In between bodily sickness, word sickness (more on this shortly) and the dozen other things going on with me, I was struggling to write a proposal for “sect neutrality with caution.”
It turns out that no effort is needed on my part. This fellow describes exactly what I was trying to, only better:
Many Sunni Muslims today will rhetorically ponder “why do we have to create divisions of ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia,’ and why we can’t we all identify simply as ‘Muslims’?” . . . As Omid Safi puts it, “it is vital that mutual respect and coexistence not be a license for eradicating real historical grievances and particularities.” . . . Shi’is, like other minority traditions, must preserve and maintain their identity, legacy, and historical narrative among the eclipsing dominant Sunni tradition. Reflecting on the Battle of Karbala is also a way for many to call attention to the ongoing oppression of Shi’as and other minority groups (seriously though, the oppression of Baha’is in Iran is highly hypocritical) around the world (e.g. Gulf States, pre-war Iraq, Bahrain, etc). Neither Shi’i Islam, nor Sunni Islam, can lay claim to an absolute truth of Islam, but together, and within each respective tradition, Muslims are able to achieve a more holistic picture of truth. Being completely unaware of epic events such as the Battle of Karbala, causes us to sacrifice a comprehensive understanding of our religion and tradition.R
I implore you to study the religion to which you subscribe, and fight for a more robust, anti-hegemonic retelling of Islamic history. . . Familiarity with what is out there will inform our understanding of what we believe and why we believe it.
Here in Canada, if you venture outside in this increasingly chilly time of the year, you will see people’s jackets and coats adorned with poppies. November is the month of Remembrance for the Commonwealth countries, a way of honouring those who have given their lives in past and contemporary conflict.
This year, the day of Ashura (the tenth of Muharram on the Islamic calendar) and Remembrance Day were just three days apart from each other. In fact, on the day of Ashura (which this year coincided on November 13th), I chaired a Toastmasters meeting for which I had to say few words about the theme of our meeting: Remembrance.
The phrase that is adopted in observance of this month is “Lest We Forget.” It originates from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional.” Kipling wrote it on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee, which coincided with the height of the British empire in the early twentieth century.
As part of the opening remarks for the Toastmasters meeting, I found myself reciting a passage from the poem:
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Here, Kipling’s invocation is that the empire must not lose themselves in their success. They must remember the sacrifice of, in Christian terms, their Original Saviour.
As I read the passage with the rest of the group, I was struck by how easily this prayer resonated with me. Remembrance of sacrifice and the plea to not lose oneself in frivolity were one of the things that drew me to the Shia frame of thought.
Fortunately, most of the Muslims I meet do not discriminate on the basis of sect. But we share a planet with those who are deeply threatened by Shia Muslims, to the point that they actively seek to obliterate their existence. Whether one chooses to call this “genocide” or not, one thing holds: this practice does not happen without historical trends, which include separation, stigmatization, and a treatment of such minority groups as “the other.”
As the inheritors of the sect that is often represented as the tell-all narrative of Islam, it is up to Sunni Muslims to nip such tendencies at the bud. Part of that effort is recognizing the humanity within ourselves—our Hussaini hearts. There is no shortage of efforts in combing the facts of history and explaining the political nuances behind the battle of Karbala. However, no amount of such analysis can begin to compete with what Hussain’s martyrdom has done for the Muslim imagination. For “red” Shias and mindful Sunnis, ritually mourning the grandson of the Prophet must not be an end in itself, but be a reminder that we all must stand up to oppression in all its forms. It is this red Shi’ism that makes me passionate about protecting and upholding the rights of the vulnerable, particularly animals, children, the elderly, and the disabled. And remembering that no matter where I reach, I must never forget the weak, the underprivileged.
Ya Allah, O, memory of Hussain, remain with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget.
Note: To the angel Allah sent me to teach me these things: You have my deepest love, thanks, and duaas.
I miss you.
Warning: dangerous levels of abstraction lie ahead, along with poorly-photographed drawings.
Recently, I found myself needing to visualize the paths people take when it comes to their faith. So much so, that I took out a pen and paper.
Here is what the path of a single-tracked holy person may look like, whether they are Sufi shaykhs, rabbis, swamis, or shamans:
If you are a deeply religious person and/or know very devout people, you might have noticed that such individuals’ beliefs are hardly ever static. Their progression through their religious journey isn’t stagnant; they deepen. Muslim alims, for instance, may read the same verses in the Quran in dozens of different ways. Buddhist monks spend their entire lives in deep meditation. The further they go, the greater their realization of how infinite the universe is.
This monogamist path has the potential for union with the Divine through increasing self-realization by means of a (mostly) established framework. It’s a model that most people are most familiar with and most religious people aspire to.
Now, here is the path of a very different scenario, one in which the traveller journeys through two or more different belief systems. Each point in the constellation represents a state of rest within a mode of faith, a point that, upon a closer look, may constitute some of the inward intensity I showed in Figure I. I see this model as the opposite the monogamist model and call it the polyamorous model of faith.
As the traveller goes from one belief system to another, perhaps they ultimately realize that they all lead to the same Truth.
And it is in this that they find bliss, mercy, release, nirvana. In doing this, they start out as “polyamorous” journeyers, but then, in a way, become monogamists in reference to the entire framework. (Aside: It is a possibility like this that puts me in awe of the manifestations tawhid can take. Things appear to exist separately, but are truly One.)
Now that I’ve presented those two models, here is what the visualization of my journey may looked like.
When I first started as a devout (and Sunni) Muslim, I started on that inward spiral. Sometimes the path halted, when I found myself looking towards resources (primarily people) to inspire me and provide me fuel to continue. That point in the middle, where the black spiral ends—that is where I felt like I simply could not go any further. I went as far as I could, with my existing framework.
And then, about a year ago, I let go. It was only then that my path continued, in a way I could have never anticipated.
It veered to the outside of the centre, but not completely. It deepened and darkened the outline of that centre, and then started tracing lines dow my earlier paths
This continuation, for me, was Shia Islam.
In worldly definitions, it is called a sect of Islam. For me, it was a saving grace that made me reaffirm my deen.
I tell this story much later. I have—for lack of a better way to put it—moved on from Shi’ism. Now my journey has veered away from the center. Like petals of a flower, I reach outward. And then, by force of that centre’s gravity, I get drawn back in.
At heart, I am a spiritual monogamist. (And in case you are wildly curious, I’m a monogamist when it comes to romantic relationships as well.) But to survive in these strange times, I have to have little tastes, explorations, of other beliefs in order to continue on my own.
Here is what I have come to realize:
- That centre may not have had such a stronghold if it didn’t become strong by a different means. A system that was my own, but not quite.
- True-blooded intrafaith and interfaith work happen as miracles, sometimes requiring no more than one person and a loving, brilliant God who says, “Okay, let’s throw something else at her.”
This Muharram, I think back to this journey and will share the intrafaith reflections I derived from it (from the Sunni vantage point). I do so out of the deep love and respect I have developed for the Shi’i tradition and the timeliness of this sacred month, a month that we all must observe as a time of sobriety and reflection on where we went wrong as an Ummah.
Perhaps this could be a month to think about our shared humanity not just with all other Muslims, but the rest of humankind. Our journeys in respect to belief may be very different. But if done in earnestness and and open heart, they can be equally glorious. Sharing and learning from each other, and seeing where the paths intersect, open miraculously infinite possibilities in mental models.
That is how I have realized that I have so much to live for. Even if I will never fully belong in any one community of faith.
Note: A big, loving thanks to my closest companion Sara Isis Mikaal for the amazing discussions that lead to this post. Our paths are extremely different, and yet they blissfully intersect, over and over, in ways that only the ultimate Artist can depict.
If you grew up spending Eid ul-Adhas in Pakistan, you remember those occasions with…smells. Smells of the livestock outside your house, smells of earthiness and dung. And then, on the day, smells of blood. Butchers especially commissioned for that day will appear in the morning in beige, crisp shalwar kameezes, which are splattered with blood by the end of the day.
(Jimmy sings in my ear: “Blood on the streets runs a river of sadness.”)
The women in the house spend the day sorting the meat, packing it, sending it to and receiving it from neighbours and relatives. There would be cooking of the various kinds of meat in various forms: brains, hearts, lungs, you name it. They make their way into curries, pilafs, barbecues. We Muslims love our meat.
That said, I state this: to me, few things have become devoid of their original spirit as the occasion of Eid ul-Adha.
Eid ul-Adha occurs on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah, when pilgrims and Muslims from all over the world sacrifice sanctioned animals and distribute the meat amongst the needy as well as friends and family. This sacrifice is mandatory upon all men and women who have more than sufficient financial means to take care of themselves.
The result: a carnivorous fest, now undertaken in a world where meat consumption is:
- at a level that is antithetical to that espoused by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who ate meat very sparingly and encouraged others to do the same,
- one of the leading contributors to climate change,
- the propellor of horrifically inhumane factory farming (mass-produced halal meat can only be marginally better than these circumstances),
- a diversion of bottom-of-the-food-chain resources away from feeding the hungry, and
- increasingly irrelevant to a well-planned, healthy diet.
While I grapple with those issues, I fully know, in theory, what Eid ul-Adha should be. This Eid is a time to truly ponder one of the many curious qualities God has given us. We eat animals. Animals. As much as we may love our meat, our fitrah doesn’t allow us to simply take this in stride. Our fitrah compels us to be tender towards animals–we know, without having to be told, that they are innocent, blameless, created to live exactly as God ordained them to. For, as Umar Faruq Abd Allah once put it: this dunya is not a garden for us, it is the first and final destination of those who inhabit the dunya with us, and hence we must make it a garden for them.
When we’re told the story about Abraham being ordained to sacrifice his son and looking down to see a ram in his stead, what’s traditionally emphasized to us is the contrast in what was asked of Abraham and what was taken. God is indeed merciful. God indeed reminds us, through this ritual, that he asks certain things of us just because.
But we’re not Abraham. Abraham was what a theological scholar referred to as a superhuman, ready to undertake a task in a way that only a Khaliullah can be.
We’re far lesser, so much so that we have to overcome our innate tenderness towards animals when we put them down. This is framed beautifully in this feature piece about a halal butcher with a holistic, conscientious approach to slaughtering animals:
“Well, that’s the beauty of halal,” Imran said, tears streaming down his face. “You realize you’re taking the life of the animal so that you can continue to live. And every animal that you slaughter, you never forget. . . . The day you become immune to taking the life of an animal for your benefit is the day you lose all your humanity.”
The easiest way to be immune to taking the life of an animal you eat is to take part of slaughtering and processing as it happens today: hidden away in factory farms, outsourced to places that “handle” the deeds, without giving you a glimpse of what it means to take a life.
Butchers like Imran are as superhuman as ordinary humans can be, and what is being asked of us is even less: that every now and then (I don’t know, say, on Eid ul-Adha), we pay heed to what sustains us.
I exist in between a mindlessly meat-guzzling world and a world that consumes meat in a limited, sustained, and loving way. I want to be part of the latter world, and I won’t be anytime soon. Not before I fall in love with a sustainably and humanely raised animal, witness its sacrifice, affirm that Allah has made it so, and partake of its flesh.
Until then, I will continue to eschew meat.
All is erased but this,
The place that bears weight.
His was on his noble forehead,
For the world to see.
Mine, beside my left ankle.
A shadow on the skin,
The darker it gets,
The more I will have remembered.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
I recently started the 9-5 life. I’m grateful to be employed. Yet, often, when the day ends, I idly think:
“There is a time when a worker experiences joy: when he ends his day of work, and…”
And I find myself praying that I will, at the end of this life and the Hereafter, be glad that I worked.
I bid a very happy Ramadan to all those observing this blessed month, and pray that Allah grant us all rizq in the most wholesome and fulfilling ways.
(Before you read this post, read this piece on Salon.com.)
The alarm bells should have gone off when I saw the words “modesty experiment” in the opening sentence, but maybe I was too curious too notice. The author, Lauren Shields (who, it turns out, is making a writerly career out of her nine months of dressing modestly), spoke of how refreshing it was to let go of her “Beauty Suit”:
I learned that looking good isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes the cornerstone of your identity — like the advertising industry tries to convince us it is — then you’re doing nothing but damage to yourself.
It’s a wickedly delicious piece, a piece that made a hijabi like me say: “yayayyay that’s me down with objectificationz!”
And then, as though I had inhaled a slice of cake far too quickly, I started to feel a little queasy.
It’s nice to think that as a woman who covers to be modest, I’m consistently focused on “something else, something more important than what [is] trendy.” But ten years into the hijab, a soul-gripping battle with it, and evolving with and through it, here is what I say: Dressing modestly isn’t about being above it all. Also: framing it as though it is is insulting to women who do dress up, bare some skin, and do so with their self confidence intact.
I can appreciate the writer’s relief at unburdening herself from societal expectations, but there’s also the other side we need to remember: in several places, modest dress is used as a means for controlling women and dictating their worth. To these women, dressing up is the means of resistance, just like modest dress is a means of resistance for Shields.
Plus, dressing modestly can correspond heavily with looking frumpy and unkempt. Yes, there are hijabi fashionistas, but there are also hijabis who, in their religious zeal, forgot what it means to pluck one’s eyebrows, exercise regularly, or buy clothes that suit one’s body shape.
Dressing modestly is not a ticket to looking like you live in a library basement. Looking clean and groomed is part of the Islamic tradition.
I do that, and, circumstances permitting, I try and go a step further. So I can actually highly relate to the burdensome primping the writer describes in depicting her pre-modest life. Yes, I, a person who dresses modestly, also have to undergo considerable effort in looking nice. And I do so not for other’s attention: at least I hope not.
I do so because the face, the body, is a canvas. And God has bestowed us means of expressing our individuality, so many ways of showing the world what makes us us.
Let’s not paint any group of people with the same brush and try to take shots at people’s intentions for dressing the way they do. In any case, I suspect that the criminally trendy are not guilty of wanting attention nearly as much as they are guilty of lacking an imagination, lacking the depth of the spirit that outwardly manifests in a precise combination of hair, makeup, facial hair, clothes, and accessories.
A canvas, I tell you.