The Unknown Fallen – The Muslim Story For Remembrance Sunday

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart beating. Not one of us is moving. Not even when the trenches went dark.”

(From The Diary of an Unknown Soldier)

“The Unknown Fallen – the Global Allied Muslim Contribution in the First World War” is a recent publication by the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation.  The deeply moving photography in the book captures the raw human courage, sacrifice and fellowship of soldiers during the World War One.  The pain and fear that, undoubtedly, the soldiers must have been experienced, permeates through the pages .  But the most powerful heart-stopping image for me depicts a group of Christian soldiers praying with a priest, possibly before going into battle, whilst just a few feet away, Muslim soldiers are prostrating, bowing their heads in worship.  Incredible stories of fear, hardship, courage and perseverance are told. The Unknown Fallen takes the reader into a dark world, full of death and separation and one that we can only hope the world never witnesses again. A world where Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy were fully versed in the methods of performing the last rites related to each other’s faiths. Because it was inevitable that at some point they would be called upon to do so. A dark world, but one where there was the utmost respect for diversity and ‘the other’ – because the other was my brother and they were fighting side by side, not just for each others lives, but ours as well.

Sunday 11th November 2018 marks exactly one hundred years since the guns fell silent and the world, finally, after four long years, saw the bloodiest conflict in history come to an end. A war that witnessed 16 million people die. Across the country at 11.00am people will stand in solemn silence, bells will toll and we will remember all those men, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews, who died so that we might enjoy the freedoms that, sadly, they never survived  to experience.

I was recently privileged to attend a memorial at the Peace Garden in Woking. The event was a dedication to those brave soldiers who fought and died as members of the British Army. But let me be more specific. The memorial was a dedication to the thousands of Muslim soldiers who fought for Britain in two world wars and subsequent conflicts, giving you, me and our future generations the freedoms we enjoy today. They fought against oppressors, racists, bigots and haters. They fought against nations that did not value democracy, diversity or the rule of law. The reality is however, that if you were to ask the ordinary man woman or child in school about who fought for Britain in the wars, very few would be able to tell you that recent figures estimate that four million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or labourers.

One of the speakers at the memorial was Sophie Chisembele, daughter of Yusuf Mohammed Ali, the last serviceman to be buried at the site, which was then the Woking Muslim Military Burial Ground.  The burial ground held just 27 servicemen out of the many thousands of Muslim personnel who died during the two World Wars. She paid tribute to the Muslim servicemen who “died in their thousands in the service of Britain, then the colonial power.  They were born in a different place, centuries past, their lives ended prematurely by wars, and it is right that we and I’m sure generations to come, remember and honour their sacrifice.”

The Right Honourable Earl Howe, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords and Minister of State for Defence reminded us of the “forgotten army. The first Muslim recipient of the Victoria Cross, Khudadad Khan, who is now well known for his selfless actions at the First Battle of Ypres, whilst the other Muslim VC recipients of the Great War, like Mir Dast and Shahamad Khan, have also been deservedly immortalised at the National Arboretum.. We honour not only those heroes, but the many thousands of less well-known Muslim soldiers, whose names adorn memorials the length and breadth of Europe, the Middle East and Asia and whose deeds helped preserve our freedom. We think of how they travelled thousands of miles to the mud and horror of Flanders Fields.”

There is nothing glamorous or thrilling about war and conflicts. Battlefields are not exciting places – they are places of horror, where friends and comrades have to witness each other being blown apart, bleeding to death, losing limbs and calling out the names of their loved ones who they know they will never see again. Wars are abhorrent, they are horrifying, they are destructive and they are never the way to peace. We must never forget the sacrifices made by all those brave men, but we must endeavour to ensure the world never sees such conflicts again.

It has only been recently that the contribution of Muslims to the world wars became known, and certainly this seems to be a very well-kept secret. Perhaps modern day populist movements might benefit from learning not just about the lessons and horrors of war, but about this secret as well. More recent estimates suggest that potentially 4 million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or labourers, a figure known largely in essence to the research undertaken by The Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation and published in their book. This is a history book with a difference and one that needs to be part of every school library across the country. The book opens up a whole new dimension in relation to the wars and the contributions made by many nations including Pre-partition India, Africa, Russia, the Far East and the Middle East, which until today have been largely unrecognised. Until recently for example it was not known that British India sent 1.5 million men to war in Africa, Asia and Europe during World War 1 and of these 400,000 were Muslims.

“Among all the trials and danger, they kept their calm, their fatalism, and the enduring dignity of their profile”.

In 21st Century diverse Britain, we have a duty to salute, remember and make others aware of these heart-rending stories of all these individuals and the sacrifices that were made by Muslims. A group that sadly, is all too often, demonised because of the actions of a very tiny minority. Certainly elements within society seek to divide communities and use the actions of these elements to promote an anti-Muslim, racist narrative that seeks to demonise British Muslims.  We need to understand that these wars were not European wars fought just by white men. They were World Wars in every sense of the phrase, wars that saw people from across the globe, of all colours, religions, traditions and cultures, fight and die for the freedoms we enjoy today. This is not about glorifying war, it is about remembering those who those fought side by side hand in hand for the common good..

We must teach our children, in home and in school, that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all owe a debt of gratitude to ever single individual who gave their life, so we could live a peaceful one. We would do well to remember.

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles M. Province 2005

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Men, Women and the Hijab – a never ending debate

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…..” (24:30-31)

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A few days ago I was asked by someone why I became so sensitive over the issue of the head covering being addressed. Today I’ve been reading about a young Kuwaiti woman being chastised because she publicly chose to stop wearing the headscarf – something that was being seen as an affront to God but also her father, a prominent Islamic scholar

Now I don’t claim to be a scholar nor do a profess to be particularly knowledgeable in relation to Islamic jurisprudenceBut I felt this was one blog I needed to write – for my own sanity and the sanity of other women who are constantly put under pressure, one way or another, in relation to the head scarf.

Most of us know that there are some topics associated with Muslims and Islam that are generally regarded as the proverbial “hot potato”.  Women in Islam is possibly seen as the most controversial, certainly in the eyes of non-Muslims. But the rights of women, particularly around dress and modesty seems to be an area that is much debated (I would add almost relentlessly) not by non-Muslims, or even Muslim women, but by Muslim men.

What is this bizarre obsession, this almost unhealthy fixation, I would say that borders on stalking, that some men have with how Muslim women dress & in particular whether they wear the head scarf, or what has become known as the hijab?

For those unfamiliar with the word, the Arabic word hijab actually means barrier or curtain. It is used on five separate occasions in the Quran. For example 

“Mention in the Quran the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east and secluded herself away. We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfected man.”(19:27-27)

“It is not granted to any mortal that God should speak to him except through revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His command what He will: He is exalted and wise.”(22:51)

Now it may be a revelation to many that both these verses and subsequent others do not use the term ‘hijab’ to mean a 24 inch square of cloth that covers a womans hair. It does however mean a barrier / curtain and way of seclusion. So what is this fixation about?

I have many good friends who wear the head covering for a variety of reasons, all very different. In fact, I wore the headscarf for three years as well in the 1990’s. Some wear it because they believe it is a religious instruction from God, who instructs them to cover up not just the bosom area but also the hair. Some don the head covering because it brings them closer to God, it becomes a form of worship in the same way that prayer and fasting are. Others use the head covering as an outward expression of their religiosity – literally wearing their faith on their head. Some wear it as it supports them in observing modesty, an instruction for men and women, in the Quran.  There are more and more women, particularly younger women who have adopted the hijab by way of protest – to make a political statement – ‘I am a Muslim and I have no issue with you or anyone else knowing’. And there are political movements were wearing of the head scarf is synonymous with political affiliations and groups. There are those women who have been ‘shamed’ into wearing the hijab because all the other women in the family wear it. Some wear it because it has become ‘habit’ and to remove it would mean they are no longer accepted as ‘authentic’ Muslims, would lose their credibility within certain circles and might possibly have to forfeit positions of authority within the community. And unfortunately, there are those women who wear it because they are forced to do so by their families, fathers in particular. And there are those who wear it because their husbands have told them they would divorce them if they didn’t.

It’s worth pointing out that women who choose not to wear the head scarf do so for equally valid and diverse reasons. Some believe you can be just as pious and modest without covering the hair. Others believe the Quranic verse does not extend to the hair as it specifically mentions the bosom area. And others are of the opinion that you can still appear immodest whilst wearing the headscarf.

Just as there are contrasting reasons behind why women choose to wear the head covering or not, we must acknowledge that there are diverse scholarly opinions  associated with whether or not the head covering is compulsory.

Eminent, outstanding scholars appear to have adopted various positions around whether the head covering is or is not compulsory.  Abdullah bin Bayyah and Abdullah al Judai, for example, are of the opinion that the view mentioned by scholars, in  their commentaries,  like Ibn Ashur (he says some opined it wasn’t necessary) and Muhammad Asad (he said it was all changeable by custom, as what is ordinarily shown changes from one society to the next)  are valid positions. They also opine that in societies where women who wear the head covering, are attacked , they are permitted to remove it. In fact, it may even be necessary to remove it. Hamza Yusuf said the same both in his books and speeches and has stated that

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. … The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

Abul Fadl also gave the same edict saying it may not be obligatory.  Others are of the opinion that the head covering is not obligatory on the basis that hair does not form part of the ‘awrah’ (intimate areas). In 2005 after the 7th July London bombings, the Egyptian scholar Dr Zaki Badawi issued a fatwa saying that women did not have to wear the head covering as it was unnecessarily putting them at risk in the current climate. An article by Sheikh Usama Hasan presents a very detailed piece on the issue of dress within the Islamic context,  and can be accessed here . What is clear is that there is no consensus and the topic of how women should or should not dress has been blown out of all proportion.  So, are men just incapable of looking at women whose hair is showing without lust? Can they not ‘lower their gaze’ as instructed? Why have they positioned themselves as custodians of Islamic ethics and integrity? Why do they feel they have a right to judge total strangers and compare 50% of God’s creation to inanimate objects whether they be lollipops or iPhone covers? Do they feel they have a God given superiority that allows them to dehumanise their fellow companions in the world?

I do not wear the head covering. Many of my friends and relations do not wear the head covering. Many of them do. But I will not be bullied into interpreting my religion from the eyes of anyone else. We are all more than capable of making our own decisions based on what we have read, taking into account the views of eminent scholars and teachers and our own understanding of the issue. If that does not comply with someone else’s interpretation, that’s fine. ‘To me my religion and to you your religion’. For me, the head covering is not the crux of my faith. On the day of judgement, I believe that I will be judged for all my actions – what did I do to help the poor, the destitute, the elderly, the orphan and the infirm. Did I lie, cheat, steal? Did I go to bed with an overfilled belly whilst my neighbours went to sleep hungry? Did I leave the world a better place for future generations or did I contribute to its destruction? Did I give water to the thirsty and food to the hungry? Did I bring up my children well? And yes maybe, just maybe, God will ask me why I didn’t I cover up my hair. But in the bigger scheme of things, I suspect that will come pretty low down on the list.

But ultimately these are my views – and God knows best!

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If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves “

(Hamdun al-QassarFrom Tafsir ibn Kathir)

Welcoming God into our Mosques

“Winds in the east, mist coming in

Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin

Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,

But I fear what’s to happen all happened before”

(Bert – Mary Poppins)

The weather experienced by the UK over the last week has been nothing short of riotous and ferocious. Whilst we’ve had crazy weather before, it seems every time it happens, it’s a new experience for us and as a nation we are just never adequately prepared. Most likely because it happens so infrequently.

From across the country we’ve been hearing reports of tragedy striking with traffic chaos, death and injury being caused as a result of the snow and the storm. However, what we do find is that when hardship comes to Brits, The Brit resolve kicks in and we have also heard some heartwarming stories. The couple who managed to get married thanks to strangers who helped clear the path to the church by bringing shovels and diggers to the rescue. Or the car dealer who sent 4×4’s to rescue a wedding party and get them to the church on time. And most importantly the  wedding cake too! And of course our emergency services including the military coming to the rescue across the country and providing much needed assistance.

But the stories that have made me smile the most are the stories from up and down the country of mosques opening their doors to allow the homeless to come in and shelter  from the freezing temperatures, get warm and have something to eat.

I was in two minds over whether to get myself some heroin or crack, so that I could be okay for the night. As I was thinking about this, a guy came over from the side and said “you’re homeless, would you like to spend the night in a mosque?’  (Al Jazeera)

Mosques in Manchester, London and Ireland for example have all featured in various news reports for opening their doors and welcoming in the homeless. But why is this only done when such extreme weather kicks in and a ‘good news’ opportunity arises? Why are our mosques not ‘open all hours’ as they are in many other countries? I am well aware of the current climate and yes there is a chance that problems could occur, but surely the need to provide shelter and warmth out weighs any concerns we should have. Opening mosques to everyone needs to be more than just a method of publicity seeking. Even if it is some much needed positive publicity surrounding Islam and Muslims.

A mosque was never supposed to be just ‘a house of God’ in the sense that everyone else needed permission to enter. In the early days of Islam, mosques were the centre of the community, open and welcoming. They were the place everyone would congregate as a community. They were open to Muslims, but also those of other faiths. We have examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and blessings be upon Him) that show Christians who had come from Yemen were permitted to pray within the mosque. And many other examples of the respect He gave to ‘People of the Book’. One such incident illustrates this, when a funeral passed by the Messenger he stood up and someone commented  “It is a Jew.” to which The Prophet responded, “Was he not a soul?”.

Hundreds of mosques across the country (and i suspect churches, synagogues and temples as well) are locked up every night when the space could be used to shelter the homeless – whether the temperatures are 10 degrees or -10 degrees. No doubt they are kept locked because of the fear they will be damaged, property stolen or desecrated if left unattended. Perhaps if our mosques were kept simple and not adorned to the extent that we worried about valuables being stolen, the true essence of what a mosque should be, can be returned to. I find it hard to believe that our houses of God that close their doors to His creation in the most difficult of times, could possibly be occupied by God.  In order for this to happen however, as Muslim communities, we do need to take more of an interest in our mosques and particularly in ensuring our mosque leadership understands the reasoning behind developing mosques suitable for 21st Century Britain. A leadership that can affect change and is effective in delivering a service for all the local community. A mosque should never be treated as a private venture owned by a handful of individuals who will only give up their seat of influence when carried out in a wooden box. If our mosque governance does not allow for community participation, then it is our responsibility, our duty, to make a fuss. Our mosques must be inclusive and not exclusive and seen as the (halal) old boys club.

Maybe when our mosques  can achieve this, when they are open 24 hours a day, welcome everyone, become part of the local community and allow the cold and the destitute to seek shelter we might just find God residing there as well.

And when our mosques have achieved this, maybe they’ll consider letting women in as well.

General Election 2017 – To Vote or Not to Vote – That is the Question!

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t politically active.

In my house, not voting was never an option. The one phrase guaranteed to infuriate my late father was “I can’t be bothered to vote”. My family came to the United Kingdom in 1965 and I cannot recall a local or general election taking place in which my father didn’t vote. He would say that if you cannot be bothered to vote, you do not have the right to complain about anything, whether that’s the state of the roads or how often your bins are emptied. He would remind us of how, in countries across the world, people are prepared to give their lives in order to have a say in how they are governed.

I was reminded of this particular comment of his when, many years later, I was waiting for children to arrive at a session I was running for Muslim youth. One of the parents, an Iraqi mum, came bounding towards me on her arrival and as she got closer, I noticed she was shaking her finger at me. As she got closer, I noticed the beaming smile on her face and that her finger was purple. In between her excited exclamations of “sister Hifsa” she explained she had just returned home having been to London. For the first time in her life she had been able to vote in the Iraqi elections to determine who would govern her country. Her delight was infectious. A middle aged woman overjoyed at finally having the right to have a say in her country’s governance. A right that,  in our democratic nation, every single British citizen over the age of eighteen has, regardless of gender, colour, race or religion. But a right that is only taken up by 2/3rd of the eligible population with over 13 million “not bothering”.

Yesterday our Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election on what would have been my fathers 101st birthday, 8th June. And a number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, including that we now have 7 weeks of election preparation and social media posts in which every single person will want to have a say no matter how much of what they have to say might very well be “utter bollocks”. Aah the joys of living in a democracy!

One particular issue however is going to cause me particular angst over the next few weeks. And that is the anti-voting Muslim campaigners that will be trying to prevent Muslims from taking part in the General Election because they regard voting as being “haraam” (forbidden/unlawful). No doubt they will be using the usual scare tactics, telling adherents they’re condemning themselves to the hellfire if they vote,  by leafleting outside mosques on Fridays, running poster campaigns and producing the dreaded memes as their backup.

Is Voting Haram?

As a Muslim, I have grown up with an understanding of a principle that exists within Islam called “Shura” meaning consultation. This in its simplest form, is a way to harness the views and opinions of those individuals most affected by any decisions that may be made. The Prophet Muhammad would, as instructed by God in the Quran, consult his companions;  “And consult them in the affairs and when you have taken a decision, put your trust in God, certainly, God loves those who put their trust in Him” [Aal-’Imran, 159]

By voting in the election, you are being given a stake in the decision making processes around every aspect of how your country will be run. Every single vote counts and it is imperative that any government that is elected has the backing of the majority of the population that they are serving. There is almost a level of dishonesty that exists amongst those individuals who want to live in Britain, enjoy the freedoms and benefits that being British citizens affords them, but not being prepared to fulfil their own obligations to the nation. For those individuals who argue that the electoral choices presented to them do  not represent the ideals of their faith in its purest form, there are always alternatives available. I can think of several theocratic dictatorships that they may like to consider as places of residency. For the rest of us, let’s make the most of the democratic freedoms afforded to us as British citizens. By voting we are not violating any Islamic laws. We are making a decision as to who we feel is the best to govern the country we call home – our country. And we should make our decision based on those things that matter the most to use. Education, healthcare, housing, environment, foreign policy or social inequalities; make the decision about who you will vote for based on which party has the best interests of the things that matter to you, your family and your local community at the very epicentre of their manifesto.

This the Islamic thing to do. It is not unIslamic to vote, it is unIslamic not to.

 

 

 

Dear Mr President Trump

Dear Mr President

21st January 2017 marked the day when you officially became the most powerful man in the world and I find myself saying three words that in my wildest dreams I never thought I would hear myself say, let alone write. But I’ll come back to that at the end.

The result on the morning of  9th November was one that I was not expecting to hear, any more than I expected the result of the referendum in the UK on the 24th June. Brexit in June and your success in November saw the second half of 2016 taking a curious turn and one, as we know, you yourself were not expecting.

Your country, Mr President, is made up of over 325 million individuals, of which 72% are white, 13% are black, 5% are Asian and the remainder are American Indians, Hispanics and other races. 1% of Americans (that’s over 3 million people) also happen to be Muslims, just like me. Americans are proud of their diverse heritage, where not everyone is white, not everyone is a Christian and not everyone speaks English. However, everyone believes in hope and the American dream. It is your responsibility Mr President to make that hope and the American dream a reality for everyone. I am not sure about you, but that’s a task that would give me sleepless nights.

Unfortunately, you did engage in some rather inflammatory oratory during your presidential campaign. From expressing your opinions about undocumented Mexican immigrants who you described as “rapists” and “drug dealers”, outlining your foreign policy; “…..if we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money … so we should have kept the oil. But, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance“. And not to mention the most distasteful, misogynistic terminology and characterisations you have used about women. But maybe, ‘the odds were always in your favour’. Less than a week ago you solemnly swore to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution that refers to “We the People”.

Sadly your inauguration speech has left me, a middle aged Muslim grandmother, even more disturbed, contemplating the world my children and grandchildren are going to inherit. I visited New York in 2014 and Los Angeles in 2016. The United States of America is a magnificent country made up of beautiful people of all faiths, beliefs, colours, shades and hues. Yet over three million Muslims will not sleep soundly for the fear you and your supporters have generated. A culture has been established where racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, anti-Semitism and homophobia are not only admissible but openly proclaimed. We have all been witness to the clips on social media sites of physical and verbal attacks on Muslims by those who proudly claim to be your supporters. I have heard many reports of Muslims receiving abuse on streets, in supermarkets, schools and cafes by people who have used you, Mr President, as the reason they can be flagrantly disparaging and abusive. Not quite the badge of honour I believe you want to wear.

Your patriotic speech spoke of the transferring of power back to the citizens of “our” country from a protected establishment in Washington and promised it was now all about making America strong, wealthy, proud, safe and great again. You have pledged to improve schooling, neighbourhoods, employment, defence, law enforcement and security. And you promised all this by placing your hand on not one but two bibles. Your own and the bible that belonged to Abraham Lincoln. The irony of which I am sure wasn’t lost on people. You took the oath of allegiance to ALL Americans by placing your hand on the bible that belonged to the President who freed slaves, abolished slavery and made them equal members of society.  As a consequence almost 150 years later we saw the election of the first black President of the United States. You spoke of a united America but America has never been more divided. Whilst your armed forces, your law enforcement agencies are made up of people of all faiths, colours, cultures and creed, you spoke of reinforcing old alliances and forcing new ones – uniting the ‘civilized world‘ against “radical Islamic terrorism“, “which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth“. That’s fine Mr President but what of radical Christianity, white supremacy and fascism? Terrorism has no faith, belief or religion and it is more pertinent to talk of eradicating hate, intolerance, bigotry, social injustices and discrimination in all it forms.

To say opening your heart to patriotism, leaves no room for prejudice is to not fully understand the power of emotion around patriotism.  Emotions that in fact encourage and permit prejudice to flourish. American citizens regardless of whether they are black, brown or white, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, do indeed bleed the same red blood and do most definitely and proudly salute the American Flag. Mr President do not disregard them. Do not dismiss over 3 million Americans because you believe they (and 2 billion adherents of the religion world wide) are all in some way associated with terrorism and the terrorist atrocities that have taken place in America, France, Germany, Australia, Pakistan,  indeed across the world. Do not forget that first, second, and third generations of American Muslims, men and women, have contributed to education, health, justice, defence, policing and government within America. America has been promised change but where is that change going to lead? The vocal crowds that gathered to oppose your inauguration will not go away. The women’s marches that have taken place in Washington, Detroit, New York, Chicago, London in fact in countries across the globe, have seen thousands upon thousands of women on the streets because they, like me, are fearful of what the future holds. This is real democracy in action. You have a long hard task ahead Mr President and unity is a long long way away.

However, you have made quite a transition,  from reality TV star to becoming the 45th President of the United States of America and if I may be so bold, I would like to end with a quote from the Quran and of course those three words I promised:

My people! Give full measure and weight with justice, do not diminish the goods of others,          and do not go about creating corruption in the land.” (11:85)

Congratulations Mr. President.

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