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Sitting there in Memorial Theatre, surrounded by neatly-dressed young men and women sporting silky hijabs in a variety of summery colours, I suddenly became conscious of my rather-too-short Glassons skirt and slightly revealing top. I smiled shyly at the women beside me—Fatimah on the left, Maria on the right—both Muslim women of Malaysian descent now studying at Victoria. They smiled back broadly. Sure, I might have been underdressed, but they weren’t going to judge, they were only too happy that I had decided to come to this speaker event organised as part of Islamic Awareness Week. It was a chance for them to share their faith and for me to gain an understanding of one of the world’s greatest religions.
There are said to be 124,000 prophets in the Islamic faith, of which just 25 are known by name. Examples include Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, with Mohammed being the last in the long chain. Muslims regard Jesus with the same reverence that they would any prophet: he is a link to the divine, an example of how to live as a truly beautiful human, however he is not—as Christians believe—the Son of God. Mohammed is similarly no Son of God, but rather, the final “seal of the prophets,” as Yusuf Islam—formerly pop singer/songwriter Cat Stevens—described him. When a Muslim mentions a prophet, he or she is best to say: alayhi salam (‘peace be upon him.’) In the same way, a Muslim says bismillah (‘in the name of Allah’) to praise God before eating or participating in other activities.
At one point during the talk, there was a sudden chanting in Arabic and one of the speakers pounced on his iPhone. It was the (digitised!) call to prayer. I froze, expecting most people in the room to jump to the floor and start frantically worshipping. Yet nothing happened and everyone seemed strangely relaxed. Fatimah and Maria explained that yes, they must pray five times a day, but rather than pray at an exact time, they must pray between certain times, with these time periods depending on the location and season. For example, on the day of writing, the time period for the fajr (dawn prayer) in Wellington is 5:21 to 6:44am. How does a Muslim know how to align to the Qibla? If they are praying in the same place they may have some form of marker, (for example, the prayer mat in the Islamic Centre on Fairlie Terrace is angled toward Mecca), or they may use a compass or Qiblalocator.com. It’s even possible to download a “Qibla Compass” onto your iPhone!
A few weeks ago I got talking a fellow student before my International Relations lecture. I asked her what the day’s lecture was on. “Oh, terrorism,” she replied, blushing. “It’ll be a bit awkward for me,” she continued, indicating her hijab, “but oh well.” I found it a sad reflection on society that any Muslim woman should resignedly assume that a New Zealander would immediately associate terrorism with Muslims. Although New Zealand is one of the most Muslim friendly countries in the world (yay us!), we are still given an uninformed representation of Muslims through the media and we may create an imagined link. With a population of just 45,000 Muslims in New Zealand, the majority of us will not encounter Muslims on a day-to-day basis. They’re not necessarily our work colleagues, they’re probably not our closest friends, yet many evenings as we watch the TV news, we hear about ‘Muslims’ committing ‘acts of terrorism.’ Unfortunately, although there is no denying the pain caused by any form of violence, such acts of terrorism by Muslims may be spotlighted when horrific crimes committed by others—such as the atrocities committed by the US in its so-called ‘War On Terror’—pass by unnoticed. Moreover, what is most unfair is how people may connect terrorism immediately with Islam, thereby denouncing the principles of an entire religion and condemning the practices of some 1.8 billion people around the globe.
The Qur’an in fact preaches peace and the word Islam (literally: ‘submission’, or committing oneself to God) derives from shalam meaning ‘peace.’ The concept of jihad; a ‘struggle against oppression’, does not condone violence; rather, it acknowledges that force can be used as a last resort to overcome persecution. At all times, the ends and means of jihad must be justified. Murder is a criminal act against fellow humans and against Allah. In the words of Muhammad Ali, the great American boxer who converted to Islam, “I think that all the people should come to recognise the truth that Islam is peace, against killing and murder; and the terrorists and people doing that in the name of Islam are wrong.”
One of the most pervasive criticisms of Islam by the Western world is that it actively seeks to oppress women. What better symbol of such oppression than the hijab? Surrounded as I was by dozens of women uncomplainingly displaying their colourful headscarves, I was interested to know how they viewed this clothing requirement. “The hijab symbolises the link between a woman and Allah,” one speaker explained. Far from being viewed as inferior, she argued, a Muslim woman feels more respected once she covers her head. What’s more, the hijab is “a great equaliser in terms of age and beauty. Women are valued for their kindness and intelligence, rather than for their physical attributes.” It makes no sense to claim that women are less valued than men, for “in the eyes of Allah, men and women are equal.” There is no denying that the sexes have different psychological and physical strengths which suit them to different roles in society, however, a man and a woman together complete each other. Respect for women is evident in how a married woman retains her name upon marriage, rather than taking on her husband’s, as in the Western tradition. “If ever women are oppressed,” the speaker pointed out, “this is due to culture and people misinterpreting the Qur’an. It is not what Allah would want.” I admired Maria’s pretty green hijab with its embroidered flowers. It wasn’t something that I would choose to wear, but she wore it with pride. Maria saw me looking. “You can come and try one on if you like,” she offered, “tomorrow at the Islamic Centre, it’ll be fun!”
I went along to the speaker event knowing only a few scant details about Islam—some vague ideas of Mohammed and Mecca, hijabs and halal. Like many other students, I suspect, I was curious to know more—I’d just never acted on this curiosity. Yet in the space of just a few hours I learnt a great deal about the Islamic faith and its practices, knowledge which I feel is important to share so that we may gain a better understanding of this great world religion.