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The Alternative Traveller’s Guide To London: Top 10 — Sacred Footsteps

London. The name itself conjures up images of red buses, black cabs and three-piece suits. As a major global hub, it attracts a large number of tourists all year round. But, like many major cities, those who visit it rarely get the opportunity to experience what the city has to offer away from its ‘main’…

via The Alternative Traveller’s Guide To London: Top 10 — Sacred Footsteps

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Book Review: ‘The Mountain Shadow’ by Gregory David Roberts

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Back in 2011 (seems so long ago now), I read Gregory David Robert’s debut novel Shantaram and I absolutely loved it. So much so, that when I found out the sequel ‘The Mountain Shadow’ was being released I reread the original, something I’ve not done with a novel before. Reading it again I still enjoyed it.

Unfortunately that also gave insight into seeing how far the sequel is from the original. Whereas Shantaram was the story of escaped convict Lin discovering a new country and embracing its culture and taking a reader along for the ride, this novel makes it feel like Lin has become the typical gora in India, living in a world of controversial art exhibitions and fetish parties. Lin in Shantaram was a man looking for his place in Bombay, which he finds amongst new family and friends in the slum, in his best friend’s village in rural Maharashtra, with his Godfather-esque mentor Khaderbai and his mysterious love interest Karla.

Now there’s none of that, Lin has settled into place in Bombay and has become complacent. With that the plot suffers, whereas before we discover that nearly all the events that happen to Lin in Shantaram are the result of Khaderbai getting him ready for his mission in Afghanistan, here there is no drive or goal to what is happening. One minute Lin is taking a friend out of a drug den, the next he’s making his hustler rounds in the city, the next he’s fantasizing about Karla (which becomes a bit much at times), the next he’s on a smuggling mission to Sri Lanka, the next he’s having philosophical discussions with Khaderbai’s guru, and then the cycle goes back to the beginning and it starts all over again. There’s no drive or goal to the story, at the end of it it felt like it was just a fantastical white man’s imagination of what life might be like living in the criminal underworld of Bombay.

It pains me to say that, because Shantaram was based largely on Robert’s own experiences of India. Reflecting the author in Lin, it felt like this was someone who embraced the culture they were living in, as opposed to having a voyeuristic and shallowly excitable attitude that many westerners have when visiting other countries. The Lin in The Mountain Shadow seems to have gone past that and now is just living his life as a permanent tourist, occasionally visiting the slums to deliver medicine or needing a favour.

This is apparently the second part of a trilogy. On its release Roberts announced his withdrawal from public appearances. Given the amount of time and dedication he spent on this novel it feels like he was trying too hard to make something on the same level as Shantaram and as a result lost sight of what he was trying to achieve. I hope for the third part a more relaxed attitude will bring about a more nuanced novel. We will see.

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 – 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.

We are all Malcolm X

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Today marks 49 years since the martyrdom El-Hajj Malik al-Shabbaz, more commonly known as Malcolm X. For Muslims in the Anglophone world, and particularly in North America, Malcolm is regarded as a sort of patron saint, a pioneer of Islam into an unfamiliar world. As someone who lives in a culture that has been greatly influenced by Malcolm, my social media accounts were replete with eulogies and remembrances of him on this day. As a result it got me thinking, given Malcolm’s huge influence over English speaking Muslims, and the profound effect of his mentality and outspokenness, have we lived up to the challenges that Malcolm faced? Have our homages to his legacy been demeaned to a simple retweet, or sharing a post on Facebook? Are we doing enough to honour everything he sacrificed for?

The people Malcolm had the most profound effect on were his own qawm, his own people, the African Americans, more specifically those who live in the ghettoes from which Malcolm emerged. If it were not for Malcolm, America would not have Muhammad Ali, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Ameena Williams, Warith Deen Muhammad, and countless others whose stories were told too late to the masses, such as Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, or those whose stories are left to history. But yet in America, despite the great efforts of these people, more is still to be done. Blacks in America are still at the bottom of the social fabric of society, their children are subjugated by the social system, with inadequate state schooling, and by a racist stereotyped cultural system fuelled by television and film that teaches their youth that all they can aspire to be is a criminal turned hip hop lackey, or a sports professional. The cultural influence, given the globalisation of everything American, affects black youth all over the world, including here in the UK. Whereas in Malcolm’s time, blacks were subjugated by a clear-cut apartheid system, today it’s an implicit form of subjugation based on commercialism. Whenever you see a black person on tv or a film, the vast majority of the time it’s a negative portrayal. In a post-9/11 system, this has now been expanded to include Muslims from the whole colour spectrum. It’s from Malcolm’s fight against explicit racism from which we can learn how to deal with the implicit racism we find ourselves surrounded by today.

Malcolm’s greatest asset was he was a non-conformist, he didn’t believe everything he was told, he asked questions, explored answers, he went looking for the truth. When he found the things that were false, he fought against them, this is what the great patrons of African American society did, are still doing, and it’s what we need to take part in in our own societies. Here in Britain, Muslims make up 2% of the population in Britain, but 13% of the prison population, we suffer from domestic abuse, substance abuse and common criminality, to live up to the legacy of Malcolm we need to do something about that, but what? Malcolm is a huge cultural icon, and most of us, if any at all, will never reach that sort of exposure, our honouring his legacy must come through changing the negative aspects of the world around us one small step at a time, just as our spiritual predecessors had done, from the Prophet (ﷺ) to Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, Shah Jalal, Mawlana Rumi and Malcolm X, they sat with the poor, listened to the downtrodden, advised the needy. Our personal effect on the people around us must first be internalised by forming an intention to live up to the teaching of the Prophet (ﷺ) when he said:

Whoever of you sees an evil must then change it with his hand. If he is not able to do so, then [he must change it ] with his tongue. And if he is not able to do so, then [he must change it] with his heart.

Once we have made our intention, we must make a sincere effort to bring these words to effect, this happens by doing simple little things, such as clearing rubbish from an elderly neighbour’s garden or buying a sandwich for a homeless person. If we miss a chance to do these trivial things we must regret the lost opportunity, this is the latter part of the hadith where one regrets an evil with the heart. The next level is to make a solid commitment to an ongoing cause, this in our time comes about in the form of volunteering, whether at a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, abuse counselling, or even a homework or youth club for teenagers. If we do work with teenagers, it must be understood they are at the most formative period of their life, and if you are working with them you have a chance to make them into something great. Tell them to stop listening to commercial music, enlighten them to the realities of fake advertising, advise them to read. Following on from this, if one has children of their own that entails the next step, a lifelong commitment, “emancipate them from mental slavery” as you would the children you volunteer with, and encourage them in take part in your struggle to make the world around you better, so that they carry it on to their own children.

None of us will ever have be Malcolm in the truest sense, but if we make sincere efforts, and strive to carry on the work that Malcolm started, not just in the States but in our own part of the world, we can all become Malcolm X.

Book Review: ‘Signs on the Horizons’ – Meetings with Men of Knowledge and Illumination by Michael Sugich

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On the two and half hour train journey between London and Paris I decided to read this very interesting looking book. In it the author, Michael (Haroon) Sugich, provides highlights of his life on the spiritual journey of Islam by telling us about the lives and even oftentimes just glimpses of men who have illuminated him along the way. On the length of the outward journey I almost completed the book, on the the return journey it was finished before we even had left the outskirts of Paris. The book is unique in that it offers a very candid, frank and open window into the experiences of the author, glimpses into the lives of saintly individuals the likes of which have been ascribed to forgone legends and myths, and something in our time is quickly dismissed as make believe. To find a contemporary work of this type was like breaking a sealed wine and drinking your fill, and I couldn’t get enough, I totally absorbed this book, on finishing it I wished to start over and read it again, and I regret now not doing so.

One of the main aspects of the book which make it so appealing is Sidi Michael’s approach to the topic. He himself could be described as a conservative Sufi, even early on his Islam he explains how he was apprehensive and reluctant about certain practices or individuals, and would wait and take a step back and seek knowledge on an issue before grasping it wholeheartedly. This sort of approach makes the subject matter easier for the sceptic to take on board if they themself understand that at many times the author himself had a hint of reluctance regarding the experiences he’s decided to write about. This book is excellent in this sense in that for people who have misconceptions and misgivings about Sufism, particularly Muslims, this is a living, breathing, well thought and rigorously thought out document for other people to share in.

My only criticism of the book is that it left me wanting more. Many of the photos featured are by Sidi Peter Sanders, and from the introduction it would seem this is set to compliment his long awaited Meetings with Mountains. The author only provides glimpses in the lives of people who have touched him, though they themselves could have whole biographies written about them. His account of the deaths of his two personal shaykhs Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad and Sayyid Omar Abdullah are especially touching. I would like to think there is more to come, but then it may be that if we get more than just tastes of what’s out there, we won’t go out and look for the feast for ourselves.

Book Review: “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini

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Previously on this blog I’ve mentioned how after trying my hand at reading fiction for a while I decided it wasn’t really for me. An exception from that opinion were the two novels by Khaled Hosseini, “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, both of which were novels I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and it was with much enthusiasm I waited for his next novel, which came out last month: “And the Mountains Echoed”.

There are no surprises in that the novel is based mainly around Aghanis and Afghanistan. The core of Hosseini’s previous novels was the exploration of human emotions, especially within the context of modern Afghanistan and how it has affected its people, and the same can be said of the new novel. The difference here is that rather than having a main protagonist, the story revolves around the lives of many disparate people, who are in some way or another connected to two siblings who were separated when they were children, Abdullah and Pari.

As can be expected this is an intensely emotional read, I found it personally more so than his previous novels. As the life story of each character unfolds we come to see their pains and joys, and the regrets one has to live with just by having to lead a life and deal with the decisions we choose to make.

If somebody hasn’t read his previous books I would definitely encourage you to do so, and for those who have read them they would not be disappointed with this one.

Reflections on the Mi’raj: Musa, the Prophet (ﷺ) and the vision of Allah (ﷻ)

The Prophet (ﷺ) seeing Allah (ﷻ) on his mi’raj, or heavenly ascension, has been something that has been disagreed about since the time of the companions. Qadi Iyad in his al-Shifa’ discussed these differences in detail. The majority of scholars who this faqir has come across that have discussed this issue have all said they believe the vision of Allah (ﷻ) that the Prophet (ﷺ) had, after passing the ‘lote tree of the furthest boundary’, was visual. Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani for example affirms this in his al-Ghunya. (See volume one, page 221 of al-Baz’s English translation by Sidi Muhtar Holland). Recently reflecting on this miracle of the Chosen One (ﷺ), it came to me that another possible example from the Qur’an can be found to confirm this:

And when Moses arrived at Our appointed time and his Lord spoke to him, he said, “My Lord, show me [Yourself] that I may look at You.” [Allah] said, “You will not see Me, but look at the mountain; if it should remain in place, then you will see Me.” But when his Lord appeared to the mountain, He rendered it level, and Moses fell unconscious. And when he awoke, he said, “Exalted are You! I have repented to You, and I am the first of the believers.” – 7:143

If We had sent down this Qur’an upon a mountain, you would have seen it humbled and coming apart from fear of Allah. And these examples We present to the people that perhaps they will give thought. – 59:21

Allah (ﷻ) in His infinite wisdom and divine uncreated speech gives us the similitude of a mountain, and uses the mountain to show its state when the divine presence is unveiled  and manifested to it. The Qur’an if it were to be revealed to a mountain would have crumbled and split apart, likewise if Allah revealed Himself to a mountain the same would, and did happen. So following this, we can say the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet (ﷺ), but he did not crumble, he was fashioned in a perfected form that enabled him to receive divine revelation, therefore can it not be said that if Allah (ﷻ) were to reveal Himself to His final messenger (ﷺ) that he would likewise have the strength to observe the divine vision?

And on leaving the divine presence, of all the prophets who could have come to meet him, who was there, but Musa (upon him be peace), the one who was not given this gift. As if to come and greet the one who was chosen above him to receive what he could not be given.

And to Allah we must return.

FUNDRAISING: THE MAURITANIA APPEAL

Treasures for the Seeker

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

اللهم صل وسلم على رسولك وآله أجمعين

‘A Blessed Appeal for the Mahdarah (School) of Shaykh Muhammad bin Salik bin Fahfu (may Allah safeguard him)’, was launched with the delivery partner, Muslim Hands, in the presence of al-Habib Kazim as-Saqqaf and Syed Lakhte Hassanain Shah (the Chairman of Muslim Hands) at the Objectives Matter Conference on 26th of Jumada al-Awwal/7th April 2013.

The Mahdarah of Shaykh Muhammad (known to the world as Murabit al-Hajj) is situated in the Tuwamarat Village, which is located in the Tagant Region of Mauritania. This Mahdarah has benefited thousands of students throughout the years and from those known to the Western World are the likes of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Ustadh Yahya Rhodus and Ustadh Ibrahim Osi-Efa.

Currently, the Mahdara, which accommodates approximately 250 students of knowledge, is in great need of both immediate and long-term assistance. The Trust, with the…

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On the passing of Shaykh Muhammad Sa’eed Ramadan al-Buti

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On Thursday evening it was with great sadness the Muslim world came to know that a towering personality’s life had come to an end. Shaykh al-Buti was considered by many to be the spiritual reviver of Islam in the 15th century, he authored many books and was a regular figure on Syrian religious TV, he delivered classes around Damascus on a near daily basis, and above all he was firm in his religious and personal convictions.

I wanted to write something in his honour, and particularly touch upon his stance with regards to the Assad regime. But I found Shaykh Abdullah Ali’s piece to be more than sufficient, and much more poignant than what this faqir could write.

What I will close with saying is this: many are calling for democracy in Syria. I would ask, is democracy what they truly need? Has it worked in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan? Many will say they are new to “freedom” and so it will take time. Fine then, I would ask, what about Pakistan? Only now in its 66 year history has Pakistan been able to have a democratic transition of power from one election to the next, and that last election lead to the presidency of the most hated politician in the history of the country, a “democratic period” filled with power shortages, violence, corruption and political back biting which did nothing for the country. Shaykh al-Buti knew rebellion and the call for a fallacy of a post-colonial proto-Hellenic governmental system in an Arab Muslim country would do nothing for Syria. Democracy does not work with an uneducated populace, and just because Uncle Sam wants you to think so doesn’t make it right.

I ask everyone to remember the Shaykh in their prayers, and to ask Allah to accept his words and deeds and look over any faults he may have had. To Allah we belong and to Him we return.