Monday, February 28, 2005

In the name of French secularism?


Naima Bouteldja

“It is clear that having Spanish, Polish or Portuguese people… poses fewer problems than having Muslims or blacks. How do you think a French worker feels when he sees on the landing a family with a man who has maybe three or four wives, about twenty kids, who receives around 50,000 francs in social services, of course without working...and if you add the noise and smell...no wonder the French worker across the landing goes mad.”

Even in today’s race to the right over asylum, no British politician’s career could ever survive such a preposterously xenophobic outburst. But in Le Pen’s France it is an all too common feature of public debate. The irony, however, is that these are not the words of Jean-Marie Le Pen but of French President Jacques Chirac, uttered in 1991 when he was Mayor of Paris. Chirac’s public immersion in the murky waters of national populism certainly had no ill-effects on his remarkable rise to the Presidency a few years later. He was even cast as France’s saviour in restoring the Republic’s honour during the 2002 elections with his defeat of the far right candidate Le Pen.

Chirac has since embellished this dubious role as protectorate with appeals to another pillar of French republicanism – la laicité (secularism). For Stuart Jeffries, writing in last week’s Guardian, the French government’s banning of religious symbols in schools is a welcome return to the French secular tradition, at the heart of which is the insistence that “a flourishing multicultural society… needs spaces where different races and religions can meet as equals.”

The reality of French secularism is far removed from this lofty idealism. The public debate and subsequent banning of “conspicuous religious symbols” from French schools has focussed exclusively on the wearing of the Muslim hijab rather than the display of Christian or Jewish religious symbols. The issue has divided French society and with every new “affaire du foulard” (headscarf affair) the collective hysteria has reached a quite disturbing level. The intensity of this debate cannot be explained in terms of secular ideas.

French secularism is a historical construct that blossomed with the victory of the Republic over the Catholic Church. Its three founding juridical principles are the separation of Church and State, expressed in the law passed in 1905; the freedom of thought; and the free exercise and organisation of worship. Contrary to received opinion, the practical implementation of French secularism has been achieved in a piecemeal fashion, very often on the basis of negotiation and compromise. For example, the laws on secularism have never been applied to the three départements of Alsace-Moselle, which was under German control when most of France’s secular laws were implemented and became French again only after World War I.

Secularism has never led to the cleansing of all religious expression from the public sphere – collective expressions of religious life are tolerated so long as they do not affect public order. Neither has it led to an absolute separation between Church and State, nor even to a strictly neutral and egalitarian treatment of all religions by the State. Several measures place the Catholic Church in a privileged position with respect to other religions, and in this case particularly Islam. The physical maintenance of all buildings of worship built before 1905 is the responsibility of the local authorities, a tradition that obviously discriminates against the needs of Muslims whose presence was barely felt in the urban centres of France at that time. With five million Muslims in France, Islam now constitutes the second most important religion in the country but all Mosques must be privately built and maintained by France’s most impoverished community, a situation not experienced by Christian and Jewish faiths. This, however, is only the start of the problem: licenses for the construction of new buildings of worship can only be issued by the local Municipal councils and permission is frequently denied when it is for the building of mosques.

Ironically, it is in the education sector that the inequalities between the different religions are most glaring. The 1880 education laws made state education secular, free and obligatory, and have gradually led to the secularisation of teachers and other education workers. But it is a very Catholic kind of secularism. The state school calendar remains based around Christian holidays and, under pressure from the Catholic Church, a day off has also been imposed in the middle of the week for religious education. In contrast, no planning is allowed in schools for religious minorities, not even for the supply of halal or kosher food in the school canteens for Muslims and Jews. More significantly, a series of laws enable private faith schools to have access to State and local funding under certain conditions: 95% of the schools who benefit from these grants are Catholic.

It is within this context, well understood by Chirac’s government, that the ban on the wearing of all ostensible religious symbols was passed on the 14th March 2004, with the backing of all the major French political parties, including parts of the so-called communist left. This despite the fact that a 1989 ruling by the State Council, France’s highest legal institution, decreed that the country’s 1880 statutes on secularism did not apply to pupils – only schools, the curriculum and teaching staff.

If the wearing of religious symbols does not contravene French secularism then why pass such a law? Or does the French Republic, which usually bellows so loudly against any form of “communitarianism”, really want to see the development of Muslim faith schools who will welcome expelled adolescents? This, however, might take some time to arrive as there is currently only one Muslim school in the whole of France – it is on l’Ile de la Réunion, in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

By imposing secularity on pupils for the first time in the history of the Republic, the French government has put into question the very foundations of the secular schooling system. Or rather, the right of every child to a free education. But the ban on the hijab had very little to do with reinforcing secularism. In reality, the debate on the headscarf has merely served as a magnificent political diversion masking France’s deeper and more important social and economic problems with the rise of unemployment and casualisation. It has also helped to undermine the rise of a serious and growing social movement opposed to public sector retrenchment, whose nerve centre just happens to be in the radical teachers and students of French schools.

As the French philosopher Pierre Tevanian has argued, what is most interesting about this debate around the ‘veil’ (headscarf) is not what it has veiled (social issues) but what it has unveiled. “There exists in France a cultural racism, which targets the descendents of the colonised and primarily picks upon their Muslim identity.” This post-colonial anxiety helps us to understand the ubiquity of appeals to “reaffirm” the secular principles of the Republic, even as it reinvents and distorts those very traditions. But if the basic texts from the 1880s do not justify in any way the banning of religious symbols worn by pupils, what then has to be found or remembered? One possibility, argues Tevanian, is that it reaffirms “a symbolic order… which we can call colonial, where certain people were considered sub-human primarily due to their Muslim identity, dedicated to remaining docile and invisible servants or targets and scapegoats.”

Naima Bouteldja is a French journalist working on a study of Muslim participation in social movements in France and Britain

This article was recently published in The Guardian of UK.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Report on Conference on “Islamic Perspectives on Worker Justice” at George Washington University

Justice, solidarity, activism—these are some of the words which were in vogue at this unique conference at George Washington University (GW) on February 20th. Sponsored and organized primarily by the Islamic Alliance for Justice of GW, the National Interfaith Council on Worker Justice, and DC Jobs with Justice, the “Islamic Perspectives on Worker Justice” conference responded to the call of a faith that is understood to place enormous emphasis on the ideals of justice, equality, and universal sister/brotherhood.

The specific topics addressed at the conference included: Labor, Workers’ Rights and Muslims, Muslims and Activism, Immigrants and Organizing, Religious Leaders and Labor, and Islam and Social Justice. The convergence of activists and religious and community leaders around these themes was really an historic event. The passion and devotion of the invited speakers and panelists to the cause of solidarity with those who are the “least amongst us,” those who suffer the most oppression, exploitation, and humiliation, was immense. The Islamic and humanist notion of siding with sections of our society, such as labor, in their struggle for more dignified lives prevailed throughout the speeches and discussions.

Religious leaders from the Muslim community who were present included Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Imam Mahdi Bray, Imam Ali Siddiqui, and Dr. Ingrid Mattson. Each one of them, in their distinct and spirited ways, implored Muslims to apply the transcendental ethics of Islam in the context of injustice today, especially in relation to workers’ rights. Some of the Muslim activists included Samia Khan, Rami el-Amine, and Junaid Ahmad. They emphasized the need for an engaged relationship between Muslims and labor and other groups striving for social justice and peace.

There was vibrant discussion at the conference, spurred on by the many insights and comments coming from the audience. Persons from media, labor, activist and advocacy groups, and the larger D.C. Muslim and non-Muslim community attended the opening plenary session and the two major workshops, and contributed to a lively discourse on the present situation and the way forward.

The conference affirmed the important idea that a full appreciation of one’s faith commitment can be realized to its full extent only in a struggle for justice in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed sections of society, those the Qu’ran (the holy book for Muslims) calls the mustad’afun. The view coming from the panelists was that the indignity and injustices produced by our world, with its undemocratic and pernicious institutions, require nothing less from Muslims and others than a concrete battle for justice and peace.

Triple Talaq to Europe

In the Name of Allah.

On this day, Muharram 16, 1426, I hereby pronounce my divorce from Europe. I say no to subjugation, no to assimilation, no to integration.

Europe, you struggle to bind my wrists and ankles to yours, to make me your shadow. I am the evil Pilate/pilot, a shadow of your pretence that no terrorism is or has ever been committed by you. The dead in Afghanistan are invisible. The murdered in Falluja forgotten. The children starved to death under sanctions in Iraq never were. I am the primitive who believes in God, the fool who thinks The Creator should be the source of human values, not politicians or intellectuals or patriarchal laws. I count the dead as they pass through my heart.

Europe, I step out of your shadow and a light shines so bright you cannot even look me in the face. I am calling on humanity to revolt! I say, ‘Never shall there be peace! Never shall there be peace! Never shall there be peace!’ I say this, because there cannot be peace unless there is justice. You think this justice is law? No, Europe!! This justice comes from human awakening – from faith, learning, from making people like poppies growing in the sun: kind, fragile and transient. Now I am divorced from your subjugation.

Europe, you desire to make me your failed apprentice. You look upon me as the effeminate sadist, the undeserving victim. As long as I stand out from the crowd, my presence here is unwelcome. You try to act like you have always been here, and always will be. The woman making garments in China is a palimpsest, her suffering erased by the photo-feature of thy perfect consumer; the computer game builds cities while desperate peasants cut and burn pristine rain forest; the coiffured toddler sips crude oil through his blue and white striped straw and spits it into the dark sea.

Europe, you have invented a magic blender, where white and black boil coldly together and come out white. Now I know the secret ingredient – bleach. You want the world to poison itself. You want me to mimic a culture where people destroy their own souls instead of themselves. You neglect the sick, the old, the disabled, and then invite celebrities to help them until even God shudders at their bogus charity. I am a Muslim, Europe. Now I am divorced from your assimilation.

Europe, you desire to make me your friend. You whisper in my ear, “Yakoub, we are all in this together, we are made of the same flesh and blood. Here, sit down, let’s sort out our differences amicably.” But I don’t need to borrow the language you stole from us. I don’t need to know the words that clever cheat Descartes copied from the Arab philosophers. The doubt you used to chip away at the old facades has turned grey and now it feeds off itself, a shrinking snake. It has become reason’s enemy.

Europe - shut up! Shut your stupid, ugly mouth for just one minute. Be silent in your head! It’s your turn to listen, now. You’ve had your Empire. The God you no longer believe is not the God I believe in. The death you try to forget is not the one I long for. Let Islam be your teacher, now. Let the small conquer the great. Let the journey begin. We are monkeys, Europe, all of us, but we could be human, if only you would become the classroom instead of the teacher. Now…

Allah knows better.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Target: Journalists!

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Newsitem: Eason Jordan, a CNN news executive stated that he knew of 12 journalists who had not only been killed by American troops, but had been targeted as a matter of policy.

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib, a syndicated Muslim cartoonist based in Berkeley, CA

StudioBendib, All rights reserved.

For more Bendib cartoons, click www.bendib.com

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


The area around the court is barricaded with barbed wire and heavily armed policemen are all over. It is quite a struggle for the law enforcers to separate the opposing groups of protestors from each other. On the one side of the fence there is a resonating call, “Justice should be done: Life sentence for Tsunami.” On the other side the call is different: “Innocent till proven guilty: Tsunami is a victim of trial by the media.” Most people in both camps do not know the real name of the man now popularly and notoriously known as Tsunami nor can they point the man if they see him walking in the street.

All that they have is a picture painted in their minds when they read in the newspapers and hear television and radio reports on the onstage and offstage deeds and misdeeds of Tsunami, the hero turned villain. You see, in the play of the same name, young girls aged between eighteen and twenty-four years receive telephone calls from a young woman purporting to be calling from a recruitment agency for some secretarial companies that are affirmative action and equity employers. She\ he then sets an appointment with the girls and meets them at the designated spot. From there s\he takes them to the outskirts of the township where she\he claims that the car from the employment agency will pick them. Days thereafter the girls are found raped and dead, with one lacerated breast and a grotesquely huge T-shaped wound on the other. The serial killer character wears a wig and a thick lipstick that gives him \her a Naomi Campbell look, and s\he has the same shapes. The movement is convincing and so is the voice. The audience never gets to see the face, as the actual rape and murder scenes are not portrayed in the play. All that the audience hears are hysterical and anguished screams and mad groans, gruesome writhing and the gnashing of teeth. Thereafter they see tattered clothes and floods of blood and hear the gruesome details of the murder as explained by other characters in the play. As the events in the play takes place at the time of the news of the tsunami disaster in Asia and some parts of Africa, the other characters in the play referred to the serial killer character as Tsunami.

The real-life re-play of the “tsunami serial rape-killings” took place three months after the tsunami disaster. By that time, the play has been previewed to quite a few audiences at various places in the Vaal Triangle Area. Within the group the name Tsunami had come to be associated with the fiery and fearsome character as well as the public-shy actor who portrayed it so well. Then our group was hit by a Tsunami. It started with the girl who performs the part of the woman who kills Tsunami in the play receiving a call from a young lady purporting to be a theatre director. She claimed that she had seen our member in performance and was keen to include her in her cast that was about to go to Germany on a cultural exchange program. They set up an appointment to meet each other at the outskirt of Zamdela, near the Sasol industrial area from where they’ll drive to Johannesburg for the auditions.

That was the last time she was seen alive. Her body was found a week latter in the same conditions as the victims of Tsunami. As we were still trying to make sense of the story, a young girl and a teenage boy who are part of our cast were found in similar conditions. And then it was three high school young girls and one teenage boy. People were shocked. Some suspected that they were victims of “Mzekezeke”, a serial rapist who lured his victims with promises of jobs and was caught red-handed in a balaclava while raping a kid he had duped into believing that he was the hooded Kwaito star whose stage-name is Mzekezeke. They speculated that “Mzekezeke” was enraged that Tsunami was actually a disguised take at him. But it turned out that ‘Mzekezeke’ was in jail at the time Tsunami stroke.

Township gossip had it that the fellow in prison was the wrong guy. The said the DNA test had revealed that his semen does not match with that found in the girl who was raped. The story was that the real “Mzekezeke” was outside and he was the one responsible for the Tsunami rape-killings. But then the original “Mzekezeke” never raped males. Others suggested that there were multiples of serial rapists and killers taking advantage of the “Mzekezeke\ Tsunami saga.” At the end of the day, “Mzekezeke” was no longer talked about. Tsunami had taken over. True to the tradition of “the show must go on”, we at the Biko Community Theater Project continued with our Tsunami project, staging benefits shows for the victims of the other tsunami…. HIV\AIDS. Then oneday the police came to our rehearsal room and arrested Tsunami. Some of the cast members tried to obstruct the police, while others just shook their heads in disbelief and a few actually murmured that they have been silently wondering whether Tsunami is indeed the Tsunami. I intervened and pleaded with the group members to let the police do their job and wait for the court decision before they allow the issue to divide the group or to put us at odds with the law and community.

Now I stand in the middle of the two opposing and protesting camps. Belonging to none and still confused as to what to believe and what not to. But I am one of the few people who know the young man and the face that now bear the name Tsunami. Actually I am the one who created the character called Tsunami and his \ her namesake, Tsunami the play. I should rather say I am the one who planted the seeds because I only came up with the concept and facilitated the experimental workshopping of the play collectively by the group and allowed each character to explore various ways of developing his or her character. From the beginning I was fascinated by the passion with which our man launched onto the project of constructing and developing his character. He went to all court proceedings where there was a murder or rape case, kept press clippings of stories on serial killers, took out tons upon tons of documents from the internet and watched every movie he could get on the subject of serial killers and serial rapists. He had interviews with police and psychologists who are experts on serial killers and also talked friends and relatives of the serial killers. His idea was that to be able to portray a character, in this case a serial killer, you do not just have to understand his background and his psychology, but have to also get into his boots, share his dreams and nightmares, fantasies and fears and hopes, wrap yourself in his mind and soul and see the world from his point of view. That he managed to do that is beyond doubt.

This naturally humble and cool and collected youngster became a bloodthirsty monster on stage. The fire in his eyes and the rage in his voice as well as the physical force with which he expressed it scared even fellow actors and left the audiences spellbound by the beast that man is capable of becoming. He excelled in the court scene, where he related the story of Tsunami, how he was born to an eighteen-year old girl who abandoned for the life of pleasure and left him in the care of her blind and aged granny, how his ex-convict uncle used to sodomize him and how he was once gang-raped by a group of older girls after they found him doing to their sibling what his uncle used to do to him. Overnight he became the hero of the township theater scene. Everyone wished they could see the actor playing the tsunami character. But he made sure that after every performance he went off stage to join the other crew of the Biko Community Theatre Project. Off course, offstage Tsunami was always a closed book. He was quite and self-evasive and seldom spoke about himself or his family and childhood. As a hair-dresser and cross-dresser, he was most of the time in the company of girls, and was what the Mzansi ladies refer to as “a dish” (or a gorgeous piece of meet as Queen Moroka of Generations would put it). Yet he shied away from romantic relations with girls.

One would have easily assumed he was homo-sexual if he did not display such an antagonistic attitude towards gays, and verbally abused those who mistakenly tried to charm their way into his life. He openly declared that one thing he agreed with Mugabe was the fact that gays and lesbians are worse than baboons. That was about all that we the members of group knew and could tell the police and the court about our colleague. We were equally shocked to hear the story related by his mentally deranged granny in court that he was actually a victim of sexual molestation when he was a child. She claimed that Tsunami’s mother gave birth to him at the tender age of fourteen and died in the process and that his aunt and legal guardian used him as a sex slave, as her husband had become sexually impotent after being confined to a wheelchair by a car accident. But how reliable can the evidence of an insane and old woman be? As much as Tsunami was enigma to us in the group, it is much more difficult to find the actor who will get into the boots of the Tsunami character the way he did. Or shall we proceed with the play?

Article on Keenan Malik

Below is a link to the website Black Information Link which is close to the 1990 Trust which is an anti-racist organisation in South London. This article was written in reaction to a divisive documentary by a guy called Keenan Malik which basically states that Islamophobia does not exist.

Despite the many political realities which Muslims face, it is disturbing to see that there are many in the liberal media which refuse to acknowledge that Islamophobia exists.

Keenan Malik’s recent Channel 4 documentary “Are Muslims Hated” shown on 8th January, was perhaps the most recent example.

The film professed the view that the existence of Islamophobia has been greatly exaggerated and is being used by Muslims to stifle free speech and prevent criticism of Islam.

Click here to read more

Monday, February 21, 2005

Remembering Al-Hajj Malik el-Shabbaz - Malcolm X

Today, February 21st, 2005, marks the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of Malcolm X Al-Hajj, Malik el-Shabbaz.

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"I might point out here that colonialism or imperialism, as the slave system of the West is called, is not something that is just confined to England or France or the United States. The interests in this country are in cahoots with the interests in France and the interests in Britain. It's one huge complex or combine, and it creates what's known not as the American power structure or the French power structure, but an international power structure. This international power structure is used to suppress the masses of dark-skinned people all over the world and exploit them of their natural resources."

Also see Democracy Now's interview with historian Manning Marable on Malcolm X.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Muharram 10: The Subaltern Speaks

You are given sustenance and victory for the virtue of those who are weak amongst you
The Prophet Muhammad (aws)

One of the achievements of postcolonial theorist G. C. Spivak is to extend and clarify the meaning of the word ‘subaltern’, a term originally developed by a group of Marxist scholars to describe the underclasses of the Indian subcontinent. Spivak identifies the problems of their class-based analyses and sources, and argues that women in particular often go unheard in this discourse. Indeed, Spivak has been at the forefront of liberating the voices of women living in the global South from the presumptions of European and American feminism.

At the same, Spivak also draws attention to the way some contemporary discourses silence the voice of the Subaltern. She claims that, not only do their texts fail to identify their own perspective, which distorts the voice they claim to represent, but they also contrive to speak for all when they might well only be speaking for some, or a few. Moreover, even when the voices of the marginalised do enter academic and other discourses, the political and social hegemony often prevents their intended meaning from being truly heard.

Subsequent theorists have argued from Spivak that the most unlikely people might be described as subaltern, including a female prime minister who was only able to assume political power by manipulating powerful men – hence she was as much subservient to patriarchy as the village women imprisoned in her house by a husband fearful for his family honour. In the light of this analysis, I, too, have appreciated the title ‘subaltern’, not just despite being a graduate educated middle class male, but partly in recognition of it. It makes me twice the prisoner that I am.

I am subaltern because I am a parent and primary carer of a child with autism. You can see my subaltern status from the press button locks on my front and back doors. You can sense it behind the six foot high fence around my back garden and the padlocked gate. You can surmise it in the broken window handles in the back of the car, the absence of curtains in my house, the walls drawn on, the carpets ripped, the kitchen draws and cupboards falling apart, the ventilation fans broken, and you can see it on the computer screen when I go the doctors and first on the list of health problems is ‘stress’.

This house, this life, is not a prison created by my son’s ‘condition’. It’s a prison created by a society’s attitude towards my son, by attitudes towards the disabled complicated and conflated with a host of other social hatreds and prejudices. The fruits of these malices range from local play areas where access has become restricted to all as a result of prevailing anxieties about children and the working class ‘other’, to the way my lower middle class and working class neighbours, who were born and grew up in the metropolis, feign rural authenticity by leaving their doors unlocked and hence open to my son’s intrusion.

For large parts of most non-school days, it renders me and my son prisoners in our home. In his frustration, he becomes noisy and boisterous and exhausts me. More than anything, it makes ‘normal’ family life impossible. Such is the low status which children like my son are held, that ‘help’ is only available from a service where the overwhelming majority of front line care staff were rejected as failures by the education system. The result is that, despite my long list of qualifications and my success in crisis intervention and independent advocacy, I am subordinated to become a computer bound househusband, allotted £50 a week by the government along with my son’s meagre disability allowance.

It is not pity or patchwork solutions which would free me from this incarceration, where the continuity of this text disguises the intermittent way in which it was written as I stop and start to type and then meet my son’s needs. It is profound social change, where the very focus of our society is shifted towards one where the most vulnerable are at the hub of ordinary people’s concerns.

My son should be one of the treasured among us, and indeed, I call him Shaykh Al-Islam Ma'rifa. I believe he is the sacred renewer of our age. I have become his Murid. I speak as the subaltern, because I am the servant of the oppressed.

Allah's Messenger once asked a group who had returned from Ethiopia to tell him about the most amazing thing they saw while they were there. Some of them offered the following:

"O Messenger of Allah! Once, while we were staying in Ethiopia, a woman carrying a jug of water on her head passed us by. One of their young men came up, put his hand on her shoulder and shoved her with force. She fell on her knees. When she returned to her feet, she said: 'Wretch! You will come to know at the time when Allah sets down His throne for judgment and gathers together the people of every era, when hands and feet speak and testify to what their owners did - you will know on the morrow what will be the case between you and me.'"

The Prophet (aws) said upon hearing this: "She spoke the truth. She spoke the truth. How shall Allah bless a nation that does not protect the weak against the strong?"

Ya Hussain!

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An injustice so grave, the sky and earth tremble!

And from the depths, arises a NO of the kalima

Remember, resist, refuse, NO to the idols of injustice!

Be either Husayn or Zaynab, either die like him or survive like her

Every day is 'Ashura, and every land is Karbala!

Today, Febuary 19th, is also the 63rd anniversary of Roosevelt's signing of executive order 9066 that resulted in the internment of Japanese Americans. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into camps mostly in western United States.

Ansel Adams photographed the internment camps, and attempted to present a portrait that countered the vicious demominzation of the Japanese at the time. Click here to view this excellent collection.

Also click here to see a cartoon on renewed calls for internment camps (for Muslims).

World War II ended with the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first, and so far, only use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. However, the US has continued to use radioactive weapons, "depleted" uranium in it's present day wars.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Masoom - "innocence"

A walk through pristine redwoods - fern, and crystal clear rivers
hear gentle sounds of a breeze swaying tall trees

Overlooking a deep blue ocean of peace - shimmering,
and a few wisps of clouds

crashing waves and a symphony of sounds - so pure

A newly born baby girl, so full of wonder, and innocence - masoom

Have you seen the redwoods torn down? And rivers clogged -
with beer cans, and toxic waste?

The ocean of peace used for battleships of war a few thousand miles away?

The symphony: massive exploding bombs indiscriminate slaughter.

And the newly born baby girl - buried alive - do you hear her cry?

This is the story of Karbala --- thus far. Ya Abbas, Ya Hussein...

A few tears, may our hearts soften - inshallah.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A Planet Breaks Down and Weeps

Today, on Muharram 7, 1426, as the Kyoto Protocol becomes law, I mourn as my planet mourns.

I mourn because those who did everything they could to defeat the Kyoto Protocol have not been defeated. Far from it! The petrochemical industries, the corporate monsters, the governments whining for compensation for loss of oil revenues, the politicians of all persuasions whose desire for power numbs their consciences, the celebrities and self-serving technocrats who perpetuate the lie that global warming, or the human role in global warming, are myths – they are still intent on maiming the biosphere.

I mourn because the leading opponent of truth and justice - the United States government and its allies – remains outside the protocol. I mourn because, even though the Bush administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, it continued to work on behalf of its friends in the fossil fuel industry to derail the treaty. I mourn because the most powerful nation on planet Earth is run by murderers, fanatics and crooks.

I mourn because most of the affluent people living in the global north are still living in the stone age. Like cave men, they concern themselves with immediate problems, with little sense of the long term impact of their actions. The still distant impending disaster of global warming, and the even more distant bulk of its victims – the poor of the global South – are not part of their illusion they call reality. Only God knows many of these sleeping primitives have died before their death.

I mourn because the Kyoto itself, if implemented to the letter, will only have a minimal effect on the changing climate.

I mourn because, if we let the bad guys win this time round, humanity will be forced to wake up to its place in the ecosphere the hard way. Are we monkeys or humans?

This is why I mourn this Muharram.

Ya Hussain Shaheed, Muharram in Iran.

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Photograph by Ihsan blogger, Nasim Mobasher

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


by Raihana Yusufali

The moon glows with heightened excitement
The mighty heavens kneel down
The stars stare silently
The sweet melody of night
mutes to a silence of anticipation

He emerges -
His head bent
The heavens explode
into a pandemonium of excited whispers

Child of Ka’aba –
Born in the womb of Ka’aba
You invoked the Lord of Ka’aba
As the fierce fire of life died in your eyes

Captured Lion of Allah -
Your feet swollen, baked by a thousand suns
Frost-bitten by a thousand more winter nights
As you stood in worship
Feeling only the pain for HIs Love

Eyes weeping of thorn -
Knowing, seeing, red and sleepless

Recklessly in love -
The sweetness of sacrifice under the blanket
Feeling the comfort of the fragrance of his brother
The enemy ready to pounce

He takes quick steps
The awakened earth feels honored

Slave of Slaves
In its dark corners they wait –
Nobody knows their sad story
Helpless, forgotten and hungry
They know he will come
before the stars set

O Caliph -
The patches on your coarse dusty robe
Are like the jewels woven in finest silk

Stray a little longer
For to the night you are no stranger

Glance at the moon
And cast your shadow on her lonely face

How I wish I could kiss
the hem of your robe
as you quickly walk away

Raihana Yusufali is an artist residing in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota.

The earth of Karbala

He created human (insan) from sounding clay like unto pottery (Quran 55:14)
Earth, clay, has special signficance - our creation, and when water is not available we use earth for tayammum (cleansing before prayers). Many (though, not all) Shia Muslims, when postrating in prayer, place the forehead on small pieces of clay, often made from earth/sand of Karbala, called trubah, or mohr. And some also say that the earth of Karbala has healing properties ... Allahu 'Alim.

And in our prayers/salat/namaz the position that is said to be the highest, is the one of prostration: when we bring our forehead to the ground, the earth. Al-Ghazali said:

(You) are bringing the most precious part of your body, namely your face, down to meet the most lowly of all things: the dust of the earth.... You are restoring the branch to its root, for of dust you were created and to dust you shall return.

Over the years, I have often been fascinated with Native American telling of stories, and found the messages contained to be so familiar. A few years ago, I was at a gathering that included a Native American story teller, and he also sang a few songs --- one of the songs sounded so much like Hu Allah Hu Allah - that I went up to him, and asked him about it... he said, that those who are close to the earth, we all hear the same sounds.

As the Quran says:

Have you not seen how whatsoever is in the heavens and in the earth glorifies Allah? (24:41)

And there is also a tradition, often narrated during Muharram, about how Gabriel gave our beloved Prophet (peace and blesssings upon him) some earth from Karbala, and foretold that Imam Husain would be shaheed, when that earth turned red.

This is, then, our earth, that we so often disrespect, and treat so badly. Inshallah, if we can just take a moment to remember, what this is that we are treating so badly: this is our root, earth, that is glorifying Allah...

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Ashura Mourning

This was the first post on my blog. It was written last Muharram and I'd like to share it with all of you.

Ashura Mourning

The night has been long and I am tired. For the last two hours I have been engaged in two simultaneous jihads. The first struggle is schizophrenic: myself as the self-righteous congregant versus the self-aware servant of Allah. Each side marches out on the field. And with a glance the battle begins.

Ready: I see a woman, her bleach bangs lying against olive skin, the rest of her hair barely contained by a transparent scarf thrown loosely over her head.
Aim: Congregant snarls almost inaudibly and thinks, "Why can't these women at least respect the mosque enough to cover properly for the few hours they are here."
Fire: The frown softens. The snarl is replaced by an even less audible-- though more sincere-- astaghfirullah. A list of my own transgressions comes to mind. Allah is merciful, shouldn't I be as well? My responsibility is to love not judge and condemn.

Self Aware wins the first evening's battle and the army of the nafs is subdued, but I can't rest. The troops are regrouping and reloading and this time they have recruited a far more formidible opponent-- my two year old.

Ready: He leaves his place by my side and begins walking quickly around the room, his voice growing louder, competing with the speaker for attention.
Aim: I am nervous, embarrased, and angry. I shrink from the ever critical gaze of an old woman in the corner. My instinct is to grab him forcefully and intimidate him into submission. I dream of being one of those mothers who controls her child with a glance. One of those mothers that everyone praises for her ability to control and keep in line.
Fire: I seek refuge in Allah(swt) from the whisperings of satan and the weaknesses of my own ego. I know that a limited attention span is a hallmark of two-year-old development. Allah has entrusted me with this fragile soul. On this night when we commemorate the uprising of the weak against the tyrannical strong, I must not play the role of Yazid. It is so easy to coerce and oppress simply because I am bigger and stronger. He has a God-given right to be treated with respect and kindness and I have a God-given responsibility to provide it. Besides, another two year old just threw a tantrum, and for the most part we are surrounded by mothers and others who love children and welcome them.
Fire: I grab his arm, bring him to me gently and whisper in his ear a respectful reminder, "whisper." He pulls away to look at my face and judge my expression. He is ready for a fight if he detects that this is an order from on high. I look into his eyes and smile. "Whisper," I repeat. He smiles, "whisper" he whispers. We nod our heads at one another; we are partners in this journey. The battle has been won, and the soldiers of the ego retreat again. They are subdued...for now.

I relax and submerse myself in the jihad of Imam Hussain (as), the struggle for the very life of Islam. My stomach is in knots and I am grieving and furious and sad and proud. I cry for the martyrs of Karbala and the survivors. I weep at the encompassing compassion that Imam Hussain (as) repeatedly displays for his friends and his enemies. He weeps on the battlefield, not for fear of death, but for the suffering his murderers will endure as punishment for their own evil actions. I rage at the tyranny, the brutality and the selfishness of Yazid (la) and his army (la). By the end of these two hours I am spent.

My husband finishes speaking and my son runs to him. Baba sweeps him up and we exit. I go to the car and wait, and wait, and wait. I wonder where the husband is. I put the baby in her sling and return to the mosque. A procession is being held. The men will march together like the army of Hussain (as). I figure he must have decided to participate. It is unusual for him; he does not like group displays of emotion, but ashura moves us in unusual directions.

I walk downstairs to the crowd of women waiting on either side of the hallway for the procession to begin. It's hot despite the cool night air rushing in with the ever opening door. The women are a dramatic site, a sea of black-clad, red-eyed women and girls chatting in breathy Farsi and sharp Urdu, subdued by grief for a common ancestor. Imam Hussain (as) lives, because we remember. We are steadfast Zaynab's (as) with the world on our shoulders, mourning Sukayna's determined to persevere.

The crowd grows gradually silent. Our attention is turned to the left. In the distance stand the men, their voices barely audible. Slowly, carrying black flags adorned at the top with the symbolic hand of Fatima (as) they work their way down the hall. I am looking for my husband and son. I see my blond husband carrying our honey-brown son. His small head relaxed against his father's strong shoulder. He is such a beautiful child, and the night has been so long. My husband gently pats our son's back keeping in tune with the rhythm of the mourning poem. Despite the dramatic and unfamiliar displays of emotion (this is his first ashura) my son is comforted by the motion and the repetition. I wonder how and if he will remember these moments, wrapped in the security of a father's tenderness, while surrounded by heartfelt lamentations and love for Imam Hussain (as).

My husband is the only Arab in a river of Iranians and Indians. I know that he is not used to being a minority. This ritual has always been his. He has walked the streets of Beirut in a deluge of grief, mourning for Imam Hussain (as), mourning for humanity. Now is he is in a droplet of the shi'a world's annual shedding of tears and he is doing it in a language that he does not understand. My pridefulness swells. "Now he knows what its like" I think. Now, for am inute he gets a taste of what it means to be a convert; to be tribeless,ever a minority,. But, blood and pain do not belong to Americans, Indians, Iranians or Arabs, they belong to humanity and that is why we can each cry and beat our chests to the rhythm of urdu and farsi lamentations. We know the story because it is an integral part of our shi'a heritage, we feel the pain because we are human, it inspires us and renews us because we love God.

I started to look for the sheikh. He is always so calm, so sincere and reserved. Even when he speaks passionately his refined Iranian decorum never leaves him. I wanted to see him without the reserve, his emotions displayed. But, he passed along, perspiring, his turban pushed back to reveal a swirl of salt-and pepper loveliness atop his grandfatherly head. He beat his chest in tune with the poem. He was clearly moved, but reserved his emotional resevoirs likely low from the powerful recounting of the death of baby Ali Asghar (as) given moments before.

I watched as our men cried. Yes, at that moment they were our men. Through the blood of Imam Hussain (as) we were transformed from strangers into family. Indian and Iranian, Lebanese and American, Pakistani and Iraqi, they party of Imam Ali (as) a universal tribe.

One man in particular caught my eye. His name means "the hand of God". It is an awe inspiring name. I have always admired names like Spirit of God and Hand of God, yet I shy from giving them to my children, how could they ever live up to them?

Brother "hand of God" is not the image of fire and brimstone that his name might conjure. He is "hand of the merciful". He is a gentle man with contagious effervesence. He radiates calm, joyful energy even when he is rushed and focused. In this moment, though, he was transformed. He became Asadollah, The Lion of God.

He stood, short statured and powerful in the center of the men. A slender man recited the noha behind him as the men to his sides and front cried and passionately struck their chests. Brother Asadollah, the humble warrior whose desire to be with Imam Hussain radiated from his very pores. I know that at that moment he would gladly stand in the desert sun to take the cutting blows of gleaming blades and die for his Imam (as) . I wonder what was in his heart that was powerful enough to transform him. Was he, at that moment, Abbas (as) risking his own life to bring water to thirsty children? Brother Hand of God, as you beat your chest in love and grief did you hear the cries of thirsty Sukayna (as) "Al Atash, Al Atash, Ya Allah Al Atash?"Did you know that we saw you and we understood your mighty roar and we knew that it would tremble the army of Yazid (la)?

Tonight in the personal jihad of every congregant, in the quiet mourning of an Iranian sheikh, the passionate love expressed by brother "Hand of God,"
the devotion of a Lebanese man and the observations of an American woman, centuries after Ashura and a million miles from Karbala the message of Imam Hussain's great grandson, Imam Ja'far As Sadiq came to life: Kulli Yawmun Ashura, Wa kulli Ardun Karbala. Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala.

Muharram in Bahrain

Salaam Ailaikum

has been covering Muharram in Bahrain, and has some great photographs, and articles.

Here is one of his recent entries, and a photograph - thanx Chan'ad!

I think I was about 5 or 6 years old when I first heard the story of Karbala. My dad's car needed something fixed so he took me with him to one of the garages on Budaiya Highway near Al-Qadam (there's a whole row of them). While the car was being fixed me and my dad stepped outside, and after a while he pointed to the signboard of a neighbouring garage (pictured above) and asked me if I knew what "Karbala" means. I said I didn't, so he proceeded to tell me.

He gave me the abridged version: The Prophet's grandson went to face the army of the evil Yazid in the battlefield of Karbala, on the bank of the Euphrates. There Imam Hussain and his companions were denied water, and then mercilessly massacred. I remember him telling me something about Abbas and Sakeena (Sukaina) but I can't remember what exactly. My father delivered the story to me in a few minutes and that was it. That was all I was told about Karbala by anyone for maybe 10 years. In all of my useless Islam classes, or books about Islam that my parents gave me, I don't think I ever heard the word Karbala being mentioned. There was praise for Imam Hussain and "Bibi" Fatima, but nothing about what happened at Karbala.

During my childhood though I do recall my father frequently getting into discussions about Karbala with his friends and elder family members. It seems that their generation knew much more about it than my generation. While I was at college I also noticed that Urdu literature and music before the 80s was filled with references to Karbala, written and enjoyed by Shias and Sunnis alike. And about a year ago while discussing the recent Shia-Sunni violence in Pakistan with my father, he told me that when he was growing up in Pakistan it was quite normal for Sunnis to attend the Muharram majalis and processions organized by Shias.

The change it seems came about during the Wahhabi/Salafi onslaught on Sunni Islam and, in the case of Pakistan especially, the proxy wars played out by Saudi Arabia and post-revolution Iran in the 80s. I don't know enough about how the Shia side responded, but certainly among Sunnis there was a growing tendency to try to distance themselves from their newly found foes. Under the guise of a quest for the "true" Islam, many Sunnis begam to sternly disapprove of anything that resembled a Shia ritual, regardless of any inherent value it may or may not have. And so it seems that today much of the Sunni world has all but forgotten the Tragedy that took place in Karbala.

So my aim during this period is for me, as a Sunni (that's what I'm told I am), to be able to reclaim Karbala. Just in the same way that the stories of Jesus leave an important message for all humanity, so too do those of Hussain and Karbala (and there are many similarities in the interpretations of the suffering of Jesus and Hussain). For there still exist in all corners of the world today people who are oppressed at the hands of modern day Yazids. In the words of the late great Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi:

O Josh, call out to the Prince of Karbala [Hussain],
cast a glance at this twentieth century,
look at this tumult, chaos, and the earthquake.
At this moment there are numerous Yazids,
and yesterday there was only one.
From village to village might has assumed the role of truth,
Once again, Human feet are in chains.

And that provides one way of understanding the famous words of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq:

Every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala
Click here to read more of Chan'ad Muharram coverage!

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Fasting for Ashura from the perspective of the Maliki madhab

(originally written February 9, edited and slightly revised)

What is said about fasting for Ashura within the Maliki school of thought? I tried to go down this avenue, but it didn't lead to much. It's rather difficult to find anything translated into English here, but I am working from two key sources found online: The Risala of 'Abdullah ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani and Al-Muwatta' by Imam Malik ibn Anas . Both are found through Aisha Bewley's website. (the links will take you to the page i'm pulling the information from).

So, actually, not much is said about it. This hadith, found in Al-Muwatta', kinda relates the origins of the optional fasting during Ashura:

Yahya related to me from Malik from Hisham ibn 'Urwa from his father that 'A'isha, the wife of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "The Day of 'Ashura' was a day the Quraysh used to fast in the Jahiliyya, and the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, used also to fast it during the Jahiliyya. Then when the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, came to Madina he fasted it and ordered that it be fasted. Then Ramadan was made obligatory, and that became the fard instead of 'Ashura', but whoever wanted to, fasted it, and whoever did not want to, did not fast it."
[cf Bukhari 1898]

And from the Risala:

Voluntary fasting is desirable. It is desirable to fast the day of 'Ashura', the month of Rajab, the month Sha'ban, the day of 'Arafa and the Day of Tarwiyya. Fasting the Day of 'Arafa is better for someone not performing hajj than for the one on hajj.

[ This is fasting at times when it is not forbidden to fast. It is better explained by the words of the Almighty, "The steadfast will be paid their wages in full without any reckoning." (39:10) Steadfastness is explained as meaning fasting.

'Ashura' is the 10th of Muharram.

[Hash: It is desirable to fast it based on what Muslim transmitted that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said when he was asked about fasting the Day of 'Arafa. He said, "It expiates the past and future year." He was asked about fasting 'Ashura' and said, "It expiates the past year."]

This basically told me the same thing I learned by the earlier searches. It's recommended but not obligatory to fast, with the past year of sin wiped away. No mention of the events at Karbala.

So, that really didn't get anywhere, at least in terms of spiritual development. My next project is to take the historical retellings of Karbala and view it through three different viewpoints: A Shi'ite history, a Sunni history, and the Western textbook history and take a look at the similarities and differences of how it is viewed. Hey, I'm an anthropologist and am very wary of any possibility of "revisionist" history.

What is this month called Muharram (and this day called Ashura)?

(originally written on February 9)

Muharram is coming up, and as a 7-month old Muslim, I really have no clue what it really means. Surfing around blogistan allowed me to see that it is of some importance. I think I even remember last year, in my pre-Islamic days, that my man said he was going to fast on Ashura. Anyways, I decided to explore this month a little more.

Before I move on, if I say anything offensive, please let me know, because it's probably out of ignorance more than intentions. So, in advance, please accept my humble apologies.

With that out in the open, I must confess that I am Sunni, following the Maliki madhab. Now, I'm saying this because most of the blogs I read in blogistan & I assume most of the bloggers who come and read me are Shi'ites. I think this almost comes to prove that there are enough similiarities between Sunnis and Shi'ites that the divide can be bridged. We can profit by learning about/from each other. Actually, don't think of me as a Sunni, only as a sister in faith. We are all trying to find our way to God, in our unique ways, and there's always room for slight variations along that path.

With this in mind, I started off to learn what the month of Muharram, the day of Ashura, and the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala mean to me, as a Sunni.

One of the first things I did was to google "Ashura" and see if any Sunni-runned sites mentioned Ashura. Some did. Mostly it has to do with a hadith that said the Prophet (pbuh) fasted on the 9th and 10th day of Muharram. This is what IslamiCity.com had to say about fasting during those days...

When the Prophet settled in Madinah, there was a large Jewish community there. He noticed that the Jews fasted on the 10th of Muharram. He asked them the purpose of their fasting. They said that that was the date when Allah saved the Prophet Moses from a great danger. The Prophet said that he (and the Muslims) were closer to Moses than the Jews. He fasted that day. He continued to fast on the 10th of Muharram as a voluntary worship until the year when he passed away. That year he said : "If I live till next year, I will fast on the 9th of Muharram". This meant that he would be fasting on the 9th and 10th of that month. Most probably the reason for this was that he wanted to distinguish his fasting in Muharram from that of the Jews, although the reason for fasting is the same. Perhaps I should add that fasting in Muharram has nothing to do with the events that led to the martyrdom of Al-Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet. That was an event that took place at a time when nothing could be added to our religion or our practices.

Ok, so fasting has nothing to do with the events at Karbala according to the Sunni scholars. But shouldn't we remember the great Muslims who died fighting for justice? Shouldn't we learn from their examples? Did they die in vain? If I go the mosque, would I hear of Hussein's martyrdom and his example? Probably not at my mosque. Sad, isn't it.

Seeking the Karbala within

It has been two or three years since I've attended a Muharram talk/majalis in Urdu. For the past couple of years, I've had a Shia masjid just minutes from where I live, and they've had a wonderful resident scholar who gave talks in English.

This year, the masjid close to me has their program in a language I don't quite understand, and so I've been going to an Urdu majalis. And, I must say - these talks have been very insightful. The topics have been about journeying within, knowing one's self, and based on a saying attributed to Imam Ali: "Do you consider yourself to be a small body? While the great cosmos is contained in you?"

Not only do we have this cosmos contained within, we also have this spirit of Allah that was blown within us - what incredibly amazing beings we humans are! And truly, how sad - that we can be so cruel towards ourselves.

We experience such grief, and feel such a deep loss when we listen to how the Imam, his family, and companions were treated in Karbala.

But what about Yazeed - why was he such an abject person, so as to inflict such cruelty? Perhaps the answer lies in that first part of Imam Ali's hadith: "Do you consider yourself to be a small body?" - Perhaps Yazeed only saw this "small body," had not even the slightest knowledge about the spirit, or ruh.

The alim/scholar tonight mentioned how this ruh yearns for Allah, and can never be satisfied with this world (dunya).

As Maulana Rumi says in the mathnawi - the song of the reed's separation:

"Now listen to the reed-flute's deep lament
About the heartache being apart has meant:
'Since from the reed-bed they uprooted me
My song's expressed each human's agony..."

Perhaps, while we all have this ruh, this entire cosmos within, we must also listen. Without listening - all that appears is the body.

What do we listen to? Maulana Rumi says, listen to the deep lament --- perhaps, for those more psychologically inclined, a more contemporary word might be: conscience.

A person who refuses to listen to that "inner v
oice" "inner conscience" "that lamenting reed flute" --- perhaps, then such a person has no qualms about becoming a Yazeed. And what a terrible terrible state that would be!

How do we begin to listen to that part of ourselves that yearns for Allah? This is the work of "knowing one's self" - knowing that we have this ruh within. The scholar made an observation about the work of Irfan, or self-knowledge within the context of the ahle bayt, that what we have are the duas, or "prayer manuals" such as dua Kumayl, and the "Psalms of Islam." These help us towards a relationship with Allah, in a way that we can listen to that yearning within.

And inshallah, we might also find that space within that will help us through all of our fears that Leila and Sayoko talked about earlier in this blog. And, towards where we might find the strength of Imam Hussein, his family, and all his companions in Karbala.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Absence of Grief

About twenty years ago, I started training as a psychiatric nurse. It’s a training I never finished. In the 1980s, institututional psychiatry in the UK was still unapologetically authoritarian and even my white face didn’t fit. But I learned a great deal from my experiences and it changed my attitudes towards mental illness and mental health forever. It also left me with a number of presiding concerns over the nature of madness that remained unresolved until I discovered the ideas of Michel Foucault.

My mum died with her heart distant from human affection. My brothers claimed to dote on her, but in reality, she was a sideshow to their own careers and ambitions. I was no better, and I wish now I had done something to change things, but I didn't. How did this terrible situation come about? One of my brothers, fawning admirer of my father and scumbag that he is, use to call my mum a misanthropist. In truth, I believe her coldness was simply an expression of her own grief, the result of the most precious contact this quirky woman had with the world being cruelly severed. It's called divorce. When I was five years old, my father chose a respectable middle class teacher, the perfect adjunct to his managerial status, over my geeky, oddball, working class ma. My mum never remarried, and I believe that sense of profound loss never left her.

The martyrdom of Husayn seems very much a part of this story. For me, Husayn’s death is a reminder of how injustice destroys what is most precious – and for me, that was my own mother's love. Husayn's death evokes the remembered grief of my coming of age and the realisation that my middle class suburban world was cloaked in a numb veil, hiding me from a terrible illusion. As I began to explore my own family, the poor neighbourhoods of my own town, and the facts about poverty and oppression and conflict around the world, I experienced a deep shock which I have never got over. I suspect the quantity of drugs I put down my throat as a young man was an attempt to escape the grief of this awakening.

The history of a pure hearted man and his allies making a stand against injustice, against all odds, is one I readily understand and I long to realise. It poses my ultimate questions, the questions that may well be posed as I walk the sirat – are you for Reality or illusion? Are you for the comfort of your pampered surroundings, or for the cold hard facts – that this world is somewhere we are just passing through, and power and ambition is an illusion? Are you with those who playact Love or with the victims of greed and power? The English are full of muddling excuses for all this and I have yet to answer these questions as I should.

That is what I mourn this Muharram.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

This Ashoura...

This Ashoura is live from a place as vast as the continents and history itself. This is azadari from the hood, my hood of being an oppressed minority within an oppressed minority within an oppressed minority: Black, woman, Shi’a. It’s a wonder that I can raise my head and walk anywhere with dignity, what will all the centuries, all the thought and effort put into stripping me of my humanity.

I’m just a black woman trying to foment some revolution. I’m just a black woman trying to live this revelation and so today I offer an amal from the depths of history, from the depths of my soul.

As salaam alayka
Oh Grandma Hajar (as), Vanguard of the faith
Peace be upon you daughter of trial
She who faced the worst of her fears and overcame in the name of Allah.
Peace be upon you mother of faith,
A faith as strong as your powerful brown legs in the merciless Meccan sun.
Grandma Hajar we need your fortitude.
Damn those who bury your memory so that your granddaughters cannot find their way from the isolation of oppression.

As salaam alayka
Oh Grandma Khadija (as), Vanguard of the faith
Peace be upon you daughter of Khuwaylid,
She who gave all the comforts of the dunya, faced the trials of
humiliation and degradation.
Dearest grandmother we need your conviction.
Damn those who bury your memory so that your granddaughters cannot find their way from the weight of misogynist traditions.

As salaam alayka
Oh Mother of mothers, Vanguard of the faith
Peace be upon you daughter of the beloved of Allah (swt) and beloved of Allah in your own right.
Peace be upon you UmmAbiha, Fatima Az Zahra (as)
Be our spiritual guide through the murky valleys and peaked mountains of jihad an nafs.
Damn those who bury your memory so that your granddaughters cannot lift their heads from degradation.

As salaam alayka
Oh Grandma Zaynab, beloved Zaynab.
Peace be upon you oh mother of muqawama
Aren’t you the patron of the suffering, the archetypal matriarch,
The model for all survivors of horror and war?
Peace be upon you Daughter of Asadallah, Tharallah Imam Ali (as), beloved of Allah.
And you are beloved of Allah in your own right.
How many sisters in the land of Karbala see what you saw, and mourn as you mourned?
Do you weep for them, even now?
How many of your granddaughters stand on the roads of Karbala, having held the decapitated bodies of their dead brothers?
How many of your granddaughters grieve in the streets of Falluja screaming in grief over the small bodies of their sons as you grived for Aun and Muhammad?
Help us see the way through deserts of trial, through the sandstorms of doubt, to the pain and victory of Karbala.
Damn those who bury your memory so that your granddaughters forget what it means to resist.

As salam alayka
Oh nameless grandmother
Peace be upon you oh queen of survivors
You were humiliated, stripped bare, shackled, drenched in sweat and vomit and waste.
You crossed the Atlantic to a fate worst than death.
Damn those who captured you, who shackled you, who raped you,
who enslaved you and your granddaughters.
Bless you for having the strength to survive.

The spirit of Ashura is in each of you dear grandmothers, the blood of Hussain
pumps through all the fighters for freedom, in every land, every day.

Kull yawm ashura wa kulli ard karlaba. Everyday is Ashura, Every land is Karbala.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Salaam Ailaikum!

Each year, during the first 10-12 days of Muharram, the words Ya Hussain resonates within. I find myself drawn to remember Karbala, to remember Imam Husain, Ali Asghar the infant son of the Imam, Hur, and so many more.

At one level, remembering these events gives a sense of hope to an activist type like myself: here was an example, an archetype, of this ongoing struggle against injustice.

But, in someways, this would be limiting the meaning of Karbala - why is it that so many millions find themselves sobbing when they hear this story, year after year? Grown macho men, who would consider it so shameful to even shed a tear, break down uncontrollably, tears drenching their cheeks.

These tears cannot be understood at the level of "intellect" or "reason." Although, there are those who would attempt to rationalize away the emotions (Shias are feeling "guilty," or these men are just "showing off" to get a better standing in the community etc.)

This grief is at an emotional level, and points towards a much more deeper meaning of Karbala:

The poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal says:

Unto Love belongs the true believer,
and Love unto him
Love makes all things possible to us.

And, for Iqbal, this Love is the "Secret of the tragedy of Karbala."

The excerpt below is taken from one his epic poems "The Mystries of Selflessness" (Rumuz-i Bekhudi) tranlated by A.J. Arberry.

Concerning Muslim Freedom, and the Secret of the Tragedy of Kerbela

Whoever makes bond with the One
has been delivered from the yoke
of every idol.

Unto Love belongs the true believer, and Love unto him.
Love makes all things possible to us.

Reason is ruthless; Love is even more,
purer, and nimbler, and more unafraid.

Lost in the maze of cause and effect
is reason;

Love strikes boldly in the field
of action.

Crafty reason sets a snare;
Love overthrows the prey with strong right arm.

Reason is rich in fear and doubt; but Love
has firm resolve, faith indissouluble.

Reason constructs, to make a wilderness;
Love lays wide waste, to build all up anew.

Reason is cheap, and plentiful as air;
Love is most scarce to find, and of great price.

Reason stands firm upon phenomena,
But Love is naked of material robes.

Reason says, "Thrust thyself into the fore";
Love answers, "Try thy heart, and prove thyself."

Reason by acquisition is informed
Of other; Love is born of inward grace

And makes account with Self.

Reason declares, "Be happy, and be prosperous";
Love replies,"Become a servant, that you may be free."

Freedom brings full contentment to Love's soul,
Freedom, the driver of Love's riding-beast.

Have you not heard what things in time of war
Love wrought with lustful Reason?

I would speak of the great leader of all men who love
Truly the Lord, that upright cypress-tree
Of the Apostle's garden, Ali's son,

Whose father led the sacrificial feast
That he might prove a mighty offering;
And for the price of the best of men
The Last of the Apostles gave his back
To ride upon, a camel passing fair.

Crimsoned his blood the cheek of jealous Love
(Which theme adorns my verse in beauty bold)
Who is the sublime in our Community

As Say, the Lord is God exalts the Book
Moses and Pharoh, Shabber and Yazid-
From Life spring these conflicting potencies;

Truth lives in Shabbir's strength;
Untruth is that fierce, final anguish of regretful death.

And when the Caliphate first snapped its thread
From the Koran, in Freedom's throat was poured
A fatal poison; like a rain-charged cloud

The effulgence of the best of peoples rose
out of the West, to spill on Kerbela,

And in that soil, that was before, a desert,
Sowed, as he died, a field of tulip-blood.

There, till the Resurrection, tyranny
Was evermore cutoff; a garden fair
Immortalizes where his lifeblood surged.

For Truth alone his blood dripped to dust,
Wherefore he has become edifice
Of faith in God's pure Unity.

Indeed had his ambition been for earthly rule,
Not so provisioned would he have set forth
On his last journey, having enemies
Innumerable as the desert sands,
Equal his friends in number to God's Name.

The mystery that was epitomezed
In Abraham and Ishmael through his life
And death stood forth at last in full revealed.

Firm as a mountain-chain was his resolve,
Impetuous, unwavering to its goal.

The Sword is for the glory of the Faith
And is unsheathed but to defend the Law.

The Muslim, servant unto God alone,
Before no Pharaoh cast down his head.
His blood interpreted these mysteries,
And waked our slumbering Community.

He drew the sword There is -none other god-
And shed the blood of them that saved the lie;
Inscribing in the wilderness -save God-

He wrote for all to read the exordium
Of our salvation.

From Husain we learned the riddle of the Book,
and at his flame kindled our torches.

Vanished now from ken Damascus' might, the splendour of Baghdad,
Granada's majesty, all lost to mind;

Yet still the strings he smote within our soul
Vibrate, still ever new our faith abides
In his Allahu Akbar.

Gentle breeze, thou messenger of them that are afar,
Bear these my tears to splash on his holy dust.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Fear Factor*

As a Japanese Muslim living in the U.S., I have observed with some interest a curious shift within some sections of the U.S. Muslim community for the past 5-6 years—especially after 9/11. For the lack of better words, I will call this shift as “Americanism”. What I mean is that all of a sudden, we are seeing more and more Muslims use the rhetoric that we are “American” Muslims--and stressing the fact that we are Muslims but also “Americans”. We see Muslim websites colored with red, blue and white with names like American Muslims, Muslim America etc. etc., underscoring the fact that we are Americans.

What I see is a subtle or blatant (depending on the way you look at it) nationalism or “Americanism” creeping into the Muslim ideology in this country--and to my surprise, not a lot of people seem to be alarmed by it. We would be, if this was happening in Japan among Japanese Muslims—I think we would be REALLY alarmed, if some “Japanese” Muslim websites pop up with Japanese flags on it. It is probably because we, Japanese have a different cultural and historical context in regards to nationalism. World War II taught Japanese a bitter lesson about the danger of nationalism (ironically, thanks to the U.S.), and we are, in general, hyper-alert to any tendency towards it. Most Japanese would cringe at the idea of any move towards nationalism—except in Olympic games, of course.

Going back to the topic, I believe that one of the reasons that this shift towards “Americanism” is occurring among the U.S. Muslims is because of fear. Islam and Muslims were never popular in the U.S. to begin with, and since 9/11, things have gotten much much worse. Now as Muslims, we face the fear of deportation, persecution, arrest, hate crimes, physical/personal attacks and insults as well as the cold rejection, stereotyping and prejudice from the mainstream society. As the U.S. government launches the war on terror, we Muslims are becoming more and more terrified. So, in order to protect and defend ourselves and our community, we jump to the first thing that may help—we try saying that we are also Americans and that under the U.S. constitution, we have the same rights just like anyone else. But have we forgotten what happened to and is happening to any other racial minorities in this country—Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics—and to Japanese Americans during World War II? And of course, we are all human, so we want to be accepted and are scared of rejection and abandonment. So we try saying to others in the mainstream society that we are also like you, we are not that different, because we are also “Americans”--and see if that’s going to go over well. It seems to be a very natural reaction to the danger we are facing as a community and as individuals but I wonder if this type of reaction really works.

What I have learned in my psychological work is that anything that stems from fear does not really work in the long run—except for some instinctive reactions to fearful situations that save our lives. What really seemed to help me was, first of all, to recognize the fear and accept that I felt scared. We cover up our fears in many ways and hide it behind our anger for example, as none of us really like to admit that we are scared. Then the next step was about facing the fear and digging deep within to find out what I was really scared of. If I could find out where that fear was really coming from and identify and resolve the issue thoroughly, the fear dissipated and did not return. Then the solution came easily and clearly. The solution by then would be proactive, not reactive, and I would be able to institute it not from a place of fear and panic but from a place of ease and inner freedom—in an ideal situation, that is.

So maybe, we might be able to perceive even a better way to deal with our current problem than “Americanism,” if we can only deal with our own “FEAR FACTOR” within ourselves and in our community—and this, I think would be much easier than eating cockroaches and minced rats like they do in FEAR FACTOR on TV.

*Fear Factor is a “Reality Show” where the participants are given fearful tasks, and compete against each other, the last person standing wins $50,000. If you want to be a contestant click here.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Israeli Aparthied Wall

The image “http://almusawwir.org/Security.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Stop The Wall Campaign

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib, a syndicated Muslim cartoonist based in Berkeley, CA

StudioBendib, All rights reserved.

For more Bendib cartoons, click www.bendib.com

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Current Context of the Islam, Democracy & Human Rights Discourse

A recent posting on ZMag and a more personal encounter with a friend that I have for long thought of as “progressive” and his decision to align himself with the new group which explicitly seeks to both market the USA to Muslims and market so-called Muslim interests to the USA administration has made me reflect anew about the importance of both the subjectivity, location and structural context of critical scholarship.

This is an importance widely acknowledged in post-colonial discourse, cultural studies, feminist studies and in liberation theology. In responding to these games of careerism – and as one also teaching in the academy here in the USA I am frantic about my own potential to be a more sophisticated cog in the same game of Butheleziism, or what one may describe here in North America as “house niggerism.” Perhaps now, “White House niggerism?” (Gatsha Buthelezi was a Black character – tribal chief – that the Apartheid regime had for years touted as the moderate answer to the ANC and Mandela)

For me, the question is “What is my context as a progressive African Muslim scholar?” Where is my authenticity located when I uncritically embrace the constructed intellectual and political categories and urgencies of others as my own and seek to re-define a fourteen hundred year old tradition – albeit an ever-changing one – in the face of external demands? (Even if these demands were generated by a complex array of factors wherein that tradition is not entirely innocent.)

As for my personal context, the questions of pluralism, gender justice, human rights, democracy etc, have for long been ones that I have been engaged with and with a sense of principled urgency that has its origins in a rather different context than the current dominant one. My own engagement with the South African liberation struggle and that of my comrades, my work as a Commissioner for Gender Equality for five years and my current work with Muslims who are living with HIV & AIDS have often infused many of those elsewhere who share our ideals with pride – a sense that Muslims can be part of a vision larger than obscurantist fundamentalism. It is, ironically, precisely this location of my own scholarship within a principled vision of a just world that makes me so profoundly suspicious of the dominant urgency to re-think Islam in ‘contemporary terms’.

We are witnessing – and participating in - an intense and even ruthless battle for the soul of Islam as the title of one of Gilles Keppel’s works “The War for Muslim Minds” (Harvard University Press, 2002) a ruthlessness that often escapes many of us who are keen to nurture and imagine a faith that is peaceful and compatible with the values of dignity, democracy and human rights.

For many non-Muslim Westerners who are driven by conservative ideological imperatives, Islam and Muslims have become the ultimate other. Many liberals, on the other hand, move from the assumption that “global harmonies remain elusive because of cultural conflicts” (Anouar Majid). Hence, the desperation to nudge Islam and Muslims into a more ‘moderate’ corner, to transform the Muslim other into a Muslim version of the accommodating and ‘peaceful’ self without in any way raising critical questions about that western self and the economic system that fuels the need for compliant subjects throughout the Empire.

Muslims too, are conflicted about their relationship with both “outsiders” as well as to the tradition of Islam and its ideals. The tensions of be-ing in a world wherein the vast majority of Muslims feel trapped between the demands imposed on them in their existences as subjects of the Empire on the one hand, and the violent convulsions of a fascist-like Islamically invoked response by the co-religionists on the other, are palpable. At every step of our encounter with our non-Muslim neighbours, colleagues, students and immigration officers those of us – committed or nominal Muslim, confessional or cultural - living or working in the West, have to justify our existences, our faith, our humanness and our non-violent intentions.

Declarations that Muslim societies must be democratised are fairly easy and there is no shortage of publications that argue against the idea that Muslim societies or Islam are inherently opposed to democracy or that Islam is compatible with democracy. The questions really are what does democracy really mean, what does the cover of democracy really hide, and what are the historico-political reasons for the “democracy deficit” in the first instance?

Islam, like every other religious tradition, is the product of both its heritage – itself the synthesis of ideas, beliefs and the concrete lived experience of the earlier Muslims and the way that heritage is interpreted by every generation. ‘Generations’ though is not a disaggregated, disembowelled, classless social category. It is thus impossible to speak about an Islamic synthesis for our age as if “our age” is valueless or interest-free. When we reflect on questions of democracy we must ask “for what and in whose interest?” The origins of the dominant urgency to re-articulate Islam in ways acceptable to the Empire must be interrogated if we are to come up with anything beyond adhoc accommodationist responses meant to placate the Empire or to smooth our existences or career advancement in the belly of the beast.

I am an African and, notwithstanding my own commitment to working with those living and dying with HIV & AIDS, it is not the reality of millions of deaths on this continent and millions more dying that forms the backdrop to my thoughts on some of the challenges facing Islamic thinking… My thoughts, instead, are shaped by a compulsion to ensure that all our theological questions and responses, all searches for an Islamic synthesis must be engaged through the prisms of the wounded Empire and premised on the culprit and his community’s - contrition. Democracy and accountability, human rights and gender justice … the urgency for all of these are palpable and the impression that it is all part of an attempt to humanize the barbarian is inescapable.

I am not suggesting that these are issues that have not been dealt with in Islamic scholarship before 11th of September 2001. I am concerned that the teacher with a formidable cane had sent all of us into a corner after one of our classmates sullied his new book or did something unspeakable in his coffee cup. Discerning a lack of complete and unqualified remorse – even some rejoicing – the entire class is now subjected to collective punishment. And so, all of us now have to write a thousand times, “I shall behave – I shall be democratic – I shall respect human rights – I shall be peaceful.” As it is, the class – Muslim societies - is a “remedial one” for “slow learners” and we are on probation. (Some of my classmates have successfully escaped into a much smaller but “real” class next door). Meanwhile, many of the other kids are dying around me. In the case of Africa and indeed in much of the Two-Third World, quite literally. We are living in a world where more than one 1.5 billion live on less than one dollar a half, where the gap between the lowest 20% and the top 20% of the word’s population has increased from a ratio of 1:30 in 1960 to 1:174 in 1997. Yet, my major project is to get into the good books of the teacher; to present myself as worthy of his acceptance, as different from the barbarian who did what he did.

Besides the immediate reality of the children dying around me, there are, of course, other realities around me including coercion, the irony of violence being used to impose a language of peace, the larger context of education and schooling which pretends to be ideology-less. Neither the elite nor the aspirant elites of our generation, so desperate to ‘succeed’ within the system, have ever been too interested to engage the works of thinkers such as Paul Goodman, Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Too tantalizing is the promise of entry into the domain of the establishment - subject to turning a blind eye to its inherent injustice, the demand for uniformity, the reduction of human beings to empty vessels to be moulded to serve a particular kind of society with particular economic needs, the transformation of insan in to homo aeconomicus.

Both traditional – particularly those aligned to the power structures of Muslim states - as well as modern Islamic scholarship are under enormous pressure to ensure that the dominant Islamic synthesis that emerges is one that fits into the immediate demands of the teacher. Just a few days after 11th of September, the National Post newspaper had a story titled “Globalization Is So Yesterday”. The immediate demands of the teacher had nothing to do with hunger, poverty, exploitation, socio-economic justice, HIV/AIDS and affordable treatment. Instead we were compelled to deal with madrassahs, Wahabism, the clash of civilizations, terrorism, Islam as peace…

In many ways, scholarly elites are represented by the student who is desperate to outdo his fellow students in appeasing the teacher. For these students threats are unnecessary; the promise of acceptance by the teacher and the concomitant material advantages are sufficient incentives. Despite the protestations of benign objectives of advancing education and learning, the teacher is there as part of larger project – a project that is politically unwise to interrogate; in an authoritarian system any moment spending “valuable” time on challenging teachers means losing marks … it is “unscholarly, it lacks intellectual depth, does not have the sang froid of true scholarship”… (Majid Annoaur)

As with the learners, the teacher is also not a disembowelled human being. He comes from the city and it is a village school. There are larger civilizational and ideological issues at stake, including understandings of development and its price, culture, the commodity value attached to people and land and the supremacy of supposedly rationalist forms of thinking. The issue of the teacher’s sullied cup represents only the sharper edge of the frustration, anger and agenda, the rise and march of the Reconstituted Empire. The larger context of this is globalization for which we require the intellectual courage and political will to also historicize and unravel its implications when we consider issues of human rights and democracy in relation to Islam today.

leadership : an islamic perspective



“We wished to be Gracious to those who were weak and oppressed in the land and elevate them to the position of leaders and inheritors of the land.”

God Almighty Allah and his last prophet (SAW) have made assuming responsibilities and positions of leadership incumbent upon Muslims. The Quran declared that the whole of humanity was created to the station of Khalifatullah. The prophet (Peace Be upon Him every time his name is mentioned in this paper) prescribes Amirship even in any situation where there are two or more Muslims in company, in a gathering or embarked on a specific activity. The collapse of the Khalifate robbed Muslims of a central institution and a symbol of power. It eroded the cohesive nature of the Muslim community and left them without effective leadership. The so-called Muslim State became but a carbon copy of the Westphalian nation-state, and its political leadership became more and more detached from the ideological and practical framework of the Quran and The Sunnah. According to Abdul Wahl Hamid (1989:114) a Muslim leader should be:

· God-Conscious (Mutaqi) and having respect for and a commitment to uphold the moral and legal code of Islam, the Sharia.
· Knowledgeable in the Sharia, especially its main concerns its values and principles to be able to deal with the issues as they arise on the basis of sound knowledge. In addition, he should have competent and specialist advisers also rooted in the knowledge of the Sharia
· Having appropriate mental and physical ability such as courage, sagacity, and strength in addition to personal qualities that would inspire trusty and confidence in people
· Responsive to the needs of the people.

Hamid notes that often the political leaders of Muslims have their roots in alien, hereditary or nepotistic practices that have no sanction in Islam, and are often at odds with the scholars of the community. He therefore suggests that that the ideal situation is for leaders to be scholars and for scholars to be leaders, actively involved in political processes. Currently the Sheiks, Imams and the ulema bodies dominantly play a leadership role mostly confined to spiritual and personal matters, often ignoring broader community, ideological and developmental issues. Islamic institutions and organizations should play their role in presenting a comprehensive understanding of Islamic leadership that capacitates the entire Muslim community to take leadership on broader community and world issues.

For instance, within the context of Azania \ South Africa Muslims should take a center stage in the efforts towards national reconciliation, nation-building, moral regeneration, cultural reclamation, and socio-economic reconstruction. It is therefore important that the leadership training programs and broader education mechanisms of the Islamic organizations and institutions should move from a value-neutral model that emphasizes rule-following to a qualitative value-based model that put emphasis on higher order mental skills which includes understanding and critical thinking.

An emphasis should be placed on experiential, exposure and activity-based learning that engages participants in worthwhile activities that creates learning, discovery and rediscovery moments for them. Discovery-inquiry, dialogical, interactive and experiential approaches to learning are more appropriate to follow in an Islamic leadership training program than the teacher-centered, rote learning, recall and regurgitation methods. Group discussions, group tasks, collective brainstorming and evaluation of the program by the participants as well as collective identification of the issues and strategies to deal with those issues will go a long way in inculcating a sense of leadership among individuals involved in a leadership program. Allocation of duties, tasks and responsibilities to all participants in the program provide worthwhile, learning and discovery moments for the participants.


There are a variety of theories on leadership, with various definitions of leadership and explanations of the different models and styles of leadership, traditional leadership, charismatic leadership, legislative leadership, liberal and autocratic styles of leadership, and so on. These theories examine the means, processes and procedures by which people assume positions and roles of leadership as well as the means, processes and procedures by which the ruling receive the consent of the ruled. In other words, they focus on the means and processes by which the authority of the leader receives popular acceptance and legitimacy. The questions raised are whether people inherit or are appointed or elected to positions and roles of leadership or whether the skills, attributes, characteristic and personalities of leadership are inborn, acquired or learnt.

This leads to questions about the relationship between creed, race, gender, tribe, class or social strata and leadership or whether family and social upbringing, biological, genetic, socio-cultural and environmental factors or individual initiatives are the determinants of leadership abilities. Some of the questions raised by the various theories on leadership are:
· Where does leadership start? Are leaders born or made? Is leadership a matter of fate, choice or calling?

· What makes a leader? Society, culture, the family, upbringing, and education? Are leaders self-made?

· How do we define a leader? What is the difference between a leader and a manager?
· What are the principles and etiquette of leadership?

· What are the characteristics and qualities of a leader? What are the skills required in leadership? What are the issues involved in leadership?
All the questions raised above are an attempt to gain knowledge about leadership as a concept and a phenomenon so that one can begin to utilize that knowledge about leadership in his or her attempt to assume the position and role of leadership. It is easier to assume the position and role of leadership when you know what leadership entails.

The same goes for assuming the responsibility of being a propagator of the faith, a teacher, social worker, trade unionist, and so on and so forth. An educator has to equip himself with knowledge about education as a concept, phenomenon and a discipline and practice, the daee has to have knowledge on Dawah and the trade unionist has to empower himself or herself with knowledge on trade unionism and the issuers involved in trade unionism.
In other words, the teacher should find and be the answer to the question, what is a teacher? What is teaching? The trade unionist must know about trade unionism and being a trade unionist. The key word here is knowledge.

The focus of that knowledge is the individual and his or her world – the self. Knowledge of the self and the world! For me this is what sum up leadership. Self knowledge and knowledge about the world around is the foundation and cornerstone of leadership and is -at the same time- the subject and object of leadership. Actually, knowledge is the foundation of everything. The prophet Muhammed (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be showered Upon Him every time his name is mentioned in this booklet) said “ Whoever wants to inherit the here-now world (Dunniya), let him go and get knowledge (study, learn) for it. Whoever wants to inherit the hereafter (Aakhira), let him go and get knowledge (study, learn) for it. And whoever want both the world an the hereafter let him go and get knowledge for it.” The Qur’an pose the rhetoric question to men and women with discerning minds;” Are those in the know and those who do not know the same?” As it is the case with any other thing you can think of, the foundation to leadership is knowledge and the beginning is self-knowledge and self-mastery. After a careful scrutiny of the various definitions of leadership and a critical reading of the Quran and ahadith as well as a microscopic analysis of the world in which we live, I have arrived at the following definition of leadership:

“Knowing, understanding, accepting and coming to terms with yourself and taking responsibility to better yourself and your world, understanding, accepting, tolerating others, and empowering, enabling others to come to terms with themselves and to learn to take responsibility for bettering themselves and their environment.”

From this definition it is succintly clear that assuming a leadership position and role should starts with knowing yourself and the world in which you live. It should proceed with getting in touch with the people and being part of their world so that you may help them to assume the responsibility of changing themselves and their world.

One can never have complete self-knowledge and self-appreciation without a thorough grasp and comprehension of his or her origin, inalienable and intrinsic nature of humanity and its purpose in life –the reason and object of human existence.

From the Qurannic story of the creation of the human being and various verses of the Qur’an and various ahadith we learn that:

¨ Humanbeings come from a single non-gendered entity or being called “soul” \ Nafs and from it were created man and woman. From the two emerged different nations and tribes who constitute a single human family, the most favored component of which is the family of believers in God Almighty Allah- whose ultimate criterion for perfection and excellence is God-Consciousness \ Taqwa and righteousness.
· Human beings were created in the noblest of all forms, wrapped in godly attributes that they should be the Khilafat \ Viceroys of God Almighty Allah on earth.
· The ultimate purpose of human beings in life is that they should manifest Godly attributes through their righteous deeds, godly character, and wholesome surrender to His will.
· Human beings are INTRINSICALLY imbued with godly, positive, optimistic, creative, constructive attributes, and have been blessed with the gift of intellect and choice. Human beings can decide their reality and their world by the choices, decisions and actions they take, and can use their intellect to build or to destroy, to purify or corrupt their souls and their environment, to better or to worsen themselves and their world.

To sum it all, all human beings are capable of assuming a leadership position and role in the world, because the whole of humanity was created for the purpose of being Allah’s representatives on earth. It is therefore incumbent upon individuals to assume positions and roles of responsibility and leadership for the sake of humanity and creation. This is a part and parcel of Jihad, striving in the path of Allah-which is compulsory upon all Muslims. Muslims have no choice but to assume leadership, because they have a compulsory mission to enjoin people to doing good and forbid wrongdoing.


The first step to assuming leadership and making others assume positions and roles of leadership is to know that human beings are intrinsically good, positive, creative, constructive and optimistic beings imbued with the Godly qualities of Truth, (Haq) Love, Mercy and Compassion (Rahma), Justness etc.

It is the environment and the choices that people make within and about their environment that decides whether they are leaders or victims of the situation and slaves and captives to the environment. To take the choice between being imprisoned to the environment and being an agent of change one has to know the intrinsic beauty and dynamic, internal strength and power with which he or she is imbued with by virtue of being a human being, and try to recognize the same in others.
In other words, s\he has to struggle to ensure that the forces of positivity and optimism within him or her and others overpower and subdue the forces of negativity and optimism. All the attributes, characteristics and skills of leadership are within reach and grasp of every human being through self-knowledge, self-examination, self-development and self-mastery as well as a critical reading, understanding and interrogation of the immediate environment and the world around and other Humanbeings.

Some people are born or grow in a family, academic and socio-cultural, organizational environment well disposed towards the development of these attributes, characteristics and skills or have outward personalities that easily facilitate their assumption of leadership roles and responsibilities. Others do not have the same.

Nevertheless, no human being is trapped to a social, economic or political the position or condition in which he or she find himself. By virtue of the gift of intellect and choice a human being can bring changes to himself or herself and his environment. It all starts with the choice to better one’s character, personality, behavior, and actions, and to improve his or her talents and skills. This includes the choice to discover and rediscover some of the traits, characters, skills, talents and abilities which you seem to be lacking. Lacking something is a mental state and not a physical state. Whatever you lack can be gained. It all starts in the mind. In short, leadership is a matter of choice, decision and action. You choose to discover, rediscover and develop your leadership abilities. You decide to assume your leadership position and role and your take action within the leadership role or position you have assumed or have accepted after it was offered to you. Yes, leadership can also be assumed on the basis of an opportunity offered and presented to someone to lead. Opportunities have to be availed and presented for people to take leadership positions. The conducive environment should be created for people to assume leadership and act in their leadership roles and positions.
However the choice and decision to assume leadership and act in the leadership role and position offered, presented to a person is an individual choice and decision, and relies on the actions of the individual. The family, society, community and organizational environment are not the decisive factors in deciding \ making leaders. There is a leader in all of us. All that we have to do is to unearth the intrinsic leadership and creative virtues, qualities and attributes lying within us.
Knowing ourselves and coming to terms with the lighter and darker sides of our past and present, and getting in touch with our inwards and outwards strengths and weaknesses.


To assume leadership responsibility you have to learn to know, understand and accept yourself as you are. You have to take responsibility for changing those aspects of your behavior and personality that can be changed and be at home with part of yourself that does not have to be changed or is difficult to be changed. You have to learn to know, understand, accept and tolerate others as they are and be non-judgmental about part of themselves which cannot be reconciled with your own values and viewpoint.

Self-knowledge is the foundation of leadership. Self-knowledge results in self-assertion, self-confidence and self-actualization. Self-knowledge prepares you to reach out to others. Self-knowledge prepares you to seek knowledge about the world around you. Self-knowledge prepares you to seek knowledge about others. Leadership begins with the knowledge about oneself and the environment \ world and proceeds with the radiation and use of that knowledge to change one’s conditions and the world for the better.


In his Islam –the Natural Way, Abdul Wahl Hamid asserts that the acquisition of knowledge is the first and most crucial obligation on the individual because correct knowledge is the foundation of correct action, and false and partial knowledge leads to wrong and disastrous conduct. Knowledge can be false or true, harmful or useful. Useful knowledge includes:

1. Knowledge of the creator
2. Knowledge of humankind and its functioning that will bring it closer to the creator. Such knowledge is related to Ibadaah \ Worship
3. Knowledge of nature which has been made subservient to humanity. This includes knowledge of the physical sciences, the use of reason, observation and experimentation to find out how the world works, to gain knowledge of astronomy for navigation, agriculture, animal husbandry, medical sciences, oceanography for benefiting from the seas and so on.
4. Knowledge of history and geography as we are told in the Quran to travel through the earth and see what has been the fate of earlier peoples and civilizations.
5. Knowledge of the role of the prophets and in particular the last and final messenger of God Almighty Allah, upon whom be Peace, and
6. Knowledge of what is right and wrong. Such knowledge is tiled to aakhlaq or ethics and moral values, and underpins the pursuit and practice of all knowledge.

Our fulfillment of our human and leadership role depends heavily on:
· The type of knowledge we acquire
· The sources and the ways we depend on to acquire knowledge.
· The purpose for which we use the knowledge
Knowledge can be acquired for the sake of power, which in turn can be used for dominance and result in arrogance and tyranny (Knowledge + Power + Arrogance = Tyranny.) On the other hand knowledge can be pursued and practiced with modesty and humility and lead to beauty and dignity, freedom and justice. (Knowledge + Power + Ethics =Justice and freedom. In Islam, the practice of knowledge is connected to ethics and morality –with the purpose of promoting virtue and combating vice, enjoining right and forbidding wrong…. Amr bi-l ma’ruuf wa nah –y’anil munkar.) (Hamid. 1989:27 –28) This is the understanding that should ground your quest for and use of knowledge.


In striving for excellence in leadership and everything you do you have to have a model and example on the basis of which you strive for improvement and progress in your leadership and general life. Every writer \ leader \ thinker has one or two writers \ thinkers \ leaders s\he emulates and receive inspiration from. Whether it is in the field of arts, literature, politics, and economics, etc, human beings need models and examples to be able to come as near as possible to perfection in what they are doing.

The secret to efficient leadership for a Muslim can not but be to emulate and draw inspiration from the leadership and overall personality and lifestyle of the best of examples- prophet Muhammed (PBUH). Asked about the personality and character of the prophet Aisha (May Allah be pleased with her proclaimed “His character was the Quran”. The Quran says, you have in the prophet of Allah the best of examples”.

The prophet (PBUH) said” I was but sent to show humanity the best of characters.”

Some of the major characteristics and principles of leadership that can be deduced from a careful look and examination of the prophet’s leadership and general lifestyle are:
¨ Putting Allah at the center of your life, complete trust in Allah.
¨ The relentless quest for truth, knowledge and justice.
¨ Simplicity, Humility and Self-sacrifice and Compromise for the greater cause. (The example from the signing of the treaty of Hudaiybiya).
¨ Compassion, forgiveness and tolerance (The example of the prophet’s treatment of the woman who used to swear and throw him with objects, etc.)
¨ SABR and insightful vision, looking at the bigger picture (The example from the prophet’s response in the face of persecution at TAIF, etc.)
¨ Subjecting your opinion to the broader mutual counseling and consultation.


It is not accident that the first revelation to the prophet was a command towards reading and reciting as an acknowledgement and celebration of the gift of speech and the use of the pen that Allah blessed humanity with. Knowledge is largely accumulated, acquired and spread by reading, writing and speaking \ reciting. In the world in which we live what you read is very important to your direction in life.
The phrase, “You are what you read” is more than a cliché. Read broadly but make sure that you spend most of your time with books that provide you with inspiration and guidance on how to live your life, and empower you with leadership and other skills. Fall in love with the works of at least one inspiring writer, thinker and scholar. Most importantly, live your life with the Qur’an. Read it with contemplation and strive to understand and put to practice its message. Khuram Murad’s Way to the Quran is one of the books I have personally found to be of great help in my efforts to live with and by the Quran. Abdul Wahl Hamid offers the following advice and hints to following the Quran:

· When you hear God Almighty Allah’s name and His attributes , your heart should be filled with awe, gratitude , love and other appropriate feelings
· When you read of God’s messengers , your heart should have the urge to follow them , and an aversion for those opposed to them
· When you read of the Day of judgment, your heart should long for paradise and tremble at the very thought of hell-fire.
· When you read of disobedient persons and nations that went astray and earned God’s punishment, you should intensely dislike being as they were.
· When you read of the righteous whom God loves and rewards, you should be eager to be like them.

· When you read of promises of good and honor in this world, of forgiveness and mercy, Allah’s pleasure and the hereafter, let your heart be filled with a desire to work for them and to deserve them.
· When you read of those who are indifferent to the Quran, and who turn away from it and who do not accept it or do not live by it, you must fear lest you be one of them, and resolve not to be.
· When you hear summons to obey God Almighty Allah and strive in His way, you should be determined to respond and achieve the peace and happiness that comes from responding. (Hamid 1989:31)

Reading the works of great scholars, thinkers is like walking in the company of great minds, and living your life with and by the Quran is like walking in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammed (PBUH)- The best of examples. Engage in constant thikrullah \ Remembrance of Allah. If praying is talking to God, and meditation is listening to God, then constant Thikrullah (Remembrance of God Almighty Allah) is like seeing God Almighty Allah, which is, living your life as if you see Allah.


Put Allah at the center of your life and making Him the subject and objective of your existence and the reason behind everything you do. In other words, take you leadership and community activities as well as everything you do as part of the steps you take in the journey towards God Almighty Allah. Let your striving for excellence in what you are doing be a conscious and deliberate, concerted effort to wrap yourself in the 99 all-noble attributes and all-beautiful names of Allah. Let it be part of your endeavors to lead and live your life in accordance with the teachings and lifestyle of the prophet (P.B.UH) Let the light of Muhammed be manifest in your exemplary leadership and general lifestyle.

The prophet is reported to have said “Pray as I pray.” To paraphrase him in the context of leadership I will say “Lead as the prophet led.” Most importantly, let’s all make an effort and ask Allah to help us to live as the prophet (Allah’s Blessings and Peace Be Upon him) lived.

* Presented at the leadership workshop jointly hosted the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa and the Islamic Students Forum at Durban Institute of Technology, Steve Biko Campus in 2003.