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Your individual middle path: 10 must-read pieces of advice for female converts to Islam

I’ve been a convert Muslimah for over six years now and whilst some people were more surprised than others when I told them I was converting, I can tell you it’s been (and still is!) a big journey – a rollacoaster of ups and downs, highs and lows, smiles, tears and things I’d never experienced before. But subhanAllah, it’s been a great one!

Now, whilst each journey and each person is unique in themselves, there are however some key pieces of advice, experiences and insights which I feel are truly like gold dust for converts to Islam – many which apply to any faith background. As I’m a woman and there are also some quite gender-specific issues at hand, I’d like to present my ten must-read pieces of advice for female converts to Islam. To help tackle some real issues affecting both converts, non-converts and even non-Muslims. Take a look!

1. Follow your individual spiritual journey

I really cannot stress enough that your conversion and the way you live Islam is about you and Allah and no one else. Obviously, it will impact upon others and you must deal with other people respectfully but what I want to address here is the big fan-fare and pressure about “setting a date”, going to the mosque with a big crowd, doing everything all at once or according to X, Y and Z says.

STOP! Slow it down, put on the brakes. You are in control. You’re doing this for you and no one else. You don’t need to scare yourself into some big ceremony if that’s not what you want. Islam is so easy. When you’re ready – and only when – you can take your shahadah at home alone (just you and Allah) or you can do a more formal procedure. But do NOT feel pressured into doing something you’re not comfortable with.

2. Don’t rely on Sheikh Google

It’s been said countless times before and it’s more relevant than ever today. The internet is a lonely, dangerous place of extremism, mis-information and intolerance vis-à-vis other Muslims (Shia, Sunni, Ahmadi, Sufis etc.) and non-Muslims).

Please, get offline (no – not all of it is bad) but speak to people on the ground familiar with your cultural context, seek out good sound scholars and confine in trusted friends and neighbours. Also remember that your non-Muslim friends and family are wiser than you think. Plus (most importantly) – a little common-sense goes a long way!

3. Accept that it’ll take a few years to figure out “you”

As a convert, you enter Islam with one thing in mind and then as you travel along your path you realise just how complex the Muslim community and how diverse the faith is. Now, you’re still the same person inside but things will change and of course, we can’t do everything at once and no one will expect you to.

However, you’ll find that whilst people will reassure you of this that we ourselves put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Yet, Islam is a life-long journey of learning. We’re always developing socially, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually as people and our life circumstances and life-experiences change over time. Add on top of this one crucial thing: there are many different “Islams”. No two Muslims are the same. There are different schools, sects and practices and even if – like me – you avoid all of that, you’ll still come to realise (even if you knew this anyway) that there is no one Islam.

Over time, you’ll find out more about you, how you relate to Allah and what your faith means to you. This doesn’t happen overnight or stay the same throughout your journey but don’t panic – it’s normal! You’re observing, growing, learning and discovering! Don’t change yourself to fit one person’s interpretation of Islam and don’t forget who you are and what first attracted you to Islam!

4. Cover (if at all) when you’re ready

Whilst the majority of scholars believe it is obligatory to follow the rules of hijab in relation to covering our hair and bodies, there are two important things to point out here:

 

  1. There are other interpretations relating to covering and modesty in terms of cultural relativism and metaphors surrounding the non-physicality of “covering”
  2. If like me you believe in hijab in terms of covering your hair and body with loose transparent clothing then do it when you’re ready

Either way, whether you wear a headscarf is not a marker (or the be all and end all) of whether you are or aren’t Muslim! I’m not here to mock hijab but simply highlight that it is one part of many people’s way of living as a Muslim but it’s not the only or singular way to do so.

Islamic feminist Dr Amina Wadud in her book Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam cites how the hijab has almost been (wrongly) taken as a sixth pillar of Islam and this is definitely true. Wearing a headscarf is a visible public sign that you are a Muslim but should be taken as an individual personal step and act of spiritual devotion. If – and only if you do decide it’s for you – do it when you’re ready to take this next step, knowing the changes that will happen, the responsibility you’ll take on in becoming a public face (willing or not willing and for better or for worse!) with full pride, confidence and sincerity in what you’re doing.

5. Don’t be afraid to be you

Again, I must emphasise that your journey to becoming a Muslimah is about you and Allah. It’s a spiritual journey of faith. With that in mind – and whilst I recognise that it takes a while to build in self-confidence in our new identity (longer for some than others) – be happy with who you are. Don’t forget where you’re from. Don’t feel you have to “follow the crowd” or your friends’ school of thought and above all else – don’t put yourself down.

The “Well, they know more than me, I’m just a convert” line is a dangerous thought process. Each person is an individual and just become someone grew up a Muslim it does not mean that they have a deeper or even clearer/more nuanced understanding knowledge of the faith (and the social, spiritual and lived experiences that come with it) than you. In many cases, their experiences are often relative to being in a Muslim –majority family/community and related to their cultural context. Trust yourself!

6. Don’t rush into marriage

Marriage is a big step for anyone regardless of their faith. Now add someone who’s still learning, still discovering “who they are” and at the same time also still navigating the socio-cultural complexities of the Muslim community, then things become a lot more complicated!

Not only do ritualistic traditions, terminology and practices vary in language and format from one cultural community to another surrounding marriage itself but there are also some real issues here to consider and deconstruct: cross-cultural barriers (or if you’re marrying a convert there are other issues to think of), theological differences/approaches and sadly misogyny and sexism within the religious and cultural practises of some members of the Muslim community.

So before you investigate all of this: take time to know who you are, be confident in you and then approach slowly and with your eyes wide open. On top of that, remember that things are not always as they seem. When you finally do decide you’re ready – or think you’ve met the precept match – ask questions (lots of questions about approaches to faith, housekeeping, raising children, education, work, theology etc.) and find out more about your potential spouse from friends, family, neighbours and community members.

Changing your faith/belief system and getting marred are two of the biggest decisions you can ever make in your life.  You need to know yourself first and foremost and what you want from life and therefore what you want from a husband. Likewise, he too also needs to know what he can expect from you and who he’s potentially marrying – so take your time as much as possible. Do not rush but when the time feels right take the appropriate steps.

7. Don’t feel forced to accept other cultures

Whether you’re marrying into a new culture or mixing in new diverse socio-cultural circles, remember that your faith is Islam and your culture your own – not Arabism, not Desi culture, no anything else etc. (unless in fact you were Hindu or an Arab Christian etc.!). Now, don’t misunderstand me. The cultural diversity of the Muslim community is amazing and do make the effort to reach out, meet new people and above all be tolerant and open to new experiences and cultures. However, don’t be forced to accept a cultural interpretation or practice of Islam that is either inappropriate (“haram”) or “not your thing”.

Your culture is important too.  Many Muslims from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds perhaps tend to believe that (mono traditional) English culture is “haram” as we have to give up drinking for example or as they may underestimate its diversity, tend to believe that we must give up the culture or that there is nothing left for Muslims. This is false. Every culture is an expression of its people. Islam is a faith and is lived through a culture.

So don’t feel you have to adopt Pakistani clothes to be a good Muslimah rather than simply please your new British-Pakistani husband. Enjoy new clothing if it makes you happy but you can also wear a denim skirt and blouse if that’s what you’re into. Feel free to mix it up. In mixed marriage in particular, there’s much fun in sharing cultures but also compromise and respect to be made – three needs to be give and take of both cultures and room for both. Respect, tolerance and understanding are essential.

8. Listen to your inner conscience

Islam is about moderation – the middle path – and the sad thing is that this is often simpler than many people realise and create for themselves. Off the middle-path, people can find themselves with over-zealous rigid forms of practice promoting intolerance and even violence. Let me say this honestly and openly: extremism is real, intolerance is real and it’s not as rare as people may think.

Please, don’t lose yourself on this fantastic journey. It’s easier to do than you may think. Allah Almighty is with you and he wants the best for you. Treasure your friends and family, hold on to the people that got you this far. If they’re not adjusting well to your new faith – be patient. Remember Islam is not black and white – neither is life. There are so many little things to navigate and your non-Muslim friends and family will be learning too about the new Muslim in their life. There are many scenarios small and large that may arise with new questions and thoughts, such as:

Do I buy my Muslim daughter a Christmas presents?

Do I go to my parent’s house at Christmas?

My Muslim friends are shocked that I stroke my aunt’s dog…

Remember, it’s not you (Muslim) versus them (everyone else). You have different history, different family, different challenges and different experiences to many (non-convert) Muslims. Educate yourself on the principles, the lived example of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and lead on your middle path by adopting those principles in your context. Listen to your conscience (the God-given fitra inside), be kind, gentle, patient, don’t get over-zealous and lead with positive examples. Remember: Islam is a holistic approach to life and spirituality – not dogma. Don’t get lost in this and distance yourself from others and your former self in the process.

9. Come with no social expectations

Being part of a community is important but it’s not always that easy and building any bonds and friendships take time. For some – depending on their community and individual circumstances – their experiences may be lonelier, less positive and less social than others. For one, after all the excitement has died down at your shahadaah ceremony (if you have one), you may find yourself alone (again). You may need to prepare for potentially lonely Eids, racism and cliqueness. But remember this – everything will be ok. It’s great to have people to connect with on a faith-related level but friendship is also about more than faith. Keep an open mind and see how things go.

Try and connect with like-minded individuals – especially other converts as they will share similar experiences and many non-converts may not understand your needs and experiences. However, above all listen to your needs and wants and remember that just because someone is a Muslim, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be your next best friend. Put yourself out there (when you’re ready) and let’s hope that things get easier but don’t rush into marriage if you feel lonely. Above all, don’t distance yourself from good, honest non-Muslim friends and family. Faith is personal – that’s what has got you this far and that’s ok – in time the right people will come insha’Allah.

10. Don’t become a victim

Despite what some people may think, “The West” (whatever that is today!) and the government does not hate Muslims. Please don’t get caught up in political Islam. As a human rights activist myself, I of course support worthy causes and stand up for injustice but please don’t bring religion into it. Be an ally for every worthy cause, supporting people of all faiths and none!

As a convert with a different history, leave the over-zealous Islamist rhetoric, post-colonial and race-related baggage out of the picture! Do not fall into the “us” vs. “them” narrative and in fact, given your unique history and experiences, strive to become a bridge builder of positivity and unity!

So with these top ten tips of advice, I hope that your journey as a Muslimah (old or new!) is one of peace, love and tranquility! Salam!

By Liz Arif-Fear

Liz Arif-Fear is a writer and human rights activist. As founder of “Voice of Salam“(Voice of Peace), Liz writes on a range of social, political, human rights, intercultural and interfaith issues, aiming to spread a message of peace, tolerance and unity. Liz is particularly passionate about addressing key issues affecting women, children, refugees, migrants and ethnic minorities and addressing both extremist and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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1400 years on is Islam anti-Feminist?

Have you also had your muslim uncles and aunts ask you why you don’t wear a hijab ? Has it made you want to punch them ? Has it made you want to scream out loud and wish eternal sufferage on them ? Yeah, welcome to this post where we can collectively rage about this ish and rejoice in the company of like minded people !!!

I started wearing a hijab around four years ago and since then, the pressure to cover up has been ginormous on my mother and sister as well. WHICH IS SO POINTLESS. It’s never enough that one of my mom’s daughters decided to wear hijab, her younger one needs to wear one too ! What is this pressure ? Why does it exist ? You know what the worst part is ? THAT NONE OF THEM WEAR A HIJAB THEMSELVES !!!!!

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As I was growing, the idea of Feminism was catching on (yeah, that’s how young I am.) There was also another idea catching on… that Islam is Anti-feminism. THIS idea, unlike the first one, did not sit well with me. I belonged to a muslim family ! And my muslim parents had sent me alllll the way to the Land of the Free, while they chilled in Bahrain ! To study. All alone ! No questions asked, despite the worries of the society (we are Indians by birth) and despite knowing the crap that they would have to deal with, in the coming years.

I was at full liberty to do whatever I liked, dress however I wanted to, basically everything people claim muslim women can’t do. This is probably the MAIN reason I started Hijab. One fine day out of the library, I thought to myself… what must it be like to actively LOOK like a muslim in this post 9/11 world ? Is it time to conduct yet another social experiment ? Though what might have started as an experiment, stayed on because of the extensive research that went behind the idea, until I was convinced that this is how I want to look – like an educated MUSLIM woman, in everyday life. Leading a normal life, quite contrary to popular belief. Proving people wrong when they say “All muslims ever think about is world domination !” Hell yeah I think about World domination – excuse me if I want to be Beyonce (Who run this mother-?)

To me, Hijab was my own idea of Feminism. No woman in my family covered her hair when I started. I was deliberately making the choice of wearing the Hijab. Just like women everyday decide what to wear, what to do with their hair and how to accessorize every outfit. Hijab was going to be my accessory. If you really think about it, it IS just a scarf ! And I don’t even want to get into the whole ‘modesty’ debate. Or the whole candy wrapper and flies comparison.

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WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS EVEN MEAN ? How did this manage to make it to the list of top forwards by muslim uncles on whatsapp ? Why is this okay to propogate ? How dare you call women lollipops – covered or uncovered. In a normal situation, I would even protest calling men flies, but I mean just for this post… they deserve it !

Just as you have no right to tell a woman to not wear a headscarf, you have no rights telling her to wear one either ! This shouldn’t be so hard to understand ! Don’t believe me?  Maybe Prophet Mohammad will help convince you otherwise.

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Islam does not oppress women, muslims do. Islam, gives women the rights to education, work and even driving (I know right ?) Just to name a few of the things women are ‘allowed’ to do in Islam. Where has this regressive mentality come from ? Why are we, as a community, so hell bent onto proving to the world that we stand for anti feministic principles ? Where is the pride in that ?

We are a religion coming from a man who married his widowed boss, after she proposed to him, despite being 15 years older to him – if that doesn’t scream feminism, then I don’t know what does.

by Sharmeen Kidwai

Sharmeen is a 25 year old medical graduate, which makes her a doctor. She graduated in 2016 and has since moved to India, with her husband (2017). She is a Canadian by nationality, but was raised in the middle east for most of her life. She has always loved to write. Only recently though she has realised she can make a difference by choosing her words just right. She says she is “trying to do my bit for the world and those in it, little by little!” 

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website
If you would like to submit a blog post, sharing your experiences or perspectives, then please email us on shespeakswehear@gmail.com. You can submit poems, short stories or any other type of post! You can also submit anonymously too.


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Veganuary: vegetarianism and Islam

There is almost always an ongoing debate as to which dietary choice reaps the most benefits. While vegans argue that their lifestyle is of value and is environment friendly, non-vegetarians strike back with the argument that it is severely lacking in a lot of nutrients.

Islam, as we all know, isn’t merely a religion. It is a way of life. What do I mean by that? Simply that there are clear guidelines already set for us. What to eat, how to eat, what to wear, what not to, what is considered healthy (physically and spiritually) and the list goes on. Seriously, if you ever have any doubt about how to do a certain thing, or whether or not to do it at all, rest assure that it’s already been made clear.

Moreover, if animals are to be considered as communities just like ours, is it then fair for us to raise and breed them for the sole purpose of commercializing them?

 

With regards to food, most people believe, and I know this for I’ve been told many a times, that if you’re a Muslim, you MUST be eating meat everyday right? I mean come on, are you really taking full benefit of the fact that you’re actually prescribed to eating non veg? So let me burst all your bubbles. We are actually advised AGAINST eating meat on regular basis. (Collective gasps.) It’s true. In the Quran it is said,

“And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you”….. (6:38)

and at another place it is mentioned:

“Eat and drink from the provision of Allah, and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption.”… (2:60)

To anyone unfamiliar with the meanings of these verses, it indicates towards wasteful consumption, which frankly is what the meat industry has become today. Moreover, if animals are to be considered as communities just like ours, is it then fair for us to raise and breed them for the sole purpose of commercializing them? Of course the meaning of “Eating and drinking from the provisions of Allah” denotes that while it isn’t absolutely wrong to consume meats and such, it is definitely not within the principles of Islam to abuse the animals and overkill them.

There are plenty of Ahadith that point towards the tradition of the prophet and his companions following a semi vegetarian diet and treating meat as a luxury as opposed to a necessity. In fact when Umar Ibn Al Khattab (RA) became caliph, he prohibited people from eating meat two days in a row, stating that “meat has an addiction like wine”. Science point of view, meat is definitely more difficult to digest as compared to eating other vegetarian foods, this causes increased lethargy to perform any duties, which was severely disliked. It had also been discovered only in these past few years, that eating fewer calories not only helps the body function better, but improves quality of life and improves longevity.

It is mentioned that the Prophet (pbuh) has been reported saying “Man does not fill a container more evil than his belly. It is sufficient for man to eat that amount which straightens his back [i.e. a few morsels to gain some energy]. If this is not possible then a third for food, a third for drink and a third for air” (Sunan Tirmidhi, Hadith: 2380 and Sunan Ibn Majah, Hadith: 3349)

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Therefore it is evident that while it is not been forbidden to eat meat, over consumption doesn’t particularly fit in with the ethics of Islam either. Of course, I am not trying to establish that one MUST become a vegetarian, however, it very essential to revive the sunnah of our beloved Prophet in order to lead a righteous lifestyle in accordance with Islamic principles. Making sure the food we eat is Halal tayyib should be of primary importance to every Muslim, as should abstaining from things that have been prohibited or disliked by Allah and our beloved Prophet (pbuh).

So, if you feel like it makes sense to adopt a vegan lifestyle (and I mean not just in terms of food, but otherwise ethically as well), then you should totally go ahead with it. Even if it is for a few days. However, nutritionally speaking, do make sure you do adequate research before you jump on the bandwagon, if only to avoid the nutritional deficiencies that might easily occur.

I have tried my best to authentic as best as I can all the sources of the Ahadith, as well as the translation of the verses. If however, I have made any error in my interpretation, feel free to correct it.

By Shiza Khan

Shiza Khan is an Indian Muslim Clinical Dietitian with a penchant for health foods, I believe the right food can heal the body, mind and the soul. On a mission to making holistic health a possibility, I can be found devouring books in my free time and sharing my ideas on a little corner of the internet. If you want to read more of her ideas and recipes, visit her blog and follow her on Instagram @cal.conn 
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website
If you would like to submit a blog post, sharing your experiences or perspectives, then please email us on shespeakswehear@gmail.com. You can submit poems, short stories or any other type of post! You can also submit anonymously too.
Images credit: Veganuary.com and @cal.conn 


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He said, she said: why are the Nouman Ali Khan allegations of impropriety, so difficult to believe?

“I will never engage in victim blaming.”

My heart feels so heavy at the news of the Nouman Ali Khan scandal. It leaves me disappointed, angry, but not surprised or shocked. We live in a patriarchal world, and the status quo supports the oppression and misuse of women, so it comes as no surprise that a man in a position of considerable amount of power (fame, money, influence) has been accused of inappropriate behaviour. I have such a low level of trust of men (especially men of religion) that I am not shocked nor do I want to jump to blindly defending Khan nor is it something that seems far-fetched or impossible, is a testament to my lived experience as a woman and the saddest part of this ordeal.

I should be livid, but ironically I’m not; as I’ve come to expect very little of men in our society.

My stance on this on this scandal is that:

  1. I will never engage in victim blaming.
  2. There is sufficient evidence leaked against him yet his die-hard fans still continue to defend his alleged behaviour. In fact, they are unwilling to even accept that such a thing could have happened. This evidence could very well have been doctored, but let’s not be 100% positive that such abuse could not have occurred.
  3. Many are shutting the conversation down by claiming that this is slander. Let’s be clear, that this is NOT slander, especially if true. Slander would be that it was just a false case built against him.  Our religion asks us to be just, even if it is against our kin. Our religion also teaches us to search for the truth and hold those in places of power accountable. Khan being a public figure and a religious teacher/leader, is prone to more scrutiny than an ordinary person. If he is being framed as he claims; a due course of the law must be followed and insha Allah truth shall prevail. I do not say that we presume guilt before proof, but what we need is to be open to the possibility that he too could have fallen, as after all he is human and prone to flaws.
  4. This is not backbiting. Our religion teaches us to stand for the oppressed and to always stand up for justice. Many argue that this is an act between two consenting adults and that it may be immoral behaviour, but it isn’t a crime, nor are the women involved, victims. We must recognize why this is problematic. He is a teacher and in a place and position of power, he had a greater onus of responsibility than his students who might be adults but there is a power differential between him and the women involved. There is a reason why there are strict rules of conduct between therapists and their clients, doctors and their patients, professors and students, coaches and athletes etc. The same also applies to clergy such as Priests and Imams.
  5. If the relationships were consensual and the two were in a legitimate Nikah (muslim marriage), then the marriages didn’t need to be secret. They needed to be publicly declared because the very act of Nikah safeguards the right of a woman to be publicly known as the legitimate wife of an individual. Allah is aware of our fitrah, He knows, a woman wrongfully attached to a man, will be slaughtered by our tongues and hands.
  6. There is also the issue of there being multiple marriages. Some argue this may not be islamically immoral, (although there are near impossible criteria around polygamy); however, it is legally prohibited in the country of his residence. We need to adhere to the lawsof our adopted homelands. A man, who is a man of religion and owns a public platform accessible to everyone, has a greater responsibility to lead by example to not break the law of the country. Yes, the law of Allah trumps the law of the country, but the law of Allah also prescribes us to follow the law of the land. If we all decided to not follow the law of the land we live in, the world would be in absolute chaos and there would be no checks and balances in place.
  7. I don’t believe the story because other so called reputable and religious men are sharing it. I believe it, because in cases of abuse, I choose to believe the victims. I recognise this is my bias, but the statistics suggest that very rarely do people lie about being victims of abuse. It is a difficult task to come out and speak about being a victim and the repercussions are usually for the victims as our patriarchal culture will place more trust in the oppressor than on the victim.
  8. We need to accept that no one is above inappropriate behaviour. You could have the book of Allah in your heart and still fall from grace (how else do you explain imams involved in child abuse)? The whispers of shaytaan and the tug of our nafs, makes us prone to sin. None of us can claim perfection, nor can we claim to be without sin. Let’s at least accept the premise that the allegations being a reality is a possibility before jumping to an absolute defence of Khan.
  9. We should make 70 excuses and verify the accusations against someone before believing them to be the absolute truth. The die-hard fans have refused to extend that courtesy to the victims of this ordeal. It seems the 70 excuses are only for the accused (man) here.
  10. We need better checks and balances within our systems. We need equal spaces for women with qualified religious and social counsellors where women can go and discuss their personal difficult circumstances.
  11. Personally, I do not need to know the victims’ names to believe the truth, anyone demanding to know the victims are purely doing this to satiate their own curiosity. The way the blind herd is following Khan, no amount of proof will convince them otherwise. Exposing the names of the victims will only vilify and further victimise them. We can already see that the response from members of our community is not only vile, but often violent. Imagine the risk to the safety associated with disclosing the identity of the women.
  12. The biggest issue in my opinion has been the way this was disclosed by reputable members of our community. The allegations are vague, with enough being said indirectly on the topic (without naming Khan) by other religious figures such as Navaid Aziz, Yasir Qadhi and Omer Suleiman, leading us all to the worst possible conclusions. This is not a sign of wisdom, or good for community cohesion or development. The silence since last Friday from our leaders is deafening. If anything is slanderous, it is this behaviour. It does little to protect the victims or increase our understanding of abuse.

I pray that Allah protect us all. There is a lot we need to do as a community. This is a difficult conversation to have, but a conversation that is a MUST. We are supposed to be the best of examples, and to follow the footsteps of the best of Creations, Muhammed (SAW).

In order to do that, we need to be balanced in our approach especially when searching for the truth. Let us weigh what has been presented without making judgements either way. Let’s demand the leaders to be more transparent, and forthcoming than they have.  The evidence needs to be presented without the need for exposure of the victims. If this is a matter that cannot be dealt within the confines of our community, we must follow the process of law of the country.

“We also need to learn and understand abuse, grooming, harassment and how power dynamics play a role in that as a community.”

The leaders have a public responsibility to squash these rumours and be clear in their allegations. Khan, has every right to defend himself and to offer his narrative. But, we as a community also need to learn that if this can be an elaborate plan to trap/defame Khan, that it is an equal probability (if not more) that the allegations against him are true and that there are victims. We need to afford that same level of opportunity to speak their side of the story to those he allegedly has wronged. We also need to learn and understand abuse, grooming, harassment and how power dynamics play a role in that as a community. We need to actively engage in learning, and teaching this cycle, if we want to protect and safeguard those who are vulnerable in our society before perpetuating the cycle of abuse through blind following. The biggest lesson from this scandal is that we must not place any human being on a pedestal nor should we idolise them to the point where we assume no fault on their part. Idol worship comes in many forms, and this falls under that category. The word of Allah is true and perfect, but the vessel through which it is delivered can be imperfect and be full of flaws. This is a reality we must thoroughly accept.

Most of all, in our defence for Nouman Ali Khan, let us not engage in victim blaming and shaming. How we behave tells other victims (of physical, sexual, mental and emotional violence), that it is better to stay silent if ever abused. Through our actions, we also signal that we side with oppressors and abusers. This would be the biggest irony given that it is the month of Muharram-a month that commemorates the greatest injustice of our Islamic history. We have a choice to make, are we with the oppressor or will we be a voice for those who are wronged in our society and I choose to be the latter.

By Maheen Nusrat

Maheen Nusrat is a Pakistani born Canadian currently residing in the UK. She has also lived in Bahrain and in New York. She has a degree in Communications. Her portfolio includes working in politics, print and broadcast media, life sciences and the public sector. Maheen is the co-founder of Uplift Connections-a platform for women from all faiths and ethnicity to come together, and to help them succeed in business. Follow them @Uplift_connect.  Maheen has a real passion for social justice, equality and believes that our talents are meant to be shared with the world. Follow her @fireyfury1 

Image credit: https://www.pinterest.fr/pin/99994054199930669/
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the websbite


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General Election 2017 – To Vote or not To Vote – That is the Question!

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t politically active.

In my house, not voting was never an option. The one phrase guaranteed to infuriate my late father was “I can’t be bothered to vote”. My family came to the United Kingdom in 1965 and I cannot recall a local or general election taking place in which my father didn’t vote. He would say that if you cannot be bothered to vote, you do not have the right to complain about anything, whether that’s the state of the roads or how often your bins are emptied. He would remind us of how, in countries across the world, people are prepared to give their lives in order to have a say in how they are governed.

I was reminded of this particular comment of his when, many years later, I was waiting for children to arrive at a session I was running for Muslim youth. One of the parents, an Iraqi mum, came bounding towards me on her arrival and as she got closer, I noticed she was shaking her finger at me. As she got closer, I noticed the beaming smile on her face and that her finger was purple. In between her excited exclamations of “sister Hifsa” she explained she had just returned home having been to London. For the first time in her life she had been able to vote in the Iraqi elections to determine who would govern her country. Her delight was infectious. A middle aged woman overjoyed at finally having the right to have a say in her country’s governance. A right that,  in our democratic nation, every single British citizen over the age of eighteen has, regardless of gender, colour, race or religion. But a right that is only taken up by 2/3rd of the eligible population with over 13 million “not bothering”.

Yesterday our Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election on what would have been my fathers 101st birthday, 8th June. And a number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, including that we now have 7 weeks of election preparation and social media posts in which every single person will want to have a say no matter how much of what they have to say might very well be “utter bollocks”. Aah the joys of living in a democracy!

One particular issue however is going to cause me particular angst over the next few weeks. And that is the anti-voting Muslim campaigners that will be trying to prevent Muslims from taking part in the General Election because they regard voting as being “haraam” (forbidden/unlawful). No doubt they will be using the usual scare tactics, telling adherents they’re condemning themselves to the hellfire if they vote,  by leafleting outside mosques on Fridays, running poster campaigns and producing the dreaded memes as their backup.

Is Voting Haram?

As a Muslim, I have grown up with an understanding of a principle that exists within Islam called “Shura” meaning consultation. This in its simplest form, is a way to harness the views and opinions of those individuals most affected by any decisions that may be made. The Prophet Muhammad would, as instructed by God in the Quran, consult his companions;  “And consult them in the affairs and when you have taken a decision, put your trust in God, certainly, God loves those who put their trust in Him” [Aal-’Imran, 159]

By voting in the election, you are being given a stake in the decision making processes around every aspect of how your country will be run. Every single vote counts and it is imperative that any government that is elected has the backing of the majority of the population that they are serving. There is almost a level of dishonesty that exists amongst those individuals who want to live in Britain, enjoy the freedoms and benefits that being British citizens affords them, but not being prepared to fulfil their own obligations to the nation. For those individuals who argue that the electoral choices presented to them do  not represent the ideals of their faith in its purest form, there are always alternatives available. I can think of several theocratic dictatorships that they may like to consider as places of residency. For the rest of us, let’s make the most of the democratic freedoms afforded to us as British citizens. By voting we are not violating any Islamic laws. We are making a decision as to who we feel is the best to govern the country we call home – our country. And we should make our decision based on those things that matter the most to use. Education, healthcare, housing, environment, foreign policy or social inequalities; make the decision about who you will vote for based on which party has the best interests of the things that matter to you, your family and your local community at the very epicentre of their manifesto.

This the Islamic thing to do. It is not unIslamic to vote, it is unIslamic not to.

By Hifsa Haroon Iqbal

This blog first appeared on Hifsa’s personal blog

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

Image credite: Daily Express website


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Wise Women in The 99 Names of God

I co-founded Chickpea Press, a multi-faith children’s publisher, after working in mainstream publishing for over a decade. One of our core aims is to cultivate an awareness of the equality of women and men in faith. After a lifetime of struggling to find a voice within a faith setting, thinking that my religion didn’t allow it, it was a shock, as an adult, to discover Muslim women throughout history who not only had voices, but profound wisdom to share about God, life and religion.

The 99 Names of God is an illustrated guide to the Divine attributes of God within Islam, written and illustrated by Daniel Thomas Dyer. Designed for young and old, the book shows how compassion and peace are at the heart of Islam, and how the faith celebrates social diversity, recognizes the validity of other religions, promotes social equality and justice, abhors violence, values self-expression and the arts, and encourages responsible custodianship of the natural world.

One of the key features is a quote for each Name from a prophet or holy person of faith. It was very important that we try to have an equal balance of female and male voices in the book. This was a challenge from the start. Whilst we are aware of many women of faith, finding actual records of their words is a lot harder. There may be lots of reasons for this: historically women seemed more busy in the actual process of communing with God than writing down their experiences; women who had learned men-folk in their life (husbands, fathers) might be mentioned in their writings but without direct quotes; for women who did keep a record of their life and work, the sources may not have survived – or may have been destroyed over time in a patriarchal system.

One of the most important books to collect their voices, however, is Women of Sufism by Camille Adams Helminski. This treasury of female Muslim saints was a guiding light in our work for the book, unveiling women from across cultures and social classes, and providing more sources that we could explore. For many women, we were only able to source one referenced saying.

This being an illustrated guide, Daniel spent a lot of time working on appropriate and sensitive visual representations of all the key figures quoted. One of my favourite images is of Khadijah with Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them both, illustrating the attribute of al-Mumin, the Inspirer of Faith. The image illustrates the time when Muhammad, on first receiving his prophethood, rushed to Khadijah who comforted and reassured him that he was not mad and had truly been chosen as a messenger of the Almighty. Khadijah’s strength and faith are beautifully encapsulated in this Name and the accompanying words she is believed to have said:

khadijah

Another favourite is Rabiah of Basra, the great mystic who was renowned for sincerely loving God for God’s sake alone. Daniel’s illustration is based on her famous saying, used for al-Khafid, the Abaser, and ar-Rafi, the Exalter:

rabiah

The book also contains sayings from Hagar, Mary, Aishah, and Fatimah, as well as introducing lesser known figures such as Shawana, renowned for weeping out of love and awe of God; Lady Nafisah of Cairo, known as ‘the Jewel of Knowledge’; Fatimah al-Bardaiyyah of Iran, who was renowned for speaking words of ecstasy; and Unayzah, a witty and spirited mystic from Baghdad.

This book is offered as a guide to help us witness the Divine Majesty and Beauty. For children it is a rich treasury of wonder that will reveal greater depths as they grow and mature, whilst for parents and teachers it will offer much to inspire, inform, and remind. Each name is accompanied by engaging reflections and activities, with signs to highlight the Name both within our hearts and outside in nature.

I wonder how I would have been affected if I had been given access to an education that offered me a deeper understanding and awareness of my mothers and sisters of Islam at a younger age. It is my fervent hope that we can create quality resources that give a new generation what so many of us missed out on.

We are launching The 99 Names of God in London on February 6th at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Daniel will speak more about his personal journey with the Names, and we will be joined by Azim Rehmatdin who penned the original calligraphy for the book, and Julia Katarina from Music With Refugees who will be singing Qawwali and Nasheeds on the Divine Names.

You can book your ticket for the launch, see more about the book and get your copy here: chickpeapress.co.uk

By Saimma Dyer

Saimma Dyer is the Managing Director of Chickpea Press and Co-founder of Rumi’s Circle. When not busy publishing or organising interfaith events, she can be found exploring the Divine Feminine and how to be a Sufi Feminist. Follow her @SaimmaDyer

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

 


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A tribute to my uncles who were gunned down in the Nazimabad attacks

brothers

You never think it’s going to happen to you… until it does.

Just over a week ago, I was in a queue with my four-year-old son. We were waiting for a train ride around the park near my parents’ house, when I received a phone call from my mum. It was the phone call that nobody ever wants to receive; the phone call that informs you of tragedy at home.

Five of my maternal uncles had been shot in Nazimabad, Pakistan. We weren’t sure who was alive at that point, but as we took to Twitter, the true reality of the horror was emerging. A ladies majlis, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (the grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAW)) was taking place in a private residence; gunmen on motorbikes had opened fire, and three of my uncles, Naiyer Mehdi Zaidi, Nasir Abbas, and Baqar Abbas Zaidi had been gunned down in targeted killings.

My remaining two uncles, Tahir Abbas and Nadir Abbas, and my 15-year cousin, Murtaza Ali Zaidi were in critical condition in the hospital. By the mercy of Allah, they have now recovered well.

Let’s be clear here; the attacks were sectarian, specifically targeting the Shia community. Later, the militant organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi took responsibility for the attacks. A spokesman for the group said: “There is no room for the enemies of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Pakistan”, a reference to Pakistan’s Shia minority.

It is important to note that whoever is behind these attacks, they are following a deviant interpretation of religion aligned to ISIS and al-Qaeda. This intolerant ideology comes from Saudi’s Salafi-Takfiris; they are a violent offshoot of mainstream Islam, and this tiny minority group is giving Muslims around the world a bad name.

In Pakistan, Shias are a persecuted minority who are still not free to practice their religion without fear of being killed for their beliefs. These attacks used to take place in public places, such as mosques, schools and hospitals. Now the attacks are taking place in private residences, which means people are not even free to practice religion in their own homes.

You think that these kinds of attacks happen to other people, but there are so many Shias being targeted, the chances are that you will know someone in Pakistan affected by these acts of violence. At the beginning of October, these same hardline groups killed my friend’s cousin, Mansoor Sadiq Zaidi, in a targeted attack, as he stood with his son outside his house. 

This is genocide, and it is specifically targeting the Shia community.

But this blog post is not an account of what happened that fateful day. You can read that yourself in the newspapers that have covered the event, including The Independent, The Guardian and The Seattle Times. The news made the front page of The Evening Standard last Friday.

This blog post is intended to tell you what you might not know about my mum’s brothers. I want you to know about their magnanimous personalities, about their humanity, and their values.

My mum’s brothers were very open-minded, tolerant, loving people who touched the lives of every single person they met. As I write this post, I know that there are not enough words to express the depth of the grief I am feeling, nor are words enough to explain how incredible my uncles were.

The Nazimabad firing took place during the Holy month of Muharram, when Shias commemorate Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. Ultimately, Hussain’s struggle was about freedom from oppression; about sacrifice to protect universal human values. My uncles lived with the love of the family of the Prophet (SAW) in their hearts, and they implemented these values in their everyday lives.

During the attacks, the gunmen attempted to gain access to the ladies majlis in the house. When they could not enter, they fired gunshots on the people who were sitting outside. As the gunmen came forward, Baqar Abbas Zaidi, my mum’s youngest brother, opened up his arms to protect  the door and to stop the killers from going inside the house. He was killed instantly as the gunmen opened fire on his chest.

I think about how many lives Baqar Mamu has saved through this fearless act of self-sacrifice. By standing between the door and the gunmen, he prevented them from entering the house, thus stopping further bloodshed and carnage.

My Mum’s eldest brother was Naiyer Zaidi, a British citizen who had resided in London for more than 30 years. He loved this country as he had spent most of his adult life here.

Every year, Naiyer Mamu would go to Pakistan to commemorate the events of the tragedy of Karbala with his family. He loved to read poetry, books and literature. After retirement, he spent more and more of his time reading about Islam, and he loved to spend his time in the company of learned Islamic scholars.

It is my view that religious conviction manifests itself in the values of humanity, and Naiyer Mamu’s personality is testament to this. He was kind, he was generous and he was incredibly humble. Moreover, he would view everything in his life as an example of God’s infinite mercy. His positive outlook on life and his ability to always see the best in people is incredibly inspiring.

The true essence of religion is about akhlaaq; it’s about how you treat your fellow human beings. When my paternal grandfather, Qaiser Hussain Zaidi passed away, Naiyer Mamu truly was a rock for our family, giving us so much support and kindness in a period of great difficulty.

Another uncle who was killed on that horrible day was Nasir Abbas, a US citizen. Nasir Mamu brought joy, happiness and laughter to every single person he met. In 2008, my sister and I visited him in the US. In only a few days, Nasir Mamu had such an incredible effect on me. He had what can only be described as a magnetic personality. He was so full of life; not only was he absolutely hilarious, but we would spend hours conversing with him about many topics, including philosophy, poetry, politics. He was incredibly open-minded; he didn’t care about who you were or where you came from. He treated everyone with the same love, respect and dignity.

I have been reflecting on the personalities of my mamus and thinking about what I can learn from them. They were all so positive in their outlook, always seeing the best in every situation.

I know that they would have seen even the way they left this world as an example of God’s blessings. They lived their life through the love of the values of the Prophet (SAW) and his Holy household, and they left this world in the same way. As I watch their funeral, I know the cries of “Labaik Ya Hussain!” would have comforted their souls. They have become shaheed.

I feel so honoured and privileged to have known them, and I feel so sad that they are no longer with us. But to have left this world in the way they did is no doubt a great blessing. They have given me a lifetime of beautiful memories, and to know that so many people around the world are remembering them so fondly, is a source of great comfort.

Please pray for the departed souls of Naiyer Mehdi Zaidi, Nasir Abbas and Baqar Abbas Zaidi.

Please pray for Muhammad Zaki Khan and Nadeem Lodhi, who were also martyred in this brutal attack and for the families of the injured and the deceased.

Please also pray for the soul of Mansoor Sadiq Zaidi.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.
All images are copyright of Aliya Zaidi. All rights reserved. Please do not use without permission.


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Religious Concepts Reexamined: Why Do We Continue Using Religious Teachings To Justify Domestic Violence?

“You just have to be patient – things will improve over time.”

“Some men are a little hot-headed.  Don’t provoke him, and just do whatever you can to be a good wife and please him.”

“Let’s all sit down together and work out the problems in your marriage – we’ll find a solution that will make you both happy.  You know, Islam encourages mediation in times of disagreement.  It’s just a question of compromise.”

“Surely you’re not thinking of leaving him?  Don’t you know that divorce is hated by Allah?  What about the children – they need their father.”

These are a few of the platitudes often directed at Muslim women who are experiencing domestic violence (DV). While well-intentioned and borne of a genuine desire to help a DV survivor, such approaches can, at best, be impractical and unhelpful and, at worst, pose a threat to the safety of the woman and her children. More fundamentally, the use of religious concepts to justify abuse, or to coerce women into accepting it, is a gross misapplication of Islamic teachings.

Advising a woman to be “patient” in the face of abuse minimizes her experience, and may prevent her from seeking further assistance. In reality, the concept of patience in Islam refers not to a state of stagnation, but rather towards progression, albeit under difficult circumstances. Rather than shutting down a survivor’s attempt at seeking help, a more useful approach would be to hear her story, support her in her choices, and be a resource (rather than a roadblock) for her. Furthermore, the reassurance that her situation will improve over time is factually incorrect. Research suggests that the severity of DV escalates over time, and that what may start as emotional abuse may well develop into sexual or verbal abuse, or serious physical assault. Therefore, those who encourage a woman to “put up with it” may unwittingly place her in a situation of increasing danger.

Another common response is to excuse the behavior of the abuser, often based on the idea that the husband is the head of the household and can behave as he wishes without being called to account. In addition, women are often told that, after Allah, their obedience is due to their husband. These claims have little basis in Islamic theology or the teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). There are numerous hadith which elevate the status of women and emphasise the importance of kindness towards one’s wife and family. There are no recorded narratives of the prophet using violence or misconduct towards his female family members, so why do we think that it’s acceptable for the men in our communities to do so? While Islam promotes co-operation with and loyalty towards one’s husband, it does not sanction relationships in which one partner exerts coercive control over the other. Indeed, Islam states that partners are equals and that loyalty and kindness should be mutually expressed, and that both parties are accountable for their actions.

In many communities, DV survivors are encouraged to participate in family mediation, in the hope that the matter can be resolved. Whilst the Quran does provide a detailed process for mediation between family members in times of dispute, such a model is designed to serve those in non-abusive situations. In cases of DV, suggesting any type of therapy, mediation or counseling where both spouses are present, can be very unhelpful for survivors, and can serve to traumatise them further. This type of scenario provides ample opportunity for the abuser to manipulate facts in his own favour, to discredit his wife, and to use charisma to appear likeable – a far cry from the traditional image of an abuser. In turn, the wife will, almost certainly, fear revealing the truth about the extent of the DV in the presence of her husband. In effect, the partner who has experienced the abuse is likely to benefit least from the mediation process. A more helpful approach would be for well-meaning community members to stand up for the oppressed party against the transgressor – a concept upheld numerous times within the Quran.

In cases where a survivor of DV may be considering terminating her marriage (a decision which, by no means, would she have arrived at lightly), she is likely to be met with disapproval from her community, together with the rather tired adage that divorce is the most frowned-upon permissible act in Islam. Whilst the sanctity of family life cannot be debated per se, it is important to realise that Islam promotes healthy families which are modeled upon Quranic values. Where there is an imbalance of power between the parties, attempts by one spouse to control the other (both classic features of a DV situation), and the presence of abuse in any of its ugly forms, such a relationship cannot be considered within the range of normal or healthy. It is for situations of this type that divorce is permitted in Islam.

As for the impact on children, research indicates that merely witnessing violence against their mother by their father can have a lasting and harmful effect on them. So whilst children may need their father, what they do not need is to see him abusing their mother, at whose feet lies paradise. Thus, to bully a survivor into staying within a harmful marriage, and questioning her piety at the same time, will do absolutely nothing to help her – on the contrary, such advice may further alienate her (once again, playing into the hands of the abuser – isolating a survivor from family, friends and community members is a well-used strategy amongst perpetrators of DV) from what may already be a limited resource bank. Studies show that a DV survivor is at her most vulnerable when attempting to escape her situation, and communities should be aware that at such times, women need support, understanding and, in certain cases, protection.

This year, DV Awareness Month coincides with the beginning of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. For hundreds of years, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have commemorated the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as), grandson of the Hoy Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). In a beautiful irony, the tears shed by the lovers of Hussain in memory of his struggle against tyranny, are paralleled by those of DV survivors as they navigate their lives within the confines of an oppressive marriage. Let’s be clear – domestic violence is not a normal part of marriage (no matter how comfortable that narrative may appear to be). In reality, DV is evidence of an abusive man who is transgressing the bounds of respect, compassion and the autonomy of his spouse. It is an abhorrent form of oppression, and one that communities should work to eliminate at all levels. In the words of Imam Hussain, “Those who are silent when others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves.”

By Neelam Khaki

Neelam Khaki is the Peaceful Families Taskforce Coordinator at API Chaya, an organization serving South Asian, Middle Eastern, and API women, who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.  Her work within the PFT involves working with local Muslim communities to create peaceful families, by using the Qur’anic model of family, through training, education, and community engagement.

Neelam is a graduate in LLB Laws from the London School of Economics.  Prior to moving to the U.S, she was employed at a London City law firm.  Her interest in social justice began in a voluntary capacity, whilst working for The Samaritans, a UK based organization supporting suicidal clients.  She subsequently worked with Lifewire as a helpline volunteer, supporting survivors in domestic violence situations, and later as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.  Neelam also has a strong interest in community work.  She is involved in the PTA at both elementary and middle school level, and also volunteers as the administrator for a local Sunday School.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.

Image credit:  Refuge


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‘Su-Shi’ and interfaith dialogue with Anne Dijk and Arjen Buitelaar

su-shi-arjen-anne

Deviating slightly from our usual posts, we wanted to share with our readers an interview between Anne Dijk, a female Sunni scholar based in the Netherlands and Arjen Buitelaar, a male Shia scholar also from the Netherlands. They were interviewed by Arek Miernik who is from Poland, and the interview has been translated to English. You can read more about their backgrounds at the end of this post.

  1. What is the idea behind Su-Shi and how did it come about as your project?

Arjen Since the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ we notice heightened and more open tensions between the different Islamic creeds, mainly Sunnites and Shiites, and the voices of the extremes on both sides become louder. Of course this is a development that has been going on for several decades by now, and the extremes on both sides kind of hijack the voice of the common and good willing majority of Muslims. We see both sides recruit people to war zones in countries they have never been to, and tensions, incomprehension and impotency grow. This kind of reached a peak when Mosul was conquered by ISIL forces. It was that moment that Anne Dijk participated in a radio talk on the differences and similarities between Sunnites and Shiites, and she emphasized that the differences weren’t that big (more on jurisprudential level), but in practice it often seemed impossible to get the groups together even for something simple like an iftar. I then decided to approach her, because it was the bitter truth and despite the talks (and efforts) from authoritative scholars that we share so many commonalities, that we are brothers and sisters or even each other’s souls, and that we should work together, we see that communities simply don’t do that and we wanted to change that.

Anne The idea behind su-shi is that we want to bring together Sunni, Shia and all possible creeds within Islam, together, on an equal basis, to meet on a personal level. We don’t want to ‘create’ one single creed, or try to undermine the differences, which exist. We want to strengthen the ummah by informing about the differences and also speak out against stereotypes and prejudices that cause harm to both groups.

Often, the stereotypes of arguments against the opposite groups are based on prejudices, which often only hold for the extremes, and not for the mass-mainstream. Getting to really know each other, in a safe place, where genuine interest and curiosity for the other, is hardly happening. Talks on internet fora very often result in harsh language and conversations that get hijacked by extremes. That’s why we focus on small get-togethers, to really give a platform for personal meetings, based on proper (academic) information.

  1. How do you create a “safe” and neutral space during your meetings and events? Considering the deep level of division and animosity that these differences can cause, exacerbated by current political events in the Middle East, how do you make sure that these divisive attitudes don’t make their way into your meetings?

Anne During the 1,5 year of preparation, before we went online, formal and open, we discussed this issue elaborately. How can we create a safe and neutral space? Of course we can never guarantee anything, but we made clear ‘houserules’. A few elements therein are, are that dialogue is the goal, not debate. Trying to convince the other of your own truth is not allowed either, sincere and open questions are. Tafkir is not allowed; anyone who considers him/herself Muslim deserves within sushi that we treat him/her as such. Per activity we try to make a ‘risk management’ – for example: we held a iftar last ramadan – what to do with the adhan? (su of shi time?) and what to do with the prayer? We try to prevent any kind if discussion of such issues: how? We talk about them openly and elaborate on potential differences. For example, we elaborated en public on the different times of braking the fast, and that the dates were presented for everyone who wanted to brake the fast at that moment (Sunnis) and that we would do one adhan at the shi time. Later, the prayer was open for everyone – everyone must feel free to be able to pray together, but if someone wanted to pray later, that was also fine.

Arjen I agree with Anne’s answer; these are good examples in practice. Within the core group we have a dozen different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, so you can imagine we have lively talks on possible difficulties when organizing an event. I’d also like to emphasize that one of our core rules is to support respectful dialogue and denounce debate, which, in effect, could be focused on individual monologues only while dialogue forces to open up and listen to the other. It are these house rules that ensure the safe space individuals find themselves in. Added to that, it is important to note that we work with what we call an ‘oil spill formula’, by which we mean that every visitor is personally invited by someone he/she already knows within the ‘Su-Shi Community’. This way we ensure that people feel more secure to open up and say what is on their hearts. Another way we make sure people find themselves in a safe environment is that we do not use traditional set ups with podia for the speakers and people sitting on chairs for a few hours. Depending on the size of the group we either meet up at someone’s home and start with chit chat and dinner. Or like our last Iftar we met up in a ‘youth club’/lounge setting, having some armchairs, couches and tables to sit on, providing a more relaxed atmosphere and automatically ‘compelling’ people to mix up.

  1. The idea of meeting ‘the other sect’ in this environment presupposes that participants already have a certain degree of openness to it. Did you have any reactions so far from those sectors among both communities which prefer to maintain division and hostility?

Arjen Yes we did, though this was outnumbered by massive support messages. A certain degree of openness is definitely needed, simply because within the extremes of religions and ideologies people and or communities build virtual walls around them that make it impossible to reach out to. When people consider the other to be the devil, or inspired by the devil, or a hypocrite of some sort, and subsequently consider his words to be deceiving, how could one ever be willing to listen to it?

And this is kind of the scope of the hostile messages we received. Some extreme Salafists and Quranists who did not and will not acknowledge the existence of other creeds to be Islamic, and who attempted to defame some of our members on a personal level simply because there’s not much to argument about the content of our stance.

Because it is our policy to engage in dialogue and approach everything positively, instead of bogging down in endless debates, we do not react on that. Instead, these two negative approaches have given us plenty of points to further elaborate and communicate through the positive platform we’ve created.

  1. In your experience what are the main or most common reasons that the extreme sectors of each sect give as justification for their enmity towards the other sect? How much of it is theological, how much historical/political and how often is it perhaps rooted, or strengthened, by people’s personal experiences?

Arjen This is a fairly difficult question that needs some elaboration. It is most interesting that the extreme sectors from all creeds base themselves on core sources, just as much as mainstream creeds do. Sometimes even the exact same texts, yet interpreted differently. The narrower the boundaries of a sect become, the more stress they will put on their absolute authority to explain the meaning of texts and not to stray from the ‘right path’ by looking at explanations by authorities from outside their group’s ‘enclave’. The ‘other’ is literally demonized, and by defining ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’, and ‘divine’ and ‘satanic’ the justification easily becomes ‘theological’. It remains the question, however, whether the origins of the justification were theological by nature, or rather inspired by political motives. The same goes for stances on ‘historical truths’. These are based on the same kind of source texts that have alternatives that are consciously neglected, and have shortcomings. Subsequently these become indisputable dogma’s due to their absolute character, and are proposed as ‘real Islam’, yet are nothing more than fallacies. Used to manipulate and monopolize the conversation and hijack individual thought.

The main tradition that is used to justify sectarianism is that the prophet Muhammad ص would have said that Islam will be divided in 73 sects of which just one will enter paradise. This (weak tradition) is used to intensify the fear of individuals and groups to be amongst the dwellers of hell, causing people to know more about the ‘wrongs’ of the other than the ‘goods’ of themselves. With regards to other religions, Islam actually has the same opinion about truth as it has about herself. Christianity will be divided in 72 sects and Judaism in 71, both also have one rightly guided group. For Muslims it doesn’t seem to be their business to define which groups from other religions is the rightly guided one, as long as they do not interfere in Muslim matters. But as one reaction by a self-proclaimed institute wonderfully articulated their view on Islamic sectarianism: “the battle for influence over the Muslims continues…”

  1. Yours is clearly grassroots, bottom-up project. Do you think that the established Muslim leadership like traditional ulama etc. are falling short in building intra-religious bridges among Muslims at the top-down level?

Arjen The answer to this question has multiple layers; it would be too easy to say that they do or do not. In my opinion there are many efforts being made by the established Muslim leadership to build bridges, but their (and this is not reserved to Muslims or religious communities) focus is mainly on people from the top segments, not on community level. In the past decade alone we have seen the Amman Message, which is a great document that Su-Shi uses as well in our argumentation, and the Marrakesh Declaration, which apparently has been improved over a longer period since the 1990s and in its recent update specifically gained attention for its focus on minority groups such as the Yazidis and Christians who suffer much in the Middle East as we speak. Other attempts are being made as well, such as the annual Ghadeer Khumm Festival in Najaf, which I personally attended in 2013, and where leaders from different religious communities spoke. Including more subordinated sects such as the Druze community. All these attempts are very valuable and should be cherished.

At the same time, we see that these innumerably valuable official declarations are not lived after in practice. In real life they remain theoretical documents, that are sometimes not even lived after by important leader figures who endorsed them at first. Or that important religious leaders make statements that, unintended, lead to deeper sectarian rifts.

In parts of the Middle East region tensions are so high since the beginning of this millennium, that it is, of course, very hard to maintain these statements. Leaders can communicate with each other and make agreements at top level, but when blood is shed at ground level people will rather follow a leader that speaks their mind.

The main reason why these declarations hardly have an effect on ground level, however, is that most Islamic – and in fact Abrahamic – faiths are exclusivistic is in nature. When ground level believers hear from their leaders that they should respect and embrace believers from other faiths and sects, and at the same time read in their jurisprudences that those people from other faiths and sects are intrinsically ‘impure’ (najis) because of their ‘infidelity’ or being born to ‘infidel’ parents, than that is at least confusing. In practice, among migrant communities in the West, this means we see, for example, how certain Shiite groups try to find escapes from the statement by the highest authorities that ‘Sunnis are not our brothers and sisters, but our souls’, and try to explain how this still means Sunnis are not on the guided path. And vice versa we see the tremendous influence of Wahhabism which too, albeit being an extreme side faction, affects mainstream Sunnism as well by planting its poisonous seeds of hatred towards others. There is no other way to break this way of thinking, that is imported along with or even strengthened through immigration, down but by starting to work on this from a grassroots, bottom-up project. A project in which the participants themselves can add to the thinking process, and can themselves speak out for peace and cooperation instead of having to depend for that on top level leadership.

Anne It’s indeed a bottom up approach that we have, and that’s for many reasons. 1. We want to grow slowly in order to build real trust based on personal connection in stead of theoretical words only. And 2. To put into practise what those ‘top down’ approaches have tried to formulate but failed to implement.

  1. On a practical note, how do you fund your activities? The reason I’m asking is that as we know, with funding from established Muslim organisations often come agendas and expectations that might potentially jeopardise independence of a project or try to influence a project in a particular direction.

Anne We are up till now completely independent; meaning we don’t get any subsidies from any organisation from any denomination. We are very happy with our team; we all have a broad network so up till now we found free locations; the speakers were all unpaid and the food was covered by our volunteers alhamdulillah. But since we are a Foundation since this year, we are open for donations from individuals. Being independent and self-sustained makes you stronger. Maybe you grow slower, but inshaAllah the project can run longer. Being truly honest to your own values is the most important thing.

Arjen Before Su-Shi had become an organization and was still an idea, I have once organized an event in the Su-Shi spirit that we did receive donations for. From that I can confirm what you mentioned: there are donators that demand their agendas and expectations and try to influence what you do. This is very simple for me though; I reject such donators. Whenever the autonomy of a project or of our organization as a whole is in jeopardy, it isn’t worth what you gain. So when we think out a project, donators can support that of course, but not lay any conditions on us.

  1. Arjen, you are Shia and Anne, you are Sunni. What are the rough percentages in terms of sects among all people involved your project and those attending your events?

Arjen It’s difficult to speak in percentages. Few of our participants have a very homogenous background themselves, however some do. And the same then goes for who they invite through our ‘oil spill’ method. Overall, however, I think that people from a Sunni and Shiite background make up the majority -both close to the half- of participants of our events.

Anne We must also admit that we try to work towards a fair share as well. Meaning: we very consciously have 50% of the board Sunni, 50% of the board shi’i and one ‘neutral’ board member. In this way we direct towards an almost equal percentage of participants as well. Over all, most of our participants would consider themselves Sunni of Shia, we had a few Quranist participants and people with an Allevi background that are enthusiastic as well.

  1. What would be your personal message to people absolutely refusing to engage with the “other sect”, based in their conviction of the other sect’s “heresy” and their conviction that there is no “right” Islam outside their own school of thought?

Anne Allahu Alem. I would ask them so sincerely contemplate on this statement of “Allahu ‘Alem” and with this, try to focus on tazkiyya an-nafs, the cleansing of the soul. How can you, as an individual, be so sure? For me, in essence, ‘Allahu ‘Alem’ means absolute humbleness towards The Truth. Only God knows, that means, that we as human beings, per definition don’t.

Arjen I would like to emphasize that no layperson nor scholar is infallible, and that no matter what you personally believe, we do not all share the same beliefs and convictions. Nonetheless, we do live together, in a space that is becoming smaller and smaller. That brings tensions, but we are not animals. As humans we can use our reason to ‘defend’ our intellectual territories, we shouldn’t be so afraid of the other, and rather listen to each other. Dialogue is not about convincing one another, it is more about becoming stronger in your own convictions, but with respect for the other’s convictions in his or her own space.

***

Anne Dijk has a background in Religious Studies and a Master in Islamic Studies, specialised in Islamic Jurisprudence (Sunni). Fascinated by the transformations of the schools of law (madhahab) and the internal discussions, she found out that there is a deep ethical essence within the jurisprudence that differences of opinions (ikhtilaf) were deeply respected in history. In the hardened debate within Muslim communities nowadays, about ‘what is really Islamic’, she missed this ethical attitude. As Director of Fahm Institute she works on diverse ways to more understanding (fahm) of Islam. She is de co-founder of Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue, because she believes that world peace should start within yourself.

Arjen Buitelaar has a background in History and a Master in Religious Studies. From his Master’s thesis till now, he is conducting research of the Shi’ite communities in the Netherlands, at the moment primarily focusing on the role of rituals and symbolism in the shaping of (group) identity. Due to the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is since the start of the so called Arab Spring, he found it necessary to start with the Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue initiative to create better understanding between different Islamic creeds.

Arek Miernik has a background in English literature, is an Al-Mahdi Institute graduate, and leading figure of the wider Muslim community in Poland. Though primarily involved with the Polish Shi’i community, he doesn’t confine himself to it and is a heard voice in opinionated media on the wider Muslim community and its status in society. He is the heart behind the Strefa Islam blog, where this interview was originally published in Polish.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The above interview was conducted by another organisation and not SSWH but has been reproduced with the permission.


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A Review of ‘The Diary of a Hounslow Girl’ by Ambreen Razia

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Image credit: Ovalhouse Theatre

This is a review of the ‘The Diary of a Hounslow Girl’ a play by Ambreen Razia, shown at the Ovalhouse on the 6th of May.

Ambreen Razia had the audience spellbound by her electric performance. From start to finish I could not avert my eyes or raise my glass to take a sip of my drink for such was her charismatic presence. She portrays a teen Hounslow girl who is refreshingly not meek. In contrast to traditional perceptions of Pakistani girls she is a tigress roaring with passionate cries for freedom. Ambreen’s character is sensitive, inquisitive and a spark once lit transformed into a fire. She stormed onto the set unfurling a myriad of difficult painful recollections, punctuated with kind relief from the tempo with humour that had the room laugh out loud.

The diary of a Hounslow girl is a play much needed for all who care about women and girls across our diverse communities. The more I listened the more I wanted to shout out in delight at the message expressed by a lone character narrating her troubled British teen Muslim existence from her bedroom. Ambreen focuses on her Muslim Pakistani identity but understands and relates the shared trials of London girls in general. London girls are diverse, unique individuals, each adding a different flavour to the culture and voice of this city. The play asserts the complexity of individual identity bound up with multiple mini communities all co-existing as one. Ambreen’s Hounslow Muslim Pakistani girl is significantly different to her peers but also very much just another Londoner.  Hounslow girl wants to speak, she wants her words heard – she wants to exist. She questions being singled out as a girl within her ethnic culture and Islamic community. She wonders why she must be held to account by her mother, sister, mosque uncle, Aunty Nusrat and God but denied the right to ask questions and search for answers on her own terms. We follow her tempestuous journey trying to be the perfect Pakistani girl for her mother while also trying to enjoy her friendships with girls her mother would rather dig a whole and hide away from. What is the place of a daughter born of an immigrant parent? This is the point addressed so clearly and passionately by Ambreen Razia throughout the play. Who gets to decide who Hounslow girl is and will be – her mother, her friends, her mosque uncle or her thoughts, actions, mistakes and solutions?

“It is revolutionary in its message and it must be watched by mothers and daughters alike”

Take away the hijab, take away the clothes, lingo and ethnic markers and the audience can see this is a diary about a girl who is looking to live her life with free will as so many teenagers yearn to do. Ambreen Razia bravely channels the ferocity of the teenage ride with searing heart breaking truths but brings us safely to a comforting final reflection. Hounslow girl is defiant, rebellious and angry but she is able to feel compassion and empathy for her mother. Ambreen Razia has said she wrote this play for girls coming of age – I think it is more than that – it is revolutionary in its message and it must be watched by mothers and daughters alike. In the last tender moments of the play the stormy whirlwind unleashed by Hounslow girl in my mind slowed to a gentle meditative state. I drank my drink and reflected on the special moment I had witnessed – the coming of age of women much marginalised, misunderstood but more and more a liberated dynamic force.

by Nazia

@25nazia

Diary of a Hounslow girl is on national tour details blacktheatrelive.co.uk and will be showing at the Ovalhouse between Wednesday 3rd of  June to  Saturday  6th of  June, at 7:00pm.

Image credit: Ovalhouse Theatre

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.