Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Time To Speak Out

It is with great reluctance that I enter the debate raging over comments made by a certain Muslim “cleric” in south western Sydney some weeks back.

I have never met Shaykh Feiz. I have never attended his lectures. The first time I saw him was on TV after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I consciously refuse to follow his ‘salafi’ brand of Islam. I prefer the wisdom of Turkish sufis to the fires of hate that al-Qaida types like to fuel.

I am rarely involved in Muslim community activities. I am not Lebanese. I did not grow up in south western Sydney. Yet I know that I will be judged by what Shaykh Feiz is reported to have said.

I am your typical Aussie Muslim. I was brought up in a metropolitan city. I went to school here. In fact, I attended Australia’s only Anglican Cathedral School and represented the school in debating and rugby. I went to university, studied accounting and law, played cricket for the university and was elected to the student council. I even joined a political party and ran twice for election.

You might read this and think: “Look, it isn’t about you”. The problem is that it is about me. Whether I like it or not, I and 300,000-odd other Australian Muslims will be judged because of what one man has said.

Including a senior executive of a major Australian bank. Including the managing director of a major sponsor of numerous AFL and ARL football teams. Including the Turkish veterans who marched with their digger mates on ANZAC Day. Including Bosnian refugees who were themselves the victims of gang-rape.

Just as al-Qaida love to stir up anti-Western hatred among Muslims, some Australian journalists, shock-jocks and public figures will behave like al-Qaida and will stir up hatred of Australians against their fellow country men and women.

And Muslim community leadership will sit back and do next to nothing. Or worse still, they might actually try and defend the indefensible comments attributed to Shaykh Feiz.

Meanwhile, your average Aussie Muslim will be too busy organising his or her business or legal practice or career. Most Muslims are too busy being Australians to worry about what some crackpot is saying. I mean, how many Christians listen to Hon. Fred Nile MLC? And for a secular equivalent, how many Liberals listen to Hon. David Clarke MLC?

For that reason, an average anonymous Aussie Mossie (a popular term local Muslims use to describe themselves) such as myself has to speak out. Because if we don’t speak out, people pretending to speak on our behalf will continue to say stupid things. And we will be the ones who will have to hear the abuse from fellow Australians on 2GB on the way to work (or 2UE if we are running late).

So let me state for the record what I believe most Muslims are thinking. Rape is a crime. Rapists should and must be punished. Women and men are subject to sexual assault regardless of what they wear.

And sadly, idiots of all denominations often claim that women could have avoided being raped by dressing more modestly. Yet I am yet to read a scripture or learn of a religion that justifies rape.

Muslims are not the only faith community suffering a crisis of leadership. I am yet to meet a Sydney Anglican who is completely happy with his or her church. Many Catholics are not exactly jumping for joy at the election of a new pope. Jewish community leaders were criticised by their community members over their responses to the visit by Dr Hanan Ashrawi some 2 years ago.

However, at least most (if not all) cardinals and archbishops and rabbis speak English and don’t need interpreters everywhere they go. In the case of Muslims, it seems, language ability and understanding of local cultures are the last criteria one needs to satisfy to become a community leader.

In New South Wales, we have 3 competing Islamic councils. Each of them has spent thousands of dollars fighting each other in the Supreme Court for governance of the NSW Muslim turf. Over 90% of programs broadcast on Sydney Muslim radio stations are in Arabic, not English. Yet I doubt any of them will say a word about Shaykh Feiz.

Muslims have to speak out. We can no longer afford to rely on our non-English speaking imams and feuding leaders to make incoherent noises while we are too busy getting on with our lives. In the current crazy environment, where shock-jocks and poison-penned columnists are quoting our incompetent leadership, our silence will be treated as an admission of guilt.

(This article was submitted to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age for publication.)

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

REFLECTIONL Ihya Uloom al-FatAlbert

My younger sister (she is 5 years older than me but younger than my eldest one) has always been a little eccentric. Even as a child, she used to watch World Championship Wrestling and would cheer Andre the Giant as he’d (pretend to) perform plastic surgery on someone’s face by smacking it against the floor. She was 9 years old at the time. She was most amused. She would laugh. I was 4 years old. I was most terrified. I would cry.

She also enjoyed watching the cartoon Fat Albert. She could really relate to it. So could I, but for different reasons. She related to his message that you should be proud of who you are, even if you are fat or can’t talk properly or have no face and a bad afro. She wore glasses and would be picked on at school.

The message of Fat Albert was too profound for a 4 year old. But I could still relate to the show. Why? Because all the kids used to call me Fat Albert. And because I was not exactly skinny.

So it was with mixed feelings that, 32 years later, I accepted my sister’s invitation to see Uncle Rupert bin Murdoch’s latest cinematised version of Fat Albert. Her eccentric 10 year old son would also be joining us. I took my ipod along in case the movie was boring and I could always entertain myself with a cocktail of Shaykh Nuh Keller and AC/DC.

At the Movies

We visited Macquarie Centre and headed to the Greater Union Cinemas. My sister walked ahead of us all to quickly buy tickets before they sold out. She walked in long strides, like a woman on a mission. She was determined to see Fat Albert tonight. Not even Andre the Giant could have stopped her.

We sat in the cinema slurping on our frozen coke slurpees. Eventually the movie came on. And I could here that familiar sound that the kids at school used to mock me with:

“hey Hey HEY … it’s Faaat Albert!”

After 20 seconds, my sister and the rest of the cinema were clapping and singing away: “Na na na, gonna ava good time!” I realised my sister was not the only eccentric person in the cinema.

After 5 minutes, I realised I didn’t need the ipod. This is a truly captivating piece of kid’s cinema. And what makes it so good is that kids of all ages and sizes, including overweight grumpy cynical 36 year old lawyers, can enjoy it.

Fat Albert & His Gang

Fat Albert’s gang are a dysfunctional bunch of black kids hanging out in some junk yard in North Philadelphia. Somehow they manage to break out of a school girl’s TV set after Fat Albert notices she is crying. He pulls his head out of the TV, but gets stuck half-way. Eventually, he is pushed out as the girl looks on horrified. The whole gang follow.

This dysfunctional bunch each have something nasty school kids can poke fun at. One has a serious speech impediment. Another wears a balaclava to hide his face. But together, they rule their part of the junkyard. And the ground is not all that shakes when their leader Fat Albert appears.

Fat Albert & Love

The movie has numerous lessons. Perhaps the most touching lesson for me was seeing Fat Albert being able to attract the heart of the most popularly attractive girl who happens to be the foster-sister of the school girl. Fat Albert charmed her with good manners and a sweet demeanour. Watching him in all his clumsy fatness reminded me of my own childhood. Yet the prettiest girl overlooked all that and found a warm and kind-hearted man who treated her like a lady and not just a piece of meat. After their first date, he walked her home. At their front door, she said: “Albert, now we are BFF. Best friends forever!”. She kissed him on the cheek.

At that moment, I just had to send a text message to a certain person of the female persuasion that worked in a bar from time to time and that I was pursuing with some vigour. “Mamoo, put your phone away! Who are you texting now during the movie?”, my nephew asked. My sister laughed, this time at me!

Perhaps the most important lesson of the movie was at its end. Fat Albert had to leave as Bill Cosby warned him that his continued stay in the real world might see him turn into celluloid dust. Albert reluctantly went to tell his sweetheart. She became upset and asked herself: “Why is it that I meet someone who really loves me but then has to leave me? I should never love anyone”.

Fat Albert & Dhikr (Remembrance of God)

Fat Albert said something that reminded me of a verse in the Qur’an. He said that loving someone is inherently wonderful, even if the person is not physically with you.

“When you love someone, you think about them. And you know they are thinkin’ about you. Isn’t that wonderful, just knowin’ that? Don’t ever let fear stop you from lovin’ somebody.”
Applied to human relationships, it is an awesome message. Sometimes when I visit a certain bar in the inner-western suburbs of Sydney to see a friend of the female persuasion, she will say to me: “I’m so glad you are here. I was thinking about you just yesterday”. When she says that, Fat Irfan begins to feel like Fat Albert.

But applied to our relationship with our Creator, it is even more awesome. Because in God’s case, we know Fat Albert’s words are true. God promises us: “Remember Me and I will remember you”. That is God’s personal promise to each individual human being on this planet.

And we know God remembers us even without our remembering Him. God provides for us just as He provides for birds and other animals. He never burdens us with a burden that is unbearable. He has provided a cure for every disease. We have miracles all around us. Our lives in the womb and our emergence from the womb is miraculous.

Fat Albert & the Prophet of Mercy (peace be upon him)

God sent a Prophet of such extraordinary mercy and compassion. A perfect man who suffered like no man on this earth has suffered. That wonderful man who found time to weep for a fallen soldier that he described as one of his family, the soldier named Julaybib that suffered from facial disfigurement and had no family. God sent us a man who knew what it was like to be an orphan, who buried his own mother in the sand and who watched his own grandfather die, all this before even reaching adolescence.

Those Acehnese children suffering from the loss of their parents and loved ones in the tsunami can find comfort knowing that their Prophet also lived as an orphan. Those fathers who must suffer the pain of a divorced daughter returning home can find comfort in the fact that their Prophet experienced this pain twice. And those depressed people contemplating suicide will find comfort in reading about the Prophet’s feelings when the revelation stopped for a while and the Prophet felt like throwing himself from a cliff.

This Prophet of Mercy made time for a woman suffering from schizophrenia who would frequently grab him by the hand and take him to some place where he would listen to her babbling. He spoke with such compassion about a prostitute who was forgiven by God for showing mercy to a dog dying of thirst.

Such is the love of God that He reflected His love in the life of a human being. Indeed, in the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings we know of as prophets. And in hundreds of thousands of human beings (since the demise of the last prophet) that we know of as God’s friends (awliya).

Na na na, gonna hava good time

I could go on and on about this extraordinary love and remembrance that God favours us with. Imam Ghazali wrote over 4 volumes on it in his Ihya Uloom ad-Din (Revival of the Sciences of Faith & Religion). And without realising it, Uncle Rupert bin Murdoch has revived the same sciences by producing this wonderful rendition of my sister’s favourite cartoon character.

Wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Tonight I found some of that property in a cinema in suburban Sydney. I don’t wish to be as fat as Fat Albert. But I hope that even after losing all this weight, I will remember his message about love not being hampered by fear.

“Oh you who believe! Fear God as He should be feared and do not die except in a state of Islam [peace through submission to God’s will]. This fear is grounded in love. We fear God because we love Him and are afraid to offend Him. If I can remember this one message, I know that my life here and hereafter will be one where I’m “gonna hava good time”.

Sorry for the corny ending.

(This article was first published on the magnificent collective blog It was then reproduced on the equally magnificent US-based online rag AltMuslim which can be accessed at I hope my barmaid friend doesn't smash me over the head with a beer bottle for mentioning her again.)

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, April 25, 2005

My Jewish Aunty

My parents arrived in Australia during the mid-1960’s. My father had just won a scholarship to do his PhD at the Australian National University located in Canberra, Australia’s “bush capital”.
My mother was also offered a scholarship to complete further studies in Urdu. She already held degrees in Urdu Literature from Aligarh and Punjab Universities, and at least one university was prepared to foot the bill to turn her into possibly Australia's first Urdu scholar.
My mum had other ideas. She had a baby daughter and another on the way. She preferred to look after her new family home so her husband could pursue his studies and a career in academia.
My mother’s Urdu was superb. Her English was another story. She struggled in Canberra, a small city with hardly any persons who spoke anything resembling Urdu. She struggled even to buy bread from the corner store. Until, that is, she met Anne.
Anne was my mother’s age. Anne was not from the Indian sub-Continent. Anne was Jewish. And Anne was perhaps the first person to play a pivotal role in my mother’s life in Australia.
Anne regarded my mother’s weakness (lack of English fluency) as a strength. Anne spoke a smattering of Hindi, having lived in India for a number of years. And she saw my mother wearing her sari and struggling to communicate.
“Assalamu alaykum!” shouted this light brown haired, white skinned woman. My mother turned around, and saw this ‘gori awrat’ (white woman) speaking in some kind of Hindi and greeting her with a traditional Muslim greeting. They clicked.
Anne and mum made a deal. If mum helped Anne with Urdu, Anne would assist mum with English and with getting around Canberra (my mum could not drive). They would also swap recipes, and make sure all the food was kosher. Or was that halal? Who cares ... it's all pretty much the same!
Anne’s friendship with mum flourished. They were like sisters. Anne convinced mum to learn how to drive. And mum convinced Anne to learn how to put on a sari properly.
More importantly, their friendship taught them that Jew and Muslim need not hate one another. Events overseas can and should stay overseas. Real friendship can survive war and politics.
For mum, Anne’s religious identity was not a big deal. And in India, it usually is not. Muslim and Jewish communities in Bombay and Poona lived side-by-side for centuries. Just as Muslims and Jews joined hands to defend Jerusalem from the Crusading invaders centuries before that. Try telling some Palestinian extremists that their hero Saladdin appointed the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, Shaykh Musa bin Maymum (Moses Maimonides) to lead his medical team. Or that one of the first scholars in the community of the Prophet Muhammad was the former Chief Rabbi of Madina named Abdullah bin Salam.
But that is perhaps ancient history. Returning to the 1960's, Anne was present at Canberra Hospital when mum gave birth to her second daughter. Anne was one of the first to hold the new baby. Anne helped mum adjust to the second baby who was hardly 12 months older than the first one. I can just imagine the scene of these 2 women holding a crying baby each and trying to rock them to sleep or feed them or change their nappies.
Some months later, my Dad finished his PhD. They returned to Pakistan (the Islamic world's answer to Israel). Anne was at the airport to see them off. My mother kept Anne’s address and phone number and promised to write.
I had not yet arrived on Planet Earth at that time. So how did I find out about Anne? My 2nd sister, the one who had been held by Anne a few minutes after birth, was preparing for her wedding. Some 2 weeks before, I was at home when the phone rang. A lady spoke to me in Urdu. She told me her name was Anne and that she had just arrived from Israel where her son was working in a kibbutz. She said she was a friend of mum’s and insisted that I pass on her name and telephone number to mum.
"Yeah, right", thought the young campus Muslim activist . As if mum would keep Jewish friends.
Mum arrived home after a few hours. I gave her the message. She read it and was ready to burst into tears.
“Thumhe pata hai ke ye kon hay? Yeh mery saheli hay Canberra se. Meri bahan ki tara hai. Thumhare liye yeh khala ki thara han. Jis waqt thum payda bhi na huwe the!” [Trans: Do you know who this person is? She is my close friend from Canberra. She is like a sister to me. And for you, she is like your aunt. Even if at the time, you were not even born!]
Mum rang Anne, and they agreed to meet the very next day for lunch at a kosher cafĂ© named Aviv’s located at Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach. I drove mum there. And the first thing Anne said, standing outside this kosher restaurant in this very Jewish part of Sydney was “Assalamu alaykum!”.
I waited for mum, who claimed she would only be an hour or so. 4 hours later, they both emerged, in accordance with the principles of IST (Indian Standard Time). Mum called me over and said: “Anne khala ko salam karo!” [trans: give salams to your Aunty Anne!].
Mum had also made an executive decision to invite Anne to the wedding. Seating was limited, and I was forced to withdraw an invitation given to a friend. My protests were of no avail.
“Thumhari yeh khala hay!” [trans: She is your aunty!]
Anne attended the wedding and gave her blessing to my sister and her husband. She had tears in her eyes. The last time she had seen my sister was as a baby hardly 6 months old.
My mother is deeply religious. Apparently some religious Muslims have a problem with Jewish people. Funny that.

When I was at university, I used to often pray my friday prayers at the Surry Hills Mosque. I'd then catch a movie. Afterwards, we would walk around the city and inevitably end up at Elizabeth Street or Castlereagh Street near Piccadilly. And in rubbing shoulders with all our Jewish "cousins" (as we's call them) with their caps and beards and beads, we'd feel like we were back amongst the crowd at the mosque! Well, they certainly looked similar.

I've heard some pretty crazy things about the children of Israel over the years from some of Ishmael's kids. But I have never heard my mother say anything bad about Jewish people. After hearing how Anne helped my mum, I could see why.
Through her conduct, her assistance and her love, Anne won a permanent place in my mother’s heart. She behaved like a true Jew, and won the heart of a vulnerable Muslim woman travelling in a strange land.
Imagine if more Jews and Muslims behaved like Anne. Imagine if we Muslims welcomed and befriended our Jewish neighbours. Imagine if we assisted people we saw in need. Imagine if we showed good conduct to all people.
When will we learn to stop fighting? When will we realise that the things we share in common are more important than the things that divide us?
Or, to adopt the words of one of the Talmudic elders: If we are not for ourselves, who is for us? If we care only for ourselves, what are we? If we don't love now, when will we start?
The Prophet (peace & blessings of God be upon him) had a Jewish neighbour who always hurled a constant stream of abuse at him. One day, the Prophet noticed that the neighbour was not hurling abuse over their common wall. He made inquiries and found out the neighbour was ill. The Prophet visited the neighbour and inquired as to his health. In doing so, the Prophet won the heart of his Jewish neighbour.
It’s all about winning hearts. Anne behaved more like the Prophet (peace & blessings of God be upon him) than many Muslims do. May Allah/G-d bless her and bring her even closer to Him.
(This article was submitted to the Australian Jewish News for publication. Time will tell if they print it. In the meantime, it also appears on that fabulous e-journal OnlineOpinion.)

© I Yusuf 2005

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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Taerobix - The Next Olympic Sport

You thought the Turks were fast at scoring goals against the South Koreans in a World Cup. Try praying tarawih (post isha prayer perfomed in congregation during Ramadhan) with a bunch of Turks. That’s when you will discover speed and athleticism!

Turks always do things differently. And usually with that touch of European style. Europe may be a place where you can get fast cars and fast wom … woops, I forgot this is a ‘progressive’ site. But in Turkey, getting 20 rakaats (cycles) hanafi-style (hanafi is one of the four schools of sunni law) is worth experiencing.

Other communities (Albanians, Bosnians etc) also finish their tarawih fast. But they just don’t come upto the level of speed that Turks and Cypriots do. Yep, when it comes to “Ramazan” and “Terawih”, the rest of you can go become “Dingili Bozuks” (did I spell that right?)!

What is it about the Terawih that makes it such a great workout? For a start, it is the short surahs (chapters), and in many cases ayahs (verses) or even letters that are recited after a 1-syllable al-Fatihah. 1 syllable? Yep, between ‘al-hamd’ and ‘dwaalin’, there isn’t much else that one can understand.

Ruku (bowing with hands touching the knees) is long enough to say half of the standard “subhana Rabbi al-Azim” (trans: How awesome if my Lord). Before you can even realise you are bowing, the hoca (imam) is back up with a “sami Allah holiman hamida”. But don’t expect time to finish off the rest, for before you know it, you are back down with the rallying cry that sounds alot like “Ellahoo Echber!”.

As we go down for sajda (prostration) at the rate of knots, our knees undergo a spiritual arthroscopy. And even the lushest of carpets cannot provide enough padding to make the downfall feel less like a crash-landing.

I have seen some less-trained and less-accustomed worshippers really lose track of the prayers and themselves performing Taerobics (as Turkish-style Terawih has come to be affectionately known). One Indonesian brother entered a Turkish mosque and joined the prayers just as the hoca/imam was lifting his hands to declare “Ellahoo Echber!” (a phrase which I think means that some Aussie Rugby Union star named Ella is a pretty fab and echber sort of bloke).

Now this Indonesia brother had Islam brought to his otherwise-Hindu-Buddhist society by some really cool Yemeni traders. This Indonesian chappy was clearly in the mood to get into some serious spiritual elation. He lifted his hands slowly and focussed all his concentration on the praise of God and the throwing of all his cares behind him and over his shoulders.

Whilst the brother was doing this, the rest of the congregation was already up for the second rakaat!

Seriously, Terawih is a sport only for the fittest of people. And in Turkish communities, the women will match even the fittest man for speed, agility and physical fitness. I was once at a Turkish mosque in the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills. At this mosque, women pray in a section above men. The women’s floor is made of wooden planks. And as the hoca/imam ordered us down on our knees, I could hear the women crashing their knees to the floor.

Finally, for all those venturing this sport for the first time, allow me to give you all a few pieces of advice. If you decide you only wish to stay for only 8 rakaats, pray near the exit. If you are at the front, consider yourself stuck there for the 20. Before you even get up to leave, people behind you will be already going down for the first sajda!

Also make sure you wear a head-band and soft tracksuit pants (preferably with kneepads). There just isn’t enough time to wipe your brow.

Finally, remember this humble write in your dua (supplication). If you get the time, that is!

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Friday, April 22, 2005

COMMENT: Some Crazy Thoughts On Progressive Islam

These days, every Muslim with any public profile is tripping over him/herself to jump off any band wagon labelled ‘extremist’ islam or ‘islamism’ or other undesirable nametag.

This has led to the growth of a whole raft of groups struggling to monopolise on terms such as ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’.

The events of September 11, 2001 may have caused 4 domestic airplanes and a few buildings to collapse in the US. But in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities across the western world, that one terrorist attack caused a huge ideological earthquake whose aftershocks are still being felt.

And after all the allegedly sophisticated rhetoric and clumsy linguistic gymnastics that have gone into writing the first 3 paragraphs of this article, I would like to ask a simple question. What on earth is a ‘progressive’ Muslim?

Is a progressive Muslim someone who reads and/or writes for a particular online rag (e.g. Or is it an unreconstructed Marxist ? Or is it a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party or the Pahlavi Shah’s entourage who fled to the West in their private jet when marshal law and/or the revolution finally arrived?

Is a progressive Muslim someone who believes that sharia should recognise matrimony between same-sex couples? Or someone who wants to make wholesale changes to 14 centuries of liturgical consensus?

Many of the so-called progressive Muslims I see resemble little more than the infantile ranters of campus socialism. Which is scary, since campus socialist groups have an uncanny ability to splinter. And I would hate for people 2,000 years from now to be making a film about Muslims similar to the Life of Brian ...

Brian: “The People’s Progressive Front of Islam? Who are they?”

Ahmed: “There he is over there!”

Everyone: “Splinter!!”

Unless progressive Muslims define exactly what it is that makes them progressive, they might soon end up hacking into each other. And their opponents may just sit back and watch the circus get progressively more entertaining.

A tragic outcome would be if all those progressive activists wasted their limited energies on factional war, leaving them with no energy to re-join the bigger struggle.

I personally find the adjective “progressive” quite offensive. Then again, what do you expect? I am, after all, an old-style social conservative. But beyond that, I seriously have problems with this label. It suggests that anyone who is not in the group is reactionary or entrenched in old thinking or old-fashioned.

Some progressives love having a go at people like the Zaytuna Institute crowd. An article appearing in MWU! entitled “Zaytuna’s Smelly Kebabs” comes to mind. But how regressive are the Zaytuna people? And why is it that many “conservative” Muslims in Australia think people like Hamza Yusuf are too “modern”?

Many progressives accuse ‘traditionalists’ of being locked in Islamic tradition, never reaching out to non-Muslim traditions. Yet I have rarely heard a lecture of Hamza Yusuf which does not refer to some linguist or philosopher or poet or writer from a non-Muslim tradition. And when Shaykh Nuh Keller is not comparing a sufi principle to some Tao or Buddhist concept, he loves talking about life as a commercial fisherman.

My own shaykh, the late Professor Mahmud Esad Cosan (pronounced ‘Joshan’) used to spend much of his time telling his students to go out and make some serious cash. He used to frequently tell us about his first property deal. We needed an interpreter to understand what he said. Though when he was in Germany, the youngsters used to relish his speeches given in fluent German.

If progress is about being prepared to borrow from other traditions, then traditional Islamic scholarship is perhaps the most progressive force in the Muslim world today. And this is not a recent phenomenon.

OK, that’s my thoughts for the day. Time to go and eat a doner kebab. Why? Because of all things, weight loss must be progressive.

Words © 2005 I Yusuf

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005


assalamu alaykum.

muslims are a funny bunch.

because we speak in all sorts of strange languages and dialects, our way of greeting each other is affected.take south asians, for example. the typical pakistani girl wearing a dupatta over her shoulders will greet with "sla lekoom". the typical punjabi merchant in lahore will greet with "ass-slaam-laekoom".

then, across to turkiye, you might hear "selamunaleykooom". or if you manage to make it through in one piece to the Miniyeh (a village just outside of tripoli in lebanon where people are allegedly more inbred than in the rest of the country), you will hear "salem '3aleyqum".

here in australia (where i come from), young mossies (as we call ourselves) have combined all sorts of accents. and to make things worse, we have also managed to abbreviate the salam to 2 or even 1 syllables.

i have a south african friend in melbourne who greets me with something resembling "sai-km". a lebbo (as we call them) mate greets me with "shla' laykm".

these abbreviations spread like wildfire. eventually, mossies got sick of the spare 2nd syllable and settled for super-abbreviated salams.

residents of mosques in sydney would feel so good seeing a bunch of trendily-dressed youngsters (and in my case, a shabbily-dressed overweight oldster) enter Allah's house with smiles beaming from their faces. What nur al-huda (light of guidance) had brought za yooss (arabic for "the youth") to za mazjid (or gid for masri folk)?

but the good feelings would quickly be replaced by demons of bidah as these youngsters would address each other with "slang" and "schleh". Followed by responses of "wang" and "weh" respectively.

then one day, this noblest of all greetings was dealt a savage blow. a student of a famous american shaykh living in brisbane (the student. as if american shaykhs would live in brisbane!) joined forces with the writer to invent a new language based upon a famous pakistani uncle who often acted as master of ceremonies at community functions. this uncle spoke in a combination of urdu, punjabi and broad australian accents. "Ladoos and gentlemoon, plooz taak your soots".

the accent became known as "punjaboriginal", sounding like a combination of punjabi and indigenous aboriginal dialects. punjaboriginal even contained its own translation/abbreviation of salam. and what was this beautiful greeting? how did the practitioners of punjaboriginal greet each other?


and so, dear readers, i greet you with the noble universal greeting translated into punjaboriginal.


and how should you respond? walaykum what? forget the walaykums. just respond with ... wait for it ...... e!

everytime this brisbane murid rings me, the first thing i hear is "e". a few moments later, i hear the "e" in a higher pitched voice.

"who was that?", i ask him.

"just my wife", he responds proudly. he knows he has trained her well!

hopefully my next contribution to this magnificent blog will prove much more beneficial.

ma salama (or should that be ma e)

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Sunday, April 17, 2005

OPINION: Progressive Islam's Smelly Kebabs - Honest Thoughts on Allegedly Feminist Friday

So a university professor of Islamic Studies who just happens to be female decides that she will give a sermon and lead a small group of Muslims in a prayer service in New York. So what? What’s all the fuss about? It’s a free country, after all.

(Well, it was until a bunch of idiots decided to fly a plane into a pair of skyscrapers in the same city.)

For average Americans or Australians or Europeans, Muslim or non-Muslim, watching or reading or hearing about Feminist Friday at that Anglican Church in New York (and the following fracas with the 10 or so demonstrators outside, according to the al-Jazeera report), the first paragraph of this article probably represent the first thoughts that came to mind.

Many would compare it to the debate over female priests in the Anglican Church. Others will have recalled Barbara Streisand dressed up as a rabbinical scholar in that movie which was so forgettable that I cannot recall its name (it definitely was NOT the equally forgettable movie called Meet the Fockers!).

What follows in the next few paragraphs is my attempt to understand my own feelings toward the event. I have spent hours arguing and debating the issue on the internet. Many will have been offended by my posts on the issue on this website. And others on more “orthodox” websites will be wondering why I still bother to stand on my cyber-milk-cart and shout like Abdul Rahim Greene here.

Smelly Kebabs

Some months back, on this website, someone published an article on the ‘smelly kebabs’ of the Zaytuna Institute. In relation to that article, I can make my first real confession. If Islam were Turkish cuisine, I would much prefer the smell and taste of Zaytuna kebabs over the slush of 'progressive' salad.

And for all of you who think you are progressive, listen up. I believe Zaytuna is the epitome of genuinely progressive Islam. Why? Because they seek and find progress WITHIN their tradition. They are happy to engage with other traditions. And they appreciate that many traditions share common features.

But what is the point of trying to get beyond ‘traditional’ Islam when you have not bothered to master that tradition? If you try to walk forward without knowing where you came from, you probably don’t know where you are going. So you might as well walk off the edge of a cliff without a parachute.

It’s easy to take elements of different trendy vegetarian ideas, put them together into some kind of ideological salad, add a bit of media-frenzy dressing and start munching. It may taste fresh, but it won’t necessarily be good for you.

Which leads me to acknowledge my own biases.


I believe it is essential that all you boys and girls out there in the Islamic cyber-State know where I am coming from. I make my prejudices public and resent those (progressive or otherwise) commentators on this issue who claim to be totally objective.

So let me start with a few confessions.

I am Muslim. I am a male. I live in Sydney, Australia. I practise law.

Is that it? No, there’s more.

In matters of fiqh (personal religious law), I follow the school of the ahnaaf (often incorrectly referred to as the ‘hanafi’ school). Most of my teachers were from the deoband tradition of North Indian hanafi sunni Islam, though I have been known to shed a tear or two whilst watching videos of Dr Tahir al-Qadri (from the allegedly competing barelwi tradition) speaking in his gorgeous Urdu on the status of our Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings of God be upon him).

I believe in what is popularly known as “traditional” Islam. That does not mean that I agree with everything that every traditional scholar or writer has ever written or stated. For instance, like many followers of the orthodox naqshbandi tradition, I have serious problems with some “haqqani” elders. Especially after one of them decided to go to the US State Department and call most North American groups (including presumably the Zaytuna Institute) supporters of extremism and terrorism.

I have also had no problems in questioning some criticisms of Maulana Farid Esack made by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter). And I told Shaykh Tim this when he visited Sydney last year.

But by and large, I regard traditional Islam as the most suitable and progressive form of Islam, flexible enough to be just as much at home in a deobandi madressa (or a Barelwi one for that matter) in Karachi as in a halaqa of Young Muslims of Australia (

OK, those are my cards on the table. What does that make me think of Professor Amina Wudud Muhsin and the allegedly first mixed congregational prayer to be led by a woman?

The First Time …

MWU! and other organisers of the event told us that this would be the first time in history that a woman would be leading the salat al-jumuah (Friday congregational prayer) and delivering a khutbah (sermon that forms part of the prayer) in over 1,400 years of Islamic history. They waxed lyrical about the whole ‘first time’, until at one stage I thought it was Roberta Flack who would be leading the prayer.

Really? Are you sure this was the first time? I certainly wasn’t. I thought I had better check things out.

In the West, when you see something weird, you predict that it will probably have something to do with the United States. “Only in America!”, we often here. In the Muslim world, the weird things often seem to happen in Turkey. So asking Turks was a good start.

I rang my mate Alf, a Turkish Aussie who has sat with numerous Turkish scholars (including my own late teacher). Alf asked around a few of the hocas in Sydney. He then came back to me.

“Irfan, these guys who claim it is the first time in history are spinning sh#t. One hoca [Turkish for “imam”] told me these stunts were happening in Turkey 20 years ago! And also, there was that thing in South Africa that the funny dude was talking about”.

The thing in South Africa? That funny dude? I guessed Alf was talking about Maulana Farid Esack. I looked up the index of his book “On Being A Muslim” (which I reviewed on this very website) and found references to both Amina Wudud and Shamima Shaikh (may God have mercy on her) having something to do with mixed congregational prayers.

Then someone sent me something about mosques in China built specially for women. Women giving khutba on Fridays and leading prayers. Admittedly blokes probably weren’t on the invitation list there.

Ok, I know some of you will be saying that these other incidents did not contain all the same features as the recent service led by Professor Wudud. But I think it was a bit misleading for the organisers to claim they were making history.

Sharia Arguments

I am no scholar of sharia (Islamic legal traditions). I have no ijaza (permission to teach) from another expert also possessing ijaza as part of a chain (sanad) of ijaza going all the way back to the Messenger of God (peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family). I also have not graduated from any Islamic or other university. Nor have I studied Islamic Studies at a western university or other institution.

As such, I cannot comment on whether Professor Wudud’s arguments have some basis within sharia. Many of those making outlandish comments and giving blank cheque fatwas on behalf of either side of the argument should have the guts to make the same admissions.

I have seen elsewhere that Imam Ibn Rushd, an expert on comparative systems of understanding sharia in the Sunni school, has cited the opinion of the famous Imam Tabari which lends support to the recent service led by Professor Wudud. And many have pointed to this opinion.

Imam Tabari was well-known in his time. He was also well-respected. If he had openly expressed such an opinion, we might safely presume that somewhere some woman in his community led the Friday prayers. This further undermines the “we were first” claims.

Some have been arguing that sharia is sexist and that women were rarely allowed to be scholars. What, then, have we to say about Imam Shafei (God have mercy on him) who admitted having been taught by over 20 female scholars? And what do we make of our spiritual mother Aisha (God be pleased with her) who taught us so much about the more private aspects of sharia and who is regarded (at least in the Sunni school) as one of the greatest hadith scholars and jurists of her time?

But even if I were to agree that the entire evolution of sharia kept women out of the scholarly loop, does it make sense for me to look within that same tradition for an opinion supporting my case? And an opinion from a male?

It’s a bit like the late Ahmed Deedat (God have mercy on him) disputing the authenticity of the New Testament, but then using the same inauthentic document to prove his case against the crucifixion.

Minority Opinions

Legally, one thing is certain. If you stray from the mainstream, you are swimming in dangerous waters. This applies to any legal tradition, whether common law or continental law or sharia law.

In Nigeria, Amina Lawal was the victim of a magistrate with little knowledge of sharia trying and sentencing her in accordance with a minority and largely discredited opinion of the Maliki school of law.

Minority opinions are dangerous because they have rarely been tested and applied. This in itself does not make them wrong. It also does not make them completely without basis. You cannot say the recent Friday service was without basis when someone of the calibre of Imam Tabari was prepared to stick his scholarly neck out over one millennium ago and support the idea.

Minority opinions can be dangerous. And when used to support noble intentions and agendas, they can cause more damage than good to the cause they are being used to serve. Which leads me to my main point.

Amina Is Not Helping Amina

I have no doubts about the sincerity of the organisers of the recent Friday service, their supporters and all those who agree with Professor Wudud’s position.

The Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) once said: “The best of you is he who is best to his wife”. He also said: “Paradise is under your mother’s feet”.

Yet look at how our communities across the world treat their wives, sisters, mothers, aunts. Anyone who claims Muslims respect human rights must be joking. How can you claim to respect human rights when you discriminate against over 50% of your community? I’ve heard of oppressing minorities, but this is gender apartheid and it is just ridiculous.

How often do you see Punjabi Muslim men being gang-raped or shot or stoned for talking to a female? How often do you see a middle class Karachi kid being whipped for sneaking out of a video-hire place with pornographic DVD’s? Why do prostitutes in Dhaka get punished and ostracised but not their clients?

I have heard of Amina Lawal. Where is Ahmed or Muhammad or Tariq or Irfan Lawal?

When it comes to human rights, we have reached crisis point. When we Muslim men mistreat our wives and our mothers, we are clearly not the best among men. And we are certainly not deserving of the paradise that lies under the feet of our mothers.

This, I believe, was the real motivation of Professor Wudud and those behind her (both at the Friday service and otherwise). Their intentions are noble and necessary. But the prayer service itself was not.

Yes, we sitting in our middle class homes in air-conditioned comfort eating micro-waved meals and typing words on the latest computers as we illegally download songs from LimeWire, we might think our well-intentioned acts reach out and touch the lives of millions.

But how many of us have been to Muslim societies and Muslim countries and really understood the core of the problem? Are Muslim women oppressed because they may or may not be allowed to lead congregational prayers?

The causes for women’s oppression are many and varied. Muslims are not a monolith. Our understanding of Islam and what it has to say about gender relations is conditioned by our cultures, our climate, our history, our interactions with non-Muslim cultures, our exposure to mass media etc.

Liturgy and procedures of ibada (formal worship) are not necessarily the only cause. And not all Muslim women necessarily feel oppressed by our traditional liturgy.

And our solutions may not suit all Muslim communities. In South Africa, many Muslim women are struggling just to get into the mosque. In most mosques in Sydney, women are given the smallest and smelliest places for prayer. In some mosques, cars are parked in nicer spots than the places where women are expected to worship their Creator.

Did traditional Islam lock these women out of the mosque or confine them to such small and smelly spots? Did traditional Islam empower village elders to gang-rape women? Did traditional Islam allow a lowly Nigerian magistrate to wrongly sentence a woman to death?

Muslim women in Aceh trying to re-build their lives destroyed by the tsunami probably could not care less about events in New York. Muslim women in Pakistan in hiding from honour-killing male relatives won’t feel any less insecure thanks to Professor Wudud being an Imam. Amina Wudud has not helped Amina Lawal.

Yes, we are told. This is all true. But the Friday prayer of Professor Wudud was a start in the process of liberation. Really?

Are we to presume it is only mad mullahs who are offended by this event? I don’t think so. Many Muslim women are speaking out against the prayer, and they do so for a variety of reasons. Writers here might express disdain for those reasons. But the onus is on those introducing this practice to convince their sceptical critics.

How to Lose Friends & Infuriate People

And why shouldn’t the critics be sceptical? Many Muslim women find it offensive that one woman feels she can re-invent the salat/nemaz/ritual worship wheel. They also feel offended that those involved are taking credit for liberating Muslim women whilst the reality on the ground is so stark.

You cannot expect to be able to liberate women by offending them and their sensibilities. You cannot expect to implement change by belittling people’s beliefs and core practices. Unless, of course, if you want to look like Hizbut Tahrir or al-Muhajiroun, trying to convince people to adopt Islam by telling them their entire system is evil and should be crushed.

Changing established rules of fiqh to get a good write-up in the NYT is not my idea of a sound prescription for reform of any legal system. Do-it-yourself sharia for publicity should be left to the experts, along with flying jets into skyscrapers.

Then again, in a community with as little intellectual vigour as ours, you could come up with a most eminently sensible view and have scholarly views and sources to back up your argument, and people will still call you nasty things. Look at poor Dr Ramadan and his view on the suspension of capital punishment in Muslim countries. Even those claiming to follow his grandfather are opposing him.

So I guess a good way to lose friends in our society is to speak your mind. It infuriates people and gives them the sh#ts. I may not agree with Professor Wudud, but I am sure both of us sleep very comfortably at night.

(This article has been submitted to, a sensationally honest and provocative online magazine that we all love to hate but which serves so many useful purposes. MWU decided not to touch it, but an edited version was published by the North American Naseeb Vibes and can be accessed at

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, April 02, 2005

OPINION: Anwar Is Proof That Ramadan Has a Point

Two prominent Muslims recently graced Australian shores.

Tariq Ramadan delivered lectures and moderated workshops in Sydney and Melbourne. He brought a message of Muslims needing to engage in and with the societies in which they live. He also gave us a taste of the inner aspects of faith, the tasawwuf (often misnamed as 'sufism'), that his grandfather (the late Imam Hasan al-Banna) so thoroughly reflected.

Months later, Anwar Ibrahim visited Australia and spoke to packed audiences in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. These included 2 public lectures specifically targeted at Muslim communities.

Anwar delivered a similar message to his Muslim audience – that we need to engage with non-Muslims, that we need to stop pretending we are not part of the communities we live in and benefit from.

Recently Dr Ramadan has made the headlines with his claim that there should be a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty (collectively known as hudud) in the Islamic world. His comments have been condemned by Muslim writers and scholars, including those claiming to follow the legacy of Dr Ramadan’s grandfather.

I am not qualified to speak on the legal validity of Dr Ramadan’s proposal. I do not hold any formal qualifications in sharia law, nor am I a graduate of an Islamic university. I have rarely set foot in any madressa (except to learn how to read the Qur’an in Arabic). I have no ijaza (permission to teach) from a scholar himself (rarely herself) possessing an ijaza as part of a chain (or sanad) of ijaza going back to the Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings of God be upon him).

But I do know something about the administration of criminal justice. I also know a little about politics and public relations. And I would humbly submit that unless our scholars handle themselves properly, we might be headed for another public relations disaster.

Sharia is not just about criminal justice, stoning adulterers or chopping hands and heads off. Sharia is a complex and sophisticated legal tradition encompassing a broad range of opinions from things as fundamental as how rules are derived to things more mundane as where to place your hands when praying the salaat or nemaz. Hudud punishments are a small portion of the corpus of sharia.

But the way some of our scholars are reacting, one would think that perhaps all those News Limited columnists are right and that sharia is little more than nasty punishments.

Criminal justice does not just exist in statute books or scholarly dissertations. Between crime and punishment is a whole series of steps. The person must be apprehended and charged. A decision needs to be made on bail. Then there are issues relating to court evidence and procedure. Finally, upon conviction, there must be sentencing guidelines for the judge to follow. Not every theft leads to an automatic amputation.

All this requires specially trained law enforcement agencies. In the case of Anwar, the law enforcement agencies were specially trained to deliver him a black eye and serious injuries that will affect him for life. He was lucky. Had he been Mamdouh Habib (the Australian citizen recently released from detention at Guanatanamo Bay), he may have been shipped to Egypt where the law enforcement would have been less gentle.

And imagine if hudud punishments were applied to Anwar after being wrongly convicted of sodomy. We would not have been listening to him some weeks back. All that we could have seen of him would have been a gravestone with his name engraved onto it.

Also required are qualified and independent judges. I have relatives in Pakistan who are lawyers. They tell me how wonderfully independent judges there are – to the highest bidder. The judge initially hearing Anwar’s case was also totally independent in doing the bidding of the government.

Before pro-Ikhwan writers attack Dr Ramadan over his proposal, they should provide one example of a Muslim country where the rule of law is supreme, where judges are qualified to understand and justly enforce hudud and where police and other law enforcement agencies are relatively corruption-free. Sharia may be (and I believe is) a divinely-inspired legal system. But in the hands of the wrong people, it’s criminal punishments can become part of the devil’s handiwork.

The late Syed Maududi, a chief proponent of the introduction of sharia into Pakistani law, was also strongly opposed to the introduction of hudud until the moral, social and educational conditions were right. No point chopping hands for theft when the entire economy is based on a reverse Robin Hood system – stealing from the poor majority to give to the rich minority.

And what a nightmare it would be if the proponents of sharia turn out to be the ones behind the creation of a system in which sharia lost all credibility in the eyes of the people it was meant to guide and save. Imagine an international Muslim community fillied with millions of Amina Lawals.

Caliph Umar had the right idea. He suspended the punishment for theft during times of severe poverty arising from a famine. When people are forced to steal just to survive, amputating their limbs hardly seems just.

When Muslim scholars take absurd positions and oppose anything that resembles compromising (a portion of) sharia, they undermine their own credibility. For many, it also involves them speaking and judging in areas beyond their expertise. The trial judge who sentenced Amina Lawal on the basis of a minority (and largely discredited) position within the Maliki school of law was a classic example of this.

These scholars also make it hard for other scholars, writers, professionals, business people and other ordinary Muslims who are busy trying to engage with their fellow humans. It is hard to tell someone that your intentions are peaceful when your religious scholars are intent on imposing criminal sanctions seemingly based on mindless violence. So much being able to fruitfully engage with non-Muslims!

Of course, our scholars could always just state the truth. They could acknowledge that there are serious obstacles to be overcome before any aspect of sharia is implemented on a national level in any Muslim country. They could also acknowledge that sharia is not just concerned with criminal justice but also with economic, political, social, educational, matrimonial and every other form of justice. Sharia is as much about curbing anti-competitive behaviour in the market or ensuring mediation becomes a primary means of settling commercial disputes as it is about punishing criminals.

Law does not exist in a social vacuum. Let's get our Muslim societies in order before we start drastically increasing the severity of our criminal punishments. Let's ensure we have in each Muslim country an independent judiciary, a corruption-free police force, court officials who do not take bribes, politicians who feel the full force of the law and social conditions which mitigate against theft, murder and every other crime the subject of hudud.

Tariq Ramadan has a point. And Anwar Ibrahim is living proof that no Muslim country is ready for hudud. Let the Muslim country bound by the rule of law cast the first stone.

(This article was first published on April Fools Day 2005 on the US-based website AltMuslim which can be accessed at The funky folks at Naseeb Vibes then reproduced and published it 4 days later with plenty of reader feedback which can be seen at It finally found a home at the Adelaide-based Australian Islamic Review.)

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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