Thursday, June 14, 2018

Eid ul Fitr

                                                                THE MUSLIM EID

Maryam Sakeenah

The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, ‘there is a festival for every nation, and this (Eid) is our festival.’

There are two Eids in the Muslim lunar year, essentially about thanksgiving, sharing and strengthening communal ties. The first of these (Eid ul Fitr) is celebrated at the close of Ramadan (the fasting month), as an expression of thanksgiving for all that Allah has blessed us with, particularly the Divine Guidance in the Quran the revelation of which began in the month of Ramadan. It is also a thanksgiving for having received the blessed month and acquired spiritual reward through spending it in intense worship and self-restraint.

The second Eid (Eid ul Azha) celebrates the end of the pilgrimage season and the Abrahamic legacy of sacrifice that Islam revives. Both emphasize on giving and including others in joy and festivity by making charity on the occasion a compulsory religious obligation.

On both Eids, the day begins with special prayers performed in congregation in which God is glorified and the prayer leader (imam) engages in ritual invocation to God before the congregation. This invocation calls upon God to ease the suffering of Muslims in specific and mankind in general, to keep one guided and accept one’s effort in His way. At the end of the service people meet and greet each other and give charity to the poor, many of whom congregate to mosques to receive their share to be able to partake of the festivities. Hence a day of celebration commences.

Celebrations on each Eid have unique cultural aspects all over the Muslim world. While the essence is the same, the expression varies across cultures. In my culture, some of the interesting and spectacular Eid day practices include the Pakistani ‘three step hug’ and eating sweet vermicelli cooked in milk for breakfast. For the ladies it means dressing up in glittery traditional clothing- the ‘shalwar kameez’ and ‘dupatta’, which consist of loose pantaloons and flowy long shirts draped with a long traditional scarf. Ladies also wear coloured bangles and paint their hands in intricate patterns with henna. For children Eid means getting pocket money from all uncles and aunts called ‘Eidee.’
One beautiful experience exclusive to Eid ul Azha is the distribution of sacrificial meat. I remember family elders gathering to do the annual ritual efficiently and zealously. According to Islamc tradition, the meat is to be divided into three parts: the first for oneself and one’s family, the other for relatives and neighbours and the third for the poor and needy in one’s community.

One of my Eid day moments is when the door bell rings... I rush to the door and find some hungry old man with sunken eyes or a ragged woman with her malnourished children wanting to know if they could get a share of the meat. The act of giving of what has been entrusted to you by the True Giver, and which is to be spent in His way for His people is spiritually fulfilling.

Having studied at a Catholic convent, as a child I always found Christian celebrations more grandly ritualistic and colourful. I now realize that the simplicity characteristic of Islamic festivals is beautiful in its own quiet way. Islamic sources strongly condemn extravagance, pomp and luxury as ingratitude to God and a sign of selfish arrogance. The simplicity levels all to reinforce Islamic fraternity and egalitarianism. The simple joys of Eid are affordable to all.    

Venturing out in the streets of my city on Eid day is a heartening experience- I see, for once, smiles and laughter- little girls all dressed up, children at the park flying kites and holding balloons waiting for the ice-candy man. I let my spirit join in, my heart light and celebrating a vicarious happiness. It comforts me with the illusion I wish to hang on to just a while longer- the world is a happy, sunlit little home, after all!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Secular State for Muslim Societies?


Maryam Sakeenah

In a country plagued by violence in the name of religion and sect and infested with decadent religio-political outfits, secularism as a pillar of statehood comes to be seen as an ideal. The typical response by the religious to the eulogization of secularism in Muslim societies is to warn their followers that secularism is equivalent to unbelief and is a great evil against religion.

In understanding the secular state to be an ideal polity free of the tyranny of religious politics and based on pluralism and egalitarianism, we gloss over both its nuanced history and its practice in the present. On the other hand, viewing secularism as unbelief and as hostile to religious belief is not only inaccurate but also ignorant of the great ravages religious politics is capable of and has often unleashed, especially in European history.

More accurately, a secular state ideally entails the dissociation of religion from the state, guaranteeing religious liberties to all groups without prejudice and discrimination on religious grounds. It does not mean the elimination of religion, but its privatization.

In the European experience, the achievement of the secular state was indeed a liberation from the religious oppression of the Church throughout much of what is described as the Dark Ages. In pre Enlightenment Europe, religious politics were indeed unregulated and unaccountable, exploiting with impunity under the ‘Divine Right of Kings.’

Having said that, the universalization of the European secular experiment is a mistake we often fall into making, given the well entrenched Eurocentrism of education in postcolonial societies. Non Eurpoean societies had radically different approaches to and experiences with the question of religion and state.

Even a cursory glance at Muslim history makes it clear that the religious state was not always an instrument of corruption and abuse. It is difficult to contest the progressive and prosperous character of religious rule in the earliest history of Islam before the monarchical takeover of the Caliphate.  There is evidence attesting to how rights and privileges were accorded justly, the supremacy of law held high and protections extended to non Muslims.

In most of Islam’s history, involvement of religious scholars and religious leaders in politics checked, regulated and held governments accountable. In fact, religious leaders- specifically the great Imams of both the Shiite and Sunni tradition often became active forces of resistance to political excesses and abuse of religion. The example of Hussain R.A and the Imams of the Ahl ul Bayt as well as other Companions and Tabiyeen is a powerful legacy. 

The example of Al Andalusia under Islamic rule shines through history as a model of pluralism as well as intellectual, cultural and social progress. This is why the thesis that the secular values of egalitarianism and pluralism can in fact be accommodated within the ideal Muslim state exists. What needs to be understood here is that given this history, Muslims are entitled to conclude that the achievement of what are understood as secular ideals does not require the liberation of the state from religion. In other words, while standing as a refreshing exception, Andalusia shows that the achievement of a progressive, diverse and tolerant civilization is possible and has been achieved without going through the separation of church and state- unlike in the European experience.
In the Middle East, quite contrary to Europe, one finds that secularism has been a foreign implant and secular regimes have been backed by Western states with their own neocolonialist agendas. Such secular regimes in the Middle East have often been brutal and oppressive, corrupt, high-handed and even undemocratic. They have never really represented the popular will. This reality of secularism in the Muslim world is far from the ideal of secularism that fires our imaginations.

In fact the reality of secularism even in the West is anything but. It has assumed the character of a totalitarian ‘ism’ aggressively fanatical in its intolerance of religious belief.  According to Phillip Bond and Adrian Pabst writing for the International Herald Tribune, "European societies enshrine the primacy of secular law over and against religious principles. Far from ensuring neutrality and tolerance, the secular European state arrogates to itself the right to control and legislate all spheres of life; state constraints apply especially to religion and its civic influence.”

Karen Armstrong, referring to the concepts of ‘dharma’ in Hinduism and ‘deen’ in Islam asserts how secularism is a radical modern innovation as religion was always understood by human beings as a way of life without the public/private schism. She writes, ‘Questions like social justice or rights have always had sacred import.’

Whether we believe in the establishment of secular states in Muslim societies or not, we must accept that the case for secular states in Muslim societies is not only ahistorical, it is stridently Eurocentric at best, and neocolonialist at worst.  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Maryam Sakeenah
The righteous rage that boils over into lynchings, mobs, suspicions and allegations of blasphemy shows a loss of balance and rationality in our social behaviour. This is a disturbing truth that needs a serious collective introspection. Among other things, a lot of this (self) righteous rage is because of an inability and unwillingness to intellectually confront and address diversity, difference and dissenting opinions.
The religious discourse in our society is largely anti intellectual to the extent that even an intellectual approach to religion is sneered at as deviant, threatening and disrespectful. This simplistic, anti intellectual discourse is asserted by wielding power and instilling fear by religious leaders, and the use of threat and violence by those who lack the privilege of religious authority.
The decadence of religious discourse in this part of the world is rooted in the colonial past when the prestigious madrassah was systematically  marginalized and disempowered as part of the colonial education policy of ‘schooling the world.’ The cornered madrassah took refuge behind a defensive, protectionist, insecure religious discourse, trying to hold on in a rapidly changing milieu. In an attempt at self preservation, this defensive discourse refused to engage and became airtight and obscurantist. This still characterizes the madrassah and those who emerge from the system: a stubborn refusal to intellectually engage with alternative discourses that the modern world is teeming with. But we cannot insulate our youth from the tide of intellectual assault from modern ideas and new patterns of thinking. There will be questions raised, and our refusal to engage or even bother with articulating responses will alienate thinking minds.
It is already happening at an ever-increasing rate. As a teacher on Islam, I have observed an incremental trend over the years, of skepticism among young people exposed to the kind of heavily Westernized  modern education we have at private urban educational institutions. There are lots of questions as they encounter diverse patterns of thought. Unfortunately, answers through religion are most often not available, and even asking is often put down as impertinent. This produces a disenchantment with a faith that is unable to address critical and vital questions of the day. It is these disenchanted bright minds that possess social and cultural capital to make up the pool that supplies the academia, the media and the bureaucracy with fresh human resource. Hence this early skepticism which hardens into a strident secularism, filters into institutions of state and society, to be systematically wielded and exerted with power.
At the other end, this systematic empowerment of the secularized, socially privileged lot breeds frustrated rage in the conservative mind. The conservative mind is fiercely anti intellectual. This anti intellectualism takes any intellectual challenge as an audacious affront, a ‘conspiracy against Islam’- hence violence becomes the only ‘language’ to respond with.
These developments are ominous, and the cracks and gashes are already appearing, cutting across society, letting the red hot lava boil over. Unfortunately, few are cognizant of this and even fewer conscious of our responsibility to stem the process in our capacities. Any calls for a progressive Islamic discourse are put down with suspicion of hidden agendas. The truth is, developing a modern intellectual and philosophical Islamic discourse and mainstreaming it is nobody’s agenda but Islam’s own need. In fact, Islam has had progressive thinkers throughout its history. Being progressive is not deviance; it is an approach which makes human beings throughout time sift through all the narratives and reveal the essence in a way that is most relevant and applicable for their times.
In more open societies in the West, Muslim communities have no option but to engage and adapt, hence one sees an increasing realization of the need to come up with an intellectually robust spirituality that does not cave in or go berserk on encounter with difference. Thinkers and scholars like Tariq Ramadan, Yasir Qadhi, Omar Suleiman and Hamza Yusuf among others are rising up to the intellectual challenge Islam is faced with. Their fidelity to Islamic fundamentals and tradition makes their progressive voices credible and authentic.
An intellectual discourse on Islam should not be polemical but dialectical. It should be guided by Islamic tradition yet fully cognizant of influential modern and postmodern ideas. It should reflect an awareness of and respect for the diversity and pluralism within Islam and outside of Islam. It should be equipped with tools and methods for credible research and aim to mediate between ideas, creating common grounds. It should engage in a modern ijtehad with the traditional tools of Muslim jurisprudence, to address contemporary issues like homosexuality and the reconstruction of gender, new atheism, militant Islamism etc. Such a project must use the language, approach, style and tools most familiar to the modern mind. This will bring two great benefits: firstly, rescuing the skeptical modern Muslim mind from disenchantment by addressing critical questions. Secondly, mainstreaming an intellectual religious discourse which respects diversity and demonstrates to the mass Muslim mind that difference can be lived with and engaged with intellectually.

Religious scholars and intellectuals here need to realize the need to develop a new religious discourse that arms itself with reason, not fear and violence.