Tuesday, December 3, 2019
WHEN Islam first arrived in this ancient region, called “Burma” under the British and “Myanmar” after 1989, is difficult to determine. With China to the north, India and Bangladesh to the northwest and Thailand to the east and south, Myanmar faces west into the Andaman Sea.
The name “Burma” is a British colonial construct for a country that was plundered for its natural wealth. British rule lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese Wars to the creation of Burma as a province of British India, to the establishment of an independently administered colony, and then finally, to independence in 1948.
The locals called their country “myanma naing ngan”, the lexical source of the name Myanmar. The British imperial tongue stumbled over these words and adopted Burma, naming the country Burma in honour of the Burmans, the dominant ethnic group.
From the earliest times, Myanmar was known to seafarers from Persia, Arabia, India, China and Indonesia. It was renowned for its rubies, sapphire, jade, teak and rice. It was also part of the overland silk route from India to China. The earliest archaeological evidence suggests civilisations existed in Myanmar as early as 11,000 BCE.
It is along these sea routes and overland passes that not only trade, but culture and faith travelled. The old Arakan Kingdom, which is our focus, hugs the western coastline as a long finger of land, abutting Bangladesh in the northwest. The region is divided from Burma by a range of mountains, the Arakan Yomas.
The people of Arakan are known as Rakhine, or Rohingya, with Arakan annexed to British India in 1826. Researchers say the name “Rohingya” (as well as “Rakhine”) is probably derived from “Rohingyahang”, an ancient name for Arakan.
The Rohingya hail from the Rakhine State, Arakan, which in pre-colonial times was a distinct region, sometimes one kingdom and sometimes several kingdoms. They were either ruled by Buddhist potentates, Hindu kings, Muslim Sultans, or hybrid Muslim-Buddhist courts.
The history of the region is complex, convoluted and very often layered with multi-ethnic and multi-faith narratives. The Rohingya are an intimate part of this diverse tapestry, a colourful human tapestry in Myanmar which has 135 different ethnic groups in a population of about 55 million.
Some sources claim that the first Muslim in Myanmar was Muhammad ibn Hanafiyya, a son of Sayyidina ‘Ali, one of the Righteous Caliphs who ruled after the demise of the Prophet.
According to legends he converted a cannibal queen, Kaiyapuri, to Islam and married her.
The most enduring narrative is that from the 8th century onwards, Muslim seafarers settled along the coast, marrying into local communities. This thesis coincides with how Islam arrived in the China Seas, spreading to northern Sumatra and mainland China.
To the maritime Arabs and Persians, the coastal regions of Arakan en route to the Malacca Straits, would have been well known.
Other sources maintain that the very first Muslims to be mentioned in the Myanmar chronicles, the Maha Rajaweng, were the two sons of an Arab merchant, Byat Wi and Byat Ta, in 1050 CE. The second mention in the chronicles is Yaman Khan, or Rahman Khan, from the days of King Sawlu (1077-1088), who succeeded his father Anawrahta to the throne. Anawrahta, the first king of Myanmar, introduced Theravada Buddhism.
It propagated four noble truths: that existence itself was suffering; that suffering had a cause in earthly attachment; that there was a cessation of this suffering by striving; and that there was a path to success by achieving nirvana, or cosmic harmony.
Anawrahta’s capital on the Irrawaddy River became a prominent city of pagodas and temples. Interestingly, Anawrahta appointed a Muslim-Arab scholar as a royal teacher to his son, Prince Sawlu. When Prince Sawlu became king, he appointed the son of his teacher as well as his childhood friend, Yaman Khan, as governor of the city of Pegu.
This cultural intimacy between Buddhism and Islam from the earliest days is something forgotten in the contemporary xenophobic narrative of the Rohingya, which has been marred by the ultra-nationalism of the current Myanmar state; a sugar-coated junta which claims the Rohingya belong to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Ironically, it is this very same junta that makes a Freudian slip when one of its official publications, Sasana Ronwas Htunzepho, published in 1997 says, “Islam spread and was deeply rooted in Arakan (the Rakhine Rohingyan state) since the 8th century from where it further spread into the interior of Burma.”
An example of this is the old city of Mrauk U, which literally means “monkey’s egg”. It is a sleepy town today, but for 355 years, was the seat of the Arakan Empire where Portuguese, Dutch and French traders rubbed shoulders with the literati of Bengal and Indian Mughal princes. It was part of the Bengal sultanate from 1430-1531.
At its peak, Mrauk U controlled half of Bangladesh, Arakan and the western part of lower Myanmar. Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples and mosques were built as the city grew. In fact, the golden city of Mrauk U became known in Europe as a centre of oriental splendour.
Buddhist rulers style themselves after the Sultans
Historians note that the Buddhist rulers, who took power after 1531, styled themselves after the Sultans, even giving themselves Islamic titles such as “Shah”, and hiring Muslim civil servants. They adopted the conical Sufi hats of Isfahan and Delhi. They also minted coins inscribing the kalimah in Persian and Arabic calligraphy.
The Mandalay academic, Dr Ko Ko Gyi, says, “This was because they (the Arakanese kings) not only wished to be thought of as sultans in their own rights, but also because there were Muslims in ever larger numbers among their subjects.”
Indeed, there were large scale conversions of Buddhists to Islam from the 15th to 18th centuries, with the Mughals taking over Arakan in 1665. Later, when the Dutch were ordered by the Mughals to quit Arakan, they were afraid of leaving behind the children they’d had with local women, horrified at the idea of them becoming Muslim.
Once a sovereign and independent entity, and geographically and historically cut off from the rest of the country, these facts explain the distinctly separate development of Arakan in terms of its Muslim population. This until the Burmese king, Bodaw Paya, conquered and looted it on 28th December 1784, taking its regent and 20,000 captives.
Thousands of Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists were put to death. 30, 000 Burmese soldiers destroyed mosques, temples, shrines, seminaries and libraries. The fall of the Mrauk-U Empire was a mortal blow to the Muslims, for everything Islamic in it was razed to the ground.
In 1790, Hiram Cox, a British diplomat sent to assist Arakan, or Rohingya, refugees established the town of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. This is where many Rohingya still live today, and where there is the biggest Rohingyan refugee camp in the world with nearly one million inhabitants.
Bodaw Paya’s disruption would seal the modern-day fate of Arakan and shape Myanmar’s jaundiced perceptions of the Muslim minority. Michael Symes, the British representative at Bodaw Paya’s court, described him as “a child in his ideas, a tyrant in his principles, and a madman in his actions”.
Bodaw Paya was an extremist Buddhist who had proclaimed himself a messianic figure. He even persecuted other Buddhist sects, deeming the Buddhist sins of drinking, smoking opium and killing animals punishable by death. His reign was so oppressive that in 1794 the people of Arakan rose up against him.
When Bodaw Paya sent an army to crush the revolt, thousands of refugees fled from Arakan into British territory. Conditions on the Arakan border became so unsettled that in 1795 the British had to send a representative to negotiate with Bodaw Paya. By 1826, the British had annexed Arakan to colonial Burma.
1942 Burmese nationalists slaughter Muslims and Buddhists
In 1942, during the Second World War, Japan invaded Myanmar. As the British retreated, Burmese nationalists attacked Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan whom they thought had benefited from British colonial rule. 40,000 Rohingya and 20,000 Arakan Buddhists were slaughtered
Britain liberated Myanmar from Japanese occupation with the help of Burmese nationalists and Rohingya fighters in 1945. The British recognised the Rohingya Muslims as a distinct racial group, and promised them autonomy in North Arakan. However, the British didn’t fulfil their promise.
In 1948 tensions increased between the government of newly independent Burma and the Rohingya, many of whom wanted Arakan to join Pakistan. The government retaliated by ostracizing the Rohingya, including the removal of Rohingyan civil servants from their posts.
Prior to 1962, and the socialist era, the government tried to appease Rohingyan aspirations of autonomy with limited Arakan nationhood. This came against a background of armed resistance led by the Mujahid movement and the former Qawali singer, Jafar Kawal.
After the military coup of March 1962, the military regime led by General Ne Win, cancelled plans to grant Arakan statehood. In February 1963, the regime nationalised all commercial enterprises. In Arakan, most of the business establishments were in the hands of the Rohingya Muslims.
If that wasn’t enough, in 1964 Rohingyan welfare organisations were banned. In 1965, the military regime banned the Rohingyan language from the airwaves. In 1974, the Peoples’ Congress ratified Arakan as the Rakhine State. It was now controlled by a Buddhist majority with the Rohingya marginalised.
The discrimination against the Rohingya is best explained by the military junta systematically – and cynically – stoking the fears of the demise of Buddhism (89% of the population compared to Muslims being 4%), and the break-up of the nation due to Islamic insurgency. This was done to cultivate loyalty in a population resentful of unpopular junta policies.
The narrative that Myanmar needs to protect Buddhism from Islam is a cheap and tawdry nationalism that has persisted for over a century. And as with so many dictatorships, 911 would prove to be a boon for Myanmar’s junta, which in the name of fighting “Islamic terror” could justify its human rights abuses.
Operation King Dragon 1978
The fact is that by the 1970s the Rohingya, the straw dogs of Burmese nationalism, had already become victims of state-sponsored terror. During “Operation King Dragon” in 1978, military forces targeted the Rohingya, and were accused of mass detentions, rape, and the burning of villages. 300,000 people fled to nearby Bangladesh.
In 1982, the Rohingya were denied citizenship under the Myanmar Nationality Law. The junta’s apartheid was entrenched by imposing severe restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice and freedom of movement.
In 1991, another targeted campaign, “Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation,” ostensibly directed at squashing the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, pushed another 200,000 people out of the country. These pogroms, now acknowledged as genocide, were to happen again (post 911) in 2012, 2015, 2016, and would come to an ugly head in 2017.
Space precludes a detailed examination of the horrors of the consistent Myanmar pogroms, but on 25 August 2017 a group of young men from a small resistance movement, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked a military barracks with knives and home-made bombs. In the attack, they killed 12 security force officials.
International think tanks have alleged that ARSA has Saudi roots, but its spokesman told the Asia Times in 2017 that it had no so-called jihadi links, and was a bona fide resistance movement.
Response to the attacks was regarded by the UN as grossly disproportionate to the actual security threats posed. Nearly 300 villages were razed to the ground. This violence, set off by the military, was accompanied by mass killings, rapes and torture. An estimated 3,000 Rohingya perished, which caused a migration of 700,000 people.
In a 2018 report, the UN cited six senior military figures for possible genocide, naming commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. The UN, which has always been circumspect about using the word “genocide”, used it in its report.
Since the 2000s there have been two key personalities complicit in the Rohingya genocide. The first is an extremist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who on the cover of Time Magazine of 1 July 2013, was described as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.
He is a member of the 969 group, an ultra-nationalist movement opposed to what it sees as Islam’s unwelcome expansion in Buddhist Myanmar. Banned on Facebook, Wirathu is a leader of the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha.
The Baghdadi of Buddhism, Wirathu has coloured his preaching by stoking up Islamaphobic hate. For Wirathu it is the simple equation of Rohingya swartgevaar, of a Saudi-backed Bangladeshi insurgency, whose sole purpose is to destroy Buddhism and establish a caliphate.
In January 2015, he publicly called UN envoy Yanghee Lee a “bitch” and a “whore” and invited her to offer her “arse to the kalars” (a derogatory term for Rohingya). Of Muslims, he once said, “You cannot sleep next to a mad dog…”
San Suu Kyi
He also called Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s political leader, a “prostitute”. He has also accused her political party, the National League for Democracy, of secretly supporting a Muslim agenda. He has also said if Myanmar officials are brought to book he will be holding a gun, something totally against Theravada Buddhism.
The state has slapped him on the wrist, even suggesting sedition charges be laid against him for insulting Aung San Suu Kyi, but he remains at large with the monastic authorities also seemingly unable to curb him.
The most disappointing figure by far is Aung San Suu Kyi, the former human rights activist and peace advocate, who whilst under house arrest in Rangoon, received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Once idolised by millions around the globe, she has proved to be hugely remiss and beholden to the junta on the Rohingya question since her election victory of 2015. Her fall from grace has been spectacular. By August last year, she had been stripped of no less than seven international awards.
As Myanmar’s leading public figure, she has an angered and infuriated the international community on her reluctance to seriously acknowledge the crisis, which sees the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority on earth. Sadly, most of the world’s leaders – eyeing prime jade and teak – have been unforgivably and equally mute as her on Myanmar’s genocide pogrom, the worst since the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.
The article first appeared in the Habibia Diary 2020.
Saturday, November 16, 2019
IT is strange that the late Mufti Bin Baz’s fatwa forbidding the celebration of the mawlud is seen by some as the only edict on the matter. This is strange because there are literally hundreds of legal opinions that differ with him on the permissibility of remembering the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
Yet, bizarrely, Bin Baz’s solitary view is often seen as Islam itself.
These were the words of Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, an imam at the Azzawia mosque in Cape Town, where mawlud was first observed on its premises in 1920 by his grand-father, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hendricks. Shaykh Muhammad Salih, who passed on in 1945, introduced the Barzanji mawlud, which he brought from Zanzibar, where he spent a year as its chief Qadi, or judge, in 1903.
To feel happiness at the birth of the Prophet, said Shaykh Ahmad, was a part of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. It was endorsed by Ibn Taymiyya, who affirmed that people celebrated the mawlud out of joy for the Prophet. Joy at the birth of Muhammad (pbuh) was, therefore, permissible.
He added that this was borne out by the experience of one of the Prophet’s uncles, Abu Lahab. In a validated tradition, it is recorded that Abu Lahab – who became one of the Prophet’s worst enemies – is granted temporary respite from the flames of hell due to his celebrating his nephew’s birth, which he did by freeing a slave girl, Thuwaybah.
We are not given to insulting people, stated Shaykh Ahmad, but based on this single Hadith alone, one would have to doubt the faith of anyone who was not happy about the birth of the blessed Prophet (pbuh).
This was further corroborated by the Messenger of God informing his Companions he fasted every Monday. Why? Because Monday was the day he was born. This is clear proof that the Prophet (pbuh) celebrated his own birthday.
That was the underlying principle: the Prophet (pbuh) celebrated his birthday. How could there be any other interpretation? This could not mean that remembering birthdays was forbidden.
Leading from this, continued the Shaykh, was an accepted notion that the Prophet’s voluntary fasting commemorating his birthday could be replaced by other praiseworthy devotion – such as sadaqah (voluntary charity), salawat (citation of blessings on the Prophet) and dhikr (remembering God) – without contravening the Shari’ah.
Furthermore, due to the Prophet fasting throughout the year, there was the explicit social benefit that mawlud could be commemorated at any time, from the month of Muharram right through to Dhul Hijjah, and not just be confined to Rabi ul-Awwal, the month of his noble birth.
Quoting the famous scholar, Imam Hajr al-Asqalani, Shaykh Ahmad said that the Prophet (pbuh) also commemorated historical events. For example, the fast of the Jews on Ashura, in remembrance of their liberation from the Pharaoh, inspired the Prophet to recommend that Muslims fast during the first ten days of Muharram, which marks the beginning of lunar New Year.
As for those who patronisingly accuse us of mimicking Jewish or Christian customs: we fully respect their festivities, but the truth is that we act on our own principles and beliefs, he said.
Shaykh Ahmad continued that the Holy Qur’an has ordered us to be happy with Allah’s Mercies, with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – the first light of His Creation being the first one created by God and the last one sent by God.
As the Qur’an states, “(O Muhammad)…have we not sent you except as a Mercy to the all the Worlds”. Surely this was proof enough to celebrate his existence?
In another instance, Allah calls the Prophet a prophet of “deep caring and mercy” in the most praiseworthy language possible, in terms not used for any other prophet, at the end of Surat ul-Tawbah (the Chapter of Repentance and Return).
Therefore, it is highly recommended to show happiness at the life of the Prophet.
Shaykh Ahmad stated that Surat ul-Hujjarat, an excellent chapter on outlining noble human conduct, also ordered us to honour the Prophet (pbuh). For instance, we are told: “Do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet…”
Then there was the verse exhorting us to perform salawat, the constant citation of peace and blessings upon the Prophet, as practiced by the Angels.
Shaykh Ahmad went on to say that naysayers would often evoke the idea that because the Prophet did not practice something in his lifetime, it would not be permissible after his lifetime. This was a fallacious argument, and not one accepted by any credible faqih, or legal scholar.
Besides, if this principle were to be applied, on one level we would still be riding donkeys and praying in mosques without loudspeakers. On another, we would not be able to practice the tarawih prayers during Ramadan, for instance, regarded by Sayyidina ‘Umar, as a “bida’h hasanah”, an acceptable innovation in Islam.
Nor for that matter, would we be reading the current version of the Qur’an, its sections gathered together after the Prophet’s earthly demise.
Furthermore, the notion that if the Prophet left off something it became forbidden, was as equally fallacious as the idea that if he didn’t practice something in his life it became unlawful. Shaykh Ahmad recalled the incident when the Prophet refused to eat roasted lizard. When quizzed by his Companions, he replied that he didn’t eat it because it wasn’t to his taste, not because it was haram.
Shaykh Ahmad said that the practice of the mawlud was regarded as a bida’h, yes, but a bida’h hasanah. It was a permissible practice for whom the innovator of a “new Sunnah” would get a due reward from the Divine for its benefits to others.
So what do we do on the mawlud? We make salawat, the citation of peace and blessings upon the Prophet, said Shaykh Ahmad, adding that salawat was an integral to forgiveness and invocation, and that the Prophet himself had said that a person who did not make salawat was a spiritual miser.
All the mawlud kitabs reminded us of the Prophet; they reminded us in soaring verses about his life and his qualities. So how could they be haram?
We should imbue the values of the Prophet (pbuh) by getting as close to him as possible by remembering his qualities, his life, his miracles and his mercies. This should inspire us to strive to do our best for mankind; to do this without anger, arrogance or aggression, but by being humble and compassionate.
For this reason, every component of the mawlud is Deen, the practice of our faith. What protects us from the fitnah, the great mischief, of our times is our love and link to the Prophet (pbuh). We should make the salawat repeatedly until the very essence of the most merciful of mankind takes root in our souls, said Shaykh Ahmad.
|Preparing for the mawlud.|
|Perfuming the Zawiyya with buhur.|
|King Protea for the best of mankind.|
|Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks addresses the occasion.|
|Reciting verses on the Prophet (pbuh). |
Photos copyright Shafiq Morton
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Keynote speaker was Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, imam at the Azzawia mosque and a well-known local scholar, who framed his informative talk around the concept of mercy and the famous Prophetic axiom: “The merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth, and Allah will have Mercy upon you.”
According to Hendricks, who quoted from Imam al-Ghazali to reinforce his point, the whole ethos of humankind had to be supported by mercy; mercy combined with a wise use of our God-given intellect that things such extremism, hate and marginalisation were not part of being Muslim.
The Dairat us-Salihiyyah Dhikr Circle meets on a weekly basis and is involved in various outreach programmes throughout the year.
|Sh Seraj addresses the gathering.|
|© Shafiq Morton & Dai'rat us-Salihiyyah 2019|
A tribute to Women’s Month
ATTACKS by men on women – an endemic problem in our society condemned by all but still in practice – has shot to prominence due to the particularly tragic homicide of University of Cape Town student, Uyinene Mrwetyana.
Mrwetyana, a bubbly 19-year-old first year film and media studies student, went to the Clareinch post office to inquire about a parcel, but was told by the accused – a 42 year old clerk Luyando Botha – to come back later because the electricity was off.
She returned, and Botha now alone at the post office, assaulted and raped her. According to the police, her spirited resistance caused him to bludgeon her to death. He later burnt and dumped her body at Lingelethu West in Khayelitsha.
Uyinene’s horrifying demise had been preceded by the cold-blooded shooting of 25 year-old champion boxer, Leighandre Jegels, by an ex-boyfriend (who had a restraining order against him), and Meghan Cremer, an avid horse rider, killed by three men known to her who tied her up and took her car.
Uyinene’s brutal murder awoke the nation, reeling from gender violence, into an unprecedented outpouring of anger and grief. A march to parliament saw police minister, Bheki Cele, booed by an impassioned crowd when he tried to address it.
For South African women traumatised by violence, Uyinene’s killing has proved to be the final straw – and the gauntlet has been thrown to government to act with real purpose and genuine political will.
But the sad fact is that the killings will continue, because South Africa is a world leader in what is known as “femicide”, the murder of women by men. South African Police Service figures reveal that in 2017-18 one woman was killed every three hours. And if that statistic doesn’t jar enough, 15.2 women out of every 100 000 will be killed in South Africa this year.
The World Health Organisation has our murder rate of women at 4.8 times higher than the global average, and out of 183 countries, we are fourth on the league of shame – only after Honduras, Jamaica and Lesotho.
Tragically, much of our gender violence brews in deprived environments. Angry, hungry and unemployed males, emasculated by their lack of skills, a lack of education and crippled by economic despair, are very often perpetrators. Due to their low self-esteem, violence creates the only power dynamic they know.
Sadly, the latter is not just confined to the poor. Gender violence can be a middle-upper-class thing too, the recent convictions of sociopathic wife-killers Jason Rohde and Rob Packham in Western Cape courts, an established case in point.
Of course, whatever I say cannot lift the very real grief and calm the justifiable fury so many South Africans are feeling right now. But it is in such moments of darkness that I become grateful to know Islam – not in the patronising sense of thinking it makes me better than anyone else, no. That is not the case.
Rather, my consolation is in the sense that our history shows us how gender violence and gender apartheid were done away by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). By changing perceptions on women through his wise actions, the Prophet (SAW) ensured that women did not have to be the victims.
He forbade the practice of female infanticide practiced by the Arab tribes, especially in times of drought. This cruel custom of burying baby girls alive, so that there could be more boys, came to an end in the 7th century. The Prophet (SAW) also prohibited the social isolation of women during their haid, or monthly courses.
Then the Prophet (SAW) broke the patriarchal mould, and all the stereotypes, by not only working for a business woman, Sayyidah Khadijah, but marrying her after she had proposed to him as an older woman. This would set the trend later on when women would play a central, and affirming, role in the development of Islam.
For instance, the ways of the Prophet (pbuh) would drive out the notion that women had to play specific roles in society when he did his own housework, mended his clothes and fixed his sandals. Wives are the truest witnesses to exactly whom their men are, and Sayyidah A’ishah once said in response to a question that at home, the Prophet (pbuh) embodied the mercy of the Qur’an.
The Prophet even used to comfort the slave women of Madinah and Makkah. And at a time of great stress – when the Companions were angry with him after he signed the Treaty of Hudaibiyya – it was his wife, Umm Salama, who consoled him, and gave him the advice that broke the impasse.
When it came to war, it was Nusaybah bint Ka’b, a nurse who took up a sword to defend the Prophet (pbuh) at Uhud, who became one of Islam’s fiercest battle commanders. In the field of knowledge it was Hafsah, another wife of the Prophet, who was entrusted with keeping the first compilation of the Qur’an.
There are just so many shining examples of how women were at the forefront during the establishment of Islam, contributing economically, socially, militarily and academically. This is what always gives me hope. Allah tells us in the Qur’an that women are the partners of men, and that men are the partners of women, and that men and women are equal before the Divine Court.
And as I conclude this, there is a consoling image in my mind. It is of a radiant Uyinene, freed from her earthly bonds and liberated from her injustice, being reassured by the noble Prophet that all is going to be fine.