Saturday 30 January 2010

Hadith: Help ease the suffering of others

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Whoever fulfills the needs of his brother, God will fulfill his needs. Whoever eases his brother's difficulty, God will ease his difficulty in this life and on the Day of Resurrection."

Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Hadith 622

Friday 29 January 2010

Hadith: Prophets Love

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) quoted God as saying: "My love is obliged to those who love each other for My sake, who sit with each other for My sake, who visit each other for My sake, and who give to each other generously for My sake."

Al-Muwattah, Volume 51, Hadith 15

Saudi authorities making sure that Women dont exercise

Health authorities in Jeddah have shut down an "illegal" women's fitness centre attached to a hospital, closing one of the few venues where Saudi women are able to exercise, local media said on Wednesday.

Although health officials have repeatedly blamed the high rates of heart disease and diabetes in the kingdom on poor diets and lack of exercise, health authorities said women's fitness centres were not allowed.

"Anyone who violates regulations governing the running of health facilities would be punished severely because this involves people's health," Jeddah health official Muhammed Abdul Jawad told the English-language Arab News.

The reports did not identify the Jeddah hospital affected, but a photograph in the Saudi Gazette showed an official sealing the club door with an announcement reading "Closed on the order of Jeddah Health Affairs."

While gyms for men in the gender-segregated conservative Islamic society are permitted, women's health clubs are forbidden, despite a clear demand shown by a surge in underground facilities in the past two years.

But last year a number of stand-alone women's gyms were shut, though some attached to or inside hospital premises continued to function.

The reports said the country's municipal and rural affairs ministry had recently closed two other gyms in the Red City of Jeddah and one in Dammam, eastern Saudi Arabia.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Iraqis damned for eternity with high levels or radiation and dioxins

More than 40 sites across Iraq are contaminated with high levels or radiation and dioxins, with three decades of war and neglect having left environmental ruin in large parts of the country, an official Iraqi study has found.

Areas in and near Iraq's largest towns and cities, including Najaf, Basra and Falluja, account for around 25% of the contaminated sites, which appear to coincide with communities that have seen increased rates of cancer and birth defects over the past five years. The joint study by the environment, health and science ministries found that scrap metal yards in and around Baghdad and Basra contain high levels of ionising radiation, which is thought to be a legacy of depleted uranium used in munitions during the first Gulf war and since the 2003 invasion.

The environment minister, Narmin Othman, said high levels of dioxins on agricultural lands in southern Iraq, in particular, were increasingly thought to be a key factor in a general decline in the health of people living in the poorest parts of the country.

"If we look at Basra, there are some heavily polluted areas there and there are many factors contributing to it," she told the Guardian. "First, it has been a battlefield for two wars, the Gulf war and the Iran-Iraq war, where many kinds of bombs were used. Also, oil pipelines were bombed and most of the contamination settled in and around Basra.

"The soil has ended up in people's lungs and has been on food that people have eaten. Dioxins have been very high in those areas. All of this has caused systemic problems on a very large scale for both ecology and overall health."

Government study groups have recently focused on the war-ravaged city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, where the unstable security situation had kept scientists away ever since fierce fighting between militants and US forces in 2004.

"We have only found one area so far in Falluja," Othman said. "But there are other areas that we will try to explore soon with international help."

The Guardian reported in November claims by local doctors of a massive rise in birth defects in the city, particularly neural tube defects, which afflict the spinal cords and brains of newborns. "We are aware of the reports, but we must be cautious in reaching conclusions about causes," Othman said. "The general health of the city is not good. There is no sewerage system there and there is a lot of stagnant household waste, creating sickness that is directly affecting genetics. We do know, however, that a lot of depleted uranium was used there.

"We have been regulating and monitoring this and we have been urgently trying to assemble a database. We have had co-operation from the United Nations environment programme and have given our reports in Geneva. We have studied 500 sites for chemicals and depleted uranium. Until now we have found 42 places that have been declared as [high risk] both from uranium and toxins."

Ten of those areas have been classified by Iraq's nuclear decommissioning body as having high levels of radiation. They include the sites of three former nuclear reactors at the Tuwaitha facility – once the pride of Saddam Hussein's regime on the south-eastern outskirts of Baghdad – as well as former research centres around the capital that were either bombed or dismantled between the two Gulf wars.

The head of the decommissioning body, Adnan Jarjies, said that when inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived to "visit these sites, I tell them that even if we have all the best science in the world to help us, none of them could be considered to be clean before 2020."

Bushra Ali Ahmed, director of the Radiation Protection Centre in Baghdad, said only 80% of Iraq had so far been surveyed. "We have focused so far on the sites that have been contaminated by the wars," he said. "We have further plans to swab sites that have been destroyed by war.

"A big problem for us is when say a tank has been destroyed and then moved, we are finding a clear radiation trail. It takes a while to decontaminate these sites."

Scrap sites remain a prime concern. Wastelands of rusting cars and war damage dot Baghdad and other cities between the capital and Basra, offering unchecked access to both children and scavengers.

Othman said Iraq's environmental degradation is being intensified by an acute drought and water shortage across the country that has seen a 70% decrease in the volume of water flowing through the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

"We can no longer in good conscience call ourselves the land between the rivers," she said. "A lot of the water we are getting has first been used by Turkey and Syria for power generation. When it reaches us it is poor quality. That water which is used for agriculture is often contaminated. We are in the midst of an unmatched environmental disaster."

Wednesday 27 January 2010

How U.S. can keep its Muslims moderate

After the Christmas airliner attack, the recent spate of domestic terrorism arrests, and the Fort Hood shootings, people are understandably concerned about the possibility of homegrown terrorism involving Muslim Americans. But while the potential for this form of terrorism is real, it is largely overstated.

Despite a troubling spike in terrorism arrests and incidents in 2009, terrorist activity by Muslim Americans has been rare. In the 100 months since 9/11, 139 Muslim Americans have been accused of planning or carrying out terror-related violence. To put this in perspective, more than 136,000 people have been murdered in the United States since 9/11, and only 31 of those murders were committed by these Muslim Americans.

Together with University of North Carolina sociology professor Charles Kurzman and Duke religion professor Ebrahim Moosa, I have been studying Muslim Americans for the past two years to learn about how they deal with the threat of radicalization within their communities and to identify ways to help prevent homegrown terrorism in the future. We found that:

Muslim American organizations and the vast majority of individuals we interviewed firmly reject extremist ideology that justifies the use of violence to achieve political ends.

Muslim Americans have taken a number of positive steps to reduce the potential for radicalization in their communities. They have consistently spoken out against terrorist incidents. And they have counseled, and sometimes cast out from mosques and community groups, those expressing radical views.

Muslim Americans provide information to law enforcement about radical individuals who might engage in violence.

Muslim Americans feel the strain of living in America in the post-9/11 era. They perceive both official and societal discrimination, endure negative portrayals in the media, and worry about the many barriers to assimilation and participation in mainstream American life.

Muslim Americans are responding to these concerns with increased political activity, community-building activities, and the formation of a strong identity as a religious group.

Counterterrorism officials should take heed of these findings. Actions that distance Muslim Americans from mainstream society and increase social isolation will likely reduce cooperation with law enforcement and possibly contribute to the conditions that lead to radicalization.

To stave off this possibility, we should encourage Muslim American political participation, which provides an outlet for grievances and exposes the system to views that might otherwise be unheard. Political participation demonstrates to Muslims both here and around the world that, in America, nonviolent action can lead to positive social change. It is therefore important that both major political parties include Muslim Americans in their organizations and actively seek their support through the political process.

We also recommend that governments support community-building activities such as youth centers, public health clinics, housing initiatives, and child-care facilities. That would show Muslim-Americans that America cares about the strength and vibrancy of their communities, not just the contribution they can make to counterterrorism. And it may turn out that the contacts made with Muslim Americans will build the relationships that result in better counterterrorism intelligence. Such activities are especially important in isolated immigrant communities.

Additionally, tensions between Muslim Americans and law enforcement need to be addressed, especially in regard to the use of informants within Muslim American communities to build criminal cases. Some Muslim Americans view many of the cases brought against members of their community as instances of entrapment. A clearing of the air on this issue is urgently needed.

Law enforcement should develop a policy on when to use informants, especially when they are infiltrating sacred spaces such as mosques. This policy should be discussed with Muslim American organizations and strictly enforced. For their part, Muslim Americans must realize that the use of informants is a traditional, accepted law enforcement tactic that is appropriate in some cases.

Policies that alienate Muslim American communities in an effort to crack down on terrorism are likely to exacerbate, not reduce, the threat of homegrown terrorism. Those that treat Muslim Americans as part of the solution are far more likely to be successful.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Dont Judge fellow muslims for small things

A few days ago, I was visited by a non-Muslim who was keen to know about Islam. I was impressed by the amount of knowledge and understanding she had.

The way she understood how things go and her agreement that the media was causing a lot of damage was very encouraging. Yet, the many questions she had and the many problematic issues she raised were not less than the amount of knowledge she had.

For more than two hours, we discussed issues, many of which were relating to occasions in the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) narrated mainly in the Sunnah (tradition).

This raised in my mind a question I had been thinking about for quite a long time; is the Sunnah causing problems in our life or are we causing the problem by failing to understand the Sunnah within the context of the events and its relevance or irrelevance to our present time?

As it is part of my faith to always look with objectivity at things, I started looking into many texts which presumably cause problems to see where the controversy comes from.

To walk the talk, let's take an example. The other day I was waiting at one of the mosque's receptions until my wife finished her own business. As it was my day off and I was spending the time with my family, I was wearing a sports outfit.

One of the brothers who have known me for long approached me with a big exclamation mark, or blame, on his face. He asked why I was wearing this outfit, while, as he claims or understands, I was supposed to wear "Islamic attire".

I smiled. "What Islamic dress you are talking about, brother?" I enquired. And because I knew his answer even before he uttered it, I gave him the space to voice all his complaints against my "westernised" dress.

The brother continued explaining to me that the Prophet told us we should not be wearing clothes that are similar to those of non-Muslims. We, faithful as we are, should be following his example and, according to the brother, it is a sunnah (recommended action) to wear a turban and long garment.

He started quoting hadiths (sayings and traditions of the Prophet) all describing the Prophet entering Makkah with a turban on his head. He also referred to many other occasions when the Prophet wiped over the front of his turban in ablution and many other situations of a similar nature.

Gently, I said to the brother, "Do you trust my knowledge?" As he replied in the affirmative, I explained to him how extensive the research I did regarding this specific issue of the turban was.

I explained that I had discovered at the end that all hadiths narrated as regards to the issue were either weak or non-indicative of any recommendation, let alone obligation, to wearing it.

Going further in my discussion, I had to refer to the main characteristics of Islam as a religion again, stressing the fact that its being a universal religion means that it has to carry the factors that make it so.

In other words, issues like clothing, eating, and similar things should not be explained under any one environment-related condition. Rather, they should be flexible enough to be understood according to any society and its norms.

This is what is known in Islamic Shariah asurf(custom or tradition of society), which is considered as a legitimate source of legislation.

Islam has placed general guidelines as to what constitutes decent clothes and what should be covered in what situations. Yet, the details of this can be decided according to the situation and the society.

Therefore, I would find it very comforting and religiously suitable if I am wearing a suit and tie when I am lecturing at the University of London in my capacity as an imam, rather than wearing a long cloak and some head cover that makes me alien to the place as well as the audience.

One of the biggest challenges that Muslims need to overcome to solve the problem between the Sunnah and the present society is their understanding and view of the traditional explanation of the texts.

It seems that considerable amount of Muslims born and raised in the West are looking with the eye of admiration at the classical Islamic heritage and the explanation of early and medieval scholars; which I personally share with them.

Yet, taking this admiration further beyond the boundaries of admiration is quite problematic. In Islam, nothing is taken as being beyond criticism except the Quran and the authentic sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

This means that whosoever's explanations, commentaries, or whatever, are not divine. They can be respected and deserve so because they are Pious and scholarly as their authors may be, they are still seen within the boundaries of human efforts and therefore subjective criticism can be directed at them. They cannot be taken as absolute or unchallengeable.

The real problem does not occur when we read what Prophet Muhammad said and start to apply it.

Rather, it happens when we start to apply what we have understood from the sayings of Prophet Muhammad in our own way and with our limited knowledge and later on give it a status that is normally due to the text itself, and not the interpretation.

It has always been a problem when people add their personal views or interpretations without indicating that they do not belong to the original text. When they fail to draw the line between what is unchallengeable and what is not, problems occur.

This is because in Islam, what is divine is always perfect, and what is human is endowed with imperfection.

By Ahmad Saad, Currently the Imam of North London Central Mosque (formerly known as Finsbury Park Mosque).He studied Religious Pluralism at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2005. He is also a member of the American Academy of Religion. He is the former imam of the Muslim Community of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He holds a BA in Islamic Studies (English) from Al-Azhar University. He is currently working on his MA thesis on the Sunni-Shi`ah dialogue. He holds Ijazahs in Qur'an and Hadith and Islamic texts from scholars in Egypt, Jordan and UK.

Monday 25 January 2010

British Army conned into using dodgy bomb detectors

The owner of a British company that supplies questionable bomb detectors to Iraq has been arrested on fraud charges, and the export of the devices has been banned, British government officials confirmed Saturday.

Iraqi officials reacted with fury to the news, noting a series of horrific bombings in the past six months despite the widespread use of the bomb detectors at hundreds of checkpoints in the capital.

“This company not only caused grave and massive losses of funds, but it has caused grave and massive losses of the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians, by the hundreds and thousands, from attacks that we thought we were immune to because we have this device,” said Ammar Tuma, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Security and Defense Committee.

But the Ministry of the Interior has not withdrawn the device from duty, and police officers continue to use them.

Iraqi officials said they would begin an investigation into why their government paid at least $85 million to the British company, ATSC Ltd., for at least 800 of the bomb detectors, called ADE 651s.

The British Embassy offered to cooperate with any Iraqi government investigation.

The New York Times first reported official doubts about the device in November, citing American military officials and technical experts who said the ADE 651 was useless, despite widespread reliance on it in Iraq.

The ADE 651 is a hand-held wand with no batteries or internal electronic components, ostensibly powered by the static electricity of the user, who needs to walk in place to charge it. The only moving part is what looks like a radio antenna on a swivel, which swings to point toward the presence of weapons or explosives.

“We are conducting a criminal investigation and as part of that a 53-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of fraud by misrepresentation,” a spokesman for the Avon and Somerset Police in England said, without giving the suspect’s name in line with police policy. The suspect was released on bail, the spokesman said.

“The force became aware of the existence of a piece of equipment around which there has been many concerns and in the interests of public safety launched its investigation,” the police spokesman said.

The suspect’s identity was widely reported in the British press as Jim McCormick, managing director of ATSC Ltd., which operates out of a converted dairy in rural Somerset County, England. News reports described Mr. McCormick as a former British police officer from Merseyside.

Contacted by telephone, Mr. McCormick refused to comment on the charges or the case against him, but he insisted that ATSC would remain in business. “Our company is still fully operational,” he said.

A statement issued by the British Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said it was banning export of the ADE 651 and similar devices to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Tests have shown that the technology used in the ADE651 and similar devices is not suitable for bomb detection,” the department said. “We acted urgently to put in place export restrictions which will come into force next week.” The statement said the department could ban export to those countries because British troops there could be put at risk by the device’s use. ATSC claims to have sold the device to 20 countries, all in the developing world.

The Supreme Board of Audit in Iraq announced it would investigate the procurement of the ADE 651, according to the board’s leader, Abdul Basit Turki. The investigation will focus on officials who previously assured auditors the device was technically sound, he said.

Maj. Gen. Jihad al-Jabiri, who is in charge of procuring the devices for the Ministry of Interior, could not be reached for comment.

In Baghdad on Saturday, the devices were still very much in use. “I didn’t believe in this device in the first place,” said a police officer at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “I was forced to use it by my superiors and I am still forced to do so.”

Another checkpoint officer said he blamed corrupt officials for bringing the ADE 651 in. “Our government is to be blamed for all the thousands of innocent spirits who were lost since these devices have been used in Iraq,” he said.

An associate of ATSC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the devices were manufactured at a cost of $250 each by suppliers in Britain and Romania. “Everyone at ATSC knew there was nothing inside the ADE 651,” he said.

The Iraqi government, according to its auditors, paid $40,000 to $60,000 for each device, although it determined that ATSC was marketing the device for $16,000. The additional money was said to have been for training, spare parts and commissions.

The Times of London quoted Mr. McCormick in November as saying that the device’s technology was similar to that of dowsing or divining rods used to find water. “We have been dealing with doubters for 10 years,” he said. “One of the problems we have is that the machine does look primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.”

Shortly after the arrest on Friday, the BBC reported that it had arranged a lab test of the device and found that its bomb-detection component was an electronic merchandise tag of the sort used to prevent shoplifting.

ATSC’s brochures claim the ADE 651 can detect minute traces of explosives, drugs or even human remains at distances of up to 6 miles by air, or three-fifths of a mile by land. Scientific trials of similar devices have shown that they are no more accurate than a coin toss.

Science and Islam: Past and Present

The Festival of Muslim Cultures, a year-long extravaganza of events across the UK, was aimed at showing how creative innovation is central to the British Islamic landscape. In 2006 the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester opened its doors to 1001 Inventions, an exhibition showcasing leading-edge scientific discoveries from the Middle Ages. This exhibition has since toured the world and will open at the Science Museum in London next week. The BBC created a landmark TV and radio series called Science and Islam, written and presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey. And there have been landmark books, including Jonathan Lyons’ The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization and the historian George Saliba’s Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance.

Many of these activities are designed to fill in what the University of Manchester scientist and historian Salim Al-Hassani calls "missing history"— the often remarkable stories of discovery and invention; arguments about science and religion; colourful characters; and dazzling gadgetry during a mini scientific renaissance that lasted from the 8th to the 15th centuries, a time when Islam’s many empires were at their peak. Non-Western cultures contributed a huge amount to science and technology.

What are these contributions? Indian numerals, the decimal place, algebra; as well as developments in astronomy, optics, chemistry, surgery, the organisation of healthcare and higher education; even toy-making. These and more have come to us via Latin translations of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian manuscripts. One Arabic medical textbook called The Canon of Medicine was taught to medical students in Europe’s elite universities for five centuries until the late 1600s. One of the most remarkable of the many technologies that will be displayed at the Science Museum is an early clock shaped like an elephant that uses water pressure to tell the time. It was designed by al-Jazari, a Turkish engineer from the early 13th century.

Not all the leading scientists of the day were part of the religious mainstream — and some could even be said today to be sceptical. However, what is not in doubt is that the demands of religion were among the driving forces behind scientific discovery during the Islamic Age. This was particularly the case in astronomy. Mosques, for example, employed amateur astronomers whose job included being able to compute accurate tables for times of prayers. One of the most celebrated of the mosque-based astronomers is Ibn al-Shatir, who worked in the Great Mosque in Damascus in the 15th century — his sundial can still be seen by visitors.

Another example of how faith influenced discovery can be seen in the work of the mathematician Musa al-Khwarizmi. He was a kind of chief scientific adviser to al-Mamun, the ruler of one of the earliest Islamic empires, based in Baghdad in the early 9th century. According to one story, al-Mamun commissioned his adviser to think of a neat way to calculate inheritance values, because Islamic rules on inheritance are anything but straightforward. Al-Khwarizmi suggested that inheritance formulae could be described using equations and set these out in a chapter of his signature book on algebra, Kitab al-jabr, or the book of algebra.

The 1001 Inventions exhibition — and the recent books and other events — emerges from a desire to convey a more rounded picture of Muslim cultures, ancient and modern; and to reinforce the idea that societies that embrace diverse ways of looking at the world are often the most innovative, exciting and forward-thinking places to live in.

On many levels, the sum of these parts has been a big success. But at the same time, in one crucial aspect, we have failed. Throughout Europe, small but significant numbers of people continue to believe that Muslims are members of a barbaric sect that oppresses women and children and refuses to live in the modern world. And it appears that the numbers of people who think this way could be increasing. At the very least, their voices are becoming more influential. Since 2005, members of the UK far Right have been elected to the European Parliament; across Europe, public opposition to mosque-building is getting louder.

Acknowledging the role of Muslim cultures to the making of the modern world is an important thing to do, but it is clear that this is not going to convince the sceptics. To do this we need to find another way.

Last year the British Council began a programme of activities — called Our Shared Europe — to highlight Islamic contributions to Europe (past and present). Its aim is to strengthen the trust between Europe’s Muslim communities and wider society. Research to measure how sceptical audiences in EU member states might react to such a programme revealed that a straightforward portrayal of Islamic contributions to Europe was by itself not sufficient in hacking through the walls of mistrust.

A professor from the Netherlands summed up the problem by saying that the story of Islam and Europe is as much about wars and conflict as it is about scientific and cultural exchange. If you want people to acknowledge one, he said, there needs to be space to discuss the other.

What does this mean in practice? It means providing more context when discussing Islam’s scientific luminaries and their achievements. For example, when we say that The Canon of Medicine is an example of the successful transfer of knowledge from East to West, we should perhaps also say that many European commentators were not very polite about the author Ibn Sina (Avicenna). One writer described the book as "Arab lies". Another commentator accused Ibn Sina of being "part of that filthy and wicked Muhammadan sect which legitimises divorce and takes the view that all miracles have a natural explanation".

Similarly, it is often said that the 9th-century ruler al-Mamun was an important scientific patron and rationalist thinker. And it is true that without his funding important developments such as algebra might have taken longer to materialise. But in celebrating his contributions to science we also need to acknowledge that al-Mamun was despotic, intolerant of those who did not share his rationalist philosophy and actively waged wars against Byzantium.

Over the past five years large strides have been made in the public understanding of Islamic contributions to the arts and sciences and such work needs to continue. Many readers of books and visitors to museums will become more knowledgable, which is a good thing. But the fact that Islamic scientists from the Middle Ages invented clocks, cameras and crankshafts is unlikely on its own to change the mind of someone whose image of modern-day Muslims is much less flattering. Shifting perceptions is a far harder task.

Few figures in Islamic scientific history are more colorful or intriguing than three brothers: Jafar-Muhammad, Ahmad and al-Hasan. They lived in Baghdad in the time of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun in the early 9th century, and have come to be known collectively as the 'Banu Musa brothers', Their father, Musa ibn-Shakir, is reported to have been a highwayman when he was young, but somehow he managed to put his past behind him, becoming not only an astronomer and astrologer but a close friend of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid-himself. He died young, leaving three small sons. Harun's son, the Caliph al-Mamun, patron of science and rationality, made a point of looking after them.

As the young boys grew up, they were given the run of al-Mamun's House of Wisdom, and they clearly made the most of it. They were all brilliant scholars, and did much to stimulate the translation project, sending out envoys and paying small fortunes to retrieve manuscripts from the Byzantine Empire and elsewhere. They quickly mastered Greek and were soon writing their own important treatments of the maths of cones and ellipses, building on the work of Apollonius. They were also accomplished astronomers, and at al-Mamun's request were able to make an accurate measurement of the earth's circumference. Yet, apart from their reputation for stirring up trouble, what really made their name was the wonderful machines and devices they created to delight the Baghdad court.

The Banu Musa may well have designed industrial or scientific machines, but if so they are lost. What we do know of their work is that they designed toys. They describe 100 of their devices in a work called the Book of Artifices written in 830, and each one that historians have so far examined is a masterpiece of ingenuity. Fountains that change shape by the minute, clocks with all kinds of little gimmicks, trick jugs, flutes that play by themselves, water jugs that serve drinks automatically, and even a full-size mechanical tea girl that actually serves tea. Such devices still astonish today when they are reconstructed, but they must have made al-Mamun's court gasp with wonder and delight.

Although they are just toys, the inventiveness that the Banu Musa put into them is impressive, as is the ground-breaking technology in one area of engineering: the field of automation. By making clever use of one - or two-way self-closing and - opening valves, devices for delaying action and responding to feedback, and simple mechanical memories, they created automatic systems which are no different in principle from modem machines. They used mainly water under pressure rather than electronics, but many of the operating principles are the same.

The idea of using water pressure to achieve automation reached its pinnacle in the development of clocks. The need to know what time to pray was a crucial spur in Islam to the development of water clocks which could keep the time through day and night. Water clocks such as that of al-Zarqali in Toledo (11th century) became the wonders of the age.

One extraordinary device is a water clock in the shape of an elephant, designed by an engineer called Badi al-Zaman al-Jazarj and illustrated and described in his Book of Ingenious Devices (1206). The elephant clock combined water principles' from Archimedes with an Indian elephant and water timer, Chinese dragons, an Egyptian phoenix, a Persian carpet and Arabian figures.

Al-Jazari was born in the region of al-Jazira between the Tigris and Euphrates in the 12th century. This was a-time when the Turkic-speaking peoples were already beginning to make this part of the world their own, and in 1174 he went to work for the Banu Artuq, the rulers of Amid (now known as Diyar Bakir in southern Turkey). There may have been many engineers as talented and as innovative as al-Jazari, but he was also a skilled communicator who could write and draw too. He must have been an old man, though, when the Prince of Amid, Nasir al-Din Mahmud, ordered him to write his book, for within a few months of completing it he was dead.

Researchers are just beginning to go through this book, which seems to be the culmination of Islamic mechanical technology, to try out some of these machines - either on computers or by building models according to al-Jazari's designs. What they are finding is beginning to cause quite a stir.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Christian Fundamentalists rule US Army

US-made rifles inscribed with Bible codes are being used by US forces and Afghans to fight the Taliban.

The weapons come from Trijicon, a manufacturer based in Wixom, Michigan, that supplies the US military. The company's now deceased founder, Glyn Bandon, started the practice which continues today.

David Chater, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the Afghan capital Kabul, said: "It is a rallying cry for the Taliban. It gives them a propaganda tool.

"They've always tried to paint the US efforts in Afghanistan as a Christian campaign."

General David Petraeus, the chief of the US Central Command, which oversees US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, called the inscriptions, which he said he only learnt about on Wednesday, "disturbing".

"This is a serious concern to me and the other commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan because it indeed conveys a perception that is absolutely contrary to what we have sought to do," he said at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Thursday.

A Nato spokesman in Afghanistan acknowledged that the inscriptions were inappropriate but said the guns would remain in use for now.

Interviewed by Al Jazeera on Thursday, Colonel Gregory Breazile, of the Nato Training Command in Afghanistan, said: "We were told about it last night and when we looked into it, we noticed it was true.

"We started to take action and notify both the ministry of defence and our chain of command and they have all taken action so that we don't purchase any more of these sights.

"We gave the Afghan military these weapons. We are very disappointed, but it's a tiny little inscription and very hard to notice and I don't think it will be an issue in the field."

Breazile said: "We would have not bought these sights had we known they had these inscriptions on them."

Trijicon said it has inscribed references to the New Testament on the metal casings of its gun sights for over two decades.

But it offered on Thursday to stop putting Biblical references on all products manufactured for the US military.

The company also said it would provide, free of charge, 100 modification kits to the Pentagon to enable the removal of the references that are already on products that are currently deployed.

In a statement, Stephen Bindon, Trijicon's president and CEO, called the decision "both prudent and appropriate" and pledged to "move as quickly as possible to provide the modification kits for deployment overseas".

Major Shawn Turner, a Pentagon spokesman, said the defence department "applauds" Trijicon's response.
"We will work to determine how best to quickly and prudently implement the remedies they have proposed," he added.

The inscriptions, which do not include actual text from the Bible, refer numerically to passages from the book.

The Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight rifle sights, used by New Zealand troops, carried references to Bible verses that appeared in raised lettering at the end of the sight stock number.

Markings included "JN8:12", a reference to John 8:12: "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, 'I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life," according to the King James version of the Bible.

The Trijicon Reflex sight is stamped with 2COR4:6, a reference to part of the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," the King James version reads.

Tom Munson, Trijicon's sales director, said: "We don't publicise this. It's not something we make a big deal out of. But when asked, we say, 'Yes, it's there'."

The US Marine Corps was said by ABC News, which broke the news of the inscriptions, to have a $660m contract over multiple years with Trijicon to make 800,000 units of the product.

Trijicon has other contracts to supply the US army with the sights.

The sights are used on weapons used during the training of Afghan and Iraqi soldiers under contracts with the US army and Marine Corps.

Meanwhile, the US-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has called on Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, to withdraw the equipment immediately from combat.

"Having Biblical references on military equipment violates the basic ideals and values our country was founded upon," Haris Tarin, MPAC Washington director, said in a statement.

"Worse still, it provides propaganda ammo to extremists who claim there is a 'Crusader war against Islam' by the United States."

US military forces have repeatedly stated that their missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are secular and they have a ban on proselytising.

Bangladesh: Bishwa Ijtema Draws World Muslims

More than two million Muslims from around the globe are descending on Bangladesh for the world’s second largest Muslim gathering after hajj.

"After the Hajj, the biggest Islamic gathering is this Bishwa Ijtema,” Alamgir Hossain told Geo Television Network on Saturday, January 23.

Hossain joined two million Muslims on the banks of the river Turag on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka to attend the Bishwa Ijtima, or the World Muslim Congregation.

Dressed in traditional Islamic robes and prayer caps, the faithful spend time in prayers and meditation.

They discuss the Noble Qur’an, attend lectures given by scholars from around the world and share notes on ways to spread Islam's message.

Political discussions are not allowed at the three-day gathering.

Many of the faithful traveled by dangerously overcrowded buses and ferries and endured long delays and dense fog to reach the site from far-flung rural villages.

Security was tight to ensure the safety of the worshippers.

"Members of the police are everywhere, thousands of policemen are engaged everywhere to maintain law and order in this 'ijtema' area,” police officer Abdus Sattar said.

“Rapid Action Battalion, members of the army are engaged here, helicopter are also above.

“We have taken very strong security measures here for the devotees so that none can create problems."

Praying for Peace

Hossain is praying for world peace and welfare of Muslims worldwide.

“Millions of Muslims have gathered here to pray together for the peace of the world's Muslims,” he said.

“I am also here to join the prayer to pray for myself and for the peace of world.”

The gathering will end on Sunday, January 24, with a final prayer to be led by Indian scholar Maulana Jobayerul Hasan.

Senior government officials are expected to attend the final day, including President Zillur Rahman, Premier Sheikh Hasina and Opposition Leader Begum Khaleda Zia.

Bishwa Ijtema was first held in the 1960s by Tabliq-e-Jamaat, a political group that urges people to follow the Islamic teachings in their daily lives.

With a population of 144 million, Bangladesh is the world's third-largest Muslim-majority nation.

Friday 22 January 2010

Jewish sage who was married to 17 women arrested

Israeli police have arrested a self-styled Jewish sage and disciplinarian who ran a tightly controlled cult of at least 17 women with whom they believe he fathered dozens of children.

Goel Ratzon, whose name means "saviour" in Hebrew, is now on remand in a Tel Aviv jail awaiting a court appearance.

Police painted a disturbing picture of a man who commanded his household according to a "rulebook", laying down severe restrictions and financial penalties for the women in his life. Many of the women, who dressed in conservative Orthodox clothes, appeared deeply committed to him. Some bore tattoos of his name and face. His lawyer said he denied any wrongdoing and all his relationships were consensual.

Ratzon appeared in an Israeli television documentary last year which showed dozens of women and children in the house. Several of the women then said they were married to Ratzon and they were shown combing his hair and feeding him. They threatened to kill themselves if anyone ever tried to harm their leader.

One said: "He is the messiah everyone is talking about. He is already here and he hasn't been revealed yet. The day he decides to reveal himself, the land will shake." His children all had names that were variations on his, Goel. Police believe he may have fathered up to 40 children with the women.

During the documentary, Ratzon, who has long white hair and a thick white goatee, said of himself: "I'm perfect. I have all the qualities a woman wants."

An undercover investigation was started in June last year after one woman came forward to complain of abuse. Police then raided the house in Tel Aviv, arresting Ratzon this week. He has not been formally charged but is being held on suspicion of enslavement, rape and extortion. A gagging order was imposed on the press, as is common in major police inquiries here, until today.

Found in the house was a rulebook setting out a strict code of conduct for the women, with different financial penalties for infringements. "No women shall marry nor shall any woman attack another, either verbally or physically," said the first rule. The fine was listed as 2,000 shekels (£33). Other rules banned conversation anywhere but the living room and stopped the women from asking Ratzon questions. "No woman shall sit idle when there are dishes to be washed, cleaning to be done, children to look after," said another.

"The evidence shows the suspect controlled his women with a firm hand, including their possessions and their money," said a police statement. "He would dictate what they could and could not do, limit their movements and impose sanctions and various punishments, including the use of violence if they refused to obey."

Ratzon's appointed lawyer, Shlomtzion Gabai, said around 30 women and 60 children were involved with him. "As far as he is concerned, no sexual crimes have been committed," she told Israel Radio. "The women consented willingly to relations … He may be different, but he's not a criminal."

The children have been turned over to the authorities and some of the women have been let free. Ratzon appeared to have at least three apartments, which were dark, overcrowded and filthy.

Thursday 21 January 2010

New York cabbie tracks down owner of $21,000 left on back seat

A Bangladeshi taxi driver in New York City has gone out of his way to track down the person who left thousands of dollars in cash in the back of his cab.

Mukul Asadujjaman, a medical student, drove nearly 80km (50 miles) to an address he found with the money.

He left his phone number when he found no-one at home. The money belonged to an Italian grandmother visiting the US.

Mr Asadujjaman was offered a reward, but he turned it down saying that as a devout Muslim he could not accept it.

Felicia Lettieri, of Pompeii, Italy, and six relatives had taken two cabs on Christmas Eve, Newsday newspaper reported.

Mrs Lettieri, 72, left her handbag behind, with more than $21,000 of the group's travelling money, jewellery worth thousands more, and some of their passports.

Her sister, Francesca Lettieri, 79, of Long Island, said the honest driver had saved her family's vacation.

"We really love what he did," she said.

A gracious Asadujjaman was quoted by the newspaper as saying that he may be broke, but he was also honest.

"My mother is my inspiration. She always said to be honest and work hard."

Mr Asadujjaman called a friend with a car and drove to a Long Island address he found in the handbag.

No-one was at home, so he left his phone number and a note, the report said.

His phone rang a short time later and he drove back to return the bag.

"They were so, so, so happy," Mr Asadujjaman told the paper.

Asked if he was tempted to keep the cash, Mr Asadujjaman said the money would have allowed him more time to study, "but my heart said this is not good".

He also turned down a reward, saying he could not accept it as a devout Muslim, Newsday reported.

"I'm needy, but I'm not greedy," he said. "It's better to be honest."

Mr Asadujjaman is not the first honest American-Bangladeshi cabbie to hit the headlines for noble behaviour.

In 2007, driver Osman Chowdhury returned a lost bag containing diamond rings worth $500,000 to the rightful owner.

This is not the first time, Muslims are famous for returning lost property honestly. See the articles on Islam Awareness page here.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

How Europeans butchered innocents throughout history

Interesting article from The Guardian:

Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept.

In his book American Holocaust, the US scholarDavid Stannard documents the greatest acts of genocide the world has ever experienced. In 1492, some 100 million native people lived in the Americas. By the end of the 19th century almost all of them had been exterminated. Many died as a result of disease, but the mass extinction was also engineered.

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different to their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well-nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peaceable, democratic and egalitarian. Throughout the Americas the earliest explorers, including Columbus, remarked on the natives' extraordinary hospitality. The conquistadores marvelled at the amazing roads, canals, buildings and art they found, which in some cases outstripped anything they had seen at home. None of this stopped them destroying everything and everyone they encountered.

The butchery began with Columbus. He slaughtered the native people of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by unimaginably brutal means. His soldiers tore babies from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disembowelled them and burnt them alive. Columbus ordered all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off. By 1535 the native population of Hispaniola had fallen from eight million to zero: partly as a result of disease, partly due to murder, overwork and starvation.

The conquistadores spread this civilising mission across central and south America. When they failed to reveal where their mythical treasures were hidden, the indigenous people were flogged, hanged, drowned, dismembered, ripped apart by dogs, buried alive or burnt. The soldiers cut off women's breasts, sent people back to their villages with their severed hands and noses hung round their necks and hunted them with dogs for sport. But most were killed by enslavement and disease. The Spanish discovered that it was cheaper to work the native Americans to death and replace them than to keep them alive: the life expectancy in their mines and plantations was three to four months. Within a century of their arrival, about 95% of the population of South and Central America were dead.

In California during the 18th century the Spanish systematised this extermination. A Franciscan missionary called Junípero Serra set up a series of "missions": in reality concentration camps using slave labour. The native people were herded in under force of arms and made to work in the fields on one fifth of the calories fed to African American slaves in the 19th century. They died from overwork, starvation and disease at astonishing rates, and were continually replaced, wiping out the indigenous populations. Junípero Serra, the Eichmann of California, was beatified by the Vatican in 1988. He now requires one more miracle to be pronounced a saint.

While the Spanish were mostly driven by the lust for gold, the British who colonised North America wanted land. In New England they surrounded the villages of the native Americans and murdered them as they slept. As genocide spread westwards, it was endorsed at the highest levels. George Washington ordered the total destruction of the homes and land of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson declared that his nation's wars with the Indians should be pursued until each tribe "is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi". During the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, troops in Colorado slaughtered unarmed people gathered under a flag of peace, killing children and babies, mutilating all the corpses and keeping their victims' genitals to use as tobacco pouches or to wear on their hats. Theodore Roosevelt called this event "as rightful and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier".

The butchery hasn't yet ended: last month the Guardian reported that ­Brazilian ranchers in the western Amazon, having slaughtered all the rest, tried to kill the last surviving member of a forest tribe. Yet the greatest acts of genocide in history scarcely ruffle our collective conscience. Perhaps this is what would have happened had the Nazis won the second world war: the Holocaust would have been denied, excused or minimised in the same way, even as it continued. The people of the nations responsible – Spain, Britain, the US and others – will tolerate no comparisons, but the final solutions pursued in the Americas were far more successful. Those who commissioned or endorsed them remain national or religious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memories are ignored or condemned.

This is why the right hates Avatar. In the neocon Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz complains that the film resembles a "revisionist western" in which "the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys". He says it asks the audience "to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency". Insurgency is an interesting word for an attempt to resist invasion: insurgent, like savage, is what you call someone who has something you want. L'Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, condemned the film as "just an anti-imperialistic, anti-militaristic parable".

But at least the right knows what it is attacking. In the New York Times the liberal critic Adam Cohen praises Avatar for championing the need to see clearly. It reveals, he says, "a well-known principle of totalitarianism and genocide – that it is easiest to oppress those we cannot see". But in a marvellous unconscious irony, he bypasses the crashingly obvious metaphor and talks instead about the light it casts on Nazi and Soviet atrocities. We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing.

I agree with its rightwing critics that Avatar is crass, mawkish and cliched. But it speaks of a truth more important – and more dangerous – than those contained in a thousand arthouse movies.