It was a regular day of a regular week in Toronto dealing with irregular issues like the Niqab debate when I received an email Dr. Taj Hargey (Chair of MECO) inviting me to come to their annual conference CRITICAL THINKERS FOR ISLAMIC REFORM – The Way Forward being held in Oxford, U.K. from June 11 to 13, 2010.
Dr. Hargey was very persuasive when he convinced me that there can be no reform without equal participation of women. This lead up to his next question about inviting me to lead mixed gender Friday prayers on June 11, 2010. Having done this before in Canada and New York, with full support from my family, I had no problems but asked him why he did not get someone from UK or Europe and he said he had looked but could not find anyone. So on a leap of faith, I agreed. I have to admit the idea of being in Oxford was very attractive.
I immediately got a phone call from The Independent newspaper in London to interview me.
I arrived at London, Heathrow on the morning of June 10 and Dr. Hargey picked me up and drove me straight to BBC London where they interviewed me for the news that evening. UK media picked up the story right away and my phone rang non-stop asking if they could cover the event. I was a bit uncomfortable with the media attention since that was not my intention in being here, but thankfully Dr. Hargey handled the PR part skillfully.
I was put up at a picturesque B & B in Abbingdon which a taxi driver told me was one of the oldest towns in UK. The B & B is next to the River Thames – quite the spiritually inspiring location for some deep meditation and reflection in preparation for the prayer on Friday.
Friday dawned as an unusually beautiful day in Oxford, with the sun shining brightly and a lovely breeze from the river. I went for an early morning walk and saw swans on the river as a sign that all is okay. It was a great start to a historical day. I as driven to the hall at Oxford where MECO regularly holds Friday prayers by John, an elderly non-Muslim retired army gentleman who is a regular at MECO Qur’an seminars and prayers.
MECO is called the home of egalitarian, enlightened and erudite Islam. Two years ago when MECO had invited Dr. Amina Wadud to lead prayers, there were protesters outside the hall. This time there were none. However half a dozen camera crews made it hard to focus on the purpose. From the way the organizers handled this event and welcomed me, I could sense they were pioneers of many groundbreaking events.
Despite having led prayers before, I was nervous as I had never met any of the congregation before. I didn’t quite see the crowd as we were just in time so I was escorted straight to the prayer area by one of the volunteers. I took a deep breath and took my place. It was very empowering and inspiring. There was pin drop silence until the call to prayer. After that it was like a dream. Among the congregants were men and women from UK, USA, Turkey, Malaysia, Netherlands, Iraq, Switzerland and one man from Saudi. Two young girls came to me in tears afterwards and said they had stopped attending to Friday prayers due to the lack of equal space for women, and were so happy to be there. The overall experience was very humbling and I was glad I had made it all the way across the Atlantic for this auspicious occasion, which was only a small part of the larger picture.
However patriarchy and tradition are hard to break. A reporter from BBC Arabic was clearly not happy about the event and decided to grill me. He kept trying to trap me. He started getting personal at which point I realized he had already made up his mind and wasn’t really interested in my opinion. CBC radio was there and it was good to connect with someone from back home.
After the media hype, things settled down and that evening was the opening of the conference on Reform in Islam. It was attended by about 100 scholars, academics, students and activists from Europe, Canada , UK, USA, Saudi Arabia and India. St. Anne’s College at Oxford was the venue. And what a venue. Oxford is green and picture perfect with stunning architecture. I could imagine learning here to be quite inspiring. The panels were excellent and I wish more media had covered the conference to see that many Muslims are engaged in trying to bring about change from within, without slamming the faith or having to be outside the faith and called ex-Muslims. They are not just talking-the-talk but actually walking-the-walk.
Dr. Hargey who runs a tight ship, insists that reform will come from within which is why he does the work he is involved in. His stress is on going back to the scripture – in our case the Qur’an which is a powerful tool for the work all of us do. However not everyone at the conference was in agreement which is the best part of being there. There were people with differing views but everyone agreed to disagree and hear the other. I had so much to learn and tried to meet everyone individually so I could gain from their knowledge and experience. Dr. Hargey is blessed with some wonderful young volunteers who I met and bonded with. Halima, Iftikhar and Farook are only a few of them who I have much to thank for.
This was more than just gender equality. Every panel and each speaker had me riveted. There was knowledge and information, facts and figures to dissect and absorb. They all made me think, which was the exact purpose of the conference. While each individual speaker was marvelous, a few made a special impact.
There was a skype dialogue with Dr. Amina Wadud and her book “Inside the Gender Jihad” was available for sale. Dr. Wadud reflected on the state of women at the time of the early Muslim community and where we are now. She reminded us that the change depends on us. She also made the point that both men and women are nurturers.
One of the presenters was Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Chairman of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism in India, author of many books and articles. I have been an admirer of his work since a long time and it was an honour to meet him in person. He is an eloquent speaker and stressed the need for reason. An avid writer on women’s issues, he said that the Qur’an came as a social revolution, but as soon as a revolution becomes the establishment, all is lost and emphasis comes back to tradition. Islam gives MORE than equal rights to women. He said that there is no verse in the Qur’an telling women what their duties are while there are many verses telling men what their duties and responsibilities are .
Melissa Robinson and Kelly Wentworth from the American Islamic Fellowship in Atlanta spoke about technology and how just by their perseverance and passion, they have started to work within the community and in interfaith in a big way. They were a wonderful resource for many of us who did not know much about public relations and hi-tech. Their vision is to provide and open forum for the diverse voices within the Muslim American community.
Another amazing presenter was Arnold Yasin Mol from the Deen Research Center in the Netherlands and creator of the Netherlands Moslim Party as a response to the election of Geert Wilders.
Also speaking were Layth bin Saleh al-Shaiban. I found the ideas and vision of Layth to be most interesting and thought provoking so we discussed and debated over the breaks and shared ideas. Free- minds is something we all need for reform.
Dr. Edip Yuksel was part of the organizers of the conference and his presence was everywhere. A passionate advocate for his God-alone cause, he spoke with feeling and many of his books were on sale.
From closer to home was Hasan Mahmud who is a human computer and boggled everyone’s mind by quoting Hadeeth and Quranic verses from memory verbatim to show how many Hadeeth are in contradiction to the Qur’an. Hasan is an expert in sharia and was able to give examples from all over the globe and from almost all books on sharia law. He informed us that almost 14 sharia courts are active in U.K. I also met Sophie Catton from Edmonton and was in awe of her activism and spirit.
The discussion and dialogue with both attendees and panelists were totally outside the box with not a single panel being boring. At every level I was enriched with knowledge and information – my notes getting more complex as the day ended. Everyone had something unique to share.
On a discussion about “The Media, the war on terror and Western Policy” Merryl Wyn Davis (author of many books including Will America Change? co-authored with Ziauddin Sardar ) spoke engagingly about a history in film and TV of making a mockery of Muslims. Merryl is with the newly re-organized Muslim Institute in London and kept the audience engaged with interesting facts and stories.
Democracy, Justice, Tolerance and Reason plus Islam, Science Culture & Liberty were two unusual panels with thought-provoking material and excellent presenters. The pencils and notes never stopped and Q & A’s went right through the breaks, much to the chagrin of the administrators. On the plus side, the buzz was audible.
The speakers were not all Muslim. In fact among the non-Muslim speakers, Gersom Qiprisci was staying at the same B & B as I was so we exchanged notes on trips back and forth to the conference. Gersom is also interested in scripture only but from a Hebrew perspective. He takes “A new look at the community of righteous Sons of Israel mentioned in the Quran” where he argues that some verses of Quran mention community close or even identical to that one of Qumran. He also shows the awareness of some leading Muslim medieval authors about the differences between Qaraism and (Orthodox) Judaism. They considered the former as closer to Islam. This is what Ger?om had to say about his experience at the conference: “As a non-Muslim, but nevertheless true Mu’tazilite monotheist from among Sons of Israel al-Qarrai’un-Qara’im (which was born from an interaction between Qumran community of the righteous Sons of Israel and medieval Mu’tazilism), I was truly amazed from the high level of intellectualism of the conference. It was, however, not an arrogant intellectualism of snobs, but living, warm and challenging message of the free elite minds to all Islamic world and even maybe to all the world. Yes, there are such Muslims, and from what I see, such kind of Muslims – free, intelligent, intellectual, open-minded – can be an only answer from within the Islam to the militant and orthodox sectarian pseudo-Islam. May YHWH ALLAH, God the Almighty will bless you all and will multiply your amount. Quality is there, now it is a matter to bring this message of peace, intellectualism and rational approach to the Scriptures to every Muslim individual, family and mosque of the world. Let all the righteous sons of Abraham join their forces to follow the righteous path of Abraham as it was described in two brother Scriptures – miQRA (Hebrew Bible) and Arabic QuR’An.”
At the end of the second day, there was a workshop and roundtable on next steps titled “Pragmatic Program toward Islamic Reform”. At this time input was taken from all participants on how to keep the momentum going and there were many practical suggestions. Pete made copious notes and drafted a post conference report which will be circulated. Kelly and Melissa kindly offered to set up a website and facebook groups under the name IMAN’- International Muslim Action Network.
The final conference presentation was also unusual and thought – provoking. Milan Sulc from the Netherlands presented on the numerical structure of the Qur’an essentially to prove how the Qur’an reaffirms and confirms that it’s a divine text. Despite being mathematically challenged myself, I managed to be extremely impressed.
In between serious issues like Muslim Economics and Entrepreneurship, New Qur’anic Hermeneutics and Muslim Law, meals were home cooked and served by Dr. Hargey’s wife Jacky and we were entertained by Muslim comedian Jeff Mirza, who is a tremendously gifted young man. Afghan musicians played while we had dinner – and dinner was not just an ordinary meal. Three courses served by volunteers like Halima and Kiki who were there for everyone.
The day after the conference finished, I had another enlightening experience. BBC radio invited me for a one hour phone-in show so off we went to London again. The show was about my leading prayers but was open to all listeners across U.K. The male callers who phoned in made it quite clear that the gender divide is fixated in the minds of Muslims. Some young Muslim men called to say that it would be sexually diverting for them to pray behind a woman! I suggested they park their desires at the door before they come in for worship. Others tried to argue that it’s forbidden in the Qur’an but when I asked for chapter and verse, they fell back upon “because it is”. Two good men and a couple of women called to support the idea and at the end of the program, the administrators calculated that 1/3 of the callers had been in favor of women leading prayers. A small victory for equality.
Thus at Oxford University there was a true celebration of Din and Dunya in the best way possible. This was ijtehad as there should be all over the Muslim world. I feel honoured and blessed to have been there and pray that I can work with these wonderful people in the future.
Raheel Raza is author of “Their Jihad – Not My Jihad”.