Respect, equality and non-discrimination: Aren’t these core universal human rights for each and every one of us?

It’s become quite a sad occurrence to increasingly find that certain individuals, groups, organisations and community figures are continuing (and I’m discovering more) to promote a blatant double standard when it comes to our human rights and freedoms and the basic concepts of respect, equality and non-discrimination.

Time and time again, here in the UK and worldwide, I’m discovering how certain organisations and “leaders” are expressing, promoting or failing to address divisive, degrading language, beliefs and practices. And time and time again, I’m discovering more and more people to quite literally steer well clear of!

Let’s be clear. We all have rights, needs and wishes and we also all have responsibilities and duties to our fellow human beings. For example: we are all endowed with the right to practice our religion freely but we are also responsible for protecting the religious freedom of others, to not impede on the freedom of other groups and to not advocate hatred against other religious or non-religious communities.

I’ve spoken about this before in a previous blog entitled Human Rights: It’s all for one or none for all, but I’m becoming increasingly shocked at the double standards out there. What are these you might ask? Well take a look below at the sad reality. I have not stated names but these are all real examples/issues.

Intrafaith hatred

They campaign against religious discrimination as (presumably Sunni) Muslims but hate Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

Homophobia

They advocate for peace and interfaith tolerance or the rights of their own community yet they exclude and/or demonise members of LGBT community through the use of derogatory language and exclusive practices and/or through constitutional history.

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Divisiveness

They preach the importance of anti-sectarianism within Islam but whilst (often vehemently) referring to themselves as Sunni they (almost always) refuse to accept Ahmadi Muslims as Muslims and preach an intolerant, divisive, hate-fuelled narrative.

Anti-Semitism

They claim to stand for the need for peace and non-violence – in particular by engaging faith communities and strengthening faith relations – but have (un-denounced) anti-Semitic history.

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Violence and extremism

They are concerned about injustices in the name of anti-terror legislation but do not (actively) tackle extremism within their own communities.

Misogyny

They promote a supposedly feminist narrative in opposition of the idea that Islam “oppresses women” but do so with often little or no involvement of women and whilst holding and/or failing to speak out against outdated misogynist beliefs and practices.

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Selective outrage / human rights

They campaign for the rights of Palestinians yet fail to condemn and/or do not advocate against human rights abuses throughout the Middle East committed by “Arabs/Muslims” and/nor comment on violence committed by Hamas. They also use anti-Semitic language and demonise large segments of the Jewish community .

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So, where do we go from here?

Without naming people and organisation this may all appear rather “abstract” but I am sure that if you think carefully and look, you’ll find plenty of examples of these double standards.

I can think of numerous organisations, people and bodies here in the UK and elsewhere operating under the guise of promoting peace, anti-Islamophobia etc. but who are directly/indirectly promoting/upholding some of these double standards. I’m not saying we all have to focus on the same areas of work but ignoring issues, failing to address inequality, preaching hatred and using derogatory language is not acceptable.

When will enough be enough? When will the ignorant, divisive and even hate-fuelled narrative stop? Stand up and speak out – for everyone. We are all human. We are all entitled to the same rights, regardless of gender, age, sexuality, faith, ethnicity and nationality. And we all all responsible for upholding the rights of each and every one of us and speaking out against hatred, discrimination and violence.

Salam, shalom, peace ♡

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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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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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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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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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Statement on Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017

July 11th is Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017. This year, we are recognising the 22nd anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, during which thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered, simply because they were Muslim. It is vital to commemorate Srebrenica to take a stand against hatred and discrimination that targets groups based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any type of difference.

During the course of the conflict that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, and sadly in societies all over the world, including our own, there still remains a lot of stigma around sexual violence. This year, we are working with the charity Remembering Srebrenica to commemorate the genocide, and to reflect on the experiences of women in conflict. Remembering Srebrenica’s theme this year is Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide. This year is about recognising the strength and resilience of women who have survived conflict, standing committed to challenging sexism and gender based violence within our own communities. You can read more about this year’s theme on Remembering Srebrenica’s website.

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Ten years since the war in Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995, thousands of people are still deeply traumatised by the war. Here a woman cries for her sons and husband who were killed in the massacre at Srebrenica

It is now more important than ever for us to come together, no matter what our background, to celebrate diversity and to stand together in solidarity against hatred and discrimination. I wrote about the Srebrenica genocide in a previous post last year, which I urge you to take a look at. It is vital that we remember this tragedy in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past and honour the memories of the innocent men, women and children who were killed, just for being Muslim.

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men_Cl.jpg

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men

I hope you will join us in mourning the loss of those who died at Srebrenica, and reflecting on how we as individuals, groups and communities can come together to build a better future without hatred.

Salam, peace ♡

Text and images: Remembering Srebrenica

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