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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Brass Crescent Nomination!

Thanks to your support and input, I have been nominated for two categories in the Brass Crescent Awards: best blog and best writer! The polls are closing VERY SOON–just within the next couple of days in fact–so please take a moment to cast your vote and help me secure a win. Why? So I can go around saying I write an award-winning blog. So I can put that in a query letter when I’m submitting a manuscript to be published. So I can walk around in a little pink cloud of happiness that will inevitably evaporate when I start eyeing the next best thing.

But there are more reasons. Awards are important, people. Independent, self-founded awards like these are how activists, writers, and artists come into the limelight, how they get the attention they deserve. Awards are an invaluable form of exposure. They are a way to have your say on the Muslim content that matters to you. In a world where we have an established canon of “Christian” and “Jewish American” fiction but not its Muslim counterpart, where we have to explain ourselves before embarking on any narratives, where we are thought to be belligerent, misogynistic, and narrow-minded, it is so, so important to reward those who work so hard to change all that.

So be sure to vote. It doesn’t even have to be for me. Just go and vote. Let’s celebrate the Muslim blogosphere and show our support to the voices that mean the most to us, that come the closest to defining our spiritual experience in these times.

On Ramadan 1433 / 2012

I don’t feel that I’m going to say anything blazingly insightful about Ramadan this time around, but I did want to wish a very happy and blessed one to all those who will be observing the holy month.

Plus, the most important thing that could be talked about this Ramadan is already being discussed a great deal: the very heavy and thorny issue of watching The Dark Knight Rises on the night Ramadan begins. I think I’m going to need a lot of time to really ruminate about all the highly worthwhile current rhetoric about a topic of such pressing concern.

I am lying, of course. Truthfully, I cannotfreakingbelieve that people are getting worked up about this.

Anyway, in case you are relatively new to this blog and are jonesing for some incredibly profound Ramadan-related material from me, check out some stuff I wrote last year, in which I

  • Got annoyed by the fuss being made about fasting in the summer. (Which, it seems, is now being paralleled with my annoyance about The Dark Knight Rises issue. Maybe I’m starting a personal Ramadan tradition of sardonic thinking? How unMuslimlike.)
  • Mused about how Ramadan should be a time when one reevaluates their relationship with food and gives it the love and attention it deserves.
  • Shared my experience of trying to complete recitation of the Quran during Ramadan.
  • Proposed the idea of a writerly duaa, an intimate, conversational, and emotional approach to asking from God.

Take care of each other and yourselves, pray earnestly, and have a soul-enriching Ramadan.

On Mona Eltahawy's "Painful Places" and the Power of Stories

There is something about the conversation surrounding Mona Eltahawy’s flame-stoking article “Why Do They Hate Us?” that struck a raw chord in me (besides its extremely disturbing and offensive accompanying images, mercilessly dissected by Naheed Mustafa and fittingly called “niqabface” by fellow blogger Huma Rashid).

The unwitting story caught in the storm. (Image source: openlibrary.org)

I’m writing this because Eltahawy opens her piece by recounting a work of fiction, no less. She refers to the opening of Alifa Rifaat’s Arabic short story “Distant View of a Minaret,” in which the main character, after a bout of routinely unsatisfying and mechanical sexual intercourse with her husband, washes up and “loses herself in prayer–so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer.”

Call me a wimp, but I was too heartbroken to read on. I accepted the assumption that the Rifaat’s intention was to pit faith and female sexuality against one another and didn’t consider the possibility that this pitting happened not in the story, but in Eltahawy’s interpretation of it.

So it was to my great relief that the scholar Leila Ahmed took issue with this opening, (in her FP response here and her discussion with Eltahawy here) saying that Rifaat could not possibly share Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion.” Rifaat herself identified as a woman who, like the character in the story, lived for prayer. Prayer, as described in the story, isn’t just a form of what Eltahawy calls “sublimation through religion.” Prayer is not just the distraction Eltahawy’s making it out to be: it’s an integral part of the author’s existence, in both good times and bad.

The reason the opening of Eltahawy’s piece broke my heart was that its use of a story to pit faith and liberation against one another. Fiction is a place to expand the imagination. Not to eschew reality altogether, but to chart paths into a different kind of reality, to suggest alternate possibilities. When fiction is applied so carelessly that it is employed in reinforcing prevailing stereotypes and attitudes, it becomes lethal to people’s mindsets. Who can argue what a character “really” feels when she can’t speak up for herself, when she is, quite literally, a figment of the imagination?

What Ahmed alerted readers to is something I want to expand on here: faith and a powerful spiritual inner existence does not feed off of systematic, entrenched injustice, whether it be in the form of misogyny, racism, or any other system of oppression. In light of prevailing stereotypes about Muslim women, it’s too easy to say “Well, of course she has to believe in God, she has to meditate and escape from her reality, look at what a sodden sex life she has!” Sodden sex life or not, the places where women are truimphant–whether it be affirming their individuality through prayer or marching in the streets against tyranny–deserve to be examined on their own terms, not some heinous, monolithic, patriarchal hell they have to escape. Mona Eltahawy keeps stressing how she wants to “shake people up” and “poke the painful places,” but it’s one thing to poke that place, and quite another to aggravate it.

All that said, I do want to thank her for introducing me to the woman who loves to pray so much that she cannot wait for the next one. Her soul-sucking marriage doesn’t make her damaged goods, and does not make her faith any less real. I very much want to long for prayer the way she does.

A Muslim Woman's Response to The Witch of Portobello

Title: The Witch of Portobello

Author: Paulo Coelho

Publication Date: February 2008

Genre: Literary fiction 

Source: eBook from library

This strangely mesmerizing book was a source of spiritual inspiration, even if its theological approach did not sit well with me.

Since I approach the world and my reading with a Muslim ethnographic approach, this book was no exception. I took it and enjoyed it on its own terms, but as I did so, another part of me absorbed its spiritual implications for my relationship with God.

This story is about a woman named Athena with a disposition towards high spiritual awareness. She evolves from being a devout Christian teenager to a pagan priestess, reminding me of the transition so many people like myself have undergone: starting from the outwardly ritual-oriented version of institutionalized religion and moving onto defining faith in highly personal and metaphysical terms involving God’s presence in all things and experiences. It is not the story, but the spiritual attitude that is laid out (as fact, true to Coelho’s style) that I feel is worth exploring further.

One of the things whose discussion I enjoyed and that I feel orthodox teachings in Islam don’t have room for is spiritual enlightenment through creative expression. Dance and calligraphy are two ways Athena cultivates her natural way of getting close to the divine. What she says of dance struck a resounding note for me:

[Dance is] a very ancient way of getting close to a partner. It’s as if the threads connecting us to the rest of the world were washed clean of preconceptions and fears. When you dance, you can enjoy the luxury of being you.

Shouldn’t one’s faith involve being able to surpass one’s context to celebrate who they are, as God made them? Even if extending this celebration continuously is, in my opinion, not healthy, isn’t the ability to have those moments a way of affirming our existence?

During the pauses in the music as she dances, or when she has to shift her calligraphy pen to go on to the next word, Athena experiences a void which is both a source of anguish and intrigue for her:

I’ve always been a very restless person. I work hard, spend too much time looking after my son, I dance like a mad thing, I learned calligraphy. I go to courses on selling, I read one book after another. But that’s all a way of avoiding those moments when nothing is happening, because those blank spaces give me a feeling of absolute emptiness, in which not a single crumb of love exists.

As I also discovered while I was reading The Gifts of Imperfection, the modern affliction of ‘busy-ness’ is a way of avoiding those gaps, of avoiding being in moments where one has to just be.

Athena’s guide and mentor Edda, knowing the depth of her anguish and her need for more than a normal life of contentment, instructs her being in a perpetual state of awareness and worship, even in the most mundane of tasks:

When you’re washing up, pray. Be thankful that there are plates to be washed; that means there was food, that you fed someone, that you’ve lavished care on one or more people, that you cooked and laid the table. Imagine the millions of people at this moment who have absolutely nothing to wash up and no one for whom to lay the table.

The boundary between the sacred and the profane—my washing up so that I can sit down and read the Book, for instance—is quite unnecessary. We’re Muslims not because we vocally enunciate words signifying submission: what really makes us Muslim is that we strive to be mindful of this submission as much as we can in such a manner.

Another beautiful moment in the book is when Athena asks someone why he has so many books, telling him:

You hang on to them because you don’t believe. . . Anyone who believes will go and read up about [things] . . . after that, it’s a question of letting the Mother speak through you and making discoveries as she speaks. And as you make those discoveries, you’ll manage to fill in the blank spaces that all those writers left there on purpose to provoke the reader’s imagination. And when you fill in the spaces, you’ll start to believe in your own abilities.

I was immediately reminded of the story of Ghazali and his notes and his realization that true education couldn’t possibly mean being only as good as one’s notes. This has made me think very long and hard about my library, my way of learning, and the physical possession of books and notes as a false form of intellectual validation.

Two final noteworthy points to highlight about this book would be: 1) its celebration of the feminine and 2) its depiction of how non-codified spiritual practices have been historically marginalized. Unsurprisingly, the two overlap in the phenomenon of “witchery,” society’s pervasive fear of the woman who establishes her life on her own terms without caring for the attitudes of those around her. A witch, I now more fully understand, is a placeholder label for a “radical” woman who believes in something greater than herself.

It would be hard to summarize the impact of this book on me, so I’ll just lay out the following symptoms: I’m more mindful of my prayers and have somehow learned to be more in the moment as I perform them. Washing up is a joy. I try to read and learn in a way that doesn’t involve my needing to hold onto an artifact. Most importantly, I’ve stopped feeling guilty for experiencing the void of those empty spaces. Instead of avoiding them, I now understand that it’s a symptom. It’s a sign of the universal human need to live a meaningful as well as a successful life.

I’ve developed a newfound respect for paganism and think that it’s spiritually perhaps a much harder journey to take. Because there are no established ways for spiritual practice, one has to find the one they have the greatest aptitude for. However, as much as I think I’d like to worship in a creative way, I’m still thankful for Islam’s structure and moral code. I’m glad that I’m given ways of doing dhikr while still being able to say duaas in free form. As a Muslim, I feel like I have the best of both worlds when I preserve fiqh and practice tasawwuf.

But hey. I’m all for the idea of the Muslim witch.

On Rock Music: Spiritual Underpinnings

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Taqwacore on you. But I did want to explore how experiencing the dunya on its own terms made me, well, me. Me the Muslim.

“Free sexuality was an interesting experiment that failed.” -Joni Mitchell
“Free sexuality was an interesting experiment that failed.” -Joni Mitchell

During a strange, difficult time almost a year ago, I found redemption, as I usually do, through books, friends, prayer. But those were things that were just keeping me occupied. I was wondering where I could just be. I was wondering who would listen, what space I needed to be in to be more accepting and forgiving of myself.

So over the course of some snowy, listless nights, in a warm bed I resented myself for not being more grateful for, I watched A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The result was a gratifying, warm embrace, one I could sigh and relax into. Because along with marvelling at rock music’s rich African-American origins and seeing legends like Peter Townshend and Tom Petty speak about their pasts and their relationships with music, I found redemption. I found redemption in understanding that not having the dunya as I wanted it, not being able to numb myself, to be an outsider no one quite understands, is the very essence of the spirit behind rock music. At one point in the documentary series, Levon Helm, former member of genre-defining group The Band, said “Sex, drugs…those were the things they were using to sell rock ‘n’ roll, which seems a damn shame, when you get down to it. The music is certainly capable of doing that on its own.”

Santana described just how capable that music is of doing this on its own:

Often, a musician can do to a woman what a lover cannot do to a woman. I’m very flattered that you’re here after the gig, and that you’re knocking on my door, and you’re beautiful and all that. But, at the same time, I cannot do to you what my music does to your soul.

This isn’t just the unlikeliest means of strengthening the case against zina. This is what Muslims need to be mindful of. We need to be critical of our culture of rockstar imams and realize that it’s not the people we should revere so much, it’s their serving as a portal into something much, much greater. They, as individuals as human as we are, cannot do for us what their teachings do for our souls.

Rock also provides a set of motifs for empowerment and personal identity that set it apart from the norm. So the next time a Hitchens-ascribing nonbeliever accuses me of the ludicrousness of my beliefs, I can perhaps give a faith-based version of what metalhead anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn says in Metal, A Headbanger’s Journey:

Ever since I was 12 years old I had to defend my love for heavy metal against those who say it’s a less valid form of music. My answer now is that you either feel it or you don’t. If metal doesn’t give that overwhelming surge of power that make the hair stand up at the back of your neck, you might never get it, and you know what? That’s okay, because judging by the 40,000 metalheads around me we’re doing just fine without you.

Coincidental or not, the parallel to Surah Al-Kafirun is hard to ignore, a parallel that is embodied in its signature verse: “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”

Our texts, our teachings, remind us that, bad as it seems, the world is temporary. You may hate the world, you may hate yourself for ingratitude, but you have to hold to what’s true by continuously beseeching it, reminding yourself of it. “You’re always cursing,” Santana said, describing the experience of playing the electric guitar, “and you’re always praying.”

Monotheism may or may not lie under the mantle of the profane. But I know music helps. Somehow, without taking away from my Muslim self, it helps the dissonance, it helps the paralyzing feeling that accompanies having one’s internal world not being reflected in her life. “Music doesn’t change the world,” Peter Townshend said in the concluding episode of A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Music changes the way you live in the world. It changes the way you see it, but it doesn’t change the world itself.”

So I dress as I am instructed to, I methodically apply makeup. And if the dread becomes overwhelming, I tune into the radio. Bad Company fills my ears. Literally, and perhaps metaphorically. Either way, I’m temporarily, blissfully numbed.

I later sit in the living area, there in form but not in spirit, waiting for the click of the electric kettle signaling that the water is ready. It’s all part of my rock and roll fantasy.

“So, beta, do you cook?”

“Hm? Yes, occasionally I do, yes.”

“It’s not very hard, and girls eventually end up learning these things over time.”

It’s all part of my rock and roll dream. 

On Singlehood

“Half our deen” is the chanted mantra when it comes to attitudes towards marriage. I like it, I respect it, and I have no doubt about the fact that the institution of marriage is intrinsically beautiful. It’s a form of companionship that is the foundation of a family and is, without question, one of Allah’s infinite mercies upon humanity.

But because I’m all about acknowledging realities, here’s another set of realities that  we need to work with. Divorce rates are climbing. People are waiting longer to settle down. Well-intentioned relationships are failing. So a great majority of Muslims are voluntary or involuntarily single. It might be simply because the right person hasn’t come along yet. Or it might be because they’ve been through failed relationships/marriages and don’t believe being that being in such a situation is for them.

The reasons don’t matter, as they for the most part can’t be helped. For now, we need to put aside the cause and look at the symptom, the state of the younger Muslim generations. We are single. And there’s too many of us who are miserable because we are single.

This makes me wonder whether in there’s a place for elongated singlehood in Islam. Singlehood that is not just as a transient state, but a valid life choice that one deeply, genuinely enjoys. If we can’t seem to settle down with someone, can we afford to keep being marriage-centric? I don’t think so.

I think singlehood shouldn’t just be a limbo one is passing through until they get married (a life that, by the way, has its own set of complications that for some reason are highly understated by parents and married friends). Singlehood has a tendency to be stigmatized across all kinds of cultures and communities, but I think it should be a way of being that needs to stop being looked down upon. And I think the process starts with accepting one’s singlehood and perhaps even rejoicing in it.

In my search for the “single yet happy” equation I ended up reading a book called Living Alone and Loving It by former television actress Barbara Feldon. The great thing about the book is that she doesn’t delve as much into the reasons for being single (or whether one chooses to be single or just happens to be one) but how to make the most of it and rejoice in it. Some of the lessons and wisdoms from the book that made a huge impact in my perception of my singlehood include

  • The realization that it’s better to be single and open and available than to be in an unhappy marriage. Not all marriages are unhappy, granted, but I trust that–for now– if the only alternative to being single is being married and unhappy, then I’m in the best of all possible worlds.
  • The ability to open myself and seek comfort from the world at large rather than one person in particular. This keeps me from putting all my eggs in one basket and makes me independent and self-secure.
  • The importance of forging bonds with friends–especially other friends who are single, and rejoicing in the ability to have the independence and freedom to be there for and have a good time with such friends.
  • The importance of having a life and passions that provide food for the soul. Things like reading, praying, being in activity groups, or even watching sports can provide nourishment that makes one feel less lonely and more connected with the world as a whole.
  • The most important realization of all: when the right person does come along: he or she should be a delightful addition to your life, not the focus of it. We all have friends who disappeared  after getting married and no longer kept in touch or made themselves available to meet up. While I understand that marriage comes with a new set of responsibilities, I don’t understand why people–especially women–are expected to leave their old lives and friends behind and orient their new existence around their spouses. Being married without having one’s own social resources and activities results in a very single-tracked existence that’s draining and even detrimental to a marriage.
The general idea posited in the book is that we can’t stop searching for that significant other, and that we as humans are made to want and need such a connection. But we also owe it to ourselves and our future partner to be independent and happy and with our own set of goals, dreams, hobbies, and social networks.

It doesn’t end there. Here’s something else that I think we as Muslims need to think about when it comes to being single. Being one.

God is One.

Some of us might be yearning to find that significant other and be done with it already, but shouldn’t we take a moment and ponder the fact that, for however a short period of time, He has given us independence, self-subsistence, and the possibility of being happy while being alone?

The spinster stigma’s gotta go. Being single doesn’t have to mean being miserable. For it also means having even more time for seeking knowledge, being an active member of the community, being a good role model as an older sibling or aunt or uncle, or being able to be there and spend quality time with one’s parents.

I won’t pretend that I’m joyfully single all the time. But I am grateful to have had eye-opening realizations thanks to having read and pondered about the virtues and vices of being alone. I’m also lucky to have strong, content, independent single female mentors who demonstrate to me that there is a life outside of being married. As a result, I’d like to think I am beginning to understand how I can make the most of the gift of singlehood. And it is my deepest hope and fervent prayer that other single Muslims make the most of this gift as well.