The New Enlightenment: Theories in Islamic Reformation

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Madhavi Sunder at the London School of Economics. An expert on women’s human rights in Muslim communities with a formal background in law, Sunder had been invited to speak about “The New Enlightenment: how Muslim women are bringing religion out of the dark ages“. Her views about international human rights laws fuelled her to write an article on women’s rights activism in the Muslim world, titled “Piercing the Veil“, which opens with the rather provocative statement, “human rights law has a problem with religion“. The dissertation looked at the failure to address women’s rights under even the most oppressive regimes because such law is reticent to interfere with religion and culture. 

In her lecture, Sunder begins with an analysis of pioneering work being undertaken by a group called Sister’s in Islam (SIS), a group which was set up to lobby and reform Malay family laws affecting disadvantaged groups, namely women. She hails the work of its Executive Director, Zainah Anwar, a former member of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission. Her work, she says, has enabled the reinterpretation of the Quran, and allowed women to question the norm, and through the process of osmosis, has also filtered into other countries where Muslim women are a disadvantaged group, and refers to it as “universal lobbying” of Muslim women who are “making a difference”. 

Quoting figures from a recent study by John L.Esposito and Dalia Mogahed entitled “Who speaks for Muslims: What a billion Muslims really think“, Sunder claims that over one billion Muslims globally anticipate equal rights in Islam, and then goes on to describe human rights as “rights guaranteed in a secular political world” – the audience gasp and the implication of her statement is clear; Muslims want to embrace secular human rights. But I am not entirely convinced and I start to wonder what this actually means and how is it different to Islamic human rights, if indeed there is such a notion, and whether these groups welcome equal right within Islam, or if these simply are basic human rights – above and beyond religious or cultural boundaries. 

The study Sunder relied on was based on researching around 50,000 Muslims globally via Gallup over six years, and it is difficult to say how representative this is of the majority view of Muslims, whose numbers presently exceed 1.3 billion. Contrary to Sunder’s claim what the research actually states is that “Muslims across the world want neither secularism nor theocracy. They want freedom, rights and democratisation … however, they claim that society should be built upon religious Islamic values and that the shari’a (Islamic law) should be a source of law. Simply put, the majority of Muslim women and men want rights and religion, and they don’t see the two as being mutually exclusive” – a direct contradiction to Sunder’s thesis.

In one of her slides, Sunder picturises two women sitting together in an organisation called Sisterhood is Global Institute (SiGI). The woman on the left is shown to be wearing traditional Islamic attire (the hijaab and jilbaab*), whereas the lady next to her is dressed in western clothing, she is not wearing the hijaab. Sunder points to each woman and highlights the distinct difference in appearance, making reference to their socio-economic background, “the first lady is from a poor background, whereas the second lady (without a headscarf) is from the city“, insinuating that the poor, uneducated lady is donning the hijaab due to lack of education and exposure to ‘progressive’ city-life.

This point seems the most relevant and I ask Sunder the extent to which she believes socio-economic deprivation limits progression in human rights. In answering my question, Sunder gives a somewhat vague response, and relies on her hypothesis about culture and religion being the causal factors in oppression and limitations to human rights for women. This seems like an easy answer. The Muslim world is currently predominantly based within the war-torn, third world – countries with high corruption, high unemployment, low skills, inadequate basic provisions, and civil unrest, to name a few. Secular countries on the other hand, are largely first world countries where human rights, equality and democracy flourish – those who live in these countries are comparatively at an advantage in terms of quality of life. So the two societies cannot be weighed side by side because the baseline is unequal. Probing Sunder further, I ask her whether she really believes that human rights are of primary concern to those living in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, who often lack basic amenities, things that the western world take for granted. Her response is again blurred by her continuous subjective reliance on theories of culture and religion hindering progression. I am still not satisfied.

After the lecture I approach her and ask her to explain her theories in more detail, she explains that she is more interested in the process of change and “operationalisation of the new enlightenment“, i.e., the methods by which change takes place – which to me seems she wants to have an observational and analytical role in the reformation process, but her presentation instead implied that she is at the very centre of the change, implementing it herself. The problem with this approach is that non-Muslim theorists, although well within their rights to encourage and help promote change within a particular society, are seen as a threat or simply put “fire-starters”, who lack knowledge and intricate understanding of Islam and wider causal factors that contribute to the state in which Muslim countries are living today.

Recommended texts:Piercing the Veil – from the Yale Law Journal, 2003, by Madhavi Sunder

Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed

Shariah = Islamic legal system
Hijaab = Covering of the head
Jilbaab = Loose fitting dress


Scaremongering about Shariah Law

It has happened again – someone says something about Islam, Muslims, law, Shariah, UK, etc, etc, etc, the media starts it’s god-forsaken scaremongering, the ignorant public jump to their own ill-informed conclusions and go into a frenzied panic. Actually, Muslims should have been anticipating this for a while now, the media did seem a little thin on the Muslim-bashing side recently (oh, aside from the “bugs-under-Mr Sadiq Khan’s-table” of course).

This morning I woke up to news that the Archbishop of Cantebury called for measures to incorporate parts of Shariah law* into the British legal system. His comments have been faced with harsh criticism from politicians and media moguls alike. Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips reacted with the following statement: “implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous“. Has the man finally lost his mind?

Then you have No.10 officials who apparently claim the Prime Minister “believes that British laws should be based on British values” – How on earth does this statement mean the Prime Minister is opposed to aspects of Shariah law being incorporated into the current legal system? The PM himself has been the Keynote speaker at virtually every Islamic banking conference since 2003 as the then Chancellor. If anything, he very much welcomes Shariah compliant law and has gone so far as promoting it as an alternative method for British Muslims. The simple truth is that people just aren’t aware of the facts.

One newspaper (commonly read by most London commuters) ended their coverage on this topic with a rather disturbing statement “the Islamic legal system can dictate the dress-code” – what? This is absurd and totally inaccurate. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs and comments, the Muslim dress-code is not defined by Islamic jurisprudence and is instead a “suggested” approach, which many Muslim men and women choose to adopt through their own free will. It is precisely this kind of incompetent and irresponsible journalism that prompts turmoil within communities which usually live in perfect harmony for the most part of their lives.

Speaking to a couple of non-Muslim colleagues this morning (who approached me about the issue) I found that they felt the same – “what is all the fuss about? Shariah courts already exist right?” was what they asked – and they were right. Shariah laws are already practised amongst British Muslim families today – the issue here is whether civil law should be flexed to adopt to Islamic law for Muslims living in this country and not whether the Islamic penal code should be adopted – which is what is frightening everyone. I think I can safely say that the majority of Muslims do not want to see a change in the penal code in the UK – they merely want a more adaptable system which permits and recognises Islamic legal rulings on things like marriage, divorce, banking, and so forth.

The mere fact that a non-Muslim has brought up this issue should be enough of an indication that British Muslims are not looking to take over the world. This debate should be welcomed and thrashed out in a reasonable and sensible manner through knowledge and common sense, not through poorly informed scaremongers.

*Shariah law = Often translated as the “Islamic way”, based on Muslim principles of jurisprudence.

Allah Made Me Funny

Two weeks ago on a Wednesday evening my wife and I made our way through Fulham’s backstreets to the small but packed Riverside Studios. Aside from being predominantly Asian, the gathering was eclectic; with hijabis* conversing easily with ladies in less traditional garb (one guy even wore a turban.) We all came with a common purpose – to laugh at Muslims. More specifically, to laugh at Azhar Usman, “Halal” Bilal, Mo Amir and Preacher Moss who were in London as a part of the Allah Made Me Funny Tour. And laugh we did.

I was first introduced to Allah Made Me Funny through a DVD lent to me by a friend. Having delighted at a lighter shade of Muslim culture, we were keen to see them live. The evening was made more enjoyable by the fact that it was our first evening out since our son was born last year. We love him dearly, and even missed him that evening, but being out without him made us feel like teenagers again.

From the outset, Azhar Usman had us rocking in our seats. A lot of his jokes are ethnic and some entirely in Urdu, which limits his appeal to non-Asians, but there was a lot that everyone could relate to. “Halal” Bilal made a brief appearance, and Preacher Moss wrapped things up at the end with a set reminiscent of his days writing for Saturday Night Live. But the hitherto unknown “Mo Amir” really stole the show (he replaced Azeem from the original line-up for followers of the tour). Right from the moment he slow-motion-ran onto stage the Palestinian born comic had us in stitches – I remember having to massage my cheeks about halfway through his set because I’d been smiling so long my face had started to ache!

The tour itself has drawn criticism from more conservative camps, but I saw little to which one could object. While excessive laughter is against the etiquette of the Prophet Muhammed who mostly used to smile when pleased or amused, there is nothing wrong with a joke per se that doesn’t mock, deceive or fall into backbiting. Unfortunately that narrows down the field a lot, but on the whole the guys did an excellent job balancing humour and etiquette. It may comfort readers to know that Shaykh Faraz Rabbani of the Sunnipath Online Academy has not only issued a fatwa permitting such events, but went so far as to praise Azhar Usman for his close contact and cooperation with traditional scholars and the recognised benefits of his comedy.

Perhaps not one for conservatives, for everyone else I’d recommend catching the tour next time it’s in town. Maybe next time I go my son will be old enough to appreciate it.

*Hijabi’s = Muslim women who wear the headscarf

My Teddy Bear is called Muhammed

This morning, the story of Gillian Gibbons was sprawled all over the front pages of every newspaper I could lay my hands on. Gibbons, a 54-year old Liverpudlian teacher in Sudan has been jailed for allowing one of her seven-year old pupils to name their teddy bear “Muhammed”. Declaring this as blasphemy, the Sudanese authorities ordered the immediate closure of the school and arrested the teacher in question. Gibbons is now facing punishment of 40 lashes, six months imprisonment, or a hefty fine.

It beggars belief that the naming of a teddy bear to “Muhammed” would cause such outcry amongst Sudanese officials and parents alike. Friends of Gibbons say that “she was fully aware of religious sensitivities” and it seems like she just made an innocent mistake.

Muslims living in Sudan have missed a few very obvious points – Firstly, the school was in Sudan (a predominantly Muslim country), the children were asked to choose a range of names themselves, the teacher did not submit these names, so it is not surprising that the child was drawn to a Muslim name. So if you think about it, maybe those twenty-three seven-year olds were being blasphemous and should be held to account. Seems absurd doesn’t it?

Second, it shows that the commonality of the name “Muhammed” is such that even non-Muslim children are naming their toys after him, proving the universality of the name Muhammed, which is separate from religious affiliation or culture. This, in my opinion does not cause any offence. The final Messenger of Islam was referred to with many names, including “Amin”, meaning “trustworthy” – does it mean to say that people should no longer use the name Amin?

Instead of embracing this diverse and inclusive culture, the Sudanese authorities add fuel to the ever-infuriating debate on blasphemy amongst level-headed Muslims globally.

In the words of Saadi,

Of one Essence is the human race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base;
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace.”

Is Islam good for London: A Perspective

Is Islam Good for London? 

Having attended, what was purported to be, a debate about Islam in London, I must admit I feel sorry for Londoners. For two reasons:
– it appears that way too many people intensely dislike Muslims.
– Muslims are most likely partly to blame. 

I am happy to be a South African Muslim for two reasons:
– I don’t feel any hatred or animosity from people back home, for just being Muslim.
– South Africa has more opportunities and better prospects for ‘spearheading’ Islam in the non-Muslim world.  

Before coming to London, the exposure I had from the high profile speakers and quality publications that come out of here, I believed that this is the place wherefrom those in the forefront of taking Islam forward will be coming from. 

The bourgeoisie debate, attended by Jemima Khan amongst others was hosted by the Evening Standard (apparently a right-wing publication) and was by invite only (which upset me at first, but I was able to get in anyways and at some point make myself heard.)

The debate certainly did not conform to what I had understood as proper English manners and debate decorum. Rather, it was a shouting match and personal attacks between the line-up on the panel; who although may may not be pathetic individuals, but together, given the topic, the climate and the idiots in the audience; it turned out to be a depressing pathetic panel!  

Rod Liddle (my favourite for the night) just kept saying he didn’t mind Muslims but loathed Islam for various reasons. I think his understanding of Islam, as he explained, was just as marred as those who give Islam a bad name. I do however respect him for being consistent throughout the night, unlike the guy next to him, Ed Husain.  

Ed Husain (an ex-Hizbut Tahrir guy) who has become a famous author, famous in a somewhat similar way to Salman Rushdie has managed to identify what certain people want to hear, so he continues to say just that. Ed Hussain was extremely inconsistent in his thoughts and opinions, and as Rod Liddle put it, he may have left HT but is still the idiot that joined them and his intelligence seems to have not increased since he has acquired this newfound liberal popularity. 

Inayat Bunglawala (of the Muslim Council of Britain) was definitely unfairly targeted. But justified or not, he clearly has made a few mistakes and said a few things in the past. To give him some credit he tried hard to ward off attacks against his person and still level a fairly decent argument, and together with Rod, the only consistent person on the stage.  

Joan Smith (a feminist and atheist) was exceptionally irritating. I have met many feminist and atheist in my life, but none that annoy me as much as this woman who uses both as titles in a manner that I assume would disappoint many feminists and atheists.  I guess this doesn’t say much about the debate; probably coz the debate was more entertaining than informative. It was more of a show than a productive discussion.  

But one thing is clear, at least from the little discussion that did go on, and from the comments from the audience – Islam is here in the UK in full force and is here to stay, and both Muslims and their non-Muslim counterparts need to work together to make sure that things improve going forward. Muslims can’t continue to live in virtual enclaves, and the rest of society here can’t continue to ignore them and pretend that they are not here.

Is Islam Good for London?

While the government harps on about social inclusion and community cohesion, the media continues to muddy the debate with biased sample surveys focusing on whether or not Islam can contribute to British society – the most recent one being carried out by the Evening Standard. The YouGovStone survey on Islam published earlier this week looked at the opinions of “700 influential’s”.

The mere fact that this question is being asked is worrying – why is the religion of Islam being scrutinised here? Why are we asking whether or not a particular religion can or cannot contribute to British society? Is religion not a personal thing? Being devil’s advocate for a moment if the prevailing view is that Muslims (the people and not the religion) are to blame for terrorism, then why is the question about Muslims not being asked? Should we not be scrutinising the motivation of a (I am about to stereotype here so bear with me) 23 year old Muslim economist to go and blow himself up? What are the key factors that push him over the edge? Surely there must be more to it than just religion. What about identity? What about foreign policy? What about citizenship? Are these not factors to include in the debate?

There are over 1.5 million Muslims living in Britain today, most of whom live in harmony and with utter respect toward their British compatriots. In my opnion the religion of Islam has nothing whatsoever to do with the debate. By raising the question of religion the media continues to choose the easy answer – blame Islam and everything will be okay. By doing so we yet again marginalise an already alienated group, so is it any wonder there is so much resentment within the Muslim community? This obsession with pointless sample surveys must stop; data is relative, and it can be manipulated to serve whatever purpose one chooses. Out of the 700 opinions taken, not one was mine – and it certainly isn’t the consensus of the British population.

Citizens of the country please wake up; reclaim your indviduality, and with it – your voice.

Britz – Part II (Nasima’s Story)

Yesterday there was a tidal wave of blogs and articles written in response to the first part of Brtiz, with a divided opinion amongst most Muslim writers about the content of the film; some were hailing the docu-drama as a positive step towards raising awareness, and the other (not so convinced) half dismissing it as another ploy to make British Muslims feel even more paranoid about the current UK law and enforcement system than we already are. I must say that after watching the second part, I am beginning to see sense in the “propoganda” argument – but I’m not completely won over. Why? Because last night’s programme was riddled with so many flaws that it made it difficult to believe that any reasonable-minded person with so much as a percent of understanding about Muslim British women would take the story of Nasima at face value. Some scenes depicted were so unrealistic and absurd that I couldn’t restrain myself from shaking my head in utter disappointment, and I doubt I was alone. I am sure a kazillion Muslim women must have been out there ranting; shouting “that is not how we are!” I know I was.

Initially Nasima is shown as a free-spirited young woman in her early twenties. She is not exactly the ideal role model as a Muslim woman, and in any typical Asian community Nasima and her brother Sohail would have been termed as the local vagabonds – the one’s who you’re supposed to stay away from because they are so corrupt. Yet somehow, Nasima’s parents remain oblivious to her dual-personality in scenes where she is arrested under ASBO laws, and then when she finally does turn up at the hospital her mother is totally calm. A true depiction of that scene (in Bradford of all places) would have been the mother yelling curses at her daughter even if she was lying on her deathbed for bringing “shame to the family” by spending a night in a cell. Nasima then goes off (again) to spend the night with her boyfriend and the family / cultural angle of this is never shown.

Eventually things change for the worst in Nasima’s life when her best friend ‘Sab’ is bizarrely arrested under Anti-Terror laws for the possession of four packets of chilli powder. Sab is put under a form of house arrest, falls deep into a state of depression, and finally commits suicide. Disillusioned with the system after the death of her friend, Nasima becomes politically active but is intrinsically weak and confused. She decides to learn more about political Islam; a version of Islam that is born out of the injustice faced by many in war-torn Muslim countries. At first she tries to advocate the need for democratic resistance and protest through peaceful means, but when she realises that this is a lost cause, she becomes frustrated and eventually ends up with more radicalised Muslims at university (all the while still with her boyfriend.)

One day Nasima takes up the challenge of wearing the hijab for the day, and begins to relate to the alienation felt by many scarf-wearing sisters, but she does not at any point take out time to learn why they wear it or for that matter, what her religion teaches – her perception of Islam is so basic that it almost renders null and void. This to me is a vital point. If the purpose of this tele-film was to show why ordinary British Muslims generally turn to terrorism then they could have at least shown a more realistic stereotype. I don’t know how many, if any, would have been able to relate or understand Nasima’s story.

Nasima’s motivation behind joining the camp is unclear; throughout the journey to Pakistan and even whilst in training we are under the impression that Nasima is grieving over the death of her friend Sab, even at the end when her co-jihadist tells her that she will land a place by God she replies “that’s not why I’m doing this” – so then why was she doing it? Nasima didn’t seem too bothered about UK foreign policy, because there was not one scene where she mentions this, and is instead angered and fuelled by Sab’s suicide. This is what makes the whole thing so absurd and unrealistic – because it was a revenge crime and not a terrorist one. She was protesting against the death of her friend, not in response to the crimes against humanity; and surely not in the name of Islam. 

In a way I should be pleased that Nasima was not shown as another radicalised hijab wearing, niqab clad Muslimah who cannot see beyond her husband’s or father’s beard to make up her own mind about Islam, but instead shown as a juvenile and misinformed girl with pathetic motivations. I feel no sympathy or connection with Nasima because she was so unreal and unlike any other Muslim women I have ever known, and in comparison to Sohail’s character, Nasima failed to convince me in her role.

But the one message that I do hear loud and clear, and one that I also echo, is that Muslims like me and you (if you’re reading this) have to speak up – there are no other means of tackling this issue without getting to the heart of it, debating the complexities of the problem, and creating dialogue with those in power – those who we are told “matter”, through our democratic rights. This is my country, my home, and I refuse to live in a state of paranoia or in a community that surrounds itself with conspiracy. If those who are fighting this war say it is not against Islam, then it is the duty of every citizen to question the motives behind this war and protest against injustice without depending on a narrow interpretation of a version of religion that suits their particular needs. I know many people will disagree with me on this, but I honestly believe that if one voice can change two minds, and two minds can change four, then eventually the world will change – slowly but surely. But until then, I am fearful of the growing number of young Nasimas and Sohails whose motivation is not based on religion but something far deeper, something far destructive – revenge. Those Muslims who choose to ignore this reality are in my opinion living in a state of denial and temporary foolish sanity.


    May 2018
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