Monday 28 December 2009

Hadith: Beautify us with Adornment of Faith

The Prophet Muhammad offered the supplication to God: `O God, by Thy knowledge of the unseen and Thy power to create, grant me life as long as thou knowest life to be best for me, and take me when thou knowest death to be best for me. O God, I ask Thee for fear of Thee both within my secret heart and openly. I ask Thee for the word of truth in pleasure and anger. I ask Thee for moderation both in poverty and riches. I ask Thee for felicity which does not pass away. I ask Thee for comfort which is not cut off. I ask Thee for satisfaction with what is decreed. I ask Thee for a pleasant life after death. I ask Thee for the pleasure of looking at Thy face, and longing to meet Thee in a state in which distress does not cause harm or testing lead astray. O God, beautify us with the adornment of faith, and make us guides who are rightly guided."

Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 788

Saturday 26 December 2009

Jesus (pbuh) on abundance of knowledge

It is related that Jesus, the son of Mary, said,

It is of no use to know something if one does not act upon it. In truth, an abundance of knowledge only increases one in pride if one does not act accordingly. (Ahmad)

Friday 25 December 2009

The Life of Jesus as Revealed to Mary

Interpretation and Meditation on Holy Quran 3:45-55

The angels called: "Dearest Mary, listen. Allah Most High sends you joyous news of the Divine Word, emanating directly from the Source of Love, whose name is Messiah and who will be known as the noble Jesus. He will be profoundly honored in this world, and in the realm of Paradise he is eternally beloved, abiding with the most intimate companions of Love, deep within the Radiance of Allah. The Messiah Jesus will transmit Truth to humanity, beginning as an infant in his cradle and continuing until he reaches manhood. He will be truly righteous and pure of heart."

The Virgin Mary turned directly to the Ultimate Source and prayed: "Most precious Allah, how can I bear a child, since no man has known me? " Allah Most Merciful then awakened Mary spiritually by placing these Divine Words in her heart: "My beloved Mary, the Source of Power can manifest whatever is needed to guide humanity. To project any being or event, Allah simply affirms it and it is. Through your spontaneously conceived child, the Source of Truth will confirm the truth of the Holy Torah. Through this luminous child, the Source of Wisdom will transmit the wisdom of the Holy Gospel. My beloved Jesus will declare to the People of Israel: "Behold, I have come with wonderful sings from the Source of Love and Power. As a child I molded from river clay the likeness of a bird. When I breathed on it, by the mysterious permission of Allah, it became a white dove that took wing before my mother's eyes. Through me, the Divine Power heals those born blind, cleanses lepers, and reawakens those who have fallen into the sleep of death. I demonstrate the Power of Allah by knowing precisely what people have experienced, what worldly wealth they have stored in their houses, and what spiritual treasure they have hidden within their hearts. These are demonstrations of Love to turn human beings toward the Source of Love. I have come to confirm the Words of Torah that were revealed before me, and also to bring new spiritual freedom. To give the people of Torah confidence in my Prophethood have I come with powerful signs from Allah Most Sublime. By responding wholeheartedly to me, you will be turning toward the Light of Allah. Allah alone is my Source and your Source. The direct path to illumination is to turn your whole life toward the Ever-Present Source."

The Resonance of Allah continued to spring forth in the heart of the Virgin Mary: "When the noble Jesus teaches thus, he will help to bear and to transmit the Truth of Allah that is flowing through me?" The blessed apostles will respond: "Revered teacher, we will be your humble companions and the instruments of Allah Most High, for we have surrendered our lives to the Source of Life. You can witness our submission. We believe wholeheartedly that you are sent as Holy Messenger from the Source and Goal of Being. May our names be inscribed in the Heavenly Book among those who will follow and serve the Messiah Jesus always."

"After the bitter scheming of those who live in negation of Love has been brought to nothing by the Power of Allah, the Voice of Truth will call these Divine Words into the heart of His holy servant: "My beloved Jesus, I now draw you back to Me and exalt your being. I now purify and heal you from the harsh touch of those who deny that you are messenger from the Source of Love. Be assured that I will transfigure with My Love all those who sincerely follow you, and awakening from the sleep of death, they will experience the radiant resurrection of Paradise. Be assured as well that all souls will eventually return to Me to resolve the conflict and confusion of their earthly journey."

Excerpted from "Heart of the Koran" by Lex Hixon also known as Sheikh Nur al Jerrahi.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Egypt attempts crackdown on Water Pipe

In a country where smoking is cheap and often described as a "national habit", an Egyptian government crackdown on shisha, the popular flavoured tobacco-filled water pipe, is facing stiff resistance.

Egyptian authorities have issued an ultimatum to the owners of cafes in several cities across the country to stop offering shisha or face hefty fines.

The crackdown comes as the government tries to enforce a two-year-old law banning smoking in public places.

But as Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh reports, many say a total ban on shisha would have a damaging effect on Egypt's vital tourism industry.

Friday 11 December 2009

Iraq's Sunnis feel threatened

From Al Jazeera Blog:

The last time I visited Mosul was in April … it is still a dangerous city but I felt the tension has subsided.

While we were driving through the city… it was something a security adviser of the Mosul governor's office told me that made me realise how serious and dangerous the consequences of the political impasse over the election law could be.

"You see all this destruction … It was all destroyed in 2005, 2006 and 2007. What you are seeing would be nothing compared to what may happen if we don’t take part in the election. I am not just talking about myself but all the people in Mosul," Zuhair Younes said.

Resentment, anger … that was the feeling I got after speaking to many people of this northern Iraqi province.

This is a Sunni heartland. And the provincial authorities, tribal elders and many of its people are threatening to boycott national elections if parliament approves a law that reduces the number of seats allocated to their province.

"This is a conspiracy to get rid of nationalists. Hashemi doesn’t represent anyone but himself," Brahim Sabaweh, a resident of Mosul said.

There is no love lost for vice-president Tarek Hashemi – himself a Sunni. He initially vetoed the law because he wanted more representation for Iraqi exiles abroad - many of them Sunnis.

The move led to a Shia-Kurd alliance against the Sunnis in parliament - which led to the reduction of seats for Sunni provinces.

This is a community which still hasn’t come to terms at their loss of political dominance when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

For Sunnis, it is all about having a voice in the political process. Many of them boycotted the 2005 election – consequently they didn’t have a role in drafting the constitution which mapped the future of Iraq. But in the 2009 provincial poll, they turned out in large numbers.

The result: an Arab nationalist party took over the provincial government.

It was the first time in post-2003 Iraq that the people of Mosul felt represented … And since then the city has become safer.

But there is a real fear that may change if Sunni governorates lose seats in parliament.

People here had hoped the 2010 election would be another step forward towards representation and reconciliation

So far, the lack of agreement threatens to divide this country even further.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Robert Fisk on Americans in Afghanistan

From The Independent:

"They shoot Russians," the young paratrooper told me. It was cold. We had come across his unit, the Soviet 105th Airborne Division, near Charikar, north of Kabul, and he was holding out a bandaged hand. Blood seeped through, staining the sleeve of his battledress. He was just a teenager with fair hair and blue eyes. Beside us a Soviet transport lorry, its rear section blown to pieces by a mine – yes, an "improvised explosive device", though we didn't call it that yet – lay upended in a ditch. In pain, the young man raised his hand to the mountain-tops where a Soviet helicopter was circling. Could I ever have imagined that Messers Bush and Blair would have landed us in the same sepulchre of armies almost three decades later? Or that a young black American president would do exactly what the Russians did all those years ago?

Within weeks, we would see the Soviet Army securing Kabul and the largest cities of Afghanistan, abandoning the vast areas of mountain and desert to the "terrorists", insisting that they could support a secular, uncorrupt government in the capital and give security to the people. By the spring of 1980, I was watching the Soviet military stage a "surge". Sound familiar? The Russians announced new training for the Afghan army. Sound familiar? Only 60 per cent of the force was following orders at the time. Yes, it does sound familiar.

Victor Sebestyen, who has researched a book about the fall of the Soviet empire, has written at length of those frozen days after the Russian army stormed into Afghanistan just after Christmas of 1979. He quotes General Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of the Soviet armed forces, addressing the Soviet Politburo in 1986. "There is no piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another. Nevertheless much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centres, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize."

As Sebestyen points out, Gen Akhromeyev demanded extra troops – or the war in Afghanistan would continue "for a very, very long time". And how's this for a quotation from, say, a British or US commander in Helmand today? "Our soldiers are not to blame. They've fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills." Yes, of course, this was Gen Akhromeyev in 1986.

I watched the tragedy play out in those bleak early months of 1980. In Kandahar, the people cried "Allahu Akbar" from the rooftops and on the roads outside the city, I met the insurgents – the Taliban of their time – bombing the Soviet convoys.

North of Jalalabad, they even stopped my bus with red roses in the muzzles of their Kalashnikovs, ordering Communist students from the vehicle. I didn't care to dwell on their fate. No different, I guess, than that of pro-government Afghan students caught by the Taliban today. Outside the city, I was told that the "mujahedin" – President Ronald Reagan's favourite "freedom fighters" – had destroyed a school because it was educating girls. Too true. The headmaster and his wife – after they had been burned – were hanging from a tree.

Afghans approached us with strange stories. Political prisoners were being taken from the country and tortured inside the Soviet Union. Secret rendition. In Kandahar, a shopkeeper, an educated man in his fifties who wore both a European sweater and an Afghan turban, approached me in the street. I still have the notes of my interview.

"Every day the government says that food prices are coming down," he said. "Every day we are told that things are getting better thanks to the cooperation of the Soviet Union. But it is not true. Do you realise that the government cannot even control the roads? Fuck them. They only hold on to the cities." The "mujahedin" infested Helmand province and crossed and recrossed the Pakistani border, just as they do today. A Soviet Mig fighter-bomber even crossed the frontier in early 1980 to attack the guerrillas. The Pakistani government – and the United States, of course – condemned this as a flagrant breach of Pakistan's sovereignty. Well, tell that to the young Americans who control the unmanned Predators so often crossing the border today to attack the guerrillas.

In Moscow almost a quarter of a century later, I went to meet the former Russian occupiers of Afghanistan. Some were now addicted to drugs, others suffered from what we call stress disorder.

And on this historic day – when Barack Obama plunges ever deeper into chaos – let us remember the British retreat from Kabul and its destruction in 1842.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Blair and Bush planned war 11 months before it took place

Tony Blair made it clear to George Bush at a meeting in Texas 11 months before the Iraq invasion that he would be prepared to join the US in toppling Saddam Hussein, the inquiry into the war was told today.

The prime minister repeatedly told the US president that British policy was to back United Nations attempts to seek Iraq's disarmament, Sir David Manning, his foreign policy adviser, told the inquiry.

However, Blair was "absolutely prepared to say he was willing to contemplate regime change if [UN-backed measures] did not work", Manning said. If it proved impossible to pursue the UN route, then Blair would be "willing to use force", Manning emphasised.

Manning recalled the meeting between the two leaders at Crawford, Bush's Texas ranch, in April 2002. "I look back at Crawford as the moment that he [Blair] was saying, yes, there is a route through this that is an international, peaceful one and it is through the UN, but if it doesn't work, we will be willing to undertake regime change," Manning said.

The issue is crucial because Blair was warned at the time by Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, and other legal advisers that going to war with regime change as the objective was unlawful and breached the UN charter.

Read complete article here

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on Women in Islam

Director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Peace and Spirituality, editor of the monthly Al-Risala journal and author of almost two hundred books, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is one of India’s best known Islamic scholars. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about issues related to Islam and women.

You have written extensively on the issue of Islam and women. Contrary to many traditional ulema, you argue the case for gender equality in Islam. How does your approach differ from that of most traditionalist scholars?

The approach of the traditionalists is based largely on the corpus of medieval fiqh, while my understanding is based on a direct reading of the principal or original sources of Islam—the Quran and the authentic Hadith. The former, by and large, uphold what can be called the Muslim cultural tradition that developed in the medieval period of Muslim history. So, I would call mine a scriptural approach and theirs a cultural approach.

Take, for instance, the institution of the burqa, which many traditionalists stress as essential for Muslim women. The burqa is part of Muslim culture, but is not mentioned or advocated in the Quran. Another example is the traditionalist ulema’s insistence that women and un-related men cannot, or should not, talk to each other, on the grounds that, so they say, a woman’s voice is aurah, or something to be kept concealed from such men. This notion is absent in the original sources of Islam. In fact, there are many hadith reports that tell us that there was considerable intellectual exchange between men and women at the time of the Prophet. For instance, Ayesha, one of the wives of the Prophet, regularly spoke to or addressed many of the Prophet’s Companions, on a vast range of issues. They used to come to her for guidance and discussion. According to one report, whenever the Companions faced a problem to which they could find no answer they would approach Ayesha. So, how, then, can it be said that a woman’s voice is aurah?

I am not aware of any authentic hadith that describes a woman’s voice as aurah. If the traditionalists have any such proof of their claim, they must offer it. But even supposing, hypothetically, they are able to come up with such proof, we need to redefine or reinterpret it in the present context, and also by taking account the accepted principle, recognised by Islamic scholars, that sometimes ‘necessity makes the unlawful lawful’. We are living in a vastly different age today, where there is simply no escape from hearing the voice of women!

Many traditionalist scholars often cite a Quranic verse that describes men as the qawwam of their wives to argue that this means that men are their superiors and that women must be subordinate to them. How do you interpret the term qawwam?

It is a universal principle that everywhere—in government, in a business, in a school or whatever—there has to be a manager to handle practical affairs or else there will be chaos. This applies to the family also. This role of manager of affairs is what is actually meant by qawwam. It does not at all imply subordination or degradation, or any sort of hierarchy. Rather, it is simply a formula for overall management and administration of the family. In my own home my daughter is the qawwam. She runs the affairs of the house. She is the manager of the house. So, it does not mean that a woman cannot be the qawwam of her house.

Unfortunately, many scholars translate the term qawwam to mean that the man is the hakim or ruler of the house, as if he can be some sort of dictator. Many Quranic commentaries give a completely wrong interpretation of the term. Some go to the extent of describing husbands as the majazi khuda or ‘symbolic god’ of their wives. This is really a sign of deep-rooted patriarchy and deviation from Islamic teachings. It is a biddat or wrongful innovation

We have the model of the Prophet Muhammad to explain the correct meaning of the term qawwam. His first wife Khadjiah looked after him when he was in distress. He worked for her, in the business that she ran. He took the advice of another of his wives, Umm Salamah, on many issues, contrary to some Muslim scholars, who argue, without any convincing proof, that a Muslim man may take the advice of his wife but must do precisely the opposite of what she recommends. The Quran also approvingly mentions the case of the Queen of Sheeba, who was the ruler of Yemen.

One can cite several other examples to suggest that the Quran does not call for women’s subordination to men, unlike what some traditionalist Muslim scholars as well as critics of Islam claim, and contrary to what their rendering of the term qawwam suggests. Thus, for instance, although the Caliph Umar issued a fatwa calling upon women not to pray in mosques, his wife refused to listen to him and he could not stop her because that was her Islamic right. Barirah, the wife of Mughis, a Companion of the Prophet, once came to the Prophet in order to seek a divorce from her husband. The Prophet advised her against this, to which she responded by asking him if that was his personal opinion or the command of God. When the Prophet replied that it was his own view, she told him that she did not agree, and so the Prophet arranged for her to be separated from her husband.

Traditionalist scholars (as well as critics of Islam) contend that the Quran allows husbands to beat (dharaba) their wives if they are disobedient. How do you respond to this argument?

The dharaba that the Quran refers to is simply a token pat, not wild hitting. One hadith report suggests that this should be done with a tooth-stick (miswak), which implies that it is not meant to be any sort of serious beating. According to another hadith report, contained in the Masnad of Imam Ahmad, no prophet ever beat his wives. Sometimes, the Prophet Muhammad had problems with some of his wives but yet he never beat them.

The Deobandi-dominated All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) projects itself as the sole authority as regards Muslim Personal Law matters (most of which impinge on Muslim women) in India. What do you feel about this organization, particularly its stance on Muslim women’s issues?

The claim that the AIMPLB is the spokesman of all the Muslims of India is completely false. In fact, it does not have any mass base. It is, to my mind, just a bunch of maulvis who have put a stamp on themselves, projecting themselves as leaders while they have little contact with the masses. They might represent just themselves, but certainly not all or most of the Indian Muslims.

Permit me to say this, but I regard the traditionalist maulvi class as, to a very large extent, responsible for the backwardness of the Muslims of this country—and not just as far as women’s issues are concerned. They have little knowledge of the complexities of the contemporary world and so cannot address modern problems or interpret Islam in a manner that would appeal to modern minds. But, I see signs of change all around now. Increasingly, Muslims are refusing to listen to those fatwas of theirs which they find outlandish, and are marching ahead in the race for modern education. Even the sons of leading maulvis are choosing not to become traditional maulvis but, instead, are entering universities. I hope that augurs well for the future and that modern-educated Muslim scholars would be in a better position to interpret Islamic teachings, including about women, in a proper manner.

PS: Several English writings of Maulana Wahiduddin Khan are available on the Internet. See and

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Mogadishu: world's most hostile city

From The Independent:

Cooking pots and pans stained with blood were still scattered around the courtyard of the Martini Hospital. A mortar bomb had landed in the garden of this war veterans' retirement home in the Somali capital the day before, killing nine people and injuring 23. In the kitchen, weeping relatives and angry civilians had gathered to mourn the victims. Corpses covered with sheets were being prepared for burial and the air was heavy with incense burned to cover the stench of death. Sunlight filtered in through cracks in the roof, lending the scene a hellish air. "These two were 13 and 14," said a Red Crescent volunteer, pointing to the bodies of two victims. "Nobody knows who did it."

Scenes like this are a daily reality in Mogadishu, a city ravaged by almost 20 years of civil war and abandoned by half its population. Here, civilians bear the brunt of a war that has caused thousands of deaths and displaced 1.5 million people in the past three years alone, according to the United Nations and local human rights groups.

Once full of fine neo-classical Italian architecture dating from its years as the capital of Italian Somaliland, the city centre of Mogadishu is now a mass of rubble and destroyed buildings. Mohammed Farah Siad is a local businessman whose house stands on the front line between the warring factions of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Islamist rebels of Al-Shabaab. "They're fighting as usual," he says, his voice barely audible above the bursts of machine-gun fire and the roar of rocket-propelled grenades flying back and forth outside his compound. This morning, two militias nominally allied with the TFG are clashing for control of the port, and Mr Siad keeps the gate of his house open to give shelter to civilians caught in the crossfire. "It's the only way to survive here, we have to help each other," he explains. "Always call your friends before venturing out and keep your cell phone with you to receive updates on clashes. It can save your life."

Packed with people in the morning, the streets of Mogadishu suddenly empty in the early afternoon. As darkness falls, clashes increase dramatically. Staying out after 3pm means being at the mercy of the ruthless militiamen who roam the city on "technicals", the machine-gun-equipped pick-ups that have become a grim trademark of the Somali war. The cruelty and greed of the militiamen are notorious, their loyalty always in doubt because of the continuously shifting alliances inside Somali society. Some have mutated into freelance armed groups, kidnapping the few foreigners who dare to venture inside Mogadishu and selling them to the highest bidder. But TFG, cash-strapped and beleaguered, is forced to depend on these unreliable troops to help it fight Al-Shabaab and hang on to the few areas of Mogadishu it still controls.

In this city, which has been labelled the most dangerous on earth, anarchy is the only rule. Carrying a rifle is one of the few ways to earn both a living and the fear of others, if not their respect. "Militiamen break into your house, take all your money and valuables and rape your women. It happens so often. And you can't even complain, because then they will have the pleasure of killing you," laments Abukar Mohallin Mouse, a 60-year-old porter working at Mr Siad's warehouse. "Everything we do, we are scared: you go to the market and get hit by a mortar shell, you speak with foreigners and someone will kill you because he thinks you are a spy. This is not life."

Somalia has not had a functioning government in control of its territory since 1991, and today the divisions run deep. Even if the TFG claims to have the full support of the Somali population, recent events tell a different story. Ideologically linked to al-Qa'ida, Al-Shabaab is growing bolder and stronger by the day, filling its ranks with young men lured by promises of food, money and a holy war to fight for.

"We are receiving more and more reports of foreign fighters coming to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab's ranks," says Sheikh Omar Ali Rooble, a regional leader of the Sufi militia of Ahlu Sunnah wal Jamee'a, a moderate Islamic group allied to the TFG. "They don't speak our language and are not fighting for the sake of this country. They're killing our people and digging our graves, that's why we were forced to take up arms. They claim to defend Islam, but Somalia is 100 per cent Muslim already."

One collateral effect of the prevailing anarchy is lawlessness at sea: with no coastguard or navy to patrol the harbours and monitor comings and goings, Somalia has become the world capital of piracy, a phenomenon which became a headline-grabbing menace in 2009. Today the waters around Mogadishu are patrolled by dozens of warships from many nations, but they have failed to halt the problem, as evidenced by the recent seizure of the Chandlers, a British couple, from their yacht, and this week's hijacking of a huge oil tanker with oil valued at $20m on board.

But Al-Shabaab is the most pressing threat. The hopelessly ineffective rump government is bitter about what it regards as its abandonment by the outside world. Confined to the hills surrounding Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, Deputy Prime Minister Abdulrahman Adan Ibrahim blames his regime's impotence on its abandonment by the outside world.

"If we had received even 30 per cent of the €250m pledged to us by the European Union, Al-Shabaab wouldn't be in Somalia today," he says with a clear hint of bitterness. "We are fighting a group openly linked to al-Qa'ida, which has brought an ideology that has nothing to do with Somali culture."

From outside his office, perched on Mogadishu's highest hills, the view is deceitful: with its whitewashed houses, banana trees and bright blue sea, the city looks like an earthly paradise. But on the road, the scars of this endless civil war are everywhere.

"There was a suicide attack here a few weeks ago," says B, a civilian who didn't wish to be named for his own safety, passing concrete barriers at the entrance to an outdoor market. "More than 10 people died." Crowded areas are becoming the favourite targets of the insurgents, whose Iraqi-style martyrdom tactics were unknown in Somalia until recently.

In September Al-Shabaab staged a suicide attack against the main base of Amisom, the African Union-sponsored peacekeeping mission, in an area that had previously been believed to be beyond the rebels' reach. The attack killed 21 people, including 17 peacekeepers. Originally intended to be 8,000-strong, the mission today has only 5,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops, who are mainly focused on controlling sensitive areas of the city and delivering humanitarian aid. In its hospital, which consists of three military-style tents hidden among the sand dunes of Mogadishu airport, hundreds of patients are treated every day. Under the baking sun, civilians wait patiently for the only doctor available.

"Every night I pray the city remains calm because we are breaking the rules by treating civilians," he says, treating a toddler lying on a stretcher with a gunshot wound in his right leg. "But we can't chase them away, they don't have anywhere else to go." Beds are few and medication is constantly running out as the number of patients multiplies, but the hospital is one of the few facilities functioning in Mogadishu.

And in the view of spokesman Major Barigye Ba-Hoku, it's more than that: it is also a tool to "win the heart and soul of the Somali people". The mission's mandate was recently bolstered to allow it to engage the insurgents, but for him ending this carnage is not about fighting.

"You can send as many reinforcements and weapons as you want, you won't solve the problem," Major Ba-Hoku maintains. "This war has been going on for 18 years: the solution has to come from within. Somali people have to accept peace. Any process driven from outside would be fruitless."

The humanitarian crisis is steadily worsening on a daily basis, and even Somalis are losing faith in their ability to end the conflict. Sitting in the courtyard, Abukar Mohallin Mouse, the porter, stares in despair when asked about the future.

"When there was peace, this city was one of the most beautiful in the world," he recalls. "I really fear I will die before this war is over."

A few yards away, his employer Mr Siad laughs bitterly. "We are destroying our future with our own hands," he says. "Today, a teenager born here has never experienced peace in his whole life. Only a massive foreign intervention can save us. It's sad to say, but we are not able to look after ourselves."

Additional reporting by Ugo Borga and Giampaolo Musumeci

Interview with Imam Zaid Shakir

Imam Zaid Shakir, one of the foremost Islamic scholars in the West, embraced Islam while in the Air Force in 1977 after a prolonged study of various faiths and practices.

After obtaining his BA in International Relations and his MA in Political Science, he traveled to Cairo, Egypt to study Arabic.

Upon returning to the United States, Imam Zaid served as imam of Masjid al-Islam in New Haven Connecticut from 1988 to 1994.

He then traveled to Syria and Morocco to further pursue studies in Arabic as well as in Islamic law, Quranic studies, and spirituality.

After graduating from Syria's prestigious Abu Noor University, he returned to Connecticut in 2001 and eventually moved to Hayward, California in 2003 to serve as a resident scholar and lecturer at Zaytuna Institute.

Imam Zaid is known within the Muslim community and beyond as a social activist, lecturer, and writer. He is one of the most influential scholars in articulating the American Muslim experience.

How did he learn about Islam? What were the challenges that he faced? What advice would he give new Muslims?

Recently Reading Islam spoke to Imam Zaid and asked him all these questions, and more.

read the complete interview here.

Monday 7 December 2009

Palestinian man hit in car attack by settlers

Violence erupted in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday when a Palestinian man entered a petrol station at the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in the occupied West Bank and stabbed two settlers.

But that was not the end of the story. According to the Israeli army, the Palestinian was then shot by a soldier, after which a car, apparently driven by a settler, ran over the wounded Palestinian, twice, with Israeli soldiers all around.

From Pakistan to France with Love

From the Guardian:

A French doctor is embarking on the 6,000-mile trip to promote a better image of Pakistan. 'It's not all about terrorism,' he says

Low-key is good in Islamabad these days, where the threat of Taliban suicide bombings has filled Pakistan's capital with checkposts, blast walls and a queasy air of anxiety. But one proudly conspicuous car rolled through the streets last week – a 25-year-old Volkswagen Beetle, painted in an explosion of trippy colours. At the wheel was a defiant doctor, Vincent Loos, headed for Paris.

"My dream was to return by road," says the 39-year-old Frenchman, who has just finished three years' work at a local hospital. Doctors without borders indeed – or perhaps doctors without sense. Only six months ago his ride was a dust-smeared wreck, collapsed at the bottom of an Islamabad street waiting for a final trip to the scrapyard. Loos, an intensive care specialist, restored the car to full health, then hired an artist to paint in the local style known as "truck art".

Now the "Foxy Shahzadi", or Beetle Princess, is the most distinctive car from Lahore to Lyons. The body is covered in a psychedelic array of flowers, waterfalls and the faces of famous Pakistanis. The idea behind the 6,000-mile trip is to promote the "soft side" of Pakistan. "We want to show the world it's not just about terrorism," says Loos.

Travelling by Foxy, as Beetles are affectionately known in Pakistan, Loos is paying homage to a local motoring cult. Dozens of well-maintained Beetles ply the streets. (Mine, in a cool grey, is Betsy, a proud 1967 model.)

The Beetle came to Pakistan in the 1950s with army officers and bureaucrats returning from postings abroad. The appeal has endured – Mubashir Hasan, a finance minister from the 1970s, still drives his around Lahore. Romano Karim of Islamabad's VW club estimates about 500 "Foxies" travel Pakistan's roads. "Cute, quirky, cheap spare parts – it's the ideal car," he says.

Read related article from Islam Online.

Sunday 6 December 2009

In fear of 'Eurabia'?

The images were clearly intended to get out the vote, and judging by the 57 per cent "yes" vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland on Sunday, they worked all too well.

They included the depiction of minarets piercing through the Swiss flag; minarets on top of the flag, with a menacing, niqab-wearing Muslim woman in the foreground.

One could be forgiven for imagining that the Muslims were at the gates of Vienna, or even Lucerne, threatening to overrun Christian Europe. And of course, for the proponents of the ban, that is precisely the situation Europe faces today.

For centuries, the peoples of Europe have defined their continental identity against the threat of Islam. So much so that it is hard to imagine a European identity that does not have Islam as its foil.

There are, of course, good historical reasons for this.

From the eighth century Europe was in fact surrounded by Muslims to the East and South, who ruled much of the Eastern continent for the next millennium.

Of course, except in the wildest dreams of jihadists, Europe will not be taken down by Muslim swords today. But for right-wing fear mongers, the contemporary Muslim threat is just as nefarious, only the weapon is different.

That Muslim woman in the now infamous poster is not just the ultimate 'other' - totally impenetrable to the Western gaze in a social space where topless women are de rigeur on billboards, magazines, TV commercials and the beach - but, the niqab or burka-wearing Muslim woman is believed to stand for all Muslim women, who, it is assumed, possess little or no control over their own bodies.

And because of this, she is as dangerous as the H1N1 virus currently scaring people across the continent. Underneath her niqab lies a human bomb - not a suicide vest, but a baby; lots of babies, if you believe the hype.

All these Muslims babies threaten to transform the fundamental identity of Europe as a "Western," "modern," "secular-yet-Christian" space - the very antithesis of what most Europeans imagine Muslims to be.

In some sense, of course, the return of a robust Muslim presence in Europe would be a return to history, to a time when a good share of Europe was Muslim. But that is a history few Europeans hearken to. In fact, Europe's first post-Cold War conflict, in the Balkans, was driven in good measure by just this fear.

Beneath the fear, however, lies that undeniable reality that the combination in Europe of very low indigenous (meaning white and Christian) birth rates and increasing immigration of Muslims with higher birth rates means that the percentage of Muslims will continue to grow.

They will not, however, become a majority in Europe under any conceivable scenario in the coming decades.

In fact, the actual demographic trends show a decline in birth rates by Muslim women as they become settled into Europe, which corresponds to the declining birth rates across the Muslim world (many of whose governments have initiated aggressive family planning programmes).

Indeed, as Muslim women live in Europe, learn the languages, get educated and join the workforce, they become more "European" - or more accurately, like women globally, who, if they have the resources and freedom to control their reproduction, choose to have smaller families.

Of course, if they are marginalised and, along with their male counterparts, not given sufficient chance to become a functioning part of their new societies, this process will happen more slowly, if at all, creating a self-fulfilling cycle of recrimination and disintegration.

From Europe to 'Eurabia'?

Either way, it is clear that Europe is going to become more Muslim in the coming decades. The question is whether in the process it will become more Islamic - that is, publicly religious and impacted by Muslim religious symbols and practices - and which version of Islam will define the emerging European Islam.

Will it be a "Euro-Islam" that respects core liberal values of tolerance, openness and respect for the rule of law, or a "Ghetto Islam" that produces subcultures that are largely isolated and hostile to the European self-image (one which, it must be remembered, largely excludes Muslims in the first place)?

The fear mongers behind the rising tide of Islamophobia in Europe argue that the continent is on the way to becoming "Eurabia" - that is, taken over by a Muslim tide and losing its core Europeanness in the process.

It is hard to know how many Europeans buy into this argument. But, while it is rarely a good idea to generalise, the majority would likely prefer Muslims to assimilate into their host societies, to shed the outward appearances of difference, and not integrate - a process that inevitably changes the host culture as well, as it takes on elements of the newer arrival and, inevitably, loses some of its traditions in the process.

Picture-postcard Europe

It is not surprising that in Switzerland the focus would be on minarets.

More than most countries, Switzerland defines itself by its visual aesthetic. It is the picture postcard of Europe, with nothing out of place, the quintessential European destination.

Never mind that Swiss Muslims are among the least conservative in Europe and that the call to prayer is already banned in Switzerland; the presence of more minarets would call out to the Swiss, saying: "We are here and we're not going anywhere. And we're not just going to assimilate to your culture. We intend to keep core parts of ours as well."

Thus the referendum slogans calling for a halt to the "Islamisation of Switzerland". The minaret, as a highly visible sign of Islam's presence, becomes a "spearhead" of that Islamisation, "the symbol of political-societal power claim of Islam" as the website of the Swiss People's Party (SVP), the party behind the vote, describes it.

Never mind that most of the claims by the minaret ban's backers about Islam and the demographic threat are inaccurate. Islam, in their view, cannot exist without asserting unique claims to social and ultimately political power, which is why it is an existential threat by its very presence.

Muslims cannot just be; they have to convert others, and the voice of the muezzin "proclaiming down from the minaret" is the most powerful manifestation of this. Or so the backers of the minaret ban imagine.

Even Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Switzerland's justice minister, admitted that the result "reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies," as if one cannot be Islamic without being fundamentalist.

This is the underlying problem in the debate over minarets, hijabs, or yet more troubling, attempts by European Muslims to establish separate courts and laws aligned with their interpretation of sharia to cover personal status issues.

At best, it says Muslims are willing to integrate, not assimilate into European society.

Comparisons to anti-Semitism

In the aftermath of Sunday's vote, many commentators, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are comparing Islamophobia in Europe today to the anti-Semitism that plagued the continent in the first half of the 20th century.

While understandable, such comparisons miss the fundamental difference between the position of Jews in Europe then and Muslims in Europe today.

Jews had lived in Europe for centuries and, despite anti-Jewish sentiments among huge swaths of Europe's population, were very much a part of their societies' cultures, economies, and increasingly politics.

Indeed, in Germany it was precisely the increasing full participation of Jews in so many parts of national life that made them such an existential threat.

They were Europe's most intimate 'other', inside the very fabric of European identity and increasingly, impossible to tell from "real" Europeans.

As such they became a lethal virus that, in the Nazi logic, had to be eradicated to restore the purity of the race.

The situation for Muslims today is very different.

Muslims are still relatively new to most European societies; at most a couple of generations old. As one Fox news report put it after a riot in Muslim neighbourhoods of the Swedish town of Malmö, they are "outsiders who are already inside" European societies.

What is worrying is that as a new generation of European Muslims come of age and move deeper inside European culture, economies and politics, the fears and prejudices against them will surely grow, especially if, as in Germany of the 1930s, the economic situation continues to deteriorate.

Mass violence against Muslims comparable to that visited against Jews is unimaginable. But as Muslims become, welcomed or not, part of the European fabric, the prejudices against them could begin to take on some of the form of the anti-Semitism that plagued pre-war Europe.

The larger picture

Ultimately, the vote to ban minarets, like other anti-Islamic legislation, is a symptom of a larger problem within contemporary European societies.

It is not just that Europeans are increasingly inhospitable to Muslims and other immigrants. These sentiments reflect the fraying of the social fabric of Europe more broadly, particularly of countries that have had strong recent traditions of social solidarity and welfare.

The larger implications have not been touched on in most of the commentary and reporting in the multi-lingual Swiss media, or the European press more broadly.

Instead, papers such as the German language Neue Zürcher Zeitung, described the vote as a revolt of "the people over the elites" and emphasised the need for rulers to "listen to the people" (a terminology which, in German at least, has alarming historical connotations).

The French language Le Temps questioned: "How can you dialogue when you're crushed by the weight of stereotypes?"

The answer is that people are increasingly scared that their social safety nets are fraying and that life is inexorably going to become harder. And they want quick solutions, not long and complicated dialogues.

And herein lies the real problem underlying the vote. It is not merely about Islam. It is also about the solidification of neo-liberalism economically and conservatism politically across the continent, and ultimately, about globalisation more broadly.

Together, the political, economic and social dynamics are creating a situation in which governments are less able to deliver the high level of services that post-war Europeans have gotten used to, at the moment that ideologically, people are increasingly unwilling to look out for their fellow citizens' welfare as they did previously - when, of course, they also happened to look, speak and act much more like them.

Sweden, where I'm currently living, has long had one of Europe's most generous welfare states, which is coming under severe strain just as the Muslim population is growing rapidly.

But as a priest who works with immigrants pointed out to me, the unwillingness of Swedes in the wealthy town of Vellinge (to cite one example), to allow a home for child war refugees from Muslim countries in their town owes not merely to a fear or loathing against Muslims.

In the "new" and increasingly inegalitarian Sweden, the emerging wealthy class living comfortably in low tax areas like Vellinge are equally unwilling to pay high taxes to support their fellow Swedes.

Of course, it is much easier to blame it on the Muslims and to continue to push them away even as they find their way inside Europe.

But if history is any guide, Europeans will start out blaming the 'inside other' for their problems, but it will not be too long before their anger, and violence, turns on each other.

Mark LeVine is currently visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. His most recent books include Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009) and Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2008).

Switzerland and Minarets Ban

There are just 4 minarets in Switzerland but they have still voted to ban minarets on Mosques. Is this Islamophobia? Maybe worse...

Are the Swiss more bigoted than other Europeans? Probably not. Referendums are a measure of popular gut feelings, rather than considered opinion, and popular gut feelings are rarely liberal. Referendums on this issue in other European countries might well produce startlingly similar results.

To attribute the Swiss vote to ban minarets – an idea that was promoted by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, but by none of the other political parties – to "Islamophobia" is perhaps to miss the point. To be sure, a long history of mutual Christian-Muslim hostility, and recent cases of radical Islamist violence, have made many people fearful of Islam in a way that they are not of Hinduism, say, or Buddhism. And the minaret, piercing the sky like a missile, is easily caricatured as a fearsome image.

But if the Swiss and other Europeans were self-assured about their own identities, their Muslim fellow-citizens probably would not strike such fear in their hearts. And that might be the problem. It was not so long ago that the majority of citizens in the western world had their own unquestioned symbols of collective faith and identity. The church spires that grace many European cities still meant something to most people. Few people married outside their own faith.

Until recently, too, many Europeans believed in their kings and queens, flew their national flags, sang their national anthems, were taught heroic versions of their national histories. Home was home. Foreign travel was for soldiers, diplomats, and rich people. "Identity" was not yet seen as a problem.

Much has changed, thanks to global capitalism, European integration, the stigmatisation of national feeling by two catastrophic world wars, and, perhaps most importantly, the widespread loss of religious faith. Most of us live in a secular, liberal, disenchanted world. The lives of most Europeans are freer now than ever before. We are no longer told what to do or think by priests or our social superiors. When they try, we tend not to take any notice.

But there has been a price to pay for our newly liberated world. Freedom from faith and tradition has not always led to greater contentment, but, on the contrary, to widespread bewilderment, fear, and resentment. While demonstrations of collective identity have not entirely disappeared, they are largely confined to football stadiums, where celebration (and disappointment) can quickly boil over in violence and resentment.

Populist demagogues blame political, cultural, and commercial elites for the anxieties of the modern world. They are accused, not entirely without reason, of imposing mass immigration, economic crisis, and loss of national identity on ordinary citizens. But if the elites are hated for causing our modern malaise, the Muslims are envied for still having faith, for knowing who they are, for having something that is worth dying for.

It is unimportant that many European Muslims are just as disenchanted and secular as their non-Muslim fellow-citizens. It is the perception that counts. Those soaring minarets, those black headscarves, are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith.

It is not surprising that anti-Muslim populism has found some of its most ferocious supporters among former leftists, for they, too, have lost their faith – in world revolution, or whatnot. Many of these leftists, before their turn to revolution, came from religious backgrounds. So they suffered a double loss. In their hostility to Islam, they like to talk about defending "Enlightenment values," whereas in fact they lament the collapse of faith, whether religious or secular.

There is, alas, no immediate cure for the kind of social ills exposed by the Swiss referendum. The Pope has an answer, of course. He would like people to return to the bosom of Rome. Evangelical preachers, too, have a recipe for salvation. Neo-conservatives, for their part, see the European malaise as a form of typical Old World decadence, a collective state of nihilism bred by welfare states and soft dependence on hard American power. Their answer is a revived western world, led by the United States, engaged in an armed crusade for democracy.

But, unless one is a Catholic, a born-again Christian, or a neo-con, none of these visions is promising. The best we can hope for is that liberal democracies will muddle through this period of unease – that demagogic temptations will be resisted, and violent impulses contained. After all, democracies have weathered worse crises in the past.

The result looks likely to cause strife where there was relative peace, sully the country's image abroad, damage investment and trade with the Muslim world, and set back efforts to integrate a population of some 400,000 Muslims, most of whom are European Muslims – and non-mosque-goers – from the Balkans.

The campaign to ban minarets was described by the country's justice minister as a "proxy war" for drumming up conflict between ethnic Swiss and Muslim immigrants. But the ban was supported by a majority of 57.5%, 20 percentage points more than predicted in opinion polls in the run-up to the vote.

Muslim leaders from around the world, senior church figures, European politicians and human rights experts have deplored Switzerland's decision to ban the building of minarets.

The polarising verdict in a Swiss referendum held yesterday raised fundamental questions about discrimination and freedom of religion, with the Swiss government itself doubtful over whether the popular vote could be translated into national law, as required by the country's system of direct democracy.

"Scandalous," said the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, while Babacar Ba, a senior official of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, warned of an "upsurge in Islamophobia" in Europe.

But far right leaders in Europe applauded the Swiss vote and called for parallel prohibitions in other countries.

Tariq Ramadan Says in Guardian:

There are only four minarets in Switzerland, so why is it that it is there that this initiative has been launched? My country, like many in Europe, is facing a national reaction to the new visibility of European Muslims. The minarets are but a pretext – the UDC wanted first to launch a campaign against the traditional Islamic methods of slaughtering animals but were afraid of testing the sensitivity of Swiss Jews, and instead turned their sights on the minaret as a suitable symbol.

Every European country has its specific symbols or topics through which European Muslims are targeted. In France it is the headscarf or burka; in Germany, mosques; in Britain, violence; cartoons in Denmark; homosexuality in the Netherlands – and so on. It is important to look beyond these symbols and understand what is really happening in Europe in general and in Switzerland in particular: while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary.

At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, "What are our roots?", "Who are we?", "What will our future look like?", they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.

Over the last two decades Islam has become connected to so many controversial debates – violence, extremism, freedom of speech, gender discrimination, forced marriage, to name a few – it is difficult for ordinary citizens to embrace this new Muslim presence as a positive factor. There is a great deal of fear and a palpable mistrust. Who are they? What do they want? And the questions are charged with further suspicion as the idea of Islam being an expansionist religion is intoned. Do these people want to Islamise our country?

The campaign against the minarets was fuelled by just these anxieties and allegations. Voters were drawn to the cause by a manipulative appeal to popular fears and emotions. Posters featured a woman wearing a burka with the minarets drawn as weapons on a colonised Swiss flag. The claim was made that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Swiss values. (The UDC has in the past demanded my citizenship be revoked because I was defending Islamic values too openly.) Its media strategy was simple but effective. Provoke controversy wherever it can be inflamed. Spread a sense of victimhood among the Swiss people: we are under siege, the Muslims are silently colonising us and we are losing our very roots and culture. This strategy worked. The Swiss majority are sending a clear message to their Muslim fellow citizens: we do not trust you and the best Muslim for us is the Muslim we cannot see.

Who is to be blamed? I have been repeating for years to Muslim people that they have to be positively visible, active and proactive within their respective western societies. In Switzerland, over the past few months, Muslims have striven to remain hidden in order to avoid a clash. It would have been more useful to create new alliances with all these Swiss organisations and political parties that were clearly against the initiative. Swiss Muslims have their share of responsibility but one must add that the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow. They fail to assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely "integrated". That we face common challenges, such as unemployment, poverty and violence – challenges we must face together. We cannot blame the populists alone – it is a wider failure, a lack of courage, a terrible and narrow-minded lack of trust in their new Muslim citizens.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Why is Amir Khan not a superstar?

The British boxer Amir Khan believes he is not fully accepted in this country because of his Asian Muslim background and insists he would be regarded as a "superstar" if he were white.

Speaking before the defence of his WBA light-welterweight title against Dmitriy Salita in Newcastletomorrow night, Khan spoke of his frustration at how his attempts to break down racial barriers had been stymied by bigotry, whereas he had been treated "like God" since moving to the United States.

"I can only say that sometimes ,skin colour does make a difference," Khan said. "I know for a fact if I were a white English fighter maybe I would have been a superstar in Britain, and the world."

Khan, who won a silver medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, has been booed in each of his three fights since being knocked out by the Colombian Breidis Prescott last year. He admitted that the racist abuse he has received on internet forums hurt, but said it made him more determined as a boxer. "It made me come back even stronger," he said. "It made me a better fighter. I'm proud to be British."

Khan added: "I try to fix things between the Asian community and the English community. There are always going to be racial things there, not getting on with each other and stuff. I have tried to break that barrier. I'm British, I went to the Olympic Games for Britain. I could have chosen to go for Pakistan if I was like that, if we were all like that – and also, me being Muslim as well. I respect other religions and other cultures."

Britain’s ethnic minorities are racked by the pain of racism with an estimated 87,000 members of ethnic minorities being a victim of racially motivated crimes.

Figures also show that ethnic minorities have the worst unemployment and housing crises in the country.

Some 70 percent of all ethnic minorities live in the 88 most deprived areas, compared to 40 percent of the general population.

Bribing for healthcare in Bangladesh

The Dhaka Medical College Hospital in Bangladesh treats more than two million patients a year.

It claims to offer free medical treatment to the poor, but using a hidden camera, Al Jazeera has discovered that some patients have to pay bribes to receive any care at all.

Nicolas Haque reports.

Friday 4 December 2009

Retired judge's report indicts 68 people over 1992 Babri mosque violence

Senior Hindu nationalist politicians in India, including the former prime minister, were implicated today in a long-awaited government report into the demolition of a 16th-century mosque by a mob of Hindus 17 years ago.

A commission headed by the retired judge Manmohan Singh Liberhan produced a 900-page report indicting 68 people for events leading up to the destruction of the Babri mosque, in the northern town of Ayodhya. Among those named were the former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani.

The events of 1992 were a turning point in India's history, sparking clashes that left more than 1,000 people dead, and marking the political rise of Hindu nationalists. The names included in the report surprised many, especially that of Vajpayee, who had repeatedly said the mosque should not have been destroyed.

According to the judge, both Vajpayee and Advani, as well as other senior rightwing politicians, were "culpable of taking the country to the brink of communal discord". He recommended that using religion to prosecute a political agenda should be outlawed in India.

Ministers said a law designed to prevent a repeat of the mosque demolition was being considered.

The Congress-led government said the commission was a "fact-finding mission" and it was up to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to pursue those accused. No punitive action would be taken on the basis of the report itself.

Dozens of cases have been lodged in the past 17 years, mired in a welter of claims and counter-claims. Liberhan complained that during questioning witnesses often "protected" senior political figures.

The tearing down of the mosque was the result of a political mobilisation by Advani, the report said. He masterminded the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party in India by fanning religious zealotry with a pilgrimage in 1992 to the claimed birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, in Ayodhya. On the site was the Babri mosque, which was razed to the ground on 6 December 1992 by Hindu fanatics, setting off clashes between Hindus and Muslims that left more than 1,000 dead.

The violence was among the worst since the partition of British India, and the events have remained a subject of bitter debate. The site remains closed to the public, with tight security surrounding a ramshackle Ram shrine.

The Liberhan commission said that contrary to claims by the BJP, the demolition was "neither spontaneous nor unpreventable" and was the "zenith of a concerted and well laid out plan".

Also implicated were senior officials, both retired and serving, as well as organisers of the Hindu revivalist movement. The then BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the state where the mosque lay, was accused of posting bureaucrats and police officers he knew would not act to stop the violence.

The report said the "author" of the destruction was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical religious group that is the fountainhead of the Hindu nationalist movement. Both Advani and Vajpayee were RSS veterans, although once in office they distanced themselves from its radical Hindu-first agenda.

The government's opponents said the commission had bent to the prevailing political wind. The report was given to the government last June but had been kept secret. The report cleared the Congress government of 1992 of being negligent and letting the mosque be destroyed. Congress projects itself as a secular party that balances minority and majority rights.

Swapan Dasgupta, a rightwing political commentator, said a "small cabal, not 68 people, was responsible", although the BJP bore "larger moral responsibility".

He said: "I was there on the day and many BJP leaders had led people there. They cannot say they were not involved. But to anyone under 30 in India, about 500 million people, this is all irrelevant. India's moved on."

Thursday 3 December 2009

China: A road to Hajj

The ancient Chinese city of Xi'an is home to the famous terracotta army and was at the very centre of Chinese civilisation during the Tang dynasty from 618 to 907.

It is also home to about 60,000 ethnic Chinese Muslims and boasts 1,300 years of Islamic history.

Proud of their Islamic heritage and their country's traditions, the Muslims of Xi'an have merged their own ancient Chinese culture with Islam, remaining faithful to the central tenets of their religion.

'Lifetime's responsibility'

Forty-six-year-old Ma Yi Ping is well-known within Xi'an's Muslim community.

One of the ten imams at the city's Great Mosque, he also owns a small shop selling Islamic calligraphy in the city's Muslim quarter and acts as a religious teacher for those about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.

"I was born into a devout Muslim family and I'm the only child. I started studying Quran since I was young. I was told that I should devote myself to Islam as well as [to] the Muslim people and contribute to the peace of our society, to our country," Ma says.

"When I was a kid my father sent me to an imam's place to learn the Quran. At that time it was forbidden for children to study in the mosque because of the political pressure brought by the 'Gang of Four'. All religions were affected badly."

China's Communist party closed all of the country's mosques in 1959 and during the 1966 Cultural Revolution, more than 29,000 mosques were destroyed.

Ma was 16 years old when the mosques re-opened and he became an imam.

"As an imam, it's my lifetime responsibility to promote Islam," he says.

Ma first went on Hajj in 1994 and has been again several times since.

Unlike in Singapore and Malaysia, there are no elaborate preparations that the Chinese Muslims undertake. Ma helps to guide his pilgrims and teaches them some special prayers to perform while in Mecca.

"I want to help the Chinese Muslims as they are very pious. The only problem they face is that they are not familiar with all the religious activities [that take place] during the Hajj, since they are not done locally."

'Ancestors' wishes'

Jia Wang Yi and his wife are two of the soon-to-be pilgrims Ma is helping. Both in their sixties, they have been saving for five years for their pilgrimage.

"This trip is very important to both of us. We have done lots of preparation work with the instructions from the imam and my son.

"I have been very conscious of my health, working very hard to study the Hajj rituals, preparing our clothing and medicine. We have prepared thoroughly," Jia says.

Their son, Jia Ren Ping, was hoping to go with them but work commitments mean he will not be able to make it this time around.

"Both my grandparents and parents desired to participate in the Hajj. But due to various reasons, my grandparents were unable to do so. They faced financial problems and lived during a war-torn period," Jia Ren Ping explains.

"Thus, my parents have this strong desire to go to Hajj, firstly to accomplish the will of Allah, secondly to fulfill the wishes of our ancestors."

The Jias will be part of a group of 251 pilgrims leaving Xi'an for the Hajj. As the community is so closely-knit, almost everyone knows the others going from their neighbourhood.

Unlike in some other countries, the Chinese pilgrims do not receive any special government subsidies to help cover the cost of performing Hajj. The less well off often save for years to be able to afford it.

'Reinforcing faith'

For Xi'an's wealthier Muslims, like Jia Hong, who owns a successful fried rice restaurant in the heart of the Muslim quarter, performing Hajj is a matter of coordination and timing.

He will be going on Hajj for the first time, but his wife, who has just given birth to their daughter, will be unable to accompany him.

"Everything with my family has been taken care of and I am not concerned for my own safety. Going to the Hajj is the obligation of every Muslim. I leave everything in Allah's hands. The Hajj is going to reinforce my faith, not compromise it," Hong says.

On the day of departure, the Xi'an central train station is full of those saying goodbye to their friends and relations. Each pilgrim has a send-off party of about 30 to 70 people.

Managing the thousands-strong crowd is one of the biggest challenges facing the city's authorities.

Many of those there, including Jia Hong, have never before left the country.

As his family and friends wave him off, he says: "What I'm feeling now is beyond words. I just want to get there as soon as possible and fulfill my obligation."

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Can a Muslim say happy Christmas to his friends?

Suheil Azam was sitting in a coffee shop in east London last month when one his friends began a debate on whether it was permissible under Islamic scripture for Muslims to wish their non-Muslim friends happy Christmas. As a 23-year-old professional who socialises widely, Mr Azam had never considered the possibility that someone in his community might frown upon him for going round to his neighbours at Christmas or partying during New Year. But his friend, who had become increasingly devout, was adamant that such behaviour was haram (forbidden).

"Personally I think he's wrong," explained Mr Azam. "But it's difficult to argue against him because all the information he gets is taken from the internet and it makes him sound very knowledgeable."

Such a debate between two young British Muslims would have been almost unthinkable two decades ago. But today it is frequently the internet that young Muslims turn to when looking for spiritual advice. And what they find in cyberspace is often shockingly intolerant. "Do not congratulate [the unbeliever] on their festivals in any way whatsoever," warns one prominent site. "That implies approval of their festival and not denouncing them."

While the real world provides a vast array of interpretations from a variety of Islamic schools, more often than not it is the intolerant strands of Islam taught by Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Wahabi scholars that dominate online. Backed by billions of petrodollars and an army of tech-savvy graduates who are more than capable of capturing the YouTube generation's imagination, the internet has long been a stronghold for the most intolerant forms of Islam. For those who wish to see the West's Muslim communities continue to integrate with their neighbours, the prevalence of such isolationist rhetoric is of great concern. Armed with quotes from Saudi scholars living thousands of miles away, a small number of angry young British Muslims are forgoing the inclusive Islam their parents were once taught in favour of an interpretation that encourages them to cut themselves off from mainstream society and view all non-Muslims with contempt.

But now, as the Hajj gets under way in Mecca, one of the world's oldest Islamic institutions has come to Britain to remind young Muslims who might be tempted by the Wahabi rhetoric that there is an alternative way to worship. Scholars from Al-Azhar in Cairo have been touring Britain's mosques to launch a new online book of fatwas (Islamic judgements) which directly challenge the Saudi way of thinking.

The second oldest university in the world, after China's Nanking University, Al-Azhar was generally seen as the foremost centre of learning in the Sunni world until Saudi Arabia began exporting its millenarian version of Islam en masse from the late 1970s. Critics have since accused Al-Azhar of being too close to the widely disliked Egyptian government, but it remains one of the few international schools of Islamic jurisprudence with enough historical clout to challenge Saudi Arabia's supremacy.

The 200-page book, entitled The Response, has been available in the Middle East in Arabic for two years but this is the first time a comprehensive list of some of the most commonly asked questions encountered by Al-Azhar's scholars has been available in English, and equally importantly, Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. The issues answered in the book range from whether the Earth revolves around the Sun (Sheikh Ibn Baaz, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti during the 1990s, insisted that the Sun revolved around the Earth) to whether a Muslim is allowed to perform magic tricks (Wahabis forbid it).

After each question, the book's authors quote a fundamentalist fatwa and then offer their own, centrist alternative. In reply to whether Muslims can greet non-believers during their festivals, for instance, Al-Azhar's scholars write: "There is no harm in congratulating non-Muslims with whom you have a family relationship, or that are neighbours of yours." They then give examples from the Prophet Mohamed's life that showed his tolerance toward other religions.

Sheikh Abdel Fattah El Bezm, the Grand Mufti of Damascus, was one of two Al-Azhar trained scholars to tour the UK this week, visiting mosques in Birmingham and Manchester. An elderly cleric with a trimmed grey beard and warm eyes, the Islam he grew up with and went on to study was mainly concerned with creating a just world marked by kindness and lenience.

In an interview with The Independent, he was keen to avoid blaming the Saudis directly, but it was clear that Al-Azhar's scholars want to confront the hardliners' rhetoric. "This is not an argument between two countries, between Saudi Arabia or Al-Azhar," he said. "But we do want to show that there are many different schools of thought. A few decades ago people began to abuse Islam and abuse Muslims. They took Islam out of context; they used it for their own personal gain and it has come back to haunt us. We are now paying the price for that." Richard Gauvain, a British-born academic and a specialist in Islam who has taught at the American University of Cairo for the past seven years, translated The Response into English and says it is time moderate scholars caught up with the online mullahs. "To be honest this book should have been written 30 years ago," he said. "Its value lies in re-establishing Al-Azhar as the leading voice. It reaches out to the average guy on the street and reminds them that nuance and ambiguity have always been very much part of the Islamic tradition."

But will British Muslims listen to what Al-Azhar has to say? Earlier this year Al-Azhar launched an English language version of its famous Islamic Hotline. Commonly referred to as "Dial-a-Sheikh" in Egypt, the hotline was launched in 2000 and allowed ordinary Muslims from across the Middle East to phone Al-Azhar's scholars for Islamic advice. It has since received over two million calls from around the world but has had trouble gaining a foothold in the UK. Chérif Abdel Meguid, the phone line's rotund and bespectacled founder, was surprisingly candid about the limited success of the hotline in Britain: "Very few of our callers come from the UK at the moment," he admitted. "We launched it in April but we haven't followed it up with enough advertising yet. This week we've taken adverts out in some of the Urdu language British press so we hope to get more callers." Inayat Bunglawala, the Muslim Council of Britain's influential media secretary who recently founded his own group, Muslims4UK, believes the Egyptian institution's reputation has suffered. "Educated Muslims look at Al-Azhar with respect because of its history as a beacon of learning but they are also very much aware that its reputation has dwindled in recent decades," he said. "Many now regard it as little more than an extension of the Egyptian government whose sheikhs are called upon to make pronouncements that are favourable to the Egyptian regime. "

But Muhammad Ali Musawi from the Quilliam Foundation, which was set up by former extremists who have abandoned their hardline rhetoric, believes even extremists will take note of Al-Azhar fatwas. "I think this is something that we should welcome," he said. "[Al-Azhar] is still a respected institution and people will listen to what it has to say.

"The big problem, as ever, is resources. The sort of money Al-Azhar has backing it cannot even begin to compare with what Saudi Arabia puts in to funding its Wahabi clerics. Unfortunately, young British Muslims rarely come across a scholar from Al-Azhar. But barely a week goes by without a Saudi institution sending over one of their clerics to preach in our universities or mosques."

Conflicting fatwas: Cairo vs Saudi Arabia

Q. Should a husband or wife stay in a marriage if their partner no longer prays?

* Fatwa from Sheikh Ibn al-Uthaymin (a prominent 20th-century Saudi scholar) By abandoning his or her prayers, a person leaves Islam. It is forbidden, therefore, for a Muslim to remain with a husband or a wife who no longer prays.

* Al-Azhar's fatwa With a single stroke of the pen, this fatwa declares a vast number of Muslims to be unbelievers. In fact, it means that millions of people are now no longer Muslims. We do not know why the authors are so keen to exclude crowds of Muslims from God's religion.

Q. Is free thought and faith a positive attribute?

* Sheikh Ibn al-Uthaymin Whoever argues that a person is entitled to complete freedom of faith is an unbeliever, guilty of the major sin of disbelief.

* Al-Azhar Allowing people freedom of faith does not mean that we consent to people forsaking their religion. However, we are dismayed by insistence on charging Muslims with acts of apostasy for the smallest of reasons.

Q. Is it wrong to say the Earth moves around the Sun?

* Sheikh Ibn Baaz (Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia 1993-99) "The person who maintains that the Sun does not move should be condemned to death after being called upon to repent, as his denials of the motion of the Sun constitute a denial of God's Word.

* Al-Azhar Matters which are not explicitly indicated in texts revealed by God should be referred to experts in these fields, such as astronomers. Such fatwas as this one sadly distorts the image of Islam worldwide.

Q. Is it allowed for a Muslim to live in a non-Muslim country?

* Sheikh Ibn Baaz It is illegal to live in such countries for work, trade or even for study, except when engaged in proselytising in the name of Islam.

* Al-Azhar It is a Muslim's duty, whether living within Muslim or non-Muslim communities, to benefit other members of those communities through teaching religion, calling for the good and opposing the bad.

Q. Are Muslims allowed to study secular law?

* The Permanent Committee for Islamic Research (Saudi Arabia's most senior school of Islamic jurisprudence) It is not permitted to teach secular law as a general course in higher education. This subject should be limited to specialists, who are able to show how secular law deviates from the truth [of Muslim law].

* Al-Azhar There is nothing wrong with studying secular law providing that one's study is guided by a legitimate interest, such as co-operating for the general good of society and fighting legal oppression.