Culture Writer Hajra Hussain takes us through the events of Discover Islam Week and how the events pan out to showcase an array of culture and religion which is present at UoB
Eagle eyed passers by might’ve noticed that UoB erected a tent beside Old Joe; large, transparent and beckoning nosey pedestrians. From the 7th to the 10th of February, University of Birmingham’s Islamic Society (ISOC) hosted their annual Discover Islam Week (DIW). This campaign is held in hopes of educating UoB and the wider community about Islam, and to help correct and dispel false narratives about the faith.
On the first day, I must admit that I did miss its stimulating talk ‘Is religion needed in Society?’ Nevertheless, the tent operated stalls week long, informing attendees about aspects of Islam and Muslim culture- something I delved into straight away.
The stalls included a ‘Try a hijab stall’- which really warmed my heart as a hijabi (colloquial term for woman who wears a headscarf). I tried my hand at arabic calligraphy (I was awarded my pen license months after the other children in primary school- so alas I won’t be handwriting anyone’s wedding invitations). The most intriguing stall was the Quran stall, a stall with a variety of Quran’s in different languages. I had never seen a Chinese, German or even Braille Quran, and yet here it was, accessible for people to read.
Despite missing the first talk, I extended my stay in the marquee and was privileged to participate in a halaqah (circle of knowledge), a place where people discussed ideas and thoughts pertaining to God, and to give advice that reflected on teachings.
The topic of this circle happened to be ‘Was Islam spread by the sword?’ and it would normally have many people shift uncomfortably, but it was a topic I was genuinely curious about.
History is taught by the victor and is mostly viewed through a European colonialist lens. To have ideas that centred the Muslim voice was rather refreshing, and whilst one might think that this topic could’ve sparked controversy or heighten emotion, the scene before me was that of intellectual bustle and respectful discourse- a scene we don’t often get to see in modern day political circles or family living rooms.
You might be delighted to know that these circles take place every Tuesday from 5-6pm and the subjects change every week, with more details on the @UBISOC Instagram.
The second day saw the controversial topic ‘Women in Islam’ rear its hijab cladden head. To accompany this theme a ‘Pink Hijab day’ was advertised, so in I went, with a black chiffon hijab ready to switch to a dusty pink. A sea of women draped in various shades of pink graced the marquee, and I never thought I would have such a visceral reaction to an initiative so seemingly simple. These girls who shared my experiences with tight hijab caps and horrendous 2010 fashion choices; they were taking photos, complimenting each other and commenting on what styles they liked best.
Women of all races and backgrounds came together sharing a cloth that means more than words can describe, knowing we were all bound by the understanding that this cloth meant something more; to wear it meant you carried the history of millions of women around the globe, and their struggles. It comes with an understanding that we choose to wear this, and it is a choice that empowers us.
The talk of the day was given by Shezana Hafiz, an activist with over 10 years of experience in the fight against Islamophobia and a representative of CAGE. One of the highlights for me in this talk, pertained to how women are often subjected to the hero complexes of intervening nations, who distort the narrative that women, more specifically Muslim women, need saving – when in actuality Muslim women have never asked, nor were asked in regards to this sentiment.
We were introduced to many women who are shining examples of heroism, most notably Amina Janjua who fought the Pakistani courts to demand justice for her kidnapped husband.
My own experience of secular society’s judgement regarding Islam’s treatment of women, was often very negative. Despite secularism claiming to advocate for me, it often doesn’t centre Muslim women, strips us of our opinion and fails to consider nuance in its narrative. But within the marquee’s walls, one could finally see how the narrative should be told, with Muslim women at the front and centre.
Later on, Roots academy came to deliver a lesson in seerah (life of the Prophet peace be upon him). The Sheikh spoke about how there was no toleration for bad treatment of anyone, especially in war, and how Muslims must uphold good treatment of everyone.
The third day had us see the Cultural exhibition. It was exhilarating to see so many different cultures come together to showcase what made them unique and what bound them together (food, it’s always food); it was a brilliant reflection in retrospect to the fact that Birmingham is now considered a ‘super-diverse’ city.
With the demonstration of cultural dress and the scent of a Souk hanging in the air, one could see the pride each stall had in showing off their respective country, I cannot give justice in my description to the exhilaration of this exhibition.
Fun fact, certain cities in Morocco have a designated colour, which can be reflected in the colour of its buildings, that and the mint tea is really nice.
The day was not only contained to the cultural exhibition, the afternoon saw 2 speeches, the first being religious academic Paul Williams and how he found Islam through Jesus. Williams detailed how he came to Christianity from Atheism and then from Christianity came to Islam.
William’s narrates how he suffered spiritual turmoil, trying to reconcile his love of Jesus with the inconsistencies found in the New Testament e.g. the forgery of second Peter, referencing other Christian academics and theologians that agreed that there were such errors, causing him to lament his findings at the time.
The talk that followed was probably one of the most heart wrenching talks of the week: ‘Loving and Living for the Sake of God’ with the speaker being Moazzam Begg, an ex-detainee from Guantanamo Bay.
Begg detailed how, despite the inhumane and illegal treatment he faced, he did not let the horrors of his past stop him from advocating against islamophobia, continuing his charity work for those most in need of it.
Begg spoke of how he found peace and maintained mental stability, in a place where kindness and decency no longer existed, all through remembering God and reading Quran. He detailed how his block mates staged resistances against the abuse of their religious freedoms, and how thanks to their demonstrations, soldiers can no longer touch the Quran in Guantanamo Bay. He recounted his life pre-Guantanamo, narrating his journey from setting up a school for girls in Afghanistan, to the moment inter-services intelligence illegally detained him in the middle of the night.
The final day saw that the chairs were taken away and rolled along the floor were thick carpets upon which were scattered pillows, the theme of the day being ‘The Quran’. Jummah (Friday) is my favourite day, not because it marks the end of the week but because Jummah is the holy day for Muslims (similar to how the sabbath is for Jews).
People in dashing thobes and flowing abayaas (loose fitting robes for men and women) entered the tent and prepared for the Jummah salah (Friday prayer). The congregation is commanded to sit and listen attentively to the khutbah (sermon), the khutbah dove into how the Quran should impact a Muslim’s life, whilst exploring its scientific and linguistic miracles.
After Jummah Salah the Quran competition took place. A layman can appreciate the calming lulls of classical arabic and the soft soothing tones demonstrated in the Quran, but this competition garnered a love for the holy book and showcased the beauty of different recitation styles.
The atmosphere of nervousness arose and favourites were picked, after the winner was announced a break was taken for the maghrib salah (the prayer at sunset) and so, a week in the DIW marquee had officially come to a close.
The tent offered free food throughout the week and modelling this season’s latest fashions of a high-vis-vest, were volunteers who served with warmth and hospitality, serving a mainly vegetarian menu at a relatively low spice level.
One could also see the conscious effort from UBISOC to minimise negative environmental impact by encouraging attendees to recycle by dotting recycling bins around the venue.
The week exposed me to various people and their lives, it allowed people who would never have crossed paths to speak to each other and engage in stimulating conversation about religion, politics and morality.
The DIW marquee had this mystical power to engage anyone who entered, whether that be through the free food or the generous hospitality. Regardless of the reason, the week was immaculate, this is an event I would urge everyone to mark in their calendars, as it was such a joy to experience, hence I can guarantee next year will be even greater.
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