Posts Tagged ‘theology’

Boris Burkas

August 14, 2018

With the Name of God, the Apparent, the Hidden

BORIS BURKAS

 

 

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

 

Usama Hasan

London

14th August 2018

 

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Islam and Science workshop presentations – London 2013

July 27, 2015

Bismillah. I have been working on the report for the “Islam & Science – The Big Questions” (of science and Islamic theology) Task Force that I convened in Istanbul in February 2015, chaired by Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, by the grace of God.  The Task Force report will be published in a few weeks, God-willing.

This reminded me that we had not sufficiently circulated the presentations from our “Islam & Science” workshop in London from 2013, some of which the current Task Force builds on.  So, here are the presentations from that workshop, as well as the final report. These should be of interest to anyone interested in cutting-edge discussions about Islam and science, religion and science, etc. University students should find these presentations a useful resource, especially for their own dissertations and theses. Enjoy!

front page of Islam Science Workshop

1- Ibn Sina – Ehsan Masood

2- Science and Religion – Jean Staune

3- Islam and Modern Science – Nidhal Guessoum: slides unavailable, but you may view a similar lecture with similar slides here (Faraday Institute, University of Cambridge)

4- 1001 Inventions Exhibition – Yasmin Khan

5- Science Policy and Politics in the Islamic World – Athar Osama

6- Theories of Evolution – Jean Staune

6a- Lying in the Name of God – Jean Staune

7- Evolution and Islam – Nidhal Guessoum: slides unavailable, but you may read one of his articles on the topic here

8- Islam and the Theory-Fact of Evolution – Usama Hasan

9- Islamic Cosmology – Bruno Guiderdoni

10- Islam Science Ethics – Usama Hasan

Islam and Science Workshop 2013 – Final Report

 

Islam and Science Workshop – London 2013 – A Summary

February 22, 2013

Bismillah.  This is a cross-post from http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/events/islam-science-workshop-2013/

Quilliam, in association with the Université Interdisciplinaire de Paris, the American University of Sharjah and Muslim-Science.com, organised and hosted an international workshop entitled “Islam and Science: A Reasoned Approach” for students and young researchers, 18th-20th January 2013 at the Institute of Education, University of London, UK.

The participants consisted of 23 people selected by submission of essays on Science-Religion topics and/or their suitability as “disseminators of ideas” following on from the workshop. These 23 participants included three people from France, the USA and Egypt. There were a total of seven speakers at the workshop: three from the UK, two from France and one each from the UAE and Pakistan.

Introduction – Friday 18th January 2013

The workshop began with a screening of the 1-hour documentary film, Science and Islam – Dialogues for the 21st Century, which was produced by the Université Interdisciplinaire de Paris and featuring interviews with 22 leading scientists, theologians, philosophers and thinkers about the interfaces between religion and science in general, and focusing on Islam in particular.

This was followed by a presentation by Ehsan Masood, author of the BBC series-accompanying book, Islam and Science: A History, a presentation entitled Ibn Sina (Avicenna) – The Man Who Knew Everything, about the life, work and influence throughout Islamic and Christian history of this early Muslim polymath. A lively discussion followed about Ibn Sina’s philosophy and methodology and the scientific rationalisation of miracles.

Saturday 19th January 2013

Prof. Jean Staune (Université Interdisciplinaire de Paris) started with presentation on Science and Religion in the World today & New Paradigms of Science, in which he summarised the major developments in 20th-century science such as relativity and quantum theories in physics, Godel’s theorem in mathematical epistemology, and De Duve and Conway-Morris’ ideas of direction, non-randomness, and convergence in biological evolution. He showed how these “new paradigms” have influenced the discourse in “Science and Religion”, and how this field has become a growing academic discipline in its own right with chairs at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. This was followed by Prof. Nidhal Guessoum (American University of Sharjah), who gave a general overview of the main topic, Islam and Science, showing why “modern science” (particularly “methodological naturalism”) poses a challenge for traditional religious views and discussing the various contemporary Muslim responses to the challenge, ranging from Nasr’s “Sacred Science” and Sardar’s “Islamic/Ethical Science” to Salam’s “Universal Science”, ending with his own “Averroesian Harmonization.”

Yasmin Khan (former curator at both the Science Museum and the British Library) spoke on The 1001 Inventions Exhibition at the Science Museum, London: Engaging the Public in a Multicultural History of Science, a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of commissioning the most successful touring exhibition in the history of the Science Museum, with a screening of the exhibition’s central 15-minute film, 1001 Inventions and The Library of Secrets, starring Sir Ben Kingsley as Al-Jazari.

Dr. Athar Osama (of Muslim-Science.com) complemented the day’s philosophical, theological, historical, civilisational and public-outreach themes with a sobering presentation on Science Policy in the Muslim World Today: Challenges and Prospects, focusing on governmental public policy and investment in science education and research and an analysis of the funding and work of COMSTECH, the OIC’s arm for science and technology.

Sunday 20th January 2013

Dr. Jean Staune gave a fascinating presentation on the Theories of Evolution. The philosopher of science showed multiple lines of evidence that evolution is an indisputable fact, but one that should not be confused with Darwinism. Based on the research of leading palaeontologists such as Conway-Morris and on the work of Nobel laureate De Duve and others, Staune insisted that the current Darwinian theory of evolution is incompatible at best, and presented ideas implying that evolution is a process leading, sooner or later, to beings like us with a consciousness of their own existence and the ability to seek God.

This was followed by a joint presentation on Islam and the Theory/Fact of Evolution by Prof. Nidhal Guessoum and Dr. Usama Hasan (Quilliam). The presentations included theological and scriptural arguments supporting evolution as well as a history of evolutionary ideas within Muslim civilisation since the 9th century CE from Al-Jahiz and the Brethren of Purity through to Rumi and Ibn Khaldun, a history recognised by a number of historians, Muslim and non-Muslim ones. Also covered was the acceptance of biological evolution by 19th/20th-century Muslim theologians such as Husain al-Jisr (nicknamed “the Ash’ari of our times” by Afghani), and ‘Abd al-Sabur Shahin, a well-known scholar of Al-Azhar. Current Muslim resistance to scientific facts was illustrated with historical precedents of misreading the Qur’an to make inflexible but erroneous assertions about scientific matters, such as Ibn Kathir and Shanqiti’s insistence that the earth was created before the heavens, Suyuti’s insistence that the earth is flat and Ibn Taymiyyah’s assertion that cattle (sheep, goats, cows and camels) were created in heaven (which would imply that modern-day followers of Ibn Taymiyyah who insist that humans were created in heaven and descended from there must also believe the same about those four species of mammals).

The sessions by Staune, Guessoum and Hasan illustrated well the irony that whilst modern biology, built on evolution, has succeeded in mapping the entire human genome as well as the DNA of thousands of other species, and new fields emerge such as astrobiology and the origin-of-life research looking at deep-sea volcanoes, many Muslims (and Christians) continue to debate whether or not evolution (including that of humans) is a fact, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence.

Dr. Bruno Abdelhaq Guiderdoni (Director of the Lyon Observatory) gave a fascinating presentation on Islam & Cosmology: Yesterday and Today, based on the mind-boggling discoveries of modern astronomy, including the existence of exo-planets in earth-like habitable orbits around stars other than the sun. In his lecture, Dr. Guiderdoni stressed the need to read the “Book of Nature” along with the “Book of God” and to maintain the inseparability of science and ethics. The discussion included topics such as the possibility of a multiverse and the question of extra-terrestrial intelligence and life-forms.

Dr. Guiderdoni’s emphasis on ethics led nicely to the session by Dr. Usama Hasan on Islam, Science and Ethics, in which he presented the theory of Maqasid al-Sharia (The Universal, Higher Objectives of Islamic Law) as an Islamic framework for ethics suitable for “Universal Science.” The framework is based on the Islamic principles of justice as minimum, compassion as maximum, promoting benefit and avoiding harm. The theory was illustrated with reference to ethical questions around family planning, abortion and organ transplants.

The workshop concluded with an open and long discussion session involving all participants, further exploring the ideas presented at the workshop and possible next steps to take the exciting conversations forward.