The playground stands bare and empty. Wind blows across the space where little children until recently chased, skipped and played. The gates of the first government-funded Muslim school in the UK were closed last week for two reasons: respect and caution.
Although thousands of miles away, the catastrophic impact of the attacks on the World Trade Centre (WTC) and the Pentagon reached and shook the neighbourhood of North London - unexpectedly. With reports linking the atrocity to Muslim groups, the parents and innocent children of Islamia Primary School have become possible targets of hate and harassment. Not for the first time: the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma also caused a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment a few years ago, even though later it was discovered to be the foul work of a home grown, disaffected American radical! But media speculation had already pointed the finger at Muslims and the Arab world, and that meant ordinary citizens of the USA and other Western countries became easy prey for anti-faith hooligans. Shame.
As chairman of the board which runs the small one-form primary school, I decided, in consultation with the teachers and parents alike, to shut the school for a few days, until the dust settles and people can see things a bit more clearly. But, sadly, as more evidence is uncovered, the latest horror to hit the United States allegedly looks to have been caused by people bearing Muslim names and of Middle Eastern origin. Again, shame. This fuels more hatred for a religion and a people, even small schoolchildren and teachers, who have nothing to do with the events being linked to them. This is why I felt it necessary to write and explain some basic facts about the reality of this noble way we call Islam before, God forbid, another bout of disaster occurs - aimed probably next time at the Muslim World.
Coming to Islam in my late twenties, during my searching period as a wandering pop-star, I found a religion that blended scientific reason with spiritual reality, a unifying faith. A faith far away from the headlines of violence, destruction and terrorism. After being given a gift of the Qur'an in 1976, I discovered something I never expected from a quarter I had been trained to avoid as a westerner - Islam. One of the first interesting things I learnt was that the word "Islam" itself comes from Peace or Salam. It was certainly easy to connect with that; after all didn't I once pen a song called "Peace Train"? Far from the kind of Turko-Arab-centric message I expected, the Qur'an presented a belief in the universal existence of God, one God for all. It does not discriminate against peoples; it says we maybe different colours and from different tribes, but we are all human and, as the Qur'an directly says, 'The best of people are the most God-conscious'.
Today, as a Muslim I have personally been shattered by the horror of recent events; the display of death and indiscriminate killing we've all witnessed has undoubtedly dented humanity's confidence in itself.
Terror on this scale affects everybody on this small planet of ours, and no one is free from the fallout. Yet we should remember, these type of events are already an everyday occurrence in some lands. It should not be exasperated by revenge attacks on more innocent families and communities. What we need is for the whole world to rally for justice, and not just revenge.
Along with most British Muslims, I feel it a duty to make clear that such orchestrated acts of incomprehensible carnage as these have nothing to do with Islam or the beliefs of most Muslims. The Qur'an that I read specifically declares, 'If anyone murders an (innocent) person...it will be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity. And if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity.' British Muslims feel nothing but sympathy for those families who lost loved ones. I know people who were directly involved in the tragedy a relative of our girls' school's headmistress survived the WTC tragedy: because she had just gone down to the 40th floor to grab a cup of coffee; even my own brother, David who lives in New Jersey himself was going to fly out from Newark last week. In that respect we all feel the same.
The Qur'an, which our young pupils learn at Islamia, does not teach them to live in a different world; rather it is full of stories and lessons from the history of humanity as a whole. The Gospel and Torah are referred to; Jesus and Abraham are mentioned, and in fact there is more mention in the Qur'an about the prophet Moses than any other. It acknowledges the coexistence of other faiths and in doing so acknowledges all cultures can live together in peace. It says, 'There is no compulsion in religion' - meaning once a person is of a certain faith there should be no compulsion for that person to change. Elsewhere it states, 'To you, your religion; to me mine'. So respect for religious values and justice is at the Qur'an's core. The Qur'anic history we teach provides ample examples of inter-religious and international relationships and of how to live together. But some extremists take elements of sacred scriptures in isolation, out of context. They act as individuals, when they can't come together as part of a political structure or consultative process. You find these dissident factions creating their own rules contrary to the spirit of the Qur1an. Radical fringe groups of any race, colour or religion who organise to threaten or kill innocent people of any country, disregarding God's boundaries of justice, are deplorable. Already history is filled with such figures who were responsible for countless deaths.
Once I wrote in a song, 'Where do the children play?' It is hoped that opening Islamia School's gates this week will herald a new day and a new dawn for children all over the world. Still our sympathy and thoughts go out to the families of all those who lost their lives in this utterly tragic act of violence as well as all those injured - but life must go on. All of our children still need to play. People need to live and learn more about their neighbours, not only in times of tragedy. Moderation is part of faith, so those who accuse Muslim Schools of fostering fanaticism should stop and learn a bit more about Islam and our schools. Nobody should argue that such lessons aren1t compulsory for Muslims as well.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, 'Ruined are those who insist on hardship in faith' and 'A believer remains within the scope of his religion as long as he doesn't kill another person illegally'. Such knowledge and words of guidance are desperately needed at this time to separate fact from falsehood; and to recognise the Last Prophet's own definition of that which makes a person representative, or otherwise, of the faith he lived and the one we try to teach.
copyright 2001 Mountain of Light/Yusuf Islam. Reprinted with permission from author.
"Playground Swings in Paramaribo Zoo" by Mark Ahsmann - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Playground_Swings_in_Paramaribo_Zoo.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Playground_Swings_in_Paramaribo_Zoo.JPG