Rediscovering Luqman The Wise


When I began my research on depictions of Blacks and Africans in pre-modern Arabic Literature, I came across a passage:

It was related that a black man came to Said ibn Musaib Radiyallahu’ anhu (A wise man too) for asking him advice and Said told him to not worry for being black and he reminded him as follows: “the best of men are three blacks whose names are: Bilal, Mahjaâ and Luqman the wise.” [1]

According to the tafsir of The Quran Website, Luqman was a well known sage mentioned by pre-Islamic poets. The mufassir writes, “He has been mentioned in the poetry of the pre-Islamic poets like Imra’ul-Qais, Labid, A’asha, Tarafa and others.”[2] In Imam Malik’s Muwatta a narration says:

Yahya related to me from Malik that he heard that Luqman al-Hakim made his will and counselled his son, saying, “My son! Sit with the learned men and keep close to them. Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom as Allah gives life to the dead earth with the abundant rain of the sky.” [3]

While I loved thumbing through hadith, I admit that I have never been strong in my study of tafsir. So it is no surprise that I didn’t know much about Luqman the Wise. My historical outlook focused more on seerah and social institutions that developed in Muslim societies, rather than on traditional Islamic sciences. Despite Bilal being a prominent figure in the imagination of Black American Muslims, Luqman escaped me all these years. And what made it worse was that there was an entire chapter of the Qur’an dedicated to him.

It wasn’t so much my academic studies and teaching responsibilities than my time management and avoidance of the judgmental Muslim gaze that made it difficult for me to take classes and find time to study. Since I’ve been married, I’ve been able to strengthen my Islamic knowledge in areas that had long been neglected, such as memorization, tajweed, and tafsir. I also needed a Maliki fiqh refresher. In light of my feelings about my own gaps in knowledge, developing a curriculum for a Muslim summer camp and teaching 10 to 14 year olds Islamic studies was really daunting. Did I mention I taught pre-teens? Over the course of the summer I found that my students needed to focus on adab towards each other, their instructors, and their parents. I turned to Luqman the Wise for his advice.

While covering a great deal, Luqman’s advice as revealed in the Quran is really straight forward. Allah tells us in Surat Luqman:

13. And (remember) when Luqman said to his son when he was advising him: “O my son! Join not in worship others with Allah. Verily! Joining others in worship with Allah is a great Zulm (wrong) indeed.
14. And We have enjoined on man (to be dutiful and good) to his parents. His mother bore him in weakness and hardship upon weakness and hardship, and his weaning is in two years give thanks to Me and to your parents, unto Me is the final destination.
15. But if they (both) strive with you to make you join in worship with Me others that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not, but behave with them in the world kindly, and follow the path of him who turns to Me in repentance and in obedience. Then to Me will be your return, and I shall tell you what you used to do.
16. “O my son! If it be (anything) equal to the weight of a grain of mustard seed, and though it be in a rock, or in the heavens or in the earth, Allah will bring it forth. Verily, Allah is Subtle (in bringing out that grain), Well-Aware (of its place).
17. “O my son! Aqim-is-Salat (perform As-Salat), enjoin (people) for Al-Ma’ruf (Islamic Monotheism and all that is good), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (i.e. disbelief in the Oneness of Allah, polytheism of all kinds and all that is evil and bad), and bear with patience whatever befall you. Verily! These are some of the important commandments ordered by Allah with no exemption.
18. “And turn not your face away from men with pride, nor walk in insolence through the earth. Verily, Allah likes not each arrogant boaster.
19. “And be moderate (or show no insolence) in your walking, and lower your voice. Verily, the harshest of all voices is the voice (braying) of the ass.”

The first piece of advice he offers his son is to not join partners with Allah (God). In class discussion, my students noted that not ascribing credit to a person who did the work is wrong. I compared that to not thanking their parents for raising them, feeding them, and clothing them, but instead thanking their neighbor or BFF. We went further by discussing how a lying about someone is a form of oppression. Therefore, we concluded that lying about Allah, who created us all and giving credit to something else, is truly a great oppression. We also discussed being good to our parents, even if they don’t have the same beliefs as us. We talked about establishing regular salat (ritual prayer) and encouraging the good and forbidding the wrong. We talked about how Allah is knowledgeable of all we do, the no matter how small or how we hope to conceal it. Our discussion about pride was both humorous and deep. We talked about being upon to receiving advice and admonition without discriminating based on status, race, class, or education background. We talked about how we could love nice things, but not be boastful or brag. Instead, we should show gratitude and avoid showing off. Finally, we talked about using pleasant voices and not being walking stereotypes as young Black Americans (this goes for immigrant Muslims too because immigrant Muslims can be loud and obnoxious as an afternoon in Tahrir Square in Cairo demonstrate). Luqman’s advice covers a great deal, tawheed (Unity of Allah), to establishing consistent practice, encouraging the good and forbidding the wrong, personal conduct, and inner disposition.

Writing in the 14th century, Ibn Kathir describes Luqman in Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah:

He is Luqman Ibn ‘Anqa’ Ibn Sadun. Or, as stated by As-Suhaili from Ibn Jarir and Al-Qutaibi that he is Luqman Ibn Tharan who was from among the people of Aylah (Jerusalem).
He was a pious man who exerted himself in worship and who was blessed with wisdom. Also, it is said that he was a judge during the lifetime of Prophet Dawud (Peace be upon him). And, Allah knows best.
Narrated Sufyan Ath- Thawri from Al-Ash’ath after ‘Ikrimah on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas (May Allah be pleased with him) as saying: He was an Ethiopian slave who worked as a carpenter. Qatadah narrated from’ Abdullah Ibn Az-Zubair as saying: I asked Jabir Ibn ‘Abdullah about Luqman. He said: “He was short with a flat nose. He was from Nubia”
Narrated Yahia Ibn Sa’ id Al-Ansari after Sa’ id Ibn Al-Musayib his saying: Luqman belonged to the black men of Egypt. He had thick lips and Allah the Almighty granted him wisdom but not Prophethood. Al-Awza’i said: I was told by ‘Abdur Rahman Ibn Harmalah: that a black man came to Sa’ id Ibn AI­Musayib asking him for charity. Sa’ id said: do not feel distressed for your black color because there were from among the best of all people three blackmen: Bilal Ibn Rabah, Mahja’ (the freed-slave of ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab), and Luqman, the wise who was black, from Nubia and whose lips were thick.
Narrated Al-A’mash after Mujahid: Luqman was a black huge slave, thick-lipped, and cracked­footed. ‘Umar Ibn Qais said: “Luqman was a black slave, thick-lipped and cracked-footed. It happened while he was preaching some people, a man came to him and said: aren’t you the one who used to look after the sheep with me at such and such place? Luqman said: yes, I am! The man said: then, what made you of that position? Luqman said: telling the truth and keeping silent regarding what does not concern me.” (This Hadith was narrated by Ibn J arir after lbn Hamid after Al-Hakam)
Ibn Abu Hatim said: I was told by Abu Zar’ ah that he was told by Safwan after Al- W alid after ‘Abdur Rahman Ibn Abu Yazid Ibn Jabir who said: “Allah the Almighty raised Luqman’s status for his wisdom. A man used to know him saw him and said: Aren’t you the slave of so and so who used to look after my sheep not so long in the past? Luqman said: yes! The man said: What raised you to this high state I see? Luqman said: the Divine Decree, repaying the trust, telling the truth and discarding what does not concern me.”
Narrated Ibn Wahb: I was told by ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Ayyash Al-Fityani after’ Umar, the freed slave of ‘Afrah as saying: “A man came to Luqman, the wise and asked: Are you Luqman? Are you the slave of so and so? He said: “Yes!” The man said: You are the black shepherd! Luqman said: As for my black color, it is obviously apparent, so what makes you so astonished? The man said: You became frequently visited by the people who pleasingly accept your judgments! Luqman said: 0 cousin! If you do what I am telling you, you will be like this. The man said: What is it? Luqman said: Lowering my gaze, watching my tongue, eating what is lawful, keeping my chastity, undertaking my promises, fulfilling my commitments, being hospitable to guests, respecting my neighbors, and discarding what does not concern me. All these made me the one you are looking at.”
One day Abu Ad-Darda’ mentioned Luqman the wise and said: He was not granted wisdom because of wealth, children, lineage, or given habits, but he was self-restrained, taciturn, deep-thinking, and he never slept during the day. In addition, no one has ever seen him spitting, clearing his throat, squeezing the lemon, answering the call of nature, bathing, observing trivialities, or foolishly laughing. He was very eloquent and well-versed. He did not weep or cry when all his children died. Finally, he used to frequent the princes and men of authority to mediate and think thoroughly and find admonition. So, because of all these he was granted that great wisdom.
Some people claimed that he was offered Prophethood, and that he feared not to be able to carry out its requirements and obligations. Thus, he chose to have wisdom for it is easier -this cannot be totally true -and Allah knows best! ‘Ikrimah also narrated that: Luqman was a Prophet.1
1This narration is very weak for the sub-narrator, Al-Ja’ fi is mentioned by Imams Al-Bukhari and An-Nasa’i among the Weak Narrators.

However, the majority of scholars are of the view that he was a wise man and not a Prophet. Moreover, he was mentioned in the Glorious Qur’an and was highly praised by Allah the Almighty Who narrates his advice to his own son. [4]

Ibn Kathir’s recounting of Luqman narrations raises important issues about the intersection of race and piety. This is something that has gone largely unexplored by many scholars. Reflecting his time period, Ibn Kathir’s description highlights the fact that Luqman was not just a dark skinned Arab, but his thick lips and broad nose indicated his sub-Saharan African descent. In other words, they highlighted his otherness in Arabia. Further, he was a former slave and a shepherd. The respect he gained for his piety contrasts with his low social status. When questioned about how he attained a position of respect and influence as a preacher, in one tradition Luqman states, “The Divine Decree, repaying the trust, telling the truth and discarding what does not concern me.” Luqman tells the questioner that Allah gave him the status, and that he repaid his debts, told the truth, and stayed out of people’s business. In another tradition Luqman answers, “by lowering my gaze, watching my tongue, eating what is lawful, keeping my chastity, undertaking my promises, fulfilling my commitments, being hospitable to guests, respecting my neighbors, and discarding what does not concern me.” This tradition highlights how Luqman earned his rightful place in society as preacher through following Allah’s laws and maintaining good relations with people through hospitality and mutual respect. He encourages the questioner to do so in order to be raised also. Ibn Kathir’s tradition bring to light two realities of ethnic identity in the medieval Arab world: 1. the lower status of blacks in general their societies and 2. the possibility to gain respect due to piety, knowledge, and eloquence. In other words, if a humble Black shepherd can be so esteemed for following basic tenets of the faith, you can too.

While Luqman’s identity as a Black African initially raised my interest, his wisdom transcends racial or ethnic designation. Although he is not a prophet, his advice is still worthy to mention in the Quran. I think his role helps clarify what it means to be a prophet, a messenger, or a friend of Allah. A prophet receives revelation, but it is not obligatory for him to spread it. A Messenger spreads what is revealed to him. While there was a seal on prophecy, there are still friends of Allah who help guide us to rightful conduct. While it may not be clear who those are in the modern age, the Quran clearly tells Luqman the wise has something for all of us. And for that reason, the Golden Advice Series have featured a book expounding upon the ayaat in the Quran titled, O My Son (Luqmaan’s Advice). I recommend getting the entire series, not just because of Luqman, but for the precious pearls of wisdom in the texts. I also think we should spend more time reflecting on Luqman’s advice and focus on applying his advise during Ramadan. In that spirit, I will leave you with some videos by a khutbah
Sheikh Muhammad Ninowygave focusing on the Advice of Luqman to his son.

Notes:

[1] Khalid ait belarbi “Advice from Luqman the wise to his son”
http://www.tamilislam.com/ENGLISH/human_rights/advice_from_luqman.htm

[2]http://www.quranwebsite.com/text55/031a___luqman.html

[3] Imam Malik’s Muwatta Book 59, Number 59.1.1

[4] Ibn Kathir. Stories from the Quran. from Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah translated by Ali As-Sayed Al- Halawani
http://www.islambasics.com/view.php?bkID=80&chapter=19

Am I Just a Muslim?

While my heart is at home, some things right now seem more real to me than some of the things that are preoccupying my friends and loved ones.   I am not saying that I’m not interested in this historic moment. There is something amazing about a Black man making it this far in a presidential election.  But, the lack of nuance in media representations of race and gender in the presidential election is not as real to me as making sense of being a Black woman in the Middle East. I know everyone is a buzz in the US. But being in a predominately Muslim society puts a lot of Muslim issues to the forefront. I am constantly wondering if there is a spot for me in this imagined community of ours, as a Black American Muslim woman.

There are times when I felt like there wasn’t room for me and that my experiences were dismissed. Two recent pieces have reminded me of the pressures I experienced as an early Muslim. But at the time of the articles, the country’s internet was either down or I was in transition. Since these pieces were published, I have had some time to reflect on how a Black American Muslim identity causes a lot of dissonance in an Arab Muslim society. Abdur Rahman wrote a very insightful and historically grounded piece called, I’m Just A Muslim Muslim Tariq Nelson also contributed to the discussion with his take on, Just A Muslim. He wrote:

It is this understanding of being “just a Muslim” that I reject. You must – like the brother in the meat store – become a pseudo-foreigner of some type and adopt a hodge-podge of immigrant cultures rather than adopting Islamic values. Being “just a Muslim” has essentially come to mean running away from one’s family, and history in some attempt to “pass” into “non-blackness”. In addition they adopt a parochial and reactionary attitude and a paralyzing suspicion of all things American or Western.

Years ago,  a young Arab American woman was pretty upset with me. She was mad because of the paper I wrote in a sociology class on inequality and social stratification. The paper was about multiple identities. Much to my suprise, the title upset her.  I had felt it was a pretty inocuous title. I don’t even think she really read too far into my paper. Besides at that time, I was still pretty new to the religion. I was naive and wet behind the ears. So, my paper definitely didn’t have the sharp critique you might find in my writing today. But still, the following bothered this young woman enough for her to tell me how much I sucked:

“My Multiple Identities as an African American Muslim Woman”

It got under her skin. To her, it showed where my loyalties were. “You didn’t put Muslim FIRST!” She said in a distressed and judgmental voice “The Most IMPORTANT thing is that we are MUSLIM!” This kind of bothered me. Because at the time, of almost all the Muslims in this little circle, I was the most identifiably Muslim Muslim. I wore hijab at the time. I participated in the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Black Student Association. Despite my efforts, my loyalty as a Muslim was constantly called into question by my Arab and Desi peers.

Someone called me a nationalist because I still participated in the Black Graduate Student Union. When I used to point out that they go to ethnic picnics, Lebanese iftar, Egyptian Day, Libyan picnic in the park, Bangladeshi dinner, Pakistani gathering, not to mention the ethnic after-eid-after parties. These were places I was never invited to. I pointed out that they all these ethnic functions. The argument someone made was that the people in their closed ethnic gatherings were all Muslim. For them, their ethnicity was intrinsicly tied to being Muslim. They were preserving their culture and language because one day, they hoped to go back home. Their functions or fundraisers could be completely secular and or for some nationalistic. But they were helping other Muslims.

Me, on the other hand, I was encouraged to divorce myself from the Black community. At the same time, I was told to give dawah. In fact, I was encouraged to give dawah. But dawah basically meant repesenting some Muslim issue overseas in some campus event. I’m not saying that no immigrant Muslims cared about African Americans. There was one who took an active interest in supporting the cause of a young Black man who happened to be Student Body president was arrested for showing up to a Senate meeting on campus.Many of the people who put those pressures have since changed their views. In many ways they too had utopian visions of what the Ummah looked like. Their own cultural practices were illegible to them, because for them they operated within an Islamic cultural matrix.

While some Muslims were mad because I didn’t claim I was just a Muslim-Muslim. I was never really allowed to be just a muslim-muslim. I was constantly referred to as “The Black” sister in a community that was diverse, but Black American were underrepresented. I was sort of relegated to Black things, like marrying ex-cons and being broke all the time. I was even told that I wasn’t just a Muslim indirectly in some not so nice ways.

Perhaps I felt pressures more intensely because of the relative isolation. But the pressure I experienced raised some important questions. Does participation in a community entail that you give up who you are? Should we end our participation in other communities, our ties with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, associates, sorority or fraternity brothers and sisters. Do we give up affiliations, inclinations, cultural tastes and affinities and adopt others? How do we talk about who we are? What are we? Can I be just a Muslim, while holding on to those descriptors that make me unique? I think my stance on some of these questions is quite clear. I also believe that these broad communities and categories do not make a human. But they are a part of who we are and our being in this world. At times I feel like a composite of many different things and experiences. Some of them intersect and and reinforce what I feel is the true person inside. At times my experiences and things conflict. But never once have I felt like a Muslim divorced from my cultural context as a Western woman of African descent who became Muslim as an adult. Once I become Just a Muslim, I lose my voice and am lost to some authoritarian dogma.

Modest Sexiness

I wrote a bit about it Abayas and ‘ho shoes in my entry, Hot Girls in Kuwait. While i was in Egypt, I noticed that nearly 90% of the women on the street wore hijab. But even with hijab, there were many levels of modest from sexy to completely niqab. As for the sexy women, they ranged in age. Many of them were young women who covered each inch of skin.  But they wore tight jeans, shirts, and figure revealing outfits. A lot of Muslims dismiss them outright. Media Watchers extensively discussed the negative attitudes and pejorative terms used to describe women who wear hijab and sexy outfits.

Speaking of words we call ourselves, I must mention the derogatory terms. “Hojabi” and “muhajababe” have worked their way into our vocabulary (hojabi even has its own entry in UrbanDictionary.com). And, they are pervasive enough that non-Muslims have begun to use them in reference to us. They exist because we ourselves have invented them and used them, and they are born out of words that describe what one wears on one’s head (I haven’t come across any derogatory terms for bihejabis, but feel free to enlighten me).

Women who cover their hair while wearing flashy or figure revealing clothing are frequently looked down upon by both people who support hijab and those who don’t. That is the irony of it. Without looking into the contradictions that these women straddle, the pressure to affirm their Muslim identity through hijab and the pressure to be considered desirable and attractive. Both pressures exist in Muslim societies, as well as Muslim communities in the West. Pamela Windo recently weighed in with a very insightful about hijab in Morocco titled, Hijab and High Heels.

I returned to the States in 1997, but I continue to pop back to Morocco for my yearly nostalgic pilgrimage. I’ve just been on one of those trips and was surprised, alarmed even, to see how many more women are now wearing headscarves, most noticeably in the modern cities of Casablanca and Rabat. Not older women, but young ones; the same age group as the young women who had so exuberantly discarded them a decade before. And instead of scarves tied under the chin, they have now adopted the hijab, which is swathed closely around the head in the stricter Middle Eastern way.

Although they are made of colorful fabrics with pretty clips at the back, what most struck me was the blatant dichotomy between the hijab and their other clothes. While a few women wear it with a subdued djellaba, and others with their everyday modern suits, skirts and coats, a startling number of young Moroccan women combine the hijab with figure-revealing blue or black jeans, elaborate glittering belts, modern sexy tops and designer sunglasses. Equally striking is the glossy-magazine-style make-up, heavy on the lipstick and black kohl eye-liner.

For Muslim women, the hijab, worn for centuries by their forbears, is an essential part of their identity. Given that it is a symbol of modesty and sexual purity, and body-revealing clothes the hijab’s opposite, the alarm I had at first felt was quickly followed by empathy.

I really liked this article because it explores the realities of hijab without casting judgment. Because they explore the realities and pressures, their discussion of hijab is a lot more nuanced than the idealistic depictions of hijab. However, just many of the blog entries in  Muslimah Media Watch indicate, more and more Muslims are sensitive to the pressures that we face. I am also hopeful because there are some up and coming scholars. One such scholar wrote a masters thesis on the ideas of beauty in Arab societies. She argues that Arab Muslim women strategically navigate the seemingly conflicting Islamic ideal of feminine modesty and Arab society’s ideals of beauty. What I really enjoy about her work is that, while not being an Arab, she is a Muslim woman who wears hijab. She deals with those pressures and projections. Even those of us who don’t wear hijab are fully aware that our bodies are the subject of so much scrutiny. People in the West want to claim that we are liberated while Muslims want to liberate us by pressuring us to cover.  I believe that there is no compulsion in religion. However, I recognize the reality that we have many explicit and implicit pressures that tell us how to be, how to act, and how to dress as Muslims.

Traveling

I haven’t written any blog entries because I’m traveling in Egypt until the 4th. I slept only an hour the night before the trip. I normally can’t sleep before a trip. So, I looked really tired when I arrived in Alexandria.  My Egyptian friend who spent several years in California with her husband met me at the airport. I swear, she and her family are among the nicest people you could possibly meet. That was evident back in California. But we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together before she and her husband returned to Egypt to start their lives.  Her family exemplified the Arab hospitality. The only comparable hospitality in the US would be maybe Southern, even though I’ve met really kind mid-westerners.   But even then, it is nothing on Arab hospitality. My hosts kept feeding me, and my friend’s mother-in-law gave me snacks and sweets to take with me on my 2  hour train ride to Cairo. Her father-in-law gave me a Qur’an with tajweed markings (which is soooooooo helpful). Also, since my purse’s zipper broke, they gave me a purse to carry all my things. I spend several hours with the family. They were so kind, and even gave me compliments on my Arabic (which was more than generous because it needs a lot of work).I was pretty nervous before leaving on the train. But my friend was really helpful, guiding me along the way and making sure I understood the illegible writing on the ticket (seriously it printed so faintly I could barely make out the numbers).  I always get nervous about train rides, in the US or abroad. Something about missing the stop, getting off too early, it just makes me nervous. I managed to get a second class ticket at 7:15, with an arrival time of 9:30 in Cairo.  I think I dozed off several times on the train ride. But I listened to my ipod, with each song bringing bringing back memories of someone or some place. Some songs brought back old feelings, as the time passed I kept thinking about how sweet or sad an experience was for me. I tried to set aside any preconceived notions. But I didn’t want to talk too much or stand out. It helped that I wore abaya. My friend noted that I didn’t stand out much as a foreigner. She noted that I looked like any African, like I could be Egyptian. She just said try not to be noticeable or speak loudly. I guess most Egyptians get confused, I am sure they assume I’m dumb because I can barely understand or it takes me a while to process what they’re saying. But overall, I didn’t get haggled too much as a foreigner and in general, people were courteous and helped me with my luggage as I struggled along. When I arrived in Cairo,  I slipped by a sleazy taxi cab driver and found a man that looked about 100 years old. He asked if I needed a taxi. I said “na’em,” like a good foreigner. I then told him Nasr city and pulled out address from my phone. He said 30 EGP, I said I heard 20 EGP. He said 25, I said, “tayyib.”  I’m staying with friends, who are also amazing hosts. It is really interesting to see the expat American Muslims, Arab Americans, British Arabs, as they manage lives in the hustle and bustle of Cairo. It gives me a chance to know what I’m in for. I guess I won’t be so overwhelmed when I come to live in Cairo to do research and continue studying Arabic. I don’t make it a point to do touristic things. Of course I want to see things. Coming to Egypt is  like a dream. I can’t believe I’m within reach of some of the most historical sites. I guess that’s why I’m not in such a rush to see everything. I have a fear that I’m going to impose some preconceived notions on this experience. Still want to see pyramids, al-Azhar, old markets, and even the cheesy touristy spots. But it is nice to just visit friends, get to know new people, and get a sense of the way of life.  

One of the Delightful Stories of the Arabs in Marriage

I’ve been reading a really good book of short stories about marriage. One story was particularly funny in Arabic, it is called زواج فتاة غير باكر it is a great story that I wanted to share with you. It’s not for the feint of heart, there’s jinn, madness, and the uncomfortable predicament of one young bride. I’m only providing a rough translation, since translation isn’t my strong suit. But I think you’ll enjoy the story anyways.

Uqbah al-Azmi was famous for dealing with jinn and for his incantations and spells. One day he passed by his neighbor who went crazy during her wedding night. So he made an incantation on her to see if she had fallen under a jinn’s spell. He told her family, “Leave me alone with her.” So they left them alone. When he was alone with the young woman he said to her, “Tell me the truth about yourself!” She said, “I am in my family’s home and they want me to go to my husband’s house and I’m not a virgin. So I feared that my fault would be revealed. So do you have a trick for my issue?” ‘Uqbah told her, “Yes.”

Then he went to her family and said, “Indeed a Jinn entered her body and asked me to leave from her. So you pick where you want the jinn to leave. But take heed, whatever part that the jinn leaves from, it will perish and rot. So if it leaves from her eyes, she will go blind. If it leaves from her ears, she will go deaf. If it leaves from her mouth, she will go mute. It it leaves from her hand, it will whither. If it leaves from her leg, it will cripple. If it leaves from her opening down there, her virginity goes. It is your decision.”

So after her family consulted each other for a long time they said to him, “We haven’t found an easier way to escape disgrace. So force the Shaitan out, and for you whatever you want. So he made them believe that he did exactly that. So the woman went to her husband.

الدكتور محمد التونجي اروع ما حكي من قسس العرب في الزوج Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al Marefah, 2005

Half Empty

No, my cup does not “runneth over.” I’m looking at it half empty. I read a recent study that suggests that some people may be hard wired to be optimists. I don’t think I came equipped with that hard wiring. I’ve tried to reset my hard wiring. But I’m an over-achieving, constant worrier, sensitive, hyper-critical, driven person.

I know a lot about myself because I began my self exploration at a young age. Much of it was influenced by mom mom. She was always an avid reader. She had library of self-help books. I remember seeing expensive book and tape sets from Dianetics, the Silva Method, and Tony Robbins. She had books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and dozens of titles from how to became a self made millionaire, to how to actualize your dreams. My mother read popular psychology books, relationship books, horoscope books, speed reading, and Mega-memory. She had a range of new agey books about positivity, meditation, relaxation, personal development, and spirituality. But growing up I just thought most of the stuff was rubbish. I mean, I respected her meditation. She’d come home from work and handle her business until around 10 when she’d listen to her relaxation CDs till she fell asleep. She’d then wake up at 4:30 and begin the next day. My mom did not have a lot of encouraging people around her. For her, these books offered keys into providing a better future for herself and children.But I grew up skeptical about the books. Mom was wasn’t positive all the time, nor did all her aspirations fall into place as her positive visualizations envisioned (at least that’s how I saw it at that time).

I developed a fatalistic attitude because contrary to what the books claimed a positive outlook didn’t always get you what you wanted in life. Then my intellectual proclivities added a hyper-critical aspect to my outlook. Sometimes I just lived in my head, trying to find overall patterns, the underlying logic to seeming absurdities. Everything I saw around me had to be picked apart. I developed insomnia thinking about ever interaction through the day, global issues, my own person conflicts. My life, itself was a battleground, a constant struggle to prove to myself and the world that I was a worthwhile. But how does one prove something that is inherent? How do you prove to people who wouldn’t be convinced no matter what evidence you brought forward? And why did I need to convince myself? Why do I still need to? My mom used to tell me that half the world will love you and the other half will hate you. Growing up I was obsessed with the half that hated me.

As I’ve matured, I have had some deep conversations with my mom. You know when most kids would claim that their moms were the most beautiful mom in the world. My mom was always stunning, turning heads wherever she went. She was well read and articulate, dedicated, tough as nails, and vulnerable. She spent her life searching for answers. Much of her quest centered on overcoming the box that people tried to put her in. Considering my mother’s hardships, she is a very optimistic person. In one of the conversations I told her of all that she accomplished. So many people looking on the outside would be jealous. She was owned her own home in one of the most expensive regions in the country, she had a luxury car, she dressed nice, two of her daughters attend prestigious universities, her son has never been to jail and is an entreprenuer, she has traveled abroad. She grew up in New Jersey’s rural area in poverty, at times living in a house that had an out house. She picked vegetables in the field to earn money. Her family then moved to the city and experienced the struggle of urban life, where my grandmother raised 6 children by herself. My mother had her first baby at a young age. From her teen years, she was independent, working jobs from shoe shine girl to seamstress. She lost one of her babies, let her abusive husband, and flew all the way to California to start a new life. She pushed her other three giving whatever our fathers didn’t. She said that for years she didn’t feel accomplished. But when she looked at an old list of goals she had set, she had accomplished many of them. It was suprising to her.

I learned some important lessons before I left the States. There was a family reunion and I spent almost a week with my grandmother. My grandmother is one of thse old school tough as nails little black women. After listening to a week’s worth of my grandmother’s complaints and grievances against everyone, I was tired. I began to realize how much a struggle can wear you down. I rsaw how much of that was instilled in me. It is the reason why I left the question mark in the title of my blog. It is the reason why I explore issues that touch sore spots, especially for Black Muslim Women. We struggle. My people have struggled. There are triumphs, but many of the stories are heartbreaking. That collective memory, as well as my own struggles were becoming part of me. I began to feel like everything was a fight. Every injustice and every affront (real or imagined) was a battle ground. For some of my ancestors it was life or death, it was the flight or fight from the lynch mob. We had real grievances, real injustices that reverberated in our daily lives in sometimes small and other times profound ways.

I have shared much of my struggles. But it recently dawned on me what have I said that is wonderful or amazing about my journey. There are many things. Today, was a mostly positive day. I had someone tell me that something I find spiritually rewarding and beneficial was fundamentally wrong. I didn’t want to engage in an argument. My linguistic capabilities in Arabic are not up to par to spar with a native speaker. I recognize people differ on many things. The way people feel about their particular stances will make best friends go to blows. As I try to navigate the world of new friends, I recognize that large parts of me will not be accepted by others. But that doesn’t mean that I want to be only around people like me. But I want to find a common ground with people who have different experiences and world views. I could focus on the half that we disagree on. But, I am hoping to find a way to find that base where we can agree to meet half-way.

I drove and got lost following simple directions to a park. I was about 40 minutes late and stressed out. It was a relief to make it there. I sat outside enjoying company of three really nice women. Two American and one British, we couldn’t be more different, we couldn’t be more alike in many ways. I can say after the past few weeks of solitude, I can appreciate the warmth. It was a breath of fresh air. The rest of my day rolled out smoothly. I see today may have provided me some major openings.

Plus, I got inspired to keep moving forward in changing the direction of my writing. One of the things that struck me in the conversation this evening was the conversation about the blog world. One woman said it was just draining. Another pointed to endless debates, generalizations, and unsubstantiated claims that try to pass off as dialogue. As I ween myself from pointless debates (I know I still have work to do on breaking away), I am more reflective of the way my writing may reflect of skewed worldview. By skewed, I mean one that focuses on the ugly, the controversy, the negativity, the injustice, that jumps out in our minds. This skewed vision overlooks the beautiful, the harmony, positive things, the examples of heroism and selflessness that should inspire us. While I take a break from serious intellectual clashes, I am still going to explore complicated issues. But as one sister pointed out, I’m not going to make my point with generalizations. I will qualify my statements. I will humbly recant when proven wrong or if my underlying logic is flawed. The exhausation from struggling, fighting, and climbing over obstacles is not a negative thing. I may have gotten the wind knocked out of me. But a lot of people are in my corner cheering me on. My cup is still half full. I might be able to savor that cup, enjoying every drop. Plus I got enough juice in me to get some steam going. Insha’Allah once that steam builds to a critical mass, I am sure I will be able to do some meaningful work.

Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

My public presence is minimally disruptive, well that’s because I hardly ever go out. But when I do, I dress conservatively and go to most places that women are free to go. In Kuwait, I’m witnessing how gender segregation work in everyday life. There are prayer rooms for women in schools, in malls and stores, in parks, and restaurants. Even though I haven’t yet enjoyed the women centered amenities, I’ve heard that there are separate beaches, and tons of facilities for women like gyms and swimming pools and social clubs. There are many places where men are not allowed to go. I’ve seen gender segregation at Kuwait University and gender segregation in banks (yes a whole separate office space for women). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate gender segregation with Jim Crow. Our fountains are just as nice, as well as our bathrooms. We don’t sit in the back of the bus. We just don’t take the bus. I haven’t seen a sign where it says women are not allowed. I suppose that is just implied based upon context. And yes free-mixing goes on in Kuwait. But like one Kuwaiti woman told me, if you want to go to jennah don’t mix with men.

My friend says that my life reads like I’m in the middle of a participatory observatory study. But this is a real lived experience where I try to balance traditional social norms between men and women and my modern needs as a female student and traveler. In many ways I feel like I can’t win for losing. My friends says that is the only way to make sense of what I’m experiencing is to take an anthropological approach. The only thing is that the I’m not a detached observer, this is my life. I have a Muslim identity, so my so called experiment is directly tied to how I see myself. Also, the social censure has that extra bite. This is part of my social world and the social consequences can be far reaching.

My friend suggests that I write about my experiences because of its relevance to Muslims in the West. It is hard to imagine that what I have to say will really matter. In fact, it may put off a lot of people. For one, I find the rules of gender segregation are stifling. I wrote about the social isolation that I experienced during my first month in Kuwait. It is especially stifling to women who are socially punished by other women for non-conformity. I get the sense that I am a persona non grata. “Who are you?….Are you married?….Where do you live?..With who?…Ohhhhhhhhhhh…” and then awkward pause. I’ve already mentioned judgmental attitudes.

Maybe women who grow up in societies where women sit in the house all day are used to it. But for me, it makes me really unhappy (and I’m a homebody!) and I’m trying to find some way to have social outlets without seeming too desperate. Can I scream at the top of my lungs (PLEASE HANG OUT WITH ME CAUSE I’M GOING TO DIE OF BOREDOM!) I’m not saying that I do nothing all day. I spend much of my time studying. I have editing work, research, and I help out here and there. I even have a tutoring gig in the house, but we got off schedule. I have lot of busy work, I putter about in my room, and then for a few hours I may putter about the winding corridors of this flat. My social word, as well as that of my friend with children, contrasts with the buzzing social world of the male head of household.

So far, my social world is pretty spotty and the few opportunities are rather contrived. It really consists of me being a tag along or default invite to a family social function. Most of my socialization will have to be structured around classes and lectures. I go to a 2 hour Arabic class on Friday and I just started dars (lesson) on one of Ghazali’s books. So, that’s like four hours when I leave the house. But most of my lessons are in the house. For the past week a really nice Iraqi brother has offered to help me with my reading and grammar several days a week. I normally prepare for hours looking up words and translating the assigned text. We sit for an hour reading and talking about various Islamic subjects. I asked to sit in on his sessions of Arabic text incremental reading. So, for the past week, I’ve sat with two men in order to benefit from being immersed in the Arabic texts that are really for very advanced Arabic students. Since both speak English fluently, they define words I don’t know and explain difficult concepts. I hate to slow them down, but I benefit from getting a taste of texts that I might otherwise not read on my own. They are also patient as I try to articulate difficult concepts with my Arabic limitations. My friend’s husband has recruited another man to be a more formal instructor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can have formal lessons with this teacher three days a week.

So far, it seems like I have had to transgress the boundaries of gender segregation to learn anything–especially when it comes to Arabic. I’m sitting in the highest level of Arabic offered at the Islamic Presentation Committee. There are 12 levels, this is level 6. The director said that maybe in three years she’ll see our class as graduates from the Arabic class. What that means is that the road to learning Arabic in places like IPC is real slow. I lacks the rigor that a serious student needs. And I found that outside Kuwait University (which brushed me off last minute), there are no full time Arabic programs. With all the students at the Islamic centers, no one is really invested to help fisabillah, maybe fisabalfaloos except for the gentlemen who have offered to help me get to the level of Arabic that I need to move on in my program. So, one has to ad lib. Outside of the group halaqa or dars, no women have volunteered to teach me or help me learn. Last month, I had a chance to meet a well known Syrian scholar. I asked if there were no women to study under, was it permissible to study under a man. He said yes, then hailed Syria’s female scholars. That’s nice, masha’Allah. Since I’m not in Syria, I have to make due.

I know for many Muslims sitting with a man alone is transgressive. If a man and a woman are lone than Shaitan is the third person. I even know a former graduate student who wouldn’t meet with her adviser alone because of that. This caused some problems for her non-Muslim adviser and her work wasn’t taken seriously. The lax Muslim in me just thought Muslims needed to get over it. period.But the Western me believed that we had the internal will to fight back what ever personal demons that might cause either party to objectify the other. There proggie Muslim in me believed that if the intention was pure and that if both people treated each other decently, then both parties could stay out of trouble.

When I had a private writing tutoring, I didn’ feel the same pressures as I do when I have a Muslim Arabic instructor. I’ve had Muslim instructors in the states and there was a bit of the pressure, the worry about adab. Maybe deep in my mind there was the psychological terror that I was leading someone on the path to perdition. The traditional me was convinced that a man and woman cannot be friends and something was fundamentally wrong with sitting in a busy coffee shop was somehow an illicit meeting.

As a young Muslim, I was criticized for free mixing too much. I even attended a study group full of enthusiastic Muslims. The more conservative MCA wouldn’t host a group like that, but we were able to go to SBIA and learn from each other. Unlike some of my non-free-mixing friends, I would have starved to death if I had no interaction with non-mahram men. I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to free-mixing. I’m not saying that the results have all been good. I’ve had some fitnah past. But I am saying that I couldn’t follow the no free-mixing between the genders without dramatically altering my life–basically get married right away, having tons of babies, and rarely leaving the house. If I followed all the rules of gender segregation I wouldn’t have been able to get my education, let alone learn the language of the Qur’an. I’m aware there are many people who take issue with the path that I’ve chosen. I guess this is what I’d have to say to them: Before you condemn me for being some free-mixing loose Muslim woman, please consider what type of intellectual wasteland you’d banish me to.