By Neera Chandhoke
It is time to re-read the politically charged play, The House of Bernarda Alba, (1936) by Federico García Lorca. After their father’s death, five young women are forced to live in a barricaded house of mourning for eight years. The doors are latched, windows are curtained with thick black fabric, and every nook and cranny closed. The consequences of living in claustrophobic spaces without men are tragic. The sisters repeatedly attack each other in grotesque performances of frustrated desire.
Bernarda, the mother, is the poster-girl of fascism. One of her daughters dares to wear make-up, Bernarda snatches the make-up and viciously smears it on the face of the young woman. Beyond the barred room, we catch tantalising glimpses of sunlight. Within the house we encounter pitifully deformed psyches and disturbed minds. Lorca authored a formidable play. It was to be his last. Shortly after, he was murdered by fascist forces in Spain. His message remains with us, repressed sexuality is a powerful metaphor for political frustration.
Lorca proved prophetic. Open societies encourage us to accept and welcome different ideas and practices. They liberate and expand our imaginations and our commitments. When societies turn inwards, they construct barricades between themselves and the outside world.
At some point members transfer the notion of the outsider to parts of the collective self. Political subjugation carries heavy costs.
Ruled by a government that verges on authoritarianism, Indians have turned savagely on their own fellow citizens, sometimes in the name of cow-protection, and often because someone has identified A or B as a kidnapper. Sometimes individuals are attacked because they are migrant workers and therefore ‘outsiders’, and often because they are represented as ‘infiltrators’. Disorder is the order of the day, and violence is the currency of social transactions. Sane voices have to speak up.
But where will these sane voices come from? The party in power has identified and cracked down on three sites of debate and dissent, the media, civil society and the public university. Incalculable damage has been done. Public universities are accessible and affordable. They provide training in skills, but more importantly, they expose young minds to nuanced debates in the social sciences and the humanities. The objective is to fine-tune sensibilities and push back horizons, familiarise young people with the best in literature, philosophy, political science, history, sociology, aesthetics and psychology, and keep alive the spirit of critical inquiry.
That is why imaginatively designed courses in the humanities and social sciences lie at the heart of any university worth its name. They encourage students to challenge and interrogate, even as they explore the past and the present. Teachers inspire students to understand the complexities of the human condition, to know what should be done for human beings, and what should not be done to them. Above all students are introduced to categories that allow them to think, reflect, and critically engage with people, places and things.
When academics acquaint students with Indian politics through the searing prose of Shrilal Shukla’s RaagDarbari, communicate the densities of human emotions through King Lear, acquaint them with spectres of domination and the exhilarating prospect of resistance through the poetic lens of Antigone, or convey the horrors of communal conflagration through the powerful pen of Yashpal in his JhoothaSach, they do not just transmit information — they contribute to the making of knowledge. In the process, university teachers promote the notion of citizenship as solidarity with the less advantaged and warn students of the horrors of authoritarian rule that seeks to control and dominate. The idea is to produce aware and enlightened citizens’ conscious of their own power and the responsibilities of an elected government.
This is precisely why the latest avatar of capitalism in the 1990s, neoliberalism, devalued social sciences and humanities. Capitalism demands docile bodies and submissive minds. In 2010, Terry Eagleton, the celebrated literary critic, spoke of the death of universities.
Academia, he rued, has become a servant of the status quo. Can we have a university without the humanities? It would be like a bar without alcohol! If history and philosophy vanish from academic life, they may be replaced by a technical training facility or corporate research institute, he wrote. But this will not be a university in the classic sense of the term. Eagleton is perceptive. Without critical disciplines, universities are no more than teaching shops, producing so much unthinking labour for the market.
The second attack on the university has come from the current government. Shortly after they came to power in 2014, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party began to demonise one of the finest centres of academic excellence and enlightened debate, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Ignoble attempts to subjugate the faculty and students followed. This was replicated in other Central universities by the appointment of Vice-Chancellors of questionable merit, and the elevation of storm troopers of the ruling party to faculty positions.
Now the government has decided that teaching and research have to be controlled. University administrations have ruled that faculties of Central universities will be subject to Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules. This, it is said, is the diktat of the University Grants Commission, which is at best a funding and administrative organisation. In JNU, the decision has been adopted without regard for procedures of rule-making: the passage of a proposed policy through the Academic Council, the Executive Council and the University Court.
Starkly put, these regulations stipulate that academics cannot protest, howsoever grave be the provocation. In the academic world, invitations to join editorial boards of prestigious journals are rightly seen as a justifiable reward for academic excellence. This is now banned. Faculty members cannot criticise the policies of the government in their research work. Nor can they dare to critique a flawed foreign policy. And they cannot join political parties.
The policy strikes at the very idea of a public university that embodies the spirit of critical inquiry. Now no academic can ask her students to reflect on the shortcomings of economic policies that reproduce inequality, on social practices that foster gender and caste discrimination, on the politics of intolerance, on historical inquiry, or on cultural practices that disable rights in the name of tradition. Academic research has been reduced to court history.
It is clear that holders of power and their academic courtiers have extracted retribution and punished those who have dared to speak back to unfreedom. But in the process, the ruling party and compliant Vice-Chancellors have shot themselves in the foot. A society is known ultimately by the knowledge its universities and research centres produce, by the excellence of the faculty and by the curiosity of the students. Today, knowledge has been replaced with trite information. Mediocrity rules, and eminent academics are crudely harassed.
Above all, the order demeans reputed academics the precise way in which Bernarda, the mother in Lorca’s play, humiliated her daughter.
The difference is that now the censor board will gag analytical and insightful scholarship. Instead of strengthening the public university, which was meant to be a training ground for citizenship, the government has deliberately weakened an academic structure that has great potential to chart a route to opportunity and social justice.
The Mosque of the Two Qiblahs
By Spahic Omer
This is an important historical mosque. It is one of the earliest mosques in Islam. It was established during the Prophet’s time for an outlying neighbourhood of Madinah. Its significance lies in the fact that after the Prophet (pbuh) received a commandment to change the qiblah or prayer direction from al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem to al-Masjid al-Haram (Ka’bah) in Makkah, the entire congregation led by a companion in this mosque changed direction in prayer. Henceforth the mosque was known as masjid al-qiblatayn (the mosque of the two qiblahs) as both qiblahs were faced in a single prayer.
Al-Bukhari in his Sahih reports the incident as follows: “When the Prophet (pbuh) came to Madinah, he stayed first with his grandfathers or maternal uncles from Ansar. He offered his prayers facing Baitul-Maqdis (Jerusalem and its al-Masjid al-Aqsa) for sixteen or seventeen months, but he wished that he could pray facing the Ka’bah (in Makkah). The first prayer which he offered facing the Ka’bah was the ‘Asr prayer in the company of some people. Then one of those who had offered that prayer with him came out and passed by some people in a mosque who were bowing during their prayers (facing Jerusalem). He said addressing them: ‘By Allah, I testify that I have prayed with Allah’s Apostle facing Makkah (Ka’bah).’ Hearing that, those people changed their direction towards the Ka’bah immediately. Jews and the people of the scriptures used to be pleased to see the Prophet (pbuh) facing Jerusalem in prayers but when he changed his direction towards the Ka’bah, during the prayers, they disapproved of it” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Architecturally, the mosque was meticulously attended to by many personalities throughout Muslim history. Many expansion, rebuilding and renovation programs took place. Among the first ones to do so was ‘Umar II. The Ottomans excelled in the same regard too. The present form of the mosque dates back to 1987. It was constructed as part of various development initiatives in Madinah by King Fahd. The plan and design of the mosque referred to the Islamic traditional architectural language and vocabulary as a source of inspiration. “Externally, the architectural vocabulary is inspired by traditional elements and motifs in a deliberate effort to offer an authentic image for an historic site” (archnet.org). The architect was Abdul-Wahid al-Wakil from Egypt.
The mosque is much smaller than the Quba’ mosque. That is perhaps the case because it is not on the list of the places which the Prophet (pbuh) recommended to be visited in Madinah. The comparatively small size is an indirect invitation to people not to regard it as important for visiting as the explicitly specified places, and so, not to throng to it needlessly. The interior of the mosque is much similar to those of the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun and some Fatimid mosques in Cairo.
There are two minarets on the right and left sides of the main entrance. Though somewhat shorter, they resemble the four minarets of the Quba’ mosque. The bases of the minarets are square and the shafts octagonal. There are three balconies on each minaret, the second and third being supported by muqarnas. The first balcony marks the transition from the square base to the octagonal shaft. It itself is square, while the other two balconies are octagonal.
“The mosque can accommodate up to 2,000 worshipers. The main prayer hall adopts rigid orthogonal geometry and symmetry which is accentuated by the use of twin minarets and twin domes. Living accommodations for the imam, the muezzin and the caretaker are discreetly grouped in one block to the west of the main structure. The difference in level at the southeast corner of the site has been exploited to incorporate a sub-basement level which serves as the ablutions area for worshipers. To the north, where the ground level is lower, the prayer hall is raised one-story above ground level. Entry to the prayer hall is from the raised courtyard, also to the north, which can be reached by stairs and ramps from the main directions of approach” (archnet.org).
The prayer hall consists of a series of arches which support barrel-vaults running parallel to the qiblah wall. These vaults are interrupted in the middle by two domes which establish an axis in the direction of Makkah and its al-Masjid al-Haram. The main dome to the south is raised on a circular drum with clerestory windows which allow light to filter into the interior directly above the mihrab. There are 22 such windows filled with jaalis and colored glass. The second, false dome stands above the entrance. It is linked to the first dome by a small cross-vault to symbolize the transition from one qiblah to another. This slightly smaller dome does not have clerestory windows perforated in its drum. Both domes are supported by a combination of pendentives and simple forms of muqarnas, featuring only a few niches or alveoles. Domed are also some adjacent spaces of the mosque that provide extra facilities and services.
Before entering the mosque, one firstly steps inside a virtually enclosed arcade, whence he enters the mosque proper. This transitional arcade is covered by a series of miniature domes. The arcade reminds of entry sides in most Ottoman mosques, which are marked with porticos resting on wide columns and covered with small domes.
There are four rows of piers with which the arches are supported, each row having eight piers. In total, there are 32 piers, which is excessive for the size of the mosque. Moreover, the piers are huge, consuming much space inside the prayer area. They also accentuate the heavy mass of the building and its bulkiness.
The four corners of each pier have engaged columns, four columns for every pier. The columns are embedded in the piers’ mass and only partly project from their corner surfaces. They are cylindrical and plain, having no distinctive bases. Their capitals are decorated identically with stucco-work. They look like simple forms of the Byzantine capital. The same structural and decorative manoeuvre is found on the piers of the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun.
There are five arcades parallel to the qiblah, corresponding to the number of barrel-vaults. In each arcade there could be three lines (sufuf) of worshipers, which means fifteen lines in total. Each line can accommodate about 120-130 worshipers. The women’s prayer section is on the second floor and occupies two arcades. The area is divided into two parts by the second or false dome. The area is protected by a wooden screen featuring latticework and ensuring peace and privacy.
The mihrab is rather deep and is gradually recessed. It has two depth levels, each level bordered by two columns that support the arched hood. Almost the entire mihrab frame, including the columns and the hood, are luxuriantly adorned with stucco-work featuring calligraphy, complex geometry and floral patterns. Of the two Qur’anic verses used as calligraphic embellishment, one is on the subject of qiblah (direction of prayer). The verse is partially used and its usage divided into two fragments, running across the extradoses of the two levels of the mihrab’s arched hood.
That the mihrab niche has two recessed levels could be symbolically interpreted as the two stages of establishing the qiblah: firstly towards Jerusalem and secondly towards Makkah. Thus, on the extrados of the outer mihrab’s level, the following Qur’anic words as the first part of the verse in question are inscribed, representing the first and preliminary stage of establishing the qiblah: “We have certainly seen the turning of your face, (O Muhammad), toward the heaven, and We will surely turn you to a qiblah with which you will be pleased” (al-Baqarah, 144). And on the extrados of the inner mihrab’s level, the following Qur’anic words as the second part of the verse are inscribed, representing the second and final stage of the qiblah establishment: “So turn your face toward al-Masjid al-Haram. And wherever you (believers) are, turn your faces toward it (in prayer)” (al-Baqarah, 144).
Next to the mihrab stands a minbar or pulpit. It is made of wood and exhibits excellent workmanship. In terms of size and overall appearance, though, it bears a resemblance to the marble minbar in the Quba’ mosque.
Extending through the entire southern qiblah and left eastern sides of the mosque are two rows of small niches, one above the other, containing copies of the Holy Qur’an. Their openings are in the shape of pointed multi foil arches. On the qiblah side, there are 128 such niches, and on the left eastern side, 80. Each niche contains 14 copies of the Qur’an. Furthermore, all 32 piers on their right and left sides contain two more similar niches. The exception are eight piers that border the mosque’s axis towards Makkah under the two domes. Those piers have only one niche each, on the sides that do not face the axis.
Finally, on the opposite side of the qiblah, right above the entrance, there is in stucco-work a medium-size image of a mihrab niche. The image is two-dimensional and symbolizes the first qiblah towards Jerusalem. It is deliberately made fairly modest and raised high above the ground, so as not to draw much attention to itself and thus, perhaps, incite excessive symbolism and some untoward behavior. Across the image runs the axiom that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
The axiom intimates that the change of the qiblah was solely about affirming the Oneness of Allah and the prophet-hood of Muhammad (pbuh), and that the truth of Islam is universal, absolute, timeless and all-encompassing, including the earlier prophets, their own prophet-hood missions and their own peoples and legacies. The change of the qiblah must not be viewed through the prism of prejudice, narrow-mindedness and self-interests.
Never Belittle Your Firm Belief in Allah
By Shaimaa Elhomossany
One of the most shared human experiences is emotional suffering. Whether it comes from rejection, criticism, failure, disappointment, illness or loss, emotional suffering is always a heavy burden, commonly experienced, yet carried individually. Regardless of how much effort we put to neutralize or change our perception of it, we remain vulnerable to its consequences. Surprisingly though, emotional suffering is necessary for our journey in life. Allah designed this world, enclosed with suffering and pain, not only as a test but also as a means to get to know Him and draw closer to Him. This is why the Messengers and Prophets – peace be upon them all – may have had the greatest share of suffering, yet had the closest relationship with Allah.
Understanding the following will help us better approach, deal with and ultimately benefit from emotional suffering:
1) Suffering is an opportunity to advance in our spiritual relationship with Allah
It’s important to understand that the utmost goal of our lives is to worship Allah, as He says:
“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.”
(Quran – 51:56)
This helps us realise that the most important work of our lives is to become the best servants of Allah that we can be. This servitude, however, entails acknowledging our vulnerability, helplessness, and dependability, because otherwise, we would be self-sufficient, omnipotent and unapproachable; we would be divine!
The truth is, we humans are created helpless, weak, exposed and constantly in need, so that we may seek refuge from Allah’s power. He can compensate for our weakness with His might, and from His sustenance, He provides for us. Only when in our utter helplessness we seek refuge, can we taste a level of closeness to Allah that doesn’t come from anywhere else.
We need to foster a new level of trust in His abilities, firm belief in Him and His watchfulness over us, so that we may be empowered to go through any hardship in life with Him and by Him, instead of weak and alone. Only through this opportunity can we establish a genuine servant-master relationship based on a true understanding and experience of Allah’s divinity and Lordship. Only when we understand where we stand in that relationship can we perfect the mission of our existence.
2) Feeling Sad Doesn’t Contradict Being A Good Believer
When we hear stories of Prophets, it is obvious that sadness is an integral part of these stories. Often, we can relate to their suffering. Take Prophet Yaqub, for example, whose story is anchored with sadness and struggle, and who acknowledged his emotional pain and opened up to it, but never allowed it to belittle his firm belief in Allah.
Or Lady Mariam, when the pain of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree, and in her intense emotional and physical suffering she said,
“Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
Despite that, she still occupies the status as one of the best women in Islam.
The best among all, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, when burying his child Ibrahim said,
“The eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved, and we will not say except what pleases our Lord, O Ibrahim! Indeed, we are grieved by your separation.”
So, whatever ordeal you are dealing with in your life, don’t feel guilty about being open to it and interacting with it. The most important thing is not to go so far into sadness that you cross the line with Allah while grieving, by displeasing Him or turning away from Him in despair.
3) Don’t Reject It, Accept It
Knowing that this suffering chose you specifically over many others requires some contemplation. It was meant to be, and nothing that is meant to be is haphazard, on the contrary, there is always a good reason for it.
As we learn from the story of Prophet Musa’s encounter with Khidr in the Quran, nothing happens without a divine reason behind it. However, sometimes we, like Prophet Musa, are unable to truly understand what this reason is. This is especially true when things happen that seem bad or unjust. All we can do is learn to accept that there is a reason for it and have complete faith in Allah’s plan.
There is nothing we can do to stop the storm, until we realise that it’s not the storm that hurts, it’s resisting it that does. Learn to flow with your suffering and let it carry you to the other end, and trust me, there, you will meet a very different version of yourself. Just realise that the only way out is through.
4) Don’t Look At How It Is Affecting You, Rather Look At Who Brought It upon You
If we look at emotional suffering in and of itself, it will be very hard to deal with. However, if we look at it as something coming from the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the Source of Peace, the Reliever, the All Aware, the Watchful, the Responder to Prayers, the Wise, the Doer of Good, the Guide, and the All Comprehending, you will find there is no need to worry and you will be confident that no matter how difficult it may seem, Allah will send down His subtle kindness and gentleness along with it, making it easy for you. So, fix your heart towards the sender, not the consequences.
China’s brutal crackdown on the Uighur Muslims
By Jen Kirbyjen
China was sharply criticized for its mass detention of members of the Muslim Uighur community at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting on Tuesday — but the country pushed back, saying that the condemnation was politically motivated.
Western governments, including those in Europe, the United States, and Canada, had the harshest words for China. The United States chargé d’affaires Mark Cassayre demanded that China “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” for Uighurs and other Muslims minorities, and that China release the “possibly millions” of individuals detained there.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng dismissed these and other comments as “politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases.”
China has detained as many as 1 million Uighurs in so-called “re-educationcenters” and forced them to undergo psychological indoctrination programs — like studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese authorities have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture on the ethnic minority.
Xinjiang, where about 10 million Uighurs and a few other Muslim minorities live, is an autonomous region in China’s northwest that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. It has been under Chinese control since 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China was established.
Uighurs speak their own language — an Asian Turkic language similar to Uzbek — and most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Some activists, including those who seek independence from China, refer to the region as East Turkestan.
Once situated along the ancient Silk Road trading route, Xinjiang is oil- and resource-rich. As it developed along with the rest of China, the region attracted more Han Chinese, a migration encouraged by the Chinese government.
But that demographic shift inflamed ethnic tensions, especially within some of the larger cities. In 2009, for example, riots broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, after Uighurs protested their treatment by the government and the Han majority. About 200 people were killed and hundreds injured during the unrest.
The Chinese government, however, blamed the protests on violent separatist groups — a tactic it would continue to use against the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities across China.
Xinjiang is also a major logistics hub of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project along the old Silk Road meant to boost China’s economic and political influence around the world. Xinjiang’s increasing importance to China’s global aspirations is likely a major reason Beijing is tightening its grip.
All of which means China has increasingly tried to draw Xinjiang into its orbit, starting with a crackdown in 2009 following riots in the region and leading up to the implementation of repressive policies in 2016 and 2017 that have curbed religious freedom and increased surveillance of the minority population, often under the guise of combating terrorism and extremism.
The Chinese government justifies its clampdown on the Uighurs and Muslim minorities by saying it’s trying to eradicate extremism and separatist groups. But while attacks, some violent, by Uighur separatists have occurred in recent years, there’s little evidence of any cohesive separatist movement — with jihadist roots or otherwise — that could challenge the Chinese government, experts tell me.
China’s crackdown on the Uighurs is part of a policy of “de-extremification.” It’s generated repressive policies, from the banning of certain Muslim names for babies to chilling reports of torture and political indoctrination in so-called “reeducation” camps where hundreds of thousands have been detained.
Communist China has a dark history with reeducation camps, combining hard labor with indoctrination to the party line. According to research by Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on China’s policies toward the Uighurs, Chinese officials began using dedicated camps in Xinjiang around 2014 — around the same time that China blamed a series of terrorist attacks on radical Uighur separatists.
China escalated pressure on Muslim minorities through 2017, slowly chipping away at their rights with the passage of religious regulations and a counterterrorism law, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a pro-Uighur group based in Washington, DC.
In 2016, Xinjiang also got a new leader: a powerful Communist Party boss named Chen Quanguo, whose previous job was restoring order and control to the restive region of Tibet. Chen has a reputation as a strongman and is something of a specialist in ethnic crackdowns.
Increased surveillance and police presence accompanied his move to Xinjiang, including his “grid management” policing system. As the Economist reported, “authorities divide each city into squares, with about 500 people. Every square has a police station that keeps tabs on the inhabitants. So, in rural areas, does every village.”
Security checkpoints where residents must scan identification cards were set up at train stations and on roads into and out of towns. Authorities have reportedly used facial recognition technology to track residents’ movements. Police confiscate phones to download the information contained on them to scan through later. Police have also confiscated passports to prevent Uighurs from traveling abroad.
Some of the targeted “de-extremification” restrictions gained coverage in the West, including a ban on certain Muslim names for babies and another on long beards and veils. The government also made it illegal to not watch state television and to not send children to government schools. The government reportedly tried to promote drinking and smoking, because people who didn’t drink or smoke — like devout Muslims — were deemed suspicious.
Chinese officials have justified these policies as necessary to counter religious radicalization and extremism, but critics say they are meant to curtail Islamic traditions and practices.
The Chinese government is “trying to expunge ethnonational characteristics from the people,” James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University, told me. “They’re not trying to drive them out of the country; they’re trying to hold them in.”
“The ultimate goal, the ultimate issue that the Chinese state is targeting [is] the cultural practices and beliefs of Muslim groups,” he added.
“Re-education camps” — or training camps, as the Chinese have called them — are perhaps the most sinister pillar of this de-extremification policy. Experts estimate as many as 2 million people have disappeared into these camps at some point, with about 1 million currently being held.
The Chinese government first denied these camps even existed. When confronted about them at the United Nations in August, officials claimed they were for the “assistance and education” of minor criminals. China’s state-run media has dismissed the reports of detention camps as Western media “baselessly criticizing China’s human rights.”