Peace certainly is a most worth goal and object, and most of us I am sure would agree that we need a lot more peace and love in the world. Peace, of course, does not mean merely an absence of physical conflict, but on the most profound and indeed significant level it is an inner condition of calm, tranquility and contentment. The inner peace is where the peace of Islam starts, and it is a paradox that more often than not the only way to establish peace, whether the internal or external is through struggle, or even war.
This is of course the comprehensive meaning of the term "jihad". The struggle to establish Islam in oneself, to surrender to the Lord of all creation, to make ones desires subjugated to His wise guidance. With hardship comes ease and with patience, victory. All is known by its opposite, and peace cannot be established without fighting that which opposes and prevents it! Internally this constitutes the base desires. Externally it is manifest in a struggle against tyranny, injustice and oppression. As the saying goes: "No justice! No peace!"
Thus the theme of the ten day international Islamic conference that was held in Bombay from 23rd November to 2nd December. "Peace, the solution for humanity."
No one could accuse Dr Zakir Naik of lacking drive or vision, or for that matter organisational inability! Seven months ago he had already booked some of the most knowledgeable and dynamic orators and scholars of Islam in the English language for a massive ten day conference in Bombay, where his organisation IRF (Islamic Research Foundation) is based, along with the satellite channel PeaceTV, watched by over 60 million viewers.
My "jihad" started at the Indian High Commission here in the UK, as the simple matter of getting a visa proved to be quite and ordeal. At taste of India before you get there! I went to the High Commission two weeks in advance, planning well ahead for a change, prompted no doubt by regular reminders from the IRF team to get my visa, along with a plethora of invitation letters, approvals, clearance from local government that needed to be attached to my application for a conference visa, a tourist visa not being suitable for this particular event. The web site tells you that you need to get there between 8:30 and 10:00 in order to get the visa. I arrived just before ten to find several hundred people queuing, with several arguments, raised voices and waving hands. I was given a ticket to come back on 22nd November, hardly ideal, since my flight was leaving the same day, or I was told, "Come back any morning early." I had one slot, the Monday before my flight, and I went over an hour early on a cold and rainy morning to find a queue stretching from the door to half way round the block. There must have been three to four hundred people there. I nearly gave up then and there, but I hoped that Allah would count this all as effort in His path. Arriving at the door, I was given another piece of paper, fortunately this time to come back the same day at 12:30. I rushed off to the mosque to take a school group and then rushed back just in time. Inside the visa office was chaos. The number system was all over the place, so I patiently waited at the nearest counter and handed in my application. Clearly applying for a conference visa was no simple matter, and I had to wait at another door to speak to someone senior. There was no queuing here at all, but it was a case of wiggling you way in between everyone and getting yourself noticed by the gentlemen peering critically through half glasses. I tried to talk to him, but the door was shut in our faces, and I was told by others waiting that he dealt with three applications at a time, and I have to just hold on until he got back. Eventually, I handed him application and then after more waiting had to pay at another counter, and then more waiting for the visa to be processed. It was now nearly 1pm and then the dramatic announcement that everything was closed for lunch and to come back at 2pm. This ushered a collective sigh/ moan/ laugh form the twenty applicants still waiting. I had lunch nearby and returned at 2pm, although nothing opened until 2:30pm. Everyone with whom I had been waiting all morning got their passports and then next influx were getting theirs before eventually my number was called.
What a palava!
The BA flight to Bombay was packet and I was squashed. It was a night flight and as usual I got virtually no sleep. The Park Plaza Royal Palms hotel is a mere 7km from the airport, perched atop a hill surrounded by hills and trees. It was here that the majority of speakers were based. The first one I met was Sheik Jafar Idris, who I didn't recognise until later, but with whom I had some of the most fruitful discussions with over the ten days. At the time he was going through Dawkin's "The God Delusion", and we sat discussing how ignorant he (Dawkins) was even of Western theological and philosophical arguments about God, which all suffer from various short comings, as opposed to those propounded by Muslims which are much more coherent and consistent. He was accompanied by his son Yusuf with whom I also shared some great conversations, especially late one night over dinner, whilst we watched young Indians emerging from a function hall completely drunk, rushing to the toilets, puking on the stair case and several men engaging in a flight that involved fists, belts and or course a lot of posturing and shouting. We sat there in amazement and this spectacle of stupidity, and thanked Allah for our Islam. All this excess seems all the more ugly in India, because you don't have to go far to see people living in crippling poverty. In fact it is everywhere. Our route from the hotel to the conference venue and TV studios passed through a slum/shanty town, with a river that was in fact more of an open sewer. On a certain section of the route the pavement was the living quarters for a collection of people covered in filth and living in filth. It was sickening and humbling and heart wrenching all at the same time, and I could not help but feel both immensely grateful for what Allah had blessed me with, yet guilty for what really amounts to an excessive life style that we live. Many of the people must often be hungry, yet the buffet in our hotel must have consisted of sixty different varieties of food! Even then we sometimes managed to comment that dinner wasn't so good as the previous night!
For all the speakers work load was without doubt heavy. Either we were in the studios recording programmes for future broadcast, or delivering lectures at the venue, or in my case preparing for both. It was the "promos" that caused almost universal amusement and complaint amongst the speakers, since no one could quite understand why the needed to spend nine hours, standing, pointing and looking at the sky and repeating corny lines in various locations from mosquito invested forest and parks to un-sound proofed studios where every noise was followed by "cut!"
I myself rather enjoyed doing my promo, set in a Bollywood set emulating a traditional Indian village, even if the nine hour stint followed on from a session in the studio's that didn't see me getting to be until 2am after our car ran out of juice in the middle of the street, and we had to wait while the driver fetched some more fuel in a rickshaw. That session had followed on by the previous night's public lecture based on an article in the blog "Do good people go to Hell" which was attended by around 10,000 plus, which itself was followed by a gathering of all the speakers/scholars, with the purpose of discussing how IRF could improve on the conference next time. That didn't finish until past midnight. It was in this meeting the Dr Zakir detailed for us just what was involved in organizing the conference. $4 million, two thousand volunteers, half a million visitors to the exhibition, spread over seven areas, all set up in a matter of days, including a fully constructed stage set up in a unique air conditioned hall. The stage was completely changed half way through, which they worked all night to complete, and Dr Zakir was somewhat upset because the program had to start half an our late that day! This is really in brief what amounted to an enormous effort. There was group of brothers almost permanently stationed at the hotel lobby to co-ordinate the activities and comings and goings of the various speakers, and each speaker was always accompanied by a volunteer once they left the hotel, and more often than not we had interesting discussion with them also. May Allah reward them all amply.
Friday prayer was lead by Shiekh Ayoob, former Imam of the Prophet's mosque, and was attended by over 100,000, who mobbed us after the prayer. Dr Zakir's final lecture was attended by a similar number. Where ever we went in the venue were stopped by crowds wanting to shake our hands and kids begging for our autographs. We didn't deserve any of this, As one sheikh stated, "If only they knew our sins!"
Each day's event was advertised in a full colour column in all the major news papers, and articles appeared in them on various aspects of the conference.
Perhaps for me one of the best things though, was praying, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, and just sitting in the VIP lounge at the conference and discussing with old friends and newer acquaintances, Dr Zakir Niak himself, Sheikh Salim Al Amri, Dr Bilal Phillips, Yasir Qadi, Yusuf Estes (the only major speaker staying in a different hotel), Yasir Fazaga, and Dr Mamdouh Mohammed and meeting for the first time Sheikh Jafar Idirs and Hussain Yee, Assim Al Hakeem, Dr Ahmed ibn Saifullah, Mokhtar Maghroui and Riaz Ansary. It was also a delight to see Abu Hamza from ISSNA, and one of the converts from there Musa, who bravely delivered a lecture on how he came to Islam. I'm not sure what I have done to deserve to be included in such distinguished company, Alhamdulillah!
My biggest regret was not being able to listen to their lectures!
You can have an idea of the extent of it on the conference web site.
On day one I was struck down with a horrific "Bombay belly", which had me running all night to the bathroom every twenty minuets, leaving me physically drained and exhausted with virtually no sleep. The next morning I asked for some Ajwain and honey and I was given in addition a collection of pills. Although the runs stopped, there was no immediate cure for exhaustion, but the show had to go on! There was a press conference and the opening night where all the speakers had to give and introductory speech. I barely survived, but was glad I made the effort!
One thing travelling does is really make you appreciate how good it is to be home, and its only now that buzz of the event has ended and exhaustion has hit hard. Although I got upgraded to business class on the return flight, and actually managed, out of sheer exhaustion, to actually sleep a good portion of the nine hour flight, I still haven't recovered completely three days later. Must be old age!
check out more photos on the album "India"