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January 2008 Archives

January 30, 2008 3:55 PM

About Islam's Advance

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This blog aims to challenge our perceptions of Islam as a monolithic and extremist creed, and to look for answers to some of the most important questions facing the world today: how is Islam adapting to the demands of the 21st century? What can the religion do to reform from within? And how do those tensions play themselves out in the lives of ordinary Muslims?

Over the next few months, I'll be traveling around Central Asia and the Middle East in search of answers to these questions. Starting in Afghanistan, I'll be talking to dozens of young Muslims about what their faith means to them, how to they see the world around them changing, and what their role in it will be.

Some of their voices will be quirky and idiosyncratic, others more reflective and steeped in tradition. Most must juggle the competing forces of family and modernity, sectarianism and a transnational creed, extremism and Western-style freedoms, corrupt governments and unfulfilled promises from the international community. A few have chosen to take on what they see as the evils threatening their communities at considerable personal risk.

Added together, I hope they will form a complex and composite picture of one of the world's great faiths in its struggle to change. This blog will seek out the men and women caught between these forces.

It's little wonder their response often takes radically different forms: the violent clashes between Shi'ite theocrats and Wahhabi Sheikhs, and the strange new synergies, such as Islamic feminism's rewording of the Koran, or property speculating mullahs in Mecca. Ultimately it's these individuals who will shape what Islam looks like in the century ahead.

As a reporter who began work in the Middle East shortly after September 11, I learned to see the region in terms of a great ideological battle between Islam and the West. During six years of reporting across the region, I've come face-to-face with the darker sides of Islamic extremism: suicide bombings, kidnappings and sectarian violence. I had only an occasional glimpse of the richer and multi-faceted world of engaged, passionate Muslims.

They are the subject of Islam's Advance. I hope you will join me in exploring their world, and adding your voices to their debate.

Jack Fairweather

January 30, 2008 6:42 PM

Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning

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The Shi’ite ritual of Ashura is one of the most extraordinary acts of devotion in the Islamic world. From the heart of the Shi’ite faith in Iran and southern Iraq, to the mountains of Lebanon, and the shores of Indonesia, millions of adherents mourn the murder of the prophet’s grandson, Hussein, 1300 years ago.

That seminal moment has split the Islamic world in two ever since, between the Shia, who claim Hussein and his descendants as the rightful rulers of the Muslim world, and the Sunni, who espoused the claims of the Caliph, or ruler, in Damascus.

For the first installment of Islam’s Advance, I want to take you into the heart of this ritual and explain what Ashura means today. Throughout the Shi’ite world, adherents express their mourning by beating themselves. In some regions this involves hitting one’s chest with a fist. Afghan Shi’ites practice one of the more extreme forms of Ashura, in which they use knives to flay their backs.

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