Where did Captain Tom’s money go?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 5 February, 2021 - 21:30
Black and white picture of a young Tom Moore, a white man with a moustache wearing a British army officer's uniform.Tom Moore as a second lieutenant during World War II.

Earlier this week Captain Sir Tom Moore, a World War II veteran who raised £33million for NHS-related charities by walking miles in the form of multiple lengths of his back garden during the first lockdown last Spring, died of Covid-19 which it is believed he contracted while on holiday in Barbados (or on his way there or back) in December, before the current lockdown was brought in. (He had been a second lieutenant during the war; the rank of captain was honorary.) Moore’s efforts inspired a number of others to undertake similar feats for charity, such as climbing mountains of their own house stairs. It has been widely claimed on social media that the money he raised was spent on routine supplies, in particular PPE (personal protective equipment) which was in desperately short supply at that time and a number of clothing manufacturers suspended normal operations to produce PPE instead. This is actually not true, as a friend with a locked Twitter account pointed out in a thread yesterday.

Moore’s money went to NHS Charities Together, an umbrella body for healthcare charities, not to the NHS itself or to NHS trust themselves. Charity money cannot in fact be used for routine supplies or for standard medical equipment such as CT scanners, nor for employing normal healthcare staff; it can, however, be used for better equipment than the NHS would normally supply, and for additional staff to perform roles that are specific to a given crisis, such as the current pandemic. In the case of Covid-19 appeal money, some of it was spent on technology such as tablets to keep patients in contact with their families at times when visiting was impossible; some was spent on the wellbeing of staff whose mental health was suffering as a result of working in the pandemic; other money was spent on bereavement support for both staff and patients. There is a FAQ here on the NHS-CT website although some of it is quite vague about the specifics of what the donations are spent on and how it differs from normal, tax-funded NHS spending.

I write this because I personally avoided donating money to this fund last year as I believed it was being spent on disposable PPE and that no amount of charity could supply any single trust’s PPE needs, much less the entire NHS; it would be a drop in the ocean and the money raised would be better spent elsewhere, especially as fundraising for other charitable purposes would have been reduced. This doubt was misplaced but it was encouraged by the media which referred to money being raised “for the NHS” in the context of a dire PPE shortage and did not tell us where the money was actually going.

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Traditional Islam, Ideology, Immigrant Muslims, and Grievance Culture: A Review of Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe by Abdal Hakim Murad

Muslim Matters - 5 February, 2021 - 06:19

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, dean of Cambridge Muslim College (CMC), also known as Dr Timothy Winter of the University of Cambridge, is a prominent Islamic scholar and Muslim public figure of the British Isles. For decades, he has been active on the Muslim speaking circuit and gained recognition for publishing learned translations of classical works, particularly from the Sharia discipline of Sufism through the masterworks of scholars like Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzālī (d. 505/1111). His commitment to Sufism also led to his writing several critical essays in the 1990s and 2000s directed at Islamic groups that were either unsympathetic or actively hostile to the Sunni denomination to which he adheres, what I have referred to elsewhere as “Neo-traditionalism” and which he himself refers to as “Traditional Islam.” (I use the term “denomination” somewhat loosely to denote subgroupings within Sunni Islam, such as Salafism, Islamism, and Neo-traditionalism.)

With his founding of CMC in 2009, Shaykh Abdal Hakim (henceforth: Murad) appeared to set aside inter-denominational controversy in favour of broad-based institution building. And his contributions to Islamic education through the establishment of CMC are certainly not insignificant. The College arguably represents one of the most promising Islamic intellectual endeavours in Europe in recent years, and I hope and pray that it realises success that can be considered with pride centuries from now. I must emphasise, in this connection, that Murad has devoted much of his career to the intellectual development of the British Muslim community, one that is overwhelmingly made up of immigrants. 

In the interest of the reader understanding my perspective, I should also note that I have long known the shaykh personally and consider him a teacher of mine, although I have never formally enrolled in either of his Cambridge-based institutions. As I came to Islamic studies in the early 2000s, both under the tutelage of the ulama as well as “academically,” I began to read diligently his many essays on what had effectively become his website. They were erudite, at times bordering on the abstruse, but always illuminating in their own distinctive way. But one thing that I have come to recognise in them, more so than I did at the time, was their polemical nature. Murad was argumentative; and I would subsequently come to understand this as his response to the dynamics of inter-denominational competition among young British Muslims in the 1990s that had brought to the fore an often unedifying rivalry, in pursuit of market share, among the various groups in British Islamic activism. This activism has been illuminatingly explored by a number of social scientists in recent years, including Sadek Hamid, Khadijah Elshayyal, and Hira Amin, among others.

Murad’s latest book, Travelling Home appears to be a reversion to his former style of writing “polemical essays” (p. 2) that are primarily aimed at an “internal” Muslim readership (p. 10). It comprises eleven chapters that are mostly reworked lectures and keynote addresses delivered between 2011 and 2019. Perhaps their relative infrequency in recent years, given his responsibilities at CMC, is what gave me the impression that he no longer wished to engage in what I consider to be “inter-denominational polemic,” though he himself rejects this characterisation. For better or for worse, this volume has disabused me of the notion that such polemics were behind him. Yet, this work is by no means simply a partisan screed and Murad does not direct his critiques solely at Salafis and Islamists. Neo-traditionalists are also criticised in the work, though in my reading, it is clear that this denomination represents the true Sunni mainstream for Murad, a viewpoint I consider questionable on theological grounds. Yet, this is no reason to stop reading one of the most thoughtful theologians of Islam in Europe, and indeed, the modern world. 

To be sure, Murad is approaching his subject matter with a decidedly different lens to that of the social scientists studying British Islamic activism mentioned earlier. These and other scholars who have written about the British Muslim community approach the subject from a “sociological” perspective which Murad contrasts repeatedly in his work with his more “theological” outlook. His suggestion, which more Muslims in the academy would do well to reflect on, is that such sociological perspectives, avowedly secular and materialist as they are, are out of step with the God-centred and more pastoral outlook of authentically Islamic scholarship. This does not mean that Murad entirely rejects empirical observation, of course. He makes use of statistics and similar sociological data when it helps illustrate empirical realities experienced by the community. In a sense, his arguable overemphasis of the deficiencies of social science are intended as a corrective to the severity of the imbalance in studies of the Muslim community that is the inevitable consequence of a secular academy becoming the home and training ground of most Muslim (but not usually “Islamic”) scholars studying their own communities in the West. 

Travelling Home is thus a wide-ranging work characteristically brimming with beneficial insights that recommend it well to Muslims who look with concern upon, among other things, the rise of the European right and their Islamophobic politics. For example, Chapter 4 on the Bosnian War, the Srebrenica massacre and their implications for Muslims in Europe makes for sobering but essential reading on a continent liable to forget that “the crime of Srebrenica was far worse than that of 9/11” (p. 93). By contrast, in Chapter 11 the reader can expect to reflect on how we might reconceptualise zakat in late capitalism given the evanescence of our “liquid modernity.” In this review, however, I will not simply be presenting a summary of Murad’s contentions from this book. Instead, I will home in on a handful of issues in which his ideas appear to fall short of what our dīn calls for at the present moment, at least in my estimation. This is not intended as a pointless counter-polemic, but rather, as the noted Harald Motzki (d. 1440/2019) once remarked, “Scholarship needs dispute in order to develop. It is necessary to make clear what is unconvincing and for what reason.” Consequently, Motzki exhorts that such criticism ought not to be taken personally, which is not something I fear from the author, but perhaps from some of those who share his viewpoint without sharing his erudition.

In brief correspondence with the author, Murad has reminded me that polemic was widely deployed by great scholars like Ghazzālī, a scholar regarding whom Murad is one of the world’s leading experts. The Persian polymath was well known for theological critiques of the falāsifa and other heterodox groups. This is important, Murad argues, because in Islam, the truth is important. These points are well-taken. However, Ghazzālī also exhibits considerable ecumenism in other instances, perhaps most notably in his Fayṣal al-Tafriqa. Arguably, with a Muslim community already consumed by internecine conflict, ours is a time in which we need to make a special effort to encourage inter-denominational tolerance. I would argue that this would involve including mainstream Salafis and Islamists alongside Neo-traditionalists within the broad Sunni umbrella within which many modern ulama would consider them to belong. This does not necessarily mean disregarding “truth.” 

As Sherman Jackson argues, Ghazzālī’s Fayṣal appears in part to be an effort to temper the “extremist” intolerance of the influential Ashʿarī theologian, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī, who readily engaged in takfīr of many non-Ashʿarī’s because of a misguided commitment to the truth. Indeed, Muslims today would do well to remember that all such groups, including the most heterodox and extreme, are usually seeking the truth and God’s pleasure as they see it. These are, of course, necessary but not sufficient conditions for right action, as Ghazzālī helpfully reminds us. While I cannot fully develop this argument in the present piece, I would like to suggest that alongside the truth, our efforts at engaging our Muslim interlocutors should be characterised by greater charity and compassion (raḥma), a value at the heart of Islam, and one which Murad speaks of eloquently in other parts of his work.

On Traditional Islam

Murad writes from within the “helpfully imprecise paradigm” that has come to be referred to by many Western Muslims as “Traditional Islam” (p. 3). Traditional Islam is loosely defined in relation to madhhabs, Sufism and kalām theology, but also asserts the significance of “formal teaching authorisation (ijāza)” through “continuous chains of narration” (sanad/isnād) going back to the Prophet (p. 138). This outlook exemplifies a well-trodden path of several Western Islamic scholars, perhaps most notably Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, although given Murad’s stance on the instrumentalisation of the ulama classes in many Muslim-majority states, he and Yusuf do not see eye to eye on how Traditional Islam should respond to this aspect of Muslim modernity. Having said that, Murad’s endeavour in this work is to demonstrate that Traditional Islam “can claim to represent a more intellectually and morally coherent response to the present emergency of Muslim integration than either secular scientism or Islamism” (p. 3). 

This sentence arguably identifies the main villains in his narrative, although he could be clearer. Anyone who knows Murad’s past writings will, however, recognise that aside from aggressive forms of secular ideologies, he sees the major threats to Traditional Islam as arising from within the Muslim community, most notably in the forms of Salafism and Islamism which he often disparagingly refers to as fundamentalism, all of which remain poorly defined in the present work and often appear to bleed into each other as a result. It is not without irony that Murad’s work thus appears to reinscribes the dangerous blurring of lines between peaceful Muslim activists and the kinds of nihilistic violence exemplified by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, something that all Muslim public figures need to be careful to avoid in the context of the War on Terror whose undifferentiating dragnet is liable to criminalise any form of Muslim identity that is not approved by the state, including those forms that Murad so eloquently seeks to defend. While he clearly recognises that Salafism and Islamism do not necessarily entail violence (e.g. p. 230), he arguably contributes to a wider discursive context in which such nuances are easily lost.

Murad frequently distinguishes Traditional Islam from Salafism and Islamism by arguing that the latter two represent the ideologisation of Islam, whereas Traditional Islam is authentically rooted in the “time-honoured root-epistemology, the uṣūl” which are connected through “continuous narrative” over centuries. This contrast between a polemically vague fundamentalism and Traditional Islam is found throughout the present work as well as in the shaykh’s previous writings. Yet, specific examples of differences are often difficult to discern—those other Islamic denominations also have their learned ulama who engage a long tradition of scholarship that will invoke great masters of uṣūl, whether this is a reference to jurisprudence or dialectical theology. Plenty of ulama of an “Islamist” orientation, e.g. Muṣṭafā Zarqā (d. 1420/1999), ʿAbd al-Karīm Zaydān (d. 1435/2014), Muḥammad ʿImāra (d. 1441/2020), and Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī (b. 1345/1926), will reference the great past masters of these disciplines, be they Bazdawī (d. 482/1089), Ghazzālī, Rāzī (d. c. 606/1209), Ījī (d. 756/1355), Taftāzānī (d. 792/1390), Zarkashī (d. 794/1392), and so many others. 

The same can be said for Salafi scholars who engage the discipline of uṣūl, although they are rarer. This is because many Salafis are descendants of what academic Islamic studies happens to refer to as “traditionalism,” that is, the early Islamic tendency notable among the Ḥanbalīs and the Ahl al-Ḥadīth that viewed with great hostility any kind of theological speculation. But even among Salafis one finds scholars who invest great energy in continuing the scholarly tradition of uṣūl al-fiqh or jurisprudence as exemplified by the likes of Juwaynī (d. 478/1185), Ghazzālī, Shāṭibī (d. 790/1388), Ibn al-Subkī (d. 771/1370), Zarkashī, and many others. While Salafis often express considerable reservations regarding the dominance of Ashʿarī theology in the writings of these pre-modern scholars, it is not clear why Murad should reciprocate historical Salafi intolerance by taking them out of the Sunni umbrella, a quasi-sectarian stance that he appears to encourage (p. 89n).

It is also worth considering critically the claim that Traditional Islam is perhaps uniquely grounded in a respect for ijāzas and isnāds, unlike its ideological competitors. Murad does not make this claim himself, but it is widespread in Neo-traditionalist circles. The problem with this claim is two-fold. Firstly, there are plenty of Salafis and Islamists who also possess impressive collections of ijāzas and isnāds. Two Islamists Murad mentions with disapproval (p. 222), namely Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (d. 1979/1399) and Qaraḍāwī are both known to have ijāzas and isnāds, and Salafis, with their special interest in hadith, also possess collections of ijāzas and isnāds including ones that go back to Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1206/1792), the highly problematic founder of what academics (usually non-pejoratively) refer to as “Wahhabism.” Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, the possession of ijāzas and isnāds has not prevented individuals from engaging in the terroristic theology of Al-Qaeda. 

Secondly, Murad boldly states that Traditional Islam’s “highly-trained scholars […] do not become extremists” (p. 183). For this we find a counterpoint in the writings of the intellectual historian, Muhammad Qasim Zaman. In a number of works, most recently Islam in Pakistan: A History, Zaman illustrates instances in which the jihadism of the Taliban and likeminded groups in South Asia have often been tied to the ulama. These include Neo-traditionalist ulama, such as, for example, those of the Deobandi school. Deobandism’s Neo-traditionalist credentials can be exemplified by their strict commitment to the Ḥanafī school, their adherence to Māturīdī theology, and their cultivation of Sufism through the recognised ṭarīqas alongside their transmission of knowledge through isnāds and ijāzas. Yet Zaman illustrates in this and his earlier work the extent to which learned ulama from this and other tendencies maintained close ties with the Taliban, themselves staunch Ḥanafīs. Scholarship or Traditionalism do not appear to preclude “extremism” at least as the word is widely, and very problematically, deployed in the West. 

On ijāzas and isnāds

A second and perhaps more fundamental problem for Neo-traditionalists more generally, (though not Murad in this instance), is their insistence on the centrality of ijāzas and isnāds which sometimes seems grounded in an apparent misunderstanding of the actual purpose of these scholarly tools. These forms of knowledge transmission have been illuminatingly explored in a wonderful recent monograph by Garrett Davidson entitled Carrying on the Tradition: A Social and Intellectual History of Hadith Transmission across a Thousand Years. As Davidson notes (p. 109-111), there are in fact two types of ijāzas that are frequently conflated by modern scholars, namely: ijāzas for the purpose of narration of hadith (riwāya), and those that act as qualifications that permit one to teach (tadrīs) and/or give fatwas (iftāʾ). Most of the time, Neo-traditionalists appear to intend the latter more advanced type of ijāza as the relevant kind while suggesting that its upholding is the sine qua non of authentic Islam. But many of those who uphold the normativity of the ijāza appear unaware that there is no consensus regarding such a practice—developed in the later centuries of Islamic history–as being essential to the sound preservation of the dīn

A striking illustration of this perspective comes from a scholar who is particularly well-regarded in Neo-traditionalist circles, namely the prolific Egyptian polymath, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505). Davidson (p. 110) cites Suyūṭī’s rather harsh judgement of those who insist on the necessity of the more advanced ijāza as follows:

An ijāza from a shaykh is not a condition for one to begin teaching and imparting one’s knowledge. Whoever knows that he is qualified to teach may do so, even if no one has issued him an ijāza. This is the way of the pious ancestors and righteous forbearers. This is true for every discipline and teaching and issuing fatwas, contrary to the opinion of some ignoramuses (aghbiyāʾ). 

Davidson does not translate the remainder of the passage which provides Suyūṭī’s explanation for the rise of the practice of issuing ijāzas which the latter otherwise expresses no objection to. Suyūṭī explains:

People simply established the practice of giving ijāzas because the qualifications (ahliyya) of an individual are for the most part unknown to beginner students who seek to learn from them since the abilities of [these novices] do not allow [them to evaluate the knowledge of their potential teachers]. Yet examining the qualifications of a scholar is a precondition for learning from them. The ijāza was thus created as a kind of certification of qualifications given by a scholar to the one granted an ijāza.

Aside from illustrating the sharply contested normativity of the ijāza as a prerequisite for assessing the reliability of a scholar, this passage also alerts us to the awareness of one of the most prolific scholars of Islamic history regarding the contingency of the structures developed by the later Islamic tradition which Neo-traditionalists often claim as timeless and indispensable. By contrast, Suyūṭī views ijāzas very much in the way that modern people view university qualifications with respect to secular knowledge—they are the standard means of demonstrating expertise in a field, but their absence does not automatically signal incompetence in every case. And in an age in which institutions of Islamic scholarship have witnessed a diminution in standards and quality control, the presence of such ostensible qualifications is not always the best measure of reliable scholarship. Rather than insisting on the normativity of such shibboleths, we perhaps ought to exercise the same circumspection as great master scholars like Suyūṭī and recognise the contingency of the ijāza system.

What does “ideology” really mean?

One of the other targets of Murad’s ire in his work is “ideology.” In his view, the traditional Muslim, when responding to the disasters wrought by the modern world upon the believer, “will categorically avoid ideology” (p. 122). This is because ideology, which Murad argues is “generally a disparaging term used to describe someone else’s political views which one regards as unsound,” is “purely materialistic” and borders on disbelief (kufr). His target, he alludes to without being explicit, is the twentieth century Islamist ideas of modern scholars associated with politically oriented movements from the Muslim world, most notably exemplified by organisations like Jamāʿat-i Islāmī and the Muslim Brotherhood and figures like Mawdūdī and Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1386/1966). His specific remarks are worth citing in full here:

Ideology, which attributes ultimate agency to the asbāb, is the essence of kufr, disbelief, and readily engenders totalitarian systems of thought, which seek to impose a single paradigm of human behaviour on society through the agencies of an ‘enlightened’ scientific state. This may be one reason why some twentieth-century Muslim reformists proposed that Islam itself is an ‘ideology’. (p. 123)

The footnote makes reference to a work on Mawdūdī for those unfamiliar with modern Islamic political theology. Murad obviously does not think particularly highly of his ideas. But regardless of what one thinks of Mawdūdī, one wonders what to make of such fierce albeit indirect polemics against an influential figure without engaging substantively with their thought. Indeed, I would argue that, such statements are out of step with Murad’s avowed commitment to uṣūlī principles. Such polemicising leads him to misrepresent his opponents by firstly defining ideology in a way that, on the one hand, his opponents would not recognise as accurate, and on the other, aligns ideology with kufr. Secondly, he points out that his opponents themselves use the term ideology, while disregarding the fact that their usage contrasts with the definition he provides. This could even be taken as suggesting that Murad holds such figures to uphold a view of Islam that is either itself kufrī or has close affinities with kufr. It should go without saying that this is not an intellectually reasonable approach to engaging the ideas of a figure like Mawdūdī. (In personal correspondence, Murad has pointed out to me that his allusions to Mawdūdī are very indirect, and that his main complaint is that the latter’s approach to Islam is reductive of its richness and diversity. My remarks should thus be seen as addressing what I consider to be one plausible reading of Murad, but not necessarily the reading he intended.)

A less hostile reading of Mawdūdī and other scholars of a similar orientation discloses a rather pedestrian reality: they used the term ideology as a synonym for words like Weltanschauung or worldview. To think that they would use the pejorative Marxist conception of the term Murad asserts as normative in modern discourse (p. 122f.) rather than the variety of positively connoted alternatives widely cited in the sort of postmodern literature the shaykh is so thoroughly familiar with does little to advance our understanding of either Islam or such modern movements. To take just one example of recognised non-pejorative conceptions of ideology, Terry Eagleton, in his classic Ideology: An Introduction, begins his book by citing sixteen definitions of ideology to illustrate just how contested the concept is. Of these fewer than half, by my reckoning, would count as necessarily pejorative in their meaning. Mawdūdī certainly did not use the word “ideology” to discredit his own ideas, and so attributing such a pejorative sense to his usage is not warranted.

In fairness, I should note that Murad is not the only Neo-traditionalist figure to disparage Islamists because of their use of this term. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has also written critically of Islamist “ideology,” and his rationalisation of such a usage is similarly unconvincing. A more detailed treatment of Mawdūdī’s conception of ideology will have to be dealt with elsewhere, but suffice it to say that such quibbling over words is not particularly illuminating. It is for good reason that so many scholars of “Traditional” uṣūl, as cited unselfconsciously by one Salafi scholar who obviously does not recognise the Traditional-Salafi distinction upheld by Murad, highlight the hermeneutic principle that it is pointless to quibble over words (lā mushāḥḥata fī al-iṣṭilāḥ).

Who are these “fundamentalists”?

A challenge in reading Murad is his disinclination from identifying his interlocutors explicitly. This may be intended to avoid the impropriety of gratuitously naming and shaming individuals—an Islamic value that finds Prophetic precedent. But I would argue that the value often appears to be misapplied in this work. Rather than protecting the identity of individuals, it appears to result in tarring entire perspectives with the same brush. We have already seen Murad’s references to Islamism, Salafism, and fundamentalism, which while never adequately defined, are at least terms that are used by others, and thus their meaning can perhaps be approximated. But perhaps not. Who is the “zealot” (p. 165), for instance, who rejects the Four Schools, rejects the schools of theology, or Islamic spirituality, and how widespread is such “zealotry” among Europe’s Muslims? Aside from the relatively isolated cases, it is not clear to me that mainstream Salafis or Islamists are especially exercised by people’s adherence to schools of law. Here, for example, is the leading Saudi Salafi scholar of his time, Ibn Bāz (d. 1420/1999), stating that there is nothing wrong in a layman following a madhhab. There is, of course, the unusual and indeed influential case of al-Albānī (d. 1420/1999) who did indeed deny people the right to follow a madhhab, but he does not characterise Salafism as a whole. The same can be said, making the necessary adjustments, for theological schools and Islamic spirituality. 

Similarly problematic is the vague referent of a term of Murad’s own coinage, namely the tanfīrī, literally “the one who drives people away (from Islam),” regarding whom he says the following (p. 165):

The tanfīrī[‘s…] conclusion that God abandoned the Umma, and that the scholars acted criminally for many centuries, can only kindle a great furnace of anger and doubt in his soul. This is ‘failurism’: the idea that our dīn failed, and that only with the rise of the new fundamentalisms in these latter days has it reappeared on earth. God, hence, seems hardly to be trusted: the Umma for centuries was abandoned by Providence. Hence tanfīrī rage is not only against the consensus of Sunni scholarship, but implicitly against God Himself, for having committed so cruel a dereliction of the Muslim people. Orphaned from his civilisation, unable to trust Heaven, the zealot’s soul can only emit a primal scream of agony, fear and hate.

But one wonders who in Europe Murad is actually referring to here that condemns Muslims as having been abandoned to misguidance by God for centuries. Are they the Salafis or the Islamists that cause him so much anxiety earlier in the text? Are they the various forms of immigrant Islam he expresses so much disquiet about throughout this work? It does not seem likely that these are the people he is referring to, for one would be hard pressed to find any such European Muslim actually believing that God had abandoned His umma for so long. It is true that some of these sentiments can be read into the writings of influential Islamist writers who lived and died beyond Europe, like Sayyid Quṭb, but as scholars like Roxanne Euben and John Calvert have ably illustrated, even such a controversial figure within the ranks of Islamism has a far more complicated legacy than Murad is willing to acknowledge. The only people this kind of language would seem to apply to are extremist groups like al-Qa‘ida and ISIS who find no sympathy with the mainstream Islamists and Salafis who are to be found in Europe or, indeed, anywhere in the world. 

These are thus “polemical essays” also in the sense that they often sacrifice analytical precision at the altar of rhetorical expediency, and consequently appear to be wielded as a blunt instrument against an ill-defined other. Yet by remaining vague about his target, perhaps out of courtesy, I would argue that Murad might inadvertently suggest to his readers that such tendencies represent a palpable and sizeable threat within European Muslim communities. This is where polemics can become especially dangerous, given the securitisation of Muslims in the context of the War on Terror. While Murad does not make it explicit, the uninitiated reader may take from these kinds of passages which pepper the prose of this volume that such rootless extremism is a widespread tendency among Europe’s Muslims. The reality, by contrast, is that extremists of the ISIS variety are a vanishingly small if dangerous phenomenon that finds no haven or sympathy within the Muslim communities of Europe, and usually isolate themselves from these communities in order to pursue their illegal activities. 

The complexity of the Islamic tradition

Part of what Murad engages in this work is explaining the nature of “Traditional Islam.” But some of this, I would suggest, comes across as an exercise in presenting a mythical ideal that is polemically contrasted with the least charitable interpretation of the possible alternatives. An example may be taken from the remark that “the Prophetic teaching of amr bi’l-maʿrūf wa-nahy ʿan al-munkar, ‘commanding the good and forbidding the evil’, […] in the first instance must be verbal; indeed, unless one wields due political sovereignty it can be nothing else” (p. 169). In the present work, he elides the well-known and controversial fact that Ghazzālī argues for the permissibility of organising armed vigilantes to undertake the role of commanding the good and forbidding the evil without seeking the permission of the political authorities. As a Ghazzālī expert, Murad is naturally well aware of this idiosyncrasy of the premodern polymath’s thought. He has judiciously addressed the obvious inapplicability of this perspective in our own radically different era in an essay from 2003 (n. 10). While this is an excellent example of applying the appropriate charitable reading to the works of a scholar one views with favour, Murad also presents a striking example of the opposite.

With respect to the noted Salafi scholar, Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn (d. 1421/2001), Murad cites Thomas Bauer, the German author of a work entitled Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschichte des Islam (soon to be published in English as A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam), to claim that Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn, rather than accept that the Qur’an had variant readings, sought to “advocate for a single authorised version of the text” (p. 220). This is quite a shocking claim to be made of any scholar, let alone a scholar of Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn’s standing within Ḥanbalī/Salafi circles. One would expect Murad to scrutinise Bauer’s claim, but rather than examining whether the German scholar’s assertions are accurate, Murad readily accepts them. 

For his part, Bauer is comparing an advanced multi-volume work on the ten variant readings of the Qur’an by the ultimate medieval authority in Qur’anic studies, Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833/1429), with an entry-level text of a few dozen pages on Qur’anic studies more generally of Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn. That the latter does not really explore the variant readings of the Qur’an in such a short beginners guide is not altogether as surprising as Bauer seems to think it is. Had he, or Murad for that matter, undertaken a simple Google search, he would have found clear evidence that Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn was perfectly aware of, and certainly not opposed to, the variant readings of the Qur’an. But the case is illustrative of how a scholar as erudite as Murad can be driven, apparently by inter-denominational antipathy, to be so credulous regarding the shocking ignorance of the most senior scholars of a competing Sunni denomination that he would not seek to verify what should immediately appear to be an outlandish claim on the part of a scholar unsympathetic towards the admitted rigorism of some Salafis.

On grievance culture (and being therapeutic)

A theme that runs through much of Murad’s book is, to put it ironically, deep-seated grievances about the “grievance culture” of the “dreary conference-centred ideology-religion” of “Movement Islam” (p. 63f., 205). This may be encapsulated in the following quote from the final page of a chapter ostensibly discussing the significance of spiritual rootedness for Western Muslims:

By contrast there are fundamentalisms, radical Islamisms, and lethal dreams of Islam not as dīn but as ideology. […] The catastrophes of modern Islamist dysfunction, on the basis of which our neighbours rush to judge us, are the consequence of the bastardising of our discourse by narratives of postcolonial grievance and by illicit and unstable intrusions of formalist interpretation far from the Breath of the Compassionate. (p. 267)

Much of this ire is directed at immigrant Muslims as suggested in the above reference to “postcolonial grievance.” And it is not only “Movement Islam” that is targeted, but also  forms of immigrant religiosity and scholarship that do not conform to the very distinctive conception of Traditional Islam that Murad holds to be normative (p. 134f.). It strikes me as problematic that notwithstanding his own significant contributions to the British Muslim immigrant community alongside his excoriation of the nativist Islamophobia of the far-right, Travelling Home will seem to some readers to be suffused with a kind of anti-immigrant grievance. 

Nor is it only the ersatz Islam that many an immigrant has brought that is the object of Murad’s derision. Their current sense of religious precarity among immigrants elicits little by way of sympathy from Murad in a few striking passages. To those Muslims concerned about preserving their religion in an increasingly inhospitable if not downright hostile Europe, Murad offers little reassurance in the following remarks: 

Most Muslims in France migrated in order to eat more tagine or to seek a EU passport, but this, in Sharia terms, did not usually comprise a good reason for hijra. [The Prophet said:] ‘Whoever’s migration is for some worldly thing, or to marry a woman, then his migration is accordingly for that.’ (p. 125)

Murad previously expressed this sentiment in a 2019 lecture and separately in a recent interview as well. Yet, this is probably balanced out in the author’s own view by his defence, throughout this work, of the “Ishmaelite” as a symbol of the Muslim refugee who is the object of Europe’s contempt. The motivation underlying this critique of the intentions of Muslim immigrants is clearly to encourage Muslims to recognise that they must be engaged in daʿwa in some form to justify their residing in non-Muslim lands.

But his portrayal of purely worldly reasons doubtless distorts the variety of factors behind Muslim immigration to Europe. It is not clear on what empirical basis Murad asserts that the reasons for immigration were worldly in an Islamically blameworthy sense. This is perhaps an instance where the empiricism of a sociological approach could prove useful. Unlike the considerable efforts he expends to seek to understand and, at times, perhaps even justify the causes for European nativist grievance against Muslim otherness (p. 207f.), one feels that the same charity is not always extended to once colonised peoples. He might consider framing the issue quite differently by asking why it is the case that Muslims have immigrated to Europe in such large numbers rather than the contrasting possibility: European immigrants residing in comparable numbers in Muslim lands? What has created the massive disparities, what Jason Hickel refers to as “The Divide” between the Global South and the West? 

Murad is well aware that this is no historical accident, and in a footnote (p. 209f.) is willing to extend recognition to the suffering of First Nation peoples, Aboriginals and African Americans who suffered under settler-colonialism and slavery. This may be taken to be Murad’s affirmation of certain kinds of “postcolonial grievance” as legitimate, although this seems to be exclusive to those who have suffered settler colonialism or forced migration as slaves. His own grievances appear directed at the postcolonial immigrant to the metropole. In relation to such immigrants, he is willing to cite right-wing denialists of Islamophobia like David Goodhart with approval when they discuss the “decent populism” (p. 208n) of indigenous white Britons concerned about their country being overrun, as it were, by immigrants.

Curiously, he is unable to extend the same charity, and indeed, the “positive discrimination” he advocates for African Americans or Aboriginal peoples to postcolonial immigrants who would likely not have sought to pursue the metropole if their own lands had not been plundered to the astonishing degree that historians have documented during the same period in which settler-colonialists were decimating indigenous North American and Australasian cultures. Doubtless, making hijra to a land where one is liable to lose one’s religion is prohibited in the Sharia, but leaving aside the many Muslims who would have made hijra due to compelling circumstances, might the reason for the other Muslims who did make hijra out of the Abode of Islam due to their ignorance of the dīn have been the destruction of the institutions of Islamic learning in their homelands as a consequence of colonialism? Might this not at least be a question worth exploring before one criticises the offspring of those rendered religiously impoverished through the colonial dismantling of indigenous institutions of learning in Muslim lands? Surely this too would merit theological reflection in a way that would help us recognise the complex burdens modern Muslim immigrants to the West carry. 

In response to concern regarding the potential loss of religion on the part of subsequent generations of immigrant Muslims, Murad could give the glad tidings (tabshīr) of God’s boundless mercy that Ghazzālī finds solace in rather than offering severe (tanfīrī) judgements of the kind just alluded to. When criticising Salafis, Murad is able to recognise the capaciousness of some Sunni conceptions of the saved. For example, he cites Abū Ḥanīfa’s reported view that Muslims residing in non-Muslim lands (arḍ al-shirk) who were ignorant of even those minimal elements of the religion that were essential to being Muslim, such as affirming the Qur’an and the Sharia, could still be considered Muslim and hence saved (p. 132n). This would seem an apposite reference when thinking about immigrant Muslims as well. 

The foregoing critique is not to say that Muslims in the modern world should not actively cultivate a culture of Islamic learning rather than spending all their time crying over the spilt milk of colonialism. But there seems to be little sense in cultivating a “counter-grievance culture” regarding immigrants concerned for their children’s loss of religion. Surely the appropriate response to such circumstances is what Murad exhorts Muslims to do when confronted by Islamophobes—act as therapists and push back with what is better (Chapter 7). 


Much more could be said about this book, both positive and critical. For example, Murad offers important reflections on the concept of Islamophobia (Chapter 2), and in particular, the debates around defining it that have been raging in Britain over the past year or so. I hope to consider these elsewhere in future. I also found his remarks on academic Islamic studies—my own professional home—quite edifying. As he notes in Chapter 9, the distance between academic studies of Islam and Muslim perspectives on their own tradition has happily narrowed considerably in recent years. Consequently, academia is more and more welcoming of committed Muslims given the increasing philosophical indefensibility of past exclusionary attitudes (p. 240). The era in which university academics were required to conform to the orthodoxy of secular materialism appears gratefully to be on the wane. 

In conclusion, however, I wish to reiterate that notwithstanding the foregoing critique of Murad’s learned work, Western Muslims can benefit from reading and engaging this book not in a reactionary manner, but in the spirit of the great master Imam al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820), as related by Ghazzālī: in pursuit of the truth for the sake of God while keeping at bay the lowly desires of the ego. I have tried my best to approach this text in that spirit, and I have doubtless failed in some instances to do justice to this complex and multi-layered work. I can only hope that others will read this important contribution to European Islamic theological reflection and use it as a springboard to cultivate a richer Islamic discourse on the continent.

The post Traditional Islam, Ideology, Immigrant Muslims, and Grievance Culture: A Review of Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe by Abdal Hakim Murad appeared first on

Call this devolution?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 3 February, 2021 - 08:00
A group of five middle-aged to elderly people (one South Asian man, one white man and three white women) holding up a map of West Yorkshire with the five boroughs (Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield) marked. Behind them is a river with two boats visible, and a plate glass building behind to the left and a red brick building behind to the right.The leaders of West Yorkshire’s councils

I saw a tweet earlier this week from the political scientist Matthew Goodwin, a noted media and Twitter Brexiteer, hailing the “devolution deal” that came into force this past weekend which paves the way for mayoral elections this May (coronavirus permitting, of course) for a “metropolitan mayor” for West Yorkshire, the county which includes Leeds, Bradford and the surrounding area. “£38 million budget & powers over housing, transport, etc., and access to £1.1 billion to invest in region. Send power down not up.” Really?

For anyone who grew up in the 20th century and remember Tony Blair coming to power with promises of devolution for Wales and Scotland, the term is associated with law-making powers being devolved from Westminster to a national assembly which had real powers over policy areas such as health and education. Blair also promised a referendum on a mayor for London and this was delivered in 2000; Ken Livingstone then served two terms as mayor (first as an independent, then as a Labour mayor) before losing to Boris Johnson in 2008. This was not spoken of as devolution but rather as some form of democratic city-wide authority for London which had not had one since the GLC was abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986. The mayor’s power is in limited areas, mostly transport and policing, but the London Assembly only has the power to reject his budget, not veto his policies. Once his policy decisions pass the ‘consultation’ phase (and he is free to reject the results of any consultation, as Livingstone did when extending the Congestion Charge to inner west London in his second term), they require central government approval.

The West Yorkshire mayor will be the head of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority whose governing body consists of council leaders and some additional borough councillors; it is not, therefore, directly elected at all. The ‘devolution’ will consist of some finance decisions currently taken by the government being transferred to the mayor, but some powers will also be transferred upwards from local councils to the mayor; public transport, for example, is currently the responsibility of borough councils, and the new authority will also control a network of strategic roads, which again are currently the responsibility of local government (apart from trunk roads which are controlled by central government) which is controlled by an elected council, not a single executive mayor. The mayor will also take over the powers of the elected police and crime commissioner. So it is not quite true that this just represents a transfer of power ‘downwards’.

And all the power-to-the-people rhetoric cannot disguise the fact that there has been no referendum on this; it is the fruit of several years of negotiation between the local councils (many of which favoured a “Leeds City Region” authority which would also have included a number of districts of North Yorkshire) and central government. When referendums were held in three boroughs (Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield) on directly-elected mayors for their authorities in 2012, all were rejected (indeed, all but one of ten such proposals that year were). So, let’s not pretend that this is a victory for people power; it’s a limited transfer of policy and spending power (not law-making power), some of it from central government and some of it from elected local councils, to a single directly-elected mayor whose decisions will need to be rubber-stamped by government, not a locally-elected body.

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After U.S, UK and EU, It Is Time For OIC To Declare China’s Actions Against Uyghur Muslims As Genocide

Muslim Matters - 2 February, 2021 - 13:15

By Gulnaz Uighur

There are several reasons of why people settle in other countries, sometimes its due to job opportunities, other times due to better standard of life but unfortunately for the Uyghur diaspora, leaving their homeland, East Turkestan (falsely called as Xinjiang by China), it was a matter of life and death.

Almost everyone in the Uyghur refugee community has a history of discrimination and fear which led us to flee from our own homes. The homes which were once a safe haven for us, the friends which used to be our support system and family members which were the reason for our existence. If we wouldn’t have fled China then we would have also detained by camps like millions of Uyghurs right now.

Today if you ask any of us, we will tell you that we haven’t only left our country but our dreams of prospering in our land, our wish to grow old in our ancestral house, to breath in our ancient history, our roots. Many of us have left even the possibility to ever return home.

If you ask any of us, we will tell you that we haven’t only left our country but our dreams of prospering in our land, our wish to grow old in our ancestral house, to breath in our ancient history, our roots. #UyghurGenocideClick To Tweet

Whenever my hands are raised for dua, I remember those who are suffering and pray for them. The fear of not knowing about their condition still sends shivers down my spine.

In these dark times when U.S recognized China’s actions against Uyghur Muslims, as genocide, it stirred something inside me. When the UK published its report and the EU called for sanctions against Chinese officials to stop the forced Uyghur Labor then a sigh of relief came out but an  significant organization is still missing in this struggle, that is the OIC. Despite all the evidence, testimonies, satellite images and the fact that China still doesn’t allow an independent investigation into the Uyghur region, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is still lagging behind in condemning actions of the Chinese Government. Instead of fulfilling its duty of protecting the Ummah, the organization chooses to continuously turn a blind eye towards the whole issue.

The U.S. government has declared Chinese government guilty of carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims. In a statement by former secretary Mike Pompeo, he said “if the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future.” Britain’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission (CPHRC) also claims to show evidence in their report that the actions taken by Beijing are “indicative of the crime of Genocide”.

In the report, The Darkness Deepens: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2016-2020, testimonies and evidence have been demonstrated to the commission about Millions of Uyghur detained in concentration camps. In these camps people go forced to denounce Islam, brainwashed into forgetting their Muslim identities, tortured, starved, women are forcefully sterilized and those who come out alive are made slaves. According to Dr Adrian Zenz, by 2019, Chinese authorities had “planned to subject at least 80% of women of childbearing age in the rural southern four minority prefectures to intrusive birth prevention surgeries (IUDs or sterilization), with actual shares likely being much higher.”

Uyghur who have survived the atrocities in the camps are sent to other provinces to work in supply chains of international brands like Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen. Even the European Parliament called for EU sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the abuse of Uyghur and to ban Chinese imports tainted with forced labor.

Many major organizations are standing up to China then why is the collective voice of the Muslim world, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation,  is still silent?

The post After U.S, UK and EU, It Is Time For OIC To Declare China’s Actions Against Uyghur Muslims As Genocide appeared first on

How should Muslims react to Holocaust education?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 2 February, 2021 - 08:00
The gateway to the Auschwitz concentration camp with a metal sign overhead reading "Arbeit macht frei" (work liberates). Behind the gates are the red-brick former Austrian barracks buildings.Entrance to the Auschwitz camp

Someone on Facebook shared an article from Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, on how immigrant (or immigrant-descended) Muslims in Germany react to Holocaust education efforts such as trips to concentration camps. The article notes that since the dawn of the century, “Turkish and Arab background Germans went from being considered irrelevant to Germany’s attempts to come to terms with its Nazi-era past, to being considered its prime obstacle, a status shared to a lesser extent by Germans from the former Communist state of East Germany”. They are accused of being reluctant to go on educational trips to old Nazi camps and of reacting ‘inappropriately’ when they do:

Holocaust educators often complain to me and to others that Muslim Germans express “unsuitable” emotions in response to the Holocaust. What were these “inappropriate” responses? The most common complaints were that participants expressed fear that something like the Holocaust could happen to them too; that they were jealous of the “status” of Jewish victims, and that they felt pride in their own national backgrounds.

The article features interviews with a German camp tour guide identified with the pseudonym Juliana and a woman of Turkish origin identified as Neshide who organises Holocaust education for immigrants (both are pseudonyms). Juliana calls the Turkish and Arab visitors “different from other visitors” and says she and other guides are “irritated” by them:

“For example, when they go to visit the camps, immigrants start to feel like they will be sent there next. They come out of the camp anxious and afraid. I do not like it at all when they do that, and [so] I do not even want to take them there.”

Neshide concurs with the sentiment, and says that Germans become angry when people of immigrant origin express it:

“A month later we were at a church as part of our training program. We told them about our project [to educate immigrants about the Holocaust] and then told them that we are ourselves afraid of being victims [one day]. 

“The people at the church became really angry at us. They told us to go back to our countries if this is how we think. I was really surprised at their reaction. I could not understand why this is not a legitimate question. Why should I not be concerned, personally, about the Nazis?”

During that heated conversation, Neshide repeated Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s statement: It happened once, so it can happen again. 

But this made the ladies in the church even more furious. Neshide and her friends were asked to leave the church. Neshide’s face reddened when she told me this story. She was reliving the shock and dismay she experienced when she was confronted with extreme anger instead of admiration for her empathy and identification with the history of the country of her new citizenship. 

The author notes that German Holocaust education focusses on “triggering feelings of remorse and responsibility” while Muslim Germans do not react in such a way; they react more viscerally, relating what they see to their own experiences of racism and Islamophobia. Germans see this reaction as evidence of a lack of “the correct moral qualities and … the capacity to be good citizens”. However, the article does not raise any questions about the character of those who judge immigrants for fearing for their own safety in a country which perpetrated a genocide within living memory, in a continent where there has been another — against Muslims — only 25 years ago, one which was aided and abetted by European politicians who, according to American sources, were reluctant to assist Bosnia because they regarded it as “not belonging” as a Muslim country in “Christian Europe”.

A street demonstration with a group of men and women holding a banner that reads "Rapefugees not welcome, stay away!" with a group of men with knives shown pursuing a woman.An anti-immigration demo with a banner seen at many such events across Germany and elsewhere

The Far Right in Europe today have Muslims as one of its principal targets, if not its main target. The same questions that were asked about Jews for centuries in Europe, about whether they could truly be citizens of the countries they lived in when they were not Christians and had roots abroad, are now asked about Muslims. Then as now they were presented as pressing questions which needed to be answered. Then as now, customs such as circumcision and methods of animal slaughter are targeted for prohibition, though in the past Jews had a certain amount of autonomy and were allowed to manage their own affairs in a way Muslims now are not. Muslims are accused widely of being sexual predators, branded “rape-fugees”, both by the Far Right and by feminists who also whip up attacks on Muslim women by branding the way they dress as an ‘oppression’ while refusing to acknowledge anything oppressive about the expectations on women in their culture. German newspapers have portrayed mosque minarets as military formations; such propaganda led to a referendum in Switzerland which went in favour of a ban.

That Germans expect people whose ancestors were not in Europe at the time of the Holocaust and were in no way involved, and who have become a focus of their suspicion and hostility themselves since, really shows that the leopard, so to speak, does not change its spots. Jews are no longer seen as a threat to the German way of life because there are too few of them; Germany is content to show off its guilt, pay substantial reparations and to assist Israel in its repression of the native Palestinians and to attack pro-Palestinian campaigners in Germany, even entertaining the idea that the very name ‘Palestinian’ should be rejected as anti-Zionist and therefore antisemitic, while finding new “enemies within” and building a new narrative of suspicion against them. I should add that Germany is not unique in this; Europe in general does not tolerate different cultures for very long and in every country that was occupied by the Germans, there were collaborators and informers, some of whom joined in the genocide. In France, parties compete to impress voters with their hostility to Muslims, and announce ever more new laws to restrict their normal activities.

Muslims can hardly be blamed for not joining in the German guilt trip: it is becoming part of the German national myth, a way for those in the political mainstream to feel better about themselves and justified in their racism while the Far Right directs the boots and fists. White Germans are as uncomfortable with immigrants telling them that they fear that the racism they face is no different and no more justified than the antisemitism of the past and could have the same deadly consequences in the future as White Americans are by being reminded that their country is still racist, that African Americans have personal experiences of racism from both ordinary Whites and the State and indeed that the racism of the past has not been reckoned with.

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Vaccine ‘scepticism’ is not about religion

Indigo Jo Blogs - 29 January, 2021 - 11:23
 Covid-19 Vaccination Centre. Follow the signs". A man in a long light-blue robe and a white 'topi' hat is walking through the car park.A Birmingham mosque being used as a Covid vaccination centre.

Sneering scientists won’t win over anti-vaxxers by Giles Fraser (UnHerd)

This article is sub-headed “Public intellectuals risk alienating religious believers” and the author is a vicar in an inner London Anglican church with, as he says, a large ethnic minority population among its parishioners. Some of his fellow clergy have noted that conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine have been circulating in their communities, among them claims that it is some sort of conspiracy to wipe out the “Black race” or that it marks recipients with ‘666’ (the mark of the Beast in the New Testament). He and they have been making every effort to reassure their flocks that the vaccine is safe, but accuses scientists who are also known secularists or Humanists of ridiculing people of faith:

Take Professor Alice Roberts, the Professor of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, who is also the President of Humanists UK. At the same time as Bishop Karowei and others were pleading with their communities not to see science as a threat, she was doing her level best to ridicule people of faith.

Without any consideration for whether now is an appropriate time to go on the offensive, Professor Roberts, displaying that jocular, superior tone so beloved by professional religion haters, took to social media to sneer about the resurrection, the virgin birth and so on. It “all seems a bit … makey-uppy,” she proclaimed.

I followed the link and it was clear that the discussion had nothing to do with Covid-19, the vaccine or any theories about it on the radio; she was talking about Christian beliefs on Twitter and the target was not an inner-city church with high levels of deprivation but Anglicans in Oxford. So, this exchange would have had no impact on Christians or anyone else not privy to that particular discussion. He cites a few other examples of other recent utterances by atheist scientists of forthright dismissal of religious beliefs such as the soul. Indeed most of his article is about the fact that many public scientists are atheists and hold contemptuous attitudes towards religion or even religious people; he does not make any effort to link this to their stance on Covid-19 or vaccines, at least not on public forums like the BBC or other mainstream news sources. He tells us that a National Secular Society member said about “religious attitudes towards Covid-19” in a forum post on their website, “some of these fanatics are obstinate, some are deluded or exploitative”, which is absolutely true of some cranks who have stirred up groundless fears about the vaccine or baseless doubts about the virus itself. Just because these people are usually hostile to religion does not mean they can’t be right about something.

In my observation, mainstream religious leaders of most if not all religions have sought to encourage people to follow government and scientific advice about the virus, to observe the lockdown and to accept the virus if there is no medical reason for them not to. Mosques have suspended communal daily and Friday prayers during both the major lockdowns, something that would have been unthinkable previously (although it has happened during previous times where there was an infectious disease spreading in the community) and some have been used as Covid testing or vaccination centres. I have seen scores of posts on social media from Muslims who have recently lost family to the virus begging people not to put their lives or other peoples’ at risk or to believe lies about the virus.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories and denialism spread among both religious and secular alike; the principal agitators against lockdowns, in favour of opening up schools and businesses when many scientists believe the time is not right, and against the belief that the virus is a serious health threat are not religious leaders but columnists and radio broadcasts, many of whom are not known for having strong religious beliefs if any. People believe a lot of it because they do not want to believe that they are in danger or that harsh measures are necessary (much as with action on climate change: people do not want to believe that changes to their lifestyle are necessary), not because their religion tells them to. In other cases they are long-established beliefs which have been common in certain minorities for years (e.g. that vaccines are intended for sterilisation or for spying, which in some cases have their roots in real incidents) and have nothing to do with religion even though many who believe them are also religious.

He accuses the scientists of using the virus as another opportunity to wage a culture war, but this seems to be the intention of his article: it’s another variant on the “these educated metropolitans can’t resist showing their contempt for ordinary people”. It’s true that many atheists regard people who hold religious beliefs of any sort as credulous fools who will believe any crank with any ludicrous theory, but Covid or vaccine scepticism has nothing to do with religion or religious belief; it feeds off common logical fallacies and cognitive biases which are independent of religion. Rather than furnish us with some irrelevant examples of recent expressions of atheism, Fraser should have tried to disprove the link between religious belief and Covid denialism and anti-vaxery, which is quite easy to do, rather than suggest that “religious believers” need to be won over from it. We don’t.

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Day of the Dogs, Part 15:  DNA Doesn’t Lie

Muslim Matters - 27 January, 2021 - 07:00

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13

“I’m blind, not an infant.” – Samia

Pinwheel Bubur cha cha

Bubur cha cha

They ate delivery pizza for dinner, as they often did on Mondays. It was a consolation prize. We have to go back to work and school, but it’s pizza night! For dessert Samia prepared bubur chacha, a Malaysian concoction made with coconut milk, sago, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and black-eyed peas. It normally included pandan leaves, but they were not available in Panama, so Samia substituted cilantro, as her mother had taught her.

It was delicious, with the yams and potatoes giving it texture, the coconut milk adding creaminess, and the cilantro giving it a touch of lightness and aroma.

After the family prayed Maghreb, Omar scooped a generous portion of bubur chacha into a snack container with a snap-on lid, and told Samia he was going to visit Tio Melo.

“Will you bring apple empanadas?” Nur asked. He and his mother still sat on the floor where they’d prayed Maghreb, saying dhikr on a sabha. Nur, who leaned on his mother’s lap, would count eleven, and Samia would count eleven.

“You like Tio Melo’s empanadas?”

“You always buy sweets after being grouchy.”

“After being a Team Magma, you mean?”

Nur rolled his eyes. “You’re too old to say that, Papá.”

“Oye cariño,” Omar said to Samia, then hesitated. He didn’t want to tell her about Nemesio. There was no need to frighten her. The man would almost certainly be caught soon. Wasn’t that how these things always ended? You’d see an alert about a prison escape, and a few hours later the escapees would be caught stumbling through the woods, or hiding in a roadside ditch.


“Don’t open the gate for strangers.”

Her fingers paused on the sabha. “I never do. Why are you saying that?”

“Dangerous times, that’s all. Didn’t you hear on the radio about the prison escape?”

Samia giggled. “The escaped prisoners are planning to hide in our bathroom.”

Omar gave an annoyed cluck of his tongue and headed for the door.

Pinwheel“Papá!” Nur ran to his bedroom and returned with a little pinwheel he’d made from paper, a straw and a pushpin, and had colored himself. “For the gate.”

Nur always said that the high steel gate that fronted their property looked scary, like the gateway to the final challenge in The Neverending Story. He liked to tape drawings or homemade decorations to the gate, so visitors would not be frightened off.

Omar taped the pinwheel to one of the spikes atop the gate. Right away the toy began turning, its spinning blades showing green, red, yellow and pink. Omar smiled. He hoped Nur would always retain his creative impulse, and his desire to bring cheer to the world. Part of that would be up to Omar himself. He must never let himself become the kind of overbearing father who thought that parenting consisted of breaking down his child and forcing him into an unnatural mold.

He found himself wondering what kind of parent Ivana had been. The fun kind, probably. Immature perhaps, but exciting and unpredictable. He’d always thought that Fuad’s best move would be to divorce her. Now he wasn’t so sure, even if the crazy woman had shot him.

Brains Like An Elephant

You couldn’t leave your car unwatched in this neighborhood, so he parked right in front of the shop. There were not many proper grocery stores in this barrio, and Tio Melo had always stocked a variety of vegetables and fruits, along with prepared foods like arroz con pollo, empanadas filled with chicken or beef, and cheese-stuffed yuca fritters. The result was people flocked to his shop.

Panama mini marketThe original shack had been torn down, replaced with a properly constructed building. In the process, the formerly long and unwieldy name had been reduced to Panama Viejo Snacks and Lottery. Omar was glad. It had always seemed wrong to have his father’s name on a store that sold lottery tickets and beer.

The old wooden bench that had sat out in front was now replaced with four concrete benches, and locals could always be found hanging out, chatting, reading the newspaper and eating snacks. Tio Melo had five employees working the aisles and registers, and Melo himself was usually in the kitchen making prepared foods, or in a little office in the back.

Omar waved to the workers as he weaved through the aisles. A chubby young man with a large portwine birthmark on his cheek, so that people called him Gorby – short for Gorbachev – was stocking toiletries.

“Hey Gorby,” Omar called out. “What’s the word?”

“Father Bayano,” Gorby replied, and crossed himself. “Tio Melo is In the office. Hallelujah.”

Omar rolled his eyes. Gorby had once made a dirty joke about what Tio Melo did in the office. Omar had told him forcefully that he didn’t like such jokes, and that people must respect their elders. Gorby had concluded that Omar was a priest. Omar tried to explain that he was a Muslim, and believed in only one God, but the more he spoke of God, the more convinced Gorby was of his priesthood.

He found the old man sleeping on a folding cot surrounded by stacked boxes of canned foods. The cramped office held a tiny desk with a laptop computer surrounded by invoices. Some of Nur’s drawings were taped to the walls, along with old internet-printed pictures of masjids, churches and temples from all over the world. These had gradually replaced magazine tear-outs of Latin American actresses. “I’m a relic,” Tio Melo would say. “I hear God calling.”

Melo’s knees were tucked like an infant’s, one arm flung across his eyes as he snored. In the years Omar had known him, his hair had gone paper white, but his physique was still lean and fit.

Melo snorted and opened his eyes, squinting. His face broke into a sleepy smile, and he sat up.

“You’re a good sight. How goes the struggle?”

This was a standard Melo-ism. He always spoke of the great struggle for social and economic equality. Sometimes he’d quote Lenin, Mao or Che Guevara.

“I was sick for a while, but I’m better now. I brought you bubur chacha.” Omar handed Tio Melo the container, the kind with a snap-on lid and a side compartment holding a spoon. The old man commenced eating and smacking his lips. He loved Samia’s desserts.

“Do you remember the first time I came to your shop?”

“Absolutely,” Melo replied, talking with a full mouth so that bits of food spilled into his lap. “Those animals tried to mug you. Your face looked like Gorby’s. I treated you and gave you an empanada and a Coke.”

“Your memory is sharp.”

Melo grinned and tapped his temple. “Brains like an elephant!”

“Then why, whenever I ask about your youth, family, things like that, do you always say you’re an old relic and can’t remember?”

The grin faded. “Those things were a long time ago.” He scraped the last few bits from the corners of the container.

Omar reached out and snatched the container and spoon out of Melo’s hands. He dropped the spoon into the container and snapped it shut. “Gotta go.”

Melo threw up his hands. “You just got here! At least let me wash the dish.”

“No need. Go back to sleep.” He exited quickly.

In the car he gripped the spoon by the end of the handle, dropped it into a ziploc bag and sealed it. He didn’t know if the small amount of saliva on the spoon would be sufficient for a DNA test. He hoped it would, because he knew without asking that if he asked Tio Melo for a proper sample, the man would refuse.

Life was full of mysteries that would never be solved, and questions that would never be answered. Well, this one would. He would have one little bit of verifiable truth. One fact. And though he didn’t know at all how he would feel about the result, actually knowing was worth something, wasn’t it?

The Price to Pay

Most of the DNA research companies mailed kits to their customers. The customers deposited the saliva into a special receptacle, sealed it and mailed it back. Results came in six to eight weeks. But Omar had done his research, and there was an American company with an office and lab right here in Panama, near the old bakery on Vía Brasil. After leaving Tio Melo’s shop, he drove directly there.

The place was closed. Their hours were 10 to 4. He’d have to come back tomorrow. Exasperated, he wondered how anything got done in this crazy country.

* * *

It rained again that night. Once again, Omar found himself sitting alone in the living room with Berlina curled up beside him on the floor, and again Samia came down in the dark and joined him. Berlina raised her head to be petted, then returned to her dreams.

“You smell like Vía Brasil,” Samia said. “It’s been on you all evening.”

Omar looked at her quizzically. “Did I tell you I went there?”

“No. The old bakery there is the only one that makes American style bread. The aroma is distinct.”

“My goodness. You could be Daredevil.” He told her what he’d done with Melo’s saliva. He thought she would ask him what he’d do if the test was positive, and what it meant to him – but she did not. The rain grew heavier, and after some time, Omar said, “I want to help the Venezuelan refugees.”

“That’s a big project.”

“Not all refugees. Just the ones by the Centro. I don’t imagine I can do anything great. Just like you said, help them get their residency papers. Maybe hook them up with someone who can fast-track their applications. Tiny ripples that build a current.”

Samia tilted her head. “That’s familiar. Where have I heard that?”

“‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal,’” Omar began to recite, “‘or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice-’”

“‘He sends forth,’” Samia jumped in excitedly, “‘a tiny ripple of hope. Those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.’ JFK. That was from tenth grade graduation! How do you remember that?”

“I was paying attention. Plus, it was the day before the Day of the Dogs. I remember everything from that time.”

“What?” Samia smacked his arm lightly. “You always say that everything from that time is a blur.”

“Yeah… I say that.”


“I want to tell you something. The man who was here was Celio Natá.”

“What do you mean? Not the Celio Natá? King of the Ngäbe-Buglé? The Black Knife?”

“He’s my uncle.”

“Your what?

“Come.” He pulled her close. Reluctantly, he told her everything. The fact of his royal Ngäbe heritage, and the offer that Tio Celio had made him. Or the demand, more like it.

When he was done, Samia was silent, merely tapping one finger on the bridge of her nose. Omar knew this gesture. It meant she was thinking things she did not want to say out loud.


“Why have you never told me any of this?”

“Because I’m not involved with all that. The only one of my mother’s family who cares about me is Tia Teresa. Even now, Celio doesn’t give a monkey’s butt. He wants to use me for his purposes.”

Samia grunted.


“That man has killed people.”

Omar shook his head. “Whatever he did was what he had to do. The Ngäbes don’t have recourse to the law like we do. Just the opposite. The law is a weapon against them. Natives in these lands have never had anything but what they fought for tooth and nail.”

“Listen to you defending him. If that isn’t proof that everything he said was wrong, I don’t know what is.”

Hearing these words, Omar felt a flood of gratitude to Allah for giving him Samia as a companion, and to Samia herself for being the person she was. What would his life have been without her? He couldn’t imagine. He and Samia were the happiest couple he knew. What, he wondered, was the price to pay for that? This question – and the fact that he had no answer – worried him.

A Different Reason

“But that doesn’t mean,” Samia continued, “that your heart is pure.”

Omar went still. “What do you mean?”

“Consider. You want to help the Venezuelans.”


“But you don’t want to help the Ngäbes?”

Omar’s jaw tightened. “What are you saying? That I’m a hypocrite?” He heard his own voice rising in pitch, and moved away from Samia on the sofa, creating some space between them. So much for being the happiest couple in the world.

Samia touched his arm. “I think you should examine your reason for not wanting to be involved with the Ngäbes.”

“What do you mean? What reason?

“You know.”

“No. I don’t.” He rose and walked out of the room. He wasn’t sure where he was going until he got to the front door, where he put on his slippers and went out into the garden.

Stranger At The Gate

Panama night skyThe night sky was overcast, but the air was warm. The moon struggled but failed to shine through the clouds, casting only a few beams of pale light. He strolled about the garden, peering nervously into the branches of the eucalyptus tree, where he’d seen the harpy. There was nothing there. The air was filled with the scent of papaya. He would have to pick them soon, or the birds would tear them apart. Though Omar personally did not like papaya. It tasted like garbage.

Without planning to, he began practicing karate. Back stance, block, front stance, kick. Samia didn’t know what she was talking about. She’d always been like that, thinking she knew the answers to everything. Of course she wasn’t as bad now as back in high school. And most of the time it didn’t bother him, because she was an insightful and wise woman. But sometimes she presumed too much.

Normally once he began a practice session he would run through all the basic kicks, strikes and blocks. But he found himself tiring. He sat on the edge of the fountain, and splashed water on his face and arms. It felt soothing. He remembered Halima sitting here when she’d first arrived, trailing her fingers through the water. People made strange choices.

He heard footsteps walking past the garden wall. That was not unheard of, though pedestrians at this time of night were rare. But the footsteps paused, and Omar had the uncanny feeling that someone was standing just on the other side of the gate, listening. There was a narrow gap, no more than ten centimeters, between the bottom of the gate and the driveway, and Omar peered at it. Was that a pair of feet? It was impossible to tell. In the darkness everything blended into a gray soup.

He cocked his head, trying to discern the sound of departing footsteps. But they never came. Whoever it was must still be standing there. Could they be fiddling with the code box? Hacking it? It wouldn’t work – at night the gate was manually bolted – but Omar had to do something.

He leaped up, shedding his slippers – hoping he wouldn’t step on any leafcutter ants – and ran on the balls of his feet around the side of the house, past the compost heap to the garden shed in back. The long-handled tools were stacked in one corner, and though it was utterly dark inside, he felt the tools until he found the shovel.

Seizing it, he dashed to the gate. Not bothering with stealth, he slammed the bolt open, swung the gate wide, and leaped onto the sidewalk, gripping the tool with both hands.

There was no one there. He looked in every direction, but though the occasional car zipped past, the sidewalks were deserted. His chest heaved. He snorted at his own ridiculousness, and was about to go back inside when he noticed that Nur’s pinwheel, the one that had been taped to one of the gate spikes, was gone. It could have fallen off. That happened all the time. Omar looked around and sure enough, there it was on the sidewalk a few steps away. But it had been stepped on and flattened. He could see a muddy shoe print on the paper. That was… odd. Almost as if someone had thrown it down and stepped on it deliberately.

He locked the gate and returned the shovel to the shed. When he went back inside, Samia was asleep.

The Arbiter of Human Transactions

The next day he made a quick trip to the DNA testing office on his lunch break. As soon as he walked into the place, goosebumps rose on his arms. It was as cold in here as a winter day in Bogotá. This was a Panamanian thing. The hotter it got outside, the more these places cranked the AC. It was like, the colder your office, the more you proved you were high class. In fact, he noticed now, the receptionist – a chubby girl with light makeup and fingernails that were each a different color – was wearing a sweater!

He gave the woman the bagged spoon. “There’s some saliva on the spoon. I want it tested.”

The receptionist eyed the bag skeptically. “This isn’t enough. Why didn’t you use the sample container we mailed you?”

“I never requested one.” He assumed a confidential tone. “It’s for my grandfather. He’s not all there, you know.” He tapped his head. “I can’t collect a normal sample. He won’t cooperate.” That was half true, anyway.

She made a sympathetic face. “Alzheimer’s? Dementia?”

He nodded. “Like that.”

“We can test this, but it will cost extra.” She reached under her desk and came out with a sticky label. “What’s his name?”

“Señor Melocoton.”

The woman giggled. “That’s a funny name.” She peeled the label and stuck it to the bag.

“I want to compare that to my own DNA.”

DNA test sample bottle“Oh. Then you do need a sample kit.” She went down a corridor and returned a moment later with a small stoppered glass bottle and some paperwork. Omar filled out the paperwork, gathered some saliva in his mouth and deposited it in the bottle. The woman copied his name and contact information onto another sticky label, and applied it to the bottle.

“Do you want to pay extra for DNA spheres?”

Omar shrugged. He had no idea what that was. “Sure.”

She rang up the total. It wasn’t cheap.

Omar handed over his debit card, thinking that this little rectangle of plastic had become the arbiter of human transactions. Whereas human interactions in the old days had ended with a handshake, a kind word or even a prayer, now they ended by passing a plastic card back and forth.

The results would be ready in two days.

Armed and Dangerous

On the way home, Samia asked if Omar was going to listen to the news, but Omar said no, he wasn’t in the mood. He didn’t want her to hear any mention of the prison escapees. Instead, after Maghreb, he went out to the car, and turned on the radio to catch the seven o’clock news. He closed his eyes and put his head against the headrest, tuning out the usual litany of dire news from around the world. He hoped the announcer would give the good news that the prison escapees had been caught. Or even better, that Nemesio had been shot by the police.

The actual news was worse than he could have imagined. Of the original eight escapees, five had been caught. One had been found in the forested mountains surrounding the prison, dying of a snake bite. One was shot by an armed guard while trying to rob a bank. The last, Nemesio Bayano, was still at large. He’d been seen on CCTV breaking into a storage unit in a Panama City mini storage. The facility clerk had been murdered, his throat slit. Multiple units were broken into, one of which had apparently belonged to Bayano, though its contents had long since been confiscated. Another unit belonged to a police supplies company, and may have included guns. Nemesio Bayano was now considered armed and extremely dangerous.

Wonderful, Omar thought. My last name is now synonymous throughout Panama with “escaped murdering criminal.” He turned off the radio and pressed his palms into his eyes, then raised his hands and made a dua: “Ya Allah, protect my family from all harm, even the harm I might bring.” He finished by praying for the suffering Muslims around the world.

That night, he took a hammer from the toolshed and hid it underneath the front seat of the car. It was better than nothing.

Your Partner, Not Your Child

Samia found out about Nemesio. It could hardly be helped. Everyone at work was talking about the mad killer convict, and some of the workers ribbed Omar good-naturedly because he and the escapee had the last name. The only blessing was that none of them knew that Nemesio was actually his uncle.

His mother spoke to him first thing in the morning and told him that the police had come to see her. Her demeanor was subdued, and neither of them wanted to talk about it. Later that morning he had a meeting with two creatives from the ad agency that represented Puro Panameño. He wanted to do a full two-page spread in Calidad, and had asked them to come up with ideas. The two young women set up three tripods and showed him mockups, each depicting a version of a teenage girl on a skateboard, flying over Panama City, with lipstick tubes streaming behind her like a rainbow.

Omar regarded the agency women. One had green hair and a lip ring, and wore jeans and a cutoff shirt that bared her midriff. The other, though more conservatively dressed, wore dark, edgy makeup that looked like the stuff that Midnight Moon and Acid made – two of Puro Panameño’s competitors.

“Have either of you actually read Calidad?”

The women glanced at each other. “We’ve skimmed it,” one said.

“It’s the grandmother of Latin American fashion magazines. Been around since the 1930’s. It caters to a mature, upscale crowd. These women wear Oscar de la Renta and sit on charity boards. They don’t fly over the city on skateboards.”

Before the women could reply, Samia came hurrying into the room, her face tight with worry. She had her cane in one hand but was not using it. She stumbled into one of the tripods, which fell with a clatter.

“What’s that?” Samia said. “Omar, are you here?”

“Yes, sorry. I’m in a meeting, but we’re done.” He addressed the women. “Study Calidad. Don’t waste my time. And ask my assistant Belen for a sample case. If you want to sell our products, start by using them.” He waved his hand. “Take all this.”

Once the women were gone, Omar saw Samia tilting her head in his direction, her expression thoughtful. “I came here to tell you the news about your uncle Nemesio, but you already know.”

“Yes.” He didn’t bother asking her how she knew that he knew. She could read his demeanor, and even his breathing.

She nodded slowly. “There’s more. What else?”

Omar sighed. Keeping secrets from Samia was impossible. He told her about the visit from the police, and Nemesio’s vow to kill him.

Her face turned red with fury. “You should have told me! I’m blind, not an infant.” She struck the ground with her cane. “This affects me and Nur too. You’re keeping too many secrets lately and I’m tired of it. It seems like your first impulse lately is to conceal. Oh, something strange or dangerous is happening? Let’s hide it from the poor little blind wife.”

Omar was shocked. He’d never seen her so angry. But her words triggered something in him and he had to defend himself. “I would never put you or Nur in jeopardy,” he insisted.

“Really? There’s more than one kind of jeopardy. Don’t you think some of the children at school might have heard the news? They know Nur’s last name. They might have been teasing him all day today. Children can be ruthless, as you very well know. At least if you’d told me I could have discussed it with him, prepared him.”

She was right. He tried to apologize but she stormed out of the office, bumping into the door frame and cracking her elbow. She cried out in pain and slammed the door behind her.

White Mercedes

Samia was still angry after work, when they headed to the parking garage that Puro Panameño shared with the buildings on this block. Omar had parked on the third level. Normally Sama linked her arm with Omar’s while walking in the garage, but now she strode ahead, using her cane.

“Samia,” Omar said in exasperation. “Would you wait please? You don’t even know where the car is.”

“I know more than you think.”

Parking garageOmar hurried behind her. When they were about ten meters from their car, Omar noticed another car, an old white Mercedes, parked across the aisle from theirs, facing in the other direction.

The car’s windows were tinted, but the driver’s side window was open a crack, and as Omar watched, a cloud of cigarette smoke slipped out and curled into the air. In the gloom of the garage, Omar could see the glow of the cigarette clearly, but the form of the man himself was a shadow.

“Samia, wait.”

She didn’t listen. Omar seized her arm. “Wait.” This was one case when her ability to read his emotions was helpful, because she stopped immediately and held still.

“There’s a man in a car,” Omar whispered.

“It’s a parking garage,” she said sarcastically. “Of course there are men in cars.” But she kept her voice low.

There was something about this man that put Omar on his guard. There was no glow of a cell phone screen, no music. What was the guy doing? Waiting for someone, maybe?

The Mercedes’s engine came to life with a roar. The car backed rapidly out of the parking spot, and screeched to stop. Omar grabbed Samia around the waist and pulled her between two cars. She cried out in fear, and her cane clattered to the ground. Omar wished he had a weapon of some kind. Was Nemesio going to leap out and charge at him with a knife? Or take aim and shoot him? But the car sped off, heading for the ramp that went down toward the street.

“Was it him?” Samia breathed.

Omar almost said, “No,” but Samia was right. He’d been keeping too many secrets. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I couldn’t see his face.”

Ghawrath Moment

Samia was subdued after that. On their way to pick up Nur, she said, “I’m sorry I shouted at you. I was afraid. I should have more faith.”

“Fear is normal, Samia.”

“Do you know the story of Ghawrath ibn al-Harith, when he tried to kill Rasulullah, sal-Allahu alayhi wa sallam?”

Swerving to avoid a taxi that cut him off, Omar glanced at her. “No.”

Samia told the story:

It was during a lull in a battle. The mushrikeen detected a gap in the Muslims’ defenses, and sent Ghawrath to slip through and assassinate the Prophet. Ghawrath found the Prophet sitting in the shade of a tree with his sword hanging from a branch. Some say Ghawrath asked to see the sword and the Prophet agreed. Some say the Prophet was asleep, and Ghawrath took the sword. In any case, Ghawrath unsheathed the sword and held it over the head of the Prophet.

He said, “Muhammad, don’t you fear me?”


“Who is there to protect you from me?”

“Allah.” The sword fell from Ghawrath’s grasp and the Prophet picked it up and returned the question, saying, “Who protects you from me?” At which point Ghawrath pleaded for compassion, promising not to fight the Muslims again. The Prophet let the man go.

* * *

Omar said, “And?”


“It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?”

He considered. Why wasn’t it that simple? What is because he lacked faith? Was it because he’d already had his own Ghawrath moment – on the Day of the Dogs – and though he’d survived, it was not an experience he wanted to repeat? In the end he said,”I don’t know.”

They picked up Nur. Fortunately, Samia was wrong about Nur’s friends. Apparently none of them had parents who watched or listened to the news, or if they did, the children had not paid attention. They were only four years old, after all.


The DNA testing company called the next morning. The results were ready. Omar drove over on his lunch break. He parked in front of the company’s office, and as he was getting out of the car he saw an old white Mercedes drive by on Vía Brasil. He dashed to the sidewalk, but the car was gone, lost in a sea of traffic. Omar shook his head. He was acting crazy. It was probably not even the same car.

The chubby receptionist with the multicolored nails gave him two large sealed envelopes. She indicated some comfortable chairs in the lobby. “You can open it here if you like. Sometimes people don’t want to wait.”

Omar sat and shivered. It was still freezing cold in here. He should have brought his own sweater to this silly place.

Map of the Ashanti Empre

West Africa and the Ashanti Empire

He opened the two envelopes. Each was filled with papers containing colorful maps and graphs. He looked at Tio Melo’s first. The charts showed Melo’s ancestry, indicating that on the paternal side, the old man’s DNA was 88% West African, specifically from the Ashanti tribe in modern day Ghana.

The other 12% was Arawak – the original, indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. Probably, Omar thought, Melo’s father or great-grandfather had come from Jamaica. That was true for a lot of Afro-Panamanians.

On the maternal side, Melo was 65% southwest African, and 35% European, with the European part breaking down to English, Scandinavian and French. Omar could guess what this meant. One or more of Melo’s female slave ancestors had been raped by the slavemaster.

He took a quick look at his own chart. His paternal lineage was similar to Melo’s except that the Ashanti and Arawak genes comprised a much smaller percentage, as he was 50% Chinese. On the maternal side, he was 100% Ngäbe.

His hand trembled as he held the papers. The meaning of the results was clear. The similarity between his own ancestral DNA and Melo’s was too great to be coincidence.

But while this was fascinating, it wasn’t definitive. Where was the proof?

DNA Spheres

He went to the receptionist. “Where’s the part that says definitely whether me and Melocoton are related?”

She took the papers, paged through them, and held one out. “Here. This is the thing you paid extra for. It’s everyone who is in the database and shares your DNA.”

The page was titled DNA Spheres. It depicted a small sphere within a larger sphere. The larger sphere was headed, “Samuel Sharpe.” Beneath it were 17 names in two columns, some with their birth dates listed as well. A notation at the bottom read: These individuals carry the DNA of Samuel Sharpe, who lived in Jamaica from 1801 to 1832.

Omar had heard of Sam Sharpe. He was a Jamaican slave who led a rebellion against the British. A national hero.

The smaller sphere was titled, “Direct relatives of Omar Reymundo Bayano.” There were only three names, also with birth dates listed. Omar’s eyes widened. He looked around as if expecting a hidden camera TV show to jump out. The sterile, frigid office was empty but for him and the receptionist. “Is this a joke?” he demanded. “I paid good money for this.”

She frowned. “I don’t know what you mean, sir.”

Omar pointed to the small sphere. “This doesn’t make sense. Why would you even have this person’s DNA?”

“If the name is there, it’s because that person got tested at some point.”

“I’m pretty sure you guys made a mistake.”

The receptionist flashed a practiced smile and uttered a line she’d probably said a thousand times: “The results are 99.99% accurate. DNA doesn’t lie.”

The direct relatives listed below Omar’s name in the small sphere were:

Señor Melocoton – grandfather, paternal.
Nemesio Santiago Zhang Bayano – uncle, paternal.
Ivana Soto Serrano – first cousin, paternal.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 16:  When You Forgive, You Live

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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.


Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at

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