Saturday, June 14, 2014



Maryam Sakeenah

‘Shariah’ (Islamic law) has become one of the most spine chilling, sensational words in contemporary lexicon. In the United Kingdom with its sizeable Muslim population, fear of the Shariah is palpable as we hear of alarmist articles about ‘creeping shariah’ all over the UK, concern over the proliferation of halal meat or veils. Often the fear is irrational, used by xenophobes, racists and supremacists who resent multiculturalism and are uncomfortable with diversity.

But it is not just the Islamophobes and sensationalist media con artists who make the Shariah seem grotesque and terrifying. The spurious ‘caliphate’ of sorts run by the ISIS in Iraq and its bloodcurdling atrocities in the name of Shariah. Nigeria’s Boko Haram has followed suit with its brutal misogynistic practices. Groups like this which deface and defile the Shariah’s sanctity continue to proliferate all over the crisis-ridden Muslim world. 

And yet, crazy as this sounds, the demand for Shariah is not just understandable and legitimate but also an aspiration shared by an overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide. The PEW Research Centre’s 2013 survey finds that most Muslims are deeply committed to their faith and want its teachings to shape not only their personal lives but also their societies and politics. Many express a desire for shariah to be recognized as the official law of their country. Solid majorities in most of the countries favour the establishment of shariah, including 99% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 71% of Muslims in Nigeria, 72% in Indonesia, 74% in Egypt, 84% in Pakistan and 89% in the Palestinian territories.
To make sense of this, one needs to understand that the Prophet (SAW) was a successful head of state and lawgiver, and that in statehood did Islam find culmination as an established system and way of life. The Islamic State flourished and ruled over continents for centuries. In fact, for most of Islam’s history before the colonization of Muslim lands, Islamic law was established as the law of the land. This has left an indelible impact on Muslim collective imagination, imbuing it with nostalgia in the narrative of a bygone glory. 
The introduction of ‘Anglo Muhammadan Law’ in British-ruled South Asia and the displacement of traditional Muslim fiqhi madhabs (juristic schools) in favour of colonial legal systems in other parts of the Muslim world has intensified this nostalgia. The decadence in post colonial Muslim societies is seen now as the result of the absence of Shariah law. Given the fact that many areas across the Muslim world writhe under oppression, tyranny and the systematic suppression of religious aspirations by corrupt secular regimes, this nostalgic longing has at times fuelled militancy and violence by rebel groups. The demand for Shariah is used by these militant and violent Islamist movements vying for political control and power. Secular political ambitions are sanctified with the holy battlecry for the restoration of Shariah law.
‘Whose Shariah?’, however, is a contentious, tricky question we do not have many answers to- but it is the very heart of the matter. The implications of this are seriously damaging to the wider interests of Islam.
Invoking religion and using religious rhetoric gives a religious colour to the violent, attention-seeking tactics used by these groups. Hence Islam is perceived as either intrinsically violent or with a dangerous potency to fuel religious violence. Simplified, reductionist stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are strengthened. This makes harder the task of peacemakers, healers and arbiters engaged in toning down the precarious polarization between Islam and ‘the West.’

The media shows such violence and militancy as essentially religious, not seeing it for its secular-materialist socio political underpinnings or the raw drive for winning power to redress perceived disempowerment by fringe groups.

Speaking of Boko Haram and ISIS, it has been heartening to see Muslim opinion leaders and scholars speak out against their methods, emphatically dissociating these from mainstream Islam. However, highly needful as it was, what was found wanting was a more specific refutation of the textual basis from where such actions of such groups seek justification.
In fact, there is a vital and basic understanding almost missing from Muslim collective consciousness- that many minutiae of Islamic law are rooted in cultural context. They were neither revealed laws nor stipulated as universal, absolute unalterable laws by divine will. The Quran and sunnah directly address and legislate for a few matters, and these texts are but few compared to the entire volume of Islamic juristic literature which was compiled and developed over the historical evolution of Islamic civilization.
The fairly modest content of Islamic laws in the Quran and sunnah means that for deriving the rest of the laws recourse has to be made to jurisprudence through scholarly consensus over the ages. More importantly, it means that such lawmaking has to be guided and inspired by the essence and ethical guideline of the principles of the Quran and sunnah.
That egalitarianism, establishment of justice, protection of rights and an interest in ending human misery to make possible higher ethical and spiritual functions of human existence is a core objective of Islam cannot be doubted. Islam had to deal with a society in which slavery- predating Islam- was a basic social institution. Islam regulated it by law, defining parameters and setting ethical guidelines. Wars involved sexual abuse victimizing women of the enemy side. Here too Islam set down rights and responsibilities to prevent such abuse. It is this humane dimension and ethical orientation Islam gave which shines through and endures over these temporal pre Islamic cultural traditions and practices. In this day and age when human progress has achieved the legal abolition of slavery and its associated practices, it is utterly ludicrous to invoke these ancient traditions as part of Islam. The rights of people recognized and protected in this day and age are sacred to Islam which teaches supremacy of law and human progress through constant social reform. Violating these established principles on which a silent global consensus exists, is sinful. It is important here to remind ourselves of the fact that the Prophet (SAW) wistfully remembered the signing of a pre Islamic document of rights (Half ul Fazul) and expressed his full endorsement of it as a prophet of Islam.
The failure of contemporary Muslim jurisprudence has been the inability to put the spirit at the core of the letter of the law and to make Muslims understand that the law exists to protect the essential values; that it is the protection of those values that are the heart of the matter, while laws are often bound by culture and historicity. This explains the unseeing literalism and fanaticism for restoring the letter of the Shariah in corrupt and decadent Muslim societies and the preoccupation with juristic nitpicking in the Muslim world.
It is the crisis of authority in the Muslim world due to which random groups pining for the return of Muslim glory make bold claims as to what constitutes Shariah law and give their own misconstrued versions tracing them back to sacred texts or early Muslim culture. Those who got together to condemn ISIS and Boko Haram’s actions as unIslamic must also with a single voice present a blueprint of Islamic law that is relevant, practical and applicable today, in tune with contemporary cultural and socio political context. It is a long haul, but unless such a juristic magnum opus is initiated, twisted, grotesque and soulless versions of ‘Shariah’ will keep haunting us like a spectre. Authority as to who interprets religious law and how has to be won back.
Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) writes of the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls:
“... the whole atrocity underscores the crisis of leadership which is now a grave problem for global Islam. The Boko Haram abductions have been condemned by all the traditional authorities: Nigeria’s chief sultan, the grand muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading Islamic universities, the main Islamic bodies here in Britain. It’s been a moment of unity. Unfortunately, we can’t pretend that it has helped. For the last decade or so, across the Muslim world small but ferocious factions have defied the traditional leaders and taken religion into their own hands. In every case the result has been a disaster for communities and even whole countries. The use by these factions of religious rhetoric to validate what is often a political or economic grievance has left many religious leaders at a loss. In some cases the imams have been assassinated for speaking out against the extremists; this has happened in Nigeria, as elsewhere. So what should they do?
The founder of Islam had no time for extreme zealotry. ‘May the fanatics perish,’ he once commented. If he detected extreme or hateful behaviour in anyone he would condemn it immediately. Present-day leaders recall this, as they struggle to find ways of fighting terrorism.
So this scandal cuts more deeply. How to restore the authority of the mainline leadership, among embittered young men who trust no-one? Spies and bullets will not, in the long term, defeat these aberrations: the religious leadership must find some way of regaining its moral authority in an age of rapid change and rampant injustice.”

If the ethical spirit of Muslim law is not reinstated, if the textual bases for inhuman, brutal and violent practices not refuted, routine condemnations from Islam’s defenders will serve no more than as rhetorical generalisations. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

'HAPPY MUSLIMS': to be or not to be...


Maryam Sakeenah

While the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video would not have in itself elicited a response more than a fleeting bemused scepticism, it was impossible to get over it and move on, given the 2 million youtube views, the reams of commentary and discussion it generated. The short clip apparently became the biggest issue in the issue-ridden Muslim world, judging by social media ratings. Ardent supporters of the attempt to showcase Muslims in the West as adaptable and ‘happy’ people, as well as bitter opponents of such meaningless and inappropriate depiction of Muslims, all jumped into the fray- soon enough, there was a raging storm in a teacup.

It all signifies the contradictions, polarities, sensitivities and contentions rife in the Muslim world- like a bubbling, gurgling, steaming cauldron.

The video aims to present an image of Muslims in the West as flexible, creative, adaptable, well-integrated, cheerful and positive-minded, so as to dispel negative stereotypes that have dominated public imagination in the West since 9/11. Imam Johari Abdul Malik from the US comments on the video: ‘The narrative about Muslims is so often about being hungry and angry, people have started turning it around using the social media...’

Underlying this, however, there can also be sensed a desperate attempt to assure that ‘we are like you, too’- a desire to be accepted, owned and integrated into Western society. This desperation can be understood in the context of the consistently rising Islamophobia in these societies.

However, the problem with this appeasing, placatory attitude is not so much with Muslims as it is with Western societies. These societies seem to be growing increasingly ethnocentric, losing willingness to embrace diversity and to allow distinct ethnic, cultural and religious identities to survive and thrive without either being compelled to Westernize to be able to integrate, or being socially marginalized. This goes against the essence of the values of pluralism, tolerance and coexistence at the heart of Western liberal tradition that it prides itself in. It is ironical and interesting to note that while the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video was doing the rounds, Tony Blair reminded the leaders of the Western nations to ‘move the battle against Islamist extremism to the top of the political agenda.’ The same day that the video was released, the English Defence League held a demonstration outside London’s largest mosque against Islam in Britain. On this backdrop, given the very grave challenges that beset the Muslim world, attempts like the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video appear little more than pathetic. The efficacy of the video message as a response to a pervasive anti-Muslim campaign is highly questionable.

But that is not the only troubling thought. Equally disconcerting, if not more was the impulsive and inane, utterly dispensable video rejoinder to ‘Happy British Muslims’ video, made by some Islamic groups on the internet titled ‘Happy Muslims, HALAL version.’ This video removed the images of all women and re-released it as acceptable by Islamic standards- minus the laughing, clapping, singing females. This reflects a lopsided, immature and almost obsessive fixity on juristic intricacies of Muslim law without even a cursory understanding and appreciation of the spirit of Islam. Such fiqh-obsessed shallow-mindedness is often manifested in moral panics among Muslims over the visibility of Muslim women.

It is deplorable that the makers of the ‘Halal’ version who deservedly educed ridicule and censure utterly failed to grasp the idea of true happiness in Islam. For one, given the plethora of grave predicaments we are caught in, the despondency, frustration, defeatism, confusion and hurt, the cluelessness about the future, the directionlessness and leaderlessness, the wars, civil wars, socio-political crises and the rising monster of sectarianism- these aren’t the happiest of times for Muslims anywhere in the world. Empathy is an essential component of Islamic brotherhood- the fact that a Muslim must feel the pain of another Muslim (no matter how geographically distant) as his own. I wonder how I, as a Muslim, can clap and cheer my deep sadness away? Brecht writes,
‘Truly I live in dark times!...
A smooth forehead
 Points to insensitivity
He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!’

 The prospect of declining life and time and the impending oblivion of death, and the eventuality of accountability in the eternal life is the grave and inescapable truth one must confront. The Prophet (SAW) said, ‘If you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much.’

Happiness in Islam is not the be-all and end-all. It is not to be pursued, but in its deepest sense, it comes to those who discover and live out their purpose in life. Orwell writes, ‘Men can only be happy if they assume that the purpose of life is not happiness.’ Fun and entertainment as temporary relaxation have a place- and a significant one- but happiness in Islam is gained by tasting the sweetness of faith through complete self-surrender to God. It is attained by giving and selfless sacrifice. ‘By Time! Man is in Loss. Except those who believe and do righteous good deeds and exhort one another to the Truth and exhort one another to patience.’   (The Quran)

Imam Johari quoted earlier, was perturbed by the image of Muslims as ‘hungry and angry’, but one cannot wish that away or pretend that is not the case by cheering and smiling away into the camera. Yes, Muslims writhe in the throes of poverty, starvation and crippling oppression, but happiness is attainable to those who do their small bit to help alleviate some of that.

This idea was tried to be conveyed in another video rejoinder titled ‘Happy Muslims: Sunnah Version’. It is a brief, beautiful and simple message that reflects the Islamic ethos of happiness- it shows clips of Muslims rescuing and saving lives of the calamity-stricken, and ends with the line, ‘This, my friend, is happiness.’ However, this video was blurred and poorly made, and circulated briefly in a few closed Muslim circles. It never went viral. And here is the very heart of the problem: the voicelessness and disempowerment of the Muslim visionary, and that ‘the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.’ (Yeats)    

Friday, April 25, 2014

Fall Before Springtime


Maryam Sakeenah

Nameless One!
Too soon gone,
While I, my puerile human self 
Dreamt of a welcome
Strewing rosebuds along your untrodden path
Too soon wilted- 
A Fall before Springtime.

And I could not say goodbye
Helpless, my hands tied
I saw you taken away;
Bereft, I saw you
Ripped from my sore, bleeding flesh
And I learnt of my crippling helplessness,
A mortal weakness I could not surmount-
Mere flesh...

And yet, not quite
For I feel the Indissoluble Bond
Decreed by an Immortal Word: 'Be!'
O Flesh of my flesh, Spirit of my spirit!
We mourn but the rotting flesh
Buried under unknown darknesses...
But I take heart in the fact
That you were, are and always will be
Lodged in my wounded heart
Bound with the silken ties of a love undying
Washed in sacred tears

And in another, better world
I see you rest in serenity
In a warm embrace
More loving than a seventy mothers