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Reflecting on life as a British Muslim in a secular liberal democracy
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Hagia Sophia: Mosque or Museum?

11 July, 2020 - 00:04

One of the most memorable highlights of all my visits to Istanbul over the years has always been the time spent in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) museum. First founded as a Christian cathedral in 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad al-Fatih in 1453. In 1934, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire some years earlier and the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey, President Ataturk issued a decree reclassifying Hagia Sophia as a museum. Alongside the Topkapi Museum, the Hagia Sophia has been the most visited and top rated tourist attraction in Istanbul for many years now.

But what will happen now that President Erdogan has reversed that 1934 decree and restored Hagia Sophia’s status to being a mosque? Will people from all backgrounds still be able to visit Hagia Sophia and gaze upon its beauty and many historical treasures?

The official spokesperson for President Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, tried to reassure the world, saying “all are welcome to visit this beautiful house of worship and magnificent cultural site.”

This does not directly address concerns about what those visitors will actually still be able to see – and perhaps more importantly – no longer see when they visit the Hagia Sophia.

For example, will the below 10th century Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator still be on display or will it now be covered up?

Will the below Apse mosaic of Mary with the infant Jesus on her lap which adorns the central dome in Hagia Sophia still be on display?

The Hagia Sophia abounds in many such historical riches and it would be a tragedy if people were no longer allowed to directly see and study them.

Judging by the remarks on social media, the decision earlier today in Turkey to restore the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque has divided many Muslims living in the West.

When I last visited Istanbul in May 2019, I stayed in the Sultan Ahmet quarter, less than a two minute walk away from the Hagia Sophia. It was Ramadan at the time and early every morning I was woken by the call to prayer and went to the stunning Sultan Ahmet mosque (Blue Mosque) which is situated directly opposite the Hagia Sophia – it was also a two minute walk away from my hotel.

Istanbul is a city of many such glorious mosques. However, there is only one Hagia Sophia.

At a time when the world desperately needs to take steps towards more freedom and greater tolerance, it would be a shame if Turkey took a step in the opposite direction. We will have to wait and see.

Book Review: Darwin’s Notebook

5 July, 2020 - 10:28

In September 2019 BC (Before Covid-19) I undertook a long cherished trip to Down House, the former residence of Charles Darwin. The pictures below were all taken at Down House. It is located approximately 15 miles south-east of London and is now a Museum under the care of English Heritage. Whilst there I purchased “Darwin’s Notebook”, a biography of Charles Darwin by Jonathan Clements. Clements’ biography was published in 2009 – the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection has been described by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as “the single best idea anyone has ever had.” When you consider some of the other scientific giants of recent centuries: Newton, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and Einstein – that is high praise indeed.

First publicly explained in Darwin’s landmark 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, natural selection is today viewed as unquestionably the most important theory in Biology. Clements writes that Darwin’s theory “fundamentally changed our concept of who we are and where we come from.”

Darwin argued that all of us, human beings, apes, pigs, fish, plants – indeed all forms of life – were all related and descendants of common ancestors if we went back far enough in time. Species were not static, they changed over time. This idea was not new, but Darwin provided a mechanism for how it had occurred: Natural Selection.

Creatures that possessed traits that helped them to adapt more successfully to changes in their environment were more likely to survive and pass on those traits than those that did not. This process – natural selection –  causes species to change and diverge over time.

This was anathema to many religious leaders who argued that each species had been individually created by God and were unchanged. They bitterly resented Darwin’s theory, and in the case of a number of evangelical Christian groups and many Muslim “scholars”, they still do.

For over 160 years they have been trying – and failing – to undermine Darwin’s great insight. Rather than being undermined, Darwin’s theory only continued to gain further credibility with the discovery of dominant and recessive genes in pea plants by Gregor Mendel – now viewed as the father of Genetics. Mendel’s experiments with pea plants resulted in him finding the mechanism for heredity (how traits are passed on from one generation to another) – a topic that Darwin had struggled to find answers for. Mendel found that traits were passed on by genes. And almost a century after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, Crick and Watson discovered the structure of the DNA molecule and provided forensic molecular evidence for evolution by natural selection. All life forms that we know of are made of DNA and it is the random changes in the DNA molecule that provide the raw material for evolution to occur. No wonder that more thoughtful religious leaders have now made their peace with Darwin.

Darwin’s Notebook covers Darwin’s privileged upbringing (he was the son of a wealthy doctor), his meticulous observations and careful accumulation of data during the five year sea voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and the subsequent development of his ideas once he was back in England in 1836. The book is attractively laid out with every two-page spread being on a particular topic and this makes for very easy reading.

It should be remembered that prior to setting out on his sea voyage, Darwin had believed in the literal truth of the Bible and was intent on becoming a Christian clergyman when he returned from the voyage. It was what he saw with his own eyes during the voyage that made him question his beliefs and the teachings of the Bible.

During his voyage around South America he noticed how the fauna on islands off the coast of South America would often resemble but not be exactly the same as the fauna on the mainland. Why would this be and was there a natural process that could account for the differences?

Back in England and now married and living the life of a virtual recluse at Down House, Darwin corresponded by letter with amateur field workers around the world to gather additional data. He was determined to try and make sense of what he had seen during his sea voyage.

In 1851, Darwin witnessed the illness and death of his beloved ten year old daughter Annie from scarlet fever. Darwin later wrote:

“We have lost the joy of our household and the solace of our old age…she was my favourite child; her cordiality, openness, buoyant joyousness and strong affections made her most loveable.”

Darwin stopped attending church following the death of Annie. Even though he could not bring himself to believe any longer in the doctrines of the Christian church, he did not regard himself as an atheist.

People often wrote to Darwin to ask about his religious opinions and asked whether it was possible to both believe in his theory of evolution by means of natural selection and also believe in God. Darwin replied:

“It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man can be an ardent theist and an evolutionist…I may state that my judgment often fluctuates…in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.”

You cannot read Darwin’s Notebook without being impressed with Darwin’s gentle, considerate nature and thoughtfulness. And by showing us how all life forms are related to each other, Darwin provided us with a wonderfully unified vision of the history of life on earth.

If seeking to understand the truth about ourselves, the world around us and how it came to be is to be regarded as a virtue, then Charles Darwin will surely be amongst the best of us.

Book Review: Islam – An Illustrated Journey

27 June, 2020 - 20:09

Earlier this year, it was with a sense of some excitement that I found out that a new book “Islam: An Illustrated Journey” had been recently published (in 2018) by the Institute of Ismaili Studies to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims. The book specifically sets out to be an illustrated version and it looks utterly gorgeous.

It is a very large book – see the photograph below where I contrast it with two other large books on Islamic history that I possess. You will need a large bookshelf to house it.

This large size allows the reader to much better appreciate the pictures inside – just make sure you are seated comfortably when you read the book: it is quite literally not to be taken lightly as it weighs quite a bit.

The account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and revelation of the Qur’an is narrated well and the differences between the mainstream Sunni and Shi’i interpretations of the succession to the prophet are represented fairly. So, the book serves as a useful introduction to Islam itself in addition to describing the subsequent growth and spread of Muslim civilisations across the world.

Among the history covered in the book we learn about Late Antiquity in the centuries immediately prior to the emergence of the Prophet Muhammad, and then the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids (who were Ismaili Muslims), the Mamluks, the impact of the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Safawis, the Mughals, and the modern era. There is a fabulous two-page spread about the travels of Ibn Battuta which graphically charts his multiple journeys across the Muslim world.

The only gripe I had about the history was what appeared to be a rather grudging and cursory reference to Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi. Although he is referred to as being “arguably the most legendary character of…Crusader lore…” he merits only one paragraph on page 206. As a great unifier and the inspiring mujahid who restored al-Quds to Muslim rule, Salah ad-Din – who died with his sword as almost his only remaining possession after having given away his wealth to the poor, Salah ad-Din surely deserves more than one paragraph in any retelling of Islamic history. The cynic in me wonders whether this might not be unrelated to the fact that Salah ad-Din was responsible for ending Ismaili rule in Egypt.

Still, aside from that, this is without question a formidable and fascinating look at Muslim history. Coming to the troubles of the modern era and the rise of nihilist groups such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, the book makes a very important and wholly accurate observation, noting that they both “arose in the context of foreign conflict and invasion…”. It is often conveniently forgotten – and the UK government would very much like us all to forget – that al-Qa’ida was only founded following the controversial stationing of tens of thousands of US troops in the Arabian peninsula in the 1990s and ISIS did not exist at all until after the illegal and devastating invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and UK authorities.

In conclusion, Islam: An Illustrated Journey is quite possibly the best one volume introduction to Islam and Islamic history that I have yet encountered. It is quite certainly the most beautiful.

Coronavirus: Muslim ‘Ulama – A Failure of Leadership

22 March, 2020 - 10:56

Just a few days ago, I lamented how slow some Muslim “scholars” were in recognising the danger posed by the coronavirus and questioned why many of them had not yet called for the suspension of congregational prayers in our mosques. After all, last Monday (March 16th 2020) the government – following advice from our leading scientists – had updated their guidelines to make clear that we should now “avoid all unnecessary contact” and called on people to stop going to places where people congregate including pubs and restaurants and cafes. It was naturally obvious to all human beings with active brain cells that this “unnecessary contact” must also include all forms of communal worship. Hence, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Anglican Church and the United Synagogue (the largest Orthodox Jewish grouping) all very sensibly issued a call for an immediate suspension of communal prayers at their respective religious places of worship.

Sadly, this was not taken up by many Muslim religious “scholars”. Some associated with the Dar al-Ulums (ironically “Houses of Knowledge” in Arabic) in Blackburn and Bury advocated that mosques should remain open for congregational prayer “until and unless the government places a total restriction on religious places.” Yusuf Shabbir who runs the Islamic Portal website associated with the above two institutions wrote an article entitled “How can Coronavirus be stopped?”. His answer was not to say that we should immediately adopt strict social distancing measures and avoid all unnecessary contact as our scientists had advised. In a 10-point plan he said the answer was to perform the five daily prayers, fast, pay zakat etc.

Over at Islam21c.com, Haitham al-Haddad issued a fatwa on Friday 20th March 2020 saying the following:

I have stated on many occasions that I categorically disagree with the full closure of mosques (when there is an alternative such as reducing congregations), the reason being that no one has the right whatsoever to control the Houses of Allah. He assigned them for Himself. One of the scholars of the second generation (tābi’īn), Amr Ibn Maymūn al-Awdi said: ‘I found the companions of the Prophet ﷺ saying: The mosques are the houses of Allāh on the earth and it is a duty on Allāh to honour those who visit them’.

In the days following the MCB’s statement last Monday, many mosques to their credit announced that they would not be holding the congregational Friday prayers on their premises and said they were suspending all daily congregational prayers until further notice. Their actions have undoubtedly contributed to reducing the numbers of people that will be affected by the coronavirus.

However, many other mosques decided to continue holding daily congregational prayers and to go ahead and hold the mass Friday prayers. A video has been circulated online showing a large queue of people waiting to go inside Masjid Umar in Leicester (where many mosques remained open for congregational prayers) for Jumu’ah just two days ago, for example.

This represents a colossal failure of leadership and a failure to understand the most basic teachings of Islam and the sanctity of human life. People like Yusuf Shabbir and Haitham al-Haddad simply do not deserve the title of religious scholars. They are not. They are actually a menace to other human beings – as stupid people often are.

Just last month, a Tablighi Jamaat mass gathering in Malaysia facilitated a massive outbreak of coronavirus which the country is now desperately trying to contain and which doctors believe has now spread to other neighbouring countries. Two-thirds of Malaysian CV cases have now been traced back to that religious gathering.

This is because CV is often asymptomatic. You may look to be perfectly healthy but you can still be a carrier of the virus and pass it on to others. This is why the government and scientists have been so strongly urging us to avoid all unnecessary contact with others.

Earlier today, some of the religious scholars associated with the institutions I have named above issued a new announcement in which they now grudgingly appear to accept that their congregation should now pray at home though they say the mosques should still remain open for “a limited group (four or five) of appropriately selected individuals” to continue to perform the congregational prayers. How they intend to ensure that these individuals will not be or become carriers of coronavirus is not made clear.

In the coming days many of us in the UK will lose our loved ones – especially the elderly and those with weakened immune systems – to this virus. It is regrettable though not unsurprising given their past performance in previous years that many of our religious “scholars” failed this crucial test of leadership regarding protecting human lives. If this tragic episode encourages UK Muslims to become more prepared to question, criticise and challenge the views of people like Yusuf Shabbir and Haitham al-Haddad and other religious leaders who advocate stupidity then that will at least be one positive outcome from this terrible crisis.

May God grant us all knowledge and the ability to utilise it for the greater good of others. Ameen.