Friday, December 16, 2011

A Surfeit of Politics

A Surfeit of Politics

Maryam Sakeenah

"'Twas grief enough to think mankind 
 All hollow servile insincere
But worse to trust my own mind
And find the same corruption there." (Emily Bronte)

I am sick of Politics. And myself.
The connection is clear, for me as a student of Politics. Politics after all, is the raw human nature I carry within magnified onto the world map. Strangely enough, studying political intrigue, conflict, conspiracies, power struggles, war and peace, human motivations, aspirations and errors, I only find my own nature magnified onto the chasm of History. History: that embarrassing account of our communal actions as a species, and our communal mistakes.

History repeats with a pattern all too familiar, predictable and regular. It is a record of human mistakes that mattered. Fatal Mistakes that affected millions of anonymous lives. Mistakes that repeat themselves: relentlessly, tragically, incorrigibly. It is only the names, the faces, the dates that change. Not our inner rawness of nature. It is the context that changes, not the motives; not the actions; not the impulses_ not the feet of clay, not the tail between the legs.

First it was the primordial jungle where our predecessors tore each other up for space, or food. Now it is the Brave New World. No more stones and spears, no more caves. We have our Ministries of Defence. Our Smart Bombs and Dirty Bombs. And we fight for oil. We grew more sophisticated in our tastes, but in the process of the onward march of time, we forgot to learn the little lessons on the way, those little signs God signposted to direct, guide, warn, assist. We refused to learn from the consequences of our deeds and misdeeds. But mostly misdeeds. Sigh.

We chose to thrust fingers in our ears when the cry came loud and clear: “And travel in the land and learn from the fate of those before you...” (The Noble Quran) and “Many a nation have We destroyed before you...” (The Noble Quran) We forgot the greatest lesson of all: the realization that at the end of the day it is, after all, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, and that the only thing that makes “our little lives rounded with a sleep” have worth, is to

“leave footsteps in the sands of time
 Footsteps that perhaps another
 Forlorn and shipwrecked brother
 seeing, might take heart” (Longfellow)

 We chose only to leave stains of grease from heavy military boots thundering relentlessly onwards, trampling the small things, leaving behind stains of blood and the stench of death.

I remember some years back I saw a newspaper cartoon from Italy under Mussolini in the 1930s, which showed a volcano smouldering and full of lava, with a tag ‘freedom of speech’ written at the side. Atop the volcano sat ‘Il Duce’ Benito Mussolini with his fists firmly holding down the crater of the volcano. The caption beneath read, “This will hurt you more than it hurts me.” Time took it to the logical conclusion: Mussolini lost, living only as a pariah in history. Freedom triumphed. History taught the lesson it always does.

Yet decades down the line, we are still languishing for true and meaningful liberty and freedom_to live, speak, BE. Other tyrants hold down the volcano’s crater. Lesson: we forgot to learn from history. Again. And so we have our Abu Ghraibs, Bagrams and Guantanamos, we have Gaza and Baghdad, Mazar e Sharif and Srinagar where we let loose the Reign of Terror and then hold down the crater with boiling lava within, hoping it will not hurt us. We refuse to learn.

We refuse to learn that:

'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

We refuse to learn that the carrion littering the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and Fallujah in 2003 had been once upon a time faces that smiled, eyes that twinkled with hope, hearts that pulsated with life... and that the victimized and oppressed do not forget their dead. The hurt keeps festering till it maddens, metamorphosing human beings into suicidal human bombs who laugh life to scorn, because they have seen life devalued, wrenched away with wantonness.

In our narrow, selfish and disgustingly self-righteous megalomania, we pursue our agendas toying with lives, desperately trying to perpetuate our petty selves, leaving ‘light footprints’, planting flags and arrogant bawdy nationalistic emblems over bleeding cities where those ‘people we do not know’ dwell otherized, dehumanized. We forget that the Greater Plan too is at work, as it always has been. “And while they plan, God also plans. And the best of planners is God.” (The Noble Quran) We forget that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends towards justice.’ (Martin Luther King)

Political intrigues, strategies, agendas and ambitions in this larger context seem puerile child’s play, the chessboard moves of politics a mere Game of Chess. We keep playing the Game with pretentions of grandeur, calling it ‘Great Game’ , and we refuse to read the writing on the wall, the destiny writ large, the Hand of Justice constantly at work. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Multitasking and the Sunnah


Maryam Sakeenah

You have to be a multitasker, or you’re old fashioned. It is just so normal nowadays to have a conversation while smsing a friend, listen to a song while typing an email, update your facebook status while looking up a reference on Google, watch the television while at the dinner table with family. This just goes to show the magnitude of the transformation the technological revolution has brought about in our social and even personal lives. Multitasking is the Way of Life.
While the modern lifestyle almost dictates multitasking, is it really an efficient way to get things done and get them done well? Much has been written about it, and concerns voiced about multitasking taking its toll on human relationships, work efficiency and quality, time management, mental concentration and human behaviour.   
What in the old-fashioned eighties would be considered rude manners, disrespect, attention deficit or disinterest is now the way to go about things. In a comedy show, Jerry Seinfeld explains his reasons for not possessing a Blackberry Smartphone: “Blackberry people... their pupils do not focus. They’re not really there. They hold the Blackberry in their hands all the time, because this is what it commands them to do. And they listen to what you are saying and compare it to what is on the Blackberry, and which one is really more interesting...”
It is interesting to note that the term multitasking is derived from computer multitasking. It is a basic computer function. But while machines are built to multitask, can we apply it to human lives as well? The modern way of life demands just that, but it is common observation that it leads to attention deficit, poor time management and poor efficiency. Psychological studies have disclosed that people show severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time, if both tasks require selecting and producing action. Many suggest that the human brain can only perform one task at a time. (‘Is Multitasking a Myth?’ BBC News, August 20, 2010). Psychiatrist Richard Hallowell has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” (Hallowell, Richard. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life.) Researchers examined how multitasking affects academic success and found that students who engaged in more multitasking reported more problems with their academic work. (Junco, R. & Cotten, ‘Perceived Academic Effects of Instant Messaging Use.’).
Inability to manage time is a frequent complaint one gets to hear so often. We are by far busier today than ever before, we have more things to do today than ever before, our lives are faster and our tasks speedier than ever before, but we get to accomplish little, if not nothing. Multitasking achieves little. With our uninsightful and rather thoughtless embrace of technology, the ‘barakah’ has quite fled from our lives as we race against time and breathlessly chase deadlines, doing nothing to the heart’s content. We remain perpetual underachievers, perpetually dissatisfied.
As Muslims, the inspiration and guidance always comes from the life of the Prophet (SAW).  While we all know that the Prophet (SAW) possessed a multi-dimensional personality and lived out many roles that inspire all sorts of people, what must be highlighted and reflected upon is how he did justice to each of these roles, lived each aspect perfectly well, and accomplished all of his diverse range of duties remarkably. Whether it be his family life, his political life, his social sphere or his spiritual life, Muhammad (SAW) did it all to perfection. So then, dispensing so many tasks altogether, fulfilling so many of his duties that his position demanded, did the Prophet (SAW) multitask?
Here are some insights from his life that give us some clarity in this regard. For one, the Prophet (SAW) was a beloved husband, and spent quality time with his wives and children. To his friends he was a mentor and a loveable companion. As a military strategist and soldier, a jurist and lawmaker, a head of state, leader and statesman, a teacher and guide, the Prophet (SAW) was the paragon par excellence. Ayesha (R.A) narrates, The Messenger of Allah talked to us and we talked to him. However, he was as if he had not recognized us when it was time for prayer, and he turned to Allah with his all existence.” This shows that the Prophet (SAW) would give his best to each task, one at a time. While at home, he would be fully involved in domestic affairs, spending time with the people of his household, listening to them, talking to them and attending to their needs. And when it was time for other duties for instance the duty of prayer to his Lord, he would shut out everything else and turn towards his Lord with heart and soul, with complete submission and thorough involvement. This perhaps is why he derived from it an intense pleasure that eludes us today, and could feel that Salat was for him ‘the coolness of the eyes.’ This is also why he managed family matters exceedingly well, and all his wives loved his noble companionship thoroughly.
It is also interesting to note the Prophet (SAW)’s manners of conversing with others. It is said he would speak little, but with gravity, precision, balance and wisdom. More than that, he was an intent listener and would listen to others patiently with complete attention till they had finished. In fact, when spoken to, he would turn himself with full involvement and interest towards the speaker, making him feel thoroughly understood and given importance. It worked wonders in gluing together a closely knit and firmly bonded community of companions, disciples, associates, lovers and devotees who later became integral to the spread of the Islamic mission.
In matters of the state or of military planning, the Prophet (SAW) applied himself fully and achieved astounding results. The fact that the Prophet (SAW) is universally acknowledged by all as perhaps the most successful figure in human history, must make us analyze his approach and methods with some seriousness. The way of the Prophet (SAW) was clearly what may be called ‘uni-tasking’, taking one thing at a time, performing it to the best of his ability till its conclusion without interruption, distraction or interference. It is only when one allows oneself to be possessed by a single idea and executes it to its successful end does one become an achiever with a deep sense of satisfaction. This deep contentment for having attained your target after successfully finishing a task you devoted yourself wholly to is an unparalleled feeling that is the privilege of the Sunnah-abiding Muslim to relish. Muslims are essentially uni-taskers.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Human Rights Violations in Kashmir


Maryam Sakeenah

The jarring report on over 2000 unmarked mass graves in Indian Held Kashmir that came to light last month failed to elicit a response from the United Nations. When pressed for comments, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon apologized that he had ‘no comments for now.’ This is not just the UN lacking teeth; it is the UN being reduced to virtual dysfunction_ that is, irrelevance to global context altogether. With emboldened contraventions of its Charter by the most powerful states of the world as well as the much larger role and unrestrained power enjoyed by regional strategic organizations like NATO, the UN, like its predecessor, grows pathetically feeble and ineffectual. Nobody lost a lot of sleep over the contents of the report, and no uncomfortable questions were asked of anyone either.

The failure of human rights abuse in the world’s conflict zones and occupied regions to arouse significant concern shows how violence in the world’s conflict zones has become routinized in our collective consciousness. The world’s collective conscience is desensitized to human rights violations in places that routinely experience them. This silence implies a tacit sanction of occupation and its accompanying practices and doles out licenses to kill for trigger-happy men in uniform that help to maintain an arbitrary hold on suffering populations. We accept the brutality that is the work of human hands and the expression of men’s lust for control, dominance, power as an indelible destiny that some of the unfortunate ones among mankind have to live with. And life goes on.

Mirza Waheed, a Kashmiri journalist and author of the novel ‘The Collaborator’ writes: “Brutalized people are made to behave normally as an acquiescent citizenry... The Indian State wants the world to believe that Kashmir is an integral part of India, and hence speaks often in the language of conquest. Dehumanized conflict management impinges upon the lives of ordinary people. This is a system that allows the executor to live in comfortable moral ambiguity, and wants the victim to renounce all claims to asserting his identity. This is what violence, torture, brutality are meant to do_ to reduce a person, a mind, a collection of minds to a spiritless body; the complete destruction of the will of the victim, which ensures a people are kept in submission and slavery...”

While it is possible to understand and even perhaps empathize with victims whose interminable suffering kills their hope and gradually renders them numb and insensate to the blatant injustice that happens around them, this is not so easily condonable in the case of those who are distanced from conflict and watch it as third persons on television screens. The 60-odd years of the reign of terror in the Occupied Valley , the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the illegal detentions, disappearances and the Draconian laws to justify these and give cover to perpetrators; and most importantly the state’s refusal to bring violators to book are a damning sentence on Indian state policy on Kashmir. This is important particularly, given Indian aspirations to regional dominance and permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council. These blood-drenched statistics signify an irredeemable loss of India’s ‘high moral ground’ as an aspirant to global power and prestige. It all adds up to a grotesque illustration of and a powerful indictment on the state of the world’s collective conscience and our failure to apply ethics to international affairs.

The Kashmiri is doomed to suffer as long as ‘War on Terror’ realpolitik holds hostage universal ethics, human rights, justice and common decency. In the post-9/11 global dynamics, India has closely allied its Kashmir policy with the larger anti terror narrative of the U.S by selling Kashmir as a classic case of ‘Islamic militancy’ and ‘cross border terrorism’ against a Secular-Democracy, garnering the world’s sympathy and deflecting attention from its own dirty tactics. A world dumbed down by a media governed by corporate interests and powerful lobbies readily swallows the narrative, and Kashmir sinks deeper into oblivion.

The U.S has chosen to bury its head in the sand regarding Kashmir. This exposes the meaninglessness of its rhetoric of democracy, self-determination, freedom, human rights etc, and the sheer hypocrisy of its claim to higher moral ground. The global recession that has hit the U.S economy hard accentuates the importance of the Indian market for the U.S, underscoring the need for stronger bilateral ties. Keeping mum on Kashmir serves everyone’s interests_ or, the interests of everyone that matters.

Pakistan on the other hand, caught miserably as it is between a rock and a very hard place, has very noticeably loosened its hold onto Kashmir, with its focus shifted to its Western border and the bloody, nationwide fallout of its blundering into the northwestern tribal areas. The War on Terror has concentrated itself in Pakistani territory, with Pakistan desperately trying to play up to its ‘most allied ally’ status while an increasingly suspicious, imperious United States threatens to ‘go it alone’ as the trust deficit gapes wider.

Kashmir is the tragic casualty in the new alignment and dynamics in the subcontinent. Amnesia is imposed on Kashmir by India with tacit approval from the U.S, and pathetic, inaudible whimpers of discontent from a hapless Pakistan.

However, in a way, this new state of affairs comes with opportunity. Kashmir has previously been caught between a ceaseless tug of war between India and Pakistan with a terrible national egotism and ideologically loaded stances defining the narrative. With Pakistan loosening its grasp , the indigenous, homegrown Kashmiri narrative acquires greater authenticity. Kashmir emerges as an indigenous, independent struggle for freedom and self-determination springing out of its saffron fields_ regardless of Indian intransigence, Pakistani ambivalence and American caprice.

Allegations by India of the Kashmir struggle being sustained by Pakistan have defined the Indian position on Kashmir and have been used to justify its highhandedness and its relentless militarism in the region. The theory loses ground as Kashmir emerges boldly as an independent movement of its own and on its own, in the face of Pakistan’s diminishing influence and national distraction.

It is this new, emergent trend that the occupier is frightened of and tries to eradicate through desperate measures: mass arrests, custodial murders, cover ups of evidence of diabolical deliberation behind all these. As India aspires to regional dominance and a permanent UNSC seat, it naturally has to be conscious of keeping up an image befitting of the world’s largest secular democracy that it goes about as. This requires gagging the voices from Kashmir and hushing up the noise made by human rights groups; it involves burying corpses in unmarked mass graves in the thick of the night, and whitewashing the blood stains. India’s desperate strategy to crush the bolder, genuine Kashmiri counternarrative is to create victims or potential victims out of all, using constant fear of the arbitrary occupier that creates a sense of helplessness destroying aspirations, hopes, courage; killing the resisting spirit and the will to act in defence. This impels the cycle of violence to continue endlessly and indefinitely, with little moral qualms given India’s powerful media and its global influence.

However, the false, dishonest, morally bankrupt narrative must be defeated by the Kashmiris through their stronger, deeper, genuine counter narrative that goes beyond Indo-Pakistan conventional wrangling, beyond shifty and capricious interests of Someone Else, beyond cosmetic face-lifts by oppressor nations aspiring to global power, beyond spineless leaders and dysfunctional organizations: “For me, what gives hope is the rise of more and more young people articulating their own narrative, their own experiences, their own policies...” (Mirza Waheed)

Friday, August 26, 2011

UK riots: A Sociological Perspective


Maryam Sakeenah

Without venturing into moral judgement, the massive rioting in UK has, if nothing else, brought to light the fragility of the ostensible peace of ‘developed’ societies, which stirs an engaging debate bearing strongly upon some central sociological and philosophical questions.

For someone as myself coming from a deeply fractured and messed-up society steeped in violence, unrest and social injustice, the material and moral ‘superiority’ of liberal-secular societies in the Northern-Western hemisphere is often referred to as an enviable standard and veritable benchmark. The reckless frequency of the usage of loaded terms like ‘advanced’, ‘developed’, ‘progressive’, ‘civilized’ for specific social contexts rooted in Enlightenment positivism suggests an unquestioning and facile acceptance of an ascendant social paradigm that draws power from the political-historical narrative_ following the Fall of Egypt in Napoleon’s wars in the East_ of the superiority of the post Enlightenment ‘West.’

Societies are shaped by underlying intellectual, philosophical and moral traditions that shape social phenomena and direct social change. The 18th century Enlightenment with its structuralist underpinnings is the predominant factor shaping the social lives of individuals in communities belonging to Europe and North America. The Structuralist sociological perspective conspicuously marginalizes non materialist phenomenological and interactionist elements of sociological thought and those that take a critical view of Structuralism. According to Structuralist-Functionalists, a consensus around values is vital for social order and stability. This implies general agreement among the large majority of the members of a society over its basic values. Speaking of societies in Europe and America, this stabilizing consensus is developed around Utilitarian values that promote ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’, while the Positivist-Structuralist premise defines this ‘greatest good’ in material terms_ economic good, incomes, jobs, health insurance, education, benefits, pensions etc_ the boons of the modern welfare state.

Structuralism, concerned with social structures and institutions rather than individuals, has an inbuilt majority-oriented outlook. What is ignored out of the neat formula for happiness is the not-so-great number of those who do not constitute the favoured and dominant ‘majority’ and therefore do not pledge loyalty to the values that create a system which does not offer them dividends in the same measure as significant others.

Consensus on values comes about when individuals benefit as members of a society and are socialized into it to the extent that they learn to desire only that which the society provides. However, the socialization process for creating value consensus is not always neat and perfect, and cracks do appear. In Utilitatian-materialist societies, economic crises, inequalities etc weaken the socialization process so that some individuals identifying themselves with minority groups do not rally around the society’s core values to generate the value consensus considered necessary for stability and order. Hence they experience alienation. Given the rising incidence of racial profiling and ethnocentric calls for ban on immigration by racist-supremacist groups like the ‘English Defence League’, the alienation gradually turns into an ‘otherization’ of members who do not smoothly and naturally merge into what is classified as the ‘majority’_ white, British, urban, middle-class.

The ethic of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ leaves marginalized minorities out of the bigger picture. This also explains the attempt by disgruntled minorities to make their sense of alienation be seen and heard by asserting it in spectacular ways. The unsuspecting shock and horror over the events also exposes the extent of unawareness of and insensitivity to the raw sentiment that festers in multiracial, multiethnic British society. Tony Blair in his article ‘Good headlines but bad policy’(The Guardian, August 21), carefully reminded us of the horrific events being the acts of a ‘minority.’ Without contesting this fact, it may be argued that the tenor and the overall meaning of the writer was a subtle trivialization of the tremendous street sentiment at the heart of which lies the deep social alienation, resentment and discontentment of a significant minority. In an attempt to salvage the narrative of the high moral ground of secular-liberal British society, the counter narrative of a marginalized and restive minority is slighted. While the ‘majority’ cleaning up the clutter, as Blair points out, reinstates hope, yet ignoring, trivializing or slighting the almost palpable existence of pent up frustrations among a sizeable section of British population is a grave mistake and shows we learnt little from the events.

However, even a Blair desperately trying to save the face of British society could not altogether brush under the carpet the real issues that stare Britain in the face: ‘the country’s problems stem from too many dysfunctional households... this is a phenomenon of the late 20th century. You find it in virtually every developed nation.’ However, an insightful approach into understanding the collapse of the family in Western society and the discrediting of the family as an institution is necessary, of which not much has been said other than attempts to highlight the general decadence and its origin in dysfunctional families. It has a lot to do with general moral decline and an inadequacy of the education process (whether by families or by schools) that carries the ideological baggage of positivist Enlightenment thought and has discarded the universal moral premise considered sacrosanct in traditional societies. Saeeda Ahmad is an inspiring social entrepreneur and social activist in UK. As a Muslim, she looks at the riots with rare insight through her faith. She writes, ”This year has indeed been a year of much reflection and big change in a very short space of time where civic participation, ethics, Islam, Muslims and many other things have affected us not just as British Muslims but Muslims internationally. From an Islamic perspective some of the key tenets in our faith can help understand the riots: Self accountability, Gratitude, Hope and aspiration, Self responsibility, social and civic responsibility, Defence of others people and property.
These are subjects in their own right but need to be adequately addressed. A different poverty in the UK and in the developed world exists than that in poor countries. It is the poverty of spiritual values. In a developed secular country there may be a state that caters for people's need. It does not replace the human requirement for accountability, hope and compassion towards others. The idea of ‘don't worry, social services will bring you a meal if something happens to you (as long as you meet their criteria) doesn't make me feel great and excited for my old age.”

Also valuable is a critical outlook afforded by alternative social theory. Interactionists have something to say on the matter as they emphasize that the tenuous stability that Structural-functionalists imagine through the generation of value consensus is a blinkered view. Society is not an objective entity ‘out there’, nor is it a monolith. To understand that every individual relates to society based on his individual subjective social experience is essential. For those who lead wretched lives in the streets, Britain may not be the egalitarian welfare state committed to social justice even in the presence of voluminous statistical data to verify that. When this individual’s authentic subjective experience of society is slighted as an aberration and not understood as deserving of serious redress, it will seethe as frustration, anger and even violence.

Marxists offer an insight into the false and deceptive nature of Functionalism’s ‘value consensus’, which they see as imposed from above_ from the privileged, empowered class. The compulsive acceptance of the same by the lower classes guarantees a perpetuation of the privileged status of the moneyed elite. The stability this creates is false, privileging a section of the society over and above another, creating an exploitative stratification. However, this will inevitably give rise to frustration and discontentment as ‘class consciousness’ gradually develops. Any event, even small, may then trigger off a string of events till the false order collapses like a house of cards.

As an important ‘Aside’ from the sociological discourse the dramatic events stirred, mention must be made of the strong case for religious faith that has powerfully asserted itself. It perhaps lies beyond the pale of this debate, but provides some important keys to a deeper and more insightful understanding of the issues at hand. When human life and human society is centred around the utilitarian-materialist premise that is the legacy of the Enlightenment’s positivist enthusiasm; when the resultant definition of happiness is considered the be-all and end-all of life, the lack of material security or a drop in material benefits takes away all meaning and worth from life. A N Wilson, in an important article (‘Legacy of a Society that Believes in Nothing,’ The Daily Mail, August 13), mentions the case of popular British showbiz icons who at the height of popularity ended their lives out of a deep sense of inner emptiness and meaninglessness; he also comments on the morals of a society that reveres their degenerate private lives.

When it is understood that the truly valuable things in life are those you can never buy (in a cutthroat consumerist culture), deprivation, suffering and injustice seen as part of a larger Pattern no longer devastate and madden. They are gracefully accepted even as the right to protest and claim legitimate rights is asserted. This is what was so beautifully and powerfully demonstrated by Tariq Jehan, father of Haroon Jehan_ one of the Birmingham youth of Pakistani origin crushed to his death as he defended his people. Jehan’s simple yet resounding statement in the wake of his personal tragedy strikes at the heart of the matter. Until the secular-materialist pretense is shed off and the ascendant positivist underpinnings of society reassessed giving due recognition to the ‘feeling in the heart’ and the ‘moral law within’, a true qualitative improvement and meaningful, all-inclusive progress in our individual and social lives will remain a distant, elusive dream. As Pascal said, ‘above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart; and the heart has reasons of its own that the head cannot understand...’

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Modern Islamic Schooling: Fulfilling an Important Need


Maryam Sakeenah

The writer acknowledges the assistance given by all individuals and organizations for making this work possible. Jazakallah. –M.S


The concept of modern Islamic schooling caught on rapidly in Western countries where Muslims had settled as sizeable minorities. Muslims from newly independent states emigrated in vast numbers after the end of the colonial era in search for lucrative work prospects. These immigrant populations, particularly in their second and third generations felt an increasing need to protect and assert Muslim identity and conserve Islamic values in their children who grew up in and confronted a permissive secular-liberal culture. The need to provide second and third generation Muslims growing up in the West with an environment conducive to traditional Muslim values which the public schools lacked led to the concept of the modern Islamic school.

The modern Islamic school teaches the national curriculum as taught in regular schools with some additional components related to Islamic ‘tarbiyah’ (education to impart Muslim values), in an environment that facilitates Islamic practice and protects Islamic values . As immigrant communities expanded, so did the Islamic schools. Today, thousands of these exist in countries where Muslims live as minorities.

In recent years_ perhaps not longer than a decade, a mushrooming of modern Islamic schools has been witnessed in Pakistan’s urban centres. The concept of an ‘Islamic school’ in a Muslim state is rather anomalous and seems uncalled-for, as the factors that led to the popularity of the idea in non Muslim states were not strictly present in a country with a predominantly Muslim population (approximately 98%).

The reasons for this increasing trend go into history. The conventional Islamic schooling institution in this part of the world has been the ‘madrassah’ where students are given religious instruction according to the conventional madrassah curriculum in the subcontinent_ the ‘Dars e Nizami’ which dates back to the eighteenth century, with slight modifications over the years. Traditionally, madrassahs have had a largely contributive role in Pakistani society, catering to a large section of rural and urban lower-middle class_ in some cases even providing lodging and rehabilitation to the poorest through the course of study. However, in later years the madrassah system developed regressive tendencies, in part due to the trend of blind following of the madhabs leading to sharpening of sectarian hostilities coupled with the fallout of the Afghan war that led to the growth of radicalisation and militancy.

On the other hand, almost simultaneously with the onset of denationalisation and growth of the private sector, state control on education loosened. The private sector acquired relative freedom to educate and a number of private institutions in urban areas began to teach increasingly Westernized curricula with a marginal role of religious values. Besides, with the madrassahs catering largely to religious education, their graduates began to find it hard to enter into mainstream education to get specialized degrees, or to compete in the job market. The two trends worked to increase the gaping split between conventional religious and modern schooling.
Roughly during the same time, Pakistan’s educated urban middle class underwent a gradual religious reawakening with the work of several religious movements and groups with a rich intellectual tradition and record of positive social activism_ such as the Jamat e Islami, Tanzeem i Islami, Tableeghi Jamat and of late Al Huda International. Endeavours to spread basic religious awareness and education by these and other groups have led to large sections of the urban middle and upper middle classes to adopt a more religious consciousness and lifestyle. This has also heightened the sense of dissatisfaction among these families with the degenerate madrassah system (barring some exceptions) on the one hand and the Westernized private English medium school on the other.

Modern Islamic schools have therefore filled the gap that has been created, and work to fulfil the intensifying need for a holistic education promising to create well-rounded personalities rooted in traditional religious values and yet adept at academic disciplines taught at conventional schools. Islamic schools have answered the need by providing a ‘middle ground’ imparting Muslim values in an environment that conforms to Islamic principles, facilitates religious practice and does not compromise on academic standards.

Islamic schools have mushroomed in Pakistan’s urban centres and there exist dozens of such schools now in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad as well as in other cities. The schools teach the same curricula as are taught in the private sector English medium schools, but have a greater emphasis on Islamic instruction with added course components like ‘Tarbiyah’ , ‘Fahm ul Quran ’, ‘Tajweed ’ and Arabic language. Also conspicuous about these schools is a mission-oriented appeal rather than a purely commercial orientation that has come to characterize private schooling in Pakistan. Most of the schools also have a separate Hifz department. Hifz is optional for students of a certain age, and in most schools basic education in Math, Science and the languages is given alongwith Hifz, enabling students to easily join mainstream education after completing their Hifz.

Karachi takes the lead in having some of the best of these Islamic schools in Pakistan. The ‘Reflections’ school has managed to attract a fairly large student body, and maintained a consistently impressive academic record. It is run by the ‘Ibadullah Welfare Trust,’ who state on the school’s website the mission and purpose behind the venture: “Reflections is a not for profit, self-sustaining institution. We are working purely for the Pleasure of Allah, and surely none of this is possible without His will. As a Trust we consider ‘Reflections’ as an ‘amanah’ (sacred trust) and feel privileged to be part of this important project. We hope that Allah guides us towards helping Reflections achieve its mission while maintaining its core values.” Some of these ‘core values’ are, as listed by the school: ‘commitment to the Shariah ’, ‘tolerance, sensitivity and respect towards diversity’, ‘maintaining excellence in all aspects’, and a ‘balanced education with emphasis on Islamic morals and conduct.’ The mission statement, phrased ambitiously, states the aim to ‘produce God-fearing leaders’.

This mission, vision, purpose and approach is remarkably akin to most other modern Islamic schools that have recently sprouted. The Star Links school also in Karachi, promises to provide ‘quality education in an Islamic environment.’ The emphasis on academic excellence alongwith character building is explicitly elaborated on the school website hence: ‘Aspiring to become a model educational centre, SLS provides a balanced, integrated education to develop its students emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically. Over the years, the school has developed a curriculum that supports the development of dynamic yet balanced, holistic young personalities. The Islamic integration programme is executed across all subject areas which inspires the students to appreciate and internalize Islam as a way towards their individual and social growth to attain self actualization.’
Karachi’s ‘Nakhlah Education House for Islamic Grooming’ prioritizes Islamic ethics in education ‘imparted on scientific guidelines. ’ It is supervised by a team of acclaimed Islamic scholars and dedicated individuals and is housed in four different campuses, ‘catering to the enhancement of the students' physical, social, emotional and intellectual development, with an especially designed syllabus. The curriculum at Nakhlah is in line with Pakistani values and Islamic beliefs.’

The Intellect Islamic School also in Karachi is a fairly recent initiative in the same vein. Managed by the Bait us Salam Trust run by Maulana Abdus Sattar, the effort is strongly rooted in its rich Islamic intellectual and spiritual tradition. The Trust has years of experience in traditional Islamic education and social work which it has been conducting with consistency and discipline. This explains the enormous trust in the institution displayed by the parents who have enrolled their children here during the school’s very initial years. Amin Chotani, whose children have been studying at Intellect since it began, believes Islamic schooling is essential now for ‘those who take Islam as their way of life.’ He laments the fact that regular schools nowadays do not show any appreciation of the centrality of Islam in the education of children, and include several activities and approaches which go against the very fundamentals of Islam. ‘This leaves educated religious families with no option’, he says. Intellect, according to Mr. Chotani, was an obvious choice for him because ‘The Intellect team is sincere to their work, and the emphasis on character building is praiseworthy. The school’s foundation is a sacred mission and there is no profit motive at all.’ He says that a walk through the school convinces an observer of the school’s commitment to Islamic values: ‘The teachers observe the Islamic dress code, as do the students_ and it has a touch of elegance to it too. There is no compromise on quality. Arabic is part of the curriculum, as are lessons in hadith and the sunnah for children. The children perform the Zuhr prayer in school, and this develops in them the habit to perform prayers regularly. The teachers, guided by Imam sahib, strive to impart the right values, helping children develop a sense of discrimination between good and evil.’ He expresses his deep joy and pride when his children recite to him little prayers they learn at school, or try to practice at home the values and habits that were inculcated through instruction at school. ‘I think I made the right choice’, he says. ‘But it was not easy at first. I had to take a stand as many people questioned my choice of a new institution of alternative learning. At the end of the day it is all about ones priorities in life. An Islamic school like Intellect is the best option for parents for whom character takes precedence.’ The father is confident of the fact that the school will progress and expand tremendously in future: ‘It is under able guidance. The faculty combines spiritual and academic excellence. They work with devotion and are open to new ideas from parents and associates. It is the winning combination.’ Amin Chotani intends to keep his children here till they complete their GCSE and graduate, as do most other parents.

Over the past few years Lahore has also seen a steep rise in the number of modern Islamic schools. The pioneer in the field was Rosans Islamic School which was the first to begin Matriculation and O level classes. It enjoys the highest rate of admissions and enrollment among all Islamic schools in Lahore, owing not only to its seniority but also its stringent application of Islamic values on campus. The School of Contemporary and Islamic Learning (SCIL) was a groundbreaking venture in Islamic schooling as it did not just present an alternative but promised a higher academic standard alongwith an Islamic environment. Mrs. Shaiza Mela, a member of the administration confidently states, “I do not want any of our students to ever feel they have missed out on any aspect of education because they did not go to a conventional school. I promise them the very best right till when they graduate after their O level. We have faculty par excellence.” The rate of admissions to the school has grown exponentially since the school began.

The Educational Partnership of Islamic and Contemporary Studies (EPIC Studies) roughly emerged around the same time as SCIL, and with a similar commitment to academic excellence. The Principal Mrs. Humaira Irfan retired as Associate Professor of English from the prestigious Kinnaird College after she underwent a personal spiritual rejuvenation and decided to utilize her years of experience as an educationist for her own Islamic school. EPIC began O level classes and became a registered CIE centre in the second year of its existence_ a fact the Mrs. Irfan cites with some pride. ‘Understanding Quran’ is a course component from classes I to VIII which includes Quranic Arabic as well as simple tafsir of selected verses. There is a strong emphasis on developing fluency in the language of international communication_ English_ in order to create ‘leaders who can project a positive image of Islam and can convey its message internationally.’ EPIC also prides in its exhaustive and engaging extra curricular activities programme, which Mrs. Irfan believes makes it unique. The school has to its credit the staging of various plays scripted on Quranic themes and stories, Dawah project work by students, debating and science fairs. The school publishes its bi-annual magazine consisting of students’ creative work, to give them avenues of self-expression.

Starting an Islamic school is an epic journey strewn with challenges all along. Mumtaz Khan, principal of the Islamic International School in Lahore shares his journey: ‘The concept of bringing Islamic and worldly education together is fairly recent, and for us to start the IIS idea, we had to deal with a lot of scepticism. There always is reluctance in sending your child to an Islamic school, because of a lack of confidence in such a new and little-known initiative. However, the encouragement and appreciation we get from the parents who have their children with us, keeps us going and makes us strive harder to excel.’ Mr. Mumtaz Khan opines that the most difficult task for Islamic schools is the hiring of faculty members. ‘You see, we do not want just ordinary teachers like you find in all other schools. We want people who combine in themselves academic and professional expertise alongwith sound Islamic knowledge and morals. Also, teachers have to abide by the Islamic dress code so that the school’s Islamic environment is maintained. Finding such individuals is often very difficult. And we cannot compromise on any of the criteria_ it is all that we stand for and promise our students.’ Mr. Khan shares how his education and experience as a U.S- educated entrepreneur helped him develop an effective business strategy for the school which accounts for the school’s success in a relatively short period of time. ‘We have always aimed for self-sufficiency. You cannot run a successful institution on charity. We are here to stay, InshaAllah.’ In fact, the school not only aims to stay, but to expand tremendously in future. Mumtaz Khan shares his ambition to take the IIS idea across Pakistan, and eventually overseas. ‘We want to create a breakthrough in higher education eventually.’ The school is now working to develop educational resources by its own staff members. The school has its own syllabi for Kindergarten classes, as well as Computers and Islamic Studies. ‘Fahm ul Quran’ (understanding of the Quran) is a core course offered in all classes. ‘We considered it necessary to introduce the subject because the current crop of textbooks by the Punjab Textbook Board consist of merely basics. We have a broader aim_ we are here to mould our students into religiously oriented individuals who take pride in their Muslim identity.’ Classes in Quranic recitation skills are also offered at the school. ‘We make sure that before our students graduate, they are able to recite the Quran perfectly with the proper tajweed skills.’ At IIS, Mr. Khan continues, ‘The learning environment comes before the learning content. Before we teach our students, we have to teach our teachers to be role models for students at all times. Teaching is not through verbal instruction. Teachers have to first implement the values, manners and ethics they wish to inculcate in the children.’

Any Islamic institution has to face the difficult but oft-asked question of its ideological leanings, its affiliation with a certain school of thought or sect. Mr. Mumtaz Khan of IIS handles the query skilfully: ‘We are Muslim first and last. The fact of our sectarian orientation is not relevant at all because we do not promote or demote any sect or school of thought here. Everyone is welcome at IIS and we have no concern with your sectarian affiliations. This is not an issue we give any importance to. You see we educate children, and jurisprudence is not a children’s issue. We teach children to pray on campus, but if any student has a different method of performing Salat, we give that space. We accommodate everyone.’ He further clarifies, ‘What we discourage, however, is the blind following of any one particular creed. We give the knowledge and the right values, and believe in freedom. Students are free to decide for themselves which school of thought they wish or do not wish to subscribe to.’

Islamic schooling in the United Kingdom is fairly popular and has a long history. Today there exist Islamic schools throughout the country, on average three Islamic schools in every county and 38 in London alone. Most of these schools follow the Islamic dress code, segregate boys and girls in senior classes, have arrangements for congregational prayers on campus and include additional Islamic components to the national curriculum taught in classes.

Saaleha Sameen is a young college student from Burnley, Lancashire. She is currently studying at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Saaleha studied at an Islamic school and reminisces about her school years: “In retrospect I can whole heartedly say ‘Alhamdulillah ’, I feel incredibly blessed having been able to attend Tauheedul Islam school. The sense of community I felt while being there is unexplainable. The teachers and other students made you feel like you were part of a large family. Nobody asked you what race you were, what sect you belonged to etc. What made my experience different to that of ordinary public schools is the inordinate amounts of energy our teachers put into the lessons. During our lunchbreak, all students and female members of the staff would gather to perform their Salaah (prayer). Again this was a humbling experience, being able to stand amongst all 360 girls from the school and your teachers showed us how in the Eyes of Allah we are all equal. This is not something I would have been able to experience if I had attended any other school, as it is very rare to find a public school which allows students to go and recite their prayers as the athaan (prayer call) is being called. At the beginning of each lesson we would also recite Surah al-Fatiha as a class, first the Arabic and then the English. This brought a sense of calmness amongst the classroom as everyone felt at ease when starting their work. My religion has more significance to me today than it did previously and Allah has provided me with the facilities to practise my faith to the best of my abilities. For this I am truly blessed.”

In the United States the need to establish Islamic schools grows by the day. There exist 136 Islamic schools in the country. Most of these exist in states with large Muslim populations. Although some of these schools have managed to reach out to the Muslim community and maintain reasonable academic standards, most depend on charity from the Muslim community and have yet to build an autonomous self sustaining financial base. Some are managed by local mosques. Some Muslim families in the U.S prefer to enroll kids in public schools and send them to mosque schools on weekends in order to preserve their link with religious values and identity. Still other families have begun ‘homeschooling’ children. They keep their children out of public schools and help them cover the national curriculum at home through materials available on the internet. Parents directly supervise children’s education at home. Several Muslim groups now also provide homeschooling assistance on the internet for parents to include Islamic components in their child’s education at home. Homeschooled children can join colleges after qualifying for their college entrance exams.

There have also been attempts both in the United States and Britain to co ordinate between Islamic schools, give them support and help build their resources. The ‘Association of Muslim Schools’ is such an initiative and has hundreds of Muslim schools registered as members: ‘The AMS guided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah, will strive with sincerity to represent, inspire, motivate, support and build capacity in institutions, so that they become centres of excellence. ’ On its website, the association provides guidance for lesson planning and gives some basic sample lessons and curriculum outlines. The website also has a section on ‘Setting up an Islamic school’ to assist individuals and organizations to establish such institutions which are highly needful in the UK where a large Muslim minority resides.

After 9/11, Islamic schools in Western countries have come under close scrutiny and in some instances, under fire for encouraging the ‘religious segregation of the Muslim community’, maintaining social exclusivity and teaching inappropriate course content which sharpens divides and prevents integration of Muslims in Western society. Muslims in the West have attempted to address these concerns in varying degrees. The Noor ul Islam Welfare trust in the UK states amongst its objectives: ‘to encourage Muslims to actively participate in public life in the UK...’ The Association of Muslim Schools has issued a well articulated response to the vilification of Islamic schools: ‘The overwhelming majority of Muslim schools demonstrate good practice in both Community Cohesion and academic achievement despite the constraints of limited resources and unhelpful media prejudice.’ AMS Chairman Amjad Ahmad comments: ‘Muslim schools are part of the solution to the issue of community cohesion and social harmony, some schools have challenges to meet and AMS UK will support them and continue the work of building bridges with other faiths and communities...’

In the United States strong criticism has been levelled against Muslim schools by the media. Fox News ran a programme highlighting the dangerous fanaticism being preached by Islamic schools which were dubbed as a ‘homegrown threat.’ Daniel Pipes launched a slander campaign alleging that Muslim schools indoctrinate students with hatred and prejudice. Attempts to dispel the negative image and redress the false claims are obvious in the stated missions of Islamic schools in the United States which increasingly stress upon ‘integration’ ‘respect for other faiths’ ‘tolerance’ etc. Albert Harb is the director of the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Michigan. He explains, “We follow the standards of the state of Michigan curriculum. In addition, we have an Islamic component, and we teach Islam as well as Arabic as a foreign language. We want to ensure that we can develop an Islamic character within our youth and give the positive aspects of Islam here in the society of the U.S.A.”

Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University, says “There are over 100 of Islamic Schools of North America teaching the curriculum of the state. There is absolutely no difference in the content of social studies, history, geography, math and science. The only difference is they have one period a day where they study Islam.”

The Islamic Schools League of America (ISLA) is trying to co ordinate between and build support for Islamic schools throughout the United States. The organization also provides assistance for setting up Islamic schools as well as resource materials for Islamic education. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) has several Islamic schools under its wing which it supports in terms of financial, human and educational resources.

All modern Islamic schools are remarkably akin in their mission, vision and strategy. In their own ways, they all strive to fulfill an important need in Muslim societies. Also, they face the same challenges and hurdles. This, alongwith the heartening fact that sectarian affiliations are utterly irrelevant and inconspicuous gives these schools a tremendous scope and potential for co operating, building connections and an effective liaison. Their common not-for-profit missionary zeal also ought to rule out any element of competition. There exist some real grounds for a broad-based collaboration between Islamic schools. While in the United States and the United Kingdom the process is already underway, the need is graver in Pakistan for Islamic schools to pool in resources, to collaborate and share experience and expertise to work towards the development of a unified curriculum.

The intense need of an Islamic curriculum for modern Islamic schools was highlighted in this writer’s discussions and interviews with Muslim educationists and school heads in Pakistan, almost all of whom heartily agreed to a collaboration in this regard. ‘It is tragic’, says Dr. Muhammad Amin of the Safa Islamic Educational Reforms Trust in Lahore, ‘that Islamic schools teach the syllabi of the Oxford University Press and other foreign publishing houses. It defeats the very purpose of Islamic education, as the Islamic ethos has to reflect across the curricula, in all subjects taught at school. It cannot be confined to the Islamic Studies period. Secular and religious knowledge cannot be compartmentalized according to Islam.’ A forum for training of teachers for Islamic schools is a highly needful venture as well. The development of a unified syllabus reflecting academic quality and integrating Islamic concepts and values is an urgent need for Islamic schools so as to enable Muslim youth to develop a worldview imbued with the essential teachings of Islam. The task can be achieved only through concerted effort by pooling in material and intellectual resources and collaborating to provide our children with ‘the best of both worlds.’ The creation of such a collaborative forum for Islamic schools must be taken up by Muslim educationists. It will certainly step up and facilitate the noble struggle taken up by modern Islamic schools and take their sacred mission to fruition, inshaAllah.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Parenting in Islam


Maryam Sakeenah

In Surah Maryam we are told of Prophet Zakariyyah (A.S)’s invocation to Allah for someone to inherit his prophetic legacy. His prayer was stimulated by his desire to see his mission continue after him and to pass on to the future the treasure of wisdom, knowledge and faith he had acquired over the years. It reflects his responsibility to and concern for the future. Allah blessed him with a righteous, noble son to inherit his legacy and carry it on into the future, to make it live beyond human mortality. It highlights the importance and role of parenthood as a means to reach out to the future and make the best in you live beyond your limited span of life on earth.
The role of prophets and righteous people as parents and how they taught their young needs also to be understood because we suffer from patriarchal mindsets which carry an exaggerated emphasis on parents’ rights as opposed to parental duties. In a tradition, when a father approached Caliph Umar (R.A) with a complaint against his son, the Caliph questioned him instead about whether he had first fulfilled his duty to educate his son in basic values. Raised as role models to be followed, the family lives of prophets give us important insights into their role as parents. Recorded instances of this are not rare. The manifestation of Luqman’s wisdom that Allah chooses to record in the Quran is what he taught his son. These words of advice are perhaps the best example today for Muslim parents. The primary thrust of Luqman’s teaching is on belief in the Creator. His words instil pristine Abrahamic Monotheism and carry a warning against associating anything of the creation with Allah. The tone, however, is not overassertive but explanatory, describing ‘shirk’ as the ‘greatest injustice’ against the Lord of the Universe.
Parents must teach their children the Rights of Allah, His attributes of absolute uniqueness and incomparability so as to build in the consciousness of their children a recognition of Allah from their earliest years. This helps a child develop a relationship with Allah and a familiarity with His attributes. It teaches complete reliance on Him for all needs and roots out all likelihood of shirk. Luqman’s words convey a sense of the enormity of the sin of ‘shirk.’ Parents must, alongwith building a recognition of the Creator, warn against all forms of polytheism_ explicit and implicit. “O my son! Join not in worship others with Allâh. Verily, joining others in worship with Allâh is a great injustice indeed.” (The Noble Quran, 31:13).
The theme of the centrality of tauhid in teaching the young recurs yet again in the words of Ibrahim (A.S) and Yaqub (A.S) to their sons. Allah quotes them as saying: “O my sons! Allah has chosen for you the true religion, therefore die not save as men who have surrendered (unto Him)’…Ya’qub said to his sons: ‘What will you worship after me?’ They said: ‘We shall worship your God, God of your fathers, Abraham and Ishaq, One God and unto Him we have surrendered.’” (The Noble Quran 2:132-133) In this instance too, the strong concern to ensure that their inheritors are saved from misguidance is very noticeable. It emphasizes that fear of Allah’s displeasure is the most powerful restraint against sin.
As parents, it is our prime responsibility to plant in our children from their earliest years this seed of ‘taqwa’ (God-consciousness) to motivate them to do good and restrain them from evil. Yaqub (A.S) stresses the importance of staying forever in a state of submission to God by instructing his children to hold fast to faith and ‘die not, except as Muslims.’ Luqman creates this God-consciousness in his son by explaining to him Allah’s attribute of Perfect Knowledge and the eventual accountability to Him thus: : “O my son! If it be equal to the weight of a grain of mustard seed, and though it be in a rock, or in the Heavens or the earth, Allâh will bring it forth. Verily Allâh is subtle in bringing out that grain, well aware of its place.” (The Noble Quran, 31:16)
Just as the Quran often instructs believers to obey parents right after the command to obey Allah, Luqman next teaches his son the importance of kindness to parents. He adds to it that the Command of God being the highest in importance, if the parents’ order violates this, they are not to be obeyed. However, in this case too kindness and gentleness in dealing with them is never to be abandoned. It is this attitude of respect towards parents unconditionally that keeps filial ties intact and vital, and hence protects the moral fabric of the society by giving every individual a personal source of authority and guidance to fall back on and seek recourse to. After sowing in the heart the seed of faith, Luqman teaches his son to worship Allah with the heart and soul fulfilling all the rites of His worship perfectly, for prayer is the best expression of submission to Him. Next he instils sincerity and a sense of responsibility towards fellow beings by enjoining him to ‘command the doing of good, and forbid evil (gently and without harshness).’ (31:17) This is holistic worship which culminates in a strong sense of social responsibility, making a child grow up with a conscientious sense of duty towards his community.
Alongwith this he prepares his son for the hardships that come in the way of the struggle to establish virtue and eliminate vice, advising him to stay steadfast, to persevere and trust in Allah: ‘Bear with patience whatever befalls you.’ (31:17) Luqman next takes up character building which is closely connected to faith in God. Faith in the heart is the fountainhead of humility and gentleness in dealing with others; the source that impels one on the path of righteousness and good conduct. He teaches moderation, gentleness, etiquette and mannerism and warns against the hateful sin of pride which does not befit man: “And turn not your face away from men with pride. Nor walk in insolence through the earth. Verily Allâh likes not each arrogant boaster. And be moderate (or show no insolence) in walking. And lower your voice. Verily the harshest of all voices is the voice (braying] of an ass!” (13:18-19)
What strikes one about Luqman’s advice to his son is not just the comprehensive nature and content of his teaching but also how it is ordered, linked and prioritized. As parents and educators we must likewise prioritize what we teach our children, keeping central to all teaching faith in Allah and a recognition of Him through His attributes, love for Him and fear of losing it. When this basis is created, it becomes easier to construct on it the edifice of a strong Muslim personality exuding righteous conduct.
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) taught and trained his cousin-brother Ali (R.A) as his own son and it was under his guidance that Ali (R.A) grew into a living treasury of immense knowledge. Fatima (R.A), his youngest daughter, brought up under his love and protection became a woman of extraordinary perseverance and patience. What must be taken note of is how her blessed father insisted that her relationship with him could not guarantee salvation; it could not be taken advantage of, and that individual effort and personal sacrifice had to be made to gain Allah’s Love and find a place among the righteous. When Fatima (R.A) came to her father to request for a slavegirl to help with household chores, the Prophet (SAW) instead taught her words of remembrance of Allah to give her ease. What is obvious here is fatherly wisdom to make his children go through toil and labour and achieve a higher station of faith by facing all the rigours of life and learning to rely on Allah alone. We also see how the Prophet (SAW) rejects for his children all privilege that came with his spiritual and worldly position. Anas bin Malik (R.A) reminisces how in his years of service to the Prophet (SAW), he was never reprimanded even slightly for his mistakes, and always gently instructed and taught by example. He mentions his mildness of nature and readiness to forgive and overlook faults; it is this that makes one learn and grow without feeling one is being ordered and instructed. It creates in the learner a fondness for the teacher that makes obedience and learning a continuous pleasure.
It is the same attitude we find in the Prophet (SAW)’s relationship with his beloved grandchildren Hassan and Hussain who basked in his compassion and love as they learnt from him gems of wisdom and were guided under his shade_ a guidance that directed their journeys in life long afterwards, till their noble end. Ibn e Abbas (R.A) who too was honoured to have learnt under the guidance of the Prophet (SAW) and grew up to be one of the greatest scholars of Islam reminisces hence: “I was riding behind the Prophet (SAW) one day when he said to me, ‘O son, I am going to teach you some advice: Observe Allah, He guards you. Observe Allah, you will find Him ahead of you. When you ask, ask Allah. And when you seek help, seek the help of Allah. And be certain that were the whole nation to collaborate to benefit you, they would never benefit you except in a thing which Allah has already foreordained for you, and if they were to collaborate to harm you, they would never harm you except in a thing which Allah has already foreordained against you. The pens are lifted and the sheets have become dry. Recognise Allah at times of ease, He recognises you at times of difficulty. And rest assured that whatever misses you, it would never befall you, and whatever befalls you, it would never miss you. And you should know that victory comes with endurance. And the relief comes through distress. And along with difficulty comes ease.’” (Tirmidhi) The child is being taught complete trust in Allah and submission to His Decree_ a belief which makes one courageous, steadfast, patient and full of hope.
Parenting is a sacred duty we owe to the future.The concept of ‘continuous reward after death’ (sadaqa e jaarya) is very important in this regard. According to a hadith, one of the three means of reward after death is ‘a righteous child’ (Sahih Muslim, hadith no. 3084). A righteous child is our gift to the future of the ummah. In order to instil in our children the values that can make them a means of ‘sadaqa e jaarya’ for us in our afterlife, we must follow the ways and methods by which the prophets and the righteous taught their progeny. As parents, teachers, elders we have a tremendous responsibility towards those who will live out our legacies after our time is up.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

White House Rhetoric Dissected...


Maryam Sakeenah

Elected on the ‘Çhange We Need’ card, President Obama failed to stand apart from the hyperpatriotic charged rhetorical tradition of his predecessor. Though not a psycho-linguist, I could not help but be struck by the unbecoming chest-thumping triumphalism and hubris that his Sunday night speech announcing the assassination of Osama bin Laden dripped with. It fit exactly into the array of ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric spearheaded by Dubya Bush, and which Obama had ostensibly shunned in favour of a more restrained, measured tenor. He may not have actually used the inanity of the phrase ‘War on Terror’, but the Bush Effect was ever-present. In fact, I could not see much difference in the ethos of the President’s speech and the furore in the streets as young, euphoric Americans consuming regular dosages of FOX News bulletins shouted ‘USA! USA!’ and showed fists in a berserk display of febrile jingoism. The President may have had at his disposal a greater sophistry of words and stood in a grander setting, but the sentiment was hardly distinguishable. Both danced to the same tune _ a naked, primeval wardance.

If one were to change the specific names and events, Obama’s emotional appeal calling to arms and to national unity could most fittingly come from one of the ‘terrorists’ he claims to fight. The justification for U.S policy is the same doctrine of vengeance Obama condemns about Al Qaeda. Just as the President invoked the images of 9/11 ‘seared in our memory’ and painted lesser visible images of ‘empty seats at the dining table’ and ‘children growing without fathers’, so too are those who strap bombs around their bodies haunted by spectres of the bleeding ghosts of America’s wars. There are other images also seared in other memories, Mr. President_ and these are images that do not occur in your speeches or on your news channels or in your national consciousness or in any remote corner of your mind as your drones rain death and destruction in lesser known towns and villages where those live who you excluded when you vowed to protect ‘our citizens, our friends, our allies.’ There are other hearts with gaping holes cut through them, too. Vengeance works on both sides: “The villainy you teach me I shall execute. And it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.”(Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice). But your victims don’t wear the alluring face of the civilization you champion, the values you extol. Their ire makes them your despised evil enemies, while yours makes you the impregnable empire you think you are. It is the same old vengeful spiral you have not grown out of, even as you celebrate the supposed greatness of ‘who you are’ and ‘what you stand for.’ You gloat in triumphant, satiated vengeance as you celebrate dead bodies whisked-out-of-sight even as you lecture us on justice, peace and sacred values.

The otherized few are the bad guys, the terrorists. And thus you strip away dignity and humanity from those who challenge your might to show them as mere despicable moronic villains. Michael Scheuer, former CIA bin Laden expert insisted that to consider bin Laden as a murderous ‘terrorist’ reflected America’s naivete and inaccuracy in understanding its enemy, as he was a personage with far greater credibility personifying what many saw as a legitimate struggle rooted in an ideology far more popular and authentic than the U.S would have us believe. While his method may be one that many in the Muslim world reject, his standpoint and its appeal was what many saw as both genuine and deep rooted. Scheuer clarified it was a mistake to consider bin Laden a pathological murderous maniac ‘committed to killing innocents_ men, women and children’ as the President informed us. He was committed instead (in his own words), to the defence of his community against American expansionism and interventionism and to avenge the millions of victims of America’s wars and proxy wars. And just as the U.S dismisses the tremendous civilian damage its warmongering incurs as ‘collateral’ and not intended, so too did bin Laden make clear that innocents never were the target, though his strategy of attack may inevitably include damage to them. The identical logic of the ‘nation under God’ and its loathsome evil enemy is only too clear_ while the former claims to champion all civilized values and all that is good and true, the latter is condemnable and barbaric. Chomsky wrote that the failure to apply to ourselves the same standards we use for others is an arrogance of power and a perversion of democracy by those purportedly defending it_ those who place themselves as judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one.

The President showed off the feathers in his cap at a good time, mentioning ‘disrupted terrorist attacks and greater homeland security.’ This does not however talk of the great cost at which it came- the loss of civil liberties in the United States and an officially imposed Hollywood-style national paranoia. What the U.S may successfully have done however is to deflect the war off the shores of the United States to the mountains of Pakistan_ somebody else’s dirty work.

Former president Bush was not just present in spirit, he even occurred in Obama’s speech as the President attributed his clarification that this was ‘not a war against Islam’ to his senior. The need to reiterate arises only when the action belies is. The ‘clarification’ would do little to alleviate and redress the grievances of much of the Muslim world increasingly irate about the continuity of the former administration’s myopic and exploitative policies towards the Muslim world. The recent crisis in Libya has only made clear how little the U.S has learnt from the Iraq quagmire and from the many fiascos of the previous administration, whose official line the President meticulously toes.

The muted warning by the President to Pakistan that it was ‘necessary for Pakistan to continue to join us in the fight’ was reminiscent of President Bush’s 2001 telephonic threat to the Pakistani premier, ‘you are either with Us or against Us.’

Having trumpeted enough bravado, Obama next tries a hand at playing victim, insisting that the war was ‘brought to our shores.’ This does not explain away the carefully laid down global network of American military bases in the Middle East and beyond, its many wars of occupation, intervention and exploitation, its numerous bloody misadventures many of which pre-date Al Qaeda. Chomsky reminds us that all concentrations of power at all periods of history have behaved in the same way, and all demand historical amnesia so that earlier atrocities can be forgotten. ‘If exposed as crimes, our atrocities can then be viewed as aberrations or mistakes rather than as part of a consistent pattern.’ (Neil Smith, reviewing Noam Chomsky).

Just as the president takes refuge in a sense of victimhood to justify his ‘defensive’ war, so do his enemies act out of their sense of injury and victimhood which they believe justifies their defensive war against the relentless American empire.

Relentless indeed, in the President’s own words: “We will be relentless in defence of our citizens and our friends and allies.” The fiction of America’s ‘defensive war’ wears thin with the rumble and roar of the doctrine of pre-emption that Obama inherits like a dutiful heir from his predecessor. According to Robert Jensen, “Obama’s comments keyed into the concept of American exceptionalism and the generalized fetishism of military force evident throughout American culture.”

“We will do whatever it takes”, Obama continued, while praising the work and the devotion of American counter-terrorism and intelligence officers. The message is that ‘All do Good who serve towards This End.’ The ends justify the means. The notorious ways and tactics of American counter terrorism and intelligence officers are only too well known with the laying bare of prison cells where evidence of brutal torture clothed as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ has often surfaced, leaving one’s senses reeling. If it takes Gitmo-style waterboarding seventy or more times to get Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to utter what may be a lead to the bin Laden trail, Gitmo and all that its dark recesses conceal stands justified ‘towards This End.’

As the moral bankruptcy of the argument begins to gape, it seeks refuge in louder rhetoric celebrating ‘values.’ The echo of Bush’s black-and-white dichotomies of ‘good and evil’ and ‘our values and theirs’ rings clear as the President invokes American superior identity and values_ not once but twice: “We will be true to the values that make us who we are.” The constant references to superior American values and their centrality to the war remind one of Bush’s ‘they hate us for our freedom’ masterstroke. Towards the end, the President’s repetition of ‘our’, ‘ours’, ‘us’ and ‘we’ becomes a drumroll of jingoism and narcissism. In fact, it dwindles into naked hubris as Obama celebrates in the death of an unarmed enemy through unilateral military assault in another’s country the ‘greatness of our nation.’ That the nation did not question the official version of the great story with all its discrepancies and even lies as statements were circulated and retracted makes the state of the nation’s integrity self-evident.

The hubris turns megalomanic as the President of the Most Powerful Nation on Earth grandly announces: “America can do whatever we set our mind to.” The pattern falls into place. Bush the Senior had said years ago, “What We Say, Goes.” Grandiose rhetoric disguises the plain fallacy of the myth of ‘making sacrifices to make the world a safer place’, and ‘standing up for our values abroad.’ The counter-productive, valueless and hopelessly myopic American counter-terrorism policies only contribute to perpetuate America’s war against an enemy it created and now helps sustain. It only serves to keep the vicious cycle of fear and hate going. Al Qaeda has already warned of reprisals. The paranoia of a foreign monster lying in wait for innocent American ‘men women and children’ does not give Americans any sense of security, nor do the drone strikes in Pakistan and American vows that ‘the war has not ended’ serve the interests of peace anywhere. The ‘world becoming a safer place’ is yet another rhetorical ploy to win an indefensibly weak case.

It is a case of an empire careening towards doom, screeching piquantly on its way down the hill. Its delusions of grandeur and its insistent hubris is more dangerous than any ragtag group of ‘terrorists’ hiding in the mountains of Pakistan. Frank Smecker writes of what terrifies him more than Al Qaeda, “The most terrifying culture ever to exist... a culture that wholeheartedly and without question believes in the fantasy that it can continue to live on a finite planet while practising a way of life predicated on the assumption of infinite growth; a culture that will do anything within its means to reinforce this fantasy... And so when an empire attempts to send a message to other communities... a message that says- we need what you have and we will take it if you do not hand it over-, well, the message better be pretty convincing and ensure success... But what it does is also that it leaves an impression on those it hurts, and some people who are deeply hurt indeed reach a point of rage; and to foment rage and to show those who are left with nothing but these feelings of enmity and vengeance creates a ‘death spiral.’ It is fanaticism against fanaticism, a way of life versus another way of life, all dancing the same dance_ a pas de deux of terror... it merely reveals that this culture has always been that monster we are attempting to fight.”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tinkering with Ideology: A Rejoinder


Maryam Sakeenah

George Orwell wrote of the past as malleable and ever-changing in his celebrated work ‘1984.’ In Pakistan this is particularly true, given the attempts_ quite commonly projected by the liberal-secular popular media_ to tinker with Pakistan’s ideological premise in order to make it fit the narrow framework of thought subscribed to by a clique of Pakistan’s liberal intellectual elite.

In his article ‘At Ideological Crossroads’ (Daily Times, March 14, 2011), Yasser Hamdani has underscored the need for Pakistan to shun ‘retrogressive religiosity’ in order to find its place in the comity of civilized, progressive nations. He believes the concept of Islamic statehood has been injected into Pakistan’s historical narrative and assumed a virulent character of a Shariah-based Islamic theocracy under the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq in the eighties. The pre-Zia constitutions of 1956 and 1962, he states, did not set down with any clarity that Islam would be the state religion. However, the untenable and disposable nature of these documents becomes obvious given their inability to survive beyond the tenures of their wily architects. One also wonders if it is by mere oversight or something more deliberate that Mr. Hamdani glosses over a much more significant constitutional development, one that was by far more authentic, reflected a broad national consensus and set an important direction for constitution-making in the country_ the Objectives Resolution of 1949 which sets down the highest goals of all political endeavour and the principles state and government would be directed by: “1. Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust. 3. The principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed. 4. Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.”

Throughout his article, Hamdani has used the term ‘liberal’ as something exclusive and in fact diametrically opposed to the concept of Islamic statehood. The ‘liberal values’ he advocates in opposition to an ‘Islamic theocracy’ are in fact intrinsic and central to political Islam. Jinnah had understood this when he had referred to Islamic social justice, democracy, human rights and tolerance. Yet Hamadani dismisses it as a secular Jinnah’s attempt to play up to his mass audience, to ‘speak in a language comprehensible to his constituency.’ Zia ul Haq’s controversial ‘Islamization’ agenda may have undermined these universal liberal values, but what Hamdani does not appreciate is the fact that these very values are at the core of what Islamic scholars have called the ‘maqasid ul shariah’ (values and objectives of Muslim law). It is erroneous to conclude from the failure of Zia’s clumsy experiment the undesirability of Islamic law in this day and age.

The writer also seems to be confused about theocracy in Islam. A theocratic state is odious to Islam, as Islam rules out clerical monopolization of religion, or the prospect of a clergy heading the state. Throughout Islamic history, Islamic scholars have never assumed political roles or government offices, but have acted as advisors and guides and operated as agents to bring into effect a system of checks and balances for the Islamic state and its rulers. This dissociation of theologians and jurists from the state machinery is important to protect the laws and principles of Islam from political abuse, exploitation and manipulation; to maintain their independent character. In ruling out theocracy in the state of Pakistan, Jinnah showed this astute understanding he shared with his mentor Dr. Muhammad Iqbal: “…I am sure that our constitution is going to be of a democratic type, embodying the essential principles of Islam. Today, these are as applicable in modern times as they were 1300 years ago. Islam and its idealism have taught us democracy. It has taught us equality of men, justice and fairplay to everybody…in any case, Pakistan is not going to be a theocracy to be ruled by a priest...’

Iqbal and his contribution so central to the Pakistan ideology in fact is conspicuously missing from Hamadani’s analysis of Pakistan’s ideology. It demonstrates ignorance of the fact that while Jinnah was instrumental in materializing the Pakistan idea, spearheading its struggle and leading the Muslims, the ideology of the nation does not have its genesis in Jinnah’s thought. It is more far-reaching, more deep-rooted. The vision of Iqbal clearly the ideological ‘father of the nation’ for Pakistan is unequivocal and very eloquent on the role of Islam in the new Muslim state: “... I am not despaired of Islam as a living force for freeing the outlook of man from his geographical limitations. I believe that religion is a power of the utmost importance in the lives of individuals as well as states. I believe Islam itself is Destiny and will not suffer a Destiny... Is religion a private affair? The nature of the Prophet (PBUH)’s experience as disclosed in the Quran is wholly different... it is creative of a social order . Its immediate outcome is the fundamentals of a polity with implicit legal concepts whose civic significance cannot be belittled... Therefore the construction of a polity on national lines displacing Islamic principles is simply unthinkable to a Muslim.” (Allahabad, 1930)

This too was the theme and undercurrent in all Islamic reformist endeavours in the subcontinent since the decline of Muslim rule in India_ to restore political ascendancy and autonomy to the Muslims of India. Writers patronized by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan all wrote of the return to glory of the Muslims of India, of their self-determination and realization of a state where they could live by the law of Islam. Iqbal said in his 1930 address: “It cannot be denied that Islam, regarded as an ethical ideal and a polity_ by which I mean a social structure ruled by certain legal principles and animated by an ethical ideal_ has been the chief formative factor in the life history of the Muslims of India.” That the masses took up the theme with vigour and passion is beyond the shadow of a doubt, as the streets resounded with ‘Pakistan ka matlab kia, La ilaha ilallah.’ It is incorrect and unfair to give a character to the Pakistan ideology that betrays the popular sentiment of those who made innumerable personal sacrifices in the pursuit of that national dream.

Hamdani’s ‘group nationalism’ theory fails to take into account the strongest and most powerfully articulated sentiment of the ‘group’ he claims to speak for. Besides, the socio-economic factors which according to Hamdani were more significant than ideological reasons, actually stem from the distinct religious identity of the Muslims which they were not prepared to dilute in a united secular India. This is also a necessary understanding in order to make sense of the ‘Two Nation Theory’ which Hamdani interprets as based upon cultural, historical and linguistic distinctions more than religious identity. This again fails to see religion as the basis of cultural, linguistic and historical distinctness, especially in the context of pre-partition India. The role of religion as the primary force shaping identity, infusing nationhood, shaping tradition/culture and directing the course of history goes entirely unappreciated by Hamdani.

Asserting Jinnah’s secular credentials, Hamdani refers to the fact that no attempt to refer to Islam as the state religion was made in the making of constitutional documents. Again, the political context is totally ignored. The fact that the new state was thrust into a feverish battle for survival dealing with an ocean of crises under the leadership of an ailing, exhausted, lone Jinnah is utterly ignored. As Pakistan grappled with survival issues and dealt with the shock and horror of the partition bloodbath, rehabilitation of millions, controversial boundaries, trouble in the princely states and war in Kashmir, struggling for resources, infrastructure development, establishment of an administration to name a few, constitution making had to be put on the back-burner, and never could assume priority in these maddening times. Soon after, Jinnah left the world. To then point out the absence of visibly ‘Islamic’ constitution-making endeavours is unfair and uninsightful. Besides, there is no dearth of speeches and statements by Jinnah both before and after Pakistan, referring to the law and values of Islam as central to statehood: “It is my belief that our salvation lies in following the golden rules of conduct set for us by our great law-giver, the Prophet (SAW) of Islam.” And again, “Every Muslim knows that the injunctions of the Quran are not confined to religious and moral duties… everyone except those who are ignorant knows that the Quran is the general code of the Muslims. A religious, social, civilizational, commercial, military, judicial, criminal and penal code, it regulates everything… and our Prophet (SAW) has enjoined on us that every Muslim should possess a copy of the Quran and be his own priest and guide. Therefore, Islam is not confined to the spiritual tenets and doctrines or rituals and ceremonies. It is a complete code regulating the whole Muslim society, every department of life collectively and individually.”

Maulana Maudoodi chose not to side with Pakistan for his own reasons and accused the new state of having an ‘infidel government.’ While it may reflect Maudoodi’s inaccuracy in this particular matter, it does not reflect Jinnah’s ideological rift with the Muslim ulema of the age, many of whom including the learned Allama Shabbir Ahmad Usmani were close associates of Jinnah till the end of his days. It was Usmani too whose efforts_ tacitly endorsed by Jinnah_ materialized in the Objectives Resolution of 1949. A man of spine and principle hating political theatrics and demagoguery, Jinnah would never advertise or go public with his deep religious convictions he became firmly attached to in his later days, as attested to by his close affiliates.

Quoting M.J Akbar, Hamdani calls for ‘dropping Pakistans excess ideological baggage’ in favour of ‘ideas universally acceptable as the basis for nation-building.’ This approach is again symptomatic of an inability to appreciate the values of Islam as universal and essentially liberating. The social justice, egalitarianism and sanctity of human life that Islam upholds and emphasizes perhaps more than any other philosophy of life are essentially ‘universal’ and ‘liberal’ in character. The inability or unwillingness to admit it reflects the writer’s own tainted perception and deep-seated bias that goes loud when he terms it ‘retrogressive.’

The writer underscores the urgency of making our ideological choice out of ‘retrogressive religiosity’ by referring to the mass frustration of extremist religious elements in Pakistani society. While extremist tendencies need to be shunned and the role of religious scholars is immense in this regard, one must also take into account the deeper causes of the trend_ of a polarized society where the conservative majority is under-resourced, underprivileged and disempowered by a liberal-extremist elitist minority parasitizing on resources and empowered by state institutions and the powerful ‘free media.’ Writers like Hamdani would be better advised to respect the sensitivities of the deeply conservative population in order to be part of the healing process, to seek solutions within and not without the clear ideological premises and parameters of the state. An approach of this sort only helps the polarization and widen the ideological divide between the Westernized and privileged intellectual elite and the marginalized, conservative Muslim majority. And it threatens to rend us apart.