All is erased but this,

The place that bears weight.


His was on his noble forehead,

For the world to see.

Mine, beside my left ankle.

A shadow on the skin,

Easily missed.


The darker it gets,

The more I will have remembered.


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.

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 praying to raise hell

I wish someone told me this when I was younger. But it’s never too late, of course:

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” —Nora Ephron

I can’t help but make a parallel duaa for myself, for Nora Ephron has given me the words for what I should ask for this Ramadan:

“I ask, ya Allah that, I cease to be a lady. I pray that I find ways to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I pray that I make that trouble on behalf of all women.”


How Sarah Got Her Appetite Back

A short while ago, I was happily whittling about my life until my inner world came to a screeching halt. For reasons too complex and private to recount, I was forced to face myself in a way unlike ever before. There was a torch beaming into a dark, cobweb-infested basement I hadn’t let myself think of–much less enter–for a long time.

I had nowhere to hide. I had to contend with a demon, one I had avoided for too long, one that planted itself firmly in front of me and refused to stop tormenting me until I fought back.

And I did. For several days, I walked around ashen faced, prayed with as much conviction I could muster, employed superhuman strength to go out, get some sun, enjoy some company, so I could remain sane. I’d start most days by forcing myself to stomach spoonfuls of cereal so I could make it through without passing out.

Then one day, the pain hit a whole new level, causing me to instinctively plunge down into the emergency supply of supplications. I kneeled over and repeated: “Innalillahi wainna ilayhi rajioon.” Over and over. Then I made the invocations for anguish on a rosary. And as I said it, I felt terrible, so terrible, it could only be rock bottom.

There was nowhere to look but up. So I did.

From some place I did not know existed, something started flowing freely in my thoughts: God is merciful. God is compassionate and He loves me. God is generous, the source of all Good, and will give me Good, Insh’Allah.  

I was stunned, but I kept going. I was also wary that this was just a temporary euphoria, some mechanism to give me relief so I could be prepared for the next wave of pain.

But as the light grew, I recognized the thing that seemed so unfamiliar at first: hope. A voice steadily told me what to do, how to handle myself, how to move on. It was like looking down and realizing that the pain was emanating from a phantom limb. I still hurt. I’m still human. But I finally saw that this trial had not been in vain, and that there was a way forward. I didn’t get absolute answers, but I finally got the sense of direction I needed so badly.

A few hours and some more prayer and reflection later, I felt something else, something on a more carnal level: I was jonesing for a sandwich.

And that was how I started eating again.

“Alhamdulillah” doesn’t really cut it, but it would be a start.

A Writerly Duaa for You

The end of April 2012 marks my blog’s first anniversary. I don’t tend to make big fuss on my own birthday, but I’ve developed a ritual for completing an annual a writerly duaa to meditate on what’s happened in the past year, where I am, and what I aspire towards and hope for.

I thought it would be fitting to do such a prayer on my blog’s birthday as well. This time, it won’t be for myself, or even this blog, but for the readers who have tuned in with it, once or consistently.  Because click by click (currently it’s reached over 9,000 views), comment by comment, following by following, readers such as yourself have been the ones who have given back to me. Some of you stepped in for the space of one post, left a courteous comment, and left. Some went out and spread the word about the things I am saying here. Others became deeply cherished friends. I’d like to think that I have started building a community here; a community of people not necessarily brought together just by being Muslim or liking what I say, but for taking it seriously.

Last term, I took a course in which we attempted to undertake a diplomatic analysis of nontraditional documents such as websites, blogs, and wikis. We learned looked at such dynamic documents in light of genre theory, in which genres defined as being rhetorical actions that are responses to recurrent situations. One of the actions of a genre (such as a blog) would be community building.

It’s fair to say that this blog is one of the responses to the recurrent situation of Muslim spiritual displacement. However, you don’t have to feel displaced to read it and identify with it. You don’t even have to be Muslim. One of the most illuminating things I learned from that class is that a community is not about consensus and agreement, but ongoing dialogue about a subject of pressing and great interest. As far as I am concerned, if you’ve clicked through to this blog even once, you have become a part of its community. If you have taken it seriously at all, you are a part of this community. And let me tell you; no matter who you are, it’s a joy to have you here. I wish for you to accept this post as a sincere expression of my gratitude.

I read somewhere once that the secular counterpart of prayer is hope. So I ask the readers who are more secular in their beliefs to take what I’m about to say below as something  I hope for them.

Ya Allah (Dear God),

My readers come in all stripes and colours, and I ask that you accept these prayers in light of what is best for them.

I ask that their affairs be made easier for them, and the good things they seek be granted to them so that they become fulfilled, generous, and content.

I ask that they triumph in their endeavours and that they become proof of the valuable potential of these strange times, not a victim of them.

I ask that they become productive people who are certain of their lives’ purpose.

I ask that their prayers and hopes be heard and addressed, if not then granted.

I ask that their struggle to understand their purpose is met with meaning and reward to give them fulfilling, blissful, enriched lives.

I ask that whatever learning they engage in and whatever experiences they have be a source of much baraka, or bounty.

In the cases where they have been generous enough to accord me respect in the form of their comments, following, and support, I ask that they be given back something multiplied in manifold.

I ask that their families be protected and nourished and be a source of comfort to them.

For those who are lonely, I ask that they form connections to worthy companions.

For those who have companions, I pray that their relationships become better and a source of good.

I ask that they all cultivate a sense of gratitude and greater awareness of their place in the universe.

Ya Allah, give them communities that are a source of good to them and to this world. You have made us social beings–help us connect with others in the most enriching and affirming ways.


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.