31 August 2009

Ramadan lunch breaks

The Toronto Star has a good article up today about Muslims and lunch breaks during Ramadan.

The author, Stuart Laidlaw, points out that Muslims tend to become more practising during Ramadan, which means that more of them attend Friday prayer. For Muslims who work, that means taking an extra-long lunch break in order to make it to the mosque, listen to the sermon, perform the prayer, and arrive back at work.

Nadir Shirazi, president of Multifacet Diversity Solutions, suggests that non-Muslim co-workers should not think their Muslim colleagues are slacking off. Meanwhile, Liz Chappel, who is vice-president of the Toronto Area Interfaith Council, reminds us that "Our workplaces are centred around Christian holidays", and urges non-Muslims to be aware of what a spiritually important time their Muslim workmates are going through.

My favourite line in the article is "Shirazi and Chappel say employers should avoid holding lunch meetings". Having sat through some of those myself during Ramadan, I can tell you they're painful.

One thing the article didn't bring out, though, is, what about Muslims who attend Friday prayer at other times, during the remaining 11 months of the year? This story almost makes it sound as if Friday prayer is only important during Ramadan.

27 August 2009

Slovakia stops Hungarian president from honouring saint

Slovakia and Hungary are embroiled in a diplomatic dispute, after the Hungarian president, László Sólyom, was prevented by Slovakia from entering its territory on 21 August.

Sólyom had been planning to visit Komárno, a Slovakian city with an ethnic-Hungarian majority, in order to take part in the unveiling of a statue of the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen. Since Hungary and Slovakia are both members of the Schengen Zone, there aren't supposed to be travel restrictions between the two.

However, the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, who leads a coalition that includes a radical anti-Hungarian party, has remained unapologetic, saying that Sólyom's visit would have been a "violation of international law and Slovakia's sovereignty".

One reason that the Slovak government has cited for its take on the event is that 21 August happened to be the anniversary of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by five members of the Warsaw Pact, including Hungary. On top of that, as the Slovak foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, pointed out, the organisers of the unveiling of the statue had not invited anyone from the Slovak government to participate.

The Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Balázs, has called his president's denial of entry into Slovakia "unprecedented and unacceptable".

Perhaps the most interesting thing in all this is that both Hungary and Slovakia are Catholic countries, with Catholics accounting for 55% of Hungarians and 69% of Slovaks. St. Stephen, meanwhile, was canonised in 1083. Just a glimpse of how modern nationalism tampers with long-established religious tradition.

26 August 2009

Russian church considers Russians and Ukrainians "one people"

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus (i.e., Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) has declared Russians and Ukrainians to be "one people".

Speaking in Arkhangelsk, Kirill remarked,

From the point of view of basic values, we are one people. Certainly, from an ethnic point of view, from the point of view of language, one can speak [of differences]... but, when it comes to basic values, we are one body.

Kirill also spoke about "the historic commonality which was formed during the thousands of years of our common history", and added that "no thoughtful politician in Russia or Ukraine can ignore this fact." Despite all of the above, Kirill called for respect for the sovereignty of both Ukraine and Russia.

So is this the Russian Orthodox Church stepping into politics of its initiative, or is it rather fulfilling the demands of the Russian authorities?

In a recent Naša niva article, Jan Zaprudnik writes that he found highly dubious leaflets being distributed in Orthodox churches in Turaŭ (Turaw) and Žytkavičy (Zhytkavichy), one of which claims that Ukraine was "invented" by Bismarck, of all people.

It's truly sad to see how the church is allowing itself to be the handmaiden of Russian imperialism once again.

25 August 2009

Belarusian bishop stabbed

The Orthodox Christian bishop of Mahiloŭ and Mścisłaŭ (Mahilyow and Mstsislaw), Safron, was stabbed by a supposedly deranged person while performing a church service in Mahiloŭ on 23 August. The bishop was wounded in the arm and the stomach.

Following the attack, Safron was hospitalised and underwent surgery. His life is reportedly not in danger.

The 37-year-old suspect was caught by worshippers and has been charged with "intentional causation of heavy physical injury". He had been under observation at the Mahiloŭ Regional Psychiatric Hospital.

This is scary news, given that many of my relatives live in Mahiloŭ, belong to the Orthodox Church and attend services. On the other hand, this seems to be a complete one-off.

10,000 visitors

Notes on Religion received its 10,000th hit on 21 August.

Thank you to everyone who has visited, read and commented over these two years. Merci beaucoup!

22 August 2009

Obama's Ramadan greeting

Barack Obama charms once again with his Ramadan greeting to Muslims around the world.

As he points out himself, though, it's time to see more action on the ground, in addition to encouraging words. Nevertheless, after Bush, this is so refreshing!

Obama's speech seems to have become one of the top stories connected to the beginning of Ramadan this year, as can be seen both on Al Jazeera and the BBC.

Not quite everyone has the same focus, though. I was listening to the BBC Asian Network yesterday, and the presenter, while discussing the onset of Ramadan, said, "What about... getting it on with your partner?" Certainly a legitimate question, although I don't think I would have put it quite that way. :)

Ramadan mubarak!

I would like to wish my readers a blessed Ramadan. May God accept us our fasts and our good deeds, and forgive us for our mistakes.

Visitor profiles, 15 July to 14 August 2009

Welcome to the nineteenth installment of Notes on Religion visitor profiles!

The most recent month (15 July to 14 August 2009):

This month, Notes on Religion received 464 visits.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent, alhamdu lillah. The largest number of visitors (32%) came from the United States. Italy was next with 12%, while Canada came third with 8%. In sha' Allah, I'll quote all monetary amounts (if any are discussed) in US dollars along with Canadian dollars over the coming month.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (18%) came from California.

A plurality of visitors this past month (41%) were referred to Notes on Religion by Google. The most common Google search terms that brought visitors to the blog were 'natasha aliyeva' and 'neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser this month was Firefox (45%). 88% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March 2007 to 14 August 2009):

The total number of visitors during these two years was 9,920. The average number of visitors was eleven per day.

The largest number of visitors (45%) came from the United States. The second-highest number (14%) came from Canada. The United Kingdom came third with 7%.

In the US, the largest number of visitors (15%) came from California.

The majority of visitors (55%) was referred to the blog by Google. The most common search term entered by visitors who were referred to Notes on Religion by Google was 'russian neo nazi beheading'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (47%). 91% of the visitors were Windows users.

10 August 2009

On equality in the mosque

As some of you know, Katie and I have recently returned from a two-month trip to Europe. One thing that I love to do while travelling is to discover mosques where I can perform the Friday prayer. In Muslim countries, there are always well established mosques on hand. In non-Muslim ones, depending on how long a Muslim minority has been established there, there are either mosques that look like mosques, or there are buildings converted into mosques from other uses (such as a former cinema I found in Philadelphia), or temporary prayer facilities at university campuses. What's common between all of these places of worship is the welcome they extend to the Muslim worshipper and the sense of brotherhood that almost always emanates from them.

So imagine my surprise when, in Luton, England, I was told that, to the best of my interlocutor's knowledge, mosques there have no "arrangements" for women worshippers. He said there might be something at the university, but, at that stage, it was too late to check. It's always something of a shock to the system to find yourself amid the ultra-conservative Muslims of Luton. Never did I think, though, that the community, which has been in Britain for two or three generations, would continue the common South-Asian practice of excluding women from the mosque. Especially since Luton itself features Islamic schools with female students and women teachers.

My mosque in Dhaka has a women's section, albeit, from what I hear, a small, crowded one, with no view of the men's prayer halls. So Katie was able to attend the mosque in Bangladesh in 2006, but not in Britain in 2009.

After Britain came Belarus. Minsk, my native city, is home to a long-standing Tatar community, present there for over 500 years. There was a mosque in Minsk for most of this time but, tragically, it was first expropriated and then blown up by the city authorities under Communist rule. Since 1997, however, a new mosque has been under construction (very much a stop-go process; the small Belarusian Muslim community is short on funds). The building site features a make-shift structure that serves as a temporary mosque while construction continues. It's actually quite beautiful inside, and includes a women's section, although, again, a small one. Katie and I prayed at this mosque when we were in Minsk; the other places we went to in Belarus didn't have mosques, as far as we knew.

The big shock came in Turkey. Ostensibly, Turkish Islam is all smiles and all kindness. The Turkish Muslims we know are genuinely warm and kind-hearted people, ma sha' Allah. However, something about the way Islamic institutions are managed in Turkey is badly broken. In Istanbul, the mosque where I went for Friday prayer most weeks (because it was located close to the apartment we were staying in) had no women's section.

So one day, Katie and I went off in search of a place where the two of us could perform Friday prayer together. We went to two different mosques in another neighbourhood, and the results were even more surprising. It turned out that both those mosques did have women's sections, BUT those sections were taken over by men during Friday prayers. Thus, of the 35 congregational prayers a week, women could pray at the mosque 34 times. However, they were obliged to stay away for just one prayer, which just happened to be the most important one of the week. Compounding the double standards (if not outright hypocrisy) is the fact that, in one of those mosques, the Friday sermon was about the importance of family, while the prayer featured verses from the Qur'an about the importance of Friday prayer. Hello?

So it was quite comical (sadly so) to see an official from Diyanet, the Turkish governmental agency in charge of Islamic institutions, saying, after a mosque designed by a female architect opened, that Turkey should build more such mosques. That mosque is the first in Turkey designed by a woman, and the first to feature a women's prayer hall equal in size to the men's one. The joke lies in the fact that there is no move underway by Diyanet to admit women into the mosques which currently bar them from taking part in Friday prayer, even though they already have women's sections.

On our way home to Montreal, Katie and I stopped by the Muslim prayer rooms at Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul to perform the fajr prayer. The women's prayer room was spacious and well equipped, but infested with cockroaches. Not surprisingly, I didn't see any cockroaches in the men's one. Katie was glad to leave Turkey, and I don't blame her.

So now we're in Perrysburg, Ohio, visiting my in-laws. Katie and I got married at the mosque here, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo (see picture), in 2005. This is probably the most equitable of all purpose-built mosques I've seen anywhere in the world when it comes to ensuring women's access to prayer facilities. The prayer hall is simply divided down the middle with a low barrier; men have half the space, while women have the other. The barrier is high enough to ensure modesty, yet not high enough to create a sense of segregation. Men and women have equal access not just to the prayer space, but to the other elements of the mosque, such as the high dome and the stained-glass windows, that give it beauty and help in the contemplation of the Divine.

As Jimmy Carter reminded us last month, "it is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population." It is high time for us Muslims around the world to start paying much more attention to the Prophet's (peace be upon him) injunction: "Do not prevent the maid-servant of God from going to the mosque" (Bukhari).

[This post was written in Perrysburg.]

05 August 2009

Football fracas

A football anthem is proving controversial in Germany because of joking references to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The song, chanted during matches by the fans of FC Schalke 04, is called "Blue and White, How I Love You", referring to the club colours. The lyrics of the anthem include the lines "Muhammad was a prophet who understood nothing about football / But of all the lovely colours he chose blue and white".

The song was written in 1924, but has aroused controversy only recently, after reporting on it in the Turkish media. Aiman Mazyek, who heads the (German) Central Council of Muslims, has asked for "an explanation" of the "background" of the song. The club, meanwhile, is seeking expert advice on whether the song can be considered offensive to Muslims. The police of Gelsenkirchen, the city where Schalke 04 is based, is also following the matter in order to protect the rights of Muslims who may have been offended.

I personally think the best solution would be to replace the name of the Prophet with something more innocuous. It's all a bit of silly fun for the non-Muslim fans, but this sort of off-hand remark does sound pretty offensive to a Muslim ear.

[This post was written in Perrysburg.]

Something Even More Magical

In other news...