A letter, from the heart, to my secular friends
It is the winning of the religious Islamic party Hamas in the Palestinian elections that actually prompted this dialogue; it all started with my response to my dear friend Greg’s response to an article I sent to him.
Gradually, I felt the need to shed some light on certain issues. Hence I felt the urge to start writing.
I will try to focus on issues within Islam that I believe are seriously misunderstood by non-Muslims. Some of these issues have surfaced through the apparent understandable anxiety of my dear atheist friends in their initial reaction to Hamas’s victory.
But before I start defending Islam or talking about God; please don’t ever think that I am trying to preach or convert anyone here. I really don’t like preaching or moralising, as I am absolutely terrified of saying things and failing to live up to them. Also I am petrified of the deadly disease “I am right and all others are wrong”… (I mean…arrogance) creeping in causing a real downfall of morality and forming a barrier to understanding.
Therefore I welcome with an open heart all responses and criticisms to my letter, as this will only help me understand and appreciate the views of others. Also at this point I’d like to ask you to persevere with me as I appreciate that the topic that I’m discussing might not be one of your favourites!
Here and now, I just am, I try to live what I believe; however, when my faith is misunderstood I feel the need to try to clarify it, because my faith (like many Muslims) means everything to me. Simply and frankly my faith is my only reason for….being. Otherwise I would have been gone long ago.
(Even though- I have to admit- deep down in the bottom of my soul I’d like everyone to experience and enjoy the feeling of closeness to God; purely because there is nothing, no joy, no happiness, no pleasure that can be compared to it. It’s really the ultimate bliss … it is heaven). But anyway that is not why I am writing. I will start by explaining the core of the Islamic faith, by that I mean the belief in God. And here, I am going to draw on my own personal experience just to give you a taste of the magnitude and importance of the concept of God in the Islamic society.
I started asking questions and thinking about the world and later on about my very own existence, and about God, at a very young age. As a toddler I was fascinated by my surroundings, the trees, birds, flowers, people, but more so the sky, how vast! How beautiful! How perfect! It was always urging me to look at it, at first to admire and then to question.
As I grew older my fascination grew deeper, I started to look for meanings and explanations, trying to make sense of what’s around me. “What is all this? … Why is all this? … Who am I? … Do I really exist? … How and why can I comprehend the fact that I exist? …. Why am I here? … What is the purpose of my life?”
Endless questions burned in my little head.
I thought and contemplated for many years; and while many of my friends were playing I used to be drawn into this world of mine searching for meanings and answers. The only valid explanation for me was that there must be a perfect designer, a mastermind, an intelligent power behind all. If anything is to have any meaning at all; this was the only conclusion that I always arrived at. Later on, and as I went through certain experiences I came to feel God in the real sense. God was as real -if not more- than my own reality.
If faith and the concept of God provides a logical explanation to my existence, and if it helps me understand myself and the world around me in a rational manner, if it can give me a sense of fulfilment, contentment and satisfaction, if it enables me to survive adversities of life with minimum trauma and more patience, grace and sanity, if it fills my soul with love, joy, peace and tranquillity, if it makes life more fun, more enjoyable and my experiences more real and intense; then how and why should I complain?
After all, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain.
As far as I know, no one can prove that God does not exist, logically, there is a possibility no matter how slim -or huge- that there is a God, if that is the case; I through my faith would have lived a happier life and most likely a happier after-life.
It’s a win-win situation! My logic concluded.
As a teenager I started looking into different religions, I read about all major religions and for a while I was attracted to many concepts of Buddhism, but Islam appealed to my reason and intellect more. It made more sense because of the utter simplicity, clarity, and its ability to unite the seemingly contradictory concepts such as: faith and knowledge, mind and soul, science and religion, material and spiritual, logic and emotion, political and moral, economic and ethical. Everything just blends so effortlessly, smoothly and beautifully.
Moving from the personal to the general, many young people in Islamic and non-Islamic societies go through similar experiences, those who embark on the path of searching for God, or start a journey of hunting for meanings of their lives find in Islam a revolutionary way of thinking. It demands a reformed way of living and working for a better world, an ideal world.
The emphases on equality, liberation, and social justice are also landmarks that can’t be missed by the seeker. Hence faith becomes inseparable from the daily life of Muslims. Faith is life.
We surrender to the sword of Islam; that irresistible, most tender sword that strikes the mind, invades the heart, and captures the soul.
That’s maybe why Islam-despite the very negative publicity- is still the fastest growing religion in the world.
God is central:
Is it not only reasonable then to assume that secular ideology might not fulfil the needs of a deeply religious society; God lies at the core of the society of faith, while denying God is an essential part of the secular.
Most socio-dynamics in an Islamic society stems from that belief; starting with God-man relationship, ending with man-nature relationship, including all what is in-between, i.e. the boundaries of personal freedoms, and extents of responsibilities in the man-man relationship.
That is not to say that it is a rigid society; on the contrary, in fact flexibility and ongoing debates to advance understanding and tolerance are well noticeable characteristics within those societies. There is no hierarchy system in Islam so that it allows every knowledgeable, educated Muslim to become part of and to openly contribute to these ongoing debates.
Another very important point here is the fact that within Islam there are main beliefs and ethics that all Muslims agree with such as belief in God, equality, justice for all, and brotherhood of mankind, also there are differences that stem from man’s understanding, interpretation and adoption of ideas that are deemed to be of less importance, and that can be employed in specific cultures for their own specific needs.
It’s very important to notice here that many cultural practices might be the cause of wrongly condemning Islam, yet Islam’s teachings might oppose explicitly these practices. What comes to mind here is the example of forced marriage in the Pakistani culture that is in total contradiction with the most explicit teaching of Islam.
Religion and the state:
It might be true that if a religious ideology actually takes state power it can lead to corruption and abuse, but that’s not unique to religious ideologies alone; It also includes secular ideologies, communist ideologies, and most obvious capitalist ideology…etc. We all remember the Soviet Union and the persecution of all religious minorities; secular France and the ill treatment of its ethnic minorities…etc. It is presumptuous to say that if a religious ideology takes state power that it will inevitably oppress and dominate with dictatorship and violence. Any leadership, regardless of ethnic or religious ideologies, can fall victim to the corrupting force of power. Why is there a need to single out religious ideologies as the factor most likely to lead to corruption and dictatorship?
Some people might give the example of Israel as a proof of the corruption and immorality of religious states. Israel is truly a state for Jews but I am not sure at all that it’s a religious state, there are religious political parties but as I understand it they are a minority, the vast majority of Jewish people in “Israel” are non-religious, secular, and atheists (according to their own research).
Also when Zionists abuse the fact that Jewish people are entrusted with a great message to all mankind and use it for their own self-interest, it’s not the fault of the message, the messenger nor the faith that they should become selfish, arrogant, greedy and exclusive that they want the land only for themselves.
When some Christians use the pure message of love taught by Jesus (peace be upon him) to justify the crusades or the invasion of Iraq or Iran, it’s hardly the fault of Jesus is it?
Muslims behaving badly:
Coming back to Islam, when Osama Bin Laden for example uses the Quran’s permission of self defence, to justify his deeds, and his hatred for Western hypocrisy and injustice, its surely not the fault of the Quran where in it there are indeed verses that talk about self defence, but very clearly and undoubtedly emphasizing that we should never aggress or transgress.
“O believers, be you guardians of justice, witness for God. Let not your dislike for a people move you away from being equitable; be equitable – that is nearer to being God-conscious.” (5:8)
“To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight back), because they are wronged; and verily, God is most powerful for their aid; (They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right, (for no cause) except that they say, our Lord is God”. (22:39-40)
“God commands justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and antagonism: He instructs you, that ye may be reminded.” (16-90)
“No soul shall be made to bear the burden of another.” (35:18)
“The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God; for ((God)) loveth not those who are wrong-doers”. (42:40)
“Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not initiate aggression. God does not love transgressors.” (2.190)
“If they seek peace, then seek you peace. And trust in God for He is the One that heareth and knoweth all things.” (8.61)
“Ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the desires (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do. Thus, have We made of you a nation justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves.” (2-143)
“Show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant.” (7:199)
“It may well be that God will bring about love (and friendship) between you and those with whom you are now at odds.” (60:7)
Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him, once famously declared “Verily I was sent to this World to define (and live by) the Generous Temperament.” According to him, the codes of Generous Temperament (makarem elakhlaq) are seven: “Pardoning those who have oppressed you, Giving to those who have deprived you, Connecting with those who have shunned you, Benefiting those who have abused you, Counselling those who have deceived you, Forgiving those who have maligned you, Forbearing with those who have angered you.”
The root of the word Islam is Salam, which is one of the Holy Names of God. Salam is Arabic for Peace. The meaning of the word Islam is beautiful as Islam is Arabic for bring into Peace.
The word Salam is used for greeting others. Saying “as’Salam alaikum” to someone means “Peace be upon you!” When a Muslim greets another person with “Peace be upon you,” the greeter is in fact proclaiming a contract of Peace with the other person. Hence, if the greeter has non-peaceful intentions towards the other person, he would be engaging in hypocrisy, which is one of the Major Sins in Islam!
When a Muslim greets another Muslim person with “as’Salam alaykum,” it becomes obligatory for the other person to respond to the greeter and complete the contract with “wa’alaikum as’Salam,” which is Arabic for “and upon you may Peace be.”
Based on the teaching of Muhammad, the practice of Islam, the Religion of Peace, revolves primarily around the codes of the Generous and Benevolent Temperament. Applying the codes of the Generous Temperament is called in Arabic –Jihad al-Akbar (Higher Struggle) -which is the Major Struggle in the never ending inner war against one’s arrogance, greed, and selfishness.
It’s not the fault of the teaching when some people’s minds are poisoned with feelings of injustice, humility, and helplessness that lead them to inflect harm upon others. It’s not the ideology that drives people to do wrong; rather it’s their limited, imperfect interpretation that is tainted with their personal experiences, psychological tendencies, circumstances and human flaws and imperfections.
But in all honesty and from my experience working with secular people as yourselves (I’m referring here to my friends members of Liverpool Friends of Palestine) I found in all of you a God-centre-ness that is lacking in many people of faith. By that I mean within you my dear wonderful friends – that I grew to admire and love so much – there is a noble driving force towards justice equality and perfection, there shines within you a desire to establish an utopian society, a thirst for the ideal ultimate good; and from my humble perception I can only see the divine within you even though you might not recognise it and even deny it.
By the divine within you I mean: In Islam man is created in the image of God (not at all in the physical sense, as God is Unique, and there is nothing like unto Him/Her as God has no gender, God is above all our perceptions). It means that our innate nature is modelled to long and desire to live by God’s attributes and characteristics, to long for perfection for God is Perfection. To long for justice; for God is Justice. To long for love; as God is Love. To long for peace; for God is Peace…etc. So your innate nature is so pure, unspoiled, and well-preserved that you are yearning and working to live by those Godly attributes.
Democracy and Freedom of choice:
Back to the Palestinian issue, if the world’s support for human rights in Palestine is conditional and dependent on the Palestinians denouncing their religion and ideological beliefs, cultural heritage, and social traditions and adopting a new set of beliefs, alien values and social behaviours that matches what it deems acceptable (i.e. extramarital relationships, homosexuality, prostitutes, etc…); that means the world is denying them a most basic human right, the right to think, and live within a chosen ethical code.
We have to come to common grounds of accepting that each culture and civilization has its own unique structure that depends very much on a huge heritage and millennia of accumulated experiences, understanding this and respecting it is vital for the future peaceful existence of human race. Trying to standardise and sum up humanity in the form of Western civilisation is a grave mistake. We can’t simply assume that what is good and right for western culture is the norm, nor we can accept that it is superior to that of other cultures, and for me this is a BASIC HUMAN RIGHT.
So please don’t panic if the whole of the Muslim world choses at any point in the future to live by its Islamic values.
“And their affairs are (conducted) through consultation among themselves.” (42:38)
You can start panicking if they start treating people with injustice and began oppressing and abusing their power; in that eventuality I’ll be panicking with you and campaigning with you to stop the injustice and oppression; as it’s a well known Islamic principal that it is better to live under a JUST NON-ISLAMIC GOV. or leadership than living under a corrupt Islamic one.
Please remember that what might seem to the outsider as restrictive in our Islamic culture is viewed from within as constructive and that’s simply because we have the family’s best interest at the heart of society, and we put it before the individual, without ignoring the rights of the individual. Our society is not the sum of the individuals, rather it’s a very strong network of families and extended families, the result is very well-bonded social fabric. We also see that we are all born free but our freedom ends where and when the freedom of the other starts. If we choose freely to have some restriction upon ourselves (like modest dress code, abstinence from consuming alcohol or self-discipline in sexual behaviour) in order to have better human relationships what harm is there in that? Islamic society is not a selfish one.
Freedom of speech: Another aspect that might worry you is “freedom of speech and expression”. Again I can reassure you that it is granted through Islamic teachings, but it should not be abused as it is in some places, if freedom of speech will bring lies, slander or insults to create a society where rudeness is celebrated, lies are acceptable, and harassment is tolerable, then I can tell you now that it’s a freedom not welcomed by Muslims. We appreciate all forms of freedom of speech and expression as long as it does not transgress over the freedom of the other and within the framework of intellectual debates and honest research of truth and mutual respect of all.
Privacy is protected:
“Do not enter any houses unless you are sure of their occupant’s consent.” (24:27)
“O ye who believe! Let not some men among you make fun of others: It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): Nor let some women make fun of others: It may be that the (latter are better than the (former): Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed: And those who do not desist are (indeed) doing wrong.” (49:11)
“O ye who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible): for suspicion in some cases is a sin: And spy not on each, nor speak ill of each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, ye would abhor it…But be God-conscious. For God is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.” (49:12)
“O ye, who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done.” (49:6)
In summary: “O ye, who believe, do not let one (set of) people make fun of another set. Do not defame one another. Do not insult by using nicknames. Do not spy on one another. Do not backbite or speak ill of one another.” (49:11-12)
Minorities: In our Islamic heritage we have so much to ensure the rights of all minority groups; it’s a matter of uncovering, reclaiming and reactivating that legacy that has been frozen for many centuries.
In a Muslim society the minority groups are referred to as ahl eldhimmeh, a foreigner living in a Muslim land is called: dhimmi which means in Arabic the protected: under my dhimmeh, means under my protection that might give us a gesture of the importance of protecting and looking after minorities in a Muslim society.
A well-known saying of the prophet “Who ever harms a dhimmi harms me personally.”
I have to point out that one of the major concepts in Islam is that there is “no compulsion in religion or ideology” (2:256). And remember that throughout history, minorities of all ethnic, religious, and ideological background have lived peacefully in Muslim lands enjoying full rights and responsibilities. A glaring example is the Christian community living in Palestine for centuries with full rights. The keys of the Church of Resurrection are still entrusted to a Muslim family who look after the church. That was the Christian’s choice to reduce the tension between different Christian sects.
“O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honoured of you in God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (49.13)
Much of the unnatural hostility that we see in the news today stems from yet again the frustration of many ignorant young Muslims who are aggravated by the injustice inflected upon their brothers and sisters by the west in many parts of the world.
Economy, between socialism and capitalism: According to Muslim economists, Islam offers a highly developed system of wealth distribution that if applied can potentially eliminate poverty and prevent the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, yet it doesn’t deprive the individual from attaining some rewards for his/her creativity and hard work. It strikes the balance between selfish capitalism and unrealistic altruistic communism. Having the financial world wrapped in ethical and moral practices bridges the gap between the rich and the poor, and leads to a more just and stable society. Also it’s a system that has at its core the concept of zero interest.
“God will deprive usury of all blessing, but will give increase for deeds of charity: For He loveth not creatures ungrateful and wicked. Those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, and establish regular prayers and regular charity, will have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. O ye who believe! Be God-conscious, and give up what remains of your demand for usury, if ye are indeed believers.” (2: 276-278)
“And from within their wealth there is acknowledged right for the needy and the destitute.” (51:19)
“If the debtor is in a difficulty, grant him time till it is easy for him to repay. But if ye remit it by way of charity, that is best for you if ye only knew.” (2:280)
“Woe to those that deal in fraud, Those who, when they have to receive by measure from men, exact full measure, But when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due. Do they not think that they will be called to account?” (83:1-4)
The Prophet has said:
“He is not a believer who eats his fill when his neighbour beside him is hungry”; and: “He does not believe whose neighbours are not safe from his injurious conduct.”
Why don’t we see this happening now in Islamic societies? It is not happening because we don’t really have a proper Islamic society. What we have are puppet governments that have no interest in applying Islam, because their interests will be severely jeopardised if Islamic principals are to be applied. And as a whole, Muslim societies generally speaking make most of the “developed” world that was and still is the battlefield of the capitalist imperialist world. Also illiteracy is still very high in those countries, and understanding and living by Islam is not possible with lack of knowledge. That also might explain the lack of practice of Islamic principles in many Muslim societies and the absence of various original values in the daily life of many Muslims today. Despite that fact there is still so much intuitive genuine love and admiration for Islamic principals and for its prophet and teacher Muhammed even in those societies.
Women’s issues: If your worry is about discrimination against women under Islamic societies, and the anticipation that women will be forced to cover their heads or will be prevented from driving; we ought to be far more worried and in fact alarmed by Secular France’s real actions when forcing Muslim women to take their head scarves off or be banned from work and education. I wonder which of these cases deserves our attention. And which of the two cases requires our campaign to protect the human rights and freedom of choice of women?
Freedoms and equality are not necessarily granted under secular regimes: Secular Tunisia, France, and Turkey all prohibit Muslim women from exercising their freedom of choosing to wear a head cover in work places, schools and universities.Islam clearly values and protects women’s rights, if you’re still not sure, some research might be worth doing. And please do not rely in your research about Islam solely on the media, because just as they have given a one-sided view on the Palestinian-Israeli problem, they give – to a greater extent – a misinformed view on Islam. (Remember to include Muslim women’s views in your request for truth).
“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily, to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions”. (16-97)
When talking about women’s rights, again we – Muslims – must be allowed to deal with the ills of our societies in our own way, own time, and through our own research; all we need is time to transfer the inherited fundamental values into the realm of understanding and then practice. No one should try to impose any pre-tried solutions upon us, because your problems are different, your history is different, your present is different, and your attitudes are different…
Women in Europe needed to rebel and go through their feminists’ struggle to gain some rights and some freedoms, that doesn’t imply that we should take a carbon copy of their experience and transfer it to the rest of the world.
We have a different history and different reality; at the time of the peak of oppression of women in Europe; Muslim women were prominent figures of society, scholars teaching in major mosques and universities, doctors, poets…etc.
We appreciate that – like all societies – we have problems, some small and some big; how we choose to resolve these problems however should be entirely ours, it should not be forced upon us.
The relationship between western feminists and fellow men is one of competitiveness and confrontation, not in our society though… we like to deal with men in a less aggressive way, and we see them as companions, brothers, husbands, and friends. When they transgress we like to be more wise and gentle in bringing them back to their senses.
Western feminists in the past tried solving their problems through the approach that the only way to be equal to men is to be like men, act like a man, dress like a man; from our perspective this is the big downfall of the feminists in the west. They couldn’t hold on to their own femininity in their struggle, without realizing that by doing so they were saying that men are better.
It has been pointed out to me however that many feminists today do not hold the above views as a way of women’s liberation, and that they realise that they don’t need to change at all as women, because they don’t have a problem (good for them). It is men who have the problem. That might be true, but again from an Islamic perspective men and women are humans, both have the vulnerability of falling prey to inflicting injustice, and mistreating of each other, man may be to a greater extent (because he is physically stronger – but not necessarily emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually – stronger).
If one party is guilty of injustice we can find a means of solving the conflict through education and dialogue. The main idea is that we are not enemies of men, we are their complementary partners and twin-halves.
“The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity, and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His mercy: for God is Exalted in power, Wise.” (9:71)
“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.” ( 3-124)
“Then shall anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good, see it! And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of evil, shall see it.”(99:7-8)
“It is He Who created you from a single soul, and made its mate of like nature, in order that he might dwell with her (in love).” (7:189)
“For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for truthful 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 God’s praise; for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33:35)
Please note, the numbers after some quotations are their correspondence verses from the Qur’an.
Beyond the veil
My modest dress that you see
As a sign of oppression
Is for me the symbol of ultimate liberation
It urges you to look beyond the veil
To peel the skin
To peep through the physical
The limited… the confined
Straight into the essence
The infinite … the boundless
It’s a glaring statement
I am more than just a body
I am a mind… a heart… and a soul
Don’t just stop there
At the door… come in
Get to know me
For what I really am
It gives me contentment
And great satisfaction
With my femininity
It gives me dignity
As I refuse to be portrayed
As a sex object
It gives me privacy and protection
From all undesired attention
For my intimacy I only share
With the one I love
Does that make any sense to you?
You might or might not see this (below) as relevant to what we are talking about but I think it is relevant:
Anarchism can coexist beautifully along with supreme order, and that’s actually what’s happening in the model of the universe, beneath all the apparent chaos that we see there are mathematical laws that govern all.
The universe is built upon two major concepts:
Balance and harmony and that translate in human terms as justice and peace.
Symmetry and repetition don’t exist in the universe, heterogeneous societies and unique beings are the equivalent of that in human life.
The second law of thermodynamics, energy moves in one direction, so should wealth in human civilisation.
Just like the cosmos from the smallest of its particles to the largest, we can only experience absolute freedom only when living in utter surrender.
Beauty is an original quality of the universe, morality and kind deeds are the translation in human language.
The continuous eternal dance of subatomic particles between existence and annihilation resembles our experience of nearness and remoteness from The One Most Loving.
The motivator of all movement and action in both the universe and human life, and what lies at the core and essence of both is pure unconditional love.
With all my love Nahida
Nahida Izzat was born in a village northwest of Jerusalem (Beit Exa). She became a refugee during the Six Day War in 1967 and currently lives with her husband and three children in England. She has a university degree in Mathematics.