Farewell

I barely have had enough time to even write this, but I did want to make it official: it is time to bring this blog to a close.

Reasons: The connection between faith and books no longer burns in me the way it used to. Some of it relates to why I left Altmuslimah: many people are saying many things, and I’m becoming certain that my voice does not need to be in the mix any longer. I am more than happy to retreat to the world of books, family, and (hopefully) more physical and spiritual activity.

I’ll maintain some semblance of “A Muslimah Writes” on my Goodreads or Facebook page.

Thank you for all the support through the life of this blog.

With love, warmth and peace,

Sarah

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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

Because women bleed

FYI: I didn’t make this post “outsider friendly.” I am assuming the reader has a basic understanding of female menstruation and prayer in the Islamic tradition.

I used to be the kind of Muslim who didn’t care much for rules. Matters such as how you fold your arms when you pray seemed to be a way to divide and police people. Isn’t it the spirituality, the intention, that matters?

I have learned, however, that fiqh—the part of Islamic faith that has to do with legal rulings—IS a way of enacting spirituality. Rules are like rituals. They make the processes and methodology absolute so that one cannot be distracted, uneasy, or meek in their workship.

It was due to this newfound respect and adab for fiqh that I attended a workshop on the Fiqh of Taharah (Purity) at a mosque in Markham. It was specific to the subject of menstruation and was for females only.

What I grew up knowing about menstrual purity was based on what my mother told me and some scattered readings of religious texts. It had been over a decade since I received any formal instruction on the subject, and it turned out that there was much I hadn’t been aware of.
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Image credit: Stròlic Furlàn, flickr

Overall, I learned that Islamic legal rulings give a holistic, universal treatment of female bleeding that can be applicable to all women. For example, in the Hanafi school of thought, a period is only considered a true menstrual period if it is at least three days, and if the time that has passed since the last period is at least fifteen days. There is a specific way a woman is supposed to monitor the start and end of her period—for example, her period doesn’t start from the time she starts the bleeding, but the time she sees the blood. It may seem like common sense, but to know that this was the conclusion that legal experts sanctioned provides a strange kind of comfort and ease.

It was a revelation to me and many others that it is almost essential, religiously speaking, for women to track their periods and to know their normal cycle. The instructor (who happened to be a male using the audio system form a different room) emphasized that many of the Islamic legal implications on menstruation had to do with the women knowing her “habit,” or the usual course her cycle takes. Having this information is key for some of the conundrums that may come up when her bleeding is irregular, for she could be confused as to whether she should pray. We went on break not long after that point was made by the instructor, and I saw the room come alive with women discussing the lessons and sharing their experiences with one another. As part of this, we started talking about if/how we tracked our periods, and my sister leaned in and ended up showing me which she considers “the best app” for period tracking.
That was when everything would change.

I started using Clue right after that and have been consistent with it since. Clue has allowed me the uphold the injunction to know one’s cycle from both a fiqh and reproductive health perspective. The initiative was founded by a successful award-winning social entrepreneur who sees infinite possibilities in marrying data analytics and reproductive health.

The user experience is seamless and the app itself is a mini encyclopedia of facts related to things like menstruation, birth control and PMS. Without exaggeration, it has allowed me to get in touch with my body by observing and getting to know it.

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I am one of the more fortunate women to have learned about reproductive health and menstruation in my biology and health classes. Even so, I was not given the tools to apply the facts to how my body worked. Clue, for me, serves as that missing tool. It encourages me to pay closer attention to myself. And, best of all, it gives me the means to uphold and apply the “fiqh of Taharah” by completing its most fundamental requirement—knowing my cyle. Thanks to its graphical representations, I know at a glance the length of my “tuhr,” or time between my periods.

Should my body behave differently, I will have my reference points for knowing my habit, knowing what is natural for me, because my body is not a machine.

Rituals and rules give us certainty and knowledge gives us power. Thanks to these beautifully simultaneous occurrences: attending the course and beginning to use Clue,  I now have a growing understanding of my body I didn’t have before, both in the worldly and in the spiritual realms.

Here are some notes from the workshop. 

"Half Our Deen" as described by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am doing my best to prepare for my marriage every bit as much as prepare for my wedding. As part of the former, I am reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. I had heard about the book’s topic, but was never interested enough to read it until recently, since its relevance has increased by a hundredfold.

couple-294284_640I am glad to be reading it now. The book is a researched meditation of sorts on the subject of marriage. Gilbert writes it on the eve of her own impending marriage, weaving together history (Western history, that is), research, and insightful personal reflections on the topic. It’s good. And much, much better than her last book.

Halfway in, I read something which was glorious, but of course did not make the connection with Islam—which is why I am sharing it here. It is the perfect explanation for why Islam discourages monasticism and celibacy. It explains why the Prophet urged his followers to marry and establish households. It’s also a much beautiful and precise version of what I was trying to convey in my previous post.

With all respect to Buddha and to the early Christian celibates, I sometimes wonder if all this teaching about nonattachment and the spiritual importance of monastic solitude might be denying us something quite vital. Maybe all that renunciation of intimacy denies us the opportunity to ever experience that very earthbound, domesticated, dirt-under-the-fingernails gift of difficult, long-term, daily forgiveness…Maybe creating a big enough space within your consciousness to hold and accept someone’s contradictions—someone’s idiocies, even—is a kind of divine act. Perhaps transcendence can be found not only on solitary mountaintops or in monastic settings, but also at your own kitchen table, in the daily acceptance of your partner’s most tiresome, irritating faults.

Why I'm Getting Married

I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wanted to get married. I have always wanted it. However, my reasons for it have changed throughout the years. This is the final, honed version of all those years of reasoning. 
Married is said to be half our deen, an scholars have emphasized that that is because it involves stepping up to a significant challenge. Conversely–divorce is one of the most hated acts by God, an allowance only made for extreme situations. For giving up on a marriage means giving up on that challenge.Wedding_Rings
I am getting married because
a) I am stepping up to the challenge, and
b) It is no longer in my path to keep being single.
What being single made me realize is that relationships—whether in the context of marriage or otherwise, inevitably involves the reduction, the shrinking, of both people’s realities. Even the most spirited and adventurous spouse will reduce the degree to which one is present in the world.
This became very clear to me when, upon reflecting on my previous prospective suitors, I remembered a very peculiar factor of things not working out. As disappointing as it was, there was always a glimmer, however small, that I would no longer be living a narrowed reality. That I was free to experience the world as I chose. With nothing anchoring me, I let myself go in my inner life.
And experience it I did. I took trips at the last minute, discovered dance as a form of self affirmation, and grew to love my family in completely new ways. Every day was full of adventure and possibility.
But with this, it eventually became clear why it was no longer in my path to keep being single.
It was too much.
It became emotionally and mentally exhausting to find equal potential and joy to have to seek joy in so many places. Seeing the unique beauty in each of these experiences and being open to them all left too much shakiness in the foundation of who ‘I’ was.
Getting married, I grew to understand, would narrow my experience of the world. Just like bing vegetarian resolved the paradox of choice when ordering at a restaurant, getting married would reduce the amount of experiences I can have. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s the whole point. In a functional marriage, two people lean back from life at least enough for the space of a marriage to remain intact. In a healthy marriage, they lean back further.
Having loved my life as a single women (well, most of the time), getting married is a bittersweet experience. My fiance is everything I want in a man. I already love the life we will have, and the children, God willing, we will bring to this world. Yet, sometimes, I wake up at night to the sound of a door closing. Shaytaan smiles. “Are you sure?”, he asks. I try not to pay him any heed. I say a prayer of gratitude that I no longer have to shine my light through all those open doors. There was a time I did—a time I described as a peculiar state of being One, just as Allah is One. But constantly shining through all of those doors are His ability and right alone.

A letter to myself

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.

Love,
Sarah

On taraweehs and taals

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.

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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.