Interfaith lessons: What the Jewish community has taught one Muslim convert

In Autumn 2016, I moved from the Midlands and sleepy Staffordshire to the hustle and bustle of London. Having moved to a more diverse, vibrant area of the country and being curious about other faiths (particularly Judaism), I started to notice a visible Jewish presence in and around the city, spotting Jewish brothers with payot curls or kippahs. Back home, this was not something you ever really saw. Now living in London and having been curious about Judaism for a while, after a quick Google search I contacted West London Synagogue to see how I could find out more about my Abrahamic brothers and sisters.

I subsequently joined the synagogue’s Jewish-Muslim interfaith women’s group and during our first meeting eagerly borrowed a book: Judaism for Dummies. Yes – I really was starting from zero! A few pages in and I started to understand something which would teach me not only about Judaism but also my own faith: the richness of diversity.

Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Jews, atheist Jews, secular Jews… The great (sometimes seemingly contradictory) diversity was apparent and very intriguing – if at first confusing!

Yet, as I spent more time at the synagogue (later becoming co-chair of the ladies’ group) and attended various interfaith events, I discovered exactly what this meant. I learnt that Judaism was incredibly rich and diverse – not just culturally but religiously. What’s more – such diversity was no hidden secret or elephant in the room! Visiting a reform synagogue, led by a male-female board of rabbis, which welcomed with open arms diverse members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, including LGBT devotees and non-Jewish spouses, I witnessed how the synagogue actively embraced diversity and didn’t shy away from debate.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear (2)In fact, questioning, debating and discussion were seen as such positive (not troublesome) elements of their faith that one of the recurring jokes at interfaith events centred around how disagreement is almost a marker of the Jewish community! Take two people with two different views to a rabbi and you’ll find the rabbi will declare that there’s no one answer. Difference of opinion is not seen as a problem but instead an eye opener.

Now when I think of Islam, whilst there is diversity – and a much richer diversity than many people realise – there seems to be somewhat of a shying away from questioning and inclusivity of the “non-traditional” or “mainstream”. Whilst I cannot generalise, and of course my experience of the British Jewish community seems to be mostly of liberal/reform Judaism and there is indeed a wide range of “branches” and views within both faiths, there appears to be far less inclusivity and debate, discussion and search of knowledge within the Muslim community. Often questioning and differing views are deemed as ignorant, overly liberal or even heretical.

At a recent event on “Islam vs. Islamism” held by Faith Matters, Dilwar Hussain (founding chair of New Horizons in British Islam) highlighted that the period in when Islam really “flourished” was during the “Golden Era” in Al-Andalus. In this era, the Muslim community practised a tolerant, explorative, enlightened and socially open form of Islam. This community accepted – not restricted – diversity.

So, what has my interfaith experience taught me? It’s highlighted that respecting and including diversity within our faith, given the current global socio-political climate is more important than ever. Diversity is something to be proud of. It doesn’t “water-down” Islam. It doesn’t threaten the Muslim community. Quite the opposite – it helps it flourish.

Credits and acknowledgements

This blog feature was first published by 3 Faiths Forum on 22/08/2017 (c)

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A Christian dedicating his time to the Qu’ran? Find out why!

We’ve not long finished the month of Ramadan – a holy month for Muslims across the globe which marks the start of the the period in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received the Holy Qur’an from God Himself. This period is obviously one of reflection and unity for the billions of Muslims across the globe. Yet this month was not just a time of great community for Muslims both in the UK, but in fact the many diverse faith communities in multifaith Britain. Despite some terrible tragedies here in the UK which have recently taken place during Ramadan itself, I was delighted to attend a number of interfaith/community gatherings and witness the heartwarming sense of love, unity, community and friendship amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

What’s more, in the run up to Ramadan itself, I was honoured to meet a brother who was making a particularly curious stance of unity. You see, whilst many Muslims will spend the month of Ramadan reading the Qur’an, this gentleman was on an exploratory mission of the Qur’an teaching others about its values and content. OK. You might say. Seems normal… But wait for this: he’s a Christian. Although far from a stranger to this book, Julian Bond launched his blog “How to Read the Qur’an” to get to grips with Islamophobic rhetoric out there and spread a message of peace and unity.

“A Christian!?” many may say, perplexed. Well yes, the Qur’an is not off limits! Anyone can read it! But why? Well, here’s what Julian says about why he’s been reading and teaching others about how to read the Qur’an:

I will be writing and posting a series of blogs during Ramadan 2017… to encourage people to read it and, particularly, to help them not misread it. I have been treated as an ‘honorary Muslim’ for years and welcomed into all kinds of Muslim-only/majority spaces where I have sometimes been the only Christian present.

I have read the Qur’an many times since 2000, in a number of different translations. I have been a habitual reader of it… I know that I have read it more and am more familiar with it than a lot of Muslims… I have even had people attempting to ‘convert’ me when they have read less of the Qur’an in an accessible tongue than I have…

What really fires me up is Islamophobes and extremists who choose the most extreme, and wrong, readings of the Qur’an, when a proper reading of the Qur’an highlights that they are completely off the ‘straight path’…

Julian’s message is one we should all take head of: it is only by learning about other faiths and cultures that we can built unity, dispel myths, counteract hate speech and broaden our own minds. You see, “How to Read the Qur’an” isn’t a proselytising mission -it’s an educational mission which reveals a lot about not just Islam but interfaith relations themselves.

For Muslims, Jews, Christians, those of all faiths and none: take a look, read, comment like and share your thoughts! And for Muslims: learn about another faith. Pick up a copy of the Torah or New Testament. Learn about your colleagues and neighbours and you’ll find out you’ve got more in common than you realise. As Jo Cox said – as was remembered during the Great Get Together in the month of Ramadan itself:

“…we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

Peace, salam shalom! ♡

Credits, acknowledgments and further information:

Thank you to brother Julian Bond for taking the time to meet with me and for being such a great Muslim ally! It was lovely to meet you and hear about your inspiring work. I wish you all the best in your current and future initiatives.

Find out more about Julian Bond – follow him on Twitter!

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Julian Bond currently leads the Methodist Church’s grant team and is involved in a range of interfaith activities both online and offline, working with a local dialogue group in Leighton Buzzard (London) and occasionally organising dialogue events at Abrar House. Also volunteering at St Ethelburga’s (the Centre for Reconciliation and Peace), Julian was previous Director of the Christian Muslim Forum for nine years, where he edited the Ethical Witness Guidelines and led its leadership programme. Julian also spent two years on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christian-Muslim Initiative.

Image credits: Heidi Lalci (CC) (featured image), Julian Bond (C)

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A Simple Path Made Difficult – Advice for Muslim Sisters

Hi everyone. Inspired by previous discussions, the lovely Ashley from Muslimah According to Me asked me to write a guest post on her blog about moderation and extremism in Islam. Here’s my thoughts and experiences. Take a look!

Muslimah According to Me

Salaam everyone! Today I am jumping back in with a guest post from my dear sister Liz, who blogs over at www.voiceofsalam.wordpress.com.

Firsly, I highly recommend you go check out her blog! She writes about current events, her personal experiences as a revert, and other topics that need to be brought up in our communities. I love her strong point of view, and I always look forward to reading her posts!

Today’s guest post is actually kind of a substitute for another post I was dragging my feet on, but I daresay I like this one better! I was planning on writing the post I mentioned in my last post on different homogenising pressures within the community, but then I got to talking to Liz about these kinds of things and it turns out she has just as much to say about it as me!

So she kindly agreed…

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10 Photos to remind you that Muslims don’t fit into a homogenous ethno-cultural stereotype

I recently came across a great article by Elad Nehorai entitled “10 Photos To Remind You That Jews Don’t Fit Into a Stereotype (and Never Have)” which showcases the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Jewish community across the globe. This got me thinking and inspired me to do the same for the Muslim community.

Think about it – when a lot of people hear “Muslim”, what do they think of? Most likely this:

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Yep that’s right – Arabs. But did you know that there are also Arab Jews, Arab Christians and Arab atheists? Did you also know that out of the roughly 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, that less than 15% of Muslims are Arab? The Muslim community is rich and diverse, spanning a wide range of cultures, nationalities, nations and languages across the globe – and that’s excluding new convert populations!

So, take a look at this short snapshot of the wide cultural diversity of the Muslim Ummah (community) – including a range of personal photos – and prepare to be surprised!

1. Uyghur Muslim (East Turkistan)

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2. Italian Muslim

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3. British-Pakistani Muslim

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4. Berber Muslim

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5. Bunginese (Indonesian) Muslim

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6Native American Muslim

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7. Malaysian Muslim

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8. African-American Muslim

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9. Sierra Leonean Muslim

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10. Dominican Muslim

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So, that’s just a small insight into the wide cultural and ethnic diversity of the Muslim community but I hope it’s given some idea of how diverse we are. To all those out there thank think Islam is an Arab “Eastern” religion, think again! Stereotypes simply don’t work here…!

Image credits:

Images #1-10 are subject to copyright except for the following:

Evgeni Zotov (CC) (#1), Brad Hammonds (CC) (#4), Phalinn Ooi (CC) (#7), H6 Partners (CC) (#9)

Featured image: Jamie McCaffrey (CC) (Berber Muslim)

Please see source for image usage details.

Thank you to all the lovely brothers and sisters who have donated their time and images to this project! Barak Allah feekum – God bless you all!

Visiting the biggest mosque in Western Europe – do you know it?

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Last night, I headed to the biggest mosque in not just the UK but Western Europe, to take a look and find out more about the local community. Can you guess where I was?

You may have seen this particular mosque in the 2016 Channel 5 documentary “Britain’s Biggest Mosque“. Yes, the mosque in question is Bait Ul Futuh, the centre of the local Ahmaddiyah community, based in Morden (London).

Now Muslim readers may gasp: “An Ahmaddiyah mosque?!”. For in the Muslim world, Ahmaddiyahs face economic, social, religious, political and even life threatening persecution in countries such as Pakistan for being deemed as “heretics” by non-Ahmadi groups. In Pakistan for example, citizens are required to sign a document declaring Ahmadi Muslims as “kafirs” (disbelievers) in order to get a passport, whilst violent behaviour by some local citizens is also a reality. Just this week, the journalist Rana Tanveer was run over by a car after being threatened for reporting on the abuse of religious minorities in Pakistan including the Ahmadiyah community (more info on such persecution to follow in a future blog post).

Now, I for one disagree with such statements and behaviours for a multitude of reasons. I reject the statement that Ahmadis are “non-Muslim heretics” and I reject such “takfiri” behaviour where people feel free to openly state who is and isn’t a believer on God’s behalf. I also most certainly in any case reject such treatment of any religious or non-religious minority whether Muslim or not on behalf of citizens and States. As a human rights activist and Muslim who refuses to fall into the Sunni-Shia dichotomy etc. and who rejects labels and sectarianism as well as takfiri behaviour and Islamic extremism, I wanted to find out more about this often demonised Muslim community and meet my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, whilst also getting an insight into what Western Europe’s biggest mosque looks like!

I was warmly welcomed to the mosque by brother Noor for an evening of prayer and breaking our fast. To start with, we took a peek at the evening’s charity appeal in one of the larger rooms of the mosque. In the UK and USA, this community are most often known for their charity work and on the very night a significant sum of money had been raised for their charity work abroad. Moving on to the main entrance of the mosque area itself, there were lots of beautiful flowers to add a lovely fresh, colourful vibe to the site. But what about the inside of the mosque? What’s it like? Well from what I saw, the answer is simply this: pretty much like any other mosque! Take a look for yourself!

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Outside Bait Ul Fituh mosque

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Inside the men’s prayer hall

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The prayer area for disabled gentlemen – a nice extra feature!

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View of the minaret as the sun starts to set

So, apart from the security system which is in place to protect the community from attacks (which you’ll also find in place in other religious places of worship), you can see that it’s no different! Same salat (prayer), same washrooms to make wudu (ablution), etc. Yes – perfectly normal! And that’s the point.

The ladies ate in the dining area with the men, separated by a curtain, to break fast and then have dinner after prayer (rice and curried chicken!). We prayed in a separate clean, (fairly) spacious prayer hall (larger than a lot I’ve been to and with an additional floor which I chose not to pray in). I’ve actually been to places in London where the wudu area was so dirty that I couldn’t wash, only to find out that the extremist rhetoric was so traumatising I couldn’t even stay to pray there. And trust me – whilst I’m not judging (God knows what’s in their hearts) – these are exactly the same kind of people who would call our Ahmadi brothers and sisters “kafirs” (and me for going no doubt!)…

So brothers and sisters in Islam, live and let live. Enough with the takfiri labels, the violence, the demonising, the hating. We’re all believers. We all worship Allah (swt) with no partners. We all believe in the Prophet Muhammad and his predecessors (peace be upon them all). We all worship Allah (swt) and Allah alone. And… we’re all human! Can’t we just live in a tolerant, peaceful, united world?

Peace, salam

Acknowledgement:

Thank you to brother Noor and the staff at Bait Ul Futuh for arranging my visit and for warmly welcoming me to the mosque. Ramadan Kareem!

The Big Iftar: Breaking Bread amongst Friends

West London Synagogue (WLS) has long been a centre for members of different faith communities to come together and build bridges of mutual understanding, faith and friendship, and I’m delighted to have attended one of WLS’ recent interfaith gatherings.

Whilst Muslims are currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, where we fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of the poor and needy and celebrate the first revelation of the Qur’an, our Jewish brothers and sisters have also recently celebrated the festival of Shavuot, marking the monumental moment when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The combination of these two festivals this year shows that as members of the Abrahamic family, we really do have more in common than many may realise. Every year, our Jewish neighbours fast for 24 hours during Yom Kippur, whilst for Muslims, Shavuot reminds us of the importance of Prophet Moses and the Torah within Islam.

To mark the joint celebration and bring together the two communities, WLS hosted a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot study night and Big Iftar, open for all to attend. The evening started with an Erev Shavuot combo service and Q&A debate which I, alongside other members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, thoroughly enjoyed. We then moved to the dining hall as 250+ of us united for iftar – the evening meal following the breaking of our fast.

20170530_223149.jpgWith everyone sat side by side amongst members of both faith communities, the hall had a joyful lively buzz of chatter as everyone got to know one another. The dinner consisted of a lovely mixture of Middle Eastern food including hummous, falafel, bread and a range of salads. As we broke bread together (dipped into hummous of course!), we learnt about each other’s faiths, with further reflections on the meaning of Ramadan and the importance of interfaith unity by both Rabbi Helen and Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Baye Nass.

Enjoining in a heartwarming gathering of unity, solidarity and faith, the evening was a wonderful success – albeit a bit short for those of us who had to rush off to get the train home! The Big Iftar was later followed by a scriptural reasoning and all-night study session and subsequent Shacharit sunrise service, once again open for all to attend. Little did we know though that the success of the evening and the unity it portrayed were to become more important than ever. As we reflect on the heartbreaking terrorist attacks, merely a few days later, the evening is an inspirational reminder of the need to come together in harmony.

Thank you to Rabbi Helen, Julia, David and Neil plus Nic and all other staff and members of WSL for hosting such a wonderful evening and once again, welcoming the Muslim community with warm, open arms. May we continue to come together and may there be many more big iftars to come, God willing!

Salam, shalom, peace.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Co-Chair, Nisa-Nashim Marylebone

Credits and information:

Article feature for WLS Shavuot Review (2017)

Photography: West London Synagogue (featured image) (c), Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)

Find out more about the Big Iftar campaign via their website and social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter).

So, you think human rights aren’t part of Islam? Well, here’s an expert opinion…

There’s a lot of talk surrounding the “incompatibility” of human rights discourse and Islamic teachings, from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Obviously, I don’t believe that is true and that’s what this blog is about – spreading the message and raising awareness! I wanted to get an expert opinion, to really delve into the issue to show people out there what Islam really is all about and I’m delighted to have spoken with expert in Islamic theology and Human Rights Arnold Yasin Mol. Arnold is an academic at Leiden University (Netherlands) and lecturer in Islamic Studies at Fahm Institute. As such, he was able to provide a full insight on how Islam relates to human rights discourse past and present. Here’s what he had to say- you might just be surprised!

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VoS: What does “being a Muslim” mean?

A: In Islamic theology, this first of all is defined by the verbal declaration of the Shahada, the testimony of one’s acceptance of monotheism and Muhammad’s messengerhood. Everybody who has professed this, or is being brought up by parents who profess this, is technically considered a Muslim. […] There are beliefs upheld by certain [people] in the past and present which negate the Shahada in such a clear way that, at least from a Sunni theology point of view, they lay outside the fold of Islam. But the majority of schools and sects from the Sunni, Shia, and Ibadhi schools of thoughts are considered Muslim. Even though these schools can consider the other as mistaken or misguided in several issues, and therefore ‘not rightfully guided’, they do not reject their status as Muslims. This intrapluralism accepted in classical Islam is largely misunderstood by many Muslims today, so thankfully there are projects as the Amman message. Apart from this issue of label and identity, there is of course in each school an ideal concept of how a Muslim must believe and act. […] I generally summarise being Muslim as it is stated in Qur’an verse 3:18 which links monotheism to ethical activism. Being a witness of God’s oneness has ethical consequences, one is obliged to stand up for justice and goodness as these are all attributes of God Himself. 

VoS: What does Islam teach (or not teach) in terms of human rights?

A: Classical Islam divided beliefs, rituals, and social acts between falling under the rights of God (Huquq Allah) and human rights (Huquq al-Nass/Adamiyya). As Muslims, we try to fulfill the rights of God (belief and rituals, and public good) and of Man (personal human rights) as the Qur’an was revealed, according to classical theology, to pursue the welfare (maslaha) of mankind. As God is needless of His rights, He doesn’t need our beliefs or rituals, it means the fulfillment of His rights is a private matter between a person and God, between the Creator and His servant. But as humans do need rights to exist, the twelfth century theologian al-Razi says, these must always take precedent.

These concepts of Huquq were already formed in the 8th century, centuries before European thought developed their own concepts of rights. These Huquq were understood to be universal, whatever one’s creed, age, or mental state, and were central in classical Islam in their construction of law and ethics, but also theology. The question why God allowed polytheism and heresy on earth was explained through His radical monotheism, He doesn’t need creation for Himself to exist, so whatever creation believes does not serve Him. Fulfilling God’s rights in relation to belief and ritual is a matter of rational understanding and love for God, but any lapses in His rights He allows because of His mercy for, and independence of, creation. Humans on the other hand need their rights to be protected for them to exist fully, and so the main function of any society is to protect and sustain these rights. In classical Islam there developed a long list of human rights, but they all revolved around three fundamental rights: the right of inviolability (haqq al-ismah), meaning every life is sacred, the right of freedom (haqq al-Hurriyya), meaning the right to not be a slave, and the right of property (haqq al-Malakiyya). So, Islam acknowledges the concept of human rights, and the absolute centrality and precedence of human rights in both the political and religious sphere. Modern human rights declarations are the result of centuries of global theological and philosophical thought, and are not simply a Western project.

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VoS: Certain Islamic preachers state that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example is a “kafir document” and non-Islamic. What would you say to such statements?

A: Modern human rights declarations are the result of centuries of global theological and philosophical thought, and are not simply a Western project. The UNDHR of 1948 was set up by an international team of theologians, philosophers and jurists. Earlier pre-WWII international treaties had been signed by the Ottoman caliph, and contemporary post-WWII treaties have been developed and signed by almost all Muslim countries. The language of these treaties apply Western judicial terminology and structure, but their contents are mainly universal and developed by international councils. So to view these treaties as simply non-Islamic or as secular products is false. Also the idea that modern human rights is in conflict with the “Sharia” is also false, as what Sharia is is determined by the science of Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]. And Fiqh was historically always in development, and always took human welfare and rights as its central concern.

The problem with the discussions on Islam and human rights is mainly that the latter is viewed as an alien concept, and the former as fixed and non-dynamic. The 19th century colonisation of the Muslim world, and the development of these colonies into nation states, has created a both a suspicion of Western discourse and a detachment with the humanism of classical Islam. Also 19th-20th century western Orientalism, whereby Islam was viewed as inferior and barbaric, has turned into Islamophobia whereby modern human rights are used to criticise Islam and Muslim societies. All of these historical trajectories has distorted the discourse of Islam and human rights. Classical Islam constructed its own human rights discourse from the start, and used it as both criteria and objective in Fiqh, meaning their understanding of what Sharia is was always related to the protection of human rights. Interpretations that caused human harm (mafsada) and derailed human welfare (maslaha) were not considered truly Islamic.

The Sharia is not simply “what a certain texts says”, but has a hierarchical structure whereby the upholding of human rights were seen as part of the highest objectives of the Sharia itself, and all other interpretations are subject to these higher objectives to sustain a coherence. Interpreting the Sharia in relation to human rights is what classical Islam has always done. And these rights were based on the Qur’an and Sunna [example of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh], but were also seen as universal both in scope and acceptance among other religions and cultures. Modern human rights are an international project, they are a result of human reason (aql) and nature (fitra) pursuing human welfare, and are therefore legit criteria for interpreting the Sharia.

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VoS: I personally believe that parents, mosques and communities need to engage more with human rights issues and especially encourage their children to defend human rights from a pluralistic perspective. Do you agree? Do you think that Muslim youth need to engage more with the issue of human rights beyond political debate or is this a simple over-generalisation?

A: Yes, human rights was, and is, the main concern of the Sharia – human welfare is why the Qur’an was revealed. This central concept must return in the main Muslim mindset. How these rights are defined and constructed is an international and ongoing project, and it is vital that Muslims remain part of this project as Muslims, and not simply as representatives of Muslim majority nation states. Muslims are now important minorities in several western countries, and the centrality of human rights in both their identity as citizens and as Muslims is vital in their emancipation as minorities (i.e. fighting discrimination and Islamophobia) and as the representatives of Islam (i.e. Islam’s mission is to pursue human welfare).

VoS: So how can young Muslims learn more about and engage more in defending human rights?

A: The history of human rights discourse in classical Islam (the Huquq) must become more accessible through both publications and its return into general Muslim discourse (Friday Khutbahs [sermons], lectures etc.), and the history of modern human rights. In this way, they can see the resemblance between the two, and how these are a logical extension of the other. Islamic theology was a theology of rational ethical monotheism, it was a humanistic theology, but today this humanism has been lost. It must be rediscovered both through a return to studying classical Islamic sources, and a rethinking of how that classical humanistic mentality would redefine Islam today.

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So remember folks: what Muslims do doesn’t always represent what Islam is!

Salam ♥

Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Arnold Yasin Mol for all his time in taking part in this interview and to wish him and his colleagues all the very best in their work in shaa Allah.

Images:

Matthew Perkinscrystalina (featured image) (CC)

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#ChallengingTheNarrative – Which narratives do you refuse to endorse? Here’s 10 I won’t…

Last month, in line with International Women’s Day, I attended the Nisa-Nashim conference in London. Nisa-Nashim (meaning “women” in both Arabic and Hebrew respectively) is a UK based organisation which aims to bring Muslim and Jewish women together to build bridges, found friendships and develop understanding between the two communities. We’ve got more in common than you’d think: we both come from the Abrahamic family of faiths, we share many values and practices and  sadly, both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – at least in visible terms – are on the rise worldwide including Europe and the USA.

However, this unfortunate trend appears to be bringing the two communities closer together. Back in February this year in the US, when thugs desecrated two Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis, American Muslims raised over a staggering $140,000 to rebuild the graves. Likewise, when a mosque in Tampa (Florida) was attacked just day later, thanks to the support of Jewish donors, a massive total of $60,000 was raised to repair the damage. Gestures such as this go to show that we refuse to be divided by hate and that we actively challenge the narrative that “Jews and Muslims don’t get on” (due to predominantly Middle Eastern politics one would presume).

“Challenging the narrative” was exactly the theme of the Nisa-Nashim conference – a lovely day spent with lots of lovely Jewish and Muslim sisters (and one lovely gentleman)! We really are stronger together and we really do need to show that stereotypes, narratives and misconceptions must be challenged. During the day the question was posed: What narratives are you challenging? Other than by already being there, this made me think about what I am doing and what I can do – like all of us – to challenge people’s perceptions and to offer a different narrative. Here’s my list – what’s yours…?

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1. Islam and human rights are “incompatible”. Muslims hate “gay people”, agnostics, atheists, non-Muslims, Hindus, feminists, human rights campaigners etc.

I do not hate anyone. End of. God gave us all life and we must respect everyone – with no distinction in regards to ethnic background, nationality, race, religion or sexuality END OF. I myself am a human rights campaigner. I have a Master’s in Human Rights, I run a human rights blog and I’m a member of Amnesty International. I’m passionate about being active – online and offline – and I try and use my voice to speak out against injustice. This is my life, if I couldn’t do this well… there’d be trouble!

As a Muslim, Islam advocates feeding the poor, being just, honest, treating all humans (including women!) with respect, honour and dignity. Islam is serious about human rights. Unfortunately religious extremism, fear, sexism, tribalism, greed, intolerance, xenophobia etc. have all got in the way for many…

2. Muslims and Jews “don’t get on”

I’m Co-Chair of a local Jewish-Muslim women’s group in London as part of the Nisa-Nashim network. I respect and love my Jewish brothers and sisters. I may even have Jewish heritage (long story) and that is something I’m incredibly proud of. I’m forever saying how I’d like to make some Jewish friends! I – like many Muslim women – attended the Nisa-Nashim conference and are involved in its activities. The main hall was full of love! Since then I’ve been able to attend an interfaith Passover Seder and will continue to be involved in interfaith work. We’re sisters in the Abrahamic family and we’re sisters in humanity. And no: being Muslim does not equate to being anti-Semitic or a terrorist just as being Jewish does not equate to being a Zionist or Islamophobe.

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Jewish-Muslim solidarity (Washington D.C.) – Image credit: Joe Flood (CC)


3. Converts are suspicious, strange or wannabe extremists

There are Muslim converts, Jewish converts, Sikh converts (people I’ve met!) – it’s a fact of life. However we come to our new faith, we usually do so with love and enthusiasm – we’ve found something dear. Converts need to learn, they need support and they’re on a journey but hey – we’re normal!

4. You can’t be (truly) British and Muslim

British, Muslim and proud – that’s me. That’s also millions of British Muslims across the British Isles. My history and heritage is mine – it’s what got me here – and Britain accepts me as a Muslim, for who I am. Having spent time in other countries which are far less tolerant – I can tell you I’m proud to be British. Muslims who have spent their lives here, whose friends and family are here or have been offered a new life here – are happy being British too.

There’s no reason why you can’t be British and Muslim. Britain is a multicultural multifaith society and Islam teaches you to respect the law of the land and to be tolerant of others. For those who don’t like “living in a kaffir land” as they say – do they really feel British when they hold such beliefs?! Likewise for Islamophobes who worry about a “cultural clash” – we’re here and we’re happy. If we weren’t we’d go somewhere else! Look at the Muslims out there in politics, education, business, the charity sector, all over – we’re leading integrated, fulfilling and satisfying lives. And for those of you who aren’t convinced: we had an absolutely fabulous time at the British Islam 2017 conference back in February!

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Protester at an anti-Trump protest (London) – Image credit: Alisdare Hickson (CC)

5. Today’s youth are apathetic and superficial

Not sure I quite fit into the youth category any more but here’s the point. We’re young, we’re passionate, we have a voice and we get out there. Going back to my previous points, like many young British men and women, I’m involved with groups. Just look at those standing up against Brexit related hate crime, xenophobia, Trump, Islamophobia, you name it. There’s millions of us focused on real issues.

6. Islam is Sunni or Shia

I’m Muslim. I’m not Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Deobandi, Ahmadi or anything. I am Muslim and Muslim alone. Having said that, there are billions of Muslims who identify under a particular sect or label. Those who label any other as non-Muslim perpetuate intolerant extremist beliefs. Ahmadis are Muslims, so are Sufis, Shias etc.

7. Muslim women cover themselves for men

I do not cover myself for my husband, my father, (male) Prophets or any person – male or female. I cover for Allah (swt) and Allah alone. As a Muslim, I believe that God is not human and has no gender. For more on this point, cick here.

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Image: Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)


8. Women convert to Islam to get married/for a man

I converted – like all the other converts I know – for faith and faith alone. I also converted before I got married. In Islam, Muslim men can marry Christian and Jewish women so there’s no need for such ladies. In any case, such conversion would be insincere and invalid. Without faith, you cannot be Muslim. Read more here.

9. Islam is an “Eastern religion” which oppresses women

Islam is a religion for the whole of humanity. I’m not from “the East”. There’s Muslims across the US, Canada, Latin America, the UK, France, North Africa – you name it (see point number four). Islam teaches that each land had their own Prophets. Muhammad and Jesus (pbut) were from the Middle East yes but there’s 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as “East and West”. The “Clash of Civilisations” narrative is FALSE. There is the Western hemisphere, countries in the Eastern hemisphere etc. but we’re ONE world – a world that happens to be increasingly globalised. What’s more I’m me. I’m Muslim yes. I’m British yes. But I refuse to put put in a box. You’ll know who I am and what I’m like by talking to me, listening to me and getting to know me.

What’s more, I’m not oppressed. I’m an active feminist. In terms of women’s rights, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his followers to respect women. When the Qur’an was revealed women were treated as second class citizens with no rights. Islam gave women the right to own property, the right to divorce, a range of sexual, emotional and financial rights within marriage at a time when baby girls were being buried alive and women were sexually enslaved. Islam advocated for women’s education and social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It forbade forced marriage at a time when women could be married against their will – used and abused for the pleasure of men – teaching people to instead respect their wife, mother, daughter(s), sister(s) etc. Read more here and here.

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Minneapolis (2006) – Image credit: Brian Wisconsin (CC)


10. A woman’s place is (solely) in the home

Women are the one’s who bear children, who go through pregnancy, who breastfeed and if a family can afford to have one salary – great, no reason why the lady can’t stay at home. There is no reason why a woman should be unhappy and unfulfilled staying at home.

However, woman also hold a valid place in society as a whole. We are half of the population. We cannot be completely cut off and shunned into the private sphere. Many women are mothers and carers whilst also holding a career at the same time or whilst being active in their community. Many women do not even have children. Women are doctors, teachers, educators, business women, politicians, writers, journalists, community workers, mentors etc. and as such we build (or aim to!) a more open, richer, more understanding world which represents the diversity of the population both in gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion.

We cannot allow half of society to be misrepresented or even not represented at all. Society needs to serve everyone and therefore be built by both women and women. I like millions of Muslim women work full-time. I am active and I love it! For my sisters who are at home – great. Each to their own.

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So there we are, let me know your counter-narratives. I’d love to hear!

If you’d like to learn more, see also my previous post on the most common misconceptions of Muslim women. You might be surprised!

If you’d like more information about Nisa-Nashim, check them out online via their website and across social media: Twitter and Facebook.

Credits and acknowledgements:

Big thanks to all those who have inspired and supported me for who I am, who I aim to be and in everything I do.

Images: artgraffCarnagenyc, Martha Heinemann BixbyStraßenfotografie Hamburg (CC) (featured image). Image licences available to view via Flickr

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Three popular Islamic preachers who promote extremism

Something which has become quite alarming is the prevalence of scholars and preachers throughout the mainstream Muslim world who promote apologetic narratives, inequality, hatred, division and extremism. The worrying thing is this: not everything they say is bad. Some of the things they say are even nice and quite spiritual. Yes, you read that correctly. And THIS is what is most dangerous. If you get “sucked in”, you may not recognise when something is wrong. You may get caught on a dangerous path. Extremist ideology doesn’t grow overnight. It starts with “otherising”, hatred, isolation and a dogmatic obsessive approach to faith.

Here are three Islamic preachers/scholars who for lack of a better word are seen as “mainstream”, and are widely known and respected by many many Muslims around the world – including the UK – who in fact promote intolerance, hatred and extremism. There are no doubt many more,  but here’s a few to start with (in no particular order).

1. Dr Bilal Philips

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Dr Philips is a Jamaican-born Canadian Muslim and prominent author, lecturer and teacher who founded the Islamic Online University. He has been banned from entering both the UK and Australia and also deported from Bangladesh, Kenya and The Philippines.

He has faced a range of criticism, including his views on marital rape. In his work Contemporary Issueshe stated the following:

“In Islaam a woman is obliged to give herself to her husband and he may not be charged with rape. Of course, if a woman is ill or exhausted, her husband should take her condition into consideration and not force himself upon her.”

As it goes without saying, no man (Muslim or non-Muslim) may rape his wife. In Islam, this is strictly forbidden. Sexual activity must be consensual. Islam is in fact very outright in its teachings of sexual and emotional etiquette, discussing in detail foreplay and a woman’s sexual right to pleasure. Rape is simply rape – whether you are married or not.

In addition to this, Dr Philips also stated that – as a last resort – a Muslim man may hit his wife:

“It is true that the Sharee’ah does permit a husband to hit his wife. However, that permission is under special conditions and with severe limitations…the hit should not be physically damaging and it should not be in the face.”

Hitting your wife is not allowed – despite what many Muslims are told to believe. For more information on the specifics of this topic, see here.

Overall, Dr Philips has written many books, including one which I was given by a UK based mosque during my conversion journey – a book which has since been banned in UK prisons. I followed him on Facebook and liked a lot of what he said. But here’s the thing – as I said – it’s not about EVERYTHING they say, it’s about what they’re saying overall and what kind of ideology they’re promoting. Someone who believes a man cannot be charged for raping his wife, is not a preacher you want to listen to!

2. Shaik Dr Haitham al-Haddad

Shaik Haitham al-Haddad is an Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia, of Palestinian origin, who sits on the board of advisors for the UK based Islamic Sharia Council. Despite the Muslim Council of Britain denouncing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to be un-Islamic, Shaik al-Haddad preaches the opposite, advocating for this practice. See here:

In another video discussing apostasy, he is quoted as advocating for the death of family members who leave and do not return to Islam. You can watch via the video below:

Once again, as a young convert I also came across Shaik al-Haddad, even quoting him in my thesis, not knowing the wider picture of his beliefs and teachings.

3. Shayk Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid

Shayk al-Munajjid is a Saudi scholar of Palestinian-Syrian origin who founded the fatwa website Islam Q&A. If you run a quick Google for an answer to any Islamic question, you’ll find this website. As a convert innocently looking for answers, I myself would come across this site when searching the internet. However, Muslim friends of mine were shocked at the things I was finding – to the extent that they said to ask them for advice and not use the internet. This website teaches a dogmatic, rigid, medieval and spiritual-less form of “Islam”. Reviewing it, it seems to have “tempered” a bit (not sure if it’s received complaints) but it’s one to avoid.

Among some of Shayk al-Munajjid/the website’s views/endorsements are:

  • Ahmadis are kafirs (disbelievers)/apostates
  • Shias are heretics/kafirs and Sunni-Shia marriage is impermissible
  • Advocating slavery
  • Promoting anti-Semitism, stating that Jews are: “the people of lies, fabrications, treachery, and conspiracies…They are the filthiest of nations…” (Featured on Al-Majd TV, Saudi Arabia – 15/05/2016)

Overall, it’s very important that Muslims – young and old, convert or not – have a good circle of people around them, good role models too look up to and good sources of Islamic teaching and knowledge to refer to. There’s a lot of intolerance, divisive narratives and extremism out there but the ever worrying thing is that in everyday circles, on everyday mediums (social media, internet etc.), the British (and global) public is exposed to A LOT of information – some of which may be positive, some not. Being aware of what you’re listening to and reading is important. Just because a scholar is advocating something, it doesn’t make it Islamic or “correct”. Find a good circle of people, appropriate scholars and sources of knowledge and don’t fall into the trap: a preacher that advocates hatred against anyone, is not a preacher worth listening to.

Salam

Credits:

Images: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, Viewminder (featured image)

“I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me…”- Experiences of American convert to Islam Ashley Bounoura

In light of Trump’s new “career change” and the rise in Islamophobic hate crime both here in the UK and USA, Muslims here in the UK, across Europe and in the US in particular, face being potentially verbally and physically abused whilst going about their daily lives. Discourse around values, identity and belonging feed Islamophobic rhetoric. As a Muslim convert living in the UK, I’ve had no real trouble so far. I feel happy, safe and wanted here in the UK. But what about in the US?

Having met the lovely Ashley – a young American convert to Islam currently living in Algeria with her husband and founder of the blog Muslimah According to Me – I wanted to get an insight into her experiences as a convert: how did her friends and family react to her decision to become a Muslim? Was she welcomed within and outside the Muslim community? What is life like in the US for a Muslim convert? Well, here’s Ashley’s guest post talking about her experiences in both the US and UK. Enjoy!

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15181533_10211268880938203_2784240802646481146_n.jpgAs I began to seriously think about reverting to Islam, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was scared of the reactions of my friends and family, and I knew to expect some backlash in general from the public as I went out for the first couple of times in my hijab, but I didn’t know what form any of that might take.

Looking back, in the few months after I first reverted, the reaction was far kinder than anything I had come to expect. Especially within my family, the people who are most important to me were the most supportive. My mother, sister, and grandfather all felt some apprehension at first, but as they began to see that I was the same person, and even becoming a better person because of this faith, they were quick to let me know that they supported anything that made me happy.

Within my friendship group there was a slightly more mixed reaction; I had a couple of friends from Los Angeles area that had a little bit of a difficult time stepping out of their affluent republican mindset, and unfortunately my decision to wear the hijab officiated the end of some friendships. My best friend, however, was completely supportive of me, and now even participates in World Hijab Day every year to spread awareness. Of course, I also made a couple of new friends along the way, both born Muslims and reverts [Muslim converts].

Integration into the Muslim community itself – another problem many reverts face – was easy and painless for me, in the beginning at least. I had one very good friend, who acted as a sort of all-in-one mentor, shoulder to lean on, and resource library. She always took me along to classes and lectures with her, and her friends all accepted me as I was. I joined the Muslim Students Association at my university, and the sisters there were all also very welcoming and ready to share in my journey.

However, upon moving to London (United Kingdom), I found that such accepting communities are actually quite rare to find. I had in fact been spiritually “growing up” in a metaphorical bubble. I had been excited to move out of my tiny community into something bigger, and I thought London would be a great opportunity for me to make tons of new friends. I instead found the community there to be far less open, and deeply separated into cultural cliques that had no place for a native-English speaking American university student. Because of this, I ended up being very isolated for the year I was studying there. The one good thing about moving to the diverse city of London however was the fact that the people on the street hardly gave me a second look.

Back in my university town in California, I had found myself in an odd place between the two communities. I found myself experiencing my majority cultural community in a much different way than I ever had before. Though I am always, to some degree, a novelty within the Muslim community, within the wider community, I experienced everything from micro-aggressions and confused stares, to actual violent threats (though this was by far the exception to the rule). For the most part, I got an odd look or two walking down the street, but I made it my policy to just look back and smile, and this tended to put people at ease. The broad majority of interactions I had in my university course, with my colleagues at work, and in my extra-curricular activities were positive. People were curious but kind, sceptical but supportive, and sometimes they just ignored the change completely.

The negative things I did experience mainly consisted of mildly irritating micro-aggression, usually in the form of slightly ridiculous questions. One thing I got asked a lot by random strangers was: “Where are you from?” Of course I would answer with: “California,” but they would almost always follow up with “yeah, but where are you from?” Sometimes I would just be given two choices: “Are you from Iran or Iraq?”, “Lebanon or Syria?”, “Albania or Turkey?” People seemed to have a very difficult time believing that I actually am just from California, and so are my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandfather’s parents, who are from Italy). Other times I have been asked very strange questions, but as long as there is space for a conversation I am always OK with giving an answer. Beyond the small things though, the biggest problem that I find that people had with me is not the fact that I am a Muslim, or that I “resemble the enemy,” but the fact that I am white and I choose to dress and believe as I do. Many of my most violent and aggressive encounters have stemmed from this type of animosity and the fact that, according to them, my lifestyle choices are not valid.

So, as I am preparing myself here in Algeria to begin the move back to the United States with my husband, I sometimes worry about the situation I will be returning to. I hear stories daily from my Muslim friends of attacks, mosques burning, being sworn at an intimidated in the street. I have been the recipient of not-so-cordial comments on my own blog and social media, and I can only hope and pray that as I come through the airport I will find my home waiting for me, instead of being made to know that I am officially no longer welcome here, in the country where I spent the first 21 years of my life, because I choose to look and believe differently than those who hold the power.

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Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Ashley for her time and efforts in writing this guest piece. I’d also like to wish her and her family all the very best for the future and their move back to the US.

If you’d like to find out more about Ashley and her experiences, please do visit her blog and Muslimah According to Me Facebook page. The blog is well worth a visit!

Images:

Greater than Fear (Shepard Fairey, Ridwan Adhami) (feature image) (CC), Ashley Bounoura (c)

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