By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 11, 2008; A14
KUWAIT CITY -- Naif al-Mutawa was in a London taxi with his sister
when she asked when he'd go back to writing children's books.
Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist with two doctorates and an MBA from
Columbia, said the question sparked a chain of thoughts:
To go back to writing after all that education, it would have to be
something big, something with the potential of Pokémon, the Japanese
cartoon that was briefly banned by Saudi religious authorities. God
would have been disappointed by that, he thought; God has 99
attributes, or names, including tolerance.
"And then the idea formed in my mind," Mutawa said. "Heroes with the
He mixed his deep religious faith, business acumen and firsthand
experience with other cultures -- his childhood summers were spent
at a predominantly Jewish camp in New Hampshire -- to create The 99,
a comic-book series about superheroes imbued with the 99 attributes
of God. Those traits represent one of Islam's most recognizable
Mutawa's superheroes are modern, secular and spiritual, moving
seamlessly between East and West. They come from 99 countries and
are split between males and females.
The heroes include Darr the Afflicter, an American paraplegic named
John Wheeler, who manipulates nerve endings to transmit or prevent
pain. Noora the Light -- Dana Ibrahim, a university student from the
United Arab Emirates -- shows people the light and dark inside
themselves. Mumita the Destroyer, a ferocious fighter, is Catarina
Barbarosa, a Portuguese bombshell in tight clothes.
They distribute aid to starving Afghan villagers, battle elephant
poachers in Africa, fight the evil Rughal and train to increase
"I wanted to create something that would be a classic, not another
made-in-the-fifth-world product," said Mutawa, 37, who has four
sons. "It was either going to be Spiderman or nothing."
After returning from London to Kuwait, Mutawa raised $7 million --
some from his old Columbia classmates, the rest from Persian Gulf
investors -- and set up the Teshkeel media group in 2004. He hired
some of the best people in the industry, including writers and
artists who had worked at Marvel and DC Comics. His current writing
partner, Stuart Moore, is a writer on the new Iron Man comics.
In November 2006, Mutawa's first comic book hit the newsstands.
Since then, his creation has gained many fans but also faced a
rumble of criticism across the Muslim world. Some have disapproved
of heroines' makeup and tight clothing. Others view the
personification of God's attributes as blasphemous. One Kuwaiti
cleric said the series promotes reliance on humans instead of God,
counter to the Koran's teachings.
Mutawa acknowledges he did not consult a cleric before creating the
series. "We should not allow a very limited number of people to tell
us how to practice our religion. An Islam where I can be an active
participant is the only Islam I can belong to. I believe in Islam
and I also believe in evolution," he said, sitting in his office in
a traditional long white robe and headdress.
When it was time to raise a second round of financing in 2007,
Mutawa sold 30 percent of Teshkeel to Unicorn Investment Bank, an
Islamic bank based in Bahrain. "Now, when people ask me religious
questions, I ask them to go to the board of Unicorn," he said,
Over the past year, he said, he has given dozens of lectures around
the world, focused on pushing an Islam at odds with no one. "We
shouldn't be fighting globalization," he told a crowd in Indonesia
at the launch of the series there last year. "We should be
participating in it by putting our own ideas out there."
Mutawa describes The 99 as a modern tale with an ancient Islamic
architecture. Ninety-nine gemstones imbued with the wisdom and
knowledge of Baghdad's famous Dar al-Hikma library during the 13th
century, the golden age of Islam, are scattered around the world,
some on Christopher Columbus's ships, after an explosion of the dome
in which the stones were embedded. The stones seem to find the
people who become the superheroes, whose mystical link to the gems
gives them special powers.
Worldwide sales of the comic in English and Arabic, including in the
United States, have yet to exceed 30,000 copies a month, including
Internet downloads, but Mutawa has been inundated with licensing
demands. An American company wants to brand its halal hot dogs with
The 99. He has signed deals with Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian and
North African publishing companies.
In his office are pencils, rulers, backpacks, notebooks and folders
with The 99 logo, by a Spanish company. A Dubai firm is interested
in making action figures. A deal for an animated series by a
European company will be announced in July, Mutawa said. Last month,
he signed a deal for six theme parks.
This semester, the American University of Kuwait offered a
class, "The Superhero in the Arab World," that focused on The 99. As
a final project, students created their own comic-book heroes.
When Mutawa recently visited the class, a young student in a black
head scarf and makeup told him she was shocked by a scene in which
Noora the Light said she was going to go pray to God, even though
her hair was not covered.
"Why?" Mutawa asked. "Do you think only people who wear the hijab
ask God for help? There isn't just one way to be Muslim. There are
at least 99 different ways to be Muslim."
From the Los Angeles Times
Islamic law plays a role in British legal system
Muslims can seek rulings on family or property issues from Sharia councils, which work in cooperation with the civil courts.
By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 20, 2008
LONDON — It was a clear case of irreconcilable differences.
The wife said there was no love left in the marriage, she wanted a divorce. The husband insisted that she had been put under the influence of a taweez, a talisman, that had erased her affections for him. He refused to divorce.
"The husband says he has been pushed away from his home because of this taweez business," said Sheik Haitham al-Haddad, a judge in North London's Sharia council, a panel of Muslim scholars gathered in a back room of London's biggest mosque to determine whether the woman should be granted a divorce under Islamic law.
For British Muslims, many of whom have one foot in Piccadilly Circus and the other in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Somalia, the British legal system is available, as it is to all. But it is singularly impotent when it comes to civil issues such as marriage, divorce and other disputes whose dispensation in heaven is often perceived as more crucial than any ruling that might be handed down by an English judge in a horsehair wig.
A tumultuous debate was set off in Britain this year when the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said it was time to consider "crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom." Eventually, he hinted, this could mean allowing Britain's 1.8 million Muslims to seek legal recourse in Islamic courts in certain limited cases, such as marriage and divorce, as an alternative to the civil court system.
Little known to the general public, though, is that Sharia is quietly being applied every day in Britain, via Sharia councils that dispense Islamic civil justice in more than half a dozen mosques across the country.
The councils do not involve themselves in criminal law or any aspects of civil law in which they would be in direct conflict with British civil codes. The vast majority of their cases cover marriage and divorce. By consent of all parties, they may also arbitrate issues of property, child custody, housing and employment disputes, though their rulings are not binding unless submitted to the civilian courts.
"It is known that English judges are willing to accept agreements like this that are reached in Sharia courts, as long as it has been put into proper form," said Mohammed Siddique, a paralegal who advises the Sharia council in Dewsbury, in northern England, on the technicalities of British law.
"It saves time and hassle for the court, and it shows that both parties are willing to compromise and reach some sort of agreement."
In some cases, women have no trouble obtaining a divorce in civil court but run into unforeseen difficulties when they approach Muslim scholars to seal it with their blessing.
A few weeks ago, a Somali woman whose husband had been wounded and subsequently disappeared during the turmoil in her homeland several years ago approached the Sharia council in North London. She was accompanied by her neighbor, who had been helping her care for her children, and had offered to marry her if she obtained an Islamic divorce in addition to her civil divorce.
Instead of the expected rubber stamp, the couple got a tongue lashing.
"How do you allow a man who is not your husband to interfere with your life? He's proposing to marry you while you're already married? How come, sister?" Haddad asked.
"Because I haven't seen my husband in eight years," said the woman, looking confused and a little panicky.
"And you, brother," Haddad said, turning to the man, "do you allow this for any one of your relatives, that she is married, and while she is married, you allow someone to interfere?"
"I didn't interfere with her, and Allah knows I didn't interfere," the man said.
The judges told the woman to find a Somali cleric, who might be able to help her prove her husband is dead, or had abandoned her. Should that happen, they said, she could have her divorce, and marry whom she pleased.
Government officials have raised no objections to the councils, which first emerged in 1982 in Birmingham, because they operate in cooperation with British civil law, and British courts still issue all necessary legal decrees. Those who advocate granting some official status to the councils' deliberations, as the archbishop of Canterbury seemed to suggest, point out that Jews in Britain operate religious courts whose rulings, when all parties voluntarily participate, are recognized under civil law as a form of binding arbitration.
"Almost everything, Muslims living in Britain, or other societies that traditionally have not been Muslim societies, can arrange for themselves. They can arrange to have food slaughtered in halal fashion. They can set up Islamic financial instruments. They can build mosques. The one key area where there's a vacuum regards the access of women to divorce," said John R. Bowen, professor of anthropology at Missouri's Washington University, explaining the need for the Sharia councils.
Under many interpretations of Islamic law, men can easily obtain a divorce -- known as talaq -- by simply declaring their intention three times. A woman, however, usually needs the pronouncement of a Muslim judge who is a scholar in the field of Islamic jurisprudence.
"In most other European countries, there is no such council or judge. Many imams are approached at the mosque and asked, 'Can you give me an Islamic divorce? And they have to say, 'I have no standing to do that,' " Bowen said.
Suhaib Hasan, who sits on the North London council, said it tries to complement the work of the British civil courts. At the same time, he said, the Sharia council offers divorces that are cheaper and quicker than those available in the British courts, though a civil decree is still needed for legal dissolution of the marriage, and in the case of any property or child custody disputes.
"A woman can get a divorce from the civil court, but she will still come to us," he said. "Why? Because she has to satisfy her conscience as well. And in this way, we are providing a service to the Muslim community, and complementing the British legal system."
Shawzia, a 32-year-old physician who obtained a khula, the Islamic term for when a woman ends a marriage, through the London mosque this year, said her civil divorce didn't feel sufficient.
"Before this happened, I didn't consider myself divorced, spiritually," she said. "I couldn't move on with my life. I needed completion. I still felt married."
The Sharia council in Dewsbury operates in a former pub that has been converted to a mosque and Muslim school.
"Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim"-- In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate" -- one of the three judges intones as they begin their deliberations, which drift between Urdu, Arabic, Gujarati and English, depending on the people who appear before them.
The day's business begins with a man who is having an affair after 25 years of marriage; he is willing to divorce, but only if he gets to keep half the house. The wife, wearing a long dress over trousers and a scarf, is sitting nervously at the side of the room. The men sit together around a large table: her father, her husband and the judges.
She says she deserves the whole house; it is only right, she says, in light of her husband's infidelities.
But that, the judges advise, is too much. She can continue living in the house, and her husband will continue paying the mortgage, but once it's sold, he ought to get half the proceeds. She is reluctant, but agrees.
A nervous young nurse comes in next, her father and brother waiting outside. She says she was married to her first cousin in Pakistan by family arrangement when she was 13.
"Were you forced into this marriage?" asks one of the judges.
"No, I wasn't forced into it. It's just the way families do it," she says.
"But they don't allow that in Pakistan. Have you got a marriage certificate with you?" asks one of the council members, Moulana Ilyas Dalal, who is also a chaplain at a prison.
She produces a marriage certificate that states she was 16 at the time of her wedding, but the birth date printed in the corner of the same certificate would mean she was actually 13 -- suggesting that her age was inflated by whoever filled out the form in order to comply with Pakistani law.
"My God. Wow. And then what happened?" Dalal says.
The girl says she became pregnant while she was still in school. Her husband, she says, began beating her, and she swallowed 150 sleeping tablets in an attempt to end her life.
She returned to Britain to have the child, but her husband didn't join her for five years, largely because she hesitated to apply for a British visa on his behalf because of his behavior. When he arrived, she says, he began to sexually abuse her young son, at which point she reported him to the British authorities and sought a divorce.
"I thought he was really changed. He was so nice. If I'd have known for a second he was going to be like this, I wouldn't have called him over," she says.
Now, her husband is living with another woman in Pakistan, and she wants a divorce.
Have the couple tried raazi nama -- a process of reconciliation, aided by the family, the judges wonder?
At least nine times, she says, though the process has been made especially difficult because her sister is married to her husband's brother and has been "brainwashed" by the husband's family.
"I'm done. I've been doing raazi nama for the last 10 years. That's it. I'm done," she says. "Now he's applied for contact with my little boy, and I'm not losing my son to him. No way."
Because the child abuse case is in the British criminal court system, it will have to be resolved there, the judges say. But if the woman writes a letter to the Sharia council certifying that she has tried and failed to reconcile the marriage, the judges say, she can be granted an Islamic divorce.
Back in London, the judges there foundered over what they saw as the irrelevant issue of the taweez. The husband said he had paid about $10,000 to have the spell undone, but it seemed to have been wasted money.
"It seems these taweez people are just going into business now, one doing taweez, the other undoing taweez," said council member Hasan, with just a trace of irritation.
"We cannot take into consideration taweez in deciding Sharia matters," said the council president, Mohammed Abu Said.
What to do? Call in the parties, see who might still love whom.
"A meeting should take place," Hasan declared, and the judges flipped to the next document in their thick stacks of troubled lives.
Read This in Arabic »
The theme of our next guest voice explores two concepts not usually associated with each other: Islamism and consumer culture.
Islamists - those who believe the Koran is a political manifesto as well as moral guide - often chose to live differently than the rest of society, and as an increasing number of enterprising businessmen are now discovering, where there are choices, there’s money to be made.
Ursula Lindsey is an American journalist who has spent the past five years in Cairo, the self-styled seat of Middle Eastern culture, and writes a blog on Middle Eastern art and culture. Here she explores this brave new world of Islam as a lifestyle choice.
Moez Masoud is a young Egyptian TV preacher who's getting an increasing amount of attention in Cairo and beyond, offering Islam's version of American televangelism. He started out doing programs for expatriate Muslims, in English – a niche market - but he’s now a rising star among Arabic language preachers as well. He is probably the second most popular preacher after super-star Amr Khaled. As you can see from the clips available on YouTube, he has a very heart-felt, enthusiastic delivery, and a progressive (not to say New Age) outlook. He once explained his relationship to God to me during an interview in terms of a Bryan Adams song: "Everything I do, I do it for you. I would die for you. I'd cry for you. Walk the wild for you. etc." He concluded, "That is submission to Allah.” The message of someone like Masoud--globalized, pop-culture heavy--isn't anti-Western or anti-modernity. His real message is, "You can have everything the West has, just the Islamic version of it." Masoud is a representative of a larger trend of taking Western trends and concepts and re-branding them as Islamic. (Islamist TV executives who founded an Islamic satellite channel once told me their number one role model was Oprah.) Today you have Islamic fashion, Islamic real estate, Islamic recreation, Islamic soda, Islamic banking of course. You have veiled aerobics instructors that give classes only to women. You have magazine spreads on the latest most fashionable way to pin your hejab. You have tens of thousands of kids going to the concerts of Sami Youssef, who sings pop songs about the Prophet Muhammad and Allah. In today's Cairo, there is a large section of the population who express their religiosity through consumer choices. And there is a growing industry that capitalizes in a myriad ways on the "Islam" brand. This kind of "lifestyle Islam" is mostly devoid of political content. Masoud and Amr Khaled avoid any comment on domestic Egyptian politics--they certainly don't advocate for the overthrow of the state, or for any form of violence. In fact, when I interviewed Masoud I was struck by how naive his political views were--basically, that if everyone were to become "a good Muslim," all the country's problems would be solved. The preachers and the businessmen who support various Islamic ventures also aren't generally anti-Western. They want to beat the West at its own capitalist game--present Islam in a sleek, competitive, appealing package (and make a bit of profit along the way). Of course they are socially conservative by Western standards, and may have aspirations of eventually changing Egyptian society. But it seems to me that the middle class Egyptian who are fans of Masoud and who buy into an Islamic lifestyle just want progress and luxury with an Islamic coating. This movement, which Swiss researcher Patrick Haenni has labelled in his brilliant book as "Market Islam," is strikingly reminiscent of the Christian conservative movement in America, which also has gone into aggressive merchandising, and has its own media, TV stars and motivational literature, and an emphasis on material success.
An artist's rendering of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will feature coed classes, a curriculum in English and other touches seen as dangerous liberalism by Islamic fundamentalists.
By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 13, 2008
THUWAL, SAUDI ARABIA -- Up the corniche, along a coast where boats carrying pilgrims bound for Mecca sailed for centuries, a thicket of cranes rises over whitewashed mosques along the Red Sea.
Steel flashes and blowtorches glow as 20,000 workers build a $10-billion university ordered up by a king who hopes Western ingenuity will revive the economy of this ultraconservative Muslim nation. When finished next year, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will offer coed classes, Western professors, a curriculum in English and other touches loathed as dangerous liberalism by Islamic fundamentalists.
KAUST Map Construction
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology website
The West may be dependent on Saudi crude, now as high as $145 a barrel, but this campus outside an ancient fishing village is recognition that the country that is home to Islam's holiest shrines needs the likes of USC, Oxford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to survive globalization.
An architect's rendering shows a campus of canals and reflecting pools running along sleek silver and glass libraries and laboratories. A marina with slips for 140 boats stands in a cove lighted by a tapered beacon. Students and professors will live in villas and apartments looking out on date palms and furnished with eggshell and white Swedish-style sofas and chairs.
Saudis have studied in the U.S. and Europe for decades, bringing back expertise without directly exposing the kingdom to Western classrooms and professors. But the new university is inviting the secular West a step closer in another ideological battle between Saudi reformers led by King Abdullah and the Wahhabi sect of puritanical Islam that has resisted outside influences since the days of desert caravans.
Pursuing happiness behind the veil "Saudis are beginning to realize they are not the center of the universe," said Tariq Maeena, a writer and aviation expert. "The king hopes that a young Saudi will be in a class with an American professor. The king is jabbing the conservatives from all sides. He's not doing it with a massive decree, but incrementally, and all the radicals can do is roll their eyes and say, 'Uh-oh, we're losing more power.' "
Amira Kashgary, a literature professor at a women's college, said, "We are part of the global world now. Whether we like it or not, and regardless of our political and religious systems, there are changes seeping through our lives.
"The radicals ran a wicked Internet campaign against the university. They said it is another sign liberals are invading us."
The kingdom's huge oil reserves cannot mask Saudi Arabia's problems: 40% of its population is younger than 18, its schools are backward and its economy is not diverse enough to compete in a high-tech future balanced between the West and the rising powers of China and India.
King Abdullah is building the university, along with six multibillion-dollar Economic Cities, to provide jobs and open the country to global markets. Conservatives fear that these international voices, from South Asian construction workers to Western scientists, will change the religious fabric.
"Men and women learning together should remain forbidden," said Mohammed Ben Yehia Nogeemy, a member of the Saudi Juristic Academy, a religious organization that issues fatwas. He said that such an atmosphere could be regarded as sedition and "if any Saudi official has the intention to allow the establishment of a coeducational university, that will be a big mistake that will need to be corrected."
But the king, for now, is a step ahead of the conservatives. Nogeemy was not in attendance on a recent afternoon when oil money seduced brainpower at a hotel along the Red Sea in Jidda.
Silver trays of hors d'oeuvres and alcohol-free champagne glided through a crowd of Western academics gathered for a conference on the university's goals. Soldiers with Humvees and .50-caliber machine guns stood guard outside to scare away would-be terrorists, while inside mathematicians and molecular biologists tried on blue university ball caps and pocketed Lamborghini pens left on seats as gifts.
The university, known as KAUST, is promising academic freedom, the mixing of cultures and religions, and subjects as varied as nanotechnology and crop development. The country's ubiquitous and often abusive morality police will not patrol the campus, depicted on the university's interactive website with unveiled women. Going unveiled is a crime in Saudi society that could lead to lashings and imprisonment.
KAUST will be "a new house of wisdom," Ali Ibrahim Naimi, the Saudi minister of petroleum and mineral resources, told the guests. He said world research projects and the Saudi economy, with a 12% unemployment rate, would benefit from the "easy flow of ideas and people into and out of the region."
To ensure that, KAUST is not under the jurisdiction of the Education Ministry, which is controlled by fundamentalists and often forbids the teaching of music, art and philosophy.
The project is overseen by Aramco, the Saudi oil company founded by U.S. firms in the 1930s. Aramco has experience in creating a parallel world: In its gated communities in the eastern part of the country, alcohol is available but hidden, there's a pee-wee baseball winter carnival, and Western women drive cars, a practice forbidden to Saudi women.
With a chocolate-scented cigar in one hand and a honey-flavored coffee in the other, Maeena sat in his favorite Jidda cafe, nodding hellos to young men with laptops and waiters who know his preferences. This is the world he likes, a place to write, a den of intellectual freedom in Saudi Arabia's most liberal city.
He said KAUST, which is being built 50 miles north of the cafe, is another sign that the country's religious and ideological barriers are weakening.
"It's an act of opening us up to a better side of education," said Maeena, who, like many of his generation, attended college in the U.S. "The West has planted those seeds of liberalism in me and thousands like me. We were young Saudis educated in the West in the '60s, '70s and '80s, but this slowed as the seeds of fundamentalism took hold here in the 1990s."
The Saud family's alliance with the Wahhabis dates to the 1700s, but the most recent wave of fundamentalism intensified in the 1980s and was fueled by anger over U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, leading to terrorist attacks.
When militants struck in the kingdom after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government began cracking down on Wahhabi religious schools and radical preachers. Abdullah has not moved as swiftly as many reformers would like -- Wahhabis control the courts, and ultraconservative members of the royal family hold key government posts, including the Interior Ministry.
"The king is older and doesn't have a lot of time," said Maeena, a columnist for the Arab News. "Every good Saudi says, 'I pray for the king's long life.' He is our hope. We were a pariah nation after Sept. 11, and he's slowly taking us out of this."
Samar Fatany, a radio commentator, said of the fundamentalists, "They are the ones who want to make us live in the dark ages of camels and caravans and tents."
But conservatives remain powerful. They desire Western scientific and technological advances, but want nothing to do with democracy, women's rights, religious rights and other cultural freedoms that cloud the Wahhabi goal of evoking the centuries-old golden era of Islam.
That vision was less threatened when the students of Maeena's generation went abroad to study. Now, with the new university rising, Nogeemy wants the professors to find separate lives, like the Aramco oil engineers before them.
"I do not fear any creeping Western influence," he said, "because Westerners who come to Saudi Arabia are experts of very high caliber who live in isolated communities where they can maintain their own culture."
Of the university, Nogeemy said, "We can tolerate that a male professor teaches female students. . . . There would not be sedition there. But male and female students should not be together."
After the alcohol-less cocktail party at the hotel in Jidda, the Western academics and their Saudi hosts retired. The slide shows that whirled with DNA-like designs were put away, and Sami M. Angawi, an architect, drove through the streets wondering whether the university would melt into the community or become another gated pocket of Western ideals.
Angawi stopped his car at a hospital he had designed. It was after midnight. The building didn't look like a hospital; one hallway resembled the nave of a cathedral, another opened to a mosque, and another to a courtyard bright with moonlight.
His intent, he said, was to mix different styles into one voice, to allow architectural nuances from one culture to seep into another.
"To just implant a foreign university here will not work," he said. "What do we do with it? Put fences around it? We don't allow it to interact with the rest of Saudi society?
"Do we just want science without culture? Does science grow without culture? You have to have a unity. Without interaction you create polarization, and with that the extreme will grow more extreme."
The sliding doors opened and Angawi stepped from the stone floor back into the night.
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.
The uses and abuses of lipstick
Posted in Irshaddering Thoughts on Sep 11, 2008
Twenty-four hours before the anniversary of 9/11, a specious debate has been raging in America. Forensically dissected is Barack Obama’s statement that you can slap lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
The “pig” is John McCain’s economic record. It’s not a reference to his running mate, Sarah Palin, who has described herself as a pitbull with lipstick.
Still, the Republican campaign is expertly fanning small-town resentment against urban elites to turn this into another culture war. Pitbulls, indeed.
Amid all that noise, I’ve learned of an attempt to make Sharia law friendlier for women. Problem is, this might be an effort to put lipstick on a legal pig.
No doubt, reactionary types will accuse me of having called Islam a “pig.” To these McCain-aping Muslims, I say: No way. No how. No chance. You’re not going to Palinize me.
Islam is a divinely inspired faith. Sharia is human interpretation of divinely inspired words. The world-renowned scholar, Prof. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, attests that Sharia law and Islamic faith are not the same. Read his latest book, Islam and the Secular State, and you’ll appreciate the professor’s point that Sharia, when encoded in law, often betrays the better angels of Islam.
So I have to wonder: Does any move to make Sharia law less unfair only amount to cosmetic change? Is the real journey to justice launched by avoiding religious law altogether and encouraging personal belief to be exactly that — personal?
Given the complexity of the issue, I don’t know the answer just yet. But I’m willing to ask the question, out loud.
Judge for yourself. Here’s the news story about an attempt by Muslims in Britain to update Sharia law so that married women have rights equal to those of their husbands. Let me know what you think.
And if you’re going to send me a threat, for God’s sake show a sense of humor. Write it in lipstick.
First helpline in UAE to fight extreme interpretations of Islam
Dubai, October 10 2008
Muslim clergies in the UAE have put in place the world's first
Islamic helpline in an attempt to root out extreme interpretations
of Islam by extremists.
The UAE, which established the call centre three months ago, ensures
that the rulings based on Islamic law comply with the government's
moderate religious stance.
"The hardest questions I am asked involve sex. I feel shame, but I
have to answer the questions because it is my duty," Mufti
Abdulrahman Ammoura was quoted as saying by the Daily Telegraph
newspaper on Friday.
His advice counts as an official fatwa in the UAE, under new rules
issued by the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments.
A group of 48 Islamic scholars and Imams man the call centre
telephones from morning till evening and deliver rulings in an
attempt to root out extreme interpretations of Islam.
Muslims from all over the world are reaching out to the helpline,
with organisers putting the number at about 3,700 calls a day.
The helpline staff work in teams, with six men and two women on
six-hour shifts and a skeleton staff takes calls for "religious
emergencies" during the night, the report in the British daily said.
Callers have a three minute time slot and have the option of choosing
service in Arabic, Urdu or English.
The authorities are surprised by the overwhelming response. "We were
not prepared for the popularity. Already, we get more calls than
Emirates Airlines," one official said.
With growing popularity of the service, plans are being sketched to
employ extra 50 muftis and open satellite centres elsewhere in the
From the Los Angeles Times
The Koran, punk rock and lots of questions
This much Hiba Siddiqui knows: She is a Muslim teenager living in America. But what does that mean for her?
By Erika Hayasaki
November 19, 2008
Reporting from Sugar Land, Texas — The front door shuts with a thud, and Hiba Siddiqui heeds her father's footsteps, heavy from a day at work, plodding across the foyer downstairs.
Time to change clothes, Hiba thinks, peeking her face over the balcony to shout "Hi, Baba!" before rushing into her bedroom, brightened by lime green and tangerine bed covers, splashed with the words "I ROCK." A magazine photo of a punk band called Anti-Flag is taped behind her door.
Hiba slips out of the white T-shirt with black letters that read "HOMOPHOBIA IS GAY," which she wore to Kempner High School, where she is a junior. It's one of a collection of slogans the 17-year-old has silk-screened on T-shirts in her bedroom, unbeknownst to her parents, both Muslim immigrants from Pakistan.
There are other aspects of Hiba's life lately she thinks they might not approve of either, like the Muslim punk music she has been listening to with lyrics such as "suicide bomb the GAP," or "Rumi was a homo." Or the novel she bought online, about rebellious Muslim teenagers in New York. It opens with: "Muhammad was a punk rocker, he tore everything down. Muhammad was a punk rocker and he rocked that town."
This much Hiba knows: She is a Muslim teenager living in America.
But what does that mean?
It is a question that pesters her, like the other questions she is afraid to ask her parents: Can she still be a good Muslim even though she does not dress in hijab or pray five times a day? If Islam is right, does that make other religions wrong? Is going to prom haram, or sinful? Is punk?
Hiba loves Allah but wrestles with how to express her faith. She wonders whether it is OK to question customs. Behind her parents' backs, she tests Islamic traditions, trying to decipher culture versus religion, refusing to blindly believe that they are one.
"Isn't that what Prophet Muhammad did?" asks Hiba, raising her thick black eyebrows and straightening her wiry frame, which takes on the shape of a question mark when she stands hunched in insecurity. "Question the times? Question what other people were doing?"
Hiba's hunt for answers has led her to other books too. They line her bedroom wall next to copies of Nylon magazine, one with "Gossip Girls" on its front cover. There's "Radiant Prayers," a collection from the Koran, and "Rumi: Hidden Music," a Persian poet celebrated in parts of the Muslim world.
But lately it is the subculture of punk Muslims -- a young movement that has captivated many Muslim teens across the world -- that speaks most loudly to Hiba's confusion.
One day, Hiba typed the word "punk" into an online search engine and stumbled across a book by writer Michael Muhammad Knight. "The Taqwacores," a 2003 novel -- its title a combination of the Arabic word "taqwa," or consciousness of God, and "hardcore" -- is about a group of punk Muslim friends: a straight-edged Sunni, a rebel girl who wears band patches on her burka and a dope-smoking Sufi who sports a mohawk. The characters drink alcohol, do drugs, urinate on the Koran, have sex, pray, love and worship Allah.
Hiba related to the main character's take on his identity, in which the author wrote: "I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. . . . Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth."
Hiba devoured the book, passing it around to her friends.
On MySpace, she discovered Muslim punk bands that had adopted Knight's book as a manifesto. The bands used their lyrics to turn stereotypes upside down, speaking to a generation of Muslim youth in America who feel discriminated against by their non-Muslim peers, and not devout enough for fellow followers of their Islamic faith.
The punk rockers called themselves Muslims, yet they challenged everything Hiba had been taught about her faith.
She sent online requests to Knight and the bands, asking them to be her friends.
Hiba was 10 when the World Trade Center Twin Towers crumbled.
She learned terrorists crashed the planes. You know who did it? she remembers a Christian classmate, who knew Hiba was Muslim, asking on the bus ride to 5th grade the next morning. The terrorists, Hiba realized, were Muslims.
The jokes began. "Osama's mama." "Go back to your terrorist cell." "What are you going to do, bomb me?" By the time she got to high school, her Muslim friends had started using them against each other.
It all helped her relate to The Kominas, a band formed by two young Muslims in Boston after they read "The Taqwacores." They wrote songs like "Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay" and "Sharia Law in the U.S.A," with lyrics such as "I am an Islamist, I am the Antichrist," in response to fears among American Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks and the Patriot Act.
For Hiba, being Muslim and growing up in Texas came with its share of confusion, long before Sept. 11, 2001. When she was in kindergarten, she remembers telling kids it was against her religion to say the Pledge of Allegiance. She didn't know why, she just figured it was. Hiba sensed she should not ask such questions of her parents.
About 170,000 Muslims live in the Houston metropolitan area. Hiba and her family live 30 minutes from Houston in Sugar Land, population 80,000, named after the Imperial Sugar Co. They have a two-story brick home with a basketball hoop, a double-car garage, and a tan minivan out front.
It is the largely conservative hometown of Tom DeLay, former Republican House majority leader, as well as Norm Mason, former chairman of the Texas Christian Coalition. It boasts a thriving oil industry, which employs Hiba's dad as a petroleum engineer. Her mother is a resident in a psychiatric studies program in New York who flies home on her breaks and weekends.
Hiba's school, Kempner High, has 2,700 students, with an almost equal distribution of white and Asian students, including Middle Easterners, and about 20% Latinos and 16% African Americans. The school's Muslim Students Assn. boasts nearly 100 members and meets every Friday.
Hiba did not start attending MSA meetings until recently. She wears the head scarf during prayers, but when they're over, she takes it off. She thinks there must be other Muslim students at Kempner High who feel conflicted, like her. That is why a few weeks ago, she decided to run for MSA president.
"I just want to reach out to them," she says, gazing through rectangle-framed glasses. "And let them know it's OK to be confused."
It is a Friday in late May, and voting in the MSA elections will begin after school.
The girls giggle, scrubbing their feet in a large silver sink in the bathroom, adjusting their head scarves in the mirror. They saunter into a science lab across from room 827, which smells like formaldehyde. Biology students dissected pigs today.
Hiba arrives late, carrying her speech typed on a sheet of paper ripped in half, marked up by pen.
"Anyone got an extra hijab?" a girl shouts.
Two girls without scarves pull the hoods of their sweat shirts over their hair. Hiba wraps a tan flowered scarf around her head and sits cross-legged in the third row of girls, as the boys kneel in rows in front of them.
The room falls silent. A boy's hum rises to a loud chant. "Allahu akbar." God is great.
After the prayer, the candidates are given 30 seconds to speak.
"OK, um Hiba Siddiqui?"
Hiba rises, and holding her speech, she takes a breath: "Mahatma Gandhi once said, 'The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. So, as female president I hope to accomplish that."
Polite clapping follows Hiba back to her seat.
The last female candidate gets up to speak. Her name is Shuruq Gyagenda, and she is 17. She recently moved to Sugar Land from Atlanta. The only African American Muslim female student in the room, Shuruq is coolly confident, standing tall in her canary yellow head scarf, long green-printed skirt and high heels.
"Do you all know T.I.P.?" Many students nod, familiar with the Atlanta rapper. "I don't listen to his music anymore," Shuruq says, "but in one of his songs, the first verse is: 'Do it to the maximum.' And the prophet Muhammad said: 'Whenever a Muslim endeavors to do something, he seeks to perfect it.'
"They're basically saying if you want to do something, you have to perfect yourself, from within, and from without. So, if I'm voted president, I will do my best to serve you in the best possible manner . . ."
Her speech receives the loudest applause of the day.
After school, Hiba thinks about Shuruq's words. Hiba does not feel perfect inside yet. She still has work to do, questions to ask.
At home that evening, the warm smell of roti bread cooking on a griddle drifts into the living room. Hiba crouches on a rug next to her mother, Samina Siddiqui, 47, who is elegantly draped in a lavender and violet-colored shalwar kameez, the traditional trousers and tunic.
They are a mother-daughter mirror, both barefoot, waves of black hair shrouding their shoulders, examining each other through eyeglasses. Siddiqui has just returned from New York for a visit. Hiba tells her about the MSA speeches. She will not learn the outcome of the votes until next week.
Siddiqui admits she seldom discusses Islam with her children. They are smart, Siddiqui says; she trusts they will find their way.
When it comes to Islam, Hiba says, "Sometimes, I feel like scared to ask."
"Who are you scared to ask?" Siddiqui says.
Hiba pulls back. "Just anyone, like family in general."
Hiba tries again, this time bringing up "The Taqwacores." The book, she tells her mother, is "centered around this one Muslim. He's kind of like the average kid, his parents want him to be an engineer and he comes from a good family. . . . "
"And then he goes to live at this house because of school and the house is full of, well, they call themselves Muslims."
Siddiqui raises her eyebrows.
"And they do things that are," Hiba pauses, giggling uncomfortably, "they do things that are considered, I guess you could say, bad. But deep down inside they have really strong faith, strong beliefs."
"I want to read this book," Siddiqui says.
"It's supposed to be shocking," Hiba says. "It doesn't mean I live like they do. They do things that are inappropriate."
Her mother looks startled, as if she has just been allowed to peek inside her daughter's barricaded mind: "Are you confused?"
"Sometimes I feel confused."
"OK," Siddiqui tells her. "Talk about that. Talk to us."
"I will," Hiba says, feeling guilty for assuming her parents would not listen. "I do want to be more open."
"Sometimes it gets mixed up, what is religion, what is culture?" Siddiqui tells her. "But I just want you to be a good human being."
Summer break comes and goes. Hiba travels to Pakistan for three weeks, and then to New York to visit family.
Standing beneath the lion's cove at the Bronx Zoo a few weeks before the beginning of her senior year, something about her is different.
Hiba lost the presidency to Shuruq and received another position. But since then, Hiba explains, she found herself. Shuruq taught her what it means to be devout.
"When people look at her they see a Muslim," Hiba says. "I don't know if I was ready to be the face of the MSA."
Hiba says she knows now that she is a Taqwacore. But the term born out of Knight's book has taken on a new meaning for her too. She could never bring herself to rebel like the characters, and despite the reverence she has for the lifestyle, she is not a punk.
"I'm not in-your-face. I don't have a mohawk," Hiba says.
"I think a Taqwacore can be anyone who is trying to find their own way."
Hiba has decided to pick which Islamic traditions to follow. After returning from Pakistan, she started praying five times a day.
She reads the Koran for guidance, remembering a proverb: "Whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks."
Hiba has spent much time trying to figure out who she is. But in those moments when it is just her and Allah, Hiba knows.
Like the Bible, and most other religious texts, the Qur'an doesn't have any verse that says, "God has made you black and white, male and female, straight and gay. Be you as brothers to one another, working, eating, praying, loving as one family." On the other hand, it also does not say "Marriage is only between one man and one woman," or even "between one man and up to four women."
There is a clear assumption in many passages in the Qur'an that marriage is between men and women. Passages that talk about how a couple should decide when to wean a child, what times of day it is permissible to have sexual relations during Ramadan, or what to do when conflict arises and a divorce seems the best solution.
But other passages -- passages that talk about the fundamental nature of human relationships as a duality -- do not have a gender dichotomy. The word "zauj," often translated as mate or spouse, signifies one half of a partnership, both husband and wife. This is a powerful concept which affirms the fundamental equality of both spouses and leaves room for a genderless conception of human partnering.
This fundamental pairing of human beings is described in several passages which talk about the creation of humanity as a people. The initial human entity -- the word in Arabic is grammatically feminine and is often translated as soul, though it can mean self, person, or ego -- is given a mate of like nature, created from her own substance.
4:1 O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from her created her mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.
30:21 And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts: verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.
I acknowledge that it is radical to interpret these verses as providing a vision of human pairing that does not discriminate on the basis of gender, and that traditionalist Muslims would frown on such an interpretation. However, it remains a fact that the Qur'an is a living document, Islam is a living religion, and while there are those who would like to continue interpreting the Qur'an as it was interpreted five hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago, I believe that the Qur'an must continually be understood in light of current information about human nature, race, gender, and class, and with reference to modern understandings of what is just, what is compassionate.
This process is going on in other areas of Qur'anic interpretation -- take for instance the verses which talk about human development in the womb. There were some quite amusing interpretations of these verses over the years -- at least from the point of modern gynecology. No Muslim in his or her right mind would say we should stick with the old interpretations and ignore modern science, especially when modern science gives us a picture that is very much in keeping with the Qur'anic verses.
Modern science has also shown that the brains of gay men and women are different, structurally, from the brains of straight men and women. Other studies point to factors in the womb that affect sexual orientation. And many studies point to a genetic bases for homosexuality. Our experiences of gay couples show us that gays find the same love, mercy and tranquility with others of the same sex that the majority of us find in heterosexual pairings.
How then can we fail to interpret the Qur'an in light of these understandings, this knowledge of human nature and physiology that simply did not exist in the 600s or the 900s?
Equally important, the Prophet teaches us to want for our brothers and sisters what we want for ourselves. The Qur'an teaches us to exemplify justice, mercy and compassion. If I want a warm, loving, fulfilling marriage with a person I choose, how can I deny that to my brother or sister? If social circumstances favor those who are married -- and in our society married couples have special benefits and/or rights in terms of economics, inheritance, visitation during sickness, adoption, etc -- how can we justify denying those rights and benefits to an entire segment of our society? If the Qur'an teaches that sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin (and it does), how can I condemn a significant portion of the population to sin or to a life of celibacy (which the Qur'an frowns upon as well)?
It may be a radical reading to use the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet to justify gay marriage, but to me it is the only one which upholds the fundamental Islamic ideals of fairness, equality of all human beings, compassion and mercy.
Close. Pamela K. Taylor
co-founder, Muslims for Progressive Values
"On Faith" panelist Pamela K. Taylor is co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values and director of the Islamic Writers Alliance. She is a member of the national board of advisors to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and served as co-chair of the Progressive Muslim Union for two years. Taylor is a strong supporter of the woman imam movement, which seeks the full participation of Muslim women in every aspect of life, including the pulpit. more »
December 23, 2008
Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book
By CHRISTOPHER MAAG
CLEVELAND — Five years ago, young Muslims across the United States began reading and passing along a blurry, photocopied novel called “The Taqwacores,” about imaginary punk rock Muslims in Buffalo.
“This book helped me create my identity,” said Naina Syed, 14, a high school freshman in Coventry, Conn.
A Muslim born in Pakistan, Naina said she spent hours on the phone listening to her older sister read the novel to her. “When I finally read the book for myself,” she said, “it was an amazing experience.”
The novel is “The Catcher in the Rye” for young Muslims, said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Springing from the imagination of Michael Muhammad Knight, it inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture.
Now the underground success of Muslim punk has resulted in a low-budget independent film based on the book.
A group of punk artists living in a communal house in Cleveland called the Tower of Treason offered the house as the set for the movie. The crumbling streets and boarded-up storefronts of their neighborhood resemble parts of Buffalo. Filming took place in October, and the movie will be released next year, said Eyad Zahra, the director.
“To see these characters that used to live only inside my head out here walking around, and to think of all these kids living out parts of the book, it’s totally surreal,” Mr. Muhammad Knight, 31, said as he roamed the movie set.
As part of the set, a Muslim punk rock musician, Marwan Kamel, 23, painted “Osama McDonald,” a figure with Osama bin Laden’s face atop Ronald McDonald’s body. Mr. Kamel said the painting was a protest against imperialism by American corporations and against Wahhabism, the strictest form of Islam.
Noureen DeWulf, 24, an actress who plays a rocker in the movie, defended the film’s message.
“I’m a Muslim and I’m 100-percent American,” Ms. DeWulf said, “so I can criticize my faith and my country. Rebellion? Punk? This is totally American.”
The novel’s title combines “taqwa,” the Arabic word for “piety,” with “hardcore,” used to describe many genres of angry Western music.
For many young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks but repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders, the novel became a blueprint for their lives.
“Reading the book was totally liberating for me,” said Areej Zufari, 34, a Muslim and a humanities professor at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla.
Ms. Zufari said she had listened to punk music growing up in Arkansas and found “The Taqwacores” four years ago.
“Here was someone as frustrated with Islam as me,” she said, “and he expressed it using bands I love, like the Dead Kennedys. It all came together.”
The novel’s Muslim characters include Rabeya, a riot girl who plays guitar onstage wearing a burqa and leads a group of men and women in prayer. There is also Fasiq, a pot-smoking skater, and Jehangir, a drunk.
Such acts — playing Western music, women leading prayer, men and women praying together, drinking, smoking — are considered haram, or forbidden, by millions of Muslims.
Mr. Muhammad Knight was born an Irish Catholic in upstate New York and converted to Islam as a teenager. He studied at a mosque in Pakistan but became disillusioned with Islam after learning about the sectarian battles after the death of Muhammad.
He said he wrote “The Taqwacores” to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only Allah.
After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five.
One band, the Kominas, wrote a song called “Suicide Bomb the Gap,” which became Muslim punk rock’s first anthem.
“As Muslims, we’re not being honest if we criticize the United States without first criticizing ourselves,” said Mr. Kamel, 23, who grew up in a Syrian family in Chicago. He is lead singer of the band al-Thawra, “the Revolution” in Arabic.
For many young American Muslims, the merger of Islam and rebellion resonated.
Hanan Arzay, 15, is a daughter of Muslim immigrants from Morocco who lives in East Islip, N.Y. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, pedestrians threw eggs and coffee cups at the van that transported her to a Muslim school, she said, and one person threw a wine bottle, shattering the van’s window.
At school, her Koran teacher threw chalk at her for requesting literal translations of the holy book, Ms. Arzay said. After she was expelled from two Muslim schools, her uncle gave her “The Taqwacores.”
“This book is my lifeline,” Ms. Arzay said. “It saved my faith.”
Christians and Muslims
David Gray: Republicans and Muslim Americans
BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: It’s common to hear and read stories about Islamic fundamentalists and their rigid interpretation of the Qu’ran. But we have a story today about transformation in the Islamic Middle East — moderate Muslims challenging the fundamentalists. The contest is being played out on satellite TV channels where young Muslim televangelists are preaching a combination of piety and modern life. Kate Seelye has our special report from Cairo.
KATE SEELYE: At a cultural center in Cairo, there’s a buzz of excitement. Thousands of youth have gathered — but not for a concert or a play. They’ve come to hear a lecture by a young Muslim preacher.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Moez Masoud.
SEELYE: He’s 29-year-old Moez Masoud, a former advertising executive who turned to religion the death of several close friends. Masoud opens his lecture with a prayer and an appeal.
MOEZ MASOUD (Muslim Televangelist, speaking to audience, through translator): It’s not good to separate religion from life because life will turn into a jungle. Let’s take a closer look at religion and it won’t seem as so gloomy.
SEELYE: The audience is captivated by his message: it’s a call for compassion and love as well as tolerance.
Mr. MASOUD (speaking in Arabic to audience, through translator): Islam respects the principle of freedom of opinion, as long as the opinion is respectful of Islam.
SEELYE: Often referencing the Qu’ran, Masoud jumps from topic to topic. One moment he’s gently poking fun of religious fanatics, the next he’s talking about the beauty of art. Tonight he focuses on music. Is it allowed in the Qu’ran?
Mr. MASOUD (speaking in Arabic to audience, through translator): Is it really mentioned you shouldn’t play certain instruments? Or does it depend on the religious interpretation? There is a belief that certain instruments might be used for a good cause.
SEELYE: And then the highlight of the night: a musician comes on stage and sings about the beauty of marriage.
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN (singing in Arabic)
SEELYE: The audience loves it. Afterwards, many say Masoud’s message gives them hope.
MOHAMMED (through translator): I used to have some extremist ideas about faith, but when I heard Moez, so many things changed in my life. In my view so many things were wrong, wrong, wrong until I met him.
SEELYE: Masoud’s ideas are breath of fresh air for many young Arabs. In stark contrast to Islamist fundamentalists, he tells them they can be good Muslims and also enjoy life.
Mr. MASOUD: A lot of the Islamic faith is presented to them as only religious — meaning only outward things. It’s presented as a bunch of do’s and don’ts. And you know, with just globalization and a lot of the quote on quote, “Western culture” finding its way here, if Islam is not presented in its most expansive interpretation and really to just used, you know, every day in the coolest way possible, then there is no way people are going to approach it.
An audience listens to Masoud.
SEELYE: But Masoud doesn’t just encourage youth to believe, he also urges them to be active.
Mr. MASOUD: You’re also here to develop Earth and to make sure there’s charity and to make sure that everyone is eating and to make sure that there’s hospitals, and to just play God’s role on Earth.
SEELYE: Masoud began preaching about eight years ago after graduating from the American University of Cairo. In 2002, he landed his first TV show, but it was this program that introduced him to millions. “The Right Path” launched in 2007 on a popular religious satellite channel. Every week, Masoud travels the world, discussing issues like drugs and dating. He tries to help Muslim youth better understand the West. In one episode, he condemned the 2005 London bombings.
Mr. MASOUD (on “The Right Path,” speaking Arabic, through translator): The Qu’ran says the one who kills or spreads corruption, kills all humanity.
SEELYE: Masoud isn’t alone in calling for greater tolerance and reform. He’s one of a new wave of moderate Muslim preachers. Their goal: to mobilize Arabs and improve their societies. The most famous of them is Amr Khaled. Khaled started as an accountant but rose to fame about seven years ago with a TV show that encouraged piety and community activism. Khaled is now so popular in the Muslim world that his Web site gets more hits than Oprah Winfrey’s.
Abdullah Shleifer teaches media at the American University of Cairo. He says many young Muslims, like those at this university, don’t relate to traditional religious scholars. They’re turning to what Shleifer calls the “New Preachers” like Masoud and Khaled for guidance.
Professor ABDULLAH SHLEIFER (American University in Cairo): The new preachers share with their audience modernity. They have clarified, no doubt, their own inner discourse on how you can be moderates and pious. And by modern I don’t mean, you know, using appliances. I mean a modern lifestyle that at the same time is a pious lifestyle, you know. And that’s very difficult for people and particularly when you’re getting images coming in from MTV where modernity means anti-piety.
SEELYE: Shleifer says the new preachers are using a very modern tool to get their message across — satellite television. There are now more than 300 satellite channels in the Arab world. They reach tens of millions, and they’re allowing voices like Masoud’s and Khaled’s to target large numbers of people.
Amr Khaled’s latest show airs on this channel — Risala. It’s a new, 24-hour religious station run by Tarek Suweidan, a Kuwaiti cleric. It airs talk shows and religious call-in programs. Today Suweidan hosts a show called “Wasatiya”– “In the Middle.” Suweidan says Risala brings fresh voices and opinions to Arab audiences with a specific goal in mind.
Sheikh TAREK SUWEIDAN (Station Director, Risala): We want them to be more moderate. We want them to be more modern. The second thing that we would like to change is the interests. Many off our youth, their interest is marginal. They care about things that have no real effect in their lives, in the future, or the modernization of the Arab world.
SEELYE: Suweidan says Risala has the power to help transform the region.
Sheikh SUWEIDAN: Satellite TV is the most powerful weapon in the hands of the Islamic revival today.
SEELYE: And that revival is taking place against the backdrop of increased religious fervor here. In the past decade, mosque attendance has exploded. Most Muslim women have donned the headscarf. Some are even starting to wear the all enveloping niqab.
Widespread poverty, political stagnation, and loss of hope have all fed the boom in religion. In poor neighborhoods like these, fundamentalist imams are increasingly popular with their promises of a better afterlife. They are known as Salafis, and they’ve also benefited from the media revolution. The Salafis dominate the many religious channels in Egypt and preach a rigid morality as well as a paranoia about other faiths and cultures like this cleric, Mohammed Hassaan.
MOHAMMED HASSAN (on TV, speaking in Arabic, through translator): Recent events have been exploited by Jews and their supporters to stab Islam.
SEELYE: So in today’s Egypt who has the greatest impact — the fundamentalists or the new preachers? Khalil Anani is a scholar with the Al Ahram Institute and an expert on Islamist movements. He says the Salafis are very influential among the poor, but the new preachers also play an important role.
KHALIL ANANI (Al Ahram Institute): I think the main task off this new preacher phenomenon is to spread tolerance and the values of coexistence and to be civilized in your thinking. This is the most important benefit now to decrease the tension between the West and Islam.
SEELYE: But Anani doesn’t think the new preachers, like Moez Masoud, will have much lasting impact.
Mr. ANANI: They are a temporary phenomenon. They have no organizational or institutional bodies. They won’t be effective in the future of Egypt.
SEELYE: American University of Cairo professor Abdullah Shleifer strongly disagrees.
Prof. SHLEIFER: I don’t think Moez is a temporary phenomenon. I think his message so meets the growing concerns of this new young portion of the mainstream that is, is becoming the mainstream as they grow. He is in rapport actually, now with television, with millions and will be in rapport with still greater millions and this is not a passing fad. This is part of the transformation of Arab society.
SEELYE: Back in his Cairo apartment, Masoud relaxes with his guitar. He’s playing a song he wrote, “Coffee for the Heart.” It’s about spiritual rejuvenation.
Mr. MASOUD: So, what I’m doing right now is at least, you know, trying to put the light back into the attempts to religiously revive any thing because religion, when misunderstood, can take on a very dark form.
SEELYE: Masoud isn’t worried about the impact he’ll have. He’s pretty confident that with time more and more Muslims will discover what he calls “the right path.”
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Kate Seelye in Cairo.
Yoga fatwa? They won’t stand for it Although Indonesia is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, many view Islamic clerics’ fatwas as anachronistic and unnecessary.
By Paul Watson
February 06, 2009 in print edition A-3
Indonesia’s most powerful Islamic scholars weren’t looking for a debate when they handed down their latest fatwas on how to be a good Muslim.
But they still got an argument and, perhaps worse, a chorus of “Who cares?” after decreeing that it is haram, or forbidden, to smoke in public, or for children and pregnant women to have a puff of tobacco anywhere.
It didn’t matter that the clerics were providing sound health guidance. The council of clerics that interprets Sharia, or Islamic law, for the world’s largest Muslim population often leaves many shrugging their shoulders in confusion or disbelief.
When about 700 members of the council handed down a fresh list of fatwas last week, they included ones on marriage to minors, cornea donations and yoga. As usual, most Indonesians blithely ignored the rulings.
Unlike more fundamentalist Islamic cultures such as Iran, where fatwas can be a life-or-death matter, most people in this overwhelmingly Muslim country of 237 million pay little attention because the edicts usually have little to do with what really matters to them, said Rumadi, a lecturer at an Islamic state university here.
“If a fatwa can’t be seen as solving a problem, it will only create more problems,” added the lecturer, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.
Fatwas don’t have the force of law in Indonesia, which is officially a secular society that protects the rights of non-Muslim minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. With that in mind, many Indonesian Muslims view the Council of Ulema’s judgments as unnecessary, often anachronistic meddling in their personal lives.
One of the latest fatwas approved of men marrying child brides, as long as their motives are good. Islam doesn’t set a minimum age for marriage, the council declared, adding that “early marriage” is prohibited if “it is only for pleasure.”
As the country’s emerging democracy gains strength, so have the council’s detractors, who like many people here in Jakarta, the capital, wish the Islamic scholars would just butt out.
Days after the anti-smoking fatwa made national headlines, Jakarta’s air is still pungent with the sweet scent of Indonesians’ favorite smoke: clove cigarettes called kreteks because of the soft crackling sound the 19th century originals made as flecks of spice burned. Near high schools across the city, whether Muslim madrasas or secular public schools, hawkers were happily selling single cigarettes to crowds of kids.
Battered by waves of bad economic news, the government appeared relieved that the fatwa seemed to have little effect on the craving for cigarettes in a country that has the world’s fifth-largest population of smokers. Tobacco taxes bring more than $4 billion into the treasury each year, and the head of customs and excise estimated that revenue could drop 10% if people followed the fatwa.
What’s lucrative for the tax man is lethal for many smokers: About 200,000 Indonesians die each year from tobacco-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization.
To some Indonesians, the council crossed a democratic line with a fatwa that said a Muslim shouldn’t abstain from voting. Opponents insist that voters have the right not to cast ballots in this summer’s national elections.
The Jakarta Post defiantly said in a headline, “Do I go to hell if I don’t vote? Hell, no!”
The council tried to ease any fears among electoral abstainers, who make up at least 40% of voter rolls in local elections, saying the fatwa is merely helpful advice.
The council was set up in 1975 by President Suharto, who, after seizing power in a military coup a decade earlier, drew support from Islamic parties that liked his tough anti-communist stand.
Suharto tolerated moderate Muslim leaders, particularly those who supported him, while banning radical Islamic parties.
The dozens of Suharto-era fatwas were easily ignored. The first batch in 1976 included instructions on how to perform Friday prayers in a boat, and told government officials to live modestly, an unlikely proposition in Suharto’s graft-laden bureaucracy.
Seven years later, the clerics defined proper praying in a two-story mosque, forbade the eating of rabbit meat and prohibited the singing of Koranic verses. More food edicts followed against dining on frogs, worms, crickets and crabs.
The council behaved “just like a [trained] seal” under Suharto, said Novriantoni Kahar, program manager for the Liberal Islam Network.
Yet even after gaining more authority over interpretation of Sharia, the clerics still have a credibility problem, Kahar said.
“People criticize the [council] for issuing an ineffective fatwa,” Kahar said. “Well, it should be ineffective. By issuing ineffective fatwas, we know that its role is insignificant.”
Still, there is increasing friction between liberal and conservative Muslims, and between Muslims and minority religious groups, as hard-line Muslims press for changes that most Indonesians view as excessive.
When parliament toughened an anti-pornography law last year, the government of the Indonesian resort island of Bali, which is predominantly Hindu, said the law threatened cultural rights by vaguely defining as illegal anything that inflames sexual desire.
Last week, the council deliberated on the propriety of yoga and decided it was OK for Muslims to do the poses as long as they don’t chant. The clerics also condemned vasectomies.
Such rulings haven’t satisfied a group of more fundamentalist clerics, who have tried to muscle out the government-sanctioned council in a fatwa fight.
Last weekend, a group of extremist clerics here declared its own fatwa against the Rotary and Lions clubs, insisting that a Zionist plot controls the service clubs better known in the West for chicken lunches and charity work.
The council said it would investigate the two clubs, which were banned until 2000, and issue its own findings. The clerics responded by defying the council’s authority, warning Muslim members of the clubs to quit immediately, and leaving them to worry about what might happen if they don’t.
Recent edicts by Islamic clerics
Fatwas handed down by the Indonesian council of Islamic clerics in recent days:
On smoking: It is forbidden to smoke in public, or for children and pregnant women to smoke tobacco anywhere.
On marriage: Men are allowed to wed child brides, as long as they have good motives and are not just seeking pleasure.
On exercise: Yoga can be practiced as long as there is no chanting during the routines.
Let me inform you that I am a staunch Muslim following all the Islamic tenets in the right interpretation and spirit and there is no such thing as yoga being 'haram' (disallowed) in Islam. In my case, I have found that Islamic yoga is a reality. It is possible to employ the skills of yoga to worship Allah better and be a better Muslim.
A fatwa by some Malaysian and Indonesian ulema declaring yoga anti-Islamic is nothing but misunderstanding and misinterpreting the fact that yoga and namaz are almost identical. Such half-baked ulema and intellectuals are actually responsible for letting Islam and Muslims down.
Having practiced yoga during my school days, I found it is easily integrated with Islamic life, in fact the two assist each other. Islam and yoga together make a mutually beneficial holistic synergy. Both are agreed that, while the body is important as a vehicle on the way to spiritual realization and salvation, the human being's primary identity is not with the body but with the eternal spirit.
Maintaining a healthy and fit body is a requirement in Islam, which teaches a Muslim that his or her body is a gift from Allah. Yoga happens to be a common ground between Hindus and Muslims.
The purposes of yoga and Tariqat-e-Naqshbandi (Sufi lifestyle) is apparently similar as both aim at achieving a mystical union with the ultimate reality.
The Indian Muslims' love affair with yoga is a complex thing. There's the general disenchantment with strict, orthodox Islam of the myopic clerics and the accompanying pull to alternative forms of spirituality.
Yoga, according to Ashraf F. Nizami's book "Namaz, the Yoga of Islam" (published by D.B. Taraporevala, Mumbai 1977), is not a religion. Rather, it is a set of techniques and skills that enhance the practice of any religion. Nizami writes that in namaz various constituents like sijdah is like half shirshasana while qayam is vajrasana in the same way as ruku is paschimothanasana.
Even Father Rev. M. Dechanel wrote a book on Christian yoga recording that practising yoga is encouraged because it is a way towards the realization of Christian teachings.
According to Badrul Islam, a yoga instructor at a government academy in Dehradun, one of the most obvious correspondences between Islam and yoga is the resemblance of the salat (five-time prayer a day) to the physical exercises of yoga asanas. The root meaning of the word salat is 'to bend the lower back', as in yoga; the Persians translated this concept with the word namaz, from a verbal root meaning 'to bow', etymologically related to the Sanskrit word namaste.
Since the yogic metaphysic of Advaita Vedanta is in perfect accordance with the Islamic doctrine of tauhid (God's oneness), there is perfect compatibility between Islam and yoga on the highest level.
The "Book of Sufi Healing" by Hakim G.M. Chishti clearly states that life, from its beginning to end, is one continuous set of breathing practices. However, in Tariqat-e-Naqshabandiyah, the Sufi tradition of Islam, breathing practice has been there exactly as in yoga.
The enigmatic and most revered qari, Abdul Basit of Egypt, whose recitation of the holy Quran is considered the best till date, practiced breathing exercises exactly similar to pranayam and was able to recite a surah by holding his breath for such a long duration that even medical experts were amazed. However, no one told the qari that he did it with yoga!
Nowadays, yoga is commercially promoted for health. In fact, less exercise owing to long office hours on computers is one of the problems of the modern world. Cars, motorcycles and computers are the pulse of contemporary life. Because of these conveniences people no longer think about physical exercise, which makes a good excuse for Muslims to be offered yoga lessons.
Yoga today is a way of life for the followers of all religions.
The place of yoga in the lives of most Muslims, I imagine, will not be shifted by Indonesian and Malayian ulema's far-fetched fatwas. Those who practice will practice, the so-called super-pious will frown. Even in the Middle East and Iran, yoga is a pet with Muslims.
Most Muslims in India are dazed that the all encompassing credentials of yoga need to be debated. Let's appreciate that at this time the pro-yoga fatwa by the renowned Darul Uloom Deoband seminary has given it a nod and Swami Ramdev has also given the green signal that Muslims can use the word Allah for Om.
(The author is a commentator on social and religious issues. He can be contacted at firozbakhtahmed07@...)
Salma Mohiuddin works from home for the online journal Western Muslim, which serves her fellow followers of the faith. She says the meditative aspect of her faith keeps her life in perspective.
Photograph by: Ted Jacob, Calgary Herald,
Muslims in the western world continue to walk a fine line between remaining true to their faith and integrating effectively into a complex, increasingly secular society.
That's the conclusion of a new study prepared for the Institute for Research on Public Policy by Karim H. Karim, director of the school of journalism and communications at Ottawa's Carleton University.
"Among the study participants, there was a keen interest in engaging with western society," says Karim. "However, in wanting to become, say, good Canadian citizens, their values were naturally drawn from their faith."
Karim said Muslims he polled were hungry for more guidance from their religious leaders in addressing the evolving ethical and moral issues of western society. A number of participants said imams who come from foreign backgrounds can struggle to understand the western culture in which members of their faith community live. Some said that on contemporary issues such as bioethics, they draw their guidance from scientists who were Muslims, rather than religious leaders.
The report is the result of months of interviews that Karim conducted with lay Muslims in Montreal, Ottawa, Washington and three cities in England.
"Many people said the imams were well versed in the theology and practice of Islam, but in terms of pastoral care, they felt there was something lacking," says Karim.
Calgary Imam Fayaz Tilly is part of a new wave of North American Muslim leaders. Born in Toronto and theologically trained in Buffalo, N. Y., Tilly says being part of the North American social fabric from birth helps him relate to the day-to-day issues facing local Muslims.
"My training was very traditional, but the scholars I studied with were educated in England. They understood the desire of our people to be, say, proud Canadians but at the same time hold onto our Muslim values," says Tilly. "We can strive to be part of an inclusive society, but that doesn't mean we have to compromise on our faith."
Tilly says he's often asked for advice from local Muslims on basic, day-to-day issues such as health and diet, economics and dress codes.
Salma Mohiuddin, a planner for the City of Calgary who also edits Western Muslim, an online journal for local Muslims, says Canadian Muslim youth face challenges in being drawn toward pop culture while remaining true to Islam's teachings.
"I strive to succeed in all aspects in my life, of being part of the greater Calgary community, but also actively practising my faith, to have that important spiritual element in my life," says Mohiuddin. "The meditative aspect of my faith helps keep things in perspective in my daily life."
Ayaz Gulamhussein, a local petroleum geologist, said he feels "totally comfortable" being Muslim and Canadian at the same time.
Gulamhussein says North American Muslims were never really challenged to talk about their faith before the 9/11 attacks. He adds Muslim history is not traditionally studied in a Judeo-Christian society and that misconceptions about Islam continue to dominate the perception of many North Americans.
"It's sad the Muslim world is noted in the West for the violence of certain minorities rather than for the peacefulness of the vast majority of its people," says Gulamhussein.
He says western Muslims can integrate successfully in their community by demonstrating the spiritual values of Islam while taking part in practical projects that benefit the larger society, not just their own faith communities.
Khadijah Chmilovska, Muslim chaplain at the University of Calgary, says many young Muslims she meets are conscious of a daily balancing act between faith, work, education and personal life.
"They draw inspiration from other Muslims they see here in Calgary who are raising their kids with that great balance," says Chmilovska.
She says foreign-born imams relate well culturally to members of the older Muslim generation, who want their children to fully integrate into Canadian society. However, she admits the shortage of younger, North American-raised imams "can create a bit of a disconnect from the community for Muslims in their teens and 20s."
Karim notes while many issues in his focus groups were universal, there were differences between Canada, the U. S. and Britain.
"In Britain, Muslims tend to be more isolated from the larger community, while in Canada, there is a substantially greater sense of citizenship," says Karim.
A common theme in all three countries, Karim notes, was a desire for more engagement by Muslim leadership in larger social, cultural and even economic projects that would better the greater community.
"They wanted the people who preached in the mosques to practise what they preached," says Karim.
Karim says the press often simplistically portrays the Muslim world as an ongoing feud between moderates and fundamentalists, but that the soul of Muslim society in the West is much more nuanced than that.
"I'm hoping this report provokes a discussion and a better understanding among front-line workers, policy-makers and the media about the complexities of Muslim society," said Karim.
What do Muslims want? 21st-century religious leaders
KARIM H. KARIM
Saturday, March 21, 2009
"My ultimate fantasy would be to find an imam ... who goes out to work from nine to five, takes the bus, is dealing with his kid who is picking up a marijuana joint at the age of 13. This is the kind of person that I want instructing me on Friday - not speaking about the battles we won 1,200 years ago."
Such was the complaint and hope of a Montreal participant at a discussion on intellectual leadership among Muslims living in Western countries.
The discussion was one of a series of focus groups in Canada, the United States and Britain that revealed dissatisfaction among Muslims with their religious leaders' lack of cultural understanding. Most mosque imams brought over from Muslim-majority countries do not have the knowledge to help congregants deal with life in the West.
An Environics study revealed that most Muslims are keen to integrate into Canadian society. The focus groups' findings show that they also want to remain faithful to Islam and engage with modernity on their own terms.
As with adherents of other religions, ethics for Muslims are faith-based. Islam favours a close connection between religion and the material world, and its followers see good citizenship as intimately linked with being good Muslims.
However, many feel unable to receive the Islamic guidance that they are seeking in their new environments. Not only are "imported imams" unaware of the socio-cultural contexts of Western countries, most of them appear ill-equipped to handle contemporary ethical dilemmas raised by technological advances.
Focus group participants indicated that they found the advice of Muslim medical practitioners to be more useful than that of theologians in matters of bio-ethics.
"What I am looking for is an intellectual Islam that examines where we are today and how we move forward," said a participant in Leicester, England. "(But) when I go to the mosque ... all I see (is) this red face, beard, and shouting and screaming."
Members of congregations are often much better educated than mosque imams. Canadian Muslims tend to have high levels of education, contrary to popular stereotypes. "Nearly one in three Muslim women has a university degree, compared with one in five among all (Canadian) women," notes the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.
Women appear to be very keen to conduct their own examination of Islamic theology. They are studying scripture and secondary material, and sometimes challenging the rules that govern their lives. A participant in the all-female focus group in Washington asserted that "when it comes to some issues like women, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is so flawed."
Participants in various locations said they did look up to some scholars of Islam who had both traditional and Western training. Such intellectuals are praised for their critical examination of received wisdom. Religious leaders working to alleviate poverty, engaging in social development, and seeking ways to prevent extremism are also admired.
In addition to traditional Islamic institutions, there have been established in Western countries some facilities to train religious teachers how to enable Muslims to interact with modernity. The California-based Zaytuna Institute's seminary program seeks to provide "intellectual tools and understanding to effectively engage Western society and thought." The Muslim College and the Institute for Ismaili Studies, both in London, seek to educate teachers who can enable Muslims to live productive lives in the contemporary world.
The preparation of such religious personnel might determine the kinds of relations that future generations of Muslims will have with their compatriots. Some of the frustrations currently felt about the quality of Islamic leadership might have contributed to the militancy adopted by some Western Muslims.
One focus-group participant in London referred to an acquaintance who had favoured "martyrdom operations" because he was fed up with the sermons that did not address Muslims' present-day problems. This discussion took place a few weeks before the July 2005 bombings in that city.
Although much smaller than Christianity, Islam is now the second-largest religion in almost all Western countries. Policy makers and journalists often tend to perceive Muslim communities within the binary frame of "fundamentalists" and "moderates." Such reductionist views prevent an informed understanding of the complexities in the soul-searching taking place among Muslims regarding their identities, civic ethics and citizenship in Western societies.
Karim H. Karim, director of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, is the author of Changing Perceptions of Islamic Authority among Muslims in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, www.irpp.org
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