Saturday, November 15, 2008

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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