To Worship or Not to Worship Shirdi Sai Baba: That Is the Question…


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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Dwarka Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati (Source: indiatoday.intoday.in)

Dwarka Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati (Source: indiatoday.intoday.in)

Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati seems to be an outspoken person. A few days before the recent parliamentary elections the seer was in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh to attend a religious programme. A reporter from a news channel pressed him to know his views on Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate. The seer lost his cool and instead of answering slapped the reporter.

The incident was politically coloured with both Congress and BJP taking different stands. The seer brushed aside the matter, saying he did not want to discuss politics.

Mayank Aggarwal, the State Congress leader said: “Sadhus should not be asked political questions in the first place.” He also added that the seer wanted the discourse to be around religious issues and felt bad at being asked about Modi.

The BJP spokesperson Hitesh Bajpai,  said: “We believe that the religious leaders are the flag-bearers of religion, ethics and truth. They should be the epitome of forgiveness. Questions from the media are of prime importance and should not be brushed aside.”

However, the unperturbed seer brushed aside the matter, saying he did not want to discuss politics. Elucidating on the matter he said: “I slapped the reporter and told him ‘you are talking about him (Modi) so that he can remain a topic of discussion’.

On June 30, 2014, while addressing a meeting of the central working committee of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj at Kankhal near Haridwar in Uttarakhand, the forthright Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand stood steadfast on his stand on Shirdi Sai Baba. He asserted that Sai Baba was a Muslim fakir and should not be worshipped like a Hindu deity. He said his campaign to protect the Hindu religion will continue even if he is sent to jail, “They may burn my effigy or even send me to jail, but my campaign to protect the sanctity of the Hindu religion will continue,” Shankaracharya said.

On June 30, 2014, while addressing a meeting of the central working committee of Bharat Sadhu Samaj at Kankhal near Haridwar in Uttarakhand, the forthright Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand stood steadfast on his stand on Shirdi Sai Baba. He stressed that there is a need now to guard against forces that were “corrupting” the Hindu religion by arbitrarily creating new gods and propagating them. He said his campaign to protect the Hindu religion was being opposed by those who had made religion a means of livelihood and some people were making money in the name of Shridi Sai Baba. He said worshipping Sai Baba was a conspiracy to divide the Hindus.

Uma Bharti (Source: dnaindia.com)

Uma Bharti (Source: dnaindia.com)

At that meeting a letter sent by Uma Bharti, the Union Minister of water resources, to the Shankaracharya explaining the rationale behind her statement made the previous day was also read out at the confluence. In the letter she had said, looking upon someone as a god was people’s prerogative.

Shirdi Sai Baba - 2 Shirdi Sai Baba - 1 Shirdi Sai Baba - 3

However, Uma Bharti’s justification did not seem to satisfy the seer. Known to be a Congress backer, the Shankaracharya, belittled Uma Bharti saying he thought a devotee of Lord Ram had become a Union minister and a Ram temple in Ayodhya would soon be a reality, instead, she turned out to be the “worshiper of a Muslim.” He asked whether she had not seen the pictures of Sai Baba depicted like Hindu Gods including Shiva and Vishnu?

Now, while people are ranting and raving over this controversy of whether it is right to worship a human or not, some might wonder who the protagonist, Shridi Sai Baba, is.

The early life of Sai Baba continues to be an enigma. There are no reliable and consistent records of his birth and parentage. He is believed to have been born around 1838. He arrived at Shirdi as a nameless individual at a young age.

At Shirdi, he stayed on the outskirts of the village in Babul forest and meditated under a tropical evergreen Neem tree. Many villagers after perceiving him as an embodiment of discipline, penance and austerity, revered his saintly figure and gave him food.

After wandering in the woods for days, Sai Baba took shelter in a disused decrepit mosque. He referred to his new dwelling as “Dwarkarmai“, after the abode of Lord Krishna in Dwarka.

Very soon he had a large number of devotees among the Muslims, Hindus and Zoroastrians, who regarded him according to their individual beliefs, as a saint, a fakir, an avatar or an incarnation of god, or a Sadguru. They flocked to Dwarkarmai seeking spiritual guidance.

Unlike the present day spiritual leaders, Sai Baba had no love for corporeal materials. His sole concern was teaching self-realization.

Sai Baba is worshiped by people in India and around the world as a saint. He taught a moral code of love, forgiveness, helping others, charity, contentment, inner peace, and devotion to the Almighty and the guru. He did not distinguish people based on religion or caste.

It still remains a mystery and almost everyone is uncertain of Sai Baba’s true religious leaning – Islam or Hinduism. His teachings combined elements of Islam and Hinduism. He practiced Islamic rituals, but taught using words and figures drawn from both traditions.

A minor section of the Islamic community in India considers Sai Baba as a Muslim Fakir and as a Sufi Pir or Peer, translated into English as “saint” and could be interpreted as “Elder”. In Sufism a Pir’s role is to guide and instruct his disciples on the Sufi path.

Zoroastrians like Nanabhoy Palkhivala and Homi Bhabha, worship Sai Baba who has been cited as the Zoroastrians’ most popular non-Zoroastrian religious figure.

Sai Baba died on October 15, 1918. He was buried in Shirdi. He is well known for the aphorisms such as “Allah Malik” (“God is King”) and “Sabka Malik Ek” (“One God governs all”), which is associated with both Islam and Sufism. He also said:

Trust in me and your prayer will be answered“.

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February 1: World Hijab Day


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj
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World Hijab Day - 2

Today, February 1, 2014 is “World Hijab Day”

More than 50 countries of the world celebrated “World Hijab Day” on February 1, 2013.

A New Yorker Nazma Khan born in Bangladesh founded the World Hijab Day. It was organized almost solely over social networking sites. Muslims and non-Muslims in more than 50 countries across the world have been attracted by it.

Nazma Khan came to the United States from Bangladesh at the age of 11. She was the only person in her Bronx school to wear the Hijab, the traditional Islamic veil or scarf that is worn by many post-pubescent Muslim women to cover the head and chest.

Her classmates and schoolmates ridiculed her for wearing the Hijab and called her names. They tormented her throughout her time in the middle school and high school for wearing the Hijab. She suffered many hardships when she entered City College of New York, especially after the four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda in New York City and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. At that time, some New Yorkers wary of Muslims made her a target for ridicule and suspicion.

Nazma said: “I was made to feel like a criminal, as if I was responsible for 9/11 and owed an apology to everyone.”

However, Nazma, true to her religious beliefs, steadfastly wore the Hijab, shrugging off the rancorous comments and venomous stares.

Nazma Khan (Source: language.chinadaily.com.cn)

Nazma Khan (Source: language.chinadaily.com.cn)

She launched the website worldhijabday.com on January 21, 2013 with the mission to make non-Muslims understand the virtues of wearing the Hijab, the traditional Islamic headscarf.

Through her website, Nazma Khan has gained many Muslim and non-Muslim friends. Many of her Muslim followers are immigrants themselves, and have all experienced similar pains like her. Nazma has inspired many Muslim students to wear the Hijab.

World Hijab Day

In a message, she appealed to women across the world to wear the Hijab for just one day on February 1, 2013, to support the personal freedom to wear clothing of one’s own choice.

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I have listed and described the names of some common clothing worn by the Muslim women – from the least to the most conservative such as the Hijab, Khimar, Shayla, Abaya, Chador, Niqab, Yashmak, and Burqa, in my post titled, “A Muslim Woman’s Veil.

Jess Rhodes, 21, a student from Norwich in the UK with and without her Hijab (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Jess Rhodes, 21, a student from Norwich in the UK with and without her Hijab (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Even though there is no basis for celebrating World Hijab Day, Muslims in more than 50 countries of the world celebrated the day on February 1, 2013. However, there are detractors too among Muslims who are against celebrating the so-called World Hijab Day. Umm Ibrahim (https://www.facebook.com/umm.ibrahim.56) living in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, vehemently says:

✦ Please know there is no BASIS for Hijab Day, Mother’s Day, etc etc. Neither the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) nor his sahabah and none from the pious predecessors ever celebrated such stuff! Our scholars have warned us clearly against innovated festivals/occasions. Muslims should avoid initiating or encouraging innovated occasions in imitation to those of the kuffar, such as Mothers’s Day, the day of the Earth, etc!

✦ DAWAH starts with TAWHEED not HIJAB! Hadith of Mu’adh, when Allah’s Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) sent him to Yemen, he said, “O Mu’adh, you aer going to a nation from the People of the Book, so let the first thing to which you will invite them, be the TAWHEED OF ALLAH.” (Saheeh Bukhari (book 93, no 469)

✦ This is making fun of Hijab by asking support of non-muslims to wear for a day! Allah alone is sufficient for us. More reward for sisters who are struggling more to continue their hijab in west! IF possible, migrate from their lands which ban/mock Islam. Otherwise, just stay firm and be sincere and ask Allah to help. We know many sisters who wear Niqab in the West, Alhamdulillah! So, in future do we expect World NIQAB DAY, too?

✦ Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam), who said: “I urge you to adhere to my way (Sunnah) and the way of the rightly-guided successors (al-khulafa’ al-raashidoon) who come after me. Hold fast to it and bite onto it with your eyeteeth [i.e., cling firmly to it], and beware of newly-invented matters.”

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This is Communal Harmony in My Beloved India


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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United We StandTHIS IS MY BELOVED INDIA!

Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis …

” And peace on Earth to people of good will …”

This is India - Merry Christmas!

This is India – Merry Christmas!

I came across the above fabulous photo on the internet. Do you like it? What message does it convey?

Here is a collection of photographs I came across while surfing the net. 

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The vow of Hindu-Muslim unity

Talking about communal harmony on April 8, 1919, Mahatma Gandhi said:

“If the Hindu-Muslim communities could be united in one bond of mutual friendship and if each could act towards the other as children of the same mother, it would be a consumation devoutely to be wished. But before this unity becomes a reality, both the communities will have to give up a good deal, and will have to make radical changes in ideas held herefore. Members of one community when talking about those of the other at times indulge in terms so vulgar that they but acerbate the relations between the two. In Hindu society we do not hesitate to indulge in unbecoming language when talking of the Mohomedans and vice-versa. Many believe that an ingrained and ineradicable animosity exists between the Hindus and
Mohomedans.

“When both are inspired by the spirit of sacrifice, when both try to do their duty towards one another instead of pressing their rights, then and then only would the long standing differences between the two communities cease. Each must respect the other’s religion, must refrain from even secretly thinking ill of the other. We must politely dissuade members of both communities from indulging in bad language against one another. Only a serious endeavour in this direction can remove the estrangement between us.” (25:201-202)

He made the members present take a vow as under:

“With God as witness we Hindus and Mohomedans declare that we shall behave towards one another as children of the same parents, that we shall have no differences, that the sorrows of each shall be the sorrows of the other and that each shall help the other in removing them. We shall respect each other’s religion and religious feelings and shall not stand in the way of our respective religious practices. We shall always refrain from violence to each other in the name of religion.”

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Prayer Beads: The Islamic Subha / Masbaha / Tasbih


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) proclaimed: “Worship is the pillar of religion.”

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Salat, or prayer, is one of the Five Pillars, or essential rites in Islam. Recited five times a day (at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset and nightfall), salat intersperses the rhythms of daily life with habitual opportunities to stand before The Almighty in entranced concentration.

Islamic Prayer Beads Tesbih Subha 99 Malachite

Islamic Prayer Beads Tesbih Subha 99 Malachite

Nowadays, many Muslims pray with prayer beads as a device to keep track of the words of dhikr (remembrance of Allah) they repeat while glorifying Allah.

Muslims probably gained the concept of prayer beads from India. When this happened, however, is uncertain. However, scholars admit that the use of prayer beads originated with the Hindus in ancient India, and the Hindu or Buddhist mala is the great mother of rosaries. From India and the Himalayan kingdoms, the prayer beads traveled west to Africa and Europe, where it evolved into the Islamic Subha, the Christian Rosary, the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope, and the secular worry beads used throughout Greece and the Middle East.

In India, a strand of Islamic prayer beads is known as Subha (Arabic: سبحا) derived from the Arabic phrase Subhan’Allāh (Arabic سبحان الله) meaning “Glory to Allah.” It is also known as Masbaha (Arabic: مسبحة) or Tasbih (تسبيح).

Subha may vary in style or decorative embellishments ranging from cheap mass-produced prayer beads, to those made with expensive materials and high-quality workmanship.

Subha beads are most often made of spherical glass, wood, plastic, amber, or gemstone. The cord is usually cotton or silk.

Subha may have either 33 beads, or 99 beads separated by flat disks into three groups of 33. There is often a larger, leader bead and a tassel at one end to mark the starting point of recitations.

The believers touch one bead at a time while reciting words of dhikr which are often the 99 names of Allah (Arabic: أسماء الله الحسنى‎ ʾasmāʾ allāh al-ḥusnā),  which help the believers in their communion with Allah.

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At times the believers repeat phrases which express reverence, complete submission and gratitude to Allah. Following are the most used phrases, each repeated 33 times:

Subhan’Allāh (Arabic سبحان الله) meaning “Glory to Allah
Alhamdulillah (Arabic: الحمد لله‎) meaning “Praise be to Allah
Allāhu Akbar (Arabic: الله أكبر) meaning “Allah is Great”

At the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Muslims did not use prayer beads as a tool during personal prayer, but may have used date pits or pebbles. Caliph Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) used a Subha similar to modern ones. The widespread manufacture and use of Subha began about 600 years ago.

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Prayer Beads in Major Religions


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj .

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In many major religions and cultures, the device most used to help devotees to pray and meditate is the strand of prayer beads. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population meditate or pray with beads.

Hindu/Buddhist 108-bead mala of  jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.

Hindu/Buddhist 108-bead mala of jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.

Many scholars admit that the use of prayer beads originated with the Hindus in ancient India,and the Hindu or Buddhist mala is the great mother of rosaries. From India and the Himalayan kingdoms, the prayer beads traveled east to China and Japan, and to the west to Africa and Europe, where it evolved into the Islamic Subha, the Christian rosary, the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope, and the secular worry beads used throughout Greece and the Middle East.

Catholic Rosary

Roman Catholic Rosary

Traditionally, the prayer beads have consisted of strings of similarly sized beads, seeds, knots, or even rose petals and beads made from crushed roses, from which we get the word “rosary.” In Latin the term “rosarium” means ‘crown of roses’ or ‘garland of roses.’ The Roman Catholics sometimes write the word ‘rosary’ with an initial capital as ‘Rosary.’

Since counting prayers were initially so important, each religion embracing the use of prayer beads developed its own symbolic structure to follow. In addition to helping keep one’s place in structured prayers, the prayer beads also symbolize the commitment to spiritual life. With its circular form, a string of beads represents the interconnectedness of all who pray.

Common to many strands of prayer beads is the number nine. Greatest of the single-digit numerals, nine symbolizes completion. Where the numbers do not add up to nine, they are often divisible by three, symbolic of the trinity in Hinduism (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva), the three central concepts of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and the trinity in Christianity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).

In addition to their use in the religious rituals of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, the prayer beads find a place in the spiritual practices of cultures as diverse as the African Masai, Native Americans, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy.

Eastern-Orthodox Prayer Rope

Eastern-Orthodox Prayer Rope

Many similar prayer practices exist in various other Christian communities, each with its own set of prescribed prayers and its own form of prayer beads or prayer rope. These other devotions and their associated beads are usually called “chaplets”. The rosary is sometimes used by other Christians, especially in Lutheranism, the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Church.

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Hindu Muslim Bhai Bhai


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Krishna Janmashtami - 2

Today, while Hindus all over the world are celebrating Krishna Janmashtami, I was flipping through my vast collection of photographs harvested from the World Wide Web. I came across photographs that heartened my soul with love for my country where my Hindu and Muslim brethren coexist as a closely knit family.

THIS IS MY BELOVED INDIA!

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Sawm Ramadan


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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May this Ramadan bring you the utmost in peace now and during prosperity. May light triumph over darkness.

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Ramadan (Arabic: رمضان‎ Ramaḍān), the ninth month of the Islāmic calendar, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Though not mentioned in the Quran, but summarized in the famous hadith of Gabriel are the Five Pillars of Islam (arkān-al-Islām أركان الإسلام; also arkān ad-dīn أركان الدين “pillars of the religion”) which are the foundation of Muslim life – five basic acts in Islam, considered obligatory by believers. They are:

  1. Shahadah (belief or confession of faith – Muslim life)
  2. Salat (worship in the form of prayer)
  3. Sawm Ramadan (self purification by fasting during the month of Ramadan)
  4. Zakat (alms or charitable giving or concern for the needy)
  5. Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime)

Annually, Muslims, worldwide, observe self purification by fasting during the month of Ramadan which lasts 29–30 days based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon.

The word Ramadan derived from the Arabic root ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ, means “scorching heat” or “dryness.” It is “obligatory” for adult Muslims to fast, except those who are ill, diabetic, traveling, pregnant, breastfeeding, or during menstrual bleeding.

The Quran states:

The month of Ramadan is that in which the Quran was revealed, a guidance to men and clear proofs of the guidance and the distinction; therefore whoever of you is present in the month, he shall fast therein, and whoever is sick or upon a journey, then (he shall fast) a (like) number of other days; Allah desires ease for you, and He does not desire for you difficulty, and (He desires) that you should complete the number and that you should exalt the greatness of Allah for His having guided you and that you may give thanks. [Quran 2:185]

Wall Street Bull

Wall Street Bull (Photo: V.A. Subas Raj)

Bowling Green is a small public park in Lower Manhattan at the foot of Broadway next to the site of the original Dutch fort of New Amsterdam. Built in 1733, originally including a bowling green, it is the oldest public park in New York City surrounded by its original 18th century fence. At its northern end is the Charging Bull sculpture, which is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull or the Bowling Green Bull.

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green - 1

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green  (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

Dhuhr (Noon) prayer in Bowling Green (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

Last year, while my wife and I were in New York, we saw a faithful Muslim in the Bowling Green at 1:23 pm unmindful of the blaring noise surrounding him, perseveringly reciting the Dhuhr (Noon) prayer. We were spellbound by his faith in God and his steadfast adherence to his religious duties.

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Maldives: 15-year-old Girl Raped by Stepfather Flogged for ‘Fornication’


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Maldives Queen of all islands

Maldives Queen of all islands

Every year, around 700,000 visitors from around the globe visit the Maldives, lured by its pristine beaches. However, this paradise nation has become increasingly conservative in recent years due to influence of more fundamental forms of Islam.

In the summer of 2012, in the remote Feydhoo island in the Maldives, a police investigation after finding the corpse of a baby buried beneath an outdoor shower area outside the home of an unfortunate 15-year-old girl revealed that the teenager gave birth to her stepfather’s baby, which he allegedly killed and buried.

Feydhoo island, Maldives

Feydhoo island, Maldives

The teenager reportedly confessed to the police that apart from her stepfather she had consensual sex with another male. It is unclear whether the police has identified or charged this person. The police have charged the girl’s stepfather for raping her for years and murdering the baby she bore.

On February 25, 2013, a juvenile court in the Maldives, instead of sympathizing with the plight of the 15-year-old girl, has found her guilty of having “sex outside marriage.” The Court sentenced her to spend eight months under house arrest and to receive 100 lashes according to the Sharia Law when she turns 18, unless she requests it earlier.

This incident has triggered widespread worldwide condemnation. 

Under the current laws of the Maldives, pre-marital sex is a crime and those found guilty are often flogged. Flogging as a punishment for this ‘crime’ directly violates international law, which completely prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments. Yet, flogging remains all too common in the Maldives. In 2009, the courts sentenced over 180 people for flogging for the ‘crime’ of fornication. Almost 90 per cent of them were women.

However, under the international human rights laws and standards, to which the Maldives is a signatory, ‘fornication’ is not a recognised offence and member states must not criminalize or punish young people who engage in consensual sexual activity, or are victims of abuse.

While visiting the country in 2011, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navi Pillay called flogging “one of the most inhumane and degrading forms of violence against women” and she requested the Maldives to stop this barbaric practice.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said: “The girl is already a victim and is traumatized. The authorities should be trying to protect her, not punish her.”

Mohammed Waheed Hassan, President of Maldives

Mohammed Waheed Hassan, President of Maldives

President Mohammed Waheed Hassan of the Maldives is already feeling global pressure. The president’s office has released a statement saying that the girl is a victim to be protected and not punished by the government. A government spokesperson has also said that the Maldives are considering changing the law.

The Amnesty International UK / Blogs says:

If one good thing could come out of this case, it is that the international outrage prompted by this girl’s story and focus on the darker side of life in this seemingly idyllic holiday destination will convince the authorities to end the practice of flogging and decriminalise consensual sexual activity.

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Saudi Preacher Who Raped and Tortured Daughter to Death Spared After Paying “Blood Money”


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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According to Islāmic laws a father cannot be executed for murdering his children, nor can husbands be executed for murdering their wives.

A Saudi money exchanger counts Saudi riyals in Riyadh

Blood Money

Fayhan al-Ghamdii, raped his five-year-old daughter Lamia al-Ghamdi for a prolonged period and tortured her. The little girl admitted to a hospital on December 25, 2011 with multiple injuries, including a crushed skull, broken ribs and extensive bruises and burns eventually died after ten months on October 22, 2012.

The authorities imprisoned Fayhan al-Ghamdii, a Saudi Islāmic preacher and a regular guest on Muslim television networks. He confessed to this monstrosity of having used cables and a cane to inflict the injuries, the activists from the group “Women to Drive,” said in a statement.

However, he was in prison just for a few months. In a cruel twist of Islāmic justice, the judge ruled the prosecution could only seek “blood money (compensation for the next of kin under Islāmic law),” and the time the defendant had served in prison since the little girl’s death suffices as punishment. According to Islāmic laws a father cannot be executed for murdering his children, nor can husbands be executed for murdering their wives.

The authorities released Fayan after he paid about $48,000 as “blood money.”

A few years ago, some clerics in a mosque took this monster Fayhan al-Ghamdii, a drug addict, under their wing. They even helped pay for his marriage with Sayeda Hamadari. After a while, unable to cope with his cruelty and violence his wife asked for divorce. Sayeda agreed to allow her estranged husband to see their daughter could periodically.

During one of the daughter’s visits, Fayan requested the mother to allow him to keep their daughter for a fortnight because he wanted her to become used to his ‘presence in her life.’. The mother consented. During those two weeks, Fayan subjected the five-year-old girl to all types of cruelty and torture including beating and blows to her head that resulted in multiple fractures, mutilation, and even cauterized her. The little girl’s mother said that hospital staff told her that the “child’s rectum had been torn open, and the abuser had attempted to burn (cauterize) it closed.”

When asked why he had tortured his daughter to death, the sick minded father said he suspected the conduct of his daughter and doubted her virginity.

Sayeda Hamadari, the girl’s mother, now divorced from the cleric wanted her former husband’s death. “I want him killed. I want the full Islāmic punishment. This is God’s law,” she said.

Members of the Saudi Arabia’s Royal Family are now believed to have blocked Fayhan al-Ghamdii’s release after the case attracted international attention, and have promised to uphold a stronger sentence.

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“The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation” by Abigail Haworth


In 2006, while in Indonesia and six months pregnant, Abigail Haworth became one of the few journalists ever to see young girls being ‘circumcised’. Until now she has been unable to tell this shocking story.

By Abigail Haworth

female circumcision

Midwives wait for the next girl to be brought in for circumcision in Bandung, Indonesia. Photograph: Stephanie Sinclair / VII

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It’s 9.30am on a Sunday, and the mood inside the school building in Bandung, Indonesia, is festive. Mothers in headscarves and bright lipstick chat and eat coconut cakes. Javanese music thumps from an assembly hall. There are 400 people crammed into the primary school’s ground floor. It’s hot, noisy and chaotic, and almost everyone is smiling.

Twelve-year-old Suminah is not. She looks like she wants to punch somebody. Under her white hijab, which she has yanked down over her brow like a hoodie, her eyes have the livid, bewildered expression of a child who has been wronged by people she trusted. She sits on a plastic chair, swatting away her mother’s efforts to placate her with a party cup of milk and a biscuit. Suminah is in severe pain. An hour earlier, her genitals were mutilated with scissors as she lay on a school desk.

During the morning, 248 Indonesian girls undergo the same ordeal. Suminah is the oldest, the youngest is just five months. It is April 2006 and the occasion is a mass ceremony to perform sunat perempuan or “female circumcision” that has been held annually since 1958 by the Bandung-based Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation that runs a mosque and several schools. The foundation holds the event in the lunar month of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and pays parents 80,000 rupiah (£6) and a bag of food for each daughter they bring to be cut.

It is well established that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not required in Muslim law. It is an ancient cultural practice that existed before Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is also agreed across large swathes of the world that it is barbaric. At the mass ceremony, I ask the foundation’s social welfare secretary, Lukman Hakim, why they do it. His answer not only predates the dawn of religion, it predates human evolution: “It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges,” says Hakim, a stern, bespectacled man in a fez. “They must be chaste to preserve their beauty.”

I have not written about the 2006 mass ceremony until now. I went there with an Indonesian activist organisation that worked within communities to eradicate FGM. Their job was difficult and highly sensitive. Afterwards, in fraught exchanges with the organisation’s staff, it emerged that it was impossible for me to write a journalistic account of the event for the western media without compromising their efforts. It would destroy the trust they had forged with local leaders, the activists argued, and jeopardise their access to the people they needed to reach. I shelved my article; to sabotage the people working on the ground to stop the abuse would defeat the purpose of whatever I wrote. Such is the tricky partnership of journalism and activism at times.

Yet far from scaling down, the problem of FGM in Indonesia has escalated sharply. The mass ceremonies in Bandung have grown bigger and more popular every year. This year, the gathering took place in February. Hundreds of girls were cut. The Assalaam foundation’s website described it as “a celebration”. Anti-FGM campaigners have proved ineffective against a rising tide of conservatism. Today, the issue is more that I can’t not write about that day.

By geopolitical standards, modern Indonesia is an Asian superstar. The world’s fourth-largest country and most populous Muslim nation of 240 million people, it is beloved by foreign investors for its buoyant economy and stable democracy. It is feted as a model of tolerant Islam. Last month, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited London to receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen in recognition of Indonesia’s “remarkable transformation”. Yet, as befitting an archipelago of 17,000 islands, it’s a complicated place, too. Corruption and superstition often rule by stealth. Patriarchy runs deep. Abortion is illegal, and hardline edicts controlling what women wear and do are steadily creeping into local by-laws.

Although Indonesia is not a country where FGM is widely reported, the practice is endemic. Two nationwide studies carried out by population researchers in 2003 and 2010 found that between 86 and 100% of households surveyed subjected their daughters to genital cutting, usually before the age of five. More than 90% of adults said they wanted the practice to continue.

In late 2006, a breakthrough towards ending FGM in Indonesia occurred when the Ministry of Health banned doctors from performing it on the grounds that it was “potentially harmful”. The authorities, however, did not enforce the ruling. Hospitals continued to offer sunat perempuan for baby girls, often as part of discount birth packages that also included vaccinations and ear piercing. In the countryside, it was performed mainly by traditional midwives – women thought to have shamanic healing skills known as dukun – as it had been for centuries. The Indonesian method commonly involves cutting off part of the hood and/or tip of the clitoris with scissors, a blade or a piece of sharpened bamboo.

Last year, the situation regressed further. In early 2011, Indonesia’s parliament effectively reversed the ban on FGM by approving guidelines for trained doctors on how to perform it. The rationale was that, since the ban had failed, issuing guidelines would “safeguard the female reproductive system”, officials said. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama, also issued an edict telling its 30 million followers that it approved of female genital cutting, but that doctors “should not cut too much”.

The combined effect was to legitimise the practice all over again.

It is impossible to second-guess what kind of place holds mass ceremonies to mutilate girl children, with the aim of forever curbing their sexual pleasure. Bandung is Indonesia’s third largest city, 180km east of the capital Jakarta. I had been there twice before my visit in 2006. It was like any provincial hub in booming southeast Asia: a cheerful, frenzied collision of homespun commerce and cut-price globalisation. Cheap jeans and T-shirts spilled out of shops. On the roof of a factory outlet there was a giant model of Spider-Man doing the splits.

Bandung’s rampant commercialism had also reinvigorated its moral extremists. While most of Indonesia’s 214 million Muslims are moderate, the 1998 fall of the Suharto regime had seen the resurgence of radical strains of Islam. Local clerics were condemning the city’s “western-style spiritual pollution”. Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline vigilante group, were smashing up nightclubs and harassing unmarried couples.

The stricter moral climate had a devastating effect on efforts to eradicate FGM. The Qur’an does not mention the practice, and it is outlawed in most Islamic countries. Yet leading Indonesian clerics were growing ever more insistent that it was a sacred duty.

A week before I attended the Assalaam foundation’s khitanan massal or mass circumcision ceremony, the chairman of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the nation’s most powerful council of Islamic leaders, issued this statement: “Circumcision is a requirement for every Muslim woman,” said Amidhan, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name. “It not only cleans the filth from her genitals, it also contributes to a girl’s growth.”

It was early, before 8am, when we arrived at a school painted hospital green in a Bandung suburb on the day of the ceremony. Women and girls clad in long tunics were lining up outside to register. It was a female-only affair (men and boys had their own circumcision gathering upstairs), and the mood was relaxed and sisterly. From their sun-lined faces and battered sandals, some of the mothers looked quite poor – poor enough, possibly, to make the foundation’s 80,000 rupiah cash handout as much of an enticement as the promise of spiritual purity.

Inside, I was greeted by Hdjella, 57, a teacher and midwife who would supervise the cutting. She was wearing a pink floral apron with a frilly pocket. She had been a traditional midwife for 32 years, she said, although, like most dukun, she had no formal training.

“Boy or girl?” she asked me, brightly. I was almost six months pregnant at the time.

“Boy,” I told her.

“Praise Allah.”

Hdjella insisted that the form of FGM they practised is “helpful to girls’ health”. She explained that they clean the genitals and then use sterilised scissors to cut off part of the hood, or prepuce, and the tip of the clitoris.

“How is this helpful to girls’ health?” I asked. “It balances their emotions so they don’t get sexually over-stimulated,” she said, enunciating in schoolmistress fashion. “It also helps them to urinate more easily and reduces the bad smell.”

Any other benefits? “Oh yes,” she said, with a tinkling laugh. “My grandmother always said that circumcised women cook more delicious rice.”

FGM in Indonesia is laden with superstition and confusion. A common myth is that it is largely “symbolic”, involving no genital damage. A study published in 2010 by Yarsi University in Jakarta found this is true only rarely, in a few animist communities where the ritual involves rubbing the clitoris with turmeric or bamboo. While Indonesia doesn’t practise the severest forms of mutilation found in parts of Africa and the Middle East, such as infibulation (removing the clitoris and labia and sewing up the genital area) or complete clitoral excision, the study found the Indonesian procedure “involves pain and actual cutting of the clitoris” in more than 80% of cases.

Hdjella took me to the classroom where the cutting would soon begin. The curtains were closed. Desks had been covered in sheets and towels to form about eight beds. Around each one, three middle-aged women wearing headscarves waited in readiness. Their faces were lit from underneath by cheap desk lamps, giving them a ghoulish glow. There were children’s drawings and multiplication tables on the walls.

The room filled up with noise and people. Girls started to cry and protest as soon as their mothers hustled them inside. Rapidly, the mood turned business-like. “We have many girls to circumcise this morning, about 300,” Hdjella shouted above the escalating din. As children were hoisted on to desks I realised with a jolt: this is an assembly line.

Hdjella led me to a four-year-old girl who was lying down. As the girl squirmed, two midwives put their faces close to hers. They smiled at her, making soft noises, but their hands took an arm and a leg each in a claw-like grip. “Look, look,” Hdjella commanded, as a third woman leant in and steadily snipped off part of the girl’s clitoris with what looked like a pair of nail scissors. “It’s nothing, you see? There is not much blood. All done!” The girl’s scream was a long guttural rattle, which got louder as the midwife dabbed at her genitals with antiseptic.

In the dingy, crowded room, her cries merged with the sobs and screeches of other girls lying on desks, the grating sing-song clucking of the midwives, the surreally casual conversational hum of waiting mothers. There was no air.

Outside in the courtyard, the festive atmosphere grew as girls and their mothers emerged from the classroom. There were snacks and music, and later, prayers.

Ety, 40, was elated. She had brought her two daughters, aged seven and three, to be cut. “I want them to be teachers. Being circumcised will bring them good luck,” she said. Ety was a farmer who came from a village outside Bandung. “Daughters should be pure and obey their parents.”

Neng Apip, 28, was smiling radiantly. She said she was happy her newly cut daughter Rima would now grow up into “a good Muslim girl”. Rima, whose enormous brown eyes were oozing tears, was nine months old. Apip kissed her and gave her a rice cracker to suck. “Shh, shh, all better now,” she cooed.

Tradition is usually about remembering. In the case of FGM in Indonesia it seems to be a cycle of forgetting. The act of cutting is a hidden business perpetrated by mothers and midwives, nearly all of whom underwent FGM themselves as young children. The women I met had little memory of being cut, so they had few qualms about subjecting their daughters to the same fate. “It’s just what we do,” I heard over and over again.

When the pain subsides, it is far from all better. The girls in the classroom don’t know that removing part of their clitoris not only endangers their health but reflects deep-rooted attitudes that women do not have the right to control their own sexuality. The physical risks alone include infection, haemorrhage, scarring, urinary and reproductive problems, and death. When Yarsi University researchers interviewed girls aged 15-18 for their 2010 study, they found many were traumatised when they learned their genitals had been cut during childhood. They experienced problems such as depression, self-loathing, loss of interest in sex and a compulsive need to urinate.

I saw my interpreter, Widiana, speaking to Suminah, the 12-year-old who was the oldest girl there, and went to join them. Suminah said she didn’t want to come. “I was shaking and crying last night. I was so scared I couldn’t sleep.” It was a “very bad, sharp pain” when she was cut, she said, and she still felt sore and angry. Widiana asked what she planned to do in the evening. “We will have a special meal at home and then read the Qur’an,” said Suminah. “Then I will listen to my Britney Spears CD.”

Back in Jakarta, an Indonesian friend, Rino, agreed to help me find out about the newborn-girl “package deals” at city hospitals. Rino phoned around Jakarta’s hospitals. They told him he must see a doctor to discuss the matter. So we decided that is what we would do: since I was visibly pregnant, we’d visit the hospitals as husband and wife expecting our first baby. (“It’s not necessary to bring your wife,” Rino was told repeatedly when he rang back to book the appointments.)

We visited seven hospitals chosen at random. Only one, Hermina, a specialist maternity hospital, said it did not perform sunat perempuan. The other six all gave package prices, varying from 300,000 rupiah to 550,000 rupiah (£20-£36), for infant vaccinations, ear piercing and genital cutting within two months of birth.

Interestingly, the only doctor who argued against the procedure was a female gynaecologist from the largest Islamic government hospital, the Rumah Sakit Islam Jakarta. “You can have it done here if you wish,” the doctor said with a sigh. “But I don’t recommend it. It’s not mandatory in Islam. It’s painful and it’s a great pity for girls.”

Last month I spoke to Andy Yentriyani, a commissioner at Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women. Yentriyani told me the problem is now worse than ever. Since the government’s guidelines on FGM came into effect last year, more hospitals have started offering the procedure.

“Doctors see the guidelines as a licence to make money,” she says. “Hospitals are even offering female circumcision in parts of Sumatra where there has never been a strong tradition of cutting girls.”

“They are creating new demand purely for profit?”

“Yes. They’re including it in birth packages. People don’t really understand what they’re signing up for.” Nor do some medical staff, she adds. The new guidelines say doctors should “make a small cut on the frontal part of the clitoris, without harming the clitoris”. But Yentriyani says that most doctors are trained only in male circumcision, so they follow the same principle of slicing off flesh.

Moreover, according to The Jakarta Post, the guidelines were rushed through partly in response to the deaths of several infant girls from botched FGM procedures at hospitals.

Likewise, Yentriyani says, the recent endorsement of FGM by some Islamic leaders has vindicated those carrying out mass cutting ceremonies, such as the Assalaam foundation. “Women are caught in a power struggle between religion and state as Indonesia finds a new identity,” the activist explains. “Clamping down on morality, enforcing chastity, returning to so-called traditions such as female circumcision – these things help religious leaders to win hearts and minds.”

Yentriyani and other Indonesian supporters of women’s rights believe FGM can never be justified as a religious or cultural tradition. “Our government and religious leaders must condemn it outright as an act of violence, otherwise it will never end,” she says. Her view is supported by organisations such as Amnesty International, which has called on Indonesia to repeal its guidelines allowing FGM. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also weighed in, saying in February this year that, although many cultural traditions must be respected, female genital cutting is not one of them. “It is, plain and simply, a human rights violation,” Clinton declared.

Suminah will be 18 now; a grown woman. She could well be married, or at least betrothed. Soon enough she will probably have her own kids. I hope she’s forgotten her pain, but held on to her rage.

Reproduced from The Observer, Saturday 17 November 2012

 

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