Age of Jahiliyah

A blog of wide and varied interest, including Islam, Muslims, Poetry, Art and much more.

Archive for the day “April 7, 2011”

Next to of Course God America by e. e. cummings

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deaf and dumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

 

 

La Figlia Che Piange T. S. Eliot

(WEEPING GIRL)

By T. S. Eliot

O quam te memorem Virgo …

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair–

Lean on a garden urn–

Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair–

Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise–

Fling them to the ground and turn

With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:

But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

 

So I would have had him leave,

So I would have had her stand and grieve,

So he would have left

As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,

As the mind deserts the body it has used.

I should find

Some way incomparably light and deft,

Some way we both should understand,

Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

 

She turned away, but with the autumn weather

Compelled my imagination many days,

Many days and many hours:

Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.

And I wonder how they should have been together!

I should have lost a gesture and a pose.

Sometimes these cogitations still amaze

The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

Islamic Anasheed: First We Need the Love by Zain Bhikha

Myths that Fuel US Islamophobia

Faisal Abdul Rauf writes: Facts show that far from being radicalised, American Muslims have integrated into society while staying true to their beliefs and values

  • By Faisal Abdul Rauf
  • Published: 00:00 April 7, 2011
  • Gulf News
Islamophobia

  • Image Credit: NINO JOSE HEREDIA/Gulf News
  • Millions of American Muslims, who see no contradiction between being American and being Muslim, are working hard to bridge this gap.

I founded the multi-faith Cordoba Initiative to fight the misunderstandings that broaden the divide between Islam and the West — each perceived as harmful by the other. Millions of American Muslims, who see no contradiction between being American and being Muslim, are working hard to bridge this gap.

It is therefore not surprising that they have become the target of attacks by those who would rather burn bridges than build them, and the subject of recent congressional hearings exploring their ‘radicalisation’. What myths are behind the entrenched beliefs that Muslims simply do not belong in the US and that they threaten its security?

1. American Muslims are foreigners.
Islam was in America even before there was a US. But Muslims didn’t peaceably emigrate — slave-traders brought them here. Historians estimate that up to 30 per cent of enslaved blacks were Muslims. West African prince Abdul Rahman, freed by president John Quincy Adams in 1828 after 40 years in captivity, was only one of many African Muslims kidnapped and sold into servitude in the New World.
In early America, Muslim names could be found in reports of runaway slaves as well as among rosters of soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Muslims fought to preserve American independence in the War of 1812 and for the Union in the Civil War. And more than a century later, thousands of African Americans, including Cassius Clay and Malcolm Little, converted to Islam.

Currently, there are two Muslim members of Congress and thousands of Muslims on active duty in the armed forces. Sure, some Muslim soldiers may have been born elsewhere, but if you wear the uniform of the US and are willing to die for this country, can you be really be considered a foreigner?
Diverse community

2. American Muslims are ethnically, culturally and politically monolithic.
In fact, the American Muslim community is the most diverse Muslim community in the world. US Muslims believe different things and honour their faith in different ways. When it comes to politics, a 2007 Pew study found that 63 per cent of Muslim Americans “lean Democratic,” 11 per cent “lean Republican” and 26 per cent “lean independent.”
Ethnically, despite the popular misperception, the majority of Muslims in the US (and in the world, for that matter) are not Arabs — about 88 per cent check a different box on their US census form. At least one-quarter, for example, are African American.

Anyone who thinks otherwise need look no further than the July 30, 2007, cover of Newsweek, which featured a multicultural portrait of Islam in America. Muslim Americans are also diverse in their sectarian affiliation. And whether they are Sunni or Shiite, their attendance at religious services varies.
According to the State Department publication Muslims in America — A Statistical Portrait, Muslim Americans range from highly conservative to moderate to secular in their religious devotion, just like members of other faith communities. With above-average median household incomes, they are also an indispensable part of the US economy. Sixty-six per cent of American Muslim households earn more than $50,000 per year — more than the average US household.

3. American Muslims oppress women.
According to a 2009 Gallup study, Muslim American women are more educated than not only Muslim women in western Europe but also the average American. They report incomes closer to their male counterparts than American women of any other religion. They are at the helm of many key religious and civic organisations, such as the Arab-American Family Support Centre, Azizah magazine, Karamah, Turning Point, the Islamic Networks Group and the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
Of course, challenges to gender justice remain worldwide. In the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Gender Gap Index, which ranks women’s participation in society, 18 of the 25 lowest-ranking countries have Muslim majorities. But as documented by the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, Muslim women are leading the struggle for change through their scholarship, civic engagement, education, advocacy and activism worldwide.

4. American Muslims often become ‘homegrown’ terrorists.
According to the Triangle Centre on Terrorism and Homeland Security, more non-Muslims than Muslims were involved in terrorist plots on US soil in 2010. This has been overlooked in a country in the grip of Islamophobia, where Rep Peter King, a New York Republican, can convene hearings on the radicalisation of American Muslims.

In 2010, the Triangle Centre also found, the largest single source of initial information on planned terrorist attacks by Muslims in the US was the Muslim American community. As an American Muslim leader who worked with FBI agents on countering extremism right after September 11, 2001, I fear that identifying Islam with terrorism threatens to erode American Muslims’ civil liberties and fuels the dangerous perception that the US is at war with Islam.

Policymakers must recognise that, more often than not, the terrorists the world should fear are motivated by political and socioeconomic — not religious — concerns.

5. American Muslims want to bring Sharia to the US.
In Islam, Sharia is the divine ideal of justice and compassion, similar to the concept of natural law in the western tradition. Though radicals exist on the fringes of Islam, as in every religion, most Muslim jurists agree on the principal objectives of Sharia: the protection and promotion of life, religion, intellect, property, family and dignity. None of this includes turning the US into a caliphate. For centuries, most Islamic scholars around the world have agreed that Muslims must follow the laws of the land in which they live.

This principle was established by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in AD 614-615, when he sent some of his followers to be protected by the Christian king of Abyssinia, where they co-existed peacefully. Not only do American Muslims have no scriptural, historical or political grounds to oppose the US Constitution, the Constitution is in line with Sharia’s objectives and ideals. Muslims already practice Sharia in the US when they worship freely and follow US laws.

In his 1776 publication Thoughts on Government, president Adams praised the Prophet as a “sober inquirer after truth”. And the Supreme Court building contains a likeness of the Prophet, whose vision of justice is cited as an important precedent to the US Constitution.

Faisal Abdul Rauf is the founder of the Cordoba Initiative.

Shaykh Syed Mutawalli Recites Surah Luqman

Extremists and Religion

EXTREMISTS AND RELIGION

Show some empathy

Since the terrorist attacks by Islamist fanatics on Sept. 11, 2001, many Christians in this country have called for those who claim that Islam is a religion of peace to demonstrate the truth of their contention by restraining those among their fellow Muslims who appear to be preparing to wage violent jihad.

Is it too much to ask of Christians the same? When the leader of a Christian church in Gainesville carries out a threat that 1.5 billion Muslims perceive as a violent assault on their religious sensibilities, it seems fair to ask Christians to remove the beam in their own eye before trying to pick the mote out of their brother’s (Matthew 7:3-5).

When Christians look in the mirror and tell themselves how hard it is to do that, perhaps they will understand and sympathize with the difficult task they are asking of Muslims who are embarrassed and ashamed of the crimes committed by those who have hijacked their religion.

Perhaps they will instead link arms with Muslims in an effort to spread the light of understanding and love that is the true purpose of both of their faiths.

For the record, I am a man of faith, but neither Christian nor Muslim. I am a Baha’i.

Tom Armistead, Fleming Island

Daisy Khan, the “Ground Zero” Mosque, and 700 Million Muslim Women

Jesse Larner

Jesse Larner

New York-based writer on politics and culture

Last year Feisal Abdel Rauf, the Imam of a small Tribeca mosque, and his wife Daisy Khan announced their intention to build a large Islamic community center, with events and sports facilities, a 9/11 memorial, and a mosque that could accommodate their growing congregation. Rauf and Khan were inspired by the multicultural openness of an uptown Jewish community center, and envisioned their project as a place in which people of all faiths could encounter and learn from each other. As modern Muslims completely comfortable in a multicultural, secular, democratic society, it was natural that they would seek to locate their faith within this larger society, interacting with and contributing to other currents of life, both religious and secular.

Unfortunately, they planned to locate this center on Park Place, several blocks from the World Trade Center site. Perhaps they should have expected the hysterical, paranoid reaction. Many people were apparently convinced that there is no such thing as “moderate” Islam; that all Muslims are either terrorists or “sleepers,” overtly or covertly working to impose Shari’a law. This odd belief was fed by the haters and the narcissists and, most shamefully, the political calculators, with everyone from Pamela Geller and Sean Hannity to Newt Gingrich and John Bolton piling on. I wrote something about this here.

Rauf and Khan got death threats. At the height of the affair, the New York Post ran an unflattering picture of Khan, which was republished on the extremist site freerepublic.com. The comments exploded in hatred: “Dead eyes… Lifeless, soulless, evil.”

When I met Daisy Khan at a lunch sponsored by More Magazine, that wasn’t the impression I got at all. Khan is a warm, thoughtful, and charismatic person, who very clearly explained her commitment both to democracy and the open society and to the spiritual, human-rights-respecting form of Islam that her husband follows and teaches. Perhaps more importantly, she spoke of how there is no contradiction between these things. She isn’t trapped between two irreconcilable worlds; Khan, an ambitious and successful interior architect who used to work at One World Trade Center, is living in two distinct but mutually-reinforcing systems of identity. She explained how, after 9/11, she felt a special responsibility to speak up for the vast majority of Muslims who embrace democracy and human rights, and to address the vexed issues of violence, status of women, leadership, and democracy within Islam. She wanted to show that the Islam of the fanatics is a distorted and poisoned version of the true message of the Koran.

I must say that, as an atheist, I don’t buy this idea of a “distorted” Islam that stones the infidel and a “true” Islam that respects human rights, any more than I buy the idea of a “distorted” Christianity that justifies racism and a “true” Christianity that fights it. Since I don’t believe in any revealed religious truth, a religion simply is what it does. All actions in its name are equally its “true” face.

But of course there are vastly different ideas about Islam that result in vastly different practices of Islam, just as there are vastly different ideas about and practices of Christianity. Those who think that Islam is inherently and universally violent simply don’t know anything about how it is conceived and lived in much of the world. From a purely pragmatic (and democratic, and American) perspective, then, it’s extremely helpful that there are people like Rauf and Khan who are out there living and teaching a form of Islam that contributes to peace, human rights, and multicultural understanding in our multicultural society. That’s what we supposedly want, right? And that’s why the crazed opposition to the Park51 center was so discouraging.

At the More Magazine event, Khan wanted to talk about the importance of communicating the commonalities of Islamic and American values, but also about the practical ways that she is working for change. She spoke of the importance of giving women a voice in Islamic cultures and societies, both as an influence for moderation and democracy, and as a matter of human rights. She described her organization, WISE—Women’s Islamic Spirituality and Equality—and how it is working to develop female leadership and to challenge Koranic teachings that justify the suppression and abuse of women. She talked about multiple change theories in economics, education, and religious interpretation, and the need to challenge and expose al-Qaeda’s attempts to recruit women by using the idiom and style of modernity, but without its content.

The idea of change in the Islamic world coming through the empowerment of women is not merely a theory, and it’s not a marginal trend. It is the focus of many, many experienced international development agencies, and a major subject of the Arab Human Development Reports, sponsored by the UN and written by Arab scholars, economists, and officials. Women’s capacity as a force for change has been demonstrated most powerfully by female leadership in the recent and continuing uprisings against authoritarianism in the Middle East, through the strength and tenacity of women like Mozn Hassan, the executive director of the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, who was deeply involved in the Egyptian revolution; or Egyptian writer and feminist dissident Nawal El Saadawi, at 79 a lifelong rebel who is doing everything in her power to make sure that women are active and included in the new Egyptian political reality; or Tawakkol Karman, who led dangerous protests against the government in Yemen; and thousands of other women without whom the regional revolts would have been quite different in character.

Khan has been doing specific things to work for democracy and human rights through the empowerment of women in the Islamic world, not only organizing an intense international conference of female leaders but, through WISE, sponsoring a project in Afghanistan that exposes Imams to Koranic teachings on female equality, and another in rural Egypt that works to stop the practice of female genital mutilation. I must say that if she is indeed a stealth agent of Islamic radicalism, as some of her critics charge, these would be rather odd projects to undertake.

Khan spoke about the tremendous opportunities in this moment of flux in the Arab world, opportunities for democracy and freedom and human rights, and of the importance of working with women to help bring these societies into alignment with American political values while respecting the context of their Islamic culture. It’s a huge and tremendously important topic that engages our interests as a democratic nation, but also as individual human beings.

Unfortunately, she also said a few words about the present status of the mosque and Community Center project. In a roomful of journalists, this was a mistake—especially since Khan had little to say that she was comfortable putting on the record. And the next day all the stories that came out of the meeting with her focused on the “Ground Zero” mosque.

Which was really too bad. This focus on a single, local controversy is missing the real story—the big story about democracy, change, and human potential.

Is Islamic Mysticism Really Islam?

Omid Safi

Omid Safi

Author, ‘Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters

There is a lovely story from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, remembering that a mysterious visitor came upon him and his companions. The visitor, later revealed to be the archangel Gabriel, proceeded to sit intimately next to Muhammad and quiz the Prophet. He asked Muhammad about three increasingly higher and deeper levels of religiosity, which the Prophet answered sequentially as Islam (wholehearted submission to God), Faith and, lastly, Loveliness (ihsan). This third quality the Prophet identified as worshipping God as if we could see the Divine, and if we cannot, to always remember that God nevertheless sees us.

The sequence is fascinating, as it reveals that what we think of as Islam (the attestation to Divine Unity, the performance of the prayers, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the paying of the alms tax, the fast of Ramadan) mark only the very first layer — though the foundational layer — of religiosity. Above that is faith, and above faith is the spiritual and mystical layer of spiritual beauty, for ihsan is literally the realm of actualizing and realizing beauty and loveliness (husn), of bringing beauty into this world and connecting it to God, who is the All-Beautiful.

Throughout Islamic history, this realm of ihsan was most emphatically pursued by the mystics of Islam, the Sufis. Historically, this mystical realm of Islam formed a powerful companion to the legal dimension of Islam (sharia). Indeed, many of the mystics of Islam were also masters of legal and theological realms. The cultivation of inward beauty and outward righteous action were linked in many of important Islamic institutions. In comparing Islam with Judaism, the mystical dimension of Islam was much more prominently widespread than Kabbalah. And unlike the Christian tradition, the mysticism of Islam was not cloistered in monasteries. Sufis were — and remain — social and political agents who went about seeking the Divine in the very midst of humanity.

After the Prophet Muhammad, many of the most influential of all Muslims were and remain mystics. Mawlana Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known to Turks as Mevlana and to Americans as Rumi, remains the most beloved of all Sufi poets, whose Masnavi was perhaps the only work ever compared directly with the Quran. Ibn ‘Arabi, the Spanish Muslim sage, remains the most widely read metaphysician, and his school of “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-wujud) has been both influential and controversial from Spain to Indonesia. The most important Muslim theologian, al-Ghazali, identified the realm of Sufism as the highest Islamic quest for knowledge, one that dealt most directly with other-worldly matters.

Nor was the practice of Islamic mysticism limited to intellectuals and poets. At the level of popular practice, some of the Sufi shrines received as many (if not more) annual visitors that the Mecca does for the Hajj pilgrimage. Entire Muslim-majority regions (Iran, Turkey, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.) came to develop understandings of Islam that are and remain inseparable from mystical understandings of Islam. Much of the higher dimensions of Islamic aesthetics (calligraphy and poetry) have been inseparable from Sufism.

And yet, today, the word “Sufi” is a highly suspect one for many modern Muslims, and even thinkers and preachers whose frameworks and anecdotes are permeated with those of the mystical dimension of Islam eschew the mere mention of the word Sufi, either not wanting to alienate their suspicious audience or not wishing to “erode” their authority by connecting their teachings to anything other than the Quran and the example of the Prophet.

So how did such a powerful and beautiful dimension of Islam come to be viewed with such suspicion by so many Muslims?

The marginalization of Sufism came about through an initially unlikely perfect storm, an alliance of European Orientalists and conservative/modernist Muslims, whose agenda in demarcating Islam from Sufism ironically supports that of certain New-Agey Universalists who sought to extract Sufism out of Islam. Let’s explore this somewhat odd association a bit more closely.

The Orientalist scholars (whose approach began in Europe and dominated much of the American scholarly engagement with Islam) based their approach on a study of Islam that privileged “classical” legal and theological Arabic texts from 800-1100 C.E. Of all those texts, the most important ones were held to be the ones closest historically to the “foundational” period. The Orientalists became interested in Sufism very early on, almost as early as their translations of the Quran. They found themselves attracted to the deep beauty and wisdom of Sufi poetry, particularly from Persian. Quite inconveniently for them, they were also committed to a bifurcated view that divided the world into Semitic (Arabs and Jews, characterized primarily by law, monotheism, and dry deserts) and Indo-Europeans (Hindus, Europeans and Iranians, who lived through philosophy, art, mysticism and logic). The Orientalists had no problem thinking that entire blocks of humanity share certain “mentalities” and “temperaments” connected to their languages. Even though they admired the poetry of mystics like Sa’di, Hafez and Rumi, they could not admit that Muslims (who were “Semitic” after all) could come up with such beauty, mysticism and poetry. Therefore, the Orientalists decreed that Sufism must be “un-Islamic” and due to Christian, Persian, Hindu or Neoplatonic “influences” — anything but Islam, anything but the experience of Prophet Muhammad in encountering God, which is what the Sufis have always claimed as the primary source of their inspiration!

The Muslim conservative/modernists (what we broadly refer to as the Salafi tradtion) came to have a profound distrust of what might be termed “the tradition(s) of Islam,” believing that the historical tradition of Islamic scholarship — and the scholars who had been the authoritative interpreters of Islam — were increasingly irrelevant to the historical trials and tribulations through which 19th and 20th century Muslims were suffering. They wanted to remain pious and observant Muslims, but believed that the way to return to the “glory days” of Islam was to “return” to the original spirit of vitality and authenticity of Islam, before the influence of “foreign ideas” crept into Islam, sapping its authenticity. These foreign ideas they equated both culturally (the contribution of Persians, Indians, Turks, etc.) and intellectually (the traditions of philosophy, mysticism and all non-scriptural sciences).

The idea for the Muslim modernists was that the remedy for Islam consisted of a textual return “away from the blemishes … of the later phases” back to “yearning for truth” of the founders of Islam. In this, they found themselves oddly in full-agreement with the orientalists. They came to be suspicious of many traditions of Islamic thought and practice that developed through time, including that of Sufism. Perhaps most polemically, they identified Sufism as having contributed to a corrupt and inward-looking mentality that allowed the colonial powers to dominate Muslims. Throughout Islamic history, particular Sufi ideas and practices (such as the “Unity of Being,” certain meditation techniques and commemoration of the Prophet’s birthday) had always been contested by other Muslims. It was in this modern and modernist context that the whole of Islamic mysticism came to be viewed with great suspicion as being un-Islamic if not outright anti-Islamic.

So where do the New Agers come into play? It was only in the 20th century that human beings became capable of uttering a sentence like “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” Historically all religious traditions have had mystical dimensions, and their mystical traditions have arisen within the very depth of each tradition, partaking of its key symbols and emulating the spiritual experiences of its main exemplars. It was in this modern context that a deep and new suspicion of the outward forms and institutions of religion was cultivated, with people who believed that they were on the edge (or already inside) a “New Age” of human consciousness. It was these new Agers who, dissatisfied with their own experiences of Judaism and Christianity, turned “East” to the mystical traditions of Buddhism, Hindu traditions and Islam to obtain the mystical truth that they so yearned for — without necessarily wanting to adopt the legal and institutional aspects of those traditions. In many cases, the engagements were complicated by colonial politics, as the “eastern” traditions of wisdom were connected to colonized countries that many of the same Westerners looked down upon, even as they were fascinated by them.

So what we have had for the last few decades is a situation of Orientalists and Salafi Muslims seeking to construct a “real Islam” that is untainted by Sufi dimensions, and many new agers seek to extract a mysticism that stands above and disconnected from wider, broader and deeper aspects of Islam.

Yes we have learned that the human yearning for the Divine, for beauty, for love and for loveliness is too deeply engrained in the human spirit to be partitioned off or exiled. Today, many Muslims world-wide are increasingly dissatisfied with what they see as dry as stale bread interpretations and practices of Islam, and want — and demand — something more spiritual and more beautiful. They know about the deep spiritual experience of the Prophet Muhammad, who came face to face with God, and they too yearn for their own spiritual experiences.

All Muslims seek to emulate the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran reminds them that if you love God, follow Muhammad. The mystically oriented among Muslims take the emulation a bit more literally: If Muhammad arose to have his own face-to-face encounter with the Divine, they too aspire to rise in the footsteps of the Prophet, to have their own meeting with God. As it was said of the great Rumi, they too want to be “off-springs of the soul of Muhammad.”

Omid Safi is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He is the Co-Chair of the Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion, and the author of ‘Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters’ (HarperOne, 2009).

To Learn About Islam, Why Not Ask a Muslim

by Hani Hamdan

March 30, 2011

Quite refreshing were new hearings led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on protecting the civil rights of American Muslims, especially after a slew of anti-Muslim events within the past year or so. Those culminated in a House committee’s hearings on the “radicalization of American Muslims” a couple of weeks ago.

As glad as I am about Durbin’s hearings, I have to maintain that the way to gain the best understanding of Muslims in the United States starts not by listening to politicians or pundits, left or right, but by shutting them off.

The media will seek to focus on the most sensational aspects of Muslims, whether by focusing on examples of extreme views among certain Muslims or on examples of extreme discrimination against Muslims. Pundits will do the same. The results are more division, less understanding, more misconceptions and higher ratings for TV and radio.

Politicians will turn the issue into another means of forwarding their agendas and winning votes. The next election will be a good (i.e., dreadful) example of this.

In the midst of this ruckus, the main victim is the truth.

But perhaps the best reason for shutting off pundits and politicians who want to tell us what to think about Muslims is a simple one: We do not need them. We can do without them quite easily.

As individuals, we can develop our own understanding, better than that provided by any of the witnesses at the congressional hearings. The fact is, Muslims make no secret of their beliefs and methodologies. All you need to know about Muslims is just as readily available to you as it is to Muslims themselves. It’s not that hard.

First, find the closest mosques to where you live. I use www.islamicfinder.com, where I can enter my ZIP code and get a list of local mosques with their addresses and phone numbers.

Second, visit a few of these mosques. My recommendation is to go on a Friday either at noon or 1 p.m. (you may want to call ahead to check when the Friday sermon begins). That way, you get to hear the weekly sermon for yourself and check out what Muslims are being taught, and you get to ask the imam of the mosque directly if you have any questions.

The atmosphere of the mosque will look and feel different at first, but please pay no attention to your fear of the unknown. You can ask all the questions you want, no matter how “offensive” you may think they are, and I’m sure everyone will be happy to help you. Just lose your apprehension, approach someone and say: “I’d like to ask the imam a few questions.” No dress code or special gestures or sayings are necessary.

Some Mosques, like the one I go to in Dinkytown, have archives of live English audio translations of Arabic sermons; you can request a copy. Some have websites with the Friday sermons available in audio or video. Most mosques will also have literature available for purchase or borrowing.

Also, Muslim texts are readily available online, from the Quran to the Hadith to various writings by traditional and contemporary scholars, all translated into English. Google comes in handy. Just make sure the websites you visit are made by Muslims, since they will be the websites Muslims themselves use to get answers to their questions about Islam.

Which brings me to an important cautionary point. Religion cannot be understood simply by reading texts. It is a way of life, complete and complex with mental and physical components.

If I wanted to form a correct understanding of Christianity only by reading the Bible, for example, I’m sure I’d be easily misled by some of the violent verses within it. The best route to understanding religious texts is with a person who lives them — in this case, a Muslim.

I grew up in the Middle East, where the majority is Muslim. I do not recall a TV or radio show in which a group of Muslim panelists gathered to discuss the Bible in the absence of a Christian scholar or priest. Learning about a religion without asking a knowledgeable, practicing member of that religion is simply not possible.

If you would like to learn about Islam, I wish you luck on your endeavor. I know you will find all the answers you need.

An Abso in 14th Century Britian

By Megan Lane

BBC News Magazine

Today we are urged to report fly-tipping and other nuisances – just as our forebears did 700 years ago. Their complaints survive in a rare medieval document, the Assize of Nuisance, which sheds new light on an age-old problem.

Alice Wade, who lived in 14th Century London, could not countenance the smell of her own poo.

In an era when many of her fellow citizens relieved themselves in chamber pots and surreptitiously tipped the stinking contents out the window, she had a toilet in its own small room.

But 700 years ago, a toilet was a hole cut in a wooden platform over a cesspool. The smells that emanated were most foul.

So she rigged up a wooden pipe that connected her toilet to a rainwater gutter that flushed a nearby public latrine.

The solids from her toilet blocked the gutter, and her neighbours were “greatly inconvenienced by the stench”. The city authorities ordered that she remove the pipe within 40 days.

This is case 214 in the Assize of Nuisance, a list of grievances made against irksome neighbours in London from 1301-1431. The complaints were recorded in abbreviated Latin, the language for official proceedings at the time, says Elizabeth Scudder of London Metropolitan Archives, where this 700-year-old document is stored.

Few documents survive from this era, but other British cities would have had similar records, says Scudder. “There is a very early record concerning nuisances dating from the late 12th Century relating to Northampton.”

More than 700 years later, complaints against neighbours still persist, but they usually relate to noise, fly-tipping or anti-social behaviour, and many local councils have dedicated helplines to process grievances.

Back in medieval times, many complaints concerned misdirected, leaking or otherwise noisome privies, as medieval cities had no infrastructure to cope with the disposal of human waste. In the main, it was dumped into rivers and tributaries, or trodden into the ground.

These records show that people were coming up with ingenious ways to get rid of their waste, often giving their neighbours cause to complain.

“These were just some of the many attempts made to overcome the problems created by so many people living in close proximity with each other,” says historian Dan Snow, presenter of BBC Two’s Filthy Cities, which provides fresh interpretations of the Assize document. “The fact that they all too often failed to deal with those problems was because the sheer scale of that challenge overwhelmed their resources.”

At the time, cleanliness was a luxury few could afford. London, a city of some 100,000 people living in close proximity, had just eight public latrines, and only the well-to-do had private privies.

Although there were rules and regulations governing the disposal of filth, these were largely ignored.

“In 1309, a charge of 40p was levied on anyone found dumping rubbish outside their house, or anyone else’s,” says Snow. “The trouble was, wealthy landowners seemed quite happy to pay the fine when they got caught. And the City authorities were probably quite glad of the money.”

Nowadays, illegally dumping rubbish is a criminal offence that carries a fine of up to £50,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.

When the bubonic plague, or Black Death, decimated London’s population in 1349, city officials were forced to act. They believed the vapours, or miasma, given off by the filth choking the streets and waterways contributed to the spread of this deadly disease.

Stricter laws were passed to clean up the waterways. In 1357, it was forbidden to throw waste into the Thames or other waterway under threat of imprisonment and fines. And officials added these new professions to the city payroll:

  • muckrakers, the first street cleaners, who collected filth and took it by cart or boat beyond the city walls
  • surveyors of the pavement, the first bin men, who kept thoroughfares clear by removing all nuisances of filth
  • gong farmers, or early drain cleaners, who cleared out cesspits, latrines and privies

“They could earn in 11 nights work what a skilled labourer would take six months to earn,” says Snow. Many supplemented their income by selling human waste to farmers for fertiliser.

Some of the earliest built toilets in Britain are in the Tower of London, says Lucy Worsely, curator of Historic Royal Palaces. These are in the White Tower, built soon after the Norman conquest.

“The toilets, called garderobe, are all on the side away from the city so the subjugated Londoners wouldn’t see the conquering Norman poo dribbling down the side of the walls.

“The name garderobe – which translates as guarding one’s robes – is thought to come from hanging your clothes in the toilet shaft, as the ammonia from the urine would kill the fleas.”

And the word “loo” dates from medieval times, says Worsley, presenter of BBC Four’s If Walls Could Talk, a history of our homes to be broadcast on 13 April.

“Ordinary people would use a chamber pot, and when they wanted to empty it, they would open a window and shout out ‘gardez l’eau’ – watch out for the water. Gardez l’eau became loo.”

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