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A letter to myself

September 13, 2014

My birthday was a few weeks ago, but I only got to fine-tuning this piece now.

Dear Sarah from five years ago,

Happy Birthday.

What hasn’t changed about you throughout the years is that you believe things happen for a reason, that moments of dullness, confusion, and unhappiness are as crucial to your path as those of self affirmation and happiness. A part of me wishes you did several things differently. I know, however, that you always did the best you could at a given time, given what you knew, given what you had.

So all I want to say is: it gets better. By better, I mean, calmer. For the past few days, I have watched myself looking out to a lake, a lake that is clear, that ripples softly. I have to look at it very intently to see the currents, to see that it is not as still as it may seem at first glance.

Things have gelled. It was with great bewilderment that I read about people talking about their thirties being calm, being centered on who they are. Now, however, I am starting to taste what it is like, to just be all right with things as they are and as they will be.

Before, when you did well, you shone and were bouncing with energy. Now, doing well looks different. It’s a gradual adoption. I process more, react less. I know myself more. I am able to see myself in relation to others and see why things work or don’t.

There are no silver bullets, I have learned. There is no magic formula by which to live life. There is no one thing that has been cruelly held back from you. Things are what they are. There are thousands like me, thousands close to me, and thousands who are nothing like me. I will do my best. My life now is both remarkable and unremarkable in its own ways. I have no idea what’s in store, but I am okay with what I have now. All I hope is that I never forget God, and He never forgets me.

Hang in there. It’s nice to be here. It’s worth the wait.


On Taraweehs and Taals

July 27, 2014

In my mosque, last night was the last night of taraweehs: special nightly prayers during Ramadan. Throughout Ramadan, the Quran is recited during these prayers from beginning to end, so that by the last night, you are praying the last chapters of the Quran.
Throughout the last few Ramadans, I haven’t always been able to take part in khatam-al-Quran: the special last night of taraweehs that culminate in special supplications to God (for it is said that finishing the Quran is a special time for prayer, a time where God will always accept it). I did tonight.

There is something so beautiful about the structure of these last prayers, something that left me breathless. The last of the Quran recited in these prayers is not the end of the Quran. After reaching the end, they start again, at the beginning. Meaning: in the last two units of prayer, the first unit contains the very last few verses of the Quran, and the second unit contains verses one to SIX of the first chapter of the Quran.

The Imam of the masjid alluded to this peculiarity afterwards, referring to the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) conducting the last of the taraweehs in this manner. The last taraweehs are done this way because “the Quran,” he said, “is never ending.”

So here’s the thing.

I started my journey in kathak by learning about the structure of Indian classical music. A repeated melody follows a certain cycle of beats, referred to as the theka. An often used cycle is the cycle of sixteen beats, called teentaal.

The thing about teentaal (and other taals, I imagine) is: it doesn’t end on the last beat, but on the beginning of the first.


In explaining this rhythmic pattern to us, my teacher said: “This comes across as a very unusual concept for those versed in Western classical music. In Western classical music, the ending is on the last bar. But ours is the first of the next segment. It’s something they find quite mind-boggling.”

It is one thing to be told that a circle is said to be the most divine of shapes, having no beginning or end. And it is another to witness it. Subhanallah.

May we love and go through the interconnectedness across traditions.

On “Dawah”

June 30, 2014

If there is such a thing as dawah,
It is compassion.
A shared meal,
A smile.

Dawah is presence
Over a virgin iced tea at a pub,
Tofu nuggets at a ramen bar,
Or in a meditation class.

Dawah is spirited womanhood.
Listening with detached pleasure
To a long-haired atheist telling you what he’d like to do to you.
Dawah is bonding with a single mother and her child,
Learning about love, loss, travelling, and chanting.

I’ll give you more, God promises.
If you would just show up
And be.
Dawah is to show up for others.
Day after day.
In His service, for He resides among and in all.

If there is such a thing as dawah,
It is to love
For Love’s sake.

Ramadan Mubarak! And…I’m back on the meat

June 28, 2014

I am not in the business of explaining my behaviour, but given the tirade in my Eid-ul-Adha post, I still felt the need for account for this.

It started when a man I was talking to recoiled when I told him I was vegetarian–mostly vegan. “Sorry,” he said. “That’s a deal breaker for me.” Ok, I said, and waited for him to continue. There was a pause, and he continued: “All right, maybe it isn’t. But I very strongly believe that vegetarians have it wrong. Here is why.”

He by no means had all the answers, but he raised some points about making the “right” choices as consumers, animal treatment in Canada in contrast with the United States, and, of course, the “need” for meat protein in the human diet. (Digressive point: His high protein/high-fat diet consisted of almost no carbohydrates, meaning that it was not meat protein itself, but the combination of food types that worked in his favour. He also vehemently denied that protein could come from non-animal sources, which made me take him considerably less seriously.)

Nonetheless, it was a spark of sorts that resulted in a shift, and three months later, I find myself transitioning back to having meat. Below are some of the factors leading to my change in mindset:

  • Animal cruelty was a major reason I found it difficult to have meat. However, no one saved the world by becoming a vegan. One could make as much–perhaps more–impact by buying humanely raised meat. Why fork my dollars over to tofu, when I can do so and support halal, fair trade butchers?
  • Another factor has been becoming increasingly wary of the detrimental effects of sugar on the human body. Sugar is my greatest vice and a point for downfall for many vegetarians. There were too many times where I partook of extra dessert because my vegetarian dinner did not fill me enough. From a personal health standpoint, it became difficult to justify wreaking this havoc on my body. I also have started to tangibly feel the effects of excessive processed sugar on my body, the way I would feel the effect of excessive meat or excessive words.
  • The time has come to acknowledge and respect my desire for meat. In the year I was mostly-vegan, I could always honestly say that I had no desire for meat. But that is not the case anymore. I think about and desire meat more, and partaking a small piece here and there is no longer enough. The time has come to move on.

It was never my intention to be vegetarian for life, and it is to my family’s relief that I am making the turn back. However, my year of being vegetarian has significantly shaped me in the ways I wanted it to. Vegetarian foods will still constitute my meals by default, and I will have meat no more than twice or three times a week. I will gain better control of my sugar intake and ensure that I am so nourished that I do not have cravings for it.

Ramadan is a time when I will abstain from processed sugar and fried foods and readopt meat. In short summer nights like these, I have to make every bite count. May this month be equally physically and spiritually nourishing for all, and redefine what it means to eat to live.

I wish all those observing Ramadan a beautiful and glorious one!

Islamic lessons from an ashram

May 25, 2014

Last weekend, I went to a Sivananda Yoga camp in Val Morin, Quebec. Sivananda has several yoga centres over the world, and a handful of ashrams: secluded environments where aspiring yogis or drop-in guests enact the yogic lifestyle on a full-time basis, whether it be for a few days, a week, or several years.

I don’t practice yoga, although I’ve dabbled in it throughout the years. I ended up going to this camp because a friend of mine had visited their ashram in the Bahamas and spoke very positively of it, telling me that by no means does one have to be a hard-core yogi to attend. I also liked what I read about Sivananda: the founding principles of this worldwide organization is that of peace and harmony and respect for everyone’s respective faiths. More than anything, I really loved the idea of yoga being something you uphold in all aspects of your life, no just for an hour prancing on a designer mat in the gym. So I signed up. Garden patch and meditation deck, both to be used in the summer.

Here is roughly what my routine looked like throughout my stay:

  • 5:30 am: Wake up
  • 6:00 am: Satsang – a period consisting of 30-minute silent meditation, devotional chanting, and a brief talk on yogic principles.
  • 8:00 am: Yoga class
  • 10:00 am: Brunch
  • 10:45 am: Karma Yoga (selfless service) – a brief period where guests help out with the upkeep of the ashram.
  • 1:00 pm: Weekend special program: sacred drumming workshop
  • 3:00 pm: Free time: I usually explored the area, said my prayers, or visited their sauna.
  • 4:00 pm: Yoga class
  • 6:00 pm: Dinner
  • 7:30 pm: Satsang
  • 10:00 pm: Lights off

I was surprised at the effect of the place on me. Two hours of yoga class whizzed by, whereas in my day-to-day life I have difficulty sparing half an hour for any sort of exercise. I experienced no longing for caffeine. It helped that everyone there was so friendly, that we were in the mountains where I devoured lungfuls of fresh air, and that the food was lacto-vegetarian, ayurvedic, and delicious. A recipe for healing…my own mini-Eat, Pray, Love, one could say!

There were plenty of moments of loneliness and confusion throughout my stay. At times, I was bewildered at myself for being there, and a part of me demanded justification. I had to do a great deal of self coaching and telling myself to just remain with the present.

One of the highlights of my stay was praying in nature, on top of a high-mounted deck usually used for yoga class.

One of the highlights of my stay was praying in nature, on top of a high-mounted deck usually used for yoga class.

Now, several days later, I’ve had a chance to reflect, absorb, internalize, and even enact some of the lessons I learned during my stay. Here are some of the lessons and key changes:

I can do fajr. I’ve had a lifelong battle to pray the pre-dawn prayer on time. I’ve always had difficulty either waking up, or (more often) going back to sleep afterwards. Given the awkwardness of fajr time–especially in the summer months–this meant that I neglected to wake up for it. I was dictated by my body’s need for sleep.

Seeing everyone up at dawn for satsang was inspiring and motivating for me in a novel way. It is not just my mind, but my body, my habit, that knows: It is normal to wake up and spend some time in spiritual activity. Not waking up for fajr is keeping me from being the best I can be. It can no longer be so.

I am now trying to get better at waking up for fajr, and even if I end up with less sleep, it doesn’t bother me the way it used to.

I absorb myself in my salaat. My salaat is my primary meditation. I’m a “doer,” someone who is happiest in the midst of activity and movement. So sitting meditation is not well-suited for me. It’s still worth practicing, but my priority will be being mindful of my salaat.

There were a series of instructions given to us gently prior to our meditation session: to deepen our breathing, to acknowledge any distracting thoughts and simply bring the mind back, to recite a mantra to ourselves internally if need be. These are all instructions I reflexively offer myself prior to starting one of my five daily prayers. I don’t just dive in with takbeer: I take a moment to ground myself and acknowledge that I am beginning a sacred act.

Housework is karma yoga. Karma yoga refers to volunteering in a selfless, spirited manner, without any dislike for the act. In the ashram setting, it was a way to make guests a part of the ashram. In my case, it was fairly small-scale work: helping set up for the workshop and sweeping the front entrance, neither of which took more than fifteen minutes. (I think they start you off easy to not be off-putting.) Doing those activities and seeing the hustle and bustle of the full-time volunteers cooking and cleaning filled me with love for this type of yoga. It is me, because, again, I am a doer. No wonder it is thought to obliterate one’s selfishness!

Witnessing karma yoga in the yoga camp showed me the kind of loving attitude required in one’s housework. Since I came back, such work has felt less like a drag and more of an opportunity to be mindful, to know that one’s actions mean something.

I will make an effort to recite the Quran out loud as often as possible. A kirtan was an impressive thing to observe, but for me personally it did not contain the positive energy and vibrations everyone referred to. However, I knew what they were talking about when they referred to positive energy and vibrations, for I feel the same when reciting or hearing the Quran read out loud.

Just like there is special virtue in reciting chants in Sanskrit, there is virtue in reciting the Quran in its revealed Arabic. In both traditions, there is an emphasis on the benefits and power of these frequent recitations, even if one does not understand the meaning of what they are saying.

Brunch was the best. They made their own bread, and it was heavenly.

Brunch was the best. They made their own bread, and it was heavenly.

When possible, food should be austere. The food at the ashram was vegetarian, deeply nourishing, and omitted the use of garlic, onions, and sugar. Thanks to being a vegetarian I was already in sync with one aspect of it. However, I realized that “normal” food tends to work too hard at stimulating the senses. Another maya, another trick to distract oneself in this dunya. Partaking in their food was a lesson in austerity

I am not my thoughts or my emotions. This is a lesson I learned from a talk delivered during my first Satsang session. The speaker gave us an explanation for the role of the ashram and the human spirit. “Your mind is like a vinyl record,” she said. “Every thought, feeling, and action you have creates a groove in that record. The more you repeat it, the deeper that groove gets.” Boring as the ashram’s routine may seem to some, she said, following it is the process of creating new grooves, filled with positive action and energy. Focusing on deepening those “good” grooves means letting go of old patterns of negative thinking and behaviour.

This description was empowering and illuminating for me. It fit right in with the readings on meditation I have been doing nowadays.  Hurts from my past, I realized, may be nothing more than a story I have kept telling myself, on repeat. Everything, good or bad, ends. It is to God we return. “A person who is enlightened,” said another karma yogi, “still feels emotions. However, they do not get attached to those emotions.”

The more I think about the ashram–both in theory and in my lived experience–the more I realize how much I learned about willpower, personal restraint, and inner peace. It has given me a blueprint for continuing life as a Muslim, no matter what happens ahead. Something’s kicked in, and my lifestyle, intention, and outlook are visibly improving, for the better.

Waiting for the spring planting. A couple of karma yogis were doing outdoor work all day.

I end this post with the prayer delivered at the closing of Sivananda yoga classes:

Auspiciousness be unto all; peace be unto all;

fullness be unto all; prosperity be unto all.
May all be happy!

May all be free from disabilities!
May all look to the good of others!

May none suffer from sorrow!

(Oh Lord) Lead us from the unreal to the Real
From darkness to Light

From death to Immortality.

On Beauty and Bosoms

May 7, 2014
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“She is so flat-chested,” someone pointed out to me. “Yet the bras she wears, and the way she thrusts her chest out when she walks… you can tell that she knows about this and is trying to compensate.”

This was told to me with the directive that I should do the same. Like many people I share this planet with, my flaws are catalogued and earmarked for improvement. Since—especially as a woman—it’s my responsibility to be easy on the eyes.

* * *

I recently started taking refuge in kathak. My teacher tells us that the default position for our torso is to imagine a string is attached to our sternum and tilted upwards at a forty-five degree angle, opening our chest and providing stability in the core.

Kathak—like yoga, like Islam—is not just something to practice from time to time. It’s a way of life. So when I go about my day, I try and remember to maintain that default position, intending it even if I am not executing it.

Yes, of course my posture could use some work. Of course I want to hold my head up high and walk with confidence. But I won’t do so because I’m trying to compensate.

That girl and I, physiologically, we might appear the same. But I can’t let negativity and criticism define the way I carry myself. I will do it while carrying the spirit of something that instills me with confidence and love. I will do it for its own sake, whether it be under a summer tunic, a winter jacket, or an abaya.

Why I Left Altmuslimah

April 27, 2014

Many months ago, I met a very special, devout Muslim man. Let’s just say that he had a very compelling, grounded, and soulful take on sexuality. Thinking that his view needed to be aired, to be shared with the world, I asked him earnestly to write for Altmuslimah.

Without a pause, he shook his head. “There are a lot of people saying a lot of things,” he said. “But it’s the people who matter who need to say them.”

* * *

Last week, I resigned from my position as editor of Altmuslimah. As I went through knowledge transfer tasks and goodbyes, I found myself thinking of that man’s words.

My Altmuslimah career began when they picked up a post of mine and I became an on-call writer for them. In December 2012, I joined their editorial team. I found myself in an epicentre of a fascinating discourse on being Muslim today. I reviewed books, got acquainted with talented writers, and interviewed amazing women such as Tayyibah Taylor. I even flew to D.C. last year for our annual retreat, hosted graciously by the Editor-in-Chief, and spent two incredible days with my highly intelligent, talented, and insightful colleagues.

Recently, however, I started to realize that this role didn’t mean to me anything it itself; rather, I wanted it to mean something for me. I started to think a lot about the limits of what I can offer and of certain mediums themselves. This tweet is a perfect illustration of the kinds of issues I pondered:

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 2.31.59 PM

The “more than a hashtag” part is tough for me, both theoretically and practically. There is a world of people out there–most depressingly, community elders –who see online platforms like these as just a group of subversive women chattering amongst ourselves. Whatever their reasons are, the reality is: they will keep calling the shots for generations to come. Part of my wake-up call was realizing that such individuals and the communities they influence will never take endeavours like Altmuslimah seriously. If I ever thought they would, it was because I had socialized myself, through my work there, into being around people who talk and think like I do.

I’m ready to be de-socialized now, whatever that means in cybersphere. I want to join the land of the living, of Muslim friends who have never heard of the Mipsterz video or the storm around the Abu Eesa controversy, or don’t make such a fuss about every hijabi athlete or the Muslim marriage crisis. For a while, it was cool to be hearing about everything Islam and gender in its glory and ugliness. But exposing myself so much to that discourse was draining. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds or thousands of seeds being planted via Altmuslimah’s work. I just don’t think I’m meant to do the planting anymore.

I think back to the man that I talked to, how he, just like me, struggles through his faith to align his lived reality to what he knew to be true in his deen and spirit. We were no different, except that I struggled to express and help express, whereas he struggled to just be.

There are indeed a lot of people saying a lot of things, and maybe I should not worry about helping everyone say those things. Maybe it’s time for me to just be, and to embrace whatever fills up the space where Altmuslimah used to be.

It’s a delayed farewell, but one I deliver with relief.


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