by Haroon Siddiqui
Being Muslim is a short book which introduces the reader to the Muslim world: its politics, its social position in Europe, its primary faith, its relationship with women, explanations of Jihad and terrorism and its future.
This very informative book is written in a positive and constructive way. There is no proselytizing, no indoctrinating, no promoting for the sake of conversion. It is simply a book that educates the reader about the Muslim world. It is a pleasure to read because Siddiqui never brow beats so that his point is accepted. More often, he simply lays out a fact, which can be authenticated easily via an Internet search.
Haroon Siddiqui has been a journalist writing for the Toronto Star. His professionalism shines through brightly throughout the entire book. He describes, analyses for clarification and elucidation but he never preaches or forces a point on the reader. It is simply, “Here is the fact [usually reinforced with data]. Accept it or reject it as you wish.”
Muslims have a very rich history and wear it with pride but today, according to Siddiqui, they are under siege. They are viewed in a dark light because of crimes and hate filled acts committed in various parts of the world, usually sensationalized by the media with the detrimental effects on the Muslim world. Western government policies have reacted to the various news events by legislating and developing policies which reflect an anti-Muslim stance.
Societies have responded in similar ways when violent terrorism has occurred. There is a negative response, a rejection of Muslims and even reciprocal violence and vandalism against Muslims and their religious institutions. Right wing extremists in government, in politics and in the media, have resorted to unjustified universal criticism and condemnation of Muslims everywhere. This Islamophobia is a worldwide response and often times, it crosses the line into outright, open bigotry.
Siddiqui further explains that verbalized misconceptions by western political leaders has further developed the anti-Muslim attitude in society. He quotes American leaders such as John Kerry and George Bush, men of influence and power.
Muslims have a history of persecution and antagonism. It was reinforced with international changes forced on the world after World War I and again after WWII. The effects of these changes remain today but continue to worsen because of economic woes in many countries, because of conflict and ongoing military struggles in many parts of the world and because of the growth of right wing populism in political philosophies.
Many Muslims have sought refuge and escape in the faith. Islam has become a haven of spiritual revival and psychological respite. Feeling abandoned and persecuted, many Muslims have sought refuge in religion. Hence, Islam is growing worldwide.
Some however, have found action more attractive than prayer. Continuously oppressed by right wing politicians, by sensationalist media, the young men and women turn more and more to terrorism and violence as methods of retaliation. These activities add fuel to the fire of Islamophobia. Rich fields for extremists within the Muslim world to plant their seeds of agitation, insurgence and terror and as Islam does not have a hierarchical structure like the Church of Rome or the Church of England. Radicalize youth joining the factions led by extremists like Bin Laden is understandable and without a universal leader, anyone can don the mantle of leadership.
Europe is undergoing tremendous social and economic upheavals because of conflicts which have or are taking place in countries such a Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and many more. The pressure of huge numbers of refugees has put tremendous pressure on many European countries trying to cope with the influx of so many immigrants seeking asylum and protection. The economic repercussions of this social upheaval have been a horrendous challenge. Unemployment is a pan-European problem as the flow of new people continues relentlessly and Muslims suffer the same woes of unemployment.
Muslims suffer even more because of the social responses to the new migration, racism and bigotry. Blaming the migrants for the economic problem in Western Europe is easy to do. Someone is to blame for the economic problems. The new immigrants are the easiest target. The societies react and respond too readily to the new refugees. They see the many homeless, poverty stricken, unemployed youth in their cities and easily jump to blaming them as the cause of the declining condition within their countries. Xenophobia, racism and bigotry are not gigantic leaps.
Rushdie, Van Gogh Cartoons
As Siddiqui examines the events in Europe which eventually led to greater negative responses to Muslims and practitioners of Islam. He deals with Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, the Van Gogh documentary which slandered Islam, the Danish publisher, Jyllands-Posten, which published cartoons mocking Muslims and depicting the prophet as a terrorist with bulging eyes and a bomb-shaped turban with a burning fuse. Siddiqui writes with conviction when he comments on freedom of speech and the need for defending it. However, it points out that this defence must be applied universally, and not solely in relation to Muslims and Islam. Hate speech lacks boundaries; defence against it should be afforded the same universality. Siddiqui how Denmark particularly opposed to Muslims with quotes from an executive editor of Jyllands-Posten to quotes by Queen Margrethe and PM Rasmussen. He concludes the European examination with,
“How the West conducts itself towards Muslims is a test of pluralistic civility, cosmopolitan collectivity and the most fundamental principles of democracy.”
The Hijab debate
It’s a simple scarf used in the practice of Islam by women. Throughout time, the hijab has evoked a broad range of emotional reactions which have vacillated in numerous directions and to various levels of acceptability.
The other garment which evokes varied reactions is the head to toe garment some women wear, the burqa.
Next Siddiqui deals with the five pillars of Islam: declaration of faith, daily prayer, charity, fasting and the Haj [pilgrimage to Mecca.] He draws the inevitable comparisons with other religions though he takes care to differentiate important aspects of Islam like the importance of the mosque beyond being just a place of worship. To Muslims, the mosque is much like the country church was to rural Christians in bygone eras, a place to meet, a place to socialize and a place of community friendship. The mosque is all that and more as large mosques usually also have mortuaries.
Halal and Haram
The practitioners of Islam have a code of ethics by which to live, what is permitted or lawful, the halal and what is not permitted or unlawful, the haram. But there seems to be a rule of flexibility within Islam where the rules by which they live can be overruled or ‘broken’ depending on circumstances. For example, the haj is not forced on those who are unable to do a pilgrimage due to illness or economic conditions; prayer five times a day can be reduced if the conditions preclude a prayer being competed at any particular time. The religion seems to have a degree of flexibility and bending to accommodate real life conditions.
The Qur’an may be the most revered book in the world. It certainly is the most recited. Interestingly, the Qur’an is written in verse format, like a series of poems or verses of poetry. A ‘rap’ singer would find this sacred book very appealing as it is like reciting rap verses. In fact, because of this special format, the Qur’an is more easily memorized than other books. Additionally, and again because of its format, reciting verses from the Qur’an can be very much like meditation, comforting, reassuring and maybe even soothing.
Muslims believe in the Christian figures as being prophets, indviduals like Jesus Christ, Abraham and Moses. However, the final prophet is Muhammad who they cherish and honour but do not adore as he is not God, the claim Christians make about Christ.
Siddiqui closes the last parts of his excellent book on being Muslim with many sayings authored by Muhammad. It is interesting to see that references to violence and killing are extremely rare in the Qur’an and where they are used, they basically justify such extreme acts as other faiths do, that it can be justified based on the need to defend one’s self and/or one’s family. The Qur’an does not preach or advocate acts of extremism as are popularly held erroneously by some non-Muslims.
An entire chapter is devoted to explaining and examining the status and role of women in the Muslim world. The prevailing attitudes in the Western world about women in the Muslim world is that they are second class citizens who are subordinated to the men. Siddiqui states that the opposite is true philosophically with Muslims. Women are totally equal to men. Any inequality or misogynistic status us culturally based and absorbed from the cultural influences to which the Muslims have been exposed. Misogyny exists across many cultures in the world and understandably these cultures influence the Muslim attitudes.
No where in the Qur’an is there a claim that one gender is superior or inferior to the other. In fact, the Qur’an claims total gender equality and Muslims have practiced this equality anywhere where cultural influences have been suppressed or held in check compared to the Islamic philosophies.
There has been disagreement in interpretation of the Qur’an in reference to physical suppression of women. Muhammad never beat his wives and campaigned vigorously against such abuse. Muslim mistreatment of women exists, not because of some sort of theological or philosophical justification but for the same reasons that spousal abuse in other societies and other cultures.
Another form of abuse of women is the killing of women for sexual misconduct. Again, there is no philosophical justification or rationale for such abuse in Islam. However, the abuse exists in countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan and Israeli-occupied Territories. Again, the abuse is culturally based in these societies.
No mention of this is in the Qur’an. It is an African tradition which some early Islam scholars had accepted. In the 1990’s, Islam scholars joined the ban of this practice.
Adultery and stoning
The Qur’an does not condone the practice of stoning adulteresses. However, it does prescribe harsh punishment for violators of both sexes. Because many Muslims live in patriarchal societies, women often suffer unfair or unequal punishment compared to men.
Monogamy is the norm among Muslims. However, the Qur’an writes that “men may marry more than once if they can treat the wives equally, which they cannot.”
Divorce & child custody
Marriage is a civil contract in Islam. Hence, divorce is permitted on certain grounds such as incompatibility, cruelty, adultery, injustice and insanity.
The husband must pay a support fee, mehr, to the woman.
Children under 7 are given to the mother for care; beyond that age, the children may choose the parent with whom they wish to live.
There is some discrepancy on the issue of marriage with a non-Muslim. Men are permitted to do so, women are not. But this issue is being discussed among the scholars now with many supporting universal permission for both men and women.
Qur’an and Hijab
The majority of Muslim women do not wear it. It is more of a cultural practice to assist in the segregation of the community in the mosque, or in general.
Muhammad and women
The prophet respected women and urged that they be treated fairly and equally. He married a number of wives, each of whom was a widow at the time of his marriage to them.
Sharia and women
During history prior to Muhammad, women were treated equally. But as Muslims integrated more and more with other cultures, patriarchal ones, women became increasing subordinate in status. It is an internal struggle within Islam where the modernists clash with fundamentalists on the issue. However, the Qur’an does not say anything about women being subordinated to men.
Islam and Feminism
This issue is an ongoing debate in the Muslim world. The clash is cultural rather than theological whereby many cultures in the world treat women as insubordinates while many other cultures view this as unfair inequality. The status of women seems to depend on the which culture dominates the society in question.
Jihad and Terrorism
Jihad means struggle and can refer to personal, political and religious struggles for the individual Muslim.
Personal struggles are struggles with worldly temptations. Every Muslim is exposed to certain and ongoing temptations varying from the sexual to the physical. Each Muslim must contend and deal with these personal struggles as they see fit.
The political and religious struggles are less clearly delineated. These are cultural struggles and each Muslim struggles with defending Islam against outside influence which could diminish the faith.
Western media has influenced the Western view where Islam has been labelled as being violent, led by terrorists. Many Muslims claim that Islam is a religion of peace and they resent that Islamophobes and anti-Muslims are twisting its position to suit their disparate agendas.
Qur’an and Jihad
The Qur’an is often misquoted or quoted incorrectly or quoted inadequately.
The basic philosophy the Qur’an has about Jihad is that Muslims have a right to defend their faith when persecuted. The Qur’an was revealed during a time when religious warfare, as well as political military conflicts were the norm of everyday life. With time, the philosophy of peace began to supplant that of any kind of violent defense. “Islam, like all world religions, neither supports nor requires illegitimate violence.”
Islam forbids suicide. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad prohibited suicide. The suicide bombings which have occurred throughout the world can be ascribed to radicalization of the suicide bombers to political terrorist philosophies not to the doctrines of Islam.
Jihad and martyrdom
Martyrdom seems to be a somewhat tainted or corrupted ideal. Martyrs are celebrated by most religions. Paradise as a reward is also a common view in many religions. Siddiqui generalizes with this issue. He quibbles with how the Qur’an writes about the number of virgins that will be the reward of the martyr. He notes that other cultures have used suicide martyrs without the same negativity which is given to Muslims. Additionally, he points out that suicide martyrs are a fairly recent phenomenon and also that if men are drawn to this act, what is the draw for women who are not assigned the same reward according to the scriptures. An interesting and perhaps valid question.
Jihad is a rallying cry for practitioners of Islam; it is a struggle to overcome evil. It is a personal battle to conquer temptations. But it also is meant to be a call to defense against oppression, occupation and persecution. Where it has moved into the more violent world of terrorism and violent acts, this can be credited to the extremists and the radicalize such as Bin Laden and opponents of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Jihad is not a religious battle cry for violent opposition to the West, or any other society.
The response to Muslim and Islam seems to vacillate from one response to another, from one culture to another, from one society to another. Such is life and this continuously changing response and its degrees of intensity may fluctuate for a very long time. The Muslim world holds no anger or hatred for other societies. It is a proponent of peaceful coexistence and asks it be accorded reciprocal dealing.
Like other faiths, it struggles with internal factions which divide it, fundamentalists and liberals. It has extreme factions, the proponents of terror, extremism and violence. These are not supported actions of the majority.
The West needs to reassess its position and how it views the Muslim and Islam world. Terms such as “political Islam,” “extreme Islam,” “Islamism,” “Islamic extremism” and such need to be re-examined and reviewed as to appropriateness for Islam has become a dirty word in the West.
The defensive posture taken on by Islam practitioners is understandable given the connotation of the word Islam in the west. Democracy is growing among the Muslims of the world. The autocratic governments of the past are being rejected. The roots of liberalism and equality of all are growing deeper in the Muslim world. Social and religious revolution are underway.
Era of hope
Siddiqui ends with a message of hope, a declaration that the Muslim world is very aware of its position in the world and it is acting in positive and constructive ways to improve conditions for Muslims and practitioners of Islam.
“A congenitally optimistic Canadian I may be, but as a journalist tethered to reality, I can say with some confidence that we may, at last, be on the cusp of a new era of understanding.”
I concur and add that it is incumbent on all Canadians to open ourselves to learning about other cultures whenever and wherever the opportunities present themselves.