Tuesday 30 June 2015


Ramadan Mubarak.
Many of you know the story of Mukhtar Mai, one of my personal heroes.
In 2002, Mukhtar, a Pakistani village woman, was brutally gang raped by four men of a powerful neighboring tribe, on the order of a local council; the attack was said to be punishment for an alleged affair that her young brother had with a girl from another tribe. To humiliate her further, Mukhtar was forced to walk home, nearly naked, as villagers looked on. People expected her to commit suicide; she thought about it. But instead, Mukhtar took the rapists to court. Initially, six men were sentenced to death for the rape. Then in 2011, the Pakistan Supreme Court overturned all but one of the convictions and the men were freed; they continue to live in her neighboring village.
I first met Mukhtar seven years ago when she was in Washington, D.C. for a Vital Voices event. I was asked to be her translator when she was invited to speak with Hillary Clinton at the inaugural Women in the World Summit in 2010; unfortunately she had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. In April we had the chance to meet again when she was in town for a Developments in Literacy (DIL) fundraiser.
She smiles when she greets me, remembering that we had met before; she laughs as she shares some of her stories; but it’s her eyes – her eyes can’t hide the unfathomable pain that she’s endured. Her voice is soft, I sit right beside her to hear her. She seems timid, a bit withdrawn. But Mukhtar Mai has the courage of a warrior, and a voice that has challenged centuries of brutality and injustice against women.
We talk about her typical day, her schools, her children, life for women in Pakistan, her fears, her dreams, who inspires her, what makes her so strong.
Allah jin sey kaam laina hota hey, leta hey,” (loosely translated, ‘God chooses certain people to do certain things’).
Mukhtar runs the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organisation. It includes a resource center, which deals with 500 cases of violence against women each year, and includes legal support, a hotline and a mobile emergency unit; a shelter, which started in Mukhtar’s bedroom with women sleeping beside her; and two schools, which provide free education, books, uniforms and supplies; the schools are for both girls and boys until primary, and for girls until high school.
In 2003, she used funds she won from her case to start a school for girls, the first in her village. Illiterate herself, she understood that only education could bring about change.  She laid the bricks with her own hands, she tells me proudly, and enrolled herself as her first student; she made it through primary school, she laughs, then got too busy running her organization. Now the school has 700 children; the second in a neighboring village has 300.
People used to slam the door in her face when she tried to encourage families to send their daughters to her school; now their only wish is for their girls to attend. “If they miss the bus, the parents themselves bring their daughters to school. One way or another, they have understood that girls should get an education,” she says smiling. Visiting the schools is the brightest part of Mukhtar’s day. The kids crowd around her, they all want to shake her hand; sometimes three hands hold on to hers, she says smiling. “The kids love me; the children are very happy at school. And we feel the same way. We consider them our own kids.”
The children of her rapists attend her school too.
Mukhtar got married in 2009, and has two kids of her own, a daughter who is almost five and a son who is three; she also adopted her sister’s daughter, 9. We share stories, and stresses, about our children. She fears for their security. “For myself I don’t worry; whatever happens to me will happen; I worry for my children.” She also worries that her kids are not taking school seriously; since it’s located next to their house and their mother is always there, they don’t see it as a place to study.  Mothers’ worries are always the same – our children’s safety, well being, and education.
Her other big stress is funding for her schools; for the past six years, it’s been very difficult to get funds; DIL helps with some of the teacher salaries. “I’ve been so tense; I don’t want the schools to close down. I hope this mission continues.” She has faith that she will get through this difficult time too.
Mukhtar has big dreams, even if limited resources. “I want to open schools all over Pakistan,” she says, “wherever there isn’t a school.” She also wants to make a college for girls so they can continue studying. “One wishes for so many things, our dreams never stop. But what happens is what Allah wants to happen; if He wishes, then this will happen too.”
We talk about her case, and if things have gotten better for women in Pakistan. She’s frustrated that laws for women are made on paper, but not implemented. “If no one gets punished, there’s no justice. A country that does not have an effective justice system, that country will perish.”  Maybe her kids will see justice, she says, even is she doesn’t. And adds, “Omeed pay dunya kaim hay,” (the world exists on hope).Hakumat mai nai, lekin Allah pey to hai (not in government, but [we have faith] in God).
I ask her what gives her so much strength. “First of all, Allah,” she says, “what Allah wants done, he enables it to happen.” She also gains courage from her mother; and from the support of all of us. “I know that the whole world’s duas are with me,” she says.
I set aside my notebook, hold her hands, and ask her how she’s really doing. She says, unconvincingly, that she’s ok, Allah ka shukr. Adding, “Aik cheez insan key andar ajai, phir wo jatee nahi” (one thing if it gets inside you, then it never leaves you). She hasn’t been able to sleep well in 13 years. “But you have to go on; you still have to laugh; no one likes someone who cries all the time. Zindagi to gozarnee hai”(You have to continue to go on with your life).
I assure her that she’s not alone, that we’re by her side; I tell her that I will share her story during Ramadan, and that we will give generously to make sure her schools stay open; I promise her that I will pray for her children, and ask her to pray for mine.
To learn more about Mukhtar Mai’s work and to donate to her efforts, please visit:http://www.mukhtarmai.org

Monday 22 June 2015

The living martyr, a visit to the Bakr family in Gaza

 Sharifa Bakr sits in front of posters commemorating Ahed and Zachariah Bakr, photo by Dan Cohen
I recently visited the Bakr family in their home in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp. Sharifa Mustafa Bakr, 48, is the mother of 9-year-old Zachariah and grandmother of Ahed, two of the four boys killed.  “Zachariah was my favorite because he was the youngest one,” she said pointing to the poster above her that commemorates his brief life. “He was the sweetest – so innocent and playful,” she told me as tears began to stream down her cheeks.
Sharifa Bakr suffers from heart problems and had just returned from the hospital on that fateful day. “Zachariah asked for a shekel to use the internet, and I promised I would give it to him when he returned,” she said. That was the last time Sharifa Bakr would see her beloved grandson. “When he left, I felt that my soul went with him,” she stammered as she collapsed into tears.
After lying down to watch the news, Sharifa Bakr read on the ticker that four children had been killed on the nearby beach. She knew that the children typically play soccer on the beach because the refugee camp has no parks or open spaces. Upon seeing the news, she ran to Al-Shifa hospital where she encountered a friend who informed her that the dead children were in fact from the Bakr family.
12-year-old Muntasir Bakr was one of the four boys who narrowly survived the airstrikes.
“We call him the living martyr,” Sharifa Bakr told me.
Muntasir was hit with shrapnel which still remains in his head and causes him headaches. He has severe trauma that remains undiagnosed and untreated, and has violent episodes which have caused him to attempt suicide and attack his siblings. I sat with Muntasir in his family’s home. He was polite and good-natured but the trauma from last summer was visible on his young face and audible in his voice. He spoke like a man who had lived many lifetimes – not like a child nearing his teenage years.
“Everyday someone dies. I went to play at the beach yesterday and I couldn’t because I was overwhelmed with fear. It’s a life full of sadness,” he said. “Netanyahu destroyed life.”
Unbeknownst to me, his father had told him to recount the massacre on the beach. “We barely started playing when the first missile exploded right next to my cousin Ismael,” he said. “We started running away and then I told them ‘lets go back and get Ismael then we’ll run away again.’ When we did that another missile exploded right next to us. My brother and my nephew died because they let go of my hand. Two missiles exploded around me. It was foggy when we were running, I turned around and saw my nephew and brother lying on the ground.”
“Before the war, I wanted to be a fisherman like my father,” Muntasir told me. “Now I want to be a fighter so that I can avenge my brother, my nephew and my cousins. Imagine if you were a child and a missile exploded right beside you. What would you do?”
Muntasir became despondent and silent as he looked down. His father, 55-year-old Subhei Fares Bakr, told me Muntasir had not slept in 24 hours. He attempted to medicate his son but Muntasir was not responsive and the pill fell out of his mouth. Subhei Bakr called a cousin over to help put the pill down his throat, but Muntasir began shaking violently. His cousin restrained him from injuring himself, and finally Muntasir passed out. His cousin lifted Muntasir’s limp body into his arms and ran down the stairs and outside into Shati camp’s dusty alleyways. I ran closely behind as they hailed a taxi. We crammed inside and the car sped through the streets of Gaza City. “Get out of the way,” another cousin in the front seat screamed at traffic.
We arrived at a barebones medical facility where Muntasir was laid down on an examination table. A doctor administered smelling salts, immediately waking Muntasir. Still dazed, his cousin helped him walk to a sink where he washed his face. Muntasir was weak and his cousin once again carried him out.
“There’s no medicine or treatment for him here. We have to get him out of Gaza,” Muntasir’s cousin told me as he carried him away. We hailed another taxi and headed back to the Bakr’s home in Shati camp.
- See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/06/living-martyr-family#sthash.my7x0diV.dpuf

Monday 8 June 2015

The Hadith of Jabir

Jabir b. Abdillah is one of the most famous Companions of the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam. He was from the Ansar, and accepted Islam as a young boy. His father was the famous warrior Abdullah b. Haram. Jabir was perhaps the youngest Companion to witness and participate in the blessed 'Treaty of Aqaba,' before the hijra of the Prophet. He was also blessed to live an extremely long life. Because of this, Jabir became one of the most profuse narrators of hadith, earning his name in the top five Companions in terms of quantity of hadith narrated.
Jabir married young – he was probably seventeen or eighteen when he got married. His story is mentioned in most books of hadith, including the two Sahihs. It is a story that tells us much about how Islam views sexuality.
The hadith is as follows:
Jabir b. Abdillah reported that once he was on an expedition with the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam, and when they were close to the city of Madinah, he sped on his mount. The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam asked him why he was in such a hurry to return home. Jabir replied, “I am recently married!” The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam asked, “To an older lady or a younger one?” [the Arabic could also read: “To a widow or a virgin?”], to which he replied, “A widow.”
The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam said, “But why didn't you marry a younger girl, so that you could play with her, and she could play with you, and you could make her laugh, and she could make you laugh?”
He said, “O Messenger of Allah! My father died  a martyr at Uhud, leaving behind daughters, so I did not wish to marry a young girl like them, but rather an older one who could take care of them and look after them.” The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa salam replied, “You have made the correct choice.”
Jabir continues, “So when we were about to enter the city, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam said to me, 'Slow down, and enter at night, so that she who has not combed may comb her hair, and she who has not shaved may shave her private area.' Then he said to me, 'When you enter upon her, then be wise and gentle.'”
[Reported by Bukhari and Muslim, with various wordings, in their two Sahihs]
This is only part of a much larger hadith, known as (not surprisingly!) the 'hadith of Jabir'. It is a hadith full of benefits, and in fact separate treatises have been written by our scholars just on this one hadith. In this article, we are concerned with how this hadith sheds light on intimacy and marriage in Islam.
What first strikes us is the frankness of the Prophet's salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam question. He is encouraging Jabir to find a playful wife, and wants the both of them to enjoy each other. Clearly, the words of 'playfulness' and 'laughter' indicate that what is being encouraged is the couple's romance, foreplay and, generally, 'having fun' with one another.
This shows that it is one of the primary goals of a marriage that each party find satisfaction in the other. The connotation of being sexually playful is clearly implied, without any direct reference. From this, and many other references, we see that the Qur'an and Sunnah are frank about sexuality, but never vulgar. This should be our attitude and tone as well. It would do us well to contrast this straightforwardness of our Prophet with the ultra-reserved Muslim culture that we find around us, where even the words 'love' and 'romance' are considered filthy and are never be uttered in public!
Also, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam explicitly mentioned that both parties should be satisfied with each other ('…so that you may play with her and she may play with you…'). In most Muslim cultures, women's sexuality is sidelined or even suppressed. Not only is a woman's sexual feelings ignored, some cultures even cut off a part of a woman's sexual organ in order to minimize her sexuality (through barbaric practices such as FGM – female genital mutilation). Women's sexuality is no less important than men's, and it is essential that a woman also be given her due right.
One phrase in this hadith that many men concentrate on is the encouragement to Jabir that he should marry a young woman. However, they ignore the context of the hadith and also the response of the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam. Jabir himself was a young man, and that is why he was asked why he would marry an older lady. Typically, a young man marries a young lady. When Jabir gave a legitimate reason for choosing an older lady, he was informed that he had, in fact, made the correct decision. One should always remember that even our Prophet first married Khadija, a lady senior to him in age, and remained with her for all of her life. Khadija was the most beloved wife of our Prophet, and even Aisha could not compete against that love.
The command to Jabir not to enter the city until nightfall was because the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam did not want Jabir to surprise his wife. At a time when there were no cell phones or other means of informing the family when a traveler would return, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam would send a crier into the city, announcing that the caravan was returning. Hence, he told Jabir to wait for this crier before proceeding into the city. The crier would alert the inhabitants of the city (including Jabir's wife), and they would then prepare themselves to great the returning travelers.
From this, we learn that spouses should physically beautify themselves for one another. Combing the hair is but one way to beautify; anything that increases the beauty and handsomeness of one spouse in front of the other is something to be encouraged. The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam told the impatient Jabir that it was better for him to delay his arrival in order that his wife could prepare herself for him.
The explicit command to shave the pubic area is an amazing phrase! We all know that a part of our Islamic tradition is that one must shave one's pubic area; in this tradition, this command is put in the context of the sexual act. In other words, the husband is told to be patient so that his wife may beautify her private area in order to increase the aesthetic pleasure and gratification of sex. A husband and wife should make sure that even around their private areas, they look attractive to each other! Again and again, we see the frankness of the prophetic traditions and contrast this to the ultra-conservative attitudes predominant in many Muslim cultures.
Some people erroneously believe that a husband and wife should never look at each other's private area. This belief is not based upon any authentic textual evidence – in fact, there are numerous evidences (including this one) that clearly state otherwise. If a husband will not enjoy the body of his wife, who else will he enjoy?! And the same applies for a woman with her husband's body.
The last phrase of the hadith is translated as '…then be wise and gentle'. The Arabic is 'fa-l-kayyis al-kayyis', or, in another wording, 'zafar al-kayyis.' The word 'kayyis' primarily means wisdom, but it also has the connotation of gentleness. Scholars have understood this phrase to be an indirect reference that Jabir should approach his wife in a gentle and 'wise' manner.
Imam Bukhari, Ibn Khuzaymah, and Ibn Hibban all narrated this wording, and they all understood the reference here to be an indirect reference to the sexual act. Once again, the wording is frank without being vulgar. What is meant by 'al-kayyis' is that Jabir should act in a wise manner; he has been gone for some time, and is newly married. Therefore, both parties are missing each other, and it is a sign of wisdom that they gratify themselves and do not delay this unnecessarily. Also, there is a connotation of gentleness as well; Jabir should realize that he is a young man, and therefore he should not act in a manner that might be painful to his wife.
The fact that the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam is instructing Jabir what to do at this time shows that he instructed his Ummah even about such personal matters. In one hadith, which deals with the etiquette of the restroom, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam said, “I am to you like a father, I teach you [what you need to know]…” [Reported by Abu Dawud]. Since Jabir did not have any older brothers, and his father had passed away, the Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam took on this responsibility, and even advised him about sexual conduct. From this, we may extrapolate that people of knowledge, or elders of the community, should likewise not be shy when it comes to teaching Muslims about sexual etiquette.
The Islamic attitude towards sex is completely at odds with those of many Christian thinkers. St. Augustine, who is perhaps the single most influential theologian of early Christianity, viewed sexual desire as something 'foul' to be guilty and ashamed of. His writings had a profound impact on all future Christian notions of sex (and were also used to justify the prohibition of priests getting married). That is why, to this day, even many non-religious Christians are baffled by Islam's attitude towards sex. It is mainly due to such notions that Islam has been viewed by many Westerners as being a 'licentious' religion. Such hadiths like this one of Jabir are mocked and ridiculed (one website I read commented, “How can a prophet of God command his followers to enjoy their wives?”). This shock stems from the basic Augustinian notion of sex being inherently evil. We must be aware of these psychological underpinnings when discussing Islam with others. For us as Muslims, sexual desire in and of itself is neverassociated with evil; it is only the misuse and abuse of such desire that is evil. Rather, quite the contrary, sex is quite clearly implied in the Qur'an as being a blessing from Allah, to be thoroughly enjoyed between spouses.
There are many evidence that clearly demonstrate Islam's realistic and pragmatic view of human sexuality. Sexuality, like all human emotions, is a natural instinct that should be satisfied in a permissible manner. The emotion itself is not evil or filthy; abusing it and trying to satisfy it outside of the permissible bounds of marriage is evil and filthy.
The Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam himself said, “From this world, women and perfume have been made beloved to me, but the coolness of my eye comes from prayer” [Bukhari]. And in the famous hadith, “This whole world is an enjoyment, and its best enjoyment is a righteous wife” [Muslim].
A righteous wife (and, by analogy, a good husband) is the best enjoyment of this world. Pure, halal, encouraged enjoyment! Even the blessed Prophet salla Allahu ʿalayhi wa sallam found comfort in his wives, but the comfort that prayer and turning to Allah gave him was obviously the most sweet and pure.
In another tradition, we are advised “If one of you approaches his wife, and then wishes to repeat, let him do wudhu, for it will make the recurrence more energetic” [Abu Dawud].
In all of these hadiths, we see once again the clear encouragement to engage in passionate and fulfilling sex with one's spouse. The frank advice given makes it crystal clear that we should aim to have healthy sex lives. No less a figure than our beloved Prophet informed us of ways to increase our love and make the act of intimacy more fulfilling. Washing oneself after a first act invigorates the body and rejuvenates the soul, and thus helps in repeating the act again.
What is truly amazing is that while the message is crystal clear in each and every one of these traditions, never is the wording vulgar, nor is the language crude. Similarly, we should be frank in our teachings, but there is no need to employ unbefitting language.
Let us conclude this article by mentioning a quote from one of the most famous medieval scholars of our religion. Imam al-Ghazali (d. 505) mentions in his famous work The Revival of the Religious Sciences that scholars have mentioned many blessings of sex, such as protecting one's chastity and increasing one's progeny. But he also mentions a blessing that might surprise many Muslims. One of the blessings of sex that our scholars have mentioned, al-Ghazali says, is to experience some of the pleasures of the afterlife. He continues:
“And I swear, what they have said is absolutely true! For indeed, in this pleasure [of sex] – a pleasure that cannot be compared to any other pleasure ­– if only it were to persist, it would indeed be a sign or signal for those pleasures of the next life that have been promised to us. To entice someone regarding a pleasure that he has never experienced is of no use! If an impotent man were to be enticed with sex, or a young child with power, there would be no temptation. Therefore, one of the blessings of the sexual experience and pleasure in this world is the hope of its perpetual existence in the next, so that this can be used as a motivation for the worship of Allah.
Marvel, therefore, at the wisdom of Allah, and His Mercy, for look at how He has placed in one desire two lives: an external life, and an internal life. So the external life is the preservation of a man through his progeny and children. And the internal life is the life of the next world. For the pleasure of sex is diminished in this world because it must remain temporary, and is swiftly terminated, but by experiencing it, one's desire to have such a pleasure remain everlasting becomes firm, and this encourages one to persist in deeds of worship that would allow him to experience such pleasures.”
What an amazing testament, regarding an amazing blessing, from an amazing scholar!

Thursday 4 June 2015

Prejudice then and now..

Texas, 1942: No dogs, negroes, Mexicans.
France, 2015: No dogs, drunks, or obvious Muslims, Jews or Sikhs.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Badshah Khan: Muslim activist who showed that Islam is essentially a religion of peace and non-violence

 Badshah Khan and Mahatma Gandhi
ANYONE who has seen Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi will remember the vivid depiction of the Amritsar massacre in April 1919 when British and Gurkha troops under the command of General Reginald Dyer opened fire on unarmed protestors and killed well over 350 people. It was one of the worst atrocities by the British in India, but far from the only one.
Far less well-known is the massacre at the Qissa Khwani bazaar in Peshawar in April 1930 when British troops opened fire with machine-guns on people protesting the arrest of Badshah Khan, the remarkable Pashtun leader and close associate of Gandhi who gave much of his life to the cause of non-violence.
It is no reflection on Gandhi that Badshah Khan (whose full name was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, "Badshah" meaning "King") is so little known in Britain. But the story of his life needs to be told, not least as his abiding belief, rooted in the Qu'ran, was that Islam is essentially a religion of peace and non-violence. His personification of this belief is a powerful antidote to the Islamophobia currently so prevalent across Europe and north America.
This, in turn, is why it is so good to be able to welcome Heathcote Williams’s new “investigative poem”: Badshah Khan: Islamic Peace Warrior (Thin Man Press, 2015). This is a short but powerful book thatSURVEYS Khan’s life but also tracks his approach through to the modern era.
Khan himself is still best known for founding the Khudai Khidmatgarmovement, also known as the “Red Shirts”. This drew many supporters from the Pashtun of what was then the north-west frontier region of India, who came to form a hugely important part of the movement for independence. At its peak, the Red Shirt movement had over 100,000committed to peaceful change and an end to British rule.
Inevitably, Khan incurred the enmity of the British and spent many years in prison, often in appalling conditions. But he and his movement survived it all. He became known as the “Frontier Gandhi” and, as a devout Muslim, said he drew his commitment to non-violence directly from Islam. 
He wrote: “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pashtun like me subscribing to the creed of non-violence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, but we had so far forgotten it that when Gandhi placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a novel creed”.