Saturday, December 20, 2008

VIDEO: Besieged by the Basij?

This short documentary concerns a special part of Iran's Revolutionary Guards which is allegedly growing in influence and power. The Basij see themselves as the guardians of Iranian Muslim culture and its fierce sense if undependence.

The documentary is the work of Kouross Esmaeli, a 38 year old film maker and journalist from New York. Esmaeli talks about the making of this documentary and the workings of al-Jazeerah in Iran.

You can read his superb story about racial profiling at airports in the United States here. You can also read about how the nuclear issue is helping Ahmedinejad rather popular in Iran here.

Esmaeli has tourned his journalism and documentary-making into activism on a range of issues. He has documented the negative consequences of America's disastrous war in Iraq.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

VIDEO: Visiting a spiritual master ...

The following video shows images of the grave of my deceased teacher, Professor Mahmud Esad Cosan (may God enlighten his grave), who passed away in a car accident in country New South Wales some years back.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

OPINION: An Irreverent Guide to the Aussie Hajj ...

Recently one of my favourite editors announced he was packing his bags, partner and kids off to the Iberian peninsular. I was a little confused at first as to why he was going. I thought it might be some kind of pilgrimage.

I went to his farewell at his house in the inner-city of Sydney . Lots of wine and beer was flowing, none of it down my throat but plenty of its fumes up my nostrils. Once we were in a sufficient state of intoxication, I think I remember us having the following conversation:

HIM: So are you gonna visit me over there?

ME: Maaaate [in Tony Abbott style], I'll only go if you take me on pilgrimage on the road to Santiago de Compostella.

HIM: Mate [this time less like Tony Abbott], when are you taking me to Mecca ?

ME: You've got a point there. Still, they should let you in this time, now that you've grown a beard!.

I guess that's the problem many non-Muslims face. They simply can't get into Mecca even if they wanted to. I mean, I'm sure plenty of Aussies would absolutely relish the opportunity to spend a fortnight in a desert wilderness enjoying the 45-plus degrees celcius heat (without having an ice-cold VB as a consolation prize), the noise, the crowds, the pick-pockets, the rudeness of Saudi customs officials and police etc etc. What better way to spend Christmas?

An Aussie Hajj-a-holic's guide to the pilgrimage

For those of you who ever wondered what it was like to go on the Hajj - the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, now located in the modern (and I use that word in its broadest possible sense) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - here is a step-by-step guide to the experience.

No, not my experience. I've never been. In fact, I'm not allowed to go until I've paid all my debts. Though my exceptionally South Asian mum has. In fact, she's already been there three times. And worse still, she wants to go again! I reckon it's because she wants to commune with God. Though I could be wrong.

I vaant to go a-ghen, to get aveh frum yoo and yoor faadhar. Olvez mek
me doo-ing iss-stoopid cooking!

(Trans: I'd go again just to get away from you and your father! When are
you two gonna learn to cook??)

Yep, she's a bit of a Hajj-a-holic.

The crowd

The first problem mum points out is with the crowds. If Byron Bay and Sunshine coast locals thought they had it bad with schoolies and toolies, they should spare a thought for the people of Mecca. Each year, over 5 million people visit this sacred Muslim city.

The biggest numbers are at the time of Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are expected to make at least once in their lifetime. This year, over 2.7 million people are expected to converge on this ancient city for this annual assembly of monotheism.

The pilgrims come from just about every part of the planet. Despite the enormous cultural, linguistic and sectarian differences amongst Muslims, there is a surprising degree of consensus when it comes to the rituals of the Hajj. These ancient rites date back 1,400 years and are based on an even older story.

The Hajj story

Some people in Australia talk about "Judeo-Christian" values, as if they haven't quite figured out that there are at least 3 monotheistic faiths that emerged from the Middle East. And that's not including all the other monotheistic faiths (such as Sikhism).

Really, what we should be talking about are "Abrahamic" values. The triplet faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism all respect and honour Abraham, an Iraqi chap regarded by all three traditions as the father of ethical monotheism.

According to Islamic tradition, Ibrahim (Abraham) married an Egyptian woman named Hajira (Hagar) who bore him a son named Ismail (Ishmael). He also took a second wife Sarah (pronounced slightly differently in Biblical English) who bore him a second son Ishaq (Isaac).

For some domestic reasons, Ibrahim feels the need to leave his first wife in a desert valley named Bakkah with the baby Ismail. Like all good mums, Hajira's primary concern is the survival of her toddler. But where will she find water in this wilderness?

The well and the cube

She heads for a hill, finds nothing and so heads in the opposite direction to another hill. She again finds nothing. In desperation, she runs back and forth around 7 times before setting eyes on her young boy kicking the ground to uncover a spring. Quickly she builds a make-shift well.

Within a short period, the well attracts the attention of other travellers through this area. Hajira watches her son become a grown man, and receives a visit from Ibrahim again. Ibrahim and Ismail are ordered to build a temple in honour of the one true invisible God. The temple was a simple cubic structure, in the direction of which people would pray.

The valley of Bakkah eventually became known as Mecca. The cubic temple is known as the Kaaba (an Arabic word which just means "Cube"), and is traditionally draped in a black embroidered cloth. The well kicked to the surface by the infant Ismail is known as the Well of Zam Zam.

The age of pilgrims

The elders teach that the reward for a successful Hajj is nothing less than forgiveness of all sins and paradise. In many Muslim cultures, this means people tend to leave performing Hajj to the end of their life. In the Indian sub-Continent, where my parents come from, people tend to perform Hajj after their kids have grown up, married and left home. Cynics (like my dad each time his wife books her Hajj package at the travel agent) recite an old Hindi/Urdu phrase which can be roughly translated as:
After eating several thousand mice, the fat cat finally decides to head off for Hajj!

In places closer to our shores, people tend to go much earlier. In Malaysia, it's common for young couples to treat the Hajj as a kind of spiritual honeymoon. According to the Prophet Muhammad, a person who married has completed half the faith. So if you're a boofy bloke like me and you are lucky enough to marry some gorgeous Malay (apologies for the tautology) princess, it's like a heavenly 2-for-1 deal. You've got guaranteed loss of your virginity, gain of half your faith and your sins forgiven in one go!

And for those who believes neo-Con fictions about Islam, the deal doesn't even include the fictitious 72 heavenly virgins!

Multicultural Aussie Hajj

Each year Australia sends a few hundred people to perform Hajj. When they come back, they're given the honorific title of "Hajji" or "al-Hajj". If their Hajj was successfully completed, they should come back with their sins are washed away and as pure as the day they were born.

(Anyone who has had to deal with Saudi officials at Jeddah airport will know why forgiveness of one's sins is furnished so readily.)

In Australia, the Hajj trip is performed by people of various ages. More young people accompany their elderly parents on this difficult journey.

Then there are the different nationalities and their interesting idiosyncrasies.

Hajj Hansonisms

In Mecca, all street signs are in various languages. But there are certain signs you'll only find in Urdu, Bengali and Hindi. These signs simply state: "Spitting here is forbidden!". Or something like that.

Why? Across the Indian sub-Continent, people chew a special blend of nuts and paste wrapped in leaf known as paan which they chew and spit out into gutters or even against walls, leaving a nasty and distinct reddish-brown stain.

Turks travel in large groups and are extremely fussy about cleanliness. In one part of the Hajj, all pilgrims stay in tents on a plain called Mina for the night. The place becomes tent city for the night, with a range of facilities including toilets and kitchens. You know you're in the Turkish section because tents look shiny-new, the sand looks like someone has rubbed Mr Sheen into it, and the toilets are spotless to the extent you could make a sandwich on their floors.

Cronulla rioters will be pleased to learn that according to a reliable source (my mum), Lebanese pilgrims basically spend most of their Hajj sitting around cracking jokes and drinking coffee strong enough to keep you awake until the next Hajj.

Nigerians are tall and heavy-set. A major part of the pilgrimage is to circle the cubic temple seven times in an anti-clockwise direction, all the while shouting "Labayk! Allah humma Labbayk!" (roughly translated as "I'm here, Oh Lord, I'm here" though if you're on the receiving end of the rampage, you should read "My God! Here they come!!"). It's generally not advisable to slip if you find yourself in their path. When you see a group of them with arms clasped rushing toward you screaming the prayer, it's scarier than seeing 500 All-Blacks doing the Haka.

I have no idea what Kiwi pilgrims are like. I doubt they scream the Haka at any stage of the rituals. Plus people at Hajj tend to use sheep for slaughtering purposes.

And what the dinky-di Australian pilgrim do at Hajj? Maybe throw a halal shrimp on the bbq, have a game of sand cricket and sink down a few non-alcoholic VB's.

Hajj dress code

Despite the weird and wonderful characteristics of various cultural groups at Hajj, everyone dresses the same. Blokes wear a white-coloured two-piece towel thing, and ladies wear some additional stuff which is also white coloured. If you landed in Mecca at Hajj time and you didn't know where you were, you'd think it was a huge toga party. Except at this party, everyone is praying and no one gets pissed or stoned.

Despite this, Mecca does have some rather nasty features found in big secular cities. UK stand-up comic and columnist Shazia Mirza often talks about her Hajj during her routine. She was circling the Ka'aba when some dude pinched her behind. She turned around but couldn't recognise the culprit in a sea of sacred togas. She kept going when, within a moment or so, it happened again. She turned around, and again she couldn't locate the deviant.

Later, Shazia caught up with her sister, who also complained of being pinched. Shazia then relates to her audience: "We both concluded it was the Hand of God".

Boom boom!

(Don't panic. I didn't just let off a bomb.)

Meanwhile, back home...

Believe me, the party isn't just happening in Mecca. Across the world, Muslims celebrate their own party. In fact, it's the biggest feast of the year, and is known as Eid al-Adha (or Bayram for Turks, Hari Raya for Indonesians/Malays, Baqrah Eid for South Asians etc).

Thankfully, this year Eid and Christmas (or Hari Natal for all you Indonesians out there) are both happening around the same time. But for Aussie employers with Muslim employees, it's a huge pain in the butt. Here's why.

Aussie Lunar-tics

I'm sure all you (non-Orthodox) Christians find celebrating Christmas fairly straight forward. For a start, you at least know when it is. But spare a thought for us Muslims. The absence of any central priestly or scholarly authority in Aussie Islam means that we simply cannot agree on when the feast is to be celebrated.

Imagine being office manager in a medium-sized law firm in Sydney's CBD. It's Tuesday afternoon. Sekire (pronounced "Shakira"), a law clerk of Turkish ancestry, approaches you to confirm her leave on Wednesday to be at home helping mum with the cooking while her fiancé, brothers and dad go to the mosque for Bayram prayers. Her community's imams have settled religious festival dates until 2,987 A.D.

Then high-powered solicitor Suraina approaches you on Wednesday morning to take Thursday off for Hari Raya Haji. Her family and her metro-sexual husband (apparently the managing director of Petronas) are flying in from KL for the occasion. She only found out last night it was Hari Raya. She assures you a barrister had been briefed and will attend her hearing on Thursday.

Then on Friday morning, you get a call from the barrister's clerk. Thursday's hearing was adjourned to this morning, and the barrister Mr Yusuf can't make it as he heard last night that the Bakra Eid moon has been sighted.

But heck, don't blame us lay Muslims. Blame our lunar-tic mullahs, imams, sheiks, hojjahs, maulanas etc who can't seem to agree on how to calculate the beginning and end of lunar months!

The End

So that's the end of my slightly irreverent look at Hajj. For more information, go to your local mosque and convert. Then get on the first plane you can to Mecca, and you might arrive in time for the last rites.

First published in ABC Unleashed on 19 December 2007.

Words © 2007-8 Irfan Yusuf

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

OPINION: Muslim apathy & thick-Sheiks

Tanya Louise Smith, a young Australian woman who converted to Islam and eventually went to Yemen. She met up with some other Australians and started studying a more fringe form of Islam, which sometimes going by the name "salafi" or "wahhabi".

She married a Palestinian man, fell pregnant and went to Gaza to live with her in-laws. Her husband, who hoped to join her, was stuck outside thanks to the Israeli blockade and Egypt closing the border. You can read her story in The Australian here.

How did she and her Australian classmates end up pursuing studies in a more fringe form of Islam and in an apparently more radical institution?

No doubt some will say that it's logical that a person adopting Islam will become a danger to themselves and society. Since 9/11, it has become fashionable in some circles to equate the 14 centuries of evolving religious tradition known as Islam with just about all the ills of the world.

Hence, anyone who says anything even remotely positive about the "i" word is treated as if they've just screamed out the "f" word repeatedly on TV.

Still, let's not live in denial. There are a bunch of crazies out there happy to make a political point by blowing themselves up or flying jet aircraft into skyscrapers. They have their own peculiar ideology, and their message is essentially a political (as opposed to a religious) one. This explains why Osama bin Ladin's taped messages are always dominated by references to political grievances.

A major problem bin Ladin has is that he follows a sect of Islam that Smith adopted. This particular sect is the official religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, though apparently only a minority of Saudis actually follow it. In the non-Saudi world, it is regarded as quite heterodox.

Some Muslims (especially shia Muslims) regard it as downright heretical.

So bin Ladin is a wahhabi. He also was for many years (but not anymore) a Saudi citizen. However, that doesn't mean all Saudis and/or Wahhabis are sitting on the "friends" section of bin Ladin's Facebook page, even if some scribes think they are.

We have some Wahhabis in Australia but not a huge number. At least one of them says he meets with the boys and girls from ASIO fairly regularly to "talk about everything".

More extreme Wahhabis do recruit, though their efforts among first generation Muslim migrants haven't been too successful. Why? Because these migrants have been spiritually and ideologically inoculated against any extremist influence.

When you grow up in Pakistan or Turkey or Indonesia or other Muslim country, you develop a sense of what mainstream theology is.

But what happens to those who haven't gone through this mainstream religious osmosis? What happens to young kids brought up in Australia?

It's no secret that extremists target young people and converts. Sean O'Neill and Daniel McGrory, two British journalists working with The Times, wrote a book in 2006 entitled The Suicide Factory: Abu Hamza And The Finsbury Park Mosque.

The book tells the story of how radical preacher Abu Hamza recruited the children and grandchildren of Muslim migrants and a small band of converts. Some of his former students were among the London bombers.

Abu Hamza's group took advantage of the weak management of religious institutions. British Muslims are largely of South Asian extraction whose cultures regarded involvement in religious institutions as a rather lowly endeavour.

Mosque managers also saw their institutions as places where they could keep alive the culture they left behind in Pakistan or Bangladesh in the 1970s. Hence, mosques are stuck in a cultural time-warp, relics of religious and social attitudes that are rarely found even in modern South Asian countries.

Into this vacuum strode Abu Hamza and his cronies, many of whom had criminal records for violence and fraud offences. After being removed from one small mosque, Abu Hamza set his sights on the large Finsbury Park Mosque built with Saudi money and supported by Prince Charles.

Could someone like Abu Hamza just as easily operate in Sydney or Melbourne? The descriptions in The Suicide Factory given of the parlous state of British Muslim institutions – political intrigue, scarce resources wasted on litigation, cultural irrelevance to name just a few - are what I've seen in Australia for over two decades.

Of course, Muslim Poms and Aussies are as dissimilar as Catholic Brazilians and East Timorese. But what many mosques in both the UK and Australia share is disregard for the spirirtual needs of second and third generation Muslims and converts.

Further, Muslims are by and large a very secular lot most of whom will only be seen at the mosque on the two major feast days. You don't see prominent Muslims from BRW's top 100 list getting involved in managing religious institutions.

The good news is that young Muslims are taking control of their own spiritual destinies. Young Muslims are looking to Europe and the United States for sensible relevant voices like Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Tariq Ramadan.

The only opposition they face is from a coalition of radical thick-Sheiks who label them infidels and radical neo-conservative pundits for whom the only good Muslim is an ex-Muslim.

Young educated Muslims are now taking over religious institutions. The new face of the Lebanese Muslim Association in Lakemba is a surfing sheik who visits schools with a young rabbi. And you can watch the CEO of the Islamic Council of Victoria compering an SBS talkshow each Wednesday night, while a member of his executive is a stand-up comic who wants to run for Mayor in the Sydney's Camden.

An Australian Islam with a genuinely Aussie accent is a key element to ensuring the Abu Hamza's of this world don't gain a foothold in Australia, and that the Tanya Smith's can learn their faith without having to travel into a culturally unfamiliar environment.

First published in ABC Unleashed on 9 July 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

COMMENT: What does it mean to be an Islamic scholar?

Last week I joined a panel of speakers at a round-table seminar organised by a security-related thinktank in Canberra that has a rather scary (if you find "homeland security" scary) name but is about as far away from Guantanamo Bay as Canberra could be now that John Howard is no longer Prime Minister.

The promotional material that was sent out originally described me as a “Muslim scholar”. It must have been an oversight on their part. I certainly never told them I was a Muslim scholar, hence I was a little surprised by the title. I don’t have a PhD, so I cannot be described as a scholar in a conventional sense. I haven’t completed a degree from an Islamic university and/or have a few ijaza’s up my sleeve, so I can’t really claim to be an Aalim or Shaykh or Maulana or Hoca or Kiai or even an Ayatullah. I’m just a humble suburban solicitor who isn’t doing a huge amount of soliciting these days.

There are various titles used to describe a Muslim scholar. Or, if you will, an Islamic scholar. Some people differentiate between things that are “Muslim” and things that are “Islamic”. The late Sayyid Maududi, a Pakistani journalist and prominent ideologue of 20th century political Islam, differentiated between Muslim states (which were largely secular nation-states that happened to have a majority of their population who were nominally or culturally Muslim) and Islamic states (which were ideological states that strove to run their affairs in the manner laid down by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors in the city of Medina during the 7th century).

So being Muslim means you have some association with Islam sufficient enough that, when handed a census form, you feel inclined to tick the “Muslim” box. However, being “Islamic” means that you try your best to live as Koranically (if such a world exists) as possible.

Not many religious scholars (call them Muslim or Islamic if you wish) of the classical tradition seem to have alot of time for Maududi. Then again, not alot of classically trained Muslim/Islamic scholars regard political Islam as terribly Islamic (in a Maududian sense).

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Indeed, many classically trained scholars who condemn Maududi and other writers of his ilk still see the world through this Muslim –v- Islamic lens.

Anyway, returning to the issue of whether I am a scholar or not, the point is that there is some kind of education and accreditation process that people need to go through before they become religious scholars. Once you go through this process, you can then apply any number of exotic labels to yourself.

The problem we have in Australia is that we don’t have a set system of accreditation of people we refer to as “imams”. We also don’t have any consensus on exactly what roles imams are supposed to play.

There are people who take advantage of this situation. However, I chose not to. I immediately informed my hosts that I was in no way a Muslim (or Islamic) scholar. Here’s what I wrote to the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre in Canberra ...

I'm not actually a Muslim scholar, either in the traditional or modern sense. I don't have a PhD, nor do I have a degree from any seminary. It would be inaccurate to describe me as a "Muslim scholar.
They changed the promotional flyer to reflect this. I'm glad they did. Because on the panel were numerous scholars - as in university academics with doctorates - who might have wondered what I was doing calling myself a scholar. In the audience was at least one Muslim who would have wondered what on earth I was doing pretending to be a Muslim/Islamic scholar.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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UPDATE: From "qualified imam" in Sydney to "Islamic scholar" in Christchurch ...

"imam" Afroz Ali has joined the ranks of the big league, sharing a stage with actual former politicians (Bob Carr and Andrew Bartlett) and an actual sitting MP Pru Goward, as well as other actually qualified people. You can read their biographies here. Here is what "imam" sahib says about himself:


Afroz Ali is the Founder and President of Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences & Human Development, based in Lakemba in south-western Sydney and a founding and executive member of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change. Afroz is a qualified Imam in the Islamic Tradition. He has studied in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United States, Mauritania and Egypt and his worldwide work involves presenting workshops and training programs on Islamic Jurisprudence, Spirituality, Ecological Wellbeing, Ethical Rights and Responsibilities, and Personal and Corporate Citizenship. He mentors and trains community organisations in sustainability and personal development and advocates peace, acceptance, justice and interpersonal rights. Imam Afroz is the recipient of the International Ambassador for Peace award.
So Afroz founded this climate change group. That's a good thing. It's an issue that affects us all. Actual trained and qualified imams seem to be ignoring the issue. At least, we don't see actual imams involved in climate change activism.

But who gave him this Ambassador of Peace award? When did he start training people on "Islamic ... Spirituality" (i.e. irfan or tasawwuf)? Is he part of a tariqa (sufi order) and authorised by a murshid to do so? And what is this clumsy expression "interpersonal rights"? Is it the same as human rights? And who awarded Afroz the "International Ambassador for Peace" award? What is this award?

Afroz is no longer saying he has graduated or received degrees from Saudia, Yemen, the US, Mauritania or Egypt. Instead, he has merely studied in these countries. Afroz has learned to be relatively more honest in Australia, though such honesty doesn't extend to New Zealand.

In an upcoming session in Christchurch, hosted by the Nawawi Centre (and which I found on the University of Canterbury website), Afroz has this said about himself:

Islam and Muslim cultures: A primer for service providers
10am-4pm, 15 and 16 December — Refugee and Migrant Service Centre, 201 Peterborough St

Join Islamic scholar Imam Afroz Ali, from Sydney, for a two-day workshop seminar aimed at those in educational, health and legal sectors, as well as other service provider sectors, who work with Muslim clients. The workshop will provide a detailed workbook, and comprise of strategies, insights and effective tools to work with Muslims in light of their faith, Islam. The programme will highlight Muslim cultural matters that may affect your effectiveness as a service provider and how to develop a successful working relationship through sound knowledge of the practices.

Imam Afroz Ali provides such training to service and corporate sectors in Australia, and his insights and expertise will be highly valuable for your organization ...

Cost is $90 per person.
Islamic scholar? When did that happen? Is Afroz qualified as an Islamic acholar in the same manner as I am a qualified lawyer? Or as scholars like Bill Shepard or Anthony Johns are scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies?

So in Australia, Afroz is a mere "qualified imam", while in New Zealand (and at a cost of $90 a pop) he becomes an "Islamic scholar". Go figure.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

OPINION: Second Column in Crescent Times ...

The Chicago Tribune and LA Times may have gone bust, but the Perth-based Crescent Times just keeps getting published! The Second Edition of the newspaper has just been released, and you can read it online here. My first column can be read here. And in a rare act of deference to my ego, here is my second "Planet Irf" column ...


Could it really be true? Or am I just dreaming? I’m still pinching myself to make sure I’m awake.

Apparently American voters have just voted overwhelmingly for a President named ... wait for it ... Barack Hussein Obama.

Anyone who has been watching the election coverage and seen videos (some of which are on my blog) of Republican Party activists talking about Obama being Muzzlem and Ay’rab will probably share my surprise at an outcome American pollsters were saying for weeks wouldn’t be a surprise. Then again, I didn’t trust the unanimous Australian pollsters who last year predicted John Howard would not just lose the election but also his own seat.

Back at school, my Divinity teacher used to tell us that Jesus, a completely innocent man, died on the cross to pay the price for our sins. And in the US election, I expected Barack Obama to die a political death and pay the price for the prejudice and innuendo Arab and Muslim Americans have had to put up with for years. Thankfully, Obama wasn’t crucified at the polls.

But had Obama lost, I wonder what it would have been like for Americans of Arab descent and/or Islamic faith. Just as I wonder what would have happened if that honest Young Liberal campaigning in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay had not tipped off the ALP about those nasty Alah Akba pamphlets being stuffed in voters’ letterboxes.

The innuendo Arabs and Muslims collectively faced from certain segments of the Republican Party must have made them feel like foreigners in their own country. If Obama had lost, many would have become totally disillusioned with the political process. American Arabs and Muslims in the Republican Party must have felt (and perhaps still feel) rather uncomfortable.

The question I want to address is this - how should American Muslims, indeed any Muslims living in Western democracies, respond to such prejudice?

I might have some ability to contribute to this discussion, having spent some 10 years in a relatively conservative Australian political party. This included running as a candidate in a federal seat in the House of Representatives in the months soon after the September 11 attacks. By 2003, my financial membership had lapsed.

At present, the NSW Liberal Party (of which I was once a member) seems to be following in the footsteps of the US Republicans, dominated by fringe ultra-conservative religious people. At one time, such people would have been happy for me to join precisely because I was Muslim. Some conservatives are both anti-Semitic and homophobic, and assume that someone of my background would share their prejudices.

It’s no longer trendy in far-Right circles (as it once was) to marginalise and despise gays and Jews. These days, marginalising Muslims has become the norm. The British National Party and other neo-Fascists have overnight become the biggest supporters of Israel on the planet. But their support is less about healing the wounds their ideological ancestors inflicted on the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Rather, it’s a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. They assume that all Jews and/or Zionists hate Muslims.

So here’s my solution to prejudice - prove the agents of prejudice wrong. Yes, Muslims have a soft spot for the Palestinians (as indeed do many Jews, especially in Israel). But that doesn’t mean we should assume all Jews have an anti-Muslim agenda. We should leave this kind of simplistic logic to simpletons who attend Republican Party rallies or who seek to take over the NSW Liberals.

That means we should build networks with like-minded people. And under no circumstances should we tolerate any group in society to be marginalised.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

UPDATE: Why Muslims across Australia are performing Eid prayers on the wrong day ...

The vast majority of Muslims will be performing their Eid al-Adha prayers and celebrating the biggest Islamic religious festival on the wrong day. The vast majority of mosques will be holding their Eid prayers on Monday 8 December 2008. These include mosques whose imams sit on various imams' boards and councils. All these imams are nowhere near as qualified as one alleged scholar of Islamic sciences from Sydney who has issued a fatwa (ruling) to the effect that the prayers for Eid al-Adha can only be held on Tuesday 9 December 2008.

This date will be the only legitimate and valid date available to Muslims. Those Muslims who choose to perform their Eid prayers on Monday 8 December 2008 will be engaging in grossly sinful behaviour. You can find out more about this issue by visiting this website here.

I wish to reproduce a chain of e-mails between myself and this self-proclaimed imam and one of his Adelaide students. On Sunday August 3 2008, I received this e-mail from a student of this esteemed scholar to this effect:

Assalaamu ‘alaykum,

Please find attached letter confirming the commencement of the lunar month of Sha’ban on 3rd August, 2008. The observation for the next lunar month, Ramadhan will be on 31st August, 2008, insha Allah.

We encourage people to return to physical observation of the crescent, as the correct method to establish the lunar months, hence the month of fasting- Ramadhan.

The student was promoting a newly established body called the "Australian National Crescent Sighting Coordination Centre" which allegedly included a range of imams including Dr Shabbir Ahmad, Imam of the Rooty Hill Mosque managed by the Islamic Society Western Suburbs Sydney. I thereupon wrote back to the student on Monday August 4 2008 as follows:

Have you contacted Dr Shabbir Ahmad to see if any such entity as "Australian National Crescent Sighting Coordination Centre" exists? And how do you expect ordinary Muslims with real jobs and real lives to rely on your insistence on physically sighting the moon before announcing the beginning and end of lunar months?

Just a thought.

The student of this "imam" provided this response on same date:

Wa ‘alaykumu salam br. Irfan,

‘Ayn Academy is part of the Australian National Crescent Sighting Coordination Centre, as are many other organisations throughout Australia. If you have a need to check, contact Dr. Shabbit [sic.] Ahmad yourself and clarify the issue for yourself– you are the one with these thoughts.

The Fiqh of crescent sighting is very clear and our insistence on it is sourced from the Islamic insistence on it. And in fact, not everybody has to leave work to physically sight the crescent . The matter is a Fardhu-ul-Kifaya matter, that is, it is a Communal Obligation and if one part of the community fulfils the obligation, the rest of the community is freed from it, so this is exactly the public service that the Coordination Centre offers.

On same date, I wrote back to the student of this "imam" as follows:

Thank you for your response. Please advise as to which organisations belong to this coordination centre.

I am not suggesting that each and every Muslim is required to leave work to physically site the moon. What I am suggesting is that the insistence on physical sighting of the moon causes great inconvenience to a large number of Muslims.

Personally, I understand that there are good solid arguments supporting the proposition that lunar months are to be determined using physical sighting. In fact, it is a proposition I find most compelling. However, there are other scholarly opinions which support other methods of determining the commencement of lunar months.

I do not claim to be qualified in deciding between these conflicting positions. And I doubt anyone at the Ayn Academy or the al-Ghazali Centre is qualified to decide either. If they are, they should produce their qualifications for all to see (I certainly won't be holding my breath ...).

It really is a shame if our religious scholars (both actual and self-proclaimed) cannot come up with a solution that makes life easy for Muslim employers and employees.

On same date, I received this reply from the "imam" himself as follows:

Wa Alaikum Assalaam,

The Australian National Crescent Sighting Coordination Centre is a network of organisations and individuals, and soon insha Allah the details of all people participating in the coordinating of crescent sighting will be released more widely. We are unable to work on your timetable, Irfan, my apologies but we will try to fit in your request.

The insistence of crescent sighting is Shar’i and scientific. The notion that Muslim employees are inconvenienced, apparently greatly by your measure, is a matter those Muslims will need to resolve about the employment, and not about crescent sighting, and what they can do to remove such “inconvenience” due to their employment. Fiqh rules already cover what ought to be done by individuals based on levels of “inconvenience”.

Your suggestion that there are “scholarly” opinion to determine the lunar months by “other methods” is simply not true. Indeed, there are assertions, but not such methodology actually exists, hence much of the confusion and inaccuracy.

I do hold appropriate qualification about crescent sighting, and your continued slander of me in this regard is something you need to deal with, not me or anyone else.

The real shame is that people keep blaming the ‘Ulama about this matter. Whilst they all take a significant responsibility in the chaos and confusion on the matter, the larger responsibility is upon the individuals to know what needs to be done given that knowledge about establishing lunar months is Fardh al-‘Ayn. But then, it has been the trend of many to point fingers at everyone else rather than sort themselves out first.

The issue of inconvenience on employers is much exaggerated by you, but it does
exist. But that is a different problem, and many of us assist employers understand the matter and everyone of them we have spoken to understands and accepts. It is when they are left in the dark about the matter that frustration has been the result. And, that is the unfortunate problem mostly created by the Muslim employees, and has nothing to do with the fact that the crescent has to be sighted.

Was Salaam
Afroz Ali
Founder & President-
Al-Ghazzali Centre
for Islamic Sciences & Human Development
The self-proclaimed "imam" did not specify which employees he has spoken to. Nor did he specify how he was qualified to issue rulings on such matters contrary to the rulings of the vast majority of Australian imams. On same date, I wrote to His Shaykhdom in these terms:

Thank you for your response, "imam" Afroz ...

Thank you also for declaring that scores of Turkish Imams and a large number of Imams of Arab descent (including Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly) are not expressing opinions which have any basis in sharia.

It is now open to you to prove that your qualifications are superior to theirs. Please post full details of your academic qualifications so that we can see why you have more right than the majority of Australian imams to pontificate on these issues.

Go on, "imam" Afroz. You have avoided this issue since 2005. You claim your views are more authoritative than those of qualified Imams. Prove it.
On Saturday 6 December 2008, I sent the following e-mail to the "imam" in question:

Dear "imam" Afroz Ali,

I was hoping you might provide a response to my e-mail, sent to you on 4 August 2008. I would have thought three months is sufficient time for you to provide some kind of response.

Ma salameh.

Readers are free to draw their own conclusions.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

REFLECTION: Syed Zauqi Shah and India's religious secularism ...

In India, secularism is a deeply religious affair. So religious that people of all faiths are involved. It's common to see devotees of one faith showing their devotion at the shrine associated with another faith.

At Sufi shrines, you will see Hindus and Sikhs and Catholics and followers of other indigenous Indian faiths (yes, Catholicism is an indigenous faith!) sshowing their respects to the buried saint in much the same manner as their Muslim countrymen and women. After collecting their faiz (blessing), devotees feel moved to share this blessing with the line of beggars that often sit in a long line at the entrance. Hence all share in the blessing.

During a visit to Pakistan in the early 1990's, I picked up a copy of Mazamin-e-Zauqi, a collection of articles and correspondence in English by an Indian Sufi named Syed Muhammad Zauqi Shah. The book was published in 1948, hardly 12 months after Partition. Many of the articles were published in a Pakistani newspaper called People's Voice which started publication in December 1941 and barely lasted a few months. All in all, the book is 96 pages. I must have started reading it decades ago, and there is a book mark placed between pages 72 and 73.

The correspondence includes letters to Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, a British Muslim who translated the Qur'an. Syed Zauqi uses firm but polite language, objecting to some of Pickthall's renderings of the Qur'anic text. There is also a critical commentary on an essay written by Saeed Halim Pasha and entitled Reform of Muslim Society. Saeed Pasha served as Vizier-i-Azam (Prime Minister) of the Ottoman Empire during the period 1913-16 and was assassinated in December 1921.

Syed Zauqi Shah may have been a pan-Muslim nationalist, but his spiritual heritage was from the more ecumenical traditions of Indian tasawwuf. Hopefully when I finish the book (which hopefully will be in less time than a few decades!!), I'll be able to re-visit Syed Zauqi's work.

Syed Zauqi lived in a time when some Indian Muslims were enjoying the benefits of having their own homeland, whilst others were struggling to make their mark in what was left of India. Many Muslim nations had still not achieved independence, and Ottomans like Saeed Pasha were preaching a message of turning one's back on the West.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

REFLECTION: Letters from Ajmer

There is Islam. And then there is Indian folk Islam.

Indian folk Islam is a secular faith. Secular in the sense that Indians of all faiths participate. It is practised at the mazhaar (also known as the dargah), the tomb or shrine of a wali (saint).

The saints are believed to provide faiz (spiritual radiation) which benefits all who visit the saint's grave. Perhaps India's most famous and revered saint is Shaykh Muinuddin Chishti, whose tomb is located in Ajmer. At the bottom of this blog page, you will find a video slide-show of various scenes of the tomb of Shaykh Chishti. Accompanying that video is a song performed by India's musical maestro Allah-Rakka Rahman in honour of the saint.

Each year, My family has received letters from one Moallam Syed Azizur Rahman Burraqui, who claims to have some link to the saint's tomb. The letter announces the Urs Mubarak, a special function that runs for a number of days and is devoted to prayers and the performance of qawwali devotional songs sung in Urdu in praise of God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Shaykh.

This year, the Urs of Shaykh Muinuddin Chishti (referred to in Mr Burraqui's letter using a plethora of labels - "Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty Sanjari Summa Ajmer, honoured as Ata-e-Rasool") was held on 5-13 July 2008. Excerpts from the letter are worth reproducing if only for the rather over-the-top language used in religious and devotional correspondence and the mixture of English and Urdu-ised Arabic present (not to mention grammatical and spelling errors).

Dear Devotee,

Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty Sanjari Summa Ajmer (R.A.) honoured as Ata-e-Rasool (S.A.W.) was born early in the morning on Monday the 14th Rajan of 535 Hijri, He served and remained under the training of Shaikh O. Murshid Tariqat Hazrat Khwaja Usman Harooni (R.A.) for the period of complete twenty years. He learned Elm-E-Batin and how to control consciousness and heartfelt desire. He came to Ajmer India via Macca Mukarrama, Madina Munawarra, Baghdad Sharif, Asfahan, Multan, Lahore and Delhi. He selected soil of Ajmer for place of rest permanently and spent hos whole life for preaching of Doctrines of Islam through love and peace and serving human being. He left this temporary world at the age of 97the on Friday the 6th Rajab of 633 Hijri. Since his demise on this auspicious day an annual Urs Mubarak is celebrated every year as a mark of reverence and homage.

That's the biographical stuff out of the way. Now time for some good old fashioned Indian hospitality ...

I am giving to you an auspicious news that the Urs Mubarak of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Hassan Sanjary Chishti Summa Ajmeri Known as Ghareeb Nawaz (R.A.) will be held from 1st Rajab to 9th Rajab.i.e. 5th July to 13 July 2008.

If you or any of your relatives and friends intend to visit the Ajmer to participate in Holy Urs Mubarak, please inform me before your departure about your complete programme by my Telephone No. [number] #Mobile [number], so that I can make all necessary arrangement for your lodging and boarding at my Guest House just opposite the main Gate of Dargah Sharif. I will receive you at Delhi Air port and bring you with me through a car to avoid any difficulties to reach Ajmer.
If even after such a gracious invitation you insist on doing a no-show, you can always obtain some faiz of your own. At a price, of course.

In case you are unable to join Urs personally please let me know your innder hearty desire and send the amount for Nazar-O-Niaz and Fateha by Britisg Postal Order, Bank Draft, Cheque or in the shape of currency note of your country through registered post only because ordinary letter are missdelivered and no surity of reaching your contribution safely to me.

Yours Ever Prayerfully

Don't you just love Indian English? Over the page is the same message in chaste Urdu. I can't read it, though I do intend learning to read Urdu one day (speaking it isn't too great an issue).

Many of my allegedly more orthodox brothers and sisters will regard all this as bidah (evil innovation in worship) and shirk (associating partners with God). My mother would probably agree with them. So many of her relatives wasted their loves away hanging out with a commercial pir (spiritual teacher) in Ajmer.

I've visited many a mazhaar and dargah in my time when visiting the Indian sub-Continent. Each time I visit Lahore, I feel obliged to visit the tomb of Hazrat Data Ganj Bukhsh, whose proper name is Sayyid Ali Hujwiri. Thousands visit the tomb, known as Data Darbaar, many uneducated and/or poor people who come to make offerings and seek blessings. Their manner of devotion is without doubt often heterodox (to say the least!) and yet they feel this love and yearning for the man buried there.

In one sense, this is all rather tragic. Men like Shaykhs Chishti and Hujwiri came to preach the message of God's unity and to eliminate the worship of all other beings. Now their rombs have become places of worship. Yet much of this heterodoxy is built on orthodox foundations.

Furthermore, many turn upto these places to obtain food and shelter which mainstream mosques and other religious institutions fail to provide. The tradition of feeding and hospitality is common to other Indian faiths, especially Sikhism.

Finally there is the music, the pulsating rhythms of qawwali affecting even those unable to quite understand the words. Yet regardless of the words, the message is usually the same - yearning for God, immersing one's self in God's love and paying respect to those whom God loves, including the Prophet Muhammad and his spiritual successors.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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BOOKS: Big Islam for a Small Planet

On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today by Farid Esack (1999) Oneworld Publications, Oxford.

We know there is Allah. We know there is Shaytan, the devil. We know the devil is our enemy. We know about heaven and hell. And we know that as Muslims we have to strive for justice. We have read of struggles among the early companions themselves: the struggles between Uthman and Abu Dharr, between Ali and Aisha, and then between Ali and Muawiya.

I will not expand on these examples. Why? Firstly, I do not wish to get into a historical polemic. Secondly, I don't want my Deobandi teachers and my Naqshbandi gurus to think I have gone all soft and non-sunni on them. Most of all, I would rather not have any of my family in PakiLand murdered by thugs from either Sipah-i-Sahaba or Sipah-i-Muhammadi factions! Funerals cost big money, even in Pakistan!

The point is that all these historical struggles and wars and debates and arguments were about justice, about standing up for what is right. About recognizing evil for what it is and taking a stand against it.

These and many other noble motherhood statements that fill the pages of those Islamic books churned out by hundreds of graduates of various madrasas and Islamic universities. Many of us know the titles and the authors. But how many of us know how to live all this? And how many of us understand how to live all this in the modern world of economic insecurity, cultural and religious pluralism, family break-ups, nervous breakdowns and a planet that seems to be getting smaller and smaller?

More importantly, how do we live all this without turning into self-righteous pseudo-spiritual lunatics who condemn our brother for not having a beard but are offended when anyone dares mention that Iqbal or Said Nursi or Syed Qutb were often clean-shaven around the chin?

Farid Esack has given us some pointers on how to live Islam in a way that avoids self-righteousness, moral inconsistency and hypocrisy. His book is fresh in its approach. Esack is not scared to talk about the hypocrisy of many allegedly religious people in Muslim communities. He tackles some of the tough questions of living Islam in countries like Canada, Australia and South Africa: How can we justify excluding women from the management of mosques? Should Muslims living in a Western country form their own political party? Should Muslims involve themselves in social activism with non-Muslims?

Everything about the book is refreshing. In its writing style, On Being Muslim reads more like an informal pep talk than a scholarly dissertation. But Esack is no mere talker. He has enough scholarly credentials to impress anyone. For some 10 years Esack did undergraduate studies in Karachi at some of the finest institutions in the Muslim world. He graduated from Jami'ah Alimiyyah al-Islamia with a Bachelor's Degree in Islamic Law & Theology. He went on to do post-graduate research in Qur'anic Studies at Jami'ah Abu Bakr (also in Karachi) and completed a doctoral degree in Qur'anic Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham (UK). In 1994-95 he was a Research Fellow in Biblical Hermeneutics at some place in Germany that I will probably spell incorrectly but I will have a go at it anyway: Philosophische Theologische Hochschule, Sankt Georgen, Frankfurt am Main.

As such, Esack is not only a traditional alim (itself an amazing achievement) but an accomplished scholar. But he was not content with mere scholarly pursuits. Esack took an active role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, at a time when many Muslims were beneficiaries of the apartheid system. There are even incidents of some Indian Muslims who did not allow their black brethren from praying in the same mosques or in the same rows.

One of the main organizations fighting against apartheid was the United Democratic Front. The UDF organized a large number of marches and other resistance activities, including an economic boycott which saw millions of blacks refusing to buy from white shopkeepers. The boycott crippled the apartheid-based economy and forced white businessmen to lobby the government in support of the UDF. Amongst the star recruits was Maulana Esack.

He spent most of the 1980s struggling for inter-religious solidarity in the struggle against apartheid. This saw him being actively involved in numerous organizations such as the UDF, The Call of Islam, the Organisation of People Against Sexism, the Cape Against Racism and the World Conference on Religion & Peace. He has been a regular political columnist for the Cape Times (weekly), Beeld and Burger (fortnightly) and other mainstream newspapers and publications in South Africa.

Esack was also involved in work within the Muslim communities of South Africa. He was a socio-religious columnist for Al Qalam, a South African Muslim monthly newspaper. He continues to write for Islamica, a British Muslim quarterly and Assalaamu Alaikum, a New York based Muslim quarterly.

Esack is one of the few articulate voices who can speak the language of a new generation of Muslims whilst not offending any but the most islamophobic non-Muslims. He is controversial. Even in his own country and within the South African Muslim communities, many regard Esack as a renegade. Regardless of (or perhaps because of) his reputation, the book is even more worth reading.

Most of the conservative Deobandi South African Memon Indian expatriates I have spoken to are full of criticism for Maulana Esack. They tell me that he supports women leading namaz (i.e. salat or 5-times daily worship). They tell me he is a communist. They tell me he hangs around with Christians. They told me all this when he was touring Australia and was getting ready to give a lecture at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Many sent me a copy of an article written by the learned English scholar Abdal Hakim Murad. In fact, this article kept cyberspace in Sydney busy for some time. The irony of Shaykh Murad's article is that it largely brands Esack as being guilty by association. And me being a controversialist, I just could not help myself. So I publicly replied that people in glass houses should not throw stones. I sent a whole heap of evidence linking Shaykh Murad to a certain infamous neo-Con shaykh who sits on the same speakers' bureau panel as other neo-Cons, an interesting dude who loves telling the State Department that we (who refuse to accept the leadership of his Islamic Supreme Council of America) are all a bunch of Wahhabis and terrorists and extremists simply because, well, simply because he feels like it!

And so when Maulana Esack did appear, half the lecture theatre was filled with Turks. All from orthodox Turkish Sufi Muslim groups that have about as much regard for the neo-Con shaykh (and his Cypriot master) as they do for the winner of the World Idol contest. Maulana Esack came out to speak and probably could not believe his luck! A theatre packed with ladies looking like something out of the Merve Kavakci Appreciation Society. Why were they there? Simple. Anyone who is criticized by a friend of a friend of neo-Cons must be worth listening to!

All this happened back in February or March 2003. The memory is still strong. And for good measure, I purchased a copy of Maulana Esack's book on the Qur'an that Shaykh Murad found somewhat distasteful. I still have not read it. But I had read On Being Muslim, and I thoroughly recommend it.

I have to say that I do find some of Maulana Esack's views on "Islamic liberation theology" a bit too creative for my liking. I cannot see how much further we can liberate that most refreshing and liberating theology of Qur'an and Sunna. Yes, we can rescue it from being hijacked by the followers of the Islaaam of double and triple vowels. And perhaps my Deobandi brethren could stop trying to please the Saudi religious officialdom and remember that their educational movement was founded by the leader of the Chishtiyya-Sabiriyya-Imdadiyya school of Sufism. Maybe the dudes who run our mosques could let ladies enter instead of pushing them up the road to the local nightspots. And one day the Mufti of Australia will learn to speak English.

People like Maulana Esack are living proof that Islam is big enough to handle the challenges of a planet that seems to be getting smaller all the time.

First published in the now-defunct e-zine on 8 February 2004.

Words © 2004-08 Irfan Yusuf

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REFLECTION: Funky Maulana Down Under - Farid Esack's Refreshing Speaking Tour in Australia

Yes, this is a very poor title. An atrociously-worded name for an article about an Islamic scholar. And I am using this title because it reflects the atrocious and awful experiences that I and so many of my Muslim Sydney-siders have to put up with as we struggle to learn and understand our faith.

The poor Muslims of Sydney have to put up with so much nonsense. They have a mufti who, after almost a decade in Australia, still cannot speak English. And most of them do not even know that he is their mufti.

Most of their other imams find speaking English a bit too much to handle. Most mosques belong to particular ethnic groups, and the ones that don't will tend to belong to any one of the 10,000 different permutations or combinations of do-it-yourself salafi literalism.

And until Timothy Winter (Abdul Hakim Murad), Nuh Keller and Feisal Abdul Rauf graced our shores some months back, the closest we had to some real scholarship was a few Indian and Bangladeshi Maulanas in lungis looking like Muslim Mahatma Gandhis and walking hundreds of kilometers with those wonderfully harmless people known as the Tablighi Jamaat. Oh, and there was my late Shaykh Esad also.

But recently, Sydney was abuzz with news that a fresh face was arriving to take the student-and/or-revert dawah-circuit by storm.

This was not the first time Maulana Farid Esack had visited Sydney. Usually, his presence had been sponsored by an inter-faith or human rights group. Some 12 months before his current visit, he had given one address to students, activists and a whole bunch of orthodox Turkish Sufi sistas who were keen to see how a scholar could be regarded as genuinely progressive without having to go to the US State Department and tell everyone that the rest of us were a bunch of extremists and terrorists and wahhabists.

Maulana Esack showed himself to be a man of good humor, irreverence and self-deprecation, a modern Nasruddin Hojja with plenty of stories to tell. Esack was full of amazing and humorous anecdotes that at times left us with our sides splitting (not a nice experience when it happens after dinner).

Here was Maulana Esack being invited to Sydney for the first time (I think) in his capacity as an Islamic scholar and by a Muslim organization (a Sydney-based think tank known as the al-Ghazzali Institute for Islamic Studies and Human Development). And here was a new generation of young bright-eyed Muslim types watching Maulana Esack for the first time.

This was the same crowd that would normally have to put up with blank-check fatwas from Wahhabi weirdos telling young Muslim girls that it was haraam (religiously forbidden) to attend college and university, thus implying that it was fard (religiously mandatory) for at least 51% of the Muslim community (and 100% of their mothers) to remain uneducated.

This same crowd was still wondering why a former American rap star who adopted salafi literalism had decided to tell a packed auditorium in Melbourne that the great work of Imam Abu Hamid Ghazzali was worth "less than a mosquito wing" and contained "kufr and shirk" (unbelief and polytheism).

Instead of offending and dividing his audience, or boring them with rulings and judgments he was unqualified to make, Maulana Esack entertained us with stories of his travels to Bolivia as part of a multi-faith delegation to celebrate an indigenous Bolivian festival. He told us that it was his first time, and he was asked to bring a gift. He therefore purchased a beautiful sajjada (prayer rug) and a wonderfully carved wooden piece of Qur'anic calligraphy. As the sun rose, a huge bonfire was lit. The hosts then invited Maulana Esack to present his gifts and throw them into the fire as an offering to the sun!!

What was he to do? How would Maulana Esack get out of this situation?

Um ... er ... you see, my friends, these things are not the gifts I meant to bring. My actual gifts are back at the hotel room. I can go and get them if you like.

Then there was the story of his visit to a building in Germany that contained 4 separate mosques for 4 separate nationalities. Yet when he spoke to them, each did not even seem to know of the existence of the others.

If there is one word that cannot be used to describe Maulana Esack, it would have to be pompous. Don't expect the large turban and all the trappings of the usual scholarly uniform. Here is a man who wears a funky colorful South African shirt, ordinary trousers, is clean-shaven (unless, like many Malays, he cannot grow much hair on his face), and wears a trendy Cape cap.

Maulana Esack's absence of uniform and facial hair appeared to trouble some of the young guns from the local salafi youth centre. I thought I'd overheard one remark: "What sort of scholar would wear a cap and trousers?" It reminded me of a time when I saw a Bosnian Imam reciting Qur'an at an interfaith prayer service following September 11. After he finished, a Muslim approached him and said: "Brother, that was nice, but why are you wearing a European suit?" The Bosnian imam looked at his interrogator and answered calmly, "Because I am European," before walking off.

So why was Farid Esack wearing such funky gear? Simple - he is a funky mullah from South Africa!

I could write much more about the tour. But I would rather read my copy of his introductory book on the Qur'an and what it means to Muslims. And I urge the rest of you to go and buy (or borrow from your local library) his other books, one of which has been reviewed elsewhere). Maulana Esack has a message to tell that is seriously and desperately needed to be told to persons of all faiths, even if he does deliver it with good humor and a mischievous smile.

Irfan Yusuf, 34, lives in Australia. When he is not appearing before courts as an industrial and employment lawyer, Yusuf is a freelance writer whose interests include law, gender issues, international relations, spirituality and conservative politics. His favorite food is nihaari (with lots of chilli) and his favorite musician is the Australian folk singer Paul Kelly. This article was first published in the virtually-defunct website on 14 July 2004.

Words © 2004-08 Irfan Yusuf

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BOOKS: Ed Husain and political engagement ...

Well, I did say that I’d be focussing on posting old stuff. So much for that.

Hopefully I’ll be getting my manuscript back on Monday. I’ll then have 14 days to do the final editing and chiselling of the text.

My book is about how young Muslims I grew up with during the 1980’s and 90’s navigated our way into, through and out of various forms of political Islam. No doubt some will compare the book with Mohamed Mahbub (Ed) Husain’s The Islamist: Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, which was published by Penguin in the United Kingdom in 2007.

Husain claims to have spent five years dabbling in various forms of political Islam, from the Jamaat-i-Islami style of Sayyid Maududi to Hizbut Tahrir (HT). He says that he felt compelled to leave after he witnessed someone at his college being murdered. It isn’t clear exactly how this murder was in any way related to HT, apart from the person alleged to have been the culprit having a particular mindset that was apparently fostered by HT.

Husain’s preface outlines the purpose of his book ...

This book is a protest against political Islam, based on my own experience as a British Muslim who grew up in London, became an extremist – an Islamist – and saw the error of his ways ... This is the story of my journey from the inside, in the fullest sense of the word: inside today’s Islam, inside Britain’s Muslim communities, inside my own heart.
I can’t but help wonder if Husain’s work is less one of analysis and more of hubris. Just how many British Muslim communities was he exposed to? Just how many forms of political Islam did he encounter? To what extent was he really a leader in any group?

The utility of Husain’s book is that he explores his own thinking with a fair degree of honesty, warts and all. However, I wonder whether it was the various forms of political Islam that is at issue here or rather his own interpretation of them?

In saying all this, I am in no way suggesting that Husain’s work can be dismissed. I’ve reviewed Husain’s book here and here. However, I did make some critical notes about the book which I was unable to incorporate into these reviews due to word-count restrictions.

Husain claims that his parent’s Islam had little or no political content. He appears to have come from a family that followed the Barelwi school of thought, and speaks about frequent mawlid gatherings in his home and dhikr sessions at the Brick Lane mosque. His parents followed a Bangladeshi Islamic scholar and sufi shaykh named Abdul Latif Fulthali (or “Abd al-Latif Fultholy” as spelt by Husain). On page 9, Husain describes Fulthali as

... a master of five Muslim mystical orders, as well as the founder of over 400 religious seminaries in India and Bangladesh.
Husain says that both his father and Shaykh Fulthali were critics of Sayyid Maududi and the Jamaat-i-Islami. On page 10 he writes:

I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticised, an organisation named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All this was beyond me.
I also heard similar stuff throughout my time and still do. However, I eventually learned that much of the attack on Maududi was based not just on theology but also on political grounds.

One chap I met in Sydney during the early 1990’s was named “Sufi Javed”. He was founder of the Australian branch of a mild Barelwi group called Idara Minhaj al-Qur’an. But Sufi Javed was anything but mild. The first time I sat with him, I was with an old friend of Fiji-Indian background I refer to in my book as “Shaf” and another friend of Lebanese extraction nicknamed “Shamir Yahood” (his actual name in Arabic rhymed with this). Sufi Javed’s words in Urdu are still ringing in my ears:

Maududdi bohot bara aalim tha. Aur bohot bara CIA agent bhi tha! ("Maududi was a big scholar. And also a big CIA agent!")

Apparently being a CIA agent was regarded as a bad thing. It probably still is. I’m sure glad I’m not one.

Sufi Javed also hacked into other groups. Shaf was a huge fan of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) and a staunch critic of Maududi. Shaf was smiling broadly when he heard Sufi Javed declare Maududi to be a CIA agent. His smile didn’t last for long when Sufi Javed proclaimed the founder of the TJ, Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalwi, to be an Angrezo ka jaasoos ("spy to the British"). Kandhalwi founded the TJ in Delhi before Indian independence and Partition.

This kind of sectarian and political hyperbole was common in Muslim discourse, at least in Sydney. And apparently in India and Pakistan also. Kandhalwi’s son-in-law, Muhammad Zakariyya, wrote a book called Fitnat-i-Maududiyyat (literally “the Chaos resulting from Maududiism”), which Shaf often harped on about. I never could locate an English language edition of the book, but I did read badly-translated excerpts in a book many years later.

So much of this hyperbole was just sheer hypocrisy. Ed Husain seems to suggest his father’s spiritual guide (or pir), Shaykh Fulthali, was not interested in politics. I’ll believe that when someone can convince me that John Howard and Pauline Hanson are both members of the Aeora Aboriginal nation.

Husain was very fortunate to be in the company of a pir from a young age. But his family pir clearly had a deep interest in politics. Shaykh Fulthali stayed with Husain’s family in the summer of 1990. At the time, Husain was 15 years old and preparing for his GCSE exams. However, studies didn’t concern Husain as much as the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and the resulting war.

Husain refers to Shaykh Fulthali as “Grandpa”. He writes on pages 16-17:

Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, had invaded his small neighbour. Grandpa would return home every night and ask me for the latest news. The first time he asked, I had no idea where Iraq was on the map, let alone what its leader had done.

Very quickly I sharpened up my geography of the Middle East. But that was not enough. The following day he asked me how the international community had responded. What was going on at the UN? What were other Arab governments saying? Astounded, I wondered how I was supposed to know. But I knew I had to know. Pleading ignorance was not an option.

I grabbed pen and paper and started watching news bulletins in the mornings and afternoons. I took copious notes. I did this for about five months while Grandpa stayed with us, providing him with the details of Saddam’s rhetoric, Tareq Aziz’s interviews and John Simpson’s bomb-ducking analyses. ... Before my sixteenth birthday my father’s interest in current affairs and Grandpa’s delegation of news monitoring to me meant that I had become politicized.
This degree of political engagement with overseas conflicts would never have been tolerated by my Jamaat-i-Islami relatives so close to major exams. It would never have been tolerated under any circumstances in the TJ.

To be continued ...

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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