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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UPDATE: More old stuff ...

I'll be posting more old stuff I've written elsewhere. Sometimes I'll add some comments but usually not.

My editor has almost finished editing my manuscript, so I'll be working on that for a fair while (as in 2 weeks or so).

After all that, hopefully this blog will have more original stuff. I'll be uploading more al-Jazeera videos from time to time also.


Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Monday, November 24, 2008

MEDIA: Mission of Hope knocks back

Some weeks back, I decided to nominate for the prize of "Media Outlet of the Year" as part of Mission of Hope's Austrlian Muslim Achievement Awards.

In my nomination, I noted that this news and commentary website had provided an outlet for numerous emerging Muslim voices to comment on a range of issues affecting Australia and the world. Among the Muslim voices heard in were Mohammed El-Leissy, Sarah Malik and Saeed Saeed.

The judges of AMAA clearly didn't regard as being a suitable recipient of this award, preferring to instead shortlist, a site known less for encouraging and more for silencing emerging and critical Muslim voices on its forums.

Perhaps the real reason the AMAA judges decided against shortlisting is because it published an article containing these remarks:

The Council's last major initiative, earlier this month, was to prepare a petition complaining about an undergraduate course taught by an academic at the Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies. The course, Women in Arabic & Islamic Literature, has earned the ire of the Council because it allegedly doesn't reflect "normative" understandings of gender relations in Islamic sacred law. The lecturer, Dr Samar Habib, has written extensively on homosexuality in the Middle East.

Why would ANIC expect a course on Arabic literature to necessarily reflect "normative" understandings of Islamic sacred law? Is this a course on law or on literature? Don't they understand the concept of academic freedom?

Even more concerning is that the petition is being
distributed by a person who moderates a popular Muslim youth internet forum. This person has previously used her position to promote among Muslim youth the work of North American "scientists" who allege that
homosexuality is a disease that can be cured.

Muslims aren't the only religious congregation to frown on homosexuality or to struggle with gay believers. But when religious leaders become captive of persons promoting homophobia through bad science, it's something we should all be concerned about.

And who is the person distributing the said petition? Why none other than the President of MoH!

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: Village idiots issue black-cheque fatwas ...

Some two decades ago, a respected elder named Syed Kandil used to publish a newsletter from Canberra. In one editorial, he used the term "blank cheque fatwa" to describe the judgments of self-proclaimed imams who spoke on topics beyond their expertise.

An excellent source of black cheque fatwas is the Muslim Village forums. Here, you will find many a self-proclaimed imam and his supporters issuing all kinds of fatwas about matters beyond their understanding.

Let's start with Islamic studies, an academic discipline taught in universities across the world. Melbourne University, along with the University of Western Sydney and Griffith University, recently set up a National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies. You can find out more about the NCEIS from their first newsletter here.

Islamic studies is not the same as studies in a madressa or in a darul uloom, though there can often be some overlap. Rather, Islamic studies is an inter-disciplinary subject that focuses on a range of issues related to a nebulous (for want of a better term) "blob" of peoples, cultures, histories, theologies, languages etc etc which is often given the label of "Muslim" or "Islamic" or "Islam".

Similar subjects are taught in relation to other "blobs". Hence there is Jewish studies, Christian studies, Buddhist studies, American studies, Middle East studies etc etc. A Christian studies course at Harvard or Macquarie is not the same as a course at Moore Theological College, nor is it meant to be.

Yet repeatedly black cheque fatwas are issued by MV mass debaters about the NCEIS, its personnel, its subjects etc. A classic example of this is a remark by Olive Tree which can be read here, who seemed to be taking credit on behalf of ...

... the Muslim students and community members [who were the ones complaining ...

... about a course taught last year by one Dr Samar Habib, whom s/he accused of having a ...

... personal and political agenda ...

Olive Tree then suggested:

It is not an issue of harming academic freedom but a realisation that they probably should be seeking proper Islamic studies lecturers similar to that of Griffith University and Melbourne University.
Yet the same course Olive Tree complains of was also taught at Melbourne University, with not a single complaint made by any student. Was all this talk really about the course?

Olive Tree then delivers the killer blow.

I attended the Ramadan Iftar with my sister this year. All these so called lecturers from the Islamic Studies Dept at UWS were no-where to be seen. No- where!
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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VIDEO: Islam in America Part III

Rageh Omaar talks to prominent African-American Muslims like (now the late) Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. He also visits a half-way house for Muslim ex-prisoners.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

CRIKEY: Israeli torn between ''Islamists'' and ''the Muslim thugs'' ...

Visiting Israeli Professor Raphael Israeli presents different faces for different audiences. Sometimes he says his target is only “Islamists”, ie, those Muslims who want to impose a political version of Islam on secular democracies.

Certainly this is what he said in a letter to The Australian. Here's an excerpt from The Oz report on February 19 2007 ...

A VISITING Israeli academic has blasted Australia's Jewish leaders for disowning him after he raised concerns about the level of Muslim immigration in Europe and the consequences of a similar approach here.

Raphael Israeli, Professor of Islamic, Middle East and Chinese History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote to The Australian yesterday to complain about his treatment after a story in the Australian Jewish News which claimed he favoured a cap on Muslim immigration.

The story, which Professor Israeli said didn't accurately reflect his views, led to criticism from Muslim and Jewish leaders without further checks with him, he said. The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, co-sponsoring his lecture tour, decided to sever ties with him.

"Instead of standing by their guest, and supporting free debate in this country, Jewish leaders have elected to shamefully disown me in their statements that were geared to placate Muslims," Professor Israeli wrote.

"I come from a country dipped in solidarity and that never abandons its fighters in the battlefield. Here I feel abandoned, forlorn, betrayed by people who lack courage and stamina to stand up for principles."

Professor Israeli's attributed comments in the Jewish press last week in part suggested there would be demographic pressure for Indonesian Muslims to resettle. The article quoted him as saying "one of the big possibilities is Australia, so they will continue to come legally, or illegally, and settle here, and when they get to the rate of the 10per cent, like in France, then you will see life will become untenable".
Yet he wrote an almost identical, though more virulent (and need I say honest) letter to the far-Right polemical JihadWatch website. In that letter, he made it clear he was talking about “the Muslim thugs”, without differentiation. In other words, his attitudes are directed to all Australians who happen to tick the “Muslim” box on their census forms. Here's how The Age reported Israeli's remarks ...

A VISITING Jewish professor has lashed out at Australian Jewish leaders for their "shameful submission to Muslim thugs", saying his comments were less harsh than some by the Prime Minister and federal Treasurer.

Hebrew University professor Raphael Israeli, dropped from a proposed lecture tour after comments last week, said political correctness did not allow his remarks to be said, though, privately, all supported them.

He said Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello had said harsher things after "Muslim riots", but "someone elected to seize upon this opportunity now and sweep Australia into a storm in a teacup".

Professor Israeli, who will teach his six-week Islamic history course at the University of NSW, posted his version of the stoush on a website.

On the Dhimmi Watch section of, he wrote: "The dhimmi-like Jewish leadership cancelled all activities, in a shameful submission to the Muslim thugs and under the false claims of a 'multicultural society' in Australia, which they know is not true."
Regardless of where he stands, we’d be living in denial if we insisted Israeli’s attitudes to that nebulous Arab/Muslim/Islamist/Middle Eastern “them” aren’t gaining some hold.

Why is this so? Who is responsible? And what is being done about it?

Journalism professor and veteran reporter Peter Manning believes that skewed reporting is largely to blame. His research of metropolitan Sydney newspaper reporting pre and post-September 11 shows that the prejudices have pre-dated the emergence of al-Qaeda.

Experts like Dr James Jupp of the Australian National University argue cogently against Israeli’s central thesis on limiting immigration for a particular religious group. Here's how ninemsn reported Jupp's remarks on February 16 2007.

A local immigration expert has dismissed suggestions by a visiting Israeli academic that Islamic migration to Australia should be capped.

... immigration expert Dr James Jupp from the Australian National University said talk of limiting immigration for Muslims was the kind of idea "put forward by crackpots" — even though there is no legal barrier to doing so.

He said banning immigrants on religious grounds is possible as all migrant applications are done in other countries which are not subject to our racial vilification laws.

“You [immigrants] have no legal rights to Australian law if you are outside Australia,” Dr Jupp said.

Proving religious discrimination “would be extremely difficult” as immigrants cannot access our legal system before they arrive in Australia.

”I don’t think you’d have a leg to stand on, you couldn’t prove it,” Dr Jupp said.

He added that officials could easily hide religious discrimination behind the various other requirements immigrants must meet to enter this country ...

... Dr Jupp said that would not occur here as European countries gave full citizenship to emigrants from ex-colonial nations — many of which are Muslim countries.

As Australia has no colonial ties with Muslim countries like Algeria, it was unlikely that Muslims would come to this country in such large numbers as they do in Europe.
I think much responsibility rests with Muslims themselves, especially with religious and organisational leaders who are largely first generation migrants who regard Islam as a relic of their lives “back home” and are generally disinterested in communicating Islamic theology to the broader community.

The ethno-religious nature of the Muslim religious establishment is the biggest reason why Israeli’s claims simply don’t apply to Muslims here (if they apply anywhere else).

On Radio National Israeli said that
... in Islam, secular Islam, or secular Muslims, is a contradiction in terms.
He also said that there is only one Islam, and that Muslims either adopt it or they don’t.

This is the weakest link in Israeli’s argument. Australian Muslims come from over 60 different countries. Australian Islam is more ethno-cultural than religious a phenomenon, reflected in Muslim community leadership drawn from ethnic-based mosques.

To say there is one Islam means there is one Muslim community. But the fact is that Muslims cannot even agree on holding festival days. Israeli says that a growing monolithic Muslim community in Australia is a threat. This Muslim community doesn’t exist down under.

An edited version of this piece was first published in Crikey on 23 February 2007.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

COMMENT: Thomas Keneally on prejudice ...

Award-winning Australian author Thomas Keneally knows plenty about prejudice. He was born in 1935 of Irish Catholic stock and grew up in the NSW coastal town of Kempsey. He experienced sectarian prejudice and saw racial prejudice against local indigenous peoples. He also wrote the Booker prize-winning Schindler's Ark, the story of a German businessman who saved a few hundred Jews from Hitler's death camps. The book was made into the famous Steven Spielberg movie Schindler's List.

Keneally is now writing a book about Oskar Schindler. He was recently profiled by The Guardian newspaper on Saturday 15 November 2008. Here's part of what Keneally said on how prejudice, like history, can repeat itself:

The town where I grew up had two Aboriginal settlements. Questions of the balance between races and, when two races don't get on particularly well, how they behave towards each other were everywhere. This was wartime, and the notion that Catholics couldn't be trusted if it came to the crunch, because they would side with the Pope not the Queen, was very strong. It is essentially the same rhetoric that is currently used against Muslims, and even at the time that fascinated me as much as it scared and affronted me. This stuff has always been my bag. It's what I'm interested in.

(Thanks to BC)

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

VIDEO: Islam in America Part II

I've already posted the first part of this Rageh Omaar documentary here. Bwlow is Part 2 of this fascinating documentary.

Omaar traces its history in the US and talks to American Muslims about how their belief is compatible with the principles of American democracy. He also looks at the notion that American Islam is tied intimately to the African American struggle against slavery and for freedom from prejudice. There's also a fair bit of stuff on the establishment of Liberia, an African country created by freed African-American slaves.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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COMMENT: The Voice of Port Elizabethan Islam

Around 20 years ago, I wrote some questions to the a group of South African Islamic (as opposed to Muslim) scholars calling themselves the Mujlisul Ulama (council of scholars).

Why do I describe them as “Islamic” as opposed to “Muslim”. I guess because I can’t get out of my head the habit of differentiating between something/one who is Islamic and something/one Muslim.

Maududi always used to differentiate between a Muslim state and an Islamic state. A Muslim state was a state with a nominally Muslim majority and whose leaders were nominally-Muslim. You were nominally Muslim if you regarded yourself as being Muslim. Whether you understood what it meant to be Muslim didn’t really matter. It also didn’t matter if you understood why you were Muslim, or whether you aspired to act consistently with the teachings and requirements of Islam. Nominal Muslims were often people who belonged to a tribe or ethnic group that regarded itself as Muslim. You could be an atheist or agnostic – you could still be a Muslim.

On the other hand, being Islamic meant that you strove to follow the ideals of Islam (or rather, what you thought or were taught was Islam). In this sense, the Mujlisul Ulama were Islamic scholars and not just Muslim scholars. Their scholarship was about Islam and they actually believed what they were studying and researching was something coming from God (Allah).

In this sense, the MU were different from those nasty people called “Orientalists” whose task it was to research for the purposes of mere intellectual or academic research and teaching or, worse still, to spread misinformation about Islam with a view to furthering the goals of international colonialism, the CIA, Zionists, freemasons or any other force deemed capable of mounting an international conspiracy against whichever kind of Islam MU happened to subscribe to.

Anyway, so around 2 decades ago, I wrote to the MU seeking a fatwa about whether Mum was wrong to stop me from marrying some gori (i.e. white woman). This particular gori was different though – she was Bosnian and her ancestors had probably been Muslim for much longer than mine (and hence Mum’s).

Within a few months, I received a reply. It was a typewritten aerogram, the author of which wasn’t quite a mujlis. Unless one includes a mujlis of one. Anyway, I was very happy with the response I received from the mujlis, and wrote back asking him to put me on his mailing list.

Since then, I’ve regularly received a copy of the Mujlisul Ulama’s newspaper which is entitled The Majlis – “Voice of Islam”. It’s a fascinating newspaper providing hours of reading entertainment. The cover stories are always well-worth a read. They usually involve condemnation of some Muslim group which doesn’t quite fit the MU’s definition of Islam.

Past editions of The Majlis have included articles on the errors of Western medicine, especially vaccination. I wish their fatwa (religious ruling) was available years ago when I was at primary school and had to undergo painful vaccination injections. Alas, relief arrived a few decades too late!

My most recent edition of The Majlis (Vol 18 No 07) includes these awesome headlines:"THE INTERFAITH MENACE”, “ULAMA OF PAKISTAN DECLARE ALL ‘ISLAMIC’ BANKS AND ALL TV CHANNELS HARAAM” and “THE CORRUPTION OF ‘SHARIAH’ BOARDS”.

The “Question and Answer” sections, which take up the bulk of the paper, are always gems of wisdom. Usually the most misogynistic and offensive question and answer is highlighted and turned into a separate article. In the most recent edition, under the headline “WOMEN & EID SALAAT”, someone asks this impartial question:

Q: A crank women’s group which advocates that women should come into the streets to perform Eid Salaat, justifies their call of enticing women out from their homes ...
The Majlis’ response includes references to “the women’s lib miscreants” and “women who emerge from their homes to prowl in the streets and to wonder in male-dominating terrain”. With such masculinity in their responses, who needs Viagra?

In all seriousness, The Majlis does have some really interesting articles as well as excerpts from the inspiring sayings of some Indian and Pakistani scholars of the deobandi tradition (which also happens to be the tradition I feel closest to, though the deobandi scholars I know tend to use more diplomatic language and are less averse to the real world). These include gems of wisdom from the orthodox sufi tradition.

Anyway, I’d better stop writing. The last thing I need is to receive the negative dua’s of the Mujlisul Aalim. Or should that be Mujlisul Ulama? Who knows?

UPDATE I: I just discovered you can also read The Majlis online. There's also some kind of archive which can be found here. Though it doesn't feel the same as holding the newspaper in your hand!

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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