Thursday, 17 July 2014

No Ramadan Gloom and Doom by amina wadud By amina wadud on July 17, 2014 (published at feminismandreligion.con, all rights reserved, copyright)

The first blog I read about Ramadan this year was full of the usual self-righteous pontification that takes this occasion to remind people to do such and such at this or that level. Who is the target audience for such an approach, I wondered? It seemed to operate on the basic idea that Muslims will NOT do the right thing unless someone tells them to. Mostly, though I noticed the gloom and doom of it and I decided then to make my Ramadan focus on joy.

First a quick reminder about the basics: Throughout the 9th lunar month, Muslims are obliged to abstain from food, drink and sexual intercourse during the day. It goes on like this for 29-30 days. There are also points of difference about some details of the fast, like how we determine which day to start. Either we actually cite the new moon, go by advanced calculations of the new moon, or some combination of these two. This leads to healthy chaos at the beginning because no one knows when the first day will, be but must prepare in order to get in that pre-dawn meal, called suhur. I say, healthy chaos, not only because I’m a bit of an anarchist, but also because I like that no one has complete control about such an important decision.

Also of note this year, in the Northern hemisphere, Ramadan started just a few days after summer solstice, which means the day light goes for 16-20 hours—in the heat! Some people observe the length of the fast according to actual day light, others observe the length of the day in another sacred place, like in Makkah. Again, no single decision prevails over all others leaving room for diversity and personal conscience about which option.

There are some exemptions from the fast, with days made up at other times of the year for temporary interferences, like travel, sickness, menstruation. Fasting is not obligated upon those with long term concerns like diabetes. “Feeding the poor” is an alternative to fasting permitted by the Qur’an and practiced widely, again in different forms.

I know what that person was trying to do in that blog. Really, I do. You see, Ramadan is like an annual tune up of faith and devotion. More (of the 1.3 billion) Muslims observe fasting in Ramadan than any other prescribed Islamic ritual. There are also additional acts of devotion associated with the month: personally reading through the entire Qur’an, praying up to 20 units of prayer each night, usually in congregation, called tarawih, and putting your own ego in check over anger and other bad habits.

This year, I thought a lot about what I’d like to call “a culture of fasting”. For although this culture is diverse, it is clear that Muslims are conscious that their fellow Muslims will be fasting, even if they do not observe by choice or necessity. In this culture, even a non-faster wouldn’t invite another faster to lunch! Meanwhile to share the fast-breaking meal, iftar, with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, even at public and commercial places, is one of the most anticipated pleasures of the observance.

I began my fast awaiting the birth of my grandson in a house with several other adults who were not fasting. So I felt the pang of not having this culture of fasting, except with my daughter who was too pregnant to fast. In my isolation, it didn’t take me long to lose my good sense of humor about making my way to the kitchen at 3 a.m. using a flash light. I missed not having control over my kitchen. It was worse than fasting while traveling, because then it is usually only for a day or two.

A week into the fast a new groove is reached. For me this means greater mental clarity, new insights even to some of the same intellectual concerns. Not being bogged down with much food must make a radical change in the body and the mind. For sure, fasting in Ramadan emphasizes the critical connection between body and ritual. It’s not just about how one feels in the heart, the entire body participates so that whatever is recognized, is intensified. The Qur’an says, the fast teaches self-constraint. A solid month-long readjustment in basic habits brings not only awareness, but appreciation.

In my quest for the joy this year, I met a person who made the best affirmation of gratitude I think I have heard in a long time. It showed me up for the complaining I had been doing about fasting away from my comfort center and with no culture of fasting around me. I saw how I had found fault with being alone, wandering around the house at 3 a.m. with a flashlight.

Then an interesting thing happened. A medical emergency in my family led me to a hospital in another city where I had no recourse except to sleep in my car. At 3 a.m. I got a bag of chips and a bottle of water at the 7-11 and began to chuckle: Had I previously been complaining about a flashlight in a dark house while fasting alone?!

Yes, Ramadan can teach us gratitude; but first we might need to learn humility.

I’m thankful for the lesson.

I am grateful, for a lifetime of work towards Muslim women’s freedom, agency and upliftment. I’m grateful for amazing friends in all parts of the world and the means to keep in touch with them. I am grateful for my family, especially my adult children; all kind, decent, and responsible with a spiritual dedication of their own. I’m grateful they are now parents with generosity and compassion.

This month we welcomed a new member to our family. I am grateful for the opportunity to see him come into the world. I wish him and my family, and you and yours a long and healthy life of prosperity, justice, peace and love abundant.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

This Ramadan: Valuing and Welcoming Women in Mosques by Sarah Sayeed, published At Huffington Post (17/7/2014)

Ramadan is a month of gratitude, embracing community, of togetherness. Fasting promotes self-reflection and a reaffirmation of compassion and justice. It seems an opportune moment to look inward at Muslim communities and speak about the imperative to restore Prophet Muhammad's legacy, peace be upon him, of valuing and welcoming women in mosques.

Across Muslim-majority countries, North America and Europe, we are quite far from the Prophet's example of welcoming women in mosques. In many parts of the world, women do not attend mosque for congregational prayers. Surprisingly, many people seem unaware that the Prophet did not institute curtains or walls between women's and men's rows. And when it is mentioned, there is resistance. It seems that Muslims, both women and men, encourage the following of the Prophet's teachings in virtually every arena except this one. When it comes to women's inclusion in mosques, they make excuses to differ from the Prophet's practice, suggesting that barriers are "necessary" as a preventive measure against distraction during prayer. But such actions and arguments contradict the Quran's requirement to "obey the Messenger" (Surah 4:80) and to follow his footsteps.

Some who disfavor women in mosques emphasize a Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that a woman's prayer is better offered at home. Others who support women's inclusion in the mosque give weight to his teachings not to forbid women from worshiping in the mosque. Each "side" puts forward its argument in a binary, as if it could invalidate the other. Yet these teachings are not mutually contradictory, since the Prophet's wisdom led him to tailor his advice to the needs of each person. In addition, it's important to know what the Prophet said, as well as what he actually did in practice, which was to fully include women. His compassion and magnanimity are mirrored in the lack of physical barriers in his mosque.

Reflecting on the misogyny that was prevalent during his time, including routine infanticide of baby girls, it is remarkable that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was forward thinking, included women fully in his house of worship and gave women an independent choice as to attending the congregational prayer, depending on their circumstances. Recognizing that they may not always be able to attend, he reassured them that prayer in the privacy of their homes was equally beloved to God as prayer in a mosque. He also easily folded them into the congregation when they did attend. Women also had easy access to his instruction.

The American mosque has a unique opportunity and necessity to embrace the Prophetic practice of unreservedly receiving women in mosques. Muslims living as a religious minority rely on the mosque to serve not only as a place for worship but also as a religious school, and a community center -- a multi-purpose space much like the Prophet's mosque. Families connect at the mosque, through prayers, full-time or weekend schools, or other social and community activities. These relationships help weave the fabric of Muslim communities. Thus, mosques bear a burden as well as a responsibility to meet the religious, educational, and communitarian needs of Muslims. They must be open to diverse segments of society, a challenge that American mosques have embraced but need to work harder to fulfill the Prophetic vision of inclusion.

According to a national study of mosques in the United States, 66 percent use partitions, and have been doing so over the past decade. Many mosques with dividers have predominantly immigrant populations, with imams who are not American born, suggesting the influence of cultural practices. But predominantly African American mosques also use partitions, though less frequently. While many may be comfortable with dividers, it is important to note that they are not part of the Prophet's practice.

Women In Islam, Inc. is committed to spreading knowledge on the issue of women's inclusion in the mosque and to nurturing a cultural shift that enables women, men, and youth to experience mosques in the way that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, encouraged us to do. Beginning the last 10 days of Ramadan, it will initiate a blog to share women's mosque experiences and welcomes submissions on an ongoing basis. This public sharing is not an airing of dirty laundry but rather an opportunity for collective reflection and strategizing, giving women an avenue to contribute concrete ideas about what can and needs to be improved in mosques.

Creating a spiritually whole and welcoming community requires us to work together. When Muslim women ask for their due right to have full access to the main prayer area of a mosque, it is not only consistent with the Prophetic practice, but an act of obedience to the Messenger of God. As noted in the Quran, "the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise" (Surah 9:71). Once when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was asked, "What person can be the best friend?" "His reply: "who helps you remember Allah, and reminds you when you forget Him." Insha Allah (God willing) we will hear women as friends who remind us to emulate the Prophet's practice of valuing and welcoming women in mosques.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Most Scots believe prayer can change the world by SHÂN ROSS, Published in The Scotsman (10th July 2014, Copyright, All Rights Reserved)

The majority of Scots believe prayer can change the world, that there is life after death, and that not everything can be explained by ­science.

A report of attitudes towards faith and belief in Scotland also warns of a potential “new ­sectarianism” with a gap appearing to be opening between religious and non-religious people.
Experts recommend setting up a national advisory board to address areas of concern, such as people with no religious belief feeling excluded from public consultations.

The Faith and Belief in Scotland report by the University of Edinburgh was commissioned by the Scottish Government to help councils provide services for people of religion and ­belief. Those described as “people of belief” in the report are those who do not belong to an organised religion.
More than 1,400 people were asked 38 questions relating to current ethical issues.
The major faith groups and the philosophical belief systems of secularism and humanism were represented.

Of the respondents, 66 per cent said there were things in life that science cannot explain.
Some 58 per cent said prayer can have a real effect on the world. Fifty-four per cent believed in life after death, with more people believing in heaven (45 per cent) than hell (37 per cent).
Professor Mona Siddiqui, from the university’s school of divinity, and Dr Anthony Allison, the project’s lead researcher, said the results demonstrated the diversity of perspective and opinion that exists. An example of the diversity was revealed over the issue of same-sex couples with opinion strongly divided within both ­religious and belief groups.

Almost half said that same-sex couples with no religious affiliations should not be allowed to marry in a religious place of worship. Less than a quarter believed they should.
However, if same-sex couples had a religious ­belief, half thought they should be ­allowed to marry in a place of worship. Only 29 per cent ­objected.

Most Scots (59 per cent) felt that their own beliefs were misunderstood by the wider community, with three-quarters saying it was important people learn more about their world view. The report’s authors said Scottish society was becoming more ethnically and ­religiously diverse.

The 2011 Scottish census ­results on religion revealed 54 per cent of people identify with Christianity and 37 per cent with no religion. Those identifying with no religion were also the group seeing the largest growth from the 2001 to 2011 census – an increase of 9 per cent.

In the same period, by contrast, those identifying with Christianity saw a decrease of 11 per cent and most other minority religions either remained the same or showed small percentage increases. However, the report said the short and long-term impact of such demographic changes remained to be seen and it was not known if the trends would continue.

Prof Siddiqui said action needed to be taken to make Scottish society less divisive.
She added: “The issues around religion in public life are creating a new tension and dynamic in Scotland, and it is important that we minimise unnecessary division for the sake of a more inclusive Scotland.”

Dr Allison said the next challenge was getting people to understand each other and talk “to” one another rather than “at” each other.

He added: “I think the findings confirm what a number of people suspect. Spirituality is alive and well in Scotland and takes various forms cutting across the religious and not religious divide.”

Can Islam and Buddhism coexist peacefully in SE Asia?

Postcolonial states from Turkey to China are witnessing a contest for power between political liberals and religious nationalists.

In India new Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a religious ceremony before taking office; in Indonesia Islamist parties supported presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a general with tainted human rights record; in Ukraine Jews are fleeing resurgent anti-Semitism; in Britain Prime Minister David Cameron has asserted that the UK is a Christian country; in Brunei Sharia law is being imposed; Nigeria is witnessing the rise of Islamist Boko Haram; and Syria and Iraq are home to the newly established ISIL Caliphate. All are evidence that religion is increasingly being employed in the public sphere.

In many countries, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion is being challenged by religious nationalists promoting religious "majoritarianism". Such challenges are coming from the Buddhist majority in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, while in Malaysia Muslims are demanding the exclusive right to use the word "Allah". The resurgence of religion is global and it's not limited merely to Islam. Politicians are using religions for political objectives, rather than merely balancing politics with religious ethics - the fundamental rule of political philosophies.

The current critical state of Muslim-Buddhist relations calls for the development of civil relations between the two religious communities. Positive communication would help Buddhists and Muslims discover their rich shared resources and embark on a dialogical journey to build peace and overcome religious nationalism and fundamentalism. Aside from Hindu India, most of Asia is Buddhist. Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. Southeast Asian Muslims should recognise that while they may call the region "Serambi Mekkah" - the veranda of Mecca, for Buddhists it is the "Mecca", or centre, itself. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, China and Japan are the "al-Azhar" and "Medina" - the intellectual centres - of Buddhism. Hence the importance of Muslim-Buddhist understanding and dialogue for the future of Islam in Asia.

The liberal Catholic theologian Hans Kung once remarked, "There will be no peace among the nations without peace among religions." The ongoing Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in Asia have to be approached with a method of historical critique at the religious and socio-political levels and addressed with pedagogical strategies and strong political will on both sides - otherwise their will be no end to obstructions for constructive Buddhist-Muslim relations.

In my view, the majority-minority model of citizenship - a colonial construct - has run its course. There is a need to address the issue of conflicts from the perspective of multicultural citizenship, not multiculturalism only, for globalisation has brought with it the challenge of acceptance of diversities. Building a positive future requires transcending the past through the development of relations between Buddhism and Islam as civilisations, not as provincialisms. Whether in Myanmar with the Rohingya, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or wherever, this will help transcend local, regional and international tensions between the two largest religious communities in the Asean region. To realise this, Southeast Asia's Muslims need to take this initiative on their own. They cannot wait for the lead from their Middle Eastern co-religionists, for they live alongside Buddhists in Asia and not the Muslims of the Middle East. Asean Muslims and Buddhists also need to transcend attitudes that equate ethnicity with religion, for the former is local while the latter is universal and diverse.

The history of Muslim-Buddhist interaction is old as Islam and has its positive and negatives aspects. In the case of their 900 years of coexistence in Southeast Asia, though their early relations were syncretic, identities later became "ethnicised". As far as I know, today there is no Southeast Asian Muslim scholar of Buddhism and no Buddhist counterpart who is versed in their respective communities' religious-cultural and lingual exchange, leave alone enjoying an understanding of shared words such as agama/sasana - religion; puasa - fast; hari raya - day of celebration, and even shared personal names, etc. In the face of rising religious nationalism and fundamentalism in both the faiths, there is need to build Muslim-Buddhist understanding through pedagogical and socio-cultural projects that are more than mere tourist symbols.

Otherwise, Asean Muslims from Yangon to Tokyo will soon be faced with the rise of Asian Islamophobia (in fact, it could be here already). Real efforts to build interfaith understanding will also help in the construction of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community, which is an integral part of the region's coming Economic Community. The building blocks are all around us, in the messages of compassion, mercy and love at the heart of all religions.

Asst Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf is a lecturer and director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.