Ramadan Mubarak! For all Muslims, the blessed month of Ramadan begin this weekend (for a good introductory explanation of why Muslims noted different dates for the start of Ramadan, please see this post).
This year is the second of three years during which major religious observances from various faith traditions will fall during the same Gregorian month. You can read more about the confluence here (hat tip to the Velveteen Rabbi).
Below the fold are the detailed notes of comments I gave at St. Bart's yesterday in an inter-faith commemoration of 9/11. I began with the Fatihah. The first prayer is from Abdullah Ansari of Herat. (cross-posted from islamicate.)
IN 1993, I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. I went on the umrah (lesser pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medinah, Islam’s holiest cities, an experience that left me with two distinct impressions.
Firstly, there was no difference in what was required of men and women to perform the umrah. And secondly, that some of the rituals, particularly the sa’y,
which commemorates Hajar’s search in the desert for water for her baby
son Ismail (later to become a Prophet), were tributes to women,
womanhood and motherhood.
I completed my umrah feeling newly enlightened and affirmed in my belief that Islam does not discriminate between men and women.
The saying goes that “man proposes and God disposes” but sometimes
people act as if God only makes recommendations that we can chose to
accept or ignore. This past week, according to news reports, Saudi
clerics have proposed imposing restrictions on women’s access to the
holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba. “The area is very small and so
crowded. So we decided to get women out of the ‘sahn’ (Kaaba area) to a better place where they can see the Kaaba and have more space,” they said.
There are several problems with this explanation. Firstly, it is not so
much a question of being able to see the Kaaba as being able to be near
the Kaaba. If all Muslim men and women merely wanted to see the Kaaba,
we can look at it on TV. But we know that touching al-hajar al-aswad (the black stone) at its south-western corner is the ideal way of initiating the tawaf ritual (circumambulation), and we love to caress the Kaaba’s walls and clutch the kiswa
(the black cloth draping the Kaaba). Being shunted off to some remote
corner of the Masjid-il-Haram effectively denies women access to this.
Secondly, and even more importantly, this is the first time in 1,400
years that anyone has proposed this. The Masjid-il-Haram or Forbidden
Mosque (that is, forbidden to non-Muslims) is the only place in the
Muslim world where men and women are not separated in worship. This has
been ongoing for almost 15 centuries, linking us through a continuous
chain of historic tradition that binds us to the Prophet in a deeply
profound manner. All of a sudden, somebody decides that chain needs to
In Surah 66 of the Quran, titled Al-Tahrim
or Banning, God asks Prophet Mohamad: “O Prophet! Why bannest thou that
which Allah hath made lawful for thee?” While the context was specific
to a particular situation, nevertheless the theme of these divine words
is clear: what God says is halal, humankind cannot turn into haram
(and vice versa). It stands therefore that for 1,400 years, God has had
no problem with women praying at the Kaaba. Why change now?
Sure, there is a crowd problem at the Masjid-il-Haram especially during
the Haj season when over two million pilgrims descend on the Holy
Cities. But why solve this through gender discrimination? When the
numbers of all-male pilgrims start to be overwhelming, would ethnic
discrimination be the next way to solve that problem?
In Surah Al-Ahzab,
God responded to complaints by women through the Prophet that there is
no mention of them in the Quran and therefore some people had
interpreted this as meaning that women do not matter. “Lo! men who
surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and
women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who
speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere
(in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and
women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms,
and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty
and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much
and women who remember – Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a
vast reward.” (33:35).
The message of this ayat is
that God viewed both men and women as His creations and therefore both
had access to His attention if they believed in Him. In other words,
God does not discriminate between the sexes. Why, therefore, should we?
I read about this new restriction on women with dismay. My experience
in Mecca had affirmed my belief that my religion, Islam, is one that
upholds equality and justice. I had faced no restrictions during the umrah
and it remains in my memory a most moving and humbling experience. I
stood by “God’s House” where, for centuries, millions of men and women
had come to do their duty to God and had felt equally God’s mercy and
beneficence. In imposing these new restrictions, does that mean that
women are now undeserving?
Before coming to Lebanon
I had been praying for the Lebanese and for all suffering people. I had wept for the destruction and the loss
of life. And then suddenly I was asked
to travel there on a humanitarian mission for Islamic Relief. There was so much to prepare and too many
things to organise so those that had been constantly on my mind left it for a
Now I've been here two weeks, my first fortnight in a
post-conflict situation. The suffering
is now not of the raw, weeping, screaming media-grabbing type. Carrying out assessments of villages just
south of the Litani river I've come across countless families without any
electricity at all (no way of storing dairy products, meat etc), no water in
the pipes (being dependent on tractors coming with expensive water to fill up
tanks), no food apart from what had been stored before the war, no medicines
available and schools that have been flattened.
This sort of suffering will carry on for weeks. We're helping to give food and water to some
of those affected but I feel impatient to reach every single person who is in
need! At the same time, I have been
feeling overwhelmed with gratitude that today it was decided that based on the
assessments, many of the people we've met will receive vitally needed aid. I'm so glad to be involved in something like
this and feel incredibly blessed that I get to do things which as a child I had
only dreamt about.
I'm glad we're giving out sanitary pads for women-who seem
to suffer in different, additional ways to the men-without water and the pads
they're used to during their periods they are extra uncomfortable, and
without sufficient water, their housework is severely affected. And for the vast majority of the women we
visit, housework is their main occupation.
Two weeks after the ceasefire, its not unusual to hear
cluster bombs being detonated by de-mining teams who are doing an absolutely
invaluable task in allowing people access to their own fields. The South of Lebanon is scattered with
villages that are entirely reliant on income from their agricultural
produce. These villages have now had all
their crops destroyed from the lack of care whilst people fled, the lack of
water, and from poisoning.
I'm writing from Sidon on Sunday evening, and just now I
heard four loud bangs that sounded exactly like explosions. There have been fireworks going off over the
last fortnight but this was certainly not them. Not sure at all what else could explain what we just heard.
They probably weren't explosions but the fear is there, however
insignificant compared to that of those who drove at break neck speed
to avoid the shower of bombs on villages in Southern Lebanon.