Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Big Iftar in a Synagogue

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

On the Monday 7th July 2014, Alyth Synagogue hosted a ‘Big Iftar’. In what’s believed to be the first event of its kind, Muslims in North West London were invited to break their Ramadan fast with a meal known as the ‘iftar’.

The Big Iftar is a national initiative, promoting neighbourliness, strengthening of community relations and sharing. 
It encourages mosques, community centres, places of worship, to come together and share iftar during Ramadan, by inviting friends and neighbours from different faiths and ethnicities. The Big Iftar encourages British Muslims to invite their friends, neighbours and colleagues to join them at mosques on an agreed date and enjoin them in sharing the meal of iftar. This year, iftars are being hosted by many mosques and centres, and also by churches, synagogues and different faith communities and organisations.

The community of Alyth Synagogue warmly welcomed the Muslim guests and then panel members addressed the audience. The speakers on the panel were:
Rabbi Maurice (Executive Committee of the Interfaith Network of the UK)
Stephen William MP (Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.)
Laura Marks (The Board of Deputies of British Jews
Mustafa Field (Faiths Forum for London)
Julie Siddique (Vice President of the Islamic Society of Britain).

Rabbi Maurice first spoke about the fact that in Judaism they don’t have a month of fasting! However they do have two fasts in the year, which last 25 hours, one, which is on The 15th July called the Jewish fast day of 17 Tamuz and the second day of fasting, is on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Maurice mentioned that he had received messages asking whether he thought people would attend the ‘Big Iftar’ given what was happening in certain parts of the world! Rabbi Maurice said that he had replied that it was even more important to have such a meeting and that what goes on in certain parts of the world should not affect relationships between Muslims and Jews in this county.

The reoccurring theme through the evening was of peace and commonality and how blessed we are in Britain that Jews and Muslims work together and have good relationships.

The Rabbi described the purpose of fasting, which included resisting temptation, and to feel the hunger of people who always live on just one meal a day. Mustafa Fields, director of the ‘Faiths Forum for London’ described the purpose of fasting in Islam and the importance of organising interfaith events such as the ‘Big Iftar’ gathering people from different communities together and sharing and building relationships.

The Alyth Synagogue hosting the iftar had respected all the Muslim rituals and had made every arrangement to ensure the Muslims broke their fast with dates, water and fruit juices. They had a designated space for all of the Muslims to offer their Magrib prayers. Moreover, all the Muslims amongst whom were also members of the Al Khoei Foundation and the Christian Muslim Forum were treated with respect and love. The Rabbi made a prayer and broke the challah bread and everyone was served a delicious hearty soup made lovingly by Jackie Goymour committee member of Barnet’s Women’s Interfaith Network (WIN).

Aliya Azam

Al Khoei Foundation, Christian Muslim Forum

Short Reflections on being a Muslim in Britain

Monday, July 7th, 2014

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How do you feel media depicts Muslim and Islam and how does this affect you?*

I consider that the media have created a caricature of Muslims. They managed to make non-Muslim and even some Muslims believe that Muslims form a single community made of veiled women and bearded men holding similar views on everything from interpretation of their scripture to current affairs. In doing so they prevent Muslims who do not match certain criteria of their caricature to be accepted as Muslim, true Muslim. Thus some person do not hesitate to tell me after discovering I am a Muslim “ it is obvious that you are not a practicing Muslim” or to declare that my views on some topics are not those of Muslims because they do not correspond to the one attributed to Muslim in the media .

For these reasons to watch the video “Happy British Muslims” was a breeze of fresh air: for once British Muslims appeared, as they are, diverse.

What are the best aspects of being Muslim in Britain Today?

My sister sent me a text message earlier this year to let me know she had seen a woman wearing headscarf working in a clothes shop in heart of Paris. That was such news (I am French), it marked a sign of progress.

How extraordinary it was, when I arrived in London to discover women wearing headscarf in town hall, airports or shopping centre. I felt it was not only acceptable, but also normal to be Muslim:  it does not seem a big deal to have Muslim MPs in Britain.

Besides, I felt free to be Muslim: free because of facilities available in some work places to perform daily prayers, I can attend diverse religious lectures and activities in location shared with non-Muslim such as universities.

Being Muslim here in Britain is a chance to learn even more about my faith due to resources, courses, lecturers of qualities available.

Fatima Adamou
Volunteer, Christian Muslim Forum
 
* The Guardian What is it like to be a Muslim in Britain today?

{We would be very happy to share other reflections from Muslims, and Christians, Ed.}

 

WHY JESUS IS OUR TRUE PEACE

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua*

The persecution of Jesus Christ did not stop with his physical crucifixion. But his reaction to this unjust pain and suffering makes him a model of peace. In Christian spirituality, a mortal sin is akin to crucifying Jesus all over again. Whether this attack is from within or without, it would be a contradiction for any Christian to chant, “In the name of Jesus” while killing a person. This is because Jesus did not teach or practice either physical or moral violence that anybody can reference in an act of terrorism. One would then wonder where the Christian Crusaders got their inspiration to fight. The Crusaders could not convert people and nations with the ‘sword’ because Jesus recommended the ‘WORD’ for the spread of the Gospel. Whoever is converted by the sword will forever look up to the blue sky for true peace! Jesus is a perfect example that there is no compulsion in religion. Consequently, the need of a New Testament is imperative for the modern age. For instance, adherents of Judaism could cite some chapters of the Old Testament to support war and violence. Perhaps the perennial war in some parts of the Holy Land (where the prophets were born) could have been avoided if all the ancestors of Israel and Palestine accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah and the Prince of Peace.

No message of Jesus Christ abrogates an earlier message even though the Evangelists report the narratives in different context. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14, 6). Without the “New Testament”, the stories of war in the “Old Testament” could be used to support violence. This could be the reason why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘You shall not kill, and anyone who kills will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matthew 5, 21-22). That Jesus is the true peace of the world (Ephesians 2, 13-18) was prophesied by Isaiah: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9, 6).

Some Islamic scholars are of the view that, “Islam is not a new religion, but the same truth that God revealed through all his prophets” (http://www.islamicity.com) According to them the Arabic word, ‘Islam’ stands for ‘Submission’ or ‘Peace’. In a religious context, it implies the peace that reaches out to one when one completely submits oneself to the will of Almighty God. This is achieved only when the individual acts in accordance with the direction of his Creator in all spheres of life (http://www.nicheoftruth.org). Christians believe that Jesus is the true peace for every Christian and for all that exists (Ephesians 2, 4). He calls peacemakers children of God (Matthew 5, 9). He said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14, 27). “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you” (John 20, 19).

According to the Muslims, Islam is a complete way of life. Every Muslim is enjoined to practically keep to the rules of Islam (peace) in every aspect of life. This should be demonstrated in words and deeds and not only in the five pillars of Islam, namely, faith, prayer, fasting, alms (Zakkah) and pilgrimage (to Makkah). About six hundred years before the advent of Islamic religion, Jesus had taught his followers to have faith in God, pray without ceasing, fast and to love even the enemies. The goal of the mission of Jesus is the salvation of the human person and the glory of God. Since Islam came much later, it would be logical to say that with the adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the world ought to be a new heaven and a new paradise where “the wolf can dwell with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the goat, the calf and the young lion live together with a little boy to lead them. Yes, a world where the cow and the bear grazes and their young lie down together without hurting one another” (Isaiah 11, 5-7). That this type of peaceful world is not realisable calls for a serious re-examination of what religion means for the various adherents.

The dictionary defines “peace” as the absence of war or other hostilities; freedom from quarrels and disagreement; harmonious relations; inner contentment; serenity; peace of mind and respect for law and order. The word “obey” comes from the Greek “hupakou” meaning, to listen attentively to a command or authority. The word “submit” comes from the Greek “hupeiko”, to yield or surrender to an authority. Submission and obedience are similar in the sense that this action is performed in freedom without force. Jesus teaches that those who hear the word of God and put it into practice are ever more blessed (Luke 11, 28). Even in his passion, Jesus accepted the will of God” (Luke 22, 39-42). His suffering did not tempt him to prescribe defence and retaliation. He never told his followers to fight those who fight them. Rather, he said “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5, 44).

Jesus came to give light to those in darkness, those who dwell in the shadow of death and guide us into the way of peace” (Luke 1, 76-79). He thought his disciples not to resist those who do evil (Matthew 5, 38-42) by vengeance as practiced by the Jewish ancestors who believed in “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” (Matthew 5, 38; Exodus 21, 24). The desire of Jesus for human beings is to be at peace with one another (Mark 9, 50). He lamented and wept for Jerusalem for their ignorance of the message of peace. He wished that if only Jerusalem had known the value of peace (Luke 19, 42).

Jesus practiced what he preached. During his trial, “One of the guards standing there hit him. The guard said, “You should not talk to the high priest like that!” Jesus answered, “If I said something wrong, then say it. If the things I said are right, then why do you hit me (John 18, 21-23)? Jesus did not fight back. In his most excruciating pains and agony on the cross, he did not curse his executioners. He prayed for them, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23, 34). He had warned his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16, 33). In sending out his apostles, he said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20, 21 & 26)! The Qur’an affirms that Mary was given a sinless son who is faultless and perfect in the eyes of God so that Jesus, the son of Mary, would be an example to all the nations of the world (Sura Maryam 19, 19). The teaching and the life of Jesus should be a model for every peace loving person. His profile qualifies him as such. We should therefore imitate him and give peace a chance in a world where the terrorists are refusing to wane.

*Fr. Prof. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja and Consultor of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (C.R.R.M), Vatican City (comonokhua@hotmail.com).

 

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua*

On Monday April 14, 2014, many people got up from bed very early in the morning, prayed, had breakfast and prepared for work. They proceeded to begin their various business of the day. They did not want to go late to work so they were at the Nyanya park early enough to catch a bus to their different places of work. Some drove in their private cars without a clue that they will never again see their offices and places of work. They would have been beaming with hope, one could imagine! Perhaps they expected good news for the day. For Christians, the day before was Palm Sunday, so they were filled with joyful anticipation of the Holy Week, which marks the beginning of the Easter celebrations after celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven” (Matthew 21, 9)! All these innocent souls did not know that after the Palm Sunday of 13th April 2014, they would not sing that song on earth again. They did not know that while they were singing “Hosanna”, those who have refused the light and chosen darkness had concluded their plans to send them to the life beyond akin to that of those who shouted “crucify him, away with him” in the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. They celebrated the Good Friday on a Monday with their blood! May Christ receive them into his Kingdom!

I watched the Palm Sunday events from different Churches on the television. At intervals the media also reported the words of encouragements from the Sultan of Sokoto and the Vice President of Nigeria. The Sultan confidently told Nigerians that those who say that there is an attempt to Islamize Nigeria are enemies of Nigeria. The Vice President announced that the criminals who are using religion to terrorise Nigeria and Nigerians would soon be brought to book. I wonder how they would be feeling now about the ugly tragedy of the Monday, April 14, 2014. Now that the killers have moved to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, with different planks marked, “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5” discovered at the scene of the bomb blast in Nyanya, what next will the Elders State Men and Women do to stop them from executing he remaining days?

Women came out to protest against those who planted and detonated the bombs. The tears of these women like drizzling rain could not be stopped, not even by the visit of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Who will replenish the tear glands that have been exhausted with weeping over the death of these innocent Nigerians? Each time there is explosion, the people hear from the Government, what has become the mantra: “we are on top of the situation!” Then the terrorists respond with another worse terrorist act. When shall we get down “from the top of the situation” to the bottom and put a final stop to the scourge and carnage of these terrorist acts? Where do we go from here? Perhaps our government needs to let the people know.

If something is stolen in a room where five people are living, each person in that room remain a suspect until the real thief is found. Until the day Nigerians will know who these terrorists and their sponsors are, accusing fingers will continue to point at different persons and institutions. Until we know the real terrorists, the argument that “Boko Haram” has killed more Muslims, Christians, Pagans or atheists would remain a verbose gibberish. One of the commentators on the Nyanya bomb blast of Monday April 14, 2014 in AIT and NTA said, “It has become normal to see figures of dead people in the front pages of our newspapers during terrorist attacks, no body talks about the personalities anymore”. The identity of the innocent human beings who are being killed in the name of a “god” of “terrorists” matters no more. This blood sucking “god” is very wicked and must be stopped.

I remember what my uncle used to say to us when we were growing up. “Should any of you turn a criminal, he should stop using the family name! It is better you die than to spoil the good name of our family!” Later in life, that the Church excommunicates heretics who would not return to the true teaching of the Church would make sense to me. People are really tired of the definition of the religious identity of these terrorist. A Muslim told me sometime ago that he was in a place with a group of people; he discovered all of a sudden that every body left him. Perhaps they were afraid of him because he wore a long beard. He continued, “I am just thinking that the Muslim community should really take action against these terrorists before they spoil the name of Islam. We say they are not Muslims, yet they insist that they are. It is time for us to have a retrospect and see if we can identify where and when we got it wrong.” He was troubled and wondered why the terrorists claimed to be Muslims who are fighting a jihad whereas what they are doing is far from the teaching of Islam. He felt very sad, but with a kind of optimism that there is a lot the good and orthodox Muslims can do to save the name of Islam from “these bad Muslims”. We must work together as concerned Nigerians to stop this carnage. How are we even sure that these Nyanya terrorists are the real Boko Haram?

The attack on holy places at holy seasons appears to be a trade mark for the terrorists. The Holy Week is the most sacred week for Christians. It is a period when all the Christians pray to God. Jesus Christ reveals God as love, merciful and full of compassion. The Holy Week is a period Christians celebrate the God of Mercy. What makes the Holy Week sacred? The Holy Week is Sacred because the passion of the Redeemer is re-enacted. Jesus was scourged, crowned with thorns, bore the weight of the heavy cross, crucified and died on the cross on Good Friday; and on Eastern Sunday we celebrate the victory over death as we witness and proclaim, “Jesus is risen indeed, alleluia”! This is our faith, the faith of every Christian. Without the passion, death and resurrection, there is no Christianity. May the fact that death is the lot of all and eternal life for those who have faith in God be a consolation to all who mourn their loved ones in this Holy season. Even in our tears we believe the words of Jesus our Saviour: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5, 4).

Consoling another who is bereaved May be easy but when we are bereaved, the pain of the cross becomes obvious. However, we should remember that the Cross is not an end in itself. Every cross that is accepted in faith leads to glory even though the cross does not make sense to some people. St. Paul told the Corinthians, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1, 18). In 1979, Pope John Paul II published a book, (Carol Wotyla, Sign of Contradiction, Seabury Press, 1979) to show the mystery of Jesus Christ who died to save us. The cross looks like a contradiction but it is the way that leads to true peace. The life and message of Jesus Christ shows the power of God that is demonstrated in the resurrection (Romans 1, 20). Jesus came that we might have abundant life (John 10, 10). He raised Lazarus (John11, 1-43) and the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7, 11-16) to show that he has the answer to every life situation. Do these reflections mean that we should continue to be slaughtered on a daily basis? Where do we go from here? The point for all believers, especially Christians in this Holy Week is that we should not allow these enemies of human life to prevent us from celebrating the resurrection. This is our Easter! Let nothing separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8, 36). Happy Easter!

*Fr. Prof. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja and Consultor of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (C.R.R.M), Vatican City comonokhua@hotmail.com).

Prophets and Potluck

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

We started with Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, and Yunus. We ended with falafel, tzatziki, a casserole, and lots of pita bread. The folks in our Qur’an study group finally felt comfortable enough with one another to share a meal after our learning session.

We’ve been meeting every Sunday evening since January. About half the group is Muslim. The other half is Western/Christian (but on the more progressive end of Christianity, I would say). About half of us are women. The group changes a bit every week, depending on who is able to attend, so we usually begin by stating our names and why we are there. Most of the Muslim women in the group say they are attending because they would like to learn more about the actual Qur’an. They say they are quite familiar with Islamic prayers and Muslim culture, but they want to learn more about the text itself. Most of the Christians attend because they want to learn something…anything…about the Qur’an, Islam, Muslim life in the U.S., or Muslim life around the world. The group’s facilitators choose a passage from the Qur’an to share. It is read first in Arabic and then in English. Afterward, they offer their views on what the verses mean and how they fit into Islamic teachings.

Initially, our sessions focused on Muhammad’s early revelations, so we read some of the shorter, chronologically-earlier surahs near the end of the Qur’an. After that, we moved on to the creation of humans. The middle school kids at Jubilee church in Asheville had discussed creation stories in various faith traditions earlier in the year, so it was exciting to watch the Christian adults finally recognize the many similarities between the creation stories in the two traditions. We also had an interesting discussion about the jinn and angels. Angels, of course, are mentioned throughout the Bible. The jinn really are not, although there are some interesting exceptions to that.

Lately, we have moved into discussions about the prophets. This has been particularly fun for me. I am quite familiar with the stories of the prophets from the Bible, and I’ve read an English translation of Qisas al-Anbiya from the Islamic tradition. Although the prophets are often the same (e.g, Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/Musa, and Jonah/Yunus), the stories differ in their details. This is perhaps most obvious for the story of Abraham and his son, Ishmael, by Hagar. There are also some general differences in the way prophets are viewed. In the Biblical tradition, the prophets are known to act in ways that appear quite human-like, perhaps even “sinful.” For example, in the Bible, Noah is found drunk is his tent (Genesis 9:18-25). In the Islamic tradition, the prophets never knowingly sin, so Nuh is never portrayed as being inebriated.

Last Sunday, we broke with our habit of rushing home for dinner with family to break bread with one another. We had a potluck dinner after our study session, and everyone shared their best middle-eastern fare. The beauty of the meal lay in the fact that we talked about anything and everything but the Qur’an. We heard about one woman’s son who is currently visiting his brother in Egypt. We heard about a recent talk given at a peace conference by one of the group’s facilitators. And one woman shared her thoughts on a recent Sufi reading/musical performance she attended at a local teahouse. In short, the potluck was yet another step in getting to know one another.
Our Qur’an discussions will continue, but maybe now we’ll feel just a bit more comfortable when sharing our thoughts and feelings. During the first few sessions, only the facilitators spoke. Most of the Westerners in the group had never even seen a Qur’an and didn’t understand why some people in the group were constantly saying “peace be upon him.” Now, everyone shares their translations and their reflections on the passages. Our questions have become more open-ended and require more complex answers. The dialogue sometimes gets emotional and edgy, which means it’s also getting more profound and thought-provoking. Interestingly, the tension almost never falls along stereotypical “party lines.” The Westerners do not necessarily agree with one another; nor do the Muslims.

Instead, we simply struggle together. We struggle to understand when religious disagreements matter and when they don’t. We struggle to distinguish propaganda from truth. We strive to separate individuals from their governments. We make every effort to listen with compassion and avoid knee-jerk reactions. And we come to the circle in a spirit of unity and love.

Our efforts are hardly earth-shattering. We’re a small group of individuals meeting in a very small city at the base of the mountains in western North Carolina. We’re not attempting to solve the world’s problems, and we’re not attempting to achieve world peace. We’re simply a gaggle of folks interested enough in one another to spend a couple of hours together on Sunday evenings – to share our thoughts, our food, and some of our beliefs – which is really what interfaith interactions are truly about. To be sure, we’re not global news, but hopefully, we’re changing things in some small way in our little corner of creation.

Vicki Garlock, Ph.D.

Faith Seeker Kids

The legacy of Channel 4’s Adhan broadcast?

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

A Guest Blog from Nabila Pathan

Muslim orphan praying during Ramadan, Thailand

A boy prays during Ramadan in Thailand. Channel 4 said it encountered Islamophobia with its UK 4Ramadan season. Photograph: Abdullah Wangni/EPA

The legacy of the of the first British TV channel to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer last Ramadan has become “top in viewer complaints” of 2013.   The figures grabbed the spotlight irrespective of the fact that Channel 4 responded that it was ‘Islamophobia’ that whipped up a frenzy of complaints.

With Channel 4′s deployment of the ‘Islamophobia’ label,  you get a fair sense of the mindset that allows itself to get offended.  Opinion writers like Nesrine Malik have gone a little way to place it into context of the fear of a Muslim takeover even though she herself was not convinced initially by channel 4′s decision to showcase the call to prayer in Ramadan.

The  three-minute call to prayer (Adhan) was beamed live each morning on Channel 4 television and marked the start of the day’s fast for Muslims.  As it was a pre-dawn broadcast, one wonders how many of the viewers who complained actually woke up early to view the actual call to prayer and thus make an informed objection?

The showcase of the Adhan was a unique focus on an aspect of Muslim ritual which is not part of a mainstream consciousness.  And that’s what Channel 4 are about, placing a spotlight on something different.  The specially-shot call to prayer was delivered by Hassen Rasool, who is considered one of the best muezzins in the UK. It was filmed to a backdrop of London, Birmingham and Bradford.  If anything it was a creative way of presenting the call for prayer for many Muslims and introducing it to a wider audience.

We can look cynically at Channel 4 for pandering to a community for ratings or we can retreat from supporting future output based on fear of inviting criticism underpinned with intolerance.  Neither are promising nor inspiring for future innovative output.

The media and its cultural productions are a way of reinforcing the emergence and belonging of communities within mainstream societies.   At a time when  Muslims are becoming a more visible and vocal part of British society, sometimes as a reaction to negative narratives, there is a real need for culturally diverse output to represent the community.  Otherwise we are left with the usual spate of tabloid headlines of creeping shariah.  There are some sincere attempts but the only ones that come to mind are  Citizen Khan that fail in comedic stakes and the Eastenders Muslim family that look like they belong less in Walford and more out in space.

With Ramadan round the corner, it remains to be seen whether these complaints speak louder than ratings for future editorial decisions?  After all, it was the number of complaints that made the headlines, not the fact that it was Islamophobia “from communities that were either very polarised or very undiverse”.

Nabila Pathan

@NabilaMPathan
The Full Picture Club Director. Editor @wordplayblog. Writer for Al Arabiya English and Huffington Post.

“Hidden Heart”

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

“Hidden Heart” is a ground-breaking documentary by Zara Afzal and Christopher Hird, which I am the Executive Producer of.  It offers a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the backlash that heritage Muslim women often face when marrying outside their ethnic communities.  Will he convert or won’t he?  Even if he does convert, to what extent is it a real conversion?  Won’t someone think of the children?  Family politics starts to show some of its uglier incarnations (Asma Barlas acknowledges in Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qu’ran, that marriage in Islam is “located at the juncture of the private [individual] and the public [communal], the religious and the social”).

Of course, the taboo attached to inter-racial marriage within British Muslim communities is nowhere near as severe as that attached to inter-religious marriage or gay marriage.  However, intersectional discrimination is often an issue, particularly when it comes to male partners of heritage Muslim women (both those who convert to Islam and those who do not).

It is clear that the stigma of marrying outside one’s heritage community applies to Muslim women more acutely than their male counterparts.  Civil society responses to this problem have partially grappled with this distinction.  In November 2012, the Christian Muslim Forum launched its Interfaith Marriage Guidelines at Westminster Abbey, in co-operation with the Inter-Faith Marriage Network and the Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group.  They featured case studies of Muslim women who are married to men from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.  They also reproduced statistics from the 2001 census, which recorded 17,163 Christian women married to Muslim men and 4,233 Christian men married to Muslim women.

The Forum’s guidelines ‘When Two Faiths Meet’ can be seen here . You can also view this excerpt of Heather al-Yousuf (Inter Faith Marriage Network and Christian Muslim Forum) and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra commenting on pastoral support and the mainstream Islamic position on inter faith marriage here.

While the guidelines provide a strong framework for the pastoral care of men and women in inter-faith and, to a lesser extent, inter-racial marriages, they could do more in my view to specifically address the Islamic jurisprudence which generally states that Muslim women should not marry non-Muslim men.  Jerome Taylor, Religious Affairs Correspondent at the Independent, quotes (from ‘When Two  Faiths Meet’) the case study of a Muslim woman marrying a Catholic man while writing about these guidelines in November 2012: “While we came from different faiths, we approached them in similar ways. Although I was in my 30s and well educated, I was treated as though I was a silly little girl who had got herself into an irresponsible situation which could only be solved by my fiancé converting.

It was also assumed that although my fiancé was Catholic, his religion was less important and that he likely did not believe in it to the same degree Muslims believed in their religion. We were not asked what drew us together, how we met, how we managed differences. Instead we were judged harshly and told off. We had discussed the option of one of us converting but decided this was not for us.[1]

Eventually, however, this was resolved:

‘Ultimately, we found a Muslim cleric who saw things the way we did. The counsel he gave us was excellent, focusing as we did on what made us similar. He eventually conducted our Islamic marriage with a basic marriage contract that was very flexible in its content. In it we agreed to talk about any obstacles that came up, rather than making agreements about how things would be done. From the Catholic side, we were blessed with supportive priests who focused on our strengths as a couple and did not make us make promises about our children. It has … been helpful that from both the Muslim and Catholic sides we were given permission to engage with each other’s beliefs and practices that did not compromise our own.  Over five years on, ours is a happy marriage with plenty of space in it for two faiths.’

At times, this opprobrium can turn into outright violence and intimidation against couples and / or family members.  One of the most frequently reported cases of a British Muslim woman marrying outside her community was that of Zena Briggs, who set up the Zena Foundation to help forced marriage victims after she escaped one herself, having eloped with white Englishman Jack Briggs.  They were chased by a private investigator and ended up with a £9,000 bounty on their heads.  After 16 years on the run, the couple split up.  However, their book Runaways was read out by Ann Cryer MP in the House of Commons, eventually leading to the creation of the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit in 2005.[2]

As Boston-based imam Suhaib Webb says, “Marriage is the easiest chapter in the books of fiqh, but the hardest chapter in our society today.”  Fortunately, there are imams and theologians who take a more empathetic and pragmatic approach to inter-faith marriage.  Dr Usama Hasan, a former imam at the Tawhid Mosque in Leyton who now works for the Quilliam Foundation, is one of these.  He is one of the theologians featured in the “Hidden Heart” film, and actively officiates Islamic wedding ceremonies between Muslim women and non-Muslim men.  A fatwa on Dr Hasan’s website outlines the thorny issue of Muslim women who convert, yet are already married to non-Muslim men.  It provides a refutation of certain opinions – most notably of the European Council for Fatwa and Research – that such marriages should be annulled after a three-month waiting period if the husband refuses to convert.  One of the examples Dr Hasan cites is that of the Prophet’s daughter Zaynab who remained married to Abul-‘As for six years after she converted to Islam and before he did so.[3]

In terms of theological support for inter-racial marriage specifically, the Quranic verse that is often cited is Surah Ah-Rum (30:22): And of His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Indeed there are Signs in this for the wise.”  The other one is Surah Al Hujurut (49:13): “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”

On top of this, the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) also encouraged interracial marriages among the Sahabah (companions), including the marriage of Bilal the muezzin (may Allah be pleased with him) to an Arab lady from Bani Bukayr.  The biological benefits of interfaith marriage were recognised, alongside the Islamic ethic of diversity in general.  “It is narrated that Omer Ibn Al-Khatab, the second khalifa, noticed that the progeny of the tribe of Bani Assayib had become weak and unhealthy because of intermarriage of cousins. He advised the tribe to avoid close-cousin intermarriage and to seek wives and husbands from tribes further afield, saying: “Marry from far away tribes, otherwise you will be weak and unhealthy.”  This explicit theological support for inter-racial marriage has not fully filtered down to the grassroots.

It is safe to say that the multitude of religious interpretations on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men has not filtered down to the grassroots either.  Even if one were to follow the mainstream opinion on this, it must be recognised that attraction and compatibility cannot be number-crunched via some precise formula, and that the Human Rights Act expressly promotes the right of choice in marriage.  While some Muslim bloggers – Tariq Nelson being one of them – supported inter-racial marriage as one of the conduits towards a singular American Muslim identity, I would go a step further than that.  Muslim women should be able to marry outside their faith communities as well, and feel confident in doing so, without that neurotic voice in the background telling them they are necessarily doing something wrong.  This is particularly the case if they have exhausted other options within their own faith communities.  It is time to make a distinction between actual wrongdoing – based on the fitra or the innate predisposition of human beings to do good – and guilt that has been induced by trying to do the hula with different community-based “rings of expectation” all at once.  One by one, the rings will eventually fall down.

Dr Khaleel Mohammed, associate professor of Religion at San Diego State University, addresses the patriarchal “ring of expectation” in his fatwa on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men on the Project Ijtihad website: “In our day, since Qur’anic Islam (as opposed to the Islam of the male jurists) must acknowledge the radical notion that women are equals of men, that women have legal rights, and that those rights include placing conditions on the marriage (what you and I would term a ‘pre‐nuptial agreement’), then an inter‐faith marriage can take place on condition that neither spouse will be forcibly converted to the other’s religion. As long as that condition is respected, you and she have my blessing.

 

On the question of children, certainly there will be some religious confusion. But as a Muslim scholar, I can tell you that the Qur’an advocates the use of the heart and mind in forming opinions. If both parents are faithful to their interpretations of the Creator’s will, then the children will make informed decisions when they come of age.”[4]

 

Finally, there is an acute demographic issue within diaspora Muslim communities where men have more freedom – in practice – to either marry women from outside their heritage communities or those from their countries of origin.  It is neither just nor compassionate to allow this state of affairs to continue unabated, while at the same time increasing the social restrictions on women to the point where they are unable to find partners at all.  Since I am such a strong believer in Islam as an enabler of human dignity and perfector of human character, I don’t think it was ever the intended state of affairs to prevent Muslim women from marrying people who possess strong character traits, yet lack Muslim names.  As Cambridge University’s “Contextualising Islam in Britain II” report states: “Many hadith attest to the fact that the Prophet refrained from applying legislative or penal codes in resolving personal matters of morality, preferring to leave private relationships to be worked out between the parties concerned on the basis of broad ethical advice and practical common sense. He also showed compassionate awareness of human limitations and loving concern that people should not oppress themselves with unsustainable spiritual burdens and disproportionate self-criticism.”[5]

 

This is why I am proud to announce the crowd-funding launch of “Hidden Heart” this week.  It is a film which humanises these challenges, and will hopefully make them more relatable to people who might otherwise be inclined to oppose the marriage of their female relatives on religious or racial grounds.

Tehmina Kazi

Director

British Muslims for Secular Democracy

 

 



Gift for Religious Co-Existence in Iran Makes Waves

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

caligraphy

Interfaith understanding is often a work in progress or long-term objective. There are times, however, that we see breakthroughs that we can sense chart a turning point. One such example comes from an outstanding gesture of goodwill from a senior Iranian Shi’a cleric, news of which is making international waves.

Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s gesture to the Baha’is of the world has already been welcomed by Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, The Bishop of Coventry – Dr Christopher Cocksworth, and the Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide – Mr Mervyn Thomas.

Although Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani is no stranger to calling for religious co-existence in Iran, his most recent gesture in relation to the Bahá’ís in Iran is notable in its symbolic power and sincerity.

In a statement released on 7 April 2014, he recalls that Iran’s history shows periods when “different religions and denominations, with manifold beliefs and practices, enjoyed social interaction and tolerant coexistence.” Many have charted this back to the Cyrus Cylinder, drawing from it a respect for humanity and religious tolerance.

Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani bemoans the loss and regretful devaluing of that tradition, which has undermined ‘the right to be human’, the right to life and human dignity and has perpetuated a ‘religious apartheid’. He critically observes that Iranian society today “suffers from a ruinous depression and anxiety … division and contention, lies and deceit, betrayal and aggression, duplicity and deception, pretension and dishonesty, cruelty and discourtesy, and the destruction of the weak and their exploitation … fruitless talk, and … empty promises”.

This observation leads him to his determination for the preparation of several beautiful pieces of art, illuminated calligraphic works of art by his own hands, gifted to the Bahá’ís. This determination stems from, what he calls a need for a practical and symbolic action to “serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice”.

Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani chose both a symbol of the Bahá’í Faith known as the Greatest Name – a calligraphic representation of the conceptual relationship between God, His prophets and the world of creation – and a verse from the Baha’i Holy writings, a quotation from the founder Bahá’u’lláh which epitomizes the spirit of his gift:

“Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God. Beware lest amidst men the flame of foolish ignorance overpower you. All things proceed from God and unto Him they return. He is the source of all things and in Him all things are ended.”

The most inspirational aspect of his gesture is captured in Ayatollah’s own potent words about why he took this innovative step:

“I have made this as an enduring symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for fellow-feeling and peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief. … I present this precious symbol – an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens who respect others for their humanity and not for their religion or way of worship – to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”

In welcoming this ‘sign of support’, The Bishop of Coventry Dr Christopher Cocksworth welcomed this gift and noted that “given the systemic and long standing suffering experienced by the Bahá’í community in Iran, this is an imaginatively courageous step by a senior Iranian Islamic scholar.” Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide also welcomed this meaningful gesture and noted that this is “particularly welcome at a time when the [Bahá’í] community is being actively targeted and vilified by the Iranian regime.” Mr Thomas goes on to call upon President Rouhani “to emulate the Ayatollah’s inclusivity by upholding the rights of the Bahá’í community as equal citizens and to guarantee freedom of religion or belief for all religious communities”. Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Master of Magdalene College welcomed it, noting that “it represents not only a personally gracious gesture but also a strand within the Islamic world at its best and most creative which is deeply appreciative of all that helps human beings to respond to God’s will for peace and understanding. Along with many others of all faiths, I shall pray that this marks a turning point in Iran’s attitudes to the Bahá’í community, and I give thanks for the courage and generosity which have motivated this gift.”

In that way, this gift – following on from positive words for coexistence with Bahá’ís from the late Ayatollah Montazeri in 2008 and Ayatollah al-Sadr in 2011 – would indeed mark a positive turning point, shifting it from a gesture of goodwill to an act that marked a shift towards a culture of inclusivity and return to the natural state of coexistence and interaction.

 
Dr. Nazila Ghanea is as Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford and is a member of the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief. She offers this piece in her personal capacity.

 

 

My Diary of Jerusalem

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Ajmal Masroor

Day 8 – Future is shared, future is young

The highlight of today was a meeting with a group of young People in one of the very best schools in Jerusalem. The pupils in the school were mainly from Muslim and Christian background. They spoke perfect English and appeared extremely confident. After a quick introduction to everyone we got down to business. It was an open session, we could ask any questions to them and they could ask any questions to us. It was an opportunity to have an honest conversation.

In the course of our discussion many areas were explored. One of the colleagues wanted to find out if the Muslim and Christian pupils had any problems in forming friendship with each other and if their differences in religion were ever an issue. Their responses and articulation took everyone by surprise. They said that when they are together they never ask if one of them is a Muslim or Christian, they simply formed friendship based on their common interests and shared space at school. They all lived and loved Jerusalem and that was their unity factor!

However, it was very difficult to form friendship with the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. Firstly the Jewish kids did not attend the same school and secondly at the neighbourhood level, Jews lived in Jewish neighbourhoods while Christians and Muslims lived in common and mixed neighbourhoods. This physical separation also made it impossible to form friendship. The students looked frustrated in this segregated city and desperately longed for a peaceful resolution. While they were describing the lifestyle imposed on them by the State of Israel and on their city I was thinking about the term “ghetto” so commonly associated with insular living of one ethnic or religious group. We, in the West frown upon ghettoization of any neighbourhood yet a whole country has been set up as modern day Jewish ghetto with the full blessings of the West. I felt angry just thinking about the hypocrisy.

I asked the young students if they felt “Israeli” and not a single student in the group raised their hand. I asked them if they felt “Palestinian” and they all raised their hands. These young articulate and extremely intelligent people had in their blood a deep disdain for the State of Israel and I do not believe the Westerner understand the depth of the feeling. I asked them why they did not feel like an “Israeli citizen” since the reality is that there was no Palestine, no prospect of one either and the State of Israel was here to stay. The looks on their faces told me that they did not like my analysis and certainly felt uncomfortable in my assertion.

“We are not Israeli citizens, we will never be one, we are treated different, we are restricted in our travel and we are limited even in the choice of profession that we can chose for our future. How can we ever be an Israeli citizen?” As I absorbed what was said another young man calmly but firmly continued, “they stole our land, they killed our families, they expelled millions and now they have no right to return, how can we ever feel comfortable with Israel?”

“Do you know that we can not travel freely, we can not attend universities of our choice and certainly not the universities run by Israel. We are allowed to attend universities in the West Bank but even they are not recognized. When the Palestinian university students travel to the West Bank they are often held up at the checkpoints and either delayed or forced to miss lessons. The Al-Quds University here in Jerusalem does not get recognition because of the name Al-Quds but if they change the name and called it anything else it would be recognized.”

I thought about what was being said and felt a strong sense of affinity with the Palestinian young students. I may not be a Palestinian by race; I may not be a Palestinian by birth and certainly not a Palestinian by culture but I felt a Palestinian in my heart. My feeling of oneness with this people was based on their 65 years of occupation, their daily experience of injustice and humiliation. I felt their pain and anguish, I felt their daily horror and I held in the core of my being deep level of abhorrence for the Apartheid state of Israel.

I sat there thinking no nation can survive the global torrent of hatred. I have not met anyone who, upon hearing he plight of the Palestinians and the behaviour of the state of Israel, does not express anger and hatred towards Israel. If the Jewish people were true inheritors of the teachings of Moses they would abandon this racist project and create a state for all people with equality and justice at its core. Moses freed them from the slavery of Pharaoh but today state of Israel does everything to subjugate the Palestinians. They have forgotten God’s favour and grace!

The question I would like to ask the Israeli politicians are – Do you have to be Jewish to be treated like a human being in the Holy Land? Do you have to be Jewish to be recipient of God’s Grace? Do you have to be Jewish to need safety and security? I bet that the answer even in their heart is always “no” but these are people who have become so blinkered that they would deny even the logical truth emanating from their heart.

There was a lot of anger and resentment amongst the different faiths against the Jewish people here in the Holy Land. Christians of all denomination hated the way they were treated. The current Israeli government’s proposal to reclassify the Christians of the holy land as not Palestinians was rejected by the Christians because they felt more united with their fellow Muslim Palestinians than the Jews of Israel. One Christian told me, “they handed Jesus to Romans to be crucified but we Christians believe and follow Jesus. He is from this land and no body can deny us our right to be here.” There was anger in his tone and any suggestion that they did not belong to Palestine was seen as sacrilegious.

The expression of solidarity between Christians and Muslims demonstrates the reality of where the hearts and minds of the people in the region are. No matter how many tanks, missiles, helicopters and fighter planes US, UK and other partners in this criminal enterprise supply to the state of Israel, the locals and indigenous people of this land will never be permanently subjugated by fear and oppression. They will gain their freedom sooner or later. I believe Palestine will be free very soon!

There were a lot of mistrust based on their past experiences. They could not bring themselves to forming any relationship with a people who have destroyed everything they had. I kept on wondering what will happen to the perpetrators when the final resolution is reached and the accounts of all the pains and sufferings made public? I fear that Zionism has given the Jewish people a false sense of security and created a bubble around them. I fear when the bubble bursts the consequences would be grave.

It was the turn for the young pupils from the school to ask us questions and two questions stayed stuck to my mind. One of them asked us the question that must have been pricking at his conscience for long. He asked, “How do you bring your children in the West, how do you make sure they know their religion and culture well, how do you teach them Arabic or the Quran? The questioner was a Muslim and he was keen on knowing how do we keep our Islamic values intact in the West?

I think our answer and our personal stories reassured them but more importantly impressed them. This is not the first time I have faced such a question from Muslims in the Muslim majority countries. There was an assumption in the question that Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim countries would be totally disloyal to the faith. This assumption was erroneous and based on negative media reporting. The truth is Muslims who practice their faith in the West would have embraced the faith and all its practices based on reason and with conviction; and is more likely to be genuine in their observance. However, Muslims in the predominantly Muslim majority countries, due to family and social pressure, would have no choice but to remain practicing Muslims even if only pretentiously.

I know some would disagree with my analysis but during my travel across the Palestinian areas I have observed that a large number of youth were very far away from Islam. I remember when a group of young people was telling me how they were really not interested in Islam and their struggle was more to do with politics than religion. The divide between Fatah, the secular nationalist Palestinian movement and Hamas, the religious Palestinian movement are good cases to site as an example. This divide was very visible in most aspects of Palestinian life. The future of Palestine cannot be entrusted at the hands of a fractured and deeply divided Palestinian leadership. I felt they were part of the problem and not solution.

The second question those brilliant young people asked opened up another can of worms. They wanted to know if we would allow our children to get married to non-Muslims in the UK. Again the undertone of the question had a context. The assumption in the Muslim majority countries is that Muslims in the West are having rampant sexual relationships with everyone and were not adhering to their religion. In the Holy Land the social connection and friendship between Christians and Muslims takes a different route when it come to marriage. They were aware of where social and cultural interactions between them began and ended. One young man made it clear for us all. He said, “you can be my best friend and Christian but you can not marry a Muslim.” Muslims or Christians will not marry from each other. They are strictly mono-cultural!

The rules of marriage in Islam on these cultural landmines are clear. Ideally a Muslim man should marry a Muslim woman. Where there is an exception, a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian woman but a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian man. Why is there an obvious difference in the rule? I can only guess the rationale behind this rule but to be honest I have no idea. I believe in God’s superior wisdom, He has specified this rule and I have willingly submitted to Him. This forms part of me surrendering to God and to be a Muslim I must surrender totally.

One of our colleagues told them that we encourage cross-cultural marriages but vast majority of the Muslims remained loyal to the command of God as found in the Quran. In my observation, from London to Los Angeles majority of the Muslims were not interested in bending the rule of God to suit their personal circumstances but were prepared to mend their ways to find the pleasure of God. This is the universal truth for all conscientious Muslims.

I was extremely impressed to have met these young people. I knew they did not reflect the Palestinian society in general as they were born with silver spoon in their mouth. It was still reassuring to see that a new generation of young people were growing up confident in their faith, true Palestinian in identity and understood how to communicate with the western world in perfect English and depth of understanding. I felt very hopeful that may be when they graduate they would be able to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians with more honesty and integrity.

I have a great friend in Jerusalem. He owns a few businesses. I decided to visit him. He was a man of integrity and strength. For generations he has lived in Jerusalem. Even though officials and bureaucrats have made his life a living he was not willing to give up. He gets regular harassment from the security services, from the taxman and from the local authorities building and planning departments. These are obvious strategies the Israeli government employs to drive out the Palestinians and forcing their successful businesses to fail. He told me that he pays huge amounts of taxes but hardly gets a fair treatment by the government. He told me, “they will not break me, they will have to kill me first”!

Wherever I went the depth of despair was staring at my face. Can you imagine if you were discriminated because of your race or religion? Can you imagine if your businesses were shut down because you were not from the chosen race? What would you do? I know what I would do!

I went to visit a local hospital that the Palestinians have been running for the disabled children. They were totally dependent on international donations but that was difficult, as the Israeli government has placed too many restrictions for them to fundraise and directly receive donation freely. I met children with all types of disabilities. There were children who had difficulty in hearing but due to poverty and lack of access to adequate support these children have grownup not having the ability to speak either. Thanks to a generous donor a few of them had a transplant to help them help hear. The result was amazing. Not only they were hearing things better but also they were beginning to develop language skills. For the parents these were examples of miracles! You could see the happiness in the faces of the children and parents.

There were children who were born with severe disability including Spina Bifida or Multiple Sclerosis MS. Their life was bound in hardship and their parent’s lives were filled with misery. Many parents with disabled children cannot even come to the hospital as the disgraceful dividing wall of Apartheid means long wait at the checkpoints and in most cases whimsical entry refusal at the hands of young kids with machine guns serving their national conscription. Some of these armed guards at the checkpoints keep dual nationalities, remain Israeli but also have US or European citizenship but are here to complete their national military services.

The water therapy that has been running extremely successful programme for many children with sever disability was closed. When I asked why the staff’s response was very sad, “We have run out of money and cannot afford to run this programme anymore”! There was a dry and empty swimming pool right there in front of all of us to see. I stood there grieving over the loss of a swimming pool that could have made a substantial difference in the quality of the lives of disabled children. But that does not bother the Israeli government. The Israeli Jewish people had access to the state of the art centres and their children with disability were cared for by some of the finest support services provided by the state of Israel. When it comes to the Palestinians the equation was simple and the mind is set – this is a Jewish country, no one else should be here apart from the Jews!

Does that sound right to you? I hate the idea of a state being established exclusively for a race or religion. Such a philosophy sounds racist to me! How can we turn a blind eye to this?

As we walked around the site and learned more about its work and how much support it was providing the Palestinian families I was extremely delighted and honoured that I was shown the place and introduced to some of those beautiful children. For me children with disability occupy a special place in my heart. My son is not disabled but he suffers from a genetic condition. I know the pain and anguish we as parents go through thinking about him. I wish I could do more to help these children.

There was a workshop where disabled people were given a chance to work and sell the items of their creativity and hard work. We were delighted to buy as many items as possible from the centre as this would help them continue providing the vital services to the children.

I was speaking to a person while walking around in the hospital. They said something very profound and it has stayed in my mind ever since. “I am a Christian and my friends are Muslims. In my family I have two martyrs who have been killed by the Israeli security services, my father and uncle have both been killed. This is our land and we will continue fighting. How many martyrs do they want? How many of us can they kill? We have no problem with living with Jews but Jews have a problem in sharing this Holy Land. They want it for themselves only!”

I left the hospital in deep thoughts contemplating over the future of the Holy Land. I could not fathom what the future of this land holds. I could not imagine the State of Israel surviving in the way it is today. I could not imagine the state of Palestinians continuing in the same way. I was praying for a miracle but that is in the hands of God. While I am alive I have a duty to do something to change this but I do not know what that is! My quest for a peaceful and just solution for the Holy Land continues.

(Due to extremely busy schedule since my return I have not been able to finish my Jerusalem diary but I intend to finish it by writing my final piece tomorrow.)

© Ajmal Masroor March 5 April, 2014

My Diary of Jerusalem

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Ajmal Masroor

Day 6 – In the footsteps of Jesus
(I did promise to write day 6 diary entry and publish it by yesterday night but when I arrived at my room to write my thoughts, God’s plan prevailed. My body was too tired to take anymore of late night writing so it just simply shut down.)
I was coming back to my room after prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque when I noticed a bunch of armed Israeli soldiers marching through the Haram Al-Sharif. They walked towards me and asked me, “Are you a Muslim?” I replied, “What if I am not, but before I answer, are you a Muslim?” He mocked me by saying, “Thanks God I am not!”
I took a step closer to the soldiers and said, “You should try Islam and you may like it”.
He did not respond but gave me a look that said it all. He was not happy with my response. He probably wanted me to say nothing to him. When I gave him back a small taste of his own medicine he was not happy about it. I walked off and did not want to waste my time with a bunch of people whose sole existence was to humiliate the Palestinian Muslims. I saw an elderly woman being denied access to the Haram because she forgot her ID. There is limit to patience in everyone; this kind of harassment causes a great deal of resentment.
There is also the other side of the story. For the sake of fairness it must also be heard. If the soldiers did not guard the mosque 24 hours a day from all sides many Jewish extremists would walk in and cause trouble for Palestinians. The bullet holes inside the Dome of the Rock are still visible. It took one fanatical Jew to cause death and injury to scores of worshippers in the mosque. Ariel Sharon is held responsible for rousing the rightwing Jews long held desire to barge into the Haram area and offer their prayers.
The Second Intifada started in 28 September 2000, when Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Al-Haram Al-Sharif, a highly provocative and bullying tactic. He was a Likud party candidate for Israeli Prime Minister and he entered the holy precinct accompanied by over 1,000 security guards. The Palestinians were outraged and ignited the simmering anger that has been bubbling under the surface for a long time. They demonstrated but were dispersed by the Israeli army with brutal military force, using lethal ammunition.
Sharon claimed, “The Temple Mount is in our hands and will remain in our hands. It is the holiest site in Judaism and it is the right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount.
A riot broke out amongst the Palestinians at the site, resulting in clashes between Israeli forces and the protesting crowd. Many Palestinians were killed and injured. It was from this day an Israeli police and military presence was introduced around the holy site. At times it felt like the Israeli security services were winning in their despicable game but when I see the solid resolve of the Palestinians despite subjugation and lack of adequate defense it felt like they were winning.

One of the local shopkeepers took me aside and showed me the house of Ariel Sharon in the middle of the old walled city. He bought the flat to provoke further reactions from the local Palestinians. He is dead and facing his account but his evil legacy lives on. May God protect us all from all sorts of evil.

There is a display cabinet in the Al-Aqsa mosque that exhibits the casings of the lethal bullets and ammunitions fired at the Palestinians around the Haram. These are kept as a reminder and evidence of the violation of the holy sites’ sanctity. One elderly gentleman told me, “we will send these as gifts to the Jewish people when we liberate our land”.


As I was walking back to my room that morning I was wondering how would Jesus have reacted to this violence and humiliation perpetrated by his fellow Jews? I have often wondered what was Jesus truly like? I have an image of Jesus in my mind but I have never spent much time in exploring the true nature and life of this great personality that has come to dominate the world.


This morning, immediately after Fajar prayer (early morning prayer) an opportunity to visit the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding cities and villages was presented to me and I jumped at the opportunity. I took the bus along with the rest of the group. It was over two hours drive along the West Bank and Israeli held territory.
The road passes through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the region – sandy coloured mountains takes your breath away and is the hallmark of the wilderness of this land of the Prophets. It had rained slightly a few days earlier, the land was buzzing with green activities. New plants and life were sprouting in every direction. I could imagine Jesus, Moses, Abraham and many other prophets walking through this desolate yet beautiful landscape.
We passed through a city that is known as the oldest city in the world – Jericho. Archeologists have unearthed several remains including one that is dated back 11,000 years. Throughout time this city has witnessed many people come and go including Jews, Christians and then Muslims. The city has always produced abundant quantities of banana and sugar. It is known as the city of palm trees and exotic fruit. The Muslims named the city “Areeha” and have lived here under various rulers since the time of the second Caliph Omar.


As soon as I arrived here I felt I really like this city with so much history and thousands of years of human heritage dotted all over the land. It felt as if I was walking the same place as people thousands of years ago. Now it is inhabited mainly by the Muslims and appears cut of from the rest of the country. It is located near the Jordan River, once the source of life and water but now dry as a desert. Israel has dried this river through its illegal water appropriation policy. The city is under the Palestinian Authorities control in the West Bank now.
We all know that Jesus was born out of a miracle but how much do we know about his childhood, teenage years and his youth. My mind raced through the Islamic text on the subject and I could recall the Chapter of Mary (19:16-40) in the Quran. In 24 verses the basic story behind Jesus’s miraculous birth is chronicled as follows:
16: AND CALL to mind, through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place.
17: And kept herself in seclusion from them, whereupon We sent unto her Our angel of revelation, who appeared to her in the shape of a well-made human being
18: She exclaimed: “Verily, ‘I seek refuge from thee with the Most Gracious! [Approach me not] if you are conscious of Him!”
19: The angel answered: “I’ am but a messenger of Your Sustainer, [who says,] `I shall bestow upon you the gift of a son endowed with purity.’”
20: Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – For, never have I been a loose woman!”
21: [The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but] thy Sustainer says, `this is easy for Me; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from US. And it was a thing decreed [by God]:
22: and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place.
23: And [when] the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree, she exclaimed: “Oh, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!”
24: Thereupon [a voice] called out to her from beneath that [palm-tree]: “Grieve not! Thy Sustainer has provided a rivulet [running] beneath thee;
25: and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee.
26: Eat, then, and drink, and let your eye be gladdened! And if you should see any human being, convey this unto him: `Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed unto the Most Gracious; hence, I may not speak today to any mortal.
27: And in time she returned to her people, carrying the child with her. They said: “O Mary! You have indeed done an amazing thing!
28: O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a wicked man, nor was your mother a loose woman!”
29: Thereupon she pointed to him. They exclaimed: “How can we talk to one who [as yet] is a little boy in the cradle?”
30: [But] he said: “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation and made me a prophet,
31: And made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live,
32: And [has endowed me with] piety towards my mother; and He has not made me haughty or bereft of grace.
33: “Hence, peace was upon me on the day when I was born, and [will be upon me] on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life [again]!”
34: SUCH WAS, in the words of truth, Jesus the son of Mary, about whose nature they so deeply disagree.
35: It is not conceivable that God should have taken unto Himself a son: limitless is He in His glory! When He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it “Be” -and it is!
36: And [thus it was that Jesus always said]: “Verily, God is my Sustainer as well as your Sustainer; so worship [none but] Him: this (alone] is a straight way.”
37: And yet, the sects [that follow the Bible] are at variance among themselves [about the nature of Jesus Woe, then, unto all who deny the truth when that awesome Day will appear!
38: How well will they hear and see [the truth] on the Day when they come before Us! Today, however, these evildoers are obviously lost in error:
39: hence, warn them of [the coming of] the Day of Regrets, when everything will have been decided-for as yet they are heedless, and they do not believe [in it].
40: Behold, We alone shall remain after the earth and all who live on it have passed away, and (when] unto Us all will have been brought back.”


As I reflected on these verses the bus arrived at Nazareth, the city where Jesus lived. It was a fair distance from Jerusalem. I wonder how Mary could have arrived here from Jerusalem after the birth of Jesus. According to historians her family lived in Nazareth and soon after the miraculous birth of Jesus, she must have returned with baby Jesus in her arms. Jerusalem was not a safe place for her. She was being questioned and harassed by the Jewish leaders and Rabbis.


As I was walking up the steps that led us to the gates of the Church of Annunciation, I noticed a couple of banners hanging from the side of a wall. Both of the banners had a verse each from the Quran calling on the Christians to accept Islam. The banners were hanging from the mosque’s wall. While I understand the importance of Da’wah, invitation for non-Muslims to consider Islam, I found these banners in such a spot very insensitive. How would Muslims react if Christians were to hang banners at the entrance of the Mosque of the Prophet in Madina equally calling for Muslims to consider Christianity?
Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with anyone engaging in reasonable and wisdom led da’wah initiatives. Da’wah is inviting people to Islam using wisdom and best examples, is found in the following verse:
“Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful discourse; and reason with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for Your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (16:125)


I have always advocated that all religions, especially the faiths of the children of Abraham should have a healthy competition and free market to preach to each other and all. However, this is a scared place for the Christians and the millions of devotees who travel from all over the world would be uncomfortable at the least, seeing these banners announcing that their faith as wrong and Islam as the right way. I believe there is time and place for everything and this was a misplaced da’wah effort. Instead the local Muslims should welcome their guests by offering kindness and hospitality. If they must put out a banner, maybe they should have one that has more positive and inclusive message.


The Church was buzzing with people. It was running an Annunciation service and thousands of people were there taking part in the procession that led up to the service. It was serene hearing the Arabic sermon by the bishops and priests in the church. They were using religious terminologies including “Allah” to refer to God, “Bismillah” to say in the name of Allah, Alhamdulillah to praise God, “Salam” when wishing peace, and “Shari’ah” when referring to the way to God. I was intently listening to the sermon and apart from a few differences; he could have been an Imam giving a sermon in Arabic. Most people, of Christian or Muslim background would have struggled to notice the difference.


I reflected on this and spoke to a few of my Christian colleagues who were there with me. Only a couple of days ago one of the priests were expressing his dislike of the term Shari’ah and what it meant. He was saying that Muslims want to take over a country and impose Shari’ah but was now taken aback when he heard the Christian priest was calling his flock to Shari’ah of Christ!


The Christians in the land where Jesus was born and spent all his missionary life use these common terms seamlessly and do not use these emotively. Unfortunately some of the ignorant media in the West in general but in the UK in particular use these terms to create division, foment hatred and whip up anti Muslim bigotry. Muslims and Christians are set out as cardinal enemies in the West! This was a profound experience for UK Muslim and Christian theologians and activists taking part in the programme. We were witnessing the deconstruction of the Muslim Christian linguistic and theological myths by the Arab Christian priest from the pulpit of the most important church attributed to Jesus. I wish more western media could listen to the message of Christian Muslim shared perspectives from this holy land.


We were received at the beautiful church run guesthouse for lunch. The management and the chef went out of their way to offer us Halal food and provide us a special place to pray. This was very different to the neighbouring town that has been cleansed of Muslim population and designated as a Jewish town. A few Muslims who work in the city and have businesses have been banned from holding collective prayers even for Jum’a! Jesus was Jewish, he would have condemned this behaviour and Moses would have been outraged at the narrow mindedness of the state of Israel. Their messages were messages of hope, peace, love and God. Sadly, some of their followers have forgotten this in today’s world.
I arrived at a very exciting and important city in my journey to discover Jesus – Capernaum. This town is mentioned in Gospel of Luke and John. I was in this city and this is where Jesus conducted a lot of his missionary work in the region of Galilee. I was feeling honoured to be here. There are ruins of two synagogues and the house of one of the disciples of Jesus, it’s called Peter house. The Christian communities have built a church to mark Jesus’s work here. He left Nazareth because the people did not pay any attention to his teachings. He is reported to have cursed the city, saying, “You shall be brought down to Hades,” (Matthew 11:23).


One of our Christian colleagues was telling us the story of Jesus’s power of healing. One Sabbath, Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum and healed a man who had the spirit of an unclean devil. Afterwards, he healed a fever in Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. According to Luke 7:1–10, it is also the place where a Roman Centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant. Capernaum is also mentioned in the Gospel of Mark (2:1), it is the location of the famous healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof to reach Jesus.


Quran confirms Jesus’s God-given power to heal people of their illnesses, especially blindness and leprosy. As a Muslim I have profound faith in the prophet Jesus but I also know that Jesus was unable to do anything without the power of God. The difference between Christian and Muslims on this issue is stark. Christians attribute this God-like power of Jesus to Jesus himself in their Trinitarian attribution. I find that confusing and implausible but I respect my Christian friends’ right to hold that belief and view. The challenge is to explore the spared perspective with these tiny but fundamental differences.


I also visited The Church of Beatitudes located on a small hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and built on the traditional site of Jesus’ delivery of the Sermon on the Mount; pilgrims are known to have commemorated this site since at least the 4th century. It has a spectacular garden with a view over the sea. It reminded me of the view around the Lake Genève in Switzerland. I sat there at the top of the hill in the middle of the beautiful garden overlooking the Sea of Galilee reading the Sermon on the Mount. My mind was racing through time, here Jesus sat and delivered his most important speech and I am here to feel the space.
Jesus seeing the crowds went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The sermon then continues with some of the most important principles that a decent human society would need to survive. He announced “Do not murder, do not even remain angry and do not devalue others by considering them fools”.
Jesus went through other social issues including speaking against adultery, theft and debt. He was telling people to honour their oath, not to engage in retaliation and inviting his followers to love their enemies. He asked people to seek God and not become judges.


As I read the great words of Jesus I realized that the message of all the prophets were the same. From Adam, through to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, they all invited people to be good to God and good to each other. Such a simple message and yet their followers have twisted and turned these amazing messages to suit their whims and desires. My legs felt heavy, my heart felt full and my eyes were tired. I laid down on a bench in the middle of the garden and within seconds I drifted away into deep sleep. When I woke up I realized the words of the great prophet Jesus had a profound impact on my soul that I needed to recuperate through sleep. I was pleased to have experienced more about Jesus’s true life and work.


I went to the Church of Multiplication also known as the “bread and fish church” in a place called Tabgha, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The modern church rests on the site of two earlier churches and contains mural and tiled images of fish and loaves. It is reported that here Jesus fed 5000 people. According to Mark’s account, Jesus and his disciples had gone out in a boat to this remote place for some peace and quiet, but the crowds ran ahead “from all the towns” and met him when he landed. By then it was dinnertime and they were not in a village where food could easily be bought, so Jesus fed them all by miraculously multiplying his disciples’ five loaves and two fishes.


I believe in God who has the power over all things. He sent Jesus through a miraculous birth; surely he could empower his prophet to feed millions of people if He so wished. I find no problem is accepting this miracle, not with the power of Jesus, but by the power of God.


My next station was Mensa Christi church. The phrase is in Latin for “Table of Christ” contains a slab of chalk that, according to tradition, was the rock on which Jesus dined with the disciples after his resurrection. The Franciscans initially built a chapel at this site in the latter half of the 18th century. The current church, a renovation of the earlier chapel, was completed in 1861. It is located in the middle of a beautiful park and adjacent to the Sea of Galilee.


I sat down next to the Sea of Galilee, took my shoes and socks off and dipped my toes in the cold water. It had an instant reaction in my body. There was a sharp coldness that started rising through my veins, tingles through my feet reached my knees and the freshness of the chilled water woke me up fully. As I walked around the Sea of Galilee I realized Jesus’s central message was no different to the message of all other prophets. But why was there such confusion in the followers?


Today my day was a walk through the pages of history. From Jericho to Jerusalem I could smell, feel and experience the richness of this land. As I connect with history I also realize the future of this place remains on a knife-edge. As I look at the current political stalemate I am filled with dismay and despair. I feel no hope and my fear is that the Holy Land is being destroyed by an unholy alliance! I would like to rouse the conscience of the decent and honest people of world to come together and save the land of the prophets – the Holy Land.


Day 7 will be published tomorrow…