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In the Name of God بسم الله

Imamology

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A Guide to Sunni Trends

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Qa'im

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The Sunni Muslim world, as I see it, is divided up into the following social categories. Below are the major trends that run through this segment of the Umma.

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Madhhabi Sunnis: Anyone belonging to the traditional Hanafi, Shafi`i, Maliki, and Hanbali schools, including both conservative and nominal Muslims. Madhhabi Sunnis usually express their religion through devoted worship, spirituality, and traditional law-abidance. Many sub-movements fit in this category, including most Sufis, the mystical Barelvi movement, the Deobandi movement, and those who are simply culturally Muslim. Madhhabi Sunnis are usually suspicious of Salafi, Shia, and modernist ideas and traditions, but still advocate for Muslim unity; agreeing to disagree with competing trends. Some nominal Madhhabis are influenced by Salafi revivalism and conservatism. Sufis in particular are often politically quietist and pacifistic, and have a balanced but positive view of classical Islamic civilizations.

Popular examples: Hamza Yusuf, Yahya Rhodus, Timothy Winters, Zaid Shakir, Umar Abd-Allah, Shabir Ally, Usama Canon, Suhaib Webb, Faraz Rabbani, Amjad Tarsin.

Salafis: Those who try to pursue a literal interpretation of Sunni Islam based on its most established primary hadith sources. Salafis are suspicious of secondary sources, philosophy, mysticism, traditional Sunni schools, saint-reverence, forms of religious expressions that are not explicitly supported by "sahih" Sunni hadiths, and other sects and religions. Salafis usually express their religion through theological discourse, worship, strict adherence to early practices (including having a "Muslim appearance"), and clamping down on "innovations" in Islamic practice (i.e. anything in a hadith they consider "weak", or not found in their most literal interpretations). Salafis have three noticeable sub-movements: (1) the Wahabis, who follow the Najdi Saudi theologians; (2) apolitical non-Wahabi Salafis, who follow non-Najdi figures, are focused mostly on theology and law, and are critical of Saudi Arabia's royal family and state-sponsored scholars, and (3) Militant Salafis, who seek to revive the Caliphate, establish puritan Islamic states, resist Western imperialism, and punish deviant and nominal Muslims. Salafis are very critical of Sufis and Shias, and often push for the destruction of their relics.

Popular examples: Bilal Philips, Abu Khadeejah, Yasir Qadhi, Abdur Raheem Green, Zakir Naik, Feiz Mohammed, Abu Musab Wajdi Akkari, Abu Isa Niamatullah.

Liberal Reformists: This includes Quranists and other reformists, who have a modernist humanist worldview, and see many Islamic laws and practices as outdated or obsolete. Liberal Reformists are focused on social justice and ethical principles inspired by the Quran. They are skeptical of hadith literature, Islamic scholarship, mysticism, sectarianism, and some jurisprudence. Liberal Reformists are especially critical of traditional penalties (hudud), extremism, radicalization, and laws related to gender and sexuality. The Quran is viewed as a flexible, progressive document that mostly lacks the rigidity of Islamic laws.

Popular examples: Mona Eltahawy, Irshad Manji, Maajid Nawaz, Tarek Fatah, Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani, Michael Muhammad Knight, Khalid Abou El Fadl

Muslim Brotherhood Types: They are often unaffiliated with the actual MB, but hold the same pragmatist and anti-imperialist sentiments. They are a middle-upper class educated movement that focuses on social conservatism, harmonizing modernism and traditionalism, international politics, and social justice. The MB types believe in family values, scientific/technological progress and development, and quasi-Marxist-Leninist domestic and international policies (big welfare governments and anti-Western imperialism). They are critical of Salafi puritanism, Sufi mysticism, and Shia Iran's encroachment of the Arab world. The MB types often admire the Turkish, Tunisian, and Malaysian Islamic models, which are pluralistic yet respect Islamic tradition. They are often nostalgic of Islamic civilization's golden age.

Popular examples: Tariq Ramadan, Jamal Badawi, Dalia Mogahed, Anas al-Tikriti, Jonathan Brown

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Most Sunni Muslims are not very conscious of these divisions. They usually don't identify themselves with one of these labels, and all 4 trends coexist in most Sunni nations and communities. The trends also have some overlaps, and there are people that are a blend of multiple trends. Sunni scholars are more aware of the red lines due to their epistemological significance. But many Sunnis are subject to the influence of Gulf petrodollars, and therefore will take on some Salafi cliches without noticing it (or just seeing it as becoming "more religious"). I call this "Casual Salafism" - speakers like Nouman Ali Khan, Yusuf Estes, Ismail Menk, or Omar Suleiman, who are more laid-back and popular with the youth, but still have a Salafi epistemology and Salafi influences in their material.

Being conscious of these trends will allow us to better understand whom we can work with and whom we should best avoid.

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amazing post.

I know many Muslims and families in the west, here in Canada that are not very religious. They barely care about Islam and are engulfed in the western world, yet still identify is Muslims (though they like to keep that a secret most of the time). They know that the quran is good to read, they know about hajj (but really count care less about actually doing it), they don't pray, they know about Ramadhan and like to celebrate eid. They have memorized many of the popular hadith (like the one about quran and Sunna, the one about backbiting,) and don't really care about learning more. Lastly they know the stories of the prophets and know which religion sprouted from each. And that's about it when it comes to religion.

What would this category be? The wont be liberal reformists, they don't care enough about what they call "religion" to want to reform anything. All thoughts are appreciated.

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cool, but that should also be on your list, tend or not because it seems to be the most common type of Muslim, especially in the west, trend or not. I hope this post will have a sequel where we can discuss how to deal with all these types. Thanks, and God Bless

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I did not include them, because the characteristics of these people are fluid, random, varied, and not based on any epistemological framework. They are like foam in the ocean - there is much of it, but it has no shape, no weight, no affect, and it is taken anywhere the current goes. The dominant social trend in the Western world is secular humanism, which is the foundation of our media, economy, policies, and culture. Nominal Muslims who do not care about religion are subject to any influence and are apathetic to having a consistent methodology. They'll take whatever bits of existing trends they want and put it together, even if it makes little sense.

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I find non religious Sunnis a harder case than atheists.

Because they have already made the logical choice (tawhid and nabuwah), which makes it near impossible to help them be more religious (pray 5 times a day, sin les, break less major rules) in a non extremist way.

Edited by Shabbar_Abidi

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2 hours ago, Shabbar_Abidi said:

but even sheep need a proper Shepard, without one they are left to the wolves. What do you think this Shepard should be? How should we guide nominal Sunnis away from the wolves?

The shepherd of course is Imam Ibn al-Hasan (as), but the people are distracted by wolves in sheep's clothing. To win them over, they must either be initiated (made to care about their fate, pushed to actively seek knowledge, experience a traumatic event), or re-educated (through schooling, movies, books, art, poetry, speeches, journalism, da`wa, family, and jobs). At the moment, the dominant system has control over most modes of education, and so even getting the attention of a nominal Muslim is difficult. But, everyone has an interest, a problem they are seeking answers for, or an issue they care deeply about, and you must be able to assess the situation of each individual, see what it is they need, and provide a solution that they will accept.

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11 hours ago, Bint Abbas said:

Tariq Ramadan a brotherhood type? Yeah ok

Well yeah. His grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and while he does not fully endorse the party, he routinely criticizes Sisi and other Arab military dictators and secularists. He has boycotted conferences that were not tough on U.S foreign policy ("imperialism"), Israel, and Arab dictators. He's a prof, a modernist, sports a light beard and a suit, and yet he is a conservative and does not call for gross Islamic reform. He defends traditional Islam, believes in revolution, and is against literalist or archaic interpretations. He is basically your textbook MB type.

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7 minutes ago, Qa'im said:

Well yeah. His grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and while he does not fully endorse the party, he routinely criticizes Sisi and other Arab military dictators and secularists. He has boycotted conferences that were not tough on U.S foreign policy ("imperialism"), Israel, and Arab dictators. He's a prof, a modernist, sports a light beard and a suit, and yet he is a conservative and does not call for gross Islamic reform. He defends traditional Islam, believes in revolution, and is against literalist or archaic interpretations. He is basically your textbook MB type.

Tariq Ramadan has written a dozen books calling for gross Islamic reform, one of them is even entitled 'Radical Reform'. The reason he opposes Sisi is because he is pro-democracy and Sisi took over via a military coup. In short, opposing Sisi does not equate to being an Ikhwani.

Edited by Pro-Alid

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5 minutes ago, Qa'im said:

Well yeah. His grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and while he does not fully endorse the party, he routinely criticizes Sisi and other Arab military dictators and secularists. He has boycotted conferences that were not tough on U.S foreign policy ("imperialism"), Israel, and Arab dictators. He's a prof, a modernist, sports a light beard and a suit, and yet he is a conservative and does not call for gross Islamic reform. He defends traditional Islam, believes in revolution, and is against literalist or archaic interpretations. He is basically your textbook MB type.

Lol. So he is a ikhwani because his grandfather is Hasan al banna? He critizes Sisi because he threw away democracy nothing to do with ikhwan. Being Pro-Palestine, a modernist and a beard makes you a ikhwani? Really?? Tariq calls for reform constantly. As for Jonathan Brown being an ikhwani i dont even want to start on that.

Edited by Bint Abbas

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1 minute ago, Bint Abbas said:

Lol. So he is a ikhwani because his grandfather is Hasan al banna? He critizes Sisi because he threw away democracy nothing to do with ikhwan. Being Pro-Palestine, a modernist and a beard makes you a ikhwani? Really?? Tariq calls for reform constantly. As for Jonathan Brown being an ikhwani i dont even want to start on that.

I'm not sure what you define as ikhwani, but as someone who grew up surrounded by MB-types and members of the party, I wouldn't put Tariq Ramadan in the same category as people like Maajid Nawaz or Irshad Manji. He does not call for gross reform of Islam, he calls for what he says is "renovation" and modernization. That's typical of this trend. He defends conservatism and traditionalism from radical reformists ilk, but is not a strict traditionalist himself. Yes, he is not a Salafi or a Madhhabi. He had spoken up about citizenship and hudud in Islam - you can see his lecture here on "Rethinking Islamic Reform".


As for Jonathan Brown, he too fits in this category. If it's the name of this "category" that bothers you, then you can rename it to "conservative modernist anti-imperialist upper middle class university-educated Islamist who is not Salafist or Sufi, who is critical of militant secularism on one hand, but also literalist jihadism and Saudi on the other hand". But that's redundant. There are many Sunnis in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere who fall under this category, who revile sell-outs and liberals like Nawaz and Knight, but also dislike Saudi and Iran. They're pro-AKP, pro-MB (but sometimes critical of it), pro-Nahda, pro-Qatar ($$$), and can appreciate the Malaysian model, and hold negativity towards the U.S, Israel, Saudi, and Russia.

Like all of the trends above, there are some parallels and some mixes. However, the "liberal reformists" I had in mind are those who hold unorthodox views on hijab, gender, gay marriage, and culture. Yes Ramadan called to uplift all forms of capital punishment, but in his own words, he does not see capital punishment as intrinsically inhumane, and he would support its return in his ideal Islamic state.

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30 minutes ago, Qa'im said:

I'm not sure what you define as ikhwani, but as someone who grew up surrounded by MB-types and members of the party, I wouldn't put Tariq Ramadan in the same category as people like Maajid Nawaz or Irshad Manji. He does not call for gross reform of Islam, he calls for what he says is "renovation" and modernization. That's typical of this trend. He defends conservatism and traditionalism from radical reformists ilk, but is not a strict traditionalist himself. Yes, he is not a Salafi or a Madhhabi. He had spoken up about citizenship and hudud in Islam - you can see his lecture here on "Rethinking Islamic Reform".


As for Jonathan Brown, he too fits in this category. If it's the name of this "category" that bothers you, then you can rename it to "conservative modernist anti-imperialist upper middle class university-educated Islamist who is not Salafist or Sufi, who is critical of militant secularism on one hand, but also literalist jihadism and Saudi on the other hand". But that's redundant. There are many Sunnis in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere who fall under this category, who revile sell-outs and liberals like Nawaz and Knight, but also dislike Saudi and Iran. They're pro-AKP, pro-MB (but sometimes critical of it), pro-Nahda, pro-Qatar ($$$), and can appreciate the Malaysian model, and hold negativity towards the U.S, Israel, Saudi, and Russia.

Like all of the trends above, there are some parallels and some mixes. However, the "liberal reformists" I had in mind are those who hold unorthodox views on hijab, gender, gay marriage, and culture. Yes Ramadan called to uplift all forms of capital punishment, but in his own words, he does not see capital punishment as intrinsically inhumane, and he would support its return in his ideal Islamic state.

Defending traditionalism and speaking about Hudud does not make you an ikhwani lol. As for reform, have you ever read any of his books?  As for Brown he is not an ikhwani and far from being an islamist.

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1 hour ago, Bint Abbas said:

Defending traditionalism and speaking about Hudud does not make you an ikhwani lol. As for reform, have you ever read any of his books?  As for Brown he is not an ikhwani and far from being an islamist.

Did you read my whole post or watch the video?

I've read Radical Reform and I've met Tariq Ramadan several times. He says in his book and in his talks that his idea of "reform" is moreso "renovation" and "adaptation" - reforming seminaries, education, civil society, media, and a temporary ban on hudud. Again, he is a modernist, so is the MB, and having these views is very typical of MB-types, who are not totally reactionary. They often embrace democracy and modern nation-states, but are still conservative (family values, traditional fiqh, anti-alcohol/drugs/prostitution) and critical of U.S society and policy. The MB didn't revive hudud in Egypt, and the MB-types did not revive hudud in Turkey or Tunisia either. But the MB/AKP/Nahda are still categorized as "political Islam". The "Liberal Reformist" category hates people like Tariq Ramadan and sees him as an extremist sympathizer.

Watch this video too:

 

As for Jonathan Brown, the guy's profile pic on Facebook is of Morsi and Erdogan together. I'm not saying that is a good or bad thing, I am saying that this is typical of the MB-type category.

 

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I disagree with the label. I wouldnt place Majid or Mona as sunni at all. I am sure if you asked them they would not even see themselves as sunnis. I would put Tariq Ramadan with the likes of Hasan Farhan, Adnan Ibrahim and their likes as Modernist Reformer and not Ikhwanis.

As for Brown, just because someone has a picture of Erdogan and Morsi that does not mean he is an ikhwani. 

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On 08/08/2016 at 5:07 PM, Shabbar_Abidi said:

amazing post.

I know many Muslims and families in the west, here in Canada that are not very religious. They barely care about Islam and are engulfed in the western world, yet still identify is Muslims (though they like to keep that a secret most of the time). They know that the quran is good to read, they know about hajj (but really count care less about actually doing it), they don't pray, they know about Ramadhan and like to celebrate eid. They have memorized many of the popular hadith (like the one about quran and Sunna, the one about backbiting,) and don't really care about learning more. Lastly they know the stories of the prophets and know which religion sprouted from each. And that's about it when it comes to religion.

What would this category be? The wont be liberal reformists, they don't care enough about what they call "religion" to want to reform anything. All thoughts are appreciated.

@Qa'im @Tawheed313 and as well as Shabbir brother, what about the shias, where do they stand, are they also divided, is it few division not applying to all of ummah?and when speaking of sunnnis, where do the shias stand, are the shias( not the scholars or speakers mentioned above) but lay people themselves religious? this makes me think i did come across a similar type of argument nouman ali khan against yasi qadhi over one issue and the comments made me think. i felt i had glossed over being so impressed by traditional things such as spirtuality love and salat and their motivational speeches i could have avoided the trap of falling into such petty things.i  also remember when i used to largely follow sunni scholars no matter how much motivation i had there would be one thing i would come across and my mind wouldnt let it go and i would think about it over and over again. if i ad reached the same conclusions of realsing different areas of of sunni trends it would have confuzed me making me think which one is correct to follow. there are quite a number of sunni motivational pages.who do all of these sunni trendsetter appaarently think is right, all of them cant be, or what does sunni islam imply. how do we following the imams a.s. avoid getting into these trends? i have certain ideas, but if anymore can be shared thatd be great. i do agree reading that above has made me want to become shia all over again why because people are trying to speak what is correct position of where sunni islam should go and there are literally divided whos the correct one to follow, the Imams have more wisdom literally the Ahlulbayt pbut are one of the rope of Allah SWT.

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Bismihi Ta'ala

This is quite an interesting breakdown. There is no single or 'correct' way to define trends, because there will always be overlaps and exceptions. However, I do think that Tariq Ramadan has Ikhwani tendencies (not necessarily contemporary Ikhwani, but more the 70s Ikhwanism from which some actually became Khomeinists, and in the process, Shi'a). 

It is true that opposing Sisi in itself does not make one an MB supporter, but if I recall correctly he has actually gone as far as suggesting that Sisi's regime is worse than Morsi's. His explanation behind Morsi's failures also seem to gloss over the treatment of minorities. Knowing how Tariq Ramadan would not usually overlook such a point, this showed some bias and was somewhat a red flag.

Either way, he has made considerable efforts in the French-speaking world to reconciliate Muslim and Western identities without compromising one or the other.

Regarding the third group 'liberal reformists' I wouldn't necessarily categorize them when discussing Sunni trends because I don't really see most of the individuals in that group as being associated to a particular sect. Indeed, some of them are from non-Sunni backgrounds.

Wallahu A'lam

 

 

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as i have asked earlier ,if someone can answer, what about the shias, where do they stand, are they also divided, is it few division not applying to all of ummah?and when speaking of sunnnis, where do the shias stand, are the shias( not the scholars or speakers mentioned above) but lay people themselves religious?  how do we following the imams a.s. avoid getting into these trends?

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Assalamu alaykum, 

Dear brother Qa'im, I must really congratulate you on that information-rich, epistemologically sound masterpiece ! We hardly have such insightful works done nowadays. Keep up the good work !

I suggest (if it's not too much of a trouble) that you make a similar classificatory study on the contemporary trends within our own Twelver Shi'i (imami) school. Whilst I am aware of the risks involved in this undertaking, such a study would nevertheless be immensely useful.

Best wishes !!

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Salam . 

I grew up in a Sunni Barelvi household in Pakistan. Having said that, I foubd this post to be very interesting, especially this being based on a Shia's observation. Overall, a decent summary. Kudos. 

 

Edited by saberrider

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      Standing on the platform with my snacks, amongst the flow of passengers and porters, I took in the destination signs on the different trains, heading off to distant parts of a sub-continent. Perhaps my diminutive 10-year-old perspective added to the perceived size of the place; I would not be surprised. The porters wore a uniform, after a fashion. For each one of them, the acquisition of a customer provided a sense of purpose and superiority of status which would be underlined by rearranging their head-covering to better protect themselves from the luggage that would soon be loaded on top. On this trip, I was just a spectator to the rituals of engaging porters. When old enough to be a participant, I’d find it a difficult balance between exploiting and being exploited. 
      At last, it was time to get back in the train and cover myself as best I could with an assortment of clothes, waiting for the morning to bring some respite. Some mornings were awesome, the rising rays of sunshine spread across green fields, punctuated by trees and seemingly in rhythm with the regular beat of the wheels on the track. At some point, I’d have to go to the toilet, which was a balancing act of the toothbrush, toothpaste and some attempt at washing and keeping my distance from the ubiquitous hole in the floor.
      At first, I had distanced myself from the perceived filth of the train and had tried to keep myself to as small an area as possible. But as the hours passed my comfort zone expanded until I was even comfortable lying full stretch on the wooden slats of the third-class benches. As the miles passed the squalor, even that of the toilet, was no longer alien but something to which I had become habituated. Though I still haven’t managed to achieve the level of equanimity displayed by a fellow airline passenger who went into the toilet barefoot. As someone else commented on this practice, the liquid on the floor isn’t water.
      Safety was and still is a distant concept when it comes to Indian railways, best observed by the person at risk. In both my childhood travel and in recent times safety seems to lie, for example, in keeping your distance from the open door of the railway carriage. As a 30-year-old on a train from Chennai to Hyderabad and no parent to hold me back, I was able to lean out to take videos and photos to rekindle childhood memories of fleeting Indian railway stations. The observation stimulated the same sense of passing through and catching the moment in local lives. What I was not able to recapture in a photo was the rising dawn that I had observed in my childhood journey. 
      On that childhood trip, I had brought a couple of books with me, which I still remember. There was ‘Tarka the Otter’ and Joy Adamson’s ‘Home Free’. I can’t remember which one was more boring, but Tarka does stand out as being particularly good for being interrupted by the least remarkable scenery outside. The same can’t be said for the novel I discovered at our destination in Lucknow. Our host had a copy of ‘War of the Worlds’ the title itself was captivating and the story engrossing. I remember sitting in various locations of the house working my way through the invasion.
      A few years before this train trip, aged six, I had seen a book titled ‘War and Peace’ sitting on another relative’s bookshelf in London and that also seemed to suggest excitement within. I wasn’t there long enough to pick it up, but a few years after the Indian trip, when I was about 14 I made a point about buying the novel but the enthusiasm stimulated by the title was very, very quickly dimmed by the story within. I decided to grind down the story by reading a page a day. It took a couple of years, but I managed to finish it. 
      ‘War of the Worlds’ was the starting point, since then I’ve come to associate books with the places where I read them: Sterling Seagrave’s, ‘Dragon Lady’ accompanied me on a trip to Singapore and provided the incentive to visit China. 
      Aged 17, I was transiting between two Paris metro stations, on a trip to Aix-en-Provence when a kindly gentleman took pity on me and helped me with my overweight suitcase containing Lipsey’s tome ‘Positive Economics’. Amongst other books, this would be entirely superfluous to my needs at the French language summer course I was about to attend. Even in adulthood, I have never quite managed to balance taking on travels work-related things that I would use as opposed to those I might regret not having brought with me. Laptops and cloud storage have meant that that personal deficiency no longer has to be addressed.
      This had been a unique trip in some different ways. My mother was a widow, and we did not have a great deal of money. I hadn’t been abroad between the ages of 5 and 10. But travelling third class on Indian railways and staying with relatives wherever we went meant that this trip was fairly affordable. So, it was not unreasonable that my mother was not too impressed with what took place when we arrived at the border crossing between India and Pakistan sometime earlier. 
      When we got off the train for the immigration check, there was a French lady in front of us, and she and my mother started speaking. Quite proudly my mother presented me as someone who could speak French. The unexpectedness and ambition of the challenge meant that I was completely dumbstruck. For a good few hours to follow, I’d hear my mother’s lament about how much she had paid for a French Linguaphone course for me, which was well beyond our means. I had assured her that this would be a great aid to my linguistic efforts, the advertisement promised as much, and I had waited with great anticipation for its arrival. Finally, one day there was a brown rectangular package waiting for me outside our house. But for a 10-year-old to master the use of the different texts and develop some semblance of a study plan was quite an ambition and one for which my abilities and self-discipline fell seriously short. 
      There must have been a subconscious notion that the pursuit of academic endeavours would give access to budgets otherwise unavailable. A few years later I’d decide that photography O’level would offer a greater chance of scholastic success. Once more I was lured in by a mixture of an economy with the truth by the people promoting the offering and my imaginative willingness to fill in the blanks. First, there was a need to buy an SLR camera, and as time passed it became obvious that the necessary skills to process photos could not be acquired in the few minutes, I’d have to be in front of the enlarger at school every week. An investment in a darkroom became a necessity. This time self-discipline wasn’t needed to drive study. I had discovered a subject for which I had a passion. I’d end up spending many happy hours in the darkroom, well past midnight channelling Diane Arbus and Cartier Bresson. By the time a school trip to the Soviet Union took place, I was reasonably competent and still have some of the photos of that visit. 
      Looking back, both the camera and the Soviet trip itself seemed like a judicious investment in an unrepeatable experience, a few years later the USSR would cease to exist. This lesson in political upheaval was to prove particularly useful before a trip with my wife and kids to Syria. My brother had borrowed my video camera and forgotten to return it, and the realisation only came in the departure lounge at Heathrow. Buying a video camera specifically for one trip seemed like an extravagance, but soon afterward the civil war broke out. I have clips of my daughter walking amongst a temple to the Phoenician God Melquart, I wonder whether ISIS have left it standing?
      For the India trip, in contrast, there was no camera at all. As I had left London, I had been given a compact camera, which refused to show any sign of working for the duration of the trip and which it had not been possible to repair either. So, I have no tangible images of the entire trip. Whether that has forced me to try harder to remember over the years or whether I have become better at embellishing the details, I don’t know. I do know that on one review I have left on Tripadvisor, I have commented that the prohibition on taking cameras into a particular museum means that visitors are more likely to pay attention to the exhibits in their own right rather than as fodder for an Instagram feed. 
      From Lucknow, we went to my mother’s ancestral home in Fatehpur. We drove through the potholed roads of Uttar Pradesh, slowed even further by overladen agricultural traffic. We arrived in the evening, and all I could sense was that we entered a courtyard and then another. This was quite different to any home I had visited previously. Morning brought a much better sense of the place. The hallmark of the building was its twin towers, installed a couple of hundred years previously, with permission from the rulers of Awadh, since they were considered a mark of royalty and my maternal ancestor’s position as a tutor to the princely household earned him the favour to use them. These rose above the building and the surrounding town. Beneath them was the building’s mosque entered through several large wooden doors, several steps then led to a large courtyard at the other end of which was a narrow staircase leading to some apartments on the first floor. The men of the family had offices cum bedrooms on the ground floor of the courtyard, and their families slept in apartments on the first floor. Any tangible evidence of conjugal relations, such as a couples’ double bed was considered impolite. There were also apartments on the ground floor. To the right of the towers was the entrance to the building and beyond that the disused stables, a further courtyard and then the exit to the main street of the town.
      In Fatehpur, there were no books, or indeed television, but there was exploring the building, listening to stories, fishing and staring at a night sky whose lights I had never previously seen in such profusion. Frustratingly, the shot guns could only be seen and not touched, in fact, I wasn’t allowed to use the air gun. Even the fishing wasn’t with actual rods, but the sensation of the lightness of a short stick with a bait at the end being replaced with the sensation of something tugging at the end of a line remains vivid.
      Exploring the old building would be an experience for someone who had lived in a terraced house all his life. Playing cricket in its central square meant that we had room for both wickets and the ability to run between them, while back in London the garden lawn barely stretched a couple of metres and in our London suburb kids just didn’t play on the street. And then there was the dungeon. Like quite a bit of what we were to experience the name or prior description didn’t quite live up to schoolboy expectations. The Urdu word they all used was ‘mahal’ as in Taj Mahal, but you could hardly describe it as a palace. The dungeon itself was no more threatening than a basement room.  
      The family mahal stood in contrast to the Taj that we had visited on a side-trip while staying in Delhi with an uncle. The sense of serenity reflected off the colour and curves remains in my mind. The sound track no longer remains, perhaps the size of the place drowned out the chattering throngs. The image is now distilled from the range of different perspectives: the head-on view as captured by those photographers who pictured Princess Diana in the foreground, to my standing under the columns staring up and being up close to the marble.
      While the Taj was glorious enough to represent the nation and thus rose above its religious and ethnic antecedents, this was not the case with the family mahal. The condition of this modest building perfectly reflected the state of the community it housed: elegant decrepitude with only a memory of former glories. While the building’s statelier past was visible from the remnants of the structure, so the stories passed by each generation reminded subsequent ones of the lifestyle they had been denied because of opportunities missed and talents wasted. 
      Such was the problem they were facing that even acts of renovation seemed like destruction, where older styles of building work and decoration were replaced with more functional and cheaper modern ones. My youthful displeasure at the erasure of history would later be tempered by a more mature realisation of the practicalities of habitat when I had the chimney breasts and fireplaces of my Victorian house removed to create more space. 
      Occasionally the person who had hosted us in Lucknow would visit. He was a local politician and would arrive in a stately Ambassador car or even more excitingly a ‘jeep’. Not an eponymous one of course, but I still remember the fact that it had gun racks. Both that vehicle and the Ambassador were made in India. This was India before trade liberalisation. Not as familiar a place as the Pakistan we had travelled through to get here. Pakistan had the welcome familiarity of brands that I had grown up with; the ketchup was Heinz and the coke a recognisably friendly white swoosh on a red background. Billboard and television advertising was reassuring. Here unfamiliar names came across as peculiar. Why would a cola be called ‘Thums Up?’. 
      Such has been the irony of globalisation that a few weeks ago eating at Dishoom restaurant in London’s East End I saw the Thums Up logo once more. A symbol of rejecting western capitalism had itself become a brand, with a consumerist meaning, evoking a carbonated essence of India. 
      Like all children of Asian immigrants on visits to their parents’ country of origin, I was also overwhelmed with the extensivity and density of familial connections. There were first cousins, second cousins, and quite a lot more complicated combinations, for which there are no words in English. Added to this, a matriarchal aunt could also be a cousin. My wife came up with a novel way of explaining one such relationship to me. “If that aunt were Mary Queen of Scots, your mum would be Elizabeth I”. Indeed, an artefact of such complex and inter-related ties was the obvious existence of rivalries, jealousies, and squabbles spanning generations. In England, my younger brother and I had been protected from this aspect of extended family life. The protection came at a price: we didn’t know how to deal with it at all. At the age of 10 this did not matter, but on future visits, it would become more significant and certainly by the time my brother and I reached marriageable age. For the time being, it was just nice that as I wandered from apartment to apartment in the mahal, everyone I met was a relative and I was too young to understand any political dimension of that relationship. It would also be in subsequent visits to the mahal, when I was older, that I’d appreciate the tensions with the communities who lived outside the mahal.
      On my daily walks, I’d see hand powered sewing machines and food being prepared more laboriously than anything I had seen at home. The dirt floor did not afford the comfort of sitting cross legged and sitting on my haunches was not something my leg muscles were prepared for. Unlike the urban homes, I had come across in the sub-continent, the toilet here was a platform raised above the multi-coloured offerings beneath. So large was the place that any smells remained distant from any other rooms.
      The cold had not left us in Fatehpur. At night, they would light braziers which were wonderful for bringing around family members, sitting together on the Indian style wooden beds, sharing each other’s warmth, stories and gossip. 
    • By 3wliya_maryam in spoken words/poetry/ deep thinking
         1
      When you go through a rough patch in your life
      And you feel that your heart is being stabbed with a knife
      Remember Hussein (as) and the tragedies he went through
      Would you ever endure that kind of pain too?
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