Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

Hair for the Observer

with 3 comments

Here is an unedited version of an article published in the Observer Woman magazine.

Eid people 3When I first saw my wife she was seated in the middle of a crowded room, she had her eyes fixed on me, and she had a luxuriously unruly cascade of hair. We started talking, and from then on her hair’s startling blackness seemed emblematic of the force of her character.

I enjoyed seeing her hair fanned out around her moonsliver face. I enjoyed touching it, either its natural curliness or its hair-dryered straightness. In a city where half the women covered their hair in public, and just because she had such beautiful hair, Rana’s hair became for me her sign, the feature by which I’d pick her out at a distance, my symbol for understanding her and what she meant to me.

So when, five years into our marriage, Rana decided to cover her hair, I was somewhat bothered. In the meantime we’d moved from Syria via Morocco to Saudi Arabia, we’d had children, and Rana had worked as a teacher and TV presenter. She’d always been an elegantly modest dresser, but here, amid the compulsory dress codes of Saudi Arabia – which annoyed both of us – she’d decided to introduce something new. I grasped for a response.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 9, 2008 at 12:30 am

Posted in Islam

Tagged with

Dawkins or McIntosh

with 7 comments

I am increasingly infuriated by religious claims to certainty and by religious attempts to close down free thought (I’m not talking about high profile attacks on writers or cartoonists here, which have more to do with power politics than theology, but simply the resort to ‘it’s true because God says so’). Although some leftist and anti-imperialist Islamist groups have achieved great things, I find the current fashion for religious politics in the Arab world to be a dead end. Simple-minded slogans like ‘Islam is the solution’ are no solution. An analysis of contemporary disasters based primarily on class and state and corporation could conceivably provide grounds for unity and solidarity; political action based on Sunni or Shia myths will ultimately only help the empire to divide and rule; it will also empower rulers and institutions hiding behind religious cover. It is sad to watch the Muslims becoming more and more religious as they gallop further into social, economic and environmental catastrophe.

The rise of ugly modernist forms of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. Everywhere, the death of traditional religion has spawned a million poor substitutes. Under the pressure of traumatic social change, and almost always of war, traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have morphed into Zionism, neo-conservatism, Bible-belt evangelical-nationalism, fascism, Stalinism, Ba’athism, Wahhabi-nihilism, state-Hindu chauvinism and Maoism. And fundamentalist atheism.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 21, 2008 at 6:07 pm

Complex Origins

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Sumerians at prayer

Sumerians at prayer

From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilisations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilisation, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilised hunter-gatherer past.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 5, 2008 at 1:40 pm

A Ramadan Reflection

with 4 comments

Verse 18 of Sura 39 of the Qur’an says:

“Those who listen to the Word (the Qur’an) and follow the best meaning in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided and those are the ones endowed with understanding.”

Or, in Muhammad Asad’s translation:

Those “who listen closely to all that is said, and follow the best of it: it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are truly endowed with insight!”

Muhammad Asad’s translation is wonderful both for the language and for the erudite and open minded notes which take on board classical Islamic scholarship as well as modern intellectual currents. (Asad, born Leopold Weiss, was a fascinating figure. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a posting to him one day). Here is his note on this verse:

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 26, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Islam

Statement of Belief

with 8 comments

kaabaI’m a Muslim in that I feel allegiance to the Muslims as a people. It’s not a blind patriotism. I don’t feel allegiance to any particular sect, doctrine or government. As a member of this cultural group (or groups), somebody who lives with and sympathises with and loves many believing Muslims and their overwhelmingly warm and humane culture, I recognise that the Qur’an is the source text that is crucial to us. We do with it what we can. The range of what we’ve done throughout history is astounding.

There is the Islam of the Sultan and the Islam of the Sufi. The Sultan’s rulebook religion, the god-idol that fits into the human mind. And the Sufi’s tradition of peaceful wandering, of poverty, of shrines and poetry, of Qawwali songs and intoxication. It is the latter that attracts me, the Sufi’s but not the Sultan’s Islam. The Islam of Hallaj, not of the authorities who mutilated and murdered him.

If you ask which Islam is inspired by the Qur’an, I must reply that both are.

I am Marxist enough to believe that religions are for the most part products of the material conditions from which they arise. Islam arose from a culture of Beduin raiding and enforced tribal consensus, and yet managed to move beyond this to something new, still pointing further to possibilities for future development. I believe it is possible, but by no means inevitable, for Muslims of the present and future to make an Islamic society better than the society made by the Prophet’s companions.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 20, 2007 at 8:59 am

Posted in Islam

Tagged with

hijab/ niqab/ blab

with 17 comments

My position on the hijab, or head covering, for what it’s worth, is that it is unnecessary. Surat Nur of the Quran, verse 31, says: “…tell the believing women….not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” Given that the Arab women and men of the prophet’s time all wore a head covering (as men in the Gulf still do – it’s an obvious clothing choice for desert dwellers), but the women often left their breasts bare, it seems obvious here that the injunction is not to cover hair, which was covered anyway by prevailing social custom, but to cover breasts. The more general directive is for both men (who are addressed in the previous verse) and women to dress modestly according to the standards of their time and place.

Many Muslims would point to the ahadith, the records of the prophet’s words and actions, instead of to the Quran for guidance on this point. The problem with the ahadith is that they are sometimes contradictory. Sunni and Shia Muslims claim different ahadith collections as authoritative. Although an elaborate medieval science was developed to establish the reliability of ahadith, its methods do not meet the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism, and we cannot be nearly as certain of the origin of ahadith as we can of the Quran. In any case, I’m the kind of Muslim who thinks we can appreciate the spiritual and social treasures of Islam without imitating the social habits of the first Muslims. The prophet never claimed to be anything more than a man. He and his companions were the products of a particular cultural context. When we learn from their example, we need to do so with our historical senses switched on, looking for general principles which we can apply to our own context rather than for abstract and timeless rules.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 10, 2006 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Islam, Islamophobia, UK

Tagged with , ,