Boris Burkas

August 14, 2018

With the Name of God, the Apparent, the Hidden

BORIS BURKAS

 

 

  1. The “Boris Burkas” controversy is a good opportunity to further debate around the Islamic veil in a civil way. A key issue is that the niqab or face-veil does not (currently) have the social acceptability in the UK that it does in some Muslim-majority countries. There needs to be more civilised dialogue to help wider society understand why thousands of British women choose to wear a face-veil in public. Conversely, the principles of Islamic ethics and law dictate that public security and safety is of paramount importance: we also need an internal dialogue amongst proponents or defenders of the face-veil about this issue.
  2. It is important to summarise what Boris said: he critiqued the Danes, some of whom still swim stark naked in public, for banning the burka (or correctly, niqab). He expressed the wish that the fringe practice of face-veiling, at which he poked fun, would disappear in Britain, but opposed a ban. He also echoed Jack Straw’s 2006 call for face-veiling to end.
  3. I recently spent an hour in a residential area of the Highfields district of Leicester, and observed that about half of all women walking on that street wore the niqab. Several had teenage daughters with them who covered their hair but not the face.  There are clearly a few parts of UK cities, such as Birmingham, Leicester, Blackburn and elsewhere, where the niqab is quite common, although nationally it is a fringe practice.
  4. Face-veiling was clearly known in pre-Islamic Arabia, including amongst men. Reasons for it included simple environmental ones such as the problem of sandstorms – Arab horsemen riding with their faces covered are a familiar sight in the desert. Cultural practices often become divorced from their origins. It is for this reason that Tuareg men still cover their faces with the tails of their turbans, sometimes even when indoors. At the Marrakech Declaration conference in 2016, the most senior Islamic cleric of Niger attended wearing this traditional Tuareg dress.
  5. Aside from culture, veiling also of course has religious and spiritual dimensions. Islamic culture and tradition continued and adapted many Jewish, Christian and Arabian pre-Islamic practices. The veiling of women in Islam came to fundamentally symbolise higher theological and metaphysical truths, the most central of which is that God is veiled by creation, and the veil (hijab) between humanity and God is lifted in the Hereafter for those who purify their souls sufficiently. Now, God has the Most Beautiful Names: a traditional Islamic idea is that the masculine represents and manifests Transcendence, Majesty and the Outer whilst the feminine represents and manifests Immanence, Beauty and the Inner. (These metaphysical concepts related to gender are explored in ‘The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought’ by Sachiko Murata, 1992.) Of course, there are other, non-traditional views on the subject, especially more modern ones.
  6. Thus, the Muslim woman became veiled because she represented the Divine Beloved and the Divine Beauty. Her veiling in public also became an extension of her home-based role, where she remained in purdah (a curtain or veil), a term that has ironically been borrowed for the suspension of UK parliaments before elections. Occasionally, veiling applied to men too: we can also be beloved sometimes, and there is a minority South Asian Muslim practice of veiling the bridegroom – I have witnessed this at a wedding in the UK. Of course, the Christian practice of veiling the bride is well known in the UK. The Muslim caliph, sultan or local emir was sometimes veiled in public, to preserve an element of mystery, respect and power. His doorkeeper was literally known as “the veiler” (hajib). Metaphysically, the ruler here represented the Divine Majesty and Divine Power. Of course, there is a gender-asymmetry here that may be mistaken for, or perverted into, gender-inequality, as Munira Mirza alludes to in her article on this subject.
  7. Boris was wrong to comment that he could find no scriptural justification for face-veiling in the Koran, on two counts. Firstly, his comment is inaccurate, since traditionally, some Islamic authorities have interpreted some verses to include face-veiling, as I described in detail in my 2011 paper, Islam and the Veil. Secondly, his comment implies that scriptural literalism is justified, whereas scripture was always supposed to be read alongside considerations of history, society, morality, spirituality and ethics. NB: at least Boris was closer to the mark than the Prince of Wales, who famously and inaccurately said in his 1990s lecture at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, that “veiling was a cultural tradition, and not from the Prophet of Islam.”
  8. Clearly, face-veiling is not fully accepted in UK society, as politicians’ comments from Jack Straw (2006) onwards illustrate. However, it is not totally unknown, so there are cultural blindspots in operation. I have already mentioned the bridal veil, a beautiful Christian tradition. There is also the practice of entertainers and party-goers wearing masks. In 2013, I attended an interfaith meeting at Lambeth Palace, that was also addressed by Baroness Warsi: in his closing remarks, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to “masqued parties” in previous centuries at the palace, that he said were a euphemism for wife-swapping parties. To this day, British newspapers continue to report about private sex parties where all participants wear masks. This again raises the question of private vs. public practice.
  9. In contrast to the UK, face-veiling is clearly socially-acceptable, and even the norm, in some parts of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority countries, where people might invert Boris’ comments and speak of “bank robbers dressed as women.” In Saudi Arabia, I noticed that niqabs were of different levels of opacity and transparency, and saw young girls having great fun lifting and lowering their veils as they peered out at the world in preparation for a religious, socially-conservative adult life. During my years of teaching at mosque, college and university in the UK and Pakistan, the female students adopted diverse dress-codes with regard to covering or not covering their heads and faces, and there was always social acceptance from other students and teachers, both male and female. I have also come across face-veiling teachers in Islamic schools in the UK and Pakistan. In Pakistan, “Burka Avenger” is a popular cartoon series promoting education and female empowerment.  It was so successful that it was bought by Nickelodeon Pakistan. Islamic face-veiling has come to the UK via British multiculturalism and needs to be understood seriously, rather than treated with knee-jerk reactions.
  10. Having grown up in the UK since the age of five, I was at first uncomfortable talking to women in niqabs, but I learnt to respect their choices and to gauge basic emotions such as sadness or joy from their eyes. To return to a spiritual aspect of this question, I find sunglasses, that are obviously worn by both men and women, annoyingly including indoors, to be far more of a barrier to meaningful contact: in many spiritual traditions around the world, the eyes are a window into, and a mirror of, the soul. Clearly, eye-contact is prohibited by ray-bans, whereas at least you can tell if a niqab-wearer is smiling from the twinkling of her eyes. If we can’t see each other’s eyes, we can’t see into each other’s souls.
  11. Having said all of the above, there is a clear principle of Islamic ethics and law that public welfare (maslaha) overrides most other considerations. In western, (post-)Christian societies, there are genuine concerns about social acceptability and public security. This must be considered in the debate, especially by defenders and proponents of face-veiling.
  12. Anecdotally, I have come across several western non-Muslim men, who describe the veil as being “sexy” and “mysteriously attractive.” This raises another internal question for some Muslims: if the veil is supposed to symbolise and promote modesty and chastity, how do we guard against it becoming counter-productive?

CONCLUSIONS

  1. Boris Johnson should apologise for the offence caused by his comparing face-veiled women to pillar-boxes and bank robbers. Perhaps in the future, such comments will not be offensive because the national debate will be mature and integrated enough for face-veiled women themselves to laugh along with the jokes. But with all the racial and religious tensions in the UK, particularly around Islam, visibly-different Muslim women are one of our most vulnerable minorities, especially those who wear the niqab. A senior politician, a possible future Prime Minister, should display higher standards in public and be more responsible: for example, he probably knows that he would never get away with similarly mocking the characteristic dress of British ultra-orthodox Jews.(DISCLAIMER & APOLOGY: On a private electronic discussion group of salafi activists c. 2009-10, I once made a flippant remark about our men and women dressing like “clowns and ninjas.” I was making a serious point about integration and traditional dress, by which I stand: public perception and respect for local society is important in Islam. But the comment was made public and used against me by my opponents during the 2011 Tawhid Mosque controversy, so for the record, although many salafis told me that they found the comment funny, I would like to apologise for any offence caused.)
  2. We need more civilised and mature debate in the UK to address at least two major aspects of this issue. Firstly, I hope that more proponents of the niqab, especially face-veiled women themselves, articulate their thinking and experience so that wider society understands the practice better, leading to more social acceptance and less fear around it, as exists already in many Muslim-majority countries. Secondly, I hope that the proponents and defenders of the face-veil consider genuine concerns in wider society around security and facial visibility, since the niqab has not been native to these shores in the past.
  3. Those insisting that the niqab be discarded are taking an illiberal position: it is better to have a respectful debate. If, as a result, some or all women remove their niqabs, then all well and good from the perspective of opponents of niqab, but those women’s free choice must be respected. I know of several British Muslim women who used to wear a niqab, but stopped doing so for reasons of social cohesion after 9/11 and 7/7. On the other hand, I was told anecdotally that more young women wore the niqab as a defiant response to Jack Straw in 2006. And in the same year, a white British female convert to Islam who had worn the niqab for 10 years, gave Channel 4’s alternative Christmas Day message.
  4. It is better to debate a matter without settling it, than to settle it without debating. I hope and pray that this whole controversy leads to a better understanding of the issue in the UK through constructive debate.
  5. Boris Bikes were a huge success. There might be a lucrative commercial opportunity right now for someone to market a suitable line of “Boris Burkas.” But joking aside, I would genuinely love to see Boris discuss this issue with a niqab-wearer, especially one that could match his wit and stand up for her free choice. It would be very helpful for both sides to have such an interaction. I hope someone can arrange such an encounter.

 

Usama Hasan

London

14th August 2018

 

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Lo que dijo Stephen Hawking sobre dios desde una perspectiva islámica

July 29, 2018

Lo que dijo Stephen Hawking sobre dios desde una perspectiva islámica

Mysteries in the West – Strange Rites

June 20, 2018

Mysteries in the West – Strange Rites

It is the night of Saturday, especially consecrated to a ritual which is awesome to us, faithfully followed by the devotees of a certain cult.

Two groups of twelve, dressed in colourful costumes, carry out complicated movements within an enclosed space. They at times respond to musical stimuli applied through a primitive instrument by a man of seeming authority who, with a few assistants, supervises their activity. Entirely surrounding the area devoted to the ritual, a congregation gives its responses. At times the people sing, sometimes they shout, sometimes they are silent. Some wield an instrument which gives forth a strange sound.

Much care has evidently gone into the planning of the geometrically designed arena. Around it are colourful insignia, flags, banners, decorations probably designed to raise the emotional pitch of the individual and the group. The atmosphere is eerie partly because of the abrupt changes in emotion. Their reaction to the ecstatogenic processes being enacted in their midst is so explosive at times that one wonders why they do not spill over into the sacred enclosure. Both joy and sorrow are manifested among the votaries.

Here a man writhes on the ground, another grimaces, sweat pouring from his face. One of the audience strikes himself, another his neighbour. The totem rises into the air, and is hailed by an awesome roar from the assembly … Then we see that blood has been shed.

We are observers at a floodlit association football [soccer] game …

[Idries Shah, The Sufis, pp. 232-3 with slight edits]

RAMADAN & EID: PATIENCE & GRATITUDE – BBC Thought For The Day, Eid al-Fitr

June 15, 2018

 

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

RAMADAN & EID: PATIENCE & GRATITUDE

Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, 15th June 2018 (1st Shawwal 1439, Eid al-Fitr)

Imam Dr Usama Hasan

Eid Mubarak! Over the next few days, beginning today, more than a billion people around the world will be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival that ends the month-long fasting during Ramadan.

For an entire month very year, hundreds of millions of Muslims abstain from all food and drink, including water, during daylight hours: that’s up to sixteen or eighteen hours without eating or drinking, every day. Ramadan, especially during the summer, is a gruelling physical and spiritual ordeal, and mirrors the tradition of fasting in other religions, such as the original Christian observance of Lent. In fact, we know of Jews and Christians in Britain who fast for some of Ramadan, and Muslims who fast during Lent. Despite many conflicts, the world’s great religions have so much in common!

Fasting can have numerous health benefits, although it is not recommended for pregnant women or those with certain medical conditions. The BBC Horizon programme, Eat, Fast & Live Longer, broadcast in 2012, documented healthy weight loss and increased neuron growth in the brain caused by periods of hunger. The episode looked at the 5:2 diet, involving fasting two days a week, and also at several days of consecutive fasting. Well, Ramadan involves 30 days of consecutive fasting. And outside of Ramadan, the Islamic tradition recommends fasting precisely two days per week, or at least three days per month.

On a spiritual level, fasting represents patience, whilst eating and drinking should involve gratitude: after a long fast, even a glass of water feels like a luxury. The Prophet Muhammad taught that “one who eats gratefully is like one who fasts patiently,” and that the best form of fasting was that of King David, or Prophet Dawud, who would fast on alternate days. This is ideal, partly because it represents the ultimate balance of patience and gratitude.

In the Qur’an, there is much praise of those who are “extremely patient and extremely grateful,” especially in response to the vicissitudes of time. Patience and gratitude are two intertwined halves, two sides of the same coin of faith: we are required to have patience through troubled times, and show gratitude in good times.

For Muslims, showing gratitude to God includes being grateful to people through whom we receive God’s favours. Gratitude also includes using our God-given talents, skills and faculties for good and noble purposes, rather than for engaging in mischief and evil.

Fasting is a metaphor for life: difficulties are followed by ease. Breaking the fast at the end of each day, and at the end of the month, is a foretaste of heavenly bliss. So go on, treat yourself for Eid: you’ve probably deserved it!

RIP Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) – In Memoriam

March 15, 2018

Usama Hasan with Prof Stephen Hawking, Google Zeitgeist Europe Conference, London, 2011

[Download a PDF of this article here (9 pages)]:

Stephen Hawking – In Memoriam by Usama Hasan

Bismillah. So, RIP Prof. Stephen Hawking, often called “the greatest physicist since Einstein,” who returned to his source yesterday.

Here is a brief history, in time, of my encounters with him, intellectually & physically:

 

  1. An early copy of A Brief History of Time, 1988

Hawking’s famous bestseller was originally published by Bantam Press in 1988. That same year, by the grace of God, I achieved a silver medal in the British Physics Olympiad after being entered into it by my school, the City of London School for Boys (CLSB), aged around 17. (Dozens of students from around the country each won gold, silver or bronze medals, and the very best would be selected to represent Britain at the International Physics Olympiad.) My prize was a hardback copy of A Brief History of Time, and it is still a prized possession.

For some reason, they wrote my name in the presentation sticker as “V. Hasan” – perhaps they thought I was an Ancient Roman or something. A classmate, Keith Eyeions, won a gold medal – his prize was a large sum of cash, book tokens or possibly a microcomputer, but in hindsight, my prize was possibly more valuable. Keith also read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and took the History & Philosophy of Science course in the second year – he encouraged me to study it also; I was unable to, but at least he had introduced me to the subject, of which I had never heard before.

I started the book several times, but like the vast majority of people, couldn’t get very far with it.  It would be several years before I was able to understand the book entirely, obviously whilst or after completing a physics degree.

Whilst at school, I did manage to read the excellent In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin and God & The New Physics by Paul Davies.

 

2. A Christian Union lecture critiquing Hawking at Cambridge University, 1990

During my second year at Cambridge, I attended, along with a fellow Islamic Society committee member, an eye-catching Christian Union lecture on religion and physics. The CU were largely evangelical, literalist, fundamentalist Christians, and quite a few academics had similar beliefs to them. The lecturer, whose name I don’t recall but was probably a colleague of David Wilkinson and a pupil of John Polkinghorne, gave a good, entertaining talk about the new physics, quoting the famous lines, “Whoever is not shocked by quantum theory, has not understood it!” (Niels Bohr) and, “God does not play dice with the universe!” (Albert Einstein). He ended by critiquing Hawking, whose ABHT was already a bestseller and many religious people were engaging with it. He quoted from Hawking’s penultimate paragraph, that seems to incline towards theism amidst a largely agnostic discussion, and concluded,

“Stephen Hawking holds the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge, a post once held by Isaac Newton. Hawking may not share Newton’s faith, but he points us in the same direction.”

This was to have a profound influence on me, and my argument in a 2010 article elsewhere on this blog, A Muslim Response to Stephen Hawking, is partly based on that 1990 lecture.

 

3. Hawking’s lecture on “Imaginary Time”, c. 1990/1

The Cambridge University Physics Society organised this, at a science lecture theatre that accommodated a few hundred people: Hawking rarely lectured publicly, so it was packed, although very few of us had any idea what the title meant.  I arrived quite early, to guarantee a spot. An orthodox Jewish chap called Mark Israel had arrived before me, and was intensely reading what looked like a pocket Torah. As a fellow Abrahamic monotheist, he seemed to be preparing himself to take on someone who was becoming a star for atheist scientists. (Mark had been a year above me at CLSB, but we were now in the same year at university, since he had taken a gap year in Israel, working on a kibbutz or studying at a yeshiva or something. We barely knew each other.)

Hawking’s pre-loaded lecture, delivered via his computer and voice-synthesiser, began by explaining the difference between real and imaginary numbers: basic, A-level mathematics. He then accelerated up several gears and lost the vast majority of us in his details, talking about solving Einstein’s equations for General Relativity in imaginary or complex (real+imaginary) time, avoiding infinities and renormalisations, promoting his no-boundary proposal and his positivist philosophical position. Although he lost me and others in the details, I think I got the gist of his lecture, as above. His link between the mathematical physics and his philosophical position was interesting: he argued that we could not know to begin with (a priori) whether time was best represented by real, imaginary or complex numbers, if at all. But given that we could not solve the GR equations in real time, but could do so in imaginary/complex time, this was evidence or proof that imaginary time existed. (To my mind, time clearly has a real dimension as well, but no-one used the term, “complex time,” i.e. real+imaginary time, at the time!)

When the lecture ended, there was stunned silence: most of us were still trying to process the whirlwind of mathematics & physics ideas to which we had just been exposed. There were only one or two questions, and I think Mark Israel bravely asked the first question: an undergraduate natural scientist and devout Abrahamic monotheist trying to take on one of the world’s greatest scientists who was also agnostic/atheist. Mark asked (in paraphrase), beginning with a typically-British understatement,

“This is all very complicated. But this positivism of yours – isn’t it a cop-out from accepting the reality that we all experience?”

We waited with bated breath for many minutes for Hawking’s pithy answer: because he had to compose his answer, character by character, using only one finger to operate his computer, even a one-sentence answer could take quite a while to produce. But Hawking eventually answered (in paraphrase),

“Give me an experimental test for any ‘reality’ and I will accept its existence if it is empirically (experimentally) proved.”

I’ve remembered the entire exchange, but it was many years before I understood Hawking’s answer, and what on earth he was talking about.

These were of course some of the intensely salafi years: when I told JIMAS colleagues about attending Hawking’s lectures, Abu Muntasir remarked, “the Sheikh Albani of physics!”

 

4. Hawking’s lecture on “Predestination”, c. 1991/2

This was organised by the university’s Philosophical Society at, if I remember correctly, the Lady Margaret Hall on the Sidgwick Site. [Lady Margaret, whose name adorns several Cambridge roads and buildings, was the wife of Henry VI, mother of Henry VII and hence grandmother of Henry VIII, again if I remember correctly.]

This was a large hall, and again, it was standing-room only: I estimated that about 2,000 people attended.

The question being addressed in the lecture was,

“Is Everything Predestined?”

Hawking’s answer was one of pure determinism: he argued that the laws of physics determined absolutely everything, including our brain configurations and neuronal firing patterns. As a fellow-student once put it,

“If the laws of physics determine exactly how an object falls, why shouldn’t they determine exactly how our brain neurons fire?”

Those who knew Hawking well, often comment that he had an irresistible sense of humour. This was on display at this lecture when, to illustrate how the laws of physics have determined, according to his view, everything from the Big Bang to the most trivial details of human behaviour, Hawking mischievously put up a copy of a Page 3 of The Sun, featuring a famous female, topless model, declaring,

“The laws of physics even determine that Samantha Fox appears nude on Page 3!”

The audience roared with laughter – my, such goings-on at one of the world’s most prestigious learned societies and universities!

Hawking’s conclusion was very interesting:

“Is Everything Predestined? Yes, everything is predestined, but it might as well not be, since we can never know!”

His reasoning for this conclusion was that although the laws of physics did determine everything, we could not possibly predict the future since, to do so, we would need to solve zillions of non-linear equations simultaneously, and this is simply impossible.

Obviously, predestination is a major topic in Islam, and I grappled with Hawking’s conclusion for a long time.  Many years later, I read in the famous book by Ali al-Hujwiri (Data Ganj Bakhsh, 1009-1077 CE, buried in Lahore), Kashf al-Mahjub [Unveiling of the Veiled, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson] that he had taught,

“Believe that everything is predestined, but act as though nothing is.”

In other Islamic texts, this is stated as follows:

“Believe like a jabari [determinist], but behave like a qadari [free-willer].”

It is also alluded to in the later Ash’ari text, Hashiyat al-Disuqi ‘ala Umm al-Barahin, when the commentator claims that,

“The People of the Sunna [Ahl al-Sunna, according to the Ash’ari school] are rationally determinist (jabariyya ‘aqlan).”

The dispute between the determinists [jabariyya] and absolute free-willers [qadariyya] dates back to the Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, and be pleased with them) and will continue until the Day of Judgment, with a whole spectrum of views within Islam, amongst the Sunni, Shia, Mu’tazili, Ash’ari, Maturidi, Hanbali/Athari/Salafi, etc. As Imam ‘Ali said, and was echoed by Imam Tahawi in his Creed [‘Aqida],

“Predestination [qadar] is a secret/mystery (sirr) of God in His Creation.”

But here we have a leading Muslim Sufi saint, whose tomb is visited by lakhs of people every year, taking a compromise position between belief and action, between jabar and qadar, over nine centuries before a great mathematician and physicist who essentially comes to the same conclusion. From Hujwiri to Hawking – Glory be to God!

 

5. Hawking on Grange Rd, c. 1991/2

I was cycling along Grange Road, Cambridge, dressed in my usual dress at the time of a flowing Arab robe and turban, when I passed Hawking coming the other way in his motorised wheelchair. It was a powerful moment for me, and remains etched in my memory: this great scientist, silently and serenely passing by, with only the quiet hum of his wheelchair, like the force of nature (God’s creation) that he was. I wonder if he remembered a cyclist in Arab dress?

Relatedly, I read in the newspapers later that year, after leaving Cambridge, that Hawking had had another encounter with a Muslim using Grange Rd: a Pakistani taxi-driver (who else?) had crashed into Hawking, destroying his wheelchair although Hawking escaped unhurt. Thank God he was relatively unharmed – had he been seriously injured or killed, it might have been the biggest Pakistani influence on theoretical physics and cosmology since Prof Abdus-Salam’s Nobel Prize. [I am of Pakistani origin, so I’m allowed to poke fun at my own countrymen.]

 

6. Quoting Hawking in MSc exam, 1993

For my MSc in Information Processing & Neural Networks at King’s College London, one of our modules was Advanced Neural Networks, taught by Prof. John Taylor, who had a previous career as a TV actor before returning to science. Taylor was an excellent lecturer. His exam paper included a question about whether our artificial (computerised) neural networks could ever emulate the human brain. In my answer, I argued that this might be possible in principle, but we were astronomically far away from achieving it in practice. As an analogy, I quoted Hawking’s famous passage in ABHT where he argued that, in principle, we could build a particle accelerator of enough size and energy to recreate the high energy of the early universe, but it was very unlikely that we would achieve this in practice. With more of his wry humour, he had written something like,

“Such an accelerator would need to be roughly the size of the solar system, and is unlikely to be funded in the current economic climate.” (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

In the post-exam discussion with fellow students, I told a colleague that I had quoted Hawking. His reply was,

“Oops! Don’t you remember what Hawking wrote about Prof. John Taylor?”

I had no recollection of this, but he told me and I went home and was horrified to verify it via my copy of ABHT. The story may be summarised as follows:

Hawking gave his seminal lecture at a physics conference where he first announced his theory that “black holes ain’t so black”, i.e. the decay of black holes via Hawking radiation, a quantum effect. Hawking described one of the reactions as follows: “One man, John Taylor of King’s College London, stood up and said that this was all rubbish … [But my theory was later proved right, and he was proved wrong]” (summarised from Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

This was not Taylor’s finest hour, but nor was it Hawking’s, when he wrote about it: academics, like sports players or generals, should be gracious in victory and defeat. But both of them taught me mathematics, physics & AI – we all know how awkward it is when your parents or teachers quarrel.

I hope Prof Taylor wasn’t offended by my quoting Hawking in the exam, a scientist who was arguably even more famous than Taylor, from a book in which Hawking had publicly avenged an academic insult from one or two decades earlier. I don’t think Taylor was offended, at least not too much, because he gave me an ‘A’ grade in the exam.

 

7. The Universe in A Nutshell

Towards the end of the 2000s, two decades after publishing ABHT, Hawking wrote another excellent book, The Universe in A Nutshell. He proposed his version of M-theory, a generalised string theory, that involved high-dimensional spaces called ‘branes.’ These are like 2- or 3-dimensional membranes, but in higher dimensions. But which letter should mathematicians use to denote the number of dimensions: x, n or d, etc.? With characteristic humour, Hawking decided to use p, hence cutting edge theoretical physics and cosmology now involved p-branes, a pun on “pea-brains.”

The title of this book derived from the fact that Hawking argued that our universe was enclosed by high-dimensional spaces (p-branes) that were shaped like a peanut shell.

Arguably, Hawking had taken an agnostic position regarding God in his ABHT. But based on his TUIAN, he now publicly announced an atheist position. I wrote my Muslim Response … to him in 2010, available elsewhere on this blog.

 

8. Meeting Hawking at Google Zeitgeist Europe, 2011

In 2011, by the grace of God, I got to finally meet Hawking after his lecture at Google’s Zeitgeist Europe conference near Watford in Greater London, attended by hundreds of people. It was a bi-annual conference at the time, with the alternate year having a Zeitgeist USA conference, I think. I was invited to this conference as part of Quilliam’s work with Google and YouTube, specifically with regard to the later, international Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin, June 2011.

Hawking lectured on M-theory, based on his TUIAN, and also attacked religion but especially philosophy: he argued that modern philosophy had lost all touch with (scientific) reality, and that philosophers were often speculating theoretically based on outdated, ancient philosophical ideas about the mind, life, etc. He argued that they were not taking into account modern knowledge about the workings of the brain, the laws of physics, the life sciences etc.

I got to meet Hawking as a fellow-speaker at the conference, and because of my physics background. Because of his limited communication technology, most people were simply taking a photo with him. I was advised that I needed to ask his permission to do this first, though: we were able to ask him brief questions, and he would respond with one twitch of his cheek muscle for yes, and two for no (or vice-versa, I don’t recall precisely – it had been 20 years since I had seen him in person, and he had lost the movement of the only working finger, and was restricted to one muscle with which to communicate).

This is roughly what I said to him:

“Professor Hawking, it is an honour to finally meet you.  I attended two of your lectures whilst a Cambridge undergraduate about 20 years ago: one on ‘Imaginary Time’ and one on ‘Predestination’ at the Lady Margaret Hall. Do you remember those lectures? And may I have a photo with you?”

I remember thinking that my first question was very daft: I was asking a genius, scientist and professor with a very precise mind, whether he remembered two of his major public lectures at his beloved university, about his beloved subjects. Of course he remembered them! He replied in the affirmative to both my questions, hence the photo reproduced above.

 

9. Islamic reflections about Hawking

Hawking was a bit of a dilemma for theists, but his brilliance and humour endeared him to most. One of his students was Prof Brian Carr, later of QMUL, who is a devout Christian as well as a brilliant physicist.  I’ve met him twice via the Scientific & Medical Network, and had brief discussions on religion and science. He loved his teacher, despite the difference in religious beliefs.

When I posted briefly on Facebook in 2011 about meeting Hawking, a young islamist woman kept posting nasty, rude comments about him, condemning him for his atheism. I deleted her comments, but when she continued, I blocked her. He was probably 2-3 times her age, and had inspired millions to love knowledge and God’s creation, even if he himself didn’t believe, yet she, with good intentions to defend theism, was despicably rude about someone with a crippling illness, and whom she had clearly never met. May Allah forgive me and her. On the other hand, a young, devout Muslim physicist friend praised Hawking in glowing terms when some were criticising him on our Islamic Astronomy yahoogroup that ran for many years in the 2000’s.

Thinking of theist/atheist scientist friends, I am reminded of Newton’s friendship with Hooke or Boyle, at least for a while. Whenever his atheist friend would try to preach atheism to him, Newton, a Unitarian Christian who wrote treatises refuting the Trinity, replied,

“Don’t go there. I have studied theology, whereas you haven’t.” (paraphrase)

Perhaps if Hawking had a friend who was a greater scientist than him and also a theist like Newton, he may have believed. But it is all God’s will.

Pope John Paul II told Hawking upon their meeting, not to investigate the first three minutes or first six seconds after the Big Bang, because these were “the moment of God’s creation.” Hawking was utterly put off religion by this, as he described in ABHT. Perhaps if, instead of this advice, Hawking had met a Muslim rationalist leader cut from the cloth of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun who might have wholeheartedly encouraged Hawking to pursue such research, he may not have turned against religion. But it is all God’s will.

So, Hawking did not believe in God for most of his life. But in the Islamic tradition: God is Truth. God is Beauty. God is Time (al-dahr, in a famous hadith qudsi – since the commentators explain al-dahr as “extended time,” some contemporary sheikhs have suggested that this means: God is Spacetime). God is Infinitely Wise and Forbearing.

Hawking certainly believed in Truth and the search for Truth. He certainly believed in Beauty, especially the beauty of nature and of its laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. He helped and inspired millions of people all around the world to study these subjects [I was excited to see an Arabic copy of ABHT on sale in Amman in 2017, & today’s media coverage shows crowds of Israelis and Arabs flocking to see him – he especially encouraged Palestinians to study physics]. He inspired us to probe into the mysteries of space and time, that are sacred because of the above hadith qudsi and because of God’s taking an oath, swearing by the sacred token of Time, as in Surah al-‘Asr, one of two Qur’anic Chapters entitled: Time, referring to long-term and short-term respectively.

Living patiently with a crippling illness for over half a century: not just living, but working, leading the world in his subjects and inspiring generations with his intelligence, humanity and humour – he knew Forbearance, again a quality of the Divine.

So farewell, Professor Stephen Hawking: may you rest in God’s Peace (al-Salam): you understood more than most the mysteries of the infinite: may you be admitted into God’s Infinite Mercy. Amen.

Imam Dr Usama Hasan

Cardiff, UK.

Thursday 15th March 2018, approximately 24 hours after the fateful death.

Is Faith A Good Anti-Depressant? Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Today Programme, Friday 23/02/2018

February 24, 2018

Is Faith a Good Anti-Depressant?

[FINAL TEXT AS DELIVERED]

Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, broadcast Friday 23 February 2018, 0748-0751

Imam Dr Usama Hasan

[Listen to the 3-minute audio clip here]

Good morning, and good news! Anti-depressants do work: that’s the emphatic conclusion of a major medical study published in The Lancet two days ago. But is faith a good anti-depressant?

Mental health is like physical health, in that it may be good or bad, or fluctuate over time, taking turns for better or worse. And just as we take drugs for physiological ailments, we know enough about brain function to be able to prescribe targeted medicines for mental health problems. It is pleasing that there is now a greater awareness and acceptance of the nature of mental health problems and treatments.

But medication is neither the first resort, nor the only method, in treating depression. Indeed, one of the main authors of the scientific study confirmed that other treatments, including psychological therapies, should always be considered alongside drugs. But psychology and psychotherapy, literally meaning ‘the study and treatment of the soul or self’ respectively, are rooted in faith for many people in cultures around the world.

Religious practice, individually as well as communally, was always supposed to develop spirituality, or the improvement and growth of one’s self. A key passage of the Qur’an speaks of the human soul: to purify and develop the soul is success, but to bury the soul with heavy and harmful burdens is perdition.

Many of us will know people, perhaps including ourselves, who were cured of depression once root causes, such as the effects of trauma or other negative experiences, were neutralised appropriately, perhaps with medication. But often, people living through depression do not know what the root causes are, and why exactly they feel the way they do. For some, replacing negative thoughts and attitudes with positive ones, and taking part in social activities, can be extremely helpful, often with the help of a support network of family and friends.

Yesterday’s news coverage included the fascinating experiences of two people who’d had to cope with long-term depression.  One discovered a hidden talent when he started doodling, and the appreciative response he got for his artwork gave him unprecedented confidence and self-belief.  Another, a comedian, spoke of being able to share his experience with audiences after deep therapy.  He went on to say how lovely it would be if, once people knew his situation, they could offer to help. It was crucial for both of them to be open and expressive about their issues.

The Prophet of Islam taught that we should always “speak goodness only.” Mystics from all religions encourage always seeing the good in situations and in other people.  So, we all have a part to play in supporting each other with positive encouragement, kind words and optimistic attitudes.  For many, this will complement medical interventions, and such supportive relationships can be fundamental for good mental health and wellbeing.

Our Common Humanity Includes Evil – my BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, 16/02/2018

February 18, 2018

Our Common Humanity Includes Evil
(FINAL TEXT AS DELIVERED)

Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Friday 16 February 2018, broadcast 0749-0752

Imam Dr Usama Hasan

[Listen to the 3-minute audio clip here.]

Good morning. Wednesday’s massacre at a secondary school in the USA has again reminded us of the immense evil of which we humans are capable. Closer to home, we have been agonising nationally over the past week over what to do with the so-called “Beatles” gang of fellow-Britons who became brutal ISIS terrorists, after two of them were arrested in Syria.

We often hear faith leaders and politicians speaking about “our common humanity” as a basis for coming together and being inclusive. But as the above examples illustrate, the concept of our common humanity includes the capacity for diabolical acts of great evil as well as for heroic acts of courage and generosity in the service of others.

It is the most grotesque examples of being bad that we often label as “evil,” whether or not we actually believe in supernatural beings such as angels and demons.

When we speak of our common humanity, we must thus acknowledge that this is a double-edged sword that we all carry within us at some level. This will enable us to have more realistic conversations about how we come together: presumably, on the basis of the “better angels of our nature,” rather than the demons lurking deep within.

In the Qur’an, even your relative’s murderer is described as “your brother,” in the verse allowing you to seek harsh justice against him whilst encouraging forgiveness. Ali bin Abi Talib, the wise early Muslim leader revered by Sunni and Shia Muslims, faced a rebellion by fanatical, violent, extremist and bloodthirsty rebels known as the Khawarij. He won over a large number of them through reasoned debate, but had no choice but to physically fight the others who remained obstinate and stubborn. But throughout the struggle, in contrast to many around him, Ali refused to deny the rebels’ humanity, referring to them as, “our brothers, who’ve transgressed against us.”

Whether we like it or not, we must realise that mass murderers, terrorists, and other criminals are our brothers and sisters in humanity, and sometimes, even in faith. We must punish them within our criminal justice system according to the severity of their crimes.

Yet no-one is born purely evil: on the contrary, children regularly remind adults of the virtues of innocence and good-naturedness. It is a combination of bad experiences, outside influences and terrible moral choices that lead some of us to commit evil acts. But there is always hope for repentance and redemption, and the opportunity to turn our lives around.

Reflecting on that would perhaps allow a more compassionate and forgiving attitude towards others, especially when they have done us relatively-minor wrongs.

Islam and China

December 13, 2017

Niu Jie Mosque – Beijing. The mosque was established in 996 CE, so it is over 1,000 years old, in its successive manifestations. The mosque front faces due west, which is used as the approximate qibla. The man in the foreground is a Chinese Muslim trader from Xinjiang province, fluent in Arabic.

Bismillah. I visited the sacred land of China (Beijing) for the first time last week, by the grace of God. The sacredness and spirituality of the land and its people was palpable. Here are some reflections from my reading and experiences:

 

1. The alleged hadith, “Seek knowledge, even unto China,” is a traditional Islamic saying, but unlikely to be from the Prophet, peace be upon him.

As I wrote in the Introduction and Appendix to my father Sheikh Suhaib Hasan’s Introduction to the Science of Hadith, “This additional statement is found in a few of the (weak) narrations of the previous hadith [‘Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim’], and is declared as mawdu’ [fabricated] by Ibn Hibban, Ibn al- Jawzi, al-Sakhawi and al-Albani.” The views of these hadith scholars may be found in the following works by Albani: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da’ifah, no. 416; Da’if al-Jami’ al- Saghir, nos. 1005-6.

Furthermore, the text of this alleged hadith “otherises” China, whereas the Prophet was a mercy to the worlds (Qur’an, The Prophets, 21:107) and all languages in their diversity, including the Chinese languages, are amongst the Signs of God (ayatullah – Qur’an, The Romans or Byzantines, 30:22). At the most, “even unto China” is an Arab-centric phrase in this context, and does not fit with the universality of the Qur’anic and Prophetic message.

2. There are legends about the Prophet’s Companions visiting China, and even of up to four of them being buried there.

They include Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas. Since he conquered Persia, it is highly plausible that he could have ventured further east to India and China. If he was buried in China, this would be more widely known to the scholars of Hadith and Rijal, who compiled detailed biographies of the Companions. I would be grateful for learned contributions to this question.

The following is from Wikipedia (not the most reliable source I know, but this is a blog, not an academic paper), under Emperor Tang Gaozong (649-683):

Known by Islamic sources as Yung Wei, which was in fact the name of the first era in his reign (Yonghui era from February 650 to February 656; see era name), Islamic sources credit him with building the first mosque, a mosque that still stands in Guangzhou. According to those records, Islam was introduced to China and Emperor Gaozong by the visit of Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 650. According to these sources, Emperor Gaozong is said to have respected the teachings of Islam greatly, feeling the teachings were compatible with Confucianism, and offered the building of the mosque as a sign of admiration. The emperor himself did not convert as he felt Islam was too restrictive for his own preferences, but according to those sources, did not stop him from allowing Sa`d and his company to spread the teachings throughout the region. These sources, however, were not corroborated by Chinese records.

[1]  Lan Xu, Tianfang zheng xue (The true learning of Arabia), Beijing: Niujie Mosque, 1925 edition (first edition 1852), juan 7; quoted in Zhang Xinglang, p. 744.

 

3. An anecdote from al-Mas’udi’s Meadows of Gold (Muruj al-Dhahab) about a Sino-Arab encounter

Reproduced from elsewhere on this blog: al-Masu’di of Baghdad (c. 276-344 H / 890-956 CE) wrote,

The story of Habbar bin al-Aswad, an Arab notable of Basra who left during the Zanj [negro slaves’] rebellion there, is entertaining. He went to China via India. A Chinese king showed his Arab visitor portraits of prophets including Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. The king stated that Noah’s flood didn’t reach India or China.

He further showed him portraits of Indian and Chinese prophets’ portraits, depicting them as pointing the index finger to the heavens, warning of the power of God, or making a circle with the thumb and index finger, to indicate that creation is a circle.

[Muslims daily indicate the unity of God with the right index finger (cf. Michaelangelo’s famous painting depicting God and Adam). During prayer, they also sometimes make a circle with the thumb and middle finger, following the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Furthermore, according to a sound hadith: Umm Salama emigrated to Abyssinia with her first husband Abu Salama as part of the early sacred migration (hijra). In the churches there, she saw images of prophets with index fingers raised (cf. Michaelangelo again), a feature of daily Islamic prayers. See Albani, Sifah Salah al-Nabi or The Prophet’s Prayer Described, for these hadiths. – U.H.]

Al-Mas’udi continued:

The people of China are the most skilful in painting and arts. No other nation can compare with them in any craft whatsoever.

China was prosperous due to its justice until the Huang Chao rebellion of 878. He attacked Khanfu, massacring 200,000 Muslims, Christians, Jews and fire-worshippers [Zoroastrians/Parsees].

 

4. Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) was one of the great figures of Chinese history, and was Muslim.

As a child, I read a kids’ book about Admiral Cheng-Ho and his voyages, part of a series about “Heroes of Islam.” I remember nothing from the stories, except the striking name. I always thought that he was highlighted in this series simply because he was Muslim, and was amazed to discover later that he was the greatest Chinese admiral in history. (By the way, admiral is an English word derived from the Arabic, amir al-bahr: ‘commander of the sea.’)

Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage, 2011) is described by its publisher as a ‘Number One Bestseller.’ In it, the author writes these glowing lines about Zheng He (Cheng-Ho), but unfortunately does not mention that he was an integrated Chinese Muslim who assumed a major leadership position, like millions of his fellow Chinese Muslims. Harari wrote:

Many scholars argue that the voyages of Admiral Zheng He of the Chinese Ming dynasty heralded and eclipsed the European voyages of discovery. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng led seven huge armadas from China to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. The largest of these comprised almost 300 ships and carried close to 300,000 people. They visited Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and East Africa. Chinese ships anchored in Jedda, the main harbour of the Hejaz, and in Malindi, on the Kenyan coast. Columbus’ fleet of 1492 – which consisted of three small ships manned by 120 sailors – was like a trio of mosquitoes compared to Zheng He’s drove of dragons.

Yet there was a crucial difference. Zheng He explored the oceans, and assisted pro-Chinese rulers, but he did not try to conquer or colonise the countries he visited. Moreover, the expeditions of Zheng He were not deeply rooted in Chinese politics and culture. When the ruling faction in Beijing changed during the 1430s, the new overlords abruptly terminated the operation. The great fleet was dismantled, crucial technical and geographical knowledge was lost, and no explorer of such stature and means ever set out again from a Chinese port. Chinese rulers in the coming centuries, like most Chinese rulers in previous centuries, restricted their interests and ambitions to the Middle Kingdom’s immediate environs.

(Harari, p. 324)

Harari (p. 325) then provides a striking, visual illustration of his comparison between the fleets of Zheng He and Christopher Columbus:

from Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Vintage Books, 2011, p. 325

5. The Niu Jie Mosque in Beijing has been a place of Islamic worship for over a thousand years, and is well worth a visit, including to non-Muslim visitors.

The mosque is easily reachable by subway to Guang’AnMennei: take the SE exit, turn left, heading due west and take the second major right onto Niu Jie Street. The mosque is clearly visible on the left, a couple of blocks down.

The mosque embodies “Islam with Chinese characteristics”: the pagoda- or Chinese palace-style is obvious. Many of inscriptions on the rock steles and in the ante-hall to the main worship hall are in Chinese. (Inside the main worship hall, all the calligraphy is in Arabic, in a distinctive font known as Sini [Chinese], influenced by Chinese calligraphy.) Look carefully, as in the photo of the mosque, and you will see small carved dragons on top of the mosque buildings, presumably to drive away evil spirits. This of course violates the traditional Judeo-Islamic prohibition on graven images, but illustrates the integration of Chinese Muslims: they seem to have tolerated small dragons, that certainly do not dominate the mosque buildings, most of which uphold the ban on graven images.

The mosque consists of several buildings: the main (men’s) worship hall with an ante-hall, a minaret and two pavilions, all pagoda-style. The main worship hall holds about 500 men, according to my estimate. There were some women attending prayers too, so presumably there must be a women’s prayer hall. There is an old sundial that can be used to tell the time generally, and specifically zawal (noon), and hence zuhr or afternoon prayer time. The sundial looks very similar to the one I saw in the Forbidden City, to the side of Tian’Anmen Square.

The qibla direction of the mosque appears to be due west, which is reasonable for China, although I would like to check this more precisely.

The main prayer hall effectively has three open and interconnected mini-courtyards within it, due to an array of pillars and arches. The outer sides of the pillars and arches are plain, but the inner sides are beautifully decorated with floral motifs and Islamic calligraphy. As you enter the mosque, the courtyard sizes are small, large and medium, in that order.

As one enters the main hall, the first archway has three Qur’anic verse inscribed in a series of six circular designs. I was unable to work out the first verse, reading from right to left. The middle verse is “Truly, God has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions, in exchange for their owning the Garden.” (Qur’an, Repentance, 9:111). The verse on the left is “Whoever brings goodness will receive ten times like it; whoever brings evil, will only be recompensed in like measure” (Qur’an, Cattle, 6:160).

The entire texts of the following surahs are written in gorgeous calligraphy on the remaining arches: al-Fath (Victory, 48), al-Rahman (Most Merciful, 55), al-Mulk (Kingdom, 67), al-Naba’ (News, 78) and al-Nazi’at (Tearers, 79). There is precise attention to detail, e.g. the small circle above the word s(ui)’at in 67:27 indicating that the first vowel is to be read initially as a damma (u), followed by a long kasra (i), in a one-third:two-thirds ratio, as is well-known in the science of Qur’an-recitation or tajwid. However, seven verses appear to be missing from al-Naba’, nos. 21-27, except that the last two letters of 78:27 are present, the long ba. This is something I’ve occasionally seen in Qur’anic calligraphy in old mosques, since it’s not easy to fit passages precisely onto buildings, especially when your canvas is a curved arch.

In addition, three of the arches are inscribed with a collection of about 45 salawat or blessings upon the Prophet. They follow an identical pattern: each is comprised of the formula, Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad sayyid … (Dear God, Bless Muhammad, Master of …). Each blessing is then completed with a plural noun: the first is al-mursalin (the Messengers); others are al-muttaqin (the Pious)al-tawwabin (the Oft-Repenting), etc.

 

6. The Sinofication of Chinese Muslim surnames from Arabic.

Some years ago, a Chinese imam called Sheikh Ibrahim Ma visited London and spoke at a number of locations, including Masjid al-Tawhid. This Wikipedia entry under “Islam during the Ming dynasty”, if correct, gives the origin of Chinese Muslim surnames such as Ma:

Foreign origin Muslims adopted the Chinese character which sounded the most phonetically similar to the beginning syllables of their Muslim names – Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and Sa’I for Said and so on. Han who converted to Islam kept their own surnames like Kong, Zhang. Chinese surnames that are very common among Muslim families are Mo, Mai, and Mu – names adopted by the Muslims who had the surnames Muhammad, Mustafa and Masoud.

 

7. Are Allama Iqbal’s famous lines of poetry beginning with “Cheen (China)” imperialist or universalist?

Iqbal wrote these famous lines, known as Tarana-e-Milli or “Anthem of the Muslim Nation”, that begins:

Cheen-o-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara
Muslim hain hum, watan hai sara jahan hamara

China and Arabia are ours; India is ours.
We are Muslims, the whole world is ours.

Touheed ki Amanat seenon mein hai hamare
Asan nahin nitana naam-o-nishan hamara

God’s unity is held in trust in our hearts.
It is not easy to erase our name and sign …

I first learnt this as a child in its Arabic translation, such was Iqbal’s influence:

al-sinu lana wa l-hindu lana

wa l-‘arbu lana wa l-kullu lana

adha l-islamu lana dinan

wa jami’u l-kawni lana watana

tawhidullahi lana nurun …

Since Iqbal was a poet, he may have meant all of this metaphorically and universally, in the sense that the earth belongs to God and therefore to the true people of God. But many people read these verses literally, and imagine that they have the right to conquer and dominate other people. The age of military conquests is largely over, and any non-Chinese person who visits China and sees a fraction of its billion-and-a-half population, should know immediately that it is ridiculous to pretend or dream that China belongs to anyone but the Chinese. And the same goes for India, Arabia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Oceania etc.

But such delusions do persist: in Pakistan in 2003, I met a LeT supporter who had helped to establish a mosque in Islamabad and told me that the “mujahideen” during the Kargil incident had come close to “liberating Kashmir” and that they would have gone on to “liberate India” !! We Muslims need to have honest conversations about such matters. The divisions and conflicts are such a shame, especially when it is obvious that Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese etc. have so much in common, not least their eastern-ness.

Which reminds me: there is a famous saying, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

But the reality is: “East is East, and West is West, and the twain have met many times in all kinds of ways, and continue to do so.”

8. Ibn Arabi’s curious visionary prediction that the the last human ever to be born will be a boy, immediately preceded by his twin sister, in China. This boy will also grow up to be the last saint or holy person of humanity.

This is in his Fusus al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom) under the bezel of Seth (Shith):

It will be in the line of Seth that the last true Man will be born, bearing his mysteries [of divine Wisdom], nor will such be born after him. He will be the Seal of Offspring. There will be born with him a [twin] sister who will be born before him, so that his head will be at her feet. He will be born in the land of China and will speak the language of that land. Sterility will then overcome the men and women of this land and, although there will be much consorting, there will be no bringing forth of children [as true men (?)]. He will call them to God without success and when God has taken him and those of his time who believed, the others will remain living like beasts with no sense of right and wrong, giver over to the law of the [lower] nature, devoid of intellect and Sacred Law [and Ethics]. The Last Hour will overtake them.

The above is in Austin’s translation, p. 70, with slight modifications by me. Austin summarises this prediction as follows (pp. 61-2):

Ibn al-‘Arabi concludes this chapter with a curious prediction concerning the fate of man as defined in his teachings. He says that the last true human, in the line of Seth, will be born in China and that he will have an elder sister. He goes on to prophesy that thereafter men will become as beasts, bereft of spirit and law, until the coming of the Hour. Thus, he indicates that that particular human synthesis of spirit and nature, of which we are all a part, will come to an end and the link be broken.

 

Usama Hasan (Ha)

London, UK

13/12/2017

Islamic traditions about the loss of children

November 15, 2017

Bismillah. More from Imam Bukhari’s Al-Adab Al-Mufrad (Prophetic Teachings on Morals & Character), nos. 143-148.

As I write these lines, I think of the friend whose mum buried eight infant children before she was blessed with healthy offspring. These teachings have especially been important for most parts of the world and periods of history when infant-mortality rates have been high.

The teachings also apply, albeit partially, to miscarriages, foetuses that die in the womb and stillborn babies.

ISLAMIC TRADITIONS ABOUT THE LOSS OF CHILDREN

Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. [1]

“If a submitter to God loses three children, the Fire will not touch him or her.” – The Prophet, peace be upon him. [2]

A woman came to The Prophet, peace be upon him, with a small child: “Please pray for him,” she requested, “for I have already buried three children.” He replied, “You have built a thick wall protecting you from the Fire.” [3]

Khalid al-Absi [4] lost a son, and was extremely distressed about it. He asked Abu Hurayrah, “Did you hear anything from The Prophet, peace be upon him, that may console our souls about our dead?” He replied that he had heard The Prophet, peace be upon him, saying, “Your young ones will lead you by the hand into the Garden.” [3]

NOTES

[1] Qur’an, Surah al-Saffat (Those Arranged in Ranks), 37:101-113. Note that a minority of Islamic scholars held that the son concerned was Isaac. There is even a fabricated (mawdu’) hadith saying this, “Al-dhabihu Ishaq [The one to be sacrificed was Isaac].” (Silsilah al-Da’ifah by Albani)

On the other hand, some Judaeo-Christian sources accept that the son concerned was indeed Ishmael. At Norfolk House Preparatory School in London that had a strong Anglican ethos, we studied a textbook called “The Patriarchs” in Scripture lessons: this named Ishmael as the one to be sacrificed in this story.

[2] Also in Sahih al-Bukhari & Sahih Muslim

[3] Also in Sahih Muslim

[4] A disciple of the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him)

[tags: Islam, Hadith, Children, Death, infant-mortality, child-mortality, Muhammad]

REFLECTIONS FROM KUNAR 1990 AND HELMAND 2010 – THE TRAGEDY OF AFGHANISTAN’S WARS

November 10, 2017

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

REFLECTIONS FROM KUNAR 1990 & HELMAND 2010

– THE TRAGEDY OF AFGHANISTAN’S WARS

Introduction

I am publishing this partly because I am tired of telling the same story about Kunar to dozens of journalists and academic researchers, partly because I am fed up of questions about my one-minute video message in support of British troops (2010), and partly because I hope that people may benefit and learn from the story.

I began writing this on the last day of Ramadan 1433/2012, and completed the bulk of it shortly after Eid.  The recent death of two British soldiers in Nad Ali in Helmand (Matthew Smith http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19228325 and Robert Chesterman http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19227317 ) brought back vivid memories of our FCO-sponsored four-man delegation’s “Projecting British Muslims” trip to Helmand during Ramadan in August 2010, a visit that included ISAF’s Forward Operating Base at Nad Ali.  As I finalise it, I’m reading about the 2,000th US soldier to die in Afghanistan since 2001.

*Update: I am finalising and publishing this on 10th November 2017 – it has been sitting in my draft folder for five years.*

 

Memories from the Jihad in Kunar, 1990-1

This was my second 10-day visit to Afghanistan: the first had been in December-January 1990-1991, during my second-year Cambridge University holidays, as part of a three-man fact-finding mission of senior JIMAS (www.jimas.org ) figures to Kunar.  The other two people were up to a decade older than me: Abu Muntasir and Abu Aaliyah.  I was fortunate to have the strongest Arabic at the time, and served as interpreter for much of the trip, although of course other mujahideen helped also.

We drove to Afghanistan from Islamabad via Peshawar and Bajaur, and spent a week at a training camp near Asadabad, Kunar, for Arab fighters run by Jama’ah al-Da’wah ila l-Qur’an wa l-Sunnah (JDSQ, “Group of Calling to the Qur’an and Sunnah”), the major Salafi organisation that controlled large parts of Kunar province as well as of neighbouring Nuristan.  There were separate training camps for Arab, Afghan and Pakistani fighters – we chose the Arab one, for access to more Arabic-speaking scholars.  The camp rules stated that disagreements would be solved in a last resort by referring to the fatwas of Sheikhs Ibn Baz and Albani. On our introduction to the camp, I introduced myself with my first name, upon which I was immediately corrected by a Kuwaiti mujahid: “In Jihad, we only use aliases.” Specifically, he meant aliases of the kunya type that take the form of “Abu X” meaning “Father of X.”  My colleagues were fathers and already had kunyas, so I used, for the first time, my middle name that my grandfather had given me when he named me upon birth: Abu Dharr, after an austere, ascetic Companion of the Prophet.  The emir of the training camp was a tall, well-built, muscular, fair-skinned, charismatic and learned Palestinian fighter called Abu Asim.  In appearance and character, he reminded me of Abdur-Raheem Green, then also a senior JIMAS figure.  I shed many tears upon hearing about Abu Asim’s reported death in a training accident some years later, when a weapon exploded accidentally.

Upon joining the training camp, we had to fill in a registration form, giving personal details and skills that might be useful for the jihad. The three of us all put down our computer/IT skills, and I also mentioned my mathematics and physics knowledge. A quarter of a century later, ISIS, who had turned defensive, liberating jihad into bloodthirsty terrorism, had similar registration forms, with one striking addition: asking registrants whether they wanted to be regular fighters, suicide-bombers or suicidal attackers (inghimasi).

This was Abu Muntasir’s second trip to the same region: he had trained and fought at the front line in 1989 or early 1990 also, with a close companion known as Brother Mushtaq.  JIMAS’ contacts with the Afghan mujahideen had come about via salafi scholars in Holland and meetings in London that had involved Dawood Burbank (d. during Hajj 2011, may Allah have mercy on his soul) and Brother Mushtaq.  Abu Muntasir later fought in Kashmir and even in Burma with Rohingya militia in the early 1990s.

Note that JIMAS (Jamiat Ihyaa’ Minhaaj al-Sunnah: The Society for the Revival of the Way of the Messenger) had earlier been called HISAM (Harakatu Islahish Shabab al-Muslim: The Movement to Reform the Muslim Youth) but had recently had a name-change after an offshoot insisted on retaining the name HISAM.  During this episode, one of the suggestions for the name of JIMAS was in fact JDQS – this was directly copied from the Afghan group.  The current Pakistani salafi/Ahl-e-Hadith jihadi group Jama’at-ud-Da’wah, linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, may also have based its name on the Afghan one.

We also met and interviewed Sheikh Jameel-ur-Rahman, an Afghan salafi/Ahle-e-Hadith muhaddith-mujahid (scholar of Hadith and warrior), founder and emir of JDQS.  Sheikh Jameel was an elderly, learned man with a long beard, dyed with henna.  He was accompanied by elders who constituted his shura and by a group of younger, heavily-armed men who served as his bodyguards.  Abu Muntasir conducted the interview in English: Sheikh Jameel replied in Arabic.  One of the questions was whether or not the Jihad in Afghanistan was fard ‘ayn or fard kifaya, i.e. an individual or collective obligation: his reply was the former.  The interview was recorded and it was many months before Dawood Burbank translated it into English for the benefit of other JIMAS members.  Abu Muntasir may still have this material in his possession.

The Arab mujahidin credit Sheikh Jameel with having begun the “Jihad against the communists” in 1973, way before the Soviet invasion.  Sheikh Jameel gave a talk after dawn prayers on one occasion whilst we were at the training camp, during which the camp generator failed, leaving the prayer tent in darkness.  At the end of that talk, he took questions.  One of the questions was about whether or not there was any dhikr to be recited during the prostration of gratitude (sajdah al-shukr) – this was related to the story of The Prophet’s disciples Ka’b bin Malik, Murara bin Rabi’ah and Hilal bin Umayyah and their missing a military expedition followed by their subsequent ostracism and eventual repentance recounted in the long hadith of Bukhari and Muslim in reference to Qur’an 9:118 (Surah al-Tawbah or Chapter: Repentance).  In this heart-rending story that had been recounted by one of the younger scholar-warriors at the camp after dawn prayers the day before, Ka’b performs such a prostration of gratitude.  Sheikh Jameel replied that no specific dhikr had been narrated about this prostration, and therefore any dhikr would suffice, but a young Saudi mujahid argued vehemently with him that there was no dhikr in this prostration for the same reason.  Salafism in a nutshell!

Sheikh Jameel had announced an “Islamic emirate” (imarat-e-Islami) in Kunar. One day at the training camp, one of the commanders gave us the “good news” of the full establishment of Sharia in the emirate: predictably, this involved the hudud, with which islamists are obsessed: a thief’s hand had been amputated as corporal punishment for his crime.

We were holy warriors: ascetic monks and soldiers, simultaneously. With regular congregational prayer, scriptural study, physical exercise and weapons training. Being halfway up a valley, there wasn’t much food: on one day, the camp had run out of food and all we had for 24 hours was a glass of milk and an orange. Soldiers know all about the rationing of supplies. At the firing range, Abu Muntasir embarrassed our instructor by being the only one to hit the target during a sniping contest. (This reminds me of a story about Caliph Omar: he came across some people practising archery and found that they weren’t very good at hitting their target. When he enquired as to why this was the case, they replied in ungrammatical Arabic that they were learners. “Your Arabic is even worse than your archery,” the Caliph quipped!)

Around 1993/94 we heard the awful news that Sheikh Jameel had been assassinated by an Arab fighter – many salafis blamed this on forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Hizb-e-Islami), who was backed by the Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan and the Arab Muslim Brotherhood.  Hekmatyar denied these accusations, but the incident was one of the many causes of tension between salafis and the Brotherhood, a tension that continues all over the world until today.  A few years later at Imperial College London, I asked the Riyadh-based Syrian salafi Sheikh Adnan Arour, who had taken part in Saudi-sponsored mediation amongst the warring mujahidin groups after the fall of Kabul in 1992, about Hekmatyar’s denial of being behind Sheikh Jameel’s assassination.  He replied, “Who killed him then, Ibn Baz and Albani??!”

With hindsight, it was probably for the best that the Kunar emirate had fizzled out with the death of Sheikh Jameel, otherwise the obsession with hudud might have led to a situation similar to ISIS.

Around 2004, I briefly met one of Sheikh Jameel’s sons who was studying at the Islamic University of Madinah during my only visit there, facilitated by Yasir Qadhi.

Back to Kunar: we spent a day and night at the front line, taking part in the Jihad against forces loyal to President Najibullah.  The Soviets had of course withdrawn in early 1990, but most mujahideen groups fought on, firstly against Najib’s communists, and then against each other during the vicious civil war of 1992-6.  The latter war helped me realise the emptiness of the Islamist dream that the mujahideen were going to establish the ideal “Islamic state” after taking Kabul in 1992.

The Saudis subsidised half the cost of mujahidin’s flights to Pakistan, but kept a record of all names. There was, of course, close co-operation amongst the US, Saudis and Pakistanis during the anti-USSR Jihad.  We met a couple of Libyans at the front line who had burnt their passports, since returning mujahideen were not too welcome in Gaddafi’s police-state.

The training camp’s courtyard had a disused Soviet tank in the centre and was covered in snow: many of the Arabs, religious scholars and committed warriors, had never seen snow before and thoroughly enjoyed their first snowball fights whilst we, the British trio, looked on bemused.  The Arabs were from various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Egypt and Palestine.  There was also a trio of Indonesian or Filipino fighters who kept to themselves since they didn’t know Arabic.  At the camp, we received basic weapons training: Kalashnikov/M16 and also studied scripture after regular, congregational prayers.  In between the prayer rows would be lines of AK-47s belonging to the warrior-worshippers. At the front line, we exchanged artillery fire with invisible communist forces, as several mountain ridges separated us.  Our guns were 76mm cannon.  One enemy shell, fired from several miles away, landed a hundred feet from us but we were quite safe: this taught me about the fragility of life, but not to be afraid of the ever-present danger of death.  A disturbing scene throughout Kunar was the sight of large cemeteries in place of villages.

At the front line, I had hoped to use my expert Further Mathematics A-level knowledge of precise mathematical calculations of projectile motion to help with the accuracy of our shelling. (18 months earlier, I had been the only one to score 100% in our Lower Sixth Form mathematics examination at the City of London School for Boys, where I held the John Carpenter Scholarship, 1987-9, and been awarded the Mathematics Prize in the Upper Sixth Form, although a couple of Jewish friends were better mathematicians than me.) But we were only there for a day, and there were no PCs or calculators. The mujahideen’s method to ensure shelling accuracy was simple: it was piety – we were encouraged to mention and remember God in dhikr every time we fired a shell!

There were many funny incidents during our stay: a sense of humour helps in tough situations.  The Kuwaiti who stopped the jeep to pick up snow for the first time: “This is not like the snow in our freezer!” (Snow and ice are synonyms in Arabic: thalj.)  The young Saudi who had studied English “whilst he wasn’t religious” in Cambridge some years ago and knew the Pakistani-run Nasreen Dar store there, famous amongst Fitzwilliam and Churchill College students for selling cheap, out-of-date biscuits.  This was a surreal moment for me: I had travelled thousands of miles from Cambridge to meet an Arab mujahid in the mountains of Afghanistan and talk about a shop back home.  (Partly due to our salafist influence in Cambridge, Nasreen Dar eventually stopped selling alcohol. And it finally closed recently.)  Abu Muntasir nicknaming the Indonesian or Filipino mujahid, “Brother One-Bullet” since he could only afford one bullet for his M16 gun (these bullets were much more scarce and therefore expensive, compared to AK-47 bullets). Abu Muntasir saying to Abul Qa’qa’ (named after a Companion of the Prophet), “They’re calling you,” when a flock of crows crowed loudly: caw! caw! The 007-style “pen gun,” disguised as a heavy ink pen that housed a bullet instead of an ink cartridge, with the pen clip as the trigger, and used for close-range assassinations.  The Arabs called it the “ben gun” since there is no “p” in Arabic, and this made me think of my primary-school days spent reading Treasure Island.  At the front line, I described the “man in the moon” that I could see in the full moon through binoculars.  Our Arab guide there, unfamiliar with the nuances of the English language, rebuked me gently although unfairly with the teaching of the Prophet (pbuh), “Tell the truth, even if you are joking.”

My parents, siblings and extended family, plus the JIMAS group in the UK, were very supportive of our jihad trip and very proud of us. My grandfather, Sheikh Abdul Ghaffar Hasan, a very senior salafi scholar of India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, quoted to me the hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him, upon my return, “There are two eyes that will not be touched by the Fire: an eye that watches guard at night in the path of God [esp. holy war], and an eye that weeps from the awe of God.” My grandfather added, “I hope that you will qualify on both counts.” It was a quarter of a century later, prompted by a journalist’s question, that I asked my dear mother how she felt whilst I was away for a fortnight – I had remembered her tears upon both my departure and return. She told me that there were some days when she couldn’t eat, out of worry. The FATE video showing a family of a jihadi fighter at a dinner table gives some idea of how she must have felt.

JIMAS and other UK groups later sent dozens of fighters to Afghanistan and hundreds to Bosnia (1992-5).  One young man from Southall spent months in Afghanistan and described fishing in the river by use of hand-grenades: the explosion would blast the fish onto the banks.  One Londoner I know, currently a primary schoolteacher, spent a year or so in Afghanistan in the mid-90s, having gone there with the intention of a “sacred migration to the Islamic state” (hijrah), but became disillusioned when he heard talk of plans to attack western countries: some of the mujahideen were of course building Al-Qaeda.

So, fast-forward 20 years to 2010, almost a decade after 9/11 and the whole idea of Jihad had become utterly confused, including in the UK after the 7/7 attacks.  British involvement in the war in Afghanistan was deeply unpopular amongst UK Muslims, so when the FCO offered me a trip to the country to project British Muslims, I jumped at the chance, deciding that I would also treat it as a fact-finding mission again as to what was going on there.

 

Ex-Taliban Mullahs at the UK Embassy in Kabul, August 2010

We flew from London to Kabul via Dubai, after having undergone two days of “Hostile Environment Training” in Shropshire provided by ex-army people.  The training included practice in wearing the body armour (with ceramic plates) and helmet that we would need everywhere in Afghanistan, a simulated roadside bomb attack on the armoured jeeps in which we would travel and advice on what to do if we got kidnapped (co-operate with your kidnappers, don’t try anything silly, and hope to get rescued).  Whenever I wore the body armour, I thought of the Qur’anic story of Prophet Sulayman, or King Solomon, manufacturing iron armour under divine inspiration for protection in war: modern body armour, with its light but strong material that is ever-improving due to science and technology, is the latest manifestation of the Solomonic Sunnah.

At the heavily-fortified UK embassy in Kabul, we had iftar with a couple of ex-Taliban, including Mullah Ishaq Nizami, who had once served as a junior communications minister for Mullah Omar.  Nizami spoke of the need for human rights and corruption-free institution-building in Muslim-majority countries, something much stronger in western ones. He was also working with other, higher-profile ex-Taliban, including Mullah Mutawakkil and Mullah Zaeef (author of My Life With The Taliban, http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/my-life-with-the-taliban/), in negotiations between Karzai’s government and Taliban leaders.  The iftar was hosted by Ambassador Sir William Patey and his staff.

 

Lashkar Gah ISAF Base, Helmand

The next day we flew to Lashkar Gah (“Lash”) via the formidable Kandahar Air Base.  At Lash we met the Commander of Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Felton.  (He had the England v Pakistan cricket test match from Lord’s on TV in the background via satellite: Sky Sports, but switched it off when we entered. This was the test match when Mohammed Amir bowled “those no-balls.”) I led the delegation in that meeting and my first question to him was about civilian casualties: his reply was that the Taliban were now killing more civilians than ISAF were, and that the new strategy under US General Petraeus was to minimise civilian casualties.

The head of the civilian mission here was Arthur Snell, formerly head of UK Prevent and now (2012) our High Commissioner in Barbados.  At the Lash command centre, one poster showed a big gun with the caption: “One size fits all: Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Haqqanis and HIGs” – the latter referring to Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, i.e. the fighters still loyal to our old friend-or-foe Hekmatyar.  (Hekmatyar finally laid down his arms in 2017, after almost 40 years of fighting.) Another striking recruitment poster read, “Who is fighting in place of your son?”

One striking feature at Lash was the presence of a handful of young, female soldiers. I saw a couple of male soldiers pumping iron whilst staring lustfully at a young female who was jogging in her shorts, and looking quite scared. I felt an air of fear and tension, as these young, British men and women had been transplanted into the midst of a war against a ferocious enemy: they were thousands of miles from home, and millions of miles away from any understanding of the surrounding Afghan Muslim culture. I asked the base chaplain about sexual ethics in the camp. His reply was that the soldiers were advised “not to have sex” but that if a female soldier became pregnant, she could return home immediately.

We also met the local mullahs at Lash’s rebuilt Central Mosque, including the Chief Mullah. A few years ago, a suicide-bomber had destroyed the mosque and killed the previous Chief Mullah: his shrine was next door.  There was a long queue of local men waiting to apply for the Hajj programme.  All of the mullahs were anti-Taliban; most were vehemently anti-Pakistan also, blaming the country for supporting insurgents.  The day before we eventually left Helmand, the Chief Mullah was arrested on charges of corruption relating to the embezzlement of Hajj application fees.


Nad Ali and the death of a young, British soldier

We also spent a few days in Nad Ali, where facilities were much more primitive compared to the relative luxuries of Lash (nicknamed “Lash Vegas” by soldiers).  We flew there and back by helicopter (RAF Merlin and Chinook, respectively): my first rides in a chopper.

We again met local mullahs in the main Nad Ali mosque.  There was almost a riot outside because two ISAF soldiers, both Muslim (one British male, one American female), had entered the mosque: a mob became very angry at the fact that foreign soldiers and a woman had “desecrated” their place of worship: they found it very difficult to comprehend that NATO soldiers could be Muslim.  Some of the mullahs accompanied us back to the base to show the public that NATO were not anti-Islam.

A Scottish army major here told me that many of the young Taliban recruits were clearly very devoted and brave fighters who believed in their Jihad, attacking NATO posts in their flip-flops, armed only with AK-47s: they stood no earthly chance against NATO’s superior firepower.

During our stay in Nad Ali, Lance Corporal Jordan Bancroft (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-11068103 ) was killed.  All private communications by troops were disabled whilst the MoD officially informed the family, rather than them receiving the news via friends.  Back at Lash, almost everyone turned out for a moving memorial service.  Bancroft’s commanding officer read a tribute to him and the chaplain read from Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer.  The service happened to occur at the time of the late afternoon Muslim prayer, so throughout the ceremony, the Islamic call to prayer rang out from the speakers of local mosques.  The total effect was something like:

The Lord is my shepherd

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

I shall not be in want

He makes me lie down in green pastures

I bear witness that there is no god but God

He leads me beside quiet waters

He restores my soul.

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God

He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Come to life-giving prayer!

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil

Come to life-giving success!

For you are with me; your rod and staff they comfort me.

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

There is no god but God.

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

Our Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name

I bear witness that there is no god but God

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses

Come to life-giving prayer!

As we forgive those who trespass against us

And lead us not into temptation

Come to life-giving success!

But deliver us from evil

God is Greatest! God is Greatest!

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory

For ever and ever, amen!

There is no god but God!

 

A friend commented that many of Bancroft’s comrades would have been offended by the Islamic prayers, that they associated with the Taliban, throughout his memorial service, but this was a poignant moment for me: here we had thousands of western soldiers and Jihadist insurgents fighting each other, with no understanding at all of their shared, Abrahamic, religious heritage that is utterly devoted to the Glory of God.  As a Muslim believer in the divine origin of the Torah, Psalms, Gospel and Qur’an, the futility of the war was summed up for me in this scriptural and liturgical encounter: when will the Children of Abraham ever stop killing each other, I wondered?


Visit to a British-run training camp for Afghan police recruits

 We visited a British-run camp training Afghan police to take over security roles.  Helmand has a very high illiteracy rate, and the literacy levels of these police officers after training was that of 5-year-old children.  As may be expected, “unlettered” nations like this rely heavily on oral tradition and word-of-mouth means of communication and education.

 

Visit to the British-built Lashkar Gah Prison, and the would-be suicide-bomber aged 16

We also visited a relatively state-of-the-art British-built prison, where a significant minority of the inmates were Taliban or Pakistani and there was a separate wing for women, who were probably in the safest place for them.  Here we met 18-year-old Umar, a madrasa graduate from Pakistan who had served two years of his sentence ever since being intercepted before he could carry out a suicide-bombing attack.  “I came for Jihad,” he told me, “… The people who sent me are not good.  I won’t return to them when I’m released.”  I also asked him whether or not he got to exchange letters with his parents in Pakistan.  (Twenty years earlier, I had met a Pakistani fighter at the front line of the Jihad whose family home happened to be near my parents’ one in Karachi.  He had given me a letter and message to convey to his family, since he hadn’t seen them for years: my mother had accompanied me when I did so, feeling the pain of another woman whose son was at war in a far-off land.)  But Umar’s reply was a sign of the times: “I speak to them via mobile phone, two or three times a week.”

Another tragic story at the prison was that of the child imprisoned, mainly for his own safety, after he shot dead his own father in a fit of rage after the latter had shot dead the family’s pet goat in a fit of anger.  The authorities said that there was no drug problem in the prison, but we noticed a discarded hypodermic needle lying in the yard.  They also told us that they had procured TVs for the prisoners, and that all of the Taliban had gratefully accepted these, despite Mullah Omar’s fatwa banning television.

 

Other visits in Lashkar Gah

We met officials dealing with the problem of poppy-farming and opium-production: most of the world’s heroin supply originates in Helmand.  We were shown official UN figures to this effect, which also recorded the remarkable anomaly of near-zero poppy production in summer 2001 after Mullah Omar’s decree prohibiting it: 9/11 followed soon afterwards and narcotics production resumed.  Instability and war are clearly in the interests of the drug-traffickers, and the drugs trade is of course a massive source of income for warlords and insurgents.

We met a senior local judge whose work was supported by British officials: a traditional version of Hanafi Sharia law was applied, but the penal code consisted of fines, imprisonment or the death penalty by hanging: there were no floggings, amputations or stonings to death.  The judge maintained that Sharia embodied justice in all matters.

We had iftar at the official residence of the Governor of Helmand, a humble and educated man who served us personally.  Governor Mangal has come to the UK several times on FCO-sponsored trips.  He was himself not from Helmand but from one of the other 33 provinces: bringing outsiders to govern provinces is a common practice in Afghanistan due to the tribal rivalries everywhere.  I discussed with him the importance of education for the future of Afghanistan, having noticed the fledgling Helmand University in Lash, occupying two floors of a multi-storey building and reminding me of universities similarly-housed in simple surroundings in Pakistan.

We also had suhur (the pre-dawn meal in preparation for fasting) with the local head of the Afghan National Army, after which I remember seeing the familiar and reassuring sight of the Pleiades, Taurus, Orion and Sirius rising in the eastern sky.  In the middle of war-torn Helmand, it was nice to be reminded that we were actually still on the same planet as our comfortable homes in the UK.

Our scheduled 3-day stay in Helmand was extended to a week due to a large sandstorm that grounded all flights – a common occurrence, during which insurgent attacks are more dangerous since air cover is not available.  Back in the UK, families and civil servants were desperately worried about an official delegation being stranded in a war-zone, but we took the opportunity to benefit as much as possible from the experience.  I even did a half-hour interview by phone for Edinburgh’s Radio Ramadan, discussing lunar visibility, Islamic dates and prayer-times etc.

  

Reflection: three decades of brutal war in Afghanistan

During this trip, talking to many experienced people helped me build up a picture of the tragic story of Afghanistan over the past century, a story of which I had been entirely oblivious when joining the Jihad as a well-intentioned but naïve undergraduate in 1990. Here is a rough timeline:

1919-1973: A monarchy rules Afghanistan.  (In the mid-90s, I saw the copy of the Qur’an used in the early 20th-century initiation ceremony of the King of Afghanistan into Freemasonry on public display at the United Grand Lodge near Holborn – and no, I am not a freemason!)  By the end of this phase of history, the royals are living in obscene luxury whilst most of the people are in abject poverty.  Hence, it is no surprise when …

1973: A coup overthrows King Zahir Shah.  Many of the various political factions and warlords are in touch with the neighbouring Communist superpower USSR, vying for influence and funding.

1979: The USSR invades to support the Marxist-Communist coup of 1978.  Warlords and tribal leaders announce a Jihad against the “atheist, communist enemy.”  The Jihad is backed heavily by the Pakistani, Saudi and US governments.  Thousands of Jihad fighters (mujahideen) flock to Afghanistan from all over the Muslim-majority world.  The Soviets commit many massacres: between 600,000 and 2 million Afghans, mainly civilians, die in the war.

1989: The Soviets withdraw, defeated by a combination of mujahideen operations and US-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that erase Soviet mastery of Afghan airspace; the Jihad continues against Afghan communist forces.

1992: Kabul falls to the mujahideen.

1992-6: A vicious civil war ensues, as the various Afghan mujahideen warlords fight for power: Hekmatyar (backed by Pakistan’s Jamat-e-Islami), Massoud, Mujaddedi, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Dostum, etc.  The Saudis attempt to broker peace, with limited success.  The warlords commit many massacres, notably including the regular, heavy shelling of Kabul by Hekmatyar’s forces, said to be far worse than any Soviet bombardment.

1996-2001: The Taliban emerge and rapidly take over most of the country, disarming the warlords.  Civil war continues as the Northern Alliance fights the Taliban.  Both sides commit atrocities.  Massacres of Afghan Shias almost lead to war between the Taliban and Iran. (Religious sectarianism is a serious problem in Afghanistan, as in many countries: in the Lash prayer-room, I found a polemical Shia text deeply offensive to Sunnis; no doubt, reverse cases are in abundance too.)

2001-12: The US-led invasion force removes the Taliban from power after 9/11 and  continues fighting Al-Qaeda.  NATO and the Taliban (the latter allied with Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and remnants of Hekmatyar’s fighters) commit many atrocities in over a decade of fighting.

 

Conclusion: hope from Helmand?

Back in the UK, I was asked by a video-wall company to record a short message of support for British troops in Afghanistan who were obviously missing their families back home.  I obliged, wording it carefully with the hope that we could help end the war, leave the Afghans with the peace and freedom to rebuild their devastated country, and bring our troops home as soon as possible.  With UK combat troops set to withdraw by 2014, that hope is closer to fruition.  And with it being an open secret that NATO is negotiating with the Taliban and GIROA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan), the talks being hosted in Qatar, the seeds of peace and mediation efforts that we saw in 2010 seem to have also borne some fruit.

But what next for the Afghans?  I had asked many people this question whilst in the country, and of course everyone was very uncertain.  One thing they generally agreed upon was that the country was caught between brutal, religious extremists and corrupt, secular politicians, with most people simply wishing to get on with their lives in peace: sadly, a familiar story in Muslim-majority nations.

Wherever we had driven in Helmand, children had mostly waved at our prominent, armoured jeeps but a few boys would always hurl pebbles at the convoys.  During one of our excursions in Lash, I had watched a very old woman slowly cross a busy road. (She reminded me of my Indian-Pakistani grandmothers and great-grandmothers).  It struck me that this woman had probably been in Helmand all her life, and would have lived through most of the history described above, including three decades of near-constant war.  What’s more, there were probably millions of men and women like her in Afghanistan: all touched by war and death, yet determined to achieve the best for themselves and their families.  The old woman’s enduring, wrinkled face was a tribute to humanity’s courage, faith and perseverance in the midst of constant tragedy: a message of hope from Helmand.

© Usama Hasan

London, UK

30th September 2012 (minor edits & publication: 10th November 2017)