On Writerly Duaas

A few years ago I made a writerly discovery that to me has been the most immense source of spiritual bliss, the place where writing and faith began to merge for me.
Before going for hajj in 2002, I attended a talk in which the speaker encouraged us to make a list for things to pray for. That’s when I first planned my duaas in the form of a list. Studies. Health. My family’s well being. Success in my academic and professional pursuits. A decent husband. Kids who are not emo. (Yes, at sixteen I was already worried about that.) Forgiveness for my past sins. Death in the best state of iman. All that jazz.

But lists are boring. Lists are bland. You make a list to shop for groceries. But when it comes to making duaas: a list? Does that really suffice? When one looks down at each entry, can they call upon the emotions associated with each item as they pray for it?

A duaa is not just a tangible thought. It is also made up of the emotions associated with that thought.

During a dark time when I was writing out my thoughts to try and understand my situation, I suddenly pressed indent and typed:

Ya Allah.

An unbridled narrative unfolded. I laid an exposition. Took on the responsibility for all the things I knew I was accountable for. Tried to understand the sources of anxiety, all the while stressing that, like Yusuf’s father, I wanted to complain to no one else. Once I finally had the calm that begins to settle after a cathartic release, I built up to a plea, based on everything I had laid out. I mapped out the ways in which the thing I was requesting could make me a better servant, daughter, sister, friend. I continuously injected the understanding that I cannot know what is best for me, but that I ask only what I think is best for me, given what I know.

All of this while asking for just one thing, and one thing alone.

It’s not like lists aren’t important, and a comprehensive list of things to pray for can be invaluable. But a list is nothing more than a collection of reminders. There is more to duaas than just acknowledging them. To me, the perfect duaa is the one that is fashioned from emotion. And emotions often visit with no more than a moment’s notice.

Writers are told that when something hits them, they must drop everything and write. Same goes for duaas. One might be sitting on a bus. In the middle of a social gathering. In the middle of an enormous project, even. But can he afford to not give in to the sudden well of emotion, the need to address what makes his heart heavy, to the divine?

It’s one thing to pray for my parents’ physical and spiritual well being. It’s another thing to revive memories of crisp autumn evenings in Pakistan that my father spent teaching me how to ride a bike. When one remembers something like that, the duaas grow in themselves. With those memories, the yearning to take care of him and be good to him and never cause him any pain is so overpowering that there is no need to look for the words to ask for them.
Perhaps duaas don’t even have to put in words. Perhaps they’re just memories and feelings and images. Memories of the past, feelings of hope, and images of an ideal future that optimizes the best of deen and duniya.
Ramadan is drawing to a close, and very soon I will no longer be in a position to ask for something in the same way I am at the iftar table or during Laylat Al-Qadr. When the emotion is there, I draw it in and fashion it into an original duaa with as much ardor as I can. When it isn’t, or when I am pulled away by other things like serving iftar and bonding with my family, I say: “Dear God. I’m not really feeling it right now. But remember that whole spiel I gave You about my parents and how amazing they are and how I never want to upset them? Please accept that, emotions and all, as if I am asking for it in this blessed moment.”
May Allah make us more ardent and eloquent in our asking Him. And may we never tire of asking Him.
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More Musings on Food and Ramadan: A Post in Beyond Halal

I’ve reached a kind of milestone in this blessed month: by the grace of Allah, I have been published in Beyond Halal. My piece is titled “Food Consciousness in Ramadan”, and in it I try to trace the spirituality in every stage of preparing, serving, and sharing food–specifically, an iftar meal. Do give it a read.

I’ve sung praises for the thinking behind Beyond Halal in a previous post, so I won’t reiterate them here. I do want to add, however, that there couldn’t have been a better place to have my first gig, and I’m deeply grateful for people like Krystina Friedlander (who also blogs here) who are as enthusiastic about my content as I am about theirs. There’s nothing like collaboration with folks who are doing such incredible, important work, and I hope to have more opportunities with them and others like them, Inshallah.

On Intensive Recitation: Completing the Quran in Ramadan

Some Muslims are stellar when it comes to completing the recitation of the entire Quran during Ramadan. “No biggie,” they say. “It’s simple math. One juz per day, twenty pages per juz. Divide that into the five prayers: just read four pages after each prayer.” A lot of them manage to complete it year after year. I deeply respect them and admire them for their perseverance, and pray that Allah accepts this worship from them and increases their iman and understanding of this text.

I usually begin Ramadan with the intention of completing the recitation of the entire Quran, but have never managed to do it. But I am hoping that will change this year insh’Allah and have embraced the challenge for this Ramadan.

Part of the reason I haven’t been able to complete the Quran in the past is that I got bogged down in the day-to-day Ramadan routine that includes, along with Ramadanesque activities, the usual commitments due to work or school.

Another more significant issue I have had in the past is that I prize quality over quantity far, far too much. I get stuck on an ayah and because I haven’t truly understood it I read it over and over to make sure I have absorbed it in the way I’m supposed to be absorbing it. The thought that I’m not doing it justice makes me a little anxious, even. It’s part of the peril of being overly detail oriented. It’s the same reason that I’m not a particularly fast reader with regular books, either.

The emphasis on quality and understanding in my readerly Quranic psyche also comes from being raised by parents who feel the same away about it. My parents are always very devout in their worship and are always reciting the Quran throughout Ramadan and attending taraweeh prayers. But finishing it was never something that would was brought up much. My father usually got his completion not by reciting it, but by by means of attending all the taraweeh prayers frequently. My mother would mention attempting to finish it, but if she didn’t she didn’t beat herself up about it too much.

That’s why she was both encouraging of my personal challenge for this Ramadan, but, at the same time, trying to make me understand that it’s not that big a deal. She believes it’s something people have needlessly made obligatory upon themselves. Furthermore, she said knows knows several friends and relatives who read large chunks of the Quran, even up to five juz, in the course of a single day. “It’s possible. But that doesn’t mean that it’s better. It’s just recitation, just a movement of the lips. Won’t it be better to focus on the translation and take one’s time with it?”

What she says is definitely true. There is, after all, the saying that whoever completes the Quran in three or fewer days has not understood any of it.

But I argued that I had already used that approach in the past and that I never managed to sustain the habit beyond Ramadan to continue. There’s something about this month that drives me (and a great majority of practicing, conscientious Muslims, I imagine) to do more in terms of my worship. Shouldn’t I challenge myself, especially given that I do not have the usual work/study commitments I already do? Who knows when I will find myself with this much time, this much independence, this much freedom in the Ramadans to follow?

She agreed and prayed and wished me the best of success with this endeavor.

Photo credit: Salma J. This Quran looks exactly like the Quran I recite from.

I’m now embarking on the seventeenth day of Ramadan and am so far fourteen juz into the Quran. I’m lagging pretty far behind, but the journey has, Alhamdulillah, been mostly smooth so far. I do not feel the strain or dreariness I sometimes feel when I am reciting for long periods of time. That is partially because I’ve tried to address the reasons I usually don’t manage to complete the Quran and catered to them. I know it requires time, so I’m both able and mentally prepared to devote more time to it. I’m extremely blessed and far luckier than most people to not have any other serious commitments during this Ramadan, so I tell myself that, for now, I’m just doing this on a trial basis. I don’t believe in engaging in worship that feels burdensome, and I should work hard at not only the act of completiong its it should rarely, if ever, feel like a burden.

Recitation of course doesn’t mean sacrificing reading the translation and reflecting on it, so I am also reading a great component of the translation and, when I can, listen to online tafseer session. In light of my past experiences, I’m making a conscious effort to keep moving and not get bogged down in specific ayahs. What helps is reminding myself that there is no way that I can hope to understand an ayah completely; there are after all some verses whose meanings have been debated over for centuries. Who am I to try and understand them in so many dimensions? If my urge to know the context is especially strong, then I tell myself that I’ll just have to wait until I read or listen to a tafseer regarding that segment. And then I move on.

The two most important lessons I am learning in regards to completing the Quran during this Ramadan are:

Variety is the spice of worship.
Varying the way in which I recite is a very significant in having come this far. I sometimes recite just the Arabic, letting the rythym and beauty of the calligraphy, the language, the words I do understand, sink in. I sometimes read over the English translation ayah by ayah. Other times, I read several translated verses and then recite them. If sitting in one place starts to feel too monotonous, I try and incorporate the recitation into my sunnah and nafil prayers. I was at first very concerned about what I was going to do during the days I am not fasting or praying, but I have decided to listen to an audio version and follow along while using an an online Quran (as opposed to a paper mashaf).

The drive to keep reciting is like the drive to keep reading or writing.
Experienced writers know that when a wave of inspiration hits them–be it at the stroke of midnight, in the middle of lunch hour, or right before they’re supposed to be meeting up with someone–they have to ride it. And make the most of it as long as it’s there.

That’s how I feel about this kind of worship in Ramadan. There’s this huge wave of a drive for ibadah that we are riding, an enormous, bottomless well of possibility that we must drink from. Tapping into this divine resource, and learning that there’s no limit to it, is probably the most blissful experience a religious person can have.

It almost doesn’t matter if I finish the Quran. I’m grateful I engaged in this exercise, for I wouldn’t have immersed myself this much in the text otherwise. I would have been distracted, occupied with things that are much more worthy of attention during the rest of the year.

But I deeply hope to finish it not for its own sake, but for the sake of rejoicing in this gift while it’s still there.

On Friendship

A friend who can experience terrifying glimpses into your mind without blinking is a keeper.

A friend like that does anything but judge. A friend like that is also a sounding board. A way to release the pressure of thoughts that build up in one’s head. For when I talk to my best friend, I feel like a pressure valve has been released.

Part of it is how deeply she cares, and the extent to which she can put herself aside to help me. Even with a new baby who wreaks havoc on her sleep and sanity, even while undergoing the incomprehensibly overwhelming sensations and life-altering complications that come with being a wife and a mother, she asks me how my life is. How work is. How this blog is going, how my family is. And she doesn’t ask once. She asks and asks and asks continuously until some buried nugget that has been festering has finally been unearthed. She rolls up her sleeves, urges me and pleads with me to join her until I give in, and we get to work.

I sometimes think of how ironic it is that my loneliness comes from being a person of faith. When it comes to being a friend, Muslims have to, first and foremost, be generous. And selfless. We have to forgive, overlook, and lend support. We have to honour our friends as guests and pray for them in their absence. We have to give and give and give. And not expect gratitude. Not expect anything, really, in return, because we seek our return not from them, but from God.

I’ve upheld this model for many years now, and while I’m grateful for how much it simplifies things, let me tell you one thing: at times, all that giving can take a real toll on you.

My deepest friendship is the one that is not so centered on giving. Somehow, all of my generosity is returned to me by manifold by this one woman. The giving and taking are divinely proportioned, reminding me of how Allah draws much closer to us as we try and get closer to Him.

I cannot define what it is that makes her so, and the inability to define her is part of why I love her so much. But I do know that she is a divinely bestowed gift. She’s a mechanism Allah built into my life so that I can come close to understanding what it is that goes on inside my head, so that I can understand what divine love is. She is there so that I can keep being me.

Conversations on Summer Fasting

There are believing Muslims who do not fast for reasons that fall outside of the categories of people who are permitted to not fast (such as those who are ill, elderly, pregnant, etc.). There may be a vast variety of reasons why healthy Muslims don’t do it, but the people I refer to specifically are those who are not fasting because days are now so long in North America.

I shouldn’t be talking as I have it much, much easier than the people who have terrible work hours that make 9-5 look like a walk in the park. But I wonder if these people are making more of fasting than it really is.

While the length of the days is an obvious fact that is configured into the nature of our fasts this year, I worry that stressing it or talking about it so much is what is leading Muslims to not fast altogether. Is it really so bad? Or are they making it seem much worse than it is?

I just keep hearing a lot–and I mean a lot–of talk about the days being so long here. Hesham A. Hassaballa’s New York Times article “The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan” is an article that to me is little more than a lament over the difficulty of fasting in the summer. I do love the honesty of the article, but does it capture the essence of Ramadan, the part that resonates no matter what time of the year it falls in? Hardly so.

I’ve always been a little uncomfortable at extensive discussion on the length of the days in Ramadan, and hearing of Muslims who are not fasting makes me realize why. It’s like that discourse has been stretched to the point where people are so daunted by the prospect of fasting in the summer they disavow it altogether. I am all for open conversation and for people being honest about the difficulties they face in fulfilling our obligations, but I think this is an example of how looking at a manner in only one light can be detrimental.

So are those who are not fasting not doing so because they actually are physically unable to complete it, or are they being influenced by all this discussion of the days being so long? I think it’s the latter. Things are always made into a bigger deal when they are put in words, and even more when they form the meat of a conversation.

Non-muslim friends are amazed at “how we do it,” and I have some friends repeatedly commenting on how difficult it is, how they are counting down the hours until iftar, how they almost passed out while walking to work. I get weary of such talk, and the patience I’m supposed to have in this month sometimes runs dangerously thin. Yes, the days are long. Yes, dehydration is an issue. I’m not above all these things. But do I want to talk about them? No. Does it feel natural to dwell on physical discomforts? No. There’s nothing that can be done about the length of summer days, so why labor the point? Those discomforts will always be there on some level. But because nothing can be done about them, they need to be played down.

Here’s a crazy idea: if the subject of the length of the day does come up, let’s not whine about it. Let’s instead say “Gonna be a bit of a rough one, huh? Oh well, I’m confident we’ll do well. Allah will help us maintain our sabr.” And then go on to talk about what we’re doing for Eid, or how things are at work, or the great film we’ve seen recently.

We need to get over ourselves. The difficulties of fasting in the summer need to be talked about less so that people can focus on the part of Ramadan that shines so much more brightly, regardless of the time of year it occurs in: prayers, meditation, worship, a re-forging of community bonds, a chance to start anew. Let’s talk about that more. And let’s talk about summer days a bit less. Once we do that, maybe they’ll stop seeming so long.