Monday, August 19, 2013

Egypt: re-erecting the wall of fear

Cairo - where Islam and military secularism currently clash.
© Shafiq Morton
WHEN General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s military commander-in-chief, appeared on national television on 25 July, I knew that something was brewing. Wearing dark glasses, a heavily braided cap and a full-dress uniform, Sisi had urged mass action to end what he called “terrorism and violence”.

It was the first time in modern Egyptian history that a general – as opposed to a sitting president – had ever made such an extraordinary call. So what was he up to?

Muslim Brotherhood supporters, demanding a re-instatement of President Muhammad Morsi, had refused to disperse from their post-coup sit-ins. Sisi, riding a wave of street populism after Morsi’s ousting, was clearly setting the stage for a showdown with the Islamic Brotherhood.

Citing the bombing of a police station in Mansoura, Egypt’s “deep state” had evidently been given the excuse it needed – the Brotherhood was a “terrorist” organisation in need of censure.

The subsequent crackdown on the Brotherhood, resulting in a civilian massacre and the killing of journalists, shocked the world and compromised the US – whose biggest Mid-East client (next to Israel) is the Egyptian military, which receives nearly R12 billion from Capitol Hill annually.

For Sisi, what at stake in Egypt right now is the survival of the “deep state”, a core of Mubarak supporters and thugs in the security services and the economic ruling class. It has deep roots in the military, whose stake in the economy is estimated at over 30%.

Flush with over R100 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – collectively fearing Tahrir-style “Arab Springs” and Shi’ah inroads via Syria – US influence is no longer priority number one. 

Professor Abdallah Schleiffer, an associate journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, and Dr Anas Al-Tikriti of the Cordoba Foundation, both concur that the Egyptian military establishment represents a “state-within-state” and is, by far, the most influential player.

There is also a view – shared by Professor Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University – that the Egyptian “deep state” allowed Mubarak to fall, and then cynically bided its time after Tahrir. Bolstered by its Gulf aid package (one that mysteriously appeared as soon as Morsi fell) the generals could act with brutal impunity.

A measure of this is that many of the protestors encamped at Nahda Square and Raba’a al-Adawiya were killed by bullets to the head and the chest. Some were also burnt in their tents, Dutch journalist Rena Netjes confirming to me she’d seen 10 charred corpses in Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque.

Certainly in the general’s favour would have been secular distaste for the Brotherhood and the socio-economic challenges that Morsi inherited: corruption, unemployment, poverty, and a raft of expectations – all needing solutions that could not be addressed in a year.

And whilst Morsi was seen by Egyptians not to perform (Gallup clearly indicated this) some of his executive ineptness was perhaps more the instrumentation of  circumstance. Al-Jazeera editor Ramzy Baroud comments that Morsi was “damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t”. Dr Anas al-Tikriti argues that Morsi was “shackled by the deep state”.

The record does show that Morsi – the only democratically elected civilian president in Egypt’s history – did try. His majority was a slender one, and the country was split on historical Islamist and secular lines from the start, something that immediately engendered distrust.

On paper, Morsi’s attempts to harness the disparate forces in Egyptian politics looked good, but did not translate into the substance needed to transform Egypt into a viable democracy.

I also think that the extent of his powers was exaggerated. His 35-strong cabinet, for instance, had only 11 Brotherhood members and of the 27 provincial governates, only 10 governors were from his Freedom and Justice party. He also appointed 12 Copts into government, as opposed to the three during the Mubarak era.

The judiciary was left almost intact, and the powerful Interior Ministry was still staffed with Mubarak-era officials due to a shortage of technocrats. Morsi did fire some of the generals, but his attempts to draw in opposition leaders were largely spurned.

But whatever the maths, the stark reality is that the military enjoyed the support of millions of Egyptians when it ousted Morsi from power. Why would this be so?

Egypt’s army is the 11th largest in the world and relies upon conscripts from a population of 90 million to fill its ranks. The military has half a million active personnel and nearly half a million reserve forces. The American University’s Professor Schleiffer says that the military reaches every Egyptian family, and is a respected institution.

The other factor is that the Islamic Brotherhood, founded in 1928 as a pan-Islamic movement in response to colonialism, has been demonised by Egypt’s ruling-class and liberal secularists for decades. It did enjoy a brief honeymoon with General Nasser in 1952, but this did not endure.

As it was still officially banned under Mubarak, the Brotherhood used the Freedom and Justice Party platform to contest the 2011 elections. Of curious interest is the ultra-conservative Islamist An-Nour party, a breakaway from the Brotherhood, throwing its weight behind the military.

According to Professor Ebrahim Moosa, a former South African political journalist and academic at Duke University, the Egyptian military (representing the old status-quo) has sought to restore authoritarian secular rule, and to re-erect the wall of fear surrounding the state that disappeared during Tahrir.

The snubbing of an appeal in the Washington Post by Moosa and the US ambassador, Ebrahim Rasool, for figures with “moral authority” such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu to broker inclusive talks to take Egypt back from the brink, is sadly indicative of the current situation.

Their fear, and the fear of many – that young Egyptians now disillusioned by the ballot box could prove to be the next generation of extremists –  has now become a dreadfully real one. Indeed, the generals may have won the battle, but it remains doubtful in the long run whether they’ve actually won the war of the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people, a people who will not be satisfied with the old ways once they begin to fail again.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The missing link: from flying saucers to divine destiny

Who are we? How long have we been on earth? And when did we, as a human species, “evolve”?

These are the questions that fascinate, niggle and afflict many a thinker, “evolve” often being a dirty word in the Darwinian sense.

The scientific hypothesis that species developed through natural selection, as opposed to divine intervention, has plagued creational debate since Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species in 1859.

For Muslims, the creational discourse is given much Qur’anic detail in Surat ul-Rum. Many verses preface themselves by saying “amongst His Signs” with verse 30 talking specifically about mankind being shaped in conformity with a primordial nature, or a divinely sanctified fitrah.

The English language struggles to grasp the gist of this word, which is in itself a universe of significance. It is best explained by the tradition that men’s souls existed before conception; that they existed in the unseen, and unimaginable, domains of a pre-worldly existence.

In this state, our fitrah, our souls would have been innocent in nature. This is the state of a baby when it enters the material world from the warmth of the womb – confused, crying and seeking the comfort of the mother’s nipple.

The first soul to be created was that of Muhammad (SAW). Adam – the father of our species – admits in the Qisas al-Anbiya to seeing Muhammad’s blessed name inscribed on the Holy Throne.

The great 18th century scholar, Imam ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Alawi al-Haddad, notes that Allah, the Great Shaper, drew mankind out of the loins of Adam to make a covenant (a meethaaq) at Nu’man, a valley near ‘Arafah in Makkah.

This covenant, which is recorded in the Qur’an (7:172), has Allah addressing mankind and asking the question “am I not your Lord”, and mankind responding with the resounding affirmative “yes”.

Imam al-Haddad adds that Allah, the Highest, accepted this covenant, recorded it in heavenly writing and fed it to the Black Stone, the Hajr ul-Aswad, which resides in a corner of the Ka’bah.

This is significant as the Hajr ul-Aswad marks the beginning of the circumambulation (or tawaaf) around the Holy House, whose spiritual domains stretch unseen into the Seven Heavens.

These pre-creational events, and their links to the present, are extraordinary. No other species in our dimension has been blessed with such knowledge. Ancient algae, dinosaurs and other life forms – whilst obeying divine decree – did not know this.

We have to guardedly say “our dimension” because the jinn, plasma beings constituting “smokeless fire”, were created over a 1,000 years before man. However the jinn, who exist on a parallel plane and who know Allah, are not our concern here.

What is interesting is that Aboriginal societies – indigenous peoples close to their fitrah – provide fascinating metaphorical insights into creation, some seeming to accord with our own beliefs of pre-existence.

For example, the French anthropologist, Jean-Pierre Chaumeil, says the Yagua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon told him that before the birth of this earth, our distant ancestors had lived on “another earth”. To us as Muslims, the reference is obvious. To Graham Hancock (who quoted Chaumeil) the focus is more a flying saucer notion of man’s creation.

The earth is said to be 4.5 billion years old. In the Qur’an heaven and earth (20: 31) are described as “one” until they’re “rent asunder”. And in the same verse, “water” is described as the building block of Creation. In some verses, planets are said to “swim” in their orbits, and in others that they’ll “run their courses”.

This is a most convincing argument for the hypothesis of an expanding universe, a universe that is dynamic in movement “all governed by His laws” (7: 54) from its stars right down to the last microscopic particle.

Science claims that the first forms of earthly life developed about 4 billion years ago and that the first man, Homo erectus, emerged over one million years before the modern era. The most prominent theory is that early hominids moved from Africa across the then bridged continents into Europe and Asia.

The first so-called human species, Homo Heidelbergensis, is said to have had two branches – the Neanderthal line and the Homo sapiens line. The Neanderthal, the beetle-browed, ape-like figure, had primitive notions of socialisation, the use of fire and hunting.

Archaeologists speculate that Homo sapiens, a distinct species, did not mix with the Neanderthals, who mysteriously disappeared about 35,000 years ago. Ancient Nguni traditions contain some tantalising allusions to a parallel, inferior species inhabiting the earth.

So when did prophetic awareness enter the hominid realm? Were the Neanderthals aware of a greater being? The Qur’an states that Allah gave man speech (55: 33). And we have to bear in mind that every speaking nation on earth has, without fail, left behind a mythological legacy – be it oral or inscribed.

Symbolism is the lingua franca of consciousness, and it appears as if the Neanderthals left us a sterile silence. However, Homo sapiens – who anatomically resemble today’s man – did express a self-consciousness that transcended basic instinct.

His cave drawings – expressing divine or unearthly symbolisms – date back to 30,000 years. Decorative beads and implements (also indicating a symbolic understanding) date back to about 77,000 years, as excavations at the Blombos cave near Mossel Bay reveal.

But were these people the tribe of Adam? This indeed becomes the critical question, for Adam descended to earth from the paradisiacal realms with Eve. What we can safely say is that Adam (as) represents the moment that Allah, as He says, wanted to be known. But exactly when was that moment?

Conventionally, it appears as if Adam (as) descended to earth about 15,000 years ago. The chain of prophetic lineage, and its relation to parallel historic events such as in Babylon and in Egypt with Nimrod and the Pharaoh, appears to indicate this. There are, of course, still many, many questions.

It is my view that Adam (as) is the proverbial “missing link’, the bridge between Neanderthal-type primitivism and true God-consciousness. In fact, the “missing link” is the prophetic message of Divine Unity, a message that would be carried through the loins of Adam to Muhammad (SAW).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Moonsighting, Ramadan 2013, Cape Town

About 2,000 people gathered at Three Anchor Bay in Sea Point, Cape Town, in chilly weather to sight the new moon to signify the end of the lunar month of Ramadan. The inclement conditions saw a much smaller crowd than the usual 10,000 that congregates annually on the Sea Point lawns to look for new crescent that sets over the Atlantic Ocean after sunset. The moon was not sighted and 'Eid, marking the end of the fast.
Photos © Shafiq Morton

Hajji Omar Gabier, President of the Crescent Observer's Society,
makes the adhan - the call to prayer - that marks the end
of a days fasting after sunset.



Friday, August 2, 2013

Qur'an and Riba: the unfinished business

One of the miracles of the Qur’an is that it means so many different things to so many different people. We all read it with intention, and Allah – the Highest ­ – grants us His blessings accordingly.  

It is said that not one Qur’anic sound will pass our lips without an Angel carrying it to the foot of the Throne. Every letter, we are told, carries reward. Every ayah is a world; every Surah a universe and every Juz a galaxy. In fact, so blessed is the Qur’an that it will testify for us on the Day of Judgement.

In this respect, chapters such as Surat ul-Mulk are imbued with special properties for the reciter. Surat ul-Yasin offers solace to the dead or dying, Ayat ul-Kursi (the verse of the Throne) protects us from danger.

The Qur’an glitters with strings of meaning and metaphor. We are warned that it is not poetry, yet it still soars. We are told that it is not prose, yet it still captivates. We are taught that it is not music, yet it is still a symphony.

And, tellingly, we are informed that even if our creative pens were to be filled with the oceans (which cover 70% of earth) they would still not be able to create its like. Yet the Qur’an humbles itself to us so that we can read it, its words transmitted from a Divine Source.

Every Ramadan, millions of us bury ourselves in the pages of the Holy Book’s 114 chapters and over 6,000 verses. Imam Abu Hanifah, the great 8th century imam, could recite the Qur’an in the standing of one prayer. Imam Shafi’i, his student, would complete at least one reading a day.

Whilst most of us lesser mortals will finish just one recitation of the Qur’an during the 29-30 days of Ramadan, it has never been my outcome. My approach – and it’s just a personal thing – has been to try and read the Qur’an for its meaning.

I like to understand what I’ve read. I’ve never rushed and a complete reading can take me years. The Qur’an is sublime in expression, so that when you slow down it often leaves you gasping with amazement.

One thing I’ve learnt is that every time I read Qur’an I discover new things. No reading is ever the same. It’s like walking through a valley and seeing new plants and animals every time you pass through. And when you stop to examine the scenery, the hike begins to take longer and longer.

This year I found myself still deep in Surat ul-Baqarah, the first chapter of the Qur’an, after 18 days. It made me wonder if Allah grants me more Ramadans I might just find myself stuck on the opening Basmallah!
What caught my attention was verse 276 in Surat ul-Baqarah that deals with usury, or riba, best defined as “excessive, or exploitative interest”. Allah declares usury deprived of all blessing, and warns the pre-Islamic Arabs that He will declare “war” on those who don’t take heed.

The next verse demands that debtors be treated with compassion, not tyranny, and then goes on to deal with the basics of tijarah, or business transactions. This, I think, is significant. Allah mentioning riba before the lengthy section on tijarah clearly indicates that exploitative interest cannot be the foundation of economic principle.

It made me realise that the issue of riba even features in the accounts of Nabi ‘Isa, or Jesus, who overturned the money-changers’ tables on the Temple Mount. Four of the gospels mention this incident, the only time ‘Isa (as) ever used physical force.

What’s significant here are two things. Firstly, ‘Isa (as) would have been enraged by the crass materialism of the priests in a sacred place – every step in the Temple cost the believer money. And, as Ibn Kathir observes in the Qisas al-Anbiya, Temple worship had become about money.

Secondly, he would have been disturbed at the money-changers. They would charge exorbitant commission and proffer inferior coins for sacrificial animals, further exploiting the poor – people who’d become outsiders.

This story has resonance with riba being the devil’s curse since time immemorial. Riba represents the worst of human nature. In the 21st century it has become an ugly blight on society. It doesn’t take much imagination to link the Temple Mount priests and money-changers to modern-day bankers.

It’s no exaggeration to say that they have enslaved almost all of mankind with oppressive debt, and brought the world’s economic system to its knees from excessive hoarding, speculation and interest-based profit. Their greed and lack of compassion needs no further elaboration.

Bearing in mind that Nabi ‘Isa (whom we don’t believe was crucified) is due to appear back on earth, I think the Temple Mount encounter will have left him well-equipped to understand our modern-day sicknesses.

I have always felt that the biggest opponents of the end-time Imam Mahdi and ‘Isa (as) will be this very banking class, a ruling class whose interest-based systems will be dismantled in the name of social justice. They will not take kindly to their wealth being redistributed.

Over a thousand years ago the pre-Islamic Arabs, particularly the Quraish in Makkah, would have understood the Qur’anic verses only too well. Their business, not unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, revolved around the lucrative pilgrimage.

The one-eyed, end-time dictator – the Dajjal – whom ‘Isa (as) will slay at the gates of Lud (now Tel Aviv airport) will more than likely be a product of the usurious elite, a faceless kleptocracy who have so ruthlessly plundered humanity in the name of materialism.  

This is where Surat ul-Baqarah comes in again. “Deal not unjustly and you will not be dealt with unjustly,” it says after Allah’s declaration of “war” on riba-mongers. War, or “harb”, is a very strong term. And although ostensibly directed at the Quraish , it is curiously open-ended, almost – I would say – as if there’s unfinished business.  

In other words, the war against riba has already been declared but – the big question – when the final battle?