When Conversion goes awry: The strange case of Umar Lee

I sympathize with converts to Islam like Umar Lee. It’s the kind of sympathy I feel for a child about to hit puberty, trapped between the innocence of childhood and the anxiety that comes with being a grown up. Converts have to cope with complex ‘push factors’ i.e. the reasons that cause them to part ways with a lifestyle, religion, or lack thereof, and the consequences that comes with that decision. But that’s not all. They have to then navigate the landscape of the “pull factors” i.e. the things that attracted them to Islam. And that’s a whole other game.

Converts like Umar Lee (and he’s certainly not alone) gravitate to men with short trousers and long beards who shout and wail in accents that betray the rage of hearts in need of some badly needed rest.

To converts, folks like me, born into a Muslim family, with all our small ‘t’ traditions (call them bid’a if you like), unsophisticated communities (close minded and parochial, yes), and a demeanor unruffled by the discourse of the ideologues burdened with the desire for political power or the narrative of vengeance neatly wrapped in Quranic verses and ahadith from the war ravished lands of Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia, are the reason why Islam lost the grandeur it once had.

And so the convert swell the ranks of the Salafis to fight against the majority of Muslim who follow one of the four Sunni madhahib, adhere to the ‘aqida of Ahlus Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah and have a daily routine of spiritual practices be it a wird or the recitation of Ayatul Kursi, dhikr and dua’ after salah.

Umar Lee is a smart person and he recognized the tragic pitfalls of the Salafists/Wahabi da’wah, or minhaj if you like. And one might say that’s a good thing. Lot of Sufis lined up to congratulate him. Converts like Saraji Umm Zaid and Abdur Rahman Robert Squires, hard-core Muslim convert bloggers with world-wide audiences, have recently denounced Islam and are now pursuing other options. Religion, not only Islam, can burn people out if they’re not careful.

I am sorry it took a personal tragedy to cause Lee to realize that the Salafis are shells devoid of kernels. But I say this to all converts: If you became Muslims to hike up your pants, grow your beards, don a black niqab, fight with other Muslims and marry/divorce as many women as you can before the sight of a Viagra brings a smile to your face, then go back to what you’ve been raised on and hope for the best. Trust me you’d be better off.

But this Lee fella digs himself a deeper hole. He’s now dreaming of a Sheikh named Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. Lee says a person can’t believe everything he reads meaning perhaps he’s read or heard something about Gilani and his followers who go these days by the name Muslims of the Americas. I agree that you can’t or shouldn’t believe everything you read, but heck dude, believe some of it at least. If Lee is looking for a spiritual path he might have more chance finding it in Jacksonville instead of Holy Islamville.

I know Gilani. In fact, I am perhaps the only Western journalist to have interviewed him on camera for the CBC’s 5th Estate “Seeds of Terror.” A few years ago when his good friend Khalid Khawaja was alive before being executed by the Pakistani Taliban or the ISI, Gilani wrote me a four page letter apologizing for not being able to meet me in person while I was on a working trip to Pakistan. Funny thing was, I didn’t even request a meeting with him.

My own personal investigation has uncovered a trail of blood left by Gilani’s dervishes that stretched from Trinidad, Guyana, the United States and Canada. Long before September 11, 2001 rolled around Gilani and his fuqara were beating the path of ‘jihad’ assassinating prominent Hindus, Ahmadi missionaries and Muslims deemed heretics by Gilani such as Rashad Khalifa. I’ve counted 20 major criminal acts of terror dating from 1981 to 1990.

Gilani’s followers today are peaceful, no doubt. Some are on the run or in jail or looking at extradition from Canada to stand trial in the U.S. Some, like three men who plotted to bomb a Hindu temple and an Indian theatre in Toronto in 1991 have served their 12 years in an Ontario jail and have been deported to the land of their origin in the Caribbean.

Whoever was responsible for creating Gilani and sending him to the United States in 1981 when Zia-ul-Haq was supremo leader of Pakistan and a Jihad had to be won in Afghanistan against the evil Red Army, is still a mystery. But I can tell you this Lee, setting up Sufi khanqas was the last thing on the mind of Gilani and his handlers. Sticking it to the Ahmadis, American allies of Indira Gandhi and recruiting a steady flow of Jihadists for Kashmir and Afghanistan seem more in line with Gilani’s mission.

But that’s all history now. His followers, many of them very nice converts whom, I say respectfully, sing wonderful qasidas in authentic Urdu – you can see them on Youtube – have impeccable adab even as they espouse some very strange nonsensical gibberish. It is not Sufism and they are yet another manifestation of a cult.

So, I end by saying this to you Lee, you’re better off doing security for Mr. Suhaib Webb. God in heavens knows even a one time bouncer need protection from Pakistani uncles and aunties at ISNA convention. It’s all about appearances. Although, I have no interest in Webb’s message ever since he bought into the ideology of the Ikhwan hook line and sinker, I know this about him, he ain’t no fool.

Read about Umar Lee’s dreams here.

Sudais – Thanks, no thanks.

Respectfully, Sudais, try giving your leaders and followers at home some useful advise before lecturing Muslims in the West.
Sudais says that people shouldn’t be afraid of Islam. But on careful reflection of his own words perhaps they should. If the underlying reason we Muslims in the West should be “good to others” is because it makes Islam attractive to them, then they can’t take anything we say and do at face value.  Why does conversion have to creep into the message every time these guys open their mouths to speak?

What we need as my friend Fuad Nahdi recently said, is convergence of faith not conversion to faith. Shaykh Hamza said in a speech years ago that we need to rescue the concept of Da’wah from the missionaries. This beautiful Quranic concept has been hijacked (certainly not the only concept) by modern day Islamists and transformed into an instrument, not of representation, but of subversion for the purpose of conversion.

The question I would like to ask d’aee oriented scholars and our friends in the so-called “movement” (Ikhwan or Jamaat etc.) is whether the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, acted with ‘Ihsan’ to others because he was inherently good – i.e. good by his Divinely inspired character – or was he good to others because he wanted to win them over to Islam? In other words, when he visited his non-believing neighbors and acted with kindness, justice and generosity towards the Jews and Christians, was conversion his goal or was he acting in a manner pleasing to his Lord? Why then do we put winning hearts and minds on the menu when we exhort Muslims to act well towards others?

If someone in the position of Sudais (a person of spiritual authority) tells non-Muslims not to be afraid of Islam and then tells Muslims to do good to others because it will win them over to Islam, I would say he is recommending soft subversion and who could blame a non-Muslim for being deeply suspicious the next time a smiling Muslim comes knocking on his door. The “don’t be afraid of Islam” message is yet another form of double-speak when you can’t tell people to be good in their conduct because it is the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah. Full stop. He was of the best khuluq and when we emulate him we benefit in ways beyond our intellect could imagine.

And while I am on the topic of the need to rescue core traditional Islamic concepts from those with missionary zeal in their hearts,  I am happy that some scholars are beginning to speak up. For example, the Jakarta Globe reported the following:

Said Aqil Siradj, the head of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) called on his own organization not to conduct “sweeps of entertainment venues” on the eve of Ramadan. He offered an explanation which included this: He said NU members must follow the teachings of Prophet Mohammad when he established the state of Madinah. “The concept he used is not for establishing an Islamic state or an Arab state but a civilized state.”

And that’s evident from the name of his adopted city which seized being Yathrib and became “Madinah”…from ‘daana’ to suppress, i.e. one’s nafs, the basis of what makes it possible to live in a civil society. Civil society is not about “me, me, me” but rather about the collective, the community, i.e. others. An idea the Salafis seem to have trouble with. I never expected this from NU much less from its current leader. I believe that from the periphery of the Muslim world will come the ideas that will present Islam to the West as ‘deen’ and not as a political ideology filled to the brim with  fear, conspiracies and an obsession with conversion.  Who becomes Muslim and who doesn’t is not up to us. It wasn’t even up the Prophet himself, peace and blessings be upon him.  The One who guides to His Path does not ask for our opinion even as we must seek His guidance

Islam is not a missionary religion

I read this interesting article by Mehdi Hasan. I am not a fence-sitter, so I am either posting this because, bravo Mehdi, I agree, or, holy crap, this guy is full of nonsense. He isn’t.

Title: Islam Should Not be a Missionary Religion

Muslims must shun the divisive idea of a marketplace of religions which all compete for believers

Islam, it is often assumed, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is a missionary faith.  It isn’t.

Yes, the Qur’an does of course encourage the believers to spread God’s word: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best.” But it also recognizes religious, cultural and ethnic diversity: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” How can Muslims presume to convert to everyone to Islam when God Himself, in His infinite wisdom, chose not to? “And if Allah willed, He could have made them [of] one religion, but He admits whom He wills into His mercy.” In fact, the Qur’an tells Muhammad, at one stage, to adopt an “agree to disagree” approach to the non-believers: “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”

In a diverse, globalised world, which depends upon religious tolerance and harmonious relations between communities, Muslims have to learn to live together with non-Muslims without surrendering to the “I must convert all the kafirs” itch. There is no need for an Islamic equivalent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So it frustrates me when many of my co-religionists get excited at the prospect of people converting to Islam, especially celebrities. Does it matter if Michael Jackson was on the verge of a deathbed conversion to Islam? Should we encourage Simon Cowell to become a Muslim? (No and no.)

Faith is being reduced to a numbers game. “Islam is the fastest-growing religion on earth,” is the mantra that my Muslim friends recite with glee. So? I’ve never quite understood how adding to the world’s burgeoning Muslim population helps me, the Islamic world or the faith itself. We have enough theological, political, cultural and socio-economic problems as it is, without mindlessly adding to our numbers. I can’t help but sympathise with the senior Indian Muslim cleric who once revealed to me his (private) advice to Hindus considering converting: “Don’t bother. Not until we Muslims get our house in order.”

These days, it is converts themselves who often damage the Islamic cause. The majority, of course, are peaceful, law-abiding citizens whose conversions have enriched their lives and those of the Muslim communities into which they have been welcomed. But what about men of violence like Richard Reid, Germaine Lindsay and Dhiren Barot? Others that the “ummah” could have done without include Adam Gadahn, Al Qaeda’s media spokesman and Colleen La Rose, aka “Jihad Jane”.

Then there is the thorny issue of Islam’s apostasy laws, which prevent Muslims from converting to other religions. We cannot expect to “compete” with other faiths for new recruits if those faiths aren’t given a similar opportunity to try and recruit from inside the Islamic world. In Kuwait, in 1996, amid a row over the conversion of a businessman to Christianity, one cleric argued: “We always remind those who want to convert to Islam that they enter through a door but that there is no way out.” This is as illogical as it is unIslamic. How can you expect people not to change their minds? Or dare deny them that freedom?

Above all else, religion should not be about competition, which is for bankers and financiers, not for the faithful. The idea that there should be a marketplace of religions in which priests, imams, rabbis and pandits jostle with each other to sign up new believers is deeply divisive. The only “invisible hand” in the world of the religious should be God’s.
If there is to be mutual respect between religious communities, and much-needed inter-faith dialogue, there can be no hidden agendas. Muslims, Christians, Jews and the rest should never go into discussions or debates with the secret aim of trying to convert one another. Nothing could be more counter-productive or damaging to relations between the faiths. For Muslims, in particular, accused by the far right and sections of the liberal left, of trying to “Islamize” Britain, and Europe, it also makes tactical sense to avoid feeding this false narrative.

We are not missionaries. The role of a Muslim is not to convert the rest of the world to Islam. We should instead focus on becoming the best possible Muslims, and leading the best possible lives, that we can. If the rest of the world then chooses to follow our lead, so much the better.

(Source: The Guardian (guardian.co.uk) Friday 2 July 2010)

Determinded Not To Hate

The issue of Palestine is often cited by violent extremists as the reason they believe Muslims ought to raise the banner of Jihad in this age. There is no doubt in my mind that Palestine has become the flashpoint of radical Muslim politics whether in the Middle East or here in Canada.Alliances have been formed and lines are being drawn and redrawn over this issue.

"I Shall Not Hate"

When the Canadian Somali Congress recently teamed up with members of the Jewish community in a mentorship program, leaders in the Somali community were called traitors for doing so. Some of the insults came from within their own communities and it didn’t end there.Yet no other ethnic Muslim community…not the Asians, West Indians or the Arabs…came forward to provide an alternative. What the Jewish community has offered young highly intelligent Somali men and women are internships to help them better prepare for jobs in their professional careers.And this is only one example of how a conflict half way around the world affects our communities here in Canada.

It seems that the only response to the Palestinian issue is violence and when that’s not possible, hate takes its place. I’ve visited Israel and parts of its occupied territories and produced several feature television reports from there, but I can never claim to understand the experiences of suffering and anguish on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
But Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish does. On January 16, 2009 Israeli shells rained down on his neighborhood in Gaza. He ran out of his home to help others. That’s when a shell hit his own home killing three of his daughters and a niece.

Words could not capture Abuelaish’s grief. The pictures of a physician with deep faith in God weeping for his loss captured hearts and headlines around the world.With the remaining members of his family he moved to Toronto and took a position teaching at the University of Toronto. And he has written a book, the title of which many of you may doubt, but one that reflects the very character of our blessed Prophet, Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings. The title of Abuelaish’s book is “I SHALL NOT HATE.”

It is an account of a Gazan life subsumed in the pain that accompanies suffering and the humiliation that accompanies occupation. But it is not only about that, it is about coming to terms with what has happened and moving forward with courage and a determination that hate resolves nothing.

From a piece of land that’s no more than 360 square kilometers with 1.5 million refugees jammed in, comes a vision from the “Gazan doctor” as he is now called, that education for women is the only way forward in the Middle East.

Is it this remarkable vision — one man’s response to the loss of what is most dear to him — that has won him humanitarian awards around the world.  Instead of seeking revenge and constantly coughing up the phlegm of hatred, Dr. Abuelaish wants the loss of his daughters to light the flame of genuine peace in the Middle East. And truth be said, it is the only proposal that’s never been given a chance.

War, occupation and the reckless stupidity of suicide bombings have brought nothing but misery to all sides in this conflict. Dr. Abuelaish is pointing us in a direction that requires courage and the ability to think anew.

The resolve of Dr. Abuelaish not to hate reflects the ethic of the Sunnah of our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings.

At the tail end of the Battle of Uhud, as the Prophet was receiving treatment for his wounds in a cave on the mountain, his enemies stood a safe distance shouting absurdities at him. When his companions became eager to respond in kind, the Prophet told them, “I was not sent to curse people, but as a Mercy.”

His was not a path of hate, but one of Forgiveness and Generosity of Character. It makes absolutely no sense to say he was merciful when his mercy did not extend to everyone, those who loved him and those who wished to harm him.

Least we forget, he pardoned a woman who poisoned meat before serving it to him. He forgave the man who drew a sword on him with the intent to kill. And he forgave those like Abdullah ibn Ubayy, who betrayed him.

Even when he suffered loss at the hands of his enemies, the Prophet of God would never become agitated and never once lost his composure. He was always in a state of tranquility…wa kana ahlamun-nas. He was the most tranquil of all people.

The word halim in Arabic can be applied to an intelligent person. A person with a calm disposition is often level-headed which incidentally is mark of great civilizations. A  halim, for example, from the same word, is is dreamer. To dream one requires peace and calm otherwise the dream would quickly become a nightmare.

The path to hilm can only be achieved by enduring hardships with patience. In my own opinion, it is because Dr. Abuelaish radiates with the beauty of someone who has shown remarkable patience, his solution to this conflict strikes me as more formidable than any springing out of the soil of hatred.

If you wish to help this man please visit the charity he has set up in his daughters’ name at www.daughtersforlife.com

May God shower our community with love and guide us to a path that allows us to accept with humility and courtesy the gifts of spring and a heart that is forever grateful of His favors.

Clinging to the Spirit of Muhammad

In response to the vanguards of intolerance in the West, a tiny but loud contingent of Muslim extremists appear all too willing to trample on the virtues of gratitude and gentleness even as they clamor for justice.

While the moral majority in the West scrambles to keep alive the virtues of tolerance and generosity, Muslims must likewise cling to the essence of the Prophetic virtues of love, mercy and gratitude. They would be wise to do this with humor, gentleness and good faith.

A recent cover story in the prestigious Economist magazine captured Europe’s apprehension with Islam and Muslims when it invoked the term “Eurabia” over a picture of the Eiffel Tower. By kowtowing to Muslims, the Economist wrote, Islam and Muslims were now poised to deflower Europe’s pristine secular landscape.

The once notoriously neutral Swiss will hold a referendum later this year on the question of whether Swiss mosques should be allowed to have minarets. To the adherents of the ‘Eurabia’ thesis, minarets are not a reflection of the spiritual essence of a great Abrahamic tradition, but the political aspirations of Muslims to reestablish the Caliphate, only this time on European soil.

If the pundits of ‘Eurabia’ availed themselves an opportunity to attend a typical meeting at any of the hundred or so Swiss mosques, with or without minarets, they might hear the loud reverberations of angry board members shouting at each other for hours over what to do about the increasing number of worshippers oblivious to simple parking rules.

‘Eurabia’ has acquired a following in the upper echelons of society even in Canada and the United States. Of all the issues that afflict France’s ten million Muslims, Nicholas Sarkozy would have the world believe that in preventing a mere 300 women from wearing the niqab, he is a worthy champion of Europe’s secular ideals.

The leap from this alarming discourse to the violent outburst of a crazed German man stabbing to death a pregnant Egyptian pharmacist in a Dresden courtroom while her four-year-old son watched in sheer horror, is not impossible. As her brave husband wrestled with the knife wielding attacker, police assumed the man with the swarthy complexion must be the aggressor and shot him. When relatives of Marwa El-Sherbini pleaded with authorities for custody of her son, German authorities thought he was better off in an orphanage.

Targeting the hijab is a daily occurrence in Canada and the United States in spite of President Barack Obama’s superb Cairo speech. While Obama might have taken the opportunity to host a ‘teachable moment’ on the lawns of the White House as he did recently with Harvard scholar Henry Gates and the White cop that arrested the elderly professor in his own home — perhaps with a choice of teh or kopi instead of Bud Light or Blue Moon beers — German Chancellor Angela Merkel would make no such gesture. El-Sherbini, in the eyes of the liberal media, was attacked by a madman. End of story.

Among Muslims however, her death was that of a martyr and it too – like the horrid Danish cartoon fiasco — evoked the same tired response of emotionally charged protesters taking to the streets of Alexandria, Amman and Damascus.

Even as the pendulum of public opinion swings away from pluralism and accommodation towards intolerance and racism, Muslims are required, now more than ever, to boldly engage with those who share a commitment to spiritual beauty and an aspiration for happiness here and the Hereafter.

One way of opening the doors to constructive engagement is to excavate the spiritual gems embedded in Europe’s history. Exactly a hundred years ago, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) one of Germany’s greatest poets, saw the spirit of Muhammadiyya in still pictures his wife sent to him from her visit to Egypt, the country of El-Sherbini’s birth.

At the time Rilke was experiencing a deep sense of alienation and loneliness and was probing the meaning of human existence. He turned to the Quran for answers. Fascinated by what he was reading, he wrote, “And once I tried to learn the Quran by heart. I didn’t get very far, but what I did understand was that there you see a mighty index finger, pointing towards God, grasped in His eternal rise, in an Orient that will never be exhausted.”

After studying the life of Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, Rilke concluded that the solution to the deep social and psychological alienation that was squeezing the soul out of the people of Europe was to submit to God’s will, like the followers of Muhammad in the East.

It was then that he penned “Mohammed’s Berufung”, translated into English as ‘Mohammed’s Call.’

“Power stepped into his hiding place;
at once a presence he could not mistake
He begged the Angel – upright, fair and ablaze –
to leave him as he was.

He would forsake all his ambitions;
it was best he stayed that baffled,
over-traveled man of trade.

He’d never learned his letters,
and now such a word!
For wise men, even, far too much.

But no, the Angel fiercely showed
and showed the writing on its leaf.
This will that glowed would not back down,
again demanding – Read.

And then he did. The Angel bowed its head before him,
one from thenceforth who had Read, who knew, obeyed,
and carried out the decrees.

Rilke refers to the Angel Gabriel as a ‘power’ that entered his cave (on Mount  Hira). The Prophet was palpably afraid and begged to be left alone – to be that ‘baffled over-traveled’ trader. Muhammad, God’s blessings be upon him, could not read nor write, and when the Angel demanded that he Read, Rilke said ‘it was far too much,’ but once he did, the Angel bowed in difference to him.

For a German poet to write this a hundred years ago suggests that Rilke must have read more than the equivalent of a copy of ‘Islam for Dummies.

Shortly after writing the poem Rilke embarked on a journey of his own to North Africa. Moved by the way the daily prayers fused seamlessly into whatever occupied people, Rilke wrote home: “it is as if the Prophet had been there only yesterday, and the city is his very realm.”

The prescient question we need to ask ourselves today is whether the Germans, French, Danish, British or Americans would still see the spirit of Muhammadiyya,  reflected in our lives. Unfortunately, they are more likely to see the anguished faces of Muslims brow-beaten by narrow-minded scholars who anxiously drop the anvil of bi’da on every happy occasion even that of the mawlid of God’s noble Messenger, Muhammad, may Allah shower him with his choicest blessings.

Reasonable Accommodation

“Reasonable Accommodation” contends that religious practices will no longer be sheltered under the umbrella of multiculturalism. Further, it imposes a limitation on the participation of faith in the public space by stipulating a condition of “reasonable proof” on religion.

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From Protest To Engagement

On a cold, windy Saturday afternoon in late February, I joined hundreds of mostly young British Muslims as they crowded into Westminster Hall in central London to listen to an impressive line-up of Muslim scholars.

The program was sponsored by the Radical Middle Way(RMW), an independent grass-roots initiative that receives limited funding from the British government.

Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah

In the year since it was launched, RMW has organized a variety of public forums across the UK. Often dubbed “The Scholars Road Show,” these forums have featured speakers such as Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, Al Habib Ali Al-Jifri and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. With eye-grabbing titles such as “Between Ignorance and Extremism” and “Is Islam in Need of a Reformation?”, the organizers have had no difficulty filling venues.

RMW’s message has reached an estimated 60,000 British Muslims. The London program was titled “From Protest to Engagement,” and as the evening progressed, a consensus started to emerge among the speakers.

Engagement, or more specifically, “‘faith-based civic engagement,” is the most sensible response to the challenges Muslims are currently experiencing in the West. It also conforms to the character of the Blessed Messenger, Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings.

As I listened to Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah’s talk, I came to the realization that in his own inimitable style, he had put his thumb on the fault-line of Muslim reality in the West. Caught in the schizophrenic tug-of-war between nationalist identity and loyalty to the Ummah, Muslims have unfortunately embraced a logic of the left and adopted protest as a counter-hegemonic political strategy.

Over the years, protest has invariably resulted in the entrenchment of a now dominant paradigm among Muslims of an “us (Muslims) versus them (kafirs).” Protest arises from a false assumption that “the dominant system” will eventually collapse in the ashes of its own inherent logic. From this perspective, protest is the alternative movement’s best strategy to speed up its demise.

Protest breeds resentment and when infused with religious zeal, it often leads to sectarianism, and in many cases, violence in the name of faith. In the cauldron of protest politics, religious extremism has found fertile ground to germinate.

Making a shift from a discourse mired in the politics of protest to an action plan grounded in social engagement, I realized, was going to require more than a sound niyah (intention). The seismic shift from protest to engagement will require all stakeholders among Muslim communities in the West to set aside their titles and ideological platforms and embody an ethic based on the values we hold in common as human beings. That was the message of Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah.

He elucidated the efficacy of engagement over protest by citing a narration attributed to the Messenger of God, upon him be peace and blessings. The Prophet compared two kinds of passengers on a ship—the people on the upper deck and the people lodged in its hull. As the ship sets out, those in the hull decide to drill a hole in the boat to gain access to badly needed water. Witnessing this, those on the deck must decide whether they should shout slogans and organize a demonstration with banners that scream for attention, or engage the drillers in a meaningful dialogue in order to save the ship from sinking and causing the death of all on board.

“When you have a fire to put out,” Shaykh Abdallah said, “you are not concerned about who is standing with you to put it out.” “Muslims in the UK,” he continued, “need a group of firefighters to pick up a bucket and come to the rescue of societies that are burning.”

The first indication that some segments of the British Muslim community are struggling with this message, if not rejecting it outright, came at the very end of the program when Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, executive director of Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., delivered the closing remarks of the evening.

He forthrightly dismissed any accusation leveled at RMW that because it receives government funding, it means that the opinions of the scholars who speak on its platform must be government propaganda. ‘‘Who do you think this government is?’’ Shaykh Hamza asked. ‘‘They are called civil servants. Who do you think pays them? It is from the pockets of the people. There are nearly 2 million Muslims paying taxes in this country, don’t they deserve a little refund?” Loud applause. “This is not Rawalpindi, Cairo or Karachi, where if you criticize the government, you suddenly disappear. In this country you are not only subjects of the Queen, but you are citizens as well.” Loud and approving applause again.

Written for Islamica Magazine (Issue 19)

Poverty in the face of Plenty

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit four remarkable European cities – Helsinki, Stockholm, Berlin and London. I spent a week in each and never ran into a beggar. I certainly saw people who looked impoverished, but they didn’t  panhandle.

Immediately after my trip to Europe I went on a three-week vacation to India and for some reason I felt as if the entire nation were beggars. According to official estimates there are about 600,000 beggars in India. I don’t know how they counted them, but it seemed like a whole lot more to me.

It is not often that I visit countries with a population of 1.1 billion. My own country – Canada – has a population of just over 30 million.  I guess if one million Indians were beggars that wouldn’t be all that bad.

The European Union has close to half a billion people with a GDP of USD$14.5 trillion. That’s almost 35 per cent of the world’s GDP with a per capita of USD$30-$40,000. Contrast that with India’s GDP of USD$1 trillion and a per capita of only $3,700.

Still, India is the world’s fourth largest economy and its future is perhaps the brightest when contrasted with say China. One reason could be the fact that a staggering 600 million people are under the age of 25. India is also the largest arms importer in the developing world. The argument as to whether a strong China or a poor China is a threat to the rest of the world can be applied as well to India.

India is already running out of potable water. Between 1993 and 2003 an estimated 100,000 farmers committed suicide in India. And yet by the time we celebrate Christmas this year Indians would have purchased 10 million automobiles and 72 million cell phones. Strategic analysts will tell you that weapons, development and poverty is a deadly brew.

When I found myself surrounded by what I can only describe as stifling poverty I was at first tempted to dismiss it as another consequence of western greed. I heard myself say it was not my responsibility.

At the recent G-8 meeting in Germany $60 billion was pledged in aid to Africa. Given the role Europe has played in the underdevelopment of Africa you don’t need a calculator to conclude that its literally ‘a drop in the bucket.’ In other words, hardly enough to fix the problem.

In many ways blaming the rich for the poverty of the poor is an old and tattered book especially when I found myself walking along the causeway leading out to Haji Baba Ali’s Dargah in Mumbia. It appeared to me that begging was clearly a profession.

There have been shocking stories in Indian  newspapers about parents who deliberately disfigure their children in infancy so that they would have no other option in life but to settle on the family’s business. In high traffic areas beggars tend to operate as unions, you give to one and suddenly there are 10 of them following you around looking for the same handout.

After a few days alternating between blaming the rich and then occasionally blaming the poor, I was forced to recognize my own personal obligation. This realization came when I started to encounter a throng of ‘persistent beggars.’ These are the ones without fear. They will touch you, grab you and stare you in the face until you give them something.

Suddenly blaming others — the IMF, World Bank, the filthy rich, whether in Europe and North America – did very little to assuage the feeling of guilt I had began to experience.

I began asking myself how can I practice the art of according to the noble example of the blessed Messenger of God? To be honest, it wasn’t something I was prepared for.

I recalled a part of a hadith narrated by Abu Dharr Al-Ghifari. He reported that the Messenger said: “O Abu Dharr, the rich will be the impoverished ones on the Day of Resurrection except those whom Allah gives wealth which they in turn give in charity to those on their right, left, front and back, and does good deeds with it.”

There was also the hadith of the Prophet quizzing his companions about their judgment of people on the basis of their outward signs. An evidently wealthy man passed by and the companions judged him worthy of noble marriage and a favorable standing in society. A shabby looking man then passed by and the companions deemed him to be poor without any status in society or opportunity for a noble marriage. Then the Prophet revealed that the poor man was better than the rich one even if the latter were to fill the earth.

If that’s the status of the poor what about those who help them? Hakim bin Hizam said he asked the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, for some wealth and he obliged. He asked a second and third time and he got what he asked for each time. Then he reported that the Prophet said to him: “Wealth is like a green sweet fruit and whoever takes it without greed, God will bless it for him, but whoever takes it with greed, God will not bless it and he will be like someone who eats but is never satisfied. And the upper hand is better than the lower hand.” In other words, he who gives is better than he who accepts.

Christians often say: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” I used to think this saying was from the Bible until I looked it up and found that Psalm 37: V.11 reads: “The meek shall inherit the earth and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.” Interestingly, the Hebrew word for ’meek’ means those who are suppressed in mind and circumstances, the needy, the poor, those who are humbled in this world.

The Abrahamic traditions are all similar when it comes to the importance of giving charity. The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, said that he looked into paradise and saw most of its inhabitants were people of poverty.

According to recent studies, Americans were found to be the most charitable people in the world. This has nothing to do with their government. Americans donated $1.78 billion to Tsunami relief and $78 million to the Pakistani earthquake. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita got $3.12 billion. Every year Americans give a quarter of a trillion dollar on average to three charities – the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and American Cancer Society.

Isn’t helping the poor and needy, whether they are Muslims or not, spending in the way of God?  The Quran says that “the likeness of those who spend their wealth in God’s way is as the likeness of a grain which grows seven ears — in every ear is a hundred grains.” (Baqarah V. 261)

With poverty literally in my face I pledged not to show any sign of frustration toward beggars. I wasn’t going to talk about them or to them in a way that might be construed as derogatory or insulting. The Quran says “a kind word with forgiveness is better than charity followed by injury.”

To avoid feeling that I was going to run out of money in a foreign land if I kept on giving, I set aside an amount every day to give away in sadaqa. I convinced myself that whatever little I had it did not belong to me and that if I felt compelled I would give away whatever I had in my possession at the time.

When I returned home I started to realize that what I did was the easy part of being charitable. Now that I am back in Canada with no beggars tugging at my shirt sleeves, how do I continue being charitable? Muslim charities have been harrassed, closed down and investigated by our authorities. We all have some degree of apprehension about contributing funds to a charity and then getting branded  as extremists or worst, terrorist sympathizers.

To avoid this conundrum Muslims should give to reputable charities that operate at a high level of transparency. If you are giving to your mosque there is no harm in asking for a receipt. The purpose of doing this is not to proclaim  your contribution, but to ensure a system of accountability of checks and balances is maintained.

We should recognize as well that when it comes to living in the West organizations that are set up to help the poor and needy will do a much more effective job than individuals, unless you are Bill Gates, and even he has established a charitable foundation.

I believe it was my duty to give when confronted with an opportunity to do so regardless of how wealthy I believed nations of the G-8 are. I know I didn’t  alleviate poverty in India but that wasn’t my intention. If anything, the creative and charming panhandlers of India helped me in ways we will both never fully understand.

“You will never experience piety until you spend of that which you love. And whatever you spend, God is aware of it.” (Aale Imran V. 92).

Organizations can help people whom the Quran describes as poor but their poverty is not evident to the untrained eye. People will often mistake them for the wealthy because they show restraint, the Quran says. “You shall know them by their mark and they do not beg of you with importunity.”

That’s the vast majority of the poor in the world today. It is a minority that panhandles. If anything, the beggars’ role in society is to transform us into people of courage. It takes courage not to be afraid that by giving our wealth we will be rendered impoverished.
(June 2007)

Show Biz Islam

Bilal and Saeed are best friends from Cleveland, Ohio. They appear to be two ordinary fun-loving men looking for some excitement in life. Bilal and Saeed are Afro-American converts and they wear the badge of Islam with pride.   When they popped up on the season’s premier of the CBS hit reality show, “The Amazing Race,” it was like “Hey, check out those brothers.” For those unfamiliar with the rich cultural diversity in the Muslim communities of North America, the spirited duo appeared to be in the wrong race. “Someone should have told them it was not a race to Mecca.” And Bilal and Saeed were soon nicknamed by fans of the show as “The Beards.” The two made it clear that while the prize money was important, they were determined to take time out to offer their obligatory five daily prayers regardless of how intense it got. And that’s exactly what they did at Los Angeles International Airport just before boarding a rushed last minute flight to China.

Saeed & Bilal

Can you imagine two well-built Muslim men with kufis and long beards praying openly at an American airport? Reality TV needs a reality check. Throughout the show, the two fussed over their diet, quibbling over what was halal and how to dress. At the end of the very first episode, Bilal and Saeed were sent home. There was no cry about Islamophobia, bias or racism from these two gentlemen. Although they displayed disappointment, (Saeed had quit his well-paying job to join the race) the men affirmed their faith before an audience of millions. Bilal’s parting words: “Being a practicing Muslim, this is truly what it means to me to be in this race. I don’t gamble, I don’t bet against the odds. My bank account is checking so that I don’t get interest. I don’t have credit cards.

This (losing) proves that we have no control over the decree of what it is that the Creator has in store for us. Mankind can only get what he strives for. If God wills it, then you can have it.” In just one episode, millions of viewers from around the world were exposed to a slice of American Muslim culture spiced-up with a great deal of jurisprudence (fiqh), snippets of creed (‘aqida), and the beauty of excellent conduct (tasawwuf) that no Islamic organization, big and small, has ever been able to achieve in all the years since 9/11.

Bilal and Saeed’s valiant foray into the glitzy world of show biz is one example of just how much Islam and Muslims are creeping steadily into that nebulous grey area we call “public space,” where cultural norms are constantly being negotiated. But before you greet this new trend with a loud euphoric takbir, you should consider that getting a handle on popular culture is as unpredictable as the weather. A great deal of what we’ve been seeing by way of entertainment is a welcome change from the negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims that has characterized most of what Hollywood has churned out in the last few decades.

Ridley Scott’s portrait of the Muslim hero Salahuddin Ayyubi in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” is a welcome shift in the narrative. On the other hand, Albert Brookes’ “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” while harmless, was a display of compound stupidity. A film titled “In the Name of God” caught my attention because its poster of a topless male had the Arabic “basmallah” written on his back. The film described itself, however, as an attempt to “explore the complex intersection of Islam and sexuality.” It is not surprising that it was the closer of the “first ever queer Muslim film festival.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recently commissioned eight episodes of a risky sitcom titled “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a play on the hit show “Little House on the Prairie.” “Little Mosque” describes itself as a “funny, warts-and-all look at life in a small Muslim community in rural Saskatchewan,” of all places. “Instead of hoisting pitchforks, rolling down hills and selling eggs … (the Muslims) will be trying to interact with the denizens of a little prairie town in a post Sept. 11 world.”

The Muslim cultural reach is extending itself into the world of print as well. Bright burgundy colors and the stunningly beautiful face of a hijabed sister is how the magazine, “MUSLIM GIRL: Enlighten. Celebrate. Inspire,” announces its launch in Jan./Feb. 2007. Hijab! Now there’s a hot cultural potato. It got the British Minister Jack Straw knee deep into trouble.  The question here is whether our excursion into the realm of popular culture will serve to separate heresy from the deep religious truths of the tradition or will it turn the tradition on its head by making a mockery of everything Muslims hold sacred?

Published in Islamica Magazine

A Muslim Spy

Sporting a thick beard, a black turban, and a knee-length kurta (tunic), Mubin Shaikh looks very much like a dusty pilgrim fresh off a bus from the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. His perfect Canadian accent and love of hockey reveals a different story. Mubin is a devout Canadian-born Muslim with immigrant Indian parents.

Mubin Shaikh

In mid-July, with his face splashed on every television screen and on every newspaper across Canada, he became an instant cause célèbre and the focus of a heated debate in Canada’s Muslim community. It is a debate that will likely have far-reaching implications for Muslims living in the West.

Two years ago, Mubin approached the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) and offered to assist them in an ongoing investigation. CSIS didn’t need his help with that case but was interested in recruiting the 30-year-old to work on another investigation. Two years later, on June 2, in part with his paid assistance, 17 young Muslim men were arrested in Toronto on terrorism-related charges.  The charges against them will evidently run the course of a lengthy trial that will most certainly hang on a defense that the charges were a result of entrapment.

Why did Mubin decide to become a spy for Canadian intelligence?

He believed that given his knowledge of the Muslim community, he was best suited to distinguish between Muslims who were most likely to carry out a terrorist act from those who often talk tough on the minbar (pulpit) only to crawl home to the warmth of their down pillows and fluffy comforters.

It didn’t come as much of a surprise when thousands of Canadians praised Mubin for his bravery, patriotism, and commitment to Canadian values. His story came out days after the ugly train bombings in Mumbai and Canadians said they felt relieved knowing that there were men like Mubin in Canada. Some said that by telling his story, he proved that Canada’s Muslims are prepared to go beyond hollow condemnations of terrorism.

The response to Mubin in the Canadian Muslim community was nasty.  Second- and third-generation Muslims used their blog space to dub him a traitor, a murtad (apostate), a munafiq (hypocrite), and a kafir (disbeliever). Their hatred for Mubin stems from several mistaken assumptions.

Some have suggested that it is wrong for Mubin to make his Muslim brothers the target of his espionage. By doing so and then “outing” himself, his punishment must be death. Short of that, he must be declared a kafir, murtad, etc.

What if he had spied on people who are not Muslims? Is one to assume that Muslims could do no wrong? And if his punishment is death, does that mean Canada has been declared Dar Al-Harb (a non-Muslim country)? On the authority of which Imam? Or is it because Canadian troops are in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban? Hamid Karzai, the democratically elected president of that country, has welcomed them.

It has been suggested that Muslims are oppressed by the West and are victims of occupation and colonization at a global level. Canada is a member of the G-8 and, thus, by engaging in espionage against Muslims in Canada, Mubin is working for the enemy. While this argument will garner support among people with a penchant for grand conspiracy theories, it has no merit in the Islamic legal tradition. Not today. Suffice it to say that those who hold this view are never likely to invite Mubin to their weekly biryani dinners.

The challenge for Muslims living as minorities in the West is to develop a clear exposition of the Islamic legal parameters as it pertains to them. Those who teach fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) for Muslim minorities must now move beyond issues of how to keep your wudu in a non-Muslim country. They must address issues that will seek to clarify the relationship between the community of believers and the secular nation state.

This is the time to enrich the many stirring ideas proposed by the brilliant master of the Islamic legal tradition, a faqih extraordinaire, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah. For anyone interested in this topic, I strongly recommend his “Sacred Law in Secular Lands.”

In the absence of clear legal rulings on any given matter, the default position of a believer’s actions should be guided by the primary purpose (maqasid) of the Shari’ah — the protection and the safe-guarding of human life, any human life. Thus, if the intent of Mubin’s action was an attempt to keep the public peace and to save human life, he should be praised not cursed.

When all their arguments fall apart, those who damn Mubin to the dark pit of hell ask, “Why didn’t he try to convince the young men that what they were allegedly planning to do was evil?” His response, “I tried, they didn’t listen.”

Published in Islamica Magazine