On Sami…

October 23, 2008

So everyone’s been buzzing about Sami Yusuf in South Africa, and if you don’t know who Sami Yusuf is…well, you clearly haven’t been following the latest craze around this talented Muslim musician and youth icon….and it helps that he’s good looking too. If there was ever such a thing as a Muslim rock star, he would qualify (but he would probably not want to describe himself in that way).

Accompanying his trip to SA, there’s also been a huge debate around whether music is haraam, and whether musical instruments are unIslamic (well its an old debate really, finding new life here). The debate rages on, and I am going to err on the side of arguing that melodious sounds that make people feel positive about themselves and creation in general, can’t be all that bad. But people respond to music in different ways… and perhaps it’s the responses (screaming girls…maybe ?), that are getting some religious folk worked up.  

Islam has always had some form of popular culture, and the kind of music that Sami performs, is reflective of the current form of popular culture, viz Nasheed music. Some of the religious leadership have a problem with a couple of things, like the playing of instruments, the idolizing of the musician, the responses to the music (swaying, dancing, screaming, etc, though this doesn’t always happen) and maybe the idea of anything being remotely appealing to Muslims, other than the Quranic recitations. 

My take is, if young Muslims are listening to Sami and other Muslim musicians, who are in some ways also remembering the Almighty through their music…err, why should that be a problem?

I reckon there’s lots more people who think like me.


Fatwa Furores

October 18, 2008

I have been doing quite a bit of research recently on political Islam, mostly for my doctorate, but also as an exercise in attempting to broaden my knowledge of “lived” Islam, in all its various facets. The one thing that has really intrigued me is the role of the Fatwa (Islamic edict / ruling) on matters relating to all aspects of daily life for Muslims. Some years ago the Fatwa took centre stage globally when controversial writer Salman Rushie, had one issued against him by the Ayotollah Khomeini, because of his book Satanic Verses. Since then the idea that someone can “issue a ruling” to kill another person (without them being tried in a court of law), has been the subject of much debate in various public (and private) spaces, especially since such a concept does not exist in any religion except Islam.

Of late, I’ve been encountering more and more spaces where the fatwa is encroaching on various aspects of how Muslims live their lives. In the desire to be “as Muslim/ Islamic as possible”, it appears that many Muslims are turning to  religious leaders to ask questions about various things (often simple aspects of daily life), and based on the answers, are behaving in certain ways. Let me stress however, that I think that the fatwa is a very useful tool, if used in the right way and articulated in a manner that takes into account the nuanced provisions that exist within the Shariah and Fiqh of Islam.  So I am not opposed to its use and application. What I am marvelling about however, are the kinds of questions that are being asked of religious leaders in a contemporary context, and the kinds of answers that are being provided.

Fatwas are in essence religious rulings issued by human beings, who based on what they know, and their “training” proclaim on certain things. But I often wonder about, whether the human element can be a confounding variable in the authenticity of the fatwa. In other words, it is possible that the same question can have various fatwas issued, based on the individual knowledge of the religious leader who is being asked. Which Fatwa then is the best / most authentic/ most Islamic? Usually when there is Ikhtilaaf (difference of opinion) in Islamic practice, the idea is to engage in Shura (consultation) and emerge with Ijma (consensus). This howevever isn’t really how it works though, because the issuing of fatwas are now being done by individual Muftis (who may I guess consult, at some levels), but are also expected to deliver results on the spot.  

Take for example  the idea of setting up a call centre where Muslims can call in, and ask any question of the trained Mufti, taking the call, at any time of the day or night. Easily accessible, and immediate results. Or an online site, where you write in and wait patiently while the person in charge of issuing fatwahs, ponders over your question and writes back with the answers you need. Fabulous idea if you want to know for example, whether a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, and vice versa, and in what circumstances. After all, love is something that can happen between any two people, regardless of their religions. Quick question, quick answer. Done, usually under 3 minutes (in the case of the call centre). Basically, the Shariah already provides broad guidelines for these sorts of things. What to do, however, when you want to go to the spa and get a massage. Hmm, shouldn’t really be an issue, should it. What can be unIslamic about going to a health spa, or a masseuse, in order to revive body, mind and soul?  Its not so simple however, as I learnt recently.

According to a fatwa I discovered recently, you gotta make sure that as a Muslim woman, you don’t expose too much skin to a non-Muslim female masseuse. So the back, legs, arms, hips, thighs…well pretty much every part of the body that one would normally massage, are off limits. Basically no non-Muslim female masseusse can see these parts of a Muslim woman. I have to tell you, this blew my mind. There goes my massage sessions, not to mention trips to the gym (although i could forgo those maybe). Of course, I use my brain when it comes to these things, so I’m not going to give up that easily. 

I’m hoping though that the Muslim schools from which young Muslim girls are matriculating, are going to encourage more girls to take up training as a masseuse. Imagine what would happen to our stressed out human population, if you can’t find a halaal masseuse to sort out that nagging muscle cramp, in that very delicate spot : )

Rethinking Thinking : Thoughts on the Secular in Islam

October 11, 2008

After a conversation I had recently with a professor, for whom I have a great amount of respect, I have been inspired to literally re-think my thoughts on a whole range of ideas that I have held to to be true, for most of my life, in particular the role of religion in my world.

No, this does not mean that I am now suddenly an atheist, rather I am beginning to ask what role Islam plays in my everyday life. Islam has shaped my worldview, from the way I live my life (what I eat, how I pray, how I greet others, etc), to the way I intellectualise and reflect on the nature of existence (what I write, who I read and identify with), for as long as I can remember. For a brief period, in my early teens I rejected religion for a while, thinking it was too restrictive (more so because of my parents putting their foot down on certain things), and then I found it in a big way later on, when I got involved in politial activism. I felt that God wanted each and everyone of us (particularly Muslims) to strive towards social justice in the world, and so I felt a calling, both political and religious to work towards this goal.

I don’t think I’m a particularly good Muslim in the traditional sense (ie, I don’t wear a scarf, except on religious occasions, I mingle freely with men, other than mahrams (hmmm….this is not necessarily unIslamic per se) and I sometimes miss offering the prayers at the times they are meant to be offered. But then what does it mean to be a Muslim, even a good Muslim?  Who sets the standards for judging this, and is there a blueprint for measuring “Muslimness”.  I was forced to revist these questions, after my somewhat provocative discussion with the good professor.

Here is what I think about these issues, however my ideas continue to evolve on these questions. I think that you can actually be a good person, without believing in a God; every human being has the capacity to be moral and good towards others and the world in general. Believing in the existence of a God however, grounds and redefines ones desire to be good, ie, there is an incentive for being good, which is the expectation, that there is a God, who will reward one for the goodness. Of course, the expected rewards don’t necessarily always come, so what to do in that case? Does one abandon goodness / morality  in frustration, and opt for a life of vice, being somewhat disillusioned that despite being good, one doesn’t always get what one wants. Well this is where the religious notion of patience (sabr in Islam), is meant to kick in, in the HOPE that someday, the rewards will appear. Sadly though, most human beings are not very patient beings. The next stage then in the religious continuum is suffering, ie, that one is not sure if the rewards are going to come, and so one agonises about being good, and things could in fact get worse in ones life, despite being good. Hmm…enough said about this.

In the case of not believing in a God, what’s the point of being moral and good, unless its just for the sake of maintaining some kind of peace and order in the space one occupies, or to feel satisfied with oneself. One might as well, go and live a life of vice, and not feel guilty about it, when there are no expectations of rewards for goodness. Ahaa, guilt, that most complex of emotions, that can really throw a spanner in the works. When I was younger, I was a guilt ridden child, and I guess that makes parenting easier….if you feel guilty a lot of the time, you try to behave better, and make your parents lives easier. Now that I am older, guilt is a Freudian notion, that I have relegated to the sphere of emotional baggage that is of no use, and is actually counter-productive in our lives.

I could easily not believe in a God, but then I don’t want to. I could maybe convert to another religion, where I could do things that are prohited in Islam, but I don’t want to. So these basics, of my faith, ie belief in a God, and Islam as the way to express it, are for me, here to stay.  Suffice to say, I am very familiar with the concepts of patience and suffering, which go with the territory of believing in a God.

What I do want to interrogate however are the various aspects of a “lived Islam”, that are for me fascinating and say a lot about how there is actually not just one kind of Islam, but “multiple” Islams.  So the first question I am asking is, can there be a “secular” Islam (emerging out of my conversation, I mentioned earlier), and what does this mean? If secular means, a seperation between God and State / society, then surely there is a contradiction with the idea of a secular Islam. In my understanding of Islamic practice, if a Muslim declares / has the intention of, doing something as an act of faith (ibadat), then that is no longer a secular act, but one done for the pleasure of the Almighty. So then the second question arises, must we bring God into everything ? For example if a Muslim businesswoman / man declares that s/he is undertaking a new business venture, as an act of ibadat, and asks God for blessings and success, is the act for her/ himself or for God? After all what does God get out of the business being successful ? Perhaps the business person takes a vow that if the business is successful, then s/he will give some of the profits to the poor (over and above compulsory zakaah). Is this about blind faith or a gamble with the fates? Should God feature in any of this, and if so, why?

I’m not sure I can argue with any measure of confidence that business transactions, can be considered acts of faith. But this is where the complexity of Islam appears. The assumption in “being” Muslim is, that all aspects of a Muslim’s life are about submitting to God,  from ones form of income to the way in which we interact with each other as human beings. There is meant to be a halaal (good) and haraam (bad) in everything, and this is perhaps where the secular is irrelevant in the equation.

As far as I am concerned, I claim aspects of secularity in the way I live my islam, but does that make me a “secular” Muslim ? I’m not sure. What I am sure about though is that I don’t want to always be confined by the “religious”, such as some interpretations of the faith telling me, whether something is Islamic or not, such as taking permission from a male mahram about whether I can travel or not, how far I can travel, and who I can travel with.

No doubt, these are complex questions, and I don’t always have the “correct” answers. I can only do what “feels” right, within the context of what I believe. If that makes me a “secular” Muslim, so be it. I’d rather not be labelled though. I’m just Lubna, a girl trying to find her way in the big bad world out there.