In her Christmas Day speech, some were half expecting the Queen to describe this year as annus horribilis, a horrible year, as she described 1992. Her speech, as it turned out, was a rather upbeat, religiously peppered message of thanks and hope (unless, that is, you were watching Channel 4’s ‘deepfake’ irreverent send up of it).
For me, 2020 started off on a note of sadness. In June of the previous year, my father passed away from cancer, rahimahullah, and my mother – having just completed her ‘iddah, or ‘mourning period’ – was struggling. The light of love and laughter that could always be seen in her was fading, and life without my father – her soul mate for almost sixty years – was starting to truly sink in. By January 2020, her sorrow precipitated the onset of acute kidney failure and on March 8th of this year, she too returned to Allah. From my earliest memories, till the end, the atmosphere in my parents’ home was, by God’s grace, always one of love, laughter, ease and adab. And all whom Allah allowed to bring into their orbit – family, friend or stranger – would find themselves being bathed in such love and kindness. Ours was a small family: two parents, two children. My older sister, a person who was known never to harbour a grudge or enmity against any soul, died in 2008; cancer was the culprit there as well. May Allah have mercy upon them, and unite them together in His paradise and presence. Amin!
By the end of January, while caring for my late mother, the Covid-19 virus had made its way from China to our shores. By March 8th, the day my mother died, there were almost three hundred cases of Coronavirus in the UK. On the third day after my mother’s funeral, following three busy days of relatives, friends and neighbours coming to offer their comfort and condolences, my family and I made a collective decision to voluntarily self isolate. By 23 March, the whole country was in lockdown. The humbling pandemic made face masks and social distancing the new normal, and has upended almost every aspect of the world in which we live. On plagues and pandemics, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if plague breaks out in a land where you are, do not leave it.’1 Of the many Muslim voices that tried to help ease any of the anxieties or agitations we believers may have harboured, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s Perspective on the Pandemic was by far the most socially insightful and spiritually intelligent. When it came to persuasive and practical fiqhi advice on Covid related issues, the commendable, yet relatively unknown British Board of Scholars and Imams offered UK Muslims the sane and much sought-after guidance (including qualified fiqh responses to common concerns about taking Covid vaccines: read here).
A month after lockdown was announced here in Britain, Ramadan began for us Muslims across the world. And how different it was! With lockdown putting a halt to gatherings in mosques for the five daily prayers and the tarawih prayer in the Ramadan nights, as well as large iftar dinners with family and friends, these were unscripted times. Without the communal energy Ramadan supplies individual believers with, this was going to be a bit of a go-it-alone Ramadan. With Allah’s grace, most Muslims rose to the occasion and, with good counsel from our scholars reminding us of the immense virtues and religious benefits of ‘uzlah – spiritual ‘isolation’ or ‘solitude’ – many dug in deep to muster the spiritual concentration needed to be present with the Qur’an and be alone with the One. About solitude (not to be confused with loneliness), sayyiduna ‘Umar advised: ‘Take your share of ‘uzlah.’2 And when asked in what salvation could be found, the Prophet ﷺ replied by saying: ‘Control your tongue, stay in your home and weep over your sins.’3 Ramadan was also the time the Cambridge Muslim College began to garner the appreciation it deserves. Its Ramadan Live programme offered a veritable feast of spiritual instruction and inspiration on how best to live the religious life, deepen our degrees of fasting, and cultivate Divine love (you can watch their programme and talks here).
A day or two after Ramadan, George Floyd, an unarmed black American, was unjustly killed by a policeman using lethal force while arresting him – a tragic event that’s becoming a tale as old as time. This triggered protests and riots in America, and here in Britain too; and it again brought to the fore the question of whether our society is institutionally racist: whether discrimination on the basis of race or colour is systemically embedded in the criminal justice system, political power, education, housing, healthcare, and other such institutions or organisations in society. I wrote about this in On British Muslims & Racism: Do Black Lives Matter? There I concluded by saying that we ought to support Black Lives Matter as a cause, rather than a movement; striving to tackle racism and to improve racial equality in Britain. And that we Muslims should support any grassroots programme that is working for a more just and fairer Britain for all people, not just for our particular tribe, as per the teaching of the Holy Qur’an: Help one another in righteousness and piety, but do not help one another in sin and transgression. [Q.5:2]
As Muslims, it must be the Revelation which shapes our social outlook; and it must be the universal Quranic archetypes of good and bad, right and wrong, which animate our social justice activism. In fact, any Muslim activism which ignores how seeking Allah’s approval and assistance in social change is tied to certain moral imperatives, forfeits the right to be labelled ‘Muslims activism’, and is simply activism undertaken by Muslims. The Qur’an must be our prime driver. But BLM as a movement and the Critical Race Theory it is embedded in is, I submit, out of step with even the basic Quranic vision of society and its strategy of righting social wrongs (a statement I hope to explore and justify in a future post, God willing). That the BLM founders are self-professed ‘trained marxists’; that it seeks to tear down the family structure; or that it currently divides more than it unites; that criticism of it invokes the most vicious cancel culture or accusations of being a racist; that white people are now all deemed to be in the grip of ‘white privilege‘, which itself is just the tip of the iceberg of them being intrinsically and incurably racist – all of this should at least cause an eyebrow to be raised and the religious mind to be very concerned. Where is the righteousness or piety in any of this, such that it could be supported as a movement? And yet Black people in the UK are, according to the statistics and data, disproportionately aggrieved against because of their colour. What is the solution? What are the underlying drivers? What policies need to thoughtfully and wisely be rolled out by government or local authorities? I don’t know the answer to any of these. But I do know that one extremism cannot be corrected with another extreme; that’s for sure.
Of course there can be, and often is, a vast difference between a movement’s founders and ideologues, and the rank and file who function as foot soldiers. Many of your day-to-day BLM activists may not share, let alone even know, the core philosophy underpinning the movement. They may simply be angry, disillusioned people who feel that they must raise their voices in civic protest against the social injustices and racial inequalities that they see or witness, or feel are systemic in society. And only a fool or an out and out bigot would deny there aren’t any such injustices or inequalities. The Muslim scholarly tradition is, however, predicated upon conserving whatever is best in any given system, collective or society, and advocates addressing and rectifying imbalances and injustices, rather than desiring to topple and tear the whole structure down in the childish and forlorn hope that something better will arise out of the ashes! And Muslim activism – whether here as minorities in the West, or in Muslim majority countries – would do well to reflect this.
On the topic of racism or ethnic aggression, by September 2020, we had more proof of China’s racism and repression against its Uighur Muslim population. Satellite images revealed nearly four-hundred detention centres and political indoctrination camps in which over a million Uighurs have been detained, as part of a bid to ethnically cleanse Uighur social, cultural and religious identity from China. Little has been said by political leaders, Muslim or otherwise, one assumes, in large part, because China economically ingratiates itself to an ever growing number of countries and organisations; and one customarily doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it – nor, it seems, make any significant statement of political outrage, not even if it be just a little whimper.
Five years on, and Yemen 2020 is still the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. While charities have been working relentlessly to supply food, medicine and other essentials – a small, but highly effective charity called Forgotten Women being one of them; with aid workers on the ground – Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been bombing Yemen ceaselessly, creating and worsening this grotesque carnage of death, destruction, famine and human suffering; all in the name of their geo-political aims. British-made arms lucratively sold to the Saudis have played a major role in the carnage, famine and the quarter of a million people killed due to the fighting, famine or humanitarian crisis.
While we are on the subject of the UAE, it seems its hands can be drenched in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemenis; or it can have hostility towards its Muslim neighbours, but it is okay as of mid-September, 2020 for it to make peace with Israel? Politics, trade, arms deals and suspicion of the Iranians can, it seems, make strange bed fellows. That said, our du‘as are for the guidance, welfare and rectification of all the Muslim rulers and heads of state; and that, in these politically difficult times, we pray that they not be so spineless when it comes to the message of tawhid and the glory of God.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.5728.
2. Cited in al-Khattabi, al-‘Uzlah (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1990), 70.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2408, saying that the hadith is hasan sahih.