Friday, June 29, 2012

Judging the book...

One cannot judge what is the heart by appearance alone.
THE famous English expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” is an oft-used adage that has become curled at the edges. Covered with greasy fingerprints and yellowed with age, I’m forced to use it because there are none better.

It implies, with little ambiguity, that the cover of a book may not be indicative of its contents – that something may not be what it appears to be, that the human personality may not always be the sum of its appearance.  

On another level, the saying warns against prejudice: we should caution ourselves against judging the human condition purely through its outer shell. Behind a friendly smile there might lurk a back-stabbing enemy, behind jolly laughter there might just be great sadness.

But judging a book by its cover carries a further caveat: we cannot think that its inner issues are incomprehensible just because we might not be aware of them. What may be mystery to us is painfully obvious to the one who has opened the book and experienced it. There is always someone wiser than us to teach us a lesson.

And don’t think that we can ever reduce the contents of a book to its cover. The secrets of metaphor cannot be condensed into literal paraphrase, or be summarily discarded just because they might challenge the limitations of our own stunted thought.

In other words, the sacred cannot be shrunk to its husk like a cannibal’s head on a stick. Or, to put it into theological terms, we cannot reduce God. This is something that represents the biggest crisis of modern times, the inexplicable, Infinite Divine becoming the Reader’s Digest of our soul. 

And hopefully without sounding like I’m ranting from a Friday pulpit, we have to admit that in Islam we’ve not been exempt from this affliction of reducing the Divine. Islam’s ‘puritans’ – so desirous of reducing the time-honoured customs of Islam to dust – have probably been the worst contemporary culprits of judging a book by its cover.  

Their obnoxious culture of takfir – declaring unbelief on all those who disagree with them – is the worst possible manifestation of this narrow mindset, one that naively thinks that all covers must be the same, and that the cover is actually the whole book of Islam.

Those who arrogantly reduce God (and May Allah forgive us for saying this) to ‘an old man sitting in a wooden chair’ really need to examine the tragic import of their literalism.

My first real experience of this reductionism – Islam caricatured in ritual and physical appearance – occurred during the apartheid era over twenty years ago at Nairobi airport. Like so many South Africans at the time, I’d been stranded. In those days there were no transit visas. As apartheid’s personae non grata we would be confined to the airport.

A group of Muslims landed on their way to Jeddah, and as they were about to pray, I innocently joined their congregation. I’d been travelling on my own and longed for human company. But it was only after the salah that I realised I’d upset their sensitivities.

“He didn’t even have a topi or wear a kurtah!” hissed one of the bearded elders loudly enough for me to hear.

I had not been Muslim for long, and his words really stung me. What had a hat and an oriental coat have to do with prayer? Only much later did I realise my huge sin – that I hadn’t worn a fez or Pakistani clothing. Appearance, it seemed, was far more important than what was in my heart.

Another such instance was when an eminent Egyptian scholar (who will have to remain nameless) visited our South African shores, and was prevented from leading the prayer in Durban because he did not have a beard.

A literalist misunderstanding of the Sunnah (the Prophet’s noble way) had led to a belief that the length of a person’s beard determined their piety for leading the prayer. Suffice it to say that the scholar was totally flabbergasted. He wrote a scathing article about the gross ignorance of South African Muslims when he got home.

Of course, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) had said “trim your moustaches and grow your beards” but the context – ignored by those only interested in the cover of the book – was that the Prophet (SAW) had wanted Muslims to look different from the Persians who had shaved their chins and grown their moustaches into whiskers.

Applying this principle, the Egyptian scholar came from a country where Copts, and even Jews, wore long beards. To look ‘different’ in his environment was to be clean-shaven.

Then there was the ‘ruhsah’ (the legal relief) of the beard not having to be obligatory in the legal sense. The underlying wisdom was that people such as the Chinese or Indonesians, many of whom could not grow beards, would not be excluded from Islam.

Then there have been the recent historical examples of Bosnian Muslims. When your neighbourhoods are being ethnically-cleansed, the wisdom of wearing a mullah-type beard is definitely questionable.

Even in holy places, one encounters those who can only see their universe in extremely limited terms. Once at al-Aqsa, where my Muslim-ness is challenged at every prayer time, I had asked one of the waqf guards how he actually decided people were Muslim.

“Zabiba”, he said, pointing to his forehead where some Muslims (mostly Salafis and Wahhabis) display what the Arabs call a ‘raisin’ from making prostration of the prayer.

When I showed him that most of those people he was letting through the gates had clear foreheads, and that Islam – according to Prophetic Tradition – was a matter of the heart, all he could do was become irritated. Luckily, he chased me into the Sanctuary, and not out of it.

Another instance of this shallowness, the judging of a book by its cover, occurred to me in a well-known Arab country. In a twist to the usual scenario, a person watched me intently make my prayer. After I’d finished, he approached me and asked me whether I was Muslim.

Perhaps one of Islam’s finest examples of ritual perfection was Imam Shafi’i, whose memory always humbles me every time I take wudu, and wash my limbs for ceremonial prayer.

Regarded as one of history’s greatest jurists, he taught that the ritual prayer was a sacrosanct act. His postures were so precise, his demeanour so focused that people used to watch him pray in amazement.

A literalist’s dream, it was said that if one poured water on his back during the ruku’, the bowing of the prayer movement, it would not run off. But for the great Imam Shafi’i, a Gazan by birth, the perfection of his ritual was a mirror of his inner condition.

Or as Imam Ghazali would say in later centuries: ritual without an understanding of its inner meaning would be pointless, and deeds without knowledge would be meaningless.

Of course, the biggest danger of us reducing God is God reducing us. Parables of this are legend. One such instance that springs immediately to mind is something that happened in Cape Town to a friend of mine some years ago.

There was a ‘street person’ in his middle-class (non-Muslim) neighbourhood who had distinctly annoying habits. Smelly, often drunk and sometimes downright rude, he would often bang on the man’s door demanding food or money.

“One cold night he made a racket on my stoep, and I rebuked him for his poor manners. He looked a little sorry after that, so I heated him some soup. When I gave it to him, something amazing happened…something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he said.

“As the man stood by my door a different, sober voice came from inside him that said: ‘Alhamdulillah, Praise Be to Allah!’”

“I got such a fright that I nearly jumped out of my skin,” he said, “and from that day on I’ve learnt to never judge a book by its cover. That man, whoever he was, taught me through my own pride never to judge others for what might, or might not be, in their hearts just because of their appearance.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Going snap, crackle - and pop!

Some think that this is what Majlis fans would like to do to the author.
JUST over two years ago I wrote a piece on my blog entitled “The Majlis goes snap, crackle and pop”. In it I dealt with the fulminations of its author, a now elderly maulana based in Port Elizabeth, who for several decades has published a broadsheet called the Majlis.

My article was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, if not satirical – a gentle poke at the misogyny, censure and theological insanity that has traditionally spewed from its pages. Characterised by its fiery phraseology and flowery syntax, the Majlis has always been an entertaining, if not mind-boggling read.

The reason for my writing was an issue of the Majlis viciously skewering a halal body (in this case the wrong one) on the question of Kellogg’s cereals being declared halal. The Majlis had quoted a letter from Kellogg’s saying that animal gelatine had been used in Kellogg’s products.

However, it had been discovered that none of the products mentioned in the letter had ever been sold, or manufactured, in South Africa. The letter was from Kellogg’s USA who had had nothing to do with Kellogg’s SA.

This had come after the Majlis had launched a full frontal attack – Majlis style with blasting verbal scuds – on two major halal bodies, claiming that a chicken farm producing halal chickens was not being run along halal lines. The Majlis’ aspersions on the chicken farm were found to be as spurious as Kelloggs’ cereals being haram.

Response to my piece in the comments thread had been interesting, with one correspondent shouting at me in loud capitals for not responding to his comments (I did the next day). For this I was accused of being “one-sided”, “sadistic” and a “sad case”.

One person misunderstood my argument; that using the USA letter as proof of wrongdoing in South Africa was not only rank bad journalism, but downright devious. Nevertheless, my article was still described as a “specimen of rubbish”.

Haroon (was it his real name?) remarked that judging from the way I wrote, and my understanding of life, I was what my surname suggested – minus the “t”. In vintage Majlis style I was ordered to stick to my “womanish chatter and cackles” and to “leave the man’s world to real men”. In parting, I was informed that my brains were made of cheese.

Abdullah told me that I wouldn’t last five minutes in a debate with the Majlis. “They will (sic) taer u apart…u don’t even understand the halal industry,” he said.

Gud Apple (at least some of the pseudonyms were original) didn’t disagree entirely on the issue of the letter, but broad-sided a halal body for its “utterances and assurances” on Kelloggs. Gud Apple scolded me for not understanding what takfir is (the declaring of unbelief, Gud Apple,) and assured me that the Majlis had never denounced anybody’s faith.

After a month, as is usually the case, the thread fizzled out and the blog became dormant, with the odd comment coming through – like Abdul Khatib in Pakistan saying I had no knowledge of Islam, and Zaheera observing that the Majlis just ranted and raved.

In May this year, the thread sparked into life again, and I was astounded – again – at the literalist, insubstantive knee-jerk response to my article, and my satiric suggestion of “not knowing” whether the Majlis was “man woman, committee or comrade” being taken seriously at face value.

Whilst I had assiduously focused on the Majlis, and not its author, mmb786 told me that the person behind the broadsheet was “a great devotee of Allah”, in fact, a “saint”.  I was accused of hatred and hypocrisy and of never having read the Majlis with “an open heart and a clear mind”.

Malik – whom I fondly call the “budgie” – repeated his post (again) that I would “snap, crackle and pop in hell” for everything that I’d done.

Myself (not me) posted that I, “Shafiq Moron”, was a “coward” for not trying to find out who the Majlis was. I was reassured that the honourable editor would not bash my brains out when I met him, even if I deserved that fate.

He continued that before I condemned (debated) any scholar of Islam I had to put a beard on my face (I already have one) and “a topi and a kurta on”. And in the closest thing that had got near to wit in two years of correspondence, he had added: “Right now we can’t make out whether you’re a man, woman, clown or shaytaan”.

A response by Faisal that Maulana Fazlur Rahman al-Ansari had told a group in the 1970’s to rather shave off their beards than carry on insulting the Prophet (SAW) through their behaviour got mmb786 into a right royal lather.

So did his comment that dedication was not a sufficient reason to judge the worth of anybody. “The worst of dictators and tyrants have been very committed and dedicated people”, he said, adding that the “true morons”, the followers of “cults”, never learnt anything.

For that, for a comment which I did not make, the “t” in my name was deemed to stand for “treacherous”.

My comments on adab i-ikhtilaf, the ethics and conduct of public discussion, fell ignored by the wayside when Myself sternly lectured me: “Your appearance alone is against the Sunnat, and your appearance speaks a lot for who you are and what you follow”.

Unfortunately, space does not allow us further discussion in what has been a fascinating, if not frustrating journey – fascinating because of those whose response to any kind of question outside their narrow box is to fulminate while hidden behind pseudonyms, and frustrating because the level of debate has never been able to rise much above the infantile.

I ‘m tempted to utter many things in response, but I suspect that here discretion will be the better part of valour. But suffice it to say that if there’s no real beef between the buns, it’s impossible to discuss the hamburger.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Life gives life

Grave of one of our forefathers at Constantia, Cape Town, probably over 300 years old. We go back to the earth and the tree takes from the earth. Life gives life. The universe moves on.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Raindrops

Raindrops on a wet, black's said that an Angel accompanies every drop to earth.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Halal Report is Precedent-setting, but...

THE recently published report of the Independent Halal Review Panel (IHRP) on the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) Halal Trust is a precedent-setting one.

This is because there is no record of Islamic judiciaries anywhere in the world in modern history allowing themselves to be publically audited on procedural and governance issues. It’s definitely a first for the Halal industry in South Africa, the IHRP describing it as a “milestone”.

The Halal Trust, which operates under the MJC, was in the limelight earlier this year when Orion Cold Storage – a local importer – was caught re-labelling non-halal (impermissible) products as halal (permissible), with the MJC Halal Trust identified as having been a halal certifier of certain of Orion’s imports.

Whilst the Halal Trust was not involved in the re-labelling episode (featured on YouTube), the incident caused outrage in the Muslim community with regards to the process of halal certification.

This outrage boiled over when the Halal Trust – patently unable to deal with the media – raised suspicions due to its procrastination and then prevarication in the face of some withering interrogation from Deborah Patta of Third Degree.

What further makes the IHRP report unique in the Muslim world is that whilst the MJC (established in 1946) is not elected by the community, it was the power of community that forced its hand.

In the South African context the IHRP report is a constitutional and institutional triumph. It should serve as a warning to any organisation that sets up shop in community interest, and then who betrays that interest. Democracy works at many levels of society.

And whilst the MJC undeniably had an omelette on its face after the Orion scandal, it must be given credit for allowing an independent investigation in February this year. This was after concerned community members approached the MJC executive to look at its Halal Trust’s processes and structures, and to make recommendations.

Its accession to this public enquiry was a very welcome break from the MJC tradition of closing ranks in troubled times. For decades the books of MJC Halal Trust had been a taboo, journalists being chased away by MJC leadership when requesting documents.

The IHRP report which is less than 60 pages is admittedly not a massive tome, but it does raise a number of critical issues, the central one being that a halal ombudsman should be appointed to monitor the burgeoning multi-million rand local halal industry.

However, according to Imraahn Ismail-Mukaddam of the National Consumer Forum, the IHRP report falls short of the mark. Despite its noble intentions, it doesn’t address the question of multiple regulators (there are four in South Africa). This makes the appointment of an ombudsman problematic due to varying standards applied by these regulators, he says.

Mukaddam feels that the report fails to address exactly how halal costs are determined, and avoids the issue of non-Muslim consumers having to pay the price for halal goods. Halal certification is a form of “religious taxation”, he argues.

His biggest criticism of the IHRP report is that it ignores the Orion saga, the root cause of the investigation in the first place, and neglects to recommend disciplinary action against Halal Trust officials.

Whilst the IHRP report does admit to not being comprehensive its thrust was essentially procedure it is nevertheless comprehensive enough to suggest areas of concern, and to make broad-based recommendations.

What jumps off the pages of the report is that the Halal Trust, in the face of its biggest crisis ever, had no mechanism for dealing with the media. The IHRP also alludes to indistinct line management being a problem in decision-making – and the Halal Trust’s way of communicating.

The report says: “There is no systematic written delegation of (sic) authority framework. This results in decisions being either delayed or approved after the fact…compromising governance, accountability and authority”.

This leads to the question of “authority framework”, or corporate governance in the Halal Trust, being questioned by the IHRP.

The Halal Trust had no rotational policy with regards to trustees, who it said were appointed on an ad-hoc basis to the governing body. The IHRP intimated that there was a fossilisation of command, and a blurring of the edges if not conflict of interests, when it came to executive powers.

The IHRP also noted that there was no database for halal products, ingredients or judicial opinions on halal matters. It suggested that this database, together with a list of the Halal Trust’s clients, be available on the MJC website in the public interest.

Of concern to the IHRP was that as an employer the Halal Trust had no HR committee, or risk and audit oversight. Part of the recommendation here was that more halal inspectors than the current 18 nation-wide be employed and trained, and that minimum basic education standards be applied.

The IHRP also recommended that clients of the Halal Trust should not be allowed to appoint their own in-house inspectors, and that there should be uniform and consistent standards with imports. Imports should be locally certified, and not offshore, as had sometimes controversially been the case.

The IHRP also questioned, without mentioning specific cases, the dubious practices of some wholesalers and retailers in the meat industry to avoid scrutiny on the halal nature of their products.

With regards to finances, the IHRP deemed the MJC “overly dependent” on monies from the Halal Trust, and recommended it seek other sources of income. The IHRP raised questions about institutions associated with the MJC, saying:

“There are many institutions associated with the MJC and the Halal Trust …the financial and contractual arrangements between the Halal Trust and these institutions are blurred making it difficult to promote good governance and accountability”.

The IHRP concluded that whilst documentation was being followed in halal certification, there was scope for “improving documentary control”. It suggested a formal documentary control policy be implemented, and that there should be a comprehensive and standardised manual on halal procedures.

In conclusion, I’ve already mentioned that the MJC’s agreeing to an independent investigation on its Halal Trust is a welcome decision. But what still needs to happen if true precedent is to be set, is that the Halal Trust must act upon the IHRP recommendations.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The final Malaysian blog: the Surfing behind the Wall tour

Kandar's piece of paradise, in his KL garden.
THE morning after the successful launch of Surfing behind the Wall in Penang it rains. Huge, black clouds disgorge torrents of water. The clouds clear a little, and Georgetown comes to life. Youths on mopeds with their jackets back-to-front, buzz through the traffic.

My flight is at 10, 30 a.m. and I’m taken to the airport. I have time to enjoy a cappuccino. I see a well-dressed couple in traditional dress posing for the camera, which in this case is the ubiquitous i-pod or Blackberry. I learn that they’re local TV stars. The paparazzi are mainly airport staff.

My Air-Asia plane banks sharply before heading to Kuala Lumpur (in English “the city of two muddy rivers”). From the air the island of Penang is stunning; green, jungled hills meet a turquoise sea.  

I can’t help thinking about the young Thai NGO workers to whom I gave a media workshop the day before. They’ll be leaving Penang too, but their journey will be a very different one to mine.

The Patani Malays of southern Thailand have been locked in a struggle for autonomy, or at the least equal political rights, for longer than the Palestinians. This forgotten struggle – in which thousands have died – is far from resolved. These young people carry a huge responsibility.

My close friend and Far East publisher, Dr Yunus Yasin, meets me at KL airport. This generous, hospitable and warm-hearted man is CEO of Fajr Symphony (, an organisation that promotes science, culture and the arts. Dr Yunus is also founder of the Science Fair for Young Children ( and edits a quarterly magazine, Constellations.

He has a busy schedule lined up for me. Our idea has been to publicise the book via a series of smaller, more intimate gatherings. I report to him my experiences in Singapore and the function hosted by PRECISE in Penang.

The next few days become a blur of functions and talks. I promote the book at an arts centre, in the hallowed halls of the KL Golf club (where George Galloway once spoke), the Al-Hunafah madrasah and a shopping centre (where I do a TV interview). I meet a young entrepreneur, who got so annoyed by Starbucks, that he opened his own coffee shops selling Malaysian coffee.

In between we meet a host of Dr Yunus’ colleagues and connections, including Syed Azmin of the Bukhari Foundation, who shows me on his lap-top images of a hospital and community centre built by his Foundation in quake-stricken Pakistan.

Syed Azmin, who bought the church that is now the Al-Jumu’ah mosque in Cape Town (next to Long Street Baths), tells me of its unique history as a Sir Herbert Baker designed building, which is protected by South African heritage laws.

Our other good friend, Sedik Ahmed, who attended the Imam Al-Ghazali conference in Cape Town, looks on. Sedik, who has been a behind-the-scenes supporter of my books in the Far East, was once a financial journalist, but as a qualified lawyer now deals with HR in the Bukhari organisation.

We also have an audience with Dr Mahathir Mohamed, former Malaysian PM, and head of the Perdana Global Foundation, whose brief is to criminalise war. It feels strange autographing something for a head of state. We get Dr Mahathir to sign a poster for my South African sponsors, the Kaaf Trust.

In the lobby, Dr Mahathir’s wife has a chat with us. She tells us of her humanitarian trip to Iraq during the sanctions era – and the awkward diplomatic niceties of being summoned to meet Saddam Hussein.

Dr Mahathir’s organisation is due to have a tribunal on war the following week with guests such as Denis Halliday (formerly of the UN) scheduled to testify. Dr Zuleika of the foundation gives me an official invite, but – unfortunately – I can’t stay in KL for another week.

The organisers are looking for something special to give the attendees of a gala dinner, a function planned to conclude the tribunal. It’s suggested that my book be an interesting, if not unique gift. Over 600 people will be attending and Dr Yunus has to make frantic phone calls to the printer to roll out another 1,000 copies.

I do my final interview with BFM 89.9 on their drive-time show, a little irony that is not lost on me as a drive-time presenter in South Africa. See:

The BFM 89.9 evening team.
All too soon, the hectic, but satisfying Surfing behind the Wall Far East launch starts to wind down. In two weeks we’ve only taken one day off. We have lunch with Syed Farid al-Attas, head of the Malay Studies Department at Singapore’s National University.

Apart from being a descendant of the original, Sharifian Al-‘Attas family, he’s the son of the famous Malaysian scholar, the late Syed Hussein al-‘Attas, author of The Myth of the Lazy Native. We visit his childhood home in a leafy KL suburb. Syed Hussein’s charming widow, Sarojini Zaharah, generously gives me a copy of her husband’s biography, The Life in the Writing.

Syed Farid takes us to a Chinese shop which custom manufactures the most beautiful rosaries, or tasbihs, out of jade and semi-precious stones. The shop-owners are Buddhist, and they’re masters at stringing beads and tying the knots. The jade tasbih I got there is one of my most prized possessions.

On my last night I’m invited to a barbecue – or should I say “braai” – at the house of Kandar, a former schoolteacher, whose garden is a watery piece of paradise. It’s also an excuse to celebrate the birthday of Dr Yunus’ brother, Abdul Haque, a modest and silent player in the Surfing behind the Wall project.

Chicken sizzles over the coals and I relax in Kandar’s garden, which is an organic extension of his house. As night falls, fountains chatter while red khoi fin lazily in and out of the undergrowth. I sip a cup of Chinese tea.

Exhausted, yet invigorated, I realise that mere words would be inadequate to express my deep gratitude to my hosts, and all those who made my journey so comfortable. But I still have to say it: terimah kasih – thank you, thank you – and, yes, I finally got the Malay spelling right!