Saturday, 23 July 2011


Human life demands dignity. It is the basis upon which almost all ethical traditions (religious or otherwise) are based upon. Life must be respected, given honour, and in turn, death too must be given its due - respect and honour.

Some deaths hurt us more than others, some deaths reach us at our very core. The loss of a parent, sibling or child is immeasurable. The Quranic statement that killing a single human being is akin to "killing all mankind" (5:32) is due to the value of that person to their family and friends; for a mother who has lost her child, none of the 6 billion plus human beings on earth can fill the void that was left by their son or daughter.

However, sometimes in death all we see is opportunity. Death becomes sanitised and we forget the pain and suffering it causes.

With regard to the terrorist attack in Norway - there is much to be said. Much to be said about the news corporations that covered it, the analysts that spoke about it, the reaction afterwards. Indeed there is also a lot to be said about the killer himself and his affiliations.

But I strongly feel that it can wait. What needs to be said can wait. The tradegy is barely a day old and already analysts and individuals are feasting upon it for their own purposes. For every child that was killed, there is a grieving parent whose life has been completely demolished. A moment of mourning needs be observed.

Likewise is the unfortunate trend of sanctimonious mourning. With the death of the celebrity Amy Winehouse - some feel outraged that a celebrity should be mourned when there are dead in Norway. Others comment that why should Norway be mourned while there is famine in East Africa. This feels to me disrespectful to all deaths involved. It is as if we completely forget the value of a human life, and have lost sense of what it means to truly mourn.

Death is the most human of all experiences, and touches all - religious and otherwise - as being the cusp of the very unknown. Analysis and post-analysis can wait a few moments; while we remember and respect the value of human life and afford it the dignity it deserves.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Life of Muhammad: Mixed Reactions

From what I gather from my non-Muslim friends on Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face interactions – all are very much enjoying the BBC’s Life of Muhammad documentary.

From what I gather from my Muslim friends on Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face interactions – all are very much disappointed at the BBC’s Life of Muhammad documentary.

It is wonderful to have a generally sympathetic portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad on national TV in a prime-time slot. A great opportunity to share the man and message so close to the heart of billions of Muslims.

Yet it still isn't quite right. Several things just fail to hit the mark.

The first is its insistence on linking modern day events with the biography. Yes, the Satanic Verses, 9/11 and the Israel-Palestine conflict are all important issues regarding Muslims today. But you can’t miss out 1400 years of history. Quite obviously the Israel-Palestine conflict has more to do with the millions of Palestinian refugees that lost their homes and land upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 than al-Israa wal-Miraaj (the Prophet's journey to Jerusalem and beyond). Something that isn’t conveyed in the documentary.

An older American documentary, Muhammed: Legacy of a Prophet did the same thing. But instead of contextualising the life of the Prophet with 9/11 or such, it used the day to day lives of modern Muslims – doctors, lawyers and so on. To hear from Muslims about how a specific event in the life of the Prophet resonated with them, or made them who they are felt more intimate and more meaningful. It also made a lot more sense then trying to link complex global issues to a single incident from the life of the Prophet.

The next issue is the choice of commentators. One commentator was Robert Spencer, a very well known anti-Islam commentator who founded and runs the website Jihad Watch. To give you a sense of Jihad Watch’s paranoia – it accuses a dodgy kebab shop in Cardiff of being al-Qaeda trained terrorists. Like seriously, click the link, they actually say it! And this guy is a commentator on the show? Bizarre. The line up also includes Nonie Dariwsh, Director of Former Muslims United. An ex-Muslim was given more speaking time on the Prophet Muhammad than Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar.

I can totally understand the need for impartial and unbiased (if such a thing exists) commentators, in the form of academics and experts – but how can Robert Spencer and Nonie Darwish be justified?

A final issue that bugs me is choice of content. You have 23 years during which the Prophet Muhammad was active as a preacher and reformer of society. In a documentary of three hours, there is naturally a need to highlight certain important incidents; so no one expects everything to be covered.

But for many Muslims, this documentary misses out a lot of the important stuff. Important first in understanding who was Muhammad, and important in understanding who are Muslims.

For example, the suffering and persecution faced by the Prophet in Makkah is mentioned only in passing. Yet this shaped so much of the Prophet’s experiences, and is such an important aspect of the Prophetic story for Muslims. In the face of torture and punishment, all the early Muslims stood steadfast in their faith, adhering to the Quranic injunction of ‘sabr’, patience. To overlook this is to miss the foundation of the Prophetic biography.

Another aspect I was looking forward to in the second part of the documentary, that was barely mentioned, was how the Prophet united the tribes of Madinah. So much of the Islamic understandings of unity, brotherhood (of humanity and Muslims), sacrifice, asceticism and so on stem from the importance of Madinah, yet it was barely looked at.

Instead the documentary tends to focus on the controversial. When discussing Makkah and the Constitution of Madinah, the documentary is keen to mention historians who argue both didn't even exist. When it comes to the controversial issues however, the Banu Quraizah for example, the documentary seems less concerned with historical debate and is content to accept a single narrative around the issue.

Finally, a documentary that tries to look at the life of the Prophet but that omits his relationship to God will always fall short. Even from a critical, atheist position; his relationship to God is paramount to understanding the Prophet. Karen Armstrong is the one commentator who reminds us of this. She understands how central it is to the story.

Overall, it still feels like this documentary is struggling to break free of Western Orientalism. The issues it focuses on, the way the Prophet is presented, the questions asked; they all mimic previous Orientalist studies of the Prophet.

Yet ultimately, I have to remind myself and perhaps other Muslims that this documentary is step in the right direction. So little knowledge exists in the public realm about the Prophet Muhammad, that anything is better than nothing.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Islamism: What are you talking about?

There is one word that has become increasingly popular in media, political and academic discourse of late – Islamism.

No other words however annoy me as much.The word is redundant. It can mean absolutely anything.

In media and political discourse – Islamism is pretty much synonymous with “bad Muslim” – the evil, extremist, terrorist, ‘fanatic in the attic’ Muslim; more often than not, it is used as a slur.

In more refined quarters, it is used to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood and groups inspired by it, or used as an equivalent to the equally pointless term ‘political Islam’.

The fallacy of Islamism is perhaps best demonstrated by Wikipedia, which hosts no less than nine definitions.

At its mean – a word should convey some shared understanding to allow communication of ideas between people. Islamism does not fulfil this criterion.

If Islamism is the philosophy and ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, then it needs to be restricted to this and not diluted by refering to a host of other groups with sometimes radically different beliefs than the Brotherhood (for example, Saudi Arabian Salifiyyah are often referred to as Islamist despite stark differences).

If Islamism is to refer to ‘political Islam’ then this should be done with integrity and intellectual honesty. ‘Political Islam’ can not be considered a new movement (as if Islam has made no political claims prior to the twentieth century). Nor can it be restricted to describe only one end of the political spectrum. To be sincere in this definition then, we must also describe British Muslims for Secular Democracy as Islamists.

Finally, if Islamism is to refer to the bogeymen of Islam as it is often in the media and even our Prime Minister, then we must have an honest conversation about what ‘Islamism’ is and what makes it a problem. It is unacceptable to bandy about Islamism as a slur and an insult with no further thought, simply replacing Marxist/Marxism as the new threat to modern society.

Ultimately, I think academia, the media and polity would do better to abandon the word altogether – though I welcome someone to prove me wrong.