"A Narrative of Justice for All": Editor of Muslim Lifestyle Magazine Emel on the Life of Prophet MuhammadHeather Martin Durkaya
Daughter of the successful modeling agency owner who introduced models like Naomi Campbell to the world of fame, Sarah Joseph (OBE) is the CEO and Editor of the UK’s Emel - the first ever Muslim lifestyle magazine – which stands for “hope” in Arabic. She is also a writer and broadcaster on Islam and is recognized as the world’s 500 most influential Muslims by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan and Georgetown University. She was awarded an OBE in 2004 for her services to “interfaith dialogue and promotion of women’s rights.” Sarah converted to Islam at the age of 16, and later completed her bachelor’s degree in Kings College’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies in London. Her husband, Mahmud al-Rashid, is a human rights barrister and one of the founders of the Association of Muslim Lawyers (AML) – the leading Muslim lawyer’s organization. He is also the publisher of Emel magazine. Sarah Joseph currently resides in London with her husband and three children.
INTERVIEW: Sarah Joseph, Emel Magazine, 11 December 2010
MARTIN DURKAYA: I understand you converted to Islam when you were 16, after your brother converted. Tell me a bit your brother’s conversion and how it affected your decision to convert.
SARAH JOSEPH: I was a devout and practicing Roman Catholic, and my brother fell in love with a beautiful Muslim woman, and he converted to Islam in order to marry her. It didn’t really affect him at all, but it profoundly changed my life. It lead me on a path, which Allah was to make me look at Islam. The very first thing I heard from my mother in regards to his wife’s religion was, “Well, you do know that Jesus was born of a virgin in the Muslim faith.” Of course I didn’t believe her, but I happened to be in a library and I found a Qur’an. I looked it up in the back and read “Jesus, born of a virgin.” So it was the first point of contact with Islam. I then lost my faith in the Catholic Church, which had nothing to do with my study of Islam, but more to do with the journey I was on. It was a profound loss, and it was very painful, but I didn’t lose my faith in God, and I continued to believe. I also continued to study Islam, which was compelling. I kept asking questions, and it kept coming up with answers. To be honest, all I really ever wanted to do was to give and surrender my life to God. I suppose upon seeing a girl go into prostration was the moment when I realized that what I saw was a physical manifestation of what I knew, that Islam meant self-surrender unto God. I decided at that point to embrace Islam.
|To be honest, all I really ever wanted to do was to give and surrender my life to God. I suppose upon seeing a girl go into prostration was the moment when I realized that what I saw was a physical manifestation of what I knew, that Islam meant self-surrender unto God.|
MARTIN DURKAYA: What was it that turned you off to Christianity, or Catholicism, in particular?
SARAH JOSEPH: The single biggest thing that lead me to question my Catholic faith was the infallibility of the Pope. It didn’t come about until the Papal States were threatened in the 19th century, 1860’s-1870, and the Pope became infallible. When his power was threatened, I couldn’t accept it. I could not accept that this rule, which was a sin in the church, came about through a political situation in the 19th century. It completely collapsed my faith. There were other things, like the Council of Nicea – the fact that 40 Gospels were submitted and only 4 were chosen. I found that hard to digest, but it was the infallibility of the Pope that crushed it. I suppose it was also realizing some things. I had never accepted original sin, and realizing how original sin is necessary as a sort of pre-thought in order for the crucifixion to make sense. So, all of these things came together and I had completely lost my faith.
MARTIN DURKAYA: What are the differences in belief regarding prophets or prophethood in Catholicism as opposed to Islam, and how did this affected your decision to become a Muslim?
SARAH JOSEPH: I think, ultimately, Muslims believe in the complete lineage of prophets from Adam (a.s.) right through to the Prophet (s.a.w.), encompassing all of the prophets, named and unnamed. We only know 25 named prophets, but obviously there are 124,000 prophets. It’s the unbroken train of transmission, so to all people a prophet. I think what I like about the Islamic discourse in relation to the prophets is not how they are similar to my previous Christian faith, but how they differ. So, when you look at the story of Adam (a.s.) and his wife Hawwa, what you see is the fact that they were mutually responsible for the fall, whereas obviously in Christianity Eve is responsible. They are also forgiven by God, which leads you to a situation where you are not inheriting the sins of the father. I am not inheriting the sins of Adam and Eve, because God, through His mercy, forgives, which shows you that repentance is through God’s rahmah. It’s also stories like that of Nuh (a.s.); within the Christian tradition he has his family, and his family are chosen, whereas within the Islamic discourse, he preaches. Now, the difference is that people are going to be drowned and are going to suffer, but within the Islamic tradition and the Islamic narrative, they are given the choice, “Come” and Noah calls to them; whereas in the Christian tradition it’s just the chosen ones that God chooses, not through their choice, but through God’s decision. It’s these small differences that profoundly impacted me when I was reading and questioning about the Muslim perspectives on the prophets. The prophetic narratives and the stories are so profound within the Islamic message, and really is essential to the Qur’anic paradigm.
|I think what I like about the Islamic discourse in relation to the prophets is not how they are similar to my previous Christian faith, but how they differ.|
MARTIN DURKAYA: Growing up as a child beside your mother in her modeling agency, did you ever feel that promoting a lifestyle that objectified women conflicted with Catholic beliefs, morals or religion in general?
SARAH JOSEPH: I just think it was never for me. It was something that I always looked at and thought that it just wasn’t right. Maybe it was my fitra and that natural inclination towards good coming, but I just felt that it wasn’t right. My mother was a lone parent supporting five children, and she was very down to earth. She was never really drawn into the whole modeling business, so I had seen it from her,that there was a great deal of normality, and I had seen it from my grandmother, as well. But still, it just never seemed to make sense. Obviously, at 8 years old, I can’t describe it all, that it’s all about objectifying women. I just never felt comfortable with it from a very young age.
MARTIN DURKAYA: Considering the environment you grew up in, your choice of dress now may be seen as rather ironic. What influenced your decision to wear the headscarf?
SARAH JOSEPH: Prayer. Wearing the headscarf was a tremendously difficult decision because my family so appalled it. My decision to become Muslim would have been quite simple and rather easy if it wasn’t for the headscarf. In English tradition you don’t wear your religion on your sleeve, let alone your head. You don’t publicize your religiosity. Religion and politics are things which are kept very discrete. So to go out publicly like this made me seem like a foreigner in my grandmother’s eyes. For my mother, I had given up any form of female emancipation. I had gone backwards. I was cutting off opportunities that could potentially lead my life, and in many respects, it seemed like I was running away. It took me a long time to explain that it was my way of dealing with the objectification of women in a sort of modern, rationalized context, but ultimately what lead me to wear it and continue to wear it was prayer. I kept aying on end, and I asked that God please take this burden from me. When I would pray and when I would open the Qur’an, He would show me the verse of veiling, and so I continued to cover.
|My decision to become Muslim would have been quite simple and rather easy if it wasn’t for the headscarf.|
MARTIN DURKAYA: How do you think your conversion to Islam has affected your brother?
SARAH JOSEPH: I don’t think it’s impacted him at all. I think he finds it quite amusing that something which didn’t make any change in his life made such a change in mine. He’s now divorced from his Muslim wife and married again to a Japanese woman who is non-Muslim. It just didn’t affect him at all. He lives in Japan and I live in the United Kingdom, so I suppose our engagement over the years has been not as much as what otherwise might have been.
MARTIN DURKAYA: As a British Muslim who adorns the hijab, have you been a victim of xenophobia in the UK?
SARAH JOSEPH: I went from being an ordinary English white girl to being a “Paki.” When I first started wearing the scarf in 1988, not many Muslim women did, and it wasn’t really seen as a sign of religion. People didn’t understand it as religion; it was perceived as race. So, I looked like a Paki. Therefore, I received racial tones, not really religious. For a 17 year-old it was a very uncomfortable experience, when you’ve gone from being just an average, pretty, white girl who would attract positive attention for her hair to suddenly be receiving racial jibes; it was painful and difficult, not to mention embarrassing. However, I can honestly say, maybe because I am just very confident and wear it with such confidence that I had very little problems. I have had some problems. I’ve had guys drunk on the train during the Iraq war, usually when there are moments of tension such as the bombing of Iraq, saying “Bush was right. F---ing Muslims, f---ing Muslims,” usually with expletives. That’s the way they deal with it. Or I’ve heard, “You should be killed. You should be shot by a drunkard.” When people are drunk they tend to lash out. Unfortunately, I’ve had that a couple of times, but generally people accept it. After all, Britain is a liberal, secular democracy and it’s full of eccentric people, so it’s been alright.
MARTIN DURKAYA: How were you influenced by Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and how did you feel about her after converting to Islam?
SARAH JOSEPH: She was a role model. She was such a beautiful human being. Just that life of service and devotion, and how her faith lead her to such a life of social justice. It was not a selfish faith, a faith for me, my life, my contemplation of God, rather it was a selfless faith where she devoted her life to the service of others. So, she encompassed my belief that religion is not about my enjoying the peace and beauty and contentment of belief in God, but rather, I enjoy those things, but it must lead to social justice and social action.
MARTIN DURKAYA: What was it that made you decide to publish your magazine Emel, with the concept of a “Muslim Lifestyle”?
SARAH JOSEPH: Well, we wanted to show Islam as a whole way of life, as a holistic way of life, to show that it wasn’t just about politics, and/or religious ritual, which is how it had been and how it is displayed, as very two-dimensional stereotypes pertaining to the faith in that regard. It was also to show that there was beauty in the everyday. So, for example, Emel covers big name interviews, big features, and real lives, as well as education, health, finance, and it also covers lifestyle - interiors, gardens, and fashion. These things are a part of our lives. We all wear clothes, we all have homes, we have our gardens, and they actually become a large part of our lives in a sort of post-industrialized modern society. They are a large part of our lives. So if we can then bring those to the remembrance of God, then we’re really sort of bringing everything into the remembrance of God. For example, if you have a garden and you put in a water feature, maybe it will remind you of the verse of the Qur’an of Jannah where it’says “gardens under which rivers flow.” Or, if you have a piece on dining tables, they can be just about dining tables, but it can also remind you of the community of eating together, or having a communication, because in the West we tend to eat our dinners in front of televisions, which alienates us from the family. So, it’s the remembrance of the family and the community. We have something called positive truths, which is where we have every article represent at least one positive truth, regardless of what it’s about. If it’s an article on scented candles, it’s because a good scent is sadaqa, and it’s to remind us of that saying of the Prophet (s.a.w.). So, it’s lifestyle, but it’s lifestyle with a thinking behind it, because we recognize that these things influence peoples’ lives.
MARTIN DURKAYA: Do you think that the experience you acquired beside your mother in her business has helped your magazine succeed?
SARAH JOSEPH: Considering the fact that I grew up at the age of three-weeks old, and was literally nursed while my mother was on the telephone at the modeling agency, it showed me a woman in business, a very powerful woman who could do this while raising five kids and have that life. It gave me a great deal of confidence. She was a perfectionist and I am a perfectionist. I saw things being presented nicely, and I think one of the special things about Emel is that everything is presented very beautifully. We have high production values, so I do think that there are no doubt, certain elements that rubbed off on me.
|we wanted to show Islam as a whole way of life, as a holistic way of life, to show that it wasn’t just about politics, and/or religious ritual, which is how it had been and how it is displayed, as very two-dimensional stereotypes pertaining to the faith in that regard.|
MARTIN DURKAYA: What are your thoughts on Islamophobia and what do you think is the best approach Muslims can take to surmount this rising fear in the West?
SARAH JOSEPH: It’s a growing issue and we cannot ignore it. However, at the same time, I think that if we just react defensively, firstly, by saying that we’re anti-violent, anti-terrorist, and anti-extremism, we just become an “anti,” which is rather nihilistic. We have to say what we’re for. We’re for justice, for environmental conservation, for goodness, for beauty. We also have to make sure that we’re not just reacting to every international event beyond our control. Something terrible happens and we react, another something terrible happens and we react. We’re not guilty of these things, but by reacting, we’re kind of associating ourselves with it. I feel that somehow we become the marionettes, or the puppeteers of a wider agenda that is not our agenda. We have four C’s at Emel: confidence, contribution, common good, and connectivity. We must project confidence, and be confident of ourselves, because confident people are more likely and better able to contribute to society, and contribute to the common good. The Prophet (s.a.w.) was a mercy to the whole of mankind, not just for the Muslims, but for all of humanity. And “connectivity,” as in connecting people to the stories, connecting countries all around the world and connecting people to the Divine. Besides our horizontal life, our work, our jobs and our families, we need to have a vertical anchor, that being our relationship with God.
MARTIN DURKAYA: How would you or how do you describe Prophet Muhammad to non-Muslims?
SARAH JOSEPH: It really depends, but for me he is a mercy unto mankind. He didn’t come as a scourge, as a tyrant, or as a fear. He came as a mercy to the whole of mankind, and that message has to be put out there. It is his life and his narrative that was about justice for all, and I think that that’s really the essential message that we’re trying to get through. He is not just a Muslim prophet. He came for everybody.
|How do you heal the hate and anger in the Muslims, which has risen and become so ugly? They proclaim that they love you and know you, and yet they are so very, very, very angry. How can we heal that? What can we do?|
MARTIN DURKAYA: If you had the chance to meet Prophet Muhammad today, what would you ask him?
SARAH JOSEPH: Well, I think I’d be speechless, but my question would probably be “How do you heal the hate and anger in the Muslims, which has risen and become so ugly? They proclaim that they love you and know you, and yet they are so very, very, very angry. How can we heal that? What can we do?”