Moderation and Extremism… on Islamic Terms

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By Sohaib Saeed [Originally published by 1st Ethical]

Sometimes we feel we are losing the war of words. As new concepts and coinages colonise the Muslim mind, we are left playing catch-up. Defining terms is a function of power, hence the feeling of helplessness in the face of familiar words being “redefined”. Wisdom is required to be flexible to genuine progress while maintaining the integrity of our religious discourse; after all, scripture-based religion necessitates a keen awareness of the meaning of words and the intent of speakers.

Unethical media/political usage of certain words has evoked a variety of strange reactions. They have mastered the art of using words laden with value judgements (connotations) yet devoid of precise meaning (denotation), such that they can even be strung together to great effect. Upon this method, “extremist radical fanatic” means no more than “bad bad baddie”. Then we have some Muslims trying to reclaim these negative terms by casting aside their baggage. On the other hand, some reject ostensibly positive labels such as “moderate” because people with problematic agendas have promoted them under this banner. If anything, these are the names we need to reclaim!

So what is a “moderate”, and what is Islam’s approach to this concept? To speak of Islam’s “approach” is to assume that its scriptures have spoken of the concept, not leaving us to react at a later time. Do we need to consider “moderation” as a RAND-y agenda, or is it the sort of lifestyle that takes a bit of Islam, but not too much (like being a “moderate drinker”)? Is the “moderate” someone who cancels any religious teaching which critics find unpalatable?

The aim of this brief article is to draw attention to some of the keywords in our Islamic tradition and contemporary discourse for both sides of this equation. By so doing, we can aspire to perfecting our individual and collective religiosity, directing it to be both faithful and sustainable, while avoiding the pitfalls of those who have gone before. More

Dialogue Matters (column)

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Here is an archive of my columns for Interfaith Matters, formerly published by the Edinburgh Inter-Faith Association. I may continue the series if it finds a new home!

  1. Why Dialogue?
  2. Humility
  3. Trust
  4. Listening
  5. The Question
  6. Partners
  7. The Middle Ground
  8. Self-Presentation
  9. Dealing with Feeling More

Muslim, actually

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Walking the path of fame and staying on the Straight Path

By Sohaib Saeed
[Originally published by The iWitness newspaper (2005) as a review of a BBC documentary.]

 You don’t always do what you think is right, but you do it for the sake of doing it, disregarding all other things. And I think in terms of acting sometimes you do have to do that.”  – Atta Yaqub

As part of a well-received BBC2 special on British Pakistanis, Atta Boy gave us an insight into the dilemmas faced by rising star Atta Yaqub. A Pollokshields resident who shot to fame after starring in Ken Loach’s film Ae Fond Kiss, Atta struggles to balance his ambitions with his values. A youth counsellor at Glasgow’s YCSA, he was discovered while modelling part-time and his ambition is to have a fulfilling career in acting.

It would be most unfair to judge what is in Atta’s heart, or imply by offering my views here that I am somehow better. He gave the impression of someone who is sincere and loves his religion, but has trouble resolving tough tests on the way to worldly success. The fact that he agreed to make this documentary suggests that he wants to be understood. So what can we understand from his experiences? More

A Word of Peace

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By Sohaib Saeed [Originally published by 1st Ethical]

It may have become something of a cliché that Islam means peace, or is a religion of peace. Yet there is no doubt that the pursuit of peace is a central goal of this life, just as we strive to arrive at the Abode of Peace after we die. When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said “Spread peace”, it was a sign that his followers should feel that they have this role upon the earth: to be bearers of peace.

The greeting of peace – in Arabic, expressed with the word salām – is one of the great symbols of Islamic ethics and is heard upon the tongues of the Prophets in the Qur’an as well as the Bible. To extend the word of peace to those you know and those you do not, is to put them at ease and engender an atmosphere of trust. It is a covenant extended to all who will accept to live in peace with us, and a precursor to getting to know one another as the Qur’an instructs.

In a verse exemplifying constructive reciprocity, Almighty God says: {And when you are greeted with a greeting, then greet with something better than it, or return it (in kind).} (Qur’an 4:86)

While the scholars have discussed in detail the wordings of such greetings and their replies, the spirit of this verse is to take positivity and build upon it before passing it on. Every society will benefit from this lesson, and it ought to be kept in mind when interacting within our own community as well as engaging with others.

It is also the case that knowing our scripture and its higher purposes – and reflecting on the localised contexts of its application – will enable us to benefit from divine guidance in living among people, inviting them through our words and actions to a life of peace and fulfilment. In particular, I have in mind the reservations Muslims often have when it comes to sharing this greeting of peace with non-Muslims.

Perhaps, were it not for the way the following two Prophetic narrations have been understood, they would not doubt for a moment that it is their duty to greet every human being with a smile and peaceful greeting. It would seem completely natural to promote a shared culture built upon this word of peace. More

Interfaith Engagement and Reciprocity

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By Sohaib Saeed [Originally published by 1st Ethical]

The announcement of some perennial publicity seekers that a Georgian Christian bishop had been invited to deliver the Jumu‘ah sermon to a (thoroughly mixed) congregation in Oxford failed to shock me because I had (half jokingly) declared long before that this would be their logical next step. (And not all logic is good logic.)

Rather, it reminded me of my own experience being invited by Christian friends to deliver a sermon at their Edinburgh church, which is also a hub of positive engagement in the city and beyond. I decided to honour their kind invitation and speak according to my own beliefs, respecting their practices without joining in their form of worship.

My theme was the Golden Rule, which has everything to do with empathy and reciprocity. Naturally, I wondered at the time: what would happen if we were to invite a Christian to deliver our khutbah? While to me it was an obvious impossibility, that audience of mine could be justified in thinking that I ought to return the favour and offer my minbar to their ministers.

On the contrary, that assumption would be to overlook the differences between our respective beliefs and practices. Perhaps the status of the sermon in each religion is completely different. Perhaps our approaches to validity of acts of worship defy comparison. In short, there will be things that work for one group and not the other, and vice-versa. More

The Golden Rule: An Islamic-Dialogic Perspective

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By Sohaib Saeed (extended version of 2010 paper)

Anyone with an interest in the philosophy of ethics, or in the common ground between different faiths and cultures, is very likely to be familiar with a dictum known as the “Golden Rule”. Worded in various ways, its straightforward message is to treat other people as you would like to be treated; or to refrain from treating them in a way that you would dislike to be treated. In this article, I shall explore the concept as it is expressed within the Islamic tradition, and then outline how the Golden Rule can be applied to great benefit in the broader context of interfaith understanding and dialogue. Before tackling these two subjects, however, the concept and its significance deserve some introductory exploration.

“Whoever shows no mercy is not shown mercy.” Artwork on display at Fanar Center, Doha

Islam in Clear English

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The Qur’an was revealed in a “clear Arabic tongue”, and each Prophet was sent to preach in “the language of his people”. With this article, I want to open a discussion with Muslims living in English-speaking communities about making our discourse clearer by making our language more correct.

I should confess from the outset that I’ve always been known by friends and family as a stickler when it comes to language. What goes unappreciated sometimes is that when I point out a glaring spelling mistake in a massive poster that is supposed to introduce people to Islam, I’m not pointing it out solely because of the personal pain it causes me (a pain that is known only to fellow sticklers). Rather, I don’t want us to make a joke of ourselves and waste money in the process. More

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