Rebecca Masterton is a British Islamic scholar, educator, public speaker, academic, author, television presenter, and philosopher of Shia Islam. She has written short stories and a collection of those stories has published entitled Passing Through the Dream-To the Other Side.
Masterton was born in the South of England in a small town near the sea to a Christian family; she converted to Islam in 1999.
Rebecca Masterton works at Ahlulbayt TV, where she interviews Islamic intellectuals and presents their views on Shia Islam. She is also a senior lecturer at The Islamic College London.
Shafaqna had the great pleasure of sitting down with Rebecca Masterton to get her views on religion, world events and other issues related to Islam.
SHAFAQNA – If I’m not mistaken you taught Islamic mysticism at Birkbeck College. Could you please tell us a bit more about the nature of your teachings and what drew you to that particular aspect of Islam in the first place?
Rebecca Masterton – Since I was a child I have had an instinctive attachment to the spiritual world, and always felt a sense of detachment from this world. I have also always been interested in the mind and the soul and how to know it and cultivate it; however, this is not how my secular society is really oriented. People live as if the spiritual world doesn’t exist, when there is plenty of proof that it does – people’s encounters with those who have passed on to the next world, being an example. This country has more or less totally lost any kind of initiatory, psycho-spiritual tradition, so if you are seeking that, you just pick up bits and pieces here and there and mix and match with no coherent underlying philosophy. When I found Islam, I found a body of teachings that confirmed my world view and that also focused on knowing and cultivating the mind and soul, so it was natural for me to progress into studying that. Nowadays I focus on studying the ‘ilm al-bātin of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (as).
SHAFAQNA – Islamic mysticism is a fascinating subject, a mind-boggling subject actually as in all our imperfections we are essentially grasping for the divine. How would you define this search for the truth?
Rebecca Masterton – As Pascal says ‘You would not seek Me if you had not found Me.’ We seek a higher understanding of truth, because we already know something of what that truth is. The term ‘mysticism’ derives from the Greek, meaning something that is not spoken about. There are many types of mysticism; some authentic, some not. In ancient times, people who sought an advanced apprehension of essential Reality as it is in Itself, would be initiated into methods that would enable them to operate beyond the five external senses; however, since what they learned might be misunderstood by others, they were also obliged to keep a vow of silence. The same can be seen in the way that the Imams (as) taught their closest Shi‘a.
SHAFAQNA – Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. It is also I believe the most misunderstood and misrepresented religion in the world. And though Islam is one there have been so many conflicting current of ideas, doctrines and interpretations … why is that?
Rebecca Masterton – We can trace the splits and different interpretations back to the event of Saqifa, where people who had kept company with Prophet Muhammad (s) in his lifetime quickly organised to take the succession for themselves, and invented a secular kind of Government, founded upon falsified prophetic narrations and changes to the Shari‘a, so that those who followed the Government could be easily identified from those who followed Imam Ali (as) and his successors. The true teachings were driven underground, and this has made collecting and systematising them a challenge. Shi‘i Studies as field in the West has only really developed in the last forty years.
SHAFAQNA – In 2010 you broadcasted live from the holy city of Karbala on the 10th of Muharram. Karbala holds a very significant place in Shia Islam. Imam Hussein (AS) has come to symbolise the very essence of martyrdom, utmost courage, devotion to the truth and selflessness. What is the lesson of Karbala?
Rebecca Masterton – It’s very difficult to sum that up in a few sentences. Perhaps one lesson is that, if you ask for knowledge, make sure you are prepared to receive it. The Imam has more knowledge to give than we can imagine. We don’t even know a fraction of it, and we prevent ourselves from being in the condition for receiving it because of being embroiled in petty issues. We drag ourselves down then complain to Allah (swt), all the while missing the beautiful opportunity that is awaiting us.
SHAFAQNA – You actually experienced Karbala. You were there and you were able to perform your pilgrimage. Can you share your experience with our readers?
Rebecca Masterton – I have been to Karbala four times, al-hamdulillah; three times in the Month of Muharram. The first time I went was in 2009, invited by Ahlulbayt TV to present programmes live from outside the Haram of Imam al-Husayn (as) from the roof of a studio that was situated in a building that had been declared ‘unsafe’ by the US administration. One of our team had not been back to Iraq for thirty-two years, since his family had had to leave and go into exile. We accompanied a ziyarat group and arrived at Baghdad. Coming immediately afterwards was a whole plane load of American workers. Their mood was dramatically different from ours, and I felt privileged that we were going to visit the Imam (as), and sad that the Americans knew nothing about him. The elderly, women and children in our group were excited, elated to be in this holy land, while the Americans sat waiting to go through immigration looking stony-faced and miserable. The country was still very much one that had been adjusted for war conditions. There were helicopters flying over-head, no-go zones, lots of check points on the way to Karbala. Even just having so many check-points affects your mind. Later when I was in a coach in Sweden on the way to the airport, and it stopped at a petrol station, my mind immediately thought ‘we must be at a check point’. You can’t imagine how people’s minds in Iraq have been affected by these conditions.
Karbala was kept deliberately impoverished by Saddam. It is a city that is in its own world. There were many derelict buildings; wires everywhere connected to generators for when the electricity cuts out. There were more check-points all around the city as you go in. People were very nervous of cameras. I think that in just a few years since then, the situation has changed dramatically. There is a lot of rebuilding, businesses are opening up, people have got used to cameras.
It was an incredible experience to be sitting right opposite the Haram; to be right at the location of what happened at Karbala, where the martyrs gave their lives; where Imam Husayn (as) and his family are buried. It really ignites something inside of you. It is also refreshing to be in a place where everyone has the same intention, to pay their respects to the Imam (as), no matter what their background. Sometimes people blame others for not living a very good life outside of Muharram and see them as hypocrites for coming to visit the Imam, but I would argue that the fact that so many people come, no matter how they may be living outside of those moments, demonstrates the power of the Imam (as) – and who knows who he will accept and not accept?
I find it amazing that after so many years of oppression, Karbala has sprung back to life with more people than ever coming to show their love.
SHAFAQNA – I’d like to stay on the subject of Ahlulbayt. Why is it that Sunni Islam cares so little for Ahlulbayt?
Rebecca Masterton – There are many types of Sunni Islam, so a single label can’t be used for a wide range of groups. Some groups sincerely intend to love the Ahl al-Bayt (as), even if they don’t know their history; other groups are keen to denigrate the Ahl al-Bayt (as) as if to prove the affirmation of the oneness of God by belittling the human beings that He (swt) sent as guides. In general, ever since Mu’awiya launched his campaign of defamation of Imam Ali (as), the Ahl al-Bayt (as) have been pushed out of Islamic history; removed from the books, the tafsirs, the narrations and people’s memory. The majority of Muslims therefore, have been kept from knowing who they are, their history and their teachings by the State for fourteen centuries. Were the majority to find out what really happened, they would not tolerate the despots ruling over them.
SHAFAQNA – How would you define the significance, role and teachings of Ahlulbayt?
Rebecca Masterton – The teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt (as) guide the human being towards the highest possible standard of self-realisation and perfected conduct. Following the path of the Ahl al-Bayt (as) is following the path of Love.
SHAFAQNA – It seems at times that the world is at war with Shia Islam. Why do Sunnis feel so threatened by the teachings of Shia Islam, why such a spiritual dichotomy when our roots are identical?
Rebecca Masterton – I don’t think all of the world is at war with Shi‘a Islam, because much of the world does not know about it. When I speak to non-Muslims about it they are curious and interested. We must not be shy to tell people about their message. With regard to the majority of the Sunni world feeling threatened: this goes back to the centuries of state propaganda against the Shi‘a in order to prevent the masses from discovering the truth of the history of their governments. People have been trained to fear and hate the Shi‘a. Rumours and lies are circulated to prevent people from finding out about them. The Shi‘a need to make all effort to translate, publish and teach the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt (as).