On My Facebook Fast

Before, I never gave Facebook too much thought. I didn’t really understand how people found it addictive, as I found the interface terrible, the advertising annoying, and its more self-absorbed users to be overbearing.

But people change, and shockingly enough, I’m no exception. Over the past few months, I was becoming increasingly—and uncomfortably—aware of the amount of time I was spending on Facebook. It went further: it brought out a side of me I didn’t like, a side I didn’t like to acknowledge. I started to experience sadness, jealousy, and loneliness far more than I felt content and connected with others. It was just a tedious, energy-sucking tedium I could do without.

And then Ramadan came. I could quit Facebook and be virtuous about it! So I proceeded to do so.

It wasn’t as straightforward a process as I would have liked. I was the administrator for a group and for this blog’s fan page, and I had to hand privileges to trusted friends and colleagues. I missed out on a couple of event invites, but in two cases the hosts were gracious enough to make an extra effort and email me about them. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit disconnected and out of the loop at times. However, that was alleviated when friends bemoaned the fact that I was missing, even for a short while.

What this Facebook fast really reconditioned me to do was not instinctively open it every time I opened my browser. That habit had become automatic, for I was used to firing it up in my browser without thinking about it. When I deactivated my account, my brain felt a little puzzled at not being able to do that anymore, so it found alternatives. I fixed up my LinkedIn profile. I followed worthwhile people and organizations on Twitter. (The effect of Twitter is nothing like Facebook because, based on how I’ve curated my ‘following’ list, I am informed far more than I am entertained.) I (gasp) even checked the news. I watched documentaries, managed to do some writing than I had done in the past few months, finished reading an epically amazing book—you get the picture, I had a swell time.

I’m back on Facebook, and I’m too refreshed from that break to go back to my old habit of being plugged into it all the time. Ramadan always leads me to improve my eating, sleeping, and praying habits, and I’d like to think that this time, that tendency extends to my use of Facebook as well. Now, I’m planning on being next to inactive, for inactivity means minimal notifications, and minimal notifications mean less of a reason to be glued to it.

I now also have this romantic notion of a life that is untethered to Facebook: outings, trips, and thoughts that are mine alone, that exist independently of there having to be an account of it online. I like to think that I have reclaimed my life events and thoughts as mine, not what they appear to others.

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Eid Mubarak!

For all those who are celebrating, may your day be full of joy, celebration, and rejoicing in Allah’s mercy and closeness through the family and friends He has blessed us with. I feel that while Ramadan had everything to do with higher consciousness and putting the worldly needs on hold, Eid is an invitation to way to transition into being more in the world, as to rejoice and celebrate is human.

It’s hard not to feel a little forlorn about the end of Ramadan, though. The intermingling of that sadness and the joy of Eid is captured beautifully in Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s piece about the bittersweet return of her morning cup of coffee post-Ramadan.

I am grateful to be alive on this lovely day, and to have the privilege to be speaking to each one of you. Enjoy, eat well, be merry!

Peace,

Sarah

On Reining in the Imagination

This Ramadan, I have made the commitment to live less in my head and more in the world. I don’t know how effective it will be, whether it will change the core of who I am. Maybe it will the spiritual equivalent of plastic surgery. I hope not. I hope it will be a healthy transformation, or at least a healthy balance between the two ways of being.

When you have a rich inner life, spirituality can come to you so easily. Constant worship during Laylat al-Qadr? Hours on end, sitting quietly by yourself, thinking about something greater than this world and everything in it? Reading verse after verse of the Quran, marvelling at its nuances and the multiple ways you can read them? Bring it on! I was born to do this!

Yet, feeling that way is is precisely why I need a change, why I need to evolve and develop my worldly side as well. I need to do something that for me is far more difficult: excelling in my professional program of study, networking, finding meaningful work, and paving the way to financial independence (Insh’Allah).

It is impossible to stop living in my head, so I can only decrease it. I do so by waiting until a set, allotted period of time to have unfettered dreams. Now, instead of letting myself retreat into my mind whenever the impulse strikes me, I resist and I wait. When the time comes, I set the timer, reach for a pillow, bury my face in it, and become oblivious to my surroundings, lost in the ecstasy whose sharp intense sweetness only increases when confined this way. Ah, yes, there is a silver lining, at least.

Who needs drugs? It’s quite a thing God has given us, imagination, the ability to be in sheer bliss when our surroundings and circumstances are not ideal. Yet, when unreined, it can be detrimental. It makes one wake up after years of dreaming and wonder what they have been doing, wonder whether they really have enacted shukr by making use of the opportunities given to them in this world. Or whether they have squandered this gift by using it to compulsively take the edge off of awful reactions incited by the real world.

It’s a new and pretty scary beginning. I already miss my old self, but there’s no going back now. I can only press forward.

On Reading The Butterfly Mosque

Title: The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Date: August 2010

Genre:  Autobiography

Source: Local library

This startlingly lovely book gracefully and tentatively walks the tightrope between being a gentle narrative and a grimly realistic testimony to the growing divide between the East and West.

It’s not inaccurate to say that this book is about a woman’s conversion to Islam, her move to Egypt, her marriage to an Egyptian Muslim, and her struggle to come to terms with the American/Muslim/Egyptian dimensions of her existence. I feel, however, that even that description alone does a disservice to this story. There are so many ways Wilson could have written a book that fits this description. The precise way she wrote it and her specific treatment of her subject matter, however, are what make this book a must-read for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Here is what makes it so:

  • The Muslim and non-Muslim reader of this book is on equal footing. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I assumed that I was not the kind of reader Wilson was writing for. I thought that her treatment of Islam’s tenets and history would be very basic, and that this would be a mere readable and feel-good record of her cultural immersion. I was so glad to be proven wrong: her account and writing can be revelatory for readers of all faiths. She remarks, for example, on the fact that the Islamic calendar are not fixed, and therefore occasions like Eid can occur during any season, reflecting that God does not want us to worship nature or become to attached to the material, even if it is through associating a certain type of season with a holiday. Such a description is only one example of how she can introduce a fact about Islam while introducing a refreshing perspective for a practicing Muslim.
  • The author is very honest about her romantic relationship and her struggle with it. I loved this honesty, which is more heartfelt than raw, and I loved how she is very upfront about the realities of loving someone from a vastly different background. It isn’t for no reason that love blossoms between Wilson and the man who would become her husband: they are passionate about Islam, about Egypt, about art and spirituality, and both are anomalies in respect to their indigenous cultures. He is amazingly tender towards her (he’s so dreamy) and they have a beautiful wedding. I really, appreciated, however, how Wilson makes a point that love stories, even in memoirs, often miss out on: love is a struggle. The more disparate your backgrounds, the greater a struggle it is. She writes: “Love is not a benign thing. No corner of my life remained unaltered by the consequences of what I loved. The most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me brought me neither peace nor comfort. But it did bring me Omar. And that was more than enough.”
  •  She gives a similar treatment to the Egyptians and Iranians portrayed in the book. All too aware that she does not speak for them, she carefully presents their attitudes and norms without apology and with careful explanation from within the cultural framework. In fact, she goes even further by posing some striking perspectives when it comes to being a woman in an Egyptian society:

When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way women who don’t follow the rules are punished, and fail to consider the way women who do follow the rules are rewarded. When I finished an article or essay, all I received was an e-mail from an editor saying, ‘Thanks, got it.’ When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands.

  • Her description of Cairo is magnificent. Really, I’m at a loss to explain what made it so wonderful. I’ll only say that if I ever visit the city, I’ll make a point of re-reading the book and mapping out the monuments, buildings, and cafes she describes. I also greatly admire her for refusing to life the insulated life of an expat in the city and getting as close as she could to experiencing life as an Egyptian woman.
  • This, a passage that made me experience a deep sense of kinship that had me reeling for days:

In her book The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji smugly announces that . . . ‘it was Islam’s job’ to keep her from leaving the faith. I never thought it was Islam’s job to keep me. My faith was not a contract, not a deal; there were no clauses I expected God to abide by and which, if violated, would give me an excuse to back out. . . It was certainty that animated me; it was certainty that allowed me to watch the progress of the extremists and feel anger and disgust, but never disappointment. It was not my place to be approving or disappointed: I had submitted too completely for either. Through the bile and ignorance of the radical imams and self-righteous apostates, through the spin of the news networks and the pomposity of academics, I saw a straight, unwavering line. How could I be disappointed? I did not believe in Islam; I opened my eyes every morning and saw it.

I have often wondered how it is that I could be confronted with a stream of staunch disbelievers, radically liberal reformists, and pathological conservatives and still believe. I now understand, for Wilson articulates in this passage what I could not put words to even after years of thought.

I don’t think it’s very often that one can get the kind of nuance and beauty in nonfiction this book offers, especially in nonfiction about transnational Muslims. By sharing her story, Wilson gives sensitively and remarkably-framed insights into the struggles of Egypt, the real struggle for the soul of Islam, and the turmoil that comes with being a Muslim who is forever battling the opposing sides of her cultural and spiritual heritage.

Notes:

And now, an epic buzzkill for my previous post

Call it the result of having many agnostic or atheistic friends, but my thoughts about God’s signs are not unchallenged by inner dialogue about how they would respond to such musings. “That’s nice,” they may respectfully say of my previous post, “But you know, Sarah, there’s also tilt of the earth’s axis, and its position on certain parts of its orbital arc around the sun. Ya know. That’s just how it is.”

It reminds me of another grand nature-related buzzkill whose memory always makes me smile. There was a time, back when I was living in Lahore for my undergraduate studies, when we were finally blessed with rain after a long, long time. Inhaling that precise beautiful, rich smell of long-awaited rain in on dry land, I thought out loud to my friend: “I should pray. Duaas are answered when it’s raining.”

With a barely suppressed eyeroll, she said: “Sarah, with all due respect, if the Prophet was born in London, he’d have told us to pray when the sun was shining.”

Oh, dear. Good times.