Egypt’s Debate on Music in Islam: Between Religious Austerity and Spiritual Ecstasy

Interesting discussion. During my time in the Mid-East (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran) gained an appreciation for the richness of Arabic and Persian classical music:

In Youssef Chahine’s 1997 historical film Al Maseer(‘Destiny’), twelfth century Caliph Yaqub Al-Mansur’s youngest son, Abdallah (Hani Salama) is recruited by Islamist extremists, who launch war on Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Nour Al-Sherif) and the band of bohemian artists who rally behind him in support.

Amidst the ideological battle, Abdallah finds himself torn between the Islamists’ austere views and his lifelong passion for music and dance — an internal conflict which culminates in the film’s most powerful musical sequence.

The character’s journey points to a larger debate in the Muslim world surrounding the status of music in Islam.

I lived happily indifferent to this debate until last April, when I shared a list of Ramadan concert recommendations, under which several people expressed the view that music was contrary to the spiritual ethos of fasting from drink, food, and activities which are deemed sinful.

A few days later, just before Eid, a widely shared threadon the topic stirred controversy on Twitter. The author voiced her shock at the number of Muslims who attend concerts despite what she perceived as an obvious religious prohibition.

Reading through the replies, I wondered: where did the notion of an inherent opposition between music and Islam come from? Moreover, how have these views made their way to Egypt — a country with a long and rich tradition of spiritual music?

An Age-old Relationship

The relationship between Islam and music is as old as it is contentious. When the Prophet first instituted the call to prayer, adhan, in the early seventh century, he selected the Abyssinian Bilal as the first muezzin, chosen for his beautiful singing voice.

In pre-Islamic times, poet-musicians were revered in tribal society and held a special place in the courts of Arabian kings. Following the advent of the Muslim faith, religious music swiftly grew from the Bedouin tradition of lyrical poetry, which was primarily vocal but occasionally accompanied by instruments.

As such, the first four Caliphs (~632 – 661 AD) were marked by a vibrant cultural life in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where wealthy families hosted salons and contests among both locals and foreign converts to crown the most talented musical performers.

As a result of the Islamic conquests, religious music was also influenced by the musical traditions of the conquered territories, leading to the introduction of new instruments, like the oud, a descendant of the Persian lute. Vocal methods inspired by Coptic chanting were also adopted.

In 750 AD, the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled for five-centuries, propelled what is now known as the golden age of Islamic music, chronicled in tenth century scholar Abu Al Faraj Al-Isbahani’s Kitab Al Aghani (‘Book of Songs’).

Scholars like Al-Kindi wrote extensively on the theory of ethos (ta’thir) and the cosmological aspects of music. Ibn Sina, meanwhile, studied sound, rhythm, composition, and instruments, laying the foundations of a rich body of Islamic musical theory.

Among the era’s most prominent musicians were Ibrahim Al-Mawsili and his son Ishaq, credited with developing the practices of Ibtihalat and Inshad Dini — two forms of devotional poems recited with musical accompaniment and expressing the believer’s reverence to and love of God and the Prophet Mohamed.

Nowhere was the relationship between music and spirituality more overt than in Sufism, which is said to be as old as Islam itself, but developed into different orders formed around spiritual founders in the twelfth century.

Mass chanting, dance, long instrumental solos, and devotional love poems formed an integral part of Sufi Dhikr (remembrance of God) ceremonies, with music seen to bring its listener into a trance-like state, facilitating internal self-knowledge and unity with God.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Egypt led the revival of these musical traditions with regional icons like Umm Kulthum, Abdel-Halim, and Shadya all performing Ibtihalat throughout their careers. The artforms were further mainstreamed through radio and later television broadcasts in the 1960s, with voices of legendary munshideen like Sheikh Sayed Al Naqshabandi’s coming to form pillars of Egyptian spiritual life.

A Contentious Status 

The Quran makes no explicit mention of music, and yet, throughout history, many scholars have held the viewthat it is prohibited or regarded negatively in Islam. Opponents of the artform base their arguments on hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), and one in particular, reported by ninth century scholar Imam Al-Bukhari.

This hadith reads, “There will be people from my Ummah [nation] who will seek to make lawful the following matters: fornication, the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcohol, and the use of musical instruments.”

People on both sides of the debate have interpreted the saying differently. Followers of more orthodox schools of thought, like Salafism or Wahhabism, understand it as a plain prohibition on music and the use of instruments.

Others, including eleventh century Persian scholar Imam Al Ghazali, have put forward the mitigated view that music in itself is not sinful, but songs which entice their listener to immorality should be avoided — a view echoed by former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa.

In 2017, an article published by Egypt’s Dar Al-Ifta contributed to the now-widespread debate. It argued that reference to music in the hadith was included to paint a clear picture of ‘the licentious night,’ but unlike alcohol and adultery, it is not sinful in and of itself.

Whatever the argument’s merits, it did not gain particular prominence in Egypt nor interfere with the country’s rich musical life until the 1970s, a period which marked an important turning point for Egyptians Muslims’ relationship to their faith.

Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, the contentious signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978, and the spread of Wahhabism among Egyptian migrants returning from Saudi Arabia, were all factors that laid the groundwork for a growing Islamist movement to rise in popularity.

Over the next decades, debates about Islamic morality took center stage in public discourse and cultural life. A study published by the American University in Cairo finds that this surge in piety had a two-fold effect on the relationship between Islam and music in the country.

On the one hand, the 1980s witnessed growing religious animosity towards the arts, and particularly women’s involvement in the musical profession. Figures like Mohamed Metwally Al Shaarawy, Islamic scholar and former Minister of Endowments, advised women artists to renounce their profession and turn to a life of religious devotion.

On the other hand, spiritual and religious music grew in popularity and gained new audiences as proponents of moderate Islam turned to the artform as a means to explore, express, and deepen their faith — or to cope with mounting socio-economic pressures.

The latter trend was reinforced in the 1990s by the emergence of a centrist Islamist movement led by journalists, scholars, and a younger generation of preachers, in response to the parallel rise of extremism. Proponents of centrism encouraged the production of ‘clean art,’ a standard defined by adherence to Islamic morality and the spread of positive socio-political messages.

Those teachings, popular among Egypt’s educated youth, compelled pop artists like Amr Diab, Hisham Abbas, or Aida Al Ayoubi to put out one or more devotional songs; while international artists like the British Sami Yusuf grew to local stardom for their spiritual music.

Conversely, the move to bring music in line with a perceived adherence to religious values also fuelled calls for the censorship or outright banning of works which supposedly did not meet that standard — as seen to this day with purists’ ongoing war on mahraganatmusic, a politically charged and archetypally working class genre, denounced for overstepping moral boundaries in its tackling of socially contentious topics.

Fear of God or a Desperate Bid for Control?

In Chahine’s Al Maseer, the extremists’ bid for power rests on a darkly threatening view of Islam. Citizens of the Caliphate can either abide by their stringen norms, or risk not only the wrath of the extremists, but of God.

Through their practice of music, Ibn Rushd and his companions seek to counter this grim narrative with love, hope, and an unwavering call for freedom. In this way, the film’s central conflict rings true across borders and centuries, shedding a possible light on the source of religious extremists’ opposition to music and the arts.

Contention about the religious status of music is not unique to Egypt. Religiously austere movements in Sudan and Afghanistan have also pushed for or implemented stringent regulations on music as part of broader conservative social policies.

The debate is also not unique to the Muslim world. In the United States, one hallmark of the so-called ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980s — a period of nationwide hysteriaprompted by false allegations of mass satanic ritual abuse — was conservative Christians’ crusade against rock music.

I have neither the authority nor the theological expertise needed to make definitive statements about the status of music in Islam or any other religion. I do, however, believe that austere religious movements have historically opposed music for the same reason that Sufi mystics revel in its practice: because it nurtures a spirit of love, passion, communion, and hope — all things which stand as a direct counter to fear.

Source: Egypt’s Debate on Music in Islam: Between Religious Austerity and Spiritual Ecstasy

Khan: A quiet revolution: the female imams taking over an LA mosque

Of interest:

When Tasneem Noor got on the stage at the Women’s Mosque of America in Los Angeles, she felt butterflies in her stomach. Facing about fifty women on praying rugs, ready to deliver a sermon – khutba in Arabic – she took a deep breath.

During the prayers, the women would follow Noor’s lead, but several would pray four more times after it ended, to make up for any potentially invalid prayers. That is the result of a 14-century-old disputed hadith, that leads some to believe women are forbidden to lead prayers and deliver sermons.

“I don’t mind,” Noor told me later. “Some people function better with rules.”

Noor, 37, is part of a quiet revolution in America: at the all women’s mosque, she was celebrating its five year anniversary of practicing the female imamat, a rare and often controversial practice in Islam.

Women aren’t even allowed to pray in many mosques across the world. In some mosques in the US, women may enter, but are often forced pray in separate rooms – leading some to call it the “penalty box”. Spiritual leaders that have pushed boundaries – by running mixed congregation mosques or running an LGBTQ mosque – have received death threats.

But at the Women’s Mosque of America, women are using their sermons to cover previously untouched topics like sexual violence, pregnancy loss and domestic violence.

One of Noor’s most memorable sermons happened in 2017 – a surprise, considering it was largely an improvisation. After a scheduling hitch left Noor with less than half of the 45-minutes she should have had, she shortened her talk and changed tack: leading the congregation into a meditation.

Source: A quiet revolution: the female imams taking over an LA mosque

Macron’s Islamic charter is an unprecedented attack on French secularism

The best analysis I have seen to date:

Adopted last month by the French Council of the Muslim Faith at the behest of President Emmanuel Macron, a new 10-point “Charter of Principles” of French Islam will please all those who have been calling for a “progressive,” “reformed” or “enlightened”Islam – one consistent with democratic, egalitarian and liberal western values.

It also represents a significant personal victory for Macron, who for months had pressured the council to craft a document committing to a “French Republican Islam”. Non-Muslim authorities, governments, media and public intellectuals have been demanding this for years as a way to combat “Islamism” and “extremism”.

It very clearly aims to turn Islam into a quietist, ‘pacified’ religion whose practitioners remain docile and obedient to the political powers-that-be

The unprecedented charter can thus be seen as a clear assertion that Islam is indeed compatible with secular democracies in general, and with the French republic in particular. In a nutshell, the charter aligns Islam with France’s republican principles, including gender equality; non-discrimination, including sexual orientation; and freedom of conscience, including the freedom to leave Islam.

It condemns “excessive proselytism” and attests to the superiority of and obligation for all Muslims to recognise France’s laws, constitution, republican principles and “public order”.

Article two proclaims an obligation for Muslims to “conform to the common rules” of France, which “must prevail over any other rules and convictions, including those of our own faith”. Article eight recognises the French principle of laicite, or secularism.

But article six, the longest, is also the most loaded. It proclaims that no mosques or other Islamic places can have “political agendas” or engage in political and ideological discourse or activity; these are described as “an instrumentalisation” and “perversion of Islam”, whose sole and “true purpose is prayers and the transmission of values”.

It condemns “the propagation of nationalist discourses defending foreign regimes and supporting foreign policies that are hostile to France, our country”. It dissociates Islam from “political Islam” and prohibits signatories from engaging in the latter, including “Salafism (Wahhabism), the Tabligh and the Muslim Brotherhood”. This amounts to an excommunication of those Islamic trends and movements from legitimate or “true” Islam.

Crafted by the executive

There is no doubt that this charter was essentially crafted by the French executive itself – especially Macron and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who for years had been calling for the assimilation of Islam strictly within the limits, laws, principles and frameworks of France’s Fifth Republic. Darmanin even wrote a book about it.

The charter is not coming from Muslims. It is the brainchild of Macron’s campaign to force the French Muslim council to craft such a text, deploying against one religion a type of pressure, intimidation, threats, ultimatums and blackmail never before seen in French post-war history.

At the end of the signing ceremony, a close adviser to Macron explicitly threatened anyone who refuses to sign and live by the charter, saying: “Those who disagree will hear from us very quickly and see their operations inspected very, very closely by our services.” This, in a context where the interior ministry is banning Islamic NGOs, closing schools and shutting down mosques by the dozen.

This operation is an integral part of Macron’s crusade against “Islamist separatism”, for which he is using the French Council of the Muslim Faith as a facade, an alibi, a cover to circumvent a constitution that forbids state interference in religious doctrines. The charter is a word-for-word synthesis of all the injunctions and demands that Macron has addressed to Muslims over the past year.

Amazingly, article nine not only declares that state racism does not exist, but also that such an expression would constitute “defamation, and as such, a crime”. Its timing coincides with the introduction of Macron’s anti-separatism bill, and the Elysee Palace has stated that the charter was drafted within the framework of “technical workshops” presided over by the interior minister.

What are we to make of this operation? Firstly, it is an attempt, which some may find timely and even necessary, to align Islamic theology with the values, laws and principles of liberal, secular western states.

Secondly, it very clearly aims to turn Islam into a quietist, “pacified” religion whose practitioners remain docile and obedient to the political powers-that-be. Macron is trying to strip Muslims of their right to engage in oppositional and critical discourse and activism.

Thirdly, this hostile takeover is an attempt by the executive to assume control over the totality of Islam in France in order to “securitise” it from A to Z: its mosques, imams, institutions, NGOs, associations – even its theology. One should also expect that the repression and persecution of any Muslim deemed “Islamist” or “Salafist” will only get worse.

Fourthly, besides the extreme violations of freedom of religion and the brutalisation of Islam, the charter is also a glaring violation of French laicite – a principle the Macron government nonetheless claims to uphold. Based on the 1905 law on the separation of church and state, French laicite includes three sacred principles that are not open to interpretation: freedom of conscience and religion, the separation of church and state, and equal treatment by the state of all religions. Macron is trampling on all three pillars.

Uncertain fate

Only Muslims, and no other religions, are being summoned to craft a “charter” and implement principles such as gender equality, acceptance of homosexuality, and the prohibition of political discourse and activity. How about requiring the same from Catholics and Jews, some of whom oppose French laws on same-sex marriage or medically assisted procreation?

The attempt to delegitimise as “political Islam” and exclude from the religion several important Islamic trends under false pretexts, along with the persecution to which these Muslim groups are increasingly subjected, represents extreme violations of freedom of religion and human rights in general.

France has finally found its grand mufti: its (non-Muslim) president himself

The direct attempt by the executive to shape from above the organisation of Islam and its theology is by far the worst violation of the separation of church and state in the entire history of the Fifth Republic. It marks the end of French laicite and a regression to a crude form of quasi-medieval Gallicanism, when the state controlled, organised and narrowly defined religion.

The fate of the charter is more than a little uncertain. It will surely be weaponised, including as a divide-and-conquer tool. In the meantime, France has finally found its grand mufti: its (non-Muslim) president himself.

Source: Macron’s Islamic charter is an unprecedented attack on French secularism

Islamic scholars, activists call for ban on British film about prophet’s daughter

Parallel between this call and the similar call re Mel Gibson’s 2004 file The Passion of Christ. I remember similar controversies over Martin Scorcese’s 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the appropriateness of the portrayal. The different element is the fear of increased Sunni Shia tensions:

Paksitani authorities banned Jan. 5 the release of the controversial British film “The Lady of Heaven.” They urged social media platforms to remove the trailer of the film.

The Pakistani ban has raised controversy in Egypt about this film. Similar to the Pakistani reaction, a number of social media activists, Al-Azhar scholars and sheikhs of the Salafist currents called for banning the screening of the film. They urged the issuance of fatwas prohibiting its viewing and sent official demands to the United Kingdom to stop showing it worldwide.

The film sparked controversy due to its portrayal of the character of Fatima al-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali bin Abi Talib, the fourth and last of the rightly guided caliphs following the death of the prophet. On Jan. 2, several Egyptian and international newspapers reported that the film features the voice of the Prophet Muhammad as one of the storytellers of the film’s events.

Commenting on one of the news reports criticizing the film, Facebook user Ahmad Allam wrote, “They do not respect our faith or our sanctities, and when we get angry [and defend] our religion and our Messenger, they say we are terrorists.” Omar Hindawi wrote, “This film should be immediately banned,” while Mona Mahmoud wondered about Al-Azhar’s position on “this humiliation?”

Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest religious authority, issued a press statement Dec. 27 through its adviser Mohammed Mehanna, confirming the steadfastness of Al-Azhar’s position regarding the prohibition of the embodiment of the Prophet Muhammad, all prophets and the family members of the prophet (wives, daughters and sons). The statement asserted that the release of this film consecrates the continued disrespect by the West and some Shiite extremists for the sanctities and beliefs of others. 

Al-Azhar, however, did not announce any measures to try to ban the screening of the film, as demanded by social media activists.

Inquiring about the possibilities of banning the film in Egypt or launching any media campaigns to prevent it from showing in Egypt or abroad, Al-Monitor talked to a source in the Al-Azhar Sheikhdom. “Al-Azhar is not an authority that can ban or permit a film,” the source said on condition of anonymity. “It simply expresses the Sharia opinion regarding the prohibition of embodying the prophet and his family members. Al-Azhar leaders are not concerned with efforts to ban the film abroad and has nothing to do with the delay in its release.”

The film, directed by Elli King and written by Sheikh Yasser Al-Habib, was to be released in theaters Dec. 30, before it was postponed until 2021. No new date was scheduled for its release and the reasons for its postponement have not been disclosed. But some newspapers reckoned the delay came in light of the sharp criticism the film generated or because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A source from the Ministry of Culture told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the Authority for Censorship of Artistic Works affiliated with the ministry is the authority competent to ban or allow the screening of a film when its distributors apply for a request for its release in Egypt. The source explained that the authority cannot decide to ban a film before watching it, adding that the opinion of Al-Azhar and religious institutions on the embodiment of the prophet will be taken into account in addition to the opinions of scholars, if the film falsely depicts or distorts established historical facts.

The Authority for Censorship of Artistic Works had banned the screening of “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004, and “Noah” and “The Exodus; Gods and Kings” in 2014, because they portray the characters of the prophets.

Several Egyptian newspapers, notably Soutalomma and Al-Wafd, accused in press reports Dec. 31 the film and its producers of Shiism and bias toward false stories about Zahra’s death. They said that the teaser of the film shows she was subjected to torture and physical assault causing her to have an abortion and to die at the hands of the Rightly Guided Caliphs who preceded Ali, namely Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, Omar bin Al-Khattab and Othman bin Affan.

But renowned film critic and writer of Arab cinema Tarek el-Shinnawy believes banning the film will create unnecessary momentum and buzz that may encourage Egyptians to watch it out of curiosity. “Sooner or later everyone will be able to watch it when it becomes available on the internet. It is better to allow its screening while holding, in tandem, historical and religious discussions to unveil its fallacies if it truly tells a historically questionable story.” 

The film’s events take place in two different times separated by nearly 1,400 years. It tells the story of an Iraqi child who lost his parents and was displaced by an armed Islamic State attack. The boy then moves to live with his grandmother, who tells him the story of Zahra, the first victim of terrorism in history from the Shiite perspective. The film then recounts the story of Zahra. 

Mohsen Qandil, a professor of Islamic history at Cairo University shares Shinnawi’s opinion. “Any serious discussion about the film would reveal the weakness of the Shiite narrative that contradicts the friendly relationship that Imam Ali had with the Rightly Guided Caliphs who preceded him, even after Zahra’s death. Imam Ali agreed to marry his daughter, Umm Kulthum, to Omar bin Al-Khattab and recommended him [bin Al-Khattab] as his successor.”

He added, “How can bin Khattab be one of Zahra’s killers, while he was on good terms with Imam Ali, her husband, after her death.”

Despite the film being accused of Shiism and promoting false or weak historical narratives, Iranian websites Ijtihad and Al-Alam reported that four Shiite religious authorities — Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygan, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Hossein Noori-Hamedani and Ayatollah Jaafar Subhani — labeled as haram any support or promotion for the film. The fatwas banned viewing it since it deepens the disagreement in the Islamic nation between Sunnis and Shiites. The Shiite authorities argued that fanning the flames of the inter-Muslim dispute is in the interest of those they described as the “enemies of Islam.”

Mohamed Abdel Halim, an Egyptian journalist specializing in religious affairs at the London-based news website Daqaeq, told Al-Monitor that showing the film at this time while Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are witnessing divisions between Sunnis and Shiites will exacerbate existing differences.

“In case this film is shown, Al-Azhar will be forced to refute the Shiite historical allegations. Al-Azhar has always tried to ignore these allegations so as not to worsen the division between Sunnis and Shiites,” Abdel Halim said. “This will abort the sheikhdom’s attempts for decades to achieve rapprochement and focus on what unites Sunnis and Shiites instead of focusing on points of contention, including the historical allegations about Zahra.”

Read more:

Muslims have visualized Prophet Muhammad in words and calligraphic art for centuries

Of note;

The republication of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in September 2020 led to protests in several Muslim-majority countries. It also resulted in disturbing acts of violence: In the weeks that followed, two people were stabbed near the former headquarters of the magazine and a teacher was beheaded after he showed the cartoons during a classroom lesson.

Visual depiction of Muhammad is a sensitive issue for a number of reasons: Islam’s early stance against idolatry led to a general disapproval for images of living beings throughout Islamic history. Muslims seldom produced or circulated images of Muhammad or other notable early Muslims. The recent caricatures have offended many Muslims around the world.

This focus on the reactions to the images of Muhammad drowns out an important question: How did Muslims imagine him for centuries in the near total absence of icons and images?

Picturing Muhammad without images

In my courses on early Islam and the life of Muhammad, I teach to the amazement of my students that there are few pre-modern historical figures that we know more about than we do about Muhammad.

The respect and devotion that the first generations of Muslims accorded to him led to an abundance of textual materials that provided rich details about every aspect of his life.

The prophet’s earliest surviving biography, written a century after his death, runs into hundreds of pages in English. His final 10 years are so well-documented that some episodes of his life during this period can be tracked day by day.

Even more detailed are books from the early Islamic period dedicated specifically to the description of Muhammad’s body, character and manners. From a very popular ninth-century book on the subject titled “Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya” or The Sublime Qualities of Muhammad, Muslims learned everything from Muhammad’s height and body hair to his sleep habits, clothing preferences and favorite food.

No single piece of information was seen too mundane or irrelevant when it concerned the prophet. The way he walked and sat is recorded in this book alongside the approximate amount of white hair on his temples in old age.

These meticulous textual descriptions have functioned for Muslims throughout centuries as an alternative for visual representations.

Most Muslims pictured Muhammad as described by his cousin and son-in-law Ali in a famous passage contained in the Shama’il al-Muhammadiyya: a broad-shouldered man of medium height, with black, wavy hair and a rosy complexion, walking with a slight downward lean. The second half of the description focused on his character: a humble man that inspired awe and respect in everyone that met him.

Textual portraits of Muhammad

An early image showing Prophet Mohammed appointing his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his successor in an an Islamic miniature from A.D. 1307. The work is attributed to Rashid al-din Fadlallah. Photo by Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images

That said, figurative portrayals of Muhammad were not entirely unheard of in the Islamic world. In fact, manuscripts from the 13th century onward did contain scenes from the prophet’s life, showing him in full figure initially and with a veiled face later on.

The majority of Muslims, however, would not have access to the manuscripts that contained these images of the prophet. For those who wanted to visualize Muhammad, there were nonpictorial, textual alternatives.

There was an artistic tradition that was particularly popular among Turkish- and Persian-speaking Muslims.

Ornamented and gilded edgings on a single page were filled with a masterfully calligraphed text of Muhammad’s description by Ali in the Shama’il. The center of the page featured a famous verse from the Quran: “We only sent you (Muhammad) as a mercy to the worlds.”

The Hilye-i Serif, by Hafiz Osman, 17th century. A calligraphic verbal description of Mohammed. Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul. Hafiz Osman (1642–1698), via Wikimedia Commons

These textual portraits, called “hilya” in Arabic, were the closest that one would get to an “image” of Muhammad in most of the Muslim world. Some hilyas were strictly without any figural representation, while others contained a drawing of the Kaaba, the holy shrine in Mecca, or a rose that symbolized the beauty of the prophet.

Framed hilyas graced mosques and private houses well into the 20th century. Smaller specimens were carried in bottles or the pockets of those who believed in the spiritual power of the prophet’s description for good health and against evil. Hilyas kept the memory of Muhammad fresh for those who wanted to imagine him from mere words.

Different interpretations

The Islamic legal basis for banning images, including Muhammad’s, is less than straightforward and there are variations across denominations and legal schools.

It appears, for instance, that Shiite communities have been more accepting of visual representations for devotional purposes than Sunni ones. Pictures of Muhammad, Ali and other family members of the prophet have some circulation in the popular religious culture of Shiite-majority countries, such as Iran. Sunni Islam, on the other hand, has largely shunned religious iconography.

Outside the Islamic world, Muhammad was regularly fictionalized in literature and was depicted in images in medieval and early modern Christendom. But this was often in less than sympathetic forms. Dante’s “Inferno,” most famously, had the prophet and Ali suffering in hell, and the scene inspired many drawings.

These depictions, however, hardly ever received any attention from the Muslim world, as they were produced for and consumed within the Christian world.

Offensive caricatures and colonial past

Providing historical precedents for the visual depictions of Muhammad adds much-needed nuance to a complex and potentially incendiary issue, but it helps explain only part of the picture.

Equally important for understanding the reactions to the images of Muhammad are developments from more recent history. Europe now has a large Muslim minority, and fictionalized depictions of Muhammad, visual or otherwise, do not go unnoticed.

With advances in mass communication and social media, the spread of the images is swift, and so is the mobilization for reactions to them.

Most importantly, many Muslims find the caricatures offensive for its Islamophobic content. Some of the caricatures draw a coarse equation of Islam with violence or debauchery through Muhammad’s image, a pervasive theme in the colonial European scholarship on Muhammad.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood has argued that such depictions can cause “moral injury” for Muslims, an emotional pain due to the special relation that they have with the prophet. Political scientist Andrew March sees the caricatures as “a political act” that could cause harm to the efforts of creating a “public space where Muslims feel safe, valued, and equal.”

Even without images, Muslims have cultivated a vivid mental picture of Muhammad, not just of his appearance but of his entire persona. The crudeness of some of the caricatures of Muhammad is worth a moment of thought.

Source: Muslims have visualized Prophet Muhammad in words and calligraphic art for centuries

Aykol: France and Macron Aren’t Helping Solve Islam’s Crisis. They’re Strengthening Extremists Instead.

Good thoughtful commentary:

“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.” That is what the French President Emmanuel Macron said on Oct. 2, while announcing his “anti-radicalism plan.” Just two weeks later, on Oct. 16, a devotee of that radicalism killed and beheaded a high-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb, merely for showing the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his classroom. And soon after, three worshippers at a church in Nice were savagely murdered by another terrorist who seemed to have the same motivation: to punish blasphemy against the prophet of Islam.

In return, the French authorities initiated a crackdown on anything they deemed to be Islamism, and also projected the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad on government buildings in France—only to provoke mass protests in various parts of the Muslim world.

Macron is doing little to resolve this crisis and could actually be inflaming it, because the sort of freedom he claims to defend is full of painful shortcomings and cynical double standards.

All these events have initiated an ongoing debate about France, Islam, and freedom. Some in the West now see France as the beacon of Enlightenment values against the dark forces of religious fanaticism. Others argue that the main problem is Islamophobia, racism and the colonial arrogance of France in a world where—except for a handful of extremists—Muslims are the real victims.

As a Muslim who has been writing about these issues for about two decades, let me offer a more nuanced view: First, France—like any target of terrorism—deserves sympathy for its fallen and solidarity against the threat. Moreover, Macron is largely correct that Islam is facing a “crisis”—not “all over world,” but certainly in some parts of the world—and we Muslims need an honest conversation about that. Unfortunately, Macron is doing little to resolve this crisis and could actually be inflaming it, because the sort of freedom he claims to defend is full of painful shortcomings and cynical double standards.

Many Muslims would find any talk of Islam facing a crisis unacceptable, if not heretical, for they think of Islam as a divinely ordained, perfect, and eternal truth. Yet one can well believe in the divine core of Islam, as I do, while being critical of the many layers of human interpretation built on top of that. It is this human interpretation that gave us much of the Islamic fiqh, or jurisprudence, which has some harsh verdicts that conflict with what the modern world calls human rights and civil liberties—the notions that people should be free to believe or disbelieve in a religion, and free to evangelize or criticize it.

Let’s take the burning issue at hand: What should Muslims do in the face of blasphemy against the Prophet—or sabb al-rasul, as medieval jurists called it. They all agreed it should be severely punished. According to mainline Shafi and Maliki jurists, the blasphemer would be executed immediately, unless he or she repented. According to the stricter Hanbalis, the blasphemer would be executed even if he or she repented. And according to the milder Hanafis, there was no clear ground for execution, but the blasphemer could be jailed and beaten with sticks.

None of these verdicts had any basis in the Quran—like most similar verdicts in Islamic jurisprudence—but jurists inferred them from some targeted killings that reportedly took place during the Prophet’s battles with the polytheists of his time.

What is less noticed is that medieval Muslim jurists reasoned according to the norms of their time, where the concept of free speech simply didn’t exist. Indeed, their Christian contemporaries weren’t any more lenient to blasphemers or heretics. The Byzantine Empire, under the Justinian Laws of the 6th century, declared, “Men shall not … blaspheme God,” and gave the death penalty for those who did. Later, in Europe, the Catholic Inquisition took blasphemy law a step further by making this capital punishment just more painful with new techniques like auto-da-fé, or burning people alive at the stake.

We Muslims need this reform not to please Westerners, but to save our own societies from the sectarianism, bigotry, misogyny, and oppression that is being justified in the name of Islam

Yet Christianity has changed immensely in the past four centuries—first with the lessons taken from the horrific Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and then new ideas of tolerance advocated by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. Debates on freedom among Catholics continued well into the 20th century, but ultimately all mainline Christians gave up coercive power in the name of their faith.

However, the same transformation hasn’t yet fully taken place in Islam—and that lies at the core of the crisis, that not just Macron but also critical Muslims are talking about. Medieval Islamic jurisprudence is still there, with some violent and coercive verdicts unrefuted by most contemporary religious scholars. Most Muslims are not interested in these verdicts, let alone eager to implement them, but some are. Their zealotry, in the extreme, leads to vigilante violence and terrorism. In the mainstream, it leads to blasphemy laws that are in place in many Muslim-majority states—Pakistan being one of the most ferocious.

A fairly conservative but thoughtful American Muslim, Yasir Qadi, a popular preacher and a dean at the Al-Maghrib Institute, recently admitted this problem in an interesting post “on the French terrorist attack.” Most mainstream Muslim authorities condemn such terrorist attacks, he noted, but “don’t directly address the fiqh [jurisprudence] texts involved.” Especially on the issue of blasphemy, he added, “There are texts and fiqh issues that need to be discussed frankly—hardly anyone has done that (still!).”

Having such frank discussions on Islamic jurisprudence—and the underlying theological assumptions—could open Islam’s path toward its own authentic Enlightenment, the gist of which should be giving up coercive power in the name of the faith. We Muslims need this reform not to please Westerners, but to save our own societies from the sectarianism, bigotry, misogyny, and oppression that is being justified in the name of Islam, and to better reflect the true values of our faith.

In other words, Islam needs its own Enlightenment, but Macron is advocating the wrong sort of Enlightenment. And that’s a problem deeply rooted in France’s own history.

It is worth recalling that the Enlightenment was not a monolithic movement. As the late great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb explained in Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, there was rather a clear distinction between the French and the Anglo-Saxon paths: In France, Enlightenment often implied a combat between faith and reason. In Britain and America, it often implied a harmony of them. Therefore, the French path has been much more assertive, anti-clerical, and also bloody. The French Revolution, lest we forget, was an extremely violent affair, where hundreds of priests were killed—often by beheading—and the Church’s dominance of the public square was replaced, not by neutrality, but an alternative religion called the Cult of Reason.

Having subdued Catholicism long ago with this aggressive Enlightenment, France seems to be reviving it against Islam, especially under the banner of laïcité, its unmistakably illiberal form of secularism.

The French often say foreigners don’t understand laïcité. I do—because my country, Turkey, imitated the French model for almost a century.

The French often say foreigners don’t understand laïcité. I do—because my country, Turkey, imitated the French model for almost a century.

The main problem of this specific form of secularism is its reliance on preemptive intolerance; assuming that religion and its symbols might become oppressive if they are visible, laïcité suppresses them in the first place. The result of such policies is often a simmering grudge among the religious, and ultimately a backlash, if not revenge—which is precisely how Turkey got its great Islamic avenger, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Although Macron says the target of laïcité is not Islam, but only “Islamism,” the latter term is left quite vague in his rhetoric. In practice, it’s not vague at all. In France it has long been obvious that personal Muslim practices are targeted: For many years, Muslim women in France have been banned from wearing headscarves in public buildings, or so-called burkinis on beaches. Last September, a French politician from Macron’s party protested a young French Muslim woman for merely walking into the National Assembly while wearing a headscarf. And, in October, the French interior minister even took issue with halal food aisles in supermarkets—and kosher ones, too, signaling a threat to the religious freedom of just not Muslims, but other practicing believers as well.

In other words, what France requires from its Muslims is not just accepting the freedom of speech of blasphemers, but also giving up a part of their own freedom of religion. This is not only wrong in principle, but also myopic and counterproductive. It just makes it harder for practicing French Muslims to feel respected, accepted, and therefore fully French—precisely the sort of integration radical Islamists would like to avert.

Source: France and Macron Aren’t Helping Solve Islam’s Crisis. They’re Strengthening Extremists Instead.

The French President vs. the American Media

Of note along with Erna Paris’ critique (A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy). Universalism is a convenient way to avoid addressing systemic issues and discrimination:

The president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our “bias,” our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.

So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me on Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” President Macron said, recalling Nov. 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.

“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

Legitimizing violence — that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French elite and the English-language media.

More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the most in any Western country. Mr. Macron, a centrist modernizer who has been a bulwark against Europe’s Trumpian right-wing populism, said the English-language — and particularly, American — media were imposing their own values on a different society.

In particular, he argued that the foreign media failed to understand “laïcité,” which translates as “secularism” — an active separation of church and state dating back to the early 20th century, when the state wrested control of the school system from the Catholic Church. The subject has become an increasing focus this year, with the approach of the 2022 election in which Mr. Macron appears likely to face the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Mr. Macron didn’t initially campaign on changing the country’s approach to its Muslim minority, but in a major speech in early October denouncing “Islamist separatism,” he promised action against everything from the foreign training of imams to “imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias.” He also called for remaking the religion itself into “an Islam of the Enlightenment.” His tough-talking interior minister, meanwhile, is using the inflammatory language of the far right.

When Mr. Paty was murdered, Mr. Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticized Mr. Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.

Some French grievances with the U.S. media are familiar from the U.S. culture wars — complaints about short-lived headlines and glib tweets by journalists. But their larger claim is that, after the attacks, English and American outlets immediately focused on failures in France’s policy toward Muslims rather than on the global terror threat. Mr. Macron was particularly enraged by a Financial Times opinion article on Nov. 3, “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further,” which argued that he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism. The article said he was attacking “Islamic separatism” when, in fact, he had used the word “Islamist.” Mr. Macron’s critics say he conflates religious observance and extremism, and the high-profile misquote — of his attempt to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism — infuriated him.

“I hate being pictured with words which are not mine,” Mr. Macron told me, and after a wave of complaints from readers and an angry call from Mr. Macron’s office, The Financial Times took the article off the internet — something a spokeswoman, Kristina Eriksson, said she couldn’t recall the publication ever having done before. The next day, the newspaper published a letter from Mr. Macron attacking the deleted article.

In late October, Politico Europe also deleted an op-ed article, “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that it had solicited from a French sociologist. The piece set off a firestorm from critics who said the writer was blaming the victims of terrorism. But the hasty deletion prompted the author to complain of “outright censorship.” Politico Europe’s editor in chief, Stephen Brown, said that the article’s timing after the attack was inappropriate, but that he had apologized to the author for taking it down without explanation. He didn’t cite any specific errors. It was also the first time, he said, that Politico had ever taken down an opinion article.

But French complaints go beyond those opinion articles and to careful journalism that questions government policy. A skeptical Washington Post analysis from its Paris correspondent, James McAuley, “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” drew heated objections for its raised eyebrow at the idea that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” The New York Times drew a contrast between Mr. Macron’s ideological response and the Austrian chancellor’s more “conciliatory” address after a terror attack, and noted that the isolated young men carrying out attacks don’t neatly fit into the government’s focus on extremist networks. In the Times opinion pages, an op-ed asked bluntly, “Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”

And then, of course, there are the tweets. The Associated Press deleted a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world, saying it was a poor word choice for an articleexplaining anger at France in the Muslim world. The New York Times was roasted on Twitter and in the pages of Le Monde for a headline — which appeared briefly amid the chaos of the beheading — “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The Times headline quickly changed as French police confirmed details, but the screenshot remained.

“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” Mr. Macron’s spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, complained to Le Monde.

As any observer of American politics knows, it can be hard to untangle theatrical outrage and Twitter screaming matches from real differences in values. Mr. Macron argues that there are big questions at the heart of the matter.

“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” he said. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”

“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he said, outlining France’s longstanding insistence that its citizens not be categorized by identity. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”

Some of the coverage Mr. Macron complains about reflects a genuine difference of values. The French roll their eyes at America’s demonstrative Christianity. And Mr. Macron’s talk of head scarves and menus, along with the interior minister’s complaints about Halal food in supermarkets, clashes with the American emphasis on religious tolerance and the free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Such abstract ideological distinctions can seem distant from the everyday lives of France’s large ethnic minorities, who complain of police abuse, residential segregation and discrimination in the workplace. Mr. Macron’s October speech also acknowledged, unusually for a French leader, the role that the French government’s “ghettoization” of Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities played in creating generations of alienated young Muslims. And some of the coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to.

Picking fights with American media is also an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities. And reactionary French commentators have gone further than Mr. Macron in attacking the U.S. media, drawing energy from the American culture wars. A flame-throwing article in the French magazine Marianne blasted U.S. coverage and then appeared in English in Tablet with an added American flourish denouncing “simplistic woke morality plays.”

But the ideological gaps between French and American points of view can be deceptive. The French commentariat has also harped on the #metoo movement as an example of runaway American ideology. Pascal Bruckner, the well-known public intellectual, called the sexual abuse case against Roman Polanski “neo-feminist McCarthyism.” But perhaps the most prominent American journalism in France this year came from The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi, who played a central role in forcing France to grapple with the well-known pedophilia of a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A recent profile in a French news site described Mr. Onishi and others as “kicking the anthill just by naming things” that had previously gone unspoken. Mr. Matzneff is now facing charges.

And Mr. Macron has his own political context: a desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right. He is also disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with President Trump. He had spoken to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the day before our conversation.

I asked him whether his vocal complaints about the American media weren’t themselves a little Trumpian — advancing his agenda through high-profile attacks on the press.

Mr. Macron said he simply wanted himself and his country to be clearly understood. “My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” he said. (He has, in fact, never granted The Times’s Paris bureau an interview, which would be a nice start.)

And he recoiled at the comparison to Mr. Trump.

“I read your newspapers, I’m one of your readers,” he said.

Ivison: Trudeau makes sudden course correction on freedom of speech

While current concerns over freedom of expression relate mainly with respect to Muslims, there are many examples from other religions. The advent of social media makes navigating between hate speech (high threshold) and that which is offensive or a microaggression:

Justin Trudeau was asked by a reporter on Tuesday whether he condemns the publication of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad.

“No,” he said, definitively in French. “I think it is important to continue to defend freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Our artists help us to reflect and challenge our views, and they contribute to our society.”

Source: Trudeau makes sudden course correction on freedom of speech

Macron wants to fix France’s social ills – but he won’t do it by ‘reforming’ Islam

Good commentary by Art Goldhammer:

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, minced no words in his recent diatribe against his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. “Macron needs mental treatment,” Erdoğan said. This blast from Ankara came in response to Macron’s announcement of a series of measures intended to “reform” the practice of Islam in France and end “Islamic separatism” – proof, to Erdoğan, that Macron had “a problem with Islam”.

Then, just five days later, on 29 October, a newly arrived Tunisian immigrant killed three Christians at prayer in Nice. France had yet again been the victim of “an Islamist terrorist attack,” Macron proclaimed. He did not need to remind his countrymen of the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by another immigrant, this one of Chechen descent, in broad daylight two weeks earlier, or of the prior stabbing of two people outside the former offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The execution of Paty, the murders in Nice, and the Paris stabbings are just the latest in a series of attacks that have claimed the lives of 260 French citizens since 2012. No one can deny that France has a terrorism problem.

Source: Macron wants to fix France’s social ills – but he won’t do it by ‘reforming’ Islam

New Zealand ranked the most ‘Islamic country in the world’ in annual index

Never heard of this index before and no detailed explanation of methodology used to assess “implementing Islamic ideals” rather than religious practise and observance:

New Zealand has been named the country that most fits Islamic ideals for the second year in a row, but the area of everyday finance is still difficult for Muslims, says a financial commentator.

In the 2019 Islamicity index, released earlier this year, New Zealand is ranked first overall, followed by Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Ireland. The top Muslim-majority country is United Arab Emirates (UAE) at 44.

New Zealand ranks 3rd in terms of its economy, 4th for legal and governance, 5th for human and political rights, and 8th for international relations.

According to Islam, the use of money for the purpose of making money is forbidden, meaning the concept of interest is not allowed. Wealth must be generated from legitimate trade and asset-based investment, and investors are also required to invest in things with social and ethical benefit.

Financial commentator Janine Starks said that despite the high ranking, the New Zealand system was not helpful to Muslims in terms of their everyday personal finance needs.

“Basic mortgages, insurance and savings accounts are non compliant and mean they need to make decisions against the protocols of their faith,” Starks said.

“Many KiwiSaver funds are ethical but not to the standard required, as even things like companies in the alcohol sector are banned.”

Amanah Ethical was the only KiwiSaver provider which purified its investments.

Anjum Rahman, a founding member of the Islamic Women’s Council New Zealand, was not surprised New Zealand had the highest ranking.

”In terms of basic Islamic values – integrity, consensus, and all of those things – New Zealand has done really, really well, and it was not surprising to me when I heard about it in terms of religious freedoms, human rights, all of those things that are so important,” Rahman said.

She said the index challenged the notions that Islam was incompatible with the West, and that Muslims could not thrive in Western environments.

“Of course we want to do some things our own way but that doesn’t make us any less part of this country, and I think our dreams and aspirations for it are similar to most people’s here.”

Speaking truth to power was a fundamental aspect of Islam, she said, and not all Muslim-majority countries allowed that. Some governments did not translate Islamic values to the political and social realm as they should.

“So in that sense in terms of New Zealand, we’ve always felt like we’ve been able to live the life that we want to lead here, I think most of the Muslim community would say that.

“Of course it was marred by the Christchurch attacks, and of course we have our share of racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, so it’s not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s a scale and on a relative scale it’s doing well.”

There were a number of areas that were incompatible with Islam, particularly around financial matters.

“In terms of alcohol and gambling, that rugby, racing and beer part of the culture, we won’t fit into that – well, maybe the rugby.

“That is an area of incompatibility if all the social aspects are happening in the pub, and we’re not going to be going to the pub. But I feel like people are willing to be accommodating around that.”

Islamicity Foundation founder economist Hossein Askari was born in Iran and has lived most of his life in the United States. He has a PhD in economics from MIT, taught at US universities, and been on the executive board of International Monetary Fund.

The index was a way to bring about change in the Muslim world, he said.

“What has happened is even from the beginning the corrupt rulers and corrupt clerics banded together, they hijacked this religion, and they used it for their own enrichment, for their own wealth, for their own power.

“When you look at Muslim countries, and I say this openly, they’re despicable. There’s no freedom, there’s enormous inequality – look at Saudi Arabia, the inequality there is phenomenal.”

He combined with experts in the Quran to come up with the most important teachings of Islam, and then put numbers on those aspects to create the Islamicity Index.

“I think my index shows which countries would look like a Muslim country that did the things that Islam says you should do,” he said.

“I’m leaving out the praying and all that kind of stuff. And if you look at that list, the Muslim countries do miserably.

“The thing they do worst at is in political and human rights. Islam is very, very clear, God gave mankind freedom. If God gave us that freedom, what right has a political dictator to take that away?”

Fundamental to Islam was Sharia, which meant ‘the way’, Askari said.

“Islam tries to give you a path, if you choose to take it, of becoming a better person and creating a better society.”

At 75 years old, he dreams of coming to New Zealand, a place he has not yet visited. He calls it a gentle country, “except on the rugby field”.

Source: New Zealand ranked the most ‘Islamic country in the world’ in annual index