Review 2014 : When Islam entered some awkward spaces

In the year that we’ve just bade farewell, Islam and Muslims around the world were tested with some disturbing trends. The lion’s share of this obstruction to a routine, peaceful life was contributed by the ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant – a separatist group that continues to exercise crime and persecution as you read.

While this transnational occurrence got the debate flowing around its legitimate claims to Islam (read ‘political Islam’), some local and episodic incidences also dictated conversations throughout the year 2014.

Here are 4 incidences in 2014 that I believe took Islam in some awkward spheres of discussion, and my brief take on each of them

4 – In the name of “Allah”…if only a Muslim

In the month of June, 2014, Malaysia’s Muslim-majority country garnered attention and criticism for a contentious decision by the High Court. The ruling refused to overturn a ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christian communities for reference to ‘God’. Put in place in year 2007, the ban was instituted to avoid confusion amongst the two sister faiths, Islam and Christianity, and obviate the possibility of Muslims converting to Christianity with this common reference.

Image from - www.bbc.co.uk

What’s in a name? Image from – http://www.bbc.co.uk

There is no Islamic Law, at least one with a unanimous consensus, that limits the use of the word ‘Allah’ only by Muslims. Quite on the contrary, it’s a given historical observation that much of the pagans of Makkah used the word ‘Allah’. The Holy Qur’an too has no mention of Jews and Christians (categorised as Ahle-Kitab, People of the Book) being forbidden from using addressing God with this term. In the Book of Psalms, Jesus is recorded to have uttered the word ‘Elahi’ on the cross, the Aramaic pronunciation of the contested word.

My Take – Monopolizing the use of this word in Malaysia, against the reasons cited by the authorities, added more confusion to the social and religious ethos of the Southeast Asian country. This controversial ruling by the judiciary over linguistics and religious rights was widely seen a threat to integration of minority groups in the country. While people of all religions attempt to find common grounds, this divide dents the otherwise peaceful nation regarded as an otherwise exemplary Muslim state.

To watch a detailed discussion on this topic by The Stream on Al Jazeera, click here.

3 – Ready for Tawaf, but first, let’s take a…

Controversy is bound to make its way when the largest religious pilgrimage on a conservative soil meets the new age behaviour of producing visual content. In sharp contrast to a time when television sets and cameras were banned in Saudi Arabia, Hajj in 2014 was in news for reasons other than religion and record statistics. In focus were pilgrims taking pictures of themselves with a digital camera or mobile phone in the midst of the supreme religious environment one witnesses in Makkah.

Image from - www.naharnet.com

A perception of foreground and background. Image from – http://www.naharnet.com

Some clerics regarded this behaviour as disdainful and anathema to the spirit of rituals at Hajj that should be far removed from intentions of boasting.

Taking such selfies and videos defy the wish of our prophet. It is as though the only purpose of this trip is to take pictures and not worship.

-Assim Al-Hakeem, a Saudi based scholar who also has a large audience base on his social media pages

(Quoted from a BBC article)
Many pilgrims, on the other hand, argued that pictures make the pilgrimage special and memorable which can be preserved for posterity.

As this is my first pilgrimage, it is important for me to document all the events taking place around me. Wherever I go, I take pictures, especially since nowadays we have these little cameras… that offer a full view of the area.

– Ali, a pilgrim from Kuwait quoted to Saudi Gazette.

My Take – While there are norms of behaviour that should guide a person’s relationship with his or her religion, an innocent desire to capture a personal journey and pilgrimage should be welcomed with more mercy than what has been demonstrated. It is important to note that while regular selfies could focus on the foreground, #HajjSelfie largely attempts to project the environment of the subject. It is the Kabah and the teeming crowds that a Hujaaj seeks to showcase, rather than his presence at a religious site. In times when the gulf between ignorance and education can be bridged by sharing images over Social Media, the Hajj Selfie can be a powerful tool to enter into a conversation, rather than controversy.

A UAE based writer and communications specialist with the blog name ‘Alex of Arabia’ has written a more detailed analysis on this issue.

2 – A Raw Slap

Indian actress Gauhar Khan was slapped on the sets of a reality show Raw Star, where she played host. As bizarre as this incident of trespassing and assault sounds, the situation took an ugly turn when the coward perpetrator and his motive surfaced.

During the show, Akhil Malik, an Imam of no mosque and a scholar of not even the foundational Arabic alphabets, considered Gauhar Khan’s outfit as offensive to Islam.

Being a Muslim woman, she should not have worn such a short dress. Actresses are the face of society and they should not wear skirts and short clothes as they make youngsters get attracted to them sexually…if actresses stop wearing short clothes, crime will decrease and lead to a better society.

Mufti Google Shaykh Wikipedia Akhil Malik

Quotes taken from independent.co.uk

While Akhil Malik gave is 1.5 cents on Islamic morality and social security, this incident sparked a debate on the notions of modest dressing and the position of Islam in deciding a Muslim’s wardrobe. Out of nowhere, Islam was forced down a host’s throat by a dispirited nobody as the entire country watched a spectacle made of the religion.

My Take – Speaking out of common sense, a religious man that conforms to the ideals of Islam would never hear or even watch an entertainment show, leave alone attending one. When the boiling blood of youth and the despair of an idle mind see no outlet, it takes extreme measures to put across a poorly thought-out point. In all honesty, I have strong doubts about the sincerity of the man who charged at the host. When 10 seconds of fame is compared with misguided religious fervor, the former seems increasingly tempting. The scholars of Islam in India have a daunting task ahead of them. Islamic education, ethics, morals, behaviour and intellectual discourse cannot remain a subject taken at madrassas – at times themselves fraught with inefficiencies and education disconnected from mainstream society.

Ways will have to be carved to educate the Muslim youth of India, who finds himself lost in the abyss of Islamic teachings which usually begin and end at locally funded seminaries. There’s a constant demand to act in accordance with acceptable moderation, and an a professional and academic approach to Islamic education can temper a mind just when it’s needed the most.

Before more young Indian Muslims find themselves humiliating fellow-beings on reality TV shows, a greater reality will have to be addressed – that of their role in the eclectic social fabric of India.

1 – A Jihadi named Romeo

Looks like in every countdown, love emerges winner. This winner has infused in it a healthy dose of hatred.

This story received much traction in the second leg of 2014, owing to its place of origin which boasts the second largest Muslim population in the world – India.

In August 2014, a young girl from Meerut filed a police case for abduction, gang-rape and forced conversion by a group of Muslims. The revised version of the victim in October, however, changed the course of the story when the victim backtracked on her statement. According to her latest confession, she had in fact eloped on her own freewill with the accused.

The period between August and October witnessed a massive counter-reaction to the emergence of this case, mostly from the BJP and it’s heavily right-winged ilk. This incident, referencing to past stray cases involving love and conversion in South India, was termed as Love Jihad – a clever coinage covering two dangerous elements people easily fall to these days.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing  the politics behind this love story.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing the politics behind this love story.

The debate deconstructed the religion, right from its status in India, the political ramifications of the ill-fate incident, the institutions of Islamic studies (madrassas), scholars of religion (ulemas) and many other facets that were awkwardly stuffed into the realm of love and romance. Love Jihad was one of the top trending topics in India at the time. There were hacks for the average Hindu girl to avoid being lured by Muslim men, a move that suffered backlash as most of them refused to accept any of it. Their bodies, they quipped, was not another Babri Masjid open to be swayed by religious sentiments.

My Take – It’s common for Islam in India to be completely divorced from it’s intended role, as an entity that carries with it profound scriptures, deep theology, meaningful rituals and community practices. By centering the Islamic narrative solely around vote-bank politics, the flash-points of weak Muslim performance in India have been often ignored. Weak economic performance, dismal literacy rates, self-segregation and low-levels of quality employment are some of the issues that would benefit from attention and resources. If intermixing of religious communities gives rise to problematic trends, in this case to the likes of #LoveJihad, it should be dealt with methodically, with a fair opportunity given to the common Muslims to voice their opinions.

Love, if anything, should script stories, not awkward controversies.

Latest report of the case can be read on India Today.

Here’s hoping that the only difference 2015 brings is not a coward escape from controversial and awkward situations, but a much thoughtful and respectful response from the Muslim community around the world.

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In Sacrifice is Abundance

Pilgrims in prayer around the Ka'aba

Pilgrims in prayer around the Ka’aba during Hajj

Sacrifice is a motif for many people in this world. It is recurrent, an almost indispensable part of their lives in which progress is preceded and many a times succeeded by sacrificing things that one holds closely to the heart. A father quelling dreams in favour of his child is common, so is the selfless sacrifice of a mother who goes through the 9 month ordeal to deliver a new life.

When pursuing education in one’s land is difficult, more difficult is the choice of leaving the comforts of a house. The knowledge of benefits is not hidden, but the fruits are still not ripe for a mind to comprehend. The benefits of a sacrifice are the fruits, but only the best of men have the courage to sow the seeds.

Verily, one of the best of those men was Prophet Abraham. He did not agree to sacrifice seeking the material benefit of a fruit, rather he was the obedient creation who did what was asked of him by his creator. His agreeing to give up Ismail (AS; Ishmael) at the command of the Almighty is one of the greatest testaments to the literal test of faith – submission to the Almighty.

It was not a test that merely entailed trivial jubilation from the father, but the eventual slaughter of a sheep in place of his son is where the blessing for the whole Ummah lies – the celebration of Eid ul Adha.

In sacrifice there has been abundance, not just for the valiant father and son in Islam, but for every Muslim who testifies the Shahadah and takes cognizance of its meaning in full. Very few of us on even fewer occasions understand the context and story behind the feast that fills our dining tables on the blessed day of Eid.
It is not something to be ashamed of anymore if we stop for a moment and try to understand the stories of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and ones who came before and after him. It’s certainly not embarrassing if we devour on delicious Eid meals till our hands have extended out to the poor with the meat of sacrificed livestock.

The first 10 days of the month of Dhul Hijjah have been blessed. The events that fill these days are witnessed by the entire world, the most significant of them being the pilgrimage of Hajj. The pilgrimage is not a sacrifice any less. Many Muslims wait for their turn in for years and often save every penny from scratch to finance this journey to Makkah. The sacrifice of hair is just one of them in the wider scheme of sacrifices – leaving the comforts of their abode, the luxuries of personal life to interact with the communal congregation and sacrificing the certainties of travel for a greater journey of the spirit and heart.

Yet, this too is not a sacrifice in vain. It is a sacrifice that adds another pillar to one’s faith, that propels the believer to the soil of Madinah and the hills of Arafat so that his prayers are responded to, that transports him to the largest congregation in this world where the rich and poor brush against each other to defeat the devil of racial differences. In this sacrifice, as we see again, is abundance.

While we can strive make the lesser sacrifice of sleep to prostrate to our creator, we can hope to seek a fraction of the blessing that Prophet Abrahim received that night. That night, when he woke up from sleep to sacrifice something far more beloved than sleep, that night when God willed something else to be sacrificed so that in it we find our abundance.

Half The Faith

The office building I once interned in houses state of the art serviced offices, bedecked with the functional yet chic elements to create an environment that makes work fun and easy. It’s tall height is dwarfed by the gigantic Burj Khalifa that stands bang opposite to it like its big daddy. My story, however, does not revolve around the times when we feel larger than life, rather when our vanity goes down with prostration to the giver of life.  The building has a prayer room just big enough for a few Muslims to practice their daily prayers on time and in between the office hours. It is during during these times that I always met Shafi-ul-Islam – a young, soft spoken man from Bangladesh.

He seldom prayed with the congregation and would studiously stand by the sides of the abolution (washing) area and wipe the water that had splashed onto the seat. To ensure that the washing area was clean before the next group of men used it, he would swipe the floor even if it meant that the men had to patiently wait. When the meticulous yet repetitive and seemingly boring ordeal was over, he always had time for a smile and words of greeting. Even as I finished praying and wore my shoes preparing to leave, I would always notice him stand in an alert position with the mop by his side in one hand as if he’d made it his friend. There was something awkward about him standing this way, smiling and waiting for me to leave every single time. I then realized that he waited for me to leave so that he could continue swiping the water from the floor without splashing it on me. I was once late for prayer and found only myself and him in the prayer hall. He was in the middle of his prayer and I remember thinking to myself that he must have finally arrived at his optimum-tidiness and separated from his mop for a few minutes.

There is great emphasis on maintaining cleanliness and keeping the prayer area free from impurities. This discipline is something that I noticed even in the mosques in India – a country not particularly reputed for its sanitation and waste-disposing facilities. This order and spruceness is not made possible by waving a magic wand, but by the efforts of the brush, the hands that guide it and the man who is determined to guide his hands to task. Some volunteer to the job occasionally, while others are hired to dedicate their services in helping the worshipers in attaining half the faith. It was sometimes embarrassing to come across these ‘cleaners’ in the mosques of India. Embarrassing because many of them were frail and old, rigorously scrubbing the floor while I left the mosque having prayed with the age and comfort on my side.

We live in a time when parents pass on values to their children and teachers impart morals in the guise of stories. We have at least have lived in moments well before our ‘mistakes’ and ‘experiences’ could get the sobriquet of being a teacher. Stories and scriptures that emphasized the importance of cleanliness, for instance, is something I remember from school days. My parents explained the significance of cleanliness in the Islamic faith and philosophy with the popular axiom – “cleanliness is half the faith.”

On another occasion, my teacher shared the story of a stained window that led to the viewer’s perception that her neighbour’s clothes on the clothesline were perpetually soiled. The folly does not always lie in one’s character, but the frame of reference, the window of perception that one uses to know and understand a fellow being. Dirt, in this story of the stained window, was not the literal impurity welcomed with soap and water, but rather it is an unlikely hero that rose from the dust to provide wisdom. It’s the philosophical process of scrubbing your attitude and cleansing it off the stains of judgement and prejudice.

What I chose to portray through my encounter with Shafi-ul-Islam is a path where literal cleanliness intersects with philosophical purity. A nexus where faith meets morals and values. Had there not been people who volunteer to get their hands dirty, practicing a religion which is particular about cleanliness would become a challenge and most worshipers would look only after themselves in their endeavour to reach the desired level of tidiness.

It is men like the one in my story who don’t just take on the onus of such community service, but also give us the opportunity to scrub our thoughts clean of ignorance and appreciate small things. It helps us to philosophically cleanse the tiny window through which we try to view a world which in actuality is much larger than our lives spent in vanity. Many times, we are too engrossed in the faith and forget to dedicate a thought or two to those who facilitate its practice.  If cleanliness is half the faith, then indeed, Shafi-ul-Islam is a humble, smiling face of that faith.

Shafi-ul-Islam – He smiles wider than in the picture

When I Thought The Imam Erred

Imam leading the congregation of worshipers

Imam leading a congregation of worshipers

I wonder what to explain of the last 10 nights of Ramadan, whether as a countdown to commencement of Eid, or to the end of Ramadan. It depends on whether your heart will be stricken with a gentle grief of bidding adieu to the most blessed month of the year, or welcome celebrations of feast and joy as your gift for giving up earthly desires.

A similar choice of perspective occurred in my mind on the last night of Ramadan for several years.

As a background – Muslims are encouraged to begin and complete the recitation of the Holy Qur’an in the month, apart from the daily recitations that are prescribed.  Imams (the one who leads the player in the mosque) begin their recitation from memory in prayers and continue it in extended prayers in the evenings. In the last 10 Ramadans the prayers are also performed in the depths of night.

Memorizing the entire book in its Arabic language is undoubtedly a feat, and there’s little surprise that the ones who perfect this to memory with practice adding their touch of mesmerizing reading techniques get the sobriquet of leading hundreds and thousands of worshipers behind them. Just for the numbers – there are about 6236 verses that span a total of 114 chapters in the book to memorize.

However great a merit that is to the Imams, I was convinced for a long time the Imam of the mosque I visited for night prayers in Ramadan had got his calculations wrong. Instead of ending the last night with the last chapter of the book, he always overshot the number of chapters recited, unable to match it with the number of rounds (Rakat) of prayers at night. Such that when it was the last round of prayer on the last night of Ramadan, he failed to end perfectly on the 114th chapter, and instead began the first chapter of the Qur’an – in a way starting the Qur’an again. It’s obviously no big deal, but for someone who would like the Imam’s calculation to be as spellbinding as his recitation, I concluded that the Imam had made an error.

It’s not before I seriously gave this seeming error a thought. How would a man who has committed a voluminous book to memory repeat the same mistake over so many Ramadans? Truly, there was wisdom to be derived which I hope, in all my humility, I did.

The Imam’s deliberate attempt to mismatch the number of verses with the round of prayers was his way of welcoming the next Ramadan. By starting the first verses of the book, he tries to spill the blessings of that night into the one that we would have to wait for another year. It is a reminder from the learned leader of the congregation that there’s very little to be content from this year of Ramadan and that we should always hope we get to welcome the next one with as much dedication, if not more. It also seems to be like passing the baton to us of sorts, that the Imam has completed the Qur’an that he was entrusted with, and now it’s our responsibility to continue reading the book throughout the remainder of the year . The Imam has helped us start the first few verses, so we may respect it and continue it from there the very next day and continue till the next holy month where we are reminded of what the Imam left us with, again.

If there is a kernel of doubt in our minds about Ramadan being more than just giving up food, water and other desires, then banish them. For surely, there are things beyond what the stomach can digest that leaves us in deep thoughts and introspection, much like these moments when I thought the Imam erred.

Armchair Cleric

Mac

In an article I read in one of the dailies, I noticed another instance of capitalism making inroads into religion. While I don’t wish to be seen as a wannabe doomsayer, it could help to caution at the sight of bad idea germinating in someone’s mind. While instances of Ramadan becoming commercial are rife, these views came from ‘clerics’ in the region.

It was opined that working hours during Ramadan need not be reduced for those who work from enclosed offices as they are in an environment conducive to longer time of work even in fasting conditions (Islamic countries have reduced working hours for Muslims and Non-Muslims alike during the holy month). Clerics said productivity during Ramadan instead increases during the month, and the physical toil of salaried employees in offices was far less in comparison to the wage earners who work in the open. The article also carried financial figures to indicate the loss in revenue due to reduced hours.

While their justification may be right, and pointing out the exertion of outdoor workers to be more certainly is, they have missed one of the essential reasons for reduced hours. Infusing the articles with numerical measurement of loss accrued to organisation gets my frustration first, and then some sympathy if there’s any left.

One of the wisdoms for reduced hours of working during the month is that Muslims can spend more time in prayer and worship, or rest during the time to prepare for prayers they may be involved later in the day.

Working for the organisation’s goals is a commitment one lives by almost throughout the year and providing for some private and spiritual time for a month every year may in fact work in the organisation’s favour. Spiritually rejuvenated employee can hit the ground running by the end of Ramadan. Ramadan also is an opportunity to iron out the creases that blemish ones personality and an employee who makes the most of the extra time off can become a better team member.

The importance of strongly objecting to any ideas of regular times during Ramadan is to ensure that the clout of such clerical thought does not materialize into reality. It is not naive to say that anything lucrative and ‘profitable’ meets little resistance and is always ready to be implemented.

There are some things money cannot and should not buy. Some extra time spent in worship is certainly one of them.

Packaging Ramadan – ‘The Stream’ discussion on Al Jazeera on commercialism in Ramadan – (7:00 has my video comment on air and 13:10 carries my tweet discussion by the panel of the show)