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.

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To Dream, To Float, To Glorify

  This week I submitted a translation I have been working on for 5 months, of an Ibn ‘Arabi book on the 99 Names of God that had previously been translated into Spanish (I was translating it into English). It’s been a labour of love but also a “gift-laden carpet”* in many extraordinary ways.

This uy again.

This guy again.

  The most transformative part of the work, of course, was just going over the meanings of the 99 Names over and over again, discovering new nuances. It is astonishing how few of them are negative, in our understanding of the word (Al-Muntaqim – the Avenger – and Al-Darr – the Bringer of Harm – are the only two that spring to mind; al-Mumit, the Bringer of Death, doesn’t really count, as death can be the most beautiful release, depending on how much you want it).

  On the other hand, there are dozens of Names that relate to generosity, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness: Al-Rahman (The All-Compassionate), Al-Rahim (The All-Merciful), Al-Ghafar, Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar (variations on the Most Forgiving), At-Tawwab (He who turns towards the one turning towards Him), Al-Sattar (He who conceals faults), Al-Karim (The Generous), Al-Jawad (He Who gives before being asked), Al-Halim (The Mild), Al-Wasi’ (The All-Embracing, as in the Qur’anic verse “His mercy embraces all things”), al-Wali (The Protecting Friend), Al-Wadud (The Loving), Al-Wahhab (in contrast to the religious conservatives who have taken on this name, it means The Giving)…

  I shouldn’t be so surprised, but the impression that one often gets of Islam is that it encourages fear of God, fear of hell, fear of a patriarchal system that is supposed to order every aspect of our lives. But the reality, when you pull those appearances apart, is quite the opposite. It’s enough to melt a heart frozen stiff with fear.

  Even though I’ve been Muslim all my life, or perhaps precisely because of that, I have so often found it easy to slip into assumptions about what a Muslim life is like. There always needs to be a balance between the intellectual, the ethical, the practical and the aesthetic. What often happens is that one or more of these is neglected; our faith limps along cock-eyed, developing achy joints as a result of its poor coordination.

  And then we innocently go to the nearest, quickest reference points to seek out an uplifting hadith, quote, du’a or bit of history: Sheikh Google, his wife Binti YouTube and their hyperactive son, Ibn Facebook. Apart from those things that are posted by friends, whose intentions we know well enough to trust, we emerge from these virtual encounters riddled with gunshot wounds inflicted by different doctrinal angles, and shell-shocked at the bigoted, insulting, or downright stupid ideas (not to mention actions) of some Muslims.

  I think it was because of my need for something that really went deep that this book landed on my table. Ibn A. seems to have a knack for explaining even the most intricate existential problems (such as the existence of evil – he says that transgressions, being brought into existence by God, ask forgiveness from Him on behalf of the place where they are carried out – that is, in the person doing them). Some of these issues have dogged me for years; no-one else has put them straight for me satisfactorily. My intellectual side can be dragged out of the closet and de-mothballed at last, to rejoin my daily wardrobe of selves.

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi's works - which numbered about 200

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi’s works – which numbered about 200

  One of the things that has hooked me most is his etymology. Sufism has a long tradition of finding correlations between words with the same letters in a different order – hence the link between ‘to do, act’ (عمل) and ‘to know’ (علم), i.e. don’t act without knowledge; or words whose graphics are the same when the vowels are not written – such as عالم, which can mean ‘knower’ (‘alim) or ‘cosmos’ (‘alam); or words whose letters themselves (each one of which has not only a numerical value associated with it but also meanings of their own, such as ʿayn, which means the letter ع, eye, spring or source) provide them with other shades of meaning: so, you could say, عدم, meaning ‘non-existence’, is differentiated from ادم, Adam, by the ‘ayn that is his eye (and thus his all-important witnessing) and the Source that brought him into being.

    Everything in existence is, by Sufi logic, a sign of Allāh – including, of course, ourselves – so nothing is coincidental. All things and beings, events and non-events, are alive with meaning. Because Arabic evolved as a language for the purpose of receiving divine revelation, all of these little correlations are clues left for the careful observer to trip over, their faces lighting up with glee at what a gem was left lying around for anyone to find.

  One of these correlations dawned on me the other night, late, when my brain had slipped out of analytical, left-brain mode and into that dream-like, perceptive state usually populated (in my brain, at this hour) by complete gibberish.

  It was this: the verb سبح, which in form I means ‘to swim, to float’ and hence ‘to transcend’, and which in form II is translated as ‘to glorify, exalt, extol’ (as in the expression ‘سبحان الله’, translated as ‘Transcendent is Allāh’ or ‘Exalted is Allāh’), combines these two nuances for a very good reason.

  When we utter (or feel) the phrase ‘subḥān’Allāh’ – on seeing something extraordinary or astonishing, or realising something that inspires awe in us, or simply when recognising the incredible beauty, harmony, or logic of something – not only do we extol Allāh, but we transcend the mundane hamster-wheel of negativity that we wade through in our daily lives ourselves.

  So, while these clever little connections leap out at the word nerd and light them up like a Christmas tree, in fact everything has the ability to have that effect if we only paid enough attention to it – or, perhaps, the right kind of attention.

lenticular clouds, orgiva

  Which leads me to another little light-bulb that blinked on this week: that in order to become a friend of God (the term used in Arabic to mean a saint), perhaps what’s needed is to treat everything as a friend – loved ones, strangers, all creatures, nature, water, time, space… – because it all exists in and because of Divine Reality. It’s easy to make a big show of religion, to wear pious-looking gear and be kind to the poor and needy, and then snap at a child because they their need for breakfast does not coincide with my desire to get up and make it. What do you mean that’s not universal?

  Several of the Companions mentioned that they never saw anything but that they saw Allah in, behind, or with it. And a famous Sufi training story tells how a fish went swimming through the ocean, asking everyone where the water was. I might only taste a drop of it of this ocean, but it leaves me realising how thirsty I am for it.

*An aphorism of the Shadhili Sufi master Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari reads: “States of need are like gift-laden carpets”. See also my previous post Song for the Crocodiles.

Muslim Things: Surprisingly Not Scary

  It’s impossible not to notice them. They appear in social network newsfeeds, they appear in the news, in the comments on the news, in conversations overhead on café terraces. At times you can almost see them being thought.
  They are the fears that flit across the minds of anyone who has ever come into contact with a Muslim. Or, more potently, who has ever read the word without ever having met a Muslim. The word has taken on a shape-shifting life of its own, at times monstruous and shadowy, at others defiant and political; the silhouette of it morphs on the screen, taking on the prickly subjects around it and shuffling forward under the burden of their horrors.
  And yet at other times, and sometimes even more intensely on Facebook than anywhere else, it is a key to a vast wonderland of commonalities, of shared loves and expansions, of the imagined song of a nightingale pondering how to attain the rose, of the sorrow of separation into individual bodies when the spirit longs for union again, of the thunder that joy makes in the heart when this long-for proximity is felt. All of this depends on the projections of the thinker, on the bed the word receives in their brain.
  However it beds down in yours, it is never a neutral name. It does not inspire visions of light-hearted, frolicsome, or jovial people, skipping happily through life.
  In the spirit of addressing the imbalance of contexts in which the word ‘Muslim’ appears (take, for instance, ‘Muslim Rage’, ‘Muslim patriarchal values’, ‘Muslim traditions’…) I would like to suggest a few new nomenclatures.
  How about ‘Muslim Badminton?’
  Or ‘Muslim Knitting’?
  Or ‘Muslim Strawberry Farms’?
  We could really go to town here, in our invented, happy-go-lucky Muslim world, where there are no issues surrounding us like swathes of barbed wire, and we are generally pootling along, enjoying life. (Feel free to add your own Muslim Things in the comments!)
  How about…

  ‘Muslim Surfing’
  ‘Muslim Theatre’
  ‘Muslim Fudge’
  ‘Muslim Upcycling’
  ‘Muslim Capoeira’
  ‘Muslim Bake-Sales’
  ‘Muslim Poetry Slams’
  ‘Muslim Silversmithing’
  ‘Muslim Face-painting’
  ‘Muslim Nurseries’
  ‘Muslim Permaculture’
  ‘Muslim Neo-Choirs’
  ‘Muslim Jam Sessions’
  ‘Muslim Skating’
  ‘Muslim Hiking Clubs’
  ‘Muslim Soup Kitchens’
  ‘Muslims Holding Hands at the Movies’

  It is curious how often even I expected myself to write something involving a revolution, repressive regime or Scud missile.
  How inculcated a sense of a word becomes; I would like to do as gay people did when they inverted the sense of the word Queer and made it something they could be proud of.
  In a way, the analogy is not so off the wall. If you were to round up all the gay people in the world, you’d be sure to find a decent dose of substance abusers, HIV positives, sociopaths, and worse in there somewhere. Despite this being so, the truth is that no one gay person can be called upon to answer for all of that. Virtually every gay person I’ve ever met seemed quite serious, domestically minded, and, well, pretty normal.
  So it is for Muslims. Much to the annoyance of journalists, for whom it shreds the simple notions they rely upon to explain us from arm’s length, there is no such thing as a ‘Muslim community’. This hysterically funny satire shows how absurd the idea of a ‘black community’ sounds if it were to be turned on its head.
  If you don’t happen to spend a decent amount of time among Muslims – and that probably accounts for a good number of Muslims themselves, who are equally vulnerable to casting aspersions over themselves after a good hammering by the news – let me tell you that I know Muslims, or know of Muslims, who happily fall into the above categories, and many more innocent, unscary others besides.
  I personally know Muslim midwives and doulas, herbalists, doctors, healers, singers (female too – myself included), musicians, painters, gravestone-carvers, poets, gardeners, Montessori teachers, Steiner teachers, state school teachers, civil servants, journalists, avid PG Wodehouse fans, filmmakers, photographers, nerds, programmers, adrenaline junkies, mountain-climbers…Sometimes they are inspired, driven by a sense of joy so powerful in them that they cannot but do their art, sport, game, craft, or whatever it is, lest they implode with the excitement.
  It seems peculiar to associate any of these ordinary, or extraordinary activities with being a Muslim, but are they any less relevant than a different kind of Muslim’s penchant for throwing stones at tanks, or issuing prohibitions on women revealing their ankles, or shouting ‘Death to America’? How much is each of them contingent upon the time, the context, the education of the person, the influences they are subject to, or the unfathomable movements of the human mind?
  We are, at our least divided, only human beings. Separating a person’s identity from their freedom to behave like a twit is the first step to viewing them as a human being. Otherwise, we owe what we do to our colour, religion, nationality, immigration status, gender, sexuality, or any other label we have invented for the sole purpose of separating others from ourselves and scattering them into a hierarchy whose apex is us. In this ugly scheme where everything is blamed on the umbrella of identity over our heads, none of us can ever break out of the crust built up of our errors and start over.
  So, dear readers, I shall now desist from my Muslim typing, since my Muslim fingers are tired, and my Muslim glasses smudged with unidentified Muslim splodges. My Muslim ideas have run to a standstill. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall have some Muslim Fun with my kids, playing Muslim Football and doing some Muslim Weeding in my Muslim veggie plot. But for now, I shall brush my Muslim teeth, go to Muslim sleep and, I hope, have a few Muslim dreams.