Friday, May 19, 2017

The Qur’an and Ramadan, a mansion of many spacious rooms

Photo © Shafiq Morton

RAMADAN, as we all know, is regarded as the month of Qur’an. Historically, the Qur’an was revealed on its 27th night. Its verses are recited every evening in mosques across the globe, and many try to read it from cover to cover in 29 to 30 lunar days.

This is a truly astounding phenomenon – one that resounds in the heavenly realms as Divine Mercy descends to earth on the Night of Power. A Godly gift said to reside in the last ten days of Ramadan, it offers the immeasurable rewards of having worshipped for over a thousand months.

Ramadan, resplendent with layered significance, offers grace, mercy and forgiveness in equal measures. It offers exoneration of sin to those who have fasted with a good heart; it gives equal relief to those who have paid their fidya, or expiation, if one cannot fast.

As the fast is a secret for each person, something known only to Allah, Ramadan is a mansion of many spacious rooms. Its outward measures – such as protecting the tongue, the pre-dawn meal, hastening to eat when the sun sets and being generous – are the embellishments of those who submit. 

But the greatest thing of all is the speech of Allah, the Qur’an. The Qur’an – as its descriptive moniker indicates – is a revelation and it talks to each of us with a rare intimacy. Yet it is not a poem, nor a work of prose. As Allah himself tells us, it is for recitation, and its recitation is highly recommended during Ramadan.

Ramadan, lest we forget, is also a celebratory month. It is not a time for morbidity and moroseness. It is a time of measured action and reflection, of seeking bright blessings. Tarawih – the traditional communal night prayers – is derived from the root word, “raha”, which means to rest. The beautiful incantations recited after the prayer cycles, allows the worshipper to rest.  

In other words, Ramadan is not a time for rushing through things. It is a time for savouring the moment, for allowing the Qur’an’s linguistic mastery, its cadences, its amazing transitions and its subtleties to wash over our senses.

It is for this reason that I always struggle to understand why certain mosques – albeit with good intentions – will race through the Qur’an, the youthful reciters going so fast that the words become an unintelligible jumble. Tarawih becomes a sweaty session of going up and down.

It begs the question: are we reading the Qur’an just to finish it? Is our haste not waste? Does a complete reading for its own sake become the equivalent of a meaningless trophy? Or do we read the Qur’an because we want to really listen to it, because we really want to swim in its deep pools?

Imam Qurtubi, the great 13th century scholar – whose tafsir (or exegesis) of the Qur’an is authoritative – said that the Qur’an had to be recited without haste. The reader had to clearly pronounce every word. Each letter, said Qurtubi, had to be given its proper due as it invoked the weight of ten rewards. Or as the Companion, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, commented: “Every Qur’anic verse is a stair of Paradise.”

Quite evidently, Imam Qurtubi is being mindful of the Prophet [SAW], as Bukhari and Muslim both report the Prophet [SAW] saying that “he is not one of us who does not make his voice melodious whilst reading Qur’an.” In another tradition, via Abu Dawud, the Prophet [SAW] exhorted us to beautify the Qur’an with our voices.

Further traditions say that the Prophet [SAW] used to recite slowly, clearly enunciating each letter and lengthening the vowel – or madd – sounds in words such as Raheem.  He also used to pause after every verse, until it appeared – said the Companions – to sound longer than it actually was.

Imam al-Ghazali, the 12th century colossus, encapsulates exactly how we should approach Qur’an. He says that we have to taste the Qur’an in our hearts. We do this by magnifying its speaker, who is Allah; we do this by paying attention to its letters and words; we do this by pondering over its verses; and finally, we do this by seeking its linguistic, scholarly and contemplative dimensions.

For our response to the Qur’an to be effective, says Imam Ghazali, we have to lift four veils. The first is being concerned merely with outward recitation. The second is bias. Super-imposing our bias over Qur’anic messages prevents their true nature from being revealed. 

Thirdly, sin clouds the heart and obscures understanding. And fourthly, tafsir shouldn’t inhibit private reflection (without stepping over the bounds of Shari’ah).

A worshipper, said Imam Ghazali, had to rise in three degrees of recitation, bearing in mind that any act of Qur’anic recitation already represented a tremendous grade, or state of being. The lowest grade, he wrote, was reading the Qur’an as if one were standing before Allah, pleading, entreating and supplicating.

The middle grade was when we realised that Allah was actually addressing us with His favours, that he was bestowing gifts of meaning, us receiving them with modesty and magnification. This grade led to feelings of ecstasy, thankfulness and joy. The highest grade was when we beheld the Speaker and His attributes, when we saw the address of Allah, and only then, realised our recitation.

Whilst the comprehension of Qur’an is a noble aspiration, Imam al-Ghazali – like all the scholars of repute – says there are equal mercies in reciting the Qur’an for those who understand it, and significantly, for those who also do not understand it.

He relates a story from Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who said: “I saw Allah, Great and Mighty, in a dream and asked Him: ‘O, Lord, how have those who have drawn near to You  achieved this intimacy?’ And Allah, the Almighty, replied: ‘By My speech, O Ahmad.’

“Imam Ahmad then asked: ‘Lord, did they do this by understanding the meaning of Your Qur’an, or without it?’ To which Allah, the Most Merciful, replied, ‘O my dear Ahmad, ‘by understanding it as well as without understanding it.’”

Monday, May 15, 2017

Helen Zille: historical lessons from a tweet

Thanks Zapiro
THE recent hullabaloo surrounding a tweet from Western Cape premier and former DA leader, Helen Zille, on colonialism has been illustrative more of our political hysteria than anything else. No excuses for questionable viewpoints, of course, but personal mudslinging takes the debate away from the real issues – a lesson the anti-Zuma camp needs to learn too. 

And whilst a lot of things have since flowed under the proverbial political bridge, there is – I feel – still a lot to discuss about the infamous Zille tweets that were posted in March.

The gist of Zille’s social media message, that colonialism hadn’t been all that bad and that it had brought us piped water, infrastructure and an independent judiciary, was sent while she was boarding a plane in Singapore. She’d been studying the trillion dollar halal market in the Far East related to a proposed R1-billion halal agri-processing food park in the Western Cape.

Veteran journalist and author, Zubeida Jaffer, challenged Zille on the website in her Open Letter to Helen Zille:

“Your tweets finally clarify why you have not broken these colonial practices. It is because your philosophical position sees nothing innately wrong with the havoc of colonial governance. This thinking has easily flowed into the present,” wrote Jaffer.

“Your tweets confirm consistently repeated prejudice that feeds into the old apartheid consciousness: where whites rule, things are better: where blacks rule, things are a mess.”

I feel that Zille’s somewhat Freudian tweet has been correctly questioned, but all too often, without the pre-requisite context. We have to interrogate – and fully understand – this deeply-conditioned response to our history, one that conflates colonialism with setting positive standards.

Historically, as author Malcom Ray points out in his book Free Fall, what we are discussing here is witnessed by the British “liberal” policy of the early 19th century. It proposed that the “child-like” native had to be “educated” by the European to aspire to an imperial identity (at the cost of his own one), in which his traditions would be replaced by economic dependency.

Or as Cecil John Rhodes was to declare in 1894, “…we will teach them (the Africans) the dignity of labour,” a monstrous statement by a monstrous little man, his words echoed by the Eichmann of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoed, 70 years later.

And whilst grasping the fact that civic infrastructure was built to chiefly benefit the economic interests of the imperialist – in this case the British – we have to unveil Ms Liberty to see what really happened, and how we all have been affected by it – the so-called independent judiciary more responsible for enforcing colonial decree than real justice.

In the Cape, it was the London Missionary Society that started the rot when Dr John Philip arrived in Cape Town after 1818. The British political masters expediently saw the missionaries as an extension of British interests, and the missionaries – keen to Christianise the barbarians at the gates of the empire – were happy to play along.

Evangelically inspired – and supported by more sinister political motives – missionary liberalism became the cloak and missionary education the dagger to create a black working class in South Africa.  

It would have an impact not only here, but also in India and even Palestine. Millions would die, and millions more would be uprooted in the name of empire. Ironically, it was this stream of evangelism – proposing an end-times Jewish homecoming – that inspired the Zionist discourse.

This happened well before its Jewish aspiration in 1898 by Theodore Herzl, a Viennese journalist. His Der Judenstat was predated by an Anglican chaplain, William Hechter, who wrote The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine in 1894.

Zionism – seen by some as neo-evangelical imperialism started by the British – had two significant actors in Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Oliphant. Shaftesbury would declare in 1853 that there was “a country without a nation” and that God in his wisdom had directed him to a nation without a country (historical Palestine).

An idea of how these imperialists blithely ignored the rights of others, based on their notions of superiority, is a book penned by Lord Oliphant in 1880 entitled The Land of Gilead. It reads like a handbook of the Palestinian Nakba.

Back in Africa Dr Philip, cut from the same cloth, had written home: “we have to become the masters, but rule as we do in India.” As Ray points out, “traditional social moorings” were cut, leaving the Governor of the Cape, Sir George Grey, to tellingly comment that African people had to become “useful servants, consumers of goods (and)…contributors to revenue.”

This, some would argue, is at the heart of neo-liberal policy, which they will argue entrenches historical privilege by throwing itself at the feet of market forces.

At this point, political debate aside, I’m sure it’s obvious that what 300 years of colonialism and 46 years of apartheid did was to put up a wall between South Africans. Or, to put it more bluntly, enforced class, economic and race distinctions based on a divide-and-rule policy of undermining traditional values and leadership.

This has been felt keenly in the Cape, encumbered not only by the rampant indignities of apartheid, but also by slavery and the demise of the indigenous Khoi and San – something that has been ignored when formulating policies of historical redress.

And up to 2017, our educational system has pandered to this status-quo of airbrushed history and neo-colonial syllabi. From this matrix has emerged a dangerous and divisive socio-economic polarity based on a distance from power created by privilege, despite democracy and some measurable progress.

I make no excuses for Zille – or any politician – but to believe that people can abandon decades of social conditioning at the drop of a hat, is not always realistic. If there is anything to learn from Zille’s tweet, it’s the fact that after 22 years of democracy, we still don’t know who we are, and have done very little about it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Jesus or Muhammad? A belated reply to Mario Joseph

Image © Shafiq Morton
I HAVE never been comfortable with debates between faiths. These exchanges often result in triumphalism, which is offensive. But there is the case of a YouTube video that has recently been circulated. It is about Mario Joseph, who was formerly Moulvi Sulaiman. I was asked to comment on it by some people who were concerned by his arguments, but unsure of how to respond to them.

Claiming to have been an “imam” from Kerala who converted to Christianity in 2013, Joseph is what we’d call a murtad fitri, a person born to Islam who has committed apostasy, or ridda. The opening question, the issue of juridicial punishment for apostasy (only applied in a genuine Islamic state), has been grossly misrepresented or decontextualised – especially by extremists, or Islamophobes trumpeting the barbarity of Islam.

Firstly, there is no mention of capital punishment for apostasy in the Qur’an. Secondly, there is no evidence of the Prophet ever ordering apostates to be executed if their apostasy was distinct from state treason. Space precludes further discussion, and suffice it to say that responsible scholars within our democracies and minorities today would never support the idea of capital punishment for apostasy.

If anything, I would suggest that Joseph is not of sound mind and is in need of our sympathy. His antipathy against Islam is, I believe, based on the psychological trauma of being forced (against his will) to leave home and study at an “Arabic school” when he was eight. Surat ul-Baqarah (the Chapter of the Heiffer) proclaims that there should be no compulsion in faith, and if one listens to Joseph’s accounts, his father failed him on that count.

Joseph claims his epiphany was triggered by a member of his congregation asking about Jesus. This, he says, led to him “reading (sic) the Qur’an” and being puzzled by what he discovered. There were only four mentions of the name “Muhammad”, but there were 25 of Jesus. Ironically, Moses is mentioned 136 times in the Qur’an and the Pharaoh, an evil man, over 70 times.

This, in turn, led to a reading of Surat ul-Maryam, where he claimed to have “discovered” evidence of Jesus’ apparent “superiority” over Muhammad due to his miracles and other references to him being called “Kalimatullah”, the word of Allah, and “Ruhullah”, the spirit of Allah.

Joseph’s first assumption, that because the name Muhammad is only mentioned in Qur’an four times diminishes his status, belies the fact that Muhammad is directly addressed in the Qur’an at least 70 times. For instance, the Prophet’s exalted status is referred to seven times. That he is a beloved of Allah is mentioned nine times, that he is an intercessor is indicated three times and his miracles are described six times.

Amongst the Prophet’s miracles are the Qur’an, the Night Journey, the splitting of the moon, the angels fighting his enemies at the Battle of Badr and his escape from the Quraish in the cave of Thawr. There are hundreds more, such as the Prophet not having a shadow and water flowing from his fingers.

Joseph’s departure of faith is his conflation of Jesus with God Himself by capsizing our understanding of the divine words, “kun faya kun” – “be, and it is”. He takes from the Gospel of John, which says “in the beginning was the Word”. However, in Islam God is the beginning.

In Islamic theology, therefore, the Word existing before Allah is impossible. As creation cannot precede its Creator, and the created cannot become the Creator, Jesus can never be God. According to His own attributes, Allah is totally transcendent. Allah might arguably be co-eternal with His Word, but He cannot come after it. If the divine cart were to go before the divine horse, the universe would collapse.

The idea, posited by Joseph, that the Qur’an suggests the “word became flesh” via Jesus being “Kalimatullah” is a fracturing of the Divine Whole, or Tawhid, which is the central theme of the Qur’an. It engenders the Islamic blasphemy of Allah begetting offspring, which is condemned in Surat ul-Maryam  (Mary) and countless other Qur’anic chapters.

With the “Kalimatullah” imbued with the ruh – or holy spirit – we get the Pauline trinity of the Father, the son (divine flesh splitting off from the godhead) and the holy ghost (the split divine flesh being imbued with an equivalent godly spirit). Islamic scholars say this tends to polytheistic confusion.

What is misunderstood with regards to Jesus, a much beloved prophet in Islam, is that “Kalimatullah” means he was blessed to carry a prophetic message. Some scholars also suggest that “Kalimatullah” means the “testimony”, the kalimah, of faith. All of this is a far cry from the attribute of divinity.

“Ruhullah” refers to several things, none of them divine. “Ruhullah” is essentially an Adamic statement, as Allah blew the “ruh” – or soul – into the previously lifeless figure of Adam. This was a moment of “kun faya kun”, a divine decree, and not an act of godly parenthood in begetting a son or a daughter.

In the case of Jesus, “Ruhullah” is an honorific title referring to his inherent spirituality. In his case, his “ruh” was blown into the womb of Maryam, a chaste and pure woman of great stature by the archangel Jibril on the command of Allah. The divine decree was “be” and “Jesus was”, an infallible Messenger of Allah, but not Allah.

Apologies are due to our Christian brethren if I have offended them. I have tried to deal with Joseph’s injustices to Islamic theology, not Christianity. Of course, Mario Joseph (aka Moulvi Sulaiman) is free to believe what he wants, but if he spreads half-truths about Islam I do have the right to reply – in the very same sense if I’m seen to have done the same myself, someone else will enjoy the right of reply too.

Finally, as Surat ul-Kafirun says: “you to your belief, me to mine”. May we all go in peace.