How can (better) interfaith relations help build a safer, more equal society?

Last week was UN World Interfaith Harmony Week which brought another important reminder to reflect on interfaith relations and peace building within our community. This reminder was even more crucial barely two weeks before, when on 27th January, we also marked Holocaust Memorial Day.

On this day in particular we remember the six million Jews massacred by the Nazi regime, along with other marginalised and persecuted groups such as the Roma and LGBT communities.

We also remember that despite saying “Never Again”, we have since witnessed further atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Throughout this period of remembrance and reflection, we are reminded of our ongoing struggle against hatred, discrimination and genocide.

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Preventing discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide

As a society, it is imperative that we work together to actively tackle discrimination and prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide. We must remember the lessons of the past and work towards building a safe harmonious space for all, regardless of gender, age, ethnic background, nationality, faith and sexuality.

To do this we have to actively and continuously reflect upon past events and identify key principles and approaches which can tackle discrimination, hatred and “othering” narratives. As a multifaith society, it is also imperative to consider the role of faith and interfaith dialogue within this mission.

In 2018 in fact, we are still seeing discrimination, hatred, division and violence amongst members of various faith groups and ethnic communities. Just last August, we witnessed an outbreak of violence in Myanmar against Muslim Rohingya and Hindu minorities. Since August 25th, at least 6,7000 Roghingya individuals have been killed and around 400,000 people have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in search of safety and security.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the unfortunate increase of both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crime is also proving that we still have a lot of work to do in regards to promoting social cohesion, interfaith relations and tackling hatred.

In addition, intrafaith violence between Sunni and Shia groups remains an ongoing polemic. The Ahamdiya Muslim community in particular also continues to face a range of discrimination and violent attacks across Morocco, Pakistan and even here in the UK with the murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow in March 2016. These unfortunate realities are also proving that hatred and violence know no boundaries.

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These alarming, hate-fuelled and violent behaviours must be tackled. We must never forget that genocide itself ultimately stems from hatred and indifference to injustice. It starts with the “othering” of those different from ourselves, by essentialising someone’s identity to magnify difference, failing to find common ground with someone seemingly different from yourself in some form and from ultimately seeing others who may be different in faith, ethnicity or cultural origin as in fact alien to yourself and somehow unequal in worth.

By failing to respect and appreciate difference (whether it be religious, ethnic or cultural) and recognise the universal self-worth and innate dignity of all human beings, othering can and does lead to discrimination and de-humanising and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Doctor Gregory Stanton, a professor at Mary Washington University and Vice President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, documented this degenerative scale in his “10 Stages of Genocide“.

The pattern starts with stage number 1: Classification – in other words developing an “us and them” narrative. This is followed by symbolisation, discrimination and dehumanisation, leading to polarisation, preparation, persecution and finally extermination and denial. Quite crucially, let’s not forget that this is the denial that we are still seeing today by certain members of the non-Jewish community regarding the Holocaust.

Where does faith fit into this?

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Faith is often cited as a means of dividing people and inciting violence. For example, we find the othering “us and them” narrative within jihadist rhetoric which concentrates heavily on the notion of “infidels”, demonising non-Muslims and declaring them as the “enemies of Islam”.

As witnessed by the Holocaust, the Jewish community were discriminated against because of their faith. However, this wasn’t simply due to difference in religious doctrine. This after all is a personal practice. Medieval narratives of anti-Judaism stemming from the death of Jesus were also intertwined with centuries of socio-economic division, stereotypical “othering”, propaganda and exclusion.

This is in fact a complex issue but behind it all I believe that the answer is really quite simple. Violence and hatred have no faith but faith can and must play a key part in tackling these issues.

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Firstly, if we are to tackle hatred we must start with an inclusive open dialogue which respects the key elements of people’s identity and one of these elements is faith. This requires engaging with and including religious leaders of different faith backgrounds when tackling social, cultural and political issues such as discrimination and the further abuse of human rights.

Politicians cannot combat discrimination and build long-lasting social cohesion without collective, inclusive dialogue and understanding. Without the commitment of faith leaders, they risk forming ill-informed, exclusionary or subjective policies. Respect for and the protection of human rights in a multifaith society is built by developing mutual understanding, respecting the diverse and collective needs of communities and forming a collective unified identity, developed and nurtured over time.

Secondly, not only should politicians not simply exclude faith communities in political and social solutions but I also believe that faith is in fact a crucial but often overlooked tool to actively and positively promote social cohesion and peace.

Faith is in fact an active uniting force. Whilst there are key principles and bonds that can cross cultural, national and social boundaries within a single faith group, faith in its true spiritual sense is also a unifying force between people of different faith traditions and backgrounds. Our faith holds us accountable to a higher power and calls upon us to respect God’s creation and to therefore love and respect one another – regardless of a person’s individual or collective background.

The Golden Rule

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Faith in fact holds the precursor to combatting such “othering” behaviour thanks to a basic universal principle known as “The Golden Rule“. This rule quite clearly calls upon us to simply: “Treat others the way you wish to be treated”.

This principle can be found across all major faith traditions. In Islam for example, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

“None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself”.

Judaism also teaches: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” in Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18.

Similarly, in Christianity in Luke, chapter 10, verse 27, Jesus says: “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

This very same principle can also be found in Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism and the Baha’i faith – the world’s biggest faith traditions.

What this rule lays bare is that no one would want to experience the horror of the Holocaust or Srebrenica. By following the Golden Rule each within our own faith traditions, we can build a greater sense of responsibility, empathy, unity and solidarity amongst people of all faiths. This also crucially includes those of no faith.

We must therefore firstly go back to our own traditions and find common ground with and mutual love and respect for our neighbours of other faiths. We must speak out against hate speech and harmful narratives and we must actively reach out to other faith communities to build bridges, friendships and unions. In this way we can prevent these othering narratives forming and developing into toxic practices such a discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Putting faith into action

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This approach however must be nurtured on a variety of levels. On an individual level we must evaluate our behaviour in how we treat and defend the rights of others. On a micro level within our own families and communities we must teach the younger generations in line with the Golden Rule and lead by example.

On a macro level as larger societies and nations, combatting discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide in a multifaith society therefore requires faith leaders of various religious teachings to enter and be part of wider national, international and political discussions. The Golden Rule is a universal principle which should in fact guide the teachings and work of religious representatives. Faith leaders must actively promote unity and commonality between members of different faith communities and none. They are also obliged to stand up against hatred, discrimination and violence towards members of every faith community and none.

If an imam for example is preaching an intolerant, divisive narrative, then he is not doing his duty as a religious teacher. Individual and community faith members must call religious leaders to account if they do not take this responsibility seriously. Likewise, if religious figures and teachers are not addressing such attitudes within their own religious communities, then they are allowing toxic narratives to fester, instead of promoting social harmony. This is in fact contrary to religious teachings. Education, intercultural and interfaith dialogue in line with the Golden Rule must therefore form a fundamental part of their approach to teaching their faith. Responsibility must be taken on every level. There must be honesty, dialogue and transparency.

Faith is a much-needed key element to promoting peace and harmony amongst different communities and wider society. Greater interfaith dialogue on a variety of levels – just as intercultural understanding – is the way forward and the key to breaking away from the 10 steps to genocide and instead build more cohesive, equal, safer and fairer societies.

Whatever our religious or spiritual background and whatever our position within our religious communities – from church goer, to imam or even the Pope – each and every one of us can and must play our part of this movement as a member of our wider, collective multifaith society which respects human rights and declares “Never Again”.

Peace, salam, shalom ♡

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust, Srebrenica and all other genocides.

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10 More disturbing extremist rantings and how to respond

Following my previous blog on 10 Typical Islamist rantings and how to respond, I’d like to present a very much needed sequel!

We must drown out extremist, outdated, misogynistic narratives. So, here are sadly more disappointing examples of intolerance and extremism that are normalised within many Muslim/scholarly circles. Here’s also how to respond in order to promote a real, healthier message!

1. Kill or disown apostates

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Examples of popular scholars/Islamic websites preaching such narrative can be found here (Zakir Naik) and here (Islam Q+A).

Here’s how to respond:

  • Allah Almighty gave us free will and the chance of redemption.
  • Faith is a personal journey – an individual journey between God and our own soul.

More information can be found here.

2. Women must do all the housework and serve their husbands

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Examples from preachers can be found here (Zakir Naik). Very frustrating and not very egalitarian!

Here’s how to respond:

  • We have choices. A woman’s choice to go to work should not be at the detriment of having two (full-time sole) jobs – one at home and one at work.
  • In many cases, without her own income (a second family income), the family will struggle financially. In fact, financially dependent women remain incredibly vulnerable – imagine their spouse falls ill, dies or turns abusive? Women need a back-up / some sort of financial independence.
  • The Prophet (pbuh) shared the chores at home, so why are such misogynistic attitudes being peddled in the name of Islam?

More information can be found here.

3. Jews are “the enemies of Islam”

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Anti-Semitism is being pedalled by “Islamic scholars” and it’s shocking. In this video, Dr Zakir Naik is quoted as saying:

“America is controlled by the Jews”
“We have to be careful of the Jews”
“Jews are the biggest enemy of Muslims”

Dr Naik’s use of language (“The Jews”) in itself is shocking. Again, back in my previous post on three popular Islamic scholars who promote extremism, Shayk al-Munajjid of the website Islam Q&A has publicly stated 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).

Let’s get this clear please. Here’s how to respond:

  • Judaism and Islam come from the same Abrahamic family. We have A LOT in common and the Jewish community deserve respect.
  • Both communities are increasingly becoming victims of religiously-motivated hate crime and are “in the same boat”.
  • Whatever your beliefs – religious, political etc. – we are all human and deserve honesty and respect.
  • The Jewish community does a lot of interfaith work to promote friendship and peace amongst Jews and Muslims.
  • Lies, harmful stereotypes and polarising of communities is not acceptable.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian issue is vast and does not simply relate to two religious communities and “us vs. them”.
  • Remember, a Muslim man is permitted to marry a Jewish sister!

A great example of Jewish-Muslim sisterhood can be found here:

Check them out and get involved!

4. Secularism is anti-Islamic and wayward

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Ah here we go. Here’s a typical anti-secular narrative:

Secularism is a new philosophy and a corrupt movement which aims to separate religion from the state, and focuses on worldly matters, and worldly desires and pleasures; it makes this world the only goal in life, and forgets and ignores the Hereafter. It pays no attention to deeds pertaining to the Hereafter. The words of the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) may be applied to the secularist:

‘Wretched is the slave of the dinar and the slave of the dirham and the slave of the khameesah (a kind of luxurious garment made of wool with patterns). If he is given he is pleased and if he is not given he becomes discontent. May he be wretched and doomed, and if he is pricked with a thorn may it not be pulled out (i.e., may he have no help to remove it).’ Narrated by al-Bukhaari (2887).”

(Islam Q+A)

There seems to be a conflation between secularism and materialism and atheism.

Here’s how to respond:

  • Secularism is not “anti-faith” – it’s actually designed to promote religious freedom of freedom of belief (if also non-religious).
  • Without some degree of separation of politics and religious we ultimately on the far end of the scale end up with a religious theocracy (e.g. as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS territory) which violates the right to freedom and in many cases turns people away from faith!
  • For example, in the UK we are not officially secular (we are Anglican as a State) but we very much operate in line with secular principles in relation to religious minorities.
  • On the other end of the scale, examples of extreme secularism which remove rights of minorities and religious observants can be found in Turkey and France who follow(ed) a hardline model of laïcité. This model of secularism is more concerned with the removal of religion from the public sphere and does/did not allow certain religious practices in public places (e.g. hijab in school, teaching etc.). This however is not the standard universalised practice/understanding of secularism and is an abuse of personal religious freedoms.
  • Secularism therefore has varying forms, degrees, practices and outlooks.
  • Not everyone in every country is Muslim/of one single religion – even in apparently “Muslim countries” – they may be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, agnostic, atheist etc. Minority rights are essential and must be respected.
  • Worship is for God alone and not for governments.

More information can be found here.

5. Doubting and questioning makes you a kafir

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This is sadly so common (see here) and very, very harmful. This does not empower people and is incredibly damaging to a person’s self-esteem and spiritual growth and wellbeing.

Here’s how to respond:

  • How can you accept something without discovery and reflection?
  • You cannot accept what you do not know or understand.
  • We mature, evolve, change our views on things over time and this is a good thing! It means we are sincerely seeking and seeing new answers, new interpretations and new realities!

More information can be found here.

6. The Qur’an is enough – we don’t need learning, research and discovery

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Similar to point number five, here’s how to respond:

  • The Qur’an teaches us to learn to think but not to stop there!
  • A broad range of knowledge will actually help us better understand the Qur’an and references to the natural world and other faith traditions.
  • The more we advance as a society in terms of philosophy, ethics, politics, medicine etc., the more/better we can understand Allah’s creation, save lives through the advancement of medicine etc., live together peacefully in a multicultural, multifaith state, respect each other’s rights etc.
7. Science is “anti-God”

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Again, similar to the previous two points, we must read and discover the world around us.

Here’s how to respond:

  • The universe belongs to Allah and is “run” according to His will!
  • During “The Golden Era of Islam”, Muslims excelled in the fields of science and mathematics.

Find out more information here:

8. You should not have close non-Muslim friends

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A person who is kind, tolerant and open poses no threat (despite what may be said here).

If you come across this, here’s how to respond:

  • Muslim men marry Christian women and many Muslims have family members of various faiths – so it doesn’t really make sense then does it?
  • As long as a person is not violent and/or stopping you from practising your religion, there is no reason you cannot be friends with them!
  • Let’s be honest, you’d not want to be friends with an Islamophobe and neither would they!
  • In any case, we are encouraged to avoid anger and deal with people kindly (sorry haters!)

More info can be found here:

9. Being gay makes you non-Muslim

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To be a Muslim, you must believe in and recite the shahada (declaration of belief):

Muslim Profession of Faith

The Shahada is the Muslim profession of faith and the first of the ‘Five Pillars’ of Islam. The word shahada in Arabic means ‘testimony.’ The shahada is to testify to two things:

(a) Nothing deserves worship except God (Allah).

(b) Muhammad is the Messenger of God (Allah).

A Muslim is simply one who bears witness and testifies that “nothing deserves worship except God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” One becomes a Muslim by making this simple declaration.

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In doing so, they de-facto accept Islamic teachings. We therefore have to bear two things in mind:

  • Interpretations of what is halal and haram differ.
  • Even if you believe something is a sin, sinning doesn’t mean you’re/a person is not a believer.
10. Non-Muslims are “out to get us”

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Firstly, I take extreme issue with the term “kafir” just being flung around (that’s however, another (long) story!).

What I have sensed amongst some young Muslims is a sense of fear, paranoia and concern relating to prior colonialism, surveillance and anti-extremism measures. I’d like to point out that these are not extremists. These are regular people going to work, living their lives. In fact, I reckon it’s quite common.

These “us vs. them” narratives are however exploited by extremists and can ultimately lead to people becoming radicalised if they feel isolated and that they are “under threat” in some sort of religious ideological “battle”.

Here’s how to respond:

  • Colonialism – it’s a terrible thing but that’s the past. My generation, my parent’s generation etc. are/were not responsible.
  • The UK population are also not responsible for Iraq, Afghanistan etc. Politics and religion here are two different things.
  • Muslims are thriving – here in the UK anyway! Take entrepreneur James Cann, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain etc.
  • Yes, there is Islamophobia and we must fight it but let’s not tar everyone with the same brush please!
  • Let’s all work towards an inclusive integrated cohesive society. When we’re all looking out for each other, we’re a safer, stronger society. Ultimately, we all benefit.

So there you have it folks. There’s some very intolerant, outdated, un/misinformed views out there but let’s not attack people. Many people are being taught/exposed to poisonous beliefs (unknowingly!). So, treat people kindly and try and explain how you feel (with evidence plus logic!). Also speak out against hatred when things are clearly not right.

We can all make a difference. Spread some peace 🙂

Salam!

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Muslim and Proud – An inspiring poem

Last month, in honour of Human Rights Day (10th December), I attended an event at Initiatives of Change in London on human rights issues of concern both nationally and internationally.

To start off the event, we heard a wonderful poem by an inspiring poet called Somaye which I’d like to share.

Muslim and Proud

Say it loud,

I’m Muslim and I’m proud,

I’m beautiful in hijab and I’m beautiful without,

I may be straight, I may be gay,

I’m Muslim and I’m proud either way!

 

Say it loud,

Pride is what it’s all about.

It’s my right to be devout.

Without a fight I won’t go out,

So hear me cry, hear me shout.

I may be lapsed but without doubt,

I’m Muslim and I’m proud.

 

These are the facts,

I won’t stand for your racist attacks,

I won’t be banned or sent back,

Whether beige, brown or black,

I’ll say it out loud,

I’m Muslim and damn I’m proud!

Whatever your faith (or none), we should all be proud of who we are – whilst also supporting our neighbours with whatever life choices they also make.

With this in mind, as we reflect on the year ahead, let’s make sure that 2018 is a great year of championing hate, building bridges, forging friendships and making sure that the world is a happier, safer place for everyone!

Happy New Year!

From one super proud Muslim 🙂

Salam, shalom, peace ♡

Credits and acknowledgements

Poem written by: Somaye

Feature image: Ali Amir (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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There’s a place for faith in Britain today – Let’s not become divided

There seems to be a belief by some that having a faith somehow makes you “less able to integrate”, less “British” or locked in some sort of cultural-ideological battle. It’s as if being British can only mean one thing: being (White-)Christian, Atheist or Agnostic.

If we look at the rate of hate crime in the UK, there’s no doubt been an increase in hostility against people from minority backgrounds, in particular members of the Muslim and Jewish communities.

To me this is all rather sad as I equate being British as being free to be who you are and in joyful celebration of such tolerance and acceptance. In terms of faith, you could be Christian, agnostic, atheist, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or a range of many other things. We’re a multicultural, multifaith nation where we’re free to be who we are, in the way we want to.

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Image Credit: Matthew G (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I for one, as British-born 20-something with “traditional” Welsh/English/Irish and also Italian roots, who’s gone from being a Christian to a Muslim, certainly haven’t become less “British” since changing my faith. If anything, my faith has given me a sense of comfort, belonging and certainty in who I am as an individual. Islam teaches us to respect other people and treat them well. Like all other faiths, it calls upon us to honour social justice, build bridges with others, respect the law of the land and love others as we love ourselves. I therefore don’t see how being a Muslim would take a way anything from my cultural and national identity.

For me it’s values – or a perceived clash of values – that are the problem, not faith. The ultimate manifestation of such “Clash of Civilisations” is extremism – a poisonous ideology which isolates in all forms, from the neo-Nazi group to the jihadist cell. On the surface members of these groups come from different faith/social backgrounds but hatred and violence don’t have a faith. The reality is that these people are socially excluded and feeling victimised, confused and lost. They’re looking for a sense of belonging and empowerment.

What we must remember is that social integration is a two-way unified process. In a free democratic nation, we all have the right to choose our own faith, to speak a second, third or even fourth language and to hold on to our own precious histories, stories and memories. It’s our collective identity – where our multiple identities merge into one – that makes us British. To share an identity we need common values, a shared language and a shared history. We don’t need to belong to any one particular faith.

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Image credit: Roberto Trombetta (CC BY-NC 2.0)

We all have multiple identities. Identities are fluid, they’re hybrid, they’re plural. They change, merge and adapt over time. I’m Muslim yes but I’m also British, I’m European, I’m also a millennial, a second-generation half immigrant, an activist, a Midlander and a wife of a Berber-Algerian! Quite simply, I’m me! When I feel respected and included as a Muslim by non-Muslims I also feel even more heart-warmingly proud to be British.

If you take a look into a British mosque, synagogue or church, you’ll see a myriad of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. These faiths are already uniting people. Faith can and does play a key role in our sense of belonging and unity in British society – let’s celebrate that, please!

However, let’s also not forget that not everyone has a faith. What ultimately brings us together is our sense of solidarity. Whether we can live as a socially integrated nation ultimately depends upon each and every one of us. Ask yourself these questions: do you see your neighbour as a potential friend? Do you love them as you love yourself? Do you feel proud to live in a diverse nation?

As Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately. Always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course, whereby you will reach your target (of paradise).” This is a simple crucial message we can all follow, regardless of our own individual faiths.

Credits and acknowledgements

Feature image: AwayWeGo210 (CC BY 2.0)

This article was first published via Three Faiths Forum (15/11/2017)

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20 Rumi quotes to inspire you to live and love

The other week I went to a fantastic interfaith poetry and storytelling night ran by Feeding Folk – a Jewish-Muslim project working to serve the homeless across London. The event itself was held at a gem of a little place called Rumi’s Cave in North London. A wonderful homely place, it reflected the fantastic teachings of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, Islamic jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic whose words inspire peace, love and spirituality. Rumi – a key figure from the Islamic Golden Age – is one of the most popular poets worldwide and a true inspiration with his works translated into multiple other languages.

With this in mind, I’d like to present 20 amazing quotes from Rumi himself which inspire love, peace and a soothing spirituality. Feel the love, soak up the wisdom and revel in their beauty!

1. “Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” 

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2. “If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.”

3. “The only lasting beauty is the beauty of the heart.” 

4. “When the world pushes you to your knees, you’re in the perfect position to pray.”

5. “Only from the heart can you touch the sky.”

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6. “Love is not an emotion, it is your very existence.”

7. “When you let go of who you are, you become who you might be.” 

8. “The beauty you see in me is a reflection of you”

9. “Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.”

10. “Through love, thorns become roses.”

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11. “Your heart knows the way, run in that direction.”

12. “Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.”

13. “Giving thanks for abundance is greater than the abundance itself.”

14. “All doubt, despair and fear become insignificant once the intention of life becomes love.”

15. “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal.”

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16. “Love is the bridge between you and everything.”

17. “Know that one day, your pain will become your cure.”

18. “We are born of love: love is our mother.”

19. “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

20. “You have within you more love than you could ever understand.”

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So in the footsteps of Rumi, find peace with yourself and you’ll be at peace with the world!

Salam! ♡

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Think women have no place in Islam? Take a look at these 10 influential historical figures…

Muslim women… There’s so many stereotypes out there – oppressed, silent, uneducated, meek, mild etc. The list goes on! In several previous posts I’ve written about women in Islam, including one particular post on common misconceptions of Muslim women, to try and dispel some of these myths (or in some cases un-Islamic behaviour). Having established that Muslim women do indeed have a real intellectual, spiritual and emotional role within Islam and the Muslim world – despite the toxic narratives and misogynistic behaviour out there –  I’d like to draw your attention to a few of the many amazing Muslim women out there!

Here’s ten  influential women in Islamic history whose legacy and influence are so great that they continue today. Prepare to be inspired!

1. Hagar (Hajer)

In Biblical times, Hajer was the daughter of an Egyptian king, given to Abraham (Ibrahim) as a slave. As a result, she bore a son – Prophet Ishmael (Ismail). Ismail is in fact an important figure in the lineage between Prophet Muhammed. However, as Abraham’s other wife Sarah was jealous of Hagar following birth of Ismail, she asked for her to be sent away. Allah then revealed to Abraham to take them to Mecca. Abraham took them to the desert where they were left with no water. As Hajar and baby Ismail struggled without water in the stifling heat, Hajer ran between the hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa in search of something to drink. After the seventh time running between the two hills, an angel appeared and a spring burst forth. This well is known as “Zamzam” and is a holy source of water used to heal oneself. During Hajj – the Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca – every single Muslim (male and female) now runs exactly between these two points, remembering Hajer’s courage, trust and faith in God.

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The mountains outside Mecca

2. Asiya bint Muzahim

Asiya was the wife of Pharaoh during the reign of Moses (Musa). As Pharoah was killing the first born sons in the land, Moses’ mother received a revelation to leave her baby son in a basket in the river. Asiya and her maid later found Moses in the river and Pharaoh’s wife raised him as her son. Asiya – unlike her tyrannical husband – was a believer in (The One) God and witnessed Moses’ miracles. She worshipped God in secret though as her husband disliked and killed many of the believers. However, after witnessing the death of a believing woman who had been tortured under Pharaoh’s orders, she openly declared her faith to her husband. Pharaoh tried to turn his wife away from God but Asiya refused to deny Him. Due to her faith and rebellion, she was then tortured to death – dying as a martyr as a result. To Muslims, Asiya represents faithfulness, virtue and piety. Despite her husband’s beliefs and behaviour, she was loyal to God, showing how women can practice their faith regardless of their circumstances as we are all independent spiritual beings.

3. Mary (Maryam)

Mary – mother of Prophet Jesus (Issa) – is one of the most important women in the Qur’an and in fact the only woman identified by name in the Qur’an itself. Her name actually features more in the Qur’an than the New Testament. The 19th chapter of the Qur’an (composed of 98 verses) is named after Mary and discusses her pregnancy, Jesus’ birth and the miracle of how he spoke in the cradle:

She said, “How can I have a boy while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?”

He said, “Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me, and We will make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter [already] decreed.’ “

So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place. […] Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented. O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste.” So she pointed to him. They said, “How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?” .

[Jesus] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet….

That is Jesus, the son of Mary – the word of truth about which they are in dispute.

(Qur’an, 19: 20-34)

4. Khadija bint Khuwaylid (d. 620)

A successful entrepreneur and elite figure in Mecca in her own right, Khadija was Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. The couple were married for 25 years and it was Khadija that in fact became the first “Muslim” in accepting her husband’s revelation, providing him crucial emotional support during the period of the emergence of Islam:

God Almighty never granted me anyone better in this life than her. She accepted me when people deprived me; and God granted me children only through her. (Muslim)

Something you may not also know is that it was Khadija that first proposed the idea of marriage – not Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)!

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The Qur’an and marriage (Image credit: Nur Alia Mazalan, CC)

5. Aisha bint Abu Bakr (d. 678)

Another influential wife of Prophet Muhammad (who died in 632) was Aisha, who played central role in political opposition to 3rd/4th caliphs Uthman ibn Affan/Ali ibn Abi Talib and was an early jurist and hadith transmitter of Islamic teachings. As one of the major narrators of the ahadith (sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammed), she played a highly active role in scholarship, politics and the public sphere as a whole.

6. Fatimah bint Muhammad (d.632)

Prophet Muhammad’s youngest daughter (considered the only daughter of Khadija in Shia tradition) is known by many titles such as “al-Zahra” (“the shining one”), Fatima Zahra and “al-Batul” (the chaste, the pure one), acknowledged as spending a lot of time in prayer, reciting Qur’an and in other acts of worship.

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“Zahra” translates to the flower “rose” in Arabic (Image credit: Ahmed Alper, CC)

7. Nusayba bint Ka‘b al-Ansariyya (d. 634)

Also known as Umm Ammara, Nusayba was a member of Banu Hajjar tribe – a Jewish tribe mentioned in the Charter of Medina, outlining a multifaith State with other religious communities. Nusayba was one of earliest converts to Islam in Medina and was a companion of Prophet Muhammad. She was well versed in the Qur’an and ahadith and was one of the first advocates for women’s rights. She questioned Prophet Muhammad about God addressing men in the Qur’an, asking: “Why does God only address men (in the Qur’an)?” The following verse was then revealed which outlines how men and woman are spiritual equals:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. (Qur’an, 33: 35)

8. Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (Iraq) (d. 801) 

Rabia of Basra was an important Sufi mystic and poet. Born into a poor family, she lived as a slave in southern Iraq, later gaining her freedom after her owner saw her prostrating in prayer with an aura of light surrounding her. As the founder of Sufi school of “Divine Love”, she emphasised the importance of loving God, rather than fearing punishment or seeking reward from God for our actions. One day, she was out walking, holding a bucket of water in one hand and lit candle in the other, and was asked why she was doing so. She replied: “I want to set fire to heaven with this flame and put out the fire of hell with this water so that people will cease to worship God for fear of hell or temptation of heaven. One must love God as God is love”.  Her emphasis on loving Allah can also be seen in this beautiful poem:

O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.

9. Fatima al-Fihri (Morocco) (d. 880)

Fatima is the founder of oldest university in the world. After inheriting a large fortune, Fatima wanted to invest in work which would be of benefit to the community, so she built Al-Qarawiyyin mosque. During the 10-12th centuries this then became Al-Qarawiyyin University. This centre of study has since been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records and UNESCO as the oldest ongoing higher education institution in the world.

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Fez, Morocco (Image credit: Scott Koch, CC)

10. Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodio (Nigeria) (d.1864) 

Nana Asma’u is one very inspiring woman! As the daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio, this multilingual princess, poet and teacher was well educated in Qur’anic studies and passionate about women’s education. In 1830, Nana formed a group of fellow female teachers and travelled around poor and rural areas to educate women. She is an important pre-modern feminist figure in Africa and advocate of women’s independence and education in Islam and the Muslim world. As a result of her work, many Islamic organisations, meeting halls and schools in Nigeria have since been named after her in her honour. Her works have also been re-published and re-translated as her influence is still strong today.

So there we are! Just some of the many inspirational Muslim from the earlier eras! If you’d like to find out more information about important historical and contemporary Muslim women, check out the WISE Muslim Women index. It’s a great tool and covers a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures across a range of professions and spheres. Check it out!

Salam!

Credits:

Featured image: Hernán Piñera (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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…

View original post 1,145 more words

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!