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Responding to Troubling Times

I’ve spoken to numerous Muslim friends in Britain and Malaysia who have felt extremely fatigued and pained by events of the past year. In the mass media, there’s an awful catalogue of Muslims behaving violently in various places – the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France; Al Shabaab’s massacre of Kenyan university students; the Taliban’s massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan; the so-called Islamic State’s (IS’s) beheadings; Boko Haram’s mass abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria; and the list goes on. 

And yet, when Muslims get together to promote decidedly non-violent expressions of Islam – for example, mixed-gender, inclusive Friday prayers – they get a hard time from Islamophobes and some fellow Muslims. Even a much-adulated pop star like Zayn Malik, formerly of One Direction, can’t escape the crossfire. And many Muslims do speak up against acts of violence perpetrated by other Muslims, but their voices remain relatively unheard or ignored. It’s like a never-ending cycle of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenarios. 

At times like these, it pays to remember the amazing resources within Islam that can comfort and inspire us, including examples that many Muslims or non-Muslims might be unaware of: 

  • Think Islam “inherently” oppresses women? Then remember the story of Sakina bint al-Hussein, the great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. She made her husbands – she reputedly married and divorced five or six men – promise monogamy in their marriage contracts (taklik or nikahnama). According to some accounts, she attended leadership councils, never veiled herself and hosted poets in her house. 
  • Think misogyny is written into Islam’s DNA? How about the story of the second caliph, Umar al-Khattab, who in a public sermon claimed that the Prophet fixed bride-prices (mahar) at under 400 dirhams. A woman stood up and challenged Umar, quoting from verse 4:20 of the Qur’an: “But if you decide to take a wife in place of another, even if you had given the first a heap of gold (quintar) for a dowry, you shall not take the least bit back.” Umar then retracted and said, “The woman is right, and Umar is wrong.” Forget the legal minutiae and focus on the Muslim woman telling a male Muslim leader he was wrong, and him apologising immediately! 
  • Are Muslims and Christians doomed to remain enemies? Debunk this by popularising the Prophet Muhammad’s numerous covenants promising Christian-Muslim peace and friendship. In these covenants, Muhammad pledges to respect the rights of Christians as he would the rights of Muslims until the day of Resurrection. 
  • What about beyond the doctrinal and historical? Get to know flesh-and-blood Muslims with interesting stories, like this particularly charming account by comedian Tavina Springer about converting to Islam. And let’s not forget the many happy British Muslims with a sense of humour and rhythm. 
  • Lastly, remember and honour the many non-Muslims who build bridges with Muslims, visibly or quietly. There’s Patricia Arquette (Oscar winner for Boyhood), who campaigned against anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes after 9/11 – her father was Muslim and her mother Jewish. And remember Harry Potter creator JK Rowling’s oh-so-satisfying takedown of Rupert Murdoch’s post-Charlie Hebdo Islamophobia? 

“So truly, with every difficulty comes ease: truly with every difficulty comes ease. So when you are free from your task, continue to strive, and to your Sustainer turn with loving attention.” (Qur’an, 94: 5-8)

Shanon Shah has just submitted his PhD thesis on the sociology of religion. He writes about the lived or politicised aspects of religion, gender, sexuality and human rights, especially regarding Islam.