Monthly Archives: August 2009

The First of it is Mercy

Jihad H Brown – 28 August

In the collection of Al-Bayhaqi, the Prophet refers to Ramadan as a month “the first of which is compassion, the middle of which is forgiveness, and the end of which is freedom from the fire”.

Compassion is a sympathetic consciousness of another’s distress coupled with a desire to alleviate it. Mercy, another word commonly used in the same context, implies forgoing punishment even when justice demands it, or lenient compassionate treatment.

But how is a month mercy? What is the nature of its source, the mercy of Allah? How does this extend to the compassion of His subjects, one for another? And how does all of it form an integrated whole, or a closed system?

In Ramadan, we are informed in the soundest narrations that on the first night the sky is opened and the gates of the hellfire are locked. The doors to paradise are flung wide and the demons are bound and shackled. It is a month in which sins are forgiven, prayers are answered and all colours of goodness are on tap. It is a season of worship and devotion, the promised rewards for which are doubled.

The mercy of Allah is an expression of the giving, the blessings, and the generosity that He pours over His devotees in this month. In the Quran He says: “My mercy encompasses everything”; and the pious used to call out, reminding Him, ‘O Allah! I am a thing!’

In the chapter of “the Cattle”, he says: “And your Lord has prescribed mercy upon Himself.” The rain is employed as a metaphor for His grace that He sends out even after people have despaired of its arrival.

In the chapter of “Rome”, he says: “Do you not see the effects of the ‘mercy’ of Allah, how he resuscitates the earth after it was dead?”

The hearts of people that have been lost in the dry barrenness of materiality are like the earth in autumn and winter, awaiting a spring of awakening in Ramadan.

Gratefulness for these blessings entails that the hearts of the faithful overflow in return with fraternal compassion for other human beings and sentient life.

Giving and catering to needs unmet is a sign that compassion has taken up residence in the heart. The fasting person has tasted hunger and thirst and experienced difficulty and deprivation. Empathy is one of the fruits of fasting that people can share with one another.

The current healthcare crisis being hotly debated in the United States marks a decisive deficit in compassion.

Some 47 million Americans do not have health care and many who do have a boat are insisting that the others should be left in the water. It’s not their problem that others less industrious than themselves couldn’t find a way to stay dry.

The fruit of the tree of individualism can be bitter. The myopia of parochialism and the fetters of xenophobia prevent us from comprehending that other less prosperous nations have sorted out ready solutions in which all boats rise.

The Prophet said that mercy is not removed from the heart of anyone but the wretched.

In the celebrated hadith designated as the first to be taught to any student of Sacred Law, the Prophet says: “Those who show compassion to others will be shown mercy. Have compassion for those in the earth, and those in the heavens will show compassion to you.”

Shaykh Jihad delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi. For more information visit


The Limits of Responsible Society

gun-law-300x225Shaikh Jihad H. Brown – 22 August 2009

Last week US president Obama spoke at several town hall meetings to generate awareness and promote public discourse on the issue of healthcare reform. At events in both New Hampshire and Arizona anti-Obama protesters gathered outside the venues openly carrying loaded weapons, including assault rifles. For some this was disturbing. For others it was justified as a very normal instance of citizens exercising their constitutional right to bear arms; obviously with some stretch in the usage of the word ‘normal’.

But this is not the first time that weapons have been carried by public citizens to presidential events. In fact, citizens have carried weapons to exactly 15 presidential events throughout America’s history. In the cases of presidents James Garfield, William McKinley, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy the day ended with the Head-of-State dead. In the other 11 cases, attempts on the president’s life failed or were foiled by secret service personnel.

The justification that this was just a normal day in the life of a citizen exercising his constitutional “second amendment” right is belied by the clash of time and place; a public invitation to discuss healthcare reform? This is a tragic case of an immature and irresponsible misapplication of the second amendment right to bear arms, right to assembly, and the freedom of speech to criticize one’s own elected government. Especially disconcerting when this series of public meetings has been particularly plagued by such inexcusable fear mongering and incitement to misinformed hatred of such a hyperbolic magnitude. How could a rational moderately educated adult describe as normal, bringing a loaded firearm to an event explicitly advertised as a public discussion as to whether or not all citizens should have access to proper medical care if they fall ill at no fault of their own.

This would never have been tolerated during any other presidency in the history of the United States. In what flawed universe do people assume to propose that other societies are intrinsically violent or naturally comfortable jeopardizing the well being of innocent civilians. It just doesn’t fit within any logical sequence when Hollywood movies and Grand Theft Auto glamorize violence, its no wonder that a generation identifies with a “Thug Life”. Other countries just don’t seem to get a Columbine, a Red Lake, and a Virginia Tech all within a single set of national boundaries. Shall we avoid mention of the only nation ever to actually deploy weapons of mass destruction on a civilian population let alone acquire them?

The un-isolated incidences of this week are nothing more than disrespect for the office of president, so long as the occupant doesn’t meet parochial assumptions of “acceptability”. A responsible society has limits that it knows if crossed, would forfeit civilization itself. This is the meaning behind the Arabic word ‘hudud’. Seeing such sore losers of an election mixing with their immaturity a fear of a future that it is bigger than themselves, bigger than their xenophobic comfort zones, bigger than the petty limitations of race, is a disappointment to the good faith we are wont to cultivate in humanity. If the Prophet Muhammad said, “you shall obey your leader, even if there is appointed over you a wiry headed black slave,” I think we’ll all be just fine with a Harvard educated lawyer from Hawaii.

Shaikh Jihad delivers the Friday khutba at Maryam bint Sultan mosque in Khalidiya, Abu Dhabi. For more information refer to

Istanbul dispatches: can you feel it in the air?

exterior-night-during-ramadan-cc-khoogheemThe National – Shaikh Jihad Hashim Brown  – 14 August 2009

Can you smell the fragrance of Ramadan in the air? Can you feel the slight sensation of electricity all around? Muslims must be crazy! Who in their right mind would look forward with such excitement and anticipation to spending all day – in summer heat – without eating or drinking? It defies common sense.

But really the Ramadan fast is like a breeze coming off the Bosphorus, altering the summer heat with its cooling effect. The whole month is almost like an envelope of magical hue. But it is not magic. It is what we call baraka, a blessing; and in Ramadan the baraka is palpable.

Baraka means to put “a lot” into “a little” – like the presence of a great deal of meaning in a small substance, or the possibility of an extraordinarily small amount of food feeding an extraordinarily large number of people. Ramadan is just that, a short 30 days filled with so much meaning and goodness that on the final day even the children do not want it to end. You will even find some Muslims offering each other condolences, or addressing the month itself, as if it were an old friend, saying how sorry they are to see it go. Afterwards they will not even know what to do with themselves; eating in the daytime somehow just does not seem right.

Ramadan is a time of spiritual devotion. One is very active in one’s intentional movement towards the Divine. The state of fasting itself makes one conscious of one’s commitment and purpose. An extra devotion during the day and special prayers at both ends of the night – all this spiritual energy can’t help but bear fruit. And the fruit is sweet like the peaches of Anatolia in the summertime. Ramadan too is a season when Muslims will review the entire Quran, some completing it even twice during the month. Intimacy with the words of the Divine provides a portal to an eternal and timeless world of meaning. The wisdom and insight of the Quran frames the month, it provides the “super-text” (as opposed to a subtext). In many Muslim countries it is the custom to complete the reading of the compendium of Bukhari also, reviewing the most corroborated sayings of the Prophet.

Ramadan embodies empathy for the poor and hungry and gratefulness for blessings commonly taken for granted, but most of all it is about family. Everyone in the house is on one and the same mission. Everyone is feeling the same hunger or comparing notes: “Where did you get to in the Quran?” Meals are delicately prepared from mom’s best recipes. All the hands in the kitchen are transferring their love and care into the food itself. Then, in the stillness of dusk, the moment of truth, when your effort is offered up for approval, one date, one glass of water, and an expansive meadow of acceptance open before you for supplications to be heard and answered.

Every night, the whole family gathers together – and perhaps a few adopted single brothers or sisters too – like clockwork. There is an uncanny spirit of helpfulness as people share a few well-earned desserts. Then they are off to the mosque for the 20 cycles of prayer, a continuous tradition since the time of the Prophet’s companions, instituted by the second Caliph, Omar.

Standing at Allah’s door, allowing the melodic aphorisms of the Quran to wash over them, they send a message of resolve. After a whole day of fasting, I’ll do this too, whether or not You open, this is where I belong, at Your door.

Shaykh Jihad delivers the Friday Khutba at Maryam bint Sultan mosque in Abu Dhabi. For more information please visit

Istanbul dispatches: presentism vs continuity

mosque_bridge_istanbul_turkeyThe National – Shaykh Jihad Brown – 08 August 2009

Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

– William Butler Yeats

The implication of last week’s column was a loss of continuity: continuity of culture, of self-awareness, of a sustained and consistent vision of how today leads into tomorrow and the next. But the zeitgeist of modern man is presentism – a tendency to have no consciousness of anything more than the temporal and spatial moment; and to read all things, including the past and the future, in those terms. One might also call it “todayism” or “nowism”.

To make sense of today and to successfully negotiate the challenges of tomorrow, one must avail oneself of a continuity of self-identity and a comprehensive reading of cosmology. But to have continuity through time is to have a centre of enduring values and principles. Yet modern man shies away from the centre in his persistent migration towards the periphery and a preference for all things marginal, never wanting to deal with the heart of the matter, nor acknowledging that the matters that consume us or affect us have an underlying heart.

This is part of the rejection of the absolute, the universal. Absolute truths and universal principles are considered unegalitarian modes of knowing. Why can’t everyone have an equal opportunity to be right and correct?

Relativism – wrought with its inevitable contradictions – is “fair”. Not only is it fair but it’s convenient.

This is akin to the concept referred to by the Muslim sages as al-farq al-zulmani, dark separation, only here, on a societal level. Dark separation is when one’s focus is scattered, confused, lost. Jama, gatheredness or gathered focus, is the opposite condition. One is clear on up from down, backwards from forwards. The further we move to the periphery the more we become separated.

Our penchant for intense specialisation, preoccupation with “angles” and “areas”, creates difficulty seeing the place of things in a homogeneous bigger picture. All things become separated, apparently disconnected, we have lost sight of the centre so far out here on the periphery as we have become. This individuation of outlook and experience of life leads to individualism and the encouragement of egotism.

The further we move towards the periphery, towards the margins, the more difficult it becomes to make sense of things, to clearly understand any present condition. The Quran mentions a people whose likeness is that of a man who lights a fire in a pitch black night; his visibility is limited to that of the fire. And when that is lost he is dependent on the very lightning of which he is fearful. When it strikes with its light he moves, when it recedes he hesitates.

The Ottoman experience, which effectively ended in 1923, was the last vestige of an Islamic centre on a social level or civilisational scale. It marks the end of the thread of continuity. Or it is the starting point where we can pick up once more and secure a connection to an enduring legacy through the ages that enables us to shine a light into the unknown of tomorrow.

The Ottomans were clear on who they were, what they were meant to be, and from whence their legitimacy came. Their society was a cosmopolitan one – several captains of its navy were even British converts – yet at the same time it was homogeneous in its universal principles. Its centre was virtue, knowledge, and fraternity. These are enduring. These are clarifying. George Santayana warned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Shaykh Jihad delivers the Friday Khutba at Maryam bint Sultan mosque in Abu Dhabi. For more information please visit

Istanbul dispatches: diversity vs uni-culture

IstanbulThe National – Shaykh Jihad Brown – 01 August 2009

Revisionist history in the Middle East likes to think of the Ottoman years as an episode of Turkish domination. The reality, however, was far from that.

The Ottomans were a diverse group. One of the most powerful positions in the empire, the Sultan’s chief of staff, was always an African. The top ministers and bureaucrats were more often selected from the ranks of the devshirme, Christian children raised in the palace and groomed for high-ranking functions, including military leadership. The language itself, Ottoman Turkish, was written in Arabic script.

There is a tendency in the Middle East to blame all failures in modernisation on the “Turkish Occupation”. The accusation appears moot, however, when we notice that the last Grand Vizier, Said Halim Pasha, was educated at Lausanne, Switzerland in the social sciences. He would be killed by Armenian assassins. If the Ottomans had really been the “sick man of Europe”, the British and their Anzacs would have faired better in the Dardanelles, but it was a rout.

More than anything, what may have contributed to Ottoman decline would be the impatience of the Young Turks to chase the fashion of modernisation. Add to that the intoxicating idea of nationalism, the latest import from Europe, as it spread throughout an ethnically diverse empire.

Istanbul today, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, remains diverse. Although rich in culture and still quite cosmopolitan, it abounds in contradictions: history and modernity; graceful beauty and kitsch; aristocracy and the nouveau riche; tradition and technology; authoritarianism and desire for democracy; conservative culture and moral abandon.

The gift of globalisation, however, has brought to this cosmopolitanism the creep of the uni-culture. The visitor looking to experience all that is unique to Turkey is challenged at every step by American fast-food restaurants, shopping malls, hotel chains and a plethora of other stylised conventions. If one allows oneself to be seduced by the siren song of the familiar, he or she might just forget where they are until they bump into the next monument. The advertisements are fundamentally the same, the banter of the radio jockeys is the same, the commuter traffic to their bedroom communities is the same; and it’s all just boring.

Today’s uni-culture is plastic, one-dimensional, and tastes of polyurethane. The alternative is the “authentic”, but that too is an enigma. “Authentic” is an adjective applied to another thing, like one might apply the “rustic” theme to their screensaver or interior design. We should be conscious that even when visiting a historic sight, we are seeing it through the filter of “presentation”. This is a stylised representation or interpretation of life as it was. It is still not the lived reality of the historical moment of the place and its occupants. They didn’t gaze at the walls and tour the objects as we do; they lived and “did” within that supporting context.

Reality, the third level of experience, is founded on continuity. It is a portal connecting us to the real. Uni-culture and “authentic representation” are temporal and never enduring.

In the narrow streets of the Fatih district and the hills of Uskudar live real Ottomans, who can show you, with the most gracious hospitality, a continuing history that no guidebook could “represent”. The Quran says: “And as for the froth, it will dissipate as if it had never been; but what benefits the people will remain in the Earth.”

Shaykh Jihad delivers the Friday Khutba at Maryam bint Sultan mosque in Abu Dhabi. For more information please visit