Zia Chaudhry MBE is a British born Muslim whose parents originated from Pakistan. Having grown up in Liverpool, he went on to establish his legal career there as a barrister specialising in criminal law after he was called to the Bar in 1991.
Wells Literary Festival 2014
Outside of his legal practice, Zia has been actively involved in interfaith work for over fifteen years, with a particular emphasis on dispelling misunderstanding about Islam and Muslims. In 2005 he became the first Muslim Chair of the Merseyside Council of Faiths. In 2006 he was one of the founding members of the North West Forum of Faiths. In 2007, with the support of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, he founded the Spirit of Cordoba, a charity seeking to rekindle the spirit of co-operation which was so evident between the Abrahamic faiths in Muslim Spain. He is also a trustee of Gladstone's Library, a legacy of former Prime Minister William Gladstone, having earlier been involved in the establishing of the House of Wisdom, the library's Islamic collection.
More recently Zia became the author of Just Your Average Muslim. This timely story of his personal journey growing up as a Muslim in the United Kingdom was originally intended to serve as a guide for his own children but quickly developed to address wider issues concerning Islam and Muslims. Intending to act as a bridge between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, it nevertheless embraces the self-criticism Muslims need in order to fulfil their responsibilities to the human race and occupy a position of respect on the world stage.
In Her Majesty's Birthday Honours List of 2015 Zia was awarded an MBE for services to interfaith relations.
In 2017 Zia became an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University and in 2018, after 26 years at the Bar, Zia took up a new position as Director of the Foundation for Citizenship at the University. Through this role he hopes to continue and build upon the community engagement work he has done for over 20 years.
Zia has contributed in a variety of ways to discussions involving Islam and Muslims.
ArticlesBLACK LIVES MATTER June 2020
Women and Islam June 2020
Time to Reset, Again. March 2020
Deputy Lieutenant March 2019
Shamima Begum February 2019
Our Saudi Trip October 2018
White Extremists November 2016
Tony Blair Flexes Muscles March 2016
Guardian article May 2015
New Statesman June 2015
InterviewsTelegraph April 2015
Wells Festival of Literature May 2015
Big Issue May 2015
Lancashire Telegraph May 2014
TelevisionDaily Rundown - That's TV Manchester
- Athenaeum 2014 – "Can Islam Be a Force For Good in the Modern World?"
- Gladfest 2014
- Wells Festival of Literature 2014
- Emirates Festival of Literature 2015
- Safeguarding Young People from Radicalisation conference – Bradford August 2015
- Book signing at Kinokuniya Dubai Mall - 21 August 2015.
- Gladfest 2015 - 5 September 2015
- Guernsey Festival of Literature – 19 September 2015
- Lincoln – 2 October 2015
- Reviewing the newspapers on BBC Breakfast - 2 January 2016
- Gladstone's Library seminar – Everything You Wanted to Know About Islam But Were Afraid to Ask - 21 February 2016
- Professional Muslims Institute dinner in Bradford - 23 September 2016
- "Islam and Pluralism" at Limmud Conference 2016, Hope University, Liverpool – 6 November 2016
Zia is available for the following:
- - Talks and analysis of issues involving Islam and Muslims
- - Training days for diversity awareness departments
- - Talks to schools and colleges
- - After dinner speaking
- - Literary festivals
Pauline Ronan, Head of RE , Notre Dame Catholic CollegeI was first introduced to Zia Chaudhry when he spoke at Liverpool Hope University in 2002. Listening to Zia's story was inspiring and incredibly educating. Since then we have been privileged to have Zia into our schools to correct the negative stereotype that has been conjured up by the media and respond to the questions that many non-Muslims have in today's society. He does this in an educated and unpatronising way, making his audience more likely to read between the lines rather than just accept the media at face value.
Christian Education Department, Archdiocese of LiverpoolAs we prepare our children for life in modern Britain we ensure they are given an understanding of the beliefs of others. We invited Zia to speak to our teachers to contribute to the common good by increasing mutual respect between those of different religions. Zia enabled teachers in our Catholic schools to widen their understanding of Islam. He captured their interest using real life events often peppered with humour and gave us all a greater knowledge of Islamic history and culture. He put many myths and news reports in context leaving each person better educated in the religion of one's neighbours.
Roger Phillips – BBC"Just Your Average Muslim" is a must read for anyone interested in or even concerned by Muslims in this country – and indeed the faith of Islam. It is readable and enlightening.
John Forrest – Director of the Insight Film Festival"Just Your Average Muslim" has given me some of the best insights I've had so far on vital issues
The other evening, purely by chance,I came across the televised memorial service that was taking place for George Floyd in Minneapolis and I started watching it. The deeply personal memories of his family were shared along with observations from the family’s lawyer. There were some black celebrities in the audience. And then the Reverend Al Sharpton took to the stage. I knew a little about him and his colourful life although I’d not really heard him speak, but two things he said struck me. The first was his impassioned plea to “Get your knee off our neck”, highlighting the many opportunities that had been, and were being, denied to the black community, along with the never-ending efforts to diminish even their highest achievers. The second was his observation that “There is a difference between calling for peace and calling for quiet”. The latter point was a timely reminder that it was Martin Luther King Jr himself who criticised “the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”.
I recalled my own teenage years and how my father, noticing my fascination with Muhammad Ali’s life, gave me the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was an insight into the black American experience which provided perspective around all that I was reading about Ali. The thread that ran through these lives, through the music of Public Enemy which I began listening to, through films like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, through most of the culture that I was imbibing, was the prevalence of injustice for the African-American community. The feelings of injustice were further reinforced for me when I suggested to my best mate at university, who happened to be from New York, that I’d love to drive across the USA once we graduated. Andrew, whose family originated from the Caribbean, was quick to tell me that although I might have happy memories of watching the Dukes of Hazzard, most of my intended road trip would take us through areas where people would happily lynch us. It was one thing reading about injustice but quite another to hear it from a friend who had his own experiences with law enforcement agencies’ treatment of black people in New York, and which in part had motivated him to study law, and it served to feed that latent anger in me that wanted to “fight the power” even though my own lived experience was rather different.
1991 saw these injustices brought to our living rooms when we all watched the footage of Rodney King being savagely beaten by LAPD officers, whose subsequent acquittal led to rioting on the streets of Los Angeles. But 1991 was also the year I was called to the Bar and began a career in probably the most overwhelmingly white establishment profession I could think of. I was now in an environment in which diplomacy rather than anger, was the watchword, if I intended to progress. I did manage to progress and as I matured the anger subsided. There were moments when my gut told me that my black client was getting a slightly longer stretch than he would have done had he been white, but it was just a feeling after all, and it would be stupid to let it get in the way of my career. I was fortunate in my life because things tended to work out. I had respect within a career which enabled me to live a particular kind of life, in a particular part of town, and respect outside of that career that enabled me to contribute to society in such a way that it ultimately brought recognition from Her Majesty herself. And such acceptance, respect and accolades not only made you feel good about what you are doing, but also made you feel less angry about what else was going on out there, and less inclined to rock any boats. You convince yourself that the diplomatic, head-down approach is the right one. Given some of the things I have managed to do with my life, and which needed a platform of sorts, maybe it was the right approach, for me at least, but greater appreciation is owed to those who are willing to put their income, reputations and lives on the line.
Fast forward to 2008 and I almost felt that such an approach had been vindicated when America elected its first black president, not a rabble-rousing divisive preacher, but a calm, polite and measured unifier (and lawyer), rather how I viewed myself at the time. I have to confess that I was somewhat uneasy at Obama’s messianic depiction and was all too aware of America’s ability to create myths about itself, but on balance it was surely better to have Obama in office than not, and surely he would be an important milestone on the way to improving the system. The only problem with that was that any system which ensures that the same people always benefit, is not likely to be sentimental about the first black president for any longer than is absolutely necessary. He served a useful purpose in being the anti-Bush and rehabilitating America’s image in the world, an important consideration for any PR-savvy big business, but any meaningful, structural changes were clearly not part of the agenda.So the same system that had put him in office also ensured that there was a constant stream of negativity surrounding him – whether about his family history and middle name, or his practically socialist initiatives to provide some affordable healthcare for the masses. It was, and continues to be, a system which is loaded, a fact which became only too clear in another event of 2008, the global financial crash. The same people won, the same people lost and yet the first black president was somehow identified with the problem rather than its, admittedly flawed, resolution. And those who felt that the system was stacked against them because they were entitled to more, now had an identifiable “other” whom they could blame.
All of which provided the deep and hate-infested waters from which Trump was able to fish for support so successfully eight years later. The inherent vulnerability to corruption of a so-called democratic system which requires the raising of millions of dollars to participate, is laid bare when it permits a deranged incoherent sociopath to emerge as the winner. It also highlights the privilege afforded to some over others. Whilst Obama had to contend with queries about his birth certificate from a man against whom he wasn’t even competing, the innumerable allegations against Trump were seen as no barrier to his accession. His father’s arrest at a KKK rally in 1927 clearly wasn’t deemed as serious an offence as Obama’s father being Kenyan. His ability to use race as a winning card and threaten the nation about Mexicans and Muslims revealed how he would later react against the black community when sports stars dared to seek racial justice. And once again the cycle will be repeated where any successor to Trump will be regarded as an improvement, will help rehabilitate America’s image, and allow the system to prevail, not only without any meaningful change, but with further entrenchment of the unjust status quo, unless it uses this experience as a catalyst for change. America will create more myths about itself and its propensity for progress but will not stop to reflect that although the time that has passed since Rodney King’s beating is longer than the period between King’s beating and King Jr’s March on Washington in 1963, this longer period can hardly be said to have improved the lot of the black American community.The only difference now is that phones have cameras.
There will be marches and protests. Well-meaning individuals will genuinely wish to reach out to people of colour and seek to understand and help them in so far as they are able to. But, as long as the system ensures that such efforts are restricted to personal initiatives, there will be no change. To quote Malcolm X – “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it out all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there”.
Post-war Germany could never heal the wound it inflicted on the Jewish community but had it contented itself with apologising for Nazi atrocities it would have done no more than recognise the “knife” was there. But, in the face of violent resistance from Germans, it went on to pay Israel 3.45 billion deutsche marks and,in a report in the Times of Israel dated 10th July 2018, “According to the Claims Conference (a non-profit organisation founded in 1951 by representatives of international Jewish organisations that distributes funds it receives from Germany to survivors), since 1952 the German government has paid out some $70 billion in compensation”. Not all of this money went directly to survivors. According to Tom Segev “From 1953 to 1963, the reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system”. Israel’s GNP tripled during the 12 years of the agreement. The Bank of Israel attributed 15% of this growth along with 45,000 jobs to investments made with reparations money.
The money can never truly compensate for the industrial slaughter by the Nazis but it can go to improving the lives of those who survived, as well as their descendants. And, just as it provided some limited solace to those families, it can help the descendants of slaves who have not simply been abandoned since the abolition of that trade, but have been actively harmed and discriminated against ever since. Undoubtedly there is a wealth of individual talent among black Americans but imagine just how great the transformation of their communities could be if there was genuine investment in them rather than, for example, the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921 where black owned businesses were attacked by whites, including by aerial fire-bombing.
Financial compensation for the damage caused is one thing, but to truly move communities forward and bring healing between them there has to be a process of education. Not the individual efforts of people who were probably not going to cause any harm in the first place, but the rethinking of the very structures of our educational systems which serve to confirm the superiority (and hence privilege) of one group over another. From our elevated viewpoints in Britain we smugly scorn the blatant racism and violence we are witnessing on the streets of America, insisting it could never happen here, happily ignoring the role that racism has played in our own politics over the last few years, and the unique position held by class privilege as well as white privilege here. Since Brexit, emboldened racists are on the march, having been granted airtime and lecture tours that people of colour could only dream of. In these circumstances it is no surprise that racist attacks are on the rise, particularly when ignorant and hateful convicts are treated like statesmen. If such people had their way our history books would continue to highlight a WWWW curriculum (Wars What We Won), resulting in a level of historical literacy wherepeople will only remember a few key dates, or as the Harry Enfield character Loadsamoney so eloquently put it, “1066 and 1966 are the only two dates that matter”.
If schools do not teach the achievements of other cultures, we cannot be surprised when the same children grow up to be adults who view such cultures as inferior.We cannot be surprised if the children of those other cultures feel alienated and demotivated, a tragic waste when one considers the potential being squandered. If we continue to underplay the role that people of colour have played historically, in those same wars we won, and in the present day manning our frontline services during a pandemic, then it will not be long before we retreat to being an insignificant island in the North Sea, useful only for stashing American nuclear weapons and Russian cash.
If, in Britain, our teaching of slavery is limited to how it was a bad thing but how “we” then abolished it, without mentioning how much compensation the British government paid to the slave owners, then that insults the memories of the victims of that vile trade. The figures are truly grotesque. The compensation paid to slave owners amounted to £20 million which represented 40% of the national income then and equivalent to some £300 billion today. And such was the deal reached with the bankers who loaned the money that it was not paid off until 2015, by the taxpayer, ie. not those whose money is safely ensconced in offshore accounts, but the likes of you and me. Trump can say with impunity “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” without reference to the change in the tax law which Republicans put into the coronavirus economic relief package, allowing some of the wealthiest to avoid nearly $82 billion of tax liability in 2020. All this at a time when Flint, Michigan still has no clean water.
The same people keep winning and the same people keep on losing whilst the myth of the self-made billionaires continues to be peddled. Implicit in all this is that success and failure is down to the individual’s own efforts with no recognition of the severe tilt in the playing field. We are led to believe that those who are swilling in money should rightly be regarded as the winners of life while the rest of us should content ourselves with the readily available distractions that modern society can provide. The sickening injustice of this can easily be ignored because it will not be highlighted by much of the media. You will have to make a concerted effort to find it and society ensures you do not have the time for such effort. Maybe this pandemic has provided such time. Maybe George Floyd’s death provides the moment when, in seeking justice for his family and the black community, we finally lift the knee from humanity’s neck.
Zia Chaudhry MBE, DL
Director Foundation for Citizenship, Liverpool John Moores University.
The western world holds many perceptions of Islam and Muslims. Some of them are valid but many are significantly and worryingly erroneous. Then there are others which have an element of truth to them but have been viewed through a lens coloured by a historical background peculiar to Western societies. In recent times the perception of the treatment of women in Islam has once again been headline news with the by now familiar allegations that Islam treats women as second class citizens, oppresses them, is violent towards them etc. A Muslim’s primary concern should not be the agenda of those reporting the unfavourable treatment of women by certain Muslims, but rather the fact that such treatment undoubtedly takes place and, therefore, needs addressing. The question is, how valid is the proposition that it is Islam itself which is responsible for the ill treatment of women?
Before embarking upon this task it is useful to set out a little of the background both historically and also from the point of view of the basic beliefs of Islam. The arguments presented in this article are not the result of a trawl through every text compiled by so-called scholars of Islam through the ages. Such an exercise would undoubtedly reveal patriarchal opinions viewing women unfavourably. And it is only right to say that such opinions can be found in the religious texts of other major world faiths. In so far as man has been responsible for opinions and actions adverse to the interests of women, man has to take responsibility. That, however, is precisely the point of this article, namely, that as far as Islam is concerned it may well be the case that the interpretation of God’s Word has been done in a way which is unfavourable to women, but there is no authority in God’s Word itself to justify such an approach. Here it is appropriate to set out what we mean by Islam. Islam means submission to God. It is the religion or way of life prescribed for humanity by God ever since the appearance of the first man on Earth. It was reiterated and updated by God’s messengers through the ages until the final Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad. The difference now was that there was to be no further messenger because this time the Message itself was to endure in the form of the Quran, a book safeguarded by God Himself. Muslims believe that the Quran is the direct Word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It contains all the guidance we need for living our lives and for our ultimate salvation. It is the primary source for Islam andtherefore, the place to find out what God has to say about women.
The 7th century Arab world into which the Quran was revealed is also of great significance. It was a male-dominated society in which women had little or no rights, and was to that extent similar to many other contemporary societies. Female infanticide was prevalent and it was not uncommon for women to be bought and sold. The Quran revolutionised the way women were treated in this society in that not only did it give them rights hitherto unheard of, but it gave rights which were not acquired in the West for hundreds of years, and even then only after immense struggle.
For present purposes it is accepted that there are several areas of concern when one is considering the general Western perception of Islam’s treatment of women. It is, therefore, intended to look at each area in turn beginning with the obvious starting point, namely the story of Adam and Eve. The role of Adam and Eve is crucial because it is responsible for the way women have been regarded by Christianity and therefore by the West. We are all familiar with the biblical account of Eve having been created from Adam’s rib. Thereafter we are told of how she was tempted by Satan and then was responsible for also leading her husband astray. The fact that this account clearly makes Eve culpable for the Fall explains why the history of Christianity even includes debates about whether or not women possessed souls. The pains of childbirth were also attributed to the actions of Eve, thereby making generations of women suffer for her wrongdoing. Islam shares the same biblical prophets and it is illuminating therefore to see how the Quran describes the Fall.
O Adam! dwell thou and thy wife in the garden and enjoy (its good things) as ye wish: but approach not this tree or ye run into harm and transgression." Then began satan to whisper suggestions to them bringing openly before their minds all their shame that was hidden from them (before): he said "Your Lord only forbade you this tree lest ye should become angels or such beings as live for ever."
And he swore to them both that he was their sincere adviser. So by deceit he brought about their fall: when they tasted of the tree their shame became manifest to them and they began to sew together the leaves of the garden over their bodies. And their Lord called unto them: "Did I not forbid you that tree and tell you that satan was an avowed enemy unto you?" They said: "our Lord! we have wronged our own souls: if Thou forgive us not and bestow not upon us Thy mercy we shall certainly be lost." (Quran 7:19-23)
It is clear from the above verses that Satan whispered to them, swore his sincerity to them, brought about their fall when they tasted of the tree. Thereafter they were full of shame and their Lord called them following which they admitted their wrongdoing. In these verses there is no scope whatsoever for attributing blame to Eve and this of course takes away that initial disadvantage that women in Christianity have had to contend with. (It is, of course, not suggested that this is the prevailing view in Christianity today.) Yet, not only does the Quran eliminate the notion of blaming Eve/womankind for the Fall but it then goes on to remove any doubts about the status of women.
….women shall have rights corresponding to those of men.. (Quran 2:228)
Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female… (Quran 3:195)
If any do deeds of righteousness be they male or female and have faith they will enter heaven and not the least injustice will be done to them (Quran 4:124).
The above verses are truly revolutionary. In the 7th century Islam introduced the idea of women having rights and women working. Furthermore their work is regarded as just as important as the work of men. From a religious or spiritual point of view the good deeds of women carry as much weight as those of men and lead to the same heavenly reward as can be expected by men. How far removed is this from debating whether or not women have souls? And lest there be any doubt about the status of women God revealed the following verse:
For Muslim men and women for believing men and women for devout men and women for true men and women for men and women who are patient and constant for men and women who humble themselves for men and women who give in charity for men and women who fast (and deny themselves) for men and women who guard their chastity and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward.(Quran 33:35)
Often in the case of religious texts the word “man” is taken to refer to mankind in general. For the avoidance of any doubt, however, God uses the appropriate Arabic female noun throughout the verse. How much greater a statement of equality can we reasonably expect?
There are still those, however, for whom equality must mean that “status” which women in the West enjoy. It is a fact that women are still not the equal of men in the West when it comes to their earnings. Nor are they exempt from household obligations simply because they have careers. In fact, often, all that has happened is that their tasks have been doubled if they choose to have a family and a job. One of the reasons for this is that the equality which women are encouraged to pursue is wrongly defined as being able to do exactly the same as men, when in reality women and men are different. Their equality is as human beings, entitled to the same respect and in possession of the same potential for their spiritual development. This, however, presumes that a human being’s purpose in life is to attain nearness to God and develop himself or herself spiritually. In our modern materialistic societies this presumption cannot readily be made and it is here that the path of the Muslim and those without a faith must necessarily diverge. Without this presumption there are no checks and balances and a woman can, for example, seek financial “equality” through having her body abused in the pornography industry. As we shall later see Islam brought economic rights to women which were not seen in the West until centuries later but these rights all operate within a system which has God at its head. Once God is taken out of the picture then all that remains is whatever is fashionable at any given time, and whatever those with power feel they can get away with. A society is then free to pay lip service to the idea of equality while at the same time using the female body in order to sell products, as well as itself, thereby reducing a woman’s worth to the sum of her physical attraction.
DRESS - It is no exaggeration to suggest that when it considers Muslim women the West is obsessed with the veil. Even those who should know better are not averse to referring to the veil as a “symbol of oppression”. In the context of the treatment of women surely the issue is whether or not women are compelled to wear the veil? If for example they choose to do so of their own free will then any criticism of them is often little more than an assertion of cultural imperialism. One does not find many interviews taking place with Muslim women in the West who make an informed and educated choice to wear the Islamic hijab. Nor do we hear any mention of those cases where women were compelled not to wear a veil. Another point we would do well to remember is that much of the criticism of the veil implies that it is a Muslim innovation and peculiar to that faith. Little consideration is given to the dress of a nun and no comparisons are ever made between thedress of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women from the Indian subcontinent. Even a cursory glance at history shows that women wearing the veil are depicted in Greek and Roman art, and it was also worn by women who were Orthodox Jews as well as the Greek Christians of Byzantium.
It is undoubtedly the case, however, that many Muslim women do wear a type of veil and although styles are often different it would be useful to see what the Quran itself has to say on the subject. What principles apply when it comes to the dress code of Muslim women and to what extent, if at all, is the veiling of women compulsory in Islam? At first glance the following verse may seem unduly harsh;
…but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head - it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil
but it is not to be found in the Quran. In fact it is from the Bible, the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11 5-7. Just as no Christian would take the view that the above verse describes the definitive position on women in Christianity, similarly taking a verse out of context from the Quran does not assist with regard to the status of women in Islam. We can, however, gain some guidance about the “dress code” for Muslim women from three verses in particular.
O ye children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame as well as to be an adornment to you but the raiment of righteousness that is the best. Such are among the signs of Allah that they may receive admonition! (Quran 7:26)
This verse contains the overriding principle, namely, that the garment of righteousness is the best garment. This stands to reason and is consistent with God’s reminder to us that He knows our innermost thoughts and, therefore, will not be fooled by our outward displays of modesty if our inner thoughts remain impure. Modesty is encouraged in Islam but is of no consequence if it is restricted to our form of dress. It must be manifested in our behaviour and that can only happen when it is first instilled in our hearts.
The following verse then goes on to address specifically the question of the dress code of Muslim women;
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands their fathers their husbands' fathers their sons their husbands' sons their brothers or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons or their women or the slaves whom their right hands possess or male servants free of physical needs or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah that ye may attain Bliss. (Quran 24:31)
The first thing to note about the above verse is the emphasis once again on modesty but sadly what many Muslim men forget is that in the preceding verse God first commands the men to be modest;
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. (Quran 24:30)
In 24:31 there is mention of veils but it is important to note that the Arabic word which has been translated as veil is khumurihinna from the word khimar. Khimar in Arabic simply means cover, so God is in fact just telling women to cover their chests. Nowhere in the above verse is there to be found the Arabic word for hair or head and for all the Muslim emphasis on “hijab”, that, too, is not a word which appears in this verse. At this stage it is worth reminding ourselves that we are dealing here with the Word of God, a miracle safeguarded by God Himself for all eternity. Accordingly, God has not omitted anything from this Book as He Himself states in 6:38, and the words He uses are deliberate. If He had intended to say head or hair then He would have done so! What we find rather is clarity and particularisation when it comes to the covering of the chest but thereafter generality and a degree of latitude when it comes to the advice about not displaying their beauty. Again, this is entirely deliberate. God tells us in the Quran that He does not seek to make life difficult for us. He, in His infinite wisdom is aware of different societies, climates, fashions etc and has not, therefore, sought to particularise other than where absolutely necessary, preferring rather to leave the details to be figured about by different societies according to their needs as long as they operate within the general guidance (in this case about modesty) that He has given.
The third verse we shall look at for guidance on the dress code of Muslim women is;
O prophet! tell thy wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient that they should be known (as such) and not molested: and Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful. (Quran 33:59)
If one is to look at the verses which immediately precede and follow the above verse it becomes apparent that verse 59 is in fact a command to the Holy Prophet in response to a particular difficulty which had arisen.
And those who annoy believing men and women undeservedly bear (on themselves) a calumny and a glaring sin. (33:58)
Truly if the Hypocrites and those in whose hearts is a disease and those who stir up sedition in the City desist not We shall certainly stir thee up against them: then will they not be able to stay in it as thy neighbours for any length of time: (33:60)
The Muslim women of Medina were being harassed and molested by a group referred to as the Hypocrites of the city. When the guilty parties were taken to task for their actions they claimed ignorance, stating that they did not know the women in question were Muslims. God’s guidance, therefore, was that the women literally “lengthen” their garments so that they “should be known” as Muslim women. Although it is noted that this was a response to a particular problem it is significant that even here God does not lay down specific rules as to the type of clothes to be worn by women.
The prevalent idea among many Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, suggesting that there is a particular type of dress that all Muslim women should wear does not find support in the above verses which show a great deal of flexibility in this area. We can see, therefore, that the Western perception of Muslim women having to be shrouded in black is without foundation. One must avoid being unduly critical, however, especially when one considers that this erroneous perception is also held by some of our Muslim brothers and sisters.
MARRIAGE - Whole books have been written on the subject of marriage in Islam and this article, therefore, will only be highlighting a few key areas. The first point to note is that married life is encouraged in Islam, as it is in other religions, as the family unit is regarded as the foundation upon which a healthy and fulfilling life is built. Islam is not a religion which makes a virtue of celibacy nor does it permit sexual relations with all and sundry. It strives to take the middle path of allowing sexual relations within the confines of the stability of marriage. One of the common misconceptions about Islam is that all Muslims have arranged marriages. It must be made clear at the outset that Islam says nothing of arranged marriages and is specifically against forced marriages. The arranged marriages which many Muslims undertake, where the parties are introduced to each other, are the product of culture not religion. Most Muslims in the United Kingdom, for example, originate from the Indian sub-continent where arranged marriages are common. This aspect of the culture has, therefore, been carried through to life in England but if one is to look at Muslims who originate from other parts of the world one finds the idea of an arranged marriage alien to many of them. The Quran has nothing to say about arranged marriages and for the most part restricts itself to setting out general principles on the subject of marriage, for example, obtaining the consent of the parties (hence a forced marriage is contrary to Islam), the groom providing the bride with a non-returnable gift, and the responsibilities of marriage such as living with each other in kindness. Once again the reason for the generality is to reflect the eternal nature of Islam which is adaptable to any society at any time.
Undoubtedly when it comes to perceptions of Muslims a very common one relates to the issue of polygamy. Historically Muslims were depicted in Western literature as being lascivious creatures who kept hordes of women in their harems to satisfy their insatiable appetites. Sadly this imagery owed more to the sexual hang ups of monks and other guilt-ridden Christians of the Middle Ages than it did to reality. The fact that some of the most powerful Muslim rulers did have many concubines was the exception rather than the rule and simply reflected the sad state of affairs prevalent in many societies where wealth and power led certain men to believe they could do as they pleased. This remains just as true today and is not a phenomenon peculiar to Muslims as the sexual antics of various world “leaders” over the years have served to remind us.
It is right to say, however, that Islam does permit a limited polygamy in the following verse:
If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans marry women of your choice two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one ... (Quran 4:3)
It is clear from this verse that polygamy in Islam is conditional. It is permitted to alleviate suffering, not to create it, and is therefore allowed if it is the only way of doing justice to orphaned children and if it can be achieved by treating all the wives equally. This in itself is a difficult task and God does His best to discourage men from taking this step lightly by reminding them that:
Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women even if it is your ardent desire: but turn not away (from a woman) altogether so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding and practice self-restraint Allah is Oft- Forgiving Most Merciful. (Quran 4:129)
One can see in the above verses the true spirit of Islam which sadly gets distorted by some, just as it does in other religions. Polygamy is allowed for the benefit of society, not for the benefit of lustful men. It is disingenuous for so-called Western liberals to mock the type of religion which permits this limited polygamy without questioning the type of society in which it is lawful for a man to have only one wife but as many girlfriends as his stamina allows. And of course those girlfriends have little or nothing in the way of rights! The fact remains that there are fewer polygamous marriages in Muslim countries than there are extra-marital affairs in non-Muslim countries. This is clearly a subject the implications of which are endless. There can be extraordinary situations such as the immediate aftermath of war when many men may have been killed. Or what of the situation where a couple are childless and the wife gives her permission for her husband to take a second wife? Although the subject is complex, what is clear is that the perception of polygamy in Islam is unfair and unbalanced, and does not of itself prove that women are oppressed by this religion.
DIVORCE - One of the ways of assessing a society’s attitude towards women is in its approach to the question of divorce and a useful comparison can be made here between English Law and Quranic Law. For hundreds of years divorce was not permitted in English Law and the basis of this approach was the Bible;
But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on Grounds of unchastity causes her to commit adultery; and Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
Judicial divorce, however, did become available as a result of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, but with the sole ground being adultery. A distinction was made depending on whether the person petitioning for the divorce was the husband or the wife. A husband petitioning for divorce simply had to show his wife had committed adultery. A wife, on the other hand, had to prove adultery on the part of her husband but also that the adultery was aggravated by one of the following: incest, cruelty, sodomy, desertion or bestiality. However, it is right to say that this distinction between husband and wife as petitioner was removed - in 1923! Offence-based divorce, that is to say divorce based on proving that the other party had committed one of a number of specified matrimonial offences, nevertheless remained until 1969. As for the question of maintenance this was finally regulated in the Matrimonial Property and Proceedings Act 1970. Prior to that the courts could order maintenance but their decisions were dominated by moral considerations, so that the wife’s rights could be diminished if she had committed a matrimonial offence. We see, therefore, that the behaviour of the societies which now champion women’s rights only approached its present state in the late 20th century.
How does the above history of divorce in England compare to the position in the Quran? Divorce has always been permitted according to the Quran which was revealed as long ago as the 7th century. It is accepted in Islamic thinking that there are situations where a marriage can become unworkable and ending it is the best solution for all parties concerned. It is not a step which can or should be taken lightly so God sets out the procedure before one can get divorced according to the Quran. This procedure starts off by encouraging the parties to be patient and not rush headlong into terminating their marriage. The steps then become more serious with admonishment, refusal to share a bed and then separation. At this stage arbitration is advised (an idea that has found favour in English law only in the last few years):
If ye fear a breach between them twain appoint (two) arbiters one from his family and the other from hers; if they wish for peace Allah will cause their reconciliation: for Allah hath full knowledge and is acquainted with all things. (Quran 4:35)
Even after that if the parties are set on divorce a “cooling off” period is suggested (2:226 – 233) with God ensuring that a great deal of thought is given to the proposed divorce by stipulating that once a man divorces his wife he cannot remarry her unless she has married another and been divorced by him. As for the question of maintenance consider the following verse:
For divorced women maintenance (should be provided) on a reasonable (scale). This is a duty on the righteous. (Quran 2:241)
How does this verse compare to the law relating to maintenance in England? The fact that the above verse was revealed in the 7th century illustrates just how revolutionary Islam was when dealing with the rights of women. Had this verse been taken as the starting point for developing the concept of women’s rights in Islam, then what heights would Muslim women be scaling now?
The sad fact remains, however, that the situation of many Muslim women is not as straightforward and fair as the above verses recommend. Forced marriages do take place in some Muslim families. Divorce is often not as available nor as fair as the steps laid out by God in the Quran. In order to begin to understand this we must not underestimate the role played by culture. Consider, for example, the mistaken belief by many that a Muslim man simply has to say “I divorce you” three times in order to be legally divorced, and contrast that with the Quranic divorce procedure with its in-built cooling off period. The influence of culture is an area which requires understanding by Muslims no less than by non-Muslims, because it is sadly the case that many of our own brothers and sisters cannot distinguish between Islam as the divinely recommended way of life, and Islam as practised by their fellow Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs, Somalis etc. In today’s society, however, there is no excuse. No longer do we need to go to so-called religious leaders when God has provided us with the facilities to attempt to understand the Quran for ourselves.
Inheritance is another area in which misunderstanding exists, with perhaps the most famous being that according to Islam a daughter is only entitled to half the share of a son on the death of a parent. This misconception is based on the following verse:
Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children's (inheritance): to the male a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters two or more their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one her share is a half. For parents a sixth share of the inheritance to each if the deceased left children; if no children and the parents are the (only) heirs the mother has a third; if the deceased left brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth. (The distribution in all cases is) after the payment of legacies and debts. Ye know not whether your parents or your children are nearest to you in benefit. These are settled portions ordained by Allah and Allah is All-Knowing All-Wise. (Quran 4:11)
The true position, however, is that the above verse applies in the case of parents dying without leaving a will. The Quran sensibly takes the view that it is the parent who knows the family situation best and, therefore, can allocate an inheritance most fairly. Accordingly it recommends making a will:
It is prescribed when death approaches any of you if he leave any goods that he make a bequest to parents and next of kin according to reasonable usage; this is due from the Allah-fearing. (Quran 2:180)
Where there is no will and there has to be division of the inheritance, any society has to provide rules as to how this is undertaken. This will necessarily involve the making of various assumptions and in Islam the assumptions that are made are based on a society in which any money that a daughter gets by way of inheritance is hers alone and does not have to be spent on the family (that being her husband’s responsibility) whereas a son, on the other hand, is financially responsible for his family and cannot rely on his wife’s money. Hence the apparent disparity in the above allocation of inheritance. More controversial, however, is the contention that there is therefore scope for the reform of such rules where society has developed in such a way as to render the above assumptions redundant. If for example society’s dynamics are altered because it becomes the norm for women to be earning as much, or perhaps more than men, then it is suggested that Islam is not so inflexible as to prevent the rules on inheritance being adapted to reflect the reality of that society. (We note elsewhere how God Himself takes account of the realities of society when legislating and clearly there is a lesson in this for the rest of us.) As for property rights in general, a woman’s right to earn and her right to individual ownership of her property is well-established in the Quran (and again an interesting and favourable comparison can be made with property rights in England if one is to consider the Married Women’s Property Act 1882):
…to men is allotted what they earn and to women what they earn… (Quran 4:32)
POLITICS - It has been suggested by some that Islam does not permit women to become involved in politics nor to have any political authority. We find, however, that there is no verse in the Quran which is comparable to the following verse from the Bible although it is accepted that taking one verse out of context does not for a moment suggest that Chrisitanity does not permit women to be politically active or have authority over men. The Bibilical verse is simply included for the purposes of comparison when assessing the validity of the claims made against Islam.
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man: she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
In fact the Quran states the opposite.
The believers men and women are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers practice regular charity and obey Allah and His apostle. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power Wise. (Quran 9:71)
According to the Quran men and women are both responsible for the good of society and clearly it is implicit in this that they both participate in the political arena. To “enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil” entails all aspects of government from the making of laws to their implementation. The above verse clearly shows that Islam does not prohibit women from being actively involved in society but, in fact, encourages it. A look at Islamic history also shows that Muslim women have been politically active from the time of Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad, to the present day with women having assumed leadership roles in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey. Iran, for example, despite the impression the West may have of it, has a larger proportion of women actively involved in politics than is the case in England.
To conclude, the above overview of women in Islam may give the impression that all is wonderful in the Muslim world. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The above is essentially the theory but the practice leaves much to be desired. The fact is that many women are suffering in so-called Muslim countries but sadly for various reasons, not all of which are innocent, we are often led to believe that they are suffering because of their religion. No allowance is made for the economic difficulties faced by many of these countries. No comparison is made for example between the life of a Muslim woman in Pakistan and a Christian woman in India. Such a comparison would reveal that, more often than not, these women share the same concerns and same problems such as poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunity for self-development in male-dominated cultures. The role played by religion in their suffering is often marginal. It is beyond doubt that women in the world still suffer to this day, regardless of race, religion or geographical location but the causes of this are more varied and complex than finger-pointing at religion suggests.
Muslims need to remember, however, that no amount of criticism of the “West” should deflect them from their own deficiencies. The media may concentrate on the treatment of women by certain Muslim countries but Muslims themselves know of the treatment of women in other countries, often with religion used as the excuse. The Islamic spirit of upholding the rights of women is evident from Quranic verses such as 24:4 which stipulates the punishment for those who falsely accuse women of sexual misconduct. If there is punishment for mere false allegations then how much graver is the crime of actual ill-treatment? Sadly this Islamic spirit is often buried under the rubble of narrow and rigid interpretations of Islam often from centuries ago. Such reliance on the interpretations carried out by scholars in the past is a complete abdication of our responsibilities to think about God’s Word, and an abdication for which we will be held accountable. The hope is that this article clarifies that as far as Islam is concerned the Quran spoke of the rights of women centuries before this became a concept familiar to the West. The problem lies not in the existence of rights for women but in the implementation of such rights. Both the spirit and law of Islam are entirely consistent with equality for women, protection for women and the opportunity for women to strive to seek the nearness to God which should be the goal of all human beings.
Zia Chaudhry MBE, DL
Director Foundation for Citizenship, Liverpool John Moores University.
The number of times I have heard the word "unprecedented" used in recent weeks is, quite frankly, well, unprecedented. Yes, these are strange, dangerous and disconcerting times and the fact of the matter is that for most of us living in affluent western societies, we have never before experienced such fear and uncertainty. We may have had some fleeting acquaintance with war but whether it was of the Falklands or Iraq variety, it was over there while we were over here. We might have held very strong views about the role our governments played in it and about how it was conducted but we were not directly touched by it unless we were among the unfortunate few who lost relatives in the conflict. And although in recent years the terror threat on our shores has been a constant refrain, once again, the actual numbers impacted was mercifully low. Our floods tend not to result in a loss of life, and our famines are a thing of the distant past. So a global pandemic is as close to biblical catastrophe as we are ever likely to get, and it has certainly got us worried.
It might have taken a while for the message to get through but finally there is a lockdown of sorts and the rare sight of empty streets. Our hamster-like exertions have been compelled to stop and as we step off our treadmills we have time to reflect on a human trajectory that seems to be leading us to oblivion. And the ensuing questions are unceasing, querying everything from our daily work routines to the direction the planet is heading. Which brings me to another oft-repeated phrase nowadays, namely, "time to press the reset button". When I was growing up there was a fear of some mad leader or other pressing "the button" and thereby bringing all life to an end, but now we find that many of us are advocating the pressing of a button that might magically make things better. The timing would seem to be right given the pandemic is reaching all corners of the globe and leading many of us to wonder if this is the moment when we finally come to our senses. From the wanton destruction of nature and its resources to our ethical gymnastics around obscure financial markets and their shady financial products, surely the human race can do better than this, and here is our opportunity to show it.
But then haven't we been here before? When the world's economy was brought to its knees a decade ago many of us thought that was the moment when we would conclude, albeit belatedly, that greed was not, in fact, good. Yet it seems that the only conclusion drawn was that our PR needed more work and we just had to do a better job of disguising such greed,perhaps by not calling it greed for example, leading to the intervening years actually exacerbating the divide between rich and poor. And when such injustice is rewarded, as it has been around the world, then it becomes emboldened and perpetrates its schemes and scams with impunity. Just in the last few days we have heard of American senators being accused of using information gained at private briefings in order to offload millions of dollars' worth of stock. We hear of proposed coronavirus legislation in the United States which will simply transfer more power and money to the wealthy – the only group who get to enjoy a bit of socialism – bailing out corporations which will still be allowed to pay dividends to their (already rich) shareholders.
And if Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is correct when she says "major CEOs and certain powerful people are willing to sacrifice people's lives for their profits, but are not willing to sacrifice their profit for people's lives" then it seems there is a long way to go before the lessons are truly learnt. Inviting the unjust to mend their ways rarely works in the absence of effective sanctions and we should not be surprised, therefore, when the former chairman of Wells Fargo Bank speaks of people returning to work in the following terms, "We'll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die. I don't know. Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose". (Under his chairmanship in 2008 Wells Fargo was the recipient of $25 billion of Emergency Economic Stabilization Act funds in the form of a preferred stock purchase by the US Treasury Department – although I don't imagine he complained much about socialism then).
But tempting (and easy) though it is to point out the misdeeds of CEOs and the super-wealthy, sadly, any blame doesn't end there. The last few days have witnessed certain religious leaders showing that they are not far behind when it comes to showing a callous disregard for fellow humans. Both the Honorary Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and Rabbi Meir Mazuz have recently felt empowered enough to state that coronavirus was the result of gay pride marches and same-sex marriages, and at least served to remind us that outlandish bigotrydoesn't necessarily emanate from any one religion in particular. Yet what they also do, is make us question the relevance of any religion which seeks to explain away a global health crisis by blaming others, rather than seeking the practical solutions which actually improve the lot of their congregations.
What such comments also highlight, whether they are from the corporate world or the religious, is that the central question we should be concerned withinvolves our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Just as when we use the tried and tested method of switching off our wifi in order to reset it and rid it of its gremlins, we know exactly what we want when we switch it back on, similarly it is pointless to talk of pressing any social reset button if we have no idea of what we want to society to reset to. And it is here that we have to make our choices about the world we want to see after this crisis has come to an end. We can of course choose to be selfish, loading up our shopping trolleys in supermarkets and stock markets and living for ourselves alone. Or, we can take our lead from the many examples of selfless heroism which we have recently seen, from the frontline workers in the NHS to the beacons of responsible business like the Home Bargains retail chain. And if we choose the latter, this may be the moment when we come together, inspired and encouraged by leaders, religious or secular, who understand that true citizenship involves thinking beyond ourselves.
Zia Chaudhry MBE, DL
Director Foundation for Citizenship, Liverpool John Moores University.
Today I was "commissioned" as a Deputy Lieutenant of Merseyside. Not entirely sure what that will entail but I'm all for accruing undeserved letters after my name. Did make me wonder though just how many such letters it would take for me to convince some people of my Britishness. I mean after all I was
Grew up here,
Called to the Bar here,
Pay my taxes here,
Contribute to the wider community here,
Awarded an MBE here (referencing the British, not any lesser, empire),
Live here (in a Victorian house that should feature in a British period drama).
Oh, and I drive a British car – which happens to be British Racing Green,
I am the most punctual person I know,
And I love cake.
Quite frankly, I'm the card you want if you're playing British Top Trumps. But am I British enough?
"Actions have consequences", a variation on the religious theme of reaping what you sow, and a lesson we've been frequently reminded of in the case of Shamima Begum,the British Muslim teenager who left to join Isis with 2 of her friends but now, heavily pregnant with her 3rd child, has expressed a desire to return. And any battle lines are not just drawn in the sands of the Middle East but are readily apparent back home, with the story highlighting a stark divergence of opinion on whether or not she should be allowed back.
Is it simply the case that those who want her back are disinterested in the security of our nation? Are those who want her to remain in Syria just Islamophobic bigots who wouldn't be saying the same had she been a vulnerable white teenager who had been groomed over the internet? Or are the issues at stake much more complex?
We have heard senior members of our own government say they will do all they can to stop her return and others asking rhetorically "would you want her living next door to you?" but in reality, both comments overlook what it actually means to be British.
When we describe the fundamentals of our nationhood to outsiders we pride ourselves on the rule of law – not something which sits comfortably with excluding a British citizen from returning to her country. People we'd rather not have living next door might include anyone from a serial criminal to a Man United fan, while some politicians have practically been queuing up over the last couple of years to show how useless they'd be in any neighbourhood watch. But that's probably not the test either.
No, the case raises some serious issues about what our citizenship actually entails and what it means to describe ourselves as a civilised society. Although many people would be in favour of it, we don't and can't deport British citizens even if they've been convicted of the most heinous offences. Similarly we don't and can't prevent British citizens from returning here no matter how much heroin they accidentally took to Thailand. And unpalatable though it may seem when described in such terms, we should be proud of this adherence to the rule of law. That is what should define and distinguish us.
And it goes without saying that the rule of law applies to everyone – so pregnant teenagers who may have been groomed by others, don't get a free pass. What they do get is the right to return to their home, to be investigated for any wrongdoing, to be tried by their peers, to be punished if found guilty and to have their children taken into safer care if they are deemed incapable of offering it. With the rights of citizenship come the associated responsibilities, because after all, actions have consequences.
Of all the times to make your first visit to Saudi Arabia! And it didn't get off to the best of starts when at Manchester Airport an otherwise speedy security check was halted when the scanner spotted something suspicious in my 7 year old daughter's carry-on bag. We looked at each other with puzzled but relaxed expressions and chuckled when the kindly security guard asked if she had any scissors in her bag. "Scissors? Of course not officer" we replied, as he pulled out the offending pencil case and produced a pair of plastic scissors. Oh. Then our "They're just toys" explanation seemed to be working just fine until the officer noted, "actually she's got some real scissors in here as well". Yes that's right; our sweet little baby was packing not one, but two pairs of scissors for her flight. We discarded the real scissors as fast as we could and did the nervous parent "kids eh" giggle. Luckily, our phased denials and mild panic did not cause too much consternation for the officer who probably thought our reactions were entirely in keeping with how things were done at our intended destination.
The rest of the flight was a pleasant affair which was just as well as it was a trip I had anticipated with some trepidation. For a variety of reasons I had never been as keen on the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) as most of my Muslim friends. (The pilgrimage is either the Hajj - a religious obligation to be undertaken at least once in a Muslim's lifetime and occurring at a specific time of the year, or the Umrah - a voluntary pilgrimage which can be offered at any time). Political scepticism about how things were done in Saudi Arabia, coupled with a religious scepticism about the importance of this particular ritual, had always ensured that it was some way down my list of religious priorities. Unlike some, I had never believed that all your sins are forgiven if you visit Makkah and I was always more interested in the meaning and purpose behind the rituals than the precise way they should be performed. But despite my reluctance, my wife had wanted to perform Umrah, (again, as she had already been with her parents before we got married). So, as a dutiful, reasonable Muslim husband I agreed to compromise. And we went. After all, we did have living proof that God answers your prayers in this holiest of places, seeing as my wife met me just weeks after her previous visit!
I was clear about one thing though. If I was to gain anything from this trip, I had to go with an open mind. I had read and heard a lot about the Saudis, but the one Saudi family I knew were, in fact, educated, polite and humble so I really had to give them a fair chance. I had been advised that Saudi passport control was a nightmare and I should factor in spending a few hours there, good to hear when your flight is due to land after midnight. Makkah and Madina are the two holiest sites of Islam so I was intending to visit both and was aware of the general view that the people of Makkah were difficult, to say the least, unlike the inhabitants of Madina (the city to which the Prophet of Islam migrated following his persecution by the people of his home town Makkah). And I had seen many documentaries about the "Clock Tower" and the excessively materialistic surroundings which overshadowed the holy shrine that was the Kaaba. So they were the expectations I had to put to one side if I was to get anything out of this trip.
Passport control was as pleasant an experience as anywhere else in the world and we were all done within an hour. Our baggage had been helpfully removed from the carousel by the time we got there and we were good to go. The first thing one does after arriving in Makkah is perform the tawaf, the circumambulation of the Kaaba. It is the ritual most closely associated with the pilgrimage and the one that carried the most meaning for me, highlighting the sister and brother-hood of mankind. All colours, nationalities and races submitting themselves to their Creator with no distinction between prince and pauper. Yes it occasionally riled my very English sensibilities when I was jostled out of the way, usually by old ladies, and the number of people FaceTiming their family and friends back home during the tawaf was just a tragic reminder of the times we live in, but on the whole I was able to remember that my sole purpose in being there was to worship God and focus on Him rather than the inevitable distractions around me. I was also acutely aware of the risk that this was an experience that could so easily put my children off Islam if there was anything significantly negative about it. Yet they surprisingly embraced the rituals at the Kaaba and were relatively unperturbed by the crowds (admittedly a mere fraction of the size of Hajj crowds). By the end of day one the main rituals had been performed and we celebrated with a traditional Muslim meal - halal pizza.
The next few days were spent worshipping, whether by offering voluntary prayers, reading the Quran or simply contemplating the wonders of God. Never have I found it so easy to wake up at dawn, perform my ablutions and walk off to the Mosque for the early morning prayers. My wife and I wanted to maximise the spiritual impact of the trip but knew we had to have due regard to the needs of the children. Yet they were partaking wholeheartedly, no doubt their spiritual enthusiasm given renewed vigour each morning with our hotel's breakfast buffet which included cake pudding, chocolate muffins and Nutella pancakes amongst its endless selections. Even so, the way they woke up at 4.30am and accompanied us to the Grand Mosque without complaint was heart-warming. But we didn't fail to notice other children; the little girls, the same age as my daughter who were out at 7am selling folding fans for 5 riyals (£1); the boy we met at 10pm one night selling packets of tissues for the equivalent of 20p each. He was about 12 years of age, like my son, but, unlike my son, was likely to be facing very different life opportunities. Was his blank expression the result of a long day hawking his goods or something more traumatic? (One enterprising kid, who couldn't have been more than 6, did manage to get some cash out of me simply by making me laugh with his "Allah will give you 4 wives".)
These children reminded us of the stark contrasts of the place, visible poverty existing cheek by jowl with unimaginable wealth; the street vendors operating outside skyscrapers housing luxury apartments and hotels. And the bitter irony of it all? During the main rites of the pilgrimage the male pilgrims must each wear nothing more than 2 pieces of unstitched white cloth (the ihram), a powerful symbol of mankind's equality before God. Yet once the ihram was removed some of us got to choose from a breakfast buffet that others could not even dream of. The obvious inequalities always induced feelings of guilt but the more constructive reaction was to try and do something about it. And as is so often the case, children can lead the way. At the end of the tawaf as I returned from using the facilities, I found my 12 year old son using a Punjabi/Urdu combination reminiscent of Peter Sellers in "The Party" to try and help an old lady from Pakistan who had become separated from her group, the worst nightmare for elderly pilgrims who had often never left the familiarity of their village. He had persuaded a passer-by to use his mobile phone to call a number the old lady had scrawled on a piece of paper. Minutes later some members of her group returned to retrieve her as she wept tears of joy. Life is often unfair but for every apparent injustice we believe that God also provides solutions. Whether humans prioritise them or not is up to them. One can walk by or engage and try to help. I wonder if in my son's situation I would have looked the other way. Ultimately we believe that any relief comes from God but the test is perhaps our intention to help, rather than the end result.
When it came time to leave Makkah it was an unexpected wrench and we all kept turning round for one last look of the Kaaba. I had heard plenty of Muslims say that they could just stay in Makkah and, of course, at least part of the reason is that they are able to forget worldly concerns for a time. But even putting that aspect to one side, I myself could feel the spiritual benefit of the experience and draw inspiration and strength from the singularity of purpose in being there, to worship God. And I will never forget that unending flow of pilgrims walking round the Kaaba 24 hours a day, a constant reminder of God's presence. People coming and going, entering the world and leaving it, coming from God and returning to Him.
The Almighty doesn't require our grand gestures and extravagant buildings if we ignore the basics of a fulfilling "religious" life - constant self-improvement, God-consciousness and serving God by serving humanity. To paraphrase the great Muslim poet Rumi, too many of us worry about performing the pilgrimage whilst ignoring the Kaaba in our hearts. This holy shrine will continue to expand as will its luxury hotels. If I ever have the good fortune to visit again I imagine there will be even more religious "tat" for sale. Governments the world over will continue to disappoint their populations and evade accountability. But the human desire to experience The Divine will remain. This place is not going to get less busy any time soon, and, somewhat to my own surprise, I think I'm rather glad.
Not all white people are right wing lunatics, but all right wing lunatics seem to be white people. Forgive me for paraphrasing that tired cliche about Muslims and terrorists but the world is becoming a scarier place and it's not down to the usual suspects. It was right wing extremism that led to the murder of an MP on the streets of Britain. It is right wing extremism that is spreading like wildfire throughout Europe. And as for the USA, well you know the rest.
With the Klan now thinking they run America, should the rest of us be worried? The Program on Extremism at George Washington University provides analysis on issues related to violent and non-violent extremism. In a recent report they said that on Twitter, for example, "American white nationalist movements have seen their followers grow by more than 600% since 2012. Today, they outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric, from follower counts to tweets per day".And the thing is, when it isn't the usual suspects involved, the whole tenor of the discussion changes. So what we don't see is the wholesale dehumanising of a race. Or the endless negative coverage in the media of their misdeeds. Or the "experts" wheeled out to opine on how there is something essentially different about these people, how they're not like us and how their way of life is incompatible with ours.
Instead, all that was anathema to the civilised world not so long ago is now being rebranded and re-served to the masses. Our grandparents' generation may well have fought against fascism, making sacrifices which are still remembered to this day, but now we have the "alt-right", suited not jack-booted, and with real grievances. Not families-killed-by-drones real, but apparently they are the victims of "white genocide". You couldn't make this stuff up. I know their understanding of history is sometimes called into question but you'd have thought that Americans would have an inkling that the only genocide that features in their story is by them, not on them.
I don't suggest for a moment that there aren't some real grievances behind the rise of the far right. No amount of immigrant-bashing can disguise the fact that livelihoods have been destroyed due to the zeal for globalisation and the unscrupulous activities of the banking industry. The politicians don't seem to care for their plight, so the public feel compelled to resort to demagogues who appear to offer an alternative. And thus we end up with the likes of the American President-elect, our own chortler-in-chief fancying himself as the British ambassador to the USA, and the numerous pocket fascists newly emboldened in Europe.
600% is a big number. Seems that white people have a problem with extremism which they need to address.
Reading former Prime Minister Tony Blair's observation in the Sunday Times that the "centre, left and right, has to rediscover its muscularity" when dealing with Islamist extremism I was taken back to the 1990s when a smart-suited well-coiffured charismatic politician was wooing Europe with his own brand of muscularity when it came to dealing with Muslims. A few days ago, however, Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years' imprisonment for his role in the massacres he promoted, leaving a disgruntled Karadzic apparently feeling a bit perplexed, no doubt because Europe didn't seem overly concerned about his actions back then and pretty much left him to it.
Others may be keen to suggest that Mr Blair should be facing a similar trial for his involvement in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims but that isn't my issue at the moment. I can even give him the benefit of the doubt and say that it is not his fault that the publication of his choice decided to go with the headline "We are in denial about Islam" (thereby blaming the very faith that our political leaders insist we have no issue with) when the former Prime Minister actually used the phrase "we need to end the denial about what is happening within Islam". No, my criticism is borne more out of confusion than hatred of Mr Blair.
You see despite my misgivings I was somewhat encouraged when the piece began with the acknowledgment that "we require a fundamental change of strategy". I half-expected that this seasoned politician, world leader, peace envoy and incredibly astute businessman would present us with a solution which emanated from his years of experience and, perhaps, a tacit if not explicit acceptance that maybe he had made some mistakes along the way. After all, as ArunKundnani wrote in the Washington Post this week the West's "war on terror turned the whole world into a battlefield….and kills more civilians than terrorism does". Sadly, no great insights were forthcoming and no fundamental change of strategy was offered. In fact, it could be argued that it was more of the same; the by now regular Tough Tony comment following every such atrocity, prefaced with the customary "Islam as practised and understood by the majority of the world's Muslims is an honourable and peaceful faith", leaving a bemused public wondering why he simply refuses to go quietly.
I know Islam is peaceful and tolerant but I also know that there are those who abuse Islam to justify all manner of financial, political and territorial ambition, a bit like some folk do with "democracy and freedom" you might say. I am painfully aware that there are some unduly rigid interpretations of Islam that may lend themselves to violence as Mr Blair himself recognised when he alluded to "the export of Salafist type of doctrine". Having identified this problem this is precisely the area where the former Prime Minister's advice should go on to identify the said doctrine, where it comes from and the circumstances in which it flourishes, before proposing ways of tackling it. But at this very point where true leadership should come to the fore, we find that other interests trump the peace and security our leaders purport to desire.
As I write this another 60 people have been killed in a terrorist attack in Lahore, twice the death toll of Brussels. I would happily see Isis and co obliterated from the face of the planet but we need to have an idea of what we wish to see in its place and our recent action (and inaction) suggests that we might not wish for others what we wish for ourselves. What is often overlooked is that those societies which pride themselves on tolerance today are able to rely onfreedom, political stability, education, wealth and relative security, factors conspicuous by their absence in much of the Muslim world. Yet do our leaders in the West truly desire that for the Muslim world? The freedom and political stability of democracy is not our preferred option in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, both being highlighted by Mr Blair as our allies, or indeed in a host of other countries of the Middle East. Education requires the financial investment made possible by wealth but would we rather that wealth be spent on educating the very natives who would then compete with us, or on buying western arms (which also serve the ancillary purpose of subduing agitated populaces seeking democratic reform)? And, of course, at the end of the day the only security that matters is the security of the people who matter.
I have long argued that Muslims need to take a long hard look at themselves and their approach to their faith. But their traditionally conservative ideas are not the breeding ground for the modern strain of terror targeting Europe. The causes of this phenomenon are complex and understandably avoided by the likes of Mr Blair who prefer to hide behind ideology as the sole cause, leaving the readers (with a little help from the headline creators) to interpret this as they see fit and in the process exclude any possibility of suggesting that "our" policies may have played a part in creating this monster. It was ideology that led to the birth of Isis in Iraq, not the illegal and wholly unnecessary invasion by us, not the promotion of sectarian conflict by us, not the dissolution of state owned factories by us, not the disbanding of the army with no prospect of alternative employment by us.
As long as we fail to learn the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. The names may change but we continue promoting the same failed model: Shah, Saddam, Mubarak, Gadaffi, Sisietc.etc. Our preference for such strongmen illustrates that it is not our muscularity that we need to rediscover, but perhaps a new found ability to share the planet with others as equals, deserving of the same freedoms and facilities that we take for granted.