Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Chinese convert is "content wherever she finds herself"

This article was first published on Openseam. Iman Wong is a Chinese convert from Singapore. She enjoys reading, brisk walking and listening to oldies. She currently volunteers at Darul Arqam, where she counsels new converts and teaches them about Islam and prayers.

By Iman Wong

It started way back in 1978. I had decided to embraced Islam. It was indeed a very trying and difficult period for me but I survived.

I lived in a kampong area in Geylang and there was a mosque near my home. Every morning I could hear the sounds of adhan I disliked it because it was noisy and interrupted my sleep. I had many different neighbours: Malays, Indians and Chinese. We played and ran around together. All our homes were always open and we only locked our front doors after midnight. It was so safe and so sound...

Then, I was studying in a Roman Catholic school, where all of us went to church, sang hymns and also studied catechism. The British nuns would read from the Bible and tell us stories even though we were non-Catholics. Incidentally, I remembered a handsome British priest who visited our class -- all of us were mesmerised by his big blue eyes. I was not keen or interested in being a Catholic as I did not feel anything when I looked at a statue of Jesus Christ.

My parents were Taoists and they only worshipped ancestors. I was a free thinker and I simply followed what they wanted me to do, like holding joss sticks and cleaning the altar of my late grandfather. Sometimes, I followed my mother to the temple to pray to deities, but I really disliked it. The smoke from the joss sticks and the solemn looks on the deities made me feel very uneasy whenever I visited the temple. For me, worshipping deities are definitely out, because deities are all made by men.

Then, I was aware that there was a God but I did not know how to get to Him. I was like a lost ship floating on the sea.

My dearest father was hardworking but a man of very few words. He was the only breadwinner in my family and when he was stressed out, he drowned his sorrows by drinking! I did not understand him too well as there was no communication between us at all. He was like our ‘commander’ from whom we only took orders. Then, I was rather rebellious, always wanting to do something different from my siblings.

One night, I did some soul searching and wondered if life should be so monotonous – eat, sleep, work, play? I started thinking about the meaning of life and concluded that there must be some superpower that created everything. My head kept pounding.

Who is He and where is He?

Finally, one day my question was answered. A Malay Muslim neighbour gave me a English translation of the Qur’an, written by Mohammed Pickthall. When I finally found some time to take a look, I read the first verse, Al Fatiha. The phrase, "Show us the straight path" (1:5) attracted me. I felt that this was the wake-up call for which I had been searching.

I began to attend classes at Darul Arqam under the late Cikgu Zaini, at Pheng Geck Avenue. He gave me the impression of a father, a respected teacher, and a knowledgeable person. He had a good sense of humour and in other words, a jolly good fellow. And he looked so Chinese too! My first question to him was, “Are you a Chinese?” and he said "No, I look Chinese but I am born Malay."

Of course, my parents didn’t know that I was attending Islamic courses. How would they have reacted! When I decided to convert in 1978, my father was so mad at me and did not speak to me for a year, but my mother was very supportive, alhamdulillah. My eldest sister was strongly against it because she is a Catholic. I embraced Islam without their blessings and I did feel very upset.

My faith fluctuated when I lost my late husband

Fortunately, I met Brother Kamar Lim, whom I greatly respect, and also the late Sister Saibah – both of whom became my mentors. They understood the conflict with my family and gave me a lot of support and encouragement. They said, keep praying and Allah will lighten your burden. I felt so much better after talking to both of them. Brother Kamar Lim asked me to be a council member with Darul Arqam and in short, Darul Arqam became my second home.

After a year, my father started speaking to me. But, he told me that he wanted his future son–in-law to be a Chinese. I was astounded but I had no choice but to take up his challenge! As it turned out, in the same year, I attended a youth camp in Taipei organised by the World Assembly Muslim Youth (WAMY) with another Muslim sister. I was really excited to meet so many Chinese Muslims in Taiwan and, guess what, there I also met my late husband. My late father was so happy that I was marrying a Chinese Muslim and we were blessed with a son, alhamdulillah.

In 1998, my late husband met with a car accident. I realised that death is inevitable. That took me to further understand that life in this world is not forever and that one day, we have to return to God whether we are ready to or not. My faith fluctuated when I lost my late husband but it was a trial that I had to quickly get over for the sake of my only son. I renewed my faith and occupied myself with classes and activities at Darul Arqam. Just like the Chinese saying, ji lai zhi ze an shi. Be content wherever you find yourself.

Time flies. I have embraced Islam for 38 years. Thank God that He blesses me till today. I am imperfect, I still have weakness and flaws in my journey to Islam but my faith keeps me going. New converts? Put your trust in Allah and everything will fall in its place, insha’allah.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A quick guide to Islamic empires

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 Heritage issue of Aquila Style magazine

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History is dreary no more when the subject is the political theatre of Islam’s Golden Age.

The interior beauty of the Alhambra (Image: Fotolia)

When I was a young Muslim kid growing up, I had to attend Islamic classes every Sunday. The history lessons were unclear, but from them I got the (correct) idea that there were four caliphs who ruled after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). And since I had also vaguely heard about several Islamic empires, I got the (false) impression that each caliph had his own dynasty.

I was an intellectually awkward teenager trying to empower my Muslim self with the achievements of the Golden Age of Islam, but I had no idea where this time period fit in with the rest of history. Later I realised that what could be called an “empire” happened after the reign of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who strove to keep the message of Muhammad (pbuh) alive: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.

The Umayyad elite 
(661 – 737 CE / 40 – 120 AH)
When Muhammad (pbuh) first began his prophetic career, the Umayyads were part of Mecca’s rich elite, who also harassed his followers when he still lived in Mecca. When Muhammad (pbuh) was spreading the Word of God, condemning those who were rich but did not care for society’s downtrodden and marginalised, the Umayyads were some of the people he was referring to.

Before Islam the Umayyads were merely the city elite. But once Islam started to prove, in a way, how Muslims could also achieve success in this world, they converted to Islam and became the elite of a global empire.

The main man in this empire was Mu’awiya; he was the cousin of Umar, the second caliph. Earlier during Umar’s reign, Mu’awiya was appointed the governor of Damascus and he kept this position throughout the reigns of the next two caliphs, Uthman and Ali. Towards the end of Ali’s reign, Mu’awiya formally refused to accept Ali as caliph, and led an army against him. When Ali was assassinated by one of his own followers, Mu’awiya declared himself caliph. Towards the end of his life, his son Yazid succeeded him.

The empire of the Umayyads launched the evolution of Islam as a civilisation and political empire. During their reign the Umayyads nurtured Islam’s religious institutions, like mosques and waqf – philantrophic religious foundations. They also declared Arabic as the official language, replacing Greek in the western ends of their empire – an empire that stretched from Cordoba in the west to Persia in the east, covering parts of modern day Iran and Afghanistan.

Mecca as depicted in the Qatari TV series ‘Omar’ (2012) Photo: YouTube
The second caliph of Islam, Umar, portrayed by Samer Ismail in the TV series ‘Omar’ (2012) Photo: YouTube
A map of the city of Baghdad between 150 and 300 AH (767 and 912 CE). William Muir / Wikimedia Commons
Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo was named after the 6th Fatimid caliph. Photo: Fotolia
A manuscript written during the Abbasid era. Wikimedia Commons

Abbasids take over, one Umayyad gets away 
(737 – 961 CE / 120 – 350 AH)
The Umayyads had created what seemed to be a stable empire, with Yazid’s descendants ruling for several generations. But the homogenisation of doctrine and bureaucracy within the empire had resulted in growing discontent among two marginalised groups: the Shi’a against the orthodox religious establishment, and the Persians against the Arab political establishment. Eventually, these two groups mapped onto each other.

This 1940s picture shows the 9th-century Malwiya Minaret with a spiral ramp at the Great Mosque of Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad. Photo: DSK/AFP

Meanwhile in Iraq, a small anti-government band called the Hashimites dispatched to Merv (in today’s Turkmenistan) a professional revolutionary with the pseudonym Abu Muslim. His job was to protest against the growing materialism of the Umayyads and to promote the installation of Abu al-Abbas, a distant relative of the Prophet (pbuh), in order to return the Muslim world to the right track.

Abu Muslim’s army clashed with the Umayyads in Iraq, but not before incorporating bands of discontented Persians along the way. They won, and the Hashimites proclaimed Abbas as the new caliph. To cement his power, Abbas had the leading members of any surviving Umayyads killed; his brother Mansur later had Abu Muslim executed as well. The Abbasid empire had officially begun.

In embracing an orthodox approach to Islam, which had been developing under the Umayyads, Sunnism was born and was considered a clear sect, separate from Shi’ism. Perhaps the most important outcome of the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled for over 200 years, was the building of Baghdad.

Civilisation, culture, philosophy and art blossomed and reached a peak during the first two centuries or so. When Abbas died, his brother Mansur decided to build a new capital to serve as the empire’s focal point. Called the Round City because of the circular palace complex at its centre, Baghdad became the biggest and busiest city of its time. Traders, merchants and vendors settled in concentric circles around the palace, creating a maze of streets and alleys, mosques and bathhouses.

This 1940s picture shows the 9th-century Malwiya Minaret with a spiral ramp at the Great Mosque of Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad. Photo: DSK/AFP
The thing about history is that it’s never linear; there are many simultaneous events happening all the time. If you’re sad that the Umayyads were all executed by Abbas, don’t despair: there’s a glimmer of hope. The last Umayyad nobleman, Abdul Rahman, fled to Andalusia (today’s Spain) while the Abbasid dynasty was starting up. Andalusians accepted him as their leader because as far as they knew, the Umayyads were still their leaders. And besides, Baghdad was geographically too far away to make much of an immediate impact.

Andalusia claimed to be independent from Baghdad, believing they were still the rightful caliphate. When Muslims (and non-Muslims) talk about the Golden Age, they are often referring to the Andalusian Umayyad empire. At its peak the capital of Cordoba boasted the largest libraries in Europe, hundreds of mosques, schools and bathhouses, as well as trade with North Africa and across the Mediterranean. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived under their own religious leaders and legal systems, practising their respective rituals and customs.

Co-existing caliphates: Andalusian Umayyads, Baghdadi Abbasids, and Cairene Fatimids 
(958 – 1095 CE / 347 – 487 AH)
In the 10th century yet another city rose up to challenge the Abbasid caliphate, which was by now clearly Sunni. A group of Tunisian Shi’a warriors seized Egypt from the Abbasid empire, and declared themselves the true caliph of Islam because they were descendants of Fatima, the Prophet’s (pbuh) daughter. They built a new capital and named it “Victory”: Qahira, or Cairo.

The Shi’ite Fatimid empire could be proud of building Al-Azhar, the world’s second university after Al-Karaouine in Fez. Drawing upon their natural resources of the Nile river and the Mediterranean sea, this caliphate dominated the maritime routes along the Red Sea and probably outshone both Baghdad and Cordoba.

Later on, the Fatimid empire was conquered and absorbed into the Abbasid caliphate. Meanwhile, the remaining Umayyad empire in Al-Andalus lasted until 1031, when it was conquered by Catholic Spain. The Abbasid dynasty and the Golden Age effectively ended when Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols in 1258. They regrouped in a weaker form as the Mamluk empire in Egypt, which was eventually conquered by the Ottoman empire in the 16th century.

This green glass weight from the Umayyad Dynasty is dated 743. In addition to the name al-Walid, who was the financial director of the Damascus treasury, the weight’s inscription, stamped on top in an angular script known as kufic, evokes Yazid III, a caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty. Acquired by Henry Walters, 1914. Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE. From The Historical Atlas by William R Shepherd, 1926. Courtesy of the General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin/Wikimedia Commons
An artist’s sketch of the main market in the Cordoba capital during the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty. Exhibited at Madinat al Zahra Museum. Photo: Sya Taha
The interior of Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, rebuilt from a Catholic cathedral in the 8th century by Caliph Abdul Rahman. The red and white arches were inspired by the blue and white arches of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Some say that the many rows of arches were meant to resemble the palm trees of Arabia that Abdul Rahman so dearly missed. Photo: Fotolia
A dome inside the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Photo: Fotolia
The mihrab of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is richly decorated with gold and designs of flowers and plants. Unusually, it faces south instead of south-east towards Mecca. Photo: Yarehk Hernandez
The exterior of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Photo: Sya Taha
The ruins of Madinat az-Zahra (“City of the Flower”), a palace-city built in 936–940 by Caliph Abdul Rahman that contained mosques, offices, gardens, residences and baths. Representing the power and legitimacy of the caliph to continue the Umayyad empire in Andalusian Spain, Madinat az-Zahra served as the capital of al Andalus. Photo: Fotolia
The chamber in Madinat az-Zahra. Photo: Fotolia
The Court of Lions in the Alhambra. The Alhambra was first built under Caliph Abdul Rahman in the 8th century as a fortress, before being renovated in the 11th century as a palace. Photo: Fotolia

Who rules the ummah?

Prosperous as these caliphates were, they symbolised a clear fragmentation of the Muslim world. Each of them claimed to be the true caliphate, even as it was painfully obvious that the ummah was no longer coherent and united, and that their leaders were appearing to be more and more like secular kings.

From the 9th century onwards, other Islamic empires and sultanates also began to rise (and fall) in regions such as Persia, North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. What most of these had in common was a claim to be a descendant of the Prophet (pbuh) or some other legitimacy to rule as a Muslim ruler.

I found it enthralling to know that Islamic empires co-existed, involved different degrees of bloodshed during takeovers, and included more than just the main three. When I think back to my scattered Islamic history education, an Islamic Empires 101 course sure would have kept my attention as a kid!

For historical sources and maps, see Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes(2009) by Tamim Ansary

Khalifa / Caliph: Khalifa in the Qur’an (2:30,38:26) means a vicegerent on earth, referring to human beings. Historically, when the ummah (global Muslim community) could be considered one governable population (during the time of the Prophet (pbuh), for example), the leader was called a khalifa, or caliph. When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) passed away in 632, the four rulers who succeeded him each became known by the title of Rightly Guided Caliph. The political rulers of the various Islamic empires that came afterwards also proclaimed themselves the rightful caliphs.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A young Muslim's empathy in the mosque

This article was first published on Openseam.

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Every day, I commute to work on my motorcycle. It allows me to avoid the traffic jams that Kuala Lumpur is notorious for. Last week though, it was raining in the morning, so I waited for the rain to stop before setting out on my journey to the office, which is about 25km away.

After about a kilometre or so from my home, a car suddenly came out from a junction on my right and caught me by surprise. I reflexively applied the emergency brakes -- which caused me to lose control of the motorcycle, which slipped on the wet road.

The next thing I knew, I was still sliding on the road while the motorcycle had stopped. After I managed to stand on my own, I tried to move my motorcycle and myself to the side of the road to avoid being hit by incoming vehicles. It was rush hour, so everyone was heading to work and traffic was heavy.

Any pain had not yet set in, so I managed to get my motorcycle to a workshop while I dragged myself to a nearby clinic to have my wounds cleaned and bandaged. I had scraped the lower part of both my palms, right knee and toes. The pant leg that covered my right knee was totally torn away, leaving holes. 

For the next few days, I had to pray in a sitting position. I was given a few days off by the doctor, but by Friday I was back to work. 

During my lunch break, I usually pray my zohor (midday) prayer in the surau (prayer room) of a nearby shop. Surau Nurul Hidayah in Taman Putra Damai is also where I perform my Friday prayers. There are about 200 people who pray there, so it has been given special dispensation by the local religious office to host and conduct Friday prayers. (Normally only mosques can host Friday prayers).

There's no special place for people with special needs to pray as it is only a small surau. So as usual, I chose an empty spot and listened to the khutbah (sermon). After the sermon, a young Malay man joined my row. He glanced at my bandaged hand. He was praying on my right. 

The prayer started and we didn't say anything to each other. Because of the injury to my knee, I could only bend it a little. Part of my leg slightly jutted out to the side. 

Despite this, I noticed that with every ruku' (bow) or sujud (prostration), this young man moved only after I had positioned myself -- presumably to see where my knee would end up, so he could avoid jostling it. I noticed that he had been doing this from the beginning of the prayer.

In my heart I was thinking, here's someone whose Islam berbuah (is bearing fruit)...

When we gave salam after the prayer, he apologised if he had accidentally jostled me during the course of the prayer. My heart warmed, thinking that people nowadays seem to put themselves first, putting aside basic societal values such as politeness and consideration. This young man had made the effort to make me comfortable, and still had enough humility to apologise in case he did hit me, despite everything he had done.

In a time when I feel that there are a lot of selfish and inconsiderate people, this young man, barely 20 years old (since he has more hair than I do!), stood out by showing values that all Muslims should have: empathy, consideration, compassion.

After we parted, my heart sent out a sincere prayer for him. 
"O Allah, there goes one of your servant whose Islam is sprouting well. Please give him more knowledge and understanding of your religion and elevate him above his peers. Amin."
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By MHSA. MHSA is 38 year old Chinese Malaysian who converted to Islam about 24 years ago. He currently works as a senior programmer at a small software house in Klang Valley.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Book review: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

This article was first published on Aquila Style.

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For a version of ancient and modern history from the eyes of Muslims, look to this easy-to-understand book as a beginner’s resource.



It’s important to know where you come from, so that you know where you are going. For many Muslims who live as minorities in their countries, learning about the history of the Muslims before them can be a powerfully empowering way to overcome many of their struggles today.

I first learned about the Golden Age of Islam as an undergraduate, in an extra-curricular course at a mosque I was active in. I never quite got the order of the caliphates right, confusing the Umayyads with the Abbasids. Perhaps it was a trend to hark back to this Golden Age in that decade, but I began to notice that more and more of the Muslim social circles I found myself in began to talk about these (male) travellers, astronomers, mathematicians, herbalists and doctors (these scholars were the epitome of multidisciplinary) in glowing terms.

I never heard a peep about the grand women of this history, like Fatima al-Fihri, the founder of the first university in the world in 859: Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco. I had heard mostly of male scholars like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (along with their Latinised names Avicenna and Averroes respectively, given to obscure their Muslim origins), but I had never heard some of the latter’s philosophical ideas that I could best describe as overwhelmingly feminist. It seemed that an incomplete version of Islamic history was being presented for a particular purpose.

So I was a little sceptical to read Destiny Disrupted, which I had received as a birthday gift. But I cracked open its fresh pages anyway, since it was also the most appropriate attitude to take towards gifts.

Barely five pages in, I was hooked. As an example, the author cites Ibn Khaldun’s dry codification of the process of empire creation – “conquest, consolidation, expansion, degeneration, conquest” – as a running theme of history. The author then goes on to give a lively description of the process in detail:

“The pattern went like this: settled farmers would build irrigation systems supporting prosperous villages and towns. Eventually some tough guy (…) would bring a number of these urban centers under the rule of a single power, thereby forging a larger political unit (…) Then a tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer the monarch of the moment, seize all his holdings, and in the process expand their empire. Eventually, the hardy nomads would become soft, luxury-loving city dwellers, exactly the sort of people they had conquered, at which point another tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer them, and take over their empire.”

The dominant version of world history taught in most educational systems around the world divides time into periods like the medieval Dark Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment and the two world wars. When this version of history is taught, Muslim players are often left out. While many of us have read the classics of Shakespeare, how many of us know that in his time there were three Islamic empires that held most of the world’s power? “If you didn’t know Moors were Muslims, you wouldn’t learn it from Othello.”

Instead, this book tells the story of world history as seen “through Islamic eyes”. There are a series of simple but informative maps throughout, and an extensive list of footnotes for those who hanker for further reading. The crucial time periods for this narrative are the birth of Islam, the four caliphates, attacks by Crusaders and Mongols, and European colonisation, for example. There is also a brief tracing of the rise of “Islamism”, which can help both Muslim and non-Muslim readers understand the crisis of terrorism and violence in recent decades.

The author does a tremendous job of bringing important characters of these historical dramas to life, in each page. I would feel like I had learned so much just from reading a page or two; it is a challenge to squeeze thousands of years into 350-odd pages.

The author is remarkable in covering the scope of academic research, making these stories come to life, and then whittling it down to what he considered as essential. What I missed and would have loved to read was an inclusion of a history of the Islamic world that includes the sultanates in Southeast Asia, as well as the empires of Africa, as these had Muslim rulers too.

There was also very little mention of women in history besides the timeless examples of Aisha and Khadijah, which also reflects a problem of history in general. In the last chapter, the author makes the awkward essentialisation of Muslims as people who believe that men and women should live in separate realms. This is in comparison to people from “the West”, who believe that genders can mix. This completely erases the experiences of Muslims who are born and bred in countries where the majority are not Muslims, or who don’t have Muslim rulers.

Overall, the book is a great place to get acquainted with the alternative, Islamic narrative of world history, and the points at which they intersect with the Western one. It helps the reader to understand the motivations of the Islamic world, the violence that occurred, and where we are heading now.

“But what if we look at world history through Islamic eyes? Are we apt to regard ourselves as stunted versions of the West, developing toward the same endpoint, but less effectually? I think not.”

Friday, March 18, 2016

The sustainability of selfless parents

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 Family issue of Aquila Style magazine.

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Why taking care of yourself is the first step to providing good care for your children.

Image: Fotolia

As children, my friends and I would compare our parents to one another. At five years old, I pleaded with my mother to wear skirts like the other mothers of my kindergarten classmates. When I was 14, I car-pooled to school with a neighbour and remember being amazed to learn that her mother – who worked full-time – went for massages regularly.

In comparison, my own mother was a full-time stay-at-home-mum, and we always employed a domestic worker as well. I never remembered her going to a spa or anything similar, even though I’m sure she was pretty stressed out running the logistics of a household, raising three children (one with special needs), and managing a live-in employee virtually by herself (my dad is the hands-off kind of father typical of his generation). I thought she was selfless, always putting others before herself, as mothers should ideally be.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought that way about motherhood, other than it was probably because society had normalised it. As a new mother myself, I understand that this model of selfless motherhood was not only unsustainable and unhealthy for me; it was also apt to drive me nuts. So, with the birth of our son six months ago as a turning point for our own household, my husband and I reconfigured our duties and came up with strategies to keep ourselves physically and mentally recharged.

Delegate and take turns

My husband and I consider ourselves co-parents, with our duties pretty evenly divided. While we both work, I have the fortune of working from home. Being able to care for your child while also pursuing your own interests is priceless to me.

There are certain chores that are exclusively mine: breastfeeding is one of them. My husband takes out the garbage and recycling. For all other chores, we take turns.

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays I am the “primary parent”, taking responsibility for diaper changes and entertaining the baby when he needs attention. My husband takes this role on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. On Fridays – what I consider my “day off” – I get to work undisturbed when my mother-in-law comes to babysit.

Pay someone

Exclusive breastfeeding takes energy. I often joke to my husband that I’ve already prepared 6–8 meals every day. In return, he’s in charge of preparing breakfasts and dinners every day. Both of us work full-time, so we find it affordable to get a cleaner to come every two weeks to do the heavier household work like vacuuming, wiping down surfaces, folding clothes and mopping the floor. It depends on what you consider the more difficult chores – laundry and cooking are easy for us.

My son is also reaching an age when he’s starting to recognise who his primary carers are, so he won’t be okay with an unfamiliar face. I’m lucky that our babysitter is an elderly Indonesian woman – my son probably finds our faces rather similar!

Reconceptualise “we” time

While I love spending time with my son, I think it’s also important to spend time with only my husband. Admittedly, “date nights” don’t happen much because, so far, going everywhere as a family unit is just easier for all of us.

I lucked out with my son being such a good sleeper and having a calm disposition. My husband and I still manage to do many things we used to do as a couple, like watching movies and going to the park. But it’s important to have some time to myself, too.

Find “me” time

While I get several opportunities a week to be by myself for a few hours, I don’t always take all the time off because of the hassle of pumping and storing breast milk for when I’m away. At this point in time, I feel that two hours of exercise a week is the right amount of time for me to recharge physically. I go to Pilates twice a week and a chiropractic adjustment once every few weeks. On some Fridays, I indulge in my biggest treat: spending an hour or two at a neighbourhood cafe with a book and a cup of tea.

Surprisingly, what I relish most about being by myself is that I can cycle to my destination. Even while I was pregnant it was my main mode of transport. (My son can’t join me yet; I still have to wait a few months before he can sit up properly in a bicycle child seat.)

Since becoming a mother I’ve had to let go of my adolescent notions of what it means to be a good parent. Not eating properly, not exercising and feeling stressed can negatively affect my ability to feed, play with and pay attention to my son, all of which ultimately affect our relationship.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to listen to yourself and your child, in order to figure out what works for you both. The individual needs of families vary tremendously, and it won’t be long before it is my son who is comparing me with his friends’ mums.

Image: Fotolia

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Leadership and Diversity: An interview with Dr. Ingrid Mattson

This article was first published in Dutch in "Vrouwelijke Leiders" (Female Leaders) Al-Nisa, Islamitisch maandblad voor vrouwen (Islamic monthly for women), 32nd year, No. 3, Mar 2013.

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Professor Dr. Ingrid Mattson presently serves as Chair of the Islamic Studies Program at the Huron University College of The University of Western Ontario. She was previously the Director of the Macdonald Centre for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, where she was the founder of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program – the only accredited program to train Muslim chaplains in the United States. From 2006 to 2010 she served as the President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), after serving two terms as Vice President – being the first woman elected to either position. Dr. Mattson was born in Canada and earned her PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago in 1999.

Dr. Mattson spoke to Al Nisa during our Symposium “Kent U Mij?” in Theater de Meervaart in Amsterdam on 22 September 2012, in between her keynote speech on conformity and diversity among Muslim women, and a open question-and-answer session with the audience.

Source: Author's own.


What makes a good Muslim leader?

There’s leadership in so many different sectors. The first thing is that leaders have this inability to just let problems remain; they see a need and they need to respond to it, and so they do something. A good leader has the ability to analyse a situation, understand it, assess what resources are available, and then come up with a practical solution.

A good leader is also looking to make themselves replaceable, firstly by working on strengthening the institution in which he or she works (to extent that it’s appropriate and possible) and second, mentoring other people into leadership. Making sure that you have a strong organization that could continue on without you, or that at least has the mechanisms for replacing you, and then personally mentoring or nurturing leaders.
Do you think there’s a gender difference when it comes to leadership?

There are generalisations, and they are not true in all situations. But I do think that women tend to be more consultative. They tend to try to convince people before going ahead, rather than simply making a decision and expecting everyone to go along. And that’s usually good. Although sometimes you do have to be decisive and you need to go ahead even if there isn’t buy-in.

Part of leadership is knowing when to go ahead with a decision that’s within your authority because you’re really convinced it’s the right thing, even if other people don’t understand it at that point. Between that and taking the time to really get buy-in from others, there’s a balance and. I think men tend to be more of one style and women the other, and you don’t want an imbalance between those two.

While you were in ISNA, in which situations did you find yourself having more legitimacy or authority to speak on certain issues?

I think a lot of people felt that the fact that I was in a position to speak for at least my organization ISNA, if not little more broadly for the American Muslim community. I think a lot of people found that beneficial after September 11th, because there was a great need to be able to explain Islam to Americans in terms that they understood. The fact that that’s my environment – I am Western and I’m Muslim – helped me to understand the concerns that were being raised. This helped with communication, which is natural, but it’s simply accidental that I was born in that environment.

However, there is one disturbing aspect to it, because sometimes there is an implied racism. A friend of mine who’s a rabbi and a really a good friend of the Muslim community once said, “Ingrid, it was very good that you were the leader of ISNA when you were, because you’re this small white woman so you’re not frightening in a way that maybe your predecessors were.” My predecessor and my successor were both dark-skinned Sudanese men.

Is a man scarier than a woman? Is a dark-skinned person scarier than a white-skinned person? If you ask any of my students, they will tell you I’m much scarier than either of those two people. I thought that was really terrible; just seeing my face made people comfortable. I think Muslim men of colour are the most despised people now, as their faces are associated with intimidation or violence. That is really, really sad.

How can female scholars achieve the legitimacy that male scholars do, even though they may have studied in the same places?

That’s unfortunate. I think that kind of ignorance about women scholars in our still needs to be corrected. People tend to want to make sure that what they’re getting is authentic. I think the more we learn about our tradition, the more this kind of reaction will be avoided. There’s a lot of information certainly available now about women in the isnad, like Dr. Akram Nadwi’s book Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam.
But there’s knowledge, and then there’s authority or influence. We have many women who have knowledge but if they’re not recognized by the community or given a position, then people may think that maybe they’re not really that qualified.

I once spoke with Shaykh Faraz Rabbani of Seeker’s Guidance from Canada. In his organization there are many women who have studied in Jordan and have ijazah in different fields of Islamic studies. He was frustrated because not much was being done with the knowledge that these women have. I told him the reality is that until the masjid establishes official positions (whether paid or not) recognizing her as a shaykha or as a religious teacher in the community, people won’t be going to her. Why would they recognize them as authoritative if the leadership of the community doesn’t?

I think these two things are important: knowing our history to break up our inherited assumptions about religious authority, and establishing positions for these women.

So it’s important for knowledgeable women to be affiliated to an organization. But if the current leadership is dominantly male, how does a woman negotiate that?

You have to find advocates. Allah s.w.t. says in the Qur’an that the believing men and women are awliya’ or partners of one another (9:71). Nothing can really happen in the community without partnership. Women need to call on their teachers, or those in positions of leadership who can advocate with them. It can’t always seem like only women are asking about this; this is about building the community together.

There’s always going to be some people who resist it though. Either because they sincerely believe that men should be in authority, or, like all human beings, they don't like to concede or share power with others. Or they’re just ignorant. But I’m sure there are some men who think this is wrong. You need to work in partnership with some men to change this.

Some people can be worked on and others will remain intransigent. Sometimes you can work within the system and sometimes you need to build your own thing while your community lends legitimacy and support.

Speaking of your own thing, I read that you have a dog. There are diverse opinions about it, so how do you deal with holding a minority opinion on an issue?

Well, my opinion comes from one of the fiqh (legal jurisprudence) positions. The majority of fiqh positions consider the saliva of all dogs to be impure, but the Maliki school considers only the saliva of wild dogs to be impure. The Maliki position does not consider domestic dogs to be najis (impurity). There’s strong justification for it in the Maliki school from the argument that the Qur'an allows us to use hunting dogs, and even eating animals caught in their mouths, for example.

So if you’re a Shafi’i or a Hanafi then you’re not going to be able to have a dog, and I’m not going to force anyone else to have one. But certainly, I very deliberately wrote about the Maliki position to raise the issue of the problem of making a religious issue of purity into a taboo, and then even a phobia.

We have a big problem in North America, where we have many Muslim taxi drivers and are also blind and disabled people who use service dogs. These dogs help disabled people to move around in public spaces, but we Muslim cab drivers say things like “Dogs are haraam” and they will refuse to accept them disabled people with service dogs in their cab.

This is just pure ignorance, because it’s not that dogs are haraam, there’s nothing about putting a dog in a car. You’re not required to hate dogs. Your children leave najasa all over, you’re not supposed to hate them right? I think it’s particular to Muslims in the West, although the widespread abuse of animals in Muslim countries is also haraam. We really have to break this overreaction and confusion among Muslims.

Like the issue of dogs, do you think there are other issues that Muslims tend to fixate upon and leaving more urgent issues undebated?

Yes, very clearly. A former student of mine once told me how frustrating it was for her when she was homeless with three children. She was going to the mosque and even though people knew she was homeless, they were not coming to her – she had to come and ask for support. People would say “well we don't have money for that”, yet money was being spent on all sorts of other things – fundraising for Muslims in other countries, or for certain improvements to the new building – when you have a homeless woman in the mosque.

I’m sure there will be people who will come after us and say that we were blind to certain needs. It’s not that any of us are beyond that. We’re all human and we all have limited perspectives, but this is why you need to have wide consultation and a mechanism to include as many voices as possible. The more people you include in the decision-making process, the better chance you have of avoiding at least a gross error in neglecting a true need in the community.

Are you working on any projects right now?

I’m working on a book that’s going to be called, tentatively, The Ethical Muslim. It gives tools for ethical thinking in Islam and provides case studies. I also have a new position in Canada as the new London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. Like how I built that chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary, I’m going to be looking to see what kind of religious leadership program would be suitable for Canadian Muslims in that environment, inshallah.

That sounds exciting. Finally, any advice for Muslim women who work in the public sphere but who are not visibly Muslim?

Wearing the hijab is just one part of being Muslim. More important is, are you bringing the character, behaviour, values and ethics of a Muslim to your workplace? Every Muslim should know the ethics of their field. If you are doing things correctly according to Islam and the civil law to the best that you can, you could even have an impact on your field, depending on how much authority you have. If you go to work and you’re doing things that contradict Islamic ethics or you don’t even know what the ethics of your field are – that’s problematic.

It can be a touchy subject – you don’t want to make it seem like you’re bringing religion into the workplace, but you should have an attitude of responsiveness. That if people sincerely want information, that you are available to them. It may seem burdensome – why do you have to explain your religion when others don’t – but that’s the world we live in.

Other minority groups have similar problems, so look at it as an opportunity. How many Muslims in the world have no chance to say anything? We are the elite in the Muslim world when it comes to educational opportunity and political freedom, so what kind of responsibilities do we have towards others? I don’t think you can just say you want to be a normal person. There are a lot of normal people (laughs).

That’s all, thank you for your time Dr. Mattson.

Thank you for having me, it was a pleasure.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Watch: Muslimah spoken word artist sees “saints in the city”

This article was first published on Aquila Style.

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In this outdoor performance, one half of the British Muslim hip-hop and spoken word duo waxes lyrical about London’s homeless. 


Standing in front of a fence with trains rushing behind her, Sukina Abdul Noor of Poetic Pilgrimage performs a spoken word “Saints in the City” for the RamadanTV 2013 YouTube channel. Through their art and community work, Afro-Carribean converts of Jamaican descent Sukina and her poetic partner Muneera Rashida work to change stereotypes of Muslim women, youth, and Afro-Carribeans. In this performance, Sukina reframes the city’s homeless as being more than what they seem.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Go and pray again!"

This article was first published on Openseam.

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I was raised as a Muslim. For a long time, my understanding of Islam was more of accepting what people said, and not to ask too many questions about religious issues. I grew up in an environment where my mom brought me to different mosques to attend Islamic lectures by ustaz or ustazah (religious teachers). We would also attend maulud, the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, every year.

I was educated in a full-time madrasah (Islamic school) where the first language was either Arabic or English, depending on the subjects. For a decade, I was taught that Islam was a religion that is full of haram (forbidden) and halal (permissible), and we were highly discouraged from asking ‘too many’ questions -- whether about jurisprudence or theological matters.

As Muslims, we were told to believe in the Oneness of God, there is no doubt about it. We were taught not to discuss about God's zat (characteristics) in details as it is beyond human understanding.

Agreed.

But, deep in my heart, I did ask questions. It is my religion. If I simply follow it blindly, then what is the difference between me and others who embrace the faith of their forefathers without even understanding it? (2:170, 5:104)

In Singapore, the majority of Muslims are Sunnis who only follow the Shafie madzhab (school of thought). I face the huge problem of being viewed differently because I practise my religion differently from a conventional Sunni, Shafie follower.

One example is prayer. According to the Shafi’e school of thought, Muslim women are supposed to cover their whole body except the face and the palm during prayer. If you are found to be performing your prayer without your feet covered by socks, there will be ‘concerned’ individuals approaching you to say:

Ni salah ye adik, kita mazhab Shafi’e. Kena ikut betul-betul. Pergi solat balik!
(This is wrong, child. We are from the Shafie school of thought. We have to follow it properly. Go and pray again!)

Believe me, I’ve heard it too many times in my own country.

Doing my university education in an international Islamic university in Malaysia was such an eye-opener to me. It was a place where I strongly felt the world coming to me – Muslims from all over the world studied there, and I had the opportunity to observe the way they practiced their obligations as Muslims.

There, I never received any remarks from ‘deeply concerned’ Muslims about the way I or other Muslims from other parts of the world prayed. Perhaps because the environment was filled with people from all corners of the world, following different madzhab. They performed their acts of worship according to how their scholars have taught them for centuries. The differences in their details shows that Islam is flexible and is open to different circumstances.
Another common example is the touching of dogs. In Singapore, if you touch a dog, according to Shafie opinion, you have to wash your hands six times with water and once with earth. On the other hand, according to Maliki opinion, all you need to do is simply wash your hands.

After living and studying in such an international setting in Malaysia for about three and a half years, in an environment that celebrated the diversity of cultures and mazhab followers, I returned to Singapore embracing diversity. Instead, I find it harder to be Muslim in the way I am comfortable with – to say it simply, it seems that the broader Muslim society in Singapore is not accepting of non-Shafi’e followers.

I would not say that I am labelling myself as a Shafie, Maliki, Hanafi or Hanbali follower. I am a Muslim, and I have deep respect for all the learned scholars who took pains to help Muslims practice Islam in a flexible way. However, I feel that it is up to me to decide which school of jurisprudence to follow, as long it does not threaten my level of faith. In fact, God said in the Qur'an, giving the example of fasting, that God intends for us ease, not hardship (2:185).

The last couple of years, I have been working in Singapore to promote interfaith engagement among Muslims and non-Muslims, and to celebrate diversity across cultures and religions. This work made me more curious to out more about what Islam was exactly all about, and to shatter the myth of Islam consisting of only Sunni and Shafie.

At this job, I started to pick up invaluable knowledge, which my madrasah educational background did not teach me. I am slowly learning that Islam is in fact, a highly flexible religion because it allows Muslims to perform their obligations keeping in mind practicality, not rigidity.

It is wonderful that I am able to slowly understand why God makes it easy for us to fast or pray, in order to be grateful (2:185). Living as Muslims in Singapore, we may have neighbours who keep dogs as pets. Adhering strictly to one madzhab may result in difficulties when cleansing one’s self from the ritual impurity of touching a dog -- whether deliberately or purposefully.

In the course of my work, I also learnt that Shias are not a group that ‘deviated’ from sharia (as I had been previously taught to think). I grew to understand that the Shias alone are divided into a further 12 sects and that they too, have intra-faith issues amongst themselves, in ways in which only a Shia follower would understand.

In short, my undergraduate studies was an opening door to a better understanding of my own religion. My recent job working at the interfaith centre increased my knowledge, bit by bit, and drove me to realise that Islam is indeed a religion that emphasises practicality -- after the theological framework.

This certainly helps me to practice Islam the way the profound scholars of the past have laid it out for us – according to the ones that I am comfortable with, and regardless of time and space. At the end of the day, Islam is about acquiring knowledge and increasing one’s faith to the Creator.

With this aim, I am free to learn, ask questions and understand why Islam is known as a way of life.

By Ilham Fansuri

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Power and prejudice

This article was first published on Aquila Style on 20 Mar 2014.

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When influential Muslims deride others, they shouldn’t be immune to criticism, says Sya Taha.
Image: Photl
Recently, two incidents unfolded on social media in startlingly similar ways.

Late last month, a Muslim male professor from a prestigious university in Singapore described, on his personal Facebook page, homosexuals as “cancers” and “diseases” who should be stopped “in their tracks”.

Earlier this month, a shaykh-titled instructor from a well-known American-based Islamic institute made a series of Facebook jokes that derided women and black people.

Both these men are respected for their academic and religious authority. Yet both were speaking in a derogatory manner about groups that have been historically marginalised in different ways. Sadly, they also stand by what they said as being in the name of Islam.

One of the ways in which scholars like these continually get away with thinking, saying and promoting such beliefs is by seeking immunity behind their religious credentials. Another is by continually bringing up the importance of “making 70 excuses”[i] when someone calls them out on their offensive speech.

But to what extent should we give such figures the benefit of the doubt? Certainly not when they are promoting harm or abuse of other people. I believe that with leadership comes responsibility – being in position of power means needing to be accountable for one’s actions as well.

When we say sexist and racist things, we fail to accord dignity to people

In the aftermath of these two incidents, it became clear what strategy was usually used to silence their critics: Questioning the latter’s knowledge or adab (manners). In other words, you shouldn’t say negative things about other people if you yourself have flaws. If we were to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, no one would ever say anything in situations of injustice. In fact, it doesn’t even really matter how credible or knowledgeable the critic should be, because pointing to someone’s adab is just a way to erase dissent.

These two scholars insist on defending (their version of) “Islam” and how Muslims should be. As a general rule, when someone starts a sentence with “In Islam…”, I run far, far away. More often than not, that someone is talking about mainstream Sunni Islam. I was raised with Sunni teachings and believe they’re perfectly valid, as many people choose to find spiritual peace through it. I just don’t believe that there is one monolith called Islam; instead, I see it as a multiplicity of doctrines and practices.

As an example of what “Islam” should be, the professor believes that Muslims cannot be a homosexual because it is forbidden in the Qur’an. But one cannot deny that homosexual Muslims exist. The shaykh, on the other hand, believes that men and women are not equal and could probably quote a series of interpretations of Qur’anic verses to back this argument. Equally, one cannot deny that there are many egalitarian-minded Muslims who are against gender-based discrimination and violence (with their own Qur’anic interpretations).

Issues like hijab, alcohol and pork consumption, and sexual orientation often become defining markers of “Muslim-ness” more so than other issues like corruption, injustice, or pollution. It’s easy to get caught up in definitions and token discussion points of Islam and lose sight of the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that people who identify as Muslims should be regarded as such. That every human being should be accorded respect and dignity because we don’t have the right to label one person as being higher than another. That when we say sexist and racist things, we fail to accord dignity to people. That when people in power say sexist and racist things, not only do they not model respect, but they also pave the way for others to perpetuate and justify micro-aggressions and outright violence towards certain groups.

We need to work together towards social justice because we all need each other, women and men, rich and poor, black and white. Let’s not be afraid to call out unjust speech and behaviour, especially when it comes from those who need to remain accountable, remembering that Allah (swt) is the ultimate Judge.

[i] A quote from Hamdun al-Qassar, who lived in the 9th century. Imam Bayhaqi reported that he said, “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for him. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.”

Friday, March 11, 2016

6 tips for wheelchair travel for paraplegics



This article was first published on AbleThrive.

Emilio Choo, Singaporean wheelchair basketball player and travel addict hopes to convince you to start planning for that place you’ve always wanted to go to.

1. Research.
Google search ‘disabled travel’ for tips in the city or country. “There’s a lot of advice out there. Many people have been there and done the travelling. No matter how gung ho you are, you need to do some research. Because there are places that you really cannot go at all. There’s no point in going there and you cannot do anything.”

2. Plan the basics.
It’s also worth picking a place to stay and deciding how you plan to move around at your destination. “Things I plan in advance are hotels and transport. If you sort these out before your trip, I think you can have an enjoyable time.”

3. Reconsider flying on a budget.
Though budget airlines often advertise tempting promotions, Emilio no longer travels with these because of the costs of wheelchair assistance. “If you need help, you need to pay for it. When they travel to places without an aerobridge, you’re expected to pay for the wheelchair lift, which is another S$200 [US$140]. If you add up all the costs, it’s more than a normal air ticket. It’s no longer cheap for me.”

4. Pack everything you need.
Emilio’s basic essentials include: maps, itineraries, spare inner tubes for his tires, tools and a Swiss army knife, in addition to daily essentials like medication and a catheter.

5. Try something new.
Emilio discovered the joys of planning his own itinerary when he started driving on his trips. “I didn’t know that there are wheelchair-accessible vans and hand-controlled cars for rental. If I had known earlier, I could have travelled to even more places.”

6. Ask for help.
“Once you’re out there, don’t be afraid to ask for help. People overseas are friendly and will help you. You’ll be fine.”

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Indonesian fashion brand gets halal status, ruffles hijabs of many






Earlier this month, the appearance of Indonesia’s first halal-certified hijab, sold and promoted by Indonesian fashion company Zoya, provoked equal parts protest and support. According to the certification given by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), Zoya’s hijabs are ‘halal’ because the fabrics are produced with the use of only plant-based emulsifiers, and not those made from pig gelatin. Zoya has also erected a billboard in a few major towns with the tagline “Are you sure that your hijab is halal?“



Online, some responded with incredulous sarcasm. Some said that if the fabric for hijabs had to be halal, then every article of clothing (including underwear) had to be halal as well. Others pointed out that if there were ‘halal hijabs’, then, there must necessarily be ‘haram hijabs’ existing from the beginning of time until Zoya. Some questioned if the halal certification would not be completely unnecessary after washing the hijab, especially before wearing it for the first time? And some contended that many women, after their umrah and haj, still buy abaayas made in China, which are more likely to be washed with pig gelatin-based emulsifiers.

A hijab that is clearly ‘halal’, while its competitors are not, is an example of strong product differentiation. Instagram celebrity and hijabi blogger Fifi Alvianto sees this ‘halal hijab’ as a marketing tactic. She explains, “In the religion [Islam] there hasn’t been discussions on halal fabrics, at least not as clearly as halal food.” However, Zoya’s creative director Sigit Endroyono said that their intention was only to help consumers feel confident and at peace with their hijabs. “As sellers, we are responsible for our customers’ tranquility. We try to fulfil the right of our customers by ensuring the permissibility of our clothes and headscarves.”

Despite these non-pecuniary motivations, the company’s sales manager Chandra Rahmad, admitted that the controversy surrounding their ‘halal hijab’ has resulted in an “unintentional” but “extraordinary increase” in the sales of Zoya’s products. Zoya has since retracted their advertisements on Instagram, as well as all but one billboard, and apologised in a press meeting.

It is perhaps not a surprise that Zoya chose to embark on such an aggressive marketing campaign, especially in the light of the recent introduction of a hijab and abaya collection from Dolce and Gabbana. This comes after several years of one-off and aurah-friendly Ramadan collections from DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, and Oscar de la Renta caftans. Even more affordable brands like Uniqlo and Mango have kept up.

I appreciate the critical response from certain segments of Indonesian society. While there were certainly people who bought Zoya’s hijabs after they were certified halal, there were also others that spoke out against the absurdity of ensuring that hijabs — a non-consumable — were also halal.

Hijab designer Rani Hatta admits to being confused by the halal certification for hijab fabrics, “I thought all along that clothes that cover the aurah, are loose-fitting and don’t show the shape of the body could be worn.” Famous Indonesian designer Dian Pelangi also echoes Rani’s opinion, “Cosmetics and beauty products are absorbed into the skin, so we need to make sure that the products we use are halal.”

However, I do feel disappointed that none of the critics mentioned fair trade or ethical working practices play a role in determining whether a fabric is ‘halal’ or not. The director of MUI’s department of Food, Medicines and Cosmetics Research (LPPOM) Lukmanul Hakim clarified that the Zoya brand is not halal as a whole — just its fabric. He mentions other processes but unfortunately, his discourse remains at the superficial material level and does not go deeper to address social practices, “Zoya claims its [hijabs] to be halal […] They say that it’s because they use halal materials. But doesn’t fabric need to be sewn? Is their thread halal too? We don’t know that yet.”

MUI’s head of Halal Information Farid Mahmud said that there are now many companies that submit applications for halal certification. Companies that produce shoes, belts, paper and even social organisations have applied:
“Some laundromats provide soap and water that are guaranteed to not contain ‘najis’ [ritual impurities]. The biggest paper factory in Indonesia also submitted an application because their paper is used for printing Qur’ans […] Consumers just want to make sure that although not for eating, these materials are not contaminated with najis. Producers consider it as an obligation in accordance with Islamic law.”
In the production of cotton for example, there are several political issues related to ‘halal’ we could choose to educate ourselves on, such as Genetically Modified (GM) cotton reduces biodiversity; intensive farming uses pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers; cotton-picking in some countries like Uzbekistan is still done by hand and allegedly by children; textile processing uses high amounts of water and energy. Meanwhile, many synthetic fabrics are non-biodegradable and use harmful chemicals during processing.

Elsewhere I have written that the Qur’an encourages us to do ‘good works’ instead of committing abuse and oppression when eating or drinking — which we could reasonably extend to whatever else we consume.”[…] the source of our food and drink is important – it must not cause pollution or destruction of natural habitats, and it must not be produced by underpaid or exploited workers.”

The controversy of a ‘halal hijab’ has opened a discussion into what makes a thing halal or not. Unfortunately it seems that for Indonesia at least, Muslim discursive circles on ‘halal’ have yet to intersect with social justice discourses on fair trade, organic farming or sustainability.

All quotes have been translated from Bahasa Indonesia.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Emilio Choo pushes himself to see “how far this chair can bring me”

This article was first published on AbleThrive.
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The Singaporean wheelchair basketball player travels and partakes in spine-tingling extreme sports for fresh perspectives on life.

Skydiving in Byron Bay, Australia in 2013
 
Before his spinal injury 14 years ago, 34-year-old Emilio Choo didn’t even have a passport. During a self-imposed gap year before commencing his studies in Computer Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, he set off on a maiden trip to visit family in Australia. After that, he was hooked on the idea of learning about new places, about new people and perhaps most significantly, about how adaptable he could really be. Since then, the national wheelchair basketball player has been to countries both nearby like Hong Kong and Japan, and far away as Switzerland and Italy. With his confidence increasing with every enjoyable trip, he has also participated in spine-tingling activities like scuba diving in Tioman (2008) and skydiving in Byron Bay, Australia (2013).

His first trip to Sydney, Australia, opened his eyes to the new possibilities of life in a wheelchair. His sister, brother-in-law, and aunt brought him around to see Sydney. “I didn’t know what to expect. Luckily, it was convenient. A lot of places are accessible and I had family there to help me,” he said. The trip taught him some first valuable lessons about travelling in a wheelchair, such as always planning in advance.

When he was able-bodied, Emilio said he did not get to travel much because his family was not well off. He had only been to Taiwan and Brunei as part his national service exercises – and he obtained his spinal injury on the latter trip. Looking at his situation with a fresh perspective, Emilio decided that he would make the best of what he had.

Today he is hooked on travelling with his wife — his main travel partner. Their first trip together, an arranged tour of several European cities for their honeymoon, was a turning point for him. “You cannot expect them to provide you with a wheelchair accessible bus. So every time, I had to climb up and down the bus, step by step. That was challenging, but it made me more adaptable. And you know in Europe, a lot of buildings are old. There are many stairs and [the streets are paved with] cobblestones.”

“I had to slowly adjust and explore what I could do. That trip really made me realise that I could do more and travel much further than I had ever imagined.” Emilio counts the US as one of his favourite countries to visit. “I like their inclusiveness. They really see everyone as equal and they have a lot of wheelchair-accessible places.” A 2012 trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland theme parks in California proved to be memorable because it was the first time he had ever been on a rollercoaster or other rides.

More recently, in 2015 he was also able to enjoy the rides in Universal Studios Singapore. Naturally, Emilio initially worried about the many things that could go wrong while he was away from the comforts of home. His worries translated into meticulous planning for every aspect of a trip, including the accessibility of the places he wanted to visit and the availability of accessible toilets. “But now I can go to any toilet, I just have to jump around and adjust my chair,” he said. “You cannot always find a wheelchair-accessible toilet so sometimes you just have to make do. Because these are some things you need to learn which will allow you to go to many more places.”

These days, Emilio and his wife do only some basic research before going somewhere. “We still do some planning but we are more adaptable. Sometimes we even say, let’s just go there and see how it goes. It’s more free and easy now.” Sometimes an upbeat attitude is enough. But sometimes change is needed at a bigger, societal level before travel for people with disabilities become the norm. For example, while budget airlines become increasingly popular with travellers, Emilio avoids these airlines because of the hidden costs of wheelchair assistance that negate the ‘budget’ aspect.

Nevertheless, there are many interesting options for disabled travellers today, like hand-controlled rental cars and accessible public transport. “Sometimes [taxis] are very expensive. So we drive instead. Many places today have hand-controlled cars for rental, which is convenient. In Australia, I took some buses and trains. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, we got around using the MRT.”

“Singapore is a convenient and accessible place, but I also want to experience how the disabled live in other places. Or how other people live their day-to-day lives.”

“I want to see how far this chair can bring me.”

Monday, March 7, 2016

A letter to my future daughter


My dear daughter,

I will give the same to you as I give a boy. They will tell you that a boy should receive two times the wealth due to you, for no other reason that he has a penis. They like to assume that all men are chivalrous and honorable knights, ready to protect and save the women in their lives from their own frivolously irresponsible decisions.

I will teach you that you will receive what you deserve. They might appreciate your talents and your labour for as long as it is useful to them, but then to reassure themselves of their own beliefs, they will continue choosing men as leaders; doing what has always been done. They will not give you any financial responsibility because they are waiting for you to find a man to do that for you.

I want you to learn to do what you are good at, inside and outside the home. They will tell you that any combination of cooking, washing dishes and ironing clothes are more suitable for you. Never you mind that there are hardly any chores that are more suitable for boys and men; it is more appropriate for them to do nothing at home and that instead, working outside the home and giving money is enough.

I will keep your body intact and thriving, to honour its integrity and the natural laws that govern it. They will tell you that if you do not make a tiny cut on your private parts that you will be too wild, dirty, impure, promiscuous and too much to handle. They will say that childhood is the time to enjoy sugar and all other kinds of poisons, forgetting that you will have to grow from these substances. They will keep you out of the sun because a tan makes you dark and therefore ugly. They will keep you from cycling because riding a bicycle will make you lose your virginity, and from swimming because you have to wear tight-fitting clothes.

I want you to know that only you control your own body. They will tell you that if someone touches you, it must be your fault because you did not wear enough clothes. They will tell you that it must have been something you said or you did that gave them the impression that they could take something that did not belong to them.

I will keep you unaware, for as long as I can, of the perversions that men and women will impose on you. They will tell you that your sexless childish body cannot swim in a bikini, dance in a leotard, run on the beach topless, or jump in the sea naked. They will tell you that you cannot bathe naked with your younger brother, who has a body equally sexless. They will use the same reason to prevent you two from sharing a room. They will frown if you expose your childish legs or shoulders at home. They think that if they don't police you now, you will get used to being immodest and will stay like so until you are old.

Most importantly, I want you to love seeking knowledge and to be able to think critically and carefully about anything and everything because nothing is unquestionable. They will send you to school, but because they are not ready to listen to a woman ask questions and do things in ways other than how they have always been done, they will say you are too educated. They will want that which is sacred and holy to them to be equally sacred and holy and unquestionable to you.

I want your soul to shine as bright as it was created to be.

Love,
Mama

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Disabled Muslims need more than du’a to overcome mosque barriers


This article was originally posted on Aquila Style and slightly edited for Muslimah Media Watch.

A video that emphasises the determination and willpower of a disabled person overlooks the need for institutions to adopt more inclusive policies.

Arif Ali/AFP

“How is your situation with attending the mosque?” begins a video by Kuwaiti preacher Mishary Al-Kharaz, before he introduces us to his “friend in Yemen”.

The video shows Kamal, a young man with a “handicap”, as he enters a mosque, prays sitting on a chair and then goes up to the second floor after the maghrib prayer to attend a Qur’an memorisation class.

All this despite the fact that he walks with difficulty on level flooring, has to crawl up the stairs, and struggles to recite Qur’anic verses as his voice is unclear. He also has to depend on someone to walk him home from the mosque with the help of a lamp as nights get totally dark there and there are no streetlights.


Judging by the comments on the video in my social media feeds, there is an outpouring of sympathy for Kamal. People make du’a for him because he has to expend much more energy to worship, and he does even more than the average able-bodied person.

However, I think the video was made mostly to make able-bodied people feel guilty if they don’t pray five times a day in the mosque. The video misses out on the structural barriers faced by disabled people – especially in Yemen – such as the lack of affordable and suitable wheelchairs (or other kinds of supportive equipment), the lack of lifts in buildings, and the seemingly ambivalent attitude of the other Muslims around him (why is the Qur’an memorisation class still held on the second storey and not moved to the first?)

The video also does nothing to raise awareness about those similar to Kamal, as he is described simply as someone with a “handicap”. In fact, he has cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects movement, coordination, hearing, sight and learning to various degrees. While there is no cure, it can be improved through medication or therapy.

What about other kinds of “handicaps”? What about those who require ramps or lifts to enter the mosque, Braille Qur’ans or sign language for sermons?

While the video commendably address the issue of accessibility in the mosques for the disabled, it does so from a male perspective. What if Kamal were Kamila: as a woman would she be able to even enter the mosque? And if she could, would she have a decent prayer space, be able to hear the sermon, and have access to Qur’an classes? In some smaller mosques in Singapore, for example, women are told to avoid the mosque during Friday prayers (although larger mosques may set aside a smaller space for them).

A sign found in Singapore’s Sultan Mosque encouraging fit and able-bodied women to use the second floor.

If Kamila were allowed access to this Yemeni mosque, where would her praying space be? In Singapore (and many other places), many of the women’s spaces are a floor or two above the main prayer hall. Without a lift, would Kamila have to crawl up the stairs every time she came to pray? In recent years, a historic mosque in Singapore has taken into account the needs of their aging congregation: a new tent-like space has been reserved on the main floor for women who are not able to climb the stairs to the second floor.

Surely we cannot continue to emphasise an individual’s determination in the face of barriers. We must take into account that disability and gender come together to produce unique sites of oppression. And mosques need to change to accommodate their congregation, too. 

Otherwise, who is the mosque for but only able-bodied men?

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