It has never been my nature to attract romantic love, or to stumble into it unawares. The men I studied and worked with rarely interested in me, and I don't believe I interested them either. I was discreet, invisible, unseen, unheard. I was content with being a colleague, a classmate, an acquaintance - nothing more.
It has also never been my nature to share myself with others.
It’s been more than a trying last term in my Master’s program. By the God’s grace, life has been well.
But the other day was a day with a resounding message, a gift of thought. It reminded me to keep check, to maintain perspective no matter where I am.
I attended a talk by Professor Keren Dali, a library science professor in my faculty with an expertise in reading behaviour and reader’s advisory in the library context. In the talk, she discussed the dangers of reading and bibliotherapy. Both, she pointed out, come with their own set of caveats. With the advent of the novel and the sudden spread of reading fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors were wary of the effect reading had on people’s–specifically women’s–physical and mental states. Reading, they said, put one in an alternate state of mind which was nothing short of pathological. It made readers oversympathize and overidentify with the characters and experience their stories viscerally, which physiologically taxed their bodies. At the same time, readers had a perpetual sense of guilt for neglecting their “real world” duties, which added to the stressors. The critic Samuel Johnson introduced a philosophical dimension to the reading obsession by saying that reading had the tendency to “produce effects almost without the intervention of the will.”
Attitudes towards reading have transformed so radically that they have veered towards the other extreme: the innate goodness of reading is now accepted without question. Professor Dali recalled attending a workshop at a librarians’ conference in which a bibliotherapy workshop was proposed for aging patrons undergoing significant life transitions. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. She, however, was stunned, and could not believe that the matter of people’s lives was being taken so lightly. She urged librarians working in readers’ advisory to be mindful of the specificity of people’s personal problems. And while librarians are nowhere close to being sources of professional help–even bibliotherapy requires certification–it is their responsibility to follow stricter rules in readers advisory when it came to matters of bibliotherapy. Only recommend a book that you have read, that you genuinely loved, and that helped you in a similar time. Keep in mind that reading is not therapy in itself: it is supportive.
This talk challenged the mindset that reading is a good unto itself. Professor Dali’s talk was met with several snickers, but the truth of the matter is, it is just as easy for reading to worsen one’s mindset as it is to improve it. Someone who has a tendency to be deluded, or to numb themselves with formulaically constructed stories, should be encouraged to indulge in escapist reading.
That same day, I finally watched Life of Pi in the theatre with my little brother. Both of us are highly sensitive and have a hard time seeing any beings–particularly animals–in difficult situations. We shrunk back in our seats during some especially tumultuous scenes, and on many occasions he simply covered his eyes.
Afterwards I tried to explain to him what I wish I was told ages ago: to not be afraid of feeling sad, to be brave about it. I recounted the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of his son as a metaphor for how we must let go of things that we are attached to with sabr. I tried to tell him that these glimpses of sadness are hints into the greater sadnesses that lie ahead for us, and being unafraid of it makes us become aware of what may befall us at a moment’s notice.
Thus, while bibliotherapy is traditionally applied to those who are struggling with problems and are at a low point, I can’t help but think of think of the flip side of things: that “therapy” also applies to being humbled when things are going well. I was not happy at how my insides retracted while watching Life of Pi. Had I watched the movie last summer, when I was grappling with intense hopelessness and fear, I would have taken those feelings in stride, paying them no heed.
This phenomenon even applies to physical pain. I once had an accident involving a spillage of boiling water that blistered left a scar on my hand–and yet, I was so stressed and overwhelmed at that time that I paid it no heed. I am certain that if I were content and happy, that pain would have been worse.
Bibliotherapy may start with a fictional story, but then the gaze should shift to other injustices and atrocities I may not usually be equipped to think about. Now it is time to watch that footage of animal treatment in factory farms and seriously rethink my dietary choices. Now I need to revisit my phobias and expose myself to their triggers. Now I need to grow in ways I cannot when I am feeling down. And just like there is no knowing when we will die, there is no knowing how long happiness and contentment will last.
Bibliotherapy does not necessarily have to involve books. It involves appropriate usage powerful narratives that should instill us with appropriate doses of hope or fear, depending on what we need at that particular time. It means–no matter what our situation–being mindful of the extremely limited role our individual lives play in the grand scheme of things. I may not spend a lot of time in the day explicitly weighing my fear of God in respect to my love and gratitude to him for placing me where I am now, but I can remind myself of the issues that I am better equipped to face now.
I am relatively happier and more content than I have been for a long time, and I pray that Allah make me not heedless in this time, or hoplessly paralyzed when things go bad. I am at the mercy of whatever he choses to bestow on me, but a step beyond just surrendering to it is being proactive in building stores of courage and and an armor of resilience.
“If you can give me the answer to four questions, I will be your wife.” He said, “Ask, and if God permit, I will answer you.”
She said then, “What will the Judge of the world say when I die? That I have come out of the world a Muslim or an unbeliever?”
Hasan answered, “This is among the hidden things, which are known only to God Most High.”
Then she said, “When I am put in the grave and Munkar and Nakir question me, shall I be able to answer them (satisfactorily) or not?” He replied, “This is also hidden.”
She said next, “When the people are assembled at the Resurrection and the books are distributed, and some are given their book in the right hand and some in the left, shall I be given mine in my right hand or my left?” He could only say, “This also is among the hidden things.”
Finally she asked, “When mankind is summoned (on the Day of Judgement), some to Paradise and some to Hell, in which of the two groups shall I be?” He answered as before, “This, too, is hidden and none knows what is hidden save God, His is the glory and majesty.”
Then she said to him, “Since this is so, and I have these four questions with which to concern myself, how should I need a husband, with whom to be occupied?”*
* Source: Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rabi’a and Other Women Mystics in Islam by Margaret Smith
The film follows Sami Malik, a clever young South Asian Muslim man as he travels to 1970s America to seek glory and impress his childhood crush, only to end up as a mailroom clerk with two oddball roommates, entwined in a messy web of escapades as he tries to achieve his dream.
For readers of this blog, however, more important to Sami’s story is who he is–a Muslim. While the film isn’t about his faith, Sami’s religion is an aspect of his identity. And that’s something we don’t see very often in film.
These days, it seems like every other group has been normalized through film and television. We saw it happen with the Cosby Show, and we’ve seen how far the gay community has come largely through depictions on shows like Glee and Modern Family. But we don’t see it happening for Muslims.
Through The Tiger Hunter, we are trying to do what we can to help jumpstart a trend of normalizing Muslims through media. We’re likable! We have unique stories that people want to see! So why not have movies with us as lead characters?
Our good intentions, thus far, have been rewarded. We are speaking with top actors for the roles (we already have one known celebrity on board), we have interest from distributors, we have Hollywood personnel on board, and are working with some of the Muslims on board who have the best chance of making it in the industry. Now, we just need the last bit of financing.
Historically, it is the burden of the community to put itself into the limelight. When Spike Lee began making films to help the African-American community, he first asked for money from his community. When the gay community as I mentioned wanted to become more mainstream, it was gay producers like Ryan Murphy (who created Glee) who were in the lead. It is time now that Muslims took the same steps, and I hope you will support us in our upcoming film.
Believe it or not, every little bit helps. If you can support us at all in this project, please visit our Kickstarter page at http://kck.st/13tcFx8. Your pledges, support and prayers are extremely appreciated. This cannot be done without you.
I was recently taken to account for not using my blogging presence to address human rights violations and killings of Muslims around the world. It touched a nerve. (And my nerves, mind you, aren’t hung on a clothesline for the world to mess with.)
What my friend was saying was: “As a Muslim, you cannot stay silent about injustice. You have to stop evil however you can.” What I was hearing was: “You’re insensitive and all you care about is yourself. The fact that you don’t write about these human rights violations means that you don’t care about them. You’re really, really lame. What are you going to do now, go and write about how this makes you feel?” Why, that is exactly what I am going to do!
In my response to my friend and thinking further about the situation, I found myself remembering a time when I was working on my LinkedIn profile, and came across the following section:
Bloody hell, I thought. I care about all of these. And I’m supposed to just choose a few?
There are also some problems of classification here. (In case you were wondering, these are the kinds of questions information studies scholars like to think about.) Don’t all of these things, on some level, have to do with human rights? Shouldn’t it be possible to care about two of these together: for example, education for children? Isn’t there a significant overlap between poverty alleviation and economic empowerment? Does caring about animal welfare mean that I sleep like a baby when a tragedy strikes and thousands are stranded without food or water? What do you mean by “other”? If someone is compelled to choose that option, shouldn’t they have to explain their choice, explain what quirky cause they have that is none of the above?
Anyway. I digress.
The point is, Allah has made us varied creatures with different sets of strengths: we’re not all meant to be scholars or warriors or doctors or labourers. In a similar fashion, the causes that we care about must be those that are most suited to our contexts and temperaments. Each person has a strength to write about and dedicate themselves to a certain cause.
Because I never keep things simple and brief, imma go on personal on this. I am, by nature, a deep, dark, brooding person. Positivity, laughter, and happiness are muscles I have had to work out to no end to be the who I am today. If I dealt with the stress of human rights violations and gendered violence the way some people do, I would shrivel up and die inside. I would not be a a reliable friend, a loving daughter and sister, or a contributing member to society. I would be paralyzed by grief, overwhelmed by all that is terrible about the world.
Thus, my cause takes on a different form. Generally, I am a pretty neutral and mellow person. I’d be the last person to get into a religious or political debate. However, I am very passionate about disseminating and structuring content in a fair, engaging and creative way. I mean, look at me. I’ve worked at a TV station, interned at various publishing houses, and have even done brief stints in teaching, including computer literacy training. I now edit a webzine on Islam and gender, volunteer at an organization that is working on creating early warning systems for genocide prevention, review books that I feel deserve attention, and am professionally looking towards the field of user experience. By doing these things, I am being true to what I am best at: making content available, helping facilitating conversations that need to be taking place, and creating systems that help address humanitarian issues. I am about things. I am very meta. Because that, I believe, is how I am made.
I also believe in respecting and upholding tawhid. That is why it did not make sense for me to be asked why I don’t write about injustices against Muslims. The question came from the assumption that one cause must be chosen at the expense of others. In actuality, in terms of Truth, we may not have to make that choice, as long as we recognize and respect both our individual and collective strengths.
Somewhat rambly, very unstructured. As always, bear with me.
I will bet my hijab collection that anyone who goes into an Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) convention for the first time with an open mind is bound to pick up at least one nugget of truth that illuminates their understanding of Islam.
For the first time.
I attended the convention two years in a row. The first year it made such an impact on me that it inspired me to start writing this blog–something I will always be grateful for. But after attending it the second year in a row and livestreaming it this year, I know that I am growing out of it. And I know I am not the only one. Other RIS veterans like myself are also realizing that they need more. They need more than to be told the messages they not only know, but have internalized. My prowling through tweets related to RIS have also piqued some other concerns. There were entire sessions devoted to how we should act when the Prophet is mocked. (A topic which, I think, has been done to death, especially considering that the RIS audience is not the sort to partake in a violent reaction.) But was there any mention of Malala Yousafzai? About what exactly we do about the oppressors who kill in the name of Islam? Where are the actionable items?
Seeing the gaps results in a muted disappointment like the one that comes with realizing that your parents are not geniuses. But you don’t love your parents any less when realizing this, or think they’ve gotten something terribly wrong. You just realize it’s you who’s changing, and you move on.
There is more, there is a much more personal element to my experience of RIS this year, and there is something insistent in me that compels me to share it here. My feelings about RIS are a reflection of my growing understanding of my own self in relation to–actually, more like my isolation from—the Muslim community.
Things have been this way for as long as I can remember, but it is only now that I am accepting it. Part of it has been always being a loner. Sometimes that aloneness is loneliness; sometimes it’s just alonneess. My Islamic studies teacher in high school once gave me a sympathetic look and said: “Your’e always alone, Sarah.” The lectures I would attend in college, or the events I attend now, I attend alone. I have attempted to nurture friendships with other Muslims, but they never took root. Then I started writing here, and as a result, almost all of the lively conversations I have had with Muslims take place online.
But I still deeply wanted the personal connection, some way of experiencing the same thing with friends I could see, touch, talk to. Yet, any attempt to recreate this phenomenon IRL has been pitiful. I feel like a guy who has desperately been trying to impress a girl for years, and finally realize that they are wrong for one another.
I feel as though I am in a room full of people having a hundred conversations, and completely isolated. I feel like I am being backed, and backed, and backed into a corner. I back until I’m pressed up against the wall, and I desperately want it to give way, I want to break out of it, carve a hole, go into another room. I have always had those other rooms: rooms with friends from school, from work, from my social life, friends I dine and dance and laugh with. Friends with whom I can never speak to in the language of this blog, but the only people I can truly call friends.
I am not disappointed or bitter now, but there was a time when I was, and I think it’s because I hold Muslims to higher standards. I expect to bump into them in vegan restaurants and begin impromptu conversations about the latest ruckus over wearing the niqab. I expect them to be more than approachable. Considering there’s so many of us, I expect to have people I can call up when a theological puzzle is nibbling away at my mind.
But those people, for whatever reason, aren’t there. I only write this because I now understand that I am not meant to have Muslim friends–friends I can call and talk about my day to. And it may not be the community. It may be me.
When I have tried to communicate this to others in the past, they usually say something along the lines of “Well, I have this one friend, you should give her a call.” But that’s not the point. I am not trying to change anything. I accept. I am no longer bitter.
God, I accept. I accept that I am forever alone, and forever Muslim. If this is the way I am meant to be, if this is the only way I can be me, then I accept it with contentment.
I usually don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but a grand resolution has been forged out of this realization. As far as people are concerned, I will turn towards not what is lacking, but what is. There is, after all, a reason that those who comforted me when I needed it, who listen to me and respect my perspective even when they disagree with it, who accept me as a whole, are more spiritual than religious, or as areligious as they come. So I will focus on them, for it is they who nourish me, who engender in me a love for humanity, who are the ones who help me remember God. The lowercase-m “muslims,” as Murata and Chittick call them in The Vision of Islam, will be my salvation. And with them, through them, I will serve humanity. With or without the banner of Islam.
Ever have one of those times when you meet someone for the first time, and you start talking as if you have known each other forever? Or as if you are picking up on a conversation you have been having for a long, long time?
A girl, drenched in sweat, exhausted from the strain of dancing her thoughts away, having had no sleep and minimal food for over forty hours, started telling me about a boy in her creative writing class whom she developed feelings for. Who crept into the crevices of her being. Who told her she was beautiful. And who—let’s just say, took her to a place where friends don’t go to. Afterwards, he told her that he was not looking for a relationship.
She did not explicitly address the pain of rejection. She described the strain she underwent in trying to “catch his light.” She described an emotional fog. She spoke of an inability to weep. She spoke of all this with an odd detachedness, as though listing an endless array of symptoms to a diagnostician.
I found myself asking her how his writing is. She told me that it’s brilliant, and that he displays a remarkable sensitivity to the world, to human nature.
It didn’t compute for me. “How is it that you are sensitive in your writing,” I asked, “but you are not sensitive about others’ feelings? That you don’t have kindness towards humanity?”
“He wasn’t that way with me,” she explained. “But he is that way with others. He didn’t have feelings for me, but if he does for someone else, and he is committed to them, he will be kind towards them, and he will be good. I know it.”
It still didn’t compute for me. He could very well be exploding with tenderness, generosity, and sensitivity when he was in a committed relationship. But it seems terribly strange that as she undergoes this kind of anguish, he is off the hook. In a world where there don’t seem to be any absolutes, she is forced to bear the part of his sensitivity that was a curse, while he bestows the world through a sensitivity that is wholesome. The unavoidable, looming fact is this: he is a source of immense pain to her. His writing may be brilliant and sensitive, but he displayed a blatant insensitivity to her feelings, which, to me, is squandering one’s gift.
Sensitivity, the ability to see nuance, is a gift, a sacred trust. It does not matter if this gift gets used for artistic purposes or not—that’s what it is. But artists are very susceptible to squandering this gift. Artists are sensitive to sights, sounds, and beauty, and their means of talking can be enticing for others.
I believe this intuition is entrusted to us to be used in a certain way. A devout Muslim artist, I feel, has an approach to their art that should reflect their approach to humanity. They may strike luck and make the most of this gift: perform heartwrenching spoken poetry, write bestsellers, and compose soul-stirring music. But if they are not compassionate towards humankind, not mindful of their behavior towards others, not according humans the adab they are due, I believe that the baraka in their work will gradually be diminished. Even if they are successful, I think they will, in some way, be taken into account for not being consistent, for not respecting the element of tawhid, of oneness, of consistency and beauty in all their actions.
A Muslim should be striving to do all things with equally pronounced perfection and beauty. They should not be smiling at the sales rep, then going home and speaking to their spouse in monosyllables. They should not be painting magnificent depictions of nature, yet paying no heed to the way they dress. They do not break a friend’s heart and then continue to write and love wholesomely.
If they do, then well, in my mind, it does not compute. It does not compute.
And Allah is the Judge, the Seer, the Knowledgeable, and Forgiver, of all things.