Favour Culture

Dominic Grieve QC, the Attorney General, says ministers should “wake up” to the threat of corruption in public life, which he attributes to “minority communities” that operate a “favour culture”.

I agree. The Houses of Parliament are overwhelmed with minority communities operating a culture of favour: the Tories and Labour alike have been at it for years. Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, David Laws, John Butterfill, Derek Conway, Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers, Richard Caborn…

No, alas, irony is lost on the Political Class.

To inquire

In her rage at Tony Blair on Friday as he sat before the Chilcot Inquiry she accidentally dashed over a goblet of red wine. To his crimes of forging war and invading a sovereign state, she added the painful stains on the beautiful wooden floor. Thus acts the modern Muslim, scared to take the self to account, always ready to blame another, to upbraid imperialism and the fanatic. The enlightened Muslim seethes at the woman in hijab, the bearded youth and all who embrace a practical faith and eschew the politics of identity, screaming of the intolerable shame they shower upon her. We shall not speak of our abandonment of prayer, of our poison tongues, our short-selling, our aggressive anger. God will not change the condition of the people — recalls the Muslim so chastised, turning back to their faith ever so slightly — until they change the condition of themselves. But the modern Muslim censures everyone but herself. Today, Tony Blair, white imperialism. Yesterday, white liberals, veiled women, Muslim converts. We learn nothing from the upturned goblet.

It is not Islamophobia

Though I do not dispute that some Muslims face discrimination, that Islam is derided (as Christianity is) and damned, that some Muslims are attacked for their beliefs, I have never liked the term “Islamophobia” for it is being used in Britain today as a mechanism of denial, a means of avoiding taking ourselves to account.

Were we like the best of people, I might not object to its use so much—in that case we really could decry irrational fear and prejudice—but we’re not. We’ve become a self-pitying nation, sobbing about victimisation, wallowing in denial about the diseases overwhelming us. To lament forced marriage and domestic violence* in the Muslim community is not “Islamophobia” (though it could be characterised thus if the focus was exclusively on Muslims, which it is not): it is an acknowledgment of reality. When I sat on the management committee of a charity that aimed to aid Muslim women in crisis for five years, the statistics about abuse were not made up, the imaginings of racists and politicians with foreign policy objectives. While this focus on PR remains, displacing pastoral care, thousands of real people must live with the consequences, their plight ignored. We are not in the world of hypotheticals, of disappointing words: this is the world of real lives, of the wellbeing of your sister, the happiness of your brother.

Imagine if you will a promising young student. Half way though the first year of her complex degree she comes to believe in Islam. She believes that none has the right to be worshipped except God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, so she decides to walk upon this path. She discusses it with her mother, who tells her that if she dares become a Muslim she will throw her out of the house. But she already believes—it’s in her heart—she’s sincere and strong in faith, and so her mother throws her out of the house. But she’s not turning back because her belief’s sincere and her faith is firm and strong. Her friends at university notice the changes—she’s wearing a jilbab now and she’s covering her hair because she believes it’s part of what being a Muslim’s about, she doesn’t hang about with boys anymore and now she’s fully focussed on her studies. She’s lost some of those friends along the way—those who think she’s lost her mind—but she remains steadfast. Within months she’s been advised that she ought to get married, because this is the second piece of advice it seems every new female Muslim must hear, so she’s looking for a good Muslim man. A few weeks later she invites her friends to her marriage to a man who has told her he’s a good and pious believer. The wedding is rather brief and she wonders why she went to all the trouble to have a beautiful but still modest dress made for the occasion, but she leaves for her husband’s home filled with great excitement and joy all the same, looking forward to years of marriage in which their love and compassion grows between them, carrying them hand-in-hand to Paradise. Instead her husband beats her up, yells abuse at her, calls her a nigger, flings her across the room and terrorises her.

Imagine if you will receiving an email one day in which the sender asks if you have heard from his wife and when you press him on it, he tells you that they are now divorced. Why, you ask, for it has only been a month or two? Imagine that he tells you that she complained that he was beating her. You press him on this as well: well is it true? Yes, he replies reluctantly, acknowledging his mistakes. You tell him that our blessed Prophet said only the worst of us would beat their wives, appealing to this pious man’s better nature, but he only responds with ferocious words: ‘I’m not the Prophet, am I?’ It is an addiction for him and he doesn’t know how to treat it. Still, his divorcee is undeterred. She believes in God and His Messenger. Her faith is strong and her heart is firm, and she will continue to tread this path whatever the test before her. Imagine if you will that a year or so after returning to her studies, the young student decides to marry again. She is not going to be deterred by one bad experience. So she weds a kind young man and together they have their first child; but before the baby has had the chance to get to know his daddy, daddy divorces mummy. Shirking on his responsibility (just think that “shirking” exists in the English language), he leaves his wife homeless to bring up their child as a single mother failing to provide child maintenance. Life is hard for that promising young student now: she has given up her studies and her dreams and now lives in poverty with no proper income, caring for a mischievous toddler who drains her energy away. But she’s not turning back because her belief in God is sincere and her faith is firm and strong.

Now imagine if you will that a year or so later she realises that the only way she is going to survive is with the support of a husband, so once more she seeks a good man, taking the most cautious steps this time. She meets his family, and she finds them kind and respectful. She doesn’t rush in, she gives it all the thought in the world, but eventually she decides to marry this man. She is a single mother—she never thought she’d be a single mother—and she can barely survive this way. It is the only way forward, she tells herself, so she marries this good man. But this good man does not know his responsibilities under the law of this deen, for shortly after their marriage when his new wife has just become pregnant he tells her that he can no longer afford to maintain her and a baby—as if he couldn’t have known that before—and promptly he divorces her before their child is born. Imagine if you will a young mother bringing up a toddler alone, nursing her pregnancy alone, a single mother living in poverty, with no child maintenance from two fathers.

Imagine if you will, a young single mother who quite understandably now hates all men, but Muslim men in particular, who finds her life a great burden. Imagine if you will, a once promising young student who finds herself seriously contemplating leaving her religion, although she won’t because she believes in it with certainty—it’s in her heart—for she’s strong in faith. She’s not turning back because her belief’s sincere and her faith is firm and strong. She’s not going to be driven out of the deen because she believes in the Day of Judgement and in Paradise and Hell. Imagine.

I wish I could tell you now that I made this story up, that it was from my imagination like in the books I write, but I can’t. I wish I could say I decided to write a short story based upon extremes. I wish I could say that this didn’t happen to a real person, that it was a metaphor or a fable. I wish I could, but I can’t for this happened to somebody my wife knows for whom I have immense respect because the strength of her faith provides massive inspiration to me. I wish too that this was the only story I could tell, but alas it is not. I wouldn’t say I know many cases—fortunately most people we know are happily married—but those cases that exist are quite enough to make us take note. There is the mother who brings up two severely disabled children all alone, left to cope when her husband walked out because he could not. There is the man living a solitary existence in the loveless marriage that will exist as long as it takes for his wife to get her whole family leave-to-remain. There are alas a multitude of stories I could tell of men and women living in crisis in the Muslim community in Britain.

When somebody highlights stories like these and you dismiss it as “Islamophobia” you are hurting every person affected by them and you are hurting this deen, because it means that the problems persist untackled. The charity I worked with that aimed to help Muslims in crisis had to close this year after almost twenty years serving the community, not because the problems have gone away—if anything they have increased in number—but because our community did not think it important to fund such an organisation. We have become a community which believes it has no problems and that every accusation of an issue is merely a manifestation of “Islamophobia.” Unpalatable certainly, but I raise it here because it matters. In this context the accusation of “Islamophobia” is not the saviour of this community, but its curse.


Please note

Those who rejoice in the problems in the Muslim community should note that it is estimated that a total of 18,569 women and 23,084 children were accommodated and supported by refuges during the year 2003/04, reflecting a deeper problem in wider society. It is said that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetime and between 1 in 8 to 1 in 10 women experience it annually. Source: http://www.womensaid.org.uk

“Domestic violence occurs across society regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, wealth and geography.” Source: http://www.crimereduction.gov.uk/dv/dv03a.htm

The return of the ragged Hajji

21 December 2006: It is our forth day in Medina in the warming heat of Arabia according to our own grand master plan. Shortly we will depart for Mecca and the wondrous House. Planned months in advance and carefully financed—ihram sourced a month before departure, suitcases packed two weeks before—but though we plot and plan, Allah is always the best of planners. Here I sit in my own study, warming myself against the icy air beside the radiator, the fog outside covering the hill across the valley, the house across the street obscured by this hanging haze.

Our flight was last Sunday, but it left without us. Awaiting our visas, Tuesday was the next available flight, but still our visas failed to materialise. We planned, hopefully, for Wednesday, but even if it had all come through our plane would have been grounded by the heavy fog suffocating Heathrow airport. Now we plan for Friday, our visas secure we believe, but the meteorologists think the fog will hold for another day or so. Perhaps we will fly on Saturday. Perhaps not. Perhaps we will fly to Mecca direct and there will be no Medina for us this time. Perhaps not. We plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners. And Allah is ever with the patient.

We finally got on our way on Sunday 24 December after a couple of false starts, making our way to Stansted airport at half a day’s notice. How lovely to meet with our companions again, each face beaming despite the draining tensions of the past week and the many miles travelled my some of them to get here on time. An evening of further delays could not knock our patience now; we knew we had been called.

While preparing for Hajj, most of the advice I had received had seemed overwhelmingly negative, my well-meant counsellors insisting that they only intended to prepare me for the inevitable. Yet, good though their intentions were, their guidance merely filled me with gloom, undermining my emotional preparations for this incredible expedition. When I set out on my own journey, therefore, I was determined not to moan or fret and to count Allah’s blessings instead. And there were many, even before we arrived: the kindness of friends who dropped everything to take us to the airport, the generosity of airport security staff who took us back to the main terminal for food after the shops closed on Christmas Eve at our satellite gate, the free sandwiches from Pret. Not to mention beautiful company.

We arrived at Medina in the morning, circling the city and sending our salams to the Prophet as we glided above his mosque, its white minarets a centimetre apart, and descended through the cloudless cobalt sky for an easy landing. Alhamdulilah: another blessing. Although we were only able to stay there for two days, our visit was filled with great bounties. We spent wonderful moments in the Prophet’s mosque, visited Uhud and other significant sites, stocked up on provisions for our journey and found ourselves very well fed. It is strange to find that our stay was so short, for my memories could fill a week. How grateful I am to one of my companions who pulled me from my slumber before Fajr on Boxing Day: wearied by my lack of sleep, I would have snoozed until the last athan had he not reminded me where we were and the reward attached to it. Instead we hurried to the mosque to pray tahajud and contemplate on the magnificence of God’s creation, setting in place a routine for the remainder of our stay on sacred soil.

I was soon to discover that our expectations do not always mirror reality. On route to Mecca by bus, we found that the famous golden sand dunes depicted on the big screen in The Message were the product of artistic licence; we found a rock strewn, grey-brown volcanic landscape. After entering the state of Ihram our journey took all day, passing by with relative ease until our arrival at the outskirts of Mecca. There was plenty of cause to say Alhamdulilah: I was taken by the generosity of the charities that provided packed lunches and bottles of water for every pilgrim passing through. That feeling of gratitude was to repeat throughout our Hajj as we encountered the generosity of others.

Our Hajj however was not without its difficulties. In days of old the tribulations faced by the pilgrim on his journey to Mecca included the assault of ravaging bandits determined to make quick profits by pillaging the winding desert caravans. In our own age, say some, the road to Mecca is easy, a comfortable voyage by jetliner to comfortable five-star accommodation. That may be so for some, but others of us unlucky enough to encounter the twenty-first century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will.

Today’s bandits come in different guises. Some may claim to be mujuhideen, while others ascribe to themselves Islamic legitimacy unaware even to themselves that they are no more than petty criminals. But what of the businessmen who sell Hajj Packages to hundreds of eager pilgrims only to leave the worshipers high and dry? Our own Hajj was filled with great blessings, too many to enumerate: the kindness shown to us by others, the generosity of strangers, the beauty of our two days in Medina, the ease with which we completed many of our rites. We were truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship, just as with every period of hardship there came ease. Thus the most frequent thoughts that recurred in my mind over and over again were those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’

Though we travelled as a group, we were all tested as individuals. Personally I found great ease—to the extent that I now fear my Hajj was wanting—but others in our group found our Hajj deeply challenging and a great test. Walking the Hajj made it for me, but was difficult for others. Our stay in the tents at Mina as orphans to another group was a beautiful experience for me—there I discovered one of my closest friends from England as well as folk from the two villages I lived in as a child—and yet it was an uncomfortable period of tension for others. Where there was difficulty though, it was always possible to see good and if not good at least humour: at Arafat I asked Allah to aid me in controlling my tongue and the very same night I lost my voice. In any case, I think all of us drew great inspiration from the most senior member of our group, whose great strength and perseverance throughout was a lesson for us all.

I do have regrets of course. The first is that I did not go to Hajj with a firm grounding in Fiqh. This personal preference arose after a snap decision that I made during the course of my Hajj rites which I immediately regretted and which continued to bother me until I had paid a penalty of compensation. Other regrets are more personal. At the end of the day, however, we can only do our best and overall my Hajj was a wonderful experience, even as the illness that started on my return from Arafat began to change my mood. On Hajj expectations rarely mirror reality: the image of Arafat in my mind was very different from what I found there, while Mudzalifa could not have been further removed. But more than that, I found myself often impressed when I had been prepared to be disappointed, humbled by the efforts of those who helped to make our pilgrimage what it was and grateful to have been invited to the House when I thought I was not ready. Labbaik Allah humma labbaik. Labbaik la sharika laka labbaik. Innal hamda, wan-ni’mata, laka walmulk. Laa sharika lak.

Ashura 1428

Hajj Bandits

In days of old the tribulations faced by the pilgrim on his journey to Mecca included the assault of ravaging bandits determined to make quick profits by pillaging the winding desert caravans. In our own age, say some, the road to Mecca is easy, a comfortable voyage by jetliner to comfortable five-star accommodation. That may be so for some, but others of us unlucky enough to encounter the twenty-first century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will.

Today’s bandits come in different guises. Some may claim to be mujuhideen, while others ascribe to themselves Islamic legitimacy unaware even to themselves that they are no more than petty criminals. But the bandits we encountered were the suave businessmen who sold Hajj Packages to hundreds of eager pilgrims, pocketing tens of thousands of pounds and leaving the worshipers high and dry. There were those who never left these shores, who stayed behind when they were told that their Hajj visas had been rejected. There were the others who arrived in Arabia only to discover that no accommodation had been arranged for them, and no transport, and nowhere to rest in Mina or Arafat. We met many of these despondent folk along the way.

Our own Hajj was filled with great blessings, too many to enumerate: the kindness shown to us by others, the generosity of strangers, the beauty of our two days in Medina, the ease with which we completed many of our rites. We were truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship and with every period of hardship came ease. The most frequent thoughts that recurred in my mind over and over again were those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’

Our agent would have had us believe that the Saudis were sitting on our visa application and were dragging their heels. Only, the leader of our group discovered that the Embassy did not even have our passports and had received no application on our behalf. Were it not for the kindest soul from another agency who came to our rescue to take these Hajj Orphans under his wing, we would have had no hope of standing on the Plain of Arafat or kneeling by the Prophet’s minbar. Blessings and trials. There was great beauty in our Hajj, great ease at times and bounty. And still sometimes there was hardship, even if only for moments.

Do the believers think they will be left to say, ‘We Believe’ and will not be tested? We have had our tests. But I wonder if the bandits — ancient and modern — realise that we are a test for them. Do they not think they will be asked?

Storm in a tea cup

Much ado about nothing, I say. Before we can draw our team brief to a close this morning at work we have to cover preparations for Christmas Dinner. It’s all going swimmingly until the organiser thinks she should inform us of a problem. Apparently a certain employee upstairs cannot attend because it has been booked in a pub and her beliefs stop her from going to pubs. She’s a Muslim. That causes a few raised eyebrows and laughter. Someone points out that if it was a restaurant, they’d still be serving alcohol.

I start sinking in my seat, burying my eyes in the table top. The organiser adds, actually the lady in question wasn’t bothered too much, that it was another member of staff who was worried about it on her behalf. Who’s attended Equality and Diversity training, asks our Director, what should we do? My Manager starts saying that we should have thought about this. Yes, they agree, but now what are we going to do about the lady upstairs? Will we have to cancel our booking and arrange something else? I could easily say something – suggest that I’m sure she’s not even bothered about it – but I’m staying out of this one.

Except I’m not going to be allowed to let this pass me by; I’m about to be outed. We should have thought about this from the start, says my Manager, she’s not the only person in the organisation who wouldn’t be able to attend for that reason. There are at least two people affected. Who, asks the organiser, you don’t mean X (the Indian woman upstairs)? My time has come. I think she means me, I say, and all eyes are on me, a look of horror on six of the faces. Tim’s a Muslim, my Manager tells them.

Faces are red. It probably wasn’t the best timing; after the words exchanged moments earlier. Never mind, my Manager’s brought me in. So yes, I tell them, it’s true, I am a Muslim. Personally, I tell them, I wouldn’t go to the pub either, which is why I excused myself from attending. I don’t expect them to change their plans on my behalf. I appeal to the memory of my Methodist grandfather who similarly excused himself from alcoholic gatherings. I explain that the lady upstairs probably isn’t worried about the matter at all and wouldn’t expect anything to be rearranged. I point out that last year’s storm about a council allegedly banning the word Christmas in case it offended Muslims had absolutely nothing to do with Muslims, but was the product of some well-meaning official. And I say, yes perhaps my faith has implications for them when it comes to organising social functions, but I am not guilty of keeping a secret any more than they are; none of them had told me they were atheist, Catholic or whatever.

After the meeting my Manager sends me a one line email:

Tim, I didn’t mean to embarrass you in the team meeting. Sorry if I did.

I tell her not to worry about it, but I send an email of my own to my immediate colleagues, my Director and the organiser of the Christmas Dinner.

Dear all,

A clarification on today’s revelation during team brief… It is indeed the case that I am a practising Muslim – as I have been for about a decade. This was a personal choice, following a period of searching prompted by the discomfort of being the only agnostic in a very religious family – both my parents are Anglican priests.

I really don’t have a problem with people knowing that I am Muslim, but I did make a conscious choice when I started this job not to publicise it widely given the prevailing political climate. I am sure it won’t have escaped your attention that my religion has been receiving a lot of negative attention over the past few years, particularly after the massacre on the London transport system in 2005. Having experienced colleagues making wild assumptions about me because of my beliefs in past roles, I felt that silence was the best option. Thus I disappear off at lunchtime to do my prayers and make excuses for not coming to the pub with you.

I do not expect you to make alternative arrangements on my behalf. Generally I do not sit where alcohol is being consumed – partly for reasons other than religion – which I guess is rather an anathema at Christmas time. But don’t worry about it. At the end of Ramadan, I had a lovely Eid celebration – I don’t feel I’m missing out. Others may feel differently, but that’s my personal take. If in doubt, talk to the people concerned – whether it is someone with health issues or specific cultural needs.

Apologies to anyone who thinks I should have been more open about my beliefs – but you know the English way; we tend not to broadcast our beliefs. Hence I never knew that David is a Jedi Knight.

Thine,

Tim

Almost straight away, my director responds.

Tim, I apologise if you were put in an embarrassing position this morning. As a PCT I hope we are sensitive to everyone’s beliefs. Sometimes it is difficult to think of everything so I was appreciative of your understanding. Please don’t hesitate to come and see me if there is anything you want to talk about.

The organiser of the Christmas Dinner writes to me to say she’s sorry I won’t be attending, but now she understands why. Meanwhile, my colleague writes:

Good clarification, thanks Tim. And there’s nothing wrong with being a Jedi Knight! It is an official religion on a number of planets I visit as an ET Technical Projects Manager, including: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1589133.stm

As for the conversation which sparked gale force winds in our best china: a colleague of the lady in question casually mentioned it in passing that she would have liked her to be there for Christmas Dinner. The individual organising the dinner became very worried after this, even though the lady explained several times that she did not celebrate Christmas and did not feel left out at all. Having explained that she did not want any plans changed on her behalf, she left it at that. She tells me, “It’s all a storm in a tea cup.”

Knowledge

When I as studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp. This was in the days before ‘Blogging’ existed as it does today and when the Internet was a medium only just being colonised with Muslim thought. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my dissertation on this topic. Its title was ‘Safeguarding Knowledge: A Concept of Review and Accreditation for Popular Islamic Educational Publishing in the United Kingdom’. A bit of a mouthful, I grant you.

Following some discussions which took place during the day, this topic returned to my mind this evening. I suppose it is my oft returned-to question about writing in general and writing a weblog in particular. Quite separately, but still intimately linked, a question about typing Arabic text in Adobe Photoshop led me to think about my own experience of typesetting, which in turn made me pick one of those books up. The work in question is wholly concerned with the question of authentication, in this case in the preservation of the Qur’an. The memory of typesetting was linked to the former by the fact that an unknown character provided me with a useful commentary on the question of innovation in religion. What I was most taken aback by was the fact that he/she posted these comments anonymously. The book I was blessed with the opportunity to typeset, however, contains the following:

“…scholars face stringent limitation on which books they coulduse in the form of a ‘licence’ or reading certificate. In promulgating hadith books a regular attendance record was always kept, written either by the teacher or one of the famous scholars present, supplying details of attendance such as who had listened to the entire book, who joined in partially and which portions they missed, the women and children (and even the maids and servants) who participated, and the dates and sites of these readings. … A signature at the book’s conclusion terminated this reading certificate, indicating that no further entries could be made therein. To the muhaddithin this certificate was tibaq, an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.”

By contrast, today the internet is awash with ‘Islamic knowledge’ about which we do not have even an inkling of its authenticity. This recognition makes me shudder and it leads me on to wonder if even my own meanderings – this journey of a self-centred soul – should cease, even as I make no claim that it is anything other than opinion. I do not know if ‘Anonymous’, who provided the commentary, is such-and-such, son of so-and-so, student of such-and-such, nor where he/she obtained this knowledge and whether he/she has a reading certificate. I simply do not know.

So the whole question is playing on my mind now and I find myself thinking about that question which I asked six years ago once more. What are we all doing publishing this and that willy-nilly? It is a question for me as much as anybody else, for this weblog is in the public domain and is read by people I do not know and who do not know me. Even if I tell you that I am Timothy Bowes ibn Peter ibn William, it does not help you for still I am just anybody. You do not know about my learning or my truthfulness. On the one hand we could argue that since I am not attempting to disseminate knowledge we should not really be concerned, but I am not so sure. I now have grave concerns.

My dissertation focused on the segment of the Muslim publishing sector which I defined as popular publishing concerned with basic Islamic education. In other words, not academic book production, but that aimed at the general Muslim readership. My concern was the editorial element, rather than improved production which has become the focus for many publishers over recent years. While producing beautiful books happens to be a passion of mine, the question of typography and cover design is really a fairly insignificant aside. In the course of this project, I undertook a study of Islamic education, examining the concept at some length. I went on to analyse the current state of Islamic education in Britain based on textual sources. This was followed by a review of the Muslim publishing sector in the United Kingdom.

In light of the Islamic heritage concerning the authentication of knowledge I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also the structures set up in the scientific publishing sector. After examining information management as it occurred in traditional Islamic settings, I studied peer review as it exists in scholarly publishing as a model for a review body. Before concluding, however, I considered whether the establishment of such a body would amount to a form of censorship and so I examined the notion of freedom of expression in contemporary thought along with the Islamic concept that a word is an act, which I have touched upon many times whilst writing on this weblog.

The case presented for a means of safeguarding Islamic knowledge from corruption inevitably collides with a culture which views knowledge in a different way. As I wrote in a recent post, so-called post-modern society argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths. The result is that the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection may be considered an affront to the freedom of speech – to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa or religious verdicts. Traditionally, scholars have always been entrusted with the community’s knowledge. Writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval, Rosenthal states that there was “little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas” into what constitutes Islamic knowledge. Meanwhile, Eickelman and Anderson note in ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities in the Muslim world,

“…set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.”

While many advocates of unrestricted free speech may welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind the slaughter of pilgrims on the Hajj and wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless.

During the course of this study, I quizzed readers about their views on books concerning Islamic knowledge. One respondent was suspicious if sources were not given, to the extent that she would begin to doubt its authenticity. A respondent who reads in English preferred it if the references were made, but pointed out that he was unable to check original texts in Arabic. If the book was from a respected publishing house, however, he did not mind if sources were not listed. An academic, meanwhile, said that he was very concerned if the book was in English, but much less so if it was a standard Arabic book whose author was well known. One respondent said that she would check the source if the content was totally unknown or at odds with her prior knowledge, but she would usually trust the author. Six other respondents were either concerned or very concerned if sources were not listed. One pointed out that even when they were listed, sources may be of dubious or inappropriate value. He also believed that literature even from established figures could still be a cause for concern because of the problems today’s Muslims face in interpreting Islam. Another respondent stated that all seekers of Islamic knowledge should be concerned about the authenticity of information provided, that everything is questioned at all times and that he would critique every view. Another was so concerned that when choosing a book that he would only select works from trustworthy authors or publishing houses, and that he would look for the general source of their views.

The emphasis on authenticity lies, without a doubt, in the development of the science of hadith (Ulum al-Hadith). With the swift growth of the Muslim community beyond Arabia in the decades after the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the need for the preservation and transmission of his teachings became a matter of crucial importance. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar write:

“Looking at the elaborate methodology that evolved through Ulum al-Hadith, including rules for transmission, textual criticism, chronological authenticity, papyri, and similar criteria for validation, Ulum al-Hadith offers a unique example of information management. It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information. It offered a methodological balance by not invoking wholesale rejection of transmitted matrial but designating it in a graded fashion depending on the external and internal validation. Judged from this criterion, Ulum al-Hadith presents a pioneering example in critical historiography.”

By studying this topic in some detail I locked these ideas in my mind, hence their frequent return. Scholars are considered the protectors of knowledge in Islamic tradition and the existence of the science of hadith indicates that guaranteeing authenticity is a vital part of its dissemination. It was on the basis of these two elements that I proposed the establishment of a review body for popular Islamic educational publishing in the United Kingdom.

In the world of scholarly publishing, both of books and journals, reviewing or refereeing is an important part of the editorial process, as Page, Campbell, and Meadows explain in Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice. This is used to establish which works are suitable for publication and which are not, in terms of contribution to scholarship, accuracy and quality. Hans Zell argues in A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice that the term “peer review” is something of a misnomer in this respect, as the ideal referee should be a top authority on the subject under consideration, rather than simply a peer. Zell describes such reviewers as the “gatekeepers” who “ensure high editorial standards, rigorous scholarship, and … protect a journal’s credibility and standing in the academic community.”

The first stage of the peer review process is an initial reading of a manuscript to determine whether it has any potential. A manuscript which does not meet the standards of quality required by the imprint or journal will be rejected at this point. The second stage sees the editor selecting a reviewer with relevant knowledge, or preferably expertise, in the subject undertaken by the author. In some circumstances, more than one reviewer may be selected. The reviewer’s role is to assess the quality of the manuscript and to decide whether it should be published or rejected, before making recommendations to the editor. The reviewer may also suggest revisions. On the basis of the reviewer’s recommendations, which may be a long time in the making, the editor then takes the ultimate decision as whether to publish or not.

This process is most common amongst reputable scientific and academic imprints and journals, and less common amongst literary or cultural publishers. It is estimated that three quarters of the major science, social science and humanities journals use the process of peer review, says Leslie in ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ . In An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing, Derricourt argues that because there are some imprints which “publish almost anything and everything in their field, without much evaluation,” professional, scholarly and scientific journals must distance themselves from them by “demonstrating a commitment to selectivity and quality.”

The editors of specialist academic publishers usually wish to obtain reviews from at least two referees. If two reviewers do not agree as to whether a manuscript should be published or not, the editor may seek the opinion of a third or fourth reviewer. Some journals, such as the British Medical Journal, have records of reviewers stored on computer so that editors are able to choose from a wide range of referees. This system also ensures that reviewers are not overburdened and that previously unhelpful reviewers are not re-selected, as records and cross-references may be generated quickly. A cautious editor will probably use the peer review process only as a mechanism to aid a decision, rather than to make the decision out right.

In the peer review process the reviewers’ report is usually provided in confidence, ensuring that the reviewer is unknown to the author. Derricourt believes that anonymous peer review “permits an honest assessment of the unpublished manuscript which will be seen initially only by the publisher.” In some cases the reviewer may work with the author and Zell notes that “many authors will be grateful for the help they receive from referees in helping them to reshape their paper or improve on points of clarity, conciseness of writing, documentation of text, etc.”

An alternative view of this process, however, is that it amounts to censorship and can be detrimental to academic authorship. Writing in ProfScam Sykes argued that the process is distorted, corrupt and, most importantly, used as a mechanism to suppress unpopular ideas. In his paper, ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ , meanwhile, Banner wrote that the American Council of Learned Societies found that many scholars were unhappy with the practice – though not the principle – of peer review as undertaken by learned journals. He writes:

“The peer review process – the process by which the strength and value of knowledge is asserted and its publication justified – has long been taken to be epicentral to scientific research and humanistic scholarship and a given of scholarly publishing. Yet peer review is today beset with many problems – of attitude, administration, and effectiveness­ – that erode its authority and threaten its legitimacy.”

In Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing, De George and Woodward find that peer review generates friction between the author and the publisher, as it is this that determines what is, at the end of the day, published. They go on to ask whether the rules governing manuscript reviewing are fair for all parties involved. While no author has an automatic right to see his or her work published, they argue that authors do have the right to expect fair treatment. At the heart of the ethics of peer review are honesty and sincerity. Reviewers have a duty to be as objective as possible and to read the manuscripts they agree to review carefully. Peer review is, it has to be remembered, “a difficult, time-consuming, and poorly remunerated task, for which little credit is typically given. De George and Woodward note that it is not unheard of that reviewers have written a negative report of a manuscript without reading all of it or it at all.

As a result of the problems associated with peer review, a number of suggestions for improvements have been forwarded. Sattelmeyer produced Seven steps to a better review process, believing that publishers must design a review process that ensures fairness and objectivity, whilst also accepting a certain amount of responsibility for the manuscript. Reviews may provide the evidence upon which decisions are made, he argues, but they should not provide the final decision. Banner also provides a number of guidelines: reviewers are asked to provide an evaluation of the manuscript and to recommend directly whether it should be published or rejected. They are asked to take into account how well the author achieves his or her aim, the quality of their analysis of the problem, the clarity of its presentation, and the degree to which it presents information not available elsewhere. Reviewers are also encouraged to suggest ways in which the manuscript might be improved. Once reviews have been collected, a publication committee meets to decide upon one of three alternatives. The manuscript may be accepted, accepted with conditions for revision, or rejected. The benefit of utilising a process of peer review is summed up well by Derricourt, who states:

“If there are things wrong with the overall project, or improvements that can and should be made, or if there are errors of fact or detail or interpretation, it is better to have these before publication. Otherwise, the first published review will draw them to attention of thousands of one’s peers, and it will be too late to correct them.”

I felt at the time that this point was very relevant to the topic at hand. In the case of Muslim publishing the problem does not relate to the author’s reputation so much as to the idea of conveying accurate information which has its roots in the science of hadith. Going further than the standard peer review model, however, I proposed the establishment of an accredited review body, independent from the publishing houses, providing a unified service to all authors and publishers nationwide. Affiliation to its review process would be entirely optional, but would be promoted to publishers on the assumption that they are concerned about the accuracy of their work.

Although the review body would not actually have any power to prevent an author or publisher from publishing a manuscript which it rejected, I felt that it could establish itself as giving accreditation to works deemed sound. This would aid the consumer in his or her search for reliable sources of Islamic education. The feasibility and likelihood of such a body ever being established, of course, is quite another matter. At best it was a long term solution for the problems facing Islamic education through the medium of publishing: the establishment of an open review body, acting as a guide and assistant to authors and publishers. From the perspective of orthodoxy, I felt that the establishment of such a body would be extremely beneficial to all those in the Muslim community in Britain concerned with Islamic education, aiding the future production of books which covey the teachings of Islam correctly.

But here we are just six years later; the landscape has changed massively. The weblog has democratised the internet and suddenly all of us are publishers. The case for a review body is clearly a lost cause. Perhaps – and I say this with some sadness – this is the argument for self-censorship. Better to withdraw than to be held accountable for all the information floating around masquerading as knowledge. Some of it is knowledge, but with our laxity regarding proving it, it is impossible to tell. So much confusion. These are the thoughts on my mind tonight.

Sources

  • Al-Azami, M.M. (2003) The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UKIA)
    Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)
  • Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4
  • Anees, M.A. and Athar, A.N. (1986) Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (London: Mansell Publishing Limited)
  • Page, G., Campbell, R. and Meadows, J. (1987) Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice (London: Butterworths)
  • Zell, H.M (1998) A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice in Journal Publishing (London: International African Institute, Oxford: African Books Collective)
  • Leslie, L.Z. (1992) ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 23/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)
  • Sykes, C.J. (1988) ProfScam (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway)
  • McGiffert, M. (1988) ‘Is justice blind? An inquiry into peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/1
  • Banner, J.M. (1988) ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 19/2
  • De George, R.T. and Woodward, F, (1994) ‘Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 25/3
  • Sattelmeyer, R. (1989) ‘Seven steps to a better review process’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)

In the interest of the people

Long before the Make Poverty History campaign caught the public imagination—its huge momentum so famously derailed by four bombs on the London transport system last July—another global movement was calling for the cancellation of the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries. At the turn of the millennium Africa was said to be paying $200 million every week just to service its debts. ‘The debts are unjust, unpayable and are killing too many people,’ lamented Jubilee 2000, ‘The cards are stacked against the poor. We’ve got to change the system, to put an end to this injustice.’ Thus, in over 120 countries, trade unions, charities, religious groups and community organisations came together with a unified retort; a call that the debt be dropped.

There is no doubt that this is a noble cause. It is claimed that Benin used over 50% of the money saved through debt relief to fund health care, while Tanzania was able to abolish primary school fees which led to an increase in attendance of over 60%. Our noble Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Your smile for your brother is charity. Your removal of stones, thorns or bones from the paths of people is charity. Your guidance of a person who is lost is charity.’ Thus the work of Jubilee 2000 was indeed commendable. But for those of us familiar with religious law it does seem that we are missing something. While calling for the cancellation of existing debts, there is a much larger injustice about which we have fallen silent.

Low income countries pay around $2.30 to service their debts for every $1 they receive in grant aid. In her well known book, A Fate Worse Than Debt, Susan George called interest rates the ‘bane of Third World debtors’ existence.’ Interest lies at the heart of the matter. The first loans to Africa, Asia and South America came from the World Bank and foreign governments, targeted at development projects and the expansion of capital goods imports. Such loans were tied to relatively low interest rates. It is ironic that the newly oil-rich Muslim countries of the Middle East should be responsible, even if indirectly, for much of today’s crisis.

In the 1970s, commercial banks inexperienced in dealing with poor countries found themselves holding excess capital from OPEC’s oil price partnership and thus provided variable-rate loans based on market rates. Interest rates followed market fluctuations and, largely as a result of the U.S. Federal Reserve tightening monetary policy against inflation in the 1980s, they quickly rose from negative to positive levels. Consequently, as debt repayments suffered, the commercial banks withdrew from further lending to protect their own interests. The result of continued high interest rates, combined with a decline in commercial bank lending, was the paradox that the recipient countries were paying out more finance servicing payments than they received as borrowing.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign as it is now known is demanding an end to the injustice of what has been termed the Third World Debt Crisis. Admirable, indeed, but is it not time that we addressed the issue at the heart of this crisis? The movement’s name derives from the Hebrew Bible, for the jubilee was a time when debts would be forgiven. In The Times in 1998, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Hume, wrote, ‘the prospect of reducing the burden of debt has profound theological resonance.’ A step further could have equally heartfelt significance, for in this crisis there is an inkling of an issue that was always treated with due concern through the ages by Church theologians.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have much in common. One example is a prohibition on the consumption or charge of interest. Traditionally in all three faiths to make a transaction involving interest was considered a major sin. The law in the Pentateuch states that an Israelite may not exact interest from his poor brother on a loan given to him (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36). In the Psalms it is written that one who does not put his money out to usury will remain unshaken (15:5). In Ezekiel, a righteous man is one who ‘never lends either at discount or at interest, but shuns injustice and deals fairly between one person and another’ (18:8); a loan in interest, meanwhile, is considered amongst a list of abominations (18:13).

Similarly, Christians made reference to the Gospel of Luke which advises believers to lend without expecting a return (6:35). The Encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV of 1745 states, ‘The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract.’ He goes on, ‘One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully…’

As for us Muslims, the Qur’an states, ‘Those who devour usury will not stand except as stand one whom the devil by his touch has driven to madness. That is because they say: Trade is like usury, but God has permitted trade and forbidden usury …’ (2:275). Our blessed Prophet, peace be upon him, confirmed this when he said, ‘A dirham which a man knowingly receives in usury is more serious a sin than thirty-six acts of adultery.’

It should not then be difficult to appreciate how a disassociation from interest would have the greatest theological resonance. Yet in reality we find quite the contrary, for most people are ignorant of this tradition. Although a distinction between usury and interest was rejected by both Luther and Melancthon, Calvin’s separation of the two gradually gained acceptance amongst both Protestants and Catholics. Thus today, in a global economy based on interest, few would even give the matter a second thought. Indeed this is surely the time that our beloved Prophet Muhammad spoke of when he said, ‘A time is certainly coming to mankind when only the receiver of usury will remain and if he does not receive it, some of its smoke will reach him.’

It is time that we stopped skirting around the issue. It is not just the debts which are unjust, unpayable and which are killing too many people, as the Drop the Debt campaign argued. All of us would do well to support this admirable and worthwhile campaign, but we should recognise that it is only part of the solution. If we—believers of the Abrahamic faiths—really want to change the system we may have to concede that it is time to stick Calvin’s separation back together again and that maybe, just maybe, the ancients had it right after all.

Note: This is a copy of an article I wrote for The Muslim Weekly, 14.03.2005.

“If that had been said about Islam, there would have been an outcry.”

It is an undeniable fact that Christians and Christianity are often derided in the popular press, in comedy, in literature and numerous other outlets. More often than not these occurrences go unchallenged and even unquestioned. When the attack is on Islam by contrast, the argument goes, the response is one of public outrage. ‘They would never have got away with saying that about Muslims.’

Unfortunately for this argument, I don’t believe this to be particularly true. When there is an outcry, it comes from Muslims, not from the community at large. Recently when Australian homosexuals decided to perform a play in which Jesus was portrayed as ‘gay’ as part of their Pride festival, the outcry against it came not from the general public, but from the Australian Muslim community. I believe it is perfectly reasonable for a community to speak out in its own interests, and this is only what Muslims are doing when they campaign against attacks on their beliefs, their prophets or their God.

It is true that left-wing journalists will occasionally speak out in defence of the Muslim community. There was, for example, a report by the Runnymede Trust a few years ago on what they termed ‘Islamophobia’. In fact, around that time, I wrote an article on this issue for the student magazine in which I made various points which I, as a Muslim, would no longer subscribe to. But the Runnymede report was about much more than words said against Muslims. Christians, by and large, are not the victims of violent attacks in this country because of their faith; Muslims, by contrast, are. Muslim women are regularly assaulted on the streets of Britain, shouted at or spat upon. When Muslims face a situation like this, at the same time that books are published, for example, which call the best women of Islam ‘whores’, it would be foolish to sit down and shut up. There is nothing stopping Christians from crying out in their own defence; the lobbying is simply something which they must organise for themselves, rather than expect others to do on their behalf.

Beyond this, however, I would argue that many things are said about Islam for which you will hear no words of condemnation. Because they come from respected sources, rather than in the form of humour on a pathetic comedy show, perhaps you will not even notice them. Things are said about Islam or associated with it, which nobody would ever think of associating with Christianity. How many times have you heard the term ‘Islamic Terrorists’, for example? How many times have you heard the term ‘Christian Terrorists’? I would suggest: thousands of times for the former and never for the latter (thought you may have heard of Catholic/Protestant terrorists in the case of Northern Ireland). Is there a public outcry about this? Only from Muslims.

When the Today newspaper carried the headline, ‘In the name of Islam’, against a picture of the charred remains of a dead baby the day after the Oklahoma bombing, there was no outcry about that. There was no apology to Muslims when it emerged that the bomber was in fact a white ‘Christian’ (he claimed this of himself) and that Muslims had nothing to do with it. But in the days between the bombing and the true culprit being caught, mosques all over the United States were vandalised and Muslims were assaulted. One could argue that Muslims are engaged in terrorism, so this label is fair: but, in fact, Muslims are not even engaged in proportionally more terrorism than other groups around the world. It is just that the statistics do not speak; the focus of reporting does. The point is that many things are associated with Islam which are not greeted with the general outcry that a statement such as the one in my title presupposes.