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)

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Human Rights: It’s all for one or none for all

Life is but a lesson of learning… The more issues you explore, the more people you meet, the more you learn about them and about yourself. In light of a recurring lesson of mine, I’d like to share with you a beautiful, simple yet oh so powerful poem. You may know it. Take a look…

First They Came

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Pastor Martin Niemoller

This short but very poignant poem refers back to the era of Nazi Germany and the failure of German intellectuals to stand up to the Nazis. Dating back to the middle of the last century, it is as relevant as ever in an era of rising hate crime, neo-Nazi/far-right groups and religious extremism to name a few, despite the public awareness of human rights, the availability of resources to learn about each others’ rights and the wide range of means/mediums to speak out (social media, lobbying organisations etc.).

This poem in fact highlights a few very serious key points, which can be summed up in the following famous quotes:

  • “Love for others what you love for yourself” (Prophet Muhammad, pbuh)
  • “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem” (Eldridge Cleaver)
  • “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke)
  • “I am not free while any women is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (Audre Lorde)

What is the overall message you may ask? Well, put quite simply it’s this: you cannot be free whilst someone else is oppressed. You cannot advocate for peace whilst hating others and you cannot call for the rights of one group, whilst advocating hatred or intolerance for another. No one is saying we all have to have the same beliefs or opinions, but common decency and universal rights are not exclusive. Where human rights are concerned it’s in the famous words of the three musketeers (!) that things go: “It’s all for one, and one for all!”.

Imagine this: you want others to accept and accommodate your religious beliefs but you won’t do the same. Not very logical is it? Or you want women to have the freedom to wear what you want them to wear but not what they may or may not want to wear. Not a simple pick and choose is it? Bearing that in mind, I’d like to lay out the following scenarios. For simplicity sake, we’ll use the names “Mr A” and “Mrs A”:

  1. “Mr A” advocates for the rights of Muslim minorities in Europe but perpetuates anti-Shia, anti-Sunni, anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.
  2. “Mrs A” is outraged at the discrimination hijabis face but forces her daughter to cover and won’t accept difference of opinion related to covering within Muslim circles.
  3. “Mr and Mrs A” are campaigning for the rights of Palestinians yet victimise the Jewish community, refusing to separate faith from politics and fail to stand up to rising anti-Semitism
  4. “Mr A” is outraged about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but doesn’t put pen to paper and seek genuine dialogue
  5. “Mrs A” expresses concern for UK foreign policy in the Middle East yet stays silent about the famine in Yemen caused by the Saudi led war, the abuse of women in Saudi law and Iran, the suffering of the Uyghurs in China, the cause of the Tibetans etc.
  6. “Mr and Mrs A” stands up for the religious/cultural/ethnic rights of their personal communities but stay silent about the abuse and difficulties that others face.

What is the message in all of these cases? Well, the message is quite clearly this: they’ve got it wrong! They’re missing the point. If it’s human rights you want, if it’s justice, freedom and equality, then it’s all for one and one for all! So when you’re advocating for a specific cause, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I advocating a message of peace, non-violence, tolerance and unity? (Unbiased educated criticism is allowed but violence is counter-productive!)
  • Am I utilising the correct tools, networks and organisations which advocate peace and tolerance? (Giving/sharing a platform with an intolerant, bigoted group is also a counter-productive no-no!)
  • Is my message inclusive or exclusive? (Am I alienating or spreading hatred of others?)
  • What is my ultimate message and purpose? (Am I aiming for a positive outcome which will resolve conflict and abuse?)

Remember: calling out abuse is always going to ruffle a few feathers. That’s not the problem! The problem is when your method goes against the principles and purpose of what you’re fighting for – or if you’re cause is exclusive in the rights and aims you’re fighting for.

Think about this and remember, when we’re talking about rights: it’s all for one and one for all!

Salam

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Four facts about refugees the media ISN’T telling you…

There’s a lot of talk of refugees in the media at present but rather than presenting facts, what the tabloids present is predominantly anti-refugee rhetoricscaremongering and racist/Islamophobic discourse. As a result, many people are worried about the effect of refugees on their local communities and on a wider international scale.

The following statements represent typical “concerns” of certain sections of British/European society fed by the media:

“They’re claiming thousands of pounds of benefits.”

“It’s safe back home for them.”

“It’s just single young men coming over, never any women or kids.”

“We can’t possibly take anymore – why can’t any other countries take them?”

Sound familiar? Well, here’s four myths the media likes to peddle and the real truth that they’re not telling you:

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Speaks volumes doesn’t it! So, next time someone thinks they’ve got their facts right: set them straight! Embrace diversity, protect human rights and welcome your global brothers and sisters! 🙂

Statistics: UNHCR, The Refugee Council (2015)

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Desperation in Dunkirk: French Jungle diaries (part 2)

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Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear

In an earlier blog blog piece, I featured a personal account of an aid trip run by Stafford Welcomes Refugees to “The Jungle” in Calais prior to its closure. Following utter chaos, the camp was later cleared. However help is still crucially needed across northern France. Whilst some refugees from Calais seek makeshift refuge in temporary new homes in other areas of France, more specifically in Dunkirk there lie many refugees in the official Grande-Synthe refugee camp, as well as those sleeping in ditches without shelter. Prior to the closure of the Jungle there were – and still are – many refugees in Dunkirk. Here volunteers have long been striving to help refugees in this lesser known area where conditions are harsh, numbers of children are high and various unaccompanied minors lie in wait and desperation to be reunited with their families. Aid is still crucial.

Dunkirk – refugees in desperation

The Grande-Synthe refugee camp – La Linère – located just outside Dunkirk, has received far less press than “The Jungle in Calais”. However, don’t let that fool you. Make no mistake: things are desperate. In fact, conditions in Dunkirk were previously cited as “far worse” than in the Jungle back in 2015, although things have since improved. In March 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières set up the camp on the site of the former illegal Dunkirk “Jungle” where conditions were so dire, volunteers found themselves setting up tents in muddy rat infested areas next to human excrement. Wooden huts have since been set up and unlike The Calais, Jungle this is now an officially recognised camp – but is however not run by the government. At present, there are 1000 people living in the camp, including babies, many children and 150 families. Based on figures from November (2016), there are 106 unaccompanied minors at the camp with family in the UK. Inside the camp, there is no electricity and refugees face the winter cold living in these wooden sheds. The media focus on France may have died down but the crisis is ongoing and aid is still essential.

Following the aid trip to Calais by local refugee organisation Stafford Welcomes Refugees, members of Stafford’s local Muslim community – Stafford Muslim Community Centre (SMCC) – headed back to France after the official closure of The Jungle in Calais to lend a helping hand. They met the wonderful Sofinee  of Kitchen in Calais from the last trip and found themselves instead directed to Dunkirk. Take a look into their trip, helping out our refugee brothers and sisters across the Channel.

Our Trip to Calais & Dunkirk (Yacoob, Bilal and Sulayman) 29th October 2016

This journey began with donations coming in a few weeks before our trip to Calais and Dunkirk. I had been in touch with the formidable Sofinee, a lady who has been at the heart of the Kitchen in Calais, and had adhered to the list of times she requested we took down. […] Friday evening arrived, our dear brother from Stoke-on-Trent, and experienced driver, Bilal, arrived […] with a big silver van. Several of us started filling up the van and whilst doing it, noticed a puncture in one of the tyres. We managed to pump air into it, however, a few hours later, it was flat again!! The entire van was emptied and the tyre replaced and this gave us peace of mind that we were good to go!

Alarm rang at 3am, a quick coffee and cooler bag in hand, my son Sulayman, 16, and I jumped into the van as Bilal had come to fetch us. It was 4am and we were already on the motorway. Almost two hours on the road, we needed to stop at the services near Beaconsfield for a break and morning prayer. Half an hour later, we were back on the road and fast approaching Dover. The glimpses of the white cliffs and seagulls approaching were an exhilarating sight and it was then the thought and realisation of this journey was fast becoming a reality…

We went through customs and parked the van up in the allocated bay and went up into the ferry for the duration of the journey. The grey skies dominated the rest of the journey until we reached Calais where glimpses of sunshine were caught. Once we disembarked from the ferry, within half an hour, we had reached our first destination, Calais. Here we were to meet Sofinee at the warehouse.

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Warehouse in Calais (top right), Dunkirk (bottom left/right)

We introduced ourselves and it was then that Sofinee figured that we were part of the famous Chris from Stafford’s circle of Helping Hands. Sofinee said that due the Calais jungle being razed to the ground just that week, unfortunately, they could accept only one trolley. They suggested that the rest of the contents of the van could be donated at Dunkirk. After a few phone calls arranging our visit there, we set off for Dunkirk.

Approximately an hour later we arrived in Dunkirk. With police visibly present in full force and a few police checks later, we entered the heavily-fenced kitchen area. There was a clear distinction that the kitchen was off-limits to the refugees. As we parked up, we were met by a lovely team of Irish volunteers who had given up their time to support the cause of the refugees. When we opened up the door of the van and the volunteers saw what we had, they were in awe and overwhelming appreciation followed.

As we offloaded the donations and settled for a chat with the volunteers, we learned that the demographic make-up was interesting. Afghan, Kurdish, Iranian, were among the refugees that lived in this camp. There was an interesting combination of the languages spoken and the diversity was clear.

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With the volunteers in Dunkirk

Being mindful of the time, we had to wrap up our visit to Dunkirk by asking what they really needed. Oranges, yes oranges, was on the list! Hopefully next time. […] So, as we left and drove past this sad cold place, I hoped and prayed that these refugees’ plight would be alleviated in some way. […] Having seen some of life’s harsh realities, the smells and sights of this day was to be etched in our minds for a long time. […] Praise be to God, for having made this journey happen. Our job was done this time and more aid will be undertaken in the future, God willing!

Yacoob Patel (Director- SMCC)

Get involved:

So what can be done to help refugees in both Dunkirk and Calais? Here’s a few pointers:

  • Donate: food, clothing, toiletries are all needed. Check out: Help Refugees and Kitchen in Calais
  • Volunteer: if you can spare the time and have the funds, head over to France. Find out more here and here
  • Sign the UNICEF petition to reunite refugee children with their families in the UK
  • Get active on social media: blog, post, Tweet to raise awareness and help reunite separate families and give crucial refuge to these vulnerable refugees.

Credits and acknowledgments:

Text and images: Stafford Muslim Community Centre (SMCC)

A huge well done to all of you who supported and took part in the SMCC trip – God bless.

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‘In Our World, You’re Either Born With the Right Passport or Not’

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A few weeks ago, French President François Hollande announced the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp would be dismantled, leaving thousands of destitute refugees, including unaccompanied minors, in northern France with nowhere to go. Although many have since been able to submit an asylum claim, it still remains that for months on end these refugees from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea relied on the help of small-scale NGOs and the public, with no assistance from the French government.

Amélie Jacques, a famous French blogger who grew up in Paris and Rome, has lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and now resides in Soweto, South Africa. Following the tense situation with refugees in Calais, in a short essay on her blog “Ubuntu” she voiced her concerns about the French government’s harsh policies limiting refugees’ entrance into the country. She also contrasted how easy it is for her to travel with a French passport with how difficult it is for people from other countries: 

No matter whether they’re refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, if they’re fleeing war, persecution, or simply looking for a better future … all migrants should be able to come to France and to elsewhere in Europe. There’s no moral reasoning not to allow people to come and live in another country.

My country refuses visa and asylum claims submitted by men, women, and families who come in search of peace, work, and so on, yet nobody’s ever stopped me from crossing the border to go on a family holiday, to study abroad, or even to work. Each time I travel, there are a few formalities — a bit of paperwork, exchanging or paying a few euros, and last of all getting a vaccination — and then it’s off and away! I’ve been able to come and stay for several weeks — up to several years — in England, the United States, Italy, Burkina Faso, Iran, and now South Africa…

What’s this prejudice and inequality based on? French people are no more worthy of rights than other men and women. More than rights, these are privileges. What’s more, such privileges are based on where you’re born because in our world, you’re either born with the right passport or not. Such inequality of rights is devoid of all morality. We either take a step down on the ladder of privilege and confine each person to the country where they were born, or we allow every human being the right to migrate and move out of their own land.

France has long been a nation of immigration with debates surrounding assimilation and secular identity, in particular concerning migrants from former colonial nations such the Maghreb region of Algeria, Morocco and North Africa. However, in the light of the recent refugee crisis, France’s response has been rather poor, unlike its European neighbour Germany.

The French government originally committed to welcoming refugees from Syria, but in practice is not a main recipient of refugees from Syria. The UK and France have in fact been locked in a battle of wills in an attempt to pass off responsibility for welcoming refugees. France maintains that these refugees want to reach the UK, whilst the UK government neither wants to fully open its doors.

As a whole, Europe remains divided on the issue of resettling refugees from war-torn countries, and some members of the European Union continue to express hostility to the idea.

Credits:

This article was first published via Global Voices (08/11/2016)

Images: Kevin Walsh, feature image – CC BY-SA 4.0

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Donations needed for Calais!

Stop The War Coalition along with Stand up to Racism, People’s Assembly Against Austerity, War on Want, Unite the Union, Communications Workers Union, Momentum and the Muslim Association of Britain are collecting donations and looking for volunteers for their Convoy to Calais. They are leaving next weekend.

Priority needs include: food (fresh, tinned and dried), men and teenage boys’ clothing, hygiene items and certain women’s items.

A full list is available via the PDF link below:

Convoy Donation List (please also read the sorting guidelines)

Fore more details about the convoy including the timetable and link to register click here. You can also download their leaflet here.

Salam!

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Image credit: Malachy Browne (Flickr)