On Sensitivity: An Artist's Trust

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.

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On Beauty

So here is the thing about me and beauty: I’m either completely oblivious to it, or it sears me senseless.

I would have gone on for months without as much as giving anyone a second glance. Not just because the gaze should be lowered, but because I genuinely see nothing that is worthy of such a look.

Nor am I, generally speaking, particularly observant. I live in my head. Even if the first look at that gentleman sitting across from me on the subway gave me a hint of remarkably sculpted cheekbones, I’m not supposed to gape, right? Might as well not even bother with the first look. Back to thinking about how brie and apples make a stellar combination, or what in earth is in store for us in this season of “Dexter.”

So I’ll go on for months like this, until one day. One day, my gaze is frozen on someone–usually someone no one turns to look at a second time. A thousand alarm bells start ringing. People like this exist? What I’m seeing is so enchanting that I know it’s my mind, I know it’s the months of retreating inwardly that are causing me to act up.

That, of course, doesn’t make it any less real.

I stand there, and if I’m lucky enough to have a friend close by, she reminds me to close my mouth. She usually knows me well enough to not ask what on earth I am seeing in him. She knows I’ll just whips around and snap: “But how can you not see it?”

It’s really, really strange. Is the person really that beautiful? Am I just seeing what I want to see? Is a part of my mind so sick of ignoring men that it clings onto the first trace of beauty, of noor, that it sees on someone’s face?

It’s not just any beauty, mind you. It’s the kind of beauty that reminds one that Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty. In its temporal manifestation, beauty can become a kind of teaser for the One who is Beautiful. The attraction to one with this peculiar, transcendent form of beauty is neither completely asexual or sexual in nature. For those forms of attraction are just those that help humanity function according to the way it has been creative.

Think about it. A sexualized beauty has a functional purpose: finding partners. Asexualized beauty helps cultivate tender feelings towards children or pets, making it less of a nuisance to tend to them. There’s an aesthetic sense of beauty that gives some guidance to decorators, designers, and craftspeople. But in terms of functionality, it pretty much ends there. No one’s going to get a promotion based on the way they see the swell of flesh under an eyebrow. (Hat tip to Philip Roth for making that the defining mark of Faunia’s beauty in in The Human Stain.) Unless you’re an artist or creative director who happens to have an audience that gets you, you have nothing to gain from noticing the way a scarf brushes a woman’s cheek, the scented stillness of a night in the woods. You just drink it in, and turn that into a remembrance, into dhikr.

Seeing flashes of human beauty–not just in a package consisting of sculpted cheekbones, flawless skin, and slender, tapered hands, but the overall perfect assembly of features that is a cause of wonder–continue to remind me of God’s beauty. When I was younger, I’d be wistful, a little pained, or even confused, by beauty.  But that is no longer so. Now I just smile inside. Wide. I understand that what I’m really longing for is Allah’s Beauty. I understand, in Tariq Ramadan’s words, that modesty is not about avoiding beauty, but dealing with it. Perhaps that dealing happens by acknowledging the source of that beauty, reminding ourselves of its source, and praising that Source. And willing and and anticipating and praying for a chance to see Him.

But I want to be even better than that. Next time, I hope I remember to say the same prayer the Prophet did: “Ya Allah, you have made your creation beautiful, so make my character beautiful.”

Ya Allah, Ya Al-Noor, Ya Al-Jameel, glory is to you. You have made your creation unbelievably beautiful. Make all of our characters beautiful as well.

On Duaas Coming True

Today is my younger sister’s 17th birthday. This young lady—who is different from me in a lot of ways but nowhere less awesome—has a little story attached to her existence.

For the first decade of my life I was the only daughter and a middle child. I had an older and a younger brother who tormented me to no end. I would weep and keep asking my mother if I could have a sister. She would tell me to pray for one. I don’t remember if I did (I had some foundational Islamic knowledge but didn’t get into practice until I was twelve or so) but man, I wanted that sister. I loved dolls, and I thought how wonderful it would be to have a live doll, a little being to look after and play with. (Nope, I wasn’t objectifying her at all!)

Imagine my thrill when my aunt approaches me one evening with a beaming face. She didn’t even have to tell me the news. I yelped. And then proceeded to have the most enriching experience of my life: helping look after and take care of my baby sister. So what if other kids were gossiping on the phone, going to parties, and shopping? For me, this is where it was at.

Now, when I am being affectionate towards my sister, I call her my duaa. On an occasion or two I have joked about how she wouldn’t be living this awesome life if I hadn’t wanted a sister so badly. But I don’t labor that point, because, well, that would be weird, even a bit Phraoesque.

One of my closest friends once said to me: “I created you out of my thoughts.”  That’s how I feel about the people who are closest to me, and the blessings that have been bestowed upon me. Allah (SWT) took care of me from the very beginning, and I know He continues to take care of me when the things I want come true, regardless of whether or not I explicitly pray for them. If that isn’t evidence of Allah’s mercy, I don’t know what is.

On One Billion Salawat Day

It has been a horrendous week, so this announcement is going up much later than intended. But better late than never…

Tomorrow (November 4th 2012) there will be a worldwide event commemorating the love of the Prophet through the repetition of the following:

This prayer upon the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), called the salawat, is highly recommended as a means of general remembrance in all situations. Whenever my grandmother saw that I was distressed, she would remind me to repeat it over and over, telling me that it provides ease in all matters. (She’s right. I do it to this day.) My mother recited it to herself continuously and quietly on the wedding dais to ward off the anxiety that comes with taking such a major step in life. As a close family friend told us, this prayer should fill in the empty gaps of our day, such as the few seconds when we are waiting for someone to pick up the phone. Hamza Yusuf calls it a cooling prayer, in contrast to the supplications that call upon God’s intense and powerful qualities. Similarly, I have heard that saints undertaking recitations of God’s most mighty and powerful names padded them a hundred recitations of the salawat to balance the powerful impact of those names.

I love the concept of this event because we need spiritual solutions as much as we need logistical ones. We live in strange times, and while these strange times entail exploring new and creative means of enacting spirituality, they are also times of fitnah, of great trial and hardship. No matter which way you self-identify as a Muslim, I’m pretty sure you agree that we face enormous challenges, serious confrontations to our faith, and at times bewildering anomalies that push our patience and understanding to their limits. A 14-year-old girl gets shot because she openly criticizes those who deny her the right to education. Muslims go mental when someone of no significance makes a film insulting the Prophet (PBUH), but hardly bat an eye when it comes to destroying the historical sites that are the only remaining fragments of his legacy. There are people spending a lot of time and money to ensure that Islamophobic motifs have a presence in people’s daily lives. There are a host of issues related to Muslim women: they are in dire need for more inclusive spaces in the mosque, they are also having a worse time than men in finding spouses, and certain governing entities think that legislating their clothing is perfectly acceptable.

I am not shooting off these pain points because I want to keep you up at night. I’m sharing them to show just how badly we need Allah’s help in working through these situations.

When I told my mother about this initiative, she recommended that those participating in the event begin with asking forgiveness from God with with a hundred recitations of astaghfirullah. I agree with her. Who knows what wrongs we are committing that are distancing us from Allah (SWT) and worsening our situations. It could be doing nothing about the cultural taboos surrounding disability and mental illness. Or it could be working tirelessly to get people to convert to Islam, only to harangue them about getting rid of their dogs. How about bringing our girls up with the idea that their bodies are something to be ashamed of? Or slaughtering animals in the most inhumane ways imaginable, thinking that just saying His name is enough to render it halal? Indeed, may Allah forgive us. May He hear us in our united proclamation of love for His messenger and instill us with the grace and spirit worthy of his legacy.

By turning our gaze heavenward and engaging in this collective worship, our hearts will, Insh’Allah, be given ease. With along hard work, common sense, and a genuine openness for solutions in forms we may not have imagined, this could be a start

I deeply hope and pray that it will. There has not been a time that I recited the salawat and not felt at least a temporary relief, enough ease and calm to be able to see solutions rather than dwell on problems. Perhaps the baraka in this can benefit us all on a grander scale as well.