam says to do good things. So how can this be Islam?" He offered no complex hermeneutics in support of his position. His Islamic moral compass was not textual; it was internal, his own notion of right and wrong.

I often hear it said, at readings or talks ranging from Lahore to Louisiana, that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about a man who becomes an Islamic fundamentalist. I'm not sure what that term means, exactly, but I have a reasonable idea about the sentences and paragraphs that are actually present in the book. Changez, the main character, is a Pakistani student at Princeton. When he gets his dream job at a high-paying valuation firm in New York, he exclaims, "Thank you, God!"

That's it. Other than that exclamation (a common figure of speech), there's no real evidence that Changez is religious. He doesn't quote from scripture. He never asks himself about heaven or hell or the divine. He drinks. He has sex out of marriage. His beliefs could quite plausibly be those of a secular humanist. And yet he calls himself a Muslim, and is angry with US foreign policy, and grows a beard – and that seems to be enough. Changez may well be an agnostic, or even an atheist. Nonetheless he is somehow, and seemingly quite naturally, read by many people as a character who is an Islamic fundamentalist.

Why? The novel carefully separates the politics of self-identification from any underlying religious faith or spirituality. It sets out to show that the former can exist in the absence of the latter. Yet we tend to read the world otherwise, to imagine computer-software-like religious operating systems where perhaps none exist.

And in so doing, it is we who create the monolith. If we look at religion as practised in the world outside, we see multiplicity. It is from inside us that the urge to unify arises. A dozen years after 2001, we are perhaps getting better at resisting this impulse. But we still have a long, long way to go.