By Aijaz Zaka Syed
30 May 2014
Have you listened to Sami Yusuf yet? He has been described as the biggest Muslim superstar by Britain’s Guardian. But what really interests me about the British singing sensation is his compelling eagerness to reach out to the world and present what he believes is the true face of his faith.
Unlike Yusuf Islam, formerly pop legend Cat Stevens, who gave up music after embracing Islam, this Yusuf is using his music to promote his faith.
That’s what struck me the most when I first read about Sami Yusuf and his passion and ambition to change the world as it were with his music.
Yusuf sees himself as a brand ambassador of Islam. And God knows we have never needed people like him more desperately as we do today. He has been reaching out to the world in determined efforts to bridge the gulf that exists between Muslims and the rest of the world.
Every time the singer interacts with the media, which finds his glorification of Islamic icons and values in a language and medium that the world understands intriguingly fascinating, he talks of the humane, reasonable and liberating faith that we all know.
Yusuf believes that the brand Islam he champions needs to be resurrected in its original, pristine purity and glory. His songs and music unabashedly celebrate the faith and its original humane teachings at a time when it is not the best of times to do so.
Today, in post 9/11, post Huntington times, it is easily the most maligned and misunderstood religion. It has been at the receiving end of long centuries of disinformation and propaganda blitz as well as been a victim of its own overzealous, misguided followers and assorted groups of extremists.
It can certainly do with more brand ambassadors like the 34-year old artiste, who was born to Azerbaijani parents in Tehran and was brought up in Britain. The faith and its followers have never faced a greater image problem.
As if Al-Qaeda, Taliban and ignorant bigots of all shades and hues hadn’t done enough to exalt the blessed name of Islam, now we have new defenders of the faith in this mysterious band of thugs called Boko Haram.
In the past few months our heads have hung perpetually in collective shame as the Nigerian loonies have gone on the rampage, day after day, killing innocent, unsuspecting civilians, targeting schools and abducting school girls in droves as if they were cattle. All this has apparently been carried out in the name of Islam and is seen as such by the world.
Who cares if highest Islamic authorities and scholars from across the world have flayed the outfit and its shenanigans in strongest terms as “inhuman and against the spirit of Islam”? Indeed, majority of scholars are convinced that the Boko Haram is not even part of the faith.
Its founder Maitatsine rejected the Hadith and Sunnah (the Prophet’s teachings and traditions) and even allegedly projected himself as another prophet. Condemning the recent abduction of some 200 school girls by the group, Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh suggested that the group was founded to “smear the name and image of Islam.”
The world however pays little attention to these tiny, insignificant details as the searing images of young, helpless girls being herded around at gunpoint float out there.
And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if Islam today finds itself on the defensive everywhere, it doesn’t have to thank anyone but its own followers.
Muslims have not played a too insignificant a role in bringing about this state of affairs. From targeting innocents to going berserk over trivial, non-issues that have nothing to do with the faith or its teachings, we are constantly playing into the hands of our adversaries.
Our short sighted and impulsive actions often bring nothing but embarrassment to the faith. I have no love lost for the likes of Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Taslima Nasreen. They revolt me; not because of their ‘liberal’ views but because of their zeal to sell themselves for a fistful of dollars.
However, I believe their self-promoting shenanigans can be dealt with a little more tact, without us feeding into the stereotype of an intolerant, excessively thin-skinned people ever ready to take offence.
Many a time minor, insignificant issues are blown out of proportion by our overreaction, drawing attention to our response rather than the genuine causes that provoked it. Even when our concerns are genuine and justified, they are marred or overshadowed by our excessive reactions.
I recall this incident involving a British teacher in Sudan some years back. Gillian Gibbons was imprisoned for a brief while for “insulting Islam.” The 54-year old teacher found herself in the eye of a storm when she and her class apparently innocuously decided to name a teddy bear Mohammed.
Anyone with a nodding familiarity with the Muslim world would know what the Prophet (peace be upon him) means to his followers. They love and revere him more than their own life. And this respect isn’t limited to him but extends to all the prophets who came before him. Muslims would be equally outraged, if Gibbons had named the teddy after Jesus or Moses.
The dual standards that are so common in the West in such matters do not come naturally to us. When the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten came up with those extremely hurtful and cheap caricatures, our European friends had shrugged off our protests saying, “Well, our media is free and it’s free to do what it pleases. We respect the freedom of speech, you see.”
Maybe it is so. But the media in the West is not so free when it involves its own high and mighty. The self-same liberal European establishment was outraged when two Spanish cartoonists poked gentle fun at the country’s royals.
The cartoonists of El Jueves faced imprisonment and heavy fines for taking a less than reverential look at marital life of their royals, Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia. It seems Europe’s fabled freedom of expression doesn’t always work. This selective freedom is flaunted only when it involves certain soft targets. Talk of double standards!
Given this eventful history, is it any wonder then some of us have grown rather sensitive to such slights, real and imagined? After all, the Danish cartoons had not been an isolated case. There have been numerous such attempts before and since.
Just Google Muhammad (peace be upon him) or Islam and see the sweetness and light pervading the Net in the name of research and scholarly writings on the subject.
Yet I believe the Sudanese authorities should not have rushed to punish the British teacher. Gibbons deserved the benefit of doubt and mercy. After all, she was new in this part of the world and unfamiliar with Muslim sensitivities on this count.
This is what the Prophet would have done. Let’s not forget how he pardoned the worst of his enemies. When he returned to Makkah as a victor, the city of his birth that long persecuted and eventually drove him out, he forgave them all; even those who killed his beloved uncle Hamza and savaged his body.
And that wasn’t the first time he had done so. He had always been the epitome of mercy and kindness to all. I am sure the noblest of prophets would have forgiven these slights, inadvertent or otherwise, too. After all, he came as a mercy to all mankind. And as his followers, that is what we should do. We cannot counter hatred with more hatred but love. As Lincoln argued, mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. We need more Sami Yusufs, not Boko Harams.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.