A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

Category: Interfaith

Faith & Belief

People of faith, whatever they believe in, and whichever religion they follow, often go through life experiencing existential crises. Their relationship to faith has its own cycles of ebbs and flows. This does not mean they stop believing. They have to find other ways to continue their relationship and connect with the Divine. For Muslims, Ramadan is the month to renew your relationship with the Almighty.

My mother gradually introduced me to fasting. It started with the infant “birdie” fast which would be 1 day during the weekends. Usually I would have breakfasts in the morning and be allowed to drink liquid and then eat properly later in the evening. I kept my first proper fast when I was in 5th grade and it was always a weekend event. When I started at the International School in Copenhagen I had Pakistani school fellows. When I found out they were all fasting, it just became a normal thing to do. During Ramadan, my fellow Pakistani school fellows and I would have a little communion with each other everyday during the month, and enquire about each other’s fast.

Just for your information, Danes are a very peculiar nation. If they like you, they will never make an issue of your ethnicity or religion affiliations, but accept these colourful aspects as part of your identity. If, for some reason they dislike you, even if they adore, admire and respect your family; you are pretty much on your on your own. Nevertheless, just like in the Muslim world they dislike educated women- at least in my experience- similarly even racists can have a strong sense of humanity and empathy. When I joined my graduating class in high school, Ramadan would be one source of many stimulating conversations.

In Ramadan, you come to understand that eating is an unconscious act. It is a force of nature. During one of my first proper fast, my mother and I went to the post office. By the cash counter were big charity jars of old fashioned boiled candies. I asked my mom to buy me a candy, and I would pack it in a tissue and keep it in my pocket. She was sure I would forget and just eat it, and I ascertained her I would remember. As soon as I got the candy out of the jar, I forgot I was fasting and without thinking put the candy in my mouth. Initially my mom just gave me her incredulously nasty look as if saying:

“I can’t believe what you just did!”

She kept staring at me and when she had finished her transaction I said:

“ what are you looking at me for? You’re staring at me as if I’ve done something wrong.”

Adding a few parental abusive insults she said

“ ….because you have done something wrong! You Devil’s fiend, you made an intention to fast this morning, and just now, you assured me you wouldn’t eat that candy and yet you did…I’m so disappointed in you.”

Immediately I spat out the candy, apologising profusely. Nevertheless, my mother kept claiming I did it on purpose and I was the Devil’s creation and would roast in Hell for this transgression, never to be forgiven.

Even though I grew up seeing my parents practicing Islam, I always considered it such a chore because there were all these strict rules and regulations to follow. It is especially unnerving when everyone around you are celebrating something as colourful as Easter, Christmas, New Year, and eating pork, or cakes, pastries or other delicacies made with lard or pork gelatine. Not to mention adhering to socially constructed, hypocritical, gendered behaviours, which have nothing to do with religion, but only require common sense, a lot of communication and mutual trust. Yet, my parents have always been very particular about illustrating to us what being a practicing Muslim implies. It is a constant struggle and a difficult road to navigate. Yet, there is much solace in making the effort.

The hypocrisy is just something you have to accept as given. Everyone will judge the woman harsher than the man because she is the root of the family. Even if a man has children born out of wedlock with other women, since he is a man, he is only answerable to the Almighty. Nevertheless, in the Koran, both are equally punished for their sins.

The man will get whipped with 80 leather lashes, and the woman gets stoned to death. When discussing technicalities, people say it is discrimination that while adulterous women get stoned to death, men only get punished with 80 leather lashes. In reality, being pelted with stones makes death more immediate than by leather whipping. Yet, how many men have survived 80 leather lashes? Nevertheless, societies are made by people, and the written word is open to interpretation, however flawed.

Hence, while one parent was always the ‘going by the book’ type, emphasising that some things will always be old fashioned and never change, irrespective of current practices and fashions. The other was the hippie type, with a peace, love and harmony mindset. By hippie type, I mean someone who is sufficiently open minded to understand that defying convention is about breaking sterotypes, without losing a sense of your identity, values and principles. Thus, while following rules and being responsible, you should also be a part of the society you live in. In other words, it is easy to go into extremes, whether in the liberal or the fanatic sense.

Nevertheless, the best way is always to take the middle path, but you need experience to understand how to manage this. In other words, many things you will only understand with the passage of time, when you have gathered a fair amount of life experiences. Luckily, both parents always understood the significance of following the rules of life responsibly. Together they understood the significance of exploiting your limits within certain boundaries. Hence, rather than forcing religion upon us, they illustrated what Islam really is about, and how to try to be a practicing Muslim. Even if these things make little sense while growing up in non- Muslim surroundings, as you grow older, you develop your own relationship to faith and religion. Morever, all those rules and regulations actually start to make sense. In a way, it is just like paying your taxes and being a responsible citizen. It is hard work, requires dedication, persistence, and constant swallowing of your ego, even when at times it seems nonsensical.

As a Muslim I am still developing my relationship with my own faith. Yet I fail to fathom the types who say they are spiritual, but not religious. Spirituality is at the very heart of religious practice. It is how you “feel” religion. The Sufis were not just a bunch of wandering, dancing and whirling gypsies. They were religious scholars, who had studied at esteemed centres of learning for several years in many different countries, such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Samarkand, Palestine and present day Pakistan, among many places. Yet many seem to overlook this essential fact.

pryer rug

A sufi is a scholarly practicing Muslim, who is  qualified to answer all the existential questions of the believer and help them become better Muslims and human beings. It is not just someone who believes in love thy neighbour as yourself, or believes that through love you shall find the answer to human salvation, without establishing regular prayers or reading the Quran and the saying of the Prophet (pbuh). The same goes for whirling and chanting the Almighty’s blessed names, as if they are some sort of de-stressing meditation method. Yet, these are all part of the worship, with the chanting following the actual prayer. Nevertheless, the sufi method, which includes the chanting, whirling, poetry and music, is how people can feel connected to, and manifest devotion to the divine. However they do not replace the obligatory prayer. Moreover, they are great communal exercises for people wishing to develop greater spiritual awareness.

As for my own circular and twisted journey, I am a mere mortal sinner with a faulty practice. I think each to their own belief. How people chose to practice their faith is a personal matter. In my experience, the so-called “liberal” elements have judged me far more harshly than I would ever judge anyone. Thus, if they do not like to be judged they should not judge others either. It goes both ways. In this connection, religion is an amazing black box system. This is because it allows you to just accept the unanswerables as mysteries of life. The answer will either come to you eventually, or it is never meant to be unravelled.


Political Activism

As a human being, I will always support the Palestinian cause. No nation deserves to be stateless. The latter thought always makes me appreciate Pakistan more.

Reading and watching the news these days is really tormenting. One day I found it hard to stop myself following a Palestinian cause group on Facebook. I even shared an article on my time feed because it was about a British Pakistani businessman who sacrificed a lucrative business opportunity with Israel in support of the Palestinians. I deleted it from my timeline because even if the news item is appreciable, some things are better left to the political activists. If you are interested in reading the article,  you can read it here 

There are so many organisations raising funds for Gaza and the West Bank. Although these fundraising drives are important, much more is required. Raising funds and donating money will not make the problems go away. Palestinians, or for that matter Syrians and Iraqis need more than monetary donations, medical or food aid through humanitarian organisations. I think a lot of people are becoming so emotionally involved that they forget common social etiquette. Moreover, as Muslims, it really is against Islam to utter hate speech against Jews or Christians because they are ‘People of the Book’ and Islam developed through Judaism and Christianity. So, it is actually blasphemous to engage in such hate speech.

I am a big fan of the Internet, it is one giant library and like a university it opens up better avenues to seek knowledge and information. Similarly, social networks are useful tools to get your message out to the world. Nevertheless, so many misunderstanding are created through words, it becomes easier to slander people’s opinions than actually think about what the written words state. In the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict this article sums up pretty well the kind of antagonism that can prevail online and the noise pollution subsequently created. Good intentions get drowned in bad communication and consequently lose their value. Moreover, I doubt insults has ever changed minds for the better. Moreover, I think this article summarizes what sort of mindset is required not only to handle this conflict, but, to create and build a viable Palestinian state:

I think the best defenders of a Palestinian state are the Palestinians themselves. By doing more than raising funds, I mean, the diaspora going back to give their skills and knowledge to Palestine and thereby create a better, stronger society, even if the circumstances are impossible. It is not about being part of the political administration, it is about contributing to a society that is supposed to be your own. I know it is unfair to demand people to just leave behind a good and comfortable life somewhere in the Middle East, Africa or the Western world to go back to what might be considered a dump. However, if you lack this sort of goodwill, how can you expect others to keep your own cause alive? Especially when you are unwilling to do what is required for nation state formation? Social media networks are all good to raise an issue and to draw attention to it, but other than protests, what sort of action do they actually contribute to that can bring about a viable solution?

To illustrate, in a non-Arab context, Jinnah was a successful barrister in London when he returned to India to rally for Hindu-Muslim Unity. When he realized that Muslims in the Sub-continent needed their own nation state he sacrificed his wealth and skills and health for the creation of Pakistan. I know Jinnah has his critics, and Pakistan is far from a perfect nation state, however, it is an independent country nonetheless. To make my point more Pan –Arabic, the Palstinians need a modern day Salah uddin Ayyubi, with the intelligence and courage to stand up for something that matters. What can be more significant than the future and a nation state?  However, this requires more action than talk, which is easy to do. Octavia Nasr sums up very well how this inaction and empty barrels making a lot of noise, are actually doing more harm than good to the Palestinian cause.

In conclusion, making noise and protesting against oppression is important. I just disagree with the anti-Jew/anti-Israel stand. The Friends of Al-Aqsa Facebook page is one such community I would support because they have a non tolerance policy against any discriminatory or anti-Semitic comment in their feed. I tend to just keep myself informed through the print media rather than social networks because the images and statements are too gory and quarrelsome for my taste. I don’t need to see bloody pictures of cracked skulls and crushed bodies just to have an idea of what is happening. I don’t think inaction means indifference, especially if the sort of news items that should be promoted tend to be sidelined in favour of the gory stuff. However, I do think that the Palestinian themselves ought to do more for themselves than rely on the international or wider Arab community for help. There is much the diaspora community can do, but it requires more than raising funds and blaming the UN for not implementing the specific conventions, or the Israelis for their aggressiveness. Developing role models where there are none is difficult, but not impossible, certainly not when there is so much goodwill towards the Palestinian cause.

A journey into something

Interfaith projects are always interesting. If an opportunity arises to watch a documentary by a renowned Pakistani anthropologist it would be foolish to dismiss it. It so happened that such an opportunity arose in December last year. I signed up for it, looking forward to an intellectual experience.

The documentary screened was a shortened version of a 90 minutes documentary. It was edited into a 20 minutes video on Muslims and perceptions of Muslims in America. It was an interesting video. I I think they focused more on the image of the victim Muslims who want to be accepted by American society, but are not. As well as how Muslims are apologetic about being Muslims. This was also a comment made in the documentary by Bapsi Sidwa, a Parsi Pakistani author, living in the States.

Maybe Denmark is different from USA, maybe Muslims who are apologetic are not strong enough, or sufficiently educated to explain their faith. I say this because I don’t remember my parents being apologetic about being Muslims. Moreover, I know of an American Muslim of Pakistani origin. During his student days at university he was actively involved with the Islamic Society and promoting awareness about Islam to non-Muslims. He prays 5 times a day, speaks Arabic fluently and has studied at Al-Azhar. Not to mention, he is a very successful corporate lawyer, a partner in one of the top legal firms in the States. He may not have a beard and dress like a cleric, but he is certainly an informed practicing Muslim.

The proud examples shown in the documentary were mostly of converts to Islam. Some were from the media and legal professions. One was also a congressman sworn into Congress with a Quran Jefferson had. The one who worked in media talked about how she felt much safer covered up than she ever did before and how non-Muslims don’t really care about anything other than fame and money. These things you find in the Muslim world too. I went from the Christian world to the Muslim world and I saw more moral filth there than I ever did in Europe. I don’t think you can just generalize about people like that. Yes, ignorance has to be dealt with, and communication is the best way to do so.

In this connection, the documentary is a step in the right direction because it shows the different colours of the Muslim community and the opinions of non-Muslims about Islam. One funny incident was the choice of a town in Alabama called Arab. It’s an all white town, nothing to do with Islam or Muslims. It was supposed to be Arad, but someone got the spelling wrong and never changed it back. Dr. Anthropologist and his research students also conducted a field experiment. One of the girls from his team dressed up in black abaya and scarf and interacted with the community to find out about their opinions on Muslims and Islam. It turned out that since Arab is an all white, Christian town they knew nothing due to lack of exposure. The video also kept mentioning a statue of Jefferson outside a prestigious university. The statue is holding a tablet with different names of God, according to the different religions, including Allah.

It seems the documentary was shortened to leave more time for the Q & A session. The panel lacked enthusiasm. One of the academics on the panel instead of making his introduction mumbled his opinions about the documentary and was very unclear.

The Q & A session was quite interesting. One statement made by a former UN staff in the audience, was that the Quran Jefferson had, was not out of humanitarian spirit but to communicate and deal with Muslim pirates along the coasts of America. He also said that the tablet on the Jefferson statue was meant to illustrate that anyone was welcome to America as long as they lived according to the laws of the land. He also said: “any society is formed by its laws, not by the sentiments of its community. Muslims are known for having strong sentiments, but have little adherence to the law, let alone Shariah law.” They come to the West because they are unable to exist in their countries of origin due to the lack of freedom of expression and movement in those countries. In this connection Muslims are not just demonized in the West, but also in their own countries.

In connection with the above, Dr. Anthropologist replies that his documentary is an effort in challenging intolerance. He raised an interesting point that the struggle must come from within Islam. Muslims in general must continue to fight for the vision of the ideal Islam, which is justice, equality and compassion. However, these are ideals of all the Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths.

To conclude, Dr. Anthropologist also mentioned that “a lack of simple solutions prevent the finding of a common ground between communities of the different faiths”. According to the panel, some interesting avenues for further investigation were raised during the Q& A session, however I wonder if the avenues discussed were the kind Dr. Anthropologist was interested in, because you don’t mention you have to catch the train back to Cambridge. Moreover, showing excerpts from a documentary is different from an actual documentary screening. They ought to include the much talked about scenes with Noam Chomsky, Hamza Yusuf and Jesse Jackson in the screening. It seemed they were not so much interested in screening a documentary, but wanted to create an opportunity to get fresh ideas to continue their projects. Moreover, I think such occasions benefit everyone, the participants as well as the arrangers, because you get to see interesting public figures and they get to have interactive brainstorming sessions with a curious audience.

In the spirit of Christmas ;P

One of the sufi wisdom newsletter I subscribe to gives a good insight into the special days of Islam and puts them into contexts of the different prophets which have equal signifance in Christianity and Judaism. The story of Virgin Mary and Jesus is a very beautiful story indeed. It is about strength of faith, of character and devotion to the Almighty.

Virgin Mary was both the wife and mother of prophets. Prophet Zachariah, her husband, and Prophet Jesus her son. She was a woman of great piety, strength and purity. No man touched her, she lived in seclusion from the world even when married. According to the story in Islam, she used to live in a dome and Prophet Zachariah was the only man she saw. Whenever he would enter her dome there was always food and fruit. She was provided by the Almighty. And to illustrate his miraculous powers she gave birth to a Prophet who spoke in defense of his mother when she faced the community’s wrath after his birth.

In the newsletter it also says that right after having given birth to a child she was ordered by the Almighty to pull the palm leaf towards her for the dates to fall into her lap. It is emphasized that anyone who has gone through childbirth is unable to lift themselves up immediately afterwards. Only a woman of such purity could have such miraculous strength to get up on her own two feet by pulling herself up with a palm leaf. The story of Virgin Mary and Jesus is also about how to live with self respect in the face of adversity. It is about love, forgiveness and goodwill. A common message in the 3 monotheistic faiths. A message all the Prophets brought with them. The differences are in the interpretations.

I don’t believe in the Holy Trinity, or that Jesus was the son of God. The Almighty, He is not begotten nor does he beget. I believe all were messengers of God to spread his religion. Islam is the most recent of the 3, it is thus the newest. It progressed from Judaism and Christianity, a fact which I think is often overlooked. We are all people of the Book of God. Going back to the story of Virgin Mary and Jesus, it also deals with looking out for yourself, because God looks out for those who protect themselves, following what he commands to be right.

If you isolate yourself from people and society you will face ostracism especially if you do not conform to the majority’s school of thought. Virgin Mary was innocent because she was untouched by society and its pressures to conform. When she did face society it was as a pregnant woman and people wanted to prove her wrong. She had the strength of conviction and the blessings of the Almighty to carry her through the worst. As Muslims, we also celebrate the strength of Virgin Mary; her strength of character, of faith and the strength to face the unknown because all she did was follow what was right. So Christmas to be me is also a way of commemorating the strength of women, mothers and wives alongside the birth of a messenger of the Almighty.

Finally, the season of Christmas itself, is a jolly season. Everywhere is beautifully decorated. Goodies specific to this seasonal celebration are treats for the tastebuds. True, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. I don’t celebrate this holiday, but I do honor the message of the story of Virgin Mary and Jesus, which carries another beautiful message of submission to the will of the Almighty.

Interfaith harmony between Jews and Muslims

I joined up for an interfaith dialogue process . A Muslim will be paired up with a Jew over 4 sessions. I always found it strange that in past times Jews, Christian and Muslims have been living alongside each other, intermarrying. Then due to some crises or another, usually military-political differences are created and they are at each other’s throats and become worst enemies. This aspect I find a bit peculiar because besides politics, we are actually quite similar. Muslims eat Halal, Jews eat Kosher. They say Shalom, we say Alasaalam o Alaikum. Their women also cover their heads, particularly the orthodox ones. Both communities practice circumcision. All three religions believe in Judgement Day.

In times past, Jews always sought refuge in Muslim dominated areas. I’m Muslim, but I dislike it when people rubbish another religious community. I’m supposed to hate Israelis because of their occupying Palestine. The Muslim community whether Arab or non-Arab always confuse me, but then, Muslims are not each others brothers and sisters, children and parents. They are each other’s competitors. They go by Arab non-Arab, Indian- Pakistani Muslim. They don’t think in terms of community, they think in terms of colour, in terms of a benefit system. Albeit, the latter being a normal human trait irrespective of caste, race, creed.

Being Pakistani, I can say that Pakistan always sticks up for Muslim causes wherever it is in a position to speak up, whether for Palestine, Kashmir or elsewhere. It saddens me that Arabs despite their sense of pan-Arabism seem unable to unite when it comes to the Palestinian cause, other than their charitable donation drives, orphan support and education/scholarship schemes. Being Muslim, I can say I find many things admirable about the Jewish community. They stick up for each other, they are strongly united because they know it is their strength. They are successful and due to corporate leverage gain support even from people of Arab Muslim background, making them only pay lipservice to the Palestinian cause because basically, they don’t care as it’s not really affecting them if people are stateless.

I’m enthusiastic about this dialogue process because on a Saturday I drove through Hendon, which is in north London. I saw a lot of Jewish people. In certain parts of London you see one or two. I saw two Jewish men on the tube once. The orthodox don’t make eye contact when you look at them. As we were driving in Hendon, I saw men with their sons, mothers with their children, women walking in couples. They were all dressed up for the Sabbath. Some men wearing yamuras, others wore the black hats. The women wore traditional dresses. I have never seen so many Jews in one place before. They were either going to attend Sabbath or they were returning from it. I noticed a lot of churches, but I didn’t see a synagogue. For me it was an interesting thing to observe because I’m more used to watch south Asians in their traditional clothes going towards or from an event. And to identify a Jew is very difficult on a normal day, unless they tell you they are Jewish, which few people do nowadays. This they will do only if they are practicing Jew.

When my parents moved to Denmark, they attended Danish courses at Copenhagen University. They were a young curious couple, most of the friends they made in their early days in Denmark were Jews from eastern Europe, who later settled in Israel. Back then their Jewish friends felt they had more in common with my parents than they had with the native population. They told them that Christians discriminated against them for being Jewish. Back then being Jewish was a slur, just like being an ethnic minority is today. Things have changed a lot since those days, but there is a greater need for interfaith reconciliation today because the world is getting smaller and being different is increasingly becoming a part of daily life due to technology and general progress.

The other day I read an article in a magazine that Jews and people of Jewish background are increasingly joining BNP and EDL to protest against the perceived increasing Islamisation of British society. BNP is changing its focus from anti-semitism to anti-Islam and is the only political party taking that stand. The BNP and EDL have rabbis among its members. BNP has Jewish MPs. However, when it comes to islamisation of British society I find this a bit far fetched. I don’t think there are more Islamists in England, but that they are more vocal than 20 years ago because as a community they are better educated today. Also, religious association, think tanks and charities are run by better educated people who are keeping connected with their communities through legal and other social services. So, to make their voices heard is much easier than when their parents arrived in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, the political presence of BNP and EDL are evolving and offering a platform to voice alternative opinions within race relations, which in itself is an interesting phenomenon. However, I say, whether islamist, Zionist/whatever, or racial supremists, every standpoint needs to meet other opinions because it is through dialogue we can make this chaotic world a better place to live in for everyone.

My Jewish partner is an elderly lady who works in the healthcare sector. She was one of the children who came by train from Eastern Europe during World War II. I told her that one thing I admire about the Jewish community is that they are really united. She disagreed and gave me an example of another participant, who is a member of the Palestinian friendly support groups, while she belongs to the more moderate orthodox branch. But she did concede that when it comes to Jewishness or things that affect them as a community they do stick together, which is so unlike the Muslim community.

My partner told me she had only been eating kosher for the past 7 years. Her son went into an orthodox phase which started some years ago. Now he is an atheist. I found this interesting because going puritanical at some stage in life is a common thing to do for many people in their religious journey. Some come out of the experience moderate, secularized or atheist. Others get further embroiled in the dogmatism of faith.

One of the people I met through an online community also jokes about the time when he went all Wahaabi. He came to realize that the rules and regulations turned you into a machine rather than a human. Basically, the rules create fear not love for the Divine. To me it is about creating a balance between the love and fear of the Almighty. However in order to create that balance, I suppose you need to experience the different spectrums of the faith. But now he enjoys spiking up his drink with some alcohol, because at the end of the day he has to live in the real world. Besides, when you live as a minority in a society, it is easy to find a connection with the orthodox/puritanical aspect of the faith you practice. You might as well go the extreme way when you can’t get accepted as part of mainstream society beyond your daily associations through schooling or work.

Politically, I disagree with what is happening in the Middle East. It’s abnormal for a nation to be stateless. Getting representation at the UN without a geo-political existence makes little sense because the need for a geographical existence remains. I disagree with what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank, with the wall fencing in an entire nation from its surroundings . It will only contribute to entrenching the victim syndrome and breed even more hatred and need for vengeance, which will eventually culminate bigger and deep-seated unforeseen responses.

Fencing communities in a ghetto like existence happened to the Jews during the Holocaust and what did the Muslims ever do to the Jews to make them this vengeful? Nevertheless, I have heard from others that the Jews who originates from Israel are not inhumane. The Jews are not inhumane. It’s the Zionists. They are the ones pursuing aggressive and expansive settlement policies. It could be argued that the Israeli government is Zionist. However, one must not overlook the increasing numbers of Jews both outside and within Israel who oppose the government’s policies. Grassroot level initiatives to foster peacebuilding and reconciliation between Israeli/ Jewish and Palestinian Arabs are cropping up. Nevertheless, since Israel won the 1967 war, a victor will always feel more entitled to its winnings and exploit it to its advantage. Clearly, there is a need to re-defining the Israel/Palestine conflict. Responsibility for past mistakes must be made, certain realities must be accepted. Israel is a geopolitical reality and has been for the past 64 years, but the Palestinians need and must have a country to call their own. The world needs a Palestinian state. It’s a basic, innate human right.