Thoroughly enjoying having a guitar about the house again, with new strings and all, so it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who would gladly twiddle and sing instead of switching on the music ting.
Originally posted on Ian Whiteman:
This post is on a musical subject, so for those whom music is proscribed then look away now. Or maybe not, as you might learn something.
I was recently on the west coast of the USA and was invited by an old friend to give a short lecture to a Community College class on the subject of Music and Islam. She had been teaching a course on Islam to a group of about fifty students, mostly white, in Livermore, a prosperous neighbourhood inland from San Francisco’s Bay Area, the world’s rich crucible of American technology and lifestyle. Teachers like Sh. Hamza Yusuf had also contributed to the course so I could hardly refuse.
These students were average Americans between 18 and 25, not from the super wealthy but from the middle classes who had all driven to college in their own cars. Much of the…
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Recently I picked up a copy of Dr. Christiane Northrup’s classic (and colossal) book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, and haven’t been able to put it down. If you know any hippie women, you will almost certainly have seen it on their homes, alongside Healing With Whole Foods, B.S.K. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, and an amethyst geode propping up the shelf above.
Far more useful than a piece of furniture, however, this book has revived my appreciation of the feminine principle, a principle so easily suppressed or chased away in a city where everything is judged on how it scores in the masculinity charts.
An OB/GYN, Northrup shows the relationship between women’s negative attitudes towards their bodies, especially when it relates to sexual abuse or trauma, translates very clearly into their sexual health. Positive changes in these attitudes often have immediate effects on their physical symptoms. But I am shocked at how deeply the negativity runs for so many women. So many who attended her practice manifested signs of loathing or being ashamed of their bodies, and of giving up responsibility for its health by expected a paternalistic doctor to ‘take charge’ and ‘do something’. It made me so thankful not to have absorbed that thinking – at least, not enough to have ended up in her surgery.
The Gulf of Mixed Metaphors
It is clear that for thousands of years, qualities we think of as being ‘masculine’, such as winning by brute force or imposing authority on others deemed to be inferior have trumped such delicate, ‘feminine’ qualities as understanding, nurture, patience, and sharing in responsibility and success equally. Yet few women embody these qualities fully; one of the failings of western feminism is that in order for women to be considered as successful or empowered they must prove themselves by ‘masculine’ criteria by reaching the top of their profession (even if it be by hook or by crook), imposing authority on others, or winning accolades that distinguish them as being superior. Between Mother Teresa and Maggie Thatcher there’s a awfully big gulf.
Another aspect of this ‘patriarchy’ – which Northrup calls the ‘Addictive System’ coined by Anne Wilson Shaef as an alternative to the negative, man-bashing term ‘patriarchy’ – is that of hierarchies. A tribal chief, so the theory goes, must impose authority on elders, who in turn impose it on the ordinary men of the tribe, who in turn impose it on the women, who in turn impose it on the children. Everyone has their place in the pecking order. Thus patriarchal (or addictive) thinking instills the idea that some men are born more equal than others.
I’ve noticed how hard it is to convince women (and often men) that they are able to write something beautiful, or do something creative. Why is that? I think it’s because we’ve learned that experts do these things, experts whom we’ve placed above ourselves in the hierarchy of creativeness, whose work we happily consume but wouldn’t dare try to rival. The opposite approach is to see all people as being essentially equal and all people’s subjective experiences as being equally valuable. Coming from this angle, workshop participants can relax into the idea that they don’t have to compete with others to produce something ‘good’, and in the fact that the whole criteria for quality needn’t come from others in the first place. No-one need judge themselves higher or lower than others because of their creative output.
Birth: the Ultimate Oscar
There is a creative power in pregnancy, birth and childrearing that trumps all of the worldly trophies that a culture obsessed with masculinity can offer. Women giving birth experience more pain than any man is capable of experiencing without passing out, and also the highest levels of endorphins that any human being can experience (immediately after a drug-free, non-interventionist birth – and the baby shares the same high). After the birth of Caveboy, I came back from having a bath feeling ready to deliver an acceptance speech for an Oscar: “I’d like to thank my mum for making me tea, my midwife for not hurrying me along, my birthing pool for being so floatatious…”
While there are men who witness this awesome process, and male midwives are privy to it on a regular basis, men can’t fully understand it because they can’t live it themselves. It occurs to me that God shares a secret with women – both those giving birth and those witnessing it – that men have to strive through a lifetime of personal and/or religious efforts to learn. Nevertheless, if we start crowing about how amazing we are for going through this process, we’ll get sucked into the same story of competition and hierarchy that we’re trying to escape. Unfortunately, even having a ‘natural’ birth can end up a kind of competition, with women blaming themselves when things don’t go according to plan or envying mothers for whom things did.
Blaming patriarchy is part of the very patriarchal values that divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, encouraging some to assert their superiority over others, and leading to a perpetual cycle of reaction and aggression that has left most of the Middle East now (not to mention DRC, Sri Lanka, Burma, and countless other places) in bloodied shreds. Of course Muslim societies have become patriarchal; so have all societies around the globe. That’s not because patriarchy is superior all round, only that it’s physically stronger, and the more powerfully destructive military technology becomes, the more difficult it is to stand up against it.
The rhetorical expression ‘fighting fire with fire’ doesn’t work if you’re a firefighter. You calm fire with water. Hatred cannot neutralise hatred; you have to practise its opposite.
Of Men and Mercy
When Islam first emerged, it was in an Arabia so deeply entrenched in a vicious form of patriarchy that not only would internecine wars go on for decades and claim the lives of tens of thousands of people, but quite literally baby girls would be buried alive in the desert. A Bedouin man once bragged to the Prophet Muhammad (s.): “I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them,” to which the Prophet replied, “He who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.”
Attitudes towards masculinity at the time were that men had to be tough, brutal warriors who didn’t just stand up for themselves but would fight aggressively to defend their ‘honour’ (whatever that meant to them). Muhammad (s.), on the other hand, refused to fight the Quraysh of Makkah, who responded to his early attempts to talk them out of their oppressive economic and cultural practices by throwing stones at him, boycotting him and his followers and drowning out his voice with jeers.
At the time he lived in the house his wife Khadijah (r.) built for them. She, incidentally, was 40 when she cajoled him into marrying her when he was 25; was a wealthy, respected, educated, literate noblewomen, as well as his boss; and was twice widowed with three children when they married, upon which she bore six children! Even years after she died, whenever her name was mentioned Muhammad (s.) would turn pale and tremble from missing her so much.
In the courtyard of this house was a stone shelf under which he would hide under when the neighbours threw stones at him in his own home. He didn’t move house, or throw stones back, or even complain. There was also an elderly woman who would leave thorny branches outside his door each day; when one morning he saw that the thorns weren’t there, he went to her house and asked after her health. He even send his own daughter together with a number of the Companions to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) to live under the Christian Emperor Nabash, where they could live in peace under a just ruler.
All of this was utterly astonishing to the Quraysh. What kind of a man would refuse to stand up for himself with violence, telling his followers to return evil with good, to forgive your oppressors when they ask for forgiveness, and prefer emigration over retribution? Mercy was considered a feminine quality, and therefore something that represented weakness and inferiority. The word rahma, or mercy, is related not only to the two most oft-repeated Names of God, Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim, the Merciful and the Compassionate, it is also related to the word rihm, meaning womb.
All of the battles between the Muslims and their opponents occurred not in or around Makkah, but around Madinah, once the Quraysh and their allies came to the doorstep of the new Muslim community seeking bloodshed, and it became clear to Muhammad (s.) that they would have to defend themselves or die. When the Muslims wanted to return to Makkah to perform the annual Hajj – a ritual that dated back to Abrahamic times, but which had been monopolised by the Quraysh, who had filled the Ka’abah with effigies of their deities – the Muslims came to Hudhaibiyah, a village outside Makkah, and signed a treaty with the Quraysh effectively rendering them second-class citizens, simply in exchange for being able to perform the pilgrimage. They entered Makkah unarmed, performed Hajj, and a flabbergasted Makkah surrendered without a drop of blood being spilled.
This might all sound like a rose-tinted picture of the history of Islam, and certainly there are narrations that seem to tell a different story. What is clear is that when under duress, including starvation and threats of murder from his own clansmen, the Prophetic example was to remain kind, tolerant, and forgiving. He taught that patience, service, humility and gentleness were qualities elevated far above forcefulness, egotism and aggression. Restoring family ties, helping enemies to make peace, and being on the same level as even the most lowly and vulnerable of society were praised in the highest terms.
Referring specifically to childbirth, a man once came to the Companion Ibn ‘Umar (r. – some narrations say it was the Prophet, s.) and said: “I have carried my mother on my back all the way from Iran. Have I done enough to repay her?” to which he replied: “Not even for one contraction.” More recently, a Sufi master called Muhammad Ibn al-Habib (rahimahu Allah) told a bunch of English converts who visited him in the 1970s: “Don’t argue with your wives. Just tickle them until you both fall to the floor laughing.”
Feminism Free From Finger-Pointing
All this seems a far cry from the misogyny that is now endemic, whether in the Muslim world or the planet at large. Yet I can’t point fingers at patriarchy, or men in general; men have excellent qualities that women also benefit from. If I were giving birth in a real life cave I’d feel quite safe with a big burly bloke stationed at the mouth of the cave with a burning brand to scare away the sabre-toothed tigers.
I recently dreamed of a friend being pregnant and going to see a male healer, who gave her what I can only describe as an incredibly feminine, loving, nurturing kind of healing. It made me realise that I dismiss the idea of men having this depth of love and care – despite being married to one who does!
Abandoning our internalised patriarchy means rejecting blame, dualism, competition, envy, and judging self and others based on a hierarchical criteria of superiority. It means taking stock of ourselves from the inside out, addressing our relationships from our own failings and projections before blaming others, taking responsibility for our own problems instead of expecting Big Daddio to come and rescue us or bring out the big guns.
This may or may not be ‘feminine’ thinking, but it certainly links up our emotional intelligence with our rational minds in a much more rounded way, just as the female brain connects right and left hemispheres with a thicker bundle of nerves. Patriarchy might be nothing more than lopsided thinking after all.
I speak with Palestine on Skype
from a dining table in East London
an Arab friend in Israel
translates a tourism brochure while I type
in Arabic so slow my fingers creak
her living room is brightly lit
a three-month old baby squeals
in another room while we discuss the right word
for pergolas and romantic
the agaves that Lorca called petrified octopi
and lanterns in Granada’s Moroccan quarter
Our sadness flits behind outbursts
of geraniums on balconies
hides in vaults of the Alhambra and hammams
flavours olives, avocados and almond cakes
things brought to Spain by Muslims
who were then crammed into a province
as populous as the rest of Spain put together
and finally exiled, massacred or muted
Now an airplane flies over her village
a fragment of Palestine in the middle of Israel
my heart stops for a second that lasts years
but she goes on looking up words
the dictionary pages lisp
and the adhan goes for ‘isha
loudspeaker overpowering our work
for a minute that I wish
would last an eon
We return to Sacromonte and prickly pears
armoured sweetness loaded with seed shrapnel
Palestine as far away as news reports
and distant as home
I don’t usually like to write about a poem or a song; there’s an unspoken rule among writers that your work should speak for itself, the way that a joke becomes less and less funny the more you explain it. But I feel that my last poem, The Jihad of English People, could use a little clarifying.
When people talk about jihad, you know what images spring to mind. Arabic speakers know that ‘jihad’ means, first and foremost, a struggle – generally for a noble cause, such as that against harmful desires. In Islam the struggle against the base soul is the greater jihad, while armed combat in the pursuit of freedom from tyranny is the lesser.
But while every newsfeed is crammed with the horrors of Gaza, the personal uphill struggle of dealing with the uncertainty of staying alive for another day, or losing a loved one in a targeted missile while they play tag on a beach, or having a ten-minute warning to escape (to where?) before your house gets bombed, seems so much more weighty than all of the minor, incidental struggles I wrote about in that poem.
The jihad of a mother who not only has to deal with changing nappies, stopping her kids fighting, and keeping everyone fed and clothed and educated for another day, but also grieves for her nephews and nieces being buried are immeasureable. I cannot begin to fathom it, in my safe First World cocoon.
So I hope that it does not come across as fatuous to talk about the jihad of postal workers, or company CEOs. The logic behind the poem brewed like this.
I was trailing the kids across the park while fasting (me, not them) to collect a bag of borrowed clothes from a kind friend. We stopped for a while, and they played; we stopped in the park on the way home, and they played. When it was getting late, and I was ready to pass out in the sandpit, I realised we’d left the bag of clothes behind and had to go back to her house before crossing the park again to get home.
Not a major issue for adults with ordinary length legs, but for small children who are already worn out it was too much. Cue four-year-old meltdown. Now, my usual reaction to these relatively small annoyances is to throw the toys out of the pram myself (so to speak). ‘Why can’t my kids learn resilience?’ I moan. ‘Why aren’t they more patient?’ I stamp my feet. ‘I’m sure other people’s kids handle this so much better!’ I fume with irrational levels of overreaction.
Everyone, without exception, is driven up the wall regularly by their kids. They have that unique combination of knowing all your weaknesses (and how to exploit them) and being too loved to risk being abandoned in a bus shelter. There are times you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.
When it dawned on me that instead of being offended that my kids weren’t living up to my expectations, and started regarding childrearing as a kind of personal jihad, all my frustrations about not being in a position to battle the great injustices of the world fell into their rightful places. Everyone, ultimately, is battling something.
Some are in a position to do jihad against tyranny, political corruption, institutional abuses (as the famous hadith goes, ‘The greatest jihad is a word of truth in the presence of an oppressor’.) Others have their hands tied by family commitments, dealing with a serious illness, or caring for someone who needs them on a daily basis.
You don’t have to feel useless in the great order of things if you haven’t been able to lie down in front of Israeli tanks or chain yourself to the railings outside Number 10; you are also shouldering a burden that’s making you stronger, soldiering on through bleak landscapes, whether internal or external. Everyone is, whether they know it or not.
A few are enabled to make their heroism public, but that’s not many of us. Rearing a family that will bring benefit rather than harm to the world IS a noble cause. You might have your kids for yourself but you raise them for society’s sake. Mothering consciously is like no work, no responsibility, that any company CEO has ever been prepared for.
So I salute those struggling everywhere, in personal jihads against addictions, depression, loneliness, fear, despair, existential void, illusion, and the intoxication of ease. It might be a war of contrition (as I’ve heard the battle against head-lice amusingly called) but at least you know you’re in good company. And may God grant respite to all those whose struggles begin by waking up to war.
The jihad of English people
is to bear the blankness of grey days
to wade through a million petty gripes
without sinking into sourness
The jihad of mothers is trudging forwards
while a four-year-old tugs their hand backwards
to block out the screeching and the ingratitude
kicks, scratches and cusses and
still see a glow of hope around their kids
The jihad of postal workers is
going unnoticed except when they are absent
to remember how essential they are even when never thanked
The jihad of café workers in train stations
is to still feel life is new after making their
The jihad of company CEOS is
to tread water in crest and crash and
take the blame when blame is due
instead of laying off worker bees in swarms
while they escape in a waxed Mercedes
The jihad of wives is to cycle through dozens of functions
- counseller, ironer, reminder of socks’ destiny
in laundry baskets, confidante, financial adviser, alarm clock for
important events, shoulder masseuse, head chef
without a wage, not to mention their jihad as mothers
and company CEOS or postal workers too –
while staying centred amid the spin
The jihad of husbands is to notice that cycle and compliment them on it
and not be bewildered when their uncomplimented wives bawl
The jihad of doctors is to keep their hearts unglazed
even when administering their umpteen death sentence
because the next they hear might be their own
The jihad of ease is to stay unmuffled
rejoin the whole instead of hiding behind alarmed gates
caressed by blandishments and easy fixes
The jihad of separation is to bear the body’s longing for closeness
without anaesthetising its need or punishing it for its desire
It is all an uphill walk through muddy fields
with the four-year-old of your ego
tugging backwards on your hand
whining for ice-cream or a carry
a jihad that has no killer dimensions
and fear that it is all in vain
We patriots of the human nation
wake each day as untagged soldiers
every tiny struggle borne in noble, ordinary causes
an unreported chance for us to be
Grime hangs in London’s unlit streets
away from the gleam of white stone Aldwych
shy St Martin-in-the-Fields behind
a bridal veil embroidered with plane leaves
the dazzle of downward lines reflected on the Thames
from the blue, red, green South Bank
the baubles of the boats
and the owlish eyes of Big Ben.
I’m scrolling backwards now: I began in a
frantic fruitless race to meet my daughter’s plane
on the worst night of the year. A torrent of
yellow Lycra would be coming through the centre of town
on the morrow; trains were disrupted already,
at midnight on Sunday. Through the liquid flares of light
in my livid tears I hopped from Elephant & Castle
to Westminster (that travelcard bought
from the rosy-eyed skaghead at London Bridge
for 2 quid proved a godsend) and from there I walked
along Embankment, alone and daughter-less,
hunting down a lesser-spotted
Night Bus to Hackney.
(That day I’d been rugby-tackling 12 kids
into doing creative writing; the only thing
that seemed to grab them was the circular poem,
written on one face of a mobius strip.
It was a clever trick but paused thoughts,
the sentence cycling under eye
like a pavement that keeps returning.)
Under the bridge the foothpath was closed for works;
veering into the road a brilliant white coach slowed
as it passed me, just as the yellow LED
ticker tape read: …to GODWARD ST.
I wanted to shout Ya Aziz! I call You and You answer!
Now my feet clicked on merrier, nose picking up an old scent:
there was Savoy Street – I was where I understood.
Rounding Aldwych, a Scottish lass with gushing bloodied knee
staggering and laughing, a flurry of people
wide-eyed and foolish, shoelaces undone
with a sheen of vodka, I was safe
on a very British belvedere among Russians
Bengalis and Koreans with maps.
I took the N26 towards Chingford and from the top deck
we passed Godliman Street, too.
For a city that scorns belief it is Threadneedled into its map,
a Strand of awe stitched through its Petticoat,
a Bishop at one gate, a Moor at the other.
Once the protective shine of tourist attractions
gave way to Cambridge Heath and Columbia Rd,
despite its Decent International store,
the gloom lurked in to leer at the lost.
Tattery fringes hung from mislit lamps;
a man wheeled past an amp, his friend
with blue ink smudged on his cheek wished me
a dreary ‘Bo selecta’.
All the while my company
was a Senegalese dhikr, of Allah and nothing else,
an ever-repeating refrain on mobius lips.
Everything reminds me of absence
the metallic mouthfeel
phone call from my beloved on a
breaths from mouths too dry to talk sense
the dinner we started preparing too early
there is longing even in lost miswaks
displacement in a pair of shoes
clothes that came aboard boats from China
rugs bought in Turkish bazaars
sold by city folk but woven by peasant women
in alternate landscapes
pineapples pressed in Costa Rica
to be consumed in Hackney, E9
everything is gone before it is touched
en route to another place
nothing homely, nothing whole
nothing original, nothing owned
these things are not ours nor ever were
since our hands have never touched anything
only seen sense-pictures created within ourselves
we are sealed
hermits against an outside unreal
always being taken somewhere else
and blown into a different form
so nothing is new or alive
whatever we live first-hand
within the vast forests within
that no-one else can take
that no-one else can taste unless
they leave their heavy cloaks and fly
into those forests with you
or you do likewise and drop your body-dunes
and roam across their plains.
Some men love the idea of Islam
for its manliness and its femininity
the gendered garb
scarves like petals round a woman’s face
feet marching with a purpose
and heart stirred with beauty
but then the allure of being manlier
kicks a kink in their path
and the lamp shining
on womanhood bashfully admired
disappears behind a brick wall.
The frowns deepen
the march becomes military
the segregation obligatory
no touching hands – don’t break
my wudu – and the beards are now
not thoughtfully stroked but
firmly put in their place.
Chivalry is confused with chauvinism,
gallantry with a glutton’s blind greed.
Man ascends to the position
he feels is owed to him,
a towering throne from which to judge
how well the womenfolk
are keeping their earlobes covered
lest the animal within him wakes
and he grows so comfortable there
it seems this seat of power was
made purposely for them.
Barbed wire goes up to warn off girls
who might think they
could grow learned and give advice
and every passing decade sees
fewer of them sneaking through the palisade
until the lookouts start confirming
the old ones’ belief:
those lady lumps mess up their brains -
they just don’t do intelligence like us.
Meanwhile sunlight dashes
fleetfooted over beardless faces
laughing in private, weeping in private
knowing in private, loving in private
cracking almonds, brewing tea
holding a lost one in their arms
stroking her hair while she finds herself
seeking in dreams and the unseen
for guides whose hands
they are forbidden from kissing
and all this round the crook in the path
where the lamp still flickers
and the watchtower sentries
have forgotten the path begins.
Hatred is a tide
that gnaws away at coastlines
salty teeth so fine you might
mistake it for subtlety.
But bitterness is never mild
just as acid always burns
and bigots pour their poison
into intellectual-sounding words
to stun the seaweed
bobbing idly in the surf
infuse the fear into it
that some vile wave is rising over there
its colour bilious green
and even if it tells you it’s benign
enriched with algae to revive the earth
you mustn’t heed its lies:
it is bloodthirsty, heinous,
risen up from different lands
infested with parasites
designed to leech
your vital organs dry:
to kill or convert you.
Race from it as you would from a shark
warn the world about it
kill it before it kills you first.
The biosphere must have its predators and
in this one you are their prey.
This tide’s a spiral
pushing us apart and
driving us down deeper
into the blurring mud.
Once it was Jews
Now it’s us,
and this fresh wave we swim in
the water soaked into our cells is now
a tsunami threatening
to smash their homes to matchsticks.
Vague outrages that flare up
each time the words are spoken
dump blood into the sea
and choke the wildlife.
Hatred has always been a tide
stooping low at times
or breaking its banks
in the absence of truth.
I am learning to tread water
for the day it hits my roof.