Muslims should speak out more against those who
commit terrorism against civilians in the name of Islam, says a man who embraced the faith
in Toronto and went on to become a leading Muslim scholar.
Bilal Philips, born in Jamaica and once a Marxist activist in British Columbia and Ontario, also said in an interview in Brossard about two weeks ago that Muslims in Canada should be working harder to free their religion from divisions many have imported to Canada from various countries of origin.
Philips, 50, based in the Middle East since 1974 and currently teaching introductory courses and Arabic at the American University in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, was in town to give a six-day course at the Mosque as-Salaam in downtown Montreal to kick off the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
In his second such trip to Montreal, Philips also spoke at several other mosques in the Montreal area. He's gone on to Britain to tape some lectures with another prominent convert to Islam: Yusuf Islam, who was known as Cat Stevens in his days as a pop musician.
Philips said the six-days course was attended by
young people in their teens and 20s, about two-thirds immigrants and the rest converts.
About 100 people attended regularly, he said, and as many again drifted in and out during
The course was devoted largely to trying to sort out genuine Islamic culture from practices he considers to be falsely associated with it.
In part, Philips was seeking to discourage a tendency for Muslims in North America to divide on ethnic lines according to country of origin. Now that the Muslim communities in places like Montreal have reached a size where mosques proliferate, Philips and other Muslims have noticed, with regret, that there is some tendency for Muslims from different parts of the world to gravitate to different mosques.
Philips was also seeking to dissociate Islam from abuses he believes are sometimes, wrongly, linked to it.
In his view, for example, the sort of terrorism recently practiced against civilian tourists and Copts in Egypt by terrorists and many of the actions of the Iraqi "tyrant" Saddam Hussein are abhorrent to Islam.
He said violence between military forces is one thing but there is nothing in Muslim teachings that warrants violence that targets civilians. Muslims in western countries can be criticized for not speaking out more clearly on this, he said.
"Silence is consent", he said, using a phrase he may have picked up during his pre-Muslim days as a political activist.
Excision of any great part of girls' genitalia, as practiced in some cultures, is also forbidden, he said. Religious clitorectomy is nowhere required by Islam and is not practiced by the vast majority of the world's Muslims. In areas where clitorectomy exists, he said, the practice pre-dated the arrival of Islam and is also practiced by local people of other faiths.
Philips said there is a teaching of Mohammed to the effect that, if clitorectomy is carried out it should be confined to a small piece from tip of clitoris. Philips said this scarring would have little effect on sexual activity and could be compared to male circumcision.
But Philips said it is "justified and legitimate" to outlaw clitorectomy altogether, as Egypt did recently.
His view of polygamy is much the same. It is not required by Islam and, while permitted by the faith, is subject to such restrictions that only 12 or 13 per cent of Muslim men have more than one wife in countries where the secular authorities permit it.
"If you are going to have more than one wife you must have the means to support more than one household. This isn't having a wife and a mistress."
There are, however, some Muslim practices that may go against the grain of many people with western values but that Philips thinks are very much part of Islam.
He is not one of those Muslims who think that Muslim women can properly neglect to cover their heads. His studies have persuaded him that Islamic scriptures and other writings clearly require women to keep their bodies covered in public, except for their faces and hands. He said wearing hijab, or head scarf, is spreading even in Muslim societies where it was formerly rare. He sees no reason why western societies, which welcomed the even stricter traditional garb of Roman Catholic nuns not long ago, should object to the hijab.
In Philips' view, the influence of western culture, a move away from Islam in general a few decades ago, the association in many minds of the hijab with the oppression of women and ignorance of the Muslim scriptures may be among factors that caused widespread neglect of this requirement in some Muslim cultures.
And, while some of the women who wear the hijab may be bowing to social pressure, hundreds of women in countries like the United States freely accept the hijab as they embrace Islam, he said.
He said his own wife, who embraced Islam in Toronto shortly after he did, found she was treated with more respect when she adopted the hijab - more likely, for example, to be offered seats by other passengers on Toronto transit vehicles. She was also occasionally mistaken for a Catholic nun.
Their daughter recently graduated from the University of Toronto in computer science and married a fellow student, a Muslim whose family is from Pakistan. Philips admits to wishing that more Muslims would ignore divisions among them in this fashion.
Philips said that some non-Muslim feminists have
been moving somewhat closer to Muslim women on the issues, attacking the fashion industry
and personally switching to looser-fitting clothes.
"What the veil is supposed to denote is that you have adapted a chaste life," he said, "one where virginity is of consequence and promiscuity is not the order of the day."
In his view, the widespread acceptance of "fornication" in western society is largely responsible for the repugnance many western people have toward the idea of the lash as a penalty for fornication.
Such a penalty, he said, seems less inappropriate "in a society where chastity is at a premium and where people, men and women, are raised and marry as virgins - and I'm not saying every Muslim man and woman is a virgin until marriage."
He said the fact that Muslim law also requires the act of adultery to have been witnessed by four people means that the penalty is seldom applied.
"But it's on the books as a deterrent. It causes people to think twice."
Much the same is true of the penalty of amputation for theft, he said. The restrictions on the use of this penalty mean that in countries where it is in force it is applied only to people who have taken up thievery as a profession not to someone who may have yielded to temptation in one particular incident.
Born in Jamaica, Philips moved to Canada with his parents in the 1950s and grew up in Toronto; he and his parents "when to church like everybody else."
During his university days, when he studied biochemistry at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, he was a political activist, and pretty well accepted Marx's dictum that religion is the opiate of the people.
"But the concept of God is still there. No matter how far one may get into a atheistic philosophy, there is a vacuum there and eventually you turn back to God or fill it with sometime else: material things, sports, music or other things. People try to fill that vacuum."
Philips "reached a point of frustration" at a time the Marxist movement in Canada and the United States didn't seem to be going anywhere. Communism, he said, promised that everything would change after the revolution but seemed to have little guidance to offer the individual in the here and now.
A good friend and former fellow-activist embraced
Islam and Philips started reading about the faith himself. He accepted Islam in Toronto in
I neglected to ask when he adopted the first name Bilal; Philips is his original surname. (Muslim tradition has it that Bilal ibn Rabaah was a companion of the Prophet Mohammed. Of African origin, Bilal was born to a woman in bondage called Rabaah and was freed from slavery by Abu Bakr, another companion of the Prophet and the first leader of Islam after the Prophet's death.)
Two years later Philips was in Saudi Arabia, where he learned Arabic and earned a bachelor's degree in Islamic studies from the University of Medina and a master's degree from the University of Riyad. He earned a doctorate in Islamic Theology in 1994 at the University of Wales.
Philips has written more than 20 books on Islam. He has been in the Emirates for four years, where in addition to his university teaching activities he directs an Islamic-information centre and is in charge of the department of foreign literature at an Islamic publishing house.
A Montreal admirer describes him as "perhaps the most popular Muslim English writer of this day and one of the most sought-after Islamic lecturers."
If you want to know more about what Philips has been up to, I discovered after the interview that he's on the Web. His home page address: http://www.islaam.com/bp/index.html