The Radical Middle Way – Why?

My dear friend Fuad Nahdi and I have had many chats over the years about the need for Muslims living in the West to have a sustained strategy of civic engagement and the meaning of radical activism.
Wanted WomenI admire his dedication and wish I had some of his excitement and enthusiasm.
He being in London and me in Toronto has not prevented us from talking at length about our daily struggles to balance instinctively left-leaning reactions and deep felt pain at the injustices we’ve been fortunate to chronicle as journalists against the teachings of a faith that demands compassion and love.
When Fuad left Mombassa, Kenya to study in London he was older and wiser than when I migrated from Georgetown, Guyana to Toronto. In the last three decades we’ve gotten married, raised families, established careers and jumped waist high into the turbulent politics of Muslim community affairs.
How we’ve managed to find and stay on the “middle path” is not really a mystery. We both came from homes where parents and elders were involved in our lives. We were raised in communities of faith that were real, not imagined. We both had teachers who taught us wisdom and didn’t lecture us with fire and brimstone speeches.
We might not have known much about Sufis, Salafis, Deobandis or Barelwis growing up, but we knew that being Muslim meant we had to be good to our neighbours and those less fortunate. This understanding, call it a firm grounding of faith and civic identities, eventually made us as comfortable in our newsrooms as we were in our local mosques. And although poverty was our lot as young men we never aspired to roll with the rich and live the high life.   
These thoughts about Fuad and I came to me as I got to the end of Deborah Scroggins book “Wanted Women: Faith, Lies and the War on Terror - The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui.”


The mausoleum of Sidi Ahmad Zarruq in Misrata, Libya. Courtesy: Fareena and Abdur-Rehman Malik

The hard earned freedom of the Libyan people has been sullied by a band of zealots. In the last few months they've desecrated countless graves, bulldozed mausoleums and even exhumed and discarded bodies that have been interred for centuries.

Attacking the dead is sacrilege in every faith tradition and in every culture of the world except perhaps in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While the majority of Libyans and indeed the global Muslim community have condemned these heinous acts and are insisting that the ignorant be punished, some senior Saudi scholars advocate the opposite opinion.  To read the blog in pdf format please click GOING AFTER LIBYA'S DEAD

The track below is taken from the Album "To the Guide's Chamber:A Journey to the Prophet of Islam" by the Libyan Ensemble Bustan Al-Madihin (trans. Orchard of Devotional Singers). The Ensemble comprises 30 professional singers and musicians united in their love of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The group is led by Shaykh Bahlul Sa‘id Abu ‘Arqoub, one of the most accomplished Libyan munshidin. The ensemble was formed in 1998 on the exact day the Muslim World was commemorating the birth of the Blessed Prophet. My friend Sohail Nokhooda at Kalam Research and Media (U.A.E.) wrote: "With the launch of this new and exciting album, "To the Guide’s Chamber", the group brings their rich musical repertoire and soulful lyrics to a wider audience of listeners who long to be touched by the weaving of faith and poetry." The album, released in 2010 by KM&R, was recorded in Syria - two countries rocked by shocking violence. To those who feel love not hate, enjoy this beautiful track by Bustan Al-Madihin and let us pray together that sanity triumphs over unspeakable cruelty.

Hasbuna-Allahu Wa Ni'mal Wakil

Hasbuna-Allahu Wa Ni'mal Wakil

All Dressed Up And No Where To Go

Afro-Arab summit in Sirte (2010)

One wonders what was so funny at the time. Posing for a photo-op at the Afro-Arab summit in Sirte (2010), these men share a laugh, perhaps the clown in front, their host, said something funny. Oppressors often mistakenly believe they're immune from the wrath of the oppressed. That's because they surround themselves with buffoons, court jesters, men and women who can't risk telling the truth. Those who tell the truth don't usually live to speak another day. I was thinking about Syria this morning after Fajr and particularly how ugly the situation appears to be and yet the people's struggle continues. Why has this era of darkness descended on Syria and when it ends, what would have become of the great luminaries from whose doors our Ummah took knowledge?

I recently came across this brilliant passage in "Mau'izah-i-Jahangiri" written by Muhammad Baqir Najm-i Sani, a high-ranking Mughal nobleman in the early 17th C. (trans. from Persian as "Advice on the Art of Governance" by Sajida Sultana Alvi). In it Najm-i-Sani wrote: If the judge (shahnah-i 'adl) (ruler) does not regulate the affairs of the people, a clandestine rebel, abetted by tyranny, will destroy the lives of the nobility (khas) and plebeian ('am) alike. If the light from the candle of justice does not illuminate the somber cell of the afflicted, the darkness of cruelty will blacken the entire country just as it does the hearts of the tyrants." The Mughals knew a thing or two about power and authority.

In the process of looking for something I stumbled on a pile of old MD discs. One was labelled "Sh. Hamza - Calgary Khutbah." It was recorded during the Dec. 2002 Deen Intensive in Calgary. I had something to do with DIs at the time and recorded it although it has never been released. I thought this particular excerpt was remarkably prescient given what we see unfolding in Syria. Shaykh Hamza on the Abuse of Power. 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Ikhwan and the Salafist political parties might be making electoral gains in the Middle East, but it appears a growing chorus of religious scholars is determined to test their commitment to the democratic ideals they so ardently espouse.

Among the scholars who are refusing to dance to the Ikhwan’s tune are Habib Ali Al-Jifry and Shaykh Ali Gomaa. Shaykh Ali Gomaa is Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a position that carries the weight of centuries of Muslim legal history. Habib Ali, on the other hand, is a rare type of public intellectual, admired by many Muslims both in the East and the West for the clarity of his religious commitments.

Masjid Al Aqsa

A few weeks ago they visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on separate occasions. In so doing, they defied a fatwa that declares all visits by non-Palestinains to Al-Aqsa as “haram” on grounds that it leads to the “normalization of relationship with the state of Israel.”

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It's hard to believe 20 years has passed since the start of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

After listening to the documentary of my distinguished friend and colleague at the CBC, Anna Maria Tremonti, I felt compelled to play the tracks on Yusuf Islam's album, "I have No Cannon That Roar."

For those who believe memories are important, even those of tragedies and unspoken human cruelties, please read the blog of Abdal Latif Whiteman titled "Goose Pimples in Sarajevo." And if you want to hear something that is sure to touch your soul give a listen to his Arabic rendition of Tashaffa-ya-rasullalah. "Tashaffa-ya-rasullalah." The song was performed at a concert in Sarajevo after the war ended and from that same concert came the tracks for "I have No Cannon That Roar."

In the first part of her documentary Anna Maria takes us back to the start of the war that she covered for the CBC over a period of several years. In part 1 "Born of War" Anna Maria introduces listeners to two Muslim women who were victims of rape and who took their resulting pregnancies to term. It is not for the faint of heart.

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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.