Sunday, 31 May 2009

Islam and Homosexuality By Tariq Ramadhan

The Islamic position on homosexuality has become one of the most sensitive issues facing Muslims living in the West, particularly in Europe. It is being held up as the key to any eventual “integration” of Muslims into Western culture, as if European culture and values could be reduced to the simple fact of accepting homosexuality. The contours of this de facto European culture is in a state of constant flux, shifting according to the topic of the day. Just as some insist, as do the Pope and certain intellectuals—often dogmatic and exclusivist defenders of the Enlightenment—that Europe’s roots are Greek and Christian (thus excluding Muslims), so several homosexual spokesman and the politicians who support them are now declaring (with an identical rejection of Muslims) that the “integration of Muslims” depends on their acceptance of homosexuality. The contradiction is a serious one: does Christianity, which forms the root structure of European culture, and which purports to embody European values and identity, not condemn homosexuality? A curious marriage. Unless the contradiction is intended to stigmatize Islam and Muslims by presenting them as “the Other”… without fear of self-contradiction.

We must reiterate, as does Isabelle Levy in “Soins et croyances” [1] that all the worlds’ major religions and spiritual traditions—from the majority view in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism to Christianity and Islam—condemn and forbid homosexuality. The great majority of rabbis hold the same position, as do the Pope and the Dalaï Lama, who condemns homosexuality. For these traditions, as for Freud (who speaks of “perversion”), homosexuality is considered to be “against nature,” an “expression of disequilibrium” in the growth of a person. The moral condemnation of homosexuality remains the majority opinion of all religions, and Islam is no exception. It would be senseless to wish to deny the facts, to contradict the textual sources and to force believers to perform intellectual contortions so that they can prove they are in tune with the times.

But the question is not whether one agrees with the religious texts, the beliefs and the convictions espoused by individuals. It is to determe what is appropriate behavior in the societies in which we live together. For more than twenty years I have been insisting—and drawing sharp criticism from some Muslim groups—that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, but that we must avoid condemning or rejecting individuals. It is quite possible to disagree with a person’s behavior (public or private), while respecting that person as an individual. This I have continued to affirm, and gone further still: a person who pronounces the attestation of Islamic faith becomes a Muslim; if that person engages in homosexual practices, no one has the right to drive him or her out of Islam. Behavior considered reprehensible under the rules of morality cannot justify excommunication. There is no ambiguity, and ample clarity: European Muslims have the right to express their convictions while at the same time respecting the humanity and rights of individuals. If we are to be consistent, we must respect this attitude of faith and openness.

Today we are witnessing an upsurge of unhealthy, ideology-driven movements. To affirm one’s convictions and respect others is no longer sufficient. Muslims are now being called upon to condemn the Qur’an, and to accept and promote homosexuality to gain entry into the modern world. Not only is such an attitude doomed to fail (the majority trends in both traditional and reformist Islam, as in other religions, will never waver on this question) but it also reveals a new dogmatism—and a whiff of colonialism, not to mention xenophobia—at the heart of so-called modern, progressive thought. Certain prominent intellectuals and lobbies have ordained a new form of political correctness; they would like to force everyone to be “open” or “liberal” in the same way. At first glance, this open, liberal thought would seem to warrant respect; but it reveals a troubling tendency to impose its own dogmas, leaving little or no room for the convictions of traditional philosophical, spiritual or religious world-views. Betraying the ultimate goal of modernity, which should help us manage freedom and diversity, we are now told that there is only one way to be free and modern. Both dogmatic and dogmatizing, this trend, in the name of liberal thought, is a dangerous one, and should alarm all women and all men, whether atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians or Muslims. It strikes at the very heart of our freedom of thought, of the most intimate aspects of our lives, of the ways we strive for social and intellectual emancipation.

Let us not delude ourselves. These developments, along with recent tensions surrounding the return of religion, its accompanying fears, and the social visibility of homosexual “believers” is directly related to the presence and new-found visibility of Muslims in our Western societies. We, as societies, can choose to exacerbate these sensitive issues and to exploit the natural stresses created by the arrival of new immigrants to demonstrate the impossibility of integrating Muslims, and the danger they are said to represent. There are political parties that may win elections by playing on these themes. The long term outcome will be to exacerbate social divisions, and will ultimately prove counterproductive. Social cohesion will become impossible, and daily life will be undermined by mistrust and insecurity. It is time to stop playing this harmful game, and return to a more just and reasonable approach.

The good news comes from the younger generation: cultures and religions cannot stop them from getting to know one another, from living together, and from sharing both spaces and hopes. They are the future; there can be no doubt that they will leave our past fears far behind.

[1] Isabelle Lévy, Soins et Croyances, Guide pratique des rites, cultures et religions à l’usage des personnels de santé et des acteurs sociaux, Editions Estem, Paris, 2002, p.149

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Supreme Name

Eygpt Today : Shaykh Hamza Yusuf


Washington-born Hamza Yusuf is one of the most learned sheikhs of our time — and a man with some tough messages Muslims, Christians and Jews alike need to hear whether they want to or not

IF AMR KHALED IS the rock star of the Arab world, then 47 year old Hamza Yusuf is the Elvis Presley of Western Muslims.
He then traveled all over the Muslim world for more than 10 years, visiting and living in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco. He mastered the Arabic language and earned the title of sheikh — far surpassing the qualifications needed to be defined as an Islamic scholar —by studying with top scholars throughout the region before returning to the United States, where he earned degrees in healthcare and religious studies.

In 1996, Yusuf co-founded the Zaytuna Institute (, an internationally renowned non-profit educational group based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its goal is to help revive the tradition of sound Islamic teaching while becoming a first-class educational institution to rival top-rated universities in both the Western and Muslim worlds. He currently serves as chairman of the Board of Directors, editor-in-chief of Zaytuna’s journal Seasons, a teacher amongst many other distinguished scholars and is working toward publishing the Zaytuna Curriculum Series.

Yusuf is an outspoken advocate of better understanding between the Muslim world and the West. He has given countless talks in all four corners of the globe and has lectured at universities in the US, the United Kingdom and Canada. He also hosted three seasons of “Rihla [Journeys] with Sheikh Hamza” on the popular Arabic-language MBC satellite channel, has translated a number of traditional Arabic texts into English and authored books of his own. Recordings of his lectures have sold thousands of copies.
He is one of the most learned and versatile scholars of our time whose balanced approach appeals to all Muslims, from the moderate to the liberal. In short, his popularity is undeniable and well justified.Hamza Yusuf as a Person

This brief biography of Hamza Yusuf was everything I knew of him before leaving for a three-week teaching program for Muslim youth in Saudi Arabia this past summer at which he was one of the primary teachers. My first glimpse of him instantly told me that this man was not someone to take lightly. His eyes bespoke of an above-average intelligence, and his concentration never wavered once during the lectures he gave us every day.
Yusuf was a scholar, certainly, but little can prepare you for the breadth of his knowledge: In addition to being an expert in Qur’anic sciences, he is a master of Hadith (Prophetic sayings), Arabic grammar, morphology, literature , jurisprudence, philosophy, ethics, spirituality, history and astronomy. In other words, the man can converse about nearly any topic under the sun.
From Van Allen’s electromagnetic belts, myelinated sheaths and quantum theory to the Circle of Dante, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Utilitarianism, it seemed like there was nothing he didn’t know. Far from scholars who only quote the Qur’an and Hadith, Yusuf quoted people from all times, cultures and spheres of society — George Bernard Shaw, Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, Confucius and Shakespeare —and all from a seemingly photographic memory.
His lectures are peppered with contemporary references, and he injects humor into material that would be otherwise very dense.

But a great teacher definitely requires an attentive audience. In the middle of a lecture that came after a very long day, Yusuf told the story of how his father attended a lecture by Robert Frost, the poet, who came into the hall and shouted at a freshman who was slouched to “Sit up!” The boy sat up and paid attention, concentrating throughout the lecture. It was Yusuf’s subtle way of telling us to pay attention in class — and to look like we were, too.

That wasn’t the only time during the course or in our later interview that Yusuf referred to his parents. He quoted his scholarly father often and in order to illustrate to us how Muslims should lead by example, he talked about his activist mother, who sent his sister to an all black school before integration, and had them doing recycling in the 1960s.
“My mother was never a talker or gave speeches,” he says. “She just did what she believed in.

She lived her ideals and they had a big impact on me.”

Yusuf has five children, all boys, and all very well behaved. At a surprise birthday party for his wife at an all-women gathering, they all trooped in to give their salams [greetings] before leaving to ride bicycles. His oldest, Sheikh, who can’t be older than 10, sits through several 90-minute lectures without a peep. Yusuf invites him up once to sit next to him and to tell us all a riddle that he made up. He then took his son by the hand to get ice cream when class ended.
Yusuf is also a man who is not ashamed to show how much he loves his religion and its messenger. He tears up often when talking about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and got choked up when we visited sacred sites in Medina while telling us the story of the place we were visiting.

“Remember,” he tells us, “we visit the places not because of them, but because of the Beloved. He was here.”

The World Today

As a man who straddles two cultures, Yusuf offers potent insights into the challenges facing the ummah (the global Muslim community) today.

Although he rails at what he sees as an increasingly self-centered world in which people do only those things that are in their best interests, he also complains that “Muslims blame destiny for their own ineptitude.” Destiny, he explains, can only be blamed once you have done everything in your power to get what you want. “The bird,” he elaborated “leaves the nest every morning. It doesn’t wait for the worms to come to it, but trusts that once it goes out, Allah will provide it with worms.” Fatalism, he concludes, is a sickness that we must cure in ourselves.
That’s why Yusuf urges Muslim countries and communities to start working for themselves instead of depending on others. “Look at the hotel we’re staying in. It’s a Swiss hotel. The water is Swiss. The cutlery is Swiss. They want to benefit their country. This is mercantilism.” He goes on to quote the caliph ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, who said that: “There is no benefit in people who eat that which they do not plant and wear that which they do not weave.”
“Cultures,” he adds, “no longer have common collective desires or sense of homogeneity.” Even something as simple as coffee: There used to be two primary brands of coffee, but now coffee is individualized to “hot, ginger, foam free, double sugar, 2 percent milk coffee” — to satisfy your nafs (base self) as much as you can. This further compounds the problem of people being self-serving, of wanting only to please themselves — and not doing what’s for the good of the community.

It’s another hallmark of what Yusuf calls the “iPod culture,” which he says is causing people to lose their ability to be silent and to contemplate the world. “People are divorced from the natural world,” he says. “No one sees stars anymore. We’ve become divorced from the sense of the sacred and divine.”

In essence, we’ve lost the ability to contemplate that which is bigger than us, to feel that there is more to the world than our individual existence.

Biggest Problemsand Opportunities

So all of that is problematic, true, but what are the greatest problems Muslims around the world now face?

“The greatest problem is materialism,” says Yusuf.. “When the Prophet foretold of the deplorable state of the ummah towards the end of time, and informed us that the previous civilizations that he identified as the Jewish and Christian communities — now what we broadly call the West — would conquer Muslim lands and devour their wealth, the companions asked what is wrong with us that we should find ourselves in such a state. Is it because we are few in number, they wanted to know. Is it from paucity?
‘No,’ the Prophet replied, ‘You are multitudes, but you are like flotsam without any substance. Awe will be removed from your enemies’ hearts and great weakness will enter yours.’
‘What is the weakness?’ they asked.
‘Love of the world [materialism], and fear of death [lack of sacrifice],’ he replied.’”
This, Yusuf believes, is one of the worst diseases of the heart. “Our preachers today,” he explains, “focus on political causes too often to the neglect of spiritual causes.

The Prophet’s companions asked what was wrong with them, not why others were able to do that to them. This is because they were students of his school of empowerment that enabled them to look to themselves. The Prophet, as was his wont, took them to the subtle realm of real causation, not apparent cause. That is the realm of the heart. Weakness lies in the state of our hearts. They are filled with the love of this world and have a disdain for sacrifice, which only comes when one sees that there are things beyond this world worthy of sacrifice.

“A second major problem,” he continues, “is the increasing secularity of society. Religion is being marginalized and the secularists in the Arab world are clamoring for a clear separation of religion and politics. The reality of the matter is they are and have been separate in most Muslim states for some time. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, entirely secular regimes — and often ones that are quite belligerent towards Muslim piety and practice — run most Muslim lands.”

The last major problem he identifies is “the increasing politicization of Islam.” Islam, he believes, is now considered a vehicle for resistance to the unjust states that currently rule the Muslim lands.

“The problem with this,” he stresses, “is that many Arabs now see Islam as a political movement that will solve their often-excruciating social and economic problems. That is simply false and a dangerous utopian assumption that has no tangible examples from history, with the exception of the prophetic period and what immediately followed.”
Yusuf has an interesting explanation of a Qur’anic verse commonly used to justify why it is that Muslim rule is best. “[In the verse] ‘You were the best community brought forth for humanity, you command to good, forbid vice and believe in God,’ the past tense is used. ‘You were.’ And according to Ibn ‘Abbass and Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, as related by Imam Tahir bin Ashur in his commentary, it meant the first community and did not apply to later communities. This is really the only logical reading of the verse given the moral depravity of the current Muslim community.”

How, then should these problems be tackled? Is there a way forward for the legions of Muslims looking to better their circumstances?
“Youth,” he answers. “Most Western countries have low or negative birthrates. They are not even replicating their populations in America, which is doing better than Europe. Europe is literally a dying society. Japan also is graying, and these cultures have a crisis of family. In America, for the first time ever, a dominant civilization has more people living out of wedlock than in. The family is in crisis in the West. While the family is dysfunctional in the Muslim world, it is far more intact as a system than in the West.”

“Because family is [in the Muslim World] strong and extended family is strong, birth rates are high,” he continues. “This is partly due to poverty, but not, in my estimation, entirely — Muslims still genuinely love children and having children is still very important in Muslim lands. In the West, there is a subtle and sometimes not so subtle anti-children environment. Many people put off having children to pursue careers and then, in their late thirties, have one child, maybe two. The youth of the Muslim world can be the single most powerful potential force — if they are properly educated and directed. Unfortunately, that is a big ‘if’.”

Is he optimistic about the future of Islam? “We are obliged to be optimists by our religion,” he says. “The Prophet said, ‘If the end of time comes upon you and you are planting a tree, if you are able to, finish planting it.’ He who plants a tree, plants hope. Things look very bleak from one window; from another, they look stunningly bright. It keeps us balanced to look out of both from time to time.”

America and Muslims

There are few issues on which Yusuf is as often queried by non-Muslims as relations between Islam in the West, as he himself is among the first to acknowledge.
“I was once asked, ‘Do Muslims want to take over the world?” Yusuf recalls. “The answer is, ‘No, they’re just reacting to the West taking over the world’.”
But Barbie dolls to Big Macs and military bases aren’t the only means by which the West is influencing the ummah. In the years since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, it has become vogue in the West — and among many Westernized Muslim scholars — to argue that the time has come for a reformation in Islam. In other words, for Islam to be “updated” to bring it into synch with the modern world.
“Islam does not need reforming as God formed it, according to our belief,” Yusuf asserts. “But it does need renewal and reinterpretation, without a doubt. There are many things that need to be revisited.

“The problem is that we no longer have qualified people to do the revisiting,” he continues. “Most of the so-called scholars are rejects from the school system. Their grades were so low they couldn’t get into other schools and got stuck in Shariah. This is a fact of the Muslim world. Thank God there are some who come from families of scholars and, despite trends against Islamic studies, they desired and were encouraged to pursue them. Most, however, are poorly trained and not capable of doing the reassessment of the tradition that can help bring in some fresh air in to a rather musty madrassah [Islamic school].”

Yusuf hopes that youth with potential, the best and brightest, will go on to study sacred knowledge, but admits that “They have to learn the tradition before they can reassess it, and that alone is a vast enterprise that takes years of disciplined and serious training and most people have neither the patience nor the aptitude to complete such a momentous task.”

He then delivers a biting judgment over many of the scholars of our time, who do not have the patience or aptitude he mentioned, resulting in “half-baked, week-end muftis calling for ijtihaad [deduction of rulings from primary Islamic sources] after looking its meaning up on Google.”
What we need, he stresses, are “classically trained captains who can navigate the current waters, [captains who are] conversant with the modern navigating equipment, but who are also thoroughly trained in star navigation. Indeed, because the modern tools breakdown and are not foolproof, the stars must always be the basis upon which they navigate. Even modern pilots must learn the stars so if their equipment breaks down they are not lost.”

Yusuf perfectly articulated the most troubling problem for Muslims who want to learn about their religion: the lack of well qualified scholars. In Saudi Arabia, he had added that scholars, who get their knowledge from other, well-known and respected scholars, are the ones to trust. “But it’s because [people] don’t,” he said, that results in ridiculous fatwas [religious verdicts],” citing the now infamous Egyptian breastfeeding fatwa, while smiling and shaking his head.
Scholars are also important to non-Muslims, as they frequently serve as the most high-profile emissaries of Islam in the West.

“Malcolm X, in the chapter on Hajj in his autobiography, mentions that the Arabs are in dire need of public relations,” begins Yusuf. “That particularly struck me because although he said that in 1964, it seems we have learned nothing since then. Part of the problem is that if Muslims have a minute to say anything on a news station or a talkshow, they use it to convey their grievances. When I look at the seerah [Islamic history] and the Prophet’s meetings with the people who were persecuting him, he always used it as an opportunity to tell them about Islam and what it could do for them, how it could help them. He never used such opportunities as platforms for voicing his grievances. Even with God he asked for their forgiveness.”

I ask if he feels he has a responsibility to correct the impressions — and misinformation — left behind by such ‘scholars.’ He answers: “This is something converts in the West have been doing since Alexander Russell Webb back in the nineteenth century. It goes with the territory and we should not shy away from it. It is both an Islamic thing to do but also a very humanitarian thing as well.”

He adds that there are also many non-Muslims in America who wind up defending Islam and Muslims, including the author Karen Armstrong, Georgetown professor John Esposito (who directs the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding) and the businessman and philanthropist George Russell.


Converts live under a veil of suspicion in the West, and even among many Muslims; they are often seen as too extreme, too zealous to fit in. One of the reasons Hamza Yusuf has such a strong following in the West is because he is neither —indeed, he’s the textbook image of the well-balanced convert.

“Converts to Islam are an important source of renewal,” Yusuf explains. “They bring into a faith new blood, energy and insights. Many of the greatest Muslims in the history of Islam were either converts or children of converts, including first and foremost the companions of the Prophet and some of the best scholars of Islam such as Imam al-Bukhari and Abu Hanifah.”

“There are different types of converts,” Yusuf continues. “Most enter into Islam as zealots and need reining in to a certain degree. Conversion is a powerful experience and one can lose one’s bearings quite easily and slip into extremist forms of Islam — not necessarily violent ones but rather doctrinal. [] There are also lukewarm converts who sometimes become Muslim for less than the right reasons, such as marriage. We should still welcome and encourage such people and recognize they existed even at the time of the Prophet.”

As for how he himself experienced conversion? “In my early days of conversion I had very low tolerance for lukewarm Muslims. They made me angry. I have since recognized that they are like I was when I was a Christian. The faith was something I inherited and grew up with and not something that was my own, a discovery of great import.”

Other converts, particularly those from non-Arab countries, try to adopt cultures other than their own. “I was one of them, so it is hard for me to blame them,” Yusuf says honestly. I was reminded of something he had said in one of his lectures about converts changing their names to Arab or Arab-sounding names. He had advised converts to keep their names. “It’s wrong to change it,” he had said, “because it’s the right of the father to name you. I forced my father to call me Hamza. I was ignorant. He named me after his university teacher.”
Why, I wonder, do converts try and adopt another culture? “[Because] when one becomes Muslim in the West,” Yusuf answers, “there is a divorce that takes place from one’s own culture. This is natural because Islam is a powerful, all-encompassing reality that challenges core beliefs and attitudes of the modern consumer culture that relishes and glorifies the seven deadly sins.”

“But,” he clarifies, “divorce does not have to be the War of the Roses, where the two never talk to each other and can’t sit down and be human together or recognize the common ground they have. We need to ‘indigenize’ Islam, to use Dr. Abdal Hakim Jackson’s term. We need to make Islam something that is Western and not alien to the West, but this will take time.”.

Hamza Yusuf is one of a kind. To feel his true power as a scholar, though, one has to be in his presence. The sheikh who advised George W. Bush on what to do following 9/11 will sit with you and talk to you. He’s a strong speaker, and people leave his lectures a lot more introspective and a little transformed. What does he think sets him apart from other scholars?

“My being a Western student of Islam enables me a certain vantage point from which I can see certain things that some people who grew up in the traditional Muslim world might not see as clearly,” he says. “I am [also] grateful to have a reasonably strong background in the Western canon of literature and tradition that has afforded me tools and ways of viewing things that give a different perspective.”

Yusuf is in the process of trying to build a serious seminary in the West, writing articles and books, including his next project in the Zaytuna Curriculum series. Following that, he has a handful of film projects lined up and is working on the translation of the Seven Odes of pre-Islamic Arabia.

“Life,” he says, “is very short in its length, and I hope to finish a few things with the time that remains.”

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Naomi Wolfe: Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality

A woman swathed in black to her ankles, wearing a headscarf or a full chador, walks down a European or North American street, surrounded by other women in halter tops, miniskirts and short shorts. She passes under immense billboards on which other women swoon in sexual ecstasy, cavort in lingerie or simply stretch out languorously, almost fully naked. Could this image be any more iconic of the discomfort the West has with the social mores of Islam, and vice versa?
Ideological battles are often waged with women's bodies as their emblems, and Western Islamophobia is no exception. When France banned headscarves in schools, it used the hijab as a proxy for Western values in general, including the appropriate status of women. When Americans were being prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women; when the Taliban were overthrown, Western writers often noted that women had taken off their scarves.
But are we in the West radically misinterpreting Muslim sexual mores, particularly the meaning to many Muslim women of being veiled or wearing the chador? And are we blind to our own markers of the oppression and control of women?
The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women's appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one's husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling - toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.
Outside the walls of the typical Muslim households that I visited in Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, all was demureness and propriety. But inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.
At home, in the context of marital intimacy, Victoria's Secret, elegant fashion and skin care lotions abounded. The bridal videos that I was shown, with the sensuous dancing that the bride learns as part of what makes her a wonderful wife, and which she proudly displays for her bridegroom, suggested that sensuality was not alien to Muslim women. Rather, pleasure and sexuality, both male and female, should not be displayed promiscuously - and possibly destructively - for all to see.

Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze. Many women said something like this: "When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to - and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected." This may not be expressed in a traditional Western feminist set of images, but it is a recognisably Western feminist set of feelings.
I experienced it myself. I put on a shalwar kameez and a headscarf in Morocco for a trip to the bazaar. Yes, some of the warmth I encountered was probably from the novelty of seeing a Westerner so clothed; but, as I moved about the market - the curve of my breasts covered, the shape of my legs obscured, my long hair not flying about me - I felt a novel sense of calm and serenity. I felt, yes, in certain ways, free.
Nor are Muslim women alone. The Western Christian tradition portrays all sexuality, even married sexuality, as sinful. Islam and Judaism never had that same kind of mind-body split. So, in both cultures, sexuality channeled into marriage and family life is seen as a source of great blessing, sanctioned by God.
This may explain why both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women not only describe a sense of being liberated by their modest clothing and covered hair, but also express much higher levels of sensual joy in their married lives than is common in the West. When sexuality is kept private and directed in ways seen as sacred - and when one's husband isn't seeing his wife (or other women) half-naked all day long - one can feel great power and intensity when the headscarf or the chador comes off in the the home.
Among healthy young men in the West, who grow up on pornography and sexual imagery on every street corner, reduced libido is a growing epidemic, so it is easy to imagine the power that sexuality can carry in a more modest culture. And it is worth understanding the positive experiences that women - and men - can have in cultures where sexuality is more conservatively directed.
I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything. But Westerners should recognise that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression. And, more importantly, when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top - in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue - it's worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

Naomi Wolf is the author, most recently, of The End Of America: Letter Of Warning To A Young Patriot and the upcoming Give Me Liberty: How To Become An American Revolutionary, and is co-founder of the American Freedom Campaign, a US democracy movement.

Friday, 8 May 2009

An imam who can

The founder of the Cambridge Muslim College, Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, looks likely to create a positive, British culture among young followers of Islam. Too bad so few people know about him.

Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad is perhaps the most significant British Muslim leader around. It is too bad that so few people know about him. Now that he has launched the Cambridge Muslim College, which is designed to train "local" specialists in Islamic knowledge who are able to "celebrate their identity" as British and Muslim, he should be given his due and treated like a national asset.The Cambridge Muslim College is an important initiative for three reasons. First, as a Quilliam report recently showed, most of the imams in British mosques are foreign-born, and disconnected from the people they represent.Second, the situation with the imams is dire, such that until last year the UK was considering importing imams from Pakistan. Not a good idea.The third reason has to do with Islam's crisis of authority. Islam, like Judaism, is a juridical religion. It has a longstanding legal component to it. When average Muslims start taking the religious law into their own hands it usually results in the politicisation, or bastardisation, of the religion – everything from ideological movements to regressive puritanical cults spring up. That is when untutored demagogues like Bin Laden and Bakri Muhammad strike.Murad has long argued that in order to represent Islam, one must be steeped in the long history of Islamic law, which always pays attention to social nuance. Bringing that ethos to his college will go a long way in creating a better, more British, culture among Muslims. It will produce leaders that Muslims won't be embarrassed about and who probably won't give much fodder to the tabloids. They will probably shout less.I have never spoken or communicated with Murad. I read his writings in the mid-90s when he began posting his articles on the internet – compiled here by Masud Ahmed Khan, a Guardian contributor. In those early essays Murad critiqued Wahhabism and the poison of extremism. Murad's basic argument, embedded inside a lot of hyperbolic prose, was that fanaticism had a deleterious effect on one's spirit and that it distanced a Muslim from God.This message, stripped down, was an extremely effective way of talking to young Muslims because they were in a very confused place. On one hand they wanted to be seen as good, pious, God-fearing types; but on the other, the only people who were around to talk in the language of piety were those who sought to manipulate the kids for political or ideological benefit. By telling young Muslims that extremism was tantamount to impiety, all while showing them Islam's long history of spiritual learning, Murad gave youth, especially boys, an extremely effective mechanism for resisting those who tried to turn them into fanatics. I would be curious to hear what Muslims who became all-out Islamists, like Shiraz Maher, thought of Murad. My guess is that they either ignored him or were taught to demonise him. What is clear, however, is that without Murad there would have been more Mahers.Murad remained true to his message after 9/11. "Terrorists are not Muslims," he wrote shortly after the attacks. His condemnation of the hijackers was immediate and loud – and he was perhaps alone among the Islamic intellegentsia in arguing that the hijackers be excommunicated. It was a tricky position for him to hold because moderate leaders usually avoided throwing Muslims out of Islam (arguing instead that every Muslim can be saved). Murad definitely took a hit among some Muslim circles for taking such a hard line. They disparagingly began calling him a neocon.More recently, it is Murad's name that occurs at the very top of an open letter by British Muslims which strongly condemns anti-semitism.Despite having taken such open and courageous positions, Murad's work has remained ignored by most media, an oversight which has prevented his work from gaining a foothold in mainland Europe and the US. Instead, quite absurdly, young Muslims are encouraged to emulate non-Muslims and rightwing hacks.I am not arguing that Murad is infallible or that he should be venerated like a living saint. He has held some curious positions. His view of Islamic history is romantic. He puts too much emphasis on evangelism. His social conservatism would not fit very well with the left. His reading of modernist Muslim thinking is unfairly dismissive. Some of his followers have needless tension with some Salafis.However, on the important religious questions – Muslim extremism and politicisation of Islam – Murad has been right more consistently than any other Muslim leader in the western hemisphere. He identified the increasing extremism among western Muslim youth and diagnosed its causes before most. He has condemned conspiracy mongering, arguing that "wild denunciations of Great Satans or global Crusader Conspiracies are ... not only dangerous, but are also discourteous". Most important, he has argued for "de-ideologising" Islam, a position that puts him directly at odds with those who want to make Islam a political project bankrolled by extra-national syndicates.When, long ago, I graduated from college, I stopped keeping up with Murad regularly, but I think now I will check in from time to time to see how his college is doing. The school seems to be off to a good start. It takes no government money. It is non-denominational. In addition to Islam, it offers coursework in the history of science and Western intellectual thought. To lay a foundation for the future it is offering 10 full scholarships. It is, in every way, a welcome part of the future of religion in Britain

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Women Muslim Scholars

This article is from the following blog:

Sh. Habib on Women and Scholarship

I watched an excellent program the other day with Sh. Habib Ali Jifri on the important role women have to play in Islamic scholarship, and the great need we have today for women to study and become teachers, scholars, writers, to give fatawa, etc.

One thing that I find very beautiful in our tradition, but something that is often overlooked, is the critical role women have played in developing our scholarship from the very beginning and for centuries thereafter. It was only when the Muslim world began to degenerate in many different areas, politically, economically, as well as intellectually that we find a disengagement of women from the scholarly arena. (Interestingly enough, some historians cite the influence of Christian thought on the Muslim world as one of the reasons for this reversal of roles for women.)

Here are some points the shaykh said on the program (hafidhahu Allah) that I found very interesting:

– We have Sayyidah ‘Aisha (radhi Allah anhaa), as one of the first examples of a Muslim woman who was a scholar and a faqih, a woman who gave fatawa (religious rulings) and basically had her own madhhab (school of law). Many of the Ummahaat al-Mu’mineen and others of the sahabiyaat (women from the generation of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) were teachers and narrated hadith, and in the following generations we find many, many women scholars. Some of the greatest male scholars that we know of had women teachers. Imam Shafa’ii for example, had a woman as one of his primary teachers, Sayyidah Nafeesa bint al-Hasan. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, the Ameer al-Mu’mineen in Hadith, had among his teachers sixteen or seventeen women, all of whom had reached the level of Muhadith. There was a woman scholar (didn’t catch her name which was mentioned on the program) who resided in Damascus, and it is reported that students from many different countries would flock to her to study, crowding outside her door on Mount Qasiyoun. There were women who had majalis of ‘ilm at Jamia’ Umawiyy (the Omayyad Mosque) here in Damascus, and men and women would gather to attend and reap the benefits of their knowledge. He gave many, many examples, but unfortunately I did not take notes during the program so I don’t remember all the names and exact details. (sorry)

– Women especially shined in the field of Hadith in Islamic history, and he had a print-out of some women that related hadith, the number of hadith that they related and the number of their students. A number of these women were from the Ummahaat al-Mu’mineen, such as ‘Aisha, Juwayriyyah and Umm Salamah (radhi Allahu anhunn). He made the point that these women, being mothers of the believers, had some restrictions (relating to the ayaat in the Quran that talk about speaking from ‘waraa’ al-hijaab’ and so forth) and yet we still find them contributing to the knowledge. His point was basically that if there were any women who would have stepped back from studying and teaching because of the restrictions of hijab or aadaab, it would be these women, and yet we find them playing such a vibrant role in teaching.

– The interviewer asked Sh. Habib about women teaching men, something that may be considered odd or even wrong in the Muslim world today. Sh. Habib said that there needs to be a conveyance of knowledge taking place and we should not confine men and women from benefiting from each other, as long as it is based on a relationship of proper adab between teacher and student. When it comes to more basic and fundamental things, which can be taught by a number of different people, the norm should be that women teach women and men teach men. However, he said especially when we are talking about a higher level of knowledge a person should not be prevented from learning from someone because of their gender.

– On the print-out we saw a listing of some women narrators of hadith and the numbers of their students. Consistently, all of the women had more male students than female, and some even had only male students. Sh. Habib said that many people ask the question ‘why do the number of male scholars in our history outnumber that of women?’ He said that the answer can be seen from that chart. Its clear that women had the opportunity to teach and that they were esteemed for their knowledge (which is why they had students from both genders); however the number of women who stepped forward to learn were less than those of men.

And here Sh. Habib made a critical point: Women need to step forward and study. Yes, Muslim societies and male scholars and teachers need to encourage women to take on these roles, and there are many things in the Muslim community that need to be remedied in this regard, but YOU as a woman are not incapable… you are strong and you need not wait for someone to tell you that this is what you should be doing. You need to step forward, just as those women did before us.

He mentioned a modern day example from Syria, that a group of women approached Sh. Nur ad-Din ‘Itr and requested that he teach them, and this really started a movement of women in Syria who are studying and memorizing hadith. There are something like ten women now who have memorized the Six Sound Books in their entirety, with all of their isnaad! He said that he hadn’t even heard of this before, among men or women in our time. Also in Syria tens of women have memorized Bukhari, hundred have memorized Riyadh as-Saliheen…. Sh. Habib said that memorization is not necessarily the focus, but that this is a beautiful example of what can happen when women are passionate and are energized to study and take it upon themselves to seek out knowledge.

I was really moved by the shaykh’s talk, may Allah ennoble and bless him.

I hope that women out there really take this message to heart. Sometimes we are told in subtle or overt ways that in order to use our intellects in a meaningful way we need to ‘reinterpret’ Islam and have a more ‘progressive’ understanding of what our deen is about (read: change it), as if it is something intrisically oppressive of women; and on the other hand we may be told in different ways that our role is confined entirely to domestic tasks.

While the truth is something else, and we just need to go back to the roots of our religion to find it. We are the inheritors of a tradition of women poets, scholars, teachers… who were ennobled and empowered by this deen to share sacred knowledge with others. I ask Allah to make us people who walk in their footsteps, treading a road shaded by angels’ wings and that eases the one to Paradise. May Allah make us people who reflect and study and learn, and who are beautified with knowledge, and share it with others in the best of ways.

wAllahu a’lam. This is what I remember and understood in summary from the interview, and they are not the exact words of the shaykh.

wasalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.

PS: Here is an interesting article from the NY Times about a brother’s research into the large number of female Muslim scholars in history: