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.)

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The Inner Baby and Tweetaholism

It seems I have been singing so many qasidas* lately that new depths of my own vanity, ambition, immaturity, wounded pride and overall silliness are being clarified, like ghee simmering over a low heat.

Firstly there are the ambitions that don’t seem to disappear no matter how many steps closer I come, no matter how many achievements trickle into my life. It seems I’m not content to be the mother of three utterly hilarious beautiful creative inventive intelligent healthy beings (ALHAMDULILLAH!), nor that I am a writer as I’ve wanted to be since age 6, living in a beautiful place with no drizzle, and a community of amazing open-minded people who occasionally provide amusement with their bizarre antics.

No, there is always something else, always some other challenge that sets my jaw a-champing…and like a blindfold hamster believing it is going forward to some wondrous destination I am still always looking into an imaginary future where I’ll finally feel fulfilled by this, that or the other accolade.

Digging into this curious state of affairs I am finding that there is a very deep, childish sort of wound still being nursed by my unconscious being that lies behind my need to ‘be better’, one which goes back so far it has no visual clues to it, only a vague, pervasive, unsettling pain. My mother tells me that after my sister was born I refused to let her hug me for two years, just going all stiff (I was two at the time – I hasten to add that we have since become very close loving sisters, although it did take 22 years or so to get there).

It’s not like I was a neglected child – I was a longed-for baby who (according to my mum) received all the attention and adoration she could lavish on me, which was perhaps why it was such as shock when I was no longer the littlest one of the family. There is a photo of my mum holding my baby sister, aged 1 day, with our dear late grandmother cooing over them, and me in the foreground grimacing into the camera. She still bears a tiny scar on her cheek from where I was meant to kiss her as a baby but scratched her instead.

Could it really be that such an ancient, primary experience as losing first place in my parents’ affections has stayed with me all this time, morphing with age and accreting defenses to hide behind? Seeing how intensely my children react to seemingly small things like one getting 5 minutes more on the iPad than the other (these are the times we’re living in), I can imagine it might.

The emotions of children are all the more intense because they have no easy means of expressing themselves, other than through screaming or throwing things. The difficulty for us Brits is that such behaviour is generally totally out of the question, even if you’re 2. I suspect a lot of us have bottled up these pre-verbal angers and upsets, which have fermented over time and now provide a rich vintage of putrified infantile ire.

This then spirals forward into the present, either being channelled into other angers (xenophobia, racism, hating on Jeremy Corbyn…whatever’s the fad of the moment) or laying the foundations for a sensitivity to any similar kind of hurt (abandonment, isolation, criticism…).

Which makes me wonder this: is our collective attention-seeking, expressed through social media, merely an adult expression of the primary infantile experience of the loss of the mother’s adoring gaze, bathing her newborn in total love and devotion, making it sense that it is completely cared for and – well – interesting? Is this the root of the neediness that compels people like myself to perform, to ‘share’ compulsively, including on confessional blog posts like this one? Are we really just longing for the primordial breast??

So that is the resumé of my thoughts tonight. Facebook should be renamed Breastbook. The end.

*Sufi songs of love and longing for God, like the ones found in this book, which you need to buy: https://ianwhiteman.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/the-diwan-a-new-translation/

Afterbirth

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The carob seedling that took two years
to grow two feet was planted over
half of the placenta that took
nine months and eleven days to develop
and forty minutes to birth
into a bucket, so dense with my blood
it looked like crushed raspberries.

There are pieces of me buried all over,
one beneath a pomegranate tree
in a nearby Andalusian garden;
another under an apple tree in a
Norfolk farm – the only one in the orchard
to fruit the first year.

The goodness of meat
that once nourished my babies
before they opened their mouths to eat
the meat that died in the act of birth
now feeds those stalks and leaves,
sipped thoughtfully by xylem and phloem
(words I learned eighteen and a half
years ago, the only ones that have
travelled forward from Science GCSE)
and plumps out fruit that I
shrink from eating lest it be
cannibalism:
my flesh into theirs,
vegan victuals from viscera.

Parts of me are already underground.
The backward-rolling echo of tombs
reaches me half-asleep, feeding
a dozing baby, not knowing if an hour or
ten minutes have passed, the way
the mind dashes forward during prayer
and a third rak’ah feels like a fourth.

Time is plastic when one has already put
an organ into a tiny grave, when one’s footprint there
roots the soul to the soil. It owns me now
in three segments, yearning for the last piece
(currently in my freezer) to join them underneath
an avocado sapling, followed one day
by the rest. Like taproots busy seeking
low lying aquifers there are unseen ligaments
that tie me to the world
so that the hot air balloon of my thoughts
– straining against its ropes –
does not spiral off and be vaporised
by the sharp edge of the atmosphere.

There are parts of me
all over, buried too deep
for dogs and foxes to despoil
deep as the bones of an ‘aqiqah lamb
must be buried too.

STOP PRESS: Muslim Writer Says “Boobs Are Great!”

Aside

If there is a single person on the cyber-planet not yet bored to the back teeth with the Femen and Anti-Femen protests, I have a few small wee things to say.

1) There are serious problems facing women in many Muslim countries.

2) There are serious problems facing women in many countries, full stop.

3) There is no legal basis for stoning adulterers in Islam, for banning women from driving, for accusing pregnant single women of fornication (see why here), for a man beating his wife (you read right – read Laleh Bakhtiar’s excellent explanation why), and for a whole host of evils inflicted on women in the name of patriarchy in Islam’s clothing.

4) There is no death penalty by lapidation in Tunisia, and there were no executions at all in the last two years. Tunisia is a very Western-leaning nation among the Arab nations; the President once prepared on state television eating during Ramadan, and encouraging people not to fast. The threats against Amina (the Tunisian Femen protester who published a topless photo of herself online) are empty.

5) Boobies are wonderfully handy things. They make milk for babies. Breastfeeding is seen as a perfectly normal, necessary, nurturing act in Muslim countries, and is accepted everywhere. Men just look away.

6) Breastfeeding in most Western countries is considered as one of those things hippie women with hairy armpits do in public places, and may result in you being asked to leave a restaurant. (This may not purely be for prejudicial reasons. I know someone whose baby popped off the nipple one time and she accidentally squirted a waiter in the eye.)

7) Seeing punky white girls with the words ‘F*** YOUR MORALS’ and ‘RELIGION KILLS’ scrawled across their tits does not exactly make most Muslim women warm to their cause, even if it is, in theory, in their favour. (Incidentally, the biggest mass murderers of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, were atheists. Communism trampled on the human rights of millions of people in the Soviet Bloc, China and elsewhere, and it was aggressively anti-religion. There are, shocking as it sounds, many politically-motivated killings that occur all over the world for such charming causes as landgrabs, resource appropriation, torturing  purported terrorists and so on. The ‘Enlightened’ West doesn’t exactly have the cleanest bill itself.)

8) In the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s). many women went around bare-breasted. This did not – amazingly! – result in mass orgies in the streets in which lust-fuelled Arab men tore their thowbs off and ravished them. The men just had to learn to lower their gaze. If Muslim men applied this deeply-cherished Islamic principle properly, they wouldn’t even SEE a woman’s naked breasts, thus obviating any idea of her being immoral, whoreish, publicity seeking…or whatever.

Proof positive that hijab maketh not the nice Muslim girl

Proof positive that hijab maketh not the nice Muslim girl

9) It is true that there are harsh (hudud) punishments in Islamic law. However, if you read the small print, which is actually very large print but only appears to be small to myopic Saudi patriarchs and hysterical journalists, the chances of being able to apply these hudud punishments are effectively impossible. In order for a man to catch his wife cheating, for example, he would not only have to catch her in bed with another man. He would have to witness the act of copulation with his bare eyes, and he would need to have three male witnesses to the exact same act, all of whom must have such spotless records of morality and character themselves that if they have ever been seen to hit a donkey, their testimony in court must be thrown out. Even a women who becomes pregnant after not seeing her husband for two years is protected by the (clearly unscientific) concept of the ‘Sleeping Foetus’. The Qur’an furthermore states that “…No-one shall bear any prejudice against a woman because of her child” (2:233). In fact, to make an unsuccessful accusation of adultery carries a penalty only slightly less than that for adultery itself (eighty lashes). (Yes I know, lashes, bad. But still an improvement on stoning. I’m guessing the hope was that 1400 years later things would have continued to improve…boy did they guess wrong!) Technically, if the restrictions on hudud laws were put into practice, any kind of corporal or capital punishment in a Muslim country would have to be effected after a confession – and even then it would be rare. The Prophet was known to have asked the family and friends of a man confessing to adultery if he was mad, or drunk, and then he repeatedly asked him if he was sure he didn’t just touch her. (The tradition of stoning for adultery was banned by Shariah law in the lifetime of Muhammad, to his very great relief.)

10) The Prophetic example is one that cannot be condensed to a soundbite. While in his time there were certainly very ancient methods of dealing with social disorder which in our times nobody would stand for, the overall example he gave was one of compassion, forgiveness, humility, kindness, generosity, good humour, embodying beauty, and modesty (in its widest sense; he famously said “Modesty is a garment”, which to me says that the attitude itself is a protection, regardless of what is worn). If he were around today, viewing the other options we have on hand to deal with crime and disorder, I have absolutely no doubt that he would ban hudud punishments. Some Muslim countries are coming to this realisation, very slowly. We are obligated to campaign for its progress. These are vitally important causes, and yet poor research and knee-jerk reactions mean we’re getting mired in debates that only distract us from the real issues. Channel that anger right andwe might see some real victories.

So, if you have not already fallen asleep at the mere mention of the F word, those are my two bits. With the sexualisation of commerce and the commercialisation of sex in the Western world, frankly, I am bored to the point of numbness by the sight of a strange woman’s breasts. It seems like more of the same, be it Beyoncé’s bouncing bazongas or Femen’s anarchistic antics. Boobs are, to me, one of the greatest wonders of the world, but it’s not because of how other people see them, particularly not people all set to Instagram them. It might come as a shock to us, Internet-inured as we are, but really, the most beautiful things in life are not out there on the street, or on your iPhone, easily available and free to download. They are more subtle, and hidden, and precious than anything your media-invaded imagination can come up with.

There is a whole other dimension to this, which is how it actually feels to wear a hijab, which Femen don’t seem to be very interested in. But that will have to be a post for another day.

Mamma Mia!

Bundesarchiv Bild 135-KB-12-087, Tibetexpedition, Tibeterin in Tracht mit Kind

I was recently asked by my midwife to feed a friend’s newborn baby who didn’t seem interested in the breast.

(A male of the species, not interested in the breast?! Unbelievable, but true.)

I remembered the first time I fed Shamsie, the surreal experience of having a food product (correction: a dynamite liquid gold superfood) coming out of a body part that had previously not enjoyed so many public appearances. I didn’t realise how lucky I’d been, with two babies who latched on like pros and were little squidge monsters within a couple of months.

This baby, on the other hand, was a tiny little thing, only a week old and weak from hardly drinking any of the milk his mother had been pumping.

(An electric breastpump, for those of you who haven’t been initiated, is a weird sort of proboscis that attaches to your nipple and slurps away at a slow, rhythmic pace with a faint whirr, sucking like some sort of sleepy, extraterrestrial hoover. Enough to make any new mother feel like a commercial dairy farm.)

The baby’s mother was doing admirably, not remotely stung at the thought of another woman breastfeeding her baby, even with that tsunami of hormones that usually makes first-time mothers a bawling wreck merely watching an advert of golden retriever puppies chasing toilet rolls down stairs.

Was it weird, breastfeeding another woman’s baby? Not in the slightest. I was surprised; it happened so seamlessly, him nestling into the crook of my arm like he’d always been there, before I even thought about the strangeness of it.

He latched on fine, opened his sleepy eyes in a concentrated, slightly frowning stare directed at a freckle on my collarbone, fed for ten minutes solidly, then lapsed back into that glorious doze that newborns do so well. Still floating in the miniature ocean in their mothers, coccooned in an absolute peace not yet broken by car horns and sirens and snappy voices.

Job done, I headed home; I had absorbed some of his bliss. The rough track seemed wide and sunlit, I glid over the cracks etched by acequia overflow, now filled with concrete rubble, as if they were a clover lawn. A donkey and her fluffy, doe-eyed foal watched me passively from the next field. Rosa bobbed happily in her sling, not knowing – or not minding – that her food source was being shared.

According to Islam, babies who are breastfed by the same mother are considered ‘milk siblings’ and aren’t supposed to marry. Now, I don’t know if just one feed counts, or if – as was the case in medieval Arabia, where cities were so riddled with diseases that babies were sent to be fed by Berber women in the countryside until they were two – this law only referred to children who were raised and fed along with a wet nurse’s own children.

In either case, what it means is that Islam considers breastmilk to be as important as genes. Something of your body has entered the bloodstream of another person (wow, doesn’t that sound intense!) and gone to build their bones and muscles and brain tissue.

The whole experience gave me a flicker of inspiration towards becoming a breastfeeding counseller. That bliss, the two-way bond that mother and newborn experience that is so out of this world – as well as replete with health benefits – is the most incredible gift I could imagine giving to a new mother.

However, the length of the training involved (and the 4,400 pounds NCT course fee!) are slightly off-putting. On top of that, it seems that some women have had such difficulties with breastfeeding – sore, cracked and even bleeding nipples, mastitis) that any advice from breastfeeding counsellers came across as unsympathetic, impractical or just plain wrong.

Poor bedside manner might account for much of it, but the truth of the matter is that we are only coming back to breastfeeding as a society in the West after quite a prolonged period when it was deemed immodest, unhygienic, perverse or even (as my cousin’s wife put it) ‘disgusting’.

In the UK, despite a huge NHS-backed push to encourage breastfeeding to at least 6 months, there still prevails a bit of a ‘Wahey! Tits out for the lads’ attitude towards it. Under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, breastfeeding mothers in the UK have always been able to breastfeed in public (despite concerns in 2008 that babies older than 6 months wouldn’t be protected by an amendment to this law). Nevertheless, our shrinking violet genes dictate a bit of a stuffy, corseted, Victorian approach to feeding our cubs.

I’d like to conduct a bit of research. What have been your experiences of breastfeeding? Did you love it, suffer for it, get weirded out at the idea? Have you ever been asked to leave restaurant for it? Amusing anecdotes about accidentally squirting long-range milk into an unsuspecting waiter’s eye are also much appreciated. Do you get ’em out while buying broccoli on the market, or shy away in quiet corners? Partners, what did you think of your lady’s new food-producing boobs?

Just think if it as keeping abreast of the issue…(sorry, had to be done.)