Haggling over the Hilal

Ah, but my calculations, people say,
Have squared the year to human Compass, Eh?
If so, by striking from the calendar
Unborn tomorrow and dead Yesterday.
(Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat)

It’s been over three decades since Muslim leaders in North America have been dithering over the hilal, the new moon crescent that heralds the beginning and end of the Islamic lunar months. For the ordinary Muslim the dispute is a maze. They instinctively know that intentionally missing a fast of Ramadan is a sin that requires expiation and are perplexed why some very senior international scholars have adopted a cavalier attitude when many celebrate Eid on a day a significant number of others are still fasting.

For example, this year some national organizations have encouraged ordinary plebs “to celebrate Eid with their local community, following the dates and moon sighting methodology of their qualified leadership.” I am not entirely clear what “dates,” “moon sighting methodology” and “qualified leadership” means, but the jest of it is that the average mosquegoer should not haggle over the hilal. ‘Leave it to scholars,’ they’re told, scholars who seem blissfully oblivious to the implications of their decisions.

Muslims and the Assault on Liberalism

A few years ago I wrote an essay for the Tabah Foundation titled “Reasonable Accommodation: Religion, Secular Law and the Limits of Multiculturalism”. At the time, Dr. Charles Taylor, a world-renowned philosopher and author of A Secular Age and Dr. Gerard Bouchard, a reputable Canadian sociologist, had been appointed to carry out a series of public consultations in Quebec. The provincial government wanted a formula to handle the apparently never-ending stream of demands from faith communities for religious accommodation in the public sphere. The commission was dubbed “Reasonable Accommodation.”

I felt it was important for Muslims living as minorities in the West to become familiar with the debate and the findings of the commission. It was not just a theoretical exercise but rather addressing an issue that Muslims need to understand better in order to adapt to the terrain of liberal secular societies.

Now that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the largest school Board in Canada and fourth largest in North America, is being attacked for allowing Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School to offer the Friday congregational prayers in the school’s cafeteria, it is important to revisit the topic and to ask whether this particular accommodation meets the yardstick of ‘reasonable’ or not?

A Canadian Salafist Abroad

Bilal Philips is no stranger to controversy. The Canadian preacher who makes his home in Qatar these days now has the attention of the Attorney General of Ontario, the Ontario Provincial Police and Toronto Police, for incendiary comments he made to reporters.

Bilal Philips

Philips was in Toronto to speak at the Journey of Faith (JoF) conference, an annual assembly of every able-bodied Salafist preacher not yet banned from entering Canada. Last year’s conference made headlines when Zakir Naik’s visa was cancelled by Ottawa days before his anticipated arrival.  This was Philips’ year.

His carefully dyed black beard, African style skull cap and fluency in Arabic goes a far way to mask the fact that he was born on the tropical Caribbean island of Jamaica in 1947 as one Dennis Bradley Philips. He would later migrate to Canada, convert to Islam in 1972 and change his name to Bilal. He is also known as Abu Ameenah, the father of Ameenah, the name of his eldest child. Although given his colourful past moonlighting as a gun-runner it could have easily served as his nom de guerre.

Tortured and Murdered

Saleem Shahzad was a courageous journalist and a friend. We called each other ‘bhai’ which means brother, out of respect and love. I admired him for reporting in a very dangerous region. He covered a subject few dared tackle and paid the ultimate price for it. Today, I got the sad news that his tortured and murdered bodywas recovered six miles from his car on the outskirts of Islamabad. He had disappeared two nights ago en route to a television studio to be interviewed about his allegations that Al-Qaeda had staged an attack against the Mehran naval base in Karachi in retaliation for the arrest of two pro-Al-Qaeda naval officers.

Syed Saleem Shahzad (left) with Nazim

I pray for his wife who was always polite even when I called too early in the morning or much too late at night. His kids too, who played noisily as we tried to have a conversation about his interviews with high-ranking commanders of the Pakistan or Afghan Taliban.

Saleem was always concerned about his security. When we met in Kabul in 2008, the last time I saw him, he told me Pakistani authorities were nervous about whom he was going off to interview this time. Little did they know that he was hopping on a plane to Kabul to be interviewed by a CBC documentary team.

In the days that we spent together at a guest house in Kabul, the Sareena hotel was attacked by three suicide bombers. Several guards, hotel guests and workers were killed. The loss of life would have been higher except one suicide vest failed to detonate. Members of the Canadian team, all of whom had received extensive AKE training to report from war zones, knew we had to change our routine. Saleem was curious about the training and although he had received none, his surpassed ours on account of his real life experiences.

With his characteristic shy smile he spared no detail telling me how he wormed his way into Waziristan to interview Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the notorious warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the many hurdles he overcame getting back safely into Pakistan.

Saleem came on the radar of my colleague Julian Sher because he wrote in a style that was highly visual and descriptive. He described a scene as a radio reporter would, painting a picture in words. In 2007 Julian asked me to get in touch with Saleem and to assess how reliable he was and whether I would peg him as pro-Taliban or pro-ISI, Pakistan’s corrupt Inter-Service Intelligence. After reading nearly a year of his articles and talking to him for extensive periods I concluded that he wasn’t pro anything. He was pro the truth and he was determined to tell it in a way that was compelling and thought provoking.

I last spoke with Saleem shortly after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. I asked him what he was hearing. He said it was indeed the Al Qaeda leader that was killed, but while Pakistani authorities were told about the strike by the Americans they had no idea who the target was.

Saleem Bhai, whoever did this to you are the worst and most despicable human beings on this earth. They’ll get what they deserve. I pray that your new book – Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Osama bin Laden and 9/11″ – will do well and the hundreds of reports that you authored will inspire a new cadre of journalists to blossom in a country where the powerful seek to suppress the truth with bullets. Rest well my friend. Our journey continues.

Muammar! Who is the Iblis now?

There are two pictures on this page. Both are Libyans but a world of difference separates them. I believe one is the image of piety, the other, despicable evil. The image on the right is Sayyid Muhammad Idris Al-Mahdi As-Sanusi. He was born circa 1889 in Jaghbub when Libya was part of the Ottaman Khilafah. He was the first and only King of Libya. Those who knew him said he prayed Tahajjud every night and was outwardly pious.


In 1969 the man on the left, Muammar Al-Gadafi, who has over 200 spelling of his name and whom the world will soon forget, staged a military coup and toppled Sidi Muhammad Idris. At this time Sidi Muhammad was in Turkey seeking medical treatment. After the coup the King was granted asylum in Egypt. He died on May 25, 1983 at the age of 94. He was buried in Madina Al-Munawwarah in the company of the best of God’s creation. His grandfather was the founder of the Sanusiyah Brotherhood (Tariqa). After Sidi Muhammad’s father died in 1902, he became the leader of the Sanusiyah Tariqa and its active leader when he was 16. Following the Italian invasion of Libya in 1922 he was forced into exile in Egypt where he continued to lead his people. During WWII the exiled King recruited Libyan fighters to aid the Allied forces against Nazi Germany and the Axis. In 1947 he returned home and in 1949 the United Nations determined that representatives of three provinces should meet in a national assembly to decide their future. The assembly met and decided on a constitutional monarchy and offered the reign to Sidi Muhammad. In 1951 Libya declared its independence. The army rose up against the King dubbing him “Idris Iblis.”

Shaykh Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Zarruq Ehwass.

Shaykh Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Zarruq Ehwass

A senior member of the 1969 coup along with Gadafi was a young army Major named Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Zarruq Ehwass. He was my first serious Arabic and Islamic studies teacher. In those years he was the Libyan ambassador to Guyana (1977-1981), the country of my birth. Shaykh Ahmad was a pious man. He was a learned scholar, charismatic, generous, patient and kind. The youth of Guyana loved him and his regular weekly classes drew teenagers from remote regions of the country. Many traveled long distances risking their safety to attend his weekend classes in Georgetown.

The elders respected him, but he was a stranger they never really got to know. He played cricket with us, but preferred soccer. He ate what we ate and sat on the floor to teach us the rules of Tajwid. In return, we taught him many Guyanese terms. He fell in love with our poor tropical third world country and was so involved in the affairs of its community that he adopted an orphaned infant raising him as his own. He and his wonderful wife didn’t have any children.

I never saw him get angry. He was a Hafiz of the Quran and recited it every night in prayers. Long after bedtime we would hear him reciting verses of the Quran from memory. He fasted every Monday and Thursday. He followed the Maliki Madhab, but knew enough of the Hanafi fiqh and adopted it in prayers so as not to cause disunity in our small vibrant community. He stood up when the majority of Muslims would stand to send Salat and Salam on the Prophet during the annual Mawlid celebrations. He considered Gadafi’s Green Book garbage and it was. I knew that when I was 15-years-old.

After the 69′ coup, Shaykh Ahmad came to see Gaddafi for what he was, a tyrant who did not deserve what he coveted. Convinced that the real “Iblis” was about to turn Libya into hell on earth, he spoke out and was jailed. Unable to keep him incarcerated, Gadafi assigned him to a host of diplomatic positions in Denmark, North Yemen, Somalia, South Yemen, Malaysia and finally Guyana. Ten years after the coup Shaykh Ahmad formed the Islamic Salvation Front for the Liberation of Libya. He was determined to correct the mistake of 1969 by force if necessary.

He quit his position as ambassador in 1981 and left Guyana. None of his many students who are now community activists in Florida, NY, Toronto and throughout the Caribbean, would ever see him again. I was the sole exception. At the ISNA conference in Sept. 1983 I met Shaykh Ahmad in Indianapolis. He was serious. Intense. Scarry in some ways. He was in the company of many Libyan men and some ‘shy’ Americans whom I later realized were masters at the dark art of espionage. I was 19 and none of it made sense to me at the time.

What became evident much later was that in the shadows of the Islamic confernce Shaykh Ahmad was planning a coup. King Idris would have been proud of the moral backbone of this son of Libya who so hated the injustices of Gadafi that he was determined to oust him. King Idris died that same year and knew that Gadafi was conducting a brutal campaign of assassination against hundreds of opponents to his regime. Human Rights organizations accounted for Libyan ‘Ulema who were killed by Gadafi, many during the Hajj in the most sacred Islamic cities. Eight months (May 8, 1984) after ISNA, Shaykh Ahmad and a group of armed fighters staged a failed coup at Bab Al-Aziziya. Media reports said they killed 30 bodyguards of Gadafi but did not succeed in getting him. Shaykh Ahmad was killed and Newsweek printed a picture of him with a story that hinted at the possibility that the men might have been betrayed.

What he started 30 years ago and ultimately gave his life to achieve, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Libyans, have sacrificed their lives trying to complete. I heard an Imam in Tripoli use the mimbar today (Feb. 25) to remind worshippers that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said: If you  disapprove of your leaders do not raise your voices nor your swords in protests, otherwise you should be killed (i.e. capital punishment).” Someone should have reminded the young Colonel Gadafi of this in 1969. It’s a little too late now.

ISNA – Changing of the Guards? Wishing

On Thursday Jan. 20 2011 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested Sayfilden Tahir Sharef in Edmonton on charges of aiding and abetting terrorism. Media in the U.S. and Canada put foot to pedal even though very little was divulged about the accused.

On the same day, two major Canadian newspapers delivered even more troubling news. The National Post’s Stewart Bell published “Mideast sources fund controversial mosque.” Bell’s article focused on the Salahudin Mosque in Scarborough and its controversial Imam Aly Hindy who despite his Wahabi/Salafist commitments continues to receive huge sums of money from donors such as the Islamic Development Banks and charitable folks in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.

The Toronto Star published a front page “exclusive” with a headline that screamed “Muslim Charity misspent $600,000. in donations.” The article focused on the results of an independent financial audit of the Islamic Society of North America (Canadian chapter). Of all the news that day though the ISNA story sent ripples through the community. The article rolled out with a full scale picture of Mohammad Ashraf who ran ISNA as if it was his daddy’s rice plantation in the Punjab. It proves you can give a person a PhD in microbiology but you can’t extinguish the fire of feudalism burning in his DNA.

For years senior members of our community were told to be patient, to hide the faults of a man who held onto the reigns of ISNA as if it was his birth right. For two decades spineless directors allowed him to run amok. Anyone who complained was shut out, ran out of town or shamed into silence or worse, compliance. Now on the brink of his retirement the daggers are out. The very same individuals who are ready to cast the first stone at Mr. Ashraf knew with certainty that his pattern of behavior was taking place as far back as the mid to late 1980’s. They did nothing. “Brother,” they would exhort gullible souls, “hide the faults of your Muslim brother.”

Apparently transparency isn’t a virtue that carry much weight in the moral scales of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the Punjabi alliance thrived and prospered until not even the Arabs who thought they were in control could stop the juggernaut. The hardline Salafis dominated it from the center and Farhat Hashmi and her band of niqabed Salafis moved in to fill the last saff so no one could escape. Yasir Qahdi and his kind flourished while Sunni scholars were denied use of the grand facilities at ISNA HQ. Qadhi was recently feted at ISNA HQ and celebrated as a leading North American scholar. None of this is an accident and I expect nothing will happen to change the guards at ISNA unless CRA conducts its own investigation.

Toronto Star by Jesse McLean. ISNA Canada is embroiled in controversy, with the audit revealing the practice of giving free perks to family members of a top official; the improper issuing of charitable tax receipts; and the diversion of charity money to private businesses. At the centre of it all is long-time secretary general Mohammad Ashraf, who has recently announced he is stepping down.

Ashraf would not answer a series of questions from the Star.

“Don’t ask me anything,” Ashraf told a reporter who visited the organization’s Mississauga headquarters, marked by a graceful minaret overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Way. The 73-year-old microbiologist said he is “being transitioned into retirement” and that he is “restricted” from commenting on the audit.

ISNA Canada’s elected president, Mohamed Bekkari, told the Star in an interview Wednesday that his organization will toughen financial protocols as a result of the audit. All financial authority has been removed from Ashraf, he said. Bekkari called the findings of the audit, by chartered accountant Fareed Sheik, “unsettling” and a new audit will be ordered that will dig deeper.

The first audit warns that ISNA would risk losing charity status if things are not done differently.

For more than 30 years, Ashraf has been the leader of ISNA, a national organization that is also the hub for Mississauga’s Muslim community. It houses the city’s most visible mosque and provides a variety of services, including a Muslim high school and a halal meat certification agency.

ISNA Canada draws in close to $1 million in charity donations a year. The audit looked closely at one portion of those donations, an obligatory alms giving called Zakat and Fitrah meant to aid the needy. The audit found that of about $810,777 collected over four years, only $196,460 went to aid the poor.

After prayer, Zakat is considered by some Muslims to be the most important pillar of the Islamic faith. It requires Muslims to give a minimum of 2.5 per cent of their wealth each year to the poor.

To mark the beginning of Ramadan, Ashraf sent out a letter in August 2010 urging all of ISNA Canada’s members to donate money for “helping needy Muslims not only in Canada, but all over the World.”

The auditor, brought in by the ISNA Canada board, took issue with how charity cash was used to cover everything from beefing up security — including $60,000 for installing cameras and frequently changing locks — to health benefits for Ashraf’s daughters, even though they don’t work for ISNA Canada.

The organization has been spending more than $6,500 each year on the health plans for Ashraf’s daughters, Saadia and Uzma. Saadia’s premium has since been returned, the audit said.

“Spending for personal expenses out of the charity’s funds is unethical,” the auditor wrote, saying it is “tantamount to misappropriation of funds.”

The audit shows tens of thousands of charity dollars were shuffled from ISNA Canada to its affiliated services and businesses, several of which have secretary-general Ashraf as a director. Federal rules forbid charities from spending donations on business activities that do not aid the charity.

The organization has “put an end” to the inappropriate transferring of money as well as taken “financial matters out of the hands” of Ashraf, Bekkari said.

Ashraf has defended himself in a memo posted on the organization’s website. In it, Ashraf told the members that the audit showed there had been “No instances of fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds or any deliberate wrong doings in handling of the financial affairs of ISNA Canada.”

The auditor noted his scope was limited and “consequently I was not able to follow the trail of funds transferred from ISNA to other organizations.”

“Hence I cannot conclude with certainty that there has been no misappropriation or embezzlement of funds or cash.”

The audit’s scope was in part restricted because the organization’s management refused to give the auditor certain documents, the board’s president said.

ISNA Canada’s board of directors is in the midst of hiring a firm to a conduct a more thorough audit.

“(The audit) raised concerned for us, it opened our eyes,” Bekkari said. “As a board, we need much higher level of certainty to answer your questions.”

The auditor also uncovered multiple cases where Ashraf or the organization inappropriately gave and received charity tax receipts, repeatedly violating federal charity rules.

In a review of the financial statements for the halal meat certification agency, a business branch of the Society that certifies meat as permissible to eat under Islamic rules, the auditor discovered Ashraf had received a $15,000 tax receipt after moving money from the agency’s business account over to ISNA Canada and claiming it was a “personal donation.”

Former board members told the Star Ashraf diverted profits from the certification agency to a secret account from which he paid himself and at least two family members. They say the board had no knowledge of this.

The business’ revenue from the halal certification business is “supposed to come to the parent organization” as the donations do, said Syed Imtiaz Ahmad, former president of ISNA Canada.

“(Ashraf) was directing it to an account he had opened and not telling us,” he said.

The agency’s funds were also used from 2005 to 2009 to pay Ashraf’s wife and one of his daughters nearly $150,000 for a handful of services, from consulting and promotions to putting together a newsletter that comes out four times a year, according to financial statements.

There were also three cases where people received charity tax receipts from ISNA Canada for repaying scholarship loans.

The organization’s management told the auditor the borrowers “insisted that they will return the loan only if the tax receipt is issued.” (Federal charity receipts are only to be issued for true charitable donations).

The Society also issued charity receipts — more than $42,000 in 2009 — to those who purchased funeral services through the organization.

“Tax receipts have to be issued for only donations to the charity and not for any other purposes,” the auditor said in his report.

The organization had a world-renowned Islamic scholar on its payroll, despite her not actually working for ISNA, in a bid to help her immigrate to Canada, the audit revealed.

Farhat Hashmi had been invited to come from Pakistan to deliver lectures several times throughout the mid-2000s.

“This is a serious violation of the (Canadian Revenue Agency) rules and immigration rules to hire someone just in the books to help get through immigration,” the auditor’s report said.

Bekkari, the organization’s president, said he didn’t know any specifics about the scholar or how much she was paid.

“I have bigger issues than that,” he said.

ISNA Canada is governed by a board consisting of 15 members including Ashraf.

Ashraf was contacted multiple times, but repeatedly refused to comment. Attempts to speak with his wife and his daughters were unsuccessful.

Ashraf’s reign at ISNA Canada will come to an end March 31. The online posting announcing Ashraf’s retirement applauded his work for having “been instrumental in the evolution of ISNA Canada” as well as in the development of the organization’s stately mosque in Mississauga.

Islamic Conferences – Politics or Faith?

As far as Islamic conferences go these days – whether ISNA, ICNA, Journey of Faith (JoF), and even RIS – the Global Peace and Unity (GPU) gathering in London (Oct. 23-24), was a success; assuming of course that success can be measured on the basis of a head count. Evidence that Muslims from across the UK and Europe flocked to the GPU in substantial numbers is a clear indication that they deemed irrelevant Prime Minister David Cameron’s opinion that the conference organizer, Islam Channel, facilitates violent extremism in the UK. Reduced to a footnote, unfortunately, is the fact that citizens of that country could afford the luxury of ignoring their PM’s opinion. Had the government of any predominant Muslim country censured a religious conference it would be inconceivable for it to ever take place. Modern day Islamic conferences follow one of two convention models: the evangelical or the political. Anyone who accessed GPU via live streaming video like I did would have witnessed something akin to a political rally decked out with religious paraphernalia, a wide variety of Muslim televangelists and an MC that was too darn perfect for the task.

Moazzem Begg

Regardless of who was speaking or what the message was, the MC egged on the crowd as they shouted pro-Palestinian slogans, waved flags, neon light swords and what appeared to be large gloves with something written on it. If a speaker was slow making his way to the stage, the MC filled the down time with annoying announcements, countless ‘takbirs’ accompanied by loud shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’, all meant to keep the restless and often times unruly crowd engaged. It was a bizarre spectacle.

One speaker succinctly identified “solutions” to the malaise afflicting the Ummah. Muslim women, he warned, need to observe the hijab and music should be banned from Islamic circles. Zain Bikha’s performance was appropriately timed to follow his act. The audience soaked up both presentations with glee and applause.

Another speaker suggested that because a person could walk safely on the streets of Damascus at 2 am, while the same cannot be said of the cities of Europe and North America, is proof that Islamic law provides a better option to western decadence. The audience missed the absurdity of the comparison and obliviously cheered on.

Yet another speaker reeled off five scientific arguments to prove the divinity of the Quran. The Prophet of Islam could not have known this and since science can’t be wrong, he reasoned, the Quran must be the Word of God. The mob cheered inappropriately. Jeering would have been the right thing to do.

The tone changed dramatically when Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri and Dr. Abdal Hakim Murad were introduced. Anyone vaguely familiar with either scholar is well aware that they have courageously denounced the idiocy that passes for religious doctrine in the thin circles of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Dr. Tahir’s fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing is a no ‘ifs’-and-‘buts’ condemnation of religious heresy in our age. Since GPU and Islam Channel are not his ‘cuppa tea’ what then was he doing at their event?

Surprisingly, Dr. Tahir asked the audience for 30 minutes of their time signaling that his presentation was not going to be a four-hour epic performance. Alone at the podium, no disciples fussing over his seating arrangements, he stormed out of the gates from the get go. His message was eloquently articulate and as usual, extremely loud, leaving no doubt where the majority of Sunni Muslims stand on the issue of Jihad, violence, extremism, radicalism, suicide bombing and terrorism. There was none of the usual qualifiers particularly blaming Western foreign policy for bad tafsir and sharh. Vengeance, hate, and extremism, he pointed out, are the diseases of our age and the sooner Muslims expunge these malignant cancers from their souls, the quicker the healing.

At the risk of sounding redundant let me say I have an allergic reaction to conferences whether Muslim in character or not. I don’t believe they will or have ever accomplished anything. That’s not to say the vendors at GPU’s bazaar who paid £900 for the privilege of selling a few trinkets and some colorful hijabs didn’t recover their cost and then some. The food vendors too may have turned a handsome profit leaving behind a heap of garbage and some messy restrooms for low paying unionized workers to clean up.

Muslim conferences are the biggest public innovation (bid’a) of our age and I am amazed that the Salafis are so dazzled by them. Conferences call people to a venue that is not a mosque to listen to speakers who become the center of gravity for a few days. In the last 30 years of conferences in North America we’ve managed to produce a class of scholars who hop from one conference to another spouting the same old cliché-riddled incoherent speeches. Don’t get me wrong! There are some gems in this group.

I am not ashamed to say that my personal favorite going back to the early 1990’s has been and still is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. That’s because he stands apart for never repeating a lecture twice except for those early years when he was determined to lead a ‘smash your television revolution’ armed with Jerry Mander and Robert Bly. That was a long time ago. To this day he remains original and engaging because he respects people who he believes deserve a hearty lecture in return for the money they paid to get in.

Today, organizers of Muslim conferences are looking to spice things up by forging a lineup of celebrity speakers and performers on the lofty ideal of ‘Unity’ when all they’re doing is pandering to an already divided community. Deobandis, Berelwis, Salafis, Wahabis, Sufis, and the Shia may momentarily shed their allegiances to attend a conference but that can hardly be considered ‘Unity.’ As for the vast majority of young people, there is no distinction between Shaykh Hamza and Yasir Al-Qadi or Dr. Umar Faruq ‘Abd-Allah and Yusuf Estes or between Imam Zaid Shakir and Khalid Yasin or between Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri and Dr. Zakir Naik. The distinction is blatant: some speakers have knowledge while others know a few things. Conferences are a costly experiment aimed at dumbing down knowledge for the masses. The consequence is that every idiot armed with a hadith can come off as if he knows something.

In a few months thousands of Canadian and American Muslims will trade in their virgin eggnogs to attend the RIS conference where they will get 8-10 lectures in Arabic, a language spoken by a small fraction of those in attendance. There will be no speeches in Urdu, a language understood by the vast majority of those in attendance. The theme of the conference is not the role of mosques or the sacred message of the Quran, the two themes that have been making headlines all year on account of Faisal Abdur Rauf’s controversial Park 51 project and Rev. Terry Jones Quran burning aspirations.  Rather, the theme will be the Ten Commandments and something about developing a roadmap.

But people will come, as they did at the GPU, to cheer and applaud and take some time to scour the landscape for a future spouse. I pray they find what they come looking for.

Timothy Winter: Britain’s most influential Muslim – and it was all down to a peach

The Independent. Tom Peck (Friday August 20, 2010)

“How long must the Muslims of lower Manhattan have to wait to get a place to pray five times a day? With Islam there are certain liturgical requirements. It’s not like a church that you can build on the top of a hill and say, we’ve only got to go once a week and it looks nice  up there. Muslims need to pray five times a day, they can’t get the subway out and back. It should be seen as a symbol of reconciliation not antagonism.”

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad - Timothy Winters

It was the sight of peach juice dripping from the chin of a teenage French female nudist that led a Cambridgeshire public schoolboy to convert to Islam. Thirty-five years later, Timothy Winter – or Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, as he is known to his colleagues – has been named one of the world’s most influential Muslims. The hitherto unnoticed Mr Winter, who has an office in Cambridge University’s Divinity Faculty, where he is the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies, has been listed ahead of the presidents of Iran and Egypt, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Mahmoud Abbas. “Strange bedfellows,” he concedes. Tall, bookish, fair-skinned and flaxen-haired, a wiry beard is his only obvious stylistic concession to the Islamic faith. (Picture of Shaykh Abdal Hakim taken at Niagara Falls, Winter 09-10)

To the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (RISSC), which is based at the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in the Jordanian capital, Amman, Winter is “one of the most well-respected Western theologians” and “his accomplishments place him amongst the most significant Muslims in the world”. Winter is also the secretary of the Muslim Academic Trust, director of The Anglo-Muslim Fellowship for Eastern Europe, and director of the Sunna Project, which has published the most respected versions of the major Sunni Hadith collections, the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an.

He has also written extensively on the origins of suicidal terrorism.

According to the RISSC, the list highlights “leaders and change-agents who have shaped social development and global movements”. Winter is included because “[his] work impacts all fields of work and particularly, the religious endeavors of the Muslim world”.

In the 500 Most Influential Muslims 2010, Mr Winter is below the King of Saudi Arabia – who comes in at number one – but ahead of many more chronicled figures. He is ranked in an unspecified position between 51st and 60th, considerably higher than the three other British people who make the list – the Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi; the UK’s first Muslim life peer, Lord Nazir Ahmed, who was briefly jailed last year for dangerous driving; and Dr Anas Al Shaikh Ali, director of the

International Institute of Islamic Thought – making him, at least in the eyes of the RISSC, Britain’s most influential Muslim.

“I think that’s very unlikely,” says Winter, seated in front of his crowded bookshelves. “I’m an academic

observer who descends occcasionally from my ivory tower and visits the real world. If you stop most people in the street they’ve never heard of me. In terms of saying anything that makes any kind of sense to the average British Muslim I think they have no need of my ideas at all.”

The son of an architect and an artist, he attended the elite Westminster School in the 1970s before graduating from Cambridge with a double first in Arabic in 1983. His younger brother is the football correspondent Henry Winter. Tim says: “I was always the clever, successful one. Henry just wanted to play football with his mates. I used to tell him, ‘I’m going to make loads of money, and you’ll still be playing football with your mates.’ Now he’s living in a house with 10 bedrooms and married to a Bond girl.” (Brother Henry insists on the telephone later: “She was only in the opening credits. And it’s not as many as 10.”)

If this seems an improbable background for a leading Muslim academic, his Damascene moment on a Corsican beachis unlikelier still.

“In my teens I was sent off by my parents to a cottage in Corsica on an exchange with a very vigorous French Jewish family with four daughters,” Winter recalls. “They turned out to be enthusiastic nudists.

“I remember being on the beach and seeing conjured up before my adolescent eyes every 15-year-old boy’s most fervent fantasy. There was a moment when I saw peach juice running off the chin of one of these bathing beauties and I had a moment of realisation: the world is not just the consequence of material forces. Beauty is not something that can be explained away just as an aspect of brain function.”

It had quite an effect on him: “That was the first time I became remotely interested in anything beyond the material world. It was an unpromising beginning, you might say.

“In a Christian context, sexuality is traditionally seen as a consequence of the Fall, but for Muslims, it is an anticipation of paradise. So I can say, I think, that I was validly converted to Islam by a teenage French Jewish nudist.”

After graduating, Winter studied at the University of al-Azhar in Egypt and worked in Jeddahat before returned to England in the late eighties to study Turkish and Persian. He says he has no difficulty reconciling the world he grew up in with the one he now inhabits. “Despite all the stereotypes of Islam being the paradigmatic opposite to life in the west, the feeling of conversion is not that one has migrated but that one has come home.

“I feel that I more authentically inhabit my old identity now that I operate within Islamic boundaries than I did when I was part of a teenage generation growing up in the 70s who were told there shouldn’t be any boundaries.”

The challenge, he feels, is much harder now for young Muslims trying to integrate with British life.

“Your average British Asian Muslim on the streets of Bradford or Small Heath in Birmingham is told he has to integrate more fully with the society around him. The society he tends to see around him is extreme spectacles of binge drinking on Saturday nights, scratchcards, and other forms of addiction apparently rampant, credit card debt crushing lives, collapsing relationships and mushrooming proportions of single lives, a drug epidemic. It doesn’t look very nice.

“That is why one of the largest issues over the next 50 years is whether these new Muslim communities can be mobilised to deal with those issues. Islam is tailor-made precisely for all those social prolems. It is the ultimate cold turkey. You don’t drink at all. You don’t sleep around. You don’t do scratchcards. Or whether a kind of increasing polarisation, whereby Muslims look at the degenerating society around them and decide ‘You can keep it’.”

It is not this, though, that contributes to some young Muslim British men’s radicalism, he says, since their numbers are often made up of “the more integrated sections”.

“The principle reason, which Whitehall cannot admit, is that people are incensed by foreign policy. Iraq is a smoking ruin in the Iranian orbit. Those who are from a Muslim background are disgusted by the hypocrisy. It was never about WMD. It was about oil, about Israel and evangelical Christianityin the White House. That makes people incandescent with anger. What is required first of all is an act of public contrition. Tony Blair must go down on his knees and admit he has been responsible for almost unimaginable human suffering and despair.”

He adds: “The West must realise it must stop being the world’s police. Why is there no Islamic represenation on the UN Security Council? Why does the so-called Quartet [on the Middle East] not have a Muslim representative? The American GI in his goggles driving his landrover through Kabul pointing his gun at everything that moves, that is the image that enrages people.”

Is there a similar antagonistic symbolism in the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero?

“If the mosque represented an invading power they would have every right. Muslims in America are there as legitimate citizens with their green cards, with jobs, trying to get by. They are there in humble mode.

“Would you oppose the construction of Shinto Shrines at Pearl Harbour, of which there a number? How long must the Muslims of lower Manhattan have to wait to get a place to pray five times a day? With Islam there are certain liturgical requirements. It’s not like a church that you can build on the top of a hill and say, we’ve only got to go once a week and it looks nice up there. Muslims need to pray five times a day, they can’t get the subway out and back. It should be seen as a symbol of reconciliation not antagonism.”

Last year Winter helped set up the Cambridge Muslim College, which offers trained imams a one year diploma in Islamic studies and leadership, designed to help trained imams to better implement their knowledge and training in 21st-century Britain. This year’s first graduating class have recently returned from a trip to Romewhere they had an open audience with the Pope.

In an increasingly secular Britain, sociologists suggest with regularity that “football is the new religion”. Winter understands the comparison. “Football has everything that is important to religion,” he says. “Solidarity, skill, ritual, the outward form of what looks like a sacred congregation. Except it’s not about anything.” Just don’t tell his brother.

Nothing Reluctant about Mohsin Hamid’s Fundamentalist

I find myself reading a fair bit these days. I am not complaining. Ramadan is fast approaching and with it the imperative of a different kind of reading, one that promises to nourish the spirit.

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

I’ve had a few books gathering dust on my shelf for months now and thought maybe this was as good a time as any other to knock off a few. Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” appeared a quick read and it was. Not because it happened to be engaging but rather because it was only 184 pages. And thank the Lord for that.

The book garnered some praise when it was first released. The inside flap said it echoed of Camus and Fitzgerald, describing it as “a riveting, devastating exploration of our divided yet ultimately indivisible world.” I think the publishers made a mistake and borrowed that praise from another book perhaps deserving of it.

I found the narrative childish, the kind of drivel you’d expect from a drunk at a late night cafe. Changez’s thoughts are unworthy of being called ideas. To compensate, Hamid makes him speak with a degree of artificiality that caused me to dismiss his main character as an idiot, an imbecile. Changez is neither idealistic nor is he realistic. He is neither a fundamentalist or is he a nationalist and yet the author wants us to believe he is a little of both. Changez is a confused immigrant, like so many brilliant Pakistani men wandering the corridors of great institutions in Canada, the U.S. and U.K. but whose minds are still trapped in Anarkali bazaar. New York has more character, passion, zeal and humanity that ten Lahores. I am not here talking about the Lahore of the exquisite Shalimar gardens, the lush openness of the Badshahi mosque nor the spiritual ecstasy of the Sufi mazar of Data Ganj Baksh which was the target of two suicide bombers last month. That’s the Lahore of the past. Hamid’s Changez neither understands Empire nor does he understand Colonization. He knows not the secular nor the religious, neither war nor peace.

He reflects the contemporary Pakistani born American, Canadian or British male, floating like a dangling modifier without a hint of a spiritual identity to anchor his lost soul. He latches on to the message of Zakir Naik and Anwar Al-Awlaki only to end up proclaiming his Sufi heritage a bid’a. He runs from his past only to arrive at the gates of hell with a beer in one hand and a whisky in the other. Changez is neither reluctant nor is he a fundamentalist.

Boualem Sansal: The German Mujahid

I didn’t realize when I bought Boualem Sansal’s “The German Mujahid” that it was signed copy dated Oct. 23, 2009. It’s a fictional novel based on a true story and inspired by the writings of Primo Levi. I am happy it’s a signed copy. The book is banned in Algeria where the author lives and that little detail alone alludes to the fact that it has ruffled the features of some very powerful people.

“The German Mujahid”

Actual book reviews are easy to find these days and my thoughts are not meant to be a review. I would recommend Sansal to Muslim students in high school. I’ll tell you why.

The first 16-years of my life were spent growing up in the Caribbean where people were given nicknames like Hitler and Nazi particularly if they were thuggish in their behaviour. The Holocaust in Europe was but a distant war where white folks killed each other after having ravaged Africa and India. We had our own grief to sulk on. Europe’s craving for sugar and tea claimed the lives of millions of Africans and East Indians and wiped out the entire populations of those other Indians – the Arawaks, Caribs, Incas, Mayans, etc.

I would soon learn that Indians in Canada and the United States didn’t fare any better after I migrated to Toronto and started attending Sir Sanford Fleming Academy – a high school with a large Jewish student body because it was located in the heart of an old Jewish neighbourhood.

Fleming was the better of the two options available to me. I wanted to go to university and pursue a career in journalism and a school that streamed English, Literature, History, Geography, World Religions for university was an obvious choice. The big difference between Fleming and other high schools I later learned was that the Holocaust was an integral part of the curriculum. We watched countless documentaries and read the books of Elie Wiesel among others. Some of my fellow classmates had parents and grandparents who survived the Holocaust. Class discussions were brutal. Guys who would knock me down and shove me around on the basketball court and talk tough in the locker room would become speechless in class, tears welling up in their eyes. This was 1981, a confusing time for a teenager in a new country. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan and a Jihad was being waged to get them out. Fanaticism was raising its ugly head in Saudi Arabia and blood was shed in the sacred Ka’ba itself. An uprising was taking place in the Kashmir region of India, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran and the American hostage crisis was headline news. And I can’t exclude a gun-toting upstart named Yasir Arafat was holding out hopes of one day driving the Jews of Israel into the sea.

I still remember my English teacher who didn’t like me. I found out long after I graduated that her mother was a Holocaust survivor. Perhaps that’s why she was always so very bitter and why my questions in class upset her and caused her to respond in a way that made me feel as if I was a threat to her very existence. Still, I don’t regret the two years I spent at Fleming. It was a great school and it prepared me well for university.

My experience at Fleming is the single most important reason I made a decision not to send my own kids to Muslim private schools and with five of them I don’t think I could afford it. There are now over 40 such schools in Ontario alone. Sticking with your own kind creates a closed-minded mentality. Sure you’ll learn a great deal about Islam and may even memorize the entire Qur’an, but where’s the challenge when you’re surrounded by your own every day of your teenage years when critical questions about self and purpose are raised and sometimes resolved. But I digress.

In attempting to stream the two similar yet distinct narratives of Nazism and Islamism, Sansal’s novel has broken new ground. Both are absolute and closed narratives and when adopted by those in power they will inexorably lead to genocide. If it has happened in the past it can happen again as sure as the sun will rise in the morning.

Sansal brilliant novel is about two estranged brothers — Rashid Helmut a.k.a. Rachel and Malek Ulrich a.k.a. Malrich — and their relationship or lack thereof with their father. They find out that as a student in Germany, papa or Hans Schiller was an eager member of Hitlerjugends and then after graduating university as a chemical engineer, joined up with the Waffen SS and became a decorated Nazi mass murderer. Hans fled to Algeria after the defeat of Germany and ended up gainfully employed training the maquis in their struggle for independence against France. For his role in the Algerian war of independence he was granted citizenship and bequeathed the title ‘Mujahid’.

The 45-year-old ‘Mujahid’ Hans fell in love with 18-year-old Aïcha Majdali, the daughter of the village Cheïkh, converted to Islam in 1963 and adopted the name Hassan Hans a.k.a. Si Hassan and sometimes Si Mourad. He settled in his wife’s village of Aïn Deb, a remote outpost inhabited by people trying to hide from the world. When Aïcha’s father died, villagers began referring to the former Nazi as Cheïkh Hassan. Hans and Aïcha had two sons — Rashid and Malek — both of whom were sent to France at an early age to get a better education, Malrich failed while Rachel succeeded. On April 24, 1994 news reached Rachel that there was a massacre in Aïn Deb. Listed among the dead were his parents Hassan Hans and Aïcha Majdali. The government blamed their deaths on the Armed Islamic Group (AIG) and conferred on them the title of cahïd, martyrs, an honorable title in Islam.

While Rachel retraces his father’s bloody path back to the concentration camps, the younger Malrich is discovering the evil antics of Muslim fanatics trying to turn his immigrant slum where he lives near Paris into a mini-Islamic state with their own application of Shari’ah law.

There is a lot of take away from Sansal’s novel. A lot to learn especially at a time when hate-mongers in our community are determined to convince our youth that the Holocaust was a hoax, a conspiracy perpetrated by Zionists to justify their occupation of Muslim lands. Not so long ago anyone could pick up a copy of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” at any of the many Muslim bookstores across North America and Europe. As young Arabs of mixed parents growing up in a highly racialized society, Rachel and Malrich would have been exposed to the bigotry and conspiracy theories espoused by Imams and visiting missionaries.

Acknowledging the Holocaust against the Jewish people is not a denial of Muslim suffering in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. it is an affirmation of our collective will to condemn hate in speech and action whenever and whenever it rears its treacherous head.