For Sense or Silence

Painted truck from Pakistan. Via www.creativeroots.org

Painted truck from Pakistan. Via http://www.creativeroots.org

If the Ummah is one body
then we are all brittle bones
skins grown armoured
out of fear of speared looks.
Meanwhile collapsing organs
leave lacunae in their wake
hollows that cringe and cramp
and invite hauntings.
Our veins have dried to desert rivers
joints arthritically creak
only so far, shaking at the idea
of stretching any more.
Between the mummified exterior
and the limping core
there is an emptiness
that reaches for union
sighs for solidity
whistles like hilltop pines
for sense or silence.
My voice is called to sing into this void
this fantastic concert hall denied of concerts
stifled by a plaster casing
created to protect
but the wounds need air;
our bandages are soaked through now –
to keep them on we risk
a gangrene on our souls.
Listen quietly as you unwind them:
there is music in the rattling of our bones
in the weeping of our tissues
in the way we scrape our heels
along the ground.
It joins the leaves’ percussion in the wind
the insects’ string section out on the lawn
the whispering of oranges as they grow juice
the sparrows chittering coded melodies and the
deep heaving of planets
drawing harmonies out of space –
that is a song to get us up and dancing again.
Quivering brings vibrato
to our parched throats – trembling
makes the timbre believable
and words that rise
unwritten in that loss
score our hymn.

In memory of the lives lost in Peshawar and with heartfelt prayers for a peaceful holiday season for all.

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Of Men, Mothers and Mercy

How people think hippie women look. Actually from an advert for a Hallowe'en costume.

How people think hippie women look. Actually from an advert for a Hallowe’en costume.

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.

How not many people think hippie women look. No jokes abut Hallowe'en costumes, please - let's be civil.

How not many people think hippie women look. No jokes abut Hallowe’en costumes, please – let’s be civil.

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…”

Seems so relaxing...

Seems so relaxing…

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.”

Makkah as it was in 1850, before the real estate developers moved in

Makkah as it was in 1850, before the real estate developers moved in

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.

Archaeological dig of Sayyidah Khadijah's (r.) house, c. 1988. The larger room at the bottom of the pic was where they lived for 28 years; it measured about 6x4m.

Archaeological dig of Sayyidah Khadijah’s (r.) house, c. 1988. The larger room at the bottom of the pic was where they lived for 28 years; it measured about 6x4m.

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.

"Go, on shoo, you lot, I'm 'avin a baby"

“Go, on shoo, you lot, I’m ‘avin a baby”

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.

Back Where the Path Begins

Last Rabita in Spain

Some men love the idea of Islam
for its manliness and its femininity
the gendered garb
strokable beards
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.

To Kill or Convert You

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
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
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
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
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
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
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.

To Kill or Convert You

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
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
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
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
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
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
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.

To Kill or Convert You

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
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
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
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
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
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
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.

The Culture of My Category

It seems the Happy debate is still there, rankling like a pint of milk going mouldy at the back of the fridge. While the fiqh (jurisprudence) debate will probably go on and on forever, as there’s no definitive scriptural prohibition on music, it seems there is a kind of aesthetic irritation present whenever Muslims are seen doing something ‘western’.

Critics of the Happy British Muslims video often cite the fact that Muslims are ‘having to prove that they are human’ by the criteria of a largely white, western mediated hegemony. Apart from the fact that Pharrell Williams in not white, which undermines of whole argument (particularly as there are millions of black American Muslims, and millions more African Muslms), what we have here is a very sticky case of cultural appropiation.

When is it OK for a white person to sing dancehall music in Jamaican patois? Can Japanese women learn to dance flamenco? Are Americans crossing a line when they got o Russia to drink vodka? I’ve met plenty who do it very well. MY alma mater, SOAS, was famous for its ‘trustafarians’, white kids from wealthy backgrounds who liked to hang out with Baye Fall Sufis, wear ethnic clothing and bang on about imperialism with a reefer in their hand.

If you are a Western Muslim, a revert for instance, the situation gets slightly more complicated. It’s not just OK to adopt elements of a different culture, you’re actually kind of expected to. Your clothing isn;t complete without a hijab, kufi, item of jewellery with an Arabic inscription or garment with a ‘foreign’ look to it. Your English-sounding name will very likely be looked at with skepticism, prompting you to take on an Arabic one. Your choice of spouse will very likely reflect your outward-looking gaze, and then there’ll be endless obligatory visits to the other half’s homeland, not to mention intense efforts on the part of your new in-laws to instruct you in the ways of their country.

It is faintly amusing, actually, this nonsensical neurosis surrounding cultural appropriation, when you’re Anglo-American, white as a box of Daz, and have always been Muslim. I’ll listen to Hamza El Din, Celia Cruz or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan just as easily as I would the Isley Brothers, Yuna or Estrella Morente…but hold on a minute…none of them are white, Anglo-American, or Muslim! Am I allowed to like them? Or is it OK to listen to their music but not to sing their songs myself??

If I’m restricted to the culture of my category, then I’m going to end up listening only to my own music, as there really aren’t any others out there whose group I belong to. Not even Adele, who is about the only white British singer I can stand, and even so, I don’t own any of her music. Am I a self-hating Brit? Not really. Brits have always wanted to left this very tiny island and seek their fortunes around the world. That doesn’t take the Brit out of you, though. As much as I want to be true to my roots, this nationalistic pride drummed up by UKIP lunatics makes me reach for the sickbag. Surely there must be some other way of finding an authentic identity?

To me, part of the beauty of Islam is that is encourages us to transcend our boundaries, accept one another as members of a vast, international family that is made richer for its variations, but which is not stingy with them. Everywhere I’ve travelled in the Muslim world, people have expressed not only delight at my own pathetic efforts to absorb elements of their culture, but eager to learn about my own.

There is a kind of mutual admiration across the planet that finds its expression in cultural appropriation, but which has tap roots way down in love for humanity. Muslims who have received a western education, particularly one that emphasises anti-imperialist trends, have a slew of arguments sloshing around inside out heads itching to latch themselves onto this or that issue, and debate it into the ground. We over-think everything, being ourselves over-thought, over-scrutinised and over-noticed. It’s so hard to get back to a simple, intuitive approach to life, in which different cultures can be appreciated and absorbed without flagellating ourselves over it.

Without any further ado, watch this video and marvel at the Iranian-American cultural fusion. Argument over.

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Clap Along If You Feel That Happiness is Halal

For anyone with a couple of dozen Muslims on their newsfeeds, any time some event of great importance breaks out somewhere in the Independent Republic of the Internet, you can guarantee that you’ll be exposed to a glimpse of that little-documented creature: the Muslim Troll.

Its natural habitat being under large rocks in urban vicinities, the Muslim Troll is a natural mimic of the Muslim Scholar, adopting a studious expression, self-consciously arranged ensemble of ‘Islamic’ clothing, and many Arabic expressions to pepper his speech. This he does whilst simultaneously eviscerating dozens of fellow Muslims online every day, condemning them to burn in the deepest reaches of hell for posting that video of the cat with the weird miaow.

Fortunately, I do not add suchlike to my friends. Were a Troll to scheme his way in I would promptly unfriendify him. Am I acting against freedom of speech? No, I am acting for freedom from speech. Hate(ful) speech, that is. There is no reasoning with people who say that it is disbelief to use a string of beads to enumerate the names of God, whilst reading Qur’an off their iPads and setting an alarm for Fajr on their iPhones.

So when The Honesty Policy’s effervescent vid Happy British Muslims (one of the global Pharrell Williams covers that have taken YouTube by storm) appeared on my Facebook feed, all that I could see in response was enthusiastic. Muslims of all colours, ages and styles of dress, bouncing around the screen in a state of pure unadulterated elation, without a single news reporter or crime scene in sight? What’s not to like?

Then I came across one woman’s impassioned comment about how ‘this isn’t the sort of da’wah we should be doing’. She seemed genuinely upset that despite all her efforts to maintain her deen (practice) the way she felt it should be, people like this kept on appearing to shatter her resolve. Her plea touched me deeply, but I couldn’t help wondering why something so infectiously cheerful should leave anyone feeling down.

Is the main problem that they’re bopping about to a Western pop song? If that is the case, then all of us who grew up in the West (or are 100% genetically one of ‘them’ – I even did a DNA test to see if I had any Asian, African or Middle Eastern in me; not a drop) are doomed. Much as I love to dance to Berber music or Qawwali, I like a good shimmy to Blondie as much as the next Essex girl. And frankly, most nasheeds are the musical equivalent of a large bag of candyfloss: nice for a while, but leaving you with a hankering for something a bit more substantial.

Music cuts across racial, religious, gender and class boundaries. You might not agree with people dancing for a camera and being broadcast to the world, but listen to a song that gets you jumping and the stress of being categorised falls away. You stop thinking, something that is anathema in our hyperelectric world. Besides, Muslim women often suffer from serious health problems as a result of having little encouragement – or opportunity – to exercise. Dancing is by far the best all-round tonic for the body; you don’t have to go raving to enjoy it.

(The only examples of belly dancers I could find that weren’t wearing exotic dancing gear. Take note of the irony, dear readers. Muslim Troll would be apopleptic.)

Is the issue the idea that we are pandering to Western ideals, trying too hard to prove ourselves by the criteria of ‘them on the other side’? Perhaps. As a minority that is often publicly maligned, we have a tendency to be touchy. British Muslims have a field of paranoia surrounding them, unless they are extremely careful about transcending it.

But we’ve been so immersed in ‘their’ culture, and for so long, where can you honestly draw the line where ‘we’ end’ and ‘they’ begin’? Many of us have no other place to call home than Europe, or the States. In any case, Islam didn’t emerge into a void; names, habits, even acts of worship (such as circumnambulating the Ka’aba) were carried over from before, wherever they were deemed appropriate. This supposed gulf between West and East is absurd: if you go far enough around the globe you come out the other side.

If Islam is as inclusive and atribal as we believe it to be, then being British or American, whether in heritage or culture, can be no barrier to belief.

If the worry is that women shouldn’t be filmed bouncing around on a screen, I can understand why people wouldn’t want to be captured personally and spliced into a video clip, and that out of respect for the privacy of women others might find it disagreeable that women should be shown on a website accessible to billions. But good golly, they’re hardly grinding the air in a leather bustier and thigh-high boots to the strains of some half-witted, semi-pornographic R’n’B tune. (Or shaking their tinselled butts to bellydancing music, for that matter.) Innocent, ebullient joy still exists; we need to be reminded of it before the skepticism sinks in too deep.

And innocent joy isn’t limited to certain groups of people. There is a lingering idea, I fear, that to be a ‘good’ Muslim one must look, speak, and behave a certain way, yet that gingerbread man shape seems to be shrinking all the time. Imam ‘Abdal-Latif Finch said something very powerful in a seminar he gave last summer: “Accepting Allah’s Will means accepting ourselves as we are.”

That doesn’t mean we don’t leave room for change, but it does mean recognising that this is our culture, this is our home, this is our vernacular. I feel that British Muslims have a pressing need to develop this sense of a home-grown Islamic identity, one that doesn’t require unrealistic expectations of piety or borrowing the trappings of foreign ‘Islams’.

Crowd of miscellaneous people listening to Firdaus Ensemble at South Kilburn Studos. Courtesy of Rumi's Cave

Audience at concert by Firdaus Ensemble at South Kilburn Studos, London. Courtesy of Rumi’s Cave

What’s wrong with us incorporating elements of our home cultures into our identities? Trying to squash yourself into a hopelessly ambitious mould of foreign-looking piety is a pretty sure guarantee of making yourselves feel like a failure, and might just end up with a massive, plate-smashing, snot-flying breakdown. Not very spiritual, unless you consider it a ‘breakthrough’.

I suspect that part of the objection that some people have to the Happy British Muslims video is that it expresses an aesthetic that doesn’t meet their ideals for an Islamic nation, rather than being a serious query of the piety of those involved. Sheikh ‘Abdal-Hakim Murad was in it, for goodness’ sake. If that doesn’t give it the seal of approval I don’t know what does.

“Abundance of worldly wealth is not happiness; real happiness lies in contentment of heart and a care-free nature.” (Hadith from the collection Sahih Muslim)

“The most beloved of religions according to Allah the Most High is the ‘easy, flexible religion.’” (Hadith from the collections Ahmad and Hasan)

“The best of all deeds is that you bring happiness to your Muslim brother, pay off his debt or feed him bread.” (Hadith from collection Ibn Adiyy and Hasan)

“O mankind, there has to come to you instruction from your Lord and healing for what is in the breasts and guidance and mercy for the believers. Say, ‘In the bounty of Allah and in His mercy – in that let them rejoice; it is better than what they accumulate.'”
(Surah Yunus, 10: 57-58)

So here goes…I’m HAPPY for the blessings of my children, my family, my husband, my friends…for the homes and jobs and projects that have fallen and continue to fall miraculously into my life, dispelling my fears and neurosis about provision and confirming the Divine statement “I am in the opinion of my slave”.

I’m HAPPY for all the flowers and leaves and healing materials that grow so bountifully within reach, for the needs that are met almost before they’ve been articulated, for the abundance that comes purely out of knowing from what Source they are emanating.

I’m HAPPY for the opportunities to learn that come with every challenge, for how beautifully choreographed they are, for how the discomfort lessens as the lesson behind it is revealed.

I’m so blimmin’ HAPPY these days I don’t know how I haven’t made a Happy video myself.

Tell me what makes you happy, too!

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/pharrell-williams-happy-british-muslims-dance-to-song-in-video-9265188.html

An Addiction to Storms

  The wind is talking. There’s a thundering around, whistling in low, confiding tones between the orange trees and knocking a shower of fragrant petals to the floor. Of all the imaginary vehicles we’d devised over dinner – to escape a tantrum more than anything else – the wings on this wind seem the most powerful means of transport available: it is a brutal angel, muscular and singing unseen.
  There were no stories tonight, only bitter sobs, and meek children not understanding, stroking my shoulders and seeking peace. The peace came a minute before they dropped off, clinging to my hand and shoulder; it was so exquisite after the exasperation and outrage and despair that I had to turn the light off to savour it.
  I scoured my remembered psychology notes for what it added up to: with every petulant fit my inner parent raged, looking for vindication and respect, while my inner child threw toys out of the pram, causing my inner parent in turn to scold it for doing so. The correct terminology might be: ‘What’s the root cause of my own imbalance that’s playing itself out in our family dynamic?’
 Then I gave up trying to auto-analyse and worked instead on the practical means of handling two kids who’d been whipped into a giddy pair of hurricanes, fighting and flinging makeshift weapons, giggling and howling by turns, and giving me the most unbelievable lip. This time the jargon would have read: ‘What am I doing to spark this conflict, and what can I do to pull the rug on it once it’s already in motion?’

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  And then, hours after the crisis had been lulled into post-storm calm, my husband tells me, “Don’t try to analyse it, either what you’re doing or where it’s coming from. Just love your children, say ‘alhamdulillah’ that they’re healthy and well, give them a hug and a kiss when he gets angry. That’s all they need. The anger is coming from that need.”
  I am beginning to wonder if I don’t have an addiction to storms. The build-up, all excitement and nerves, then the physical lift off the ground as the gale builds up into a towering column of fury, and then the hollowing-out as the reason for its continuation is forgotten or falls through, and finally the crashing of all the chairs and trees and cars that had been lifted up into the arms of this torrent as they drop to the ground.
  Nothing seems stiller or more balmy than right at this moment, once the storm has blown itself out. The mental imbroglio that a brain with a reading habit gets itself into over any problem that surfaces suddenly falls quiet, like the sea at low tide. You look out at where the seagulls wheel and lurch without troubling yourself as to why they are doing it.
  These personal thunderstorms can have the rug pulled out from under them, if it is done by expert hands that are not shaking with a sympathetic rage. The guns that anger pulls all melt with the white heat of unconditional acceptance.
  All kinds of analyses run through my mind regarding Islam. It’s impossible to avoid it when you read the news, or have a Facebook newsfeed brimming with Muslim commenters. At every moment we seem to be stepping out of our shoes and assessing ourselves, our ‘community’, with an outsider’s eye.
  It’s an entertaining pastime, but when it comes down to it, the only way I can explain it is that Islam has a direct effect on a person’s heart. It’s like an adaptogen*: it will do whatever your heart needs. If it is rigid, it will shake it up. If it is lonely, it will give it solace. If it is wounded, it will heal. If it is hard, it will melt it. If it is to open, it will give it protection.
  So there is a kind of extreme optimism at work within a Muslim’s heart. ‘Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli hal’ was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.s.) favourite sayings. It means ‘Halleluyah in all conditions’, ‘May God be praised for every state’. It means streaking right past the raised fists and embracing the fighter with more than love – with gratitude. It is not merely saying ‘I forgive you’ but ‘I thank God for you’.
  What can outrage do with that kind of reaction but drop its weapon in surprise?

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*Adaptogen: a medicinal plant that will return the body to homeostasis, i.e. do whatever the body needs in order to regain balance

Sufism and Motherhood: To the Walrusnut!

The Prophet Muhammad (s.) once said that “Paradise lies at the foot of the mother”.
When I gaze down, mostly I see at my feet cake crumbs, bits of Ancient Egyptian Playmobil, ripped up paper, pens without lids, and the occasional puddle for which I shall not be held accountable.
I see his point, though. After having a few days in a row of luxurious kid-free time, in which I slept way past 8am, performed music, went on spontaneous wanders through London with friends and had uninterrupted conversations, it is all the clearer to me how much of a grind on the ego it is to spend all day every day with your own kids.
My irritability crept in after about 24 hours. I was unnerved by how fast my bachelorette turn had diminished my tolerance for screeching, spats, brat-outs over toys and their ilk. I could hear myself using that exasperated tone of voice that I would so hate to hear from anyone else. Does this sound familiar? “All this mess needs to be cleared up in five minutes or the My Little Pony gets given away. Come on, I want to see some movement here! Chop chop!”
However, when I really scrutinise my flashpoints, I recognise that they fell into four general categories:
1) Mess. Lego all over the floor. Rice, ditto. Pens left unlidded (see above). Generally, things not being in the place they should be.
2) Screeching. Theirs usually provokes mine, thus forming a vicious cycle.
3) Brat-outs, spoilt behaviour, over food, spoons, plates, toys…any action indicating that things mean more than people. Really gets my goat.
4) Fighting, hitting, bruising, throwing things (especially when it’s at my head). Often involves all of the above.
Essentially, all this is boils down to something happening that I don’t want to be happening.
This in no way means that it should not, in fact, be happening. I’m sure there is some psychologist out there who has definitive proof that children need to screech, leave Lego all over the floor, brutalise their siblings or freak out because the plate is the wrong shade of green as it’s essential to their brain development. Who am I to argue?
Now, the process of trying to simultaneously manage a household, not let your child die from eating poison berries, and stay remotely sane is a serious grind on your ego. Oh, the ego. That sumptuously curved, glossy-haired chick you see in the blurry periphery of a photo only to discover she is a warted frog with prickles all over its back that lives permanently in your spleen.
Our egos get a serious jolt when we have a baby. All our ideas about ourselves – so tenderly nurtured throughout our teenage and college years, attested to by thousands of photos at various stages of our well-staged lives – is thrown into the gutter, to be replaced by a shaky-legged, stretch-marked, tearful dairy cow who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing.

And then heaven sends us one last chance to patch up our relationship to our old selves – Facebook! Here we can post selfies that have been Photoshopped to remove the black bags under eyes, wrinkles, grey hairs and look of raving desperation in our eyes.

Of course, there are lots of genuine benefits. (That’s the addict in me talking.) We can reconnect with old friends, send out requests for second-hand buggies, read endless articles about health, education, psychology, world politics and anything else that will fill us with fearful concern for our new baby’s future. And whereas the real world is full of dangerous, nasty people who sneer and criticise, Facebook language is almost always interspersed with hearts, emoticons, lols and lots of loves. So much emotion in so few characters.

In fact, we mums seem to spend an awful lot of time on FB. Quite a few mothers I have met who dash off to check their profile while the kids aren’t looking, race to the computer once the kids are in bed to post pics from that day, whose phones beep notifications which they check whilst boiling pasta.

I’ll save the platitudes about how none of this was necessary twenty years ago, when we still lived in communities and we had mums to tell us what to do about mastitis instead of Mumsnet, etc. etc…only, after reading this article about social media and narcissism, I can’t ignore the link between my FB use and my outbreaks of irritability any longer. Among the symptoms of narcissism – which were linked to excessive social media – along with believing oneself to be above the rules, hyperchondria and inability to accept criticism, was being quick to anger.

Oh dear. Not only is it a prerequisite to using social media, it’s actually making me MORE narcissistic. I was much calmer with my kids after reading that. Can’t have them thinking I’m a narcissist or something.

On a completely different spectrum of motherkind, the kind of mum whose example is passed around by Sufi-type women is the sort that has a dozen children, takes in waifs and strays too, teaches literacy and ethical values with compassion and patience, and reads Surat al-Baqarah in her spare time.

I’m not sure these women have ever existed. If they still do, I wonder if they don’t freak out when the kids are asleep and turn into vicious trolls, leaving scathing remarks on every YouTube video ever to be left open to comments.

And yet you do meet women who, eight or so children down the line, despite various health issues concomitant to those births, shrug off trouble quite well. Perhaps it’s because they’ve borne their fair share of it and have learned not to sweat the small stuff – or, indeed, any stuff. They have stories that would make your eyes pop out, or at the very least treasure your washing machine.

The allure of websites like Facebook (and to some extent WordPress, though I don’t find nearly so much time to write here) is that they present a window of opportunity to fly out of the mundane, hamster wheel existence in which your image means about as much as a raisin squashed into a sheepskin rug, and to relive, in some small measure, the lives we had before, when the world was a mirror of what people thought of us.

The thing is that in between issues 1), 2), 3) and 4) above, there are a whole host of moments spent with children that are riproaring fun without that old vampire bat, the ego, getting its feed.

Silly games or made-up words – just today we had walrusnuts, nasalnuts and toilet trees – provoke laughter that blocks the chattering mind for a few seconds at a time. Hugs do the same in a golden, peachy kind of way. Racing breathlessly through a puddly park. Painting, cutting random shapes out of paper, mucking around with clay, anything that gets you engrossed like them and not concerned with ensuring that they fulfil orders (unless you have a hard time letting go of order – in which case some messy paint is probably just the ticket).

The reason those moments are precious is because you were totally present, without the veil of your self-consciousness clouding the view. Once you’re there you access that limitless space in which imagination, innocence, and spiritual awareness become realities again. You can let go of the inner fascist and feel part of the infinite, beautiful harmony that is always in Divine hands.

Apart from all that, who wants to be remembered as that woman who cooked dinner and spent the rest of the time staring at a screen?

There’s always going to be more interesting stuff out there. It seems to me the only way to make any sense of it is to see what in here first.