Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

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)

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JESUS & MUHAMMAD, PEACE BE UPON THEM – NOTES ON THEIR REALITY IN ISLAMIC TEACHING

December 25, 2016

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

 

 

JESUS & MUHAMMAD, PEACE BE UPON THEM

 

 

– NOTES ON THEIR REALITY IN ISLAMIC TEACHING

 

 

in the hope of helping to increase Christian-Muslim mutual understanding, an absolute necessity for our times

 

 

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Birthplace of the Virgin Mary according to Christian tradition, on the edge of Temple Mount (al-Masjid al-Aqsa / al-Haram al-Sharif) in Jerusalem. The story of her birth is also in the Qur’an, Family of Imran, 3:33-37. Photo (c) Usama Hasan, May 2015

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Chapel inside the birthplace of the Virgin Mary according to Christian tradition, on the edge of Temple Mount (al-Masjid al-Aqsa / al-Haram al-Sharif) in Jerusalem. The story of her birth is also in the Qur’an, Family of Imran, 3:33-37. Note that this site was largely preserved as a place of pilgrimage and prayer for Christians throughout Islamic rule over Jerusalem since c. 640 CE / 17 AH. Photo (c) Usama Hasan, May 2015

Dome of the Rock mosque atop Temple Mount (al-Masjid al-Aqsa), where Mary, Jesus & Muhammad all worshipped God, according to Islamic tradition.

Dome of the Rock mosque atop Temple Mount (al-Masjid al-Aqsa), where Mary, Jesus & Muhammad all worshipped God, according to Islamic tradition. Muhammad was brought here by Gabriel, in one of the many magnificent meetings between these two great Spirits. Photo (c) Usama Hasan, May 2015

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

 

JESUS & MUHAMMAD, PEACE BE UPON THEM

 

– NOTES ON THEIR REALITY IN ISLAMIC TEACHING

 

in the hope of helping to increase Christian-Muslim mutual understanding, an absolute necessity for our times

 

 

  1. WORD (LOGOS)

 

1.1 JESUS CHRIST: A WORD OF GOD & THE WORD OF GOD

Jesus Christ is “the Word of God” cast unto Mary (Q. Women 4:171), “a Word from God” (Q. The Family of ‘Imran 3:45) as well as being a Prophet and Messenger of God. In Christian Greek scriptures and theology, the Word of God is the Logos.

 

1.2 THE QUR’AN: THE WORD OF GOD

The Qur’an is also the Word of God. Hence, there is a parallel between Jesus and the Qur’an, both being Logos.

 

1.3 LOGOS, CREATION & COMMAND

This Word or Logos is specifically associated with the Divine Word and Command, “Be!” (Kun) that Creates all Being (Kawn), and thus there is a parallel between Jesus and Adam (Q. The Family of ‘Imran 3:59). Islamic views on philosophical discussions about “being” all derive from this Qur’anic teaching about the Divine Command, “Be!”

To God belong the Creation and the Command (Khalq and Amr: Q. The Heights 7:54). Everything besides God is outwardly Creation, inwardly a Divine Command (Sufi teaching, based on the above Qur’anic verse). Adam and Jesus are prime reminders of this reality.

It is for this reason that theologians who later wrote Islamic creeds often included the phrase “… the Word of God: it originated from, and returns to, Him” (kalam Allah, minhu bada’a wa ilayhi ya’ud).

And just as the “Christological controversies” exercised early Christians about the nature of Christ: human, divine or both, the “Qur’anological controversies” exercised early Muslims about the nature of the Qur’an: created, divine or both. For example, both traditions produced the identical phrase “not made” or “uncreated” in attempts to resolve this theological paradox between Creation and Command. The Christian formulation about Jesus being “begotten, not made” (mawlud, ghayr makhluq in Arabic) is identical in its second half to the Islamic formulation about the Qur’an being “the word of God, uncreated” (kalam Allah, ghayr makhluq).

 

  1. SPIRIT

 

2.1 JESUS CHRIST: A SPIRIT FROM GOD & THE SPIRIT OF GOD

Jesus Christ is also a “Spirit from God” (Q. Women 4:171), and in several hadiths, the “Spirit of God” (Ruh Allah).

When Christians accepted his message, Prophet Muhammad would often ask them to affirm in addition, after the basic declaration of faith, “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” that “Jesus Christ is the Messenger of God and His Word, cast unto Mary, and a Spirit from Him,” echoing the Qur’an.

 

2.2 ARCHANGEL GABRIEL: A SPIRIT OF GOD & THE SPIRIT OF GOD

The Archangel Gabriel is also the “Spirit of God” (Q. Mary 19:17), sent to Mary in human form to cast the Word of God into her, resulting in “the effusion of the Spirit of God” into Mary and into her womb (Q. The Prophets 21:91, Prohibition 66:12).

Specifically, Gabriel in the Qur’an is the Holy Spirit (Ruh al-Quds or “Spirit of Holiness” – Q. The Heifer 2:87, 2:253). According to some commentators, Gabriel is also the all-embracing “Universal/Cosmic Spirit” or “Spirit of the Universe/Cosmos” or simply, “The Spirit” (Al-Ruh), i.e. the Spirit that encompasses all created beings, which is why it is called the “Spirit of God.” (cf. commentaries, including Tafsir Ibn Kathir, on Q. The News 78:38, Destiny 97:4)

The Qur’anic Arabic for Gabriel is Jibril or Jibra’il, the meaning of which is variously given as “servant of God” (‘Abdullah) or “higher realms of the Kingdom of God” (Jabarut Allah), which resonates with Gabriel’s title of being “The Spirit” – cf. e.g. Fath al-Bari of Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani.

Note also that it is not only Christians who believe in the Holy Spirit being with them: some Muslims also had this honour; when Prophet Muhammad encouraged his poets such as Hassan bin Thabit during war, he urged them, “Attack them (with your poetry): the Holy Spirit (Ruh al-Quds) is with you!” (Sahih Muslim)

 

2.3 ADAM & HUMANITY: RECIPIENTS OF GOD’s SPIRIT

Adam, the first full human, received the effusion of God’s Spirit (Q. Rock 15:29, S 38:72), as did all human beings in turn, since they share in his Adam-ness or humanity (Q. Prostration 32:9; hadiths about foetal development in the womb). This is another parallel between Jesus and Adam.

Adam was created in the image of God (authentic hadith), and was taught all the beautiful Names of God, thus surpassing even the angels (Q. The Heifer 2:31-33).

 

2.4 THE QUR’AN: A SPIRIT FROM GOD

The Qur’an is “a Spirit, from God’s Command” inspired to Prophet Muhammad (Q. Consultation 42:52). Note that the early Islamic controversy over whether the Qur’an was created or uncreated is related to the aspects of Creation and Command mentioned above (section 1.3).

The Qur’an is a Light and Guidance, just as were the Torah and Gospel before it (Q. The Last Supper 5:44,46). Prophet Muhammad is also a Light and Guidance (Q. The Last Supper 5:15-16).

 

2.5 PROPHET MUHAMMAD’S SPIRIT

In a famous hadith (Sahih Muslim), Aisha described the character (khuluq) of the Prophet as being the Qur’an. The character is the inner aspect of creation (khalq). Therefore, the Prophet’s inner reality (haqiqa Muhammadiyya) or spirit is also Logos, being the Qur’an, which is itself a “Spirit from the Divine Command.”

 

2.6 INTERACTION OF THE SPIRITS:

GABRIEL — JESUS (LOGOS) — MARY:

Already mentioned above. Note that Mary was chosen “over all the women of the worlds” (Q. The Family of ‘Imran 3:42), and was a female Prophet (nabiyya or Prophetess) according to some leading Muslim theologians such as Ibn Hazm and Ibn Hajar, based on the fact that God sent His Archangel Gabriel directly to her.

GABRIEL — QUR’AN (LOGOS) – -MUHAMMAD:

The Qur’an was revealed from God to Prophet Muhammad by Archangel Gabriel as the Holy Spirit (Ruh al-Quds, Q. The Honey Bee 16:102) and the Faithful or Trustworthy Spirit (al-Ruh al-Amin), directly to the Heart (qalb) of the Prophet (Q. The Poets 26:193-4)

These interactions or relationships show that not only are there parallels between Jesus and the Qur’an, but also between Mary and Muhammad, another aspect of interest for Christian-Muslim dialogue and mutual understanding.

 

  1. MERCY

Where there is Spirit, there is Mercy. (And Love: the Islamic scholar William Chittick states that the Biblical “Love” and the Qur’anic “Mercy” are very close in meaning: we might say that they are Merciful Love and Loving Mercy.)

 

3.1 When Adam was created in the image of God, this was especially true of the Divine Names of Mercy. (hadith: disputed authenticity, sound meaning)

3.2 The Qur’anic chapter named “Mary” (19) uses the Divine names “All-Merciful” (al-Rahman) 16 times, “God” (Allah) 7 times and “Lord” (Rabb) 23 times. “Mercy” (rahma) is mentioned a further 4 times, all with regard to Abrahamic Israelite prophets, including a description of Jesus as “a mercy from God” (Q. 19:21). The Qur’anic “mercy” is derived from “the womb” (rahm), thus further resonating with the story of Mary, the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Qur’an; all others are described as mothers, sisters or wives with regard to men.

3.3 All but one of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an begin with the formula, “In the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful”: the Qur’an is thus inextricably linked with the two foremost Divine Names, being those of Mercy.

3.4 Prophet Muhammad is nothing but a “mercy for the worlds” (Q. The Prophets 21:107) and “most kind and merciful to people of faith.” (Q. Repentance 9:128)

 

  1. DISCUSSION / CONCLUSIONS

4.1. Although Islam rejects a trinitarian or tri-theistic formulation of God as One (Q. The Last Supper 5:73), the above discussions show how much reverence is accorded to the holy personalities of Jesus Christ and Mary in the Qur’an: Jesus is not “just a prophet”!

4.2. In Islamic teaching, Jesus Christ is one of the manifestations par excellence of spirituality, being a spirit of, or from, God: others are Archangel Gabriel, the Cosmic Spirit, Mary, the Qur’an, Adam and Prophet Muhammad.

4.3 Thus, although Muslims do not believe that God is a trinity of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost/Spirit”, Muslims certainly believe, directly from the Qur’an, that God is “Lord Most Merciful”, that Jesus is a Word and Spirit of God, and that Gabriel is the Holy Spirit and a Spirit of God. Furthermore, the Qur’an is also a Word and Spirit of God, and constitutes the inner reality of the Prophet Muhammad. The Spirit of God was also effused into Adam, and hence into all of humanity.

4.4. All human beings have the potential to be illumined by some of the above divine spirituality and mercy by virtue of sharing in the humanity of the above holy persons, and of being created in imago Dei (the image of God).

4.5. In the Islamic tradition, Jesus and Muhammad are regarded as extremely close, being respectively the last (and “Seals”) of the Israelite and Ishmaelite branches of prophethood deriving from their common Abrahamic ancestry. All prophets are regarded as brothers, and Prophet Muhammad regularly referred to other Abrahamic and Israelite prophets as “my brothers.” He also once joined his index and middle fingers together and declared, “Jesus, son of Mary, and I are this close in this world and the hereafter: there is no prophet between us.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)

4.6. A striking example of the common love and mercy for humanity manifested by both Jesus and Muhammad in the Islamic tradition is as follows:

Prophet Muhammad once spent an entire night awake in worship (in addition to his worship and public duties by day), repeating the following prayer of Jesus Christ for sinners countless times, whilst standing, bowing and in prostration,

“If You (dear God) punish them, they are indeed Your servants;
but if You forgive them, truly You Yourself are the Mighty, Wise!”

(Q. The Last Supper 5:118 – this incident is reported in an authentic hadith widely transmitted by Islamic scholars, from the Sunan-collectors to Ibn Arabi in his Fusus al-Hikam or “Bezels of Wisdom” to Albani in his Sifah Salah al-Nabi or “The Prophet’s Prayer Described”)

4.7 This universal Christian and Muhammadan compassion is a metaphysical reality, and one that Christians and Muslims worldwide need to continue to manifest and enhance, especially in our troubled times. May God bless Prophets Abraham, Moses, Mary, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them and all their followers, and grant us the courage to follow in some of their noble examples.

 

Usama Hasan

London, 25th December 2016 / 26th Rabi’ al-Awwal 1438 (updated 27/12/2016 // 28/03/1438)

 

FREEDOM – Islamic reflections on Liberty

December 25, 2016

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

FREEDOM

Reflections by Imam Usama Hasan, Head of Islamic Studies at Quilliam Foundation, in preparation for the Inspire Dialogue Foundation conference in Cambridge, Saturday 17th September 2016, hosted by Lord Rowan Williams, Emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury

There are many universal human rights: arguably, freedom is one of the basic ones, intertwined with life itself. As Tipu Sultan, the famous Indian resistance leader against the British, exclaimed: “better to live one day, free as a lion, than to live as a slave for a thousand years.” Caliph Omar once berated one of his commanders, who had followed the common pre-Islamic medieval wartime practice of enslaving the women and children of a defeated army, asking: “how could you enslave people whom God had created free?!” echoing Moses’ defiant response to Pharaoh in the Qur’an (26:22), which asks: “is this the favour, of which you are reminding me, that you have enslaved the Children of Israel?”

Theologically, true faith is based on free will and free choice: any practice that is not free, including faith and religious observance, cannot be genuine. Hence the famous Qur’anic declaration (2:256), “There is no compulsion in religion!”

The centrality of freedom to faith raises important issues: drugs, alcohol, mental illness, carnal lusts and social pressures all mean that our choices and decisions in life are not totally free. How, then, are these actions judged by fellow humans and by God? In particular, one of the goals of religious practice has always been to remove internal shackles that inhibit our expression of humanity, enabling greater self-awareness and realisation of our potential. Thus, a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad says that “the world is a prison for the believer,” i.e. the moral person, and great sages survived imprisonment because they were, internally, free spirits. Ideas of freedom and liberty have, of course, strongly shaped the modern world since the 18th century with the abolition of slavery, French and American republican ideals and anti-colonial independence movements.

It is my firm belief that the great philosophers, sages and prophets: Moses, Mary, Christ and Muhammad, Buddha and Confucius, and men and women of God through the ages, supported the liberation of men and women of all colours, races and religions, children and slaves, individuals and populations, from the yokes of tyranny and oppression. Our modern heroes in this regard range from Wilberforce to Jefferson to Gandhi, Jinnah, Martin Luther King and Mandela.

But today, we still have our modern forms of slavery: bonded and child labour; entire multiple-generation families working in sweatshop factories; highly-organised international rings dealing in human trafficking, including that of children, for financial and sexual exploitation. Therefore, we need to address the above problems by rekindling the same spirit that historically liberated children from labour into education, slaves from enslavement into liberty, peoples from colonisation into independence, and people of colour from segregation and apartheid into civic equality.

Tony Blair, whilst UK Prime Minister, once said in an historic speech on Capitol Hill that “to be American is to be free.” In reality, as spiritual-animal beings made in the image of the Divine, to be human is to be free. Now, let’s continue with working towards inner and outer freedom, and sharing it with our fellow travellers, with the goal of reaching our full and common humanity.

INNER AND OUTER ASPECTS OF ISLAMIC RITUAL PRAYER (SALAT)

June 26, 2015

Bismillah. This is about some of the beautiful symbolism and meaning behind the salat or ritual prayer, one of the five pillars of Islam and to be performed at least five times a day.  When the salat is reduced to pure ritual without any understanding of the Arabic words or of the symbolism of the actions, many inward and outward problems arise, God forbid!  But the salat is the believer’s daily ascension (mi’raj) and communion with God: it is up to us to deepen this daily experience of ours. It is the Muslim’s daily practice of mindfulness, meditation and remembrance, to develop a deep wellspring of love, faith and humility to equip us for life’s individual, social and political challenges. May God continue to bless our journeys!

All italicised phrases are from the Qur’an and Sunna; references are omitted for ease of reading and clarity: this is not an academic article, but an attempt to elucidate certain indications and symbols, with the hope of helping people on their own journeys.

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

INNER AND OUTER ASPECTS OF ISLAMIC RITUAL PRAYER (SALAT)

  1. Prayer times: Time is sacred (God says, I am Time); we offer each prayer within its time in order to share in the sacredness of every part of the day and night, and to give thanks for that portion of sacred time.
  2. Washing (ablutions) before prayer: we cleanse our limbs and hearts of wrongdoing.
  3. Ablutions are nullified by toilet or sexual acts: these represent our basic animal natures, so we wash again to symbolise recovering our angelic natures in order to stand before God.
  4. Facing Mecca: The Ka’bah, as the House of God, symbolises the heart, which is also the House of God. Whilst facing Mecca outwardly, we turn inwardly to face the home of God at the centre and core of our being. So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque!
  5. Standing in straight rows: we are in fellowship, equal before God, and imitating the ranks of the angels. The hearts of the people of Paradise beat as one … By Those Who Stand in Ranks!
  6. Raising the hands at the beginning of the prayer: symbolises the “lifting of the veil” between us and God. In prayer, we are talking directly to our Lord.
  7. Standing before God in prayer: facing up to life as a journey to God; a foretaste and preparation for standing before God on Judgment Day.
  8. Keeping the eyes open, rather than closed, in prayer: do not be veiled by multiplicity from Unity, nor by Unity from multiplicity.
  9. Lowering the head and looking at the ground (if practised): humility before God.
  10. Keeping the chin up and looking straight ahead towards Mecca (if practised): facing life, and one’s inward reality, directly.
  11. Folding the arms across the body (if practised): the servant’s pose before the Master.
  12. Reciting the Opening Chapter of the Qur’an (Surat al-Fatiha): we are sharing in a communion with God. God says, I have divided the prayer between Me and My servant …
  13. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds; All-Merciful, Most Merciful; Master and King of the Day of Judgment: God says, These belong to Me, as our glorification is of God.
  14. You alone we worship; You alone we ask for help: God says, This is (shared) between Me and My servant; the God-human relationship.
  15. Guide us to the Straight Path; the path of those whom You have favoured, who neither receive (Your) anger nor stray: God says, These belong to My servant, and My servant shall have whatever he or she requests.
  16. Reciting further from the Qur’an: the remembrance of God continues; God and the angels bear witness to it. Truly, the recitation at dawn was witnessed.
  17. Bowing: humility before God; bearing life’s hardships, followed by standing tall again.
  18. Prostration, with forehead, nose, hands, knees and feet pressed to the ground: ultimate humility before God; one is closest to God in this posture, which is outwardly humiliation, inwardly elevation; our hearts are higher than our brains, whilst the rest of the time, our brains are higher than our hearts; Pray hard, for your prayers are most likely to be accepted in this position; death.
  19. The second prostration, after a brief sitting: the second death, at the blowing of the Horn. Our Lord! You caused us to die twice, and to live twice …
  20. In prayer, do not sit like a dog, peck like a cockerel or squat like a monkey: throughout prayer, we must rise above our animal natures and try to inhabit our angelic natures.
  21. Standing, bowing, prostration: the body forms the Arabic letters Alif (A), Dal (D) and Mim (M) respectively, hence spelling Adam during the prayer; we are seeking our original Paradisal, primordial humanity before the Fall through our communion with God.

    [In Hebrew and Arabic, the Aleph/Alif (A) also signifies the number 1, so “Adam” is identical to “1 dam” meaning “one blood”: humanity is united; we have different skin colours, but we bleed the same colour. Red blood cells have no DNA (although white ones do), so in a sense blood represents our common humanity – much of it does not have our unique, genetic fingerprints that are found in every other of the trillions of cells of our body.]

  22. Standing, bowing, prostration: the body forms a straight line, right angle and (semi-)circle respectively, the bases of all geometry and form; we are signifying that we are at one with Nature and its beautiful forms. God is Beautiful, and loves Beauty.
  23. Sitting in remembrance of God at the end of the prayer: a foretaste of the eternal rest in Paradise.
  24. The prayer ends with the greeting of peace (salam): Their greeting on the Day they meet Him is Peace; Their greeting there (in the Garden) is Peace; they hear no vain or sinful talk, only the words, Peace, Peace!

Usama Hasan

London, Ramadan 1436 / June 2015

Inner Aspects of Ramadan

August 23, 2011

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

Inner Aspects of Ramadan

Three Levels of Fasting

Imam al-Ghazzali, in his Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Sciences of Religion), describes the following three levels of fasting (cf. Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, publ. Islamic Foundation, which is a translation by the late Mukhtar Holland of an extract from the Ihya’):

  1. Fasting of the body: abstaining from food, drink and sex
  2. Fasting of the tongue: abstaining from backbiting, gossip, slander, idle talk, etc.
  3. Fasting of the heart and soul: abstaining from the remembrance of anything or anyone except God and engaging constantly in dhikr Allah, the mention or remembrance of God

Patience & Gratitude (Sabr & Shukr)

Allah says often in the Qur’an (e.g. 14:5, 34:19, 42:33), especially in regard to the ups and downs of life and history that constitute the Days of God (ayyam Allah), “… In this there are Signs for every extremely patient one, given to much gratitude.” (sabbar shakur, both intensive active participles derived from sabr and shukr, respectively)

The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught, “One who eats gratefully is like one who fasts patiently.” (al-ta’im al-shakir ka l-sa’im al-sabir, a sound hadith found in the Sunan collections)  Thus, eating wholesome food with thanks to God is spiritually equal to depriving oneself of food and drink for the sake of God.

Some of the early Muslim authorities (Salaf) said, especially in explaining the above Qur’anic ayah, “Faith has two halves: half of faith is patience; the other half is gratitude.” (al-iman nisfan: nisf sabr wa nisf shukr)

Thus, as Imam Ibn al-Qayyim explains, Patience and Gratitude are two sides of the same coin of faith: we are required to have patience in troubled times, and show gratitude to God in good times.  This is why these two qualities are mentioned in the Qur’an alongside lessons from time and history, or the Days of God.

Showing gratitude to God includes being grateful to people through whom we receive God’s favours. It also includes using our God-given talents, skills and faculties for good and noble purposes, rather than for disobeying God and engaging in mischief and evil: all good actions thus become part of the worship of God.

Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, further explains the importance of balancing these two qualities to achieve true faith and grow closer to God, with the following simile: “Patience and Gratitude are like the two wings of a believer in their flight to their Lord.”

Another beautiful teaching of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that reinforces these themes, is the following: “Wonderful is the situation of the believer! If he or she is afflicted by misfortune, he or she is patient, and this is good for him or her.  If he or she is touched by good fortune, he or she is grateful, and this is good for him or her.  This (grace) is not available to anyone except the believer!” (A sound hadith transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim)

(For further reading, refer to Patience and Gratitude by Ibn al-Qayyim, trans. Huda Khattab, publ. Dar al-Taqwa, London)

Life & Death

The Prophet (peace be upon him) famously taught that “The person fasting enjoys two moments of happiness: (1) happiness upon breaking the fast and (2) happiness upon meeting the Lord.”

Thus, the joy of iftar or Fitr (breaking the fast) is a foretaste of the joy of meeting God.

The daily cycle of fast and break-fast is a symbol of life and death: the daily fast symbolises the constraints, difficulties and tribulations of life; the daily break-fast symbolises the joy of death and meeting God, for the believer.

These inner meanings are wider: the entire month of fasting symbolises the tribulations of life, whilst ‘Id al-Fitr (the Festival of Breaking the Fast) symbolises the joy of meeting God.

The practice of I’tikaf (Seclusion in the Mosque) during the last ten days and nights of Ramadan, partly in order to seek the greatest night of the year, also contains reminders of these themes, amongst many other benefits.  Seclusion in the mosque entails devoting time to prayer, remembrance of God and other types of worship, avoiding worldly matters completely and minimising profane thought and talk.  Seclusion affords much time for silence and reflection.  The time of I’tikaf, i.e. the last third of Ramadan, is followed immediately by the ‘Id celebration.

I’tikaf may thus be seen and felt as a foretaste of our time in the grave, followed by ‘Id, which we hope is a foretaste of Paradise!

The authentic Sunnah (Way of the Prophet, peace be upon him) is that women may also stay in the mosque also for the spiritual seclusion of I’tikaf: many of the Prophet’s wives and female disciples engaged in this practice.  Mosques should thus be available to women for this uplifting bodily-and-spiritual practice.

Ramadan Cheer, Generosity and Spirit

As described by his Companions, Allah be pleased with them, the Prophet, peace be upon him, was the most generous of people and was especially generous during the month of Ramadan: even more generous than the winds that herald live-giving rains.  He, peace be upon him, himself explained why this was so: it was because the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel), the Ruh al-Qudus (Spirit of Holiness or Holy Spirit), would visit him daily to rehearse the Qur’an with him, consolidating during each Ramadan all that had been revealed of the Qur’an so far.  In the final Ramadan of the Prophet’s life, Jibril rehearsed the Qur’an with him twice, indicating that the revelation of the Qur’an was almost complete.  All the minor variations in the Qur’anic revelation were thus superseded by this “final rehearsal” (al-‘ard al-akhir), as it is known in Qur’anic studies.

Much may be learnt from this breathtaking meeting of Spirits (the Prophet Muhammad, the Noble Qur’an and the Archangel Gabriel) during Ramadan in Madinah during that Blessed Age:

  • The importance of visiting each other to strengthen spiritual contact.  The Prophet, peace be upon him, would sometimes complain to Gabriel outside Ramadan that the latter did not visit him enough, upon which the verse of the Qur’an was revealed, describing the movements of the angels, “We do not descend, except by the command of your Lord …” (19:64)
  • The blessed practice of rehearsing as much as one knows of the Qur’an during Ramadan, especially with someone who has preserved it equally or better (e.g. a teacher or colleague).  This should be done whether a person knows one verse or ten, one surah or ten, and in the case of preservers of the whole Qur’an (huffaz), one recitation (qira’ah) or ten.
  • The blessings of spirituality and generosity that arise from the above two matters: the Prophet’s generosity peaked during Ramadan due to these two factors.

Thus, Ramadan is the month of: fasting, recitation of the Qur’an, remembrance of God, generosity, mercy, charity and Jihad (struggling against all forms of evil).  And just as our Christian friends speak about “Christmas cheer,” Muslims should manifest the “Ramadan cheer, generosity and spirit.”

Tips for Getting the Most out of Ramadan

The following obvious tips may be derived from the Divine guidance to the Prophet, peace be upon him, “So when you have completed and become free (of worldly matters), stand (in worship).  And to your Lord, turn your desire!” (94:7-8)

  • Take time off work if possible
  • Get important worldly matters out of the way before Ramadan, e.g. house/car/furniture purchases and maintenance, bills, payments, etc.
  • Devote time to worship in all its forms, e.g. prayer, fasting, charity, reconciliation amongst people, serving people and the rest of God’s creation in general

May Allah shower upon us all the blessings of Ramadan, this year and every year.

© Usama Hasan

Reflections

June 8, 2009

Inspired by Ibn al-Jawzi, Salman al-‘Awdah & Abdal Hakim Murad. 🙂

Written in 2005, published again here with minor revisions.

Reflections

With the Name of Allah, All-Merciful, Most Merciful.

REFLECTIONS

by Usama Hasan

(Inspired by Sayd al-Khatir of Ibn al-Jawzi, Khawatir of Salman al-‘Awdah and “Contentions” of Abdal Hakim Murad)

1          All Praise be to Allah. (Q. 1:1)

2          Say: He is Allah … (Q. 112:1)

3          Say: He is Most Merciful … (Q. 67:29)

4          Say: He is Omnipotent … (Q. 6:65)

5          The “quiet” prayers are associated with the bustle of the day; the “loud” prayers are associated with the stillness of the night.

6          Allah deprives riba of blessing, but He gives riba on charity. (Q. 2:276)

7              Interest is negative Zakat.

8              Allah says, “Fasting is for Me.” Man says, “Fasting is not for me!”

9              The Hajj: a Journey of Love. (Ibn al-Qayyim, Qasidah Mimiyyah)

10            Mecca is Majesty; Medina is Beauty.

11            The Ka’bah is clothed in Majesty embroidered with Beauty. (Ibn al-Qayyim, Qasidah Mimiyyah)

12        In the Old Testament, his name is “Muhammad,” a quantitative aspect (from the form fa’’ala), appropriate for the Mosaic Law. In the New Testament, his name is “Ahmad,” a qualitative aspect (from the form af’al), appropriate for the Christian Spirit.  In the Qur’an, his name is both “Ahmad” and “Muhammad,” appropriate for the Balance of Islam. (Ibn al-Qayyim, Jala’ al-Afham)

13        A surah of Majesty followed by a surah of Beauty: al-Qamar (The Moon) followed by ar-Rahman (The All-Merciful).

14        Nuclear fission is a type of falaq: do not use it to disobey Rabb al-falaq. (Q. 113)

15        “From the evil of that which He created.” (Q. 113:2)  – There is evil in the world because the world is not God. (Martin Lings)

16        “If what you say is true, may Allah forgive me!  If what you say is false, may Allah forgive you!” (Reply of the Companions and Followers to people who abused them.)

17            The Muslim theory of relativity: la ilaha ill’Allah, “all is relative to the Absolute.”

18            The turban is the symbol of the amanah (trust, responsibility) borne by Man. (Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Murabit)

19            Every thing (shay’) is a manifestation of His Will (sha’a, yasha’u, shay’an).

20        History is a powerful witness to the fact that Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) was indeed the Last Prophet, for there has not been a person even remotely comparable to him since.

21            From the baraka (blessing) of knowledge is to mention its source. (Imam Nawawi and others)

22            The [apparent] anthropomorphism of God in the Qur’an implies the theomorphism of Man. (Frithjof Schuon, Understanding Islam.  i.e. The issue of the Attributes of God returns to the hadith, “Allah created Adam in His image.” cf. Khan & Hilali, Translation of the Noble Qur’an, 4:86)

23            The numbers of the raka’at and adhkar are in perfect balance, like a chemical or culinary recipe. (Imam Ghazzali, The Alchemy of Happiness)

24            The prayers have raka’at: two, three or four.  The angels have wings: two, three or four.  The raka’at of the believer are like the wings of the angel, on his Flight to his Lord. (Ibn al-Qayyim)

25            “The Garden is surrounded by hardships; the Fire is surrounded by lusts.”  Another transmission of this hadith with an important variation: “The Garden is veiled by hardships; the Fire is veiled by lusts.”

26            He began the second quarter of His Book with Praise: the opening of al-An’am. (Imam Suyuti)

27            The congregational salat is the real “group dhikr.”

28            Does wearing a turban or hijab elevates one’s sense, as well as one’s centre, of gravity?

29            Islam is like a society of married monks and nuns. (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World)  The home is the monastery of the believer. (A saying of the ‘ulama)

30            When you fear for him, throw him into the river! (Q. 28:7)

31            Profane philosophy: chewing the cud.

32            The Wahhabis emphasise Transcendence; the Sufis emphasise Immanence.

33            The Wahhabis emphasise Majesty; the Sufis emphasise Beauty.

34            The Wahhabis emphasise the first shahadah; the Sufis emphasise the second.

35            “The Wahhabis are a sect of the Jews.” (A contemporary Sufi shaykh)  In that case, the Sufis would be a sect of the Christians.

36            The son is the secret of the father. (Ibn ‘Arabi) – The daughter is the secret of the mother.  (U.H.)

37            Everything has already been said. (Frithjof Schuon)

38            Isn’t it ironic that Schuon, an extreme, Perennialist Sufi refutes the Ash’aris and defends Ibn Hanbal, appreciating the depth of his apparently-superficial statements whilst the “orthodox” Ash’aris continue to attack the Hanbalis?

39            Al-ghusl min al-janabah: every part of your body has enjoyed the climax with another creature, so wash every inch of your skin to stand before Me in purity! (Ibn ‘Arabi)

40            No fear, except of Him.  No hope, except in Him. (Iqbal Nasim)

41            The woman is the incarnation of the home. (Frithjof Schuon)

42            The madhhabists forget that it is possible to stand on the shoulders of giants.

43            True recitation of the Qur’an is to actualise its teachings, for tilawah means “to follow”: cf. Q. 91:2 (Imam Ajurri)

44            Men reflect Transcendence; women reflect Immanence.

45            Men reflect Majesty; women reflect Beauty.

46            Prophethood has forty-six aspects. (Hadith)  Every human being has forty-six chromosomes, in twenty-three pairs.  The Prophetic qualities are like a spiritual DNA.

47            So, we have “The Wahhabi who loved Beauty.”  Where is the Sufi who feared Majesty?

48            Hallaj said, “I am God!”  Darwin said, “I was an ape!”  – Each according to his own aspiration! (Akbar of Allahabad, satirical poet)

49            The kharijis are mis-kharijis of justice.

50            Islam is the tariqa.

51            He began the second half of His Book with Praise: the opening of al-Kahf. (Imam Suyuti)

52            Celebrating birthdays is childish.

53            If any birthday had been worth celebrating, it would have been his (may Allah bless him and grant him peace).

54            The sun is the siraj, the blazing lamp.  The moon is the nur munir, the reflected light.  The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) is Siraj, Nur and Munir.

55            Wave-particle duality: the particle reflects al-Hayy (The Living); the wave reflects al-Qayyum (The Self-Subsisting). (Adapted from Aisha Bewley)

56            An Islamic quantum theory: la hawla wa la quwwata illa bi’Llah, “there is no hawl (change of state) or quwwah (force), except by Allah.”

57            Sufism and Advaita Vedantism are essentially the same, with a surface difference of terminology. (Martin Lings, What is Sufism?)

58            What is Sufism? If it is other than Islam, then we want nothing to do with it.  If it is nothing but Islam, then Islam is the only way by which we reach Allah. (Shaykh Abu Bakr the Algerian, of Madinah)

59            What is Salafism? If it is other than Islam, then we want nothing to do with it.  If it is nothing but Islam, then Islam is the only way by which we reach Allah.

60            The false sufis should celebrate Christmas, too.

61            No-one can contain the whole truth, except the Messenger of Allah. (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf)

62            “Life’s a journey – take a guide.” (Cover slogan, mail-order catalogue.)

63            Better a polluted jama’ah than a pure sect. (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf)

64            The fitnah amongst the ‘ulama (Ibn ‘Arabi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Subki, etc.) is like the fitnah amongst the Companions – we withhold our tongues and pray for them all. (Shah Waliullah of Delhi)

65            Everything is outwardly created (khalq), inwardly a result of the Divine command (amr).  (Shaykh Nuh Keller, cf. Q. 7:54)

66            Whoever opposes falsehood, wins. (Motto inscribed on an Arabic audio cassette.)

67            Raising the hands in prayer symbolises the raising of the veil between us and God.  (Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymin)

68            “Most people of the Fire are women” is not the same as, “Most women are people of the Fire.”  As long there are more women than men in total, the two sexes have an equal chance of salvation or damnation.  Study Bayes’ rule of mathematical probability!

69            Never Under-Estimate the Power of the Prayer-Station.

70            “The false salafis veil the Prophet with his Sunnah.” (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad)  The false sufis separate the Prophet from his Sunnah, and veil him with bid’ah.

71            He was neither veiled by unity from multiplicity, nor by multiplicity from unity.  This is why, and Allah knows best, he kept his eyes open during salat.  (Shaykh Nuh Keller)

72            The head has caught fire with grey hair! (Q. 19:4)

73            The Sunnah within Islam is like Islam amongst the religions. (A saying of the Salaf)  “True Islam” is nothing but the true Sunnah.  Hence, “Islam is the Sunnah and the Sunnah is Islam.” (Another saying of the Salaf)

74            Political Islam: political activity before learning Islam properly is like marriage before puberty. (Shaykh ‘Abdul Ghaffar Hasan)

75            Love your beloved, but don’t get carried away: perhaps he’ll be your enemy one day. (‘Ali b. Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him)

76            He began the third quarter of His Book with Praise: the openings of Saba and Fatir. (Imam Suyuti)

77            Hate your enemy, but don’t get carried away: perhaps he’ll be your beloved one day. (‘Ali b. Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him)

78            Islam is neither Islamism nor Sufism.

79            What would the false sufis do if they ever took over in Mecca, God-forbid?  Perform a giant hadrah around the Ka’bah?

80            Criticism is infectious. (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad)

81            Backbiting is cowardly.

82            Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, and often the greatest chasm between friends.  (English sayings)

83            The qafiyah of the Qasidah Burdah is mim, for obvious reasons.  Every ayah of Surah Muhammad ends with mim, except for two that end with alif.

84            To some, it is unbearable that Islam has more than one madhhab. (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad)  To others, it is unbearable that we should benefit from more than one madhhab. (U.H.)

85            He said to the fire, “Be cool!” – and it was. He said to them, “Be ye apes!” – and they were.  Whenever He decrees a matter, He merely says to it, “Be!” – and it becomes!

86            Al-Qadr (Fate; Predestination) is a secret of Allah in His creation. (Saying of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib & of Imam Tahawi, ‘Aqidah)

87            The literal meaning of “mortgage” is “the grip of death.”

88            People today attacking Imams Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyyah: goats butting mountains.

89            The salafi idea of progress: let’s start at the beginning every day.  (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad)  The mubtadi’ idea of progress: let’s keep going in the wrong direction.

90            Men reflect the Outward; women reflect the Inward.

91           Islamophobia is becoming our equivalent of anti-semitism: a stick used to stifle legitimate criticism.

92           After the reformers and re-formers, we have the deformers of Islam.

93            The deformers of Islam replace the breadth and flexibility of the Sunnah with a narrow, rigid madhhabism.

94            The deformers of Iman pollute the light of revelation with convoluted kalam.  (This is like drinking sewage instead of milk and honey – Ibn al-Qayyim, Qasidah Nuniyyah)

95            The deformers of Ihsan abandon the spacious Straight Path leading to Allah in favour of a labyrinth of narrow, cult-like, bid’ah-riddled tariqahs.

96            The blogger has killed balaghah.

97            The crescent is not the only symbol of Islam.  All the ayatullah, the Signs of God, are symbols of Islam.  In inter-faith or multi-faith forums, please note!

98            “Whenever he saw me, he smiled at me.” (Jarir b. ‘Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with him).

99            To Allah belong the Most Beautiful Names: call upon Him by them. (Q. 7:180)

100          To Him belongs Praise in the end. (Q. 34:1)

London, 29th Sha’ban 1426 / 3rd October 2005 (updated 8th June 2009)