Knee jerk reactions

This week a Saudi student named Nahid Almanea was brutally murdered in a park in Colchester, Essex. We do not yet know why she was stabbed or who attacked her, but already the belief amongst a significant number of Muslim commentators is that she was killed because she was recognisably Muslim; because she was wearing hijab.

That may be so, but why can we not await due process before jumping to conclusions which fan community tensions? Her murder could just as well be linked to that of James Attfield who was also brutally stabbed to death in the same area in March.

For those lamenting alleged media apathy, his murder also passed unremarked by much of the media at the time. It is not double standards; in truth, most murders — except political murders — generally receive very little attention at all. There were over 500 murders in 2013; who can tell us anything about any of the victims of these crimes?

When the suspect is apprehended, faces trial and has been found guilty — then will be the time for reflection. Then we can ponder on motives, on crimes of hate, opportunity or insanity. Until then, let’s not make political capital out of two families’ tragic loss.

Tyrannical Anarchists

When it comes to answering a strange question on behalf of the citizens of Iraq — “Is it now okay to admit that Iraq was better off under tyranny than under unending anarchy?” — nothing really touches our leaders’ answer of Shock and Awe. Condemn them for their unceasing cynicism, not us; let them carry it with them to their graves.

Values

We will not be successful until we truly respect human life. One of the most important goals of Islam is the preservation of life, yet life is not respected in many Muslim countries. Instead, lIfe is cheap. Therefore we cannot move forward.

Water Politics

Scratch the surface and you’ll find that many of today’s conflicts are about water, not ideology. An inconvenient truth.

Consider the shrinking Lake Chad in West Africa, the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, and ISIS control of the Tigris and Euphrates, to name but 3 cases.

It was the view of one of my lecturers at SOAS 15 years ago that the next war in the Middle East would be over water. He did not predict US/UK intervention in 2003, but I don’t think he was far wrong.

Today there are probably around 50 countries (effecting almost 3 billion people) at high risk of violent conflict due to climate change, environmental degradation and related fresh water crises.

The geo-politics of water will dominate our age, though of course it will be packaged as a clash of civilisations, such is our thirst for palatable explanations.

Good trees

I have no issue with sufism that is founded on and grounded in Islam. Many (though by no means all) of the Muslims I find most inspiring are students of that path. Furthermore, it is nigh on impossible to learn any Islamic science without the chain of transmission having passed through scholars of the tradition. One of my favourite books is described by some as a manual of sufism, though I would simply describe it as a guide to Islamic devotions, prayer and practical ethics.

But to speak of a sufism founded on and grounded in Islam is to acknowledge that there are instances of practices with the same name which are not. Alhamdulilah, I was blessed from the earliest days to learn that the spiritual path is the core of our faith, regardless of the labels we assign ourselves. Though a salafi would never use the term sufism to describe the process of purifying hearts, preferring a term like ihsan or tazkiya, it has nevertheless been emphasised by all I have ever had the good fortune to know and meet. As my salafi companions used to say: “God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”

Alhamdulilah, many set out on a spiritual path — emphasising the purity of intention, the soundness of their hearts, gratitude to God, love of God, hope in God, repentance and remembrance — without ever employing terms like sufism or tasawwaf. Indeed perhaps I am one of them, poor though I may be. Our hearts yearn for a nearness to God, a rest, that can only be found in remembrance of God.

But there are aspects of some groups that loudly proclaim their adherence to the sufi path which trouble me. I have seen dhikr appear to become an end in itself, supplanting the means to God prescribed in the obligatory acts of worship. That old maxim that there is no tasawwaf without fiqh has vanished from mind, and so the evening prayer comes and goes unuttered, because a sunnah was emphasised over a fard.

Is there not something wrong when we cannot build a community in our locality, because the worshippers have become intoxicated by their devotions? Is there not something wrong when we cannot spare a few minutes to stand in prayer with our brethren at the mosque, but can travel great distances to vast gatherings to spend hours absorbed in the poetry of the soul?

If you detect bitterness in my lament, it is because I crave a spiritualism which moves us to action, in which we serve those around us, instead of our own inner egos. Yes, I crave that humble community, where we each greet the other at the mosque at the time of prayer, standing together before our Lord as kindred spirits, and afterwards exchange good words, perhaps wandering home together, perhaps sharing a cup of tea or a slice of bread. But we don’t; we have neglected the core and made the peripheral central. And it is true: I too have stopped going, praying on my own instead.

I crave a community where I live in which I find companionship. But instead you invite me to a gathering far away, where no allowance is made for the time of prayer. Where you speak of your mystical love of God, but let maghrib prayer slip past unsaid. Do you not reflect? Dhikr which causes us to forget is hardly remembrance at all. Isn’t it a tragedy that our boundaries have become so insecure that we find our Christian family more accommodating of our faith than Muslims themselves? Why must you transport us to Fez, Cordoba or Istanbul, and back in time to supposed glory days, when here we are now in the present, in this place we call home?

Speak not of the glory days. Your brother fell sick and none of you visited him. Do you ever wonder what became of him, or is he just another drop-out who could not keep up with your programme of devotion? Have we transformed out communities? Do we provide services to the poor? Do we care about our neighbours? Do we answer the questions of our youth? Have we done anything to make our locality a better place to live? Or is it all just talk? And yes, this is all just talk. I am one of those who talks about what I do not do.

But I have been inspired. Yesterday I was blessed with an invitation to a beautiful gathering focusing on the spiritual plight of nascent Muslims. Perhaps we were carried far from our intended goals, to the regret of some; beyond the anticipated focus on the stirring soul and the heart kept alive. But for me it set in motion a train of thoughts about a rekindled faith — for my faith like many others’ just smoulders, effecting neither myself or others — one borne in efforts to build our own communities in our midst. To start a home group for the Strangers — those on the periphery of the community, for whom the mosque offers no refuge — to come together to recite from the Qur’an, to reflect on Allah’s signs, to read together and re-remember the shahada, to recall subhanullah, to seek God’s forgiveness and aid. And to bring and share: a cup of tea, a piece of cake, fruit salad. To pray together. To become whole once more.

We ran out of time yesterday to complete our thoughts, to properly think about our next steps, but there was something I wanted to share. Perhaps it was just the buzz of having a voice, living in a community where I have none, but for me a kind of clarity settled. There is a need amongst new Muslims all over the country — and by new Muslims I do not mean just the narrow definition of the convert to Islam, but also youngsters, teenagers, children, and older people discovering or rediscovering their faith anew — for a spiritual home, for a place to go to maintain a connection with our Creator.

And then there are those of us who have been Muslim for fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years. We have a job to do. Not to go forth and multiply, but to go forth and satisfy the needs of the next generation. We are now established in our faith: we must stop infantilising ourselves as converts in perpetual need of a helping hand (that’s not a denial of the need for pastoral support in the community), and instead recognise that we need to be the helping hand.

A new Muslim should be defined as a person in the very early stages of their journey. The first five years, perhaps, when they are at their most vulnerable and in most need of guidance and help. But for us to start to make changes, we need to graduate, to come of age.

And so what would it be like if those of us established in our faith went out to sow seeds in our localities, wherever we might be in the country, establishing humble gatherings in our homes, once a fortnight? What if we adopted that as a model for fostering spiritual wellbeing in every locality around the country? We do not need to advocate anything grand: no committees, trustees, minutes of meetings: just modest fellowship, a pot of tea, recitation and prayer. Walks in the countryside, so that we might reflect on the Signs of God, on the beauty manifest in His creation.

What if the answer to our spiritual morass was a vision as simple as this? A letter sent to no-longer new Muslims, inviting them to switch roles, to become mentors, servants, tea-makers. Not to become pseudo-scholars, community leaders or the voice of reason: no, just a conduit to counteract isolation and spiritual stagnation. To foster growth, companionship, mutal-respect, healthy hearts, gratitude to God, patience, love, kindness and compassion.

From a tiny acorn grows the mighty oak.

Stand firm

The problem is that we believers have become tribal people, exhibiting the characteristics of a Chosen People that our religion so strongly opposed. Instead of standing for justice, we stand for our tribe (our supporters, friends, family). However our religion tells us to do the opposite: to stand up for truth and justice — even if that is against ourselves!

Qur’an 4:135:

“O you who have believed, persistently stand firm in justice, witnesses for God, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, God is more worthy of both. So follow not your personal inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort your testimony or refuse to give it, then indeed God is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.”

In Turkish:

“Ey iman edenler! Adaleti ayakta tutan ve kendiniz, ana-babaniz ve yakin akrabaniz aleyhine de olsa, yalniz Allah için sahitlik eden kimseler olunuz. Zira zengin de olsa, fakir de olsa, Allah ikisine de (sizden) daha yakindir. Nefsinizin arzusuna uyarak adaletten uzaklasmayin. Eger (sahitlik ederken) dilinizi eger, bükerseniz veya çekinirseniz, süphesiz Allah yaptiklarinizdan haberdardir.”

That is a lesson for us all, be we leaders or common folk. However for the leaders it is much more important.

A leader who thinks only of his own survival is not much of a leader at all.

Another controvesy

Dearly beloved,

I have become a grumpy old man, so far be it from me to offer any sage advice on the latest manufactured controversy to hit the British Isles, namely the revelation that a lot of meat sold in the UK is allegedly “halal”.

People are allegedly up in arms about this alleged practice. The topic was covered in great detail on the World at One on Radio 4 yesterday lunchtime and again on the Six O’clock News on BBC1 last night. Serious stuff.

Personally, just from a logistical point of view, I have my doubts as to whether so much meat really is “halal” — I expect there to be more revelations in the coming weeks, quietly reported, that a lot of meat passed off as halal is nothing of the sort. Have we forgotten last year’s stories of the cross-contamination of meat already?

But personal doubts are no different from personal opinions, and there have been a lot of those flying around this week. My own personal opinion is that we should eat much less meat than we do, both from a religious perspective and due to the fact that modern large-scale industrial meat production cannot possibly be considered humane. But I don’t practice what I preach — at all. Though I should. Controversies such as this ought to serve as a reminder to those of us who say we care about animal welfare. In its purest form, that is what the halal slaughter of meat is aimed towards.

We are not going to see a sensible debate in the current climate, however. The BBC reported that a prayer in Arabic is made over the animal at the time of slaughter, but it did not venture to report its meaning. To the best of my knowledge, the words used are:

In the name of God, God is the Greatest. Oh God, from You and to You. Oh God, accept it from me.

That ought to be acceptable to meat eaters of most faiths. Some might object to the use of the word “Allah” in place of the English word “God”, but that seems not to be a concern of Arab Christians. And for Atheists: surely no metaphysical transformation could possibly occur as a result of these words. This part of the controversy, I think, is simply scaremongering about the otherness of Muslims.

Others have genuine legitimate concerns about methods of slaughter, but really these should span the industry as a whole. Firing a bolt into an animal’s temple is hardly an act of kindness, especially if you have to repeat the process several times because it did not knock the animal unconscious first time around.

If you have visited an industrial abattoir, as I have, you would quickly conclude that it is far from a humane environment, and you would probably decide, as I did, to turn mostly-vegetarian. But memories fade, for meat has an addiction like that of wine. It is good to have a discussion about where our meat comes from, how it is farmed, how it died and how it arrived on our plates. Sometimes we need to be jolted back into consciousness about the ethical dimensions of our lives.

Which leads onto my real point: responses to representations of the Muslim community. With each new controversy, some more tenuous than others, it is tempting to respond with irony, writing off every new story with satirical wit. But that is dangerous ground. We have to be careful to differentiate between the agendas of news organisations and our genuine problems.

Flabbergasted by the former, a decade ago I myself made the tragic error of judgement in deciding to launch a Muslim version of Private Eye, taking a satirical look at the news and politics — on the eve of the Beslan school massacre, of which I was not fully aware. Naturally my friends reacted then as I do today to our strangely warped priorities: shaking of heads, wondering how I could be so out of touch with reality.

And they were right. The truth is that we are easily led down the wrong avenues by our innate emotions and end up focusing on the wrong issues. Or, taken on the defensive, we justify what is unjustifiable. Or we trade wrongs, as if two wrongs make a right: in place condemnation of an atrocity by Muslims, we hear the playground retort, “But you are killing innocents too.” We are great at finding the speck in others’ eyes, but have difficulty seeing the plank in our own.

The domestic machinations of newspaper editors are not going to leave us any time soon. Our own clowns are presently circulating a petition calling on the State to recognise Eid as a Bank Holiday, even though we can’t agree when it is amongst ourselves. I can already see the headlines, once again emphasising the otherness of Muslims.

Stories about Muslims undermining the nation have been commonplace for over a decade. They are irritating — hurtful even — but their existence should not distract us from the very real work we have to do, tackling very real issues in our communities and beyond. We need to try our best to make our lives halal, to the fullest extent of the word.

Here ends today’s sermon.

Topsy-turvy

Ours is a community which can spin itself into a fury over a video featuring dancing Muslims, spewing forth a million words for or against, but falls dumb when a group of extremist lunatics reportedly kidnaps hundreds of girls from their school.

Ours in a community ready to excommunicate and denounce believers for the tiniest lapse – for wearing the wrong kind of clothes, thinking the wrong thoughts, reading the wrong books or attending the wrong mosque – all the while exhibiting startling leniency for the worst of crimes.

Where are those who pronounce on the fate of others when Muslims perpetuate mass murder? Where are they when it is our brothers who are the oppressors, the unjust, the barbaric? Where are their sharp judgements? Where their cutting cynicism?

Ours is a topsy-turvy community, where everything is upside-down and inside-out. Where listening to a silly song will earn you the wrath of thousands, but exploding a bomb in a crowded marketplace passes unremarked. Ours is a community which thinks itself serious, but can’t see the wood for the trees.