Investigations | 27 Oct 2014

On the dawn of the first day Eid al-Adha [Muslim feast following the Hajj Pilgrimage in Mecca], the well-known Syrian thinker, writer, and anti-regime activist Afra Chalabi headed to al-Noor Cultural Center in the Canadian city of Toronto, and delivered the Eid sermon there; a hitherto unprecedented step for a Syrian woman. 

The mosque witnessed the presence of a woman and a man side by side, namely the orator and the imam. This, as Chalabi explained on her Facebook account before she went to Toronto, was part of her own jihad against extremism, and an attempt to help preserve an Islam whose current and former challenge, remains equality. 

These were the ideas Chalabi hoisted onto the pulpit, where only men are traditionally allowed, to face a panoply of responses. 

After delivering the sermon, the Syrian thinker wrote on her Facebook profile page: "A big 'thank you' to those who supported, encouraged, wrote kind words on the Eid sermon delivered today in Toronto," adding: "As for the rest, who were in a state of shock and displayed some strong reactions; may God forgive them and guide their hearts. I see such reactions as due to their love and zeal to maintain a certain legacy within a specific traditional understanding."

Many were apprehensive of this step, as evident by one commenter's words: "Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with Islam whatsoever;" while another going on the offensive, saying: "I did not like this! May God punish you and whoever taught you Islam!" 

These attackers obviously were unaware of the fact that the Syrian thinker had received a religious upbringing at the hands of her father, the humanitarian thinker Khales Chalabi, as well as at the hands of her uncle, contemporary Islamic thinker Jawdat Said.

Chalabi, who since 2000 has contributed to many peaceful gatherings of the opposition to the Syrian regime, and is a member of the current National Council, went on stating on her Facebook page: "It is imperative in these times that we stand close to one another, even if we see errors. We should guide each other to what is right and grant each other patience."

She explains: "I made an effort. If I had been unsuccessful, God will reward me for my diligence. If my effort was successful, however, I would have been able to open a space of hope and have participated in resolving our challenges. Islam is a clearly defined religion with enormous spaces to allow for a multitude of individual opinions, and is designed to be viable for many manifestations in different places and times." 

As many as the detractors Chalabi’s step attracted, it also found many fans and supporters who stressed its importance, and who are awaiting an audio or video copy of the sermon delivered. 

The Syrian regime opponent’s step was preceded by the American Amina Wadud, a United States university professor who led worshippers in prayers in 2005 in New York, and subsequently received death threats. That did not stop her, however, from delivering the Friday sermon in Oxford in 2008, and also facing many cleric-led campaigns, among whom was the Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who labeled Wadud’s actions as "a reprehensible heresy."

Afra Chalabi was born in the town of Beer Ajam in the Syrian Golan, in 1969, from a Circassian mother and a Kurdish father. She spent her childhood in an enlightened Muslim environment, and completed her studies in Canada, receiving a Bachelor of anthropological and political science from McGill University, and a master's degree in journalism from Carleton University.

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