Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In retrospect...

So Ramadan came and went. Like it does every year. Only this year was a little different. I've never had such a tough Ramadan in a very long time, if ever. I don't know exactly what was so taxing about it, because it wasn't the hunger or the thirst or the chronic exhaustion. No, all that was easy. It was just something else...

In any case, it was a good and successful month. I managed to do what I had to do and get through each day by the grace of The Almighty.

There was still a lot that I wanted to say on this blog during the month that I didn't get to say because I either had no time or no energy. Maybe next year. People don't know how much it takes out of me to do posts based on religion.

I read a lot recreationally throughout the year, and over months and years I collate necessary information to bring to this blog - not only for public knowledge - but for myself really. So some of those posts were months and even years in the making. It's not easy putting it together, especially because it requires checking, re-checking and validating the information and its sources. And for some inexplicable reason, it's emotionally draining.

I've often said that there's nothing wrong with Islam, but there's a lot wrong with Muslims in general. And I believe that more than ever before.

For some reason, many Muslims cannot reconcile their beliefs with their secular lifestyles and tend to veer from one extreme to the next. It's like they'll either become fanatical, or they want to change the rules of Islam to suit them, or they abandon the religion altogether. Most Muslims don't know the how to worship and still live in the 21st century. And for that, I place the blame squarely on their effed up cultures that dictate how and who people should be in their societies. Please note this is NOT EVERYONE, ONLY A FRACTION OF THE POPULATION, BUT ENOUGH PEOPLE TO GIVE THE REST A BAD NAME.

I've never been a fan of culture. Like I said previously, where Islam was meant to unify, culture did nothing but divide. That aside, I know enough to know that every society cannot exist without culture - so we're basically screwed.

I rarely talk of my religion outside of Ramadan because for me, it's a very intimate and personal thing. I don't mind answering any questions and giving my opinion when asked. But for the most part, my relationship with God Almighty is no ones business but my own. I worship and practice Islam in a way that is very much a part of my every day life. It's like brushing my teeth. It's something I have to do for myself and I don't expect a medal every time I do it. I don't expect to get rewarded for my worship any more than one would expect to be rewarded for combing ones hair.

For those who believe that Muslim women are oppressed, let me just state for the record that I am very happy to have been born a Muslim and that I get to pratice Islam, in much the same way my second cousin Lila is very happy to have been born Catholic and to be practicing Christianity - and we respect each others beliefs. To each his own. There is no one else I'd rather be, and I wouldn't give it up for the world.

I have the utmost respect for all faiths. I truely believe that every single person out there has the right to forge their own path to The Divine, in any manner they choose, as long as it doesn't hurt others. And I will never stop anyone from seeking Him out. My name is not God and I do not judge or condemn.

Belated Eid Mubarak to all the people who celebrated on Sunday.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The prophecy against terrorism

When you mention the word prophecy, some people immediately think of Indiana Jones in his Fedora and leather jacket, off on some unknown adventure with dramatic music playing in the background. But this is not that kind of Prophecy...

For many people, Osama Bin Laden invented Terrorism when the orchestrated attacks on the Twin Towers occurred on September 11, 2001, in New York City. The truth is that Terrorism and terrorist activities have existed for thousands of years before then, and atrocious acts were committed by people from every race, ethnicity and denomination. In Islam, we were actually warned against it by Prophet Muhammed SAW.

The Khawārij (the dissenters) belong to a sect of Islam that rose in their numbers circa 657AD - about 25 years after the Death of the Prophet Muhammed SAW.

Back in the day, there were studies conducted about them and it was found that the Khawārij were truthful and sincere and they never lied or fabricated the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet). But the major flaw in the characteristics of the Khawārij is extremism and the fact that they don't mind killing. They took the law set down for Muslims and twisted it to suit themselves... I'm sure many people are familiar with the concept of "Killing in the name of God"... "a Jihad" of some sort. Problem was, they were fighting a war against their own people, for no other reason other than they enjoyed it.

A few decades earlier, the Prophet Muhammed SAW was dividing the booty of war, when he first encountered the beginnings of the Khawārij in a man named Al-Khuwaysrah (sp?). This man, Al-Khuwaysrah, ordered The Prophet SAW with great arrogance and pride to "be just" in his distribution. Surprised, the Prophet SAW responded "Who could do justice if I did not? I would be a desperate loser if I did not do justice".

The Prophet's companion and friend who was at his side at the incident, Omar RA, immediately took offence and said "Let me chop off his head" but the Prophet SAW told him:

"Leave him alone. He will have followers, or descendants, whom you would see your prayers compared to theirs as insignificant. And your fasting compared to theirs as insignificant." They would worship Allah so much, that the Sahaba's (Prophets closest friends) Salaah compared to the Khawārij would be nothing. And the fasting of the Sahaba compared to theirs would be nothing. From the outside they seem to be very righteous, they pray so much and they fast so much"..."they read Quran but it doesn't go past their throats", meaning the Quran has NO application in their lives, it's just words that are coming out of their mouths. You'll hear the Quran but there's no Quran in their minds or in their hearts.

And then The Prophet Muhammed SAW said that they would leave Islam fast and swiftly, because of their extreme positions. "You'll see them praying and fasting and they're doing very well in their worship - but they've already left the religion a long time ago, and you didn't even know about it. They're so righteous on the outside but on the inside, they're rigid like a solid rock". And the Prophet SAW told Omar RA that the sources of the sect of The Khawārij, were people like Al-Khuwaysrah - those with pride, rudeness, arrogance and extremism of mind.  [BUKHARI narrated by Al-Awliki]

The Khawārij caused much distress among the Muslims and were responsible for the execution or assassination of Uthman RA, one of the closest companions of the Prophet SAW and the third Caliph and leader of the Muslims after the Prophets death. They were responsible for the First Fitnah - the major war among the Muslims of that time. In fact, they were behind most of the wars fought amongst the Muslims after the Death of the Prophet Muhammed SAW. And when they saw peace among the Muslims, they didn't like it. It was only when they saw bloodshed did they participate and they wanted the bloodshed to continue. There was no reasoning with them and they did not leave their fellow Muslims alone. They brutally killed everyone who did not support their cause.

The Prophet SAW had said years earlier: "If I live until that time (the time the Khawārij would dominate), I would kill them like the people of A'ad were killed", meaning complete elimination because such a mentality could not be dealt with by reason. These are people you cannot reason with. They are bloodthirsty, they want bloodshed and will not settle for anything less. And the Prophet SAW warned that if you leave them alone, they will NOT leave you alone and therefore, the only way to get rid of them is by elimination of their fitnah.  [BUKHARI narrated by Al-Awliki]

Contrary to popular secular belief, the Prophet SAW was not a violent man. Hundreds of historical accounts prove this. There's a well known Hadith (quote from the Prophet) saying: If you are angry and you're standing, then sit. And if you are sitting, lay down (i.e. change or alter your mood) because anger comes from the Devil. Hence, we are not encouraged to fight with the exception of severe circumstances. This belief was exemplified one day when the Prophet SAW was sitting in a mosque with his closest friends and companions when a man walked in and defiantly urinated in the mosque - in front of all of them. Almost immediately, the Prophet's companions got up and wanted to kill this man but the Prophet SAW stopped them. And after the man who urinated left, the Prophet SAW got up from his position and went to clean the mess  up himself. 

Now, the fitnah of The Khawārij was not limited to that era. The Prophet SAW said that their fitnah would continue... "whenever one generation of them leaves, another generation of them would come up again until the time of Dajjal (The Anti-Christ)". It's not a linear continuation where one generation is teaching the next. Because of their extremist nature, they inevitably disagree with each other and end up fighting against and killing each other or they are killed by outside forces.  [BUKHARI narrated by Al-Awliki]

But extremism then comes up in the minds of different people, like a disease and a new generation comes about, until they fight and cause bloodshed and are eliminated and the cycle continues. That's the mentality they have, they have to make trouble and they have to fight even if there is no cause. They were considered the most evil of people. Their major characteristics also include the ease with which they accuse people of disbelief - accusing their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in particular.

The greatest irony would be that the knowledge on Islam that the Khawārij possess can be considered immaculate in its nature - yet they are NOT considered Muslims under Islamic Law. In fact, their cause has nothing to do with religion and they use Islam as a mask to justify their actions. [BUKHARI narrated by Al-Awliki]

I'm sure this sounds very familiar to many people - especially to my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters. I've encountered people with these mentalities in varying degrees (some much less threatening and aggressive) but still quite fanatical. Many times, these people will give themselves titles to display an authority they don't have. And then there are other, lesser known people who follow these so-called fanatical leaders whose mentalities can either be attributed to ignorance or brainwashing.

Yes, brainwashing. I didn't know it existed either until a few years ago when I was caught off guard by this absolutely chilling post from my friend Tazeen in Pakistan who had interviewed several people with similar mindsets for a publication. And I can recall how that little boy, who was so fond of her at first, did not even blink when he told her he wouldn't hesitate to kill her if she didn't wear the headscarf.

More on the Khawārij here, here and here.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Muslim Girl Problems: Understanding, being understood & separating the truth from the lies

If there was one thing I wish I could do really well, it would be to speak a variety of languages fluently. There's something beautiful and transcendent about understanding and being understood. However, I learned a long time ago that learning to speak an additional language is much more difficult than it seems because it involves more than just learning vocabulary and grammar - it also encompasses learning various aspects and nuances of an entire culture.

People often underestimate the tremendous role that culture plays in Islam. It is the reason that there are currently 72 different factions in our religion - some of which are very similar and others which are worlds apart.

I used to get upset whenever someone approached me with inaccurate information regarding Islam. And then one day I realised just how much rubbish there is out there on the internet and in books - some of which comes from people with differing beliefs and opinions, from different cultural backgrounds and influences; others from complete idiots sprouting absolute nonsense from assumptions they've made or overheard. If I want information on Christianity, I can't go and ask the leader of The Klu Klux Klan now can I?

So I can hardly blame people who don’t know any better for thinking or believing certain things to be true about Islam. For these reasons, I've decided to do a little spit and polish clarification. I will address the questions I get asked the most. For the record: my thoughts here are not intended to convert the masses or impose on other peoples beliefs - it is merely to clarify and educate. By Islamic law (not what you may have heard or seen before but the real true law) I am commanded to respect everyone elses beliefs. To each his own, as stated in the Quran:

" ...You will not believe in what I believe, I will not believe in what you believe, hence, your faith is with you and my faith is with me." Ergo, no force, no competition, no comparisons......you do what you think is good, I will do what I think is good (Quran 109:1-6).

When Christianity spread throughout the world, in many ways it was not only the religion itself, but the Roman-Anglo-Saxon culture that was adopted too. This is where Islam differed significantly. While the religion spread rapidly in the span of a few hundred years, it was only that successful because to a large degree, it accepted and accommodated various cultures in its teachings. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad SAW² himself allowed people to practice their cultural beliefs as long as they didn't contravene any of the major laws of Islam. Many of the teachers and scholars that came after him did the same, for example, Imam Shafi actually altered some of the teachings to fit into the culture of the place he was teaching in.

And as it happened over the years, aspects of culture and religion intertwined and that is why we have so many people today who essentially conform to the same basic set of principles, yet are so different in their  beliefs. Examples of this include the vast differences between the Sunni and Shia factions of Islam on a broader scale - as well as those minor variations within the individual sects themselves.

Geographically speaking, in many regions, culture has doctored Islam to a degree. For instance, the Asian cultural preoccupation with male-superiority and a patriarchal male-dominated society has filtered into the people's religious beliefs and their practices as such - when in fact Islam gave rights to women before any Democracy ever did and emphatically states that Men and Women are equal but have different roles in society.

"But the Quran says..."
I often get told what the Quran says by people who know very little about it. They will read a line or two that is either quoted on a website or take abstracts from an English version of the book and sprout their knowledge on what they think they know about Islam.

What many people don't know or realise is that Islam was built on the foundation of those religions that came before it i.e. Judaism and Christianity. We are commanded to believe in all The Almighty's Prophets (Adam, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed AS¹ etc) and His books (Torah, Psalms of David, Scrolls of Abraham and the Gospels of Jesus - although we don't accept The New Testament) and His angels (Archangels Gabriel, Micheal, Azrael etc) as set out in the 6 Articles of Faith, without which we wouldn't be recognised or even considered as Muslims.

The Quran was revealed to Mohammed SAW when he was 40 years old over a period of approximately 23 years. It was relayed verbally to him by the Archangel Gabriel who often visited him thereafter to relay the verses and messages from The Almighty.

To Muslims, the Quran isn't just a book, it is God's word verbatim. Hence every "translation" isn't really a translation but merely an interpretation of what that particular person believes or understands to be true, given his knowledge on the vernacular.

Let this digest a little.

This tiny piece of information brings with it a myriad of potential problems and complexities, the magnitude of which I don't believe many people (even some Muslims) truly comprehend. Unlike Christians who had St. Paul and Peter laying out biblical law according to what they believed to be true (and which was subsequently accepted as such) the Quran has only ever had various interpretations of it, some of which differ ever so slightly. It's kinda like a poem where people's interpretations of what the poet was actually saying may differ to varying degrees; some closer to the truth than others.

In terms of language, the Arabic used in the Quran is to modern-day Arabic what Shakespearean English is to modern-day high school English. And the problem with language, syntax and lexicon is that it differs significantly over regions and constantly changes over time. A few hundred years ago, Shakespeare used the word "Gay" to describe someone who was very happy. Today, it means something else entirely.

This is a problem with modern-day Arabic as well. Many words have several meanings, some of which mean something else entirely. Hence, it is not only important, but essential that any kind of interpretation of the Quran be done with the utmost care, to reveal the message as it was intended to be revealed, without it getting warped in the process.

It is also worth noting that the Quran is not in chronological order. Almost all the verses were revealed during some event or occurrence in which guidance was needed. So essentially every verse came down in accordance (and in response) to what happened at a specific moment in time.

Therefore, quoting random verses out of from the Quran out of context without referring to the Tafsir (an extensive commentary of the story behind the verse) or the Hadith (the Prophet's SAW narration of the verse in relation to the message or lesson behind the story); is not only grossly inaccurate but dangerous and damaging, completely distorting the message meant to be relayed.

It would be akin to telling the story of Cinderella like this: "Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella. She lived in a...The End", there's no explanation on how she got her name, or any information on her family situation, or what happens to her from the beginning to the end of the story. Hence, the information is not only incomplete but it doesn't make sense on a grander scale and leaves room for conjecture.

And that is why some people would believe that the Quran permits violence and murder, by taking one line out of a passage without considering the other 5 verses or the Tafsir behind them which goes into detail explaining that if you encounter someone who intends to harm you or your family, you have every right to defend them and yourself.

It is such misconceptions that have influenced a whole breed of ignorant haters (amongst them some ill-informed Muslim terrorists too) and contributed to the negativity and Islamaphobia we see today. All because someone didn't read the message in context.

And such is the importance of CONTEXT:

A few months ago I happened to drive by a poster with that day's news headlines which read something like: PIRATES TAKE OUT NIGERIAN. And I immediately thought to myself, these damn Somali Pirates, why can't they leave everyone alone instead of trawling up and down Africa's coastline like a bunch of neanderthals. And in the meantime, what the headline was actually referring to was our local premier soccer team, The Orlando Pirates who were negotiating with another Nigerian soccer player to join/leave their club.

See how easy it is to jump to conclusions? It's similar to the importance of punctuation:

I've heard other criticisms of the Quran which include promises of awarding men with 70 000 virgins for behaving themselves on earth etc. This is where culture has altered the message somewhat. The promise was not only made to men - it includes women too. And hell yeah I'd like 70 000 David Gandy's and Ian Somerhalders and Josh Duhamels and Karim Zianis and Ryan Goslings as a reward. Sign me up for that.

Jokes aside, this is how I see it: The Quran was specifically sent to Arabia around the year 609AD, in a time when chaos, debauchery and lawlessness reigned and men were burying their daughters alive etc. and in order to entice them to live righteously, The Almighty used language that appealed to them, at that specific time, in that specific era. So the palaces made out of gold and silver and the 70 000 virgins were what those Arabs valued at that specific time in history, and the promise thereof was an incentive for them to begin to live righteously.

I have no doubt in my mind that if the Quran was revealed today that we'd all be promised Ferrari's, Super Yachts, Italian Villas on the best beaches, Diamond Rolex's, iPhones that can Skype Heaven, and everything else that man values today.

In many ways, the Islam we have today is nothing like the Islam that existed 1400 years ago. It has been stripped of it's beauty and purity and tainted with cultural prohibitions, misconceptions and silly hang-ups. The key is to know your religion and how its teachings differ from your culture. Or at the very least, go and find out.

1. AS - AlySalam meaning: peace be upon him.
2. SAW - SallaAllahualayhi WaSalam meaning: may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Muslim Girl Problems: Putting your foot in it & not letting your pants fall down

There's something about getting caught with your foot in the basin in the ladies bathroom at work that conjures up images of a deer caught in headlights. How do you explain what you're doing while trying to brush off that "you're weird" glint in the oppositions eye? But I'm getting ahead of myself...

As Muslims, we are required to pray 5 times a day. We bow down to The Almighty to acknowledge Him and what He has bestowed upon us. It's about always staying in a state of God Consciousness and really, it isn't half as strenuous as it sounds.

I'm not your average Muslim female. For one, I don't wear the headscarf (no excuses - I should be doing it - I just don't). And while I dress very modestly (mostly covered), I'm what they call very modern.

Now, in the land of Muslims females, the majority tend to fall into one of two categories: the traditional-headscarf-wearing-praying-five-times-daily kind of girl and the non-traditional-I-wear-and-do-anything-I-like-and-not-very-religious kind of girl. Then there is a minority third group: the Yes-I-follow-and-practice-Islam-but-I'm-also-fairly-modern-in-many-ways kind of girl.

And I fall into the third category. Well sort-of.

A few days before Ramadan began, one of my colleagues asked me if I'd be wearing the scarf in Ramadan (like some of the female Muslims at work do). I replied "no" and told her that for some reason, I just can't seem to get there - to that point (of wearing the scarf). And besides, I don't feel comfortable with the idea of wearing the scarf specifically for Ramadan and then removing it afterwards. It's like, what does that say about me? And while I don't have any issues with others doing it (many members of my family do it), it just doesn't sit well with me. All she said in her heavy Spanish accent was that "people grow and they grow in their beliefs too".

So headscarf aside, I am still a practising Muslim and I adhere to the five pillars of Islam. However, many people would never believe it. Because I wear a suit, and my hair is piled up into a sophisticated chignon or is usually blowdried to Heaven, and I stomp around in my heels; to others I couldn't possibly worship Allah SWT. I couldn't possibly be as sincere in my prayers as they are in theirs. I'm supposed to be some kind of heathen as it is.

These thoughts amuse me and I'm never bothered by what other's think because for me, prayer is a very intimate thing. It's my one-on-one time with The Lord. So in many ways, I try to be alone (even though it is recommended you pray in groups) and I will go to the office that is our designated Prayer Room at times when I'm sure that no one will be there.

On this particular day, I woke up very hungry. I spent the entire morning vacillating between hunger, exhaustion and thirst and I briefly contemplated not performing my Salaah as usual. I was so exhausted and thinking of all the reasons it wouldn't be a good idea to pray at work. I could always do it at home, make up for the day I thought to myself.

But something wasn't right. I felt restless, anxious and a growing need to just go and do it. Unfortunately, I had procrastinated for a little too long to avoid any run-ins with fellow Muslims who would also want to pray, but I braved myself for whatever was to come. The growing need was now a fully fledged obsession so I gathered whatever strength I had and went to the bathroom to perform the ablution. Rinse the hands, mouth, nostrils, face, arms and end with the feet. Two minutes was all it would take.

And that's when two unsuspecting females walked into the bathroom - with my left foot extended in gymnastic proportions to get into the high marbled basin. It was slightly embarrassing, but I was too concerned about doing what I had set out to do to care. After making my apologies, I set off to the Prayer Room, still starving and ready to eat the door off its hinges.

I got there just in time, I thought. Praying would be a challenge on this day because for one I was slightly late and forgot my burqa (long head-shoulder covering not to be confused with the burqa/niqab that covers the face). And secondly, while the waist of my pants was too tight to prostrate in, undoing the button would guarantee that my pants would fall down and I was expecting a barrage of men coming to pray at any moment and the last thing I needed was for them to see me in a borrowed burqa and with my pants around my ankles.

Thinking as quick as I could, I enlisted the help of a safety pin and strategically pinned the pants in such a way that I could move freely whilst ensuring that it stayed on me at all time. In a frenzy, I tried to get started so that I'd avoid any people and just as I was about to begin, in came Asif, a colleague from Britain. Fortunately, he had no qualms about praying in the same room with a strange woman, and both of us late and in a hurry, we didn't have time to talk it over. We just left the office door open and went about it.

Initially I felt a little uncomfortable with Asif there - and then two Moroccan guys joining in later - but something happens when you focus all your energy into one solid place. Everything else melts away, all the anxiety, frustration, hunger, pain and exhaustion just melts away and you find yourself in a calm peaceful space.

I like to contemplate The Almighty in that time. I think of Him as belonging to the very fibre of the fabric of my being. In those moments, I see Him everywhere... in the carpet I'm sitting on because He created the man who made it and bestowed upon him the knowledge and skill to create it... I see The Almighty in myself, "closer than the jugular vein", in every heartbeat, in the walls, in the building, in the people I'm surrounded by, in the entire world.

And in those moments I realise that I'm still physically hungry, but my soul is full.