The Critical Thinking Muslim

                                                                                                —Image from ModDB 

“Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used.” – Carl Sagan

The Muslim world possesses a wealth of knowledge, especially in regards devotional literature, theology, and jurisprudence, yet we have not transformed our knowledge into thoughtful and well-executed ways of addressing our most pressing needs. Muslim communities throughout the world face a plethora of problems: poverty, authoritarianism, civil war, neo-colonialism, occupation, sectarianism, sexual exploitation, corruption, social inequality, civil war, natural disasters, etc. Even American Muslims, who are largely shielded from these perils, are challenged. We face a number of issues: cronyism, crime, domestic violence, poverty, ineptly run institutions, sexism, tribalism, infighting, isolationism, Islamophobia, and an inability to address the needs of marginalized members of our community. The American Muslim community is increasingly literate, with unprecedented access to traditional scholarship and information. Islamic institutions of learning are filled to the brim. Although the American Muslim community is predominantly middle class and highly literate, we somehow still seem ill equipped and are stuck in a quagmire (Pew). We are unable to talk to each other, work together, and develop a common vision. That special something is missing and that something is Critical thinking.

As Muslims, the command to “seek knowledge” is almost like a mantra. But how often are we encouraged to think on a higher level, let alone think critically? This is especially important to think about considering how God speaks of comprehension and thinking in the Quran. Tafakkur تفكر is the reflexive form of the root فكر, which means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder, muse, speculate. Tafakkur means to reflect, meditate cogitate, ponder muse speculate revolve in one’s mind, think over, contemplate, and consider. It is mentioned in the Quran 17 times. In Surah A-Rum verse 8 Allah says:

Do they not contemplate within themselves? Allah has not created the heavens and the earth and what is between them except in truth and for a specified term. And indeed, many of the people, in [the matter of] the meeting with their Lord, are disbelievers. (Sahih International)

The word for “Intellect” is ‘Aql عقل, meaning sense, sentience, reason, understanding, comprehension, discernment, insight, rationality, mind, intellect, intelligence. The verb form that we will see commonly used in Qur’an is عقل to be endowed with (the faculty of) reason, be reasonable, have intelligence, to be in one’s senses, be conscious, to realize, comprehend, and understand. In the 49 references of the word in the Qur’an, God often speaks of the disbelievers who do not comprehend.
In Surah Baqarah verse 276, Allah says:

And when they meet those who believe, they say, “We have believed”; but when they are alone with one another, they say, “Do you talk to them about what Allah has revealed to you so they can argue with you about it before your Lord?” Then will you not reason? (Sahih international)

Another important Arabic word that corresponds to critical thinking is the word for logic, منطق which means the faculty of speech, manner of speech, eloquence, diction, enunciation, logic. All three terms, are important to consider when we think of critical thinking. And, I will discuss later, we will see how Muslim scholars employed critical thinking in their struggle to determine what God intended for us to do when an issue was not explicitly stated in the Quran or Hadith literature. Critical thinking implies:

  •  that there is a reason or purpose to the thinking, some problem to be solved or question to be answered.
  • analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information (CTILAC)

Without these two, we were seriously hamstrung. While having the faculty for critical thinking, our community has either ignored its tradition of critical thinking or underdeveloped due to reactionary thinking. As a result, we are a bit hamstrung by our own intellectual deficiencies. I say this with all respect, because we have many knowledgeable people, but they are not good problem solvers and their analysis and evaluation of information is lacking.
As a result, we hit a number of roadblocks. Many Muslims see Islam as a monolith and try to impose their rigid and authoritarian models on others. Our leaders are unable to come up with solutions to problems that were never imagined by classical or early modern legal and religious scholars. Individuals with little experience in non-profit development or leadership, build institutions with little understanding of how to meet social needs. And lay members of our community lock horns in heated theological and juristic debates that take away from a sense of fellowship and coherent communities. Our communities are fragmented by endless polemics where labels and plastic words substitute for real engagement with our differences and our commonalities. All of these problems come about because critical thinking in Islamic studies and devotional education is not something that is valued within our community. Despite our undervaluing of it, there is a great need for critically thinking Muslims, from your average lay member of the community, leaders, and scholars.

If we understand our own legacy of critical thinking and continue to develop critical thinking at all levels of devotional and Islamic education, Muslims will be better equipped to deal with our most daunting challenges. Before going into our legacy of critical thinking, it is important to understand how the term is currently used. The term “Critical Thinking” encompasses a wide array of ways of thinking and processing information. Scriven and Paul write, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” In my experience of teaching, from a high school to college level classes, the most important tool I have tried to help my students develop has been critical thinking. One of the best ways of seeing critical thinking in action was to have students write research papers with sound arguments. That is because “in essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.)” (Adsit). But I often found that most students lacked not only discipline and curiosity, but also an interest in developing their higher order thinking abilities. Instead, they often focused on trying to get the right answer, rather than learning to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. When students don’t think well, they don’t write well. Writing is a higher order level of thinking, but anyone can write without thinking, just as someone can speak without thinking on a subject. But eloquent and logical speeches and well written papers reflect disciplined critical thinking. And both can be subject to critique by others who are keen to see logical fallacies, misuse of sources, or failure to include other factors.

Critical thinking is something that develops with practice. It is something we have to train for. Scriven and Paul write that critical thinking is a set of skills that help us “process and generate information and beliefs.” They also a “habit,” or inclination based on intellectual commitment, “of using those skills to guide behavior.” Critical thinking helps an individual recognize the following:

i. patterns and provides a way to use those patterns to solve a problem or answer a question
ii. errors in logic, reasoning, or the thought process
iii. what is irrelevant or extraneous information
iv. preconceptions, bias, values and the way that these affect our thinking. that these preconceptions and values mean that any inferences are within a certain context
v. ambiguity – that there may be more than one solution or more than one way to solve a problem.” (CTILAC)

Critical thinking is not limited to subjects, so religious thinking has also benefited from critical thinking and in fact, our own tradition of scholarship shines due to our classical medieval scholars’ commitment to critical thinking. One very insightful friend of mine reminded me that we go to college and pay for the skills that our classical scholars had developed. While people outside of the academy have natural inclinations towards certain aspects of critical thinking, often those skills are sharpened and refined during the process of learning a discipline. There is a stark difference between the ways someone like Suhaib Webb discusses a topic, drawing on his years of study and a lay member of the community. People recognize disciplines such as astrophysics and medicine, but often experts on subjects involving in the human experience are not as respected. And people will delve into these subjects without the requisite critical skills or mental rigor to truly engage with them. I found this out as I went into graduate school and developed my field of expertise on Islam in Africa and African History. Friends and family members would discuss a subject and if somehow my view did not agree with theirs and I explained my stance, I would experience their resentment. I learned to be quiet for the sake of peace, even if a loved one was speaking on an issue they were largely ignorant about. Our own willful ignorance in our community is especially detrimental to developing critical thinking. This is especially the case in terms of how some groups of Muslims overlook the 1400 year legacy of critical thinking and scholarship that has allowed our tradition to maintain continuity without a central body or leader to guide it.

Before I took my first course on Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudents) at Zaytuna in the late 90s, I had no idea about the rich legacy of critical thinking in Islam. I learned about the skills qualified jurists needed to draw on the Quran, Sunna (Prophetic traditions), scholarly consensus, and qiyas (analogy) to come up with rulings on new issues. That basic class whet my appetite on the study of Usul al-Fiqh (Sources of Islamic Jurisprudence), which I later studied a bit in graduate school. Usul al-Fiqh is concerned with the source of Islamic law and methodology in which legal rules are deduced. Kamali explains that the process by which scholars use to deduce sources to try to understand Shariah, Holy Law, is ijtihad. (1). The rules of fiqh use various methods of reasoning, including “analogy (qiyas), juristic preference (istihsan), presumption of continuity (istishab), and rules of interpretations and deduction.” In essence, Kamali points out that Usul al-Fiqh provides standard criteria for deriving correct rulings from the sources (2). However this standard of criteria is now overlooked by many who use ijtihad to come up with convenient rules that can lead to one of two extremes: ultra-liberal positions based on Western inclinations and not on Quran and Sunnah or ultra-conservative positions that purport to be derived strictly from Quran and Sunnah but violate the spirit of Islam.

Before delving further into this discussion, I must admit that I feel woefully ill equipped to engage in any Usuli debate on some religious issue. However, I find that many Muslims will become locked into debates that were never solved by our most gifted jurists. Often lay Muslims, with access to translations of the Quran and volumes of hadith, in addition to treatises and polemics, will derive their own rulings on religious matters based on their understanding of a Quranic verse or a hadith. According to Kamali, historically “the need for methodology became apparent when unqualified persons attempt to carry out ijtihad, and the risk of error and confusion in the development of Shari‘ah became a source of anxiety for the ‘ulama” (4). As a champion of inquiry and free thinking, it is difficult for me to openly admit that I understand their anxiety. But the reality is that our community is struggling with a crisis of authority, and that is mainly who has the authoritative voice in interpreting Islamic law.

The independent, thinking Muslim may feel like he/she is engaging in critical thinking when approaching the highest sources. However, a critical piece is missing. Ebrahim Moosa writes “… untrained in the various exegetical and interpretive traditions, lay people are not aware that a complex methodology is applicable to materials dealing with law, even if these are stated in the revelation” (121). Most lay Muslims are not trained in the language or historical context to know whether a verse was a commandment to a specific group of people at a specific time or to all Muslims of all times. Nor do they always know whether a verse was simply a statement of fact at a historical moment. Similarly, Muslims will use a statement of the Prophet (s.a.w.) without any context or understanding if it was a religious injunction and apply it to their lives. While ignoring aspects of that scholastic tradition, they will draw on it to reject a hadith and say it is da’if (weak). Or they might draw on the polemical writings of a classical author to dismiss the ideas of another tradition. Yet, they often draw on these traditions in sloppy ways that result in more confusion. Sadly, this is because many of the polemical books were written, not for lay people, but for other people who have the requisite skills and training in evaluating and analyzing sources and discipline in reason and logic.

This does not mean that a lay member of the community solely rely upon someone else’s critical thinking, rather that we recognize our own limitations in our knowledge and training and leave open some room for ambiguity. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so willing to condemn others if we don’t have the skills to even assess the validity of their stances. This requires humility which many, me included, often lack. Humility is an important part of sincerity, which is an important component of purifying our intentions before going about any endeavor. When I first converted to Islam and read my few dozen books, I felt a lot more sound in my knowledge than I do now. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know or my deficiencies in training. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The less arrogant I feel about my own knowledge and the more in awe I feel of those scholars who wrote without laptops and cut and paste. Even as we have unprecedented levels of literacy in our community, we must fight narrow mindedness and gathering up of information without being able to judge and assess or use that information for the greater good. And through developing our critical thinking, that Islam is more expansive, rather than restrictive and reactionary. Our greater comprehension through this intellectual struggle will be a truly enriching and humbling experience.

[Note: In order to keep this article digestible, I will continue to develop the themes in later posts to explore other aspects of critical thinking in our community. So, please consider this a part 1 of a longer series. ]

References
Adsit, Karen I. “Teaching Critical Thinking Skills”
http://academic.udayton.edu/legaled/ctskills/ctskills01.htm
retrieved August 13, 2011

CTILAC Faculty Critical Thinking & Information Literacy Across the Curriculum http://bellevuecollege.edu/lmc/ilac/critdef.htm11/18/98. Retrieved from Internet August 13, 2011

Foundation for Critical Thinking “Critical Thinking Professional Development for K-12” http://www.criticalthinking.org/professionalDev/k12.cfm
retrieved from the internet August 20, 2011

Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, UK, 2003

Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam” Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. One World Publication, 2003

Pew Research. “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” May 22, 2007

The Quran: Sahih International Almunatada Alislami; Abul Qasim Publishing House http://quran.com

Scriven, Michael and Paul, Richard. “A Working Definition of critical thinking by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul” http://lonestar.texas.net/~mseifert/crit2.html
Retrieved August 10, 2010

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The Oppression of Muslim Brothers (Revised) 8/14/2008

I haven’t written a short story in years. Inspired by reading “Living Islam Out Loud” I decided to try to place myself in the brothers’ shoes. Let’s see what happens when Islam is used to oppress the male gender (second revision 8/14/2008):

In a masjid somewhere in America, two Muslim brothers sat in a musallah after the Maghrib prayer. With a sense of urgency, most of the other brothers shuffled out, jumped in their cars, and headed home. But these two brothers lingered a bit longer. They had recently become regulars. At this particular masjid, only a handful of the brothers attended the daily prayers regularly, like the owner of cell phone shop down the block who also lived 15 minutes away, the building caretaker who was rumored to have a cot in one of the utility closets despite having a home a lovely family in distant suburb, and the brother who always saw jinn in everyone’s eyes. He was crazy enough that he didn’t need to work, but spent his days thumbing through Sahih Bukhari looking for proofs and signs of the Last Days. Then there were commuting brothers who came for Friday Jumu’ah. The ones who came for Maghrib prayers dropped by the masjid on their way home. For them, the masjid was a buffer between the high paced demands of the workforce and the relentless demands of their families.

For the most part, it remained unspoken, but the musallah was a place of respite for all weary, lonely, and even the few crazy brothers. Not only did they fulfill a duty incumbent upon the Muslim community by attending the masjid, but they found solidarity. They were not alone in carrying their burdens. The whole society looked down upon them as villains and oppressors. Yes, maintaining their manhood and dignity in a world that vilified them was often hard to do. Even the partition wall behind them reminding them that even the Muslims saw them as sexual beasts and and all Muslim women needed to be rescued and protected from the Muslim male threat. No one discussed how heavy male gender definitions could be. They were the protectors, the providers, the guardians, the gatekeepers, the initiators, the listeners, the doers, the deciders, the leaders, and the supporters. Everyone made demands for their time, the mothers, wives, children, extended family, co-workers, bosses, even the Muslim community, everyone. But there were times when only the handful of mosque regulars seemed happy to see them. In the masjid they could have some peace of mind. Their wives, children, and families could not fault them. Establishing salah at the masjid could never be considered a blameworthy thing. Thus the masjid was a refuge where these brothers could consolation and solidarity in the silence, as they remembered their Lord in unison.

One day burdened with the shame and humiliation that he had long endured, one of the brothers finally broke his silence and turned to his friend: “Ya Akhi, please make du’a for me. I’m asking Our Lord to give me strength.”

“May Allah make it easy on you, brother,” the other replied, sensing his brother’s verge of emotional collapse. He urged him to open up.

The brother seemed reluctant to share his burden, but with some prodding he finally said: “Marriage is hard, akhi. I have prayed istikhara I don’t know what to do. ”

“Have you talked to the Imam, brother?” The other asked.

The brother lowered his voice: “I’m not even sure if he’s going to be able to help me.”

“Brother, this is all new. You seemed so happy at the iftar this Ramadan. Masha’Allah, brother, your deen seems so strong, you are representing the faith well with your courage to dress sunnah. My wife commented on how well your family seemed to be doing.”

“Ya Akhi!! Please can I confide in you?”

“InshaAllah, please brother,” He gestured to the exit, “Let us step outside of the musallah.” The brother passed, looked around. “First I gotta call wifey to let her know I’m coming home late. She gets real sensitive when I don’t eat dinner while it’s hot. But I’ll tell her some crisis came up at the masjid. That’s telling the truth, right?”

“Right! My wife is going to be upset cause I should be doing stuff with the kids. I’m already in hot water akh.” So the two Muslim brothers walked out of the masjid. One brother called his wife and walked out of earshot.

Ten minutes later, he returned to his friend with a distressed look on his face. It was clear he had been chewed out. “Okay brother, this has better be serious. Im dead meat when I get home. Ya Rubi!”

As they walked to the car, the troubled brother burst out: “This whole Islam thing is supposed to make you help you feel whole, like a man…but…but….I feel emasculated.”

“Brother, what are you talking about? You clearly are the man of the household. Why does your wife insult you? Maybe you should correctly guide her to proper etiquette between husband and wife. Have her read….umm…that book something about Muslim marriage. You know,
Gender Equity and not Equality
Islam teaches us that—”

“You see! That is the problem, akhi, she is using Islam to belittle me, to undermine me, to make me feel so inadequate! Basically undermining my manhood with all these rules!!”

“Oh no brother, she’s not one of those. She must have attended classes over at that center! I’ve been telling brothers to avoid sisters who frequent that place!”

Tears welled up in the brothers eyes: “Yes, she is. She’s no joke! Look you see this beard! You know I was clean shaven before I got married. She said she liked the way I looked when we first began courting. She started attending halaqas, then she took the marriage rights class….after that, everything changed. She said she was tired of representing Islam wearing full hijab while I blended in. After every night of her insulting me for saying I looked Western, like a little boy, like I hadn’t gone through puberty, I couldn’t take it anymore. She said I wasnt a true Muslim until I followed the Sunnah. She was right, clean shaven wasn’t Sunnah. So I grew this.” The brother pointed to his face.

“Brother, you should do things because you want to please Allah. You have to correct your intention.”

“But akhi, my beard is not good enough. She said that I must grow it long, long enough that I can grab it in my fist. She keeps telling me I am vain!! Of course my co-workers started looking at me funny. I’d come to work and they’d look at me like, ‘wha?…” I started getting profiled wherever I went. I now hardly go anywhere except from home, to work, to the masjid. At the same time, she started talking about my dress. She said I was imitating Westerners by wearing suits, slacks, dress shirts, jeans and t-shirts. She threw out all my clothes and said I have to wear either thobe or shewar khamis!! Now I am wearing the pajama pants all the time, Akhi! I had nothing else to wear at work. Of course this caused problems working at the advertising agency. Clients didn’t feel comfortable with me. They weren’t buying that religious freedom argument. Eventually I lost my job!!

“It doesn’t stop! She also criticized all the men who prayed with their heads uncovered. She told me it was not sunnah to go with my head uncovered. So now akhi I cannot leave the house without a kufi, turban, or kefiyya on my head. I have tried looking for a job, but the only place I can get a job is stocking cans in the local halal store!!”

“Wow brother, your wife is extreme. How are you holding up, financially. I mean do you need some help?”

“This has been a calamity!! Financially, though, things are going fine. She has begun working from the home. Her business is soaring. But now that I bring so little in, she says that I have relinquished many of my rights. Akhi, I have no rights in my own home! Now she says it is her home since she pays the rent. She is demanding her mahr. I have no money left! You know her family made me sign $10,000 for the marriage contract. She has made me pay back money for nursing our children. Four kids, times two years nursing each one of them, times 365 days of the year, times 4 hours a day, times thirty dollars an hour!! You do the math!! That was all of my savings. Now, my little bit of money goes for paying for a maid. She says she has no obligation to clean up. She tells me that she can go to the imam and divorce me just because she doesn’t like me. I mean, come on man! How I am supposed to feel like a man, like a human being under these circumstances!”

“Brother, may Allah make it easy on you. I have seen sisters use Islam to oppress their husbands. Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course Akhi!”

“Brother, sometimes, I don’t feel like a man either. My wife, man, my wife….oh this is so bad. Astaghfurfullah!! I know we’re not supposed to talk about what goes on with our spouses, but this is hard. You see, when we do it, she makes me keep going. She says that according to Islamic law I do not have permission to finish until she is satisfied. You see how hard I work. I’m tired sometimes and she never is. She then says I am a sorry husband for not fulfilling my duties. She sometimes says she can leave me, that she has a case according to this book she read on marriage law.”

“Ya akhi, that is hard. I didn’t know you were going through it.”

“That’s why I come to the masjid after Maghrib and hang out long past ‘Isha. I have to get reflect, meditate, get some rest before I head home and have to deal with her demands.”

The other brother sighed, knowing his misery was a part of a broader system of oppression, “Yes, that’s why I’m here, Akh.”

“Brother, don’t get me started. This stuff goes deep. Don’t get me started about my mother, whew!! Paradise lies at her feet sometimes. But wallahi, she makes me carry her on my back. No kidding, really like in the park sometimes and even in the mall!”

The brother sighed, “Ya akhi, I don’t know who has it worse, you or I?”

“Brother we both do. But our reputations would be ruined if we’d commit the most hated thing by Allah by divorcing our wives. I believe we will be rewarded in the next life is we just bear it.”

“Ya Rubi, surely with every difficulty comes ease.”

akhi: my brother
Ya Rub: My Lord
Astaghfurullah: God forgive me

(c) 2006 The Oppression of the Male Gender: Dialogue Between Two Muslim Brothers
Aziza

Little Things

Sometimes it’s the little things: a subordinate clause in a sentence, an off handed comment, a book title in the window shelf, a magazine cover, a hot off the press article, the thousand words in a glance, the backdoor, the curtain, the wall, the two way mirror… It’s that anecdotal story, that tirade, that verbose soliloquy… Two hands nervously shaking under the scrutiny of those who focus on the material and not substance of a person. Those things are multiplied with the lack of equivalence, the well crafted stance, based on the correct position, the most authentic position, the most sound position. All I wanted was to be free. But these little things build up to a gigantic mountain and they weigh so heavy on my shoulders that I can’t breath.

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.

Quiet

I’m tired. Not just because last night I slept only four hours. But I’m tired of wasting my intellectual energy and spare time on pointless debates. Most people aren’t interested in dialogue. I am not saying that I haven’t had great exchanges. I have gained insight into a lot of issues from a few people. I have found like minds and not so like minds. I have met people who inspired me. But at the same time, I have ran across many people who are demoralizing. A lot of blogs are not much more than intellectual masturbation or soap boxing. People arguing, condemning, judging, assuming, generalizing just to make their point. What point? I am tired of people so intent on proving a point of speaking AT you and haveing a conversation WITH you. There are insightful blogs, especially the ones where the writers bring the readers into their world. When people share their personal experiences or things that give their lives meaning, I feel like they are reaching to connect. Connecting and understanding is important to me–not winning debates and defeating foes. I started writing to share my human experience and my all too human outlook. I read what people have to say in order to make sense of my world. But what I find is that even when something does make sense, people can make nonsense out of it. I think that at this stage I just need quiet, and if not silence then I need something full of harmony. Once I’m recharged, I will make good use of my writing time.

You Don’t Know Me From Adam–Maids in Kuwait Part 2

This is a continuation of the discussion on maid. In my previous post, I compared live-in maids with other servile positions–specifically slavery. This post is about the motivations that drive the institution and the types of maids.

There are many motivating factors to getting domestic help in Kuwait. One, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to get unskilled labor in Kuwait. Kuwait to get help legally than it is in the states. There are Kuwaiti citizens on top, then Westerners, then Arabs from other countries, and then South Asians on the bottom of the social ladder. Located in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait is relatively close to Africa and South Asia. There are dozens of undeveloped nations in close proximity, making flights relatively cheap in comparison to travel to America or Canada. Cheap labor, and especially cheap domestic labor is predicated upon the economic inequality between oil rich nations and undeveloped nations. With foreigners consisting of 80% of the workforce, Kuwait is a highly stratified society. Kuwait also has a large population of immigrant male workers in skilled and unskilled positions. Maids, janitorial staff, retail clerks, hostesses, and waitresses are some of the few job opportunities that women from poor nations have in Kuwait. Kuwaitis and westerners, on the other hand enjoy a high standard of living. Part of the standard of living includes maids and domestic help.

So what motivates someone to get a live-in maid? Several factors drive the demand for maids. There is a higher premium on the home as a center of socialization in Kuwait. In addition to the burden of housework and child-rearing on women, women play a large part organizing family gatherings and diwaniyyas (gatherings of men who sit in large room and drink tea, coffee, and other manly stuff). Women’s time is often spread thin between child rearing, house-hold errands, social obligations outside the home, religious duties, and receiving guests displaying elaborate hospitality. A social visit can take hours and socializing is not just limited to week-ends. In addition, Ramadan is a month long. For the non-Muslims out there, Ramadan is like 30 days of Thanksgiving (including the hours you don’t eat so you can stuff yourself). A family may not be able to make excuses for not allowing company over or visiting friends during special holidays and special events. The husband may have impromptu guests. In addition, hospitality is very elaborate. While catering can be an option, preparing meals for guests can be overwhelming for a female head of household. This includes various time-consuming dishes, and elaborate deserts and intricate coffee and tea ceremonies. Add room set up, cooking, serving, clean up, to the normal household work and child rearing equals means that one 4 hour event can equal more than two days of preparation.

In addition, childcare for young children is often inside the home under the supervision of the mother. Women are expected to have many children and breast-feeding is encouraged. They often do not have family members living with them to help out. In addition, from what I have seen, children spend less time in front of tv or playing video or computer games. I don’t see too many walkers, playpins, or blockaded areas where infants and toddlers can sit unattended for periods of time. This means children are less zoned out and require more attention. Who watches the children while you cook? This is an especially important question in places where gas stoves explode or there are carbon monoxide leaks.

While there are many hardworking mothers who really need extra support to fulfill all the household work, there is also the laziness factor. Some children are closer to the maids than they are their own mothers. Some women may need maids to clean and babysit while they shop to they drop at one of the high end malls. Maids may take over the messy work of child rearing, feeding the baby, burping the baby, getting the baby throw up all over their maid uniform. That way, the mother can keep her nice rhinestone embellished black abaya looking really sharp. Some people want to be served hand and foot. I have heard of a family that has three children and three maids, one for each child. For some women, live-in maids free them from mundane domestic work, the kind that makes your hands hard or ruins your manicure. There is also a prestige to being able to afford maids, while the servile position is looked down upon.

For the maids not only is there a stigma to being in a servile position, but also domestic work does not offer upward mobility or career growth. What would motivate someone to come to a Kuwait without speaking a lick of Arabic and put themselves at the mercy of an agency and some random family? Women in developing countries have limited opportunities to join the work force in their own communities. This limitation is especially for women without education backgrounds. For numerous women, work in places like Kuwait is an opportunity to send money to support their families and children. There are some maids who are well educated and join a maid placement agency but are really looking for other opportunities. They figure that by getting to Kuwait, they can pursue better opportunities. Rarer cases seem to involve single women hoping that they can find a well-to-do husband in Kuwait. There are cases where maids do get married and become heads of households themselves. I personally don’t have the statistics.

There are live-in maids and part time maids. Part time maids are actually more expensive. Some households require maids to work long hours. The longest I’ve heard shift for a live in maid was from 5 am to 3 am the next day. Others allow their maids the evening off. Some households don’t give their maids a day off. But many give their maids Friday off. Some maids are given separate sleeping quarters or their own rooms outside the home. Other maids are given only a mat to roll out and roll up (later in this article I will talk about why do families not allow separate sleeping quarters or give their maids a day off). From what I know, starting salaries for live-in maids is around 45 Kuwaiti Dinars (KD = 3.5 dollars). But a part time maid is 120 KD. Part time maids come to your home for set shifts and leave by evening. Most of these maids have husbands who are working in Kuwait. One of my friends noted that part time maids are efficient and have professional attitudes and demeanors. Part time maids often have ambitions and demand a certain amount of respect. She pointed out that many of the live-in maids on the other hand, are often not trained and often act slavishly. They often have emotional baggage (suffering from fits, fainting spells, endless crying, weeping when told how to do a job correctly). Part of the baggage comes from the culture shock arriving in Kuwait, or from a negative experience with a former boss. Part time maids may take the job because they can use the extra cash.

Maids can fulfill a range of jobs, from cook, servant, housekeeper, launderer, to babysitter. The jobs can range from labor intensive to relatively light. Some families can have several maids, each with set duties. There may be a maid assigned to cook, a maid who focuses on laundry, and a maid whose only job is to care for children. Some families travel with their maids because they need extra help with children. Despite the multiple duties they fulfill, maids are given little training such as language training, customer service, kitchen safety, janitorial and housekeeping skills, child development, or CPR. I have also heard that some agencies train maids in rudimentary Kuwaiti Arabic and housekeeping skills. These agencies charge a lot more than the ones I have visited so far Maids can range in various levels of efficiency in performing household duties.

People often talk about maids like their countries are brand names. It is not uncommon to go to an agency and say, “I’m looking for an Indian maid.”Formerly, Filipino maids were popular until their country demanded salaries that reached close to a teachers salary. Now Kuwait is boycotting the Philipines. But there are still many Filipino maids whose visa have not expired and want to continue to work in Kuwait. In addition to Filipino maids, there are Indonesian, Indian, Nepalese, and Ethiopian maids. Filipino maids often speak English, so that is a benefit for American families. Often people will argue the merits of the maids from a particular country. Sometimes there are different fads. I have heard that right now, Ethiopian maids are in. Some countries have reputations, for example an Ethiopian maid said that Indonesian maids eat wiiiiiiiiiide (Kuwaiti for a lot). Other countries have reputations for being promiscuous. Filipino maids get that honor. I heard that after getting a few accounts of Filipino maids sneaking men into the house or running off with the KFC delivery guy from Egypt. Basically, maids are essentialized in their ethnic categories.

One of the things that makes it difficult to understand a live-in maid’s human experience is that there is a language barrier. As I stated earlier, there are many maids who cannot speak Arabic or English. Even if they do, few speak it well enough. But some Kuwaiti families prefer their maids to not speak an Arabic. I have heard accounts that say it is best to get a maid who had no previous experience, or worse, a returned maid. One Lebanese family living in Kuwait had an Ethiopian maid who didn’t speak Arabic when she started but within a year she was fluent, plus she learned to cook and clean just like, “madam.” But this is rarely the case. If a multi-lingual woman who has a smidgen of education comes to Kuwait as a maid, it is likely she has higher aspirations.

In the next section I will talk about the ways in which maids are in vulnerable positions and how people have abused maids. I will draw from stories I have heard and from news reports.