Diary of a Lax Muslim Pt. 2: Trendy Muslims and Titles We Take for Ourselves

Muslims love titles. We love to create nisbas for everything (adding an “ee” sound to a location or characteristics. Hence Wahhabi, Sufi, Salafi, Sunni, Shi’i, Farsi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, Hanbali, Naqshabandi, Mevlevi, Qadiri, Khariji, Deobandi, Maghribi, Sharqi, Ifriqi, Faranji, Arabi, Turki, etc…. Add that “i” and VOILA!! You have created another group or divide. We like group titles and nisbas so much that you’d think we added the “ee” to crazy. Muslims love nisbahs as much as Americans love “isms.” Communism, Capitalism, feminisism, traditionalism, protestantism, Catholicism, fascism, socialism, communalism, liberalism, conservatism, republicanism, humanism, pragmatism, etc…. I have read debates in blogs and online forums. I have read articles and critiques of various scholars and groups where nisbahs are used like curse words. People often use nisbahs to essentialize other groups in order to assert their superiority. Often, we may take a nisbah for ourselves in order to mark ourselves as distinct from those “other” Muslims. Those “other” Muslims don’t have the right Islam. They are deviant. They miss the spirit of Islam. They are extreme. They are too lax. They are irrational. They are too backwards. They are too westernized. They are too cultural. They don’t have a Muslim identity. They are too nationalistic….etc. Give a group a nisbah and those generalized traits that we have ascribed to that group apply for all eternity. When we attach a nisbah to an opposing group, it is sort of a way of dehumanizing them and invalidating their point of view.

Lax Muslims often think they have risen above this. But I will take a case of a lax Muslim to show how they contribute to the problem. I will focus on the lax Muslim woman whose enthusiasm for practicing has petered out. This lax Muslim may have been disillusioned. Somehow, she may have thought that by praying, fasting, attending the mosque, and replacing clubbing and movies as entertainment with Friday and Saturday night lectures and talks would solve all her problems. She may have thought that by practicing she could find a good husband and financial stability. She may have thought that by practicing, life would be easier and less complicated. But after a few years of floating in the community, this Muslimah begins to tire out.

She may have been frustrated with the neurosis running through her particular community. She may have been put off by some halaqa that may have told her how evil she was for plucking her eyebrows and growing out her fingernails. She may have felt excluded from the mosque politics dominated by men who want to keep women from sitting on the governing board. Or maybe they only allow one token woman. She may have felt burned by some fierce competition over some hot male Muslim brother. That hot Muslim brother may be some rising super star on the lecture circuit. She may hear the call of the dunya and really miss having careless fun. The call of the dunya may be too enticing. She may miss dancing on a Friday night at the local night spot. She may want a T-bone steak, as opposed to devouring some spicy halal paki food. This lax Muslimah may be a muhajabah who wants to feel feminine and not feel the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment. She may even want to wear hijab and curse out the jerk who cutt her off on the Freeway while not feeling like she mis-represented Islam. She may be pissed off for representing the Ummah while the brothers get to be all ambiguous or even be cool and Muslim. Said former muhajabah may resent the fact that Muslim men develop relationships with non-Muslim women. She may resent the double standard. The former pride she took in reppin’ the Muslims dissapates. Former Muhajabah may still like men and wants men to affirm her self-worth. Maybe more than anything else, she wants to feel like a regular girl on the streets.

But said former Muhajabah still wants to be Muslim and would like respect from at least some of the Muslims. But for the most part, the Muslims who practice think she’s wack. Former Muhajabah is angry that the pious Muslims she knows now judge her. Perhaps, they even talk about her behind her back. Former Muhajabah begins to question her faith, but still feels as if Islam is part of her identity. She may go to different scholars looking for dispensation for certain requirements. Maybe hijab is a hardship and even though her life is not in danger, she is tired of funny looks from her possible employers. She doesn’t want to feel guilty, weak, or like a failure.

In her anger and frustration over the way she has been treated, miss former muhajabah lax Muslim begins to curse all the practicing Muslims. She calsl them hypocritical for judging her. Former Muhajabah may begin to find all sorts of faults in the Muslims who follow the sunnah. Practicing Muslims then become the worst people on Earth. She may sound like a mouth piece for Fox News as she generalizes about the Muslims. They are fundamentalists. They are extreme. They need to get with the real world and real world issues. They are isolationists. They are backwards. They are superficial…etc…..

As she moves more and more into a comfortable place of laxity, she begins to take a new-agey version of Islam. She may even call it Sufism, although this is such a general category that can mean a lot of things. Spirituality becomes her primary concern and she doesn’t consider the practicing Muslims spiritual at all. She creates a false dichotomy between purification of the heart and outward practice. Instead, lax Muslim Former Muhajabah thinks of herself as spiritually superior and even more advanced than her practicing counterparts. She may consider herself superior because she read an incomprehensible Ibn Arabi text all by herself. But she’s still reliant upon Chittick to provide his tafsir. While her own personal morality falls within the grey zone, she sees the others as misguided.

I provided this little story to talk about one of the traps that many lax Muslims fall into. Lax Muslims can sound awful self-righteous. But if we are truly sincere, then we will be humbled by our shortcomings and should admire those who maintain their integrity and preserve upright practice. Instead, lax Muslims feel threatened by difference especially when the difference highlights our moral laxity. They may be paranoid about meeting other Muslims, especially practicing Muslims. They may project their own insecurities and think that every devout Muslim judges them. In that process they may become just as judgmental and intolerant as the people who judged them–if not more so.

Many struggling Muslims take on the title of Sufi without really committing to tasawwuf (purification of the heart). I have met numerous pious and sincere Sufis. Last night, the Stanford community held an event with the Mevlevi order and it is was enriching. I have been to Naqshabandi dhikr circles. I have listened to Sufi tapes and Sufi Music. I have spent time at the shrine of Ahmad Tijani in Fes. I came upon my research topic by my experiences in Fes where I saw women from Mali and Senegal praying side-by- side with Fesi women. I realized that the zawiya can facilitated inter-ethnic communication. I do not consider myself a Sufi because I am not in a tariqa, nor have I given bayyan to a sheikh. As an academic, we tend to enjoy difference and the various ways people express Islam. I sort of take an anthropological approach and accept difference. I don’t mind a little flair and innovation is not a bad word. Importantly, I recognize the difference between Islamic ideals and what people do. But I have noticed the ways American Muslims deploy Sufism. Many lax Muslims are drawn more to “spirituality” rather than following the rigors of practice that forces you to do some real self work.

The Sufis I know, the responsible ones, the ones who were Sufi before Sufi became cool are often just as devout as non-Sufis. In the post-9/11 world, Sufis became cool. Real cool. Many of the people in tariqas are often welcoming and kind, but I do not think that they would consider many of those who are picking up books and claiming the Sufi nisbah to be people who are following that tariqah (narrow path). Sufis may just be nicer to a lax or wacked out Muslim, and their motivations for doing so may be numerous. They may be forgiving because it is better to attract flies with honey, than let’s say vinegar.

These lax Muslim Sufi title holders need a nisbah so that they can feel as if they are doing some real self-work instead of backsliding. They take on the label of Sufi, or another such as Progressive Muslim, order to hold on to something. Real self-work is painful and it takes lots of discipline. Unfortunately, many so-called Sufi Muslims have bought into some New Age beliefs about spirituality which outside the traditions. These New Age beliefs reflect a Western phenomena of bastardizing spirituality (whether Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Kabbalism, etc…). People simplify it, commodify it, and wrap it up for mass consumption. Just like it becomes a trend to eat Tofu and sushi, do yoga, drink Lattes, or bubble tea, Sufism becomes that trendy thing over-intellectualized and simplified and devoid of its cultural and historical context.

Too Much Information

So, I was cruising through the worlds of the digital ummah and became drawn into this whole takfir (declaring someone an apostate) debate. It didn’t take too long before I came across this forum posting about Sheikh Nuh Keller’s intervention in a debate between Deobandis and Barelwis(Here’s a site with his info ). You can also check out the forum where I found this here.

On the Shadhili website, someone asked the questions:

“Is someone who has an idea that is kufr or “unbelief” thereby an “unbeliever”?”

You can find Sheikh Keller’s answer here.

I don’t have a problem with the answer per say. I just think that us poor Muslims are overloaded with information. I am not going to question the intellectual abilities of the commentators on the forum, but this subject matter should really be left to scholars of Kalam. I am all for the freedom of information. I struggle with the elitism in Western academia. I also have strong critiques of the way knowledge became specialized in some Muslim societies and often monopolized by certain lineages. In this way, knowledge became used for power. But at the same time, I would have to agree with Ibn Rushd, some matters should be left up to the learned. I wonder how many engineers and rocket scientists would appreciate my input on their projects. Would a geneticist appreciate my input about gene sequencing, based upon what I could remember from my sophmore bio-chemistry? While I can appreciate science and love reading about discoveries, theories, and scientific methods, I just don’t have enough training to begin testing new compounds on my neighbors, let alone their cats.

So, back to my point. The internet has opened up so much discourse. And as I read the text on a late Saturday night (a total testament to my lack of a social life), I found my head feeling like it was about to explode. There was a serious debate that seemed to be underlying the question about takfir. But that debate also seemed narrow in scope, because there was a large emphasis on the debate between the Deobandis and their adversaries, the Barelwis (For those of you who don’t know who the Deobandis and Barelwis are, it doesn’t really matter. Following all the groups gets confusing anyways). The focus on their debate was unfortunate because of the wider implications about the debates on deviancy, innovation, and difference that Many Muslim communities face. For example, how do Sunnis deal with reformist minded Muslims (i.e.Progressive Muslims), individuals who have their own unique interpretations, or sects of Islam that are often accused of being non-Muslims (Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyyas, etc.)?

Perhaps that is the reason why I was interested in the takfir question. What do traditional sunni Muslims do when confronted with versions of Islam that are different from theirs? I realize that my head didn’t hurt because the material was difficult. But, my head hurt with the thought that for some Muslims, an obscure ‘aqidah issues could get a whole community ousted from the ummah. And it kind of bothered me that one of the most erudite American Muslim convert scholars, who wrote a response that was nuanced but thoroughly grounded in traditional scholasticism, was rejected so quickly by a lay person. My head also hurt for the poor converts or young Muslims who are re-engaging their faith. I just hope they don’t run into all this madness. It is really disheartening sometimes.

What makes it sad is that I’m a scholar and I love studying religious change and debates. So I should be interested in how this plays out in the modern world. Right? But, I can barely tell some people what I specialize in without someone giving me a lecture about the misguidance of Sufis. Sometimes it seems as if someone half read a quote from Ibn Taymiyya that was posted in some internet forum without understanding the context. Some have argued that ignorance is bliss. But Western Muslims are often more intellectual and aware of their faith than their counterparts in predominantly Muslim areas. We like to read these polemical works between scholars and make generalizations about them. We have so much access to information that it is ridiculous. Ignorance is bliss? Maybe, and let’s leave the quibbling over these issues with the ‘Ulema. Few of us are trained in Usul al-Fiqh, Kalam, Tafsir, or even Hadith sciences. But yet, it is common to find debates going on in some musallah about this hadith is weak and this and that brother is an innovator (bidaa). I’m sort of tired of the bad translations of some text that was printed in Pakistan finding its way into the hands of some crazed Muslim who goes around declaring this group and that group wrongdoers, misguided, or not really Muslim. Knowledge and information is good. But with all the stuff floating around, we have a bunch of insane people feeling really authoritative as they try to impose their views on the rest of the universe. Sigh…

Ummah or Muslim Social Club?

In the seventh century, the concept of Ummah was revolutionary. Seventh century Arabia society was a prodiminately pastoral nomadic society with some merchant communities. Arabian society centered around patriarchical clans. During that time, individuals owed their loyalty to their tribe/clan and to no one else. If anyone killed or attacked a member of your particular tribe, your tribe took their vengeance out against any member of your advesarial tribe. And there was not a concept of a community that transcended tribal lines. The clan provided protection and support and individuals could not survive in the harsh environment of Arabia. And during that time, in Arabia, there was not a concept of the individual.

Muhammad brought a revolutionary concept whereby the community of believers became brothers/sisters. Their bonds were not by bloodlines, but on faith. Many of Muhammad’s early followers were displaced people, slaves, and disaffected youths from powerful families. From a diverse group of people who followed his teachings, the first Muslim community formed under intense pressure from their powerful tribesmen who ascribe to shamanistic and pagan beliefs. Each tribe had its own deity and they were organized in a hierarchical pantheon in Mecca. The Muslims denied the many deities, claiming that there was only one God. The Muslims’ ties transcended tribe and family loyalties. Initially, they were under the protection of Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib. During this time, the loyalty of the clan still protected the nascent Muslim community. Then Abu Talib died. This was when th notion of Ummah developed further and became more independent of tribal loyalties. Muhammad left Mecca to Medina to flee the persecution of his power powerful tribesmen, the Quraysh. There, families of Medina became the helpers, Ansar. Muhammad’s emigration to Medina begins the first year of the Islamic calendar. This marks the most pivotal moment in the development of the religion and way of life that we call Islam. It was the development of the first Muslim community. The emigrants from Mecca allied with their hosts in Medina. The concept of Ummah was important for the survival of this fragile community. They were part of a universal brotherhood, believing in the tenets of faith laid out in the Quran and following its legislation. The rest is history and 1400 years later, the notion of Ummah is still important to both the reality and imagination of Muslims throughout the world.

What does Ummah mean now? It is still a concpet that draws many converts to the faith. Muhammad taught his community to respect individuals regardless of their lineage, race, or background. They were still part of the Ummah. Even the hypocrites, who outwardly professed Islam, but secretly undermined the Muslim community were tolerated. The first step, and most important card to the Muslim card carrying group was the declaration of faith. The admission that there was only one God and Muhammad was his Prophet.

But in any community, there are insiders and outsiders. Islam spread rapidly, and now there are a billion Muslims. Does the notion of Ummah apply now? How does one make sense of it in Iraq where sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites make the the Crips and the Bloods look like they are playing tag football. What about Darfur? Hamas vs. Fatah?

We read about those ideals in books. Then the reality hits when you roll up to a mosque in America and you find out that they are divided along ethnic lines. We are one community, but there is an Afghan mosque, a Yemeni mosque, a Pakistani mosque, a Mosque for African Americans, a predominately Arab mosque?

I remember going to a mosque in the North of Oakland, one of the most integrated mosques and sitting there as a whole bunch of immigrant Muslim women surrounded two young white converts. They were so pleased that these two Wonder Bread white girls decided to join the Ummah. But my black ass, just sat there ignored. I was irrelevant. Maybe they were tired of seeing black folks in the East Bay. And the whiteness was refreshing. Or maybe their whiteness made them more special. It affirmed to them that Islam was an American religion. And that people who enjoy white privelege would convert to Islam, and this affirmed their faith in a stronger way that a marginalized individual like a black woman. There was no matter that this marginalized individual is also an educated elite (but not elitist). And that participation in the community is impactful because of the position that I am in as an educator of young elites. Some will be deciding national policy years down the line or directing some multi-national corporation. Maybe that’s why I decided to go to Stanford, I may be the only Black Muslim woman in a position of authority above them that they may interact with in their lives. But I digress.

So on that day I had drove all the way from Oakland from San Jose, where I had been living at that time, to go to Friday prayers. I was hoping to get a sense of the Ummah. That sense of the community that transcended race, ethnicity, tribe, city, and locality. Instead, I was dissillusioned by a bunch of petty females. This was not the first time, nor the last. Just the most memorable currently.

I used to be easily identified as Muslim. Did everything to try to fit the bill of being good Muslim. As with any club, there are certain things that you must do to have membership. Being Muslim is no different. Don’t eat pork, don’t drink, wear slippers in bathroom, say salaam alaikum, pray, wear hijab, put Quran on highest shelf, wear Allah necklace, have Islamic art put up in your house, prayer rug, etc., etc…

I’m used to being on the fringes of the Muslim community. Somebody asked me if I practiced or not. I said, I struggle. I’m a renegade Muslim of sorts. And I fit within a category of lax Muslim, oh the ones hated so much by Sayed Qutb.
But, I still have many Muslim friends from all walks of life. From the most nominal to the most strict. My faith even links me with people who are not Muslim but have grew up in Muslim societies. We have a lot to talk about, many common bonds and shared interests.

But at the same time, what does it mean to be part of the same faith based community? This Ummah, this community. This community, but is that a real community? Splintered, factional, sectarian, nationalistic, cliquish, and at times just down right petty. But, I still believe in the notion of Ummah. It was important for the survival of the early Muslim community. It still motivates a number of us to transcend our particular interests and ethnic identities and form ties with people who are very different from ourselves. Sometimes we try so hard to be liked by members of our community that we lose ourselves. And for some, they replace the notion of Ummah with something more on the likes of Muslim Social club.

During my early years, my friends were predominately immigrant from very strict families. We attended a strict gender segregated mosque. I was in a Muslim Social Club of Muslim-Student-Association-Sisters-who-wear-big-triangle-scarves (no necks, no earrings). Then I withdrew membership when I took off hijab. I’ve found other Muslim Social Clubs. Here’s a few I’ve seen:
I’m-So-Deep-and-Esoterical Muslim Social Club
Random-displaced-Muslim Social Club
I’m-Angry-at-My-Immigrant-Parents-who-Are-Not-Religious-But-Won’t-Let-Me Date Muslim Social Club
I-Think-Everything-is-Haram Muslim Social Club
Every-other-Muslim-is-wack-but-Us Muslim Social Club
I’m-into-Hiphop/House/Alternative/Punk-Muslim Social Club
College-Students-Who-Will-Save-the-World-One-lecture/Talk-at-a-Time Muslim Social Club or the Black/Latino/Arab/Desi/Asian/Indonesian/White/ etc. Muslim social club.

All these social clubs, but I still can’t find one that I can fit into. Being an individual means being lonely sometimes. From some of the attacks I have gotten, being an individual can take a lot of courage. Sometimes I wonder about my engagement Islam if my engagement with the Muslim community is so tenuous. But sometimes deconstructing a Muslim Social Club is important. We have to get to the roots of what lies beneath our social interactions. There is a difference between a Muslim Social Club and Ummah. A Muslim Social Club, we reinforce our own egos by surrounding ourselves by people like ourselves. We look for affirmation on who we are. We look for people who like us and people who approve of our conduct. Last year, I was desperate to meet Muslims like me. I was excited to meet artists and activists and creative people. I felt isolated at Stanford. I wanted to be around people who inspired me. But, I felt drained by the tensions and drama. For the most part, my relationships in the Muslim Social clubs turned out to be disappointing. That does not mean that I have not met some good folks. I’d have to say that most of the people are trying really hard. And those who are corrupt, are just mentally ill. But what I really mean is that the basis of the relationships lacks an honesty.

For instance, I know a lot of people don’t like me. Some just aren’t quick to say it. It would be cool if we Muslims were real. If I am really going to trust you to defend me like the Ansar did the muhajiroon, how can I trust you if you can’t be real with me? Can we tell a brotha or sista, “Yo, I really don’t dig your ways, but I respect you because we are Muslim.” Or “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about you that rubs me the wrong way. I’d avoid you like the plague, but I support you because we are in the same ummah.” You don’t have to like me. But we can be supportive because we were working towards the same goal. We could put our egos aside and get the job done. As of now, it seems like we’re stroking each others’ egos. Winning points in a popularity contest.

Maybe this blog will have a part 2. I dunno. It took me days to get back to this. But I appreciate your thoughts…

The Veil and the Male Elite

Yes, I read Fatima Mernissi’s book. I think she has some interesting ideas, although her writing is problematic. I especially found her memoir super problematic with its orientalist imagery of Morocco. She also had some ridiculous notions of race, i.e. planting of the banana tree to make the sub-saharan African woman feel at home. But that is besides the point, we can forgive her for having the perspective of an elite Fessi woman. So, as I was saying, I read her book years ago. She brought up some interesting points about the relationship between men and women in Islam. I admire her courage for bringing it up. The interaction with the opposite gender is a true testament to their moral character and spiritual state. The relationship between men and women in both the African American community and the Muslim community has so much more to be desired. But being that I’m talking about the veil and male elite, I will focus on the relationship between Muslim men and men. And in particular I am focusing on my own subjectivity as an African American Muslim woman. 

One of the teachings in Islam that really attracted me to the religion was conveyed in Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon: “The best of those are those who are good to their women.” Coming from a broken home, I was so drawn in by the image of idyllic Muslim home life that was painted in dawa books like “Islam in Focus.” When I initially became Muslim, my mother’s friends told her that my husband would beat me, that he would have multiple wives, and take my children away. Before I got married when they found out that he was Muslim, they kept warning her that I would be treated badly. To this day, Muslim men have a pretty bad reputation.Now, not all of the bad stuff happened and a Muslim man has never laid a hand on me, nor do have I any children to take away. I do think Muslim men get a bad wrap. But then again, I am tired of sweeping some horrifying stories under the rug. 

I think our community leaders are not very responsible when it comes to dealing with the conduct of some of the men. I know of cases where the community has come in support of the brothers who abused their wives. I know that the Muslim women’s shelter gets death threats. Domestic abuse comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and religions. Muslim men are not the only perpetrators, but the fact that this institution is a threat to Muslim community identity is telling of some of the problems we have. So, some traditionalists say that you can beat your wife lightly, or with a miswack toothbrush. I have some miswack, and it is kinda big. Besides that, it is just plain humiliating to be reprimanded as a child. Abuse comes in many forms: some emotional and some physical. Which ones leave the most scars? It depends on one’s resilience, how deep the wound, how brutal the blow. Abuse is about power and control. Abusers use a number of tools to manipulate their victims. Often the blame is laid upon the subordinate member of this assymetric power relationship. A number of academics have written that in every relationship there is a power dynamic. Often this power dynamic is assymetrical, meaning that one person has more power than the other. In relations between a man and a woman, it is often the case where the woman is subordinated to the man. While in the Quran says that men have power over women, it advocates being giving more allowances to the woman and not abusing that upperhand. This indicates that Islamic scripture recognizes female gender vulnerabilities and encourages Muslim men to be sensitive to that in disputes with their spouses. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out this way. 

Some American Muslim men claim they are down for the liberation of women from patriarchy. But they insert their own culturally specific misogyny. While Muslim women in America have more options than many of their counterparts in the Muslim world, they still have a number of gender vulnerabilities and struggles. I have seen women subject to a number of abusive situations: verbal, emotional, and physical. I have seen men prey on young women in an effort to find someone they could control and manipulate. Others prey on the insecurities of older women who have settled for less out of despair. I suppose this makes them feel more powerful, huh? It sort of shows me that they are much less of a man and that machismo front is a facade for a dislocated spirit, diseased heart, a broken soul, and a weak mind. 


You are what you do, not what you imagine yourself to be, not the image that you construct for yourself: If you lie, you are a liar. If you cheat, you are a cheater. If you steal, you are a thief. You are what you do. Who are you really? What are you doing? Are you trying to change what you’re doing? Rumi said something along the lines of “Be as you appear and appear as you are.” This was part of my reason for unveiling, this is me. I still love my tradition, I can historicize the process by which the laws and regulations were transmitted. But, I respect the scholars, I know right from wrong. I know when I’m doing wrong and when I’m doing right. 





But I appear now as I am, in protest for the lack of commitment from my entire community. You get your act together and be as you represent yourself. Me, I’ll do what I do. I’ll keep speaking my mind articulating for the voiceless. You want to see me bagged up, wrapped in that more traditional role. But, I’ll do that outward more superficial veiling when you lift the real veils off your eyes. In the meantime, your motives and weaknesses are transparent. Wake up brothas, do yourself a service and stop selling your sistas out. And for those who have stayed true and are striving on all fronts, you have my utmost respect. For the misguided, I keep praying and hoping that the word gets out to you. Insha’Allah, one day both my African American and Muslim brothas will have a reputation for being the best of husbands, fathers, brothers, son, and friends.

 (Also, I’m really pissed off about the execution of a 16 year girl for adultery in Iran. WTF??)

Dark Heritage

Yesterday was surprisingly gloomy for a June. I woke up in this introspective, my mind whirling full of thoughts that wouldnt go away. There were so many issues unresolved and unexplored. These were things that have come up in random conversations, as me and my girls ramble in long conversations that meander on random tangents:

My faith,my race, my skin tone, my relationships, my family, my privilege, my oppression, all that I achieved, every failed endeavor, lost opportunities, my conditioning process in academia, my personal connections, my isolation, my memories, all that I have forgotten, holding on, letting go, everything that I have disclosed, all that I cant say…

My mood shifted into a deep melancholy as I prepared myself for my errands, my heart beat extra hard against my constricted chest. A memory, I let out two sobs, pulled myself together and I went about my day.

Sometimes I feel as if my chest is pulling away from my heart. I become slightly light headed and feel as if my mind disconnect from my body. It is hard to keep balanced. This is when I want to sit something out. Or my longing for a particular state is becoming unbearable. Other times, I feel as if my chest is constricting my heart. And each beat is painful and exhausting. I try to ride this out, breathmeditatework through my thoughts. Sometimes I just sleep it off, drift off into a world of dreams with the hope that my subconscious will work it out. With every difficulty comes ease.

A lot of it comes from stress. But often it is rage against the injustice of a global caste-structure, a pervasive world view that has seeped insidiously into so many mindsets.

Sometimes I feel a primordial ache. I know I inherited some of these feelings while I was in my mothers womb. When I met my father 18 years after my parents divorce, he told me that he knew when I was conceived. He said, Were going to make a baby. I was a love child. My parents fell in love at first sight. They were married for several years and divorced after a series of tragedies and violent conflicts. My father always loved my mother, but was unable to truly love my mother, till the day he died. My mother told me she was very sad when she carried me. She also spent a lot of time reading and thinking. Her sadness and fear was a product of a so many forces, a society that circumscribed her, a community that rendered her without a voice, her love for a broken and wounded man who self-medicated and inflicted his rage on her, her constant striving despite all the obstacles to take care of her son and daughter while making way for her third child. With my brother, she hustled and was always on the move to make a living as a teenage expectant mother; my sister who passed, she was deeply spiritual; with my youngest sister she was emotional. We all carried my mothers imprint.

I think this sadness passed on generation after generation in our mothers womb, our grandmother, her mother, on back These women in my family tell me stories of the rapes and murder at the hands of officials; kidnapped child; death and violations by neighbors, strangers, and friends; the exploitation of professionals and civil servants; the beatings and abandonment by the men they love; the betrayal of their sisters and neighbors; the loss of children to the prison industrial complex or drugs; then all the secrets that have been left unspoken….

Sunnah is Sexy

All day, I kept hearing this phrase. At first I tried to shut it out. How can sunnah be sexy? How can ritual, daily practice, etiquette and cultural traditions be sexy? In this day and age Muslims are considered uncool. I found myself praying in my office worried that my officemates may come in and see me draped in my black prayer outfit. It was not that I’m ashamed of it. But I’m sure it would freak them out. I remember in my first Arabic class, we had a field trip to the mosque. This sister in the class said she thought my classmates didn’t believe I was really Muslim, until they saw my transformation as I went into the mosque. When it comes to ritualized worship, I like to represent for Allah. I know I have a ton of stuff to work on, so I am not going to pretend to be self-righteous or anything. I just really dig that transformation. But clearly my non-Muslim classmates didn’t know what to do with that.

I used to wear hijab and fully cover my hair and body for five years. During that time I developed my intellect and character. When I used to cover, the sisters would dress up for women-only gatherings. It was like a miss America pageant. In fact, a lot of my friends used to joke and say I looked like a contestant. Underneath the abayas (outerwear), we’d have formal and semi-formal dresses. My hair would be whipped, make-up on point, jewelry blinging, yeah enough to catch the evil eye. Wearing hijab, however, did not mean that I was truly a modest person. Years ago, my boss told me that I was a full of contradictions: modesty and flamboyance wrapped up in one. It was something I struggled with everyday. I still do.

A lot of women I know are ashamed of their bodies. They are self conscious of some socially constructed flaw. Although I dont consider my body perfect, I enjoy mine. This is what Allah gave me. I find it aesthetically pleasing. I try not to be narcissistic but I have a healthy dose of self-love. I enjoy clothing that works with my curves, that highlights my strengths, that is appealing for either its shape, texture, and/or colors. But even as I love clothes, I like to be out of them. If I lived by myself, Id probably would walk around naked or maybe just in a thong and bra (Not very sunnah-like, I know).

Even when I did try to cover it, my sexuality was always apparent. Somebody told me I would have to conceal it all by making myself look overweight or wearing a burqa. But as much as the burqa is a symbol of oppression, my prayer outfits have a similar form (but bare-faced) offers a break from my sexuality. It is in that moment of transcendence, that I experience something extra-cool. It is an acknowledgement that embodiment is real and that in order to appreciate it, I must take a step back. That physical self is not really me, but the real me is my spirit. What people see is not really me, that is only my material self. Going through the process of self-negation in ritual worship, I find myself closer to myself. That process I find is intriguing and remarkably beautiful. Yeah, I find sunnah sexy.

Just as quickly as the thought came into my mind, it shifted into my tension filled love of Muslim men. I remember going to see Cornell West and Zaid Shakir, and my gaze was all over the place (Yeah, I have a problem lowering my gaze). It was a sea of beautiful faces. I’m close to a some brothas and I tell them they are beautiful. Their daily transformations, that process of self-negation and self-realization is inspiring. I pray for their success and hope to follow their progress and development. It is amazing to see someone grow and blossom. There’s so many beautiful brothas, and something is so captivating to me about them. It was something about the composure, the style of dress, the grooming, their smell. Maybe this is why I dont go to jumah (Friday prayer) much. Years after my divorce, I avoided being close with any Muslim men. But as time went along, I began to see them as the Other. I wanted to know what made them think, what made them tick. I wanted to know why brothas were so difficult. Why was it so difficult, when we shared the same love and worldview. I didnt want to see them as adversaries, as an Other. My friendships have helped me see them as an integral part of my identity. There is no Us and Them/ but only We. We meet our counterparts. After eight years, I miss having a counterpart, I miss being led in prayer, the late night discussions of this issue and that, the debates over fiqh (Islamic law), and working for the same cause. I look through the pain and I see how much I grew. Yeah, I love the way the brothas follow the sunnah it is sexy I’ll leave it at that, mashaAllah.

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Finger Pointing and Faith

One of my favorite sayings is when you point your finger at someone, you have three pointed back at you. People are always criticizing others peoples beliefs, practices and lifestyles. We like to find fault in everyone, for their mistakes, short comings, for being different, for having a different life style, for not sharing our beliefs. It is one thing to speak out against someone who is hurting someone cant protect themselves, a child, the poor, a vulnerable woman, the disabled, and elderly. But it is another thing to attack another persons personal choices that has little to do with anyone else.

Religion, faith, spirituality, and devotion, is such a personal thing. But we love to criticize people’s beliefs and ways of life. For isntance, many in the West see Islam as this monolithic entity of 1 billion people. Many see Muslims as this homogeneous misogynist, anti-modern, authoritarian, blood thirsty, vengeful, violent mass of fanatics. They see our faith as lacking spiritual vitality, ethical values, humanism, compassion, mercy, charity, or even connection with God. They dont see the beauty in the faith, culture, thought, individual and community expression. Above all, they dont see the diversity of views and the way each individual determines for his/herself how he/she is going to engage with the system of beliefs and practices that we call al-Islam. But then again, that is the fault of many of Muslims who hold that there is only one way–their way. They argue that the others are misguided. This is a dialogue that we Muslims need to address within our own communities, locally and internationally. Muslims are often intolerant towards each other. And our criticisms and attacks of each other are often more vicious and harsh than anything launched against Christians, Jews, Hindus, Animists, etc..

I may not agree with a lot of things that people do or say. I may feel like their beliefs are irrational or do not ally with Truth as I understand it. In the process of looking in the mirror and reflecting on my own faith, I am busy trying to look at myself and better my condition rather than analyze and nit pick the fine points of theology and subtleties of practice with someone else.

I find that intolerance to be really a symptom of insecurity. It makes people feel better to find the fault in others. It makes us feel better to rip into someone else in order to justify the soundness of our views, the correctness of our behavior, the righteousness of our way of life. In understanding that there are many perspectives to Truth, we have to recognize that one view cannot encompass all facets of Truth. Some people operate in a two dimensional world, others are blessed with the insight of a three dimensions. Does it make sense explaining to a two dimensional personal that their flat earth is really part of a globe? Yet at the same time, two dimensional thinking is often a self-imposed limitation. And we have to engage with two and one dimensional people on a daily level. The question is how do we enter dialogue with them? And to what capacity?

Finger pointing seems to be an integral of some peoples faith and practice. These people are often the most outspoken members of our community. Without name calling, I think it is important that we begin to address how destructive this is to ones own personal development and the building of bridges and connections between people and communities. We have to work day by day to battle the limitations of our imagination. For it is through the creative practice that we are able to imagine ourselves in some one else’s shoes. It is through imagination that we are able to have empathy. It is through broaderning our minds that we are able to break through those boundaries and move beyond two dimensional thinking and imagine a unified world.