Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Breaking long fasts too early

The Muslim world is in turmoil, and the minutiae of ritual observances may not be the most important thing on many people's minds. Yet, it is through gradually altering these ritual that a religion is changed and separated from its origins over time. Most noticeably this affects those rituals which are performed jointly, such as the Hajj or fasting in Ramadan. The annual squabble over when to start or end the fasting month has caused confusion and discord within the ranks of believers and made Muslims the ridicule of outsiders who are astonished how Muslims manage to see a new moon crescent at a time when it cannot possibly be there.

I have written about this so many times that I grow tired of driving home the point. Ramadan as a lunar month CANNOT start on the same day everywhere on the globe any more than sunset happens to be at the same time wherever you go. Neither the moon nor the sun will be bent to predetermined conceptions of when they should rise and set. They vary dependent on locality. The obsession of starting and ending the month with Makkah in Saudi-Arabia is as unhelpful as the suggestion that we should follow them in Tarawih prayers every night as it is being broadcast live. They will pray Tarawih when we in Europe haven't even broken fast yet, and likewise, their moon crescent might rise to start the month on a different day to ours. Instant modern communications do not change those facts, leaving aside the other fact, that Saudi Arabia has fixed the starting dates for the months in its Umm ul-Qura calendar well in advance and always manages someone to see the moon to confirm the expected dates, whether it is actually there or not. Thus they always almost are the first to welcome the new moon, and since they pay handsomely for people to tow the line, most mosques around the globe do not take a closer look whether the moon is actually out there or not. It's essentially politics and nothing to do with religion. As a consequence, we miss out on the blessings of Laylat al-Qadr, as we look for it on the wrong day, and we end up fasting on Eid or celebrate Eid when we should be fasting.

But there is another nuisance which has cropped up with easily available technology poorly understood: most of us will these days base our fasting on a mosque timetable which makes us break fast a few minutes too early. In days gone by, mosques in the UK obtained their prayer times from the Royal Observatory who may not have cared much about fasting but at least knew about how to calculate accurate sunrise and sunset times for any given location. Today, most mosques pull those times from the internet based on Google maps by going to an Islamic website where they enter longitude and latitude data but are not given the option to include information about elevation above mean sea level. To Google the earth is flat. This reduces the amount of data required to produce a result, and for location finder or navigation purposes it is entirely adequate. Not, however, for prayer times and fasting. If you were to sit at the foot of a mountain and watched the sun go down and then managed to quickly get to the top of the mountain without having to climb it first, you would see the sun still there waiting to set. Thus your sea level prayer times can be anything from five to ten minutes out if you happen to live at higher altitudes.

We don't need to go to the observatory to compensate for this difference. With IT technology, Muslims with the appropriate knowledge have created calculation formulas doing that job for us and devised computer programs which can accurately calculate the correct times based on correct longitude, latitude and elevation inputs, adjusted for the preferred calculation options of different madhhabs, e.g. whether Asr should start when the shadow of an object has reached its length or double its length or how the time between sunset and sunrise should be allocated in climatic zones where twilight persists through the night, like the northern regions of the UK. Our real problem is not technology but a lack of understanding it coupled with laziness. It's so much easier to just pull those times off the internet, and if they're wrong, well "it isn't my fault, they should have checked before publishing them".

There is a very easy task I would like everybody to do before Ramadan: check the actual sunrise and sunset times for your location in the local newspaper or some other source based on the official almanac and compare them to the sunrise and sunset/mahgrib times provided in your mosque's Ramadan timetable. If they differ by more than a minute or two, ask you mosque how they obtained their data.

We're fasting almost eighteen hours in the UK during the summer, so we shouldn't deprive ourselves of its full blessing by skipping the final few minutes before the sun has actually set.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The politics of extremism

Education has once more become a battle ground for all the wrong reasons. With Ofsted inspections under the label of "Trojan Horse enquiry" Muslims, who have been living in Britain for generations, have been labelled a fifth columnists again who cannot be trusted. How did we end up in such a mess?

Talking of mess, let's address the current state of education in the UK first. When the first Muslim schools were set up it was not out of a desire to take over the state but because mainstream schools were failing their children. The government and Ofsted did not like the idea of Muslim faith schools and tried to portray them as not providing a proper education. TV crews wanted to film pupils at prayer and were disappointed when we insisted for interviews to be conducted in the science lab. On one occasion we had to take Ofsted to court - and won. Mainstream schools have become infinitely worse since then, whereas most Muslim schools do rather well in academic league tables. The early Muslim schools were often criticised for a lack of qualified teaching staff, a lot of classroom work having been done by unqualified teachers. With schools now largely removed from council control since Thatcher started that trend, this state of affairs has since become the norm: schools are becoming "academies" where teachers need not hold qualified teacher status, assistants take care of most of the interaction with pupils because they are cheaper and headteachers are mainly concerned with finance, not with providing pastoral care or educational leadership. Money is all that matters. Children have become more assertive and unruly, teachers are losing control, bullying is ripe, drugs are wide-spread, educational standards are dropping and exam standards have to be adjusted downwards to prevent wholesome failure of a majority of school leavers. Don't take my word for it, enough has been written elsewhere on the poor standard of literacy and numeracy, the inability of most Brits to speak a second language (or often to speak or spell their own language well), the inadequacies of the teacher training system, the money minting by a whole industry which has sprung up to cater for pupils' "special educational needs", the collapse of higher education due to a focus on money not content, the burden of non-repayable student loans in a world where graduates no longer find jobs, and so on, the list is endless. All is not well in the state of Britain.

What brought us to this sad state, as well as the mismanagement of the economy, the disastrous involvement in fighting other people's wars in far-off places, the erosion of public services, and all that is wrong with society today, are successive governments who, irrespective of professing to be Tory, Labour or Liberal, have one thing in common: they do not serve the people but serve at the altar of Mammon, being paid agents for banks and multinational corporations. UKIP is financed by the same people for the same purpose, but as the only perceived alternative out there it is gaining unprecedented support to the extent that mainstream parties feel threatened, and the next general election is only a year away.

UKIP's campaign rhetoric has two main ingredients, both negative rather than constructive: anti-European and anti-immigration. They know as well as any other politicians that pulling out of Europe is no longer an option (and they happily take up highly paid seats as members of the European parliament although it is a talking shop bereft of real power), and they equally know that Britain would collapse without immigrant workers, many of whom are highly skilled, and given the state of the British education system, this is not going to change in the foreseeable future. But it is always nice to blame someone else for your own misery.

In damage limitation and to save their skins (and incomes), the other parties have to jump on the bandwagon, and as they are solidly pro-European and do not really want to give the electorate the wrong ideas or even a choice in that matter, they have to outdo UKIP on anti-immigration talk. By staging a Trojan Horse scenario where Muslim pupils are "groomed" and indoctrinated to undermine our democractic values and take over our "free country", they've found the ideal focus for falling over each other in asserting the need to stem back the tide of perceived Islamic radicalism, fundamentalism and terrorism. Since relations with Muslims are already irreparably damaged through the disastrous "Prevent" strategy, this was an easy choice to make. There is a steady supply of labour from East European countries, so Muslims are perceived as dispensable, and since Islam is not a race, Muslims are free game without potentially falling foul of the law. That is something the BNP successfully taught the Tories, so who says minority parties do not have any influence in British politics!

David Cameron has long been spelling out his personal crusade, his agenda to stem back the tide of multiculturalism. He must have leaped to the opportunity to respond to the dubious letter which surfaced just in time to point the finger at Muslims who it seemed had integrated a little too well within the schools of their home town, Birmingham. Mistaking the mantra of democracy for something real, they were accused of wanting to have the schools run in a manner they thought would suit their children, wanted their children to be taught what they believed was worth teaching, wanted to protect their children from ending up on the scrap heap so many of the other schools are turning out year after year. And the media were more than happy to oblige, here was a battle ground to arouse passion, the very minds and lives of our children were at stake, soon those Muslim children would come guns blazing or threatening to blow themselves up unless they were allowed to read books about creationism, challenge homosexuality as the only sound and accepted lifestyle for modern Brits or maybe just wanting to outdo the mythical white middle class in exam results. Primed with this ideological view of the enemy, it was easy for Ofsted officials to "raid" schools and find proof of misdemeanour, like some disagreeable books in a library - let's burn them! Nay, let's burn the governors and teachers on the stake too, long live the inquisition!

The fall out of this modern day Don Quichote prime minister fighting his windmills, however, will be less glamorous than he hopes for. The electorate do not like him even if he tells them to dislike Muslims instead. But the broken fences might not be mended again. The reputation of the British education system will be irreparably damaged, teachers will be even more demoralised, foreign students will want to spend their money elsewhere, skilled labour will emigrate as Britain turns progressively into a society of closed and petty minds. The generation of Muslims whose children are now going to school identified with Britain, they believed the lies about getting involved and reaping the benefits, they volunteered their time to become school governors, they supported mainstream parties in the hope that they could be reformed. For the majority of them their justification for remaining in the UK was to provide their children with a high standard of education. Their children will more likely be disenfranchised and totally non-committed to the system that failed them, did not equip them for the future, did not provide them with jobs, stigmatised and criminalised them and denied them their potential.

So Britain, once an empire, wants to be an island where you can get arrested for having books on your shelf which do not tow the official line, where special branch officers at airports and ferry ports abuse their powers under anti-terrorism laws to pull aside Muslim travellers and ask them about their political opinions, where thinking for yourself is discouraged and alternative views must not be expressed in public unless yoi want to be monitored as a potential risk to national security on account of such thought crimes. It is a strange world indeed, where "war is peace" and the Conservatives have a Communist mindset, where freedom of speech, the erstwhile moral baton to hit Muslims with, has given way to an obligation to conform. To quote Khalil Gibran: "Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion".