Saturday, November 29, 2008

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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