Thursday, 22 January 2009
I was fortunate enough to come from a family that read books, so I wasn't averse to reading. However, the real passion was lying dormant, and it was Shaykh Hamza who really awoke the sleeping giant, so to speak.-
Well, when I first heard Shaykh Hamza's lectures, I think back in 1996, I was just amazed at how articulate he was. The way he handled the facts and how he was able to weave in and out of one subject matter to another truly amazed me. Back then, there really wasn't anyone who ignited interest of Islam in me - I mean from an intellectual perspective. The alternative was the non-English speaking malvi saab in the Masjid, and that just didn't cut the mustard. Actually, it was really funny how I purchased the Shaykh's first tape.-
Why - what happened?
Well, at that time, all I knew about Islam was from Ahmed Deedat, and I was really proud that I was going to purchase my very own copy of one of his lectures. Anyhow, whilst pondering over which tape to purchase, the storeowner was muttering some words to himself until he realized that I was actually there. He then became animated and vocal. He said something like: 'Akhi! Take this tape. It's the first recording of an amazing lecture!' I looked at him, not being impressed at all, by what I thought to be a poor sales pitch. I just told him 'Jazak Allah khayran - but no thanks'. I was here to buy an Ahmed Deedat tape, and that was it. 'Take the tape' he exclaimed. 'Take it for free'. My ears perked up. A free tape? I thought to myself. Hmm. He probably was finding it hard to sell or something. 'No thanks brother' I said. 'I'm just looking for an Ahmed Deedat tape,' I said nervously as the owner began walking over to me. He was a big man. 'Listen akhi,' he said putting his arms on my shoulders. 'Take it. If you don't like it, bring it back, or give it to a friend. But I am telling you something. This tape will change your life.' I peered over to the cover and was unable to recognise who this person was. It certainly wasn't Ahmed Deedat and I was even less impressed. However, this mans enthusiasm was so great, I decided to take it. 'OK' I said, 'If I don't like it, I'll bring it back'. It wasn't long after that I found myself having nothing to do. It was a Sunday afternoon. I then realised that I had this tape. I put it on, and the rest as they say, is history. The tape was Shaykh Hamza's 'Dajjal and the New world Order', and that one tape really did change my entire life and that of my family
SubhanAllah! If you don't mind me asking, just how did your life change?
My whole outlook and perception of life changed along with my attitude, specifically to Islam. It completely turned around. I think I was what could be aptly termed a 'part-time' Muslim, in the sense that I prayed etc, but only half-heartedly. There was no spirit or desire that animated my barren actions. I really had dismissed Islam as being nothing other than a set of rules and regulations, and I had come to this understanding by reflecting upon the goings on at my local mosque. All I could recall were arguments and being told 'do this' and 'don't do that.' I was not impressed, and infact, what I saw, actually deterred me from wanting to learn about Islam. I thought that Islam really did not have anything to offer me, nor could be relevant to someone growing up in the West. Thinking about it now, back then I equated Islam to a set number of Pakistani traditions. How wrong I was. Shaykh Hamza immediately sparked, or set a catalyst of change in me. I was taken aback at how he portrayed Islam as something meaningful, scholarly and interesting. There seemed to be more to Islam than 'Namaz' and fasting. He also spoke in a language, which I could clearly understand - not in Urdu or Punjabi - but in English and it was very articulate, almost magic. I went from being a 'passive' Muslim into a 'proactive' one, in that I actually went out to learn about this din (as opposed to being dragged) and the more I learned the more I continued to want to know. This entailed changing my reading habits. I would read those books he had suggested. This entailed a lot of reading! So it was here that my passion for reading books really emerged.
What sort of books did you read?
I began to read books of Sirah, history and basic jurisprudence. I later then found that I had a real desire to learn about the 'ulama, so I began to read their biographies which then lead me to read their books. It was a real broad spectrum of books. There was a point after which I had left university that I was reading very heavily. I was reading three or four books at a time, often completing a book in one or two days. I really believe that period of my life served as a foundation from which I still benefit today. To be honest, I did actually read a whole load of books that looked into the 'controversial' questions that kept on coming up at university back then, and which continue to crop up today.
You know, questions such as, is there such a notion as good bida'? Should we celebrate the Mawlid? Should we follow a Madhab etc etc.
And what did you discover?
I was actually quite surprised. I came to read the works of the great scholars such as Jalal al-Din al-Suyyuti, Ibn Kathir, al-Qurtubi, Imam al-Nawawi, Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani, and so on, and they answered most if not all of the questions. I was really amazed to find that most of the issues to which some people were objecting to were not instituted by the Pakistanis (!) nor were they considered evil or reprehensible. I did however, understand that scholars generally fell into two groups when understanding the hadith 'beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in Hell-fire,' and that both groups were able to show their evidences to prove their point. However, most of the scholars, such as Imam Shafi'i, ibn Athir, al-Qarafi, ibn Hazm, al-'izz ibn 'Abd al-Salam, Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani, Imam Nawawi and others categorized innovation into good and bad. The point was that these scholars did not call those who differed with them as Kuffar or mushriks, as some people were doing during the early nineties. Instead of recognizing that there were legitimate differences at how such scholars understood this hadith, and at how many scholars differed from one another over different issues, we were being told that there were no differences and that if they did occur, they were misguided. This was simply not true and if people actually read these works written centuries ago, they too would come to realize it. However, at university, no one really has the time to read, and way back then, there really were no good books that dealt with such questions. The ones that were available, were either poor translations and cheaply produced from India. The books that were widely available, relatively good quality and cheap, were the books that stated every innovation was misguidance, and praying this way was wrong and doing that would make you an innovator and so on and so on! It was quite depressing! You were really quite restricted for choice. That isn't the case now. There is now a vast choice of books of high quality on 'traditional' Islam.
Why do you think that is?
Personally, I think that this change has come about as a result of the very hard work primarily carried out in the English language by people like Shaykh Hamza, Shaykh Nuh, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, Imam Zaid Shakir, Dr 'Umar 'Abdallah Faruq and others. The word 'tradition' was unheard of before they began to speak and articulate it. Now, everyone is talking about 'traditional Islam' and 'tradition'. I think through their influence, people have begun to produce more books, tapes and magazines in this line. We also have e-groups that disseminate traditional fiqh. These e-lists are moderated and answered by students who have been encouraged and motivated by the Shaykh's I have mentioned to go out and learn sacred knowledge. It is truly as a renewal has slowly begun. Just take a look at how many new publishing houses have sprouted just in the last 5 years. The exception has been of course, ITS (Islamic Texts Society) and The Quilliam Press, who begun this work long ago. People really want to know what this 'traditional' Islam is, and I really do believe that the people have been inspired by these scholars to go out and seek it.
What does traditional Islam mean to you?
Traditional Islam means different things to different people depending on the context. Roughly, I understand it as the legacy of the juristic, theological and spiritual interpretive communitiesthat forms around the third century and continues on. These interpretive communities developed a particular set of paradigms, symbolism, and linguisticspecificity that constituted themainstream tradition of Islam.It could be seen to be a continuity in these areas, and something that was taught from one generation to another through a process of transmission and isnad. When the isnad breaks, you could say that the tradition has broken, and what replaces it are the opinions of people who really do not recognize traditional scholarship. In-fact, they react against it and try to deconstruct its importance, simply because they haven't received instruction in this way. They deem it antiquated and irrelevant. Without a chain of authorities leading from one scholar to another, which ultimately leads back to the Prophet Muhammad, anyone could just about say anything, and we are seeing the effects of this phenomenon now. Infact, to repeat the words of the great scholar, 'Abdallah ibn Mubarak (d. 181); 'According to me, the isnad is from the din. If it were not for the isnad, whoever wished could have said whatever he wished. The example of one who studies this din, is like the one who tries to ascend the roof without a ladder.' Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) said that 'the isnad is the weapon of a believer.' There are countless such remarks. Tradition is something that is living and dynamic.
That is really interesting. You mention about tradition, and you actually wrote a book about that didn't you? Can you tell us more about it and what motivated you to write it?
Yes. It's called, The Broken Chain: Reflections Upon the Neglect of a Tradition. I basically attempted to illustrate what tradition implied. It is really concerned with bringing to light many opinions of the great scholars of Islam, such as the ones I have mentioned earlier, like Imam Nawawi, Imam Shafi'i etc. I never set out to write a book. I wrote a poem about the Prophet Muhammad, and then began to elaborate upon the points and statements made within the poem. Then I thought it could do with something explaining the role of poetry in Islam. Later, someone suggested that I should write something about scholarship and how and why Muslims have ended up in this situation where everything is contested and where one brother calls another Mubtadi, mislead or even a kaffir for praying in one way or for simply the way they show respect for the Prophet, scholars and those who take a spiritual path. It really is a summation of what I had learned and experienced. It would not have been possible had I not met Shaykh Hamza nor had I read the works of Shaykh Nuh and Shaykh Abdal Hakim.
Would you agree with some people when they say that people get a bit obsessed when around these Shayukh.
Yes, I have heard this a couple of times and it really saddens me, truly. Let me try and explain, Insha'Allah. Most, if not all those who respect these Shayukh do so for a very good reason, namely, as in my case, a transformation takes place for which one is eternally grateful. I have met some brothers who have been drug users and pushers and by meeting and listening to these Shayukh, they rejected their ways and adopted Islam in a wholesome manner. It is as if a second chance or a new lease of life has been given to them, one that is of meaning and purpose. Because of this, these brothers and sisters love the one who has rejuvenated them and many respect them greatly for this.In fact, this attitude isn't something new at all. There exists a whole corpus of literature in the Islamic heritage that discusses at length the status bestowed upon scholars, and the right that they have to be honoured. Because we have become so alienated from this tradition, when we se someone honouring a scholar, we deem it 'excessive'. Imam Shafi'i mentions that when he was in the lessons of his teacher, Imam Malik, he used to turn the pages very carefully out of fear that it would disrupt his teacher. Al-Rabi' swore that he never dare drink water when Imam Shafi'i was looking at him, out of his reverence for him. Were these scholars, who literally codified our din, excessive in their respect for their teachers? Would anyone dare say so? They wouldn't because they were living what they had learned about the greatness attributed to those scholars and teachers that change the states of people. Khatib al-Baghdadi, a prolific author, master historian and hadith master mentioned just some ways in which a student would prepare himself before his teacher. In his book, al-Jami' il akhlaq, he mentioned such things as the way to honour and venerate the teacher, and even how one should appear before a scholar. Here, he mentioned such things as ensuring that one's breath was fresh by staying away from food that would emit foul breath and to ensure that the miswak is used. He mentions that ones clothes must be clean, and one should perfume themself etc. He wasn't the only scholar to write about such things. Qadi ibn Jama'ah also wrote about how one venerates a scholar in his Tadhkirat as-Sami'. He even mentions the way the teacher should venerate the student during lessons; the adab of addressing, meeting and even questioning a teacher. He also wrote about the way one should respect books (as they are also a means to acquire knowledge) and how one should purchase books. In short, we are told by the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, to honour our scholars. Part of the reason as to why we no longer follow this tradition is because most of us are university educated Muslims, and although many would not like to admit it, in rejecting what many perceive as 'Western influences' such as philosophy, we actually absorb a vast amount of these values. As such, we no longer are able to recognize and acknowledge our scholars, and yet the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, told us to treat people according to their status. Imam al-Nawawi, for example, wrote that people should stand up for the wise and the elders, whereas al-'iz ibn 'Abdal Salam and ibn Hajr al-Asqalani said that if by not standing insult or corruption is likely, then it becomes forbidden not to stand. I apologise for rambling on, but it is important to understand the value and honour Islam places upon those who teach Knowledge. It really is a tragedy when no sooner does someone show both love and honour for a scholar that they are subjected to baseless accusations.Saying this, there are some people who do 'cling' to the Shayukh, and I have to say that they do this out of the reasons that I have mentioned. This can be frustrating for others, and I myself have been ignored and even pushed aside when I had tried to talk to the Shaykh. We can't blame the Shaykh, because often enough, they do not know what is occurring. To these brothers, I only ask that they be considerate of the feelings of others and understand that the Shayukh are there to benefit everyone, not just them. I urge everyone to read books such as the ones I have mentioned as well as Imam al-Zarnuji's 'Instruction of the Student' that is published in English by StarLatch press. That will provide some insights to the things I have just mentioned, and most likely will be more beneficial than what I have just said.-
Jazak Allah khayran for that. I too hope that people who read this can understand how much respect Islam bestows upon our scholars. Moving to my next question, can you summarise what you learned from all this reading that you were doing?
Well, it wasn't long into reading that I found that our din couldn't be taken by simply reading books. There were so many questions that I had from reading them that I realized quickly one required a teacher, and this was also the message of many of the books that I had read. It was clear to me that these scholars were the result of a vigorous educational process whereby they learned from living scholars. Unfortunately, I had found that many of the students at university had either read one or two books or listened to a few tapes and thought that they could tackle the most difficult questions, and amazingly, feel confident about making their pronouncements. This was and is a very dangerous trend, and you should read the warnings of the early scholars. The more I read, the more I realized how little I truly knew and the less comfortable I was in joining in on the trend of asserting 'my opinion'. Islam had become reduced to opinions of an uneducated mass of Muslim students, and the results were huge arguments, fierce rhetoric and a massive amount of damage to people's akhira. Words are easy to say, but with them, come a great deal of responsibility.
Have you written anything else other than The Broken Chain?
I have written several articles, the most recent being in the forthcoming Q-News Magazine that deals with the question of who speaks for British Muslims. I have edited three books in the past three years, the most recent being The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century. It examines a number of issues thrown up since 9/11 that impact both Muslims and non-Muslims. That was a real experience and I worked with a diverse number of academics, scholars and journalists.
Do you care to say a few words about 9/11?
I think the significance of 9/11 is too critical to ignore. For one thing, the level of discourse within the Muslim community really needs to change. People still rant and rave about the Sufi Vs Salafi Vs Barelwi Vs Deobandi polemics. We really need to grow up and move beyond this discourse. We are not living in India or Pakistan and nor is this the 19th century. We have to deal with the problems that the 21st century presents and those associated issues with living in a predominantly non-Muslim country. We need to tackle issues such as, what does it mean to be a British Muslim? What are the roots of extremism here amongst Muslims? What is extremism and is it fair to talk of 'extremist' Muslims? What purpose do we serve as second and third generation Muslims living in Britain? Do we have anything to offer Britain? Is it wise to allow a moral reading of Islam to be superseded by a strictly political functional one? There are so many questions
What projects are you currently involved with?
Writing wise, I am researching for my next book
What is that about?
It's to do with Anti-Semitism in Europe and particularly it looks at the relationship between Muslims and Jews.
Very interesting! Can you tell us anymore?
I have a working title of: The Curse of Shylock: The Shadow of Anti-Semitism in the Muslim World. I am hoping that I am able to write an article on this subject matter for Zaytuna's Seasons Magazine in the Summer, Insha'Allah.
When will it be ready by?
I am hoping that the book should be out by the end of 2005. Allah Knows best though. It is a very aggressive deadline. I probably can make it if nothing else major takes my time.
What else are you up to?
What else? There's enough here already to do! Well, I am looking into the possibility of studying for a PhD in some field of study of Islam. Maybe to do with it relationship with Europe, some aspects of scholarship or even investigating further the idea that I am developing for my book.
Jazak Allah khayran for you time sidi. Do you have some advice for us Insha' Allah I would say, always ensure that you have a sincere intention in what you do and don't fail to make one. Learn how to say 'I don't know' and you would have gained a great deal of knowledge. Keep in the company of people who remind you of Allah and keep your tongue moist with His remembrance and of His beloved Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. Don't get drawn into 'debates' and stay away from speaking ill of people. If you haven't anything good to say, then it is best to remain silent. Don't expose one another's shortcomings and pray with a focused mind. Love the people of Allah, always seek their company and ways of assisting them. Ask others to pray for you and always pray for others. Realize that everyone is the creation of Allah, and understand that had He wished, Allah could have made everyone Muslim, but did not do so. Look at one another with compassion and see what your own faults are before you point your finger. Always turn to Allah for forgiveness and never despair, no matter what happens. And finally, please keep me in your prayers.Was-salam.
SELECTED BOOK REVIEWS AND LISTING OF ARTICLES BY AFTAB AHMAD MALIK
THE STATE WE ARE IN
"At last, a significant and sustained Muslim commentary on 7/7. Aftab Malik is to be congratulated on identifying a new generation of western Muslim thinkers at ease with the social sciences and mainstream Sunni scholarship. An indispensable point of entry for policy makers, academics and the general reader."
Dr Philip Lewis, lecturer in Peace Studies, Bradford University.
"In our current crisis it is imperative to hear sensible Muslim voices. This short book is a collection of such voices and its contents include pertinent social and political analysis as well as theological judgments and guidance. The Muslim community, indeed British society, needs to attend to both kinds of reflection."
Professor Tariq Modood, Author of Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain.
"This is a serious and thoughtful collection of essays by Muslim scholars and writers. It draws on a wide range of sources to assess the political and theological issues raised by violence conducted in the name of Islam. It deserves to be widely read, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike."
David Hayes, http://www.opendemocracy.net/
WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE
“Christians, Jews and Muslims and those without religious affiliation will welcome Aftab Malik’s brave efforts to create a dialogue about terrorism. Pulpits and parliaments have provided platforms for illegitimate and simple hate messages that cannot be justified by the core values of the Abrahamic faiths or the founding principles of democratic states.This book helps to create a rational and informed counterweight to those who pour oil on the flames.”
Professor Robin Cohen, University of Warwick, England
“Scholarly, incisive, and a must read for individuals committed to confronting misinformation, illusions, and spin from the Bush administration and the Media about Iraq, Palestine and the Middle East. Aftab Malik has done a masterful job of pulling together some of the best scholars in the field and this book will almost certainly become required reading for students and scholars alike. This is a breath of fresh air in the midst of a very toxic moment in our history.”
Professor Jess Ghannam, University of California, San Francisco, US
"In the finest public intellectual tradition, the contributors have produced work that is bold, engaging, humane, and deeply relevant to the troubling times in which we live.”
Dr John Collins, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York,
US THE EMPIRE AND THE CRESCENT
"... a much needed work...should be used as a reader in college classrooms...a truly amazing compilation..." Islamic Studies, Vol. 43, No1, Spring 2004"... a book that is compelling and authoritative." BBC Religion and Ethics"This is one of the most important books to appear since September 11th..Mark Curtis, Author of: Web of Deceit: Britain\'s Real Role in the World
"Essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the Western Wars on so called Terrorism."
Dr Roger Van Zwanenberg, Pluto Press
"If you read only one book on the Bush administration's determination to drag the world into war .. we suggest this one!"
AK Press (UK)
THE BROKEN CHAIN
This is an important, accessible and timely work that summarises the traditional scholarship that has become available to English-speaking Muslims in the last decade or so."
"An enlightening and important contribution to studies on contemporary Islamic law."
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar,Author of Encyclopedia of Muhammad\'s Women Companions and the Traditions They Related
"A must read."
Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPACUK)
"University campuses are rife with self-styled mini-ulama, angry young people whohave read a few books on Islam coupled with modern technology of searchable databases of the sacred texts and the Internet. They are then deluded into thinking that they have properly read and understood the works and are qualified to give opinions onthem and other issues...Aftab Malik shows concisely and clearly that knowledge must be obtained from a living scholar and thereby reconnecting the "Broken Chain" and becoming part of the "Unbroken Chain" of a living tradition stretching back to the source of this great religion."
Articles“Is Islam Compatible With the West?” BBC News http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4204820.stm 8th September 2005
“The State Muslims Are In” OpenDemocracy.Org http://www.opendemocracy.net/conflict-terrorism/faith_2756.jsp 15th August 2005
“Don’t Get Angry: The Power of the Written Word,” in The Arab News, 25TH June, 2005
“The Tribulation of Tribal Muslim, Tribal Islam,” in Islamica Magazine (Amman: Jordan) Issue 12, Spring 2005
“The Search for Authority and Authenticity” in The Muslim Weekly (London) 04-10 June 2004, #32, p24
“Who Speaks for British Muslims?” in Q-News (London) February 2004, Issue 354
“The Search for Authority and Authenticity in Western Islam”, in Islamica (Amman: Jordan) Winter Issue, 2003
“Changing the Nation”, in Q-News (London) #335, September 2001 pp 12-13
“The Path of Intellects”, in The Muslim Reader (Singapore) Vol. 21, # 2 (May – August 2003) pp 19-22
“The Islamic Civilisation: The Forgotten Contribution”, in Qalam International (London) Issue 3, Vol. 1, October 1998, pp.35-38
“Islamic Fundamentalism”, in Qalam International (London) Issue 2, Vol. 1, August 1998, pp. 11-14
THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF http://www.deenport.com/
Wednesday, 21 January 2009
I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and co-operation he has shown throughout this transition.
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.
At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
Nation of 'risk-takers'
We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
'Ready to lead'
As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet. We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
'Era of peace'
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honour them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.
For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate. Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
'Gift of freedom'
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
"Let it be told to the future world... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.
Friday, 16 January 2009
Here is a letter condemning anti-semitic assaults on British Jews signed by some Muslim Scholars and individuals from the UK.
Please circulate far and wide.
Thursday, 8 January 2009
Oxford professor of international relations Avi Shlaim served in the Israeli army and has never questioned the state's legitimacy. But its merciless assault on Gaza has led him to devastating conclusions
The only way to make sense of Israel's senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders". I used to think that this judgment was too harsh but Israel's vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush administration's complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.
I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.
Click on the link below to read more
Monday, 5 January 2009
Sunday, 4 January 2009
By Imran Khan
10 November 2008
My generation grew up at a time when colonial hang up was at its peak. Our older generation had been slaves and had a huge inferiority complex of the British. The school I went to was similar to all elite schools in Pakistan. Despite gaining independent, they were, and still are, producing replicas of public schoolboys rather than Pakistanis.
I read Shakespeare, which was fine, but no Allama Iqbal — the national poet of Pakistan. The class on Islamic studies was not taken seriously, and when I left school I was considered among the elite of the country because I could speak English and wore Western clothes.
Despite periodically shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ in school functions, I considered my own culture backward and religion outdated. Among our group if any one talked about religion, prayed or kept a beard he was immediately branded a Mullah.
Because of the power of the Western media, our heroes were Western movie stars or pop stars. When I went to Oxford already burdened with this hang up, things didn’t get any easier. At Oxford, not just Islam, but all religions were considered anachronism.
Science had replaced religion and if something couldn’t be logically proved it did not exist. All supernatural stuff was confined to the movies. Philosophers like Darwin, who with his half-baked theory of evolution had supposedly disproved the creation of men and hence religion, were read and revered.
Moreover, European history reflected its awful experience with religion. The horrors committed by the Christian clergy during the Inquisition era had left a powerful impact on the Western mind.
To understand why the West is so keen on secularism, one should go to places like Cordoba in Spain and see the torture apparatus used during the Spanish Inquisition. Also the persecution of scientists as heretics by the clergy had convinced the Europeans that all religions are regressive.
feel that humans are different to animals. While, the latter can be drilled, humans need to be intellectually convinced. That is why the Qur’an constantly appeals to reason. The worst, of course, was the exploitation of Islam for political gains by various individuals or groups.
However, the biggest factor that drove people like me away from religion was the selective Islam practiced by most of its preachers. In short, there was a huge difference between what they practiced and what they preached. Also, rather than explaining the philosophy behind the religion, there was an overemphasis on rituals.
Hence, it was a miracle I did not become an atheist. The only reason why I did not was the powerful religious influence my mother wielded on me since my childhood. It was not so much out of conviction but love for her that I stayed a Muslim.
However, my Islam was selective. I accepted only parts of the religion that suited me. Prayers were restricted to Eid days and occasionally on Fridays, when my father insisted on taking me to the mosque with him.
All in all I was smoothly moving to becoming a Pukka Brown Sahib. After all I had the right credentials in terms of school, university and, above all, acceptability in the English aristocracy, something that our brown sahibs would give their lives for. So what led me to do a ‘lota’ on the Brown Sahib culture and instead become a ‘desi’?
Well it did not just happen overnight.
Firstly, the inferiority complex that my generation had inherited gradually went as I developed into a world-class athlete. Secondly, I was in the unique position of living between two cultures. I began to see the advantages and the disadvantages of both societies.
In Western societies, institutions were strong while they were collapsing in our country. However, there was an area where we were and still are superior, and that is our family life. I began to realize that this was the Western society’s biggest loss. In trying to free itself from the oppression of the clergy, they had removed both God and religion from their lives.
It is this vacuum that I felt created the materialistic and the hedonistic culture. If this is the only life then one must make hay while the sun shines — and in order to do so one needs money. Such a culture is bound to cause psychological problems in a human being, as there was going to be an imbalance between the body and the soul.
While science, no matter how much it progresses, can answer a lot of questions — two questions it will never be able to answer: One, what is the purpose of our existence and two, what happens to us when we die?
Consequently, in the US, which has shown the greatest materialistic progress while giving its citizens numerous rights, almost 60 percent of the population consult psychiatrists. Yet, amazingly in modern psychology, there is no study of the human soul. Sweden and Switzerland, who provide the most welfare to their citizens, also have the highest suicide rates. Hence, man is not necessarily content with material well being and needs something more.
Since all morality has it roots in religion, once religion was removed, immorality has progressively grown since the 70s. Its direct impact has been on family life. In the UK, the divorce rate is 60 percent, while it is estimated that there are over 35 percent single mothers. The crime rate is rising in almost all Western societies, but the most disturbing fact is the alarming increase in racism. While science always tries to prove the inequality of man (recent survey showing the American Black to be genetically less intelligent than whites) it is only religion that preaches the equality of man.
Between 1991 and 1997, it was estimated that total immigration into Europe was around 520,000, and there were racially motivated attacks all over, especially in Britain, France and Germany. In Pakistan during the Afghan war, we had over four million refugees, and despite the people being so much poorer, there was no racial tension.
There was a sequence of events in the 80s that moved me toward God as the Qur’an says: "There are signs for people of understanding." One of them was cricket. As I was a student of the game, the more I understood the game, the more I began to realize that what I considered to be chance was, in fact, the will of Allah. A pattern which became clearer with time. But it was not until Salman Rushdie’s "Satanic Verses" that my understanding of Islam began to develop.
People like me who were living in the Western world bore the brunt of anti-Islam prejudice that followed the Muslim reaction to the book. We were left with two choices: fight or flight. Since I felt strongly that the attacks on Islam were unfair, I decided to fight. It was then I realized that I was not equipped to do so as my knowledge of Islam was inadequate. Hence I started my research and for me a period of my greatest enlightenment. I read scholars like Ali Shariati, Muhammad Asad, Iqbal, Gai Eaton, plus of course, a study of Qur’an.
I will try to explain as concisely as is possible, what "discovering the truth" meant for me. When the believers are addressed in the Qur’an, it always says, "Those who believe and do good deeds." In other words, a Muslim has dual function, one toward God and the other toward fellow human beings.
The greatest impact of believing in God for me, meant that I lost all fear of human beings. The Qur’an liberates man from man when it says that life and death and respect and humiliation are God’s jurisdiction, so we do not have to bow before other human beings.
Moreover, since this is a transitory world where we prepare for the eternal one, I broke out of the self-imposed prisons, such as growing old (such a curse in the Western world, as a result of which, plastic surgeons are having a field day), materialism, ego, what people say and so on. It is important to note that one does not eliminate earthly desires. But instead of being controlled by them, one controls them.
By following the second part of believing in Islam, I have become a better human being. Rather than being self-centered and living for the self, I feel that because the Almighty gave so much to me, in turn I must use that blessing to help the less privileged. This I did by following the fundamentals of Islam rather than becoming a Kalashnikov-wielding fanatic.
I have become a tolerant and a giving human being who feels compassion for the underprivileged. Instead of attributing success to myself, I know it is because of God’s will, hence I learned humility instead of arrogance.
Also, instead of the snobbish Brown Sahib attitude toward our masses, I believe in egalitarianism and strongly feel against the injustice done to the weak in our society. According to the Qur’an, "Oppression is worse than killing." In fact only now do I understand the true meaning of Islam, if you submit to the will of Allah, you have inner peace.
Through my faith, I have discovered strength within me that I never knew existed and that has released my potential in life. I feel that in Pakistan we have selective Islam. Just believing in God and going through the rituals is not enough. One also has to be a good human being. I feel there are certain Western countries with far more Islamic traits than us in Pakistan, especially in the way they protect the rights of their citizens, or for that matter their justice system. In fact some of the finest individuals I know live there.
What I dislike about them is their double standards in the way they protect the rights of their citizens but consider citizens of other countries as being somehow inferior to them as human being, e.g. dumping toxic waste in the Third World, advertising cigarettes that are not allowed in the West and selling drugs that are banned in the West.
One of the problems facing Pakistan is the polarization of two reactionary groups. On the one side is the Westernized group that looks upon Islam through Western eyes and has inadequate knowledge about the subject. It reacts strongly to anyone trying to impose Islam in society and wants only a selective part of the religion. On the other extreme is the group that reacts to this Westernized elite and in trying to become a defender of the faith, takes up such intolerant and self-righteous attitudes that are repugnant to the spirit of Islam.
Whether they become practicing Muslims or believe in God is entirely a personal choice. As the Qur’an tells us there is "no compulsion in religion." However, they must arm themselves with knowledge as a weapon to fight extremism. Just by turning up their noses at extremism the problem is not going to be solved.
What needs to be done is to somehow start a dialogue between the two extreme. In order for this to happen, the group on whom the greatest proportion of our educational resources are spent in this country must study Islam properly.
The Qur’an calls Muslims "the middle nation", not of extremes. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was told to simply give the message and not worry whether people converted or not, therefore, there is no question in Islam of forcing your opinions on anyone else.
Moreover, we are told to respect other religions, their places of worship and their prophets. It should be noted that no Muslim missionaries or armies ever went to Malaysia or Indonesia. The people converted to Islam due to the high principles and impeccable character of the Muslim traders. At the moment, the worst advertisements for Islam are the countries with their selective Islam, especially where religion is used to deprive people of their rights. In fact, a society that obeys fundamentals of Islam has to be a liberal one.
If Pakistan’s Westernized class starts to study Islam, not only will it be able to help society fight sectarianism and extremism, but it will also make them realize what a progressive religion Islam is. They will also be able to help the Western world by articulating Islamic concepts. Recently, Prince Charles accepted that the Western world can learn from Islam. But how can this happen if the group that is in the best position to project Islam gets its attitudes from the West and considers Islam backward? Islam is a universal religion and that is why our Prophet (peace be upon him) was called a Mercy for all mankind. (Internews)
Thursday, 1 January 2009
The Arabs, who in medieval times were sometimes called "Saracens" or "Moors," have been identified since antiquity (in Assyrian records dated to circa 850 BC), but until the Middle Ages they were not unified as a people. In the Early Middle Ages, it was Islam that united the Arabs and established the framework of Arab law. Initially, most Muslims were Arabs, and during the Arab rule of Sicily their Islamic faith was closely identified with them. (Even today, many principles believed to be tenets of Islam are, in fact, Arab practices unrelated to Muslim ethics.) The rapid growth of Arab culture could be said to parallel the dissemination of Islam. Except for some poetry, the first major work of literature published entirely in Arabic was the Koran (Quran), the holy book of Islam, and one may loosely define Arabs by the regions where Arabic was spoken in the Middle Ages and afterwards. Arabs were a Semitic people of the Middle East. The Berbers of northwest Africa and the Sahara were not Arabs, though many converted to Islam, adopted Arabic as their language and assimilated with Arab society. Though most parts of Sicily were conquered by Arabs, certain areas where settled by people who, strictly speaking, were Muslim Berbers. Like many Berbers, some Arabs were nomadic.
With the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, groups of Arabs lived in bordering areas in the Arabian peninsula and parts of what are now Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt. Their language, Arabic, is a Semitic tongue of various dialects related to Hebrew and Ethiopic, written in script from right to left.
Muhammad (the Prophet of Islam) was born in Mecca around AD 570 and his religious community at Medina eventually grew to dominate the entire Arabian peninsula. Following Muhammad's death in 632, caliphs (civil and religious leaders) succeeded him. Three families from Muhammad's tribe ruled the expanding Arabian empire for the next few centuries, namely the Umayyads (661-750), the Abbasids (750-850) and the Alids (Fatimid dynasty in northern Africa from 909 to 1171). In practice, certain regions --including Sicily-- were actually controlled by particular (if minor) families, or often under local emirs (there were several in Sicily when the Normans arrived in 1061).
Initially, the Arabs aspired to little more than some productive land in coastal areas and around the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, but within decades of the Prophet's death their objectives grew greater. With the growth of their society supported by conversions to Islam, the wealth sought by Arabs was precisely that which the Koran (3:14) discouraged: "The passion for women, the desire for male children, the thirst for gold and silver, spirited horses, and the possession of cattle and land, in fact all the pleasures of life on earth." Sicily offered all of these things in abundance.
By 650, the Arabs were making their way through Libya and Tunisia, and what remained of the once-prosperous city of Carthage was destroyed in 698. The Byzantines had already lost these areas, but they retained control of Sicily --despite numerous raids by Arab pirates-- until 827. In that year, Euphemius, a Byzantine admiral and resident governor of Sicily who found himself at odds with the Emperor, offered the governorship of the island to Ziyadat Allah, the Aghlabid Emir of Al Qayrawan (in Tunisia) in exchange for his support. This fiasco resulted in the landing of over ten thousand Arab and Berber troops at Mazara in the western part of Sicily. Euphemius was soon killed and Sicily's Arab period had begun.
Three Arab dynasties ruled Sicily --first the Aghlabids (a "minor" family based in Tunisia which had broken away from the Abbasids of Baghdad) and then, from 909, the Fatimids, who entrusted much of their authority to the Kalbids in 948. In that year, Hassan al-Kalbi became the first Emir of All Sicily. By 969, the Fatimid dynasty (descended from the Prophet's daughter, Fatima) were moving their geographic center of power to Cairo, leaving their Tunisian capitals (Madiyah and Al Quayrawan) and western territories to the care of what in Europe would be called "vassals."
Islam spread quickly across the Mediterranean but in Sicily the Arabs' conquest was a slow one. Panormos, which was to become the seat of an emirate as Bal'harm (Palermo) in 948, fell in 832. Messina was taken in 843. Enna (the Arabs' Kasr' Yanni, also an emirate) was conquered in 858. With the violent fall of Syracuse in 878, the conquest was essentially complete, though Taormina and several other mountaintop communities held out for a few more years.
Byzantine society, culture and government were closely identified with Christianity, and the law was based largely (though not entirely) on Judeo-Christian ideas, but it would have been mistaken to consider the Byzantine state a theocracy. Moreover, as Christianity already existed in many regions (such as Sicily) in the Byzantine Empire, there was not always a need to introduce (or impose) it. Islam, however, was a way of life that could not easily be separated from society itself, and it was a religion formerly unknown in Sicily. This obviously influenced Arab society in Sicily and elsewhere, though efforts were made to retain something of the established order. In the early ninth century, Islam itself could be said to be in its formative stages socially, with certain literary sources (collections of hadiths containing sunnahs or "laws") still being written.
Arab administration, if not particularly enlightened, was not very harsh by medieval standards, but it was far from egalitarian. Sicily's Christians and Jews (Sicily was at least half Muslim by 1060) were highly taxed, and clergy could not recite from the Bible or Talmud within earshot of Muslims. Christian and Jewish women (who like Muslim ones were veiled in public) could not share the public baths with Muslim women --many of whom were ex-Christians converted to Islam to contract financially or socially advantageous marriages to Muslim men. Non-Muslims had to stand in the presence of Muslims. New churches and synagogues could not be built, nor Muslims converted to other faiths. A number of large churches, such as the cathedral of Palermo, were converted to mosques. (The Arabic inscription shown above is still visible on one of its columns.)
A degree of religious tolerance prevailed; there were no forced conversions. Yet, a new social order was soon in place. Except for a few merchants and sailors, there had been very few Muslim Arabs in Sicily before 827, but Byzantine legal strictures imposed upon them, and upon the Jews living across the island, cannot be said to have been as rigid as those imposed upon non-Muslims by the Arabs after about 850. At first, however, many Sicilians probably welcomed the prospect of change because they had been overtaxed and over-governed by their Byzantine rulers.
The Arabs introduced superior irrigation systems; some of their qanats (channels) still flow under Palermo. They established the Sicilian silk industry, and at the court of the Norman monarch Roger II great Arab thinkers like the geographer Abdullah al Idrisi were welcome. Agriculture became more varied and more efficient, with the widespread introduction of rice, sugar cane, cotton and oranges. This, in turn, influenced Sicilian cuisine. Many of the most popular Sicilian foods trace their origins to the Arab period.
Dozens of towns were founded or resettled during the Saracen era, and souks (suks, or street markets) became more common than before. Bal'harm (Palermo) was repopulated and became one of the largest Arab cities after Baghdad and Cordoba (Cordova), and one of the most beautiful. Construction on Bal'harm's al-Khalesa district built near the sea was begun in 937 by Khalid Ibn Ishaq, who was then Governor of Sicily. Despite later estimates of a greater population, there were probably about two hundred thousand residents in and around this city by 1050, and it was the capital of Saracen Sicily. Bal'harm was the official residence of the Governors and Emirs of All Sicily, and al-Khalesa (now the Kalsa district) was its administrative center. As we've mentioned, in 948 the Fatimids granted a degree of autonomy to the Kalbid dynasty, whose last "governor" (effectively a hereditary emir), Hasan II (or Al-Samsan), ruled until 1053. By then, Kasyr Yanni (Enna), Trapani, Taormina and Syracuse were also self-declared, localized "emirates." (This word was sometimes used rather loosely to describe any hereditary ruler of a large locality; in law Sicily had been a unified emirate governed from Palermo since 948, but by the 1050s the others had challenged his authority over them.)
Naturally, Arabic was widely spoken and it was a major influence on Sicilian, which emerged as a Romance (Latin) language during the subsequent (Norman) era. The Sicilian vernacular was in constant evolution, but until the arrival of the Arabs the most popular language in Sicily was a dialect of Greek. Under the Moors Sicily actually became a polyglot community; some localities were more Greek-speaking while others were predominantly Arabic-speaking. Mosques stood alongside churches and synagogues.
Arab Sicily, by 948 governed from Bal'harm with little intervention from Qayrawan (Kairouan), was one of Europe's most prosperous regions --intellectually, artistically and economically. (At the same time, Moorish Spain was comparable to Sicily in these respects, but its prior society had been essentially Visigothic rather than Byzantine.) With the exception of occasional landings in Calabria, the Sicilian Arabs coexisted peacefully with the peoples of the Italian peninsula. These were Lombards (Longobard descendants) and Byzantines in Calabria, Basilicata and Apulia, where Bari was the largest city.
Under the Byzantines' empire, Sicily enjoyed some contact with the East, but as part of a larger Arab empire having greater contact with China and India, Far Eastern developments such as paper (made from cotton or wood), the compass and Arabic numerals (actually Indian) arrived. So did Arab inventions, such as henna --though today's middle-class Sicilian obsession with artficial blondness is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Under the Arabs, Sicily and Spain found themselves highly developed compared to England and Continental northern Europe.
Byzantium hadn't forgotten Sicily, and in 1040 George Maniakes, at the head of an army of Byzantine-Greeks, Normans, Vikings and Lombards, attempted an invasion of Sicily without success. By the 1050s, the Pope, and some Norman knights from this failed adventure, were casting a long glance toward Sicily with an eye to conquest. This desire was later fueled by dissension among the island's Arabs, leading to support by the Emir of Syracuse for the Normans against the emirates of Enna and Palermo. Most of these internal problems developed after the ruling Fatimids moved their capital from Tunisia to Egypt, where they established Cairo (near ancient Memphis).
The Normans conquered Messina in 1061 and reached the gates of Palermo a decade later, removing from power the local emir, Yusuf Ibn Abdallah, but respecting Arab customs. Their conquest of Arab Sicily was slower than their conquest of Saxon England, which began in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings. Kasr Yanni was still ruled by its emir, Ibn Al-Hawas, who held out for years. His successor, Ibn Hamud, surrendered, and converted to Christianity, only in 1087. Initially, and for over a century, the Normans' Sicilian kingdom was the medieval epitome of multicultural tolerance. By 1200, this was beginning to change. While the Muslim-Arab influence continued well into the Norman era --particularly in art and architecture-- it was not to endure. The Normans gradually "Latinized" Sicily, and this social process laid the groundwork for the introduction of Catholicism (as opposed to eastern Orthodoxy). Widespread conversion ensued, and by the 1280s there were few --if any-- Muslims in Sicily. Yet, the mass immigration of north-African Arabs (and Berbers) was the greatest Sicilian immigration since that of the ancient Greeks, leaving today's Sicilians as Saracen as Hellenic.
While Norman government and law in Sicily were essentially European, introducing institutions such as the feudal system, at first they were profoundly influenced by Arab (and even Islamic) practices. Many statutes were universal, but in the earliest Norman period each Sicilian --Muslim, Christian, Jew-- was judged by the laws of his or her own faith.
When did the various Sicilian localities cease to be Arab (or Byzantine Greek)? There was not an immediate change. Following the Norman conquest, complete Latinization, fostered largely by the Roman Church and its liturgy, took the better part of two centuries, and even then there remained pockets of Byzantine influence in northeastern Sicily's Nebrodi Mountains.
Had the Normans not conquered Sicily, it might have evolved into an essentially Arab society not unlike that which survived in some parts of Spain into the later centuries of the Middle Ages, and the Sicilian vernacular language (as we know it) would have developed later. It is interesting to consider that general functional literacy among Sicilians was higher in 870 under the Arabs and Byzantines than it was in 1870 under the Italians (at about seventeen percent). In certain social respects, nineteenth-century Sicily still seemed very Arab, especially outside the largest cities, well into the early years of the twentieth century.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
Ever since 1948, we've been hearing this balderdash from the Israelis – just as Arab nationalists and then Arab Islamists have been peddling their own lies: that the Zionist "death wagon" will be overthrown, that all Jerusalem will be "liberated". And always Mr Bush Snr or Mr Clinton or Mr Bush Jnr or Mr Blair or Mr Brown have called upon both sides to exercise "restraint" – as if the Palestinians and the Israelis both have F-18s and Merkava tanks and field artillery. Hamas's home-made rockets have killed just 20 Israelis in eight years, but a day-long blitz by Israeli aircraft that kills almost 300 Palestinians is just par for the course.
The blood-splattering has its own routine. Yes, Hamas provoked Israel's anger, just as Israel provoked Hamas's anger, which was provoked by Israel, which was provoked by Hamas, which ... See what I mean? Hamas fires rockets at Israel, Israel bombs Hamas, Hamas fires more rockets and Israel bombs again and ... Got it? And we demand security for Israel – rightly – but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was "under siege" – as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.
By last night, the exchange rate stood at 296 Palestinians dead for one dead Israeli. Back in 2006, it was 10 Lebanese dead for one Israeli dead. This weekend was the most inflationary exchange rate in a single day since – the 1973 Middle East War? The 1967 Six Day War? The 1956 Suez War? The 1948 Independence/Nakba War? It's obscene, a gruesome game – which Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, unconsciously admitted when he spoke this weekend to Fox TV. "Our intention is to totally change the rules of the game," Barak said.
Exactly. Only the "rules" of the game don't change. This is a further slippage on the Arab-Israeli exchanges, a percentage slide more awesome than Wall Street's crashing shares, though of not much interest in the US which – let us remember – made the F-18s and the Hellfire missiles which the Bush administration pleads with Israel to use sparingly.
Quite a lot of the dead this weekend appear to have been Hamas members, but what is it supposed to solve? Is Hamas going to say: "Wow, this blitz is awesome – we'd better recognise the state of Israel, fall in line with the Palestinian Authority, lay down our weapons and pray we are taken prisoner and locked up indefinitely and support a new American 'peace process' in the Middle East!" Is that what the Israelis and the Americans and Gordon Brown think Hamas is going to do?
Yes, let's remember Hamas's cynicism, the cynicism of all armed Islamist groups. Their need for Muslim martyrs is as crucial to them as Israel's need to create them. The lesson Israel thinks it is teaching – come to heel or we will crush you – is not the lesson Hamas is learning. Hamas needs violence to emphasise the oppression of the Palestinians – and relies on Israel to provide it. A few rockets into Israel and Israel obliges.
Not a whimper from Tony Blair, the peace envoy to the Middle East who's never been to Gaza in his current incarnation. Not a bloody word.
We hear the usual Israeli line. General Yaakov Amidror, the former head of the Israeli army's "research and assessment division" announced that "no country in the world would allow its citizens to be made the target of rocket attacks without taking vigorous steps to defend them". Quite so. But when the IRA were firing mortars over the border into Northern Ireland, when their guerrillas were crossing from the Republic to attack police stations and Protestants, did Britain unleash the RAF on the Irish Republic? Did the RAF bomb churches and tankers and police stations and zap 300 civilians to teach the Irish a lesson? No, it did not. Because the world would have seen it as criminal behaviour. We didn't want to lower ourselves to the IRA's level.
Yes, Israel deserves security. But these bloodbaths will not bring it. Not since 1948 have air raids protected Israel. Israel has bombed Lebanon thousands of times since 1975 and not one has eliminated "terrorism". So what was the reaction last night? The Israelis threaten ground attacks. Hamas waits for another battle. Our Western politicians crouch in their funk holes. And somewhere to the east – in a cave? a basement? on a mountainside? – a well-known man in a turban smiles.