January 06, 2008

Imams are not the problem

Away on holidays last week, I never got around to reading the comments around my "To my neighbour" piece when it was featured on altmuslim. Upon finally reading them, I found much of the same sort of rhetoric that I am tired of reading, that "radical imams" here in the West are somehow condoning or even encouraging much of the extremism taking place. Regarding the Aqsa Parvez murder, one reader mentioned that "it happened because the culture, absolutely preached from the mosque [...] and exhorted on Canadian Islamic websites" forced her father to kill her out of shame and a twisted sense of honour.

I often hear about these phantom "Canadian Islamic websites", but no one ever actually tells us what they are. Certainly, I have read some rather extreme comments by Muslims on blogs and forums, but I have never read anything that comes even close to condoning this sort of behaviour on any legitimate Muslim Canadian website.

And the imams of our mosques certainly are not encouraging this. I have not prayed in every mosque, but I have been in a fairly unique position over the last few years to experience Friday prayers in many different mosques in many cities throughout North America. The Friday prayer is usually a fairly good vantage point by which to get a feel for a Muslim community, and I've never heard anything of the sort from any imam, anywhere.

If it were only non-Muslims railing against these "radical imams", I could forgive them; they're not the ones meeting these people every day and learning from them. But too often, I read Muslims writing about these imaginary imams, never citing any specific examples, but ranting about how they are perverting the religion for their own benefit. I've heard this even from some of my friends, who themselves could not offer any specific examples, falling instead into vague generalizations before conceding the point.

One reader of my article cited an article about an Iranian cleric who allegedly said that "unveiled women should die".
A top Muslim cleric in Iran, Hojatolislam Gholam Reza Hassani said on Wednesday that women in the country who do not wear the hijab should be killed.

“Women who do not respect the hijab and their husbands deserve to die,” said Hassani, who leads Friday prayers in the city of Urumieh, in Iranian Azerbaijan.

Aside from the fact that the article is uncited and a Google search about this supposed "top Muslim cleric" shows that his only other noteworthy statements involved a campaign to "arrest short-legged dogs", the crux of the matter is that this person does not speak for us or Canadian imams, nor does he have any influence upon matters in this country. If I were to cite some random Romanian priest making some ridiculous claim, would this have any influence on the Christians in Canada? No, and neither would an imam in Iran influence the overwhelming majority of Muslims here.

The complaints against our imams can be that they are sometimes boring; perhaps some of them are not with the times, or lack the knowledge of contemporary culture to resonate with the people. But to condone and encourage the sort of aggression that took the life of a sixteen year-old Muslimah? You would have to search very hard to find an imam who will justify that. If one is found, I am certain that those who follow him would be quick to condemn the statement, and remove him from his post if necessary.

The same people who criticize the imams also speak of the "madrassas" as sinister Islamic seminaries where children are brainwashed with political propaganda and dreams of martyrdom. Again, these allegations are always vague, with no specific examples. Madrassa is not a scary word, it simply means "place of learning". And if you were visiting one for the first time, I'm sure you'd be very much underwhelmed - most are run by kindly uncles teaching the Arabic alphabet (often, quite poorly) in their basement or on the mosque floor.

I am not denying that there may be Muslims out there who hold extremist views. I don't believe they are nearly as much of a threat as the media make them out to be, but there are certainly some Muslims with beliefs that contradict classical teachings, who have a more militant understanding of the religion's history. However, these people are mostly the ones who have pushed aside the scholars and imams, who have failed to heed their advice. They are the ones who went off on their own, ignoring what the imams are teaching, while getting their knowledge instead from shady websites and shadier personalities. It is often through the connection with imams and community leaders that many youth today have protected themselves from extremist thinking, by aligning themselves with classical scholarship rather than letting their own overzealous enthusiasm dictate their beliefs.

Sit with them. Learn from them. Hear them directly, rather than let others tell you what they say and think. Islamic scholarship is a vast discipline with awe-inspiring science and people behind it. Muslims believe that the legacy of the Prophets is knowledge, and that Islamic scholars are the inheritors; we have such people in our midst, a treasure which should not be taken lightly. We as Muslims should show how much we appreciate that, lest it be taken away from us. And I invite any non-Muslims to visit our scholars as well, and hear from them directly; most would be happy to meet you.

Many of the imams and scholars have given up a lot for their communities, asking for little in return, and yet we continue to blame them for all that ails us. And though the character assassination efforts will continue on, these individuals ultimately deserve our honour and respect. It's the least we can do.

January 02, 2008

The Anti-Qiblah

A few weeks ago, I learned of a neat website which uses the Google Maps API to identify the direction of Qiblah (prayer direction towards Mecca) from anywhere in the world. Naturally, I thought to use it to answer a question that has intrigued me for some time: what is the polar opposite of the Qiblah? That is, where in the world can one pray in any direction and still be praying towards Mecca in the shortest possible line? What are you praying toward if you're off by a full 180 degrees?

My cousin and I searched through the South Pacific until we found that specific point, using the Qibla Locator tool. While the exact polar opposite point fell in the middle of the ocean, a nearby island caught our attention. It was a ring-shaped island, quite unlike anything I had seen before.

View Larger Map

At the outset, the island appeared uninhabited. Google's satellite view did a remarkable job in allowing us to zoom into the details, and there were no immediate signs of human interference. But in those details, we noticed something quite unusual: the uniformity of the vegetation. Many of the trees were aligned in an odd grid pattern, almost as if they were replanted after being destroyed somehow.

Looking deeper along the northern perimeter of the ring, we did find some signs of human intervention. There appears to be some sort of helipad, and a few buildings scattered around it. The buildings were nestled perfectly within the grid of trees, leading me to believe that the same people who replanted all those trees have raised those buildings.

It turns out that there are a number of such islands along the South Pacific. The ring shape is a naturally occurring formation called an atoll, but the tree patterns are definitely not natural. I do wonder what is going on in this most remote of locations, furthest away from Mecca. Perhaps it is a nuclear testing site, where scientists are studying the effects of radiation on reforestation efforts. Or maybe they've genetically re-engineered dinosaurs, for the sake of building a massive theme park. Perhaps it is something far less sinister. Either way, it makes for some interesting speculation.

January 01, 2008

A study in contrasts

Three days ago. Miami Beach.

Today, my car.

It's good to be home. :)