Wednesday, 2 December 2015

10 Reasons to Not Bomb Syria

Friday, 3 July 2015

Heartbroken Yemen

These children are re-enacting a battle that took place in their neighbourhood, one boy arriving to fight with his friend but then falling down after being shot. Their school had been closed after their teacher, Uncle Mohammed, had been killed in a battle with the Houthis. Abdulmajid asks "If this is how kids play in their childhood, what do you expect of their future? They will grow into frustrated adults with no hope for peace."

I began tweeting for Yemen as the Saudi led coalition started their bombardment in March,  just over 3 months ago. I am strongly opposed to airstrikes, anywhere. I believe they lead to the loss of many innocent lives and always result in a worsening situation and escalation of conflict for those on the ground.

Whilst I felt I could comfortably oppose the bombing, believing there is always a better way forward than airstrikes, I felt I was not in a situation to tweet about the infighting within Yemen. I felt that as an 'outsider' with little understanding of the conflict within the country to begin with, it was not my place to do that - instead I retweeted voices in Yemen as much as possible. I did find however that some voices were expressing (understandable) hatred, and my aim is not to stoke further hatred but rather find a path to peace, so I avoided as much as I could any tweets that may have been seen as me 'taking sides' within Yemen itself - although by not siding against the Houthis it was perceived that I was aligned with the Houthis (which I am not) . I also chose not to tweet graphic photos of the dead, regardless of how they had been killed, either by airstrikes or shelling. Of course the evidence needs to be shown, but it is not my place to anger people even further.

Another thing I always try to do is to understand why people are doing what they are doing, even if their actions are clearly very wrong. This goes as far as even trying to understand why people join ISIS, for example. This is in no way justifying crimes that are being committed, but I believe solutions are found only through understanding the problem in the first place. I had heard much about how stupid and evil the Houthis were, but what I wanted to know is what is it that leads a person to pick up a gun and kill a fellow countryman? What had happened to the Houthis that they would kill their neighbours? What lies had they been told? This doesn't mean I support the Houthis or am looking to justify their actions, but I want to try and understand and I always try to promote understanding. I do however realise that for those people living through war, experiencing death of family members first hand, this is likely to cause upset. For sure if it was my family being killed, the last thing I would want to hear is someone trying to promote understanding of my enemy. But still, this is what I am about, and I must persist, because I believe it is the only path to peace.

Abdulmajid is one such person who has been living through Hell in Yemen, and his pain deserves to be heard. It would have been far too easy to block him and him me when we clearly expressed differing perspectives on Twitter, but thankfully we had a chat instead and he kindly took the time to explain to me his story. It left me with a much greater understanding of his suffering, and I thank him for that.

Abdulmajid agreed to me publishing what he told me, so at least people will know of the sacrifice made by his family to defend their land. Here is his story:

"In 2011, Houthis attacked Al Jouf city. My mother's family lives there. People there refused to let the Houthis take their land and properties. The people there are poor and Wallah (I swear) they haven't even been supplied with electricity since 1979. So the people decided to defend their land.  
When the Houthis attacked the city of Al Jouf they called anyone that stood against them Jews and Israelis. In this way they legalise their forces to destroy the houses of anyone who defends their city. They killed my older uncle Ahmed who left behind him 16 children. Just imagine who is going to take care of them? People decided to never give up no matter what they lose. 
Month after month, families lost so many of their fathers, brothers and sons, just because they chose to never be ruled by terrorists who called the civilian defenders 'Jews'. In the same way in which ISIS call their victims 'Kafer', Houthis called their victims 'Jews' and 'American agents'! 
People in Al Jouf started forming a unified resistance and my uncle was one of the leaders. They used to meet in the mud houses to discuss how to manage the battles. Every fighter was given 2 days off each week. One day the battle escalated; the Houthis had called on many forces and brought the 'death detachment' from their city Sada. The next day was time for my uncle's two day break so the leaders told him to prepare himself to return to his family during the night. Just as he was getting ready to leave his friend called to him and said "Ahmed, we are going to be killed", so he refused to go back home. He took his own gun and returned to the battlefield in order to protect his friend. The battle lasted two hours. His friend survived but my uncle did not. 
My mum has high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, so when she heard what had happened she fainted. I was so scared that I was going to lose both my mum and uncle on the same day. Alhamdulillah she survived, but she was crying all the week, she felt like she had lost everything worth living for. 
That was the most tragic day of my life, watching my mother, my brothers and sisters, my grandmother and cousins all crying, with broken hearts and pain that will never be forgotten. 
Just one week later another of my uncles was also killed. It was my younger uncle Jameel. He had promised that he would not return home until he had kicked the Houthis out of Al Jouf or else die like his brothers. Whilst he was standing with a young relative observing the Houthi forces, he was shot by a Houthi sniper through his heart and died. The younger relative who was standing with him was also severely wounded and lost his eyes. 
Three months later the Houthis returned to their city Sada and the battle came to an end.
Life was so tough then. It was time for Eid but no one showed any happiness. My mother refused to put on her eyeliner. She didn't show anything to suggest it was Eid, for her it was just another sad day the same as the day before. 
Almost two years later the Houthis attacked Al Jouf again. My uncles' family again participated in the resistance to defend their city. On the first day I lost one of my closest friends and relatives. He was my older uncle's son, his name is Abdulwahab. He was married with one child age 5 years old. When the people came to console his family they tried to comfort his son, telling him that his dad would be in Heaven because he was a hero. Since that day the boy says "I don't like Heaven because my father left us to go there. I hate Heaven.". Who will take care of him? Was his dad an Israeli like the ignorant terrorist Houthis say? They use any way that they can to justify their crimes. We have a saying in Yemen that "Houthis lie more than they breathe". 
The tragedy doesn't end there, I lost my Uncle Mohammed during the last Ramadan! He was also defending his land as his brothers and nephew were, in Al Jouf, but a different place. 
Al Jouf did remain free of Houthi forces until just four weeks ago when they overtook the city, but insha'Allah they will never enjoy living on our heroes' land. Many people had to leave their houses and sent their children to live in other cities where they had relatives. The orphans that my uncle left behind are suffering, they had to leave their mud houses and are now living far away in tents. They survive by borrowing money and only buy the most essential items to survive. 
My mother lives with my family in Marib which remained relatively safe, but now the Houthis are starting to attack there now too. My mum hasn't been the same since her brothers were killed. She used to smile and joke with us, but now she sits down all day, constantly reminding us of our uncles. 
Now I am a student in Dubai. I last saw my family 7 months ago. I usually visit them at the end of the term, but now I don't know if I will even see them again. I am alone here. I wish I was with my family. I can't do anything for them here. I would at least want to face the same destiny as them. I would rather die before I receive any more sad news about them."

Just one hour after talking to Abdulmajid, he received more sad news that he had been dreading from his family. Yet another family member had been killed just before Iftar. His response:

"I don't know what to say! I'm totally heartbroken. I called my brother and asked him what happened. Everything is going badly".

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A letter to Aftab Bahadur, executed in Pakistan this morning

Aftab Bahadur was executed in Pakistan this morning.  This is my letter to him.

Wesdesday 10th June, 2015.

Dear Aftab,

This is a letter to the dead. Not you, I know you are alive. But really I am writing to the living dead: the people who wrongfully arrested you when age just 15 for a crime you did not commit; the people who tortured you and who said you could go free if you paid their bribe, but you did not have the money to pay; the people who kept you locked up for 22 long years and who stole your life; the people who showed no mercy but executed you for political gain whilst the real killer, whoever that may be, walked free.

I knew of you just a very short time, maybe a few days at the most, before you were so cruelly hanged in Pakistan in the early hours of this morning. But during that short period you touched my heart and I know the hearts of thousands of other people too. I did what I think I could do in those few days to help raise awareness about your plight, I'm sorry it wasn't enough. Maybe I could have done something a little sooner, but maybe your fate was sealed a long time ago. Whatever the case, we trust in Our Lord that all things happen for a reason and we will try to bring something good out of your pain.

This is the first time I ever sat through a minute by minute countdown to an execution. It seems you have gone through that many times, before they decided to complete their act of inhumanity. You are one innocent soul, wrongfully executed, to join the many that went before you and sadly the many yet to come. And throughout this world every day now innocent people are being killed, one way or another. But every soul is important, and your life helped me to reconnect with that. When they killed you, it's like they killed the whole of humanity, that's true.

Your words were in the newspapers and on YouTube too, they were profound.

When I shut my eyes to listen I didn't feel you were a stranger thousands of miles away in a different country, it was like you were just there. Ah how I would have loved to meet you, and I hope one day I might have that honour. I can imagine you now, so full of life, enjoying the beauty of God's perfect creation, untainted by pollution, air so sweet, colours so vivid seen through eyes of perfect clarity. I can imagine the peace you inhale that reaches deep into every part of your being. I can imagine you smile now, after suffering for so long.

Twenty-two years in prison, oh that seems so very long. What did I do in twenty-two years? I started a business, got married, had two children, 5 different cars, and can you believe I've lived in 9 different homes! What did you do every day, day after day, waiting to die? Your life was stolen from you at the young age of 15, just as you were to become a man. And how your poor family must have suffered, and are still suffering now, may God give them comfort and strength and peace that your suffering is now over.

You are a Christian and I am a Muslim, you were born in Pakistan and I was born in England, we speak different languages and our skin colour is of different tone, but I have no doubt we are heading to the same destination where all our differences and misunderstandings will be explained. I see no great divide between us, our differences are riches, we were born brothers and sisters in mankind.

I don't know how they could kill you. I don't know how they can kill anyone but especially not you. Your case was clear, your heart open, but still some people seem so blind. What makes a heart so cold? Is it fear, or hatred, or greed? Is it that the truth is too painful to behold? I fail to understand, but I must try. Understanding must be a key to healing our troubled world.

I don't know what happened to mercy, I don't know where it went. In Islam our Prophet Muhammad came as a message of mercy to mankind, but it seems we lost that message somewhere along the way. I was told this morning after your execution that campaigning for mercy is useless. Does that sound funny to you? Because it sounds quite funny to me, that a Muslim should tell me such a thing, since without mercy Muhammad peace be upon him didn't have a message - that's what it was all about, the mercy, we were told. It says in our Hadith:
"The merciful are shown mercy by Ar-Rahman [The Merciful]. Be merciful on the earth, and you will be shown mercy from Who is above the heavens. The womb is named after Ar-Rahman, so whoever connects it, Allah connects him, and whoever severs it, Allah severs him."
So now honestly I am concerned for Pakistan, because there is a lot of hurt and resentment there following all the violence and killings that have taken place especially over the past year. It seems a lot of people want revenge, and it's the poor and vulnerable people like yourself that are at the receiving end of this upset. It seems that the rich pay their way out of prison whilst the poor take their place at the gallows, used as scapegoats so that corrupt leaders can say that they are delivering 'justice' - any poor scapegoat will do.

Worldwide there is growing unrest, growing pain resulting in ever increasing killing. At some point people have to stop killing and learn how to forgive in their hearts and reconcile with their enemies if we are to see peace. Reconciliation is so hard, but we must try, if we are to build a better future for our children.

Some people ask me what my agenda is. This is another funny thing for me too. Why is it hard to believe that some people dedicate their lives to the betterment of mankind? I guess I'm hard to trust because I am British. Well I can't help that, that's just where I happened to be born, it doesn't make me any less of a human being where I was born.

Some people are saying that the organisation Reprieve is corrupt or something like that - that's just so crazy as well, I wish people would do their research before making such accusations. I wish people would realise what an amazing man is Clive Stafford Smith who stands with people through their darkest hour when the rest of the world has abandoned them. Reprieve is one of the most honourable organisations I know of - and to suggest they have a Western agenda really is hilarious - this organisation is like a thorn in the side to Western governments since they represent victims of injustice in Western countries too and for the Muslim victims wrongly imprisoned and brutally tortured in Guantanamo.

Just before you were executed I felt so nervous and sick, I can't imagine how much sicker and more nervous you must have felt. Then when the appointed time arrived, 4.30 am, I imagined the hood placed over your head and your body falling and jerking as your neck was strangled and your oxygen was severed. Then I thought of you hanging still, and afterwards I felt so cold. And then I felt my anger. But it's this anger that destroys the soul, I know that, so I resisted the anger, and writing this letter has helped me channel that anger into action for change. Now we have a battle on our hands, because there are 8,000 on the list to be executed in Pakistan and an estimated  800 of them are thought to have been children when sentenced. And it is not just in Pakistan that the death penalty has suddenly become fashionable, it is in many other countries too. I fear this is going to be a painful year. But we will push on for mercy, in your memory, and I know that we do have God with us and goodness will prevail in the end.

Thank-you for your life, may it shine forever in a better place where I hope to meet you one day, insha'Allah.

Love and peace, from your new sister Jamila

Please join me in preventing further such acts of inhumanity, by reading and sharing the document I wrote below, thankyou.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Time for Mercy, Time for Muslims to Abolish the Death Penalty

Today is the day of inhumanity. It appears that over 1 million people have been killed in armed conflict since the year 2000 including Iraq, Syria, Darfur, The Congo, Afghanistan, and more. There are over 50 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the highest since the records began, and with no end in sight.

Islam holds the answer, a path to peace, say 2 billion Muslims, one quarter of the world's population. Yet increasingly I hear from Muslims who are filled with vengeance and hatred following their own pain, which further fuels the killing - the latest round taking place in Yemen as Saudi coalition jets drop bombs on their Muslim neighbours. The Prophet pbuh taught us to return evil with kindness, to practise forgiveness, to show mercy, and yet increasingly Muslims are turning to revenge as their hearts are consumed with hatred for the other side, whoever that other side may be.

Human life is devalued, as more and more we see mutilated bodies in our daily stream of social media. Each new day I see even more dead kids; in the beginning these images used to have me reaching for a bucket as I felt physically nauseous in horror, but now I'm starting to get used to them. Such images mostly result in further hatred and yet even more killing. "These people are not human" is a common cry I hear as we look on in bewilderment, yet the truth is we are all human, and though we may refuse to believe this many of us would be driven to killing either directly or indirectly if we were fed the same diet of bloodshed and hate propaganda that the killers consumed. It is anger and hatred which overpowers us, which enables a human being to kill another human being "without mercy". After being fed a daily diet of killing, eventually some people snap and an extreme reaction may then follow, and increasing numbers join the holy fight and become killers themselves.

I could talk about the hypocrisy of the West, about drone strike targeted killings or the 3000+ on America's death row, or the thousands of people executed in secret in China each year, many of whom are no doubt innocent. But I choose to look to our Muslim community for answers to the problems of this seemingly heartless world, since it is we who were revealed The Recitation and guided towards a path of mercy. But the Muslim dictators of this world are not doing anything to promote peace, even though we were given the key to peace. Our Muslim oppressors promote the message that greater punishment is required to kick the masses into order, to stop the 'fitna', but in doing so they actually feed the hatred further and pour fuel on the fires that are burning. Their disciplinary intolerant brand of Islam is seeing an increase in executions, limb amputations, whippings, stonings, beheadings and in Saudi Arabia crucifixions even - yes that's right, crucifixion - I can hardly bring myself to say the word so far distorted is it from the merciful message of Islam that I love. What was set out in the Quran as an example of Pharaoh's barbarism, of those who transgress  and make corruption in the land was somehow taken out of context and twisted to become God's law, and in so doing the so called leaders of our Islamic nation have become the ones sowing the corruption - it's like the whole message of mercy has been turned on its head.

Speak out against the death penalty and I always hear the response "It's in the Quran - it's Islamic law - how can you change God's law?". Slavery was also mentioned in the Quran - but that didn't mean that Islam encouraged slavery. On the contrary, the freeing of slaves was encouraged in the Quran throughout the life of The Prophet as indeed forgiveness and mercy was too.

One of the most frequently quoted surahs in the the Quran to justify the death penalty is 2:178-179
Translation from Sahih International:
"O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered - the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment. And there is for you in legal retribution [saving of] life, O you [people] of understanding, that you may become righteous." HQ 2:178-179

However, after considerable research I concluded that the phrase 'legal retribution' was an incorrect translation, that should have been translated as 'narrations', as this verse was referring to the previous narrated laws given to the Jewish people. I discuss my findings on this matter in depth here.

After careful research into these verses I feel concluded that this is a more accurate translation:
"O you who have been faithful, prescribed (written) over you were the narrations regarding killing: the free man for the free man, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. Then whoever was forgiven by his brother for anything, then [there is] a following with fairness, and [there is] a returning to him with goodness. This is a lightening [of load] for you from your Lord and [it is] mercy. Then whoever transgresses after that, then for him is a painful torment. And for you in these narrations is life, oh men of understanding, so that you may become righteous."

These verses were explaining that mankind was previously given the 'life for a life' teaching to the Jews, but then God brought mankind the teaching of forgiveness to lighten his load and to return his fallen state back to goodness. This ties in perfectly with the Gospel (Good News) also brought to us by the prophet Isa  regarding the 'eye for an eye' teaching where he instead encouraged people to 'turn the other cheek' and practise forgiveness. In addition this message of mercy also fits perfectly with the message transmitted in Surah 5:28 where Abel, "the better of Adam's two sons" says "If you should raise your hand against me to kill me, I shall not raise my hand against you to kill you" and is also confirmed in the following Hadith:

The word for 'retribution' in the Quran is 'intiqam' and its is revealed in these verses that God is 'The Owner of Retribution', not man. Repeatedly we are reminded in the Quran of the judgement of God, that His justice will come, and it is because of this that we can relieve ourselves of our own hatred and anger, because we know that true justice is in His hands.

The executions we see taking place today are nothing to do with the promotion of justice, rather they are implemented to promote fear, to stop anyone rising up against the corrupt and greedy 'leaders' of this world that consume the world's riches for their own pleasure rather than sharing resources with all the people as Islam guided us to do so. The Prophet pbuh lived like a poor man and gave everything away that he could - how far removed are the leaders of today. Today's executions are also used by corrupt governments to win popularity with their increasingly unhappy public who are fed a diet of hate politics and calls for revenge. 'Support us, we are the rulers of order and stability and we will give you the revenge you crave to heal your troubled souls' is the subliminal message they transmit - yet the hunger for revenge is an appetite that will never be satisfied, but rather result in more troubled souls calling for even greater killing.

But what about mercy? Where is mercy in Islam? Regarding Muhammad the Quran says:

"And not have we sent you except as a mercy to mankind." HQ 21:107

The Prophet demonstrated forgiveness of murderers throughout his life. There was a case of a lady who tried to poison our Prophet, but when Muhammad realised what she had tried to do so he asked her why she had done that, and she explained, and he listened. Muhammad's followers then asked if they should  kill her for plotting to take his life but he said no and instead he forgave her. (There is one hadith that contradicts this account but numerous others confirm this story in its entirety, with its message of forgiveness).

This wasn't the only time someone could have been punished for attempted murder of the Prophet, there were actually a number of attempts on his life, but never did the Prophet punish those people. In fact, Muhammad was so nice to those people who attempted his murder that sooner or later they usually became his followers too.

Not only did the Prophet show mercy to those who tried to murder him, he also encouraged others to show the same mercy too. This was one case of murder that was brought before the Prophet:

Here Muhammad did not order the man to show mercy, but he urged him to. Similarly the Quran urges us to choose the right path, it provides guidance - it does not as some may think lay out a list of black and white laws, dos and don'ts, but rather it teaches principles, encourages us to reflect and offers guidance to the higher road. Here Muhammad urges the man to the right path, that of mercy, not once, not twice or three times, but four times!

At the time of writing this blog post, I have the controversial case of Shafqat Hussain on my mind, who was due to be executed on the 9th June. I just paused from writing this blog and took a short break on Twitter, only to read the wonderful news that his execution has been halted, again, for the fourth time. Is this coincidence? I came to learn that when you have faith, nothing is a coincidence. I pray from the depth of my heart that Pakistan listens to this call to mercy - not just in the case of Shafqat, but to all those 8,000 people now awaiting execution of death row, an estimated 800 of whom are thought to have been sentenced to death when still children. This is an opportunity for Pakistan to lead the way along the path of mercy, to halt these executions, and then maybe, just maybe, the rest of the Ummah may follow, insha'Allah.

For sure the greatest act of mercy that our Prophet showed was towards the end of his life at what could be argued was the pinnacle point of his mission, during the peaceful conquest of Mecca. As 10,000 Muslims were about to march into Mecca, many of the Muslims must have felt the urge to revenge all the pain they had previously suffered at the hands of the Quraish, and one of them cried out "this is the day of slaughter; when the inviolable shall be violated: the day of God’s abasement of the Quraish". But Muhammad corrected him stating no, "this is the day of mercy, the day on which God has exalted the Quraish" and gave strict orders to avoid  bloodshed.  They marched into Mecca peacefully where he he looked straight in the face of the killers of his most beloved friends, and he forgave them all, without exception. Subhan'Allah, what a victory indeed.

Every Surah (bar one) begins with the words Bismillah Alrahman Alraheem - in the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful - a constant reminder of the overriding quality of our Lord, that we would be nothing without His mercy. In the Hadith Muhammad is stated to have said "When Allah completed the creation, He wrote in His Book which is with Him on His Throne, 'My Mercy overpowers My Anger.'"

We all need mercy, and we all expect mercy,but so many are willing to withhold it. And yet many times in the Hadith we are reminded that "Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to mankind."

Muslims nations that refuse to show mercy should take heed, since it is also stated:

"The merciful are shown mercy by Ar-Rahman. Be merciful on the earth, and you will be shown mercy from Who is above the heavens. The womb is named after Ar-Rahman, so whoever connects it, Allah connects him, and whoever severs it, Allah severs him."

Isn't it time for us to start practising mercy? And until we practise mercy, how can we ever expect mercy from Our Lord and a healing of our broken Ummah?

Muslims worldwide are eager to follow the Prophet in daily mannerisms, habits and dress, many men growing a beard as our Prophet did, but less eager are people to adopt the same practises when it comes to forgiveness. When I talk of the mercy shown by our Prophet I often hear the response 'that was the Prophet and he was a perfect man - you can't expect me to do the same'. Instead of encouragement towards mercy I hear Muslims making up their own version of the Quran. Here is just one crazy tweet I received from a Muslim today on this topic: "Forgive the one who don't harm and attack you But not the one kill your children Like the shia doing to sunni kids in Syria". Sadly I get many comments like this, from many different Muslims, and no they are not all trolls, some of these comments come from real people who really think like this. Let me say to these people: these concepts of unforgiveness are not Islamic, they are not in the Quran, and they cannot be twisted into the message of mercy without which our beloved Prophet would not have been sent.

I could argue that the evidence has clearly shown the death penalty does not work as a deterrent, that to give any one person today a fair trial is extremely difficult and expensive, that in executing any criminal you inflict even greater punishment on that person's family who have done no wrong, and that thousands of people are and have been wrongly convicted and executed over the years. But still even with these arguments that the death penalty simply does not make sense, to argue any of this in a predominantly Muslim society you come up against the brick wall argument that 'This is Islam - do not criticise it'.

But let me pause a moment to consider those innocent people on death row. In 2014, at least 2,466 people were sentenced to death worldwide - up 28% on 2013.I wonder how many of these people truly had a fair trial? I wonder how many of these sentences were handed out to silence a political opponent or to win public favour? In Islam everyone knows that to kill even one single innocent soul is like killing the whole of mankind. And even when a fair trial is given, who can truly know the heart of anyone? Let us remember when Muhammad said to Usammah who had killed a man in battle who professed to be a Muslim 'Did you split his heart open to know whether he was saying the truth or lying?'. For sure only truth can fully be determined by God, and we can never know for certain what was is in a man's heart. We are prone to error despite our best intentions. Executing a person in error cannot be undone. At least when you lock someone up for life then truth has the possibility to emerge later, as has been demonstrated in many cases recently where dna has proven the innocent of many people who were convicted of murder many years before. In the USA alone there have been 329 people exonerated post conviction due to DNA evidence that was not previously available, 20 of whom who had spent time on death row.

Here I put forward the case that the death penalty is not Islamic, any more than slavery is. Islam did not outlaw the death penalty as it did not outlaw slavery either, but it guides us to a better path, and that better path is that of mercy. And is it not time that we truly embraced that message, that we took the high road, that we moved back to the path of mercy as demonstrated by our beloved Prophet pbuh some 1380 years ago? And then insha'Allah, maybe Allah swt might bring his blessings back to us.

I call on all Muslim leaders worldwide to reflect on our desperate condition, and to pray about this matter, and to have the courage to demonstrate the mercy of which mankind is desperately in need. We can start with this one act of mercy, to abolish the death penalty - please show mercy and then mercy may be shown to us, and we might start to mend our broken land. Let's change this time of inhumanity. Now is the time for mercy.

الله اعلم
Allah knows best 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Who are the Kafir? The Buriers of Truth

The people of Mecca are the first to hear the message delivered by the Prophet Muhammad. There is no confusion about what is being said since they are hearing the message first hand. They sit down in the presence of Muhammad and listen to his voice without a single person in between to alter the message, or mix it up with lies, or manipulate it to make it something else for personal gain. There is no confusion about the meaning of the words for it is delivered in the language that everybody understands in its context and time. If anyone is uncertain about the intention behind the verses they only have to look at the example of Muhammad in his daily life, since he has the reputation of being a trustworthy individual, always known for speaking the truth and living a life of honesty, without exception.

The propaganda against Muhammad is not yet a problem for the people of Mecca. However, some of the people who hear the message hate it, not so much because they disagree with the theology, but rather because it threatens their comfortable way of life founded on privilege. So the leaders of the powerful clans in Mecca meet to discuss what to tell the pilgrims to keep them away from his message - should they say he is a soothsayer or a madman perhaps? After some debate regarding strategy they decide that labelling him as a madman would not work since he clearly speaks sense, so instead they will spread the lie that Muhammad is a magician and they set about warning pilgrims not to listen to him. They say that if you listen to Muhammad he will surely bewitch you and break up your unity - and thus the very first propaganda against Islam, based on fear, is launched.

These people who tried to cover up this revelation of 'oneness' and equality with their lies and deception are described in the Quran as 'kafir' (also kaffar/kufar and other variations depending on grammar). They were people who perfectly understood the meaning of the message of 'One God' and its implications on society, where everyone would be treated with fairness and equal value, but realised that to accept such a message would be to give up their superior social statuses. The word kafir is usually translated into English as 'unbelievers' but in Arabic it has a deeper meaning. The root of the word 'kfr', which also exists in Jewish and Christian scripture since they share the same Semitic origins, literally means 'to cover up/cover over/conceal'. The same word was used at that time for farm labourers (tillers) whose job it was to cover up seeds with the earth after they had been sown, as is shown in the Quran:
"Know that the worldly life is play and amusement and beautification and competition to increase wealth and children, like the example of rain which pleases the 'kufara' (tillers) with crops that grow, then it dries up and you see the crops turning yellow then they are crushed." HQ 57:20
The Quran compares those who put their trust in God against those who cover up the truth. In the following verse the Quran explains that the efforts of those who cover up will have their efforts go in vain, whereas the faithful will have their flaws covered up by God:
"Those who 'kafaru' (disbelieve/cover over truth) and turn away from the way of God, He will cause their work to go astray, and those who 'amanu' (believe/trust) and do good deeds (of peace and reconciliation), and 'ammanu' (believe/put their trust in) what is sent down to Muhammad and it is the truth from their Lord, he will 'kaffara' (cover over) their evil and improve their condition. That is because those who 'kafaru' (disbelieve/cover over truth) follow falsehood and those who are faithful follow the truth from their Lord. Thus God presents a comparison to mankind." HQ 47:1-3
We know that over the lifetime of Muhammad the Muslims actually later came to make peace with those people in Mecca who initially tried to cover up the message with their lies and persecution. Most of the kafir who were initially trying to keep people away from the message through spreading their lies and later fighting the Muslims in an attempt to eliminate them from the land altogether, eventually came to either accept Islam of their own accord or came to an understanding of peaceful co-existence after Muhammad's peaceful conquest of Mecca, since Muhammad forgave everyone. Even those who killed some of the Prophet's closest friends and were forever plotting to get rid of the Muslims were forgiven and he insisted that no-one should be forced to accept Islam as their religion.

But for the Muslim today, how should we understand the meaning of 'kafir' when we read the Quran, so that we can apply the teachings in our modern day context? Who are the kafir?

Separating truth from distortion and lies is not a simple process. Regarding Islam there is much debate over what exactly Muhammad was preaching and how Muslims should be living today. Personally I used to reject Islam because all I knew about Islam through the media was that of an angry God and a religion built on violence and intolerance of people from other beliefs. It took me years of research and getting to know Muslims to separate fact from fiction to the point where I could start to understand the original message of peace, mercy and patience from Our Lord. Yet I was on a journey to uncover truth, rather then to bury those facts that did not suit me. I believe my submission God's truth started some years before I even knew about Islam.

I have some friends who don't believe in God, since they see so many wars apparently fought in the name of God - and yet my friends believe in humanity, which often seems far closer to the message which Muhammad delivered to mankind than do messages of intolerance that we sometimes hear promoted as part of religion today.

Everyone is on their own path, with God guiding those people who are searching for truth, unveiling what they search for in His perfect time. Other people are not looking for truth at all, but running from it or actively concealing it. When researching those who bury the truth I learnt that it's even a career choice today, with governments employing people to work out how best to bury their bad news and cover over their errors with 'spin' to make them look good.

Uncovering truth is not always a comfortable thing. It will at some point challenge our perceptions and perhaps cast a negative light on people, things or concepts that we once held dear to us. We may for example love our country, but there is hardly a nation in this world without its own dirty secrets of injustice that can be difficult for us to accept. If we choose the path of submission to God, we must have the courage to put our pride aside and face truth, however painful or difficult truth may be.
"Oh you who believe, be people who stand up for justice, witnesses for God, even if it is against yourselves or your parents or relatives, whether rich or poor, for God is nearer to both." HQ 4:135
When considering the Quran in today's context, I consider the kafir to be the buriers of truth, those people who actively, knowingly cover up truth with lies for personal or political gain. It is such people who attempt to divide humanity and the message of our shared creation. But we draw hope from the clear message in the Quran that ultimately their attempts will go in vain and that God's plan for mankind will in no way be harmed.
"Indeed, those who covered up and averted from the way of God and opposed the messenger after the guidance was made clear to them, never will they harm God in anything and He will make worthless their deeds."  HQ 47:32 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Revolutionary Muhammad

In the year 613 AD Muhammad ibn Abdullah begins preaching a message of mercy publicly to the people of Mecca. He has been receiving revelations for 3 years, sharing the message with just a small circle of companions, but now he has been instructed by God to take the message to the wider community and to call all the people to a new way of life.

This instruction is simple: to return to God, as the prophets before had also called people to do. Yet it is a revolutionary message since it is one based on honesty and equality, where all people hold the same value, only differing in importance through piety and good action. People are called to put their man made idols aside and to worship neither man nor man's creations but only Allah, who is neither seen nor created and is above us all, yet closer than our jugular vein. Every human being, whether man, woman, child, servant or slave, is to hold equal worth and be treated with dignity.
"I bear witness to this city, and to those who are permitted in this city, and to the parents and their children: certainly we have created man in hardship. Does he think that no one has power over him? He will say 'I have squandered wealth in abundance.' Does he think that no one sees him? Did we not make two eyes for him, and a tongue and two lips? And show him the two ways? But he has not attempted the steep path. And what can make you know the steep path? Freeing a slave, or feeding on a day of severe hunger, an orphan of close relations or a needy person in the dust. Then he is of those who are faithful and urges each other to patience and urges each other to compassion. Those are the companions of the right. But those who conceal our signs are the companions of the left, over them the fire closes in." HQ 90:1-20
This beautiful message transmitted by Prophet Muhammad, that mankind is one, because we all share the same creator, and therefore are all of equal value, is a difficult pill to swallow for many of the people of Mecca. They have built up a society based on tribal loyalties and social hierarchies, with some people claiming superiority over others because of heredity and wealth, gender or ethnicity. At the top of the power hierarchy are the rich businessmen with a lighter brown skin colour from tribes who have shrines to the most revered Gods, and at the very bottom of the pile are the black female slaves of unknown parentage. Yet here is Muhammad preaching that their man made deities are worth nothing,  since we are all created by 'Al-Ahad' (The One), that baby girls should not be buried at birth, that even women and children have rights, that tribal preferences are wrong, that orphans and their property are to be protected, and that to free a slave is the most noble thing to do.

In "The Life of Muhammad", Tahia Al-Ismail (ch 6:4) writes:
"Many of the eminent people of Quraysh began to feel it was a threat to their privileges and their way of life. They were not willing to sacrifice their privileges for the sake of the wronged; they were not ready to give up the customs of generations, customs that had secured their honorary titles and high status, for the sake of the truth. And they saw no reason why they should jeopardise their economic interests for the good, even if it was the good of all humanity."
The message of human equality in the early days of Islam is shocking enough to upset the rich and powerful elite who live a comfortable life waited on by their slaves.  It may also threaten the livelihood of Mecca since pilgrims from all over the land visit this city where they pay homage to the keepers of the shrine of Meccca so that they may worship their different deities, bringing valuable business with them when they do. As Muhammad starts to be noticed and the Muslims (submitters) start to grow in number, those who deny this message attempt to destroy his credibility by spreading lies about him and by persecuting him and his followers. Later these people who denied the message, from amongst whom Muhammad and his companions were raised, grew up with and played together as children, even many of their own family members, will try to eliminate the Muslims from the land altogether.

Monday, 13 April 2015

One God - the beauty of Islam

Before accepting Islam, I pondered over the importance of the statement "Ash hadu an la ilaha ill Allah" - I swear there is no god but Allah/God, the first testimony of faith for a Muslim, around which one may argue the whole religion is centred.

It had taken me a while to grasp the concept that Allah is actually the Arabic word for God. Previously I had thought that perhaps this profession of faith was a statement to say 'we Muslims know His name, and you others have got it wrong'. But no, Allah is not actually the name for the Muslim God, as opposed to the Christian God. Christians in the Middle East also use the word 'Allah' instead of 'God', in fact, for them there is no other word.

So why was it so important to profess that there is no other god than God, and why this emphasis on the 'oneness' of God? Was it in some way to exert Muslim superiority over Christians, who may have suggested that God was in some way actually three through the concept of the Trinity? Was God angry with mankind for getting his name wrong, or for suggesting that God may be found in more than one form, was that the central message to Islam? Or was it to tell us to stop worshipping other gods? Maybe we aren't making statues and bowing down before them like in the past, but people are chasing material wealth and fame for example; perhaps this was the importance of 'no god but God'? But what was the big deal, in this single statement? Did it really matter about names or who I worshipped so long as I was good and kind to my neighbour?

And then after some time pondering it struck me, out of nowhere some might say, or out of everywhere, personal revelation if you like: There is no god but God means this: my God is your God, and your God is mine. Since there is only one God, every man, woman, child, all of creation for that matter, must come from that one source of creation, and this, yes THIS is the beauty of Islam. It was at that moment of realisation that a key to my heart turned. I still had lots of unanswered questions mind, it wasn't with that one understanding that I embraced Islam - but it was the opening of a door, to look further, because I did indeed believe that all of mankind comes from one source, that we are all brothers and sisters whether we like each other or not, sharing the same humanity. This is the message that I love.

The emphasis on mankind, humanity and the whole of creation is one that I came to learn runs right through the Quran. The word for the people/mankind (and its derivatives) 'al-nas' is mentioned 241 times in the Quran.

In talking of the sanctity of every human life, and the value of each soul to the body of mankind, the Quran states "he who kills a soul, other than for a soul or for spreading corruption in the earth, it is as if he has killed all of mankind, and whoever saves it then it is as if he has saved all of mankind." (HQ 5:32)

Regarding why some people are raised above others in wealth and livelihoods in this world, the Quran explains "And if it were not that mankind were to become one community, we would have made for those who disbelieve in the Most Merciful for their houses roofs of silver and stairways upon which they mount..." (HQ 43:34) These verses explain why some people have more and others less - this is God's plan so that mankind might become one - for if we all had everything we needed, if we were all self-sufficient, there would be no need for us to draw closer to each other, and there would be no need for us to learn about mercy.

The word 'alamin' is another frequently used word that has a similar meaning and is also sometimes translated as 'mankind'. It is derived from the root 'alm' which is related to knowledge. Alamin actually means more than just mankind because it also includes animals, and the spirit world, and everything in nature, and even the planets. Sometimes it is translated as 'the worlds' or 'the universe', but for me that loses some of the beauty in the meaning of knowledge, so I like to think of it as 'mankind, plus all of creation'. It really is a wonderful word because it connects mankind to the rest of creation: in mankind plus all of creation together, there is knowledge, we are whole. This word is used in the very first Surah of the Quran, Surat Al-Fatihah 'The Opener', which is the verse that Muslims recite 5 times a day. It starts like this: "In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, all praises and thanks be to Allah the Lord of Alamin (Mankind and all of creation)." (HQ 1:2)

Regarding Muhammad, the Quran uses the same word 'alamin' in the following verse "We have not sent you except as a mercy to mankind." (HQ 21:107) in the very next verse it says "Say only it is revealed to me that your god is One God, so will you submit?" (HQ 21: 108)

The most beautiful message delivered by Prophet Muhammad was that mankind is one, because we all share the same creator, and therefore we are all of equal value.

Muhammad, in his last sermon in the year before his death, gave what might be considered a summary of everything that he stood for: 'All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.'

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Was Jesus Crucified?

I had started my journey towards Islam full of misunderstandings, with the belief that I was right, and that my Muslim friends were wrong: out of my love for them it was my duty to guide them to light. But instead what actually happened is that they guided me.

After a five year journey of discovery, I had reached a place of dilemma: I loved my religion, but I loved their religion too. I loved the Gospel (good news) that I read about in the Bible but I couldn't deny the beauty I was discovering in the Quran. I was somewhere between the two. Was I therefore more Christian than Muslim, or more Muslim than Christian? Was there something stopping me accepting Muhammad as a prophet of God, although I was clearly moving towards Islam, and if so what was it?

After stripping out the differences of traditions, histories and rituals that have grown over time and getting down to the fundamental beliefs of Islam and Christianity I found that there were really just two unanswered questions that were stopping me from accepting Muhammad as a prophet and fully embracing Islam. Finding the answers to these two questions I knew would unlock a gate, would help me to move forward on my journey of faith.

These were:

1. Was Jesus crucified?

2. Is Jesus 'divine'?

Here I discuss the matter of the crucifixion.

I had heard a number of different theories to explain verse 4:157 in the Quran. You can read a number of translations here  but I always prefer to look at the Arabic and get a word by word translation to fully appreciate the original revelation. This is sometimes a little difficult to grasp without full understanding of Arabic due to word order and grammar complexities, but reads something like this:

"And for their saying 'indeed we killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Maryam, the messenger of God', and not they killed him and not they crucified him but so it was made to appear to them. And indeed those who differ in this are surely in doubt about it. They do not have any knowledge about it but they are following assumption. And certainly they did not kill him. No, he was raised up by God towards Him. And God is All Mighty, All Wise." HQ 4:157

We know from the context of the previous verses that this passage was talking about the Jews, in regards to any boasting of how they had killed Jesus.

As a Christian I had no difficulty with the part 'And certainly they did not kill him. No, he was raised up by God towards him'. This is entirely in keeping with what is said in the Bible:
"But God raised him up and put an end to suffering of death, since it was impossible for him to be held by it, " Acts 2:24
We are also reminded that martyrs are alive by this verse in the Quran:
"And do not think of those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead. No! They are alive..." HQ 3:169
But to suggest that Jesus had never even been crucified was problematic. I came to learn that for many Muslims what happened to Jesus isn't considered of any great importance, since this is just one passage in the Quran that has a lot of other things to say; it is rather rather a side debate, usually in  my experience to try and prove to the Christians that they got it wrong. But for the Christian, who has understood the beauty in sacrificing your life to save your friends, in not fighting back when provoked but rather transcending oneself spiritually above pain, to then suggest that they were deceived, that Jesus wasn't actually crucified, well this point is a show stopper. If you tell a Christian that Jesus was never crucified it's actually really difficult for them to see past this issue to look at other teachings across Christianity and Islam that are actually exactly the same.

Personally, I really struggled with this matter, because to get this wrong, and to deny Jesus his martyrdom for the message of good news that he brought to the world would surely be a great injustice on my part if I was wrong. This wasn't a matter I could just brush aside.

Seemingly the most common belief expressed by Muslims today, in trying to explain what actually happened to Jesus, is that someone else was crucified in Jesus' place and he was raised to Heaven without experiencing death - the details of which vary depending on who you talk to, taught by which scholar. This theory didn't make much sense to me from a logical viewpoint, but rather seemed like a story that had been constructed through filling in the gaps with some creative thinking. The various theories of substitution also then run into problems of conflict with some other verses in the Quran regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus (see notes below) which people try to explain away without, in my opinion, sounding very convincing.

But then I learnt that there has been much debate on this issue, tracing back to the work of some of the earliest scholars, and even today there are Muslims who believe that Jesus was actually crucified. See here a table listing various Muslim exegetes over the centuries. The 'theory' column lists 6 different arguments that were given by the scholars to explain verse 4:157 as follows:
1. Substitution (someone other than Jesus killed); 2. Dual-spheres (the body of Jesus was crucified, but His soul was not killed); 3. Knowledge (the passage refers not to Jesus being killed but about knowledge being killed, argued from a different interpretation of the grammar); 4. Sovereignty (the Jews may have killed Jesus but God allowed that to happen); 5. Critical/unsure of Substitution; 6. Figurative Docetism (similar to Dual-spheres).

A different understanding to the currently popular view, as seen in the above table, is derived though placing the emphasis on 'they' - as in they, the Jews, did not kill Jesus, but that does not mean to say that Jesus was not actually crucified.

So if it wasn't the Jews who killed Jesus, who was it?

One explanation is that it was God that allowed this to happen. This would fit in perfectly with a very similar verse in the Quran 8:17 where the Muslims were rejoicing following their win at the Battle of Badr, so a verse came to remind them that the victory was actually due to God allowing that to happen and not by their own might. It also confirms what is said in the Bible, Acts 2:23 "This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge".

Another explanation regarding who killed Jesus if it wasn't the Jews is that it was actually the Romans who did, although the Jews were perhaps framed to make it look like it was them, and indeed history has proven that it was actually the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews.

I have come to understand that many verses in the Quran often have a dual meaning, that the ambiguity is there for a purpose: that we might use our reasoning so that truth may be revealed, in its fullness, as we search with sincerity and also as we share our thoughts and listen to the ideas of others.

There is an in depth study here of the scholarly debate of Muslims regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, by Glenn M. Miller who is actually a Christian. I believe we shouldn't be afraid to listen to the ideas of Christians regarding debate over Quranic interpretation, but on the contrary Muslims have been explicitly advised to consult the Christians regarding any revelations of which we may be in doubt:

"So if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you." HQ 10:94
Here is another excellent discussion I found by a student of Islam, Abu Amina Elias:
'Was Jesus Christ crucified or someone else?'

After much prayer for guidance, study and reasoning with sincerity, I conclude that this verse confirms that God allowed Jesus to be crucified, as it was in keeping with His divine plan, and in addition it wasn't actually the Jews who crucified Jesus but the Romans. In allowing this to happen, God raised Jesus up to himself, and he is alive.

I hope that in sharing my thoughts on this matter that other Muslims may be encouraged to reflect carefully on this issue too, before arguing that Jesus was not crucified, since to argue something that may not be true could be preventing many Christians from considering further the Prophethood of Muhammad pbuh and the revelations in the Quran.

The answer to the second question, 'Is Jesus divine?', was something I could reason about but I needed conviction, which eventually came to me by way of personal revelation which I relate here.

Thank-you for reading and reflecting. Allah knows best, may He guide us all.



I was asked to include further references to what else is said regarding Jesus in the Quran in regards to his death and resurrection. So as not to make the above discussion too complicated I have included 3 points below (again I give the word by word literal translations that may be a little awkward to read):

1. Some people argue that God would not allow his prophets to be killed. I believe that argument is contradicted by this verse:

"And indeed we gave Moses the book and we followed up from after him with messengers. And we gave Jesus son of Mary clear signs and we supported him with the Holy Spirit. Isn't it so that whenever a messenger came to you with that which you did not desire yourselves you acted arrogantly? So a group you denied and a group you killed." HQ 2:87

2. The following verse has Jesus talking from the cradle about his birth, death and resurrection:

"'And peace be on me the day I was born and the day I die and the day I will be raised alive.' Such was Jesus son of Mary, a statement of truth of which they are in dispute." HQ 19:33-34
Since the substitution theory is that Jesus didn't die on the cross, that someone else did, but that he was raised directly to Heaven still alive, this verse presents a problem, so the explanation continues that this verse refers to Jesus' second coming, when he will die a natural death before being resurrected at the end of time. Personally I find this reasoning a little convoluted.

Note that this verse is almost identical to a verse shortly before, regarding John the Baptist:

"And peace be upon him the day he was born and the day day he dies and the day he will raised alive." HQ 19:15
There is no suggestion here in the grammar that the death was to happen in a future coming. It could be that the repetition of this verse is to remind us that Jesus is human as was John the Baptist. One might then question the meaning of resurrection here, since all people are resurrected after death, but the matter of the resurrection is a separate discussion.

3. There are two verses in the Quran that are frequently translated differently to other instances of the same verb used elsewhere, probably to get around the complication of explaining that Jesus didn't die before being taken to Heaven. This verb 'tawaffa' in 23 times out of 25 is translated as 'to die', but in two instances it is frequently translated instead as 'raised' or 'taken'. The translation of 'taken' is acceptable since the root of the verb lends itself to a literal translation of 'taken back in full', but the instance of 'raised' is doubtful. Below I list the two verses in question with the translation 'to die' in accordance with the other instances, which I believe is more fitting:

"I did not say to them except what you commanded me to, that 'You worship Allah my Lord and your Lord' and I was a witness over them for as long as I was with them, then when you caused me to die you were The Watcher over them, and you are a witness to everything." HQ 5:117
The above verse tells of Jesus giving an account of his life, in the past tense, suggesting that he did die at the end of his life on Earth.
"When God (Allah) said 'O Jesus! Indeed I will cause you to die and raise you to myself and purify you from those who covered up the truth on the Day of Judgement. Then to me is your return and I will judge between you about what you were in it differing." HQ 3:55
Again using the same translation as other instances of this verb, this verse suggests that Jesus did die before being raised to Heaven. 

Monday, 16 March 2015

What is Prayer?

After dropping my son at school one frosty December morning, it was so pretty I couldn't resist a walk by the lake with my camera. As the sun came up I was astounded by the beauty, the mist rising from the lake, the clarity in the reflections, the calm. This photo captured a moment which is everything I understand about prayer.

What is prayer?
It's my time of calm
A moment of stillness
When time is forgotten
I pour out my worries
My confusion
My fears
Lay them all on the carpet
And admit I am nothing
But a shell to be used
As a part of creation.

What is prayer?
It's my time to stand and stare
At the wonder of life
The depth of the colours, and lines, and details,
The patterns, repetitions, yet uniqueness
Of snowflakes
That leave me speechless
And faces
Full of imperfections
Yet beautiful from a distance and from within
Which open my mind to the infinite possibilities
And the importance of wholeness.
How great thou art, how great thou art!

What is prayer?
Oh it's that time of honesty
That time to confront
Those things I would rather avoid
And my errors
Of which there are many
And shed a few tears for my worthlessness
And plead for mercy
And ask for a purpose
And the courage to fulfil the role
The guidance to choose the right path.

What is prayer?
It is a time to remember the people I love
And feel for a moment their pains
To see this world through their eyes
Share some of their load
And count my blessings
And consider the tools
Which I have been given
To use, not just to enjoy.
And maybe then ideas will surface
Possible solutions
Through new connections.
Creativity, illumination, inspiration.
Why the hesitation in returning to this haven?
This place of refuge, this moment of connection
To life and wholeness and creation, and love
And love...

What is prayer?
This part is the best
Head and heart emptied and open
Ready to receive
That's when the grace is poured in
How can I describe it?
The blessing.
It's like warmth and excitement,
That runs down my spine
Joy, Peace, Love
It fills me up, rushes through every vein, tingles my fingers and toes.
What is that? Have you ever felt it?
I wish I could share it.
I wish I could bottle it and give it to my friends.
Like the purest water
The sweetest fruit
Water of life,
The sweetest moment of prayer
Is love
At the end.

by Jamila Hanan