Twentieth Century

Has history known any period as horrific as the twentieth-century? Even today’s strife seems to pale against the excesses of the last century. Are we more human now than the generation which conceived the Terror Bombing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the use of napalm and the nuclear bomb? Or are we just ill-informed? Will we also be just a footnote in the history books in another hundred year’s time?

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Pity the children

It’s incredible that thousands of refugee children risk their lives to escape conflict in Syria every day, crossing dangerous seas and hostile states in search of safety… and yet relatively properous British children are prepared to go the other way, entering a brutal war zone as if it is but a playground. A sure sign of a failed education.

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Houses of worship

If our places of worship are a microcosm of the wider world, it’s no wonder we’re in the state we are. Tribalism, political power games, religious manipulation, financial fraud, sectarianism, exclusion of outsiders… the list goes on. Change has to come from within.

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Extremist Minority

It’s increasingly evident that a small minority of extremists are trying their best to subvert democracy in the UK. They seem to hate our freedoms and our way of life. They seem intent on destroying everything we love about this country, undermining our liberal tolerance, respect for human rights and belief in equal opportunities for all. Yes, I’m talking about the Conservative Party. Please don’t vote them in again.

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The paralysis of apocalypse now

Many religious folk, it seems, thrive on visions of the last days. The Church of England might be setting out a blueprint for a more compassionate nation here on earth 1, but Christian prophecy is a massive movement in the United States and across Africa. Many Muslims, meanwhile, are consumed by the impending arrival of the promised Mahdi, the return of Jesus and the onslaught of the Dajjal or Anti-Christ. One only needs to sit in the company of students of knowledge for a little while, before conversation turns to the imminent signs of the Hour. It is a cause of excitement for some — jubilation at the prospect of world-changing events.

For me, however, all of this talk causes paralysis. It sends me into a spiral of depression and prevents me from functioning both on the spiritual and productive level. We have all heard the saying that if the Hour comes while you are planting a seed you should go on and plant it, but conversations about the coming of cataclysmic change causes me extreme numbness. Instead of celebrating the era of peace and justice which the Mahdi is said to usher in, I imagine the vast all-consuming battles which are supposed to precede him. However glorious the days presumed to await us on the other side of genocidal anarchy, I cannot share the excitement of the students in their circles of knowledge. I seek refuge in God from seeing days like those.

I recently posed a question to friends: ‘Why strive for apocalypse, when you can strive for utopia?’ I meant, ‘why strive for war when you can strive for peace?’ But an erudite acquaintance responded, ‘Apocalypse is the harbinger of utopia.’ Of course he is right. How many visions of a bright new future have been predicated on the extermination of undesirables? The striving for the Communist ideal left 100 million dead in the twentieth century. Hitler’s Aryan utopia necessitated the death of millions of Jews, Roma Gypsies and those of African-German descent. And as anyone who has had the misfortune to read shoddily compiled collections of hadith in English concerning the signs of the hour know, a similar fate apparently awaits us.

George Bush junior and Tony Blair both spoke of how their intense Christian faith drove their belief in the rightness of their invasion of Iraq, but they were certainly not alone in their mission to hasten the Hour. Zionist Christians seek all-out confrontation on the plain of Meggido, sixty miles north of Jerusalem. Messianic Jews agitate for the reconstruction of the third temple in Jerusalem and await the dawn of their millennial messianic kingdom. The radicals of ISIS invoke apocalyptic hadith concerning the conquest of Constantinople from the staging post of Dabiq in northern Syria.2 Characterizing ISIS as followers of the despotic Sufyani, Shi’a activists envision the present days as our last; soon the Mahdi will arrive, to rule with peace and justice.

It may be that all of these visions of impending doom and redemption are true — though I, for one, hope not — but it seems to me that history is simply repeating itself. For each crisis which befalls us, the spectre of wars to end all wars are invoked, from the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of European forces. The End is Nigh, come those pessimistic voices, and once more we slip into this morass of unending gloom.

So ISIS has taken Dabiq and awaits the arrival of the Roman forces. Soon they will march on Constantinople and claim the city for the Muslims. Who will break the news to these men and women that Constantinople fell to the Muslims 562 years ago in 1453 under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II? While transiting through Istanbul on their way to the Syrian border, did none of these young muhajirun pause to listen to the call to prayer? Did they not look down on hundreds of minarets and domes as their planes came in to land?

I don’t know if the generals of these rabble armies believe these prophecies — some say that these are really proxy wars for the control of water and oil, and that their leaders are getting rich on vast oil revenues — but the foot soldiers on either side are convinced that the best of times lie just over the hill. Shia militia have been mobilized to fight the Sufyani army. Sunni militants have been mobilized to take on the evil Rafidis. Each side is engaged in a battle of epic proportions. No wonder we have come to process events through the lens of an all-consuming conspiracy.

It comes as no surprise that many of us came to see the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which has just been made law, not as a knee-jerk response to unforeseen events unfolding in Syria, but as part of seditious machinations of a state making preparations for Armageddon. Everywhere we look nowadays, events in the world are framed as part of a conspiracy. It does not help that we as a community pay so much attention to people who speak out of both corners of their mouths. We do not pay attention to the source of our news on social media and the agenda that is being promulgated. We do not challenge the activist website which publishes decade-old news, passing it off as current affairs. All too willingly, we allow ourselves to be led by groups with political motives different from our own.

I am partial to conspiracy theories myself. Europe has a massive problem with refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya, I noted rather cynically the other day, so claims that ISIS plan to use the country as a staging post for its invasion of Europe will help policy-makers immensely, for a humanitarian crisis can now be treated as a security matter. Believing that newspapers tell lies to forward the political and commercial agendas of their owners does not make you a wacko: Peter Oborne’s recent revelations about The Telegraph’s dealings with HSBC ought to make that clear. But a lot of our ingrained behaviour does.

If you set up a school and then deprive your female students of the educational opportunities you afford your male students, you deserve to be called out by Ofsted; it is not a witch hunt, but the consequence of poor decisions. If you invite racist or sectarian scholars to speak to your Islamic Society, you should expect people who do not share those views to object. Acknowledging these realities does not absolve those with prejudices of their wrongs: clearly an anti-Muslim narrative permeates much of popular culture, but Muslims are not alone in suffering disadvantage, nor are all of us afflicted. Surely it is possible to take a step backwards and look again at events with a fresh pair of eyes.

Look again at Syria: sure, we can argue about the source of weapons and the underhand actions of foreign intelligence agencies, but Muslims are shedding the blood of Muslims without pause.  Look again at Nigeria: Boko Haram is massacring both Muslim and Christian populations in huge numbers, in what the United Nations would call the Lake Chad water conflict.3

But where is the scholarly input on these issues?  Can anyone point me to a convincing, scholarly response to the issues of the day surrounding Syria which are plaguing so many of our young? Can anyone point me to the contextual framing of apocalyptic eschatology, which is now so common amongst Sunni and Shia activists? Far from addressing these concerns, many so-called Traditional scholars are fanning the flames, advising their followers that the Mahdi is already amongst us: they have lit a fire which they cannot put out. The same scholars who rallied for an uprising in Syria three years ago, now issue futile declarations about ISIS, but will do nothing to address the gambling with hadith in their circles.

Without a doubt, the Hour is near at hand. Fornication is widespread. The bare-footed Bedouin have constructed their vast towers of steel and glass. The mountains have been moved from their places. The Kaaba stands in the shadow of a vast clock face. The Arabs live in fear of the ravaging drones. These signs are clear and true.

But what is nearness to the lifespan of time? The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘The time of my advent and the Hour are like these two fingers.’ If the universe is 14 billion years old, we could well say that any event which occurred over the past 2000 years was ‘just before the Hour’. If the earth is 4.5 billion years old, we could easily say that Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople immediately preceded the coming of the Mahdi. The Hour will come — about that there is no doubt — but when: these are matters unknown.

I wish our scholars and leaders would seriously address these issues, for they are like a plague, consuming us. I wish the learned would put these oft-cited hadith in context, now that the books of hadith have been broken open for all to survey as they please. Where is the guidance we so desperately need in these times? Personally, I am yet to come across anything which seriously counteracts the polemical propaganda which young people are being exposed to today. And yet our leaders constantly express surprise at the actions of these same youngsters. But why? The propaganda they have absorbed is convincing. The arguments they have read are persuasive. In the end, they are trying do to what’s right, however misguided that may seem to those left behind. Our scholars and leaders have failed them absolutely.

And the rest of us? Apocalyptic eschatology continues to send me into a downward spiral. Claims of great battles prevent me from planting seeds. Stories of turncoats who will never be forgiven drive a wedge between me and my Lord. Pessimistically I resign to never being good enough and to never being accepted: to living a life which is ultimately of no value, which will be rejected on the Day of Judgement. It promotes hopelessness and despair. It is, in short, a complete contradiction of everything I hold dear about my faith: that God is All Forgiving, Most Merciful. That God loves beauty. That God loves those who establish prayer, spend of their wealth on the poor, look after widows and orphans, who walk gently on the earth and who, when the ignorant address them, respond, ‘Peace.’

The paralysis wrought by visions of an impending apocalypse help no one. It’s time that our scholars and leaders set out a vision to counter the madness unfolding around us. If Church of England Bishops can ask, ‘who is my neighbour,’ surely our leaders can do it too. When will they plant this seed?

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Our Intelligence Services may claim that they need new powers to facilitate online surveillance, but it seems the self-proclaimed muhajirun in Syria are not quite so tech-savvy.

It took me roughly two seconds to find the twitter account of an individual named in news reports today — and glean all sorts of information about their apparent location, recruiting methods, ideological worldview and associates (who are also using wide-open Twitter accounts).

I don’t know if the smartphone generation realise this, but everything that they post on Twitter via an App is viewable by the entire world via a web browser (unless they set their account to private). And you don’t even need a Twitter account to do that.

While I’m not advocating spying on your children, it is true that if parents tried to familiarise themselves with internet technology just a little, they would be well on the way to protecting their children from harm.

If you’re going to give your children smartphones, tablets and laptops, educate yourselves about risks associated with them. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to fix a family friend’s laptop because they didn’t install anti-virus software — or they did, but their internet browsing and downloading habits wreaked havoc. But one example of a multitude of risks associated with Internet use.

It is not acceptable anymore to be generous in spirit — giving your children expensive gadgets — and yet remain oblivious to their effects. Use your intelligence and do whatever it takes to keep your children out of harm’s way.

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Apologies if you find that parts of the website don’t work as expected. It is a work in progress. I will fix it, slowly, slowly, as time allows, God willing. Pole pole ndio mwendo!

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Reading hearts

As a community we need to stop pretending that we can see into the hearts of others, for it is damaging our mental health and preventing us from contributing positively to society. Our sense of victimhood is exaggerated when every event that effects us is viewed though the prism of understanding that is, “It’s because I’m Muslim”. Witness the defeatist threads on social media, in which every misdemeanour of the other is amplified as further evidence that they’re all out to get us. Of course, if you perpetually reside on the comment pages of The Guardian and Telegraph websites amidst the trolls and haters, you will naturally conclude that everybody in the world hates you. But to step outside, carrying those sentiments with you, is to become judge and jury on the intentions of others.

I confess to have lived many years of my life afraid of the opinions of others. If, when out in public, I encounter a group of people laughing amongst themselves, a little voice from within whispers: “They’re laughing at you”; it is my big nose, my skinny frame, my voice, my slouch or my love of stripy jumpers. It could be any of these, or none of them. It could be something that happened a moment ago, a joke amongst friends, inebriation, happiness or insecurity. In these times, at this age, those are the more magnanimous sentiments with which I reply to those paranoid inner voices. Perhaps nerds, as we are considered, will forever be a laughingstock, but you can’t live your life under that spell. A time comes when you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, not that you don’t care, but that you can’t look into the hearts of others.

Wandering amidst the Muslim community, I see a mirror of that lethargic, nervous paranoia constantly. It comes alive in grand conspiracies, so commonly held that you begin to believe them: the black and white narrative of a binary world of good and evil. It is them against us: the schools inspectorate is conducting a witch hunt; child protection has an agenda; the extremists overseas are a CIA black-op; the worldwide media is controlled by our enemies. There is no nuance: no appreciation of complexities, no ability to see how the world is shaped for others. We are like that glum adolescent, struggling to understand his place in the world.

And so it has all become true: the hateful neighbour has contempt for you because you wear hijab. Your customers look at you suspiciously because you have a beard. That ignorant white man blanks you because he despises Muslims. Some driver cut you up on the motorway because he saw everyone in the car was wearing a headscarf. Your friends have stopped talking to you because you’ve started wearing niqab. Yes, everybody hates you.

Or could it be that you have simply convinced yourself that this is the case? Could it be that the hateful neighbour treats everyone like that: that his unaddressed rage causes him to lash out at everybody? Could it be that your customers are just trying to make eye contact so they can ask you a question? Could it be that the shy white man thinks he should lower his gaze in your company? Could it be that the driver has been cutting people up all afternoon? Could it be that your friends have stopped talking to you because they’re not quite sure how to behave in your presence any more? Could there be another explanation?

Over the past two decades, as a white man not presumed to be Muslim, my lowered gaze in the presence of Muslim women has repeatedly been interpreted as hatred of Muslims. I will be the first to admit that, socially inept as I am, I have trouble striking a balance between acknowledging someone respectfully and ignoring their existence. A lowered gaze, as I understand it, sits somewhere between the two, but it is an imprecise science, broadly interpreted through culture, learning and emotional state of mind. Hence my infamous convoluted detours around Sainsbury’s to avoid a hijab-wearing member of staff in whose presence I may once have played the role of excessively polite, presumably non-Muslim white man, demonstrating that not everybody hates Muslims. Lower your gaze too much and you are a rude, impertinent brute; lower your gaze too little and before you know it, it will be the talk of the town.

Assumptions and presumptions are killing our ability to interact with others. Fostered on a social media which frames the non-Muslim world as universally hostile to Muslims, we wander into public with unfounded fears that cause us to find negative explanations for each and every interaction. On one front we become unsympathetic to the feelings of others: we are oblivious to depression, money problems, marital strife, period pains, stress, grieving, illness or any other of a multitude of factors that could account for the particular reaction we received from a stranger one day. On another front we are feeding our own demise, setting up self-fulfilling prophecies, that will only serve to drag us down.

Instead of bringing to life prophetic sunnahs in our own lives — treat others as you’d wish to be treated, forgive him who wrongs you, answer a bad deed with a good deed — we set up false dichotomies. We answer perceived rudeness with rudeness. We respond to perceived wrongs with retribution. We answer a bad deed with another bad deed. And soon our news feeds brim with a sense of entitlement and victimisation. We cannot see each other as humans, each with our own conditions: we are just two tribes, mutually incomprehensible to the other.

Part of growing up is learning to let go of the self-centred ego. The bitter negativity which characterised my younger days was like superglue, thwarting my ability to move forward. The world had a problem with me, I told myself, judging the entire world around me. But of course it was not like that at all. There were aspects of myself which I needed (and still need) to change. But more than that, I needed to recognise that others were as complicated, compromised, confused and anxious as I was. I had to abandon a part of myself, in order to appreciate others more. As a community we need to do the same. This anxious bitterness which characterises our interactions with each other and the outside world is in fact a disease of the heart.

As men and women, there’s only one heart we have been given the ability to read, and that is our own. As that beloved refrain of mine goes: between my soul and God stand my heart and my deeds; nothing else stands between us. The time must have come to turn away from trying to read the intentions of others, towards purifying our own intentions and to act as ambassadors for all that is good and virtuous. Without a doubt there are some who mean you harm; that might be your ticket to the heights of paradise. Without a doubt, there are some who will not respond to kindness with kindness. But know that the world does not stand against you. Treat everybody you meet as an individual, with their own shortcomings, just like your own. Transact with them in the best of ways. Overlook their shortcomings; make excuses for their state of mind.

For, one day, we will stand before the One who truly reads all hearts, and then all truth will be known.

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