Danger of Surfing While Muslim

No, I’m not talking about burkinis again…I’m talking about The real risk to heart and mental health posed by scrolling for hours through social media posts that, through the wonders of logarithms (named for their inventor, Al-Khwarizmi – those darned Muslims at it again), present an echo chamber of your own opinions…except when you read the comments on public posts, and are temporarily traumatised by the burst of hatred towards Muslims and Islam in general.

The problem is that I actually agree with some of their points. There ARE issues, not just horrors of corrupt governments or backward laws but – as Jonathan A.C. Brown points out in his highly recommendable book Misquoting Muhammad – doctrinal sticking points that have produced, among hundreds of stances, a few very exaggerated ones.

These viewpoints are usually held by people so certain of their own correctness that they would not waste time listening to more broad-minded Muslims quoting the hadith that heads every major collection, ‘Al-‘amal fi’n-niyya’: actions are in intentions. Or that one of the keystone principles of Islam and therefore jurisprudence is to act with mercy, that is, minimising harm and judging with compassion.

To be quite frank, I’m just as terrified of these small but mouthy gang of ultra-conservative Muslims as the Islamophobes are. If they were to grill me on my views they would probably find me appallingly liberal (with any luck I’d give the Alt-Right a heart attack, too). I am forever thankful to be living in a country where I do have the freedom to espouse whatever views I wish; by the same token, not being tied to a chair by a Stasi agent in a dank underground bunker, I am under no obligation to give a full disclosure to anyone of my opinions.

However, I get the feeling that there is a tendency towards the monochrome in all these discussions. An American might well point fingers at parts of the Muslim World that shall remain unnamed for religious police, clerical corruption, abuse of immigrants, the squashing of women’s rights, restrictive laws and corporal or capital punishments. Without having spent a significant period of time in one of those countries, or grown up among immigrants from those countries, that is the undiluted image they see of Islam. It is unthinkable to them that there might be Muslims who are critical too, who are equally concerned about these issues – if not more so, being more affected by them both in their daily lives and in the wrench it makes on their hearts.

The average American is not thinking daily of Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes over Pakistan, Syria or Somalia, or a whole host of horrors that the USA has inflicted on the rest of the world. They don’t feel responsible for them; those are executive decisions made by a president they might not even have voted for, so how would they feel connected to them? They get up, have breakfast, go to school or work, come home, check out their friends’ news online, watch some TV, play basketball, go out for a meal…

But when a non-American thinks of America, they have the sneering image of Donald Trump seared into their retinas. We read about police brutality, about another ‘lone wolf’ attack at a school/university/abortion clinic, about a woman in Idaho getting 7 years in jail for publicly breastfeeding her baby, about the 13th amendment allowing the continuation of slavery and indentured labour of convicts, or about the real Bowling Green massacre, of native people killed and mutilated in the most hideous ways imaginable. We see viral videos shot on phones of white women screaming abuse at Mexicans in supermarket queues, or black people lying in puddles of blood in the street. We receive such a steady stream of diplomatic idiocy, pedestrian violence and cultural shallowness from the States that my 8 year old son (who doesn’t know the half of it) says he would never go to the place, despite being quarter American himself.

So where does this leave us? It’s easy to conclude that education is the answer, that the light of knowledge blasts away the darkness of ignorance…and although this is true, it’s also hopelessly hopeful. We know full well that most people don’t have the time or inclination to get to know people they have pegged down as murderers and rapists. I could preach til I’m purple in the face about the facts of ‘holy war’ in Islam* but an Isis supporter (or an Islamophobe – I’m seeing a pattern emerging here) would point blank refuse to listen. It’s confirmation bias on a soul-destroying scale.

But I don’t want my soul destroyed, thank you very much. I feel I need to take steps that don’t just involve unfriending someone who persistently posts horrors on Facebook, or teaching my logorithms to feed me more cake baking videos. I believe that all of us who are neck deep in the internet in general need to keep a check on how much time we spend filling out heads with horror, the way I have to police my kids’ screen time so they don’t end up racing to the iPad the second they come home from school and only go out grudgingly when I force them to. We need to be stern parents to the bratty children of our addictions.

‘Everything in moderation’ is, in a funny way, a fairly good analogy for the existence of horror in the world: of course it exists, it is unimaginable for the world to suddenly become all peaches and cream. If it did, people would probably get bored and irritable and start wars just for the hell of it. But look at the 99% of 99% of people’s lives which do go quite alright, actually; think of every bodily process currently going on inside you that you would die or suffer miserably without, and which you don’t pay the slightest attention to. Jackie Onassis’ father had a rare condition in which his eyelids didn’t work, and he had to stick them open with tape: how often do you thank your eyelids for blinking?

We do need to be aware of the horrors, to grieve for the wronged and the oppressed, and to campaign against those wrongs and oppressions. But the world isn’t all horror, and if we lose our perspective on things we’ll end up adding to the polarisation of which Donald Trump is currently the flame-headed figurehead. Write to your MP, march, sign petitions, do whatever you need to do, but don’t let your mind be taken over by images of horror, lest the lens you see the world through be coloured by them.

 
*in a nutshell: that no civilian can ever be targeted, full stop, and that no civilian can kill except in the ridiculously unlikely circumstances that another nation has suddenly invaded their own, overwhelmed their army and arrived at that person’s door, AND if they have the certainty that they will be killed and the women of the house will be raped regardless. This means that war may only legitimately be carried out defensively; NO MILITIA can say they are waging a war in the name of Islam or with religious legitimacy as they are not the army of a globally accepted state, which, for instance, Daesh does not qualify as on various counts. Does it issue visas? No. Apart from which, the methods used in such despicable attacks as suicide bombings are not only incomtrovertibly forbidden in Islam, but also considered accursed. For more see Sheikh Muhammad Al-Akiti’s brief and very readable fatwa, ‘Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians” (Aqsa Press, 2005).

 

Postscript: If you are a troll, and -in the ludicrous event that you have read this far – are considering leaving a disturbing comment, you know I’m going to delete them. Try gardening instead: it’s a far more pleasurable way to pass the time.

A Tiny Window in the Palace of Rahma

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“A mercy to all the worlds”:
Can you comprehend that?
The world of rocks, of mushrooms,
winds, seas, whales, mosquitos,
jinn, trees, underground rivers
bacteria, bears and ozone
the dizzying telescopic jump
the human mind can make from
the tiniest imaginable
– and where the imagination
can take you beyond –
to the vastest nebulas
digitally colored in pink and pistachio
for who knows what colours
we’d see them in up close

All the worlds:
angelic, demonic, uncertain
and solid, theoretical and tangible
the dead, the made and the
still only an idea
the embryo forming unknown
in its private universe
secrets that bud in longing hearts
genetic shifts as yet unstudied
the germ of a song
a singer wakes up humming
and whatever cats get up to
when we’re not around
the meaning of a child’s
felt pen diagram
the lutf that turns grass into milk
and manure into sweet oranges

If we imagine his mercy
was like ours, extending to our hands
the kindness we place in our words
sent on prayers, perhaps, to where it’s needed
we take all the worlds
and reduce them to a
kitchen knife
telephone wire
postman’s trolley
liable to electricity cuts and
over long breakfast breaks

You need imagination
to even see through
one tiny window in the palace of rahma
and if our imagination is so mean
clinging to the drainpipe of dogma
how can we ever get inside?

 

 

Note: Rahma is an Arabic word meaning ‘mercy’, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is described in Qur’an as “A mercy to all the worlds”. Lutf is also Arabic and means both ‘subtlety’ and ‘gentleness’ or ‘kindness’.

Burkinis, Bling, and Criminally Bad Hairdos: Why Everyone Needs to Shut Up

 

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Yesterday at a beach on the Granada coast, we plopped our towels and parasol down on the white pebbles next to a family from North Africa.

It was one of those slightly awkward scenes, where I wanted to do the Muslim camaraderie thing and give salams, but also aware that I wasn’t in full burkini-esque gear to swim (though it was a sight more than most of the other swimmers, a blush short of their birthday suits) while she went into the water in long, looseish trousers and a tunic top with a small scarf tied back.

The usual irritating problematics of being scrutinized as a woman reared their ugly heads in me. Whatever you do, whatever you wear, if you happen to be endowed with mammary glands you are going to be judged by how you look. Frumpy, tarty, religious, free, on fleek, minging, this category, that category. Isn’t it one of the world’s favorite pastimes, observing women’s bodies and forming completely irrelevant opinions on them? If we were dead cows being scored up by a butcher we’d probably get more respect.

Reading that armed French police ordered a sleeping North African woman to remove her long-sleeved shirt on a beach in the interests of “good morals and secularism” made me want to barf into my surf shorts. Apparently it is now immoral to be too clothed. They didn’t reference the spurious link to Islamism, of course, in case the forces of logic might close in on them and shut the whole operation down.

What really grates is the reference to morality, that famously speculative field where pretty much anything can be passed off as good or right without a scrap of evidence. If they start criminalising clothing, what’s next – criminally bad makeup? Terrible coiffes? Mismatched colors? “You  combined purple trousers wiz an orange blouse?! Zis is an affront to French values! €43 euros or a night in ze clink!”

What often gets overlooked in the debate over women’s clothing whether or not they are themselves comfortable in it. Any woman who is not used to wearing an abaya (the black cloak worn in Gulf states and beyond) would initially find it cumbersome. You’d shut it in car doors, trip on it going up stairs and whatnot. Even wearing long skirts when you’re used to trousers feels weird.

But the opposite is also true, in a different way. If, for instance, you go out on what seems to be a sunny day wearing short sleeves, and suddenly it turns windy and cold (or starts to hail, as it might do in an August day in England), you feel underdressed, naked even. If you were quite comfortable in cardigan, and a bunch of armed policemen ordered you to take it off for the sake of public decency, and while you’re at it, take off those jeans, here are some regulation hot pants approved of by the Home Office, wouldn’t you feel stripped bare?

Yes, you would probably get used to it eventually – what, I imagine, right-wing French lawmakers want to happen in order to ‘integrate’ Muslims. But feeling exposed engenders a vulnerability that the law should never be responsible for.

The broader issue is, of course, whether covering up the body is a sign of shame, or the oppressive insistence of the other sex. The latter doesn’t need any comment. Every fibre of my being howls against the idea of a man telling me what not to wear, unless it’s to point out a nasty bolognese stain.

This is not diminished even when virtually every hijabi I know wears it out of choice; in Iran, for instance, some women complained about having to wear hijab publicly, while others didn’t seem bothered. In fact in many cases, when worn with dazzling sunglasses and half a bar of lipstick, it actually gave women a kind of 1950s glamour they were rather proud of (look up Tehran street style and you’ll see what I mean).

The former, however, is in serious need of unpacking. By traditional standards, pretty much anywhere on the planet except for a few ethnic groups in Subsaharan Africa and the Amazon, covering up signified dignity. Before the mechanized textile industry, fabric had to be laboriously made by hand, which made it expensive. The more of it you wore, the wore wealthy you appeared.

By contrast, there are narrations from the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s) regarding people who were so poor they didn’t have enough clothes to wear, impeding them from entering mosques. Shame consisted of having so little you were literally naked. One couple only had one item of clothing between them which they took turns wearing in order to pray. Hence the command not only to feed the poor but to clothe them.

It’s a classic byproduct of affluence that the more we have of something, the less we value it. Tons of food, produced for nothing by illegal immigrants in direly polluted greenhouses? Let a third of it rot in heaps because it’s not perfectly shaped! Too much food produced in restaurants? Chuck the leftovers into skips! We have so many clothes, some even sewn on boats on their way from China so as to be as cutting edge as possible, that half of it ends up in charity shops after six months. Of course we look at an excess of it with disdain.

Apart from that, Islam takes the view that whatever you value most, you don’t rub into people’s faces. It might be hard to believe, with all the bling in the Middle East, but the Islamic concept of modesty doesn’t simply mean covering the body; it refers to an overall attitude of concealing your gifts, partly to not arouse envy, but partly also to encourage you to appreciate them without needing other people’s awe. Kind of an inversion of our habit of sharing everything that happened to us on social media because we need a dozen likes to believe we truly exist.

The meanings we invest into clothing are deeply complicated – I’m only scratching the surface here. We could all do with reassessing our ideas of what it means, but we need to look in a mirror before projecting those ideas onto others.

It’s all a bit idiotic, really. Lower your eyes, mankind. And don’t use that as an excuse to judge women on their shoes, either.

Ramadan: How to Connect Even When You Can’t Fast

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Dates and bread from the zawiya of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib, may Allah sanctify his secret.

It’s that time again, the month where Muslims empty their bodies during the day and try to clear their hearts so as to become vessels that fill up the mercy that falls continuously, subtly, but – if you are watchful for it – is definitely palpable.

For the last nine years, I’ve tried to cadge a couple of Ramadans between babies, even – two separate years – squeezed in several days before realising I was pregnant (the last time it was only the kidney pain that alerted me to a false negative pregnancy test).

Though someone fasting 22 + hours in a Scandinavian country might want to punch me in the nose for saying this, it’s hard not to be able to fast again.

“Hard? Being excused because of breastfeeding is hard?? Grr…and we’re trying not to get angry!! Razzafrazzarazzafrazz….”

Ahem, well, the reasons behind the rukhsa (dispensation) is that breastfeeding is hard on the body anyway, as are all the conditions that excuse people from fasting (menstruation, pregnancy, illness, travelling, old age…) just as each one comes with its own gifts.

But not fasting yet another Ramadan is a reminder that I am always slightly on the edge of the Islamic community, at least on a temporal level. As European Muslims we tread an awkward path, with one foot among our spiritual brethren and one among our cultural brethren – and I for one don’t want to cut myself from either.

Fasting among people who think you’re dotty as the day is long is harder than going without food and water during the day. Explaining, being patient with other people’s judgements, bearing up even when you have to fast alone, all that is more exhausting than getting up early in the morning to have breakfast.

Not being the toughest of old beans, I’ve always tended towards keeping my faith fairly private, talking when asked but trying not to be too ostensible about it in order to avoid uncomfortable stares and unpleasant comments. It is cowardly of me. But it’s been my coping mechanism, a way to focus on God in all circumstances rather than be distracted by the waves I’m making.

So it’s comforting to be among other Muslims who share your experiences. Having lived through many a Ramadan in which I wasn’t part of a supportive community – one of which, at university, I had suhur and iftar every day alone (possibly the most depressing month of my life) – when Ramadan comes around I get excited about group iftars, which always turn into a party, no matter how drained people were ten minutes before.

Yet, as Muslims will always remind you, fasting is not about hunger per se: we empty ourselves of the world in order to be filled up with the Divine Presence. Like the ney, we realise our emptiness in order to let God make music through us.

It’s hard to have that experience if you’re working, say, at the checkout of a McDonald’s drivethrough. Fasting is the ideal time for reflection, study and prayer; you could say it super-charges your experience of them.

So, if for whatever reason you can’t fast, and if you can’t or don’t want to shut yourself away in a Muslim-only environment in order to make the most of Ramadan, how can you still feel connected to it?

Yesterday I was determined to go to tarawih prayers, having only the baby to look after, but he was too tired and grouchy to justify going. What’s the point of dragging miserable children to long prayers near midnight? I think it would probably put many kids (and the adults who have to put up with their crying) off praying altogether.

On the other hand, there is so much grace for people who are in service. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that “Allah is in service to the servant for as long as he (or she) is in service”; and that for anyone who wakes in the night to attend to their weeping child it is equivalent to seventy years of prayer. (Finally, a reason to be thankful for teething!)

I need to be reminded at times that being in a state of worship does not necessarily mean being in a place of worship, or even physically engaged in visible prayer. For centuries we have associated religion with outward forms, when it is clear just from those two hadiths mentioned above (and there are hundreds more like them – “An hour of contemplation is worth a year of prayer“, etc. etc.) that connecting to the Divine can happen at any time, in any circumstances, by anyone.

That’s not to diminish the importance of outward worship, of course. I just can’t see how a Just, Kind, Forgiving, Loving God would be so unfair as to reserve these rewards only for people who have no hindrances to performing it.

I discovered recently that the root of the English word ‘mysticism’ is the Greek musein, meaning ‘to close the eyes and lips’. It might refer partly to fasting, for sure, but I think it also means fasting from looking around at the world, fasting from the desires that follow on from that, fasting from meaningless talk, and generally just shutting up and letting Reality reveal itself.

Rumi said, “Fast from thoughts, fast: thoughts are like the lion and the wild ass; men’s hearts are the thickets they haunt.”

………..

(That’s the sound of me shutting up.)

After Paris: What to Do With The Grief

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Having spent the last three days glued to screens, viewing hundreds of people’s responses to the Paris attacks – expressions of grief, solidarity, outrage, hatred at the perpetrators (and occasionally Islam and Muslims in general), vindications of European values and repetitions of Western governments’ hand in the origins of the problem, which nobody who needs to read ever does – I am struck by how unlike grieving all this is.

  A person who has suddenly lost a loved one, in an act of brutal violence designed to sow fear and chaos as payback for a government’s actions abroad (who are we even talking about here? They all act the same), is not going to run to Facebook or Twitter and tell everyone what they’re feeling.

  Real grief does that to you: instead of reaching outwards, you go inwards, as quickly and involuntarily as the initial blow, and you stay there in a protective cocoon in the deepest recesses of your being, licking your wounds.

  I am guilty of broadcasting my official feelings about horrifying news items on many occasions. But I am realising now that I have merely been paying lip service to grief, responding to external events the way a government does, issuing statements expressing ‘deep regret and concern’ or other such bluster.

  It’s only people who are superficially affected who can articulate feelings so soon, which – thankfully for us – is almost everyone. Only if you genuinely know someone who is affected would you need to reach out and send them your condolences, and often nothing is more effective than a wordless hug.

  But why aren’t we more deeply affected by tragedies like the one we have just witnessed in Paris to the extent where we would just all go on retreat for a couple of days to process it? Do the victims need to be white and European to merit our bereavement by proxy? On the 5th of August, over 500 civilians were killed in Syria by US-led drone strikes, 100 of them children. Any one of those could have been our children. Except our children are safe at home in a country that is not at war. So the comparison is transparent, and our empathy transient and feeble.

  Most of us want to be seen as compassionate beings, but the literal meaning of compassion is to share in the suffering of others, not to ‘share’ their suffering on the pantomime stage of social media. It must be that we are getting our sentiments out there as a way to pre-empt any idea that we are callous or – worst of all – complicit, a huge worry for Muslims living in the west who face a great deal of stigma by association.

  Speaking out about injustice doesn’t mean wasting your words on other people’s newsfeeds: the people who could do with hearing it aren’t following you anyway.

  Let’s not pretend any more. The true reason we should be grieving is the death of our hearts, which prefer the lazy option of proffering platitutes over the real work of going inwards, as deep as genuine grief takes us, to the enemies within: racism, arrogance, complacency, greed, selfishness, and being contented with meaningless material gains.

  Where do we go with all this sadness, anger, frustration and fear? In. There is space for all of it in there. It doesn’t need an internet connection, and it might just bring the healing we desperately need.

  Goodbye for a while…I need a lot of time to work on mine!

Addendum: after one reader pointed out how she had been relieved to hear other people’s outpourings of grief, I should add that there’s nothing wrong with getting things off your chest (by God, I started this blog as a means of doing it myself). This post is more a self-criticism of my own habit of trying to articulate feelings before I’ve let them go deep, a habit that social media exacerbates by making it so darn easy to publicly emote. It’s become a reflex for many of us. But there are times when the most important work happens in silence and solitude. Therefore…Adios!

Duff Eid Trauma

It all starts so well: the night before the celebration, everyone is excitedly ringing family members with their Eid Mubaraks, kids are fantasising about presents (if they haven’t persuaded their parents to open them already), mums are making cakes and shampooing kids ready for the next day.
Come morning, we’re in a red alert state of ironing and preparations (the only time I remember curling my hair is as a kid on Eid), putting on fancy frocks and unusual amounts of make-up, even cracking out the special perfume that never sees the light of day. On the way there everyone’s singing the Eid song, feeling a bit naughty for having the day off school/work, watching for others who are similarly garbed for a party.
The mosque slowly packs out; women start fanning their faces; the general buzz of talking and kissing long-unseen friends abates as the adhan goes for the prayer. There’s a brief moment when the build-up reaches its climax…then, two short rak’ahs later, everyone starts filtering out again, to eat (in our case a curious mish-mash of tortilla de patatas, pretzels and cake – ‘Eid tapas’).

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

And then…the togetherness fizzles out. Everyone drifts off to who knows where, confused by the too-early party preparations, strange mixtures of food and the mad rush of salaams. Some men disappear to slaughter sheep; a few conscientious vegetarians go to distribute cheese sandwiches to the homeless, and others go back to work in this dazed, showered-with-holy-water state.
Those who don’t have huge extended families to celebrate with, i.e. converts, exiles, parents whose children live elsewhere, find themselves adrift, either tagging along like the high school gooseberry to other people’s family gatherings (where they are of course welcomed as brethren, although that might mean they have to peel some potatoes), or clump together in twos and threes and go to cafés where they feel slightly giddy and unnecessarily sequinned. (I’m talking about being in the west, of course, where life goes on as usual around these islands of Islamic celebration.) Then they go home. And then there’s some meat.
This year, living among a vibrant, eclectic, if at times a little bonkers-around-the-edges Sufi community, Eid was eventually a blast. Someone had set up a tent and a generator making ‘Potato Tornadoes’ (fried potato cut into a spiral, on a stick. Yes these things exist.) There were also pony rides for the kids and a Ka’aba making craft workshop and I showed a few kids how to make origami animals, which was also fun, especially as Cavebaby mercifully slept the whole way through. Ali Keeler of Firdaus Ensemble also came down and sang some songs, which some of us managed to join in with, qasida jam style, while Cavebaby sat happily on a friend’s lap. So it was overall a fine time had by all.

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes...those classic Eid icons

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes…those classic Eid icons.

But that initial blip brought back many of these alienating moments from my youth, coined as ‘Duff Eid Trauma’ by a friend. The scenario reminded her of many a duff Christmas, where too many people got too drunk and argued, and the kids’ presents weren’t quite was they wanted, and the turkey got burnt, and the tree shed needles into the sofa, and the dog ate the Christmas pudding and was sick on the pantry floor, and you ended up watching Mary Poppins for the fiftieth time in an atmosphere of tense obligatory cohabitation. It’s the same feeling of anti-climax, only you’re smelling of ‘oud and have too much kohl on for 10 o’clock in the morning. I don’t think anyone’s been quite so depressed from it as after a Duff Christmas, but there’s still this feeling that a wonderful time is being had by someone, in a family home with a halo of warmth and authenticity: the real Eid celebration.
It’s probably poppycock (I’m sure their kids were whining too), but living in a non-Muslim country certainly dims the glow of an Eid celebration. It feels like such an effort to raise an Islamic culture from where there is none that at times I wonder if we’re letting the meaning of it slip through our fingers. Even as a lifelong Muslim I still sometimes get a lingering sense that we’re in fancy dress, doing this ‘Islamic’ thing, that someone will sniff out our secret (that we’re culturally pretty European, actually) and the edifice of our outward religion will turn to mouse droppings.
Thankfully, these are also those times when we have the opportunity to wonder what our inward religion is about. If it’s not in the silver lurex jelabiyahs, or the prominently hanging tasbihs, the frankincense and bukhur or the miswaks, the scarves and turbans and embroidered hats, the prayer mats and the prayer domes and even the Arabic of the prayers we recite, what is it in?

Pomegranate season

Pomegranates: fruits of Paradise, symbols of multiplicity

When we look for the centre of this faith it reveals itself to be a fractal, spiralling in ever more fascinating ways the deeper it pulls us, but with ever fewer details. Cultural forms, interesting as they might be, fall off the edges. This country does this; that country does that. But it’s all peripheral, like the cupboards in the walls of the rabbit hole that Alice falls down on her way to Wonderland.
Before the words had shapes and sounds there were meanings that called them out of the darkness; before the meanings, a primordial call, a homing signal, a desire to work our way back to our source. Each time we rest our wandering feet on things and call them Islam they take us further away, not closer, from the end of this path, the heart of the spiral: Home.

Muslimah at a Public Pool

This is where your invisibility stands out at its starkest. Where teenagers snog in bikinis with recently-inked tattoos in styles that will go out before the summer does, fitness fanatics show off their moves, and even middle-aged couples smooch over the cooler with flesh rolling out of optimistic swimwear, there you are, nervously twitching a sarong over your shoulders because you feel exposed in a one-piece.

The justifications are clear: it’s a heat wave, neither your house nor your car has A/C and driving three kids including a baby who cries every minute of every hot car journey makes it impossible to get any further than the campsite a few minutes’ walk away. Your sanity thus stretched, getting into cold water is not just necessary, it is un-do-without-able. And with this many buttocks on display, modesty is surely relative.

But then there are those who know you are Muslim, and there are questions in their faces and at the edges of their comments. Ah, you must be one of those ‘liberal’ Muslims. You’re a free thinker – you don’t stand for all those poxy old-fashioned chauvinistic rules. You’re one of us!

A shudder goes through me at this thought, at the assumptions carried so blithely through so many minds. To paraphrase Ali G, ‘Is it cos I is white?’ There are priviledges that white Muslims have that most of us aren’t even aware of. I can’t imagine some of my Moroccan friends daring to go to a public swimming pool when their parents would hit the roof if they did. But there’s this creepy camaraderie that you get with white non-Muslims when you aren’t hijab’ed to the eyeballs. It’s as if they are saying, ‘You’re OK. They haven’t got you completely. You’ve still got one foot in our territory.’

It makes me laugh to think how infuriating it is to have to scroll down the list of countries on one of those countless petition websites to find United Kingdom (or United States, for that matter). What are we doing down there, after Afghanistan, Barbados, Togo and all those random islands in the South Pacific no-one has even heard of? Shouldn’t they just put us at the top, so we don’t have to spend all those nano-seconds scrolling down, reminding ourselves that the rest of the world exists? Good grief, our thumbs get tired!

Tangent over. This is a just a late-night snapshot of my two-cultured brain, on the one hand glad that I can pop to the shops without covering my head and worrying that Muslims will think less of me (I live in a very open-minded community), and yet cringing when I do cover my head and people stop me to ask questions, or corner me into describing where my faith lies on the liberal-conservative spectrum. If I’m hijab-less because I’m pressured into not wearing it, does that really mean I am free?

What strikes me as being on of Islam’s greatest strengths is that when it really comes down to it, no-one can judge anyone else on their faith at all. ‘Allahu ‘Alim’; only Allah knows. And how are the people of Paradise described in Qur’an, over and over? ‘Alladhina amanu wa ‘amilu salihat’: those who believe and do good works. It doesn’t even qualify them as Muslims, or having a religion at all. Is that not the most progressive, out-there kind of religion there is?

You wouldn’t believe it if you read the news (and I am boycotting it: I don’t want to feed horror stories into my baby’s mouth though my milk). But the news has never been an accurate reflection of the way the world is, only pinpricks of horror in the vast fabric of normality that are gathered together to make us see nothing but a fistful of blood. It’s isn’t reality at all, only shock waves filtered through journalists’ lenses, managed by editors whose salaries are paid by advertisers who want readers to be kept agog by more and more horror. We have to keep reminding ourselves to lift our heads from our newsfeeds and stay present: no website will represent reality to you better than your own eyes.

And in the same way I have to remind myself that onlookers don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface of me, veiled or otherwise, and I don’t know what going on under theirs, either. Good people still carry prejudices unawares: people with prejudices can still be good people. My ideas of what they ought to think are still only my ideas, and may well be wrong anyway. God guide us. Amin.

Dear Bigot

Dear bigot
– sigh –
when you appear on TV
or write your editorials
or seize a woman’s hijab and deafen her
with a tirade on her lack of British values
– how very British of you! –
dear bigot, don’t you see?
The more strenuous your conviction
of Islam’s threat to humanity
the more your knowledge is shown to be phony,
your intellect imprisoned.
We can see it flailing about in there
behind a stiff, dyspeptic exterior
that flushes green at overt expressions of
Muslimness.
How many times a week do you have
falafels and batata harra
at the home of your Muslim neighbour?
When was the last time you popped into
Abdul’s Islamic Supplies
– undaunted by the white manniquins
in their sequin-encrusted abayas –
and stayed for a chai and a chat?
When you complain that Muslims aren’t
outraged enough about Isis,
count how many Muslims
you have befriended who might
litter your newsfeed with their grief.
We’re not just good for driving your buses,
for amalgaming your cavities
and selling you fags.
There’s a whole world
behind the undifferentiated
Islamic-hued masses
and for all you crow about
how deeply you’ve studied the subject
read those editorials
watched those war zone clips
tell me if you’ve ever asked
a flesh-and-blood Muslim what they think,
how they live, who they are.
Without those voices
your condemnations are
a drone strike on an unseen village
by a 19-year-old video game junkie
with a lethal excess of patriotism.
What does your myopia make you?
An ostrich, or a mole?
Look how your heart has been papier-mâchéd
with pages of The Telegraph!
Break out, dear bigot!
You aren’t so monstrous under all that crust,
and nor are we. See us:
we are human.
Allow room for our failings
and we can forgive your blindness, too.
We are only trying
still trying
always trying
to make things better.

(A poem prompted by this article by Juan Cole in The Nation.)

Hummingbirds

Humming Bird by Michael Elliott, from www.freedigitalphotos.net

Humming Bird by Michael Elliott, from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

You don’t find Islam with the big guys

who have their own logos and facebook pages

they are only purveyors of ‘ilm,

kettles for the tea.

The taste is brewed into you

by the grandmothers’ sweets trayed out

at dhikrs cramped and heaving

with singers pink-cheeked on love

by the vapour their breaths

make on the dark windowpanes

the impressions their sitting leaves on the rug

the lingering on way after midnight

sipping, sipping

hummingbirds drinking their fill

for the long journey out across

cold joyless plains.

The tea leaves grow

in the soil of the everyday, anyday,

mothers putting down bags of shopping

to breastfeed under a scarf on a park bench

breadmen bringing out their khubs

on muscular, burn-scarred arms

keeping aside your favourite plus

a lollipop for the kids they refuse to take money for

smiles from faces unexpected and familiar

doors sweeping open to the smell of ‘oud

heaps of shoes cluttering doorways

hands clapping to a Sudanese song

back teeth – gold, or missing – seen.

This is how Islam grows into you,

not in the words of a teacher, but in the

reality they blossom into.

You learn Islam from the small people

the open-handed nobodies

the beauties who shy away from lenses:

that is why it is incompatible with fame.

Be a witness to it.

Be aware they witness you.