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

The Elephant Sisterhood

A strange erosion seems to be happening in the togetherness of humankind. I cannot tell you how many women I know who, over the last few years, have seen their relationships with their children’s fathers disintegrate between their hands, like some decrepit sacred document worried to shreds by damp and worms.

The circumstances are almost identical; she, horrified at the idea of mothering alone, relinquishes almost all sense of self, does baby night shifts with the devotion of Florence Nightingale, changes nappies, mops floors, makes meals, cleans dishes, shops for food (oh, that endless circular mill of work!), and barely has the time or energy to comb her hair. He, confronted with this ratty-haired woman, whose clothes smell faintly of breastmilk and whose youth seems to have been extracted from her by the chubby creatures her body has painstakingly produced, this woman who was previously so attractive (for which read, used to have so much time for him), suddenly loses faith in the relationship. In her.

But despite being spurned, these women sacrifice what it is that makes them them in an attempt to win back that love. Smiled are rigid, unbalanced by grieving eyes. They believe in healing the rift by offering unconditional love, or by complying with his demands, and abandoning all hope of whatever might fulfil her . And as the spark of who she is sputters beneath this wet canopy of longing, he turns ever further away.

Sometimes the rejection takes an absurdly cruel twist. One friend of mine, unable to support herself with her two small children, is obliged to continue living with her ex (and doing all the wifely things he expects of her), because he does not believe that men should have to finanically support the mothers of their children. (He’s a lawyer.)

Another friend, who had arranged to get married to the man whose child she was carrying, even gave him money to buy a suit for the wedding; he didn’t show up. Yet another has to endure her son’s father sending him incessant abusive text messages about her. And now that I am thinking about it, another friend told me that the father of her son (the son has Asperger’s) is so hopeless she has to send him money.

One close friend has recently separated from a husband (and father of her two kids) who had constantly criticised, nitpicked, and told her how unattractive he found her – whilst pointing out to her women that he did find attractive. Apparently he was not the marriage type; it made me wonder if this was some prehistoric nomad gene in him spurring his heels out of domestic life, or if, perhaps, it was just a very stupid, immature, self-centred gene leaping out of his DNA.

My mind is drawn back to the moments after my own bombshell. We were on holiday in Portugal, a whole month, and in the last week my (then) husband announced that we had to end our relationship. Done. Over. Sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? But there were still the trips to the beach with the kids – might as well make the most of the holiday time, eh – and the lunches with friends, so glib in their acceptance, and the afternoons spent lounging in the rental house, with the owner’s books to pore through to keep my head from spinning.

One of those books was about elephants. I did not know, before that holiday, that a herd of elephants is entirely composed of females, the head of the herd being the oldest (the matriarch). Males are born, and at about ten or eleven years of age they leave (or are thrown out?) of the herd to live as loners, only approaching another herd to mate before disappearing.

The young are raised happily by mothers, aunts, sisters and grannies, who never worry about when the child benefit will come in or if Daddy will turn up this weekend. Things are so different for us in the human world. I bet there are a few female invertebrates looking at us right now, saying, “Poor things. After mating we just eat our mate’s head.”

The trouble is – apart from the slavery of needing money and things to spend it on – that woman in industrialised societies cannot exist like a herd of elephants, without the necessity of a male figure to help with disciplining, making the odd dinner, helping out with the rent. We feel embarrassed asking a husband to pay for things, as though we’re spongeing. Time spent child-rearing clearly isn’t measured the same way as paid work when you are the child’s mother.

It seems impossible to imagine kids growing up in a community of women, without the nuclear family units that break humanity up into house-shaped blocks. And yet this is exactly how women have always lived all over the world, and even in Europe if we look far back enough. Even where segregation is not imposed, men and women will naturally drift into groups of their own gender; think of how stilted it feels to attend a formal dinner party with name tags on plates alternating chap and chick. Conversely, men who support sisterhoods are rewarded with cheerful, belly-laughing, radiant women who give back to their relationships the joy they nurture there.

Fortunately for everyone, sisterhoods are alive and growing. You find them in mother-and-child groups, in choirs, in yoga and bellydance and zumba classes and languages lessons and art workshops and crafting groups and writing groups and basketmaking courses and even doing karate. Then there are the events that do not find a slot in the local listings paper, the picnics and group missions up the mountains to get fresh goat’s milk, or pot lucks thrown together on the barest pretext. (“Kazoo workshop?” “Wicked!”)

I am feeling tremendously thankful right now to be living in a place where such a sisterhood does exist. We are united by our extraneousness, people of a mind-boggling number of nationalities united by this peculiar and beautiful place we live, by compost loos and organic veggie plots, by the desire to live without money (Orgiva has its own alternative currency, the Olivo), by a rejection of the crushing grip of consumerism. But we are not so different from women elsewhere. Whenever the urgency of needing to have a cup of tea and a natter whilst kids play together arises, gangs of women gravitate towards one another with a common interest: to know themselves through loving others. How do you love others? By knowing their stories and being a part of them.

We laugh. We shake our stretch-marked hips. We lay down our pretenses at the door, along with the all-weather wellies. And a wave is created between us, a spiral of storytelling and listening that encircles us subtly, bringing us close. We might be scattered between houses and towns and countries, but the herd exists, and it’s calling us home.