Living ‘Interfaithly’: What These Two Women Can Teach Us

Three of us friends—M, N, and I—come from different religious backgrounds. One of the things that keeps us together is our common interest in promoting better relations between people who follow (or claim to follow) different religions. We are part of an active interfaith group. In addition, we sometimes together visit organizations that are doing good work for needy people from different religious backgrounds: interfaith service being at least as important as interfaith theological confabulations. I love these visits: one gets to meet inspiring people who are doing beautiful things with their lives, embodying inter-religious harmony and a spirituality that transcends religion even without speaking or theologizing about it.

Yesterday, we went on our latest such trip. N had collected some money which she wanted to give to a woman who had worked in her home as a domestic help when she was a child—which was perhaps more than 40 years ago. The woman, Bibi Jaan, is a Muslim. Now maybe 90 years or so old, she lives all by herself in a little structure in a slum in a distant part of the city.

Bibi Jaan had stopped working with N’s family many years ago. But sometimes during the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan, she would go all the way to N’s place, and N’s father (who is a Muslim) would give her some money in charity. With Ramzan this year scheduled to start shortly, N wanted to go over herself to meet Bibi Jaan and  hand  over  some money that she had collected for her, and M and I decided to accompany her.

A woman called Uma was the only person N was in touch with who knew where Bibi Jaan lived. Luckily, N had Uma’s telephone number. She spoke to Uma, and Uma readily agreed to take us to meet Bibi Jaan.

When we got to Bibi Jaan’s place in the slum, we found the door locked. Bibi Jaan had gone out and we didn’t know where she was and when she would be back.  It was pointless waiting for her. And so, we headed for Uma’s place.

Even though we missed meeting Bibi Jaan, our encounter with Uma made up for it. Uma’s love and concern for Bibi Jaan were palpable and truly touching, I discovered as we engaged Uma in conversation. Uma happened to be a Hindu, and Bibi Jaan a Muslim, but this religious difference didn’t seem to matter in what was their very obviously intensely close relationship.

Uma spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, but N translated bits of what she said, so I managed to get a rough idea. It was something like this: Bibi Jaan worked a domestic help in Uma’s home for a very long time. Uma had known her ever since she was a little child, maybe more than 50 years ago (Uma is now almost 60). Bibi Jaan had once served Uma and her family, but now she was old and infirm and alone and the roles had been reversed. It was now Uma’s turn to take good care of Bibi Jaan: which she does—and with seemed to me to be great love.

Every Thursday, Uma arranges for Bibi Jaan to come over to her home, where she gives her good food to eat and also gives her a ‘head-bath’. Bibi Jaan spends the night there, along with Uma’s family. The next morning, Uma takes Bibi Jaan in an auto-rickshaw to a Dargah, a Muslim shrine: perhaps Bibi Jaan likes spending time there. On several occasions, Uma has paid the bills when Bibi Jaan has fallen sick. Uma has also taken Bibi Jaan along with her on trips outside town.

Uma isn’t at all very ‘educated’ by the standards of the world.  She lives in a very modestly-sized house and receives a meagre pension—a thousand rupees a month, if I understood correctly—on account of her deceased husband (fortunately, her son has a job and helps support her financially). Yet, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) her educational and economic background, she seems to lovingly tend to Bibi Jaan.

This was truly interfaith harmony in action: A Hindu and a Muslim woman bound together by a relationship based on love and mutual service that began more than half a century ago and is still going strong! I don’t think I’d witnessed anything like this before!

I don’t suppose Uma and Bibi Jaan have ever heard of the phrase ‘interfaith harmony’, but that’s something they’ve been living out together, over many, many years!

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Sacred Mysteries: The Quran, Mary and the Annunciation

In the Quran, Mary the daughter of Imran is brought up as a girl in the Temple. Zachariah (the future father of John the Baptist) goes into the sanctuary and finds that she has provisions. Asked where they came from, Mary answers: “From God. God gives provision without reckoning to those whom he wishes.”

The Quran gives the same account as in St Luke’s Gospel of Zachariah being struck dumb before the birth of John. But the story of Mary living in the Temple and receiving provisions from God is in none of the four Gospels. It is however found in the Infancy Gospel of James. This was not admitted into the Christian canon of inspired books, but did give subjects for artists through the centuries.

In this book, from the 2nd century, Mary is said to have been chosen to spin textiles to make the veil of the Temple. She is also said to have first heard the voice of the angel Gabriel while she was fetching water. Her conver­sation with the angel (drawn from St Luke’s account) finishes back home while she is spinning thread.

The Quran insists on the virginity of Mary when she conceives her son Jesus, whom the Quran calls Messiah. God will teach him “the Scripture and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel”. But the Quran forcefully states that although Jesus is a prophet, “God is not one to take to Himself any son.”

There is a fascinating miniature (above) in a manuscript from about AD 1307 of The History of the World by Rashid al-Din, now in Edinburgh University Library. It shows on the far side of a stream the angel Gabriel, with the appearance of an ordinary man, addressing Mary, with a pitcher, her eyes cast down. It is probably the only image of the Annunciation in an Islamic manuscript, according to the art historian Sarah Drummond in an impressive new book.

In Divine Conception: The Art of the Annunciation, she looks at representations of the Annunciation under 12 categories, such as the metaphors for Mary’s virginity, the role of Joseph and Mary’s occupation. I had not realised until I read her chapter on Mary working with the spindle that this way of depicting her derived from the Infancy Gospel of James. I had assumed it was simply a likely occupation for her to have been busy with when the angel arrived.

Mary is shown holding a spindle in the mosaics that flank the gloriously tranquil 12th-century image in the main apse of the basilica at Torcello, in the Venetian lagoon, showing Mary holding the Child Jesus.

The Torcello images derive from a Byzantine tradition, as does a panel 8in high from the spectacular ivory throne of Maximian, the Archbishop of Ravenna from 546. The throne is still on show in Ravenna, where a mosaic from the period, in the church of S Vitale, shows Maximian wearing the pallium, the wool scarf sent him by the Pope as a mark of his authority. He stands next to the Emperor Justinian, who perhaps presented him with the throne, the symbol of his teaching office.

Sarah Drummond also looks at the artistic convention of showing a tiny child sailing down a beam of light towards Mary at the Annunciation. It seemed like a good idea to 13th-century European painters. But in the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV squashed this convention on the grounds that the body of Jesus was only formed in the Virgin’s womb once the Holy Spirit had exerted his power.

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Passages from the Bible Discovered Behind Qur’an Manuscript

An “extraordinary” discovery by an eagle-eyed scholar has identified the shadowy outlines of passages from the Bible behind an eighth-century manuscript of the Qur’an – the only recorded palimpsest in which a Christian text has been effaced to make way for the Islamic holy text.

French scholar Dr Eléonore Cellard was looking for images of a palimpsest page sold a decade earlier by Christie’s when she came across the auction house’s latest catalogue, which included fragments from a manuscript of the Qur’an which Christie’s had dated to the eighth century AD, or the second century of Islam. Scrutinising the image, she noticed that, appearing faintly behind the Arabic script, were Coptic letters. She contacted Christie’s, and they managed to identify the Coptic text as coming from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy – part of the Torah and the Christian Old Testament.

“This is a very important discovery for the history of the Qur’an and early Islam. We have here a witness of cultural interactions between different religious communities,” said Cellard, who is attached to the College de France.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” said Christie’s specialist Romain Pingannaud. “Once you know it’s there, you can only see it, it becomes so obvious. We missed it at the beginning. It’s fascinating, particularly because it’s the only example where you have an Arabic text on top of a non-Arabic text. And what’s even more fascinating is it is on top of passages from the Old Testament … It shows the contact between communities in the first centuries of Islam; it’s very relevant.”

Christie’s, which is offering the fragments for auction with a guide price of £80,000-£120,000 on Thursday, believes that the manuscript is likely to have been produced in Egypt, which was home to the Coptic community, at the time of the Arab conquest. It said that the fragments “resonate with the historical reality of religious communities in the Near East and as such are an invaluable survival from the earliest centuries of Islam”.

While the writing style of the Qur’an scribe dates it to around the eighth century or early ninth century, it is not possible to identify how much older the ghostly Coptic writing is, although the formation of the letters means it is unlikely to have been written earlier than the seventh century, according to Pingannaud. “Carbon 14 testing would date only the material, not the writing, but it’s quite destructive and these folios are too thin,” he said.

Qur’anic palimpsests are “extremely rare”, according to Christie’s, with only a handful having been previously recorded, none of which were copied above a Christian text. Other examples of Qur’anic palimpsests include two leaves from a seventh-century Hijazi Qur’an, which is copied above an earlier version of the Qur’an.

“We think this is because the Qur’an is such an important text and although vellum was very expensive, the Qur’an was always written on new material. It’s highly revered and so they would use brand new material,” said Pingannaud.

It was, however, “quite common in the Byzantine and Greek worlds to have palimpsests”, he added. “Parchment is very strong, it doesn’t suffer too much – it’s sensitive to humidity but very solid,” he said. “At the time it was erased the parchment was probably like new and it’s only with centuries passing that the ink which sank into the parchment provides this ghost image we see.”

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Jerusalem and Muslim-Christian Relations

Earlier this month, Cardinal Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican, visited Riyadh where he met with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. His visit was considered historical.

Over the past six years, despite the rising number of extremist and terrorist incidents, relations between Christians and Muslims have witnessed major breakthroughs in terms of exchanging visits with the Vatican. Pope Francis has himself paid visits to Egypt and Turkey, while Arab and Muslim religious officials have also visited the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There was a consensus to cooperate to combat extremism and terrorism, confront immigration and Islamophobia, issues facing Muslim minorities across the globe and the cohabitation between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world and other Islamic countries.

Pope Francis has taken distinctive positions on issues pertaining to violence and wars in Arab and Muslim countries and against the discrimination endured by Muslims in the West. The Pope was displeased with the position taken by US President Donald Trump on the Jerusalem issue, along with the halting of peace talks to bring justice to the Palestinian people.

Jerusalem at the Centre of Conflict

Yet, there is quite some level of ambiguity over the question of Jerusalem itself. The Vatican has for a while now maintained that the holy sites in Jerusalem must be internationalized and taken out of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Arab parties have kept their silence on this issue considering that Zionists want to take control of all of Jerusalem, especially its religious sites, and that the unification of Jerusalem as an eternal capital of Israel will further harm peace between religions in Jerusalem. Still, no one saw an interest in opposing the Vatican, given the fact that the Arab parties insist that the Old City of Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state, of course without excluding its holy sites.

Now that President Trump’s possible visit to Israel in mid-May has neared, the US has started negotiations with the Vatican over the possible special status of Christian holy places, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the surrounding areas, to facilitate the final phase of colonization of Jerusalem for Israelis without the objection of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian authorities, especially since some Protestant and Evangelical authorities share closer positions with the Israeli stance.

There is a solid Arab and Islamic position regarding Jerusalem and its freedom and which insists that it is the political capital of the Palestinian Arab state. Then there is the position of the Arab Christians of Palestine and Jerusalem — currently living in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

They were always against the colonization of Jerusalem by Zionists, including the holy sites. It is known that some of them opposed Trump’s statement. We also know that the former Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria had banned the Copts of Egypt from visiting Jerusalem under occupation. Muslims are still disputing over whether or not to visit Jerusalem in support of its people, despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority supports such visits.

The debate over the usefulness of visiting Jerusalem is a waste of time and is no longer justified. Zionist colonies are expanding in Jerusalem and adjoining areas, while Palestinians, Muslims and Christians are being displaced against their will or by the purchase of their lands. The Palestinian people are urging for our solidarity, even if through a visit.

The Palestinians today are trying to do something beginning from Gaza. It is then unnecessary to hesitate on whether to visit Jerusalem or not under the pretext that it is occupied. The occupation aims to displace people and remove holy places. A visit by a million or two million people to Jerusalem every year will send a message to the Palestinians that we have not abandoned them.

Moral Christian Influence

The numbers of Christians in Jerusalem and Palestine have decreased because of the pressure and circumstances of the occupation. Yet the Vatican has a great moral influence, just like the Christians of Palestine and the world. The same thing can be said about the Eastern Orthodox Church, whom the majority of Arab Christians belong to, and Russian and Greek political and religious positions.

There is no doubt that the Palestinian Authority should be the one to approach the Catholic and Orthodox communities, as well as the Protestant and Anglican churches that disagree with the orientations of the new Zionized evangelical institutions.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan and their religious authorities have great moral and political power in Arab and Islamic societies as well as in the international community. Palestinian and Arab parties should thus work together in solidarity with the Arab Christians to complement their role towards the world’s religious and political parties.

I do not know if there has been any development in terms of communication and agreement, or in terms of taking action in this regard, but the visit of Cardinal Tauran to Riyadh may have fostered this consultative spirit and the spirit of solidarity in preserving Jerusalem’s freedom, religious safety and holy places.

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How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

Former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a prolific writer and thinker. He is also one of the most inspiring voices for interfaith understanding today. In this book, the Rabbi makes a plea for interfaith solidarity to counter the current threats to humankind. He rightly says: “I see in the rising crescendo of ethnic tensions, civilisational clashes and the use of religious justification for acts of terror, a clear and present danger to humanity. For too long, the pages of history have been stained by bloodshed in the name of God. Allied to weapons of mass destruction, extremist religious attitudes threaten the very security of life on earth. In our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened by difference.”

Today, the Rabbi says, a crucial question before us is whether religions can become a force for peace rather than a source of conflict. That, he says, depends on how different faiths and cultures make space for ‘the other’. He suggests that people need to move away from seeing the other as a threat to their beliefs and way of life and, instead, regard them as an ‘enrichment of the collective heritage of mankind’. In this regard, he points out: “Religion can be a source of discord. It can also be a form of conflict resolution. We are familiar with the former; the second is far too little tried. Yet it is here, if anywhere, that hope must lie if we are to create a human solidarity strong enough to bear the strains that lie ahead. The great faiths must now become an active force for peace and for the justice and compassion on which peace ultimately depends. That will require great courage, and perhaps something more than courage: a candid admission that, more than at any time in the past, we need to search—each faith in its own way—for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our faith. Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?”

The Rabbi has some very pertinent advice to offer: “When religion is invoked as a justification for conflict”, he says, “religious voices must be raised in protest. We must withhold the robe of sanctity when it is sought as a cloak for violence and bloodshed.” In other words, “If faith is enlisted in the cause of war, there must be an equal and opposite counter-voice in the name of peace.”

For people of different faiths to live in harmony with each other, the Rabbi suggests we need to recognize the image of God in people who follow faiths other than the one we identify with. Also, recognizing that God is worshipped in diverse ways in different religions, we need to understand “the dignity of difference” and recognize “why no one civilization has the right to impose itself on others by force: why God asks us to respect the freedom and dignity of those not like us.”

The Rabbi says that what he terms as “nothing less than a paradigm shift” may be needed “to prevent a global age becoming the scene of intermittent but destructive wars”. In this regard, he explains: “I believe each of us within our own traditions, religious or secular, must learn to listen and be prepared to be surprised by others. We must make ourselves open to their stories, which may profoundly conflict with ours. We must even, at times, be ready to hear of their pain, humiliation and resentment and discover that their image of us is anything but our image of ourselves. We must learn the art of conversation, from which truth emerges not by the refutation of falsehood but from the quite different process of letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own”.

God, the Rabbi tells us, “Transcends the particularities of culture and the limits of human understanding”. “He is my God but also the God of all mankind, even of those whose customs and way of life are unlike mine”, he writes. By developing this understanding, people of faith might remain secure in their own religious tradition but yet can be moved by the beauty in other traditions too. “Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others”, the Rabbi says. “In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now”, he stresses.

“Something far stronger than toleration is required”, the Rabbi says, for peaceful relations between adherents of different faiths today. And this something, he writes, must “come from within the great religious traditions themselves”. One form of that idea, which he articulates, is that the one God, creator of diversity, commands us to honour His creation by respecting diversity. In this context, he says, “Until the great faiths not merely tolerate but find positive value in the diversity of the human condition, we will have wars, and their cost in human lives will continue to rise.”

The idea of the dignity of difference does not mean relativism, the Rabbi explains. It is based on God’s transcendence of God from the created universe, with its astonishing diversity of life forms, all of which derive from a single source. The Rabbi suggests a “test of faith” being whether believers in God can make space for difference. “Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine?” he asks, adding, “If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”

The Rabbi suggests that recognizing the divine in the other is the way to develop respect for the other. “I believe”, he tells us, “that we are being summoned by God to see in the human other a trace of the Divine Other. The test is to see the divine presence in the face of a stranger; to heed the cry of those who are disempowered in this age of unprecedented powers; who are hungry and poor and ignorant and uneducated, whose human potential is being denied the chance to be expressed.”

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Anti-Muslim Media Bias Calls for PR Offensive

Maybe you read the story this past week about how a significant number of Muslims in Britain said they didn’t know who was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

According to a survey of 3,000 British Muslims by The Policy Exchange, an independent British think tank, 31 percent of Muslims believe America was “responsible” for the terrorism that killed nearly 3,000 innocent civilians. More than 52 percent said they didn’t know who was responsible, but 7 percent blamed Jews while 4 percent blamed Al-Qaeda, whose leader Osama Bin Laden openly claimed responsibility. Researchers and Western media commentators concluded it is “deeply troubling” that so many Muslims are willing to “entertain wild and outlandish conspiracy theories.”

That may be true if that was the whole story, but it is not. The truth is the Western news media does not care about truth or accuracy when it comes to Muslims, or Arabs. It is easier to attack us than to write accurately about us. The media ignored significant parts of the survey that show the majority of Muslims strongly oppose extremism. Muslims strongly believe in their religion. And, the survey shows they not only respect others but also identify with the same concerns of non-Muslims.

Maybe it is our fault as Muslims and Arabs that we allow the Western news media to be so biased and we fail miserably to make the media accountable for its exaggerations and lies. For example, here are things the media did not report that were in the survey and that I argue are significantly more important:

The survey shows most Muslims do not see the bigotry they face in society as their most important challenge. Harassment on religious or racial grounds is not as important to them as are the many other issues they share with non-Muslims.

That is a fascinating considering Muslims make up only 4.8 percent of the British population and more than half of the Muslims interviewed were immigrants. Being immigrants and a minority makes them more easily subject to bigotry. Yet Muslims do not have a chip on their shoulder, according to the study.

What concerns them? Most said they are concerned with the same issues that concern other people in Britain and the West. Those issues include crime, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. A majority, 93 percent, see themselves as British citizens. Imagine that. Muslims do not think they are different from others. They see themselves as being the same. But there is more that was skipped over in the coverage of the survey by the racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab Western news media.

A total of 49 percent of Muslims said they believe they have to do more to tackle extremism and radicalization in Britain’s Muslim community, while only 39 percent believed enough was being done. Only 3 percent said too much is being done.

If you are worried about Muslims being patriotic to their adoptive countries, 52 percent said they would report without hesitancy any member of their community who supported or encouraged terrorism in the Syria conflict.

That is important because that issue is the focus of fears that Muslims are being drawn into Daesh because of the Syrian conflict.

A significant 35 percent of Muslims said they believe moderates in their community are drowned out by extremist activists. A 2011 study of Muslims by the PEW Research Centre in America said that more than 48 percent of Muslims believe their own religious leaders have not done enough to speak out against Islamists’ threats.

I agree. I think the problem is that too often, the mainstream Western news media focuses on the so-called “leaders” rather than on the people.

If you only relied on the Western news media, you would think most Muslims are fanatics who support extremists and need to be put on watch lists, spied on, and monitored for violence and crimes.

I think it is our leadership that has the problem. Too many live in the Western countries physically, but mentally they are too focused and consumed almost entirely by the politics they left behind in their countries of origin.

That makes the leadership different from the community they seek to lead. The survey shows 89 percent of British Muslims condemn “political violence.” That reflects exactly how non-Muslim Brits feel.

There is so much more in The Policy Exchange survey that deserved more coverage from the biased mainstream Western news media. The issue is not about whom to blame for Sept. 11, 2001. Taken out of context, that single issue makes Muslims and Arabs appear to be extremists. In context, though, you might recognize that the issue is exaggerated and not as important as it was made to seem.

The whole survey reinforces the truth that Islam is a religion of peace. And, extremism is a threat not just to non-Muslims but to Muslims and Arabs, too. When it comes to the patriotism of immigrants, Muslims and Arabs are no different than anyone else. As Muslims and Arabs, our real problem is we just do not do a good job of presenting who we are and what we believe to the rest of the world. We treat communications, public relations and PR messaging like foreign concepts. But they are the most important things we need to understand and engage.

We need to stop listening to and enabling the extremists in our community who falsely claim they speak on our behalf. We must tell our stories to the rest of the world better, more extensively, and more often, not just through the “news” media but also through the entertainment media including through movies, books and even television sitcoms. Humour is the most powerful method of communications to break through racism and bigotry.

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The Real Next War in Syria: Iran vs. Israel

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Syria is going to explode. I know, you have heard that one before, but this time I mean really explode. Because the U.S., British and French attack on Syria to punish its regime for its vile use of chemical weapons — and Russia’s vow to respond — is actually just the second-most dangerous confrontation unfolding in that country.

Even more dangerous is that Israel and Iran, at the exact same time, seem to be heading for a High Noon shootout in Syria over Iran’s attempts to turn Syria into a forward air base against Israel, something Israel is vowing to never let happen. This is not mere speculation. In the past few weeks — for the first time ever — Israel and Iran have begun quietly trading blows directly, not through proxies, in Syria.

And this quiet phase may be about to end.

Israel and Iran are now a hair-trigger away from going to the next level — and if that happens, the U.S. and Russia may find it difficult to stay out.

Let me try to explain what is unfolding from a lookout post on the Syrian-Israel border, where I stood a couple of days ago. To follow along at home, I highly recommend this website, which tracks the multiple interlocking Syrian conflicts in real time and is used by the U.N. observers here on the Golan Heights.

Let’s start with the fact that the latest U.S., British and French cruise missile punishment attack appears to be a one-off operation and the impact will be contained. Russia and Syria have little interest in courting another Western raid and raising the level of involvement in Syria by the three big Western powers. And the three Western powers do not want to get more deeply involved in Syria.

It is the potentially uncontained direct shooting war brewing between Israel and Iran that is much more likely and worrisome, because it may be about to enter round two.

Round one occurred on Feb. 10, when an Iranian drone launched by a Revolutionary Guards Quds Force unit operating out of Syria’s T4 air base, east of Homs in central Syria, was shot down with a missile from an Israeli Apache helicopter that was following it after it penetrated Israeli airspace.

Initial reports were that the Iranian drone was purely on a reconnaissance mission. But the official Israeli Army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said Friday that the drone’s flight path and Israel’s “intelligence and operational analysis of the parts of the Iranian unmanned vehicle” indicated that “the aircraft was carrying explosives” and that its mission was “an act of sabotage in Israeli territory.”

I have no ability to independently verify that claim. But the fact that the Israelis are putting it out should raise alarm bells. If it is true, it suggests that the Quds Force — commanded by Iran’s military mastermind Qassem Suleimani — may have been trying to launch an actual military strike on Israel from an air base in Syria, not just reconnaissance.

“This is the first time we saw Iran do something against Israel — not by proxy,” a senior Israeli military source told me. “This opened a new period.”

It certainly helps to explain why Israeli jets launched a predawn missile raid on the Iranian drone’s T4 home base last Monday. This would have been a huge story — Israel killed seven Iranian Quds Force members, including Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit — but it was largely lost in the global reaction to (and Trump tweets about) President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons two days earlier.

“It was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets — both facilities and people,” said the Israeli military source. And the Iranians not only openly announced their embarrassing losses through the semi-official Fars news agency — they have played down previous indirect casualties from Israeli strikes in Syria — but then publicly vowed to take revenge.

“The crimes will not remain unanswered,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, said during a visit to Syria.

Since then, senior Israeli defence officials have let it be known that if the Iranians were to strike back at Israeli targets, Israel may use the opportunity to make a massive counter strike on Iran’s entire military infrastructure in Syria, where Iran is attempting to establish both a forward air base, as well as a factory for GPS-guided missiles that could hit targets inside Israel with much greater accuracy — inside a 50-meter radius — and deploy them from Syria and with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

These defence officials say there is zero chance Israel will make the mistake it made in Lebanon — of letting Hezbollah establish a massive missile threat there — by letting Iran do the same directly in Syria.

Now you can understand why it is such a dangerous situation — even without the U.S., French and British punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

Iran claims it is setting up bases in Syria to protect it from Israel, but Israel has no designs on Syria; it actually prefers the devil it knows there — Assad — over chaos. And it has not intervened in the civil war there except to prevent the expansion of Iran’s military infrastructure there or to retaliate for rebel or Syrian shells that fell on Israel’s territory.

I understand Iran’s security concerns in the Gulf; it faces a number of hostile, pro-American Sunni Arab powers trying to contain its influence and undermine its Islamic regime. From Iran’s perspective, these are a threat.

But What Is Iran Doing In Syria?

Tehran’s attempt to build a network of bases and missile factories in Syria — now that it has helped Assad largely crush the uprising against him — appears to be an ego-power play by Iran’s Quds Force leader Suleimani to extend Iran’s grip on key parts of the Sunni Arab world and advance his power struggle with President Hassan Rouhani. Suleimani’s Quds Force now more or less controls — through proxies — four Arab capitals: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana.

Iran has actually become the biggest “occupying power” in the Arab world today. But Suleimani may be overplaying his hand, especially if he finds himself in a direct confrontation with Israel in Syria, far from Iran, without air cover.

After all, even before this, many average Iranians were publicly asking what in the world is Iran doing spending billions of dollars — which were supposed to go to Iranians as a result of the lifting of sanctions from the Iran nuclear deal — fighting wars in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

That is surely one reason Iran has not retaliated — yet. Suleimani has to think twice about starting a full-scale, direct war with Israel, because of another big story many people have not noticed: Iran’s currency is collapsing back home. Consider this April 12 story on

The Iranian rial “has plummeted to a record low amid growing economic and political uncertainty, causing a rush to the banks as Iranians desperately try to acquire U.S. dollars with exchanges forced to shut their doors to prevent long and chaotic lines.” The rial has lost one-third of its value just this year, the story noted.

Moreover, Israeli military officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin and Suleimani are no longer natural allies. Putin wants and needs a stable Syria where his puppet Bashar Assad can be in control and Russia can maintain a forward naval and air presence and look like a superpower again — on the cheap. Iran’s President Rouhani probably also prefers a stable Syria, where Assad has consolidated his power and that is not a drain on the Iranian budget. But Suleimani and the Quds Force seem to aspire to greater dominance of the Arab world and putting more pressure on Israel.

Unless Suleimani backs down, you are about to see in Syria an unstoppable force — Iran’s Quds Force — meet an immovable object: Israel.

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Saffron-Green Nexus: India’s Muslims Must Be Wary

Today, when the overlap between the incumbent NDA and the Muslim clergy’s clarion call of Islam in Danger (Deen Bachao, Desh Bachao rally at Patna on April 15, 2018, with support from the incumbent NDA), and their intransigence on bringing in some necessary gender reforms has become evident, it is pertinent to revisit the (by now closed) debate on Muslim question which ensued over Ramchandra Guha’s response to Harsh Mander’s column — which was actually in response to Sonia Gandhi’s remark on ‘delinking Muslims with the Congress’ at the India Today Conclave — that unleashed a series of responses and debates on the ‘Muslim question’ in India’s plural democracy.

Guha has finally re-tracked his statement. Hence, no justification whatsoever for chastising him, anymore!

Guha should have cited the example of Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013) rather than illustrate it with Hamid Dalwai (1932-1977), whose popularity even within his own Konkani community was not much.

By advocating for a Uniform Civil Code, without explicating the complexities involved in it, Dalwai ended up alienating the Muslim minority whose religio-cultural concerns are not something to be wished away dismissively.

Asghar Ali Engineer was a reformist, invoking the Quran quite progressively, and was a bearded, practising Muslim, and did a lot of welfarism for riot victims, besides other charitable activities.

Despite these credentials, he was ostracised and tortured by conservative reactionaries. Guha himself cited Engineer’s example in his article 14 years ago in The Times of India.

A more significant aspect of the series is the fact that those opinion pieces, which talked of necessary reforms among India’s Muslims, appear to have been paid lesser attention. This (in) attention is even more glaring for the fact that this series ran in the midst of the issues of gender reforms among Muslims making headlines.

In this regard, the following four responses merit greater attention:

  1. Suhas Palshikar, for he said pertinently:

‘Unfortunately, the way Hindu majoritarianism has framed the Muslim question in recent times, there is little space for imagining that the two types of politics — Muslim politics of reform and Muslim politics for full citizenship rights — can combine. Such a combination could happen only when Hindu majoritarianism was not politically ascendant.’

‘So, it is not sad that Sonia’s Congress appears set to abandon the Muslims, the real sadness is that the Congress for long intellectually failed to realise and politically failed to practise a robust combination of reform and citizenship.’

‘When a senior Congressperson today argues in favour of instant triple Talaq and when parties like the Congress and SP (Samajwadi Party) dither in welcoming the court ruling on this issue, they are only continuing with that double failure.’

  1. ii. Arshad Alam, for he insisted that historically speaking without State intervention no reform succeeds and that in the case of India the liberal left have been paternalising, and thereby perpetuating ‘Muslim conservatism, and have thereby contributed to the saffron rise.’

iii. Shajahan Madampat, who is quite eloquent to insist that three crucial preconditions of internal democratisation must be fulfilled to facilitate the emergence of liberal leadership within the community — a. evolving a modus vivendi to deal with the schismatic, theological/jurisprudential diversities through dialogues, rather than polemics; b. shunning the practice of demonising every critical insider as a pariah, or as a lesser Muslim; c. willingness to accept that a gender-unequal order is no longer acceptable.

  1. Khalid Anis Ansari, who rightly complains that ‘in addressing the ‘Muslim question’, left-liberals have been extremely hesitant in acknowledging the Ashraf-Pasmanda divide.’

Thus, while subjecting the liberal-left to critique, these four respondents also ask Muslims for necessary reforms.

Apoorvanand’s response turned out to be arguably more popular among sections of Muslims. Why? Because it remains as paternalistic, as the liberal-left have almost invariably been to the Muslim regressivism — almost no talk of any reform — not even on gender and caste.

Probably because of this, only this piece went on to be rendered in Urdu. Ignoring or shelving the issues of reform within India’s Muslims is so dominant that except an opinion piece in the Qaumi Awaz (by Syed Khurram Raza, April 4, 2018), to the best of my knowledge, almost none of the Urdu broadsheets/portals, carried out pieces, advocating for some necessary reforms towards gender and social justice.

In fact, the editor of a prominent Urdu portal went on to mock the idea of reforms among Muslims on the social sites.

Urdu newspapers have the widest reach among the madrasa community, and it is this network through which the clergy exercises its extraordinary influence upon the community. However, in this context, a clarification is needed to be made.

Political abuses of religion is, however, not the monopoly of the clergy alone.

Mullah is a mindset subscribed by few others too, and they use religion as a political instrument through their own politics of the pulpit.

A friend of mine puts it like this: “Yeh Allah Se Darte Nahin Hain, Yeh Sirf Qaum Ko Allah Se Daraate Hain (the Maulvis and their ilk themselves are not God-fearing; they only scare the community of God’s wrath).

Modern educated, successful, professionals — quite a lot of them NRIs — are hands in glove with them.

In fact, this is a matter worth investigating by social psychologists as to why such fellows — Hindus and Muslims — are more prone to conservatism and communalism.

Let us also recall that the un-Quranic instant triple divorce upon Shah Bano (1916-1992) was perpetrated (in 1978, inside the Indore court) not by a mullah/theologian, but by a modern, professionally successful advocate.

This should also be noted here in this context that not only theological seminaries (madrasas) and the clergy, even historic modern universities, funded by the secular Indian State, have maintained almost a silence on all such necessary reforms.

These better known universities like AMU, JMI, Hamdard, etc have got research and teaching departments of gender studies, of law, of Quranic studies, of Islamic studies, of theology, of interfaith studies, consuming lots of public funds.

The Maulana Azad Urdu University of Hyderabad is mandated to popularise such efforts through Urdu translations.

Hardly a handful of these academics have made desirable and adequate interventions into persuading the community towards undertaking the bare minimum of gender and social reforms.

These scholars as well as the Britain-educated barrister-parliamentarian Asaduddin Owaisi have not shown their willingness to persuade the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to first bring a model Nikahnama and a draft Bill too, around which the secular political parties have to debate within Parliament.

They have rather been oscillating and obfuscating. This is (in)directly supported by the secular political formations.

In this meaningful series of highly informed debates, however, certain vital issues still remain un-addressed. These could be as follows:

Sonia Gandhi, as her Congress is the lead Opposition party, rather than succumbing to the Hindutva pressure of invisibilising Muslims, and almost acceding to it to render Muslim electorates irrelevant, should have spoken out with courage of conviction and equanimity.

This required a frank confession to be made that the Congress committed many mistakes in the 1980s, if not earlier, when it prodded and encouraged competitive communalism and conservatism of the Hindus as well as Muslims.

One of the most glaring was to have taken the side of Muslim conservatives in 1986, in exchange for unlocking the Babri Masjid.

This was a sort of deal between the AIMPLB’s Ali Miyan Nadvi (1912-1999), the then secretary, AIMPLB, and Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister. This is something evident in Nadvi’s Urdu memoir, Kaarwaan-e-Zindagi, volume 3, chapter 4.

Sonia should have then asked the AIMPLB to make all necessary reforms on specific gender issues on which the incumbent BJP is trying to play a mischievous politics of its own — as mischievous as that of the Muslim clergy led by the AIMPLB and the Imarat-e-Shariah through its ‘Deen Bachao mobilisation, in collusion with the NDA.

Sonia should have spoken out quite categorically. It is never too late. She, and her allies must speak it out even now.

Interestingly, a most important member of the AIMPLB and the Imarat-e-Shariah, Maulana Wali Rahmani, is an All India Congress Committee member.

His father Maulana Minatullah Rahmani (1912-1991) too was with the Congress, and by virtue of that, he was also in the state legislature, just as Maulana Madani of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind (founded in 1919) have been in the Rajya Sabha.

Many of us have repeatedly been saying, through our writings and through social media, that the mobilisation is nothing but a political ploy — a sort of a fixed match between Hindu and Muslim communal forces, towards polarisation, in a run-up to the next election.

It has eventually become more evident when our conjectures have now been testified by the fact that the Deen Bachao, Desh Bachao rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on April 15, 2018 — a drumbeat and desperate war cry of ‘Islam in Danger’ — is now joined and endorsed by Nitish Kumar, the Bihar chief minister.

In their desperation to grab power, even by colluding with the NDA, how pathetic have these theologians become!

The Imarat-e-Shariah (founded in 1921) has been a fierce opponent not only of British colonialism, but also of the Muslim League’s communal separatism.

It also played a role in rehabilitating riot victims as well as fighting legal battles for their justice in the courts. One of its most outstanding successes was in the communal violence of Bettiah (Champaran) in August 1927 as I have demonstrated in my books.

It has now chosen to forget its progressive history and resorted to sheer opportunism. For the last several months, so many incidents of communal violence, arson and loot have taken place.

Yet, rather than organise a joint protest against the lynchings, rapes, communal violence and against farm distress, unemployment, etc, it has chosen to align with the NDA and stage protests on Islam-in-Danger!

This Saffron-Green overlap seeks to push India in the binary of two communalisms rendering all other forces of liberation and progress quite weak and even non-existent. It appears to replicate, in some ways, the 1938-1947 era.

Towards saving India’s pluralist democracy, presently caught in a more perilous whirlpool, therefore, the sad aspects counted above need to be addressed by all stakeholders — political parties and civil society.

God Is Greatest Mathematician

The distinguished mathematician, Sir Michael Francis Atiyah, who once visited Mumbai, said that God was a mathematician. This idea is not new. In the mid-twentieth century, Sir James Jeans suggested that the universe was handiwork of a mathematician. Centuries before him, Pythagoras said that all things are numbers.

To Picasso, God was an artist. “God is really another artist,” he said. “He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat.”

Einstein once said that the Lord is subtle and—though not malicious—is very clever. One who observes the universe is confronted with the awesome feeling that there is a being greater than himself at work in it. A mathematician comes across such high mathematics as to make him aware of the triviality of his grasp of the subject. “God is a great mathematician!” he exclaims.

To an artist, the art displayed in the universe appears so sublime as to make his art seem worthless and he spontaneously cries out, “God is the greatest artist!”

The wisdom prevailing in the universe is such as to astonish a genius; he in turn discovers that there is a genius far greater than him at work.

The truth is that God is the greatest mathematician, the greatest artist and the greatest genius. One who fails to find the manifestations of God in the universe is blind, and one who does not believe in God after having seen Him insensate.

God’s might is indeed manifest in a thousand ways, but it is only those who open their minds and hearts to Him who can be truly aware of His blessings. Only those who ponder and reflect over the creation and the numerous phenomena of nature can discover the Creator in such profound and thrilling manner.

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The Urgent Need To Navigate Through Media Propaganda (Part 1)

Politicians unconstrained by facts; science governed by press release; environment an afterthought; famine barely mentioned; war unchecked; celebrity idols; malice given priority; and corporations given free reign to dictate laws and global culture. Check your newsfeed and you’re likely to see this cycle as the underlying diet of the daily news.

Since Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – meaning an argument thought to be true because it “feels right”, without regard for evidence, facts or examination some ten years ago – society has come to tacitly accept the manipulation of information and news.

During the Brexit debate, Britain graduated to a “post-truth” society. While expert opinion no longer mattered, a politician could claim literally almost anything they wanted and be believed. The government didn’t even need to produce a strategy in the event of a Leave vote to be considered in the decision making process. What mattered was the propaganda and the hysteria – and people fell for it.

Then came what almost appeared to be a practical joke upon the world, the US presidential election, and parts of the media evolved into outright fake news. Satire and disinformation ruled the day. Hoax stories were used to stoke hatred and earn staggering advertisement money through click-baiting (for example, trending number one on Facebook for a while was the story of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump). Most culpable was corporate media who, for a whole year, gave 68% positive coverage to Donald Trump, but spent just 12% of their time covering his policies and 21% on how he was doing in the polls. Compared to the main election, the same major networks devoted just 10% of their time to policy issues but 42% of the coverage to the horserace between the candidates. Again, people were taken in.

Welcome To the World Of Fake News.

The reality is however, that 2015-17 has largely reflected the approach to news in previous years. News, like history and any other narrative, is crafted by those who produce and convey it for a particular purpose; for it to be believed or to promote a particular point of view. However, with the increased attention on the conduct of the media, especially since the rise of the godfather of modern satirical news, Jon Stewart, or award winning HBO show ‘The Newsroom’ critically analysing journalism, and more analytical news outlets, sections of the media are finally having a mirror held up to them.

Cumulatively, this has had an effect on the collective consciousness of society in the way it engages with and accepts the news. Trust levels in the media have generally declined, as has trust in politicians, while trust in critiques of the media has absorbed that deficit and steadily increased. It is evident how the Trump campaign utilised this trend to their advantage.

Whereas previously society generally accepted a variety of media outlets, it has in recent years significantly narrowed the sources from where it receives information. It seems we now choose our sources that match our beliefs and use those to reinforce our views, and nowhere is this more prevalent than on our phones and social media feeds, which feed back to us that which we’ve previously opened, searched or liked by algorithm, compounding the problem.

Just like any challenge to mainstream society, the Muslim community is also affected by fake or misleading news. Consider the following questions: What makes the average person not view ‘Israel’ as an apartheid state? Or believe that terror performed in the name of Islam is worse than terror performed in the name of the nation state or Western exceptionalism? Why do most people know of the essential relationship between Islamic extremism and Saudi Arabia but fail to query that the ‘Crown Prince’ can visit the White House, without even the topic of their role in ISIS be raised? What is the role of the media in shaping these perceptions?

Consider now the following questions, specific to the Muslim demographic: What made Muslims argue for voting for ‘the lesser of two evils’ in the US elections? What makes a Muslim change their social media profile after terrorist attack in Paris but not when ‘Israel’ bombs occupied Palestine? Or what made hundreds of millions of Muslims celebrate the New Year whilst five Muslim countries are presently in famine, and eight are in a state of war or conflict? Or what made a Muslim champion January’s Women’s March but not demonstrate against the ongoing genocide in Yemen? What makes a Muslim acutely aware of the White Helmets in Syria but not anything significant about which forces have mobilised to fight ISIS in Iraq?

To what extent are these attitudes voluntary or shaped by the media? The answers broadly lie in the sources, packaging and consumption of the news which ultimately directs what people come to value and believe about the world.

Growing awareness of these challenges has received varied responses. Some schools are calling for lessons of spotting ‘fake news’. The FBI is investigating Breitbart and other right-wing outlets for spreading it. Governments and media organisations have moved for legislation and to amend internal procedures to respond to fake news. However, we must ask, to what extent does this solve the problem at its roots which, arguably, lie primarily in three areas:

The first is the hegemony of corporate and social media and the echo-chambers they have created. This means there are so many outlets essentially saying the same thing or framing the issue in the same way, that the scope of the narrative is almost identical. Wherever you turn for news, it is largely saying the same thing. This ‘news’ is placed within two narrow brackets referred to as ‘The Overton Window’ and whatever falls outside of that construct is deemed as conspiracy, extreme or unreasonable. Eventually the Muslim consumer of news comes to believe much the same as everybody else does.

This creates a logical corollary, the second challenge, in that when there is the allusion of choice, people become ignorant of what is beyond the mirage. In this case, many do not know where to get objective or better analysis outside of the ‘window’. Only once introduced to a world beyond the one constructed for you, can a person begin to construct their own.

The third lies in many people’s inability to weigh up or navigate through the news that reaches them. This lies in the systemic mis-education of people taught, not how to think, but rather, what to think. This occurs as much in the home and school when a child asks “why”, and this inquisitive nature is constricted more than nurtured, as much as it does in the Madrasa and on the pulpits that prefer the comfort of regurgitation and the Islamic version of an applause-line, over challenge and analysis. The result of all three challenges combined is simply indoctrination.

It is for these challenges that this series of articles aims to address the epidemic of fake and propagandist news that engulfs consumers, and through the Islamic sources of the Qur’an, Hadith literature and Epistemology, offer some guidance as to how to navigate through the modern media.  As Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a) is narrated to have said, “Working without proper understanding and insight is like travelling in the wrong direction; it only takes one further away from their destination.” In this context, turning to propagandist news for guidance and insight into what is happening in the world will only send you further from the truth.

It is hoped that the reader will better understand how and why the media presents its information the way it does, what cumulative effects these have upon a consumer of news and how to effectively evaluate any news story that reaches you, for the purpose of reaching the truth.

In Doing So, the Articles Will Look at The Following Four Aspects:

1. What does the holy Qur’an say about the media and the relationship between government, corporations and propagandist material? Where in early Islamic history can we see examples of propagandist material and how did this affect the early Muslim community?

2. How do we define fake news? What is the difference between Corporate, State and Independent media outlets and how do we know what drives their opinions? What does the consumer of news need to know about how information is portrayed to them in order to not become a puppet of any news organisation’s narrative?

3. What does the holy Qur’an and Hadith literature say as guidance in regard to consuming and sharing news? How does this practically apply today when we repost, tweet or share news on our groups? What is an Islamic Epistemology and how does it guide us to regard trustworthy or untrustworthy news organisations? And how might this help non-Muslims in weighing up the news they receive?

4. From where can I receive sound, factual and objective news? Which journalists are most trustworthy in their fields and which news outlets might you want to readily check?

Ultimately, a person is responsible for what they choose to hear and see, what influences their nature and mind, and what they share with others. Imam Mohammed al-Baqir (a) is narrated to have commentated about the verse, “Let people think deeply about their food” (80:24) that people’s food refers to “the knowledge he acquires and from whom he acquires it.”

Allah (swt) tells us in the Qur’an, “And do not follow that which you do not have knowledge of. Certainly your hearing, sight and heart – all of them – will be called to account for it (on the Day of Judgement)” (17:36).  In response, those who take lightly this warning and are misguided by false knowledge, Allah (swt) foretells such people will say, “Oh but if only we had listened or at least used our intelligence.” (67:10).

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