Friday, 25 February 2011

I first saw my wife 10 years after we married

Experience: I first saw my wife 10 years after we married'Being blind was just part of our married life. We didn't talk about it, we just lived with it'

Series: ExperiencePrevious Index Experience: I first saw my wife 10 years after we married'Being blind was just part of our married life. We didn't talk about it, we just lived with it'

The Guardian, Saturday 19 February 2011 Article history
'I didn’t think anyone would want to marry me, but she said she did.' Photograph: Chris Thomond for the Guardian

When you are blind, you imagine how people look. Not by touching their face or gauging their height, but by their voice, and the kind of person they are. That's what helps you form a picture. I realise now I can see that those pictures aren't always accurate. But when I first saw my wife, Gurjeet, 10 years after we'd met, she was exactly as I'd imagined.

I lost my sight at school, Christmas 1972 – I was 10 and larking about when I fell in some nettles and came up in a terrible rash. The doctor gave mum some tablets to clear it up but I had an awful reaction to them – what's called Stevens Johnson syndrome – and for a few weeks it was touch and go if I'd survive.

One of the effects of the SJS was my tear ducts stopped working; without tears, your corneas can't work. They tried all sorts to fix the problem. Every two weeks when we went to hospital I'd buy comics – the Beano, Dandy, the Beezer – thinking I'd be able to read them on the way home, but I never could. My sight just kept getting worse, and by the time I was 14 it had gone.

I went to a special school in Birmingham, where you had to board Monday to Friday. I knew my mum and dad found it hard to leave me there, but they knew it was the best thing for me. The turning point was going to college in Hereford to study IT – the Royal National College for the Blind, where I am now a governor. I didn't learn only academic and vocational stuff, but how to be independent: cooking, cleaning, doing sports, going out and about.

I used to ring my parents every day and tell them how I was doing. They were proud and, if I'm honest, surprised, too. A lot of people are surprised. They imagine that when you're blind you "manage" rather than "achieve", and that I must feel those years of being blind were wasted somehow. That's simply not true. It was an amazing period of my life.

The best thing was meeting Gurjeet. It was an arranged marriage. I didn't think anyone would want to marry me, but she said she did. She said it felt right. I sensed she was lovely and couldn't believe my luck. Even on my wedding day my brother-in-law and I wondered if she'd turn up. But there she was, waiting for me. We have been shoulder to shoulder since.

After I married I started a business building computers. I could do all the programming myself through a Braille terminal but I remember the first one I built. Gurjeet and I worked through the night – she was my eyes while I was building it, orientating me around the circuit board. Then she'd drive me around the country so I could deliver the computers to clients, with our two daughters in the back. I bought a shop and it went from strength to strength. At our height we were one of the largest suppliers in the UK and turning over millions.

Being blind was just part of our married life. We didn't talk about it, we just lived with it. I never thought it would be any different. Then one day – when we'd been married about 10 years – an optician I knew came rushing into our office saying he'd read about a new technique he was sure could help me. Two weeks later I was at an eye hospital in Brighton and booked in for this new experimental operation. When they took off the bandages and cleaned up my eyes, it was like having Windolene cleaned off a window. I saw the doctor's tie, then his huge smile, and then everything was crystal clear. When Gurjeet and the girls walked into the room, they were just as I had pictured in my mind. So familiar. I will never forget that moment. "I can see you," I said to them. "I can see for miles."

The world seemed so bright – that's what struck me most. The colours of the 70s – the dark red curtains, brown lino, drab shopfronts and black Morris Minors and Austin 1100s that I had remembered from my childhood – were replaced by this array of bright shades. We all walked down to the seafront in Brighton. It was a beautiful day, and I was walking in front, holding the girls' hands, showing off a bit. I couldn't stop staring at everything. There was so much to take in. It was wonderful. I still have to pinch myself when I think about it today.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Poetry of Abdullah William Quilliam: Against Tyrants

Poetry of Abdullah William Quilliam: -
Day of Freedom, bright and clear,
Day that tyrants well may fear,
Day they fall, undone, unwrung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A description of the Beloved, Sal Allahu 'alayhi wa salam, from "The Sunnah as Primordiality" by Shaikh Abdal Hakim Murad

A description of the Beloved, Sal Allahu 'alayhi wa salam, from "The Sunnah as Primordiality" by Shaikh Abdal Hakim Murad
paraphrased by Mustafa Miroku Nemeth

Here is a condensed recollection, a kind of verbal icon, of that Prophetic beauty. It is paraphrased from a passage by Imam al-Ghazali, in Book 19 of his Revival of the Religious Sciences, Ihya Ulum al-Din.

‘The Messenger of God (s) was the mildest of men, but also the bravest and most just of men. He was the most restrained of people; never touching the hand of a woman over whom he did not have rights, or who was not his mahram. He was the most generous of men, so that never did a gold or silver coin spend the night in his house. If something remained at the end of the day, because he had not found someone to give it to, and night descended, he would go out, and not return home until he had given it to someone in need. From what Allah gave him [...] he would take only the simplest and easiest foods: dates and barley, giving anything else away in the path of Allah. Never did he refuse a gift for which he was asked. He used to mend his own sandals, and patch his own clothes, and serve his family, and help them to cut meat. He was the shyest of men, so that his gaze would never remain long in the face of anyone else. He would accept the invitation of a freeman or a slave, and accept a gift, even if it were no more than a gulp of milk, or the thigh of a rabbit, and offer something in return. He never consumed anything given in sadaqa. He was not too proud to reply to a slave-girl, or a pauper in rags. He would become angered for his Lord, never for himself; he would cause truth and justice to prevail even if this led to discomfort to himself or to his companions.

‘He used to bind a stone around his waist out of hunger. He would eat what was brought, and would not refuse any permissible food. If there was dates without bread, he would eat, if there was roast meat, he would eat; if there was rough barley bread, he would eat it; if there was honey or something sweet, he would eat it; if there was only yogurt without even bread, he would be quite satisfied with that.

‘He was not sated, even with barley-bread, for three consecutive days, until the day he met his Lord, not because of poverty, or avarice, but because he always preferred others over himself.

‘He would attend weddings, and visit the sick, and attend funerals, and would often walk among his enemies without a guard. He was the most humble of men, and the most serene, without arrogance. He was the most eloquent of men, without ever speaking for too long. He was the most cheerful of men. He was afraid of nothing in the dunya. He would wear a rough Yemeni cloak, or a woolen tunic; whatever was lawful and was to hand, that he would wear. He would ride whatever was to hand: sometimes a horse, sometimes a camel, sometimes a mule, sometimes a donkey. And at times he would walk barefoot, without an upper garment or a turban or a cap. He would visit the sick even if they were in the furthest part of Madina. He loved perfumes, and disliked foul smells.

‘He maintained affectionate and loyal ties with his relatives, but without preferring them to anyone who was superior to them. He never snubbed anyone. He accepted the excuse of anyone who made an excuse. He would joke, but would never say anything that was not true. He would laugh, but not uproarously. He would watch permissible games and sports, and would not criticise them. He ran races with his wives. Voices would be raised around him, and he would be patient. He kept a sheep, from which he would draw milk for his family. He would walk among the fields of his companions. He never despised any pauper for his poverty or illness; neither did he hold any king in awe simply because he was a king. He would call rich and poor to Allah, without distinction.

‘In him, Allah combined all noble traits of character; although he neither read nor wrote, having grown up in a land of ignorance and deserts in poverty, as a shepherd, and as an orphan with neither father nor mother. But Allah Himself taught him all the excellent qualities of character, and praiseworthy ways, and the stories of the early and the later prophets, and the way to salvation and triumph in the Akhira, and to joy and detachment in the dunya, and how to hold fast to duty, and to avoid the unnecessary. May Allah give us success in obeying him, and in following his sunna. Amin ya rabb al-alamin.‘

This moving portrait by Imam al-Ghazali depicts our role model, and simultaneously our ideal of humanity lived in the form of absolute beauty. His was a life lived in fullness. There was no aspect of human perfection that he did not know and manifest. And his perfection also indicates the nature of specifically masculine perfection. He was a great warrior; a sound hadith narrated by Imam al-Darimi tells us, on the authority of Ali, that

‘On the day of Badr I was present, and we sought refuge in the Prophet (s.w.s.),

who was the closest of us all to the enemy. On that day he was the most powerful

of all the combatants who fought.’One of the Companions described him riding his horse, wearing a red turban and holding his sword, and said later that never in his life had he seen a sight more beautiful.

In 23 years he became undisputed ruler of Arabia. Through his genius and charisma, and the attractive force of his personality, he united the Arabian tribes for the first time in their history. He took his people from the depths of idolatry into the purest form of monotheism. He gave them a law for the first time. He laid down, in his mosque in Madina, a system of worship, self-restraint and spiritual fruitfulness that provided the inspiration and the precedent for countless generations of later worshippers and saints. In affirming the Ka‘ba, he affirmed beauty; so that all else that he did was beautiful.

And in all this, he attributed his success only to Allah. He was, as Imam al-Ghazali records, the most humble of men. He was forbearing, polite, courteous, and mild. He paid no attention to people’s outward form, but assessed and responded to their spirits. He forgave constantly. He was indulgent with the simple Bedouin of Central Arabia, the roughest people on earth. When one of them. who wanted money, pulled his cloak so violently that it left a mark, he merely smiled, and ordered that the man be given what he wanted.


Saturday, 5 February 2011

Is English law related to Muslim law?

In London's historic "Inns of Court", barristers practise law in the shadow of the distinctive medieval Temple Church. But does English law really owe a debt to Muslim law?

For some scholars, a historical connection to Islam is a "missing link" that explains why English common law is so different from classical Roman legal systems that hold sway across much of the rest of Europe.

It's a controversial idea. Common law has inspired legal systems across the world. What's more, calls for the UK to accommodate Islamic Sharia law have caused public outcry.

The first port of call when looking for an eastern link in the common law is London's Inns of Court.

"You are now leaving London, and entering Jerusalem," says Robin Griffith-Jones, the Master of the Temple Church, as he walks around its spectacular rotunda.

The church stands in the heart of the legal district and was built by the Knights Templar, the fierce order of monks-turned-warriors who fought Muslim armies in the Crusades.

London's historic legal district, with its professional class of independent lawyers, has parallels with the way medieval Islamic law was organised.

In Sunni Islam there were four great schools of legal theory, which were often housed in "madrassas" around mosques. Scholars debated each other on obscure points of law, in much the same way as English barristers do.

There is a theory that the Templars modelled the Inns of Court on Muslim ideas. But Mr Griffith-Jones suggests it is pretty unlikely the Templars imported the madrassa system to England. They were suppressed after 1314 - yet lawyers only started congregating in the Inns of Court after the 1360s.

Perpetual endowment

This doesn't necessarily rule out the Templars' role altogether. Medieval Muslim centres of learning were governed under a special legal device called the "waqf" under which trustees guaranteed their independence.

In an oak-panelled room in Oxford, historian Dr Paul Brand explains the significance of the 1264 statute that Walter De Merton used to establish Merton College. He was a businessman with connections to the Knights Templar

The original 1264 document that established Merton has parallels with the waqf because it is a "perpetual endowment" - a system where trustees keep the college running through the ages. It's been used as a template across the Western world.

Dr Brand says many branches of Western learning, from mathematics to philosophy, owe a debt of gratitude to Islamic influence.

Advanced Arabic texts were translated into European languages in the Middle Ages. But there's no record of Islamic legal texts being among those influencing English lawyers.

And Dr Brand pointed out the Knights Templar were, after all, crusaders. They wanted to fight Muslims, not to learn from them, and they were rarely close enough to observe their institutions at work.

But the fact remains that England in the Middle Ages had very distinct legal principles, like jury trial and the notion that "possession is nine tenths of the law". And there was one other place in Europe that had similar legal principles on the books in the 12th Century.

Jury trial

From the end of the 9th to the middle of the 11th Century, Sicily had Muslim rulers. Many Sicilians were Muslims and followed the Maliki school of legal thought in Sunni Islam.

Maliki law has certain provisions which resemble English legal principles, such as jury trial and land possession. Sicily represented a gateway into western Europe for Islamic ideas but it's unclear how these ideas are meant to have travelled to England.

Norman barons first invaded Sicily in 1061 - five years before William the Conqueror invaded England. The Norman leaders in Sicily went on to develop close cultural affinities with the Arabs, and these Normans were blood relations of Henry II, the English king credited with founding the common law.

But does that mean medieval England somehow adopted Muslim legal ideas?
There is no definitive proof, because very few documents survive from the period. All we have is the stories of people like Thomas Brown - an Englishman who was part of the Sicilian government, where he was known in Arabic as "Qaid Brun".

He later returned to England and worked for the king during the period when common law came into being.

There is proof he brought Islamic knowledge back to England, especially in mathematics. But no particular proof he brought legal concepts.

There are clear parallels between Islamic legal history and English law, but unless new historical evidence comes to light, the link remains unproven.

John Mohammed Butt: The hippie who became an imam

Forty years after following the hippie trail to South Asia, John Butt is still living in the region, and still spreading a message of peace and love - though now as an Islamic scholar.

As our car turned around the bumpy Indian road, a gleaming white marble minaret came into view. My fellow passenger, John Mohammed Butt, could barely contain his excitement.

"Can you see it?" he asks. "It's like the Oxford University of Islamic learning. For me these minarets and domes are just like the spires and towers of Oxford.

"It's been almost 30 years since I was last here and I am still getting the same thrill. This is my alma mater."

The alma mater in question is Darul-Uloom Deoband, South Asia's largest madrassa, or Islamic school.

Driving through the madrassa gates, we entered a world rarely seen by Western eyes.

Deoband was built in 1866 by Indian Muslims opposed to the then British rule. Little has changed since - winding streets and tiny courtyards lined with stalls selling fragrant chai, bubbling pots of rice and paintings of Mecca.

Everywhere are the Talibs, religious students, young men with dark-eyed fervent expressions carrying books or quietly reciting the Koran.

And in another scene reminiscent of Oxford, students riding bicycles.

A chai seller recognises John and runs towards him. "John Sahib, John Sahib."

The two had not seen each other in decades, yet the man remembers him instantly. "John Sahib was the only student I ever saw who used to go jogging.

"There was only one John Mohammed - unique," he laughs.

That is perhaps not so surprising, when you learn that John Butt remains the first and only Western man ever to have graduated from Deoband.

He showed me his old dormitory room, a windowless cell where he spent eight years in a life of virtual seclusion, living under a regime of prayer and Koranic study.

Imposing figure

But that is just one facet of this man's extraordinary life.

Aside from his time at Deoband, he has spent most of the past 40 years living among the fierce Pashtun tribes, who inhabit the lawless hinterland between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He went there in 1969, he says, as a dope-smoking young hippie and never came home.

He laughs. "When people call me an ageing ex-hippie, I always reply that I am ageing maybe, but I'm certainly not ex. I'm still a hippie."

John Butt cuts an imposing figure.

At 6ft 5ins (1.95m) tall, he sports a long white beard and alabaster skin that is almost translucent.

Dressed in flowing white ethnic robes, he reminds me of a Benedictine hermit monk or a Victorian explorer, swashbuckling straight out of the pages of an historical novel.

He tells me he adores the Queen, Stilton is his favourite cheese and that football is his passion.

Yet among the border tribes, he is regarded as a native Pashtun and revered as an Islamic scholar.

Home for him, until recently, was a tiny village in Pakistan's Swat valley.

Swat was once a popular tourist destination but is now the scene of regular battles between the Pakistani military and the Taliban.

But back in 1969, the young John was hooked from the moment he saw Swat, describing to me snow-capped mountains, rivers like flowing jewels, forests and alpine pastures.

It was, he says, "like Tolkien's Middle-earth, magical and other worldly" inhabited by tribal people who were "very pleasant, big-hearted, tolerant, easy-going and welcoming".

When his fellow hippies grew up and went home to become accountants and lawyers, John stayed on - becoming fluent in the Pashto language and studying Islam.

But John's world changed in the late 1980s, with the arrival of jihadists, who came to the border areas from all over the world to fight the war against the Russians in Afghanistan.

"I saw the rural, religious Pashtun way of life I had come to love so much being diluted, contaminated and poisoned, in particular by Arabs from the Middle East," he says.

"The way they practise Islam is very different to the tribal areas, but they used money and influence to impose their own set of values."

So he decided to fight for his adopted culture.

Peaceful Islam

In the early 1990s, he joined the BBC World Service Pashto service and helped to set up New Home New Life, a now iconic Afghan radio soap opera, known as The Archers of Afghanistan

Six years ago, he set up a radio station which broadcasts across the Afghan-Pakistan border and which tries to promote tribal traditions along with peace and reconciliation.

More recently, John has switched his attentions back to Afghanistan and is spearheading the formation of a new Islamic university in the predominantly Pashtun city of Jalalabad.

"It makes perfect sense. There is currently nowhere in Afghanistan where a young man can do higher Islamic studies. They go to Pakistan, where as we know some of them have become radicalised," he says, emphasising that his university will give a platform to moderates.

But this promotion of peaceful Islam has set him on a collision course with militants. His beloved Pakistan has now become too unsafe for him.

"Swat is a militarised zone and people I see as foreigners there now treat me like I'm the foreigner, even though I lived there for 40 years.

"It's hard to work out who is who any more - who is Taliban, who is criminal. The waters are very muddy."

Last year, waters of another kind finally put paid to his idyll, when his house was washed away in the floods which devastated the area and killed thousands.

"It was a relief in some ways. When I lost the house, I knew I'd never go back there."

Afghanistan has also become increasingly perilous after Taliban death threats.

The Taliban have delivered so-called night letters - notes hand-delivered in secret and at night for maximum impact - warning students not to study at the university and denouncing John as a Christian missionary or an "orientalist".

Death threats have also been made to his teachers and staff.

"I've hired some of the best Islamic scholars in the region - pious, good and brave men," he says. "They know this is for the benefit of Afghanistan and they insist they will stay working with me despite the dangers."

As I said goodbye, he was planning to travel to Jalalabad on the local bus. We talked about the possibility of him being attacked and he admitted he could easily be killed.

But when I asked if he was scared, he brushed me off with a shrug. "You only die once. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow."