Britishmisk's Blog

Visiting the Saints of Morocco

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After reading Michael Sugich’s excellent book, Signs on the Horizons, I felt a desire to travel back to Morocco and try to gain a taste of the things Sidi Michael had experienced during his early years in Islam. I travelled to Morocco five years ago, back then I was more of a tourist, and I didn’t know as much about the history of Sufism in Morocco at the time. The Morocco I had visited was a world away from what Michael describes in his book, and even he admits by the 80s spirituality was slowly dying away in the country, being replaced with the materialism and desire for worldly gain that many visitors to Morocco now experience. Regardless, I decided to make an intention and go off the beaten tourist track and to visit the many awliya buried throughout the country.

My first stop was Marrakech, ironically this was where my last trip had finished, and it felt like I had come back to carry on where I had left off. The main part of my visit to Marrakech was to visit the ‘seven patron saints’ of the city, particularly Shaykh Sulaiman al-Jazuli, the writer of Dala’il al-Khayrat and Qadi Iyad, writer of al-Shifa, both of these being books I had become acquainted with since my last trip to the country. There isn’t much online about how to find the locations of the saints’ tombs, but they are marked on Google Maps. For the benefit of anyone who wishes to visit them, I’ve marked them out here with walking directions. A lot of people don’t realise that Google Maps comes with an offline facility, you can download specific areas to your phone with your favourites included. I cannot stress the benefits of using this feature enough, especially in a country like Morocco where you will be lost more than half of the time. I had a young faux guide show me to the first four, though I didn’t really want him to, and I paid him way more than I should have. If you mark the locations down you should be able to make your own way round. The only one I had difficulty finding myself was Sidi Es Soheili, his zawiyah is located next to the king’s palace, so if you make your way around it eventually you will find it. The only one I wasn’t able to visit was Sidi Yusuf bin Ali, as it was closed, but all the others should be open for most of the day. The following day I went back into tourist mode for a while and booked a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. Though one thing I learnt from my trip to Kota Kinabalu, is not to underestimate the benefits of using a walking stick when ascending steep terrain, unfortunately I didn’t pack one with me this time and I paid for it with a stretched groin muscle.

King Hassan II Mosque - Casablanca

King Hassan II Mosque – Casablanca

The next day I took the train to Meknes, but my plan was to buy the ticket for Meknes in Casablanca. Everyone who I’ve talked to, or read about visiting Casablanca, has hated it. But one thing they all share in common is they say the King Hassan Mosque is worth visiting. So I decided to just do that. I got off the station at Casablanca and left my luggage at the Super Tours office which is on the left side of the station as you walk out, they will take a small fee, and if it’s closed, as it was when I got there, knock on the window and the security guard should open it. From here, don’t do what I did and take a taxi from the station, which again I knew shouldn’t have done anyway. The guy who talked to me first told me he would take 100 dirhams, then his manager told me it would be 60. If you walk less than two minutes away from the station you can hail a petit taxi and they will charge something around the 10 dirham mark using the meter. Of course given the fact that the Moroccan Dirham is quite weak compared to the pound, none of these prices make a huge difference, but it’s the principle! The mosque is quite impressive, but like most grand mosques built by kings and sultans, because they’re so big they need to built where either no one, or very few people live. So the only people who are actually praying in the mosque are visitors and tourists, the actual spiritual benefit it provides the people of the locality versus the ego of the patron is up for debate. After praying Asr at the mosque I made my way back to the station, had a quick lunch, and caught my train to Meknes.

One thing people need to be aware of if they’re on a train that’s heading in the direction to Fez, is you’ll almost always end up with someone meeting you on the train, acting very casually, and eventually after a little while they’ll offer to put you up in their relative’s riyad, or book you a tour with one of their best mates. My general advice would be don’t bother. I’ll get to Fez in a little while, but on this particular trip I had someone a few years younger than me, with no luggage, who told me he had come from Germany to visit his family in Fez. (On my last trip it was someone who sold Moroccan goods from Fez in America). Once he found out I was going to Meknes, and I already knew my way around Fez anyway, he proceeded to tell me about the family problems he was having back in Germany. A part of me thinks he was genuine in that regard and I offered him some words of advice, but I still think he was a fixer.

Somewhere in Meknes...

Somewhere in Meknes…

A lot of people who visit Meknes, including tour guide writers, will tell you how people in Meknes are much more honest, relaxed and hassle-free compared to Fez. On exiting the station and asking how much a taxi to Bab al-Mansour would cost I was told 20 dirhams, around £1.50, ‘Wow these people really are honest’, I thought to myself. As the driver slowed down to make a turn he asked me a question, which I didn’t understand, as he made the turn and stopped, he pointed to a run down hotel with a sign on the front that said ‘Bab al-Mansour’, I realised he was asking me whether I wanted Bab al-Mansour square or the hotel, on telling him it was the former he informed me the price was actually 50 dirhams. So much for Meknesian hospitality.

Meknes certainly is the most modest of the imperial cities of Morocco, you can see the souq, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail and the Musée Dar Eljamîi within a few hours. I even walked to the ruins of Moulay Idris’s stables all the way around the king’s palace and back and still had plenty of time to burn. But the main thing I wanted to visit in Meknes was the zawiyah of Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib. Shaykh Muhammad, is probably most famous for being the Shaykh of Abdul Qadir al-Sufi, whose Murabitun movement at one point, and even to a certain extent today, contained numerous translators, artists and scholars from the UK and elsewhere, including Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad. I spent a good part of my first morning in Meknes looking for the zawiyah, initially thinking it was located next to the Zeitouna mosque, which in turns out it wasn’t (The mosque was undergoing extensive refurbishment anyway). In the evening I managed to get in contact with brother Waseem from Sa’dah who helped me out. The zawiyah is located on Boulevard El Habboul, look for this door which leads to an alleyway (photos provided courtesy of Brother Waseem):

This door leads to an alleyway...

This door leads to an alleyway.

Which in turn leads to this door with the sign above it...

Which in turn leads to this door with the sign above it…

"The Shadhiliyya-Habibiyya zawiyah is only open for specific prayer and visitation only". (I don't know what the last line means).

“The Shadhiliyya-Habibiyya zawiyah is only open for prayer and visitation”. (I don’t know what the last line means).

If the door leading to the alleyway is locked the caretaker Sidi Ali, (who is mentioned in Michael’s book), is usually standing outside and he will open it for you. I arrived between Maghrib and Isha and found three of the fuqara, including Sidi Ali, having a meal with bread and olive oil. They were very welcoming and it was refreshing to be able to have a conversation in classical Arabic for a while, and to be able to talk to normal Moroccans who weren’t touts or faux guides. If you don’t speak French or Arabic you may want to consider taking someone along with you, but even if you don’t, they’ll still be very welcoming. After praying Isha I had the great privilege of meeting one of Shaykh Muhammad’s wives. I was quite surprised there was anyone left from his immediate family given the Shaykh was 100 when he passed away nearly forty years ago. After Isha, a meal of lentils and bread was served, followed by one of the young fuqara, who I believe was from the family of the Shaykh, singing odes from the Shaykh’s diwan. At the conclusion I took their permission and left for the evening so they could carry on with their conversations. (I think they had enough of talking fusha for one evening).

The next day I took a grand taxi to visit Moulay Idris Zerhoun and Volubilis. You can take a grand taxi near the French Institute in the Ville Nouvelle, they’re usually meant to be shared, but I had no one to share with so I had to pay for the whole thing. You can negotiate a price depending on how long you want the driver to wait for you and what you want to see. Moulay Idris Zerhoun is a town in the mountainside built around the tomb of Moulay Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, and establisher of the first Islamic state in what is now Morocco. From his lineage comes many of the modern day descendants of Ahlul Bayt from North Africa such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and Shaykh Ahmad Saad. Sidi Khalid Williams describes Moulay Idris I as the patron saint of the Moroccan state, which is a pretty accurate description, his tomb is an important place of visitation in Morocco, including by the king and the royal family. Much like Pakistan, some people have taken up strange customs when visiting shrines of saints, such as placing candles on or near tombs, or pouring rose water over them. In some places some of the caretakers will stop people from doing such things, but they’re not always heeded. When I visited there were a group of Mirpuris from North England placing their face on the cenotaph in imitation of some of the Moroccans, funny how much our two cultures have so many things (good and bad) in common from one end of the world to the other. The one thing I really disagreed with however were a group of singers who take money and will offer supplication for the benefactor. As if making d’ua has some sort of price. Saying that I will admit their performance of Qasida Burda in the Andalucian style made famous by Shaykh Hamza and the Fez Singers was wonderful to listen to, and in return I gave them some coins (though I think they were a bit confused when I walked away when they started to make d’ua). From there my driver took me to Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman city which probably served as the focal point for Moulay Idris to build his capital nearby. To know what anything is you will need a guide, but I wasn’t too fussed myself personally. With that my time in Meknes had come to an end, while Meknes is worth visiting I wouldn’t recommend bothering to stay there. You could easily arrange a day trip from Fez to Meknes, Moulay Idris and Volubilis.

Qarawiyyin Mosque - Fez

Qarawiyyin Mosque – Fez

The next day I took the train to Fez, a quick 20 minute journey, to save some money you could take a bus, but I wanted to get there in time for Friday prayer at the Qarawiyyin mosque. Arriving at Fez station I really wasn’t in the mood to get hustled by another taxi driver (The one on the way out from Meknes had also tried it but luckily I got away with my precious £1.50 saved). After unsuccessfully attempting to hail a taxi from the surrounding roads I used Google’s trusty offline maps to get me from the station to the riad in the medina, it was around an hour’s walk so I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t have the legs, and aren’t as crazy or stingy as me. Leaving my bags at the riad, I found my way to one of the main streets in the old medina and charged my way down over the old rickety slabs I remembered from my last trip. The athan had been called by the time I had arrived at the riad and most of the shops had their shutters closed. Eventually I reached a blockade of French voyeuristic tourists gathering to take pictures through a doorway, an information board next to the door told me I had arrived and as I entered the Imam had just began his khutbah, I made it just in time. On leaving one of the doormen with a wide wry smile gave salaam and offered his stool to sit on as I struggled to put on my boots, I asked him for directions to the zawiyah of Sidi Ahmed Tijani, and after doing so he asked for charity ‘for the mosque’. This was the first of two times at the Qarawiyyin that a doorman would act this way, be advised the money you give is solely for their own pocket, so if you do give them something feel free to make it as minute as possible. After visiting Shaykh Tijani I bumped into a group of brothers from High Wycombe who are students of Ustadh Haroon Hanif, I ended up inadvertently becoming their tour guide for the afternoon, and we visited Moulay Idris II and Medresa Bou (Abu) Inania,  as well as having lunch at the famous Clock Cafe. After leaving them to relax back at their flat I made my way back to the Qarawiyyin to pray Maghrib and to take part in the recitation of Qur’an afterwards (to see a brief snippet I posted a video to Instagram). If you’re able to visit it’s definitely worth making the effort to attend. The next day I made my way north east of the medina towards Bab al-Fattouh. If you come this way eventually you’ll come to parts of the old city where hardly any tourists tread. When you reach the walls you’ll see in front of you the vast cemetery of Bab al-Fattouh, here there are a vast number of saints that graced the city of Fez over the centuries. The main one I wanted to visit was the tomb of Sidi Abdal Aziz al-Dabbagh. A friend had given me the number of a contact in the Muhammadiyya tariqa living in Fez to show me the tomb, but he hadn’t responded to my messages, I eventually found a hand drawn map of the cemetery online marking the tomb, and having ascertained the general area I thought I would try my luck. I didn’t need it in the end, having just entered the cemetery one of the caretakers asked me if I was looking for Abdal Aziz Dabbagh and took me where I needed to go:

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Tomb of Abdal Aziz al-Dabbagh

Of course if you’re offered this service you will need to pay for it, I gave the caretaker 20 dirhams which he seemed pleased with. If you do visit Shaykh Dabbagh, it’s worth noting his tomb is visited quite frequently, and there will be others who look to gain something out of your visit. Before I had even realised a group of around six people had gathered behind me and began to recite Qur’an. I offered them some coins for their effort. The caretaker who showed me the way said something to me in Darraja and made a gesture which made me think these men also offered prayers in exchange for money. I wasn’t interested. The building over the grave is not the largest in the cemetery, but I’ve pinpointed what I believe was the location here. As you can see there’s no sign on the front except for the grave in front of the building, but there may be one on the side. The zawiyah is usually locked, but if you find the caretaker, (a picture of whom can be seen here) he will open it for you. Making my way back to the centre of the medina I thought I’d do some shopping before I left. The day before I was invited to a shop selling prayer beads very closeby to the zawiyah of Shaykh Tijani, and I found the quality of the ones the owner had were far better than others I had seen elsewhere in the city, but unfortunately he wasn’t open that day. I also managed to stumble upon the zawiyah of Shaykh al-Darqawi, the reviver of the Shadhili path in Morocco, from whom Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib and Shaykh Abdul Rahman al-Shaghouri traced their spiritual lineage through. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, and besides the grave of the saint doesn’t lie here, he is buried I believe a two hour car journey away from Fez.

Fez is a great city, once you get past the touts and faux guides that put a real downer on their own country (offline Google Maps to the rescue), it’s a bustling ancient city that’s a pleasure to get lost in. For Muslims particularly it has a deep and rich spiritual tradition which offers a number of enclaves hidden away inside the storm that is the medina to offer spiritual nourishment. It was a great pleasure to visit again.

The next day I made my way to the CTM bus station to catch the 11am bus to Chefchaouen, but on arrival I was told all the buses for the day were sold out. ‘Praise to God in every state’, I thought to myself. As I flicked through my travel guide to figure out the best alternative route I could take, two women walked in with their bags towards the ticket counter, I watched them to see if an opportunity was about to arise, ‘Two tickets for Chefchaouen please’. Bingo. I asked them if they would be willing to share a grand taxi, which they were more than happy to do. So we made our way back to the old city and the other bus station to catch one.

Door in Chefchaouen

Door in Chefchaouen

Three hours later we arrived in Chefchaouen, a picturesque blue-washed city in the Rif Mountains. Googling images of the place will tell you why this place is so loved by many. The medina is quite small though, you’ll get around fairly quickly, there’s a national park and other scenic places to visit in the surrounding areas. My plan was to spend my first day seeing the city, and the next to visit Moulay Abdessalam ibn Mashish, the teacher of Imam Abul Hasan al-Shadhili. On asking the price at the grand taxi stand I was told 600 dirhams, almost as much as the taxi from Fez had cost for half the journey. The sole English speaking driver wasn’t willing to haggle, and I had no one to share the cab with. I was hoping I might bump into some Muslim tourists like I had did on the Friday in Fez but it didn’t happen. I thought I would try my luck in Tetouan the next day, but the receptionist at the riyad told me I would be looking to pay around the same there again. She recommended taking the bus that goes early in the morning from Tetouan’s main bus station, but my flight was the day after and I would be getting to Tetouan long after the bus had come back from Moulay Abdessalam. I resigned myself to my fate and decided it wasn’t meant to be. So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Chefchaouen again and making my way outside the north of the city to take pictures. One thing to be aware of is this is the heartland of Morocco’s hashish industry. You’ll get offered the stuff as you walk around, and a number of students from Spain travel down to make use of the ample opportunities to acquire it cheap.

The next day I took the CTM bus to Tetouan (this time buying my ticket a day in advance). Despite the fact Tetouan gets loads of rave reviews, I saw maybe one other tourist while I was there, a sight that is common for most people who visit it. Most of modern Tetouan was built by the Spanish, and the look and feel of the city definitely makes it apparent. My purpose in Tetouan was to visit Imam al-Harraq and Sidi Ahmed ibn Ajiba. The former is easy to find, make your way to Bab al-Maqabir in the north of the medina and you should find his zawiyah. Ibn Ajiba on the other hand is a different story, his tomb is located in the town of Mellousa, but I didn’t know its exact location. There is a large zawiyah in the area of the town called al-Zameej, but this is not the real Ibn Ajiba but actually one of his relatives. His real tomb is located a short distance away in a much more humble setting. I was hoping by the time I got to Tetouan I would hear back from someone I had emailed regarding its location, or I would come across some information from somewhere else, but that didn’t happen. You could always take a chance and book a grand taxi to take you to the main Ibn Ajiba zawiyah and then see if there are any locals there who can direct you to the real one (insha’Allah).

And that ended my swift journey to visit the saints of Morocco. Two are still left outstanding, and like a cheesy open ending finale to a movie it may lead to another journey to go back again. All knowledge rests with God. I ask Allah He accept my journey to visit his awliya, and that he allows us to continue to benefit from their works and their presence both in this life and the next. If anyone would like some advice or tips on making a similar journey feel free to get in touch.

Film Review: Interstellar

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FIlm reviews on my site come along as often as a new Christopher Nolan movie, probably because his films are the usually the only ones that warrant a review to be written, and hence I’ve decided to keep with tradition.

As is expected with Nolan’s films, Interstellar requires you to think. The entire premise of the film rests on Kip Thorne‘s theories of wormholes (who is also the executive producer of the film), tied in with the story of a man who makes a sacrifice in leaving his family behind for the sake of humanity, the vast majority of the film can be separated into the two different aspects. Both work well, but not perfectly. A lot of people will struggle to follow the the science of the film, most of it was OK for me personally but I did specialise in Physics at school, I have a mild interest in astronomy, and a knowledge of a little Sufi metaphysics doesn’t hurt either, not everyone will have those things on their CV. But by the end I still had questions that required to me read over the synopsis on Wikipedia, for example what is Michael Caine’s character’s equation all about, and if it is all about gravity, how have the characters managed to get around weightlessness on their space station? What’s the difference between a wormhole and a black hole, (both of which make appearances in the film and up until this morning I thought were the same thing), what’s a singularity? What’s the fifth dimension? And so on. But my main gripe with the film comes with the ending (which I won’t mention here for anyone who doesn’t want spoilers), but you will know what I mean when you see it. For me it felt too much like Nolan wanting to leave behind his trademark “fantastic story grounded in reality” style just so he can make an existential homage to 2001.

Criticism aside, it’s a highly enjoyable film. I visit the cinema on average just twice a year (this will go down after the last Hobbit film next month), and when I do go I will usually watch a film at the BFI IMAX at Waterloo. As per Nolan’s previous works, he’s filmed a number of scenes using an IMAX camera, and it makes for an immersive experience. The film can be quite tense at moments and it’s further exacerbated by having the scene completely filling your vision with the tremendous audio that goes with IMAX technology. Despite the fact I would begrudgingly call myself a “Nolan fanboy”, I will readily admit there are flaws with the film, but I would still recommend it.

As Nolan’s non-Batman films tend to be existential in nature, for me I subconsciously tie the ideas being expressed with my religious background, while some may see this as a gimmick on my behalf, it shows an appeal for a film in how it can tie in with different people’s backgrounds, (for example parents will most likely reflect themselves with the connection between Matthew McConaughey’s character and his daughter). Early on in the film the characters believe that some type of beings that transcend spacetime have sent a wormhole to our solar system. Although this theory is replaced with another one at the end of the film, in its initial stage it reminded me of the concept of angels in our tradition. Matt Damon makes an appearance in the middle of the film, and his character brings about the question of self-sacrifice and morality in the face of utter desperation. Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey’s characters discuss the nature of love and how something abstract and sometimes irrational can have bearings on our otherwise rational environments, though really this scene truly shows how scientists can take non-rational ideas like love and spirituality and turn it into something really dry. All in all the film is largely an attempt to take some of the most abstract, far flung scientific theories that can be proven, and make them into tangible ideas to be reflected on. As I mentioned Sufi metaphysics previously, a lot of the ideas that can be found there are a way to help us expand our understanding in real physics, particularly the work of Ibn Arabi (Although not a direct example in this particular case, see Oludamini Ogunnaike’s paper on Ibn Arabi and Inception to get an idea of what’s achievable). Theories like wormholes and interstellar space travel are ideas gleaned by physicists from science fiction, and then have had “science fact” placed on top of them. There’s no reason why we can’t use metaphysics as another source of exploring our understanding of the universe. Take for example the statement of the Prophet ﷺ regarding his heavenly ascension that when he returned he found his bed was still warm, alluding to what we now call time dilation, which also plays a significant role in the film. Unfortunately as Muslims have come more closely intertwined with culturally Christian Europe, we’ve taken on this idea that science and religion are at odds with one another. Rather as Iqbal argues in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, new discoveries in science should help us to further our understanding of our faith and vice versa. But as long as both Muslims and militant atheists approach the Qur’an as some sort of literal science textbook to be either believed or disproved we won’t get anywhere.

So in conclusion, the fact that a film that runs in at just under three hours caused me to come up with these reflections is a testimony to it in itself. By no means his greatest film, I would say Mr Nolan has done it again.

Book Review: Sufi Comics – Rumi

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This review is a slightly different: One thing is that this book is not yet released. Secondly, I get a free print copy for making this review! When I discovered Sufi comics and the great work they were doing to introduce children to spirituality, I immediately ordered a copy of their first book, The Wise Fool of Baghdad, with the hope of donating it to the supplementary Islamic school I volunteer at. I was not disappointed, and neither were the children. I had one student who kept borrowing it from the library, and one of her friends was vying with her to get a chance to borrow it. Even one of the adult volunteers appreciated the lessons it had to give. There’s a lot of Islamic material out there for children, and unfortunately a lot of it is not very good, so this for me was a breath of fresh air.

The Rumi comic illustrates, explains, and details a number of parables and metaphors from the Masnavi, it’s beautifully decorated in the tradition of Persian/Mughal miniatures, but slightly updated in style to be in line with modern comics. As a result, the benefit of the story is not just the lesson in the story to be learnt, but the appreciation children can derive from the artwork and calligraphy that has gone into every page. It’s a very innovative way to encourage Muslim children to tap into our artistic heritage, which they may have never known existed.

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Some of the stories are quite complicated compared to the The Wise Fool of Baghdad, as such pre-teen children may struggle to understand some stories without an adult to explain (but even they may struggle to bring Rumi down to Earth!). The verses of Qur’an given at the end of each story really help to put the parable into context, the creators have made it clear in the beginning their objective is to educate from within an orthodox Muslim understanding of Rumi, and the Qur’an verses make sure of that. The Masnavi is indeed even considered an exegesis of the Qur’an, a fact unfortunately lost upon many western readers of Rumi.

I was really happy to see the completed product, and I pray Sufi comics carry on to do the great work they do. As many are aware, in the modern era spirituality is unfortunately seen suspiciously among certain areas of the Muslim community. This is a step to clear those doubts not just within our children, but I can imagine quite a few adults too.

I can’t wait to get my copy so the kids can dig into it. If you want to order your own you can do so here.

Book Review: The Last of the Lascars – Yemeni Muslims in Britain 1836-2012

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Aside from Islamic theology, my other keen reading interest is on Muslims cultures and societies (yeah I know it’s not that great a jump). I read a book last year called Bengali Harlem which traced the roots and history of South Asian migrants, mostly from the Bengal, to the United States. What made that book interesting was it talked about a community that has been greatly overlooked by American historians and sociologists, and broke fresh new ground and provided the way for ordinary peoples’ stories and struggles to be brought out into the open and appreciated.

In the same vein comes this book, ‘The Last of the Lascars’, this time discussing the British Yemeni community based mostly in Cardiff and Sheffield. For a lot of people interested in British Muslim culture, the Yemeni community comes up as one of the oldest, if not the first established immigrant Muslim community in Britain. I first found out about this in articles on the BBC and Saudi Aramco World, and this book provides more in depth details and history about Yemeni sailors who came to settle in this country: The issues they had to face, how their community developed, where they are now, and where they’re heading.

As a British Muslim, it helps to understand the context of the society and the environment we are currently in. Reading some of the newspaper excerpts from 100 years ago mentioned in the book about the sailor riots after World War I, it didn’t seem to far off from what we read in The Daily Mail regarding Muslims today. It provides us with a context and understanding of how little some things have changed in a century, and by looking with how our predecessors dealt with those problems provides us with ideas of how we can deal with similar issues in our time.

The book is very thoroughly researched, and quite in depth. Its style is written in a chronological order, starting from the first beginnings of the British Yemeni community in the Victorian era to the present day. It’s an interesting read for those who are interested in the kind of topic. After this and Kube Publishing’s other book on Abdullah Quilliam I look forward to further interesting works from them on the British Muslim community.

Book Review: Muhammad The Best of Creation – A Glimpse of his Blessed Life

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Any book by al-Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi al-Makki comes recommended by me. This is recent translation of another seerah of the author’s (There are quite a few others). This particular one is a very simple breakdown of the Prophet’s ‎ life, and works by compartmentalising different aspects of the noble biography. So for example there is a section on the lineage and family of the Prophet ‎, and then gives separate lists of his wives, his uncles, his children, his wet-nurses and so on. Then there are lists of his companions who had certain tasks and duties, and who did what for him ‎. The second section of the book details main events in the life of the Prophet ‎ on a yearly basis after the first revelation.

The main benefit of this book given its style is that it will provide minute details that are otherwise lost in most other seerahs, as they will try to cover the most important topics and events as perceived by the author. This book works very well as a reference guide, and as a teaching aid for children. The only concern I would have is that for non or new Muslims, context isn’t really given for certain things, so it may raise questions that the book does not provide answers for. To that end it may be worth reading the author’s other seerah ‘Muhammad – The Perfect Man’ alongside this. But aside from that this is a great little book that is recommended for all Muslim households.

 

Book Review – Lost Islamic History by Firas Alkhateeb

Growing up in the UK, I didn’t learn anything very interesting in history before GCSEs, the curriculum in schools is based mainly around UK/European history, such as the Romans, Greeks, Tudors, Victorians etc. It was only when I reached my teens that I began to appreciate history on a more global scale, particularly the breadth and depth of Islamic history. Back then the Internet was still growing and beginning to snowball into web 2.0, Wikipedia came quite late on in my adolescence, and at this point articles on Islamic history were quite a dire affair. (Islamic theology still very much so). So my acquirement of Islamic knowledge was quite a slow thing a decade ago.

Recently Firas Alkhateeb started the Lost Islamic History blog, a great initiative that explores, delves and discusses numerous topics related to Islamic history (However as with most great websites don’t bother with the comments sections). And to accompany the blog now comes the eponymously titled book.

The book brings together the key aspects and events of the last 1400 years related to Islam and the cultures tied to it. It’s a great book for people who want to be introduced to the subject, it’s also something that’s suitable for young readers, particularly teenagers, a skill I think Alkhateeb has picked up given the fact he himself is a history teacher. Who knows what the consequences would have been if I had this when I was 14.

The book is different in the sense that it’s not written by a western non-Muslim academic, so it doesn’t have the sense of orientalism that nearly always comes with their works. It’s also very subtly written from the perspective of Sunni orthodoxy, which for me is not a problem, but others may take issue with a work of history not written in a critical/dismissive style, which is the standard for most works in English regarding Islam and the “orient”. Which unfortunately a lot of Muslims fall into the style of when tackling Islamic history. Saying that however, Alkhateeb still covers heretical and heterodoxical sects well, and avoids controversy and overt favouritism, it stays largely on point in remaining unbiased when discussing different Muslim empires of varying natures, and offers criticism where it is deserved.

My only real qualms with the book was the absence of footnotes and references, which was surprising for a work of non-fiction. There were times I came across something new and would have liked to look into it further, but unfortunately not much is given to help you along the way. There are also a few minor spelling and grammar mistakes, but I suppose this is expected in a first edition. Hopefully these things will get looked at in subsequent editions.

The book is quite brief, but to cover the amount of topics, geographies, time periods and people as Alkhateeb has done is quite an achievement. It is an introduction so it acts as gateway for people to find out more going forward. To that end people can make use of the site linked above which is quite regularly updated with new articles. There is also a series by Abu Ja’far al-Hanbali which is quite in depth.

Singapore

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The last stop on our journey before returning home was the black sheep of South East Asia. Singapore is a developed and modernised metropolis surrounded by its neighbours who are still trying to catch up. The two main things Singapore has, is food and shopping. So if you’re into either of them Singapore has plenty to offer, including a lot of halal options. All of the fast food chains in Singapore are halal, (but if you’re the kind of person who gets excited about halal McDonald’s then you’re politely requested to stop reading my blog). Our first day was spent meandering around one of the shopping centres in the CBD (Central Business District), one cool thing we came across was a place called Awfully Chocolate, check it out if you’re near one. One of the main touristy areas of Singapore is the bay next to the CBD, from here you can visit the gargantuan Marina Bay Sands Hotel which includes a shopping centre, but the main sight is to take the high speed lift to the viewing platform at the top. The complex also includes the ArtScience Museum which has a number of rotating exhibitions and we took the opportunity to visit the Annie Liebovitz exhibition.

From there we made our way to Gardens By the Bay, a futuristic botanical gardens that has a number of interesting exhibits. A lot of what’s on display is used to educate people about protecting the environment and looking after the planet and so forth, which for the cynic in me felt like Singapore was trying to make up for cutting down all its rainforest years ago. From the Gardens we took a cab to the Singapore Zoo. The zoo is quite long winded to get to if you use public transport, so it may be worth taking a taxi or finding a coach that will take you straight there. The zoo has a large collection of animals, but like all zoos you’re getting a very sanitised experience of bored animals, exemplified best I felt by the Sumatran orangutan:

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To see animals in more of a ‘natural’ surrounding, after the zoo closes the Night Safari begins in an adjacent part of the same complex. Although not a real safari, it’s as close as you’re going to get to one in a place like Singapore.

The next day we visited the best part of Singapore which is found in the area around the Sultan Mosque, this part of town is much like Penang, the hip “Shoreditch-y” part of town, but it is also still the main Muslim part of the city and there are a number of shops and restaurants you can visit. The greatest thing about this neighbourhood however is Wardah Books, for a Muslim bibliophile like me this place is a must-stop and I unfortunately missed out on it when I was in Singapore the previous year, so I felt very fortunate to visit it this time. They stock a number of books that are quite hard to find in the UK and even online. It was eventually also in this area of Singapore I found a decent artisanal cafe at Maison Ikkoku after all the disappointing cafes in Penang. From the Sultan Mosque area, which is the traditional Malay part of town, you can visit the traditional Indian part of town in Little India, though there’s nothing unique about the area that differentiates from any of the other Little Indias in south east Asia.

And thus ended our two day sojourn in Singapore and our trip in general. In the end I found Malaysia a mixed cosmopolitan country with plenty of space to improve and modernise into the future. The country is held up in the Muslim world as a beacon of modernity and a vision to aspire to, but from what it seems they still have plenty to offer. The different ethnicities and religions all get along with one another from what it seems, and it’s a far cry from all the debate and political postulating we see in Europe about emerging multicultural societies and how minorities need to integrate blah, blah, blah. Malaysia (and Singapore) in its post-colonial period relatively quickly got through all of that debate and now things work out pretty well. (Though positive discrimination of Bumiputeras leaves a bit of a question mark on the issue). Malaysia has a lot to offer to different types of travellers, my advice is decide what you’re interested in, and you’re pretty sure to find what you’re looking for here.

Malaysia – Kota Kinabalu

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From Kuching we took another Air Asia flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state on the east side of Malaysian Borneo. On the first full day we decided to explore the main city and eventually found there isn’t much going on during the day. There’s also very little in the way of sights and historical places to visit. My advice would be if you’re around during the day, don’t bother with the city itself, go to the jetty and head out to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, the name is a little misleading when thinking about national parks in Malaysia, as this isn’t a rainforest but is made up of a group of islands. We unfortunately missed out on the park as we spent the first day trying to see the city only to realise, as I already mentioned, there wasn’t much to see. We took a taxi to the main city mosque on the eastern side and were hoping to visit the bird park which the Lonely Planet guide mentioned was near it, but the taxi drivers hanging around said it was a car journey away, whether they were being truthful or not I wasn’t sure, instead we headed back to the hotel and came back to the city in the evening when the night market is on. The night market, more so the food side, makes up for what KK has missing during the day. Similar to what we had in Kuching you can pick fresh fish and have it cooked how you want. There’s a variety of different fish for sale in general, and it does what most markets do best in allowing you take in some weird and wonderful sounds and smells.

The next day we went out to Mount Kinabalu National Park, the main attraction Sabah state. The park hosts South-East Asia’s tallest mountain, to ascend to the top is a two day journey and is quite gruelling but doable by most people in decent health (have a google to get an idea). Looking at some of the trips offered by numerous tour groups I was under the assumption you get take a trip up part of the mountain in a day and get back, so after having visited park headquarters and picked up a map we headed on some of the trails but eventually found they are based more or less around the park headquarters, none of them offered the tame ascent I was looking for. My advice would be if you do decide to visit Kinabalu Park consider going with a tour operator, they can show you the best parts of what we missed out on, and also give you transportation there and back. We made the choice to head out there on our own, and it took a while to find at least two other people to share a taxi with us back to KK.

And that was pretty much our time in Kota Kinabalu, most of it in summary was me misplanning everything. From the hotel being way out of the city, to missing out on Tunku Abdul Rahman, and not bothering to climb Mount Kinabalu. I suppose my main bit advice would be not to make the same mistakes I did. From KK we made our way to Singapore which would be the last part of trip and that is to follow in the next piece God willing.

Malaysia – Kuching

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From Penang we took an Air Asia flight to Kuching in Sarawak state on the island of Borneo. Borneo conjures a lot of exotic images for a lot of people, not for me particularly, but it was easy to see why. Rainforests, mountains, orangutans, head-hunting tribesmen, all of it adds up for a potential out-of-this-world experience. Given Malaysia’s rapid economic expansion, the abundant tour operators and the fact nearly everyone speaks English, you’re not going to find a new world here, but it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy all the things Borneo has to offer.

In Kuching city the main point of interest is the south side of the harbour, during the night it’s full of people out about on walks, having a meal, listening to buskers and perusing market stalls. During the day on the other side of the road you can visit the many shops that offer numerous locally made handicrafts, particularly by those of tribes native to Sarawak. For a Middle Eastern perfume head like me Sarawak’s main product is oud, but alas I didn’t see anyone selling to the public here or in neighbouring Sabah state which we visited later during our trip. Our first meal in Kuching was at an excellent food court called Top Spot, a number of hawker stalls operate here most of which specialise, in what I assume, are freshly caught local fish. Located on top of a car park (look out for the sign) this place gets frequented by loads of locals in the evening. Pick a fish/lobster/crab/Godzilla size prawn, anything that looks good and have it steamed/fried/grilled, definitely try some steamed fish (I think we had the snapper). Prices at fresh fish hawker stalls are more expensive as you’re paying for a whole fish by weight, so don’t be surprised when you get the bill, but make sure you check it over before paying.

On our first whole day in Kuching we started with a wander round the harbour where we were the night before. Making our way westwards towards the main city mosque. At this point we tried to find the Islamic Civilizations Museum, which took us a very long time, due mostly to Lonely Planet’s surprisingly inaccurate map and directions. To get to the museum find the Gurdwara on the corner of Jalan P. Ramlee and from there head south-west down this road, you’ll see the museum on your left. The museum is quite dated, everything feels like it’s from the 80s, but it was free and quite varied so I wasn’t complaining. Before we found the museum we came across an “Islamic shopping centre”, I can’t remember what it was called but it’s near the museum and next to a banqueting hall called Dewan Kompleks Islam, I only mention it if sisters are looking to buy hijabs/jilbabs etc, there wasn’t much in the way of goods for men over 6ft. In the afternoon we had booked a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, situated in a nature reserve the centre caters for the semi-wild orangutans that live there. Seeing orangutans is a big feature of many people who visit Borneo, as this is one of only two places in the world you can see them (the other being Sumatra in Indonesia). The good thing about Semenggoh is that the orangutans here are not kept in captive, they live in the nature reserve and come to the centre for food if they’re hungry. The whole purpose of the centre being to help them get reintroduced back into the wild, so as such their main concern is not catering for tourists but the orangutans themselves.  However this does mean that you’re visit Semenggoh may result in you not seeing many, or any orangutans at all. From what I gathered Semenggoh is quite difficult to get to using public transport, it may be worth doing what we did and booking a tour through your hotel (which is quite out of character for me), our guide was a native Sarawakan called Tony, he drove us from the hotel, gave us information about the centre, explained things, let us wander by ourselves and then drove us back, the cost of the tour includes entry into the reserve, so it works out pretty well. If you do decide to visit the centre on your own there are two feeding times, once in the morning and once in the afternoon so time your visit to coincide with them.

The next day we visited Bako National Park, we took a taxi there which cost RM50 (we unknowingly agreed a price with one of the blue taxi drivers which are more expensive than the more humble red ones), the bus is a much cheaper alternative at RM3.50 per person and leaves every hour from the bus station near the mosque, and takes around an hour to get there. The bus or taxi won’t actually take you to the national park itself, it’s situated on a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea and can only be reached by boat. You buy your ticket and get on the next boat, it’ll stop a little further out from the beach so you have to wade out to the park entrance (apparently this is meant to be “part of the experience”). At the park entrance pay the entrance fee, sign in, pick a trail and head out. You can hire a guide if you wish but apparently given Bako’s relatively small size it’s not really needed. The park has a mixture of beaches, jungle, mangroves and cliffs, it’s definitely worth making a visit to if you’re in Sarawak. Just make sure you take a big bottle of water for each person, use mosquito repellent, and as a personal recommendation, consider wearing one layer of clothing. Sisters who wear hijab may want to consider bandana style, though you do see Malaysian girls wearing the standard hijab I suppose they’re used to the heat and humidity. The park is one of the best places you can see proboscis monkeys, who are only found in Borneo, as well as silver leaf and macaques. Bit of advice, don’t feed the macaques, unless you want them to go through your bag for anything else you may have to offer (and no I didn’t find that out the hard way). There is a trail that leads to a beach where you’re meant to be able to see proboscises, though we didn’t see them along the way, there were quite a few at the park entrance. The tide was low when we got there and you can go for a swim but the water around the park is teeming with jellyfish so check with the rangers at the entrance before deciding to take a dip. From there we backtracked to take another trail which went through different terrains in a very short period of time to reach a cliff overlooking a great secluded beach:

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The reason for its seclusion is that the only way to get there is to charter one of the numerous boats operating around the park (I only realised that after we go to the top of the cliff). From there we made our way back to park headquarters and paid for a ticket on the last boat at 4pm. There are a number of lodges you can stay in overnight if you want to, the wildlife changes completely at night and it’s meant to be quite an experience, but apparently the accommodation is quite dire.

The next day we visited the cat museum on the north side of the city. At this point I should explain that ‘Kuching’ means cat in Malay, and as a result the city authorities have jumped full on in capitalising on this, there’s a number of cat statues scattered across the city, and the cat museum is even run by the state and located in city hall. Entry is free but you have to pay if you want to take photographs, or hand over your equipment. The museum is an eccentric collection of literally everything cat related covering numerous topics. History, religion, culture, biology, film, anything that had anything remotely cat related you can find it here. In the afternoon we decided to use the time to visit the Sarawak museums located near the western side of the city centre, you can tie in a visit to these museums as well as others, including the Islamic Civilizations Museum in a single trip.

And thus ended our time in Kuching. One of the main tourists things we skipped on was the ‘longhouse experience’. Personally I don’t really see the appeal of going into a longhouse to experience someone else’s culture just because it’s weird and different to where you’re from. Sure the whole point of travelling is to see, experience and feel a different culture to yours, but when it’s handed to you on a plate as opposed to coming to you naturally it loses its appeal to me. But if you are interested every tour company offers trips to take you to some of the longhouses still occupied by native tribespeople, most of whom are now Christians, and there’s also the Sarawak Cultural Village if you prefer to see it in a sanitized form.

From Kuching we flew further east to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state, and that will God willing follow in the next piece.

Malaysia – Penang

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From Puduraya Bus Station we made our 5 hour journey to Penang in the north of the country. There are a few options available to get from KL to Penang, flying is probably the easiest, but given the fact KLIA is around an hour’s journey from the city centre and you have to get there a couple of hours beforehand, and with the hour’s flight time, there’s not that much time saved from the extra carbon emissions. There is also a train that runs from Singapore all the way through Malaysia to Butterworth, and from there you take a ferry to Penang island, but it takes a lot longer, the evening run is a sleeper train. There are a number of companies that operate buses from the station, all of them will try to ply you with promises so you’ll make use of their services. I searched online for a bus company that would take me to Komtar Tower near Georgetown, the colonial area of Penang Island we wanted to stay in. I confidently walked up to the counter for the bus company I wanted, ignoring all the touts who tried to take me for another western tourist, asked the guy for a ticket to Komtar, confirmed with him the bus did actually go to Komtar after he gave me a ticket that said ‘Sungai Ni[bong]’, the bus station in the middle of the island as opposed to the north, got on the bus and five hours later I found out it didn’t actually go to Komtar but to Sungai Nibong, go figure. So we ended up having to pay around £8 for a taxi to our hotel to Georgetown, not the worst thing that could happen on a holiday, but it was a reminder that not everything you read on the internet is true.

Georgetown in Penang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that adage in itself is usually enough reason for me to want to visit a place. In its heyday it was a thriving British trading post that acted as a melting pot of different cultures and peoples. Its best enjoyed, like many other cities that enjoy UNESCO privilege (such as Kyoto and Fes), by going for a wander and coming across old houses and places of worship perchance. As Penang is the one state in Malaysia that has a majority Chinese population the best buildings to see are the Chinese temples and clan houses, the most famous of which is Khoo Kongsi (pictured above), but there many others scattered around that are just as impressive on a smaller scale. One thing Penang takes pride in is the way its different ethnic and religious groups have got along with each other, and the fact that you have so many different temples. mosques, shrines and churches sprinkled around town, usually within close proximity to one another is testimony to that.

The first day and half we were in Penang were spent as I mentioned just wandering around the streets. Georgetown is not massive, so you can see a lot in a short period of time. The main things to see I felt, were Khoo Kongsi and the Kapitan Keling Mosque, originally built by Indians (I believe) but now used by Muslims of different ethnicities in Penang. You’ll find a number of Tamil Muslims praying in a syncretic mix of Shafi’i and Hanafi given that over the centuries followers of the two schools have mixed, though Shafi’i obviously being the more predominant in Malaysia. As you a wander around a bit more, especially by the time you get to Armenian Street, you’ll realise that the city has jumped on its UNESCO status in the last few years. There’s street art and hip cafes and shops opening up everywhere, usually next to run down dilapidated buildings waiting for the next businessman to turn it into the next trendy venue. It provides and interesting mix of old and new, and eventually I recognised as a Londoner that Georgetown was being Shoredified. Now I hate Shoreditch and the whole gentrification of East London by the hipster race, but in Georgetown the process seems to work. People who have been there for years, are still there, and they can still afford to live there (by the looks of it), prices (unless you go into one of the hip cafes/restaurants) are still cheap. There’s no unemployed arts students going around trying to makes their middle class accents sound street, there’s no guys with Philly beards in extra-skinny jeans (Malays struggle to even keep Sunnah beards given their genes, and secondly it’s too hot and humid for skinnies). And the street art is actually quite good, especially given that a lot of it involves cats:

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So it had everything Shoreditch has to offer but better, and without the bits I hate. The only thing that still doesn’t work are the cafes. Most of them are style over substance, the one exception I found was a place called siTigun, a non-pretentious, rustic style coffee house that even had its own roastery. (I picked up some Sumatran beans which were great).

The main thing however that Penang is famous for after its history, is not its cool-hip scene, but its food, especially its hawker stall culture. Think what Lahore is to Pakistan, but with at least some form of health standard, and much less requirement for imodium. As a colleague who lived in China advised me, the tip to finding a good hawker stall is to find one that’s busy, that way you know the food is probably going to be good, and secondly they’re constantly going to be cooking their items fresh. To that end if you’re made to wait a little while for your food that’s usually a good sign. The only problem is that most businesses, including the hawker stalls, open from 10-5, when the day is at its hottest, you’ll still be able to find food in the evenings, but your choices will be limited slightly. The Red Garden however is a good choice to make for an evening meal. If you feel a little awkward about the whole hawker style system of ordering, you’re not alone, it can be quite confusing, even for locals, “Do we go up to the counter to place our order, or does someone come over?”, “Do we pay the guy who served us or do we have to go up to the counter this time?”, “Is this guy scamming me cos I’m tourist or have I just forgotten how to work addition”, all of these and more are valid questions when going out for a meal in Malaysia. The best thing to do is have a walk around and find a place that looks interesting, there’s usually someone who assists the cook by helping out customers, look out for this person and ask them any questions you have, most places will be halal but some of the Chinese run establishments won’t be as they use pork lard in some dishes, they’ll tell you if this is the case. Once you’ve made your order pull up a plastic chair on a dirty table and don’t expect Parisian style dining, it’ll be hot, busy, noisy, you’ll still be a little confused about the whole system, but the food is going to be great. Once the person has served you they’ll take payment there and then, there’s usually a separate business that handles drinks, and they will is most cases come over to you quite soon after you sit down. Personal tip is call them over again once you’ve finished your meal and order a teh tarik (Malaysian style tea) for afters, it’s one of the best hot drinks ever. To get an idea of what to try we picked up a food map from the hotel which had a list of dishes Penang is famous for, and some of the stalls that produce the best versions of said dishes. See if you can find a copy, but don’t worry too much about going for the stalls listed, just look out for a busy one serving any of the dishes you’re interested in.

On our final full day in Penang we visited Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, situated in the middle of the island up the hill. From there we visited the national park in Batu Ferringhi. Batu Ferringhi is the beach resort side of town (you’ll see a lot of Gulf Arabs on honeymoon, dudes dressed in t-shirts and shorts while wifey stays in niqab, go figure). The national park is the smallest in Malaysia, it spreads along the coast at the north-western tip of the island and there’s a beach for most of it. Unfortunately we couldn’t spend too long there as we had hired a driver for the day, but the main destination in the park for most people is Turtle Beach. Despite its small size there are a few trails of varying lengths you can go on. From there we made a brief stop at Coffee Tree a popular place that lots of taxi drivers will recommend to you, I assume they make some sort of commission as you’re given a sticker on your shirt as you walk in with your driver, but the prices are fixed and our driver didn’t push a sell on us so it was no loss on us. They sell loads of different flavours of coffee, mostly instant, and weird and wonderful chocolates, it’s a little pricey but a decent place to pick up gifts for back home. From there we made our way to the temple of the sleeping Buddha, which is built in a Thai style, immediately across the road on the other side is a Burmese style temple with a standing Buddha. In the evening we took a bus back to Batu Ferringhi to check out the night market. Though most of it is cheap wares from China, you can pick up some decent pieces, make sure you take your haggling skills with you.

And so ended our trip in Penang. Looking up a list of places to visit in Malaysia, Penang is always on there, and rightly so. If you consider going to Malaysia I would highly recommend adding Penang to the list. From there we made our way to Kuching in Borneo, and that will God willing follow in the next post.

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