Saturday, July 07, 2018

Translating the Word of God: Choices when rendering the Arabic Qur’an into “plain English”

In line with the importance of the Qur’an as the sacred scripture of Muslims, translations of the Qur’an into English are plentiful, starting with the work of George Sale in 1734  “Koran - Commonly called The Alcoran of Mohammed, Translated into English immediately from the Original Arabic; with Explanatory Notes, taken from the most approved Commentators” and followed by another three dozen at least, penned either by orientalists or Muslims, through the centuries to follow. Arguably the most popular amongst Muslims in the UK is the translation of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall “The meaning of the Glorious Qur’an”, first published in 1930, alongside with that of Abdullah Yusuf Ali “The meaning of the Holy Qur’an”, first published in 1934. Understandably, the language employed by either of them sounds somewhat dated today, which can get in the way of understanding. The Qur’an describes itself as a book of guidance, but trying to follow it in a language no longer spoken is akin to trying to follow the instructions of your SatNav in a foreign language. This was especially highlighted to me in my work with Muslim young offenders who wanted to turn to the Qur’an for inspiration but found the language barrier too great to overcome. Therefore in 2004 IDCI in Birmingham published my “The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, An Explanatory Translation by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Fully revised new modern English edition” and “The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, English Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Fully revised new modern English edition”, in which I carefully adapted the text and replaced some of the more archaic expressions with modern ones whilst tying to remain true to the style of the original translator. The former has since seen several editions and has become the translation of choice for many. Yet, for me it has always remained a compromise in that editing somebody else’s translations brings numerous constraints. More than a decade later my own translation “The Wise Qur’an, the Eternal book of Guidance translated into plain English” has been published, also by IDCI Birmingham.
The term “plain English” is what was represented my key objective in preparing this translation. Many translators have in the past tried to enhance the esteem of the Qur'an by choosing a distinguished, learned and complicated language, often in an attempt to parallel Bible translations. The result has been that the message was lost on the ordinary reader. Furthermore, translators have been at pain to achieve the greatest possible accuracy. This being a worth-while objective, even more so when dealing with the divine word, it very often destroyed the clarity of expression as a result by keeping the translation too literal. It is my belief that those who would like to explore the fine details of the Qur'anic text best do so by learning Arabic as it is entirely impossible to consistently mirror in another language the full richness and detail of the original.

In any case it is a fallacy that there should only be one authoritative translation into a given other language. Since a full understanding, and thus transferring, the complete content of a Divine text cannot be given to any human, there must by necessity be several translations, some focusing on the meaning, some on the literary and poetic style, for example. Furnishing another translation does not imply that existing ones are inadequate, but simply that they are unsuitable for the intended purpose.

My attempt at translating the Qur'an was therefore not a scholarly exercise, but an effort to make its words of guidance and wisdom reach as large an audience as possible and enable them absorb its meaning and the images it contains in a language they can relate to as their own. The Qur’an states that it was revealed in “clear (or plain) Arabic”. For its meaning to be transferred to another language, in this case English, one must equally strive for the same clarity of expression which speaks directly to the soul without requiring the mind to engage in complicated decoding first.

An important condition for translating the Qur’an is that one’s own interpretation does not overtake the wider meaning. Language is open to interpretation, and interpretations differ in accordance with time and culture. For that reason, the Qur’an cannot be correctly implemented without reference to the life example of the prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, who not only transmitted the Qur’an but also demonstrated its practicability and viability. To include this dimension, classical writings on Tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis) were extensively consulted when preparing this translation.

Yet, one must also avoid the mistake of making the translation of the Qur’an itself into a commentary by substituting words in order to force their interpretation. The Qur’an speaks for itself, and as far as possible the words and phrases chosen by the Creator should remain unchanged. Adaptations are, however, required where a literal translation of the Arabic sentence would violate the syntax of the English and thus sound outlandish.

To illustrate the approach described above I would like to give a few examples of the choices made when completing the translation.

As for clarity of expression being achieved by not adhering unnecessarily closely to the word sequence in the original, the phrase “did you not see the water which you drink” is appropriately rendered as “take a look at your drinking water”. Likewise, the single letter word “wa”, meaning “and”, is often used in the same way as a comma in English and when it occurs in a list, the repetitive insertion of “and” will make the sentence difficult to follow.

Another example is prepositions which differ between languages, and to use the same preposition just to “stay close to the original” actually distorts it. Previous English translations of the Qur’an describe the gardens of paradise “underneath which rivers flow”, conjuring the image of some kind of sewage system. The Arabic word “below” is used in connection with rivers because the river bed is below the earth surface, but in English rivers flow “through” the land, since different cultures have different concepts of space and time. Thus in English children, for example, play “in the street”, which does not mean the inside of it but the inside of the space between buildings which is defined by the street. In German, on the other hand, they play “on the street”, the street here being defined as the actual road surface. Likewise, when we are told in the Qur'an to travel "in" the earth, we use "on" the earth in English.

Another difficulty when translating between languages belonging to distant geographical environments is that it is not always possible to use the same equivalent of a word throughout. On the one hand, Arabic has a multitude of names for an object, for example a camel, for which English only has one or two. On the other hand, the reverse is also often the case, and the same Arabic word needs to be represented by a different English word dependent on context. A “kafir” is, for example, both the one who rejects the truth and the one who rejects the blessings he received. In the latter case he needs to be described as ungrateful. So in the Qur’anic statement “if you were to count the blessings of Allah you could not enumerate them - man is unjust and ungrateful” it would be wrong to use “disbelieving” instead.

I avoided the word “disbelief” altogether and used “rejection” instead, because the concept is of somebody who rejects the truth after having been exposed to it. As for “abd”, literally a slave, I used “servant”, although man is not just in the service of God but also owned by Him. I made this choice not only because of the tarnished image of slavery but because it allows to retain the correlation between the noun and the verb, so Allah’s “servant” (Abdullah) is somebody who “serves” Him, rather than just “worships” Him, as the concept of worship in the Qur’an is much more extensive than the English word implies.

If this translation were aimed exclusively at Muslims who are already familiar with key Arabic terms, then it would be legitimate to leave many such terms in Arabic without translating them (and such a translation has been published by Aisha Bewley in 1999: “The Noble Qur'an: A New Rendering of Its Meaning in English”), but because I wanted this translation to make the Qur’an more accessible not only to Muslims but also those who have not previously encountered the message of Islam, I decided to opt for a translation of terms wherever possible, even if such a translation is not always adequate to convey the complete meaning, for example, I have rendered Salah as prayer in spite of the different associations various cultures attach to this word. Whilst the Qur’an is the foundation of Islam, it is not possible to learn everything about Islam exclusively from the Qur’an, less so from a translation, and an exploration of the meanings of key Islamic terms will need to be pursued elsewhere.

I have made an exception from this rule of translating key technical terms of Islam in two cases in particular: Zakat and Injil. A simple translation, like the often used “poor tax” or “poor due”, does not do justice to the concept of Zakat which forms the third pillar of Islam. Zakat is a specified share of surplus wealth to be redistributed to a specified group of disadvantaged members of society. Due to its obligatory nature it is more than charity, yet it is not a tax, because it can, and preferably should, be given directly to the recipients without the involvement of the state. So in this case I have left the Arabic term without further explanation. I have also left Injil as the revelation given to Jesus, because it is not equivalent to the Gospel, the latter representing third party accounts about his life rather than the actual revelation he received.

A particular difficulty in translation is posed by idioms and metaphors. Where there is a direct correlation, the familiar idiom should be used. For example, the woman who untwists her thread after having spun it is, in fact, the woman who undoes her knitting after completing it, and to cling to the literal wording means losing the power of this well-known expression. Other idioms have become common but are based on earlier incorrect translations, so for example, the “camel fitting through the eye of a needle” is based on a mistranslated Biblical metaphor. Etymologically the term “jamal” used in the Qur’an, which also means camel, here means a thick rope, and the expression makes a lot more sense with this meaning, so in spite of everybody having heard the camel version, I chose to move away from it.

Finally, there is the issue of tense: Many future events are described in the Qur’an in the past tense, because in the knowledge of God they have already happened, and present tense is used to convey a sense of regularity or immediacy also for events of the past. Whether this appeared equally strange to Arab listeners at the time of first revelation we do not know, but in order to make the text more approachable, all those who have previously translated the Qur’an into English have substituted those tenses with the ones one would normally expect in a continuous narrative.

These are not always ideal choices. As a result of settling for one option above another, some of the depth of the meaning of the original will be lost, especially where the Arabic word has layers of meaning. Here, only the dominant meaning can be conveyed, and to access the fine nuances of alternative interpretations the reader would have to consult a book of Tafsir (exegesis). Similarly, when legal rulings are derived from the Qur’an, these cannot be based on a translation but require full consideration of the original wording and its context. Where it is possible, however, to leave an ambiguity in place, it is best to do so. A day in the Qur’anic text often means a time period rather than a day, but this inference is also possible in English, so there is no problem in keeping to the six “days” of creation, for example. Ultimately, every translation of a perfect text such as the Divine revelation will be a compromise, and I pray that I will have achieved my aim of introducing the reader of my translation to some of the beauty of the original without diverting from its meaning but, most of all, make it easy to read and comprehend and allow it to speak both to the intellect and the heart.
The “Wise Qur’an” is available from IDCI or on ebay.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Ramadan Reflections on Muslim Mannerisms

A time for reflection, Ramadan is also the month of community, and this is the aspect we appear to lack most. Like most aspects of Islam, Ramadan has by now been heavy commercialised with branded offers directed at individuals who are asked to compensate for the lack of genuine Islam in their lives by purchasing Islamic merchandise. Individual Muslims appear to have adopted the same consumerist attitude, expecting service provision by Muslim institutions on the one hand, and marketing their own understanding of Islam aggressively to anybody appearing to be in any way different to them. Having already succeeded in turning the general non-Muslim public of the countries in which we reside against Islam by our poor and selfish portrayal of this otherwise most convincing religion, we are now doing an equally good job of turning fellow Muslims off Islam or at least off frequenting Muslim-run venues, including, or first and foremost the mosques.

You go to Juma prayers to endure a khutbah sermon preaching a narrow-minded message in dreadful defective English by a "sheikh" fancying himself as everybody's God-sent teacher. You might enter the mosque for nightly tarawih prayers in the hope of spiritual uplifting and leave totally deflated because you encountered some of those whose sole purpose of being there seems to pick on your dress code or the way you pray. If you chance upon going to the mosque on the 27th night of Ramadan, the most likely candidate for the auspicious laylatu-l-qadr or night of power, expecting to benefit from some extra recitation of the Qur'an, you will most likely find yourself caught up in the midst of a charity auction instead where worshippers are almost pressurised into parting with money they sometimes don't have, after all, you can pay by credit card! Should you stay at home, you won't miss out altogether if you mobile phone number is registered in a Muslim name. I received three SMS messages from the same charity begging me not to miss out on the blessings of laylatu-l-Qadr, the final one just after midnight telling me that we had entered the last third of this night and there was still a chance to give.

Having started Ramadan at a different date than those who sent the message, this wasn't my 27th night anyway. I have written numerous times before about this issue here. For more than two decades now, the starting and ending of Ramadan has become a sad show of political allegiance. We are meant to start the lunar month based on the sighting of the moon, but we now "see" the moon based on predetermined dates like those in the Ummalqura calendar of Saudi Arabia. Arguably this takes the unpredictability - and excitement - out of major Islamic events of the year, but the justifications are dishonest to the core. Some pretend to see the moon when it cannot possibly have been there - by the same token I could open my fast early by closing the curtains and pretending the sun had set! Some claim to have a scientific formula for arriving at the most likely date for the moon to be sighted but sadly get their calculations terribly wrong due to an only cursory understanding of astronomy. By the same token online prayer time tables are usually out of sync by at least a few minutes, because they only account of longitude and latitude but not elevation of the place they provide timings for. In May this year the so-called "International United Hijri Calendar Congress" decided on "a common calendar" which has Islamic festivals falling on the same date across the globe, by ignoring "İhtilaf-ı matalia" or local variations. They, too, call this a scientific approach, except that for the moon to be seen all around the world at the same time the earth will have to be flat!

Interestingly, the reformists and the dogmatics, such as ISIS (although the latter is an American financed subversive movement to both discredit Islam and facilitate intervention in the country's proxy war with Russia fought over Syria amongst other places) have more in common than it first appears. They are obsessed with rules and control. They love corporate Islam which dictates to individual Muslims what is halal and what is haram and they cannot tolerate diversity. And due to their overbearing influence, that which is truly halal becomes obscure and frowned upon and that which used to be haram becomes halal by attaching the appropriate certificate or label to it. Islamic banks, for example, which charge higher interest rates than the high street, or halal meat, pre-stunned for the convenience of the automated slaughter process, available now in endless flavours in all supermarkets. If you still want the real item, where the animal is cared for both during its rearing and during slaughter, you'd have to do it yourself. Or you'd have to restrict  yourself to a piscatorial and vegetarian diet.

There are more Muslims in the world now than ever before. Islam has gone mainstream and we've become just like everybody else. So how do you teach your children to hold on to their religion when it no longer makes much difference? You buy them Islamic articles to replace the lost identity. Nasheeds, for example, abound now which, in spite of being spiced up a little bit by their exotic Arabic phrases or fleeting references to the divine, could quite happily be played in a disco. You can buy Islamic T-shirts, Muslim hoodies, designer hijabs and even attend Muslim fashion shows. The ISIS brand is out there too with T-shirts and other bric-a-brac. And you can fill the empty void left in your home by the departure of spirituality with so-called Islamic art, from wall decor to carpets.

Hijra, emigration, is a very important concept in Islam and essentially means moving away from a place where Islam is besieged to a place where it can be freely practiced. It also means moving away from that which is sinful in general. Might it be time to commence hijra away from the modern-day Muslims who have happily carved out a market niche for themselves in a world otherwise ruled by forces of evil? Prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, said: "Islam began as a stranger and will become a stranger again, so give glad tidings to the strangers." He was asked, "who are the strangers" and replied: "Those who correct the people when they become corrupt." He is also reported to have said: "They are a small group of people among a large evil population. Those who oppose them are more than those who follow them."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Latest "London" Luton chaos

The Flying Imam has been busy, well, flying, and had little time for writing. Most of these flights, unfortunately, were not as pilot in command but as passenger in commercial airliners, never particularly glamorous or exciting. My most recent experience at Luton, or "London" Luton, as it likes to call itself, presently undergoing major refurbishment, compels me to break the silence. If "London's third airport" were an indication of what the capital of the UK was like, then it wouldn't even get a mention amongst the top ten capitals of developing countries: as things stand, the experience is infinitely worse than catching a coach at one of the seedy bus stations of old.

Luckily my flight was well before office hours, for normally the roads to that airport are choked so badly that you are at a constant risk of missing your flight. The drop-off point for the airport, called "Priority drop-off" by Luton airport and described as "closest to departures" and "right outside the terminal building" and "super quick", is actually a five to ten minute walk in the (not so) fresh air before you reach the security check for departures, but the price has gone up to a minimum of £2.50 for a maximum of 10 minutes, not exactly "good value" as claimed by the airport. I have flown to many capital cities of Europe where the main airport, not some remote budget airline alternative at a distance of some 50 miles or 2 hours in traffic (UK roads are best characterised by the predominance of brake lights ahead of you), grants drivers up to 10 minutes for free for dropping off passengers right outside the airport doors. So looking at Luton's "good value", rip-off-Britain easily comes to mind.

Going through security offered me a new experience on this occasion. Customarily you have to throw away any drinking water due to its highly explosive nature, empty your bag of laptops and other electronic devices, take off your outer clothing and often your shoes, put them all into various separate trays, an acrobatic juggling act to be accomplished in the air whilst slowly moving along in a lengthy queue of passengers not being provided with even an inch of desktop space to rest their items on before it's their turn, and then try to collect them all again at the other end of the x-ray machines. I have seen many a confused and stressed passenger leaving valuable items behind, from mobile phones to identity cards.

This time, however, there was the body scanner Luton has been blessed with as part of their "upgrade". This is not the backscanner x-ray type which produces a naked silhouette of the passenger but the radio-wave millimetre (revolving door) scanner, which depicts potentially problematic items (such as metal plates implanted in bones) on a stylised stick figure. The scanning process is not particularly fast and therefore contributes to lengthy queues ahead of the scanner - a potential security risk in itself due to the ensuing frustration and confusion -, and it is at the discretion of security staff who is directed through it. For whatever reasons, they issued such an invitation to me, which I declined.

We have been taught and conditioned not to question the wisdom of officials and believe that whatever they ask us to do is either in our own interest or in the interest of safety, however ill-defined. There have been many occasions where I have inadvertently boarded a flight with a pocket knife in my jacket pocket whilst at other times being quizzed about a harmless item in my hand luggage, such as a usb hard drive. So I could quite happily walk through the body scanner and then pick up my jacket complete with pocket knife afterwards. Or, at many airports, I could steal a real metal knife from one of the restaurants or airport lounges. The whole process is more about control and intimidation and pretense. It certainly is neither efficient nor would deter any real die-hard terrorist who, most likely, would have a helping hand from within the system.

In the past, security staff would, at their discretion, do a pad-down search for some passengers, especially if the metal detector frames you walk through were set too sensitively. These vary from airport to airport, some will not even pick up the keys in your pocket, whereas others are set off by the zip closure in your trousers. Now, if you refuse the scanner experience, you are told that you will have to be taken away for a "private search", essentially the very same pad-down procedure, but in an adjacent separate room to which you are escorted so you look like a proper delinquent to other passengers. When staff shout loudly that you will have to undergo a private search, this is probably intended to raise fears in you of being strip-searched to further deter any non-compliance. The other novelty of the arrangement is that you have to counter-sign a sheet on which your name and flight number have been recorded, for monitoring purposes.

The worrying aspect about the modified procedure is, in addition to being a lot more time-consuming, that whilst you are whizzed away and kept confined to be "searched", your belongings remain scattered about in a multitude of trays with no control over what ends up where and with whom. I pointed that concern out to security staff who "reassured" me that theft was rare and in any event would be recorded on camera! Having re-gathered all my things on this occasion I proceeded to the boarding gate.

Luton is home of "EasyJet", a budget airline which has tried hard, and to some extent managed, to present itself as a serious airline rather than a cut-throat rogue, and it was EasyJet I was flying with. I no longer fly Ryanair on principle as, besides the constant hard sell during the flight, it appears to pride itself in being an airline which would probably prefer to run its operations without passengers if at all possible, and the petty-mindedness of some of their underpaid staff I have experienced in the past is hard to describe. Anyway, EasyJet it was.

I have been a passenger of quite a few of their flights over the months and must, regrettably, state that their attempt to compete with the flag carriers has been seriously knocked back, especially by their ground staff and procedures. Maybe they have actively been recruiting former Ryanair staff. This is also not helped by the fact that they have outsourced their once excellent customer service to India and South Africa and you can now encounter operatives who noticeably struggle to comprehend much of what you are calling them about.

So unless you end up being one of the first people in the queue, a boarding agent will approach you and tell you that your hand luggage has to go in the hold because there is not enough place for it in the cabin of the aircraft, to which the logic answer would be that if there isn't enough space to board passengers and their hand luggage, then the plane is not fit to carry that amount of passengers. The reality is that the airline wants to promote the sale of their priority boarding (or rather "priority waiting") tickets and "Easyjet plus" card membership. "Plus" card holders are allowed two items of hand luggage on board and this, naturally, goes at the expense of ordinary passengers who are increasingly asked to put their hand luggage in the hold. My own economic sense in this regard tells me that if faced with the option to either pay a surcharge for a budget airline flight or upgrade to a flag carrier, I would do the latter.

So, two flights out of one, a not so gentle man or not so lady-like boarding agent comes along - mine was called Sarah - and grunts at you that your bag has to go in the hold, sticks a pre-printed laminated card in your face which tells you not to leave any valuables in it, and attaches a barcode label so that you can then leave the bag at the steps of the aircraft and board without. Now the crux is the advice not to put your bag in the hold whilst it contains any valuables, obviously for insurance reasons, because you are now left to contemplate how you are going to carry keys, cash, mobile phones, ipads and various other meaningful items without having been provided with even a plastic bag to put them in. To be fair, the job description of EasyJet boarding staff probably only tells them how to present you with a problem, not  how to offer a solution.
EasyJet: "Absolutely no space left in luggage lockers"

Having already performed the juggling act at security, I was ill-inclined to repeat it and board the aircraft with various gadgets balanced on my head or strapped to my limbs. After all, the whole idea of a luggage case is to neatly hold your valuables  - unless, of course you are in the habit of only wheeling worthless stuff about! So it occurred to me that the most valuable item my luggage now contained was the freshly attached barcode label, for without it I would not be reunited with my belongings after landing, and I decided to discretly remove it on the way to the aircraft. Once that had been accomplished, however, there was little point removing anything else and I proceeded to take my bag on board with me where I found that in spite of staff assurances that there was absolutely no room left, the overhead lockers near me stared at me with unfilled spaces even after I had stowed my trolley bag away.

We have become accustomed to low cost air travel - often made possible by public subsidies to the airlines through local-authority-controlled or regional airports who make most of their money not from flights but from parking - and assume that bad service is part of the package. It is time that more passengers complained about the raw deal they are getting and remind both airports and airlines of the still valid principle that "the customer is king", for if the current trends of blatant disregard for their needs continue, given that the time spend going to and through the airport already by far exceeds the time spent in the air, there comes a point when walking to your destination might prove quicker and less stressful, and that would present airline staff with the unenviable prospect of having to sit in their aircraft on the ground waiting for passengers who no longer want to be harassed every step of the way.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, September 04, 2015

Migration complexity

Cross-border migration and the refugee crisis are dominating the news after a number of high-profile and totally avoidable tragedies, the latest that of a father losing his wife and children after being abandoned on a boat by people smugglers when the half-hour journey from Turkey to Greece became too perilous. He commented that his family's death should be a wake-up call to the world, and everybody is lining up to cash in with their political agendas on this highly visible emotional image of suffering. Political correctness reigning supreme, nobody blames the father for having put his family in harm's way. I do. But first a number of qualifiers.

Refugees across the world are the outcome of the ruling elite of the current leading Western nations running the world as if it was their exclusive birth-right. Exploiting other people's resources in order to fund an unsustainable consumer culture aimed to buy the acquiescence of their own population in return for ever more games and gadgets, and using military power to force this one-directional flow of wealth, they have wrought havoc all over the globe, generating poverty, fear and despair and thereby displacing people. America and her allied cronies in Europe have shook up the Middle East, toppled governments and financed and trained militias for their own economic and Israel's political ends, and the increase in refugees is a direct result. Britain, as did others, has funded ISIS and other rebel groups in Iraq and Syria as part of their proxy war against Russia and China in the hope that they would topple the Syrian government, just as they erstwhile funded Iraq to fight Iran, funded the Mujahidin and al-Qaida to fight Russia in Afghanistan, then topple Libya, and so on. In this context, David Cameron and the rest of the British government are directly to blame for the death of this Syrian and many other families.

The United Nations with its non-representative Security Council and the International Monetary Fund with its majority Western shareholders are relics of the past when European colonial powers divided the world among themselves without any consideration for indigenous populations, drew artificial borders to suit them and, in most cases, subsequently installed minority puppet governments heavily dependent on their economic and military support against their own subjugated populations in the fiefdoms they had carved out in this manner after the First World War. America continued the tradition having become the dominant power after the Second World War, but wherever possible replaced direct rule and military occupation with indirect rule and economic manipulation, propagandistically termed Free Trade, and intervening militarily only when deemed necessary. After too many people believed the propaganda lies and took the idea of freedom at face value, and with their imperial reach weakened, the USA are now reverting back to direct rule and military occupation.

Today, Americans and Europeans often talk as if there is something morally wrong with people from Africa or Asia wanting to share the spoils of their alleged hard labour, forgetting that American and European affluence represents in most cases the pay-off of colonialism and slavery and that therefore the colonised and enslaved of the world actually have a greater right to those riches than the colonisers and slave masters. British slave owners were compensated for the losses when slavery was finally abolished, slaves were not.

From a true global perspective - not the one world propaganda of the global village which merely means that no corner of the world should remain out of reach of Western domination - fortress Europe is unsustainable as is the exploitative modern lifestyle fuelled by compound interest being the foundation of our economic system, where there is always more to pay back than there was in the first place, requiring the disappropriation of others. So when it comes to the problem of global migration, I can only blame the West for its own conjured demons.

Yet, none of this absolves the father of the family currently making the headlines or numerous others like him. Sure, there are people smugglers unscrupulous enough to abandon a sinking boat with the passengers on board or to park up a lorry full of migrants, leaving them to suffocate. They cash in on a dream for which there is ample demand. The problem, when it comes to the migrants themselves, many of whom are from Muslim countries, is that they were malcontents to start with. The youth in many of these countries does not want to work for a better future, they simply want to take what others have already worked for. They don't want to build their country, they want to abandon it. In many cases, they are not running away from poverty or war but are running to an imaginary destination of full and plenty sold to them on Western television screens.

In what happened off the coast of Turkey is indeed a wake-up call, not just for Europe, but most of all for the migrants themselves: the risks are not worth it. A father lost the family he wanted to give a better life to. His parents still live in a part of Syria not ravaged by war. If he feared for his family's safety, then they had already managed to cross over to Turkey, a country having taken in a huge number of refugees and treating them as brothers rather than outcasts. Instead, he chose to leave the safety of Muslim Turkey to cross the sea in an unsuitable dinghy to Greece, an orthodox Christian and much poorer country. No doubt, Greece was thus never the intended final destination, it was meant to be a stepping stone into the European Union for moving on to Austria, Germany, the UK or Scandinavia. Thus, even if this family originally fled war-torn Syria, once they left Turkey, they were no longer refugees but economic migrants who had fallen for the myth that happiness can be bought at a department store. This father miscalculated and destroyed what he had in the vain hope of obtaining what he was never going to get anyway.

None of this absolves the British government, but future would-be Muslim migrants would do well to ponder on the advice of our prophet, peace be with him: "Richness is not having many possessions. Rather, true richness is the richness of the soul." (Abu Hurairah, al-Bukhari 6081). Or: "Whoever makes the world his more important matter, Allah will confound his affairs and make poverty appear before his eyes and he will not get anything from the world except what has been decreed for him. Whoever makes the Hereafter his most important matter, Allah will settle his affairs and make him content in his heart and the world will come to him although he does not want it." (Zaid ibn Thabit, Ibn Majah 4105).

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

"Islamic State" and the state of Islam

For a long time Islam's adversaries have been salivating at the opportunity to manipulate Islam from within. As early as 1981, A.J. Quinnell made this the subject of his novel "The Mahdi" in which Western security services try to groom a Mahdi whom they control in order to direct Muslim behaviour. The plot is not as far-fetched as was suggested by critics back then. Having created a modern-day version of the assassins of old and calling them Islamic State has been a master stroke and done more to discredit Muslims and Islam than any other covert mission since Lawrence of Arabia helped incite the Arabs against the Turks to pave the way for the Zionist state whilst the Arabs mistook him to be their advocate. Likewise, with IS, you would think that only the blind can fail to see who is behind fanatics with strong self-righteous "Islamic" rhetoric, armed to the teeth with American hardware, but persistently abstaining from ever criticising, never mind harming, Israeli interests, whilst happily burning a Palestinian flag as a sign of misguided nationalism. But alas, there are many Muslims who seem to prefer walking around with their eyes closed.

Whereas IS was purposefully created not just to discredit Islam but to provide the pretext for Western engagement in a proxy war with Russia over Syria in violation of international law, it would be rash for Muslims to dismiss them as if their effects did not reach well beyond the region in which they operate. Hate preachers with views close to those of IS abound throughout the Muslim world, financed by the petrol dollars of Saudi Arabia, the beneficiary of Lawrence's British sponsors and key ally of the United States and, by implication, Israel. During the first decade of the 19th century their Wahhabi forebears ransacked Mecca, Medinah and Ta'if under the leadership of Saud ibn Abdul Aziz with a violence against Muslim men, women and children everything as brutal as their IS successors today, destroying tombs and burial grounds, mosques and madrasahs. Whilst the Ottoman caliphate eventually regained control, the rebel group managed to hold out in the Najd and eventually, with the help of British cunning that hailed the end of the caliphate, installed themselves back in the holy land where they have styled themselves the custodians of the holy places whilst continuing to dismantle and destroy Muslim heritage ever since, turning cherished relics of Muslim history into hotels and parking lots and exporting a version of Islam which aims to throw away fourteen centuries of its rich history under the pretext of referring back directly to the source.

In today's world where Muslims put money before God, mosques and scholars can readily be bought, and petty-minded sectarian preachers are commonplace. They replace Islam as a means of mundane and spiritual guidance to further the personal growth of its adherents with a pharisaic set of obsessive rules relating to dress code and appearances; they replace the richness of the Qur'anic message with a narrow literal and anthropomorphic interpretation; they dismiss centuries of diligent effort by Muslim scholars in trying to extract meaning from divine revelation with an arrogant claim to be sufficiently qualified to go back directly to the prophet, yet in their attempt to destroy the complex edifice of Islamic learning with jabs at Muslims' alleged blind following of their scholars and Madhhabs they reach no further than blindly following the neo-Madhhab of their very own saint, Ibn Taymiyyah. As for him, their prime targets for persecution are other Muslims who differ in their understanding of what Islam stands for, whereas they happily appease those of other faiths. The aggressiveness and self-righteous confidence with which they impose their message on fellow Muslims makes especially young people, who are still unsure about their faith and their place in the world, fall prey to the imagined certainty and security only dogma can provide.

That Muslims globally have been so easily duped or, where they were aware of the facts, have generally failed to respond meaningfully to the challenge, shows that the wounds of colonialism and the scars from having lost the caliphate run a lot deeper than is apparent at first glance. By having been robbed of their own administrative, judicious and educational structures, Muslims have been reduced to an array of individuals without a cohesive community structure. Fragmentation has deprived them of a political voice. In Christendom the separation of church and state was accomplished by "reform" from within. The secular establishment which became the heir of a disempowered church then proceeded to force the same banishment upon Islam by removing the state, the public space of Islamic expression, from them. Regaining that state remained an delusional vision of Muslims for almost a century, obscuring the fact that once Islam had been relegated to the personal space alone, the ensuing multitude of opinions of what constituted Islam would ensure that concerted action and agreement remained well out of reach. Now, as a last blow, we've been handed the physical reality of an "Islamic State" which is as unislamic as could possibly be.

A structure, once knocked down, is hard to rebuild from its ruins, but if we were to endeavour just that, we would first need to remove the rubble. Next, we would need to have a clear design of what we are going to put in its place. In line with this analogy, Muslims today require a frank discussion about what kind of future they want to build for themselves. As was the case when Islam was first introduced over fourteen centuries ago, thorough education about its values and principles is required prior to trying to rebuild its administrative and judicial system. Thus, what we need most, is a return to an Islamic identity shaped by values rather than by mere rules and regulations. A "halal" mortgage, for example, which costs more than a mortgage from a non-Islamic finance provider may be cleverly construed to be technically in accordance with Islamic rulings, but since it is even more exploitative than the mortgage condemned by virtue of the Islamic prohibition on interest, it cannot be justified morally. The prophet of Islam, peace be with him, introduced social justice and cohesion, and the God who sent him must not be reduced to a mere accountant preoccupied with the length of an individual's beard, how high he raises his hands during prayer or the technicalities of financial instruments. His divine attributes represent values to aspire to. Islam, therefore, is characterised by both the submission to the divine and commitment to fellow human beings. The first relationship defines personal spirituality, whereas the latter governs each and every individual's actions. Men and women are judged by how beneficial they are to their fellow men and women, not by how devout they portray themselves.

For any building to last it has to be erected on strong foundations. The Muslim ummah needs to take stock. It is in urgent need of a thorough survey of its foundations to ascertain which parts have remained intact and which need strengthening. This task will require the dedication of the most talented of its experts and scholars. It will also take time, and with constantly being put under pressure from outside and within, it is questionable whether there remains sufficient opportunity for such an essential self-inspection. Nonetheless, a people divorced from its history becomes a people without identity and without a joint future. To prevent this, Muslims need to re-engage with their history, not gloss over it, and learn lessons from the discussions and disputes of old instead of pretending they never happened. The idea that we could just reach back to a golden time preceding that history, that we could reconnect with the prophet's generation, whilst ignoring all that came in between, might sound tempting to the simple mind, but in reality it means that we deprive ourselves from the lessons learned through all the mistakes which were made since then and thus end up condemned to repeating them all over again. We would be well advised to instead avail ourselves of the wealth of solutions which were also developed in those intervening years. It is the height of folly for a generation to think that they are so unique that they can learn nothing from their predecessors.

Barring the actual appearance of the Mahdi, we will not be able to recreate the conditions of the time of the prophet, peace be upon him, because no prophet will henceforth be present in our midst. We will thus try to emulate his example without the direct input of prophetic guidance, just as the generations of Muslims did after his death who were arguably more knowledgeable about, and more devout in, their observance of his example. To suggest otherwise is pure arrogance. To insinuate that we are better placed to resolve the resulting challenges than they were is buying into the Darwinian myth of modernity that mankind is continually progressing to a higher state, whereas the prophet, peace be with him, quite clearly warned that the best community was that of his own time, then that which followed them, and so on through the ages. If we think ourselves better than them by pretending that we are better placed to interpret a source from which we are so infinitely more distant, then we most clearly suffer from a serious bout of superiority complex. And this is exactly what describes the attitude of IS and other fanatics desperate to compel everybody else to accept their understanding of Islam as the only permissible option.

Thankfully it is said that the body of Muslims will never be able to unite on error, which is why Muslim leaders and scholars must make it a priority to come together to reject bigotry and affirm inclusiveness and mutual tolerance. The threat to what remains of the fabric of Islam is real but for the protection promised by the Almighty himself, Who also warns us: If you turn away, He will replace you with a different people who will not be like you (Qur'an 47:38).

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A very British pursuit

Two MPs from opposite parties, Jack Straw (Labour) and Malcolm Rifkind (Conservative), have been found to be more interested in advancing their own good fortune than that of the British public who elected them. This in itself raises questions of whether the British parliamentary system is fit for purpose. Being an MP is not a voluntary position. Elected members of parliament are paid a handsome salary plus expenses to free up their time for representing their constituents. They should not be busying themselves with seeking earning opportunities elsewhere whilst preaching austerity to the masses. In other countries we call cash for access corruption, in Britain it is business as usual.

Yet the double standards do not end here. Had those two MPs been Muslim, there would have been a massive media outcry about them undermining British values and possibly renewed claims of Trojan horses and disloyalty. As it happens, these two MPs do not share the same political persuasion, but they are both Jewish. In today's Britain religion is brought into focus when you are Muslim. When you are Jewish, it is not good taste to mention religion in connection with wrongdoing.

This one rule for one and one rule for another approach goes across the board. Over the past few days there has been hysteria about three Muslim school girls leaving the UK allegedly to join the pretended Islamic fighters of ISIS in Syria. In total it is estimated that some five hundred Brits have gone to Syria to join the fighting originally started by Western security agencies in order to topple president Assad's regime. Note cause and effect coming into play here. Nobody even reports, however, that hundreds of British Jews join the Israeli Defence Force every year, a racist army defending its exclusive claim to stolen land through state terror. Muslims returning from Syria are intercepted and held as terrorists. Jews returning from an illegal war in Gaza settle back into life as if they had merely been on holiday.

Children in school are taught that the Nazis spied on their own people to seek out potential collaborators with the Jews and that they ridiculed the Jews through caricatures in publications like "Der Stürmer" in order to dehumanise them. Under the latest round of anti-terror laws, the same school children are told to report anything suspicious they might notice about Muslims, and all public agencies, schools, hospitals, GP surgeries etc. have a duty to report perceived radicalisation, in other words to spy on their fellow citizens. Caricatures intended to dehumanise Muslims are hailed as examples of freedom of speech.

Then there is this ongoing prodding in the media and by various campaign groups against circumcision and halal slaughter as elements of the Muslim faith as well as the head scarf. Some European countries have already passed laws against those practices, then granted their Jewish citizens an exemption so as not to be guilty of anti-semitism. For the record, Arabs, the cousins of the Jews, are Semites, and Moses was married to an Arab lady from Midian. Also for the record, the Nazis were the first in Europe to outlaw kosher slaughter, undoubtedly guided by animal welfare concerns alone.

And just for the record: this article isn't about Jews. Or Muslims. It's about double standards, a quintessentially British trait it seems. As Churchill put it: A nation has no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests. And it seems that whilst remaining on the sidelines of Europe, Britain is leading the continent in this hedonistic and utilitarian approach to politics. So why blame MPs for living up to such engrained British values? Let those who keep lecturing Muslims on adopting British values hold them up high as examples of true integrity!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Muhammad Matters

Seeing prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons again, I am reproducing here in full a chapter I wrote for the book Mystics, Scholars and Holy Men (Edited by Troy Southgate), first published in 2014 by Black Front Press, London.

Reforms to the UK school curriculum since the 1970s changed the teaching of history from a focus on facts about people and events to one of concepts relating to socio-economic processes and societal conflicts. This deconstruction of history has sometimes been taken to an extreme where it is claimed that historic developments could be simulated and predicted provided all the right input variables were known or available. Reality, however, does not match those expectations. In fact, in spite of the curriculum shift, history itself tends to cling very closely to the inherent meaning of “his story”, in other words, events are shaped by people, and individuals matter well beyond the circumstances in which they were found. Looking at history through the people who shaped it therefore remains a valid approach.
An individual’s reach or realm of influence differs both in geographic extension and in time. Some have made more of an impact on the wider world than others. I would argue that as religion is a key ingredient of human identity and frequently overrides other aspects of an individual’s personality, leaders of religion, in particular their founders, have had more of an impact on the lives of people than their secular political leaders, although the roles do frequently overlap. The influence of the founders of major world religions extends over centuries and even millennia, whereas that of secular political leaders, even the greatest military conquerors or strategists, often struggles to leave a mark for more than a few centuries beyond their own lifetimes.
Some religions have tribal, some have regional and a few have global appeal. A universal claim is more often found amongst monotheistic traditions which, due to their common unification of the godhead share a principal understanding as well as many derived features. Their leaders are often seen as having come in succession of each other at different stages during human historical development.  Of those traditions, prophet Muhammad is the last chronologically, but his influence exceeds that of his predecessors. For those who follow his teachings, his relevance needs no further elaboration, but why should followers of other religious paths, or those who claim to be able to do without religion, be interested in his words and actions?
The religion he brought, Islam, literally translates as finding peace through submission, and does not claim to be a new religion as such but a continuation of the call for exclusive devotion to the one god. What is unique in its call is that from the outset it has been addressed to mankind at large rather than a tribe, nation or region. This universal call meant that the spread of Islam was not limited by any boundaries of race or territory. Of the monotheistic traditions only Christianity has a similar universal claim, but it was the result of political events after the lifetime of its founder, Jesus Christ, who himself only claimed to have been sent to the Israelites. The claim of Islam to universality was pronounced by Muhammad himself and within the scripture he brought, and the rapid spread of the Muslim empire during and after his life bears witness to this understanding by him and his followers alike.
A world religion which is two billion strong and gaining even after one and a half millennia since the death of its founder deserves serious investigation by any historian or person wanting to have a deeper understanding of human development. Its two key ingredients are the Qur’an and the life example of the prophet Muhammad; thus it cannot be understood without a study of his life. Irrespective of the religion itself, however, if the case  made above holds true that people shape history, then this individual has shaped the history of mankind for longer and more deeply than any other to this date. In any comparison between influential historic personalities, he will come out on top on more than one count. Thus in Michael Hart’s 100 ranking of the most influential persons of history he tops the list.
Hence, a study of his life is not only of benefit to religious followers, but ought to be instrumental to anybody who wishes to understand the ingredients and dynamics of lasting success with relevance for both the understanding of human society and psyche as much as for, let’s say, leadership training. After all, we study the methods of successful scientists even if we want to apply them to a different scientific discipline than their own, or the war strategy of successful campaign leaders even if we profoundly disagree with their objectives or politics. There are, of course, numerous aspects to the prophet’s success, and thus his life can usefully be studied from several angles, be it religious devotion, temporal leadership, oratory and power of persuasion, military strategy and so on. Hence it should not come as a surprise that amongst the disciples of Muhammad are some of the greatest minds of our time who confessed to having learnt from his teachings without having followed him religiously, such as Goethe, Kant or Napoleon, to name only a few.
This short contribution is no place for an extensive analysis of a complex biography. Nor is it intended as an exemplary list of achievements of my chosen hero. Rather, I would like to pick specific traits of his personality and events in his life from which I believe important lessons or even universal truths can be derived.
Let me start with his birth. Although of good lineage, Muhammad was born an orphan – proof that “misfortune” of birth or even the lack of a standard stable family setup is no impediment to subsequent success and greatness. Out of the window goes the lament of those who wish to continually put their lack of achievement down to the social conditions of their birth.
Good upbringing, on the other hand, matters. To protect him against disease and in order to learn a good standard of Arabic, Muhammad was sent out of town as a baby to be nursed by a desert tribe famed for their skills of teaching eloquent speech and good manners. And good character as well as polite speech is what the prophet was known for throughout his life. Before opposing him for his message calling to good morals, justice and a rejection of all kinds of idols and corrupt practices, the inhabitants of Mecca valued his honesty and nicknamed him the Trustworthy (al-Amin). Even when they had declared war against him and his followers, some still entrusted their property to him for safekeeping.
Let me list some of the character traits which made this man a great example for humanity of all times:
First and foremost, modesty and humility. Even as the leader of the largest army hitherto known in Arabia he did not live in pomp, did not put any distance between himself and his people and continued to do his own domestic chores. A stranger once came to the mosque of the prophet where he was sitting amongst his companions and had to be directed to who he was as he could not distinguish him from the rest by his clothing or by virtue of any special position within the mosque.
He taught by example. Never did he issue an instruction which he did not also comply with himself. As a result, his followers loved him dearly and were prepared to sacrifice everything for him. He was known to spend long periods in prayer and reflection, often praying all night, yet another important aspect of good leadership was that he never asked of anyone more than they could reasonably do. When he led prayer in public he often kept it short if women or children were among the congregation. He also taught that the sermon during congregational prayers on a Friday should be kept short and to the point, a lesson sadly not adhered to by many preachers of our time.
Nor was he a leader who would simply give orders. When the Muslims were digging a trench around Medina to fortify the town against attack, he was digging with them. When decisions were to be made, he consulted them. In battle, he was within their midst, not ordering them from behind.
Rarely did he get angry, and never without cause, nor did he indulge in frivolous pastime and excessive laughter. He was serious at most times, but always welcoming and offering a smile. He had a listening ear and time for people in spite of huge responsibilities. Naturally, he did not drink, gamble or waste time with other trivial pursuits. Most people with great potential today are prevented from developing it because of “killing time” with useless entertainment.
Muhammad was not interested in power or wealth. He did not seek to advance his own family at the expense of others. He did not use the office of state to enrich himself personally. His key concern was to build a just society and leave a legacy of having taught his followers thoroughly in the knowledge of the Divine and the practice of good conduct.
Justice and fair treatment were important to him. When it came to judging disputes, he did not automatically give preference to the adherents of his own religion over those who rejected his message. He decided cases on merit, irrespective of whether the antagonists were Muslims, Jews, Christians or polytheists, and with no regard to their social standing or possessions. The bias of many a judge or jury today was alien to him.
The city state of Medina was the first in history which gave legally protected status to minority communities through a contract between the dominant Muslim and the remaining other belongings. Long before Magna Charta, which was issued by a ruler under duress, Muhammad gave his new state a written constitution voluntarily. The rights of citizens of all types were subsequently further detailed in the ninth chapter of the Qur’an.
Islam also, for the first time in history, insisted that all business dealings ought to be recorded in writing rather than be trusted to the reliability of a handshake alone. And, of course, the revelations of the Qur’an and the teachings of the prophet were also written down, leaving no room for dispute of their authenticity, and they have since formed the basis of a complex legal system governing all aspects of life, known as the Sharia, a term sadly misunderstood due to the ignorance of anti-Muslim polemics.
The prophet was an exemplary family man. All his family members were full of adoration for him, both during his life and after his death. It is those we live with, who know us best, and their testimony speaks of a kind and caring husband and father. Domestic violence had no place in the prophet’s household.
He taught to respect the elders and be merciful to children. Yet even here, he put right before status. In today’s Muslim societies, leadership is held by people due to their age, excluding the youth. Contrary to that, in the second battle against the Romans dispatched to Syria the prophet put a young man, the twenty-year old Usama bin Zayd, in charge of a large army which included some of his long-standing companions more than twice his age, purely on account of his excellent leadership qualities. On another occasion, whilst he was having a meal with some people, there was an elderly man sitting to his left and a young boy to his right, and as it was customary to pass food to the right and not wanting to offend the person senior in age, he asked the young boy’s permission to pass the food to the older person first, and when the boy declined the request, he observed the correct custom and passed the food to the youth.
A lot has been said about Muhammad’s polygamous marriages. Leaving aside that multiple marriages were nothing unusual at the time – and nobody seems to want to chastise the old testament prophets for the same practice –, the fact is that he was married to a single woman, senior in age to him, for most of his life, and for the most part his marriages after her death were for strategic reasons to make peace between certain tribes or to take care of widows without support. His youngest wife, Aisha, was chosen to be a teacher of the nation through her attentive observations on their domestic life, since the teachings of Islam were not only to govern the public domain but also the private conduct of Muslims within their homes. Notwithstanding all the outrage uttered by orientalists and other polemicists against Islam, she was happy in her marriage according to her own testament, something that cannot always be said for many emancipated women of the modern age.  And, of course, he gave all his women the security of marriage, none of them being short- or medium-term or even casual relationships as is the order today.
Much can be learned from Muhammad’s skills in nation building, the way he formed alliances, the way he fostered unity of the state, the way he provided his people with aspirations to do their utmost for the common good and to focus on the future, indeed the life hereafter, rather than on the status quo or temporary affluence and success. He did not create a personality cult around himself, he was first amongst equals. Nor was he vindictive. When his army conquered Mecca, from which the Muslims had been exiled for many years and by whose inhabitants they had been fought viciously, he forgave them wholesale once they had offered peace and support.
Another outstanding quality of the prophet’s character was his generosity. Whatever he had, he shared. When anybody asked from him, he gave without fear of poverty. He taught his followers that the upper hand is better than the lower and encouraged them to give openly in charity even if they were often needy themselves. He also taught only to give what is good, as simply discarding unwanted goods does not count as charity.
Muhammad’s prophethood commenced when he was forty years old. He died at the age of sixty-three, so in the short span of twenty-three years he so completely transformed a whole nation that within another two decades they became a dominant global force on the planet, supplanting the long-established and mighty Persian and Byzantine empires and spreading rapidly into the Far East, Africa and Europe. This amazing achievement was founded on revelation and exemplary character. About the prophet, the Qur’an testifies that “you are of an amazing character”, and he himself stated that he was sent to perfect good conduct as well as that his mission was that of a teacher. For anybody wanting to succeed, in this life or the next, there are valuable lessons to be learned from him during all the varied situations life confronts us with. There are brilliant teachers and role models in all walks of life, but as a perfect all-rounded role model for how to become a good, successful, beneficial and content human being with the correct balance of the mundane and the spiritual, Muhammad, God’s final prophet stands apart like a lighthouse in a dark, stormy sea. To see its light, which has remained undiminished through the ages,  and to follow it implies salvation, and in that Muhammad matters not only to me, or fellow Muslims, but to mankind at large.