“I realised I can’t make a living writing for Muslims, so part of this challenge is to get them to read,” quipped Ziauddin Sardar when recently speaking at the launch of the first issue of Critical Muslim, a new quarterly magazine published by Hurst. Conceived by the Muslim Institute – an organisation whose aim is to promote frank and balanced debate on issues that animate Muslims the world over – this publication seeks to challenge the orthodoxy, and encourage a re-examination of ideas about Islam held by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
The panel for the evening at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) comprised Sardar, a prolific author and expert on Islam, novelist and journalist Robin Yassin-Kassab, short-story writer Aamer Hussein and Pakistani journalist Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, all of whom have contributed to the magazine. Their own backgrounds hint at the variety of its content, which includes biting political analysis, poetry, short-stories, literary and arts reviews, photography and travel writing.
Ahmad spoke about how reportage, today, has become something rather “ephemeral” and investigative journalism, largely, a thing of the past. The team behind Critical Muslim want to counter that tendency, and allow their journalists to really immerse themselves in their stories, in the vein of Seymour Hersh on Abu Ghraib or John Hersey, with his groundbreaking account of the bombing of Hiroshima. Ahmad will head to Peshawar later this year, and write a profile of it to set the record straight after John Simpson described the bustling metropolis of 3.5 million people as “a dusty old town.”
The desire to take charge extends to all aspects of the Critical Muslim project. “People think that simply by being good Muslims or enforcing sharia all our problems will be solved. But our problems are not only theological but also contemporary,” said Sardar when outlining the importance of ijtihad; this is the periodic reinterpretation of Islam in the context of present times by all sections of society, to prevent its ossification into outmoded dogma – something Sardar hopes this magazine will encourage in its readers.
It also caters to such a wide cross-section of interests because in the Muslim world, explained Yassin-Kassab, the arts are less likely to be compartmentalised; poetry, for instance, has been the medium for philosophy, religion and political thought. During the Arab Spring, artists have played a leading role: it was the grilling on national TV of Ahmed Shafik by novelist Alaa Al Aswany that forced the Egyptian Prime Minister’s resignation; Fadwa Sulayman, a Syrian actress and an Alawite, led protests in Homs last year; the demonstrators in Egypt graffitied the streets with the inspirational poetry of Ahmed Fouad Negm; and Ali Ferzat, one of the Arab world’s best-known cartoonists had both his hands broken by security forces for satirising Assad. “They highlight the important role of the collective and individual imagination for critiquing the present and shaping the future,” said Yassin-Kassab before he read a poem on the topic by the Iraqi poet Ahmed Saadwi, which will appear in the second issue.
Aamer Hussein took the stage to read an extract from his short-story The Man From Beni Mora, very effectively demonstrating that ‘Muslim’ and ‘universal’ are not mutually exclusive; it’s a philosophical and lyrical piece based on the reflections of a man watching a film on late-night TV that features a dialogue between a sceptic and a believer.
The panel also took questions from the audience, many of which centred around concerns that the magazine reach as wide an audience as possible – women, young people and non-Muslims included – and leave nothing off the discussion table. Sardar reassured everyone that it would not end up being ‘by Muslims, for Muslims’ or as he put it, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to turn this into a Muslim ghetto.”
© Radha Spratt