Remona Aly is a journalist and broadcaster. She writes for The Guardian and other media outlets on faith, lifestyle and identity. She is a resident Pause for Thought contributor at BBC Radio 2 on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show and a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Something Understood. Remona is Director of Communications for Exploring Islam Foundation which specialises in PR campaigns and creative resources. She is also an editor, presents and produces podcasts, and is on an ongoing quest to write a book (will it ever happen).
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I recently saw a small, fascinating exhibition celebrating 130 years of Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking – Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. I found out that HG Wells cites the mosque in his famous sci-fi novel War of the Worlds. Plus the author was good friends with Marmaduke Pickthall, an English convert to Islam who translated the Quran – which was the first English translation I had heard as a child on old audio tapes. AND I learned that Paul Weller’s mum was a cleaner in the mosque! It made me feel like all my worlds were synthesising: my Muslim, British, and Indian heritage – as the mosque was part-funded by a female Indian ruler who hailed from the same city as my parents – Bhopal. The Indian connection was the only one I knew before visiting the exhibition, so finding out all these other nuggets was blowing my mind!
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I think wonder is central to the human experience. Our wonder is not only stirred by the worlds, universe, and people around us, wonder is also embedded in our very core. For me, wonder is awareness, marvelling, reflection, a yearning for knowledge that never quite gets fulfilled but hungers for more. I cultivate my own wonder by keeping my heart and soul and senses open. So that could be remembering to look up at the stars, watching David Attenborough’s programmes (obvs), and I keep the wonder alive by reading stories, sacred texts, and the words of sages, poets, writers, theologians, historians – basically wonder can be developed from any source, if we are perceptive to it.
Where do Wonder and Curiosity come into the Islamic faith?
I believe both are intrinsic to Islam. The Quran repeatedly asks us to reflect – on the signs around us, and within us. Reflection, remembrance or meditation, known in Arabic as ‘dhikr’, is a vital part of a Muslim’s connection with the Divine, it’s a path of spiritual awareness and love. That state of pondering or deep reflection which is common across many old religions has been repackaged in the modern day as mindfulness. I think mystery is the oxygen of humanity and faith, and I feel that the spectrum of different beliefs we see in this world is a refraction of that mystery. We have been given the tools of imagination and curiosity as we are thinking, intelligent creations. Faith is ultimately about belief in the Unseen, which is enveloped in mystery, so I ask myself, what greater source of Wonder could there be?
You’re a regular contributor to Radio 2’s Pause for Thought. How did that come about? Why do you feel PFT is an important part of the radio programming?
I met the executive producer for Pause for Thought at an interfaith leadership residential a few years ago, and he asked about my journalism and offered me the chance to go on Radio 2. Pause for Thought is one of the only remaining bastions of religion and ethics in mainstream broadcasting that is authentic, intimate, beautiful, universal, and shares a lived experience of a person of faith. Pause for Thought nestles cosily inside the UK’s most popular radio station, so it takes faith away from the edges and mainstreams it for two precious minutes!
Islam has a rich heritage of scientific discoveries. What is the relationship between science and Islam? And has that changed over the years?
This is such a massive area, but I’ll try my best to be succinct! Islam and science have gone hand in hand, in fact the very acts of worship led to scientific development – such as the need to find the exact direction of prayer as well as its specific timings. Medieval Muslim astronomers developed highly sophisticated devices like the astrolabe which accurately measured the time, identified stars and planets, and was used in navigation. One thing I love about my faith is that it has always stipulated that knowledge is key – for women and men. The Quran states that seeking knowledge is a duty on every human being, and so there was a religiously motivated hunger for learning – there’s that wonder again about the universe and our place within it. In fact the Arabic word for knowledge, ‘ilm’ is literally translated as science. Even the word algorithm has Islamic roots – the man known as the father of algebra and the forefather of the modern computer, was the ninth century Persian Muslim mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, from whose name ‘algorithm’ is derived.
It’s unclear why that flourishing relationship between Islam and science wasn’t further sustained (although it did continue for a thousand years!), perhaps it was a loss of power and funding from patrons, as money makes the research go round. I think the love for it also became replaced with functionality or something more soul-less. Professor Jim al-Khalili made the observation that today, “most science in the Islamic world is technology, and hence economy-driven rather than curiosity-driven, which is vital for original scientific advances.” I think he’s nailed it.
What pressures does a scientist with a faith have to face?
I’m not really equipped to answer this, best to ask a Muslim scientist! This is my speculation: For Muslim scientists, especially the ones I have heard speak and read about, I would say there isn’t a clash between their faith and science. The nature of enquiry in the Islamic tradition has always accommodated a broad spectrum of opinions, so there will be differences. For a Muslim scientist, I would say it depends on which opinion they would form or follow, and each person would reconcile any tensions or questions between what they believe and the scientific evidence at hand. When it comes to evolution, I have heard there is certainly space for Islamic theology to accommodate evolution, but the debatable area is human evolution. I once attended a conference called, ‘Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?’ and heard scientists reconcile their belief in human evolution without compromising their faith. I heard one Muslim shaykh/scholar say that the maximum he could accept from the theological perspective is to say that God inserted Adam in the natural order, and he used the example of dominos, saying that Adam was the last domino. Fascinating stuff!
I was struck by one of your recent articles about the effect of climate change on the Hajj. Can you tell me more?
I was sent the recent findings by US scientists that stated that Hajj, or the Pilgrimage, is set to become a danger zone. The Islamic calendar is a lunar one, and at the moment Hajj falls in the height of summer, and due to rising temperatures, Mecca in Saudi Arabia could exceed the “extreme danger” heat-stress threshold. It would be so hot that sweat would evaporate too quickly and people would not cool down, which could be fatal in some cases. We are all encouraged to be green in Islam. The Quran says that humans are guardians of the earth, and Prophet Muhammad echoed the Quranic message saying, “The earth is green and beautiful, and God has appointed you His stewards over it.” Through this article, I wanted to highlight the important role we all play and hoped to make the climate crisis more tangible and personal – there are things each of us hold sacred, and we need to find our own emotionally-driven ways to safeguard our planet.
The concept of predestination creates many hours of discussion around free will. Can you explain what ‘Kismet’ means? Is it more than predestination? And how do you live in light of it? Is it a source of comfort or frustration?
This is an endless area and would need all our lifetimes to discuss and we still wouldn’t get it! I’ll attempt, but this is a drop in the ocean. Kismet is a Turkish word, derived from the Arabic which means portion, which I’d guess means what is allotted to you, and by you. About 15 years ago I was in a huge dilemma about getting married and I was having doubts, so I did a guidance prayer. I felt that I held my own fate in my hands, yet it was also God’s will for me.
One of the most influential Muslim thinkers, Imam Ghazali said something that both empowers and boggles me. He said: “If we had perfect power to determine our destinies, and perfect vision to see the future and know what is best for us, we would choose exactly the fate that God has chosen for us.” So, in other words, our wills are bound together – divine and human. We have freedom, we have agency, we have choice. Yet everything is also pre-ordained. It means we have the freedom to choose a path, but God knows that through your free will, you will choose that path. Things get complicated when you consider, what if I choose to do something bad? Or why is human suffering pre-ordained? I think this is also bound up in free will. If we have free will, then along with that comes the capacity for both good and bad, otherwise where is the freedom? It’s so complex, but I’ll leave that one there!
In Islam, there is space to shape your destiny, there are some matters that are settled, and others that can be changed through prayer and effort. So, destiny, decree, free will, agency, these are all interconnected. Knowing that gives me comfort but thinking about it all also drives me slightly barmy.
And what one thing do you wish everyone knew about Islam?
I have always been fascinated by the trailblazing and influential women throughout the history of Muslim societies. I grew up not knowing much about them, as the stories of women are often sidelined, but in my adult life I feel like I am reconnecting with Islam and the feminine. I am learning about the lost legacy of female scholars – eight thousand accounts have been uncovered by one shaykh’s research, so imagine how many more there are. I have discovered Rabia al Adawiyya – Islam’s first female Sufi saint, born in 8th century Basra. Rabia was arguably the most influential Sufi woman in Islamic history, influencing centuries of Islamic philosophy and mysticism. There was Lubna of Cordoba, the 10th century Andalusian mathematician, poet, grammarian and copyist, who headed the royal library, apparently the world’s biggest at that time, which contained over half a million books. There were warrior women, medics, musicians, poets, businesswomen – the list is literally endless, and they all inspire me and make me proud to be a woman.
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