Britishmisk's Blog

Book Review: ‘The Book of Wisdoms’ by Shaykh Abdullah al-Gangohi translated by Andrew Booso

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‘The Book of Wisdoms’ presents The Aphorisms (al-Hikam) of Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari in Arabic accompanied with the English translations of Victor Danner and the translated commentary of Shaykh Abdullah Gangohi. As The Hikam gains popularity in English speaking countries the number of its translations is slowly increasing, but given the abstract nature of some of the wisdoms translating the main text itself is no easy task, let alone a commentary. Andrew Booso has kept an exhaustive piece of work as simple as possible by keeping Danner’s translation and sticking to translating Gangohi’s commentary. What we end up with is a text that for many first time readers can be quite daunting becoming more accessible. Gangohi’s commentary explains in simple language the meaning of every single wisdom, the few exceptions that were missing from the original text Booso has taken from Ibn Ajiba’s commentary.

The book has an in-depth introduction focusing on the individuals who were behind the original work, and gives an informative insight into the culture and times of the Deobandi tradition and Islam in pre-partition India, particularly their scholastic regimes and their approach to Sufism.

As the number of Arabists in the west slowly increase, and before the Muslim communities become familiar with Arabic, this is hopefully be the first of many translations of commentaries of the Hikam into English. While although this one is highly beneficial, the nature of the Hikam is like that of a sea, it can be interpreted, viewed and analysed in any number of ways without end. Shaykha Aisha Bewley already has a translation of Ibn Ajiba’s available for free online, the late Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti also had a series of televised lectures on the Hikam which he compiled into a four volume series of books, some of the classes are available online with English subtitles. For those looking to read the Hikam and may not be ready to understand the subtle meanings of some of them, this text is recommended to offer a clear insight and understanding and prove a useful aid.

Book Review: ‘Return of a King’ by William Dalrymple

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Reading a book about the first Anglo-Afghan war and the British’s attempt to install a puppet ruler may sound like dense reading, but the gift that William Dalrymple has to offer is that it’s far from it. Although I may be a little biased given my interest in Islamic and South Asian history, Dalrymple’s book is a fascinating insight into western interventionism that unfortunately still lives on today, and he doesn’t hold back any punches in making the similarities between the past and the present clear.

Dalrymple starts his book with explaining the build up to the first Anglo-Afghan war which was a result of the rivalry between the Barakzai and Sadozai clans conflicting claims to the emirate of what is modern-day Afghanistan, and the ‘Great Game’ of Anglo-Russian political rivalry in Central Asia. The book follows a chronological ordering of events and uses material from British, Afghan, Russian and Indian sources to build a comprehensive analysis of the events that took place.

The importance of this time period, and the subject at hand, is made clear by Dalrymple in that he feels that the invasion and subsequent management of Afghanistan after 2001, bear so many similar hallmarks to the first Anglo-Afghan war, that it is amazing that despite what history has taught us, the British have yet again entered into a diplomatic farce of which they can hope for no positive outcome. Aside from pointing out the obvious problems with colonialism and interventionist foreign policy, the book itself is a riveting read for those, such as myself, who have little knowledge of the Anglo-Afghan wars. Given the wide range of sources and the removal of a possible bias you’re presented not only with an impartial historical analysis, but you follow the stories of individuals from all the different sides of the conflict, more so from those who penned their experiences to paper and lived to tell the tale.

As I mentioned before, anyone who has an interest in the topic would do well reading the book. Given its pluralist nature of sources it also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for the many sepoys and military units in India at the time, with some of the experiences quoted quite horrific in their details. It’s nonetheless an easy to read and interesting book, that leaves you wanting you to find out what happens next. It looks like it will tie in well with Dalrymple’s next book on the East India Company, and I’m very keen to follow up on where this book leaves off.

Book Review: Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Annemarie Schimmel

After reading Annemarie Schimmel’s excellent ‘And Muhammad is His Messenger‘, I was keen to read more of her work. This and the aforementioned title are her most prominent publications. The two books tie in well as they are both related to the subject of Sufism, whereas the other title deals with the particular aspect of the Prophet ﷺ in Sufism and Islam in general, this one gives a broader overall study of the history and development of the science of spirituality within the Islamic tradition.

The book feels in many ways as though it was the first real appreciative book by a western orientalist on the subject. And despite the fact that things have moved on and changed in the world since its first publication in 1975, as a study of historical, and in particular medieval Sufism, it is still a relevant and useful work. Schimmel deals with the development of Sufism over time, particularly around the era of 10th Century Iraq, concentrating around Baghdad, and then carries on chronologically looking at the different influential figures in Sufism, ending with Muhammad Iqbal, arguably her favourite mystic-philosopher to whom she makes numerous references to throughout her different works. The most interesting aspect to the Schimmel’s research is the way she ties in different theories and ideas across periods and thinkers and then tracks down the one person who made it famous. The best example being on the section of Ibn Arabi’s theosophy, how his ideas of Unity of Existence and the Muhammadan Reality were around before him, something that I myself was not aware of. The ideas and legacy of Hallaj are also another example.

While this is an excellent study of the topic, to me it still felt as though it can be considered an “orientalist” work, Schimmel only deals with aspects of Sufism that have been discussed and studied in the western world, and she makes numerous references to certain things that require western appreciation. I think in today’s more globalised age there wouldn’t be such a disconnect by having a binary oriental-occidental worldview. Today if there is a work that has yet to be translated into a European language, or examined by someone in a thesis, does not mean that there should be a barrier to having it accessed and appreciated. Another minor criticism is that Schimmel only discussed Sufism in the place of cultures she has familiarity with, namely Turkey, Persia and the Sub-Continent, she makes references to other parts of the world, but there is no section dedicated to them as there is for the ones mentioned. I think to make this a more exhaustive work (not that it is in any way lacking in its depth as it is) it should really have delved into areas of the Muslim world where Sufism has a big part to play in its theological discourse, such as North & West Africa, the Levant and South East Asia.

While this is certainly not a “beginner’s” introduction to the topic, it’s an excellent way for people who have a good grounding in Sufi ideas to learn more about its concepts and history.

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.

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