Posts Tagged ‘salafi’

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.

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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)

Abortion – Rulings in Islamic Jurisprudence and Muslim-majority countries

October 23, 2014

Bismillah.  Here is a translation I put together for my presentation at the International Summer School on Science and Religion, Paris, August 2014.

The discussion is interesting because these Sharia scholars refer to the modern science of embryology in their discussion, although there are one or two minor errors in the scientific references.  The traditional juristic positions are based on Qur’an/Hadith, so abortion is prohibited after 0, 40 or 120 days, with some exceptions.  Thus the hadiths are not conclusive.  But the science is not conclusive either as to “beginning of life”: people make a case for 0 days (conception), 40 days (foetal brain activity) or 120 days (development of major organs).  Note that the latter two views are relevant to “end of life” discussions also, i.e. brain-death vs. organ-death.  In the end, this is a complex ethical problem with medical and religious input: the material provided below is intended to educate, clarify and provoke thought and debate around this difficult topic.

Rulings on Abortion – Islamic Jurisprudence (PDF)

Abortion laws in OIC countries – summary (PDF with UK, US & France for comparison; the 7 most common justifications for abortion in legal systems around the world are interesting, according to the UN; research by Sofia Patel)

[Update 26/10/2014:]

Here are some suggested study/discussion questions:

1. What does Islamic tradition say about the beginning of life? (0 days = conception; 40-49 days = 6-7 weeks; 120 days = 4 months = 17 weeks 1 day)

2. Are the hadiths about ensoulment after 40 or 120 days related to Aristotle’s view (40 days for boys; 80 days for girls) ?  Do these have a common origin (e.g. divine revelation), or did Greek ideas influence the transmission of some hadiths?

3. Is Ibn al-Qayyim’s comparison of pre-ensoulment foetal life to plant life valid? Is this related to the Ikhwan al-Safa’s theory about mineral/plant/animal/human soul, all derived from the Cosmic Spirit?

4. Is abortion ever justifiable in Islam?  If so, under what conditions?

5. How far are the 7 international legal justifications for abortion, listed by the UN, compatible with the holistic, universal objectives of Islamic law (maqasid al-sharia) ?

6. Islamic jurists often speak about the danger to a mother’s life or health in discussions about abortion.  Are considerations of a mother’s mental health also relevant or included in such discussions?

7. Are there are any other considerations regarding the welfare (maslaha) of mother and foetus/child, consistent with the letter and spirit of Islamic law, that should be taken into account in such discussions?

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

 

ABORTION, STAGES OF THE EMBRYO AND THE BEGINNING OF LIFE

 

Summarised from: Dr. Ali Muhyi l-Din al-Qarahdaghi & Dr. Ali Yusuf al-Muhammadi, Fiqh al-Qadaya al-Tibbiyyah al-Mu’asirah (Jurisprudence of Contemporary Medical Issues), Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, Beirut, 1426/2005, pp. 428-451

 

Summary and translation by Dr. Usama Hasan

August 2014

 

 

Contents

 

1        A General Ruling on Abortion. 2

 

2        Specific Rulings on Abortion, related to the Stages of the Embryo. 2

 

2.1        The “mixed fluid” stage (al-nutfah al-amshaj): days 0-8. 3

2.2        The “clinging” stage (al-‘alaqah): days 9-22/23. 3

2.3        The “chewed lump” stage (al-mudghah): days 23/24-42, i.e. up to 6 weeks. 3

2.4        The stage of the creation of bones, and the clothing of them with flesh. 4

2.5        When is the spirit breathed in? [ensoulment] 4

2.6        [The view of modern science] 5

2.7        Our view.. 5

 

3        Rulings on Abortion. 7

 

3.1        [Fatwa of the Islamic Fiqh Academy] 8

3.2        [Resolution of the Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences] 8

3.3        Views of past jurists about abortion. 8

3.4        [Discussion] 9

3.4.1        [Abortion is prohibited in general, as per Ghazzali’s view] 9

3.4.2        [Ibn Taymiyyah’s view] 10

3.5        Summarised Juristic Rulings Related to Foetuses. 10

3.6        The Ruling on Abortion due to Deformities. 11

 

 


1. A General Ruling on Abortion

Abortion is, in general, haram (morally and legally prohibited and sinful) unless out of necessity due to the mother’s life: abortion is allowed if the mother’s life is in danger, or if she is in danger of great and severe harm.

 

This is indicated by all the Qur’anic verses that prohibit transgression on any person’s life in any stage of life, e.g. Whoever kills one person … it is as though he has killed all people;[1] Do not kill your children due to poverty: we sustain you and them;[2] Do not kill your children due to fear of poverty: we sustain them and you.[3]

 

As for abortion being allowed to save the mother’s life, this is from the evidence indicating that the foetus owes its existence to the mother so it cannot cause her death; also, her life is real and stable, and is therefore preferred over the foetus’ life that is not certain. This falls under repelling a greater harm by tolerating a lesser harm.[4]

 

2. Specific Rulings on Abortion, related to the Stages of the Embryo 

The specific ruling on abortion is connected to the stages of the embryo, from the fertilisation of ovum by sperm to the breathing of the spirit into it and the completion of these stages.

 

The Qur’an mentions that the human was created from dust that turned to dry clay. Clay includes various minerals such as iron, phosphorus, calcium, copper, etc. It also has subtle plant-like and animal-like structures. God created Adam from this clay, and from Adam He created Eve. Then natural reproduction continued with the mixing of the man’s semen and the woman’s ovum, each one of them contributing 23 chromosomes to the genetic code. God calls this the “mixed fluid.”[5] This is the basis of the creation of humans, except for the miraculous creation of Jesus, peace be upon him.[6]

 

The stages of the embryo, [that give rise to] the ruling on abortion at each stage, are as follows:

 

2.1    The “mixed fluid” stage (al-nutfah al-amshaj)[7]: days 0-8

 

This is the fertilisation of the ovum by sperm, and may be done artificially outside the womb. The fertilised cell divides, becoming 16 cells after about 4 days. These settle in what the Qur’an calls a “safe place,” i.e. the womb: Then We made him a drop of fluid in a safe place.[8]

 

2.2    The “clinging” stage (al-‘alaqah): days 9-22/23

 

God described this stage with “creation”[9] whereas the previous stage was described as “making,” indicating that this stage has characteristics and changes that make it deserving of such a label.[10]

 

The ‘alaqah linguistically relates to “clinging,” i.e. to the womb wall. The group of cells that developed by division from a single one are composed essentially of a nucleus and cytoplasm, having no limbs or other distinguishing structures of a human body, but they suck their necessary sustenance and oxygen inside the womb from the structures and fluids around them.[11] This stage lasts 2 weeks.

 

2.3    The “chewed lump” stage (al-mudghah): days 23/24-42, i.e. up to 6 weeks

 

This stage is so named[12] because the embryo looks like it has been chewed by a human mouth. During this stage, the heart cavity forms, as do the reproductive organs. The small umbilical cord, which grows as the foetus develops, transports the necessary sustenance and oxygen to the foetus from the mother and its waste products in the other direction.

 

All the stages, up to and including this one, end around 40-42 days, as stated by specialist doctors and embryologists. Around 42 days, a new stage of development begins, when the embryo begins to take the form of a human being with all its apparatus, following which the stage of a new creation beings after the breathing of the spirit: We clothed the bones with flesh, then We began a new creation – so Blessed is God, the Best of Creators![13]

 

Scientific instruments and investigation, as well as imaging of the foetus inside the womb, have all shown us that the foetus takes the form of a human after the sixth week, i.e. after about 42 days of pregnancy,[14] and this is also indicated by the hadith of Sahih Muslim (see below).

 

2.4    The stage of the creation of bones, and the clothing of them with flesh

 

The skeleton begins to become apparent after 40 days. Its initial centres of development are the jaw and collar-bone, followed by the thigh and shin.

 

2.5    When is the spirit breathed in? [ensoulment]

 

[Canonical hadiths speak of three stages of creation of the foetus, each lasting 40 days, after which there is ensoulment. However, the hadiths are slightly ambiguous as to whether these three stages are consecutive or parallel. Respectively, these two interpretational possibilities imply ensoulment after 120 days or 40 days, and traditional authorities are indeed divided into two camps about this. Interestingly, Aristotle taught that ensoulment for boys and girls occurred after 40 days and 80 days, respectively. – Translator’s note]

 

All the stages, up to and including this one, end around 40-42 days, as stated by specialist doctors and embryologists. Around 40-42 days, a new stage of development begins, when the embryo begins to take the form of a human being with all its apparatus, following which the stage of a new creation beings after the breathing of the spirit. The foetus takes the form of a tiny human after the sixth week, i.e. after about 42 days of pregnancy. This is also indicated by the various narrations of Sahih Muslim that mention the basic creation of a person in their mother’s womb taking 40, 42 or 45 days and nights. One narration mentions “40 plus a few nights.”[15]

 

Hafiz Ibn Hajar says, “Once the fluid remains in the womb for 40 days or nights, God gives permission for its [full] creation … this is when the angel descends upon it … The narrations of the hadith of Ibn Mas’ud agree on 40 days; the hadith of Anas does not mention any timing; the narrations of Hudhayfah’s hadith differ: some of them mention 40, others 42, 43, 45 or ‘40 plus a few’.”[16]

 

The scholars reconcile these narrations by saying that they may differ according to individual embryos; according to Qadi ‘Iyad, the narrations mean that the following stages occur at the beginning of the second period of 40 days, i.e. days 41-80.[17]

 

2.6    [The view of modern science]

 

In modern embryology, this period of days 40-49 is when the embryo becomes a foetus, and when ultrasound is able to detect the beating heart. The bone skeleton also begins to appear.[18] Hence, these narrations do not contradict.

 

Modern science also indicates that the initial creation (Stages 1-3) is completed in the first 40-odd days. However, one hadith in Bukhari and Muslim appears that to say that each of Stages 1-3 takes 40 days, after which the spirit is breathed in, i.e. after four months or 120 days.[19]

 

However, if we analyse this hadith carefully, we find it does not unequivocally indicate the meaning that the previous people of knowledge understood. In fact, its beginning agrees with the others hadiths of Sahih Muslim which say that all three stages are completed within the first 40-odd days. The word thumma can mean “then” for consecutive stages or “moreover” for simultaneous stages. “With such interpretations,” says the leading authority Dr. Muhammad Salam Madhkur, “the hadith agrees with modern medicine.”[20]

 

2.7    Our view

 

There are three major stages, based on our understanding of the hadith of Ibn Mas’ud in Bukhari:

 

  1. From the fertilised egg to the beginning of the small human form (0-40 days, roughly)
  2. Formation of a small human (40-120 days, roughly)
  3. Breathing of the spirit (ensoulment), i.e. 120 days onwards

 

Any intentional harm to the embryo is haram (prohibited) after 40 days.

 

In terms of life:

 

  1. 0-40 days – there is the lowest level of life, beginning with the developing cell life. Cell division leads to similar living cells that form a structure, but this does not reach the level of human life.
  2. Week 6: the foetus begins to take the form of a small human. Ultrasound detects its heart beating. Blood circulation begins to work. Major skeletal nodes appear.
  3. Week 7: Thigh and shin bones appear.
  4. Week 8: Upper and lower arm bones appear, as do weak, stretching movements.       However, this does not represent complex human life.
  5. End of Week 11- Week 12: the foetus enters a new, distinctive stage. Its brain is developed, its functions start: the beginning of a human entity emerges clearly, as follows. Movements develop from reflex reactions to complex, compound actions such as bending the back, raising the head, kicking the feet and moving the mouth and lips. Brain stem activity begins, sending electrical signals to the heart.       Periods of rest and stillness follow activity and movement: sleep and waking, sensation and shock, jump and play. Electrical signals appear that can be recorded and traced to the foetal brain, indicating surface brain activity.

 

However, the doctors say that the brain is not fully-formed in terms of its basic structure until the 4-month mark. Dr. Muhammad Ali Albar says, “At the end of the fourth month, the foetus can hear and make movements by its own will. Individual, personalised facial features appear. Do not all these indicate the breathing of the spirit?”

 

All this is the medical aspect of the issue, revealed by modern medicine and rare, modern instruments that monitor the development and movements of the embryo and foetus; none of these means were available in the past. If we analyse this modern knowledge and the hadiths on the subject, we find that there is no contradiction. In particular, only one hadith seems to mention three periods of 40 days; most of the narrations mention a total of 40, 42, 45 or 40-odd days.

 

Modern medicine does not speak about the spirit, which is mentioned in the hadith. Only God knows the nature and reality of this spirit.[21] The Messenger of God, peace be upon him, informed us that this spirit is breathed in after 120 days, so this must be affirmed.

 

Although bear in mind that only one narrator from Ibn Mas’ud, Zayd b. Wahb, mentioned the breathing of the spirit after 120 days; the rest of the narrators mentioned the writing of sustenance, lifetime and eventual misery or happiness, but did not mention the breathing of the spirit; neither did the other Companions who narrated the hadith: Ibn ‘Abbas mentioned it, but did not attribute it to the Prophet, peace be upon him.[22] It is possible to reconcile these two hadiths: the angel visits twice – once after 40 days to arrange the formation of the foetus and again after 120 days to breathe the spirit.[23] God knows best.

 

According to the doctors, life begins with a single cell but gradually develops into a full human life. The jurists draw the line (for full human life) at 120 days, which is when the spirit is breathed in. Similarly, all plants and animals enjoy life but do not benefit from the spirit of God that is breathed into humans, and on the basis of which the angels were commanded to prostrate to the human.[24]

 

The moment of breathing the spirit at 120 days is a matter of the unseen – humans and our medicine cannot know it, so we must accept it without interpretation or explanation, especially since it does not contradict modern science. After 120 days, the foetus is a complete human, deserving all that a human being enjoys after birth: respect, rights and the prohibition of harm against it.

 

Plant life has less power than animal life, which has less than human life. Animals may have more or less chromosomes: apes have more than other animals, whilst humans have the most at 46 chromosomes.[25]

 

Imam Ibn al-Qayyim mentions two types of embryonic life:

 

  • plant-like life before ensoulment, and
  • complete, human life after ensoulment.[26]

 

Foetal life after 40 days is complete in a material sense, just like complete animal life but more respected than the latter since it is in the fundamental human form. However, it lacks the divine breathing that bestows, and God knows best, the special human attributes such as knowledge, logical thinking, deduction and analysis as explained in the verses about the creation of Adam. God created Adam to settle in the world and civilise it and to be its steward, so He breathed His Spirit into him, taught him the Names. He gave him, along with knowledge and logical deduction, the capability to act. Along with intellect, He gave him choice and will. These higher attributes do not appear in the early stages of the foetus, but only after 120 days, e.g. voluntary movement etc.

 

3. Rulings on Abortion

It is undoubtedly haram (prohibited) to harm the embryo that is younger than 40 days. The prohibition becomes more severe after 40 days. The greatest prohibition occurs after 120 days, in which case killing the foetus would be like murdering an independent human being. These levels of prohibition are appropriate in Islam to describe the size of the crime and its effects.

 

3.1    [Fatwa of the Islamic Fiqh Academy]

 

The Islamic Fiqh Academy issued a ruling (no. 56-6/7) prohibiting abortion absolutely, and mandating medical techniques to save and protect the lives of embryos and foetuses. Furthermore, Ruling No. 113 (12/7) says in Clause 2 that, “The embryo has a right to life as soon as it is formed. It must not be harmed by abortion, or by any type of damage …”

 

3.2    [Resolution of the Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences]

The Council on Conception, part of the Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences, issued the following resolution: “The Council has considered contemporary medical, scientific realities explained by modern research and medical technology. It concluded that:

 

  • the foetus is alive from the beginning of pregnancy
  • its life is to be respected during all stages, and especially after ensoulment
  • transgression against the foetus by abortion is not permissible, except for an extreme medical necessity
  • some members disagreed, allowing abortion before 40 days, especially in case of a valid reason”[27]

 

3.3    Views of past jurists about abortion

 

  • The schools of jurisprudence in the past agreed that abortion was haram (prohibited) after 120 days.[28] Some of them even said that this was so when the mother’s life was in danger, e.g. Ibn ‘Abidin said, “If the foetus is alive, abortion is prohibited, since the mother’s death is hypothetical and it is not permissible to kill a human being on the basis of a whimsical matter.”[29] But if her death is certain or very likely, not simply hypothetical, then her life is to be given precedence over the foetus’, which may be aborted.
  • As for before ensoulment, most jurists regard abortion as prohibited (haram) also, unless it is to safeguard the mother. This is the view of the Malikis and Ibadis, the dominant view of the Hanafis and Shafi’is, one view of the Hanbalis and the apparent view of the Zahiris.[30] Some of the Hanafis, Shafi’is, Malikis and Hanbalis allowed abortion before ensoulment[31], as did the Zaydis on condition that both parents agreed. Some jurists, including Lakhmi (Maliki) and Abu Ishaq Marwazi (Shafi’i) allowed abortion before 40 days, but prohibited it thereafter.[32] Some Hanafis allowed abortion before ensoulment for a valid reason, even if it did not reach the level of necessity, whilst others specified the condition of necessity.[33] Some Shafi’is allowed abortion before ensoulment if the conception was via illegal extra-marital sex (zina: fornication or adultery).[34]

3.4    [Discussion]

 

The majority of jurists held that abortion was prohibited at any stage based on:

 

  • the verses prohibiting the taking of life, e.g. 6:151 and 17:33. A foetus is a life without doubt.
  • God forbade pilgrims from hunting (5:95), and the Prophet forbade the destruction of ostrich eggs by pilgrims, stipulating their value in compensation in cases of violation.[35] Malik said, “I have always heard that the compensation due upon a pilgrim for killing an ostrich is a camel. In case of an ostrich egg, my view is that the amount is a tenth of a camel’s value, just as the compensation for the foetus of a freewoman is to free a slave, male or female; these are worth 50 dinars, which is a tenth of his mother’s blood-money.”[36] Ibn al-Qasim said, “Malik compared the egg to a foetus,” i.e. in essence, like a foetus that is prohibited to harm.

 

3.4.1   [Abortion is prohibited in general, as per Ghazzali’s view]

 

Thus, the stronger view is that of the majority, i.e. that harming embryos is prohibited, even before ensoulment. One researcher who emphatically supported this position was Imam Ghazzali. In explaining the difference between coitus interruptus and abortion before ensoulment, he said: “The child is formed when the sperm enters the womb … Coitus interruptus is not like abortion or burying the infant alive because the latter two are crimes against an existing thing that is of different stages. The first stage is that the sperm enters the womb, mixes with the woman’s water and prepares to accept life: spoiling this would be a crime. Once it becomes a chewed lump and a suspended lump, the crime becomes more obscene, and even more so once ensoulment has taken place and the process of creation has levelled out. The extremity of such obscenity is once the foetus has become an independent life [i.e. been born as a baby].” He then mentioned that the beginning of the embryo’s existence is from the entry of semen into the womb.[37]

 

3.4.2   [Ibn Taymiyyah’s view]

 

Shaykh-ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah was asked about a man who said to his wife, “Abort your foetus: the sin is upon me.” If she does this, what expiation is due upon them both?

 

He answered: “They must free a believing slave: if they are unable to, they must both fast two months consecutively. In addition, they must give compensation to the heirs of the foetus who did not kill it: not to the father, for he ordered its killing, and so deserves nothing.” In answer to another question, he said, “Abortion is prohibited by the consensus of the Muslims: it is like burying children alive or killing them, which God has forbidden (81:8-9 & 17:31).”

 

He also said about a woman who aborted her foetus by striking her belly or by drinking medicine, “She must give compensation to the heirs of the foetus, other than the mother, by the Sunnah of the Messenger of God and the agreement of the Imams.”[38]

 

3.5    Summarised Juristic Rulings Related to Foetuses

 

  1. Blood-money and expiation if prohibited abortion is carried out: the perpetrator, whether father, mother or someone else, must pay the blood-money, which is a tenth of that of the mother according to the Malikis and Shafi’is; others distinguish between a male and female foetus.[39] According to the Shafi’is and Hanbalis, expiation is also due, being the freeing of a slave if possible, otherwise fasting for two consecutive months.[40]
  2. The waiting-period (‘iddah) of a widow or divorced woman ends by [termination of the pregnancy:] delivery of the child or abortion of the foetus.
  3. The father of the child must pay maintenance for the pregnant mother in case of divorce.[41]
  4. A pregnant woman may break her fast during Ramadan if she fears harm.[42]
  5. Delay of the punishment for extra-marital sex [i.e. flogging and/or stoning to death] whilst the woman is pregnant. [43]
  6. The foetus has incomplete personhood, so it has rights of inheritance etc.[44]

 

3.6    The Ruling on Abortion due to Deformities

 

The following declaration was issued by the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Muslim World League:

 

The Academy analysed this matter during its twelfth meeting held in Mecca 15-22 Rajab 1410 H / 10-17 February 1990 CE. The council of religious scholars, after consultation with specialist medical experts who attended for this purpose, declares the following:

 

  • Once pregnancy reaches 120 days, abortion is not permissible, even if medical analysis shows that the foetus is deformed. The only exception is if it is established, by a medical panel consisting of reliable, specialist experts, that the continuation of pregnancy comprises a confirmed danger to the life of the mother, in which case abortion is allowed, whether or not the foetus is deformed, in order to repel the greater of two evils.
  • Before 120 days of pregnancy, if it is established and confirmed, by a medical panel consisting of reliable, specialist experts, using instrument-based monitoring, that the foetus is dangerously and incurably deformed, and that if it remains and is born to term, it will have a bad life, with both it and its family suffering much pain, then in that case: abortion is permissible if the parents request it. The academy, whilst making this declaration, advises the doctors and parents in such cases to save themselves from God, and to take every caution in this matter.

 

[1] Q. 5:32

[2] Q. 6:151

[3] Q. 17:31

[4] Ibn ‘Abidin 5/377, al-Sharh al-Kabir with commentary by Disuqi 4/268, Sharh al-Kharshi 5/274, al-Iqna’ 4/129, Kuwaiti Encyclopaedia of Jurisprudence 2/59.

[5] Q. 76:1

[6] Q. 3:59

[7] al-nutfah: the ejaculated fluid of the man or woman; amshaj: a mixture of the essential parts of a thing. See the lexicons al-Misbah al-Munir, Lisan al-‘Arab and al-Qamus al-Muhit.

[8] Q. 23:13

[9] Q. 23:14

[10] Muhammad Salam Madhkur, al-Jinin [Foetuses], 1389, p. 56

[11] Dr. Mukhtar al-Mahdi, The Beginning of Human Life, Book 2 of the Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences, Kuwait, pp. 65 onwards.

[12] Q. 23:14 & 22:5

[13] Q. 23:14

[14] Papers by Dr. Hassan Hathout, Dr. Mukhtar al-Mahdi, Dr. Ahmad Shawqi, Dr. Muhammad Na’im Yasin & Dr. Abdullah Salamah.

[15] The Arabic for “a few” here is bid’, which refers to a single-digit number, i.e. 1-9 maximum. (Translator’s note)

[16] Fath al-Bari 11/480-1

[17] Fath al-Bari 11/481

[18] Dr. Mukhtar al-Mahdi’s paper, p. 65

[19] Fath al-Bari 11/481

[20] Al-Jinin (Foetuses), p. 54

[21] Q. 17:85

[22] Fath al-Bari 11/468

[23] Ibn al-Qayyim, Kitab al-Ruh [The Spirit], p. 205

[24] Q. 38:71-72

[25] This is not true: some apes have 48 chromosomes, with a very clear and close relationship to the 46 human chromosomes. (Translator’s note)

[26] Kitab al-Ruh, p. 38 & Shifa’ al-‘Alil, pp. 38-41

[27] Book 1, Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences, p. 351

[28] Fath al-Qadir 2/495 [Hanafi], Hashiyah al-Disuqi 2/267 [Maliki], Nihayat al-Muhtaj 8/416, Al-Majmu’ 5/301 [Shafi’i], Al-Mughni 7/815 [Hanbali], Al-Muhalla 11/29-31 [Zahiri].

[29] Ibn ‘Abidin, Hashiyah, 1/602

[30] See sources previously cited.

[31] See sources previously cited; also al-Furu’ 6/191, al-Insaf 1/386

[32] See sources previously cited; also Rahuni’s commentary on Zurqani 3/264; Sharawani 6/248; Nihayat al-Muhtaj 8/416

[33] Ibn ‘Abidin 2/380

[34] Nihayat al-Muhtaj 8/416

[35] Ibn Majah, Sunan – Manasik 3077; Ahmad 744-5

[36] Al-Mudawwanah 2/437

[37] Ghazzali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din [Revival of the Religious Sciences], 2/53

[38] Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu’ Fatawa [Collected Fatwas], 34/159-161

[39] Meaning that the blood-money for a male is double that of a female. (Translator’s note)

[40] See sources previously cited; also Bidayat al-Mujtahid 2/656

[41] This implies that this payment comes to an end upon abortion. (Translator’s note)

[42] This implies that this concession comes to an end upon abortion. (Translator’s note)

[43] This implies that this punishment is due upon abortion.  The authors are referring to ancient/mediaeval punishments, although the Ottomans abolished these in the mid-19th century, since they were no longer suitable for the age. (Translator’s note)

[44] See the brilliant book by our teacher, Muhammad Salam Madhkur: Al-Jinin [Foetuses], where he has explained this in detail.

Tackling extremism in UK universities and mosques

March 3, 2013

Bismillah.  The recent cases of the “Birmingham terrorist trio”, one of whom was a university graduate, and the resurfacing of underlying problems at City University, both from the end of February 2013, as well as that of four young men from Luton pleading guilty to terrorism on 1st March, show that the problems of extremism and terrorism amongst British Muslims still persist.  Note that the men from Birmingham and Luton were all influenced by Anwar Awlaki, who lived for a while in the UK, c. 2002-3.  Campus connections to extremism and terrorism are well-documented, and the two “Undercover Mosque” programmes on Channel 4 embarrasingly exposed the same problems in a small number of UK mosques, although some of these mosques were, worryingly, major ones in London and Birmingham.

These problems continue to need to be tackled by Muslims themselves, as well as by others.  A good start would be for Muslims to stop being in denial about the small number of would-be terrorists in their midst, whose crazy actions could lead to catastrophe in this country.  Conspiracy theories must end, given the overwhelming evidence against such people, including their own “martyrdom videos” and guilty pleas, and the well-documented details of their plots, e.g. photos of unexploded bomb material from the failed 21/7 attacks and the police’s secret footage of the liquid-bomb plotters’ “bomb factory” in Forest Road, Walthamstow, screened some years ago on BBC Panorama.

Another step would be open, honest discussion about the underlying, extremist, Islamist ideology that underpins, justifies and legitimises Al-Qaeda-linked terrorism in the minds of its proponents.

Below is a relevant and, I hope, useful article reproduced from the end of 2009, i.e. just over 3 years ago.  A slightly-edited version of it was published in the print edition of the Daily Telegraph on 31st December 2009, within a week of the failed attack by the “underpants bomber” Mutallab on Christmas Day, 2009.  (Mutallab had earlier served for a year as President of the UCL Islamic Society.)  The article has never been published online before.

Following publication of this piece, a leading UK salafi scholar criticised me for it after the next Friday prayers that I led at Al-Tawhid Mosque in January 2010.  (It later turned out that Mutallab had named him as one of his major religious influences, although there is no proof that this cleric knew about the underwear-bomber’s terrorist plans.) Since most of the speakers banned from university campuses over the last few years and exposed in the mosques have been of a salafi background (with a significant number also from extremist Deobandi backgrounds), he said that I should not criticise “our brothers in creed” (ikhwanuna fi l-‘aqidah).  Of course, I did not accept this sectarian suggestion to avoid opposing people preaching hatred and extremism on the grounds that they pay lip-service to the “creed of the Companions and the Salaf” whilst having almost no sense of the latter’s spirituality: as Imam Ibn al-Qayyim stated, all the early Sufis such as Hasan Basri, Junayd, Ma’ruf, Sari and Bistami were also amongst the generations and followers of the Salaf.

Tackling Extremism on UK Campuses

Usama Hasan

(an edited version of this was published in the print edition of the Daily Telegraph on 31st December 2009, within a week of the failed attack by the “underpants bomber” Mutallab on Christmas Day of that year)

 

Students’ Islamic societies on UK campuses are dominated by fundamentalist ideas and overly-politicised interpretations of Islam.  During the 80’s and 90’s, when I spent eight years as a student at three of this country’s leading universities, serving as Islamic society president at each, I saw at close hand, and took part in, the radical activism myself. The energy was partly provided by events overseas: the Islamist revolution in Iran; the Afghan jihad against the Soviets; the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; the first Palestinian intifada; the first US-led war against Saddam; the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya. Countless Friday sermons on UK campuses, mirroring those around the world, were devoted to reinforcing the idea that all these events proved that there was a worldwide conspiracy of godless infidels (non-Muslims of all faiths and none) against Islam and Muslims everywhere.  Meanwhile, events that challenged this melodramatic worldview, such as the long and brutal Iran-Iraq war or the vicious civil war amongst the Afghan mujahedin groups after their victory over the communists, were conveniently ignored.

 

University students have a long history of radical, political activism around the world, and this is not wrong in itself.  One thinks of the French student revolts, or the brave student dissidents in Tianamen Square and Tehran.  And fundamentalism, by which I mean the reading of scripture out of context and failing to apply its universal and timeless principles faithfully to modernity, infects many religions.  But whilst those students and graduates from British universities who went off to Afghanistan and Bosnia for military training and action in the early 90’s were arguably participating in just causes, those involved in terrorist plots since 9/11, such as Umar Abdulmutallab, have lost their moral bearings completely, under the influence of Al-Qaeda and its apologists worldwide.  Part of the solution to this problem should involve providing safe alternatives to young men with an understandable desire for military training and adventure, perhaps involving the British armed forces and their reserves.

 

Alternative theological and intellectual narratives also need to be provided.  In my time on campus, there was intense rivalry between different fundamentalist factions, but all the Islamist groups agreed on the objective of a single, worldwide caliphate, governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia, and most of them were opposed to any form of democracy or secularism.  Vehement rhetoric against “the West” was commonplace.  Liberal and rational interpretations of Islam, inspired by Averroes, Ibn Khaldun or Iqbal were rarely heard.  The promotion of authentic Sufism on campus will help, but true religious experience will never be apolitical, so it is a question of balancing faith, politics and spirituality.

 

But the problem is not all about theory and politics: social realities have a major impact.  With traditional, devout Muslim societies being teetotal and gender-segregated and some religious authorities prohibiting music, many believers find it difficult to integrate, since British student social life is based around the bar and often seems to be a “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” culture.  In the face of this, it is easy for believers to withdraw into cult-like social circles that reinforce a narrow worldview.  Many bodies provide advice to students regarding alcohol, drugs and sex, of course – greater cultural awareness is the key here.

 

Promoting more individual and social cohesion and balance is not easy.  A firmer emphasis at university on “higher education” of the whole person may help, such as termly meetings with mentors who help with students’ personal and social development; schemes like these are already in place at many universities, and Muslim chaplains could play an important role here.  A stronger sense of the student body, such as your batch or cohort studying the same subject, may also provide a safety-net for would-be terrorists.  Other countries seem to have a stronger tradition of this approach compared to Britain.

 

Increased interaction amongst different student communities and the open exchange of ideas are paramount.  Muslim-Jewish relations on campus are especially important: they have been poor historically, largely because of the Israeli-Arab conflict which continues to provoke religious and political extremism on both sides.  In this respect, work like that of the Lokahi Foundation and the Coexistence Trust, who organise joint campus tours by Muslim and Jewish leaders and role-models, deserves to be supported and expanded.