Goodbye To My Dear Son – Adam Salih

Adam picking Brambleberries in a park in October 2020

We buried my son yesterday – Wednesday 14th July 2021. His name was Adam Salih and he would have turned twenty-one on that day. It is not in the natural order of things for parents to have to bury their child.

Flashback: I have just returned home from work and my heart lifts as I see Adam. He is three years old and he runs up to me with his bright and eager eyes and issues his familiar demand: “Pick meeee uppppp!” Adam loves being held to adult height and then cuddled closely.

It is hard-wired into our DNA to protect our children from the danger around them. We would do anything for them. And yet, I could not protect my son from the dark cloud that I first noticed began hovering over him shortly after he turned sixteen. I witnessed his troubled and agonising struggle to escape the shadow of that cloud. Sometimes the cloud would appear to clear to a certain extent but you got the definite sense that the cloud was never very far away and indeed was closely tracking him. I could not grasp the full extent of the torment that was afflicting Adam on the inside.

This wholly innocent, gentle and sensitive boy endured so much over the past few years. He was so blameless and kind-hearted but was suffering inside while putting on a brave face for the rest of us so that we would not worry. We found out at the end of the last weekend that Adam had come to the conclusion that he could not endure the pain any longer and so had sought an escape from his illness in the only way he could think of.

The morning after Adam has passed away, I look for help to try and cope with what has happened. I send a message to a journalist and friend whom I have known for many years who I know has experienced a similar loss in the past and was also aware of Adam’s own struggle. He responds saying that I will feel wave after wave of overwhelming grief and that I will just need to let it all wash over me. He says that eventually the waters will calm and I will arrive at a place of peace. I am crying as I read this. Not normal tears but huge fat tears. The sea analogy is an apt one. At this time, however, I feel like I am on a little flimsy raft in the middle of an ocean. I cannot see land in any direction.

Flashback: It is the first Covid lockdown in the summer of 2020 and I am playing badminton in the garden with Adam. The sun is shining and I catch delightful glimpses of Adam breaking into a smile as he wins point after point against me. I am happy that Adam is beating me.

Calls of sympathy start coming in. I wish they wouldn’t and I bring them to a conclusion almost instantaneously – I find it impossible to finish a sentence at this early stage without breaking down. If you called me and I did not pick up – it’s because I can hardly bring myself to speak. I receive text and WhatsApp messages. These are from friends I made during my activist years – friends who remained friends despite me seeming to alienate just about every UK Muslim group in the country with my frequently non-conformist views. I also receive kind messages from some surprising quarters. I try and find the time to read them all and try and respond whenever I feel up to the task. Please do not feel slighted if I was not able to respond. An old friend writes to remind me of the inspiring story of the long separation and re-uniting of Ya’qub (Jacob) and Yusuf (Joseph) in the Qur’an. The story inadvertently begins to make me feel bitter: even Ya’qub was allowed to see his son again in this world. I, however, will never see my handsome Adam or hear his voice again in this world and this thought is killing me right now.

I am just staggered at this turn of events. I go to Valentine’s Park in Ilford. It is a gorgeous park and Adam spent many blissful hours here as a little boy joyfully exploring and running around in the children’s playground. How did we get from there to here? I just don’t know. I was speaking with Adam less than two days ago and he had said he would be coming over to my home to eat. I keep shaking my head as I look at all the children now playing there. I desperately want my child back. Please God.

I am wracked with guilty questions: How could I have failed to notice the very recent danger signs which now seem so obvious? What kind of person would fail to notice and act on those signs?

Flashback: It is towards the end of 2020 and Adam is reading a book while he lies down on the large thick rug beside my bookcases. He likes to pull out a book to read and then sprawl out on the rug. I notice wryly that he always appears to select books on spirituality or the humanities – never my books about science.

I place my prayer mat where Adam used to lie down on the rug and imagine myself in this very same place but at an earlier time when he was reading here and I find myself trying to stroke his luxuriant hair. He was such a prodigious reader. He had no desire for material goods or money. The wealth Adam valued was knowledge and understanding. He had built himself an extensive collection of classical literature. In the past three years he had taught himself Arabic, Latin and French and the art of drawing and how to play the flute. I really have no idea how he managed it. I was so incredibly proud of him.

My mum was younger than I am now when she passed away many years ago after contracting meningitis during the Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah). I recall being bitter at the time of mum’s death too. In time, however, I was comforted by the knowledge that this had been God’s Will and that she had gone to a much better place. My Adam has now gone and departed this world too after a much briefer period of time. And as with my mum, it is this same knowledge and assurance that what has happened is God’s Will and that Adam is now in a far better place and has finally found the relief and peace he was so desperately longing for that is my only solace at this time.

The Qur’an is explicit that we will all be tested in various ways. I console myself repeating Abraham’s words: “aslamtu li rabbil ‘aalameen” – I submit to the Lord of the Worlds.

It is the morning of Adam’s funeral and I am with the team at the Gardens of Peace cemetery near Hainault as they are performing his ghusl (washing of the body) prior to the Janaza (funeral) prayer. I feel stunned and numb as I now gaze at Adam’s body on the ghusl table. I shake my head in disbelief – that is my own son’s now inert body.

In our wider society we rarely discuss death, yet it is surely the bluntest of facts. The Qur’an reminds us that “Every soul shall taste death” (Qur’an 3:185). This realisation ought to force us to ask ourselves the profoundest of questions about what we are doing with our lives and how we relate to each other. All of us without exception will be joining Adam – we just don’t know when.

The kindness, compassion and professionalism shown by the entire GoP team throughout the day serves to soothe much of the pain we are feeling today.

It is true that Adam’s body which we now see being lowered into the grave is lifeless, but I am convinced that his beautiful soul will surely find acceptance with His Creator. My lovely boy had been unwell and had suffered terribly through no fault of his own and I am comforted in the knowledge that Adam’s ultimate judge is God alone – not ill-educated ignorant human beings. And God informs us that “He is the Most Merciful of all that show mercy” (Qur’an 12:64).

Flashback: A couple of close friends are visiting me and my little Adam takes delight in proving to them that he is without question as strong as the Incredible Hulk and can jump equally great distances. Look – he can jump from the sofa on to the floor. Can there really be any doubt that he is a super-hero he seems to ask.

Yesterday, just a couple of hours after Adam’s burial, with those very same friends, we go to visit Adam’s grave together. Their support and banter helps to lift my spirits for a little while. I am grateful to them.

I have experienced – and continue to experience – a lot of anger at myself over the past few days as I have been floating on that raft in the middle of the wide ocean. New questions keep popping up and troubling me about what more I could and should have done to help Adam. I am not sure that those questions will ever go away or receive a fully satisfactory answer. A lifetime of Qur’an study convinces me nonetheless to try and be patient and persevere through this awful trial. If I place my trust in God alone, I believe I will surely reach land and be re-united with my beloved Adam once again.

“…Never give up hope of God’s Soothing Mercy: truly no one gives up hope of God’s Soothing Mercy, except those who have no faith.” (Qur’an 12:87)

It is that welcome promise along with the kind support of our family and dear friends that enables me to cling on to that raft.

“The eyes weep and the heart grieves, yet we do not say anything but that which pleases our Lord.” (Sahih Bukhari)

See you soon, my darling boy. We all miss you so very much.

“To God we belong and to Him we return.” (Qur’an 2:156)

PS: The family has set up a Sadaqa Jariya fundraising page for Adam. All monies raised go directly to the Ummah Welfare Trust who have been instructed to set up water wells in a number of developing countries.

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Book Review: Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen

Back in the mid 1980s, in the song “Panic”, Morrissey from The Smiths damned DJ’s who kept playing irrelevant music that said “nothing to me about my life.” I think Woody Allen may well have appreciated that sentiment as for over fifty years now, in an incredibly prolific career that has seen him write and direct almost a movie a year, he has consistently written screenplays that have tackled themes relating to love, death and meaning. And in case we don’t quite grasp it, a 1975 Woody movie is pointedly called Love and Death.

Born in 1935, Woody writes in his autobiography that he became aware of his own mortality very early on and didn’t like it one little bit.

“…around the [age] of five I became aware of mortality and figured, uh-oh, this is not what I signed on for. I had never agreed to be finite. As I got older, not just extinction but the meaninglessness of existence became clearer to me.”

The angst brought on by his vision of a bleak, uncaring and Godless universe is a consistent running theme throughout Woody Allen’s movies and in an insightful recent interview with the scientist Lawrence Krauss, Allen said that his writing and movie making were a necessary distraction for him to try and avoid facing up to that reality.

Woody started off his career while still at school. He would send off jokes to newspapers. They started printing them and Woody found that they paid much better than his newspaper round. Soon he was being approached by agents who asked him to write gags for TV comedians after school. He quickly began earning more money than both of his parents combined.  

Throughout the book Woody says that he has just been very lucky and that most people are unaware of just how big a part luck (or bad luck) plays in their lives. And he is also very self-deprecating – which is a welcome trait in an industry known for harbouring a number of oversized egos.

“I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’ What I do have, however, is a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and I propose that it is these specs, combined with a flair for appropriating snippets from erudite sources too deep for me to grasp but which can be utilized in my work to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do that keeps this fairy tale afloat.”  

Woody expresses regret towards the end of the book that he “has never made a great movie”. This verdict will no doubt be challenged by his many admirers, including your present reviewer, who regard Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives as being amongst the finest movies ever made. Certainly, the Academy Awards committees over the years who have given him four Oscars may also have something to say about that.

In more recent years, however, Woody Allen has perhaps been more often in the news due to his personal life than his movies. In 1992 there was a nuclear sized fallout following the end of his relationship with his partner for thirteen years, Mia Farrow, after she discovered erotic Polaroid snaps of her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn (then 22) in Woody’s apartment. Woody and Soon-Yi (whom he married in 1997 – they are still happily married) had been having an affair. Several months later, Mia Farrow alleged that Woody had molested her seven year old adopted daughter Dylan. To this day, this controversy continues. As you might expect, the autobiography provides Woody’s side of the story: he asserts forcefully there was absolutely no molestation and Dylan was brainwashed into making the allegation by a spiteful and vindictive ex-partner. The passages about Mia Farrow often make for uncomfortable reading and Woody sometimes comes across as rather cold in his remarks – which is perhaps understandable given the nature of the allegations that have been made against him. The fact remains that no charges have ever been brought against Woody in relation to the alleged molestation despite there having been two official investigations into them.

As he was writing this book, Woody was working on yet another movie, Rifkin’s Festival. The reader is left with a clear sense of an amazing work ethic despite his age. “I’m 84 – my life is almost half over,” he quips.

As for negative points, I must admit to being irritated by the complete lack of any chapter breaks or chapter headings in the book and the failure to include an index. This could perhaps be due to the fact that the previous publisher, Hachette, cancelled its agreement to publish the book following an internal staff rebellion related to the 1992 allegations and so the book may have been produced in haste by the present publisher, Arcade.

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” said the Greek philosopher Socrates. With his life-long pre-occupation with love, relationships, death and the quest for meaning in the universe, Woody Allen definitely cannot be accused of having lived an unexamined life. He certainly appears to have asked all the right questions. It could just be that the answers he arrived at were sadly perhaps a tad off-beam.

“…and despair not of Allah’s mercy. Surely none despairs of Allah’s mercy except the disbelieving people.” (Qur’an 12:87)

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Movie Review: The Dissident

 

Bryan Fogel’s new documentary, The Dissident –which began airing on Amazon Prime Video earlier today – tells the gripping and horrifying story of the murder in October 2018 of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government agents in the employ of the Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS).

Khashoggi was an insider who had worked in the Kingdom’s media industry for around thirty years. However, he was also committed to increasing freedoms in the country and holding those in power accountable: something we would consider quite normal in the West but is unthinkable to most “journalists” who are on the Kingdom’s payroll. Early on we are informed that “In Saudi Arabia, journalists are tools of the regime who are only supposed to write magnificent things about the government and how wise their decisions are.” We are told that the Arab Spring had a powerful impact on Khashoggi who saw how Saudi money had bankrolled the counter revolution that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mursi and restored a tyrannical army-led regime to power in Egypt.

There was no room in Saudi Arabia for anyone critical of the regime and following a number of thinly veiled warnings from Saudi authorities, Jamal Khashoggi left his homeland and moved to the USA where he began to write more freely in the pages of the Washington Post.

Concerned about the extent of power being amassed in the hands of the Crown Prince MBS, Khashoggi got into contact with young Saudi activists living in the West and encouraged them to take on the Saudi Kingdom’s propaganda army on Twitter. Unfortunately, Khashoggi did not know that his phone had been infected with a hacking tool called Pegasus and his words and movements were now being monitored by the Saudi regime. Created by the Israeli company The NSO Group, Pegasus was able to turn a person’s phone into a bugging device that could read all the emails and messages a person sent and could activate the phone’s camera and microphone remotely so it could see and hear what the victim was doing at any point in time. Pegasus had been approved for sale to the Saudi regime by the Israeli Defence Ministry itself. The Israelis have since been shown to have sold the same spying software to a number of repressive Arab regimes to help spy on their populations. It is worth repeating this: the Israelis are directly helping to repress Arab populations and strengthen authoritarian regimes.

During a conference in Turkey in 2018 just months before his murder, Khashoggi met a researcher called Hatice Cengiz who would go on to become his fiancé. Hatice’s participation in the documentary and the story of their relationship provides the documentary with an emotional centre and is very moving. When asked how she responded to Jamal’s proposal of marriage given that she was much younger than him, Hatice says:

“I thought Jamal would do something good for humanity. And if I’m going to spend my life with someone, it can only be with someone like Jamal. I wanted to help him on his journey, to be by his side. Otherwise we all just live life. We’re born, we grow up, eat, sleep, travel. But who we do these things with is what gives life its meaning.”

I won’t give away the ending – though most of you will know what happens next. Still, Fogel’s documentary surprises us by showing us actual transcripts of the recordings made inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by the Turkish intelligence services which conclusively show that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a not a rogue operation or a mistake or the result of a “fistfight” as the Saudis laughably claimed as they kept changing their narrative, but that it was a meticulously planned operation from the beginning and had MBS’s fingerprints all over it. The Turkish transcripts are genuinely shocking and they enabled the Turkish government to refute the Saudi regime’s lies as it initially denied any knowledge or responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi.

It is worth remembering that the last article Jamal Khashoggi ever wrote for the Washington Post was headlined “What the Arab World most needs is freedom of expression”. Within days of writing that article, Jamal would become a martyr for the cause of freedom in the Arab world.

The viewer – if you live in the West – is left feeling angry but also relieved that s/he lives in the West. We do not expect our governments to break our doors down and arrest and torture our relatives if we criticise their policies. Though it is nauseating to watch the US President Trump trying to muddy the waters and raise doubts about the Saudi regime’s murderous behaviour.

The sheer terror of living under a totalitarian regime is made clear. How tragic (and perhaps symbolic of the current state of the Muslim world) that Islam’s most holy places in Makka and Madina are under the control of a criminal gangster regime. A regime that has to resort to buying the loyalty of its so-called journalists – including many in the UK.

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Book Review: “Secrets of Divine Love” by A. Helwa

Secrets of Divine Love: A Spiritual Journey Into The Heart of Islam begins with an introduction in which the author, A Helwa, explains her reasons for writing this book as follows: “I pray these words awaken your heart to fall deeper in love with Allah…[the book is] written for the longing heart, for the one who is searching for something they have not been able to find.”

The author provides very brief details about herself and says that although she was born into a Muslim household, “I was never taught how to love and be loved by God.” One day, in her early twenties while travelling in Turkey, she encountered an old lady “who was drowned in her worship of God” and “the divine spark of faith reignited within me like lightning.” It is a good reminder of how each of our own actions can perhaps unwittingly impact the lives of others.

What follows are twelve chapters, including a chapter on each of the five pillars of Islam, and the spiritual dimensions of Islam. Each of the chapters is laced with quotations not only from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as you would expect, but also with the welcome use of some helpful lessons from the Christian Bible, and from other religious traditions too.

Like many previous authors that have dealt with cleansing the soul, A. Helwa, explicitly singles out the need to firmly tackle the ego.

“…like a fog that distorts out vision, the ego is a veil between our consciousness and our spirit. The purification and detachment of the ego is so vital within Islam because the more we purify the illusions of the self, the more we are able to witness the light of Allah.” (p46)

“The transformation of the heart and the purification of the ego is one of the fundamental purposes of divine revelation. Every pillar and practice in Islam serves to purify the ego by turning the heart from the desires of the fleeting world towards the everlasting love of God. The two most powerful ways the Qur’an speaks of how to refine the ego and transform the heart is through the practices of repentance (tawba) and remembrance (dhikr).” (p59)

I do think that this book could have done with a better editor – or even the simple use of a thesaurus. The repetitive nature of some of the language did begin to grate with me very quickly. See the examples below:

“The following interaction between two great mystical masters beautifully articulates God’s mercy…” (p7)

“The all-encompassing peace that comes from relying entirely on God is beautifully illustrated in the following Japanese story…” (p8)

“The following quote beautifully articulates this notion…” (p18)

“The following story about the thirteenth-century spiritual master and satirist Mullah Nasruddin beautifully illustrates this point…” (p47)

“The core Islamic teaching that “verily with difficulty comes ease” (94:5) is beautifully shown through the popular teaching story of a boy and a butterfly…” (p53)

…and it goes on right throughout the book.

Still, in the balance of things, this criticism is a minor one and can easily be rectified in a future edition of the book. In the opinion of this reviewer, the author succeeds admirably in her goal to remind readers of the spiritual goals of Islam.

“No one knows when they will die or when the Day of Judgment will come, the only thing that is in our power is how we actively choose to live the one life that Allah has given us in this very moment. Instead of worrying about when we will die, it serves us better to focus on what we can do to positively affect this world. As the eleventh-century Persian scholar, Abu Sa’id Abul-Khayr said, ‘You were born crying and everyone around you was laughing. Strive to live in a way that when you die you are laughing and everyone around you is crying.’ ” (p273-4)

This book contains many memorable and accessible passages and is highly recommended for new Muslims and those who are in need of reinforcing their faith – which is probably all of us.

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Movie Review: Official Secrets

Back at the beginning of March 2003, the US and UK governments were engaged in a huge effort at the UN Security Council to win support for a second resolution that would authorise a war against Iraq. As part of that effort the National Security Agency of the USA sent out a memo marked Top Secret (and which can be read here) which was received and approved by the UK’s own surveillance centre at GCHQ in Cheltenham calling for efforts to spy on the members of the Security Council so that they could obtain “the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals”. It was in effect authorising the spooks to surreptitiously obtain information that could be used to blackmail members of the UN Security Council into supporting the Iraq war.

Official Secrets deals with the story of one incredibly brave recipient of that email at GCHQ. Katharine Gun, a young expert in Mandarin, was increasingly concerned at the UK government’s attempts to deceive the public into supporting the Iraq war. Understanding the full implications of the NSA request, she decided to leak the contents of the memo in the hope that it would reach an investigative journalist and just perhaps create a counter-reaction that would possibly halt the slide to war.

On 2nd March 2003, the Observer (the Sunday sister paper to the Guardian) published a front page story about the memo headlined “Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war”. An uproar followed and an investigation was launched at GCHQ into who had leaked the memo.

The film shows Katharine – anguished at how her own colleagues were now under suspicion – going into the investigator’s office and admitting that it was she that was responsible.

The UK’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair desperately needed a second UN resolution to help gain support amongst the UK public and the armed forces for a war against Iraq. We have since discovered that the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, had said that war would be illegal without a second UN Security Council resolution and to act otherwise would open the UK armed forces personnel to possible war crimes investigations. Of course, we know what happened then. Lord Goldsmith was sent to the US for talks with his counterparts there and came back and altered his advice to the Prime Minister to now say a war would be legal on the basis of an earlier 1991 UN resolution. As one character observes of Lord Goldsmith:

“He fucking caved just when his country needed him the most.”

It was the war that we could not stop. Katharine is quoted shortly after as saying:

“I’ve watched Blair with his smug smile and his sterile speeches that tell us nothing of what it must feel like to be a child in Iraq right now. I’m not sorry that I tried to stop him. I’m only sorry that I failed.”

Katharine was arrested and charged for breaching the Official Secrets Act. The film makes plain the huge courage and integrity it must have taken to do what she did. It forces us to ask ourselves just how many of us would really be prepared to risk our own freedom and suffer jail-time to try and expose the government’s lies in order to try and save the lives of others. The government is shown vindictively punishing Katharine by trying to deport her Turkish/Kurdish Muslim husband.

The then political editor of the Observer, Kamal Ahmed (now Editorial Director of the BBC) – and who was a key contact/mouthpiece of Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell – is shown as trying to rubbish the authenticity of Katharine’s leaked memo in order to try and prevent publication. Ahmed screams “Hitler Diaries!” – a reference to how the Sunday Times had been embarrassed by the publication of the Hitler Diaries in the 1980s which were subsequently found to be fake.

The then Director of the Crown Prosecution Service, Ken MacDonald (now “Baron MacDonald of River Glaven”) is shown as debasing his office to do the bidding of the government and intelligence agencies.

Not everyone bent the knee to power though. The human rights organisation Liberty is shown as assisting Katharine to defend herself against the charges against her and Ralph Fiennes puts in a splendid appearance as Ben Emmerson the QC that defended her at trial.

I won’t give away the ending – though some of you may recall what happened at the trial in 2004. All I will say is that Official Secrets is a gripping true story and is brilliantly told with a steely central performance from Keira Knightley. This is a movie that should surely be made compulsory viewing in History classes at school in order to help our children to learn to develop their own critical thinking skills and be prepared to question orders.

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Hagia Sophia: Mosque or Museum?

One of the most memorable highlights of all my visits to Istanbul over the years has always been the time spent in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) museum. First founded as a Christian cathedral in 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad al-Fatih in 1453. In 1934, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire some years earlier and the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey, President Ataturk issued a decree reclassifying Hagia Sophia as a museum. Alongside the Topkapi Museum, the Hagia Sophia has been the most visited and top rated tourist attraction in Istanbul for many years now.

But what will happen now that President Erdogan has reversed that 1934 decree and restored Hagia Sophia’s status to being a mosque? Will people from all backgrounds still be able to visit Hagia Sophia and gaze upon its beauty and many historical treasures?

The official spokesperson for President Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, tried to reassure the world, saying “all are welcome to visit this beautiful house of worship and magnificent cultural site.”

This does not directly address concerns about what those visitors will actually still be able to see – and perhaps more importantly – no longer see when they visit the Hagia Sophia.

For example, will the below 10th century Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator still be on display or will it now be covered up?

Will the below Apse mosaic of Mary with the infant Jesus on her lap which adorns one of the half-domes in Hagia Sophia still be on display?

The Hagia Sophia abounds in many such historical riches and it would be a tragedy if people were no longer allowed to directly see and study them.

Judging by the remarks on social media, the decision earlier today in Turkey to restore the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque has divided many Muslims living in the West.

When I last visited Istanbul in May 2019, I stayed in the Sultan Ahmet quarter, less than a two minute walk away from the Hagia Sophia. It was Ramadan at the time and early every morning I was woken by the call to prayer and went to the stunning Sultan Ahmet mosque (Blue Mosque) which is situated directly opposite the Hagia Sophia – it was also a two minute walk away from my hotel.

Istanbul is a city of many such glorious mosques. However, there is only one Hagia Sophia.

At a time when the world desperately needs to take steps towards more freedom and greater tolerance, it would be a shame if Turkey took a step in the opposite direction. We will have to wait and see.

Update 1 (July 11th, 2020): The official spokesperson for President Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, has issued another statement saying that “all visitors will have access to the religious and cultural heritage of Hagia Sophia including icons and mosaics.” That appears to be good news indeed – though we will still have to wait and see what happens in practice first, including whether this means that all visitors will still have full access to the icons and mosaics as currently.

 

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Book Review: Darwin’s Notebook

In September 2019 BC (Before Covid-19) I undertook a long cherished trip to Down House, the former residence of Charles Darwin. The pictures below were all taken at Down House. It is located approximately 15 miles south-east of London and is now a Museum under the care of English Heritage. Whilst there I purchased “Darwin’s Notebook”, a biography of Charles Darwin by Jonathan Clements. Clements’ biography was published in 2009 – the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection has been described by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as “the single best idea anyone has ever had.” When you consider some of the other scientific giants of recent centuries: Newton, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and Einstein – that is high praise indeed.

First publicly explained in Darwin’s landmark 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, natural selection is today viewed as unquestionably the most important theory in Biology. Clements writes that Darwin’s theory “fundamentally changed our concept of who we are and where we come from.”

Darwin argued that all of us, human beings, apes, pigs, fish, plants – indeed all forms of life – were all related and descendants of common ancestors if we went back far enough in time. Species were not static, they changed over time. This idea was not new, but Darwin provided a mechanism for how it had occurred: Natural Selection.

Creatures that possessed traits that helped them to adapt more successfully to changes in their environment were more likely to survive and pass on those traits than those that did not. This process – natural selection –  causes species to change and diverge over time.

This was anathema to many religious leaders who argued that each species had been individually created by God and were unchanged. They bitterly resented Darwin’s theory, and in the case of a number of evangelical Christian groups and many Muslim “scholars”, they still do.

For over 160 years they have been trying – and failing – to undermine Darwin’s great insight. Rather than being undermined, Darwin’s theory only continued to gain further credibility with the discovery of dominant and recessive genes in pea plants by Gregor Mendel – now viewed as the father of Genetics. Mendel’s experiments with pea plants resulted in him finding the mechanism for heredity (how traits are passed on from one generation to another) – a topic that Darwin had struggled to find answers for. Mendel found that traits were passed on by genes. And almost a century after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, Crick and Watson discovered the structure of the DNA molecule and provided forensic molecular evidence for evolution by natural selection. All life forms that we know of are made of DNA and it is the random changes in the DNA molecule that provide the raw material for evolution to occur. No wonder that more thoughtful religious leaders have now made their peace with Darwin.

Darwin’s Notebook covers Darwin’s privileged upbringing (he was the son of a wealthy doctor), his meticulous observations and careful accumulation of data during the five year sea voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and the subsequent development of his ideas once he was back in England in 1836. The book is attractively laid out with every two-page spread being on a particular topic and this makes for very easy reading.

It should be remembered that prior to setting out on his sea voyage, Darwin had believed in the literal truth of the Bible and was intent on becoming a Christian clergyman when he returned from the voyage. It was what he saw with his own eyes during the voyage that made him question his beliefs and the teachings of the Bible.

During his voyage around South America he noticed how the fauna on islands off the coast of South America would often resemble but not be exactly the same as the fauna on the mainland. Why would this be and was there a natural process that could account for the differences?

Back in England and now married and living the life of a virtual recluse at Down House, Darwin corresponded by letter with amateur field workers around the world to gather additional data. He was determined to try and make sense of what he had seen during his sea voyage.

In 1851, Darwin witnessed the illness and death of his beloved ten year old daughter Annie from scarlet fever. Darwin later wrote:

“We have lost the joy of our household and the solace of our old age…she was my favourite child; her cordiality, openness, buoyant joyousness and strong affections made her most loveable.”

Darwin stopped attending church following the death of Annie. Even though he could not bring himself to believe any longer in the doctrines of the Christian church, he did not regard himself as an atheist.

People often wrote to Darwin to ask about his religious opinions and asked whether it was possible to both believe in his theory of evolution by means of natural selection and also believe in God. Darwin replied:

“It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man can be an ardent theist and an evolutionist…I may state that my judgment often fluctuates…in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.”

You cannot read Darwin’s Notebook without being impressed with Darwin’s gentle, considerate nature and thoughtfulness. And by showing us how all life forms are related to each other, Darwin provided us with a wonderfully unified vision of the history of life on earth.

If seeking to understand the truth about ourselves, the world around us and how it came to be is to be regarded as a virtue, then Charles Darwin will surely be amongst the best of us.

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Book Review: Islam – An Illustrated Journey

Earlier this year, it was with a sense of some excitement that I found out that a new book “Islam: An Illustrated Journey” had been recently published (in 2018) by the Institute of Ismaili Studies to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims. The book specifically sets out to be an illustrated version and it looks utterly gorgeous.

It is a very large book – see the photograph below where I contrast it with two other large books on Islamic history that I possess. You will need a large bookshelf to house it.

This large size allows the reader to much better appreciate the pictures inside – just make sure you are seated comfortably when you read the book: it is quite literally not to be taken lightly as it weighs quite a bit.

The account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and revelation of the Qur’an is narrated well and the differences between the mainstream Sunni and Shi’i interpretations of the succession to the prophet are represented fairly. So, the book serves as a useful introduction to Islam itself in addition to describing the subsequent growth and spread of Muslim civilisations across the world.

Among the history covered in the book we learn about Late Antiquity in the centuries immediately prior to the emergence of the Prophet Muhammad, and then the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids (who were Ismaili Muslims), the Mamluks, the impact of the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Safawis, the Mughals, and the modern era. There is a fabulous two-page spread about the travels of Ibn Battuta which graphically charts his multiple journeys across the Muslim world.

The only gripe I had about the history was what appeared to be a rather grudging and cursory reference to Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi. Although he is referred to as being “arguably the most legendary character of…Crusader lore…” he merits only one paragraph on page 206. As a great unifier and the inspiring mujahid who restored al-Quds to Muslim rule, Salah ad-Din – who died with his sword as almost his only remaining possession after having given away his wealth to the poor, Salah ad-Din surely deserves more than one paragraph in any retelling of Islamic history. The cynic in me wonders whether this might not be unrelated to the fact that Salah ad-Din was responsible for ending Ismaili rule in Egypt.

Still, aside from that, this is without question a formidable and fascinating look at Muslim history. Coming to the troubles of the modern era and the rise of nihilist groups such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, the book makes a very important and wholly accurate observation, noting that they both “arose in the context of foreign conflict and invasion…”. It is often conveniently forgotten – and the UK government would very much like us all to forget – that al-Qa’ida was only founded following the controversial stationing of tens of thousands of US troops in the Arabian peninsula in the 1990s and ISIS did not exist at all until after the illegal and devastating invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and UK authorities.

In conclusion, Islam: An Illustrated Journey is quite possibly the best one volume introduction to Islam and Islamic history that I have yet encountered. It is certainly the most beautiful.

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Coronavirus: Muslim ‘Ulama – A Failure of Leadership

Just a few days ago, I lamented how slow some Muslim “scholars” were in recognising the danger posed by the coronavirus and questioned why many of them had not yet called for the suspension of congregational prayers in our mosques. After all, last Monday (March 16th 2020) the government – following advice from our leading scientists – had updated their guidelines to make clear that we should now “avoid all unnecessary contact” and called on people to stop going to places where people congregate including pubs and restaurants and cafes. It was naturally obvious to all human beings with active brain cells that this “unnecessary contact” must also include all forms of communal worship. Hence, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Anglican Church and the United Synagogue (the largest Orthodox Jewish grouping) all very sensibly issued a call for an immediate suspension of communal prayers at their respective religious places of worship.

Sadly, this was not taken up by many Muslim religious “scholars”. Some associated with the Dar al-Ulums (ironically “Houses of Knowledge” in Arabic) in Blackburn and Bury advocated that mosques should remain open for congregational prayer “until and unless the government places a total restriction on religious places.” Yusuf Shabbir who runs the Islamic Portal website associated with the above two institutions wrote an article entitled “How can Coronavirus be stopped?”. His answer was not to say that we should immediately adopt strict social distancing measures and avoid all unnecessary contact as our scientists had advised. In a 10-point plan he said the answer was to perform the five daily prayers, fast, pay zakat etc.

Over at Islam21c.com, Haitham al-Haddad issued a fatwa on Friday 20th March 2020 saying the following:

I have stated on many occasions that I categorically disagree with the full closure of mosques (when there is an alternative such as reducing congregations), the reason being that no one has the right whatsoever to control the Houses of Allah. He assigned them for Himself. One of the scholars of the second generation (tābi’īn), Amr Ibn Maymūn al-Awdi said: ‘I found the companions of the Prophet ﷺ saying: The mosques are the houses of Allāh on the earth and it is a duty on Allāh to honour those who visit them’.

In the days following the MCB’s statement last Monday, many mosques to their credit announced that they would not be holding the congregational Friday prayers on their premises and said they were suspending all daily congregational prayers until further notice. Their actions have undoubtedly contributed to reducing the numbers of people that will be affected by the coronavirus.

However, many other mosques decided to continue holding daily congregational prayers and to go ahead and hold the mass Friday prayers. A video has been circulated online showing a large queue of people waiting to go inside Masjid Umar in Leicester (where many mosques remained open for congregational prayers) for Jumu’ah just two days ago, for example.

This represents a colossal failure of leadership and a failure to understand the most basic teachings of Islam and the sanctity of human life. People like Yusuf Shabbir and Haitham al-Haddad simply do not deserve the title of religious scholars. They are not. They are actually a menace to other human beings – as stupid people often are.

Just last month, a Tablighi Jamaat mass gathering in Malaysia facilitated a massive outbreak of coronavirus which the country is now desperately trying to contain and which doctors believe has now spread to other neighbouring countries. Two-thirds of Malaysian CV cases have now been traced back to that religious gathering.

This is because CV is often asymptomatic. You may look to be perfectly healthy but you can still be a carrier of the virus and pass it on to others. This is why the government and scientists have been so strongly urging us to avoid all unnecessary contact with others.

Earlier today, some of the religious scholars associated with the institutions I have named above issued a new announcement in which they now grudgingly appear to accept that their congregation should now pray at home though they say the mosques should still remain open for “a limited group (four or five) of appropriately selected individuals” to continue to perform the congregational prayers. How they intend to ensure that these individuals will not be or become carriers of coronavirus is not made clear.

In the coming days many of us in the UK will lose our loved ones – especially the elderly and those with weakened immune systems – to this virus. It is regrettable though not surprising given their past performance in previous years that many of our religious “scholars” failed this crucial test of leadership regarding protecting human lives. If this tragic episode encourages UK Muslims to become more prepared to question, criticise and challenge the views of people like Yusuf Shabbir and Haitham al-Haddad and other religious leaders who advocate stupidity then that will at least be one positive outcome from this terrible crisis.

May God grant us all knowledge and the ability to utilise it for the greater good of others. Ameen.

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Coronavirus: Science versus the religiously blinkered

It is sobering to contemplate how so much of the world has been gripped – and so quickly – by the Coronavirus pandemic. Many of us are understandably worried about the implications in the coming days and weeks for those who are most vulnerable to the infection including the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Still, we know that we are not entirely without hope. There is a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad about how for every disease there is a cure. The physicist David Deutsch once notably urged us to write into stone the phrase “problems are soluble”. We know that acting vigorously to suppress the chain of transmission will slow down the spread of the disease. We also know that the Coronavirus will have a unique genetic code and that scientists are examining it with a view to creating a vaccine that will eventually immunise us against it. And we should not forget that the word science comes from the Latin “scientia” – meaning knowledge. So, it is people with knowledge – scientists – that will find the vaccine.

One thing we can be pretty damn sure of is that the vaccine will not be found by a Mufti or an Imam (or a priest or a rabbi – unless they happen to also be scientists).

So, it has been curious to observe the response of some Muslim religious “scholars” (I use the word in the loosest possible way) to the Coronavirus pandemic and to see what they have been advising their followers to do.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson notably flanked by two scientists, Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer) and Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser) called on all Britons to immediately avoid all unnecessary contact and travel and to stay away from meeting places such as pubs and theatres – for the obvious reason that it would help slow down the transmission of the virus and therefore help to save many lives.

Fortunately, several of the UK’s main religious organisations including the Muslim Council of Britain, the Anglican Church and the United Synagogue took note and very sensibly urged the immediate suspension of all communal prayers in their respective places of worship. After all, prayers can be performed at home where there is much less risk of unwittingly transmitting the virus to others.

However, some in the Muslim community do not appear to have got the message. At Islamic Portal, in a note written by Yusuf Shabbir (and “approved” by Mufti Shabbir Ahmad and Mufti Muhammad Tahir) he urged that mosques should remain open for congregational prayer “until and unless the government places a total restriction on religious places”. Apparently, the government’s guidance that “all unnecessary contact” be avoided was not explicit enough for Yusuf Shabbir.

In a separate article the day previously the very same Yusuf Shabbir had written an article entitled “How Can Coronavirus Be Stopped?“. What do you think Yusuf Shabbir suggested was the way to stop Coronavirus? To support and listen to our scientists? Erm, no, not quite. Here is what he said – and I quote:

In addition to adopting precautions and abandoning sins, the following are some actions that can help bring this epidemic to an end:

  1. Perform the five obligatory Ṣalāh
  2. Regularly do Istigfār and Tawbah (repentance).
  3. Engage in the dhikr of Allah Almighty especially Tasbīḥ & Takbīr
  4. Regularly read durūd
  5. Give as much optional charity
  6. Perform two Rakʿat Nafl Ṣalāh individually
  7. Supplicate to Allah with masnūn supplications for well-being and protection (see this link for some examples)
  8. Do not panic-buy or hoard goods
  9. Exercise Ṣabr (patience), Shukr (gratitude) and Tawakkul (reliance)
  10. Contemplate death and the power of Allah Almighty

May I perhaps suggest that a sure fire way for UK Muslims to reduce the level of ignorance amongst their ranks is to stop listening to people like Yusuf Shabbir?

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