Sunday, September 2, 2012
A few days ago, a friend posted the following video about the efforts of the Deputy Mufti of Turkey to improve the women’s prayer areas in Turkish Mosques:
My friend lauded the efforts as a positive development and at first glance it does seem like a commendable initiative. However, after thinking about it, I must disagree.
I won’t critique the overt Western bias in the newscast. Media in the West has an established agenda when it comes to covering the Muslim world – namely, the attempt to project Western liberal values onto a ‘backwards’ society. So when the news team who produced this short piece presents the female Deputy Mufti as a purveyor of some enlightened way and every other schmuck who questions her as an ignoramus, I’m not surprised.
And without sitting down and talking with the Deputy Mufti herself, I cannot possibly understand her motivations and rationales for leading this drive, so I’m not interested in criticizing her.
My reproach is for all of us Muslims in the West, who may see such a project and, based on our Western values and beliefs, immediately judge it as being a positive development for our misguided brethren in the Muslim world. We feel at ease in imposing our ‘civilized’ interpretations of Islam upon the backwards Muslim societies, like some twisted manifestation of the White Man’s burden - let us call it the Western Muslim's Burden.
Afghanistan and the issue of female education is another example of the Western Muslim's Burden . We all started salivating when the West rang the bell calling for educating the young girls of Afghanistan. I recall hearing khutbas and reading articles about the role of education and knowledge in Islam and how the Taliban's efforts against female education were antithetical to Islamic teachings.
And so without realizing that fundamental societal issues needed to be addressed first, great initiatives were undertook to quickly open girl’s schools. All this effort was misdirected and misspent with increased tension and strife between the US-backed government and the more conservative elements of Afghan society.
Let us not repeat such dog-and-pony shows across the Muslim world.
Look, I’m all for efforts to make North American and European Masjids more women-friendly. For too long, sisters have been huddled into basements, behind barriers, and up on balconies – the same sisters who are actively participating in their work environments, universities, and all other areas of greater society. The dichotomy between these two worlds is so great and contradictory that it is has become unsustainable.
Originally, during the first generation of immigrant Muslims in the West (from the late sixties to the early nineties), Muslim women were coming from societies in which female participation in Masjid affairs, and to an extent in greater society, was very limited. And so, Masjids were built and organized to simply maintain that social structure.
As the first generation of indigenous Muslims grew up and this crop of Western-Muslims began to see the contradiction between the segregated role of women in the Masjid and the more egalitarian role of women in Western society, something had to change. And thus was born the movement to make the Masjids more women-friendly.
This recent movement hasn’t arisen in a vacuum. The social context has defined it. Muslim men and women have become acclimated to a more liberal stance on women’s role in society, thus allowing them to embrace the concept of a Masjid more amenable to women’s participation.
But can the same be said for Turkey?
One needs to simply peruse the headlines to see that honor-killings and apostasy issues are still taking place in Turkey. Female literacy rates as well as employment rates are low especially when compared to their Western counterparts. Governmental positions held by women, salary gap between men and women, number of women shelters and other key indicators are similarly tilted against women. As much as the Turkish government may try to convince the world that Turkey is ready to join the EU, its people are still grounded in a more Eastern, traditional worldview.
Has the Turkish population internalized Western values, such as women’s rights, before initiating this project for women-friendly Masjids?
Now you may counter that removing the barrier or increasing women’s involvement in Masjid affairs are not exclusively Western values - that they are Prophetic values, as can be readily found in the Seerah of our Beloved Prophet (saw). Fair enough, but the social context of the Prophet’s time allowed for such practices (It could be argued that women in Muslim Arabia 1400 years ago were treated better than in most modern Muslims countries). It must be noted that in cases where the Prophet introduced concepts and ideas counter to prevailing social customs, such as abolishing slavery or prohibiting alcohol, it was done in a gradual manner so as not to upset the delicate balance of society.
So, if our objective is to (re)introduce the Muslim world to liberal values that are native to our tradition, then we must seek to do so in a holistic, foundational manner, avoiding the headline-grabbing, West-appeasing initiatives that will do nothing to change society and may even result in alienating the masses.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
I have come to despise Ramadan in Riyadh. True, despise is a harsh emotion, but you may come to join me once you meander through the recesses of my mind…
It all started when we first arrived to the kingdom. We experienced our first Ramadan in a Muslim land – and it was exhilarating. Ramadan was no more a muffled observance by a religious minority – it was a proud experience causing greater society to unashamedly shout out its undying love for the One. Ramadan ceased to be a state of aberration, with Muslims scuttling to their spiritual outposts in the scant Masjids dotting the American landscape, desperately seeking the company of fellow fasting Muslims. In Riyadh, the streets and shops were abuzz with a celebratory mood most deserving of Ramadan and every corner found a masjid alive with daily iftars and nightly prayers.
It was simply intoxicating.
And as with all intoxicants, the high was short-lived, superficial, and extremely ungratifying.
After almost ten Ramadans in Saudi Arabia, I’m convinced there is no real understanding of and even less appreciation for this sacred month. Ramadan has become a priceless painting collecting dust in the garage of a cultural boor.
From the Mercy of the One who has no limit to His Mercy, we are presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. every. single. year. And this gift is squandered by the vast majority as they simply reshuffle their schedules and adjust their bodies to adapt to the various Ramadan ‘inconveniences’.
Ramadan is supposed to be the month of starving the nafs and feeding the heart. Instead, they pamper their bodies by sleeping all day and indulge their nafs by waking all night.
All year long we have unjustly imprisoned our hearts. We’ve clothed them in the orange jumpsuits of dunya, blinded them with the black hoods of our passions, surrounded them with the walls of our desires, callously scoffed at their requests for (spiritual) nourishment, and severed all ties with their kith and kin (the people of dhikr).
Yet, the Most Loving (swt) gives us a chance to undo all this damage beset upon our hearts. He has presented before us a succulent buffet of spiritual subsistence and invited our hearts to plunge into it. This, the month of the heart, has been carefully designed by our Lord to help us reenergize our enervated souls while wreaking chaos on our nafs. Allah (swt) has installed mechanisms to debilitate the voracious appetite of the nafs – no food, no drink, no spousal relations. Knowing our nature and its addiction to these fuels of the nafs, Allah has instated a month-long embargo as an aid to our developing an alternative heart-based energy; an energy that is infinitely cleaner and infinitely enduring.
And what do my bungling hosts do with this gem? Instead of restraining the nafs, they give it carte blanche throughout the night. Shops are readily available to fancy any and every craving. Restaurants are filled with those filling the vessels of their insatiable appetites. Social gatherings are rescheduled to the wee hours of the night. Coffee shops are filled with patrons chatting away the last thirds of the night.
Starve the nafs?
Nay, this month has become a celebration of the nafs!
It has been transformed into a toothless vestige that is now celebrated like other vile, commercial holidays.
Oh, how urgently our hearts are in need of the REAL Ramadan!
We have failed to realize the nature of our hearts. Like our bodies that we are so quick to titillate with every possible sensation, our hearts too need nourishment. They hunger for a provision that has Divine ingredients. They long to be entertained by passions and joys furnished by their Creator.
Yet, the one time of the year in which the most Merciful has laid out the red carpet, we spurn His favors, choosing instead to find alternative ways to suckle our ever-dependent nafs.
Sad to say, but Ramadan in Riyadh is catered for feeding the nafs, not the heart. What nourishment does one offer the heart with the endless Iftar buffets lavishly laid out at countless restaurants? What benefit do the accommodating shopping hours provide to the heart? What value is it to the heart spending all night laughing and playing in an istiraha*? What else but the nafs is fed from the special TV dramas and comedies featured in Ramadan?
Alas, in such an environment, replete with devices designed to anchor down our heaven-aspiring hearts, should not one despise it? Indifference is worse, no? I’ve tried for the past few years to no avail. Maybe you’ll suggest empathy; after all we should feel sorry for the misguided. But would you dare suggest empathy towards an abusive husband? I declare abusing the heart is worse.
Yes, scorn is most fitting. Not for the people, but for the society. And I fear that my scorn would not be limited to Riyadh if I had but the chance to experience Ramadan in other Muslim lands.
*An Istiraha (trans. 'place of rest’) is a small enclosed park-like facility, usually rented out for an entire day (or night) by a few families. It usually includes separate sitting areas for men and women, an open grass area, a small pool, and a kitchen. Public parks are crowded, unclean, and not private, so an istiraha is the destination of choice for many families.
Monday, May 14, 2012
A while back, MuslimMatters had an interesting article about some beneficial teachings that could be gleaned from the Harry Potter books. Although the author did a commendable job in extracting positive lessons found throughout the series, it was nonetheless quite an unnecessary stretch, especially when there are countless more appropriate, less controversial sources for these same teachings.
To make matters worse, the ensuing comment thread found the proto-typical overly-simplistic Muslim approach of condemning the Harry Potter series as completely Haram based on its ‘glamorization’ of magic.
As for me, I believe both approaches missed the boat on the real dangers found in the Harry Potter series and other books of this genre.
Let me start by saying that it’s not the magic. I don’t believe for one second that young children will begin dabbling in sorcery or witchcraft upon reading Harry Potter. I don’t even believe they will think magic to be inconsequential in our deen, as some commenters in the MM article alleged. Black magic will remain black magic – a completely forbidden act in Islamic teachings – and those who delve into it will do so whether they read Harry Potter or not.
Such fears are akin to a child reading the classic Treasure Island, chock-full of references of sailors getting drunk, and worrying about them wishing to get drunk – or at the least, thinking alcohol to be ‘no big deal’.
Maybe I’m being naïve, but I just don’t see that happening.
Similarly, I’m not afraid of my daughter picking up a bow and arrow and hunting down children in the neighborhood, Hunger Games-style. I think she realizes murder is bad.
The real danger in exposing our children to modern-day popular literature is the more subtle, insidious messages found throughout these books. It’s these messages that affect the subconscious. It’s these threads that change personalities.
I’m more troubled by the disrespect Katniss, the Hunger Games protagonist, consistently shows towards her mother. I’m bothered by the selfish decisions she constantly makes with little regard for others. It’s the individualistic ‘me-myself-and-I’ attitude that is found throughout the Hunger Games series that worries me.
Look, I understand that modern Western literature is merely going to reflect modern Western values. In essence, that’s where my grievance stems from. These books are exposing our children to foreign values and morals that are inconsistent with the standards my wife and I are trying to establish in our home.
Too many of us parents are so ecstatic that our children are reading (as opposed to watching TV or surfing the Net) that we aren’t paying attention to the subtle ideals promoted within these books. Many of the books targeting modern-day teenagers contain dominant streams of feminist notions, individualistic thought, and material gluttony while concurrently disparaging religion and tradition and disrespecting elders.
Unfortunately there is great dearth of modern English literature written for the today’s Muslim youth. That’s why I’ve basically relegated myself to sticking to classical texts which maintain a respectable sense of traditional values more in-line with Islamic teachings. Fortunately, my daughter has shown a great deal of interest in these books, but at the same time, she is a product of her times and is constantly tempted by the popularity of Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, and the like.
It’s a fine line we’re treading here and I’m sincerely praying that an Islamically stable home and a pseudo-Islamic environment (living in Saudi) peppered with classical works and good, solid friends will be enough to temper the ill-effects of modern media.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
I recently came across this interesting presentation on Islam and Secularism by Tunisian intellectual Rashid Ghannouchi. Tunisia is at a critical juncture, having just elected an Islamically-inclined party, Ennehda, to power after having successfully staged their revolution that went on to spark the Arab Spring. And Ghannouchi is the intellectual head of this movement.
I have read some of his works written in years past when he was in exile and so I was looking forward to his perspective after having finally achieved a platform for implementing his vision. Unfortunately, I came away greatly disappointed in what I felt to be a grossly apologetic approach to synchronizing the paradox of Islam and Secularism.
I’ve taken snippets from his talk followed by my comments. However, in order to taste the full complement of flavors experienced in his talk, you really must read it from beginning to end.
“Secularism appeared, evolved, and crystallized in the West as procedural solutions, and not as a philosophy or theory of existence, to problems that had been posed in the European context. Most of these problems emerged following the Protestant split in the West, which tore apart the consensus that had been dominant in the Catholic Church, and imposed the religious wars in the 16th and 17th century. It was thus that Secularism and/or secularization began.”
Secularism is not simply a set of ‘procedural solutions’. How could a set of mere ‘procedural solutions’ have been proposed to clean up the mess made by the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries? One needs only to look back at the embryonic stages of secularism and study the environment in which it was gestated to realize that the Reformation, the Renaissance, Enlightenment and other deeply philosophical events were key in the formulation of Western Secularism.
Europe needed an entirely different mindset and worldview in order to overwrite centuries of damage caused by the paternalistic Church. And thus, Secularism conveniently separated the over-reaching arm of the Church from the state and declared all religious matters divorced from the public realm. No ‘procedural solutions’ could have ever achieved such a monumental paradigm shift.
True, secularism has a procedural component, such as the significance of rule of law or the separation of powers, but to suggest that it isn’t a philosophy or that it doesn’t strongly promote and encourage a certain theory of existence (i.e. atheism) is patently incorrect.
“In the United States religious interference in the public domain is evident, despite the differentiation that exists there remains a significant religious influence. Their leaders' speeches are laden with religious content and references, and religion is debated in all electoral campaigns where it manifests itself in issues such as prayer in schools and abortion.”
To argue that the US intermixes religion and politics in issues of any substance is naïve. The rare sprinkling of religion into the political realm is superficial at best. The role of religion in core governance issues is nonexistent. The fact that religion is allowed a chair at the table of government is merely a PR ploy. Only peripheral issues, such as abortion, contraception, and prayer in school, are regularly marched before the public (coincidentally during election season), so as to distract from the more vital issues such as social services , foreign policy, economics, etc.
“This will naturally lead to a diversity in interpretation, and there is no harm in that except when we need to legislate, at which time we are in need of a mechanism, and the best mechanism that mankind has come up with is the electoral and democratic one which produces representatives of the nation and makes these interpretations a collective as opposed to an individual effort.”
Based on what is he able to declare that the best legislative mechanism that mankind has come up with is the electoral and democratic one? With so many apparent abuses and failures of the democratic methodology, how can this be the best mankind has devised? It is folly at best, and disingenuous misrepresentation at worst, to suggest that a republic based on democratic procedures can most optimally yield a just and fair government. Have not centuries of this exact political experiment in Europe and the US proven that all democracies inevitably spiral downwards into the sewage of plutocracy and oligarchy? Why are we so in a rush to duplicate the failures of our masters?
“But if what is mean is the separation in the French sense or in accordance with the Marxist experience then we may engage in a dangerous adventure that may harm both religion and state. The total stripping of the state from religion would turn the state into a mafia, and the world economic system into an exercise in plundering, and politics into deception and hypocrisy. And this is exactly what happened in the Western experience, despite there being some positive aspects. International politics became the preserve of a few financial brokers owning the biggest share of capital and by extension the media, through which they ultimately control politicians.”
The speaker has failed to provide any alternate method by which a secular democracy can be employed without inevitably resulting in the above-mentioned negative after-effects.
“There is no value to any religious observance that is motivated through coercion. It is of no use to turn those who are disobedient to God into hypocrites through the state's coercive tools. People are created free and while it is possible to have control over their external aspects, it is impossible to do so over their inner selves and convictions.”
This is a typical red herring by the pro-secularism side and while I expect such misleading drivel from the likes of Bush, I am very disappointed to read it from Ghannouchi. They paint a binary landscape in which complete freedom of religion exists solely in a setting where religion plays a minimal role in governance or religion and politics mix into a toxic potion resulting in coercion and compulsion by oppressive religious state authorities.
No one is arguing for state interference in private religious matters. No one wishes for the state to have control over ‘their inner selves and convictions.’ It isn’t a choice of absolute liberalism or absolute authoritarianism.
“The state's duty, however, is to provide services to people before anything else, to create job opportunities, and to provide good health and education not to control people's hearts and minds.”
What about creating a rich, fertile society in which man can fully express his humanity, which happens to be through adherence to the Quran and Sunnah.
“For this reason, I have opposed the coercion of people in all its forms and manifestation and have dealt with such controversial topics such as al-Riddah (apostasy) and have defended the freedom of people to either adhere to or defect from a religious creed, based on the Qur'anic verse that says: 'there is no compulsion in religion'.”
Sadly he shows his limited understanding of the ideal mix between religion and politics when he restricts his samples to the media-mandated hot topics of veiling and apostasy.
These are all straw men, propped up and consequently shot down by him to simply further his pro-secularism contentions. No sane advocate of combining religion and politics is suggesting that the state must force religiosity on its citizens. Rather, the state must cultivate an environment conducive to carrying out one’s religious obligations while enriching one’s spiritual development.
“This is why Muslims consider Islam's proof to be so powerful that there is no need to coerce people, and when the voice of Islam proclaims 'Produce your proof if ye are truthful' this challenge is being proposed at the heart of the political and intellectual conflict.”
Again, the argument isn’t about coercing citizens to observe religious rituals. It is about enacting religious principles in state institutions. It is about removing predatory capitalism from the economy. It is about instilling a more just foreign policy, in line with the Quran and Sunnah. It is about educating the masses away from materialism and back towards a more spiritual worldview
“The fact that our revolution has succeeded in toppling a dictator, we ought to accept the principle of citizenship, and that this country does not belong to one party or another but rather to all of its citizens regardless of their religion, sex, or any other consideration. Islam has bestowed on them the right to be citizens enjoying equal rights, and to believe in whatever they desire within the framework of mutual respect, and observance of the law which is legislated for by their representatives in parliament.”
And all this can only be achieved via a secular democracy? Is our intellectual capital so exhausted that we cannot even consider an alternative Islamically-anchored possibility?
Thursday, March 15, 2012
During my college days, back in the early 90’s, I had the very fortunate opportunity to attend a weekend conference featuring both Dr. Israr Ahmed and Sh. Mokhtar Moghraoui. It was organized by TINA (Tanzimi-Islam of North America), a branch of Dr. Israr’s Pakistan-based Tanzimi-Islam movement. The 3-day conference was very small (around 20 attendees) and offered an extremely intimate environment whereby serious discussions and exchanges could be had. The organizers had Dr. Israr presenting his political philosophies while Sh. Mokhtar was asked to focus on the spiritual aspect of community development.
For anyone unfamiliar with Dr. Israr and his pro-khilafa movement, he preached an almost literal approach to the Prophetic model of state development. He advocated for a grassroots movement by which a critical mass of devoted followers would accumulate, after which a confrontation with state authorities would inevitably ensue. At it's core it wasn’t a violent message, but one which called for Muslims to prepare for sacrifice if and when the need arose.
But in our private sittings with Sh. Mokhtar, he was respectfully adamant in disagreeing with Dr. Israr’s approach. Instead of the need for a revolution, Sh. Mokhtar believed in the need for an evolution. He insisted that revolutions only bring about fleeting change, while the Muslims are in dire need of an evolutionary change that is sustainable and enduring.
Years later, I’m convinced that both approaches are required. We need an evolutionary change to our spirits, but we need a revolution to initiate an upheaval to our crumbling status quo.
This excellent article over at CommonDreams succinctly states the steps we need to take considering the dire circumstances in which we find ourselves:
“We are going to need a revolution. An energy revolution. A social revolution. And a revolution in international relations -- waging war on climate change, instead of war on countries with the misfortunate of sitting on top of oil and other coveted resources.
To achieve all this we are going to need to summon an unprecedented collective will to take back the public sphere, including the media, and we will have to re-imagine our democracy, our cities, our societies, and our daily lives.”
I think Muslims have become too timid to discuss the need for a revolution. Revolutions need not involved bloodshed. Revolutions need not result in outright chaos and anarchy. Revolutions can take countless shapes and forms.
Must we restrict ourselves to the ‘revolution within’? In the midst of all this global uncertainty, where are the Muslims to offer their Divinely-inspired solutions?