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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Review: Who Killed Malcolm X?

Back in 1992, the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X was showing in UK cinemas. On those evenings, a small group of us from The Young Muslims UK dutifully stood outside many of those cinemas in a number of our towns and cities to sell our youth magazine TRENDS which had a dedicated front cover feature on the African-American Muslim leader to tie in with the movie release.

We had all come to know the broad outline of the life story of the civil rights leader Malcolm X. Malcolm had been a petty criminal in his youth and during a stint in prison he came into contact with the teachings of the black nationalist movement, the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad. The NoI had played a key role in helping to empower black people who were facing racism and discrimination in the USA and helped to instill in them confidence, self-respect and discipline.

Following his release from prison Malcolm was mentored by Elijah Muhammad. Given Malcolm’s own charisma, devotion and oratorical skills, he rose rapidly up the NoI hierarchy over the next few years and helped to bring in many thousands of new members until he widely became viewed as the No. 2 to Elijah Muhammad and his heir apparent. This rise created jealousy amongst some in Elijah Muhammad’s inner circle who started a whispering campaign against Malcolm and sought to turn Elijah against Malcolm. That break between the two came at the end of 1963 and over the next year Malcolm was the target of a hate campaign by many of his former colleagues in the NoI until his assassination in Feb 1965 at the hands of NoI members.

That much is known. What I did not know and my younger 1992 self standing outside those cinemas most certainly did not know – until I watched the Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X? – was that the person who had allegedly fired the shotgun which actually killed Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom in New York on that fateful day back in 1965 was still alive and living under a new identity in the USA and had never been arrested for the murder. In fact, the Netflix documentary argues that two of the three men convicted of Malcolm’s murder were innocent and were not even present at the Audubon Ballroom on the day of the killing. The actual killers were a five-man hit team of whom only one was actually caught and convicted. This is stunning news. How on earth did this happen?

Malcolm X gave his life to spread the egalitarian teachings of Islam among the African-American community and the tremendous success he was achieving in his  mission was feared by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI who was determined to prevent the rise of a “Black Messiah.”

Our main narrator in this six-part documentary is Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a likeable and humble historian-activist who works as a tour guide for a living. Abdur-Rahman says that he became obsessed with uncovering the truth about Malcolm’s murder after realising that the official prosecution version of the killing just seemed to leave too many questions unanswered. For over thirty years, Abdur-Rahman worked to gain access to official police and FBI files and talk to living witnesses to try and obtain answers to his questions.

Amongst the many astonishing revelations in this documentary is the news that the FBI had nine paid informants sitting in that crowd of four hundred people who were attending Malcolm’s talk that day in Feb 1965. Shockingly, none of the nine informants present at the scene of Malcolm’s murder were called by the authorities to give evidence at the trial.

An official note uncovered from the FBI makes clear that they were committed to preventing the unifying of radical black movements and had therefore created a network of both informants and paid agents who had infiltrated leading black organisations including the NoI and Malcolm’s new organisation. Interviews undertaken by the documentary makers with the relevant law enforcement officials still alive today show that they derived much pleasure at sowing division amongst the black nationalist movement.

The documentary is also very good at revealing the human cost paid by two of those accused of being involved in Malcolm’s killing but who were actually innocent according to Abdur-Rahman Muhammad. One of the two, Thomas 15X Johnson, died in 2009, but the second, Norman 3X Butler (now called Muhammad Abdul Aziz) is still alive and has always denied being involved in Malcolm’s murder. Muhammad Abdul Aziz spent twenty years in prison and was unable to form a proper relationship with his children. When asked if things had now gotten better, he shakes his head in sorrow. Later, we see him walking in a park where points to the trees and says:

“The tree is a representation of life: power, structure, development, response. And its branches respond to light. Light is a metaphor for knowledge. When branches don’t get enough light they will bend and twist and do whatever they have to in order to get light. And people should do the same thing. But they often don’t.”

Our narrator Abdur-Rahman Muhammad keeps digging in order to find out who fired the shotgun that killed Malcolm and encounters some Muslims in Newark who try to discourage him from going any further. “The chapter’s closed,” “Leave him alone,” “Why open old wounds?” But, determined that truth should be revealed, Abdur-Rahman perseveres and finally manages to track down the man who allegedly killed Malcolm X and has been living under a new identity all these years.

Following the release of this Netflix documentary just over a week ago, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced that they were going to review the case of Malcolm X with a view to re-opening the case. It could perhaps lead to the exoneration of the two men who were apparently wrongly convicted of murder.

This documentary is testament to the difference that one person can make and the need to always be wary of unquestioningly accepting the authorities’ version of events. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad has done Malcolm X and all of us a true service by helping to shine some light on a very murky tale.
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PBS: The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

Last October 2019, a year after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the US public service channel, PBS, broadcast a two-hour documentary, The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The documentary looks at the rise of Muhammad bin Salman and his handling of dissent.

The Saudis have a lot of money at their disposal with which they have bought newspapers, TV channels, and numerous Muslim organisations across the world. They have purchased spying software from Israel to keep tabs on Saudi dissidents. Successive US governments have provided critical support to the repressive Saudi regime in return for huge amounts of Saudi money being spent on the US arms industry.

Amidst all this corruption, the PBS documentary is a breathtakingly honest look at the secretive Kingdom and its destructive Crown Prince.

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Sudesh Amman’s Family Also Deserve Our Sympathy

Amidst all the media coverage over the past couple of days of the horribly misguided actions of Sudesh Amman – the young twenty-year-old who went on a knifing spree in Streatham High Street, South London, last Sunday, just days after being released from prison – it is only right and natural to feel sympathy and solidarity with the two innocent victims of his attacks. The good news is that both victims of the senseless stabbings, the teacher, Monika Luftner, and a man, said to be in his 40s, are reported to be recovering from their injuries.

It is less obvious – but perhaps no less true – that the family of Sudesh Amman are also deserving of our sympathy and solidarity. According to media reports, the mother, Haleema Khan, has had the difficult task of bringing up Sudesh’s five younger brothers on her own for the past few years while the father had returned to live in Sri Lanka. How must they all – especially the younger siblings – feel to know that their eldest brother has been shot dead and that their every move is now being monitored closely by the UK media who have been busy questioning all of their neighbours and school friends for any news about them and their background? The younger kids must surely be very apprehensive about returning to school to face the inevitable questions and cruel taunts (and perhaps worse).

I don’t know if I am hoping for too much when I say that it would be good to think that the many mosques and community organisations in Luton – right on the door step of Dunstable (the town where Sudesh’s family are now living) – would be performing their duty and providing assistance to Haleema Khan and her children in their time of need. Even attempting to go out to get the groceries to feed the kids at this time is very likely to result in the UK media crowding the family members and bombarding them with questions when they are feeling incredibly vulnerable. So, will the mosques of Luton (and indeed our national Muslim organisations) come to assist? I don’t know – but I would like to think that they would. No doubt there are sections of the UK media that may look to criticise the mosques and community organisations for helping out, but they – and we – are surely answerable to a higher authority than the gutter press.

It is heart breaking to see our young people being seduced by propaganda from the likes of ISIS/AQ. All too often, the only role models being offered to our youth are those who have compromised their principles in exchange for money from government and others with deep pockets. Some have even turned into vocal defenders of Israel’s apartheid policies. Have we so quickly forgotten how when we were young we viewed with disdain those – in the UK and elsewhere – who blandly parroted government lines in the hope of gaining honours and wealth?

Since the Tories came to power in 2010 they have short-sightedly boycotted dialogue with the UK’s largest and most representative organisations including the Muslim Council of Britain. It is high time to re-open that dialogue and work together to look at how our young people can be better protected and safe-guarded.

We must always be willing to speak out loudly against unjust killings whether it is carried out by the nihilists of ISIS/AQ or by our own Western governments. A failure to do so will surely mean that we lose the trust and respect of our youth. And rightfully so.

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Review: Rise of Empires: Ottoman (Netflix)

On two separate occasions in the new six-part Netflix docu-drama Rise of Empires: Ottoman the newly appointed Sultan Mehmed II (Muhammad) – who was only nineteen when he took the helm of the Ottoman state following the death of his father Murad II – is offered boxes of gold by those seeking to earn his favour. On both occasions he rebuffs the gifts. For Mehmed has only one over-riding desire: an ambition he has nurtured since he was a child. To fulfil the saying of the Prophet Muhammad concerning the Muslim ummah:

‘Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!’

Twenty-three armies in the previous centuries, including that of his own father, had failed to breakthrough the famous fourteen mile long walls enclosing the city of Constantinople. The walls were first built by the Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century. Now Mehmed, conscious that his newly-acquired authority is not unquestioned, informs his officials that he has had a dream in which those walls had opened before him. “The time of the Romans has ended,” he announces. It is time for a new chapter of history to begin. We are informed that Mehmed has a vision of his Ottoman realm having a distinctly multi-ethnic and multi-religious character.

What follows is an utterly gripping mix of drama and history lesson with regular helpful input and commentary from a variety of Western and Turkish historians and scholars including Jason Goodwin (the author of Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire) and a Professor Emeritus of something or other.

The beleaguered Orthodox Christian defenders of Constantinople are acutely aware that they are outnumbered ten to one by the Ottoman forces but they place their hopes on their reliable walls and assistance arriving from the Catholic city states to the West. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI is also conscious that he is the heir to a one thousand year Roman legacy and refuses Mehmed’s request to handover the city peacefully. So begins the siege of Constantinople and a battle of wits between Constantine XI and Mehmed II.

With each day that he fails to break the defence of Constantinople Mehmed is aware that his army could mutiny and his advisers including the Grand Vizier (Wazir) Candarli Halil Pasha could seek to overthrow him and have him killed.

The Emperor welcomes the Italian pirate Giovanni Giustiniani and his mercenaries to Constantinople and tasks him with leading the defence of the city. The Christians are portrayed fairly and sympathetically as trying to defend their own Roman inheritance. It must have taken a huge amount of courage to refuse to back down in the face of Mehmed’s colossal army. Both sides believe that God is on their side but as the introductory narration from Charles Dance points out, for one empire to rise, another must fall.

Learn lessons from the failures of your father and those before him if you want to be the one that conquers Constantinople, Mehmed’s stepmother advises him. So when Mehmed suffers repeated setbacks during the siege he goes back to the table in his tent to think of new tactics to deploy.

And I think we all know how the battle ends, right?

I could only find a minor criticism to make. While Mehmed was shown to be impetuous, arrogant and impatient – and perhaps that is the point as he was still so young, the actor that plays him is, well, a bit short. In the scene when Mehmed comes face to face with Commander Giustiniani it is difficult not to notice this disparity and realise that it is more like face to belly button. I began to wonder why Giustiniani did not start laughing outright at his dwarf opponent. I have no idea if the actual Mehmed al-Fatih (the Conqueror) was as short, but I have to admit to finding it just a bit distracting.

Other than that I was glad to see that a lot of actual Turkish actors were involved in the leading roles and although the production required them to speak in English, it did not take away from their performances in any way and their accents even added an extra measure of authenticity to the proceedings.

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Ayatullah Khamenei’s Friday Jumu’ah sermon – with English translation

The Iranian channel Press TV has uploaded the entire footage of the  sermon – click on the pic above – delivered by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Khamenei at the Friday congregational prayer in Tehran on 17th January 2020.

The sermon dealt with two important issues that have faced their nation in recent weeks: the assassination by the United States of the Iranian General Qasim Sulaymani and the tragic shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger plane by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

It is not often on our Western TV screens that we get to hear the Iranian leadership’s point of view concerning recent events so the sermon which is about an hour long and includes an English translation is definitely worth watching.

We sometimes forget that the secret services of the UK and the USA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian leader Muhammad Musaddiq in 1953 (after he nationalised Iran’s oil industry – how dare he, eh?) and that this has coloured the perception of Iranians about the UK and USA ever since. Just imagine the reaction if the reverse had happened and the Iranian secret services had orchestrated the overthrow of the UK government! But we are so conditioned by our media and politicians to accept that Western meddling in the affairs of the Middle Eastern nations is perfectly normal and acceptable that we do not react with outrage at the behaviour of our own governments.

Similarly, with the recent assassination of the Iranian General Qasim Sulaymani: Just imagine if the reverse had happened and that the Iranians had assassinated an equivalent high ranking official of the United States and had openly celebrated it. However, once again, we have been conditioned to accept that illegal and murderous behaviour on the part of the United States is perfectly acceptable and even to be praised.

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