The first programme in series 5 of Shariah TV asks: how can you be a Muslim in ‘The Land of the Great Satan’?
Saleemah Abdul-Ghaffur is a leading instigator of the call for Muslim women to lead prayer on both sides of the Atlantic. She is also editor of Living Islam Out Loud, a collection of essays by Muslim American women post-9/11.
Imam Ajmal Masroor, who leads Friday prayers in four mosques across London, is the British voice on the panel.
Imam Zaeed is from New Jersey and a student from the world famous Al-Azhar – one of the most reputable seats of learning in the Islamic world.
The stars and stripes
Does pledging allegiance to the flag make me less of a Muslim? This very American question opens the series.
Saleemah Abdul-Ghaffur believes that everyone has to make a personal choice. Ajmal says that our contract is not with an object or a symbol, but with the law and the people of a country.
Most of the audience see no contradiction between allegiance to America and their Muslim identity. One says that seeing people burning flags in other countries makes her angry with her fellow Muslims. Another believes that trying to split your identity can make you forget that you are part of a bigger collective – of all humanity.
Music and dance
How can Muslims manage social situations and interpersonal relationships when their jobs may depend on them going into situations where people are drinking and dancing? And what of the audience member who plays in a band? Does being a rock musician make him a bad Muslim?
Saleemah says that if you are open with your colleagues about your beliefs and practices, they are usually supportive and want to find out more.
Imam Zaeed believes that the rules which make some things halal (permitted) and others haram (forbidden) are there to protect people. Therefore, he says, you should protect yourself from such situations and choose or refuse to take jobs according to whether they contradict Islamic teaching.
Ajmal Masroor disagrees. Some people have no choice but to do difficult jobs, and Islam provides dispensations to allow them to do that.
On the musician’s question, all agree that music is a thing of beauty. The injunction against music that comes from some Muslims dates from a specific historic period, says Ajmal. There is nothing wrong with expressing yourself through music, say the experts, as long as it does not increase people’s tendencies to sin, for instance by promoting sex, drugs or violence.
Sex and sexuality
What guidelines do the experts have on how Muslims should interact with the opposite sex in informal or public situations? Imam Zaeed advocates that men should stick to situations in which they are likely to find a good Muslim woman.
Saleemah and Ajmal say that it is in line with Islam to follow the customs of the place where you live. If it’s normal for men to shake hands with women, and you feel comfortable with that, then that’s fine.
An audience member believes it’s insulting to make injunctions about not touching in order to ‘protect’ women, saying: ‘I’m a man, not a rapist or a molester.’ As an Egyptian, he says that it is part of his culture for people to kiss each other on both cheeks when they meet. That doesn’t mean they’re thinking about having sex! And they shouldn’t be told that practices from other places, like Saudi Arabia, are how things must be done.
How can young Muslims meet members of the opposite sex? Are they allowed to date? There are double standards. What is considered ok for men is not acceptable for women; even discussing these issues is taboo, says Saleemah. Many members of the audience agree. They say that parents are stricter with their daughters than with their sons and that this is not acceptable.
Imam Saeed says that the rules are for the protection of women. Saleemah argues that both sexes need protection and that the conflict will take another generation to resolve.
New York is the gay capital of the world, says presenter, Tazeen Ahmad. One audience member has a good friend who is a lesbian. What should her attitude be? We shouldn’t judge anyone, says Imam Zaeed – however, Islam teaches that homosexuality is an abomination, therefore you should distance yourself. Saleemah takes a different view, pointing out that there are homosexuals even in Muslim countries! We need an open, authentic and safe conversation about this issue amongst Muslims.
Is the world wide web a useful source of information about Shariah? The craving for rulings on every issue – what Ajmal describes as the ‘fatwa mentality’ – derives from a different age. We need to know the basics of Islam in order to filter the mass of information that’s available on the internet, and be able to make our own judgements about right and wrong.
The internet, though, is a place where people can ask questions anonymously, says Tazeen. Doesn’t that make it a useful tool? The experts and the audience agree both that Islamic scholars need to be more accessible for people with difficult or sensitive questions, but that the internet can be a useful resource as long as it is treated with caution and a degree of prior knowledge.