My Son Adam & Suicide: One Year On…

“The mention of my child’s name may bring tears to my eyes – but it never fails to bring music to my ears. If you really are my friend, please don’t keep me from hearing the beautiful music. It soothes my broken heart and fills my soul with love.” (When The Bough Breaks: Forever After The Death Of A Son Or Daughter”, Judith R. Bernstein, 1997, p 196)

I failed to recognise the seriousness of the warning signs in my son, Adam, in time. This weekend will be the first anniversary of when my ever-so-gentle and sensitive boy – the absolute joy of my eyes – took his own life just a few days short of his 21st birthday. This article has been written in the sincerest hope that others – particularly those suffering from mental illness and their families – may perhaps be able to benefit from reading about Adam and my many mistakes.

The continuing controversy surrounding suicide in parts of society and particularly religious communities is not helpful and can only worsen the sense of hopelessness that many suffering from mental illness feel, not to mention causing additional pain to the families of the bereaved who are already grieving deeply. Researchers say that the vast majority of cases of suicide involve some type of severe mental illness such as depression and/or anxiety. We need to try and view depression/anxiety in a similar way to how we view cancer and provide the necessary support, focus and resources in order to help treat it.

Flashback: It is 2008 and Adam – aged eight – and I have just returned home after visiting a local animal farm. “Oh God, have mercy!” I say, as was my habit. “Why do you keep saying ‘Oh God, have mercy?’” asks Adam. He seems worried that I might perhaps be in some kind of trouble. I reassure him that I am just fine, but I don’t tell him the full truth: that there is a terrible amount of pain out there in this world that many people all around us are enduring in all sorts of different forms. Knowing all too well my own many weaknesses and inability to withstand pain, I beg in advance, repeatedly, for Adam and I to be spared the worst and to be given a less painful test.

“Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere; those who say, when afflicted with calamity: ‘To God We belong, and to Him is our return.’” (Qur’an 2:155 – 156)

 “…For the most part, we are reluctant to talk about suicide and frightened to ask someone whether they are suicidal or not. This has to change. It is crucial that we promote the conversation around suicide, so that more people will feel less alone and get the help and support that they require.” (“When It Is Darkest: Why People Die By Suicide And What We Can Do To Prevent It”, Rory O’Connor, 2021, p11)

Adam had first been referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) by his GP in early 2017 after he stopped attending school. Adam could not bring himself to engage with CAMHS – I would later read that many of those with mental health issues are reluctant to discuss their feelings because they are worried about what others might think of them – and after a perfunctory three attempts to talk to Adam CAMHS decided to discharge Adam’s case. No tentative diagnosis was made or advice given about how Adam’s case should be treated going forward and any danger signs to look out for. CAMHS did not mention the possibility of future relapses. To this day I am upset with CAMHS. Looking back now, it is apparent to me that CAMHS were more interested in reducing their case load rather than really trying to help Adam or even provide the most basic information about mental health for educational purposes. Later, after Adam passed away, I would read books about depression and anxiety which detailed many signs to look out for – signs that I recall seeing in Adam; signs that CAMHS had told me nothing about. After Adam’s passing, I would meet other parents at Suicide Bereavement Support meetings and would hear countless more stories of uncaring and unprofessional behaviour on the part of CAMHS – a body that is meant to specifically provide support and help to families dealing with mental health issues.

Flashback: It is August 2020 during the second Covid lockdown and Adam and I have utilised the Covid “bubble” rules to visit my Dad at home. My Dad is performing the afternoon ‘Asr prayer and Adam and I are following him in prayer behind him. Three generations of us. I remember being so pleased to be praying alongside Adam. He had via the internet taught himself Arabic (and Latin) to a high standard. Very soon, Adam would be starting university. I remember several times offering to buy him a new Macbook Pro laptop so he could take it with him to university. He kept refusing and insisted on me getting him a cheap second-hand Windows laptop instead that he said would be more than sufficient for him. I could not have asked for a sweeter and more self-effacing son. Whenever he called me “Dad” my heart would swell in size.

When Adam decided in the autumn of 2019 – over two and a half years after he had first become unwell – that he wanted to return to education I was so happy for him. This was real progress, I thought. It was true that Adam still seemed much quieter and subdued than before he had become unwell but that was to be expected, right? He would surely continue to gradually improve and I just needed to give him some space. What I did not know at the time was that severe depression very rarely resolves itself without being treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Even though individuals may look like they are getting better, without treatment most will eventually suffer a relapse. Treatment may not be enough to save them, but without treatment, their chances of overcoming their depression are much lower.

“…Only one in ten patients who have recovered from depression will not have a relapse.” (“Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy Of Depression, Lewis Wolpert, 2006, p xiv)

In a 2018 BBC Horizon documentary about male suicide – which I regrettably only watched after Adam passed away – a father laments that he wishes he had studied more about mental health: “If I knew ten percent of what I know now, it is highly likely that my son would be alive.”

Flashback: It is February 2021 and Adam and I are out hiking in Barton-le-Clay. I show Adam a new app called “Picture This” that I have downloaded to my phone. It allows you to point your phone’s camera to a tree or plant and it will identify it and also provide facts about it and also any notable mentions in popular culture. I point my phone to a tree to demonstrate how it works and sure enough the app provides the name of the tree and also lists a poem in which the tree is mentioned. Adam is a big fan of poetry so I begin reading the poem to him from my phone. Adam interjects almost at once and begins to complete the rest of the poem from memory. I had never previously heard of the poem or the poet and so I just stand there in complete awe of Adam. He really is an exceptional boy and I am so grateful that he is my son.

In the months since Adam’s passing I have been making notes about what I think I have learned to date. Looking for help and answers has been a difficult and often frustrating process as Adam was never officially diagnosed with a mental health disorder. And it was only after Adam passed away that I found out that seventeen months before his death, Adam had reached out to an online pharmacy and had been prescribed tablets to help with the symptoms of anxiety. That would have been the first time that Adam himself had actually reached out to others for help since he first became unwell, but even then it was to an online pharmacy rather than talking to a medical professional first-hand. Many of those who suffer from depression – Professor Wolpert, who was a Professor of Biology at the University of London, said the figure is about fifty percent of them – cannot bring themselves to seek medical help for their condition. This makes it even more important that family members and close friends learn to recognise the symptoms associated with depression and provide help and assistance.   

“Anxiety: You know that feeling when you’re rocking on the back legs of your chair and suddenly for a split second you think you’re about to fall; that feeling in your chest? Imagine that split second feeling being frozen in time and lodged in your chest for hours/days, and imagine with it that sense of dread sticking around too, but sometimes you don’t even know why.” (From the MIND website)

Flashback: It is May 2021, just two months before Adam took his own life. I knock on Adam’s bedroom door and peer in. Adam is sitting in a chair and reading a book quietly. He has been in his room for a couple of hours now. Adam has been more withdrawn ever since he first became unwell several years ago. I know that Adam has struggled with mental health issues in the past but I do not sense any imminent danger and am unable to summon up the courage to directly ask him if he wants to talk about how he is feeling. Instead, I ask him, “Would you like a coffee and a chocolate bar?”

The observations that follow below are obviously personal to my experience with Adam, though I hope that they may also be of help to others. They are not just addressed to parents, but to anyone supporting a loved one who may be suicidal or is having mental health problems. The points listed below constitute knowledge that I wish I was aware of a few years ago. The list is by no means meant to be exhaustive – I would encourage you if you are interested to also please refer to the links at the end of this article.

Educate and familiarise yourself about mental illness and suicide. There are many useful videos on YouTube and I have provided some links that I found personally useful at the end of this article. Just a few hours of study now could save you and your loved ones an enormous amount of pain later. One book that I also found informative was Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression by Lewis Wolpert. Professor Wolpert’s book is a first-hand account of his depressive episodes and how he tried to deal with them.

Learn to look out for the warning signs. Is your child having trouble either getting enough sleep or sleeping too much? Are they not taking pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed? Have they withdrawn from their friends? Are they sometimes showing signs of irritation at the smallest things? Are they giving prized personal possessions away? These were all signs I recall seeing in Adam. Adam’s sleeping patterns were erratic and he would occasionally show signs of irritation for what seemed like very trivial reasons. At Alton Towers, whereas on previous occasions Adam would be thoroughly enjoying himself, he now seemed to be just going through the motions and did not appear to derive pleasure from the rides. A year before he passed away, Adam said he no longer wanted to use his desktop PC and wanted to give it away. I had bought him that PC a few years earlier as a present for doing so well in his GCSEs. I would later learn that giving one’s personal possessions away, when combined with symptoms of depression or anxiety, is often a sign that a person has suicidal intentions.

Obtain medical advice and assistance. The quality of service that Adam received from CAMHS may have been deeply flawed, but that should not deter you from seeking urgent assistance from your GP and mental health services. Insist that your loved ones are provided with the best possible care. Obtaining a diagnosis should help provide some clarity and understanding about what is going on and how to deal with a difficult and potentially tragic situation.

Don’t be afraid to raise the issue of suicide. If your child appears to be sad and withdrawn for a prolonged period of time then ask them directly whether they would like to talk about their feelings. After Adam appeared to be getting better and returned to education, I would often ask him “How are you? How are things going?” He would invariably respond with “Good.”  I did not probe deeper and ask him about why he had previously been so withdrawn – and why he was much quieter now – as I was afraid that if I did that I would only make matters worse as it might remind Adam of those darker times. That was a mistake and I cannot now make it better. I began to view Adam’s more reserved personality as the new normal instead of treating it as a symptom of an ongoing illness that required medical attention and assistance.

Please don’t choose suicide as a way out of your pain. If you are the one who is enduring what seems like unbearable and unending mental pain, please do not choose suicide. Suicide may at this moment in time look to be a way out of your pain and you may think that it will mean that you will be less of a burden to others, but be sure that you are not a burden at all to your loved ones. Absolutely not at all. They would do anything for you. You are valued and loved very much even though you may not believe it right now. That negative voice in your head is not your friend. It is lying to you. Be sure that effective help is available and near at hand. That negative voice is wrong when it says that nothing can be done to help you to make the pain go away. You are suffering from an illness and it can be successfully addressed with the correct medication and therapy. Please talk to your family and loved ones about how you are feeling. They will help you to get the medical treatment you need. Be sure of this. Please don’t give up. I promise you that they will help you.

Flashback: It is January 2022 and I am sitting – suitably wrapped up and cradling a hot water bottle – beside Adam’s grave at the Gardens of Peace cemetery in Chigwell. Six months have now passed since we buried my beautiful boy and I have calculated that I have witnessed over two hundred burials here in that time – the number being higher than usual no doubt due to Covid. I wonder if any of those two hundred deaths were also by suicide. Our scientific advances mean that mental illnesses are now increasingly treatable and that therefore suicides – which research suggests almost always involves some form of mental illness – are preventable too. I wonder how many needless deaths could be prevented if we only talked more with each other and watched out for each other a bit better. Quite a few of the regular visitors to the graves nearby have now become familiar to me. I have decided to designate us as – with apologies to Tolkien – “The Fellowship of the Sorrowful”.

The Qur’an informs us that when we are resurrected, the first words that believers will say is “All praise is due to God Who has removed grief from us…” (Qur’an 35:34-35). “…removed grief from us” – how well the Qur’an understands our longing to be in that pain-free state. Grief is an inevitable part of all of our lives. In a very real sense it binds us all together and reminds us of our common humanity regardless of our religious or ethnic backgrounds. Whether it is serious illness, broken relationships, the death of our parents, siblings or children, we are all either members of the walking wounded or soon to join their ranks.

I have tried to keep this post quite general as the issue of suicide transcends cultures and religions, but I would like to say a few more words about Islam at this point as I doubt I would still be here today if it was not for the promise of the Qur’an that we will be reunited with our loved ones in the Hereafter.  

“And those who believe and whose offspring follow them in Faith, to them shall We join their offspring, and We shall not decrease the reward of their deeds in anything. Every person is a pledge for that which he has earned.” (Qur’an 52:21)

The pagan Arabs at the time of the Prophet Muhammad did not believe in an afterlife. It was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s most notable achievements that he succeeded in spreading a worldview that taught – in common with the other Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity – that everyone would be held accountable by God in the afterlife for their actions and our painful separation from our dear ones here on earth would only be temporary. Just eight days after Adam was buried, I was reading the Qur’an besides Adam’s grave when I came to the following verse:

“God did indeed choose Adam…” (Qur’an 3:33)

This verse – which I had come across many times previously over the years – suddenly took on a very special and personal meaning for me and I am immensely grateful for the comfort it provided me and continues to provide me every day when I feel the deepest longing to be with my Adam.

I want to thank my family and friends for their many kindnesses over the past year, whether it be in sharing your memories of Adam with me; taking me out on road trips and outings to various places around the UK; going to the cinema; playing chess and scrabble together or just listening to me talk about Adam while walking in our gorgeous parks – it has all helped. You know who you are and I love you all.

I really hope that some of you who are reading this are encouraged to spend even a little time learning to spot some of the symptoms of mental illness. You may well be able to do what I was not able to do and save someone’s life.

Adam had a very poetic soul. In the short time he was here, he walked quietly and gently on this earth. He loved his books and was enchanted by poetry. So, it seems right and fitting to end here with a poem. It is called “On My First Son” and is by the playwright and poet, Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) and is about the death of his seven year old son, also called Ben(jamin).

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

“What is with you vanishes – what is with God will endure…” (Qur’an 16:96)

“Your wealth and your children are only a trial; and with God is a mighty reward.” (Qur’an 64:15)

Additional Resources

  • If you are feeling suicidal or are having intensely negative thoughts and for any reason are unable to talk to your family or friends then please call the Samaritans hotline for free on 116 123. Please do not suffer in silence. Help is available – be sure of this.
  • The Zero Suicide Alliance has a helpful 20 minute online course about suicide and how to deal with a situation in which someone you know appears to be depressed or may be having suicidal thoughts. It also contains testimony from a lady who lost her son to suicide. She says: “If I had known then what I know now, I might have been able to help my son stay alive. And what I would give to have that opportunity back, but unfortunately, I can’t.”
  • Google Talks – Losing a Child To Suicide (54 mins long). This is a lecture – from a mother who lost her daughter to suicide – which addresses some common misconceptions about suicide.
  • CBS News item (9 mins long) about a teenager, Alexandra Valoras, and how her parents were completely unaware of her suicidal thoughts until it was too late. They later found Alexandra’s journal which revealed just how her mind had been tormenting her.
  • Dr Rania Awaad’s writings. Awaad is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and writes about mental health issues especially in relation to tackling the stigma surrounding this issue in Muslim communities.

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IPSO Refuses To Act On Jewish Chronicle’s False Claim About Islamic History

I have just sent the below letter to IPSO following their refusal to act against the Jewish Chronicle for publishing a front page story on April 22nd 2022 which made the false claim that Jews were the victims of a “massacre” by Muslims at Khaybar in 628 C.E.

Hi [Name Redacted],

Thank you for your response. I am very disappointed with the response from IPSO’s Complaints Committee. It is particularly galling when you say:

“The Committee appreciated that there is some debate about whether this massacre happened, however – where the article made clear a group of people do believe this event to have happened…”

Who are “the group of people” that do believe that a “massacre” occurred at Khaybar? Is it the Jewish Chronicle’s cleaning lady again? Would IPSO object if a national newspaper published a news article which made the following claim?

“It is said that the 13th century Jewish Rabbi Hillel enjoyed sexual relations with pigs throughout his life.”

Would the “it is said” be enough for IPSO to rule that this claim is acceptable because it is not presented as a strict matter of fact or would IPSO require that the publication provide some actual historical evidence to back up this false (as far as I know) claim? I strongly suspect IPSO would opt for the latter course of action. So, it is very unfortunate that in the case of the false claim by the Jewish Chronicle about an alleged “massacre” by Muslims at Khaybar in 628 C.E., IPSO appears to have taken no action whatsoever to consult historians to ascertain whether the Jewish Chronicle was right or wrong.

IPSO will no doubt be aware that the Jewish Chronicle has been successfully sued for libel for making false claims about Muslims and Muslim organisations in the past and has had to apologise in court for those false claims. You will also be aware that the Jewish Chronicle had to provide “targeted training” delivered by IPSO to all their editorial staff in 2021 after repeated complaints about the Jewish Chronicle’s failure to abide by the Editors’ Code of Practice rules. So, it is regrettable that IPSO have been unwilling in this instance to enforce its own Editors’ Code of Practice rules on the Jewish Chronicle.

I didn’t expect much from the Jewish Chronicle – it has a long history of bigoted and untruthful reporting about Islam and Muslims – but I did expect much better from IPSO.

Yours faithfully,

Inayat Bunglawala

= = =

I am copying below – for the purpose of transparency – my entire correspondence with IPSO about this complaint.

[24 April 2022]

Independent Press Standards Organisation
Gate House
1 Farringdon Street

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to complain about a front page article in this week’s Jewish Chronicle (22 April 2022) entitled “Death threat to Jews sung openly at rallies across UK”. This article is also currently on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle website – see the attached images.

The Jewish Chronicle article says:

“The chant, “Khaybar, Khaybar Ya Yahud, Jaish Mohammed Sauf Ya’ud” means “Watch Out Jews, Remember Khaybar, the Army of Mohammed is returning”.

“It refers to a massacre of Jews said to have been carried out at Khaybar in Arabia in 628CE — more than 1,300 years before the modern state of Israel was founded.”

There was absolutely no “massacre of Jews” carried out “at Khaybar in Arabia in 628 CE.” The Jews of Khaybar agreed in the year 628 CE to pay a tribute to the early Islamic state based in Madina for having taking part in plots against it. The Jewish Chronicle front page article is incorrect and therefore the Jewish Chronicle front page headline describing the chant “Khaybar, Khaybar…” as a “Death threat to Jews” would also appear to be wrong (and, quite ironically, the Jewish Chronicle could be said with rather more accuracy to be inciting hatred of Muslims).

Once again, I repeat, there was no “massacre of Jews” carried out “at Khaybar in Arabia in 628 CE” as the Jewish Chronicle alleges.

This extremely serious error on the part of the Jewish Chronicle is compounded by the fact that its “story” (or, more accurately, non-story or lie) has been spread around the internet by other outlets including the Jerusalem Post. See the online Jerusalem Post article at the following link:

I do hope that IPSO takes this matter up urgently with the Jewish Chronicle. I look forward to hearing your response and the result of your investigations into this matter.

Thank you.

Mr Inayat Bunglawala

= = =

[29 April 2022]

Our reference: 02922-22 (The Jewish Chronicle (The Jewish Chronicle))

Dear Mr Bunglawala,

I am writing to follow up on our earlier email.

IPSO considers complaints made under the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

So that we can be sure we have understood your complaint, we need you to specify the Clause(s) of the Code under which you wish to complain. Please use the following link to find the Editors’ Code of Practice if you need to refer to it: We would suggest you look at Clause 1 (Accuracy) which deals with concerns about inaccurate and misleading reporting.

We look forward to receiving this information, and would be grateful for your response within the next seven days.

With best wishes

[Name Redacted]

= = =

[29 April 2022]

Hi [Name Redacted]

Yes, my complaint centres around what I believe to be the breaches of Clause 1 of the Code of Practice.

To be more specific:

  1. There was no “massacre” at Khaybar in 628 CE.
  2. The phrase “Khaybar, Khaybar…” cannot fairly be reported to be a “Death Threat”. A death threat is an extremely serious accusation and in this case you will note that the words did not appear in quotation marks to suggest that they were an allegation, it was reported as fact. So, the Jewish Chronicle was claiming that “clear death threats” were made at “rallies”, but provided no evidence of this at all. It is hard to think of a more incendiary false accusation.

I hope this clarifies matters, but please do let me know if you require any more information.

Thank you.



= = =

[19 May 2022]

Our reference: 02922-22 (The Jewish Chronicle (The Jewish Chronicle))

Dear Mr Bunglawala,

We apologise for coming back again, and thank you for your patience.

We would be grateful if you could set out why it is inaccurate to refer to the chant as a “death threat”.

We look forward to hearing from you and would appreciate your response within the next seven days.

With best wishes,

[Name Redacted]

= = =

[23 May 2022]

Your Ref: 02922-22 (The Jewish Chronicle)

Dear [Name Redacted],

Thank you for your email of 19/05/22.

You asked if I could set out why it is inaccurate to refer to the “Khaybar, Khaybar…” chant as a “death threat”.

I would have thought that if a newspaper makes an assertion that someone (or some group) is uttering a death threat – an extremely serious allegation, then it would be for them – when challenged – to prove that it is indeed a “death threat” or show that our courts have indeed ruled that it is a “death threat”.

Anyway, the chant literally says the following:

“Khaybar, Khaybar, Ya Yahud,
Jaysh Muhammad Sawfa Ya’ud”

“Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews
The army of Muhammad will return”

As you can plainly see, there is no death threat mentioned in the chant at all. The chant recalls the Prophet Muhammad’s campaign against the Jewish fortresses in Khaybar in 628 C.E. due to their plotting against the early Islamic state and their support for the opponents of the early Islamic state. The Jews of Khaybar surrendered and agreed to pay a tribute to the Islamic state in return for being allowed to continue to live in Khaybar – as opposed to being forced into exile.

In my original complaint I mentioned that the Jewish Chronicle had erroneously stated that the chant “refers to a massacre of Jews said to have been carried out at Khaybar in Arabia in 628CE — more than 1,300 years before the modern state of Israel was founded.” I pointed out that there was no “massacre” at Khaybar. This was a totally false claim made by the Jewish Chronicle. The Jewish Chronicle appears to have confused what happened at Khaybar in 628 C.E. with the fate of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah in Madina in 627 C.E. It is evident that the Jewish Chronicle tried to link the chant to a supposed “massacre” at Khaybar in order to defend their characterisation of the chant as a “death threat”.

As there was plainly no “massacre” of Jews in Khaybar and as the chant evidently makes no “death threat” – I would like IPSO to rule on whether the Jewish Chronicle has breached Clause 1 of IPSO’s Code of Practice.

To assert in a front page headline that someone of some group has made a “death threat” – and you will note that the words “death threat” did not appear in quotation marks in the original headline, meaning that the Jewish Chronicle was confidently asserting that a death threat was made, it was not merely saying that a Jewish group had alleged that a “death threat” had been made – is an extremely serious matter and they need to back it up with concrete facts, not inaccurate statements about a “massacre” that never happened.

Do let me know if you require any further information.

Thank you.



= = =

[24 May 2022]

Dear Mr Bunglawala,

I write further to our earlier email regarding your complaint about an article headlined “Death threat to Jews sung openly at rallies across UK”, published by The Jewish Chronicle on 22 April 2022.

When IPSO receives a complaint, the Executive staff review it first to decide whether the complaint falls within our remit, and whether it raises a possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice. We have read your complaint carefully, and have decided that it does not raise a possible breach of the Editors’ Code.

You said the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) as it claimed the chant referred “to a massacre of Jews said to have been carried out at Khaybar in Arabia in 628CE — more than 1,300 years before the modern state of Israel was founded.” You said there was no massacre of Jews carried out “at Khaybar in Arabia in 628 CE”. We appreciated that you disputed that there had been a massacre of Jews in Khaybar in 628 CE, however IPSO is not in a position to make a ruling on an alleged historical event which happened over a millennium ago. We also noted that the article said “It refers to a massacre of Jews said to have been carried out at Khaybar” which did not present it as a claim of fact but rather a matter of historical debate. For this reason, we did not identify grounds to investigate a breach of Clause 1.

You also said the article was inaccurate as it described the chant as a death threat. We appreciated your concerns but noted that the article set out the basis for its characterisation of “death threat” where it suggested the chant alluded to a massacre “said” to have happened and that an army was returning. It further described another rally on 15 May “which chanted ‘death to Israel’ in Arabic”. In these circumstances, where the chant referred to an “alleged” massacre – regardless of whether the massacre actually happened – and also warned that an army was coming, the newspaper was entitled to characterise these chants as “death threats”. We did not identify grounds to investigate a breach of Clause 1.

You are entitled to request that the Executive’s decision to reject your complaint be reviewed by IPSO’s Complaints Committee. To do so you will need to write to us in the next seven days, setting out the reasons why you believe the decision should be reviewed. Please note that we are unable to accept requests for review made seven days after the date of this email.

We would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider the points you have raised, and have shared this correspondence with the newspaper to make it aware of your concerns.

Best wishes,

[Name Redacted]

Cc The Jewish Chronicle

= = =

[29 May 2022]
Your reference: 02922-22 (The Jewish Chronicle)

Dear [Name Redacted],

Thank you for your email dated 24/5/22.

I am writing to ask that your decision to reject my complaint be reviewed by IPSO’s Complaints Committee. My reasons for this are as follows:

  1. You said that you rejected my complaint that the Jewish Chronicle made a factual error in asserting in a front page story that there was a “massacre in Khaybar in Arabia in 628 CE” because you said that “IPSO is not in a position to make a ruling on an alleged historical event which happened over a millenium ago. We also noted that the article said “It refers to a massacre of Jews said to have been carried out at Khaybar” which did not present it as a claim of fact but rather a matter of historical debate. For this reason, we did not identify grounds to investigate a breach of Clause 1.”

I am very puzzled by your arguments here. The IPSO Code of Practice clearly says the following under Clause 1 (Accuracy):

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

You will note that it does not say that IPSO will only rule on “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” if it involves say information relating to the last fifty years or so. IPSO can easily find out if my argument that the Jewish Chronicle was factually wrong and that there was no “massacre” of Jews at Khaybar in 628 CE (the JC evidently got confused with the punishment meted out to the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah for their treachery in 627 CE in Madina) by consulting any decent historian of the Middle East at any of our top universities. This should not be an onerous or difficult task for IPSO.

Secondly, just because the Jewish Chronicle phrased their sentence as saying “It refers to a massacre of Jews said to have been carried out at Khaybar” – that does not absolve them of the need to be factually accurate. This was a news item on their front page – it was not a comment piece tucked away in their inside pages. The news item made a factually incorrect assertion in a highly prominent way – it did not simply present it as “a matter for historical debate” as you – quite astonishingly – say.

  1. You also rejected my complaint that the headline “Death threat to Jews sung openly at rallies across UK” was inaccurate because if there was no “massacre” at Khaybar then the Jewish Chronicle was wrong to characterise the chant as a “Death threat”. In your rejection email, you argued that “the article set out the basis for its characterisation of “death threat” where it suggested the chant alluded to a massacre “said” to have happened and that an army was returning. It further described another rally on 15 May “which chanted ‘death to Israel’ in Arabic”.

It is astonishing to me that you are laying so much importance to the fact that the Jewish Chronicle said that a massacre was “said” to have occurred in Khaybar – “regardless of whether the massacre actually happened”. Alleging that a “massacre” occured at Khaybar is evidently central to the Jewish Chronicle’s case that the chant – which refers to Khaybar – is a “death threat”. Who “said” there was a massacre at Khaybar? Was it the JC’s cleaning lady? Would that have been sufficient to satisfy IPSO – or should IPSO require that a national newspaper provide rather more substance to its assertions than that?

Also, the chant “Death to Israel” is a political slogan – it is not a “Death threat” and you cannot be imprisoned for it. It is not against the law to call for the dismantlement of an apartheid state (as Amnesty International and other leading human rights organisations have labelled the Israeli state for their illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and their treatment of the occupied people). A death threat against an individual or groups of individuals is an extremely serious matter and it is against the law. The chant “Death to Israel” is not against the law as it clearly refers to a state not an individual or a group of individuals – is IPSO really suggesting otherwise? Are you aware of anyone who has been successfully prosecuted for merely chanting “Death to Israel”? I would also add here that it is abundantly clear to any reader of the Jewish Chronicle article that the “death threat” they were referring to was related to the chant “Khaybar, Khaybar…” (see paragraph 4 of their front page story).

In summary, I hope that IPSO’s Complaints Committee will look carefully at my complaint and judge whether the Jewish Chronicle breached its responsibility to abide by Clause 1 of the Editor’s Code of Practice on Accuracy.

Thank you.


Inayat Bunglawala

= = =

[27 June 2022]

Our reference: 02922-22 (The Jewish Chronicle (The Jewish Chronicle))

Dear Mr Bunglawala,

The Complaints Committee has considered your complaint, the email from IPSO’s Executive notifying you of its view that your complaint did not raise a possible breach of the Code, and your email requesting a review of the Executive’s decision. The Committee agreed the following decision:

The Committee noted that where you did not appear to dispute that the chant was about an alleged massacre at Khaybar in Arabia in 628CE, and where the article made clear the chant “refers to a massacre of Jews said to have been carried out at Khaybar in Arabia in 628CE” the article was not a claim of fact about whether this event happened but rather, that a chant which was heard at a protest made reference to an alleged massacre of Jews.

The Committee appreciated that there is some debate about whether this massacre happened, however – where the article made clear a group of people do believe this event to have happened – it was entitled to characterise the chant as a death threat and this basis was clearly set out in the article.

While the Committee also understood your concerns that chanting “Death to Israel” is a political slogan calling for the dismantlement of “an apartheid state”, others may have different interpretations of this chant, and it was not significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted for the newspaper to characterise this as a “death threat”.

For this reason, and the reasons already provided by IPSO’s Executive, the Committee decided that your complaint did not raise a possible breach of the Code. As such, it declined to re-open your complaint.

The Committee would like to thank you for giving it the opportunity to consider your concerns.

Best wishes,

[Name Redacted]

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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.

Sept 2003: Adam demonstrating his likeness with the Incredible Hulk

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.

Update: On the afternoon of July 22 – eight days after we buried Adam – I was reading the Qur’an beside Adam’s grave and came to the below passage in Surah Aal-i-Imran:

“And God did indeed choose Adam…” (Qur’an 3:33)

This passage has provided – and continues to provide – a lot of comfort to me. I have high hopes that God will have mercy on my gentle and tender-hearted boy.

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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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