On "The American Qur'an"

This is what looks like a book that took commendable effort.
By someone with good intentions.
But it is not the Quran.

I long for the Quran the way a hopeless drunkard longs for a saintlike jewel of a being.
The way Devdas longed for Paro.
I long for the Quran while knowing
That I am not worthy of it.
That I am polluted with worldliness, selfishness, gluttony.

To read The American Quran is not to read the real Quran.
For is it not supremely better
To have just the Quran?
To have its verses echo inside me as I walk?
To have them run repeatedly in my mind,
Without knowing that is what I am doing?

The munafiq I am, I am disgusted.
That they dare attach their own images, their own projections
To the dark, glorious tresses of its calligraphy.
That contain universes in its every vowel.
Fathah, dammah, kasra, the smallest marks ever so beautiful.
Maybe if people like me didn’t shroud themselves with the dunya
Its glory would shine brilliantly
And no one would dare project images—
(Oh I laugh as I write this)
—In “juxtaposition” to what it is saying…
“What it is saying?”
It has come to this.

It is one thing to be given a translation that collects dust on a bookshelf
It is another to own this “collector’s item”
To shuffle a few pages while having your wine.
And think you have some idea of what it really says.

You can dress up this text in whichever way you like
For it to be palatable to you.
But there are still a few who know
What it feels like when it brushes your soul.
And the rest falls away.

ikhlas

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On reading "The Upstairs Wife"

 22238381If I were to be an official-ish, published writer, I would be a nonfiction writer. I would hope to be the kind of writer who writes a book like this. Zakaria’s book illustrates a private, painful family story in parallel to the story of Pakistan as experienced by the swollen, violent, disturbed, distorted city that is Karachi.

Nothing is perfect—in true journalistic fashion, things are simply conveyed as they are, yet artfully so. Islamization campaigns in Pakistan are shown as no worse than the corruption and hypocrisy of secular leadership. (One exception: I couldn’t help but feel that there was a bit of sympathy on her part towards the Muhajjir Qaumi Movement—MQM, but that could be just me.)

This is also the story of how Zakaria’s paternal aunt’s husband ended up taking a second wife. This is not an Orientalist horrifying tale of how Islam allows polygamy and how it is terrible. It is an examination of the social realities of arranged marriages, women’s roles in society, love, and the tightrope a middle-class Pakistani family must walk to maintain its respectability. It is also the story of human nature, how easy it is to hate for the sake of hating, and how the most negative sentiments can become lifelong companions. It is the story of how vulnerable a woman is when her sole role is to serve her husband, when her life is built around him. This is not just Aunt Amina’s story: it is the story of millions of women, married and unmarried, whose worth is measured by their marital status, whether they are mothers, whether they work or are taught to have aspirations of their own. Aunt Amina is the chronically bereaved family member you will desperately want to avoid, to avoid all that negative energy, while fully understanding that she is the way she is because that is all she knows, and that is her reality.

On a different note: I kept wondering, as I read the book, what or who emboldened Zakaria to write so many details about her aunt’s life. No one would want their life put on display this way. In the Western context of publishing and the accountability of telling stories, “consent” wouldn’t come close to describing the kind of license the subject of a story would have to provide. Nothing is more powerful than a private, true story, but shouldering the responsibility of sharing this kind of a narrative has both serious legal and (I feel) spiritual implications.

Allah knows the author’s intentions best, and is the judge in all matters.

On Reading the Organized Mind

This book seems awfully scattered at times and I am sure it could have done its job in two-thirds the number of pages it takes 18693669up. I didn’t read all of it. But I did come across a review of it and wanted to share a key point:

Guard your mind. Yes, it’s cool to live in the dazzling array of electronics, but while it’s convenient that you can instantly find out how much the Empire State Building weighs that doesn’t mean you always should.

What could be more purely Islamic than the notion of guarding your mind?

Other things that speak to the same theme:

The Men Who Are: On Reading Salaam, Love

mattu-salaamlove

Title: Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: February 2014 

Genre: Sexuality / Religion & Spirituality

Source: eGalley from publisher 

Without a doubt, I am a different person from the time I read Love, InshAllah. Curiously, though, I put off reading Salaam, Love for the same reason I put off reading its predecessor. As someone as disconnected from the Muslim community as I am, I thought, wouldn’t this make me lonely? As someone struggling as hard  to find love now as I was two years years ago, wouldn’t this be a reminder of what is lacking?

Just like I was with Love, InshAllah, I was proven wrong. Through these beautiful, intimately-crafted essays, I met Muslim man after Muslim man who shared his experience with love. Mind you, I don’t use “meet” in the metaphorical sense of the word, or even the usual, everyday sense of the word. Rather, I feel like I was let in and given glimpses of the deeply personal, these men at their most vulnerable.

To look at it one way, the fact that these stories were told by men is almost irrelevant. More often than not, I was reading these stories with the sensibility that they were Muslims’ experience of love; gender didn’t matter. On the other hand, there is something original about men telling such stories. I have a considerably rich understanding of Muslim women’s experiences with love, thanks to having read Love InshAllah, Love in a Headscarf, and my day-to-day work at Altmuslimah (including a recent piece in which I discussed how to make the rishta process work for Muslim women). With this personal context, however, I needed to round off my exposure and personal experience by listening to the brothers in the Muslim family.

Hence, in this review, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the kinds of male Muslim-ness I came across in this story. Choosing which stories to focus on was an especially difficult task, but necessary for the purposes of in-depth reflections.

The Men Who are Imperfect:

No one’s perfect: that’s a given. Those of us who open ourselves to love have often failed on small or grand levels. Hence, no collection of this nature would be complete without the inclusion of a story that included a story of a major failure on the part of the storyteller. In this collection, one of those stories would be Maher Reham’s “Just One Kiss.” In a very candid, almost blunt account, Reham recounted the story of his hasty, lust-driven marriage and the confusion and hardship that followed afterwards. His marriage became so rocky that his friendliness and closeness to a co-worker evolved into an full-fledged extramarital affair. The admission of this story may be shocking and disconcerting to some. However, it is important to remember that such occurrences don’t just take place in the Muslim community–oftentimes, the betrayer excuses themselves for their actions. In this story, however, the complexity and depth of the issue is revealed, in which Reham holds himself accountable while making me seriously question the phrase: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” In a strange way, this magnitude of imperfection becomes beautiful, giving me great appreciation for this story.

In “A Grown-Ass Man,” Alykhan Boolani gives the story behind his once being the “Asshole [from the jamat khana] who didn’t call.” (Which is probably not how he would explain the reason behind writing this story, but for me, that’s what it boils down to.) So Alykhan meets a lovely girl who, like him, also happens to be Ismaili. There don’t appear to be any issues, just the promise of a beautiful romance. However, their local community is, to put it lightly, extremely close-knit, something Alykhan finds, again to put it lightly, suffocating.

Through the very rich and ornate prose in this story, what I managed to make out was this: while the author was walking on air for the time after that first date, something didn’t seem right, and he couldn’t place his finger on what it was. A friend then brings him face-to-face with the fact that she looked like his sister. I am not sure whether this was meant literally, but in any case, it makes it clear to him that he can’t go on with this. In the meantime, thanks to the very “small town” nature of their community, his sister, father, and eventually his mother have found out about his date with this girl. Then, after some time, there is a run-in with the girl after one of the Friday sessions at the jamat khana, and what goes through his mind, by way of explanation, is this:

I can’t deal with the way in which the ‘ism looms so large. . . I want to stand up from prostration and speak directly into the big, scary face of Tradition, and say, Hey, bow toward me a little bit, like I bow toward you! Just give me some room, and I’ll do this my way, and I’ll do it with good heart and a right mind, like you taught me! But is this really a conversation to have with an institution? Or is it really about my mother? As in Ma, I love you, but I’m a grown-ass man and you can’t play a major part in my love life, albeit by utter cosmic accident.

So here is my twofold reaction to this:

It strikes me as odd to think that something like this didn’t work out just because it was too close to home. Seriously? People are fighting to marry their soul mates when they fall outside their sect, race, or religion, even, and you don’t follow up with someone because she is too much like you? 

That said, this story is just one example of the many forces in play in the Muslim love scene. As is the case with many first-second generation immigrant families from the East, now living in the West, there is a serious struggle between the social and the personal, collectivism versus individualism. I can certainly relate to being put off by a suitor simply because they were being shoved so hard in my face–a suitor I would have gotten along with perfectly well had I met him on my own.

The Men Who Are Like Us:

…and by “Us,” I mean women. It can be delusion-ally comforting to think, especially through online discourses in the Muslim community, that male privilege is the reason for women’s struggles with love. While it is important to point out trends that favour men, it can become too easy for such explanations to become a safety blanket. By placing the blame elsewhere, we don’t have to take action, or face the truth of the situation. Truth being: we are all damaged. We are all struggling with love in this crazy, busy world, all the while fending off pressures from the community while trying to heal scars from our past.

Take Yusef Ramlize’s story “Who I Needed to Be.” Having suffered severe abuse and emotional neglect at his father’s hands, he had to find it in himself to forgive his father and “let go of the fear and pain” that had held him back for so long. This account was followed by his journey to love and a blissful union with a woman named Samira. The beginning and ending of the story are major contrasts  It was so heartwrenching in the beginning but ended beautifully, leaving the reader with much hope.

The title Arif Choudhury’s story asks a question many women ask themselves: “How did I end up here?” As an average-looking man of Bangladeshi descent who doesn’t follow a career path prized by parents of Bengali girls, he has been struggling to meet someone, a process that has left him “lonely and demoralized.”

To me, this story illustrates two key points. One: it’s not just Muslim women who have to pay the price for being original and going off the beaten path. Two: one can have the right attitude, pursue whatever paths are available, and have a very basic set of criteria, and yet still be unable to find someone. After reading this story and recalling others like it, I will never make the mistake for thinking that things are somehow “harder” for women.

Arif alluded to loneliness and demoralization; states none of us are strangers to. There was a much more sober take on loneliness in Haroon Moghul’s “Prom InshAllah.” In this piece, Haroon relates the story of a soul-shattering heartbreak he experienced when he was seventeen. His reflection: “My religion says a man should not be alone with a woman. But somebody should have told me a man should not feel so alone that being with a woman is the only way he can feel life is worth living.”

Women, more so than men, are conditioned to believe that their worth is derived from their having a spouse. But that demon of need that Haroon talks about does not discriminate. Only the luckiest men and women are immune to such a mindset. In immigrant families like Haroon’s and mine, alienation from one’s parents only deepens the need for someone to communicate with, someone who already understands your view of the world. When you happen to cross paths with that someone and they can’t stay, the devastation can really take its toll. I could thus completely relate to his taking eons to recover from a short-lived relationship at such a young age.

The Men Of God:

There were some pieces in this collection in which the respective men’s faiths shone especially brightly. The ones I will focus on  were shared in the the third section of the book, entitled “Sabr.” This section contained stories related to health-related crises. Without coincidence, it was here that the depth of the authors’ faiths could be seen. Take Alan Howard’s “The Promise,” his account of meeting, marrying, and caring for a woman who had cancer–until the day she passed on. His experience God-consciousness touched me incredibly deeply:

Through Joan’s ordeal, I learned to accept that there are things that happen in this world that I do not understand and cannot control, but must face with sabr anyway. Joan’s embodiment of Islam taught me how to understand and survive the tests I have been given in life, in order to grow and change and become more beautiful….my wife’s test in this life was cancer; it changed her and made her strong. My test was to take care of her, to never turn away. It was my duty to stand by her, but it was also my love. It was the core of my humanity.

The last story in this section and the collection is Randy Nasson’s “Becoming Family.” This harrowing tale opened my eyes to the trial he and his wife (one of the co-editors of this collection, Ayesha Mattu), went through. This made me ashamed of the assumptive reflections I had made in regard to Ayesha’s story in my review of Love, InshAllah. I’m grateful that the rest of the story was shared by means of her husband’s perspective, showing that “happily ever after” requires a great deal of work, more for some couples than for others.

To drive home why this book is relevant to everyone, we must visit the original question: “Why love?” Romantic love–whatever form it may take–can bestow one unimaginable bliss, while also forcing them to confront their demons and contend with underlying issues in their broader communities. In the case of an enormous, decentralized, and often dehumanized community like the Muslim community, all those “usual” elements of love stories are increased by tenfold.

I am not sure Salaam, Love is as revelatory or groundbreaking as Love, InshAllah was, and that could be a very good sign of how far along this enterprise has come. Yes, there are stories that could make some of a certain slant uncomfortable, but to someone like me, that isn’t news anymore. It is for this reason I took it as a continuation of conversation, rather than its beginning. At the time I read Love, InshAllah, I was bearing witness to my personal stories. I was learning that what happened with me were not anomalies or freakish incidents, but part of my personal growth and journey in faith.

Recently, however, I am becoming especially conscious of the shared struggles with love in the Muslim community, and this book assured me that I am not alone. I’m not the only one who had to overcome a lifetime of conditioning to learn how to love myself. I’m not the only one who is confused by inter-generational conflict. And should something work out for me, sooner or later (InshAllah), I will harbour no illusions about that being an end in itself.

On Bibliotherapy and Sabr

It’s been more than a trying last term in my Master’s program. By the God’s grace, life has been well.

But the other day was a day with a resounding message, a gift of thought. It reminded me to keep check, to maintain perspective no matter where I am.

I attended a talk by Professor Keren Dali, a library science professor in my faculty with an expertise in reading behaviour and reader’s advisory in the library context. In the talk, she discussed the dangers of reading and bibliotherapy. Both, she pointed out, come with their own set of caveats. With the advent of the novel and the sudden spread of reading fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors were wary of the effect reading had on people’s–specifically women’s–physical and mental states. Reading, they said, put one in an alternate state of mind which was nothing short of pathological. It made readers oversympathize and overidentify with the characters and experience their stories viscerally, which physiologically taxed their bodies. At the same time, readers had a perpetual sense of guilt for neglecting their “real world” duties, which added to the stressors. The critic Samuel Johnson introduced a philosophical dimension to the reading obsession by saying that reading had the tendency to “produce effects almost without the intervention of the will.”

Attitudes towards reading have transformed so radically that they have veered towards the other extreme: the innate goodness of reading is now accepted without question. Professor Dali recalled attending a workshop at a librarians’ conference in which a bibliotherapy workshop was proposed for aging patrons undergoing significant life transitions. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. She, however, was stunned, and could not believe that the matter of people’s lives was being taken so lightly. She urged librarians working in readers’ advisory to be mindful of the specificity of people’s personal problems. And while librarians are nowhere close to being sources of professional help–even bibliotherapy requires certification–it is their responsibility to follow stricter rules in readers advisory when it came to matters of bibliotherapy. Only recommend a book that you have read, that you genuinely loved, and that helped you in a similar time. Keep in mind that reading is not therapy in itself: it is supportive.

This talk challenged the mindset that reading is a good unto itself. Professor Dali’s talk was met with several snickers, but the truth of the matter is, it is just as easy for reading to worsen one’s mindset as it is to improve it. Someone who has a tendency to be deluded, or to numb themselves with formulaically constructed stories, should be encouraged to indulge in escapist reading.


That same day, I finally watched Life of Pi in the theatre with my little brother. Both of us are highly sensitive and have a hard time seeing any beings–particularly animals–in difficult situations. We shrunk back in our seats during some especially tumultuous scenes, and on many occasions he simply covered his eyes.

Afterwards I tried to explain to him what I wish I was told ages ago: to not be afraid of feeling sad, to be brave about it. I recounted the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of his son as a metaphor for how we must let go of things that we are attached to with sabr. I tried to tell him that these glimpses of sadness are hints into the greater sadnesses that lie ahead for us, and being unafraid of it makes us become aware of what may befall us at a moment’s notice.

Thus, while bibliotherapy is traditionally applied to those who are struggling with problems and are at a low point, I can’t help but think of think of the flip side of things: that “therapy” also applies to being humbled when things are going well. I was not happy at how my insides retracted while watching Life of Pi. Had I watched the movie last summer, when I was grappling with intense hopelessness and fear, I would have taken those feelings in stride, paying them no heed.

This phenomenon even applies to physical pain. I once had an accident involving a spillage of boiling water that blistered left a scar on my hand–and yet, I was so stressed and overwhelmed at that time that I paid it no heed. I am certain that if I were content and happy, that pain would have been worse.

Bibliotherapy may start with a fictional story, but then the gaze should shift to other injustices and atrocities I may not usually be equipped to think about. Now it is time to watch that footage of animal treatment in factory farms and seriously rethink my dietary choices. Now I need to revisit my phobias and expose myself to their triggers. Now I need to grow in ways I cannot when I am feeling down. And just like there is no knowing when we will die, there is no knowing how long happiness and contentment will last.

Bibliotherapy does not necessarily have to involve books. It involves appropriate usage powerful narratives that should instill us with appropriate doses of hope or fear, depending on what we need at that particular time. It means–no matter what our situation–being mindful of the extremely limited role our individual lives play in the grand scheme of things. I may not spend a lot of time in the day explicitly weighing my fear of God in respect to my love and gratitude to him for placing me where I am now, but I can remind myself of the issues that I am better equipped to face now.

I am relatively happier and more content than I have been for a long time, and I pray that Allah make me not heedless in this time, or hoplessly paralyzed when things go bad. I am at the mercy of whatever he choses to bestow on me, but a step beyond just surrendering to it is being proactive in building stores of courage and and an armor of resilience.

More On Singlehood

When I feel constricted, suffocated by notions that a married woman is the only kind of woman who is worth being respected, being heard, I think of Precious Ramotswe. I think of her father. I think of what happened when a man who later turned out to be an abusive husband asked for his permission to marry her. I think of the very clear straightforward process Obed Ramotswe undertook:

He sat on his stool and looked up at her and said to her that she would never have to marry anybody she did not want to marry. Those days were over, long ago. Nor should she feel that she had to marry at all; a woman could be by herself these days—there were more and more women like that.

I do fantasize about love and marriage. I grew up with romantic notions of fairy-tale weddings and eternal love and marital bliss. I still believe in these possibilities and want them for myself very, very much.

At the same time, I also fantasize about a wise, elder figure like Ramotswe telling me that it’s okay to not settle.

It may sound incredibly absurd. But when you are part of a culture where the spinster woman is so deeply shamed, where it’s hard to rejoice in your lifestyle when society refuses to accord you respect, you need to embrace an alternate reality. You need to build new mental models for ways of being.

So from this first book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it is Obed Ramotswe’s words that sustain me, along with Precious’ ambition, creativity, an uncluttered, independent life, with bright yellow curtains, bush tea, and chats with dear friends. These things remind me that contentment, peace, love and mercy can exist in forms beyond the sociocultural establishment I have been born into.

It is in passages like the one above, moments like these, that I am struck by just how much literature can be such a rahma, such a mercy.

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: