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


In the name of honour, marriage …and force

Yesterday the BBC broke a story about thirty three girls who have apparently disappeared from schools in Bradford – authorities suspect that the girls have been taken abroad to be forcefully married. The story is not new to the Asian community, particularly to those living in the North of England, but it is one that is slowly being acknowledged and responded to by the community, and to some extent, the current government. There are two problems, firstly the issue of force – be that implicit, or explicit; and secondly, the use of violence to protect honour.

Late last year the BBC aired a programme about honour killings and forced marriages – the content was shocking, and included a number of interviews with prominent Asian community leaders and Muslim figures; highlighting the degree of importance now given to this issue and engaging in discussions which until now have been silenced. The programme alone prompted around thirty referrals in Wales, which usually only gets around two per year, and the message was clear – We recognise this as a problem in our community, and we are willing to face up to it.

The most shocking part however was that it was not only the traditional mindset of first generation immigrants, but one that has infiltrated into second generation British Asian and Muslims – citizens who have been born and brought up in this country. Crimes against young men and women who refused to marry out of force, or worse, against those who ‘fall in love’ with someone outside their own caste, sect, or family – people who are then likely to be ostracised by their own community for rebellion. Estimates by Reunite are that around 1,000 women are subjected to forced marriages annually in the UK (and these are just the reported cases amongst the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi community and do not include the large proportion of men helped by the Foreign Office’s Forced Marriages Unit.)

A few days after watching the programme I decided to catch up with Nazir Afzal, Director of West London Crown Prosecution Service. Nazir’s work in this area began in 2004 when he held his first conference on honour-based violence; his aim was not merely to raise awareness about this issue, but also to develop strategies to deal with such crimes. The resulting interest was phenomenal, “victims hadn’t heard a man speaking out against this issue, and once I’d done this conference, they wouldn’t let me go”. Being tactically placed, with access to senior police officials and Ministers, Nazir has not only been in a position to prevent these crimes from taking place, but also to help prosecute perpetrators guilty of such acts of violence.

But the question is why do young British Asians and Muslims who have grown up in such a multicultural society agree to partake in acts of violence and forced marriages? Without wanting to justify the motives or actions of those responsible, Nazir claims that the perpetrators are often victims of society themselves who succumb to social, cultural and family pressure. Nazir disagrees that the problem is linked to strict religious ideologies within the Muslim community, “this behaviour by no means makes this a religiously induced problem, the causes range from ignorance to a lack of information” he assures me, “mosques are now beginning to talk about it, but even they feel threatened by the community. Men often suffer from identity politics which is infused into them from an early age.” The concept of ‘man being a piece of gold and women being a piece of silk’ is largely believed by young Asian men – who choose to stick to “tribal values” more so than their parents.

But why then is the problem so apparent within the Muslim community? Is this problem linked to a school of thought which promotes forced marriages and justifies violence for the sake of honour? In order to get a better picture of the problem we must examine the demographics of the Muslim community – Around 74% of Muslims are of Asian origin – predominantly Pakistani at 43% – of this community, the majority are originally from Azad Kashmir (including Mirpur and Kotli), equating to around 50% of the British Pakistani community – these are often groups who have undergone chain-migration, live in silos, and try to emulate a particular lifestyle from the Indian Subcontinent.

Second, there is the issue of low attainment and high unemployment which both contribute to overall social well-being and liveabilty (or quality of life). The Muslim community, makes up around 1.5 Britain’s today and has one of the highest unemployment rates at almost 18%. Together, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community is estimated at around 1.8 million people, of which around 60% is of working age. Of that the unemployment rate is around 17% amongst Pakistanis and approximately 20% amongst Bangladeshis (the current UK unemployment rate being 4.3%).

Educationally, around 33%, that’s one in three Muslims have no qualifications. Out of this group, Pakistani and Bangladeshi boys have the lowest rate of basic, entry-level qualifications (such as NVQ Level 2, GCSEs or O’Levels) at round 22%. Approximately 48% of Bangladeshi women and 40% of Bangladeshi men have no qualifications, compared to 40% of Pakistani women and 27% of Pakistani men with no formal qualifications. The percentage of those with no qualifications in the UK is around 15%.

To add to these factors, Asian and Muslim communities tend to group together and often reside in shared accommodation – this continues after marriage to maintain the traditional “joint family system”, though around 32% of Muslim households experience overcrowding, with Hindu and Sikh households experiencing around 22% and 19%* respectively.

These are all are interlinked causal factors and contribute towards general social status, acceptance, awareness, honour and cohesion – not being fully integrating into British society or accepting the “system” because they are not a part of it. In terms of marriage, Asian communities tend to group together, to maintain social and religious cohesion and a sense of identity. – this ultimately leads to less integration, and the preservation of one’s “natural identity” – they are often seen by the younger Asian generation as an obligation towards an ageing, yet very alive elder generation who they are still somewhat indebted to or bound by cultural ties. Women are more often than not seen as the “honour” of the family and are encouraged to nurture a sense of cultural identity – and so if they do decide to lead a life independent of cultural restrictions and limitations, they are seen as a disgrace and their actions are a crime.

These are all factors which undoubtedly add to slow-progression and ago-old feudal mentality amongst some within these communities. Until these social causal factors are addressed, little can be done to change the perceptions amogst young Asians – but we must acknowledge that this problem is not one that is linked to religious ideology with its roots in Islam or any other established religion.

Later this year, the government will bring into force the Forced Marriages Act 2007 – a rather ‘delicate’ piece of legislation which aims to protect “individuals against being forced to enter into marriage without their free and full consent and for protecting individuals who have been forced to enter into marriage without such consent” – the Act does not limit itself to force through means of violence, but also through coercive methods which include psychological pressure – a problem faced by a large proportion of young British Asian adults, the majority of whom are bound by perpetual indebtedness and ‘honour’ in the UK today.

Although welcomed by many enforcement bodies and community leaders, the Act is essentially looking to reduce the number of immigrant-marriages by force, a strategy which seems more in line with current immigration limitation plans, than to reduce forced marriages. It will not abolish the long-standing tradition of emotional pressure, nor will it, in my opinion, prohibit or deter crimes committed in the name of honour.

If you fear you may be forced into an arranged marriage, are suffering, or know someone who may be, you can contact:

FCO Forced Marriages Unit: 020 7008 0151
Southall Black Sisters: 020 8571 9595
International Campaign Against Honour Killings:

*Data has been sourced from National Statistics Online.

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?

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.

Equal opportunities or a step beyond reason?

You may have seen it, you may have heard about it: the most recent discrimination case being fought by Muslim woman, Bushra Noah. Now the story goes a bit like this, Bushra Noah (19 year old hijabi) goes to Sarah Desrosiers (32 year old hippie) for a job as a hairdresser. Desrosiers tells her that her appearance (hijab-clad Muslimah) doesn’t quite fit with the image of the salon’s, and tells her that she will only give her the job if she removes her ‘head-gear’. Noah, distraught, after being rejected for around 25 jobs (including this one), refuses and takes her case to court instead, suing Desrosiers for the sum of £15,000 – for religious discrimination.

Now, ordinarily I’d have to say that discrimination is unacceptable under any circumstances. But this, well, I must admit, this is a little more complex. On the one hand, what Desrosiers asked Noah to do was purely a marketing strategy which unfortunately (and coincidentally) meant that Noah would have to take her scarf off – I don’t actually think it had anything to do with her religion. Desrosiers seems to have tried to implement a strategy I have often seen many retail companies and beauticians adopt. I myself admit that I would never go to a beautician whose skin was full of scabs and spots (no offence to anyone!) But the reality is that image sells; and in this case, the product, or rather service being sold involved Noah’s hair.

On the other hand, if Noah was good at her job, then who cares what she is wearing? I mean, when you go to the dentist you don’t say “open wide doc, I wanna see what your gnashers are like before I get in the seat” do you? By the same token I don’t ever recall asking any of my lecturers what qualifications they had before joining their class – I just relied on their knowledge blindly, that if they are where they are, it’s because someone, somewhere thought that they had the ability to teach me.

One blog site, Freethinkers, dubbed the story as “Boo-hoo, another Muslim’s feelings are hurt – and only cash will ease the pain”. While I admit that these were (surprisingly) my own sentiments when I first read the story yesterday evening, I do think that in this current climate it has become only too easy to point the finger at the whole Muslim community (yet again) and brand her with the rest of the Aishahs, Shabinas and Aneelas we have seen over the past three years. Instead, we must be mindful that each case must be assessed on its own merits – the specific details of this case are different. On this occasion though, I don’t think it is a religious issue – it is an issue about clothing, pure and simple. What if this had been a Sikh man or some random bald woman? Would we be making such a fuss of it then?

By making a claim on religious discrimination grounds, Noah has further fuelled discontent towards Muslims today, but by refusing to employ her because of her clothing, Desrosiers has gone against a basic right we are all entitled to in this country: freedom of expression. So let’s stop turning everything into a religious issue and put our heads back on the right way around!