Posts from August 2016

Learning on your own

August 26, 2016

Independent learningI spent a few years learning with various teachers and attending lectures around New York and thereafter traveling to Jordan to sit in on the majalis (learning sessions) there. I’ve been blessed to learn a lot from my teachers and am forever grateful to them. Having the freedom to travel and to study takes time and I was blessed to take that time because I do not have a job or a family of my own. But many people are not in a similar scenario. Though it has been stressed to me throughout the years the importance of having a teacher to learn with, the idea of sitting for hours with a teacher and learning a text from beginning to end isn’t a real possibility for many.

What is the reality for most of us is that if we make an effort we could probably gain a lot by doing a little each day -as long as we have a plan. My advice is just because you don’t have a teacher in the traditional sense doesn’t mean you can’t acquire tradition knowledge and an orthodox understanding over time. So how is this possible? Foremost with du’a and possibly with these following six steps.

  1. Read traditional books. Ask a scholar you know and trust (or a learned person -for example, that guy you know that spent two years in Egypt studying Islam) for a recommendation on classical Islamic texts. Why classic texts? Well for one, as Sheikh Nuh (May God preserve him) states in the beginning of his translation of Reliance of the Traveller: “For most nontraditional works seen up to the present have been one man efforts, while the classical texts have been checked and refined by a large number of scholars, and the difference is manifest” (P. viii). Secondly, the scholars of today pale in comparison to scholars of the past -and they’ll be the first to tell you. And thirdly the works of the past are far more accessible -many classic books have a small summary of the original text (or subject matter), the longer text for further explanation, and commentary by other scholars making it easy to gain both a overview and an in depth understanding of the text/subject.
  2. Keep in touch with any scholar. You may be asking “who and how?” Firstly, a scholar that has a basic knowledge of fundamental subjects in Islam. How would you know? Just go to the bio on their website, friend/follow them on Facebook and get a sense of what they’re about, or ask people who know them. Thereafter keep their email (or message on Facebook) and ask them questions. Ask them whatever you’re sure you don’t understand from the text and need further explanation. Of course many scholars are busy (and it doesn’t have to be a “scholar” just anyone with knowledge) and may not reply so try to contact about ten, inshaAllah, one of them will be willing to help.
  3. Strike up conversation with people of knowledge about the text you’re reading to make sure you have the correct understanding. This is for the parts of the you’re sure you understand but because you’re not in formal circles of knowledge you don’t get the feedback necessary to confirm you’re understanding the text as it should be understood, going over it with others in a causal manner will help to confirm you really understand what’s being conveyed in the text.
  4. Approach independent learning with an understanding that studying with a teacher is far superior and open your heart to the idea that when the opportunity to learn with a teacher presents itself you will take it. Maybe in the near future your time will open up and you’ll find a class or a teacher available and squeeze in those lessons you were too busy to learn before. And if you’ve done steps #1- 3 you’ll be able to utilize those teachers that you created a relationship with previously and build on what you know.
  5. Think about learning online. You may not feel you have time to learn online either but look in to different programs and see how much time they allow you to take. For example, the class may be weekly for 10 weeks and maybe you aren’t able to complete it in ten weeks, ask them how long they allow students to access coursework or register for the class again the following semester and continue where you left off. Online learning (ex:, allows students access to traditional knowledge and seekers from the comfort of their home so it’s a viable option even for the busy soul.
  6. Be consistent. Learn a little daily (or weekly) and you’ll be surprised how far you come over time. There’s no need to feel like it’s all or nothing, the most important tool is consistency. As the beloved messenger of God, peace be upon him, has said: “Take up good deeds only as much as you are able, for the best deeds are those done regularly even if they are few.” Sunan Ibn Majah 4240

Top Ten Posts

August 17, 2016

Hello and salaams all,

We’ve recently received a lot of new readers so I thought it would be valuable to see which of my posts have been the most popular over the period of our entire blog lifespan and share with you. Enjoy.

Top Ten:

Hijab is not simply a “choice”

August 14, 2016

aab-uk-pink-and-taupe-two-tone-chiffon-hijab-s15hijpt-z-dzbb_1It’s very difficult to have an honest conversation about hijab. Muslims go in to defense mode and non-Muslims go in to attack mode. The basic question that surrounds the tension -is hijab a choice or a form of oppression? As Muslims we’ve been trained to say of course it’s a choice, many non- Muslims will say the opposite. But I’m going to say something more nuanced and honest, it is sometimes one and sometimes the other.

On the macro scale there is no doubt that some countries force their women to cover. This is often the non-Muslim retort to those of us who say hijab is a choice. They point to Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where it is no doubt that wearing hijab is not a choice. But even this is dishonest, it makes it seem as though all Muslim countries require women to wear hijab, they don’t. Jordan is one place that certainly does not, I’ve lived here for two years and it’s quite clear that though most people here dress modestly, they certainly have a choice in their dress -wearing everything from typical western clothes with or without a head scarf to Khaleeji Abayas and black face veils.

Some non-Muslims also claim that it is not a women’s choice but her father or the men in her family who force her to wear the hijab, “no” we respond, it’s our choice. But of course there are some women who wear hijab because their father tells them to and for nothing more, like I did as a teen. But here’s another level of dishonesty: force cannot be equated with abuse. My parents “forced” me to wear hijab, just like they “forced” me to go to bed at 11pm as a teenager, just like they “forced” me to go to college. What would happen if I insisted I was not going to wear hijab? I don’t know. But I certainly wouldn’t fear an “honor killing”, which was a foreign concept to me until I heard it in the news.

Yet and still for some Muslim women it is a choice, they decide at a particular age to start covering, sometimes as a religious awakening and sometimes to fit in with friends. Some Muslim women are neither discouraged nor encouraged to wear hijab and some -to the surprise of many, are discouraged from wearing hijab.

And, one last bit of honesty, hijab isn’t just a choice in Islam. It is considered an obligation. In Islam we have obligations, encouraged acts, discouraged acts, forbidden acts and acts that fit none of the aforementioned categories. Hijab falls in to the first, an obligation. I have never seen it mentioned among major sins -to not wear a head covering, but I could not say it is a minor sin either (God knows best). The point is that yes it is a choice but it’s not like drinking water or drinking tea, it is a consequential choice. So someone may go out of their way to struggle to wear hijab because of their faith, in other words they may make a choice they personally dislike in order to please God.

I understand that it’s easier to tout the line “hijab is my choice”, I understand it’s easier to forget about the nuances but there is a bit of disservice we do to ourselves and to conversations about our faith when we try to fit it in the already existent framework. The idea that hijab is simply a choice -like choosing between water and tea, is one that is most palatable to the Western framework but it lacks the depth and nuances that the conversation deeply needs and deserves. But maybe now is the time for mantra over depth, hopefully one day we can move past that.

Asking more of our religious leaders? Or should we ask less?

August 5, 2016

Photo by Nicole Najmah Abraham

Photo by Nicole Najmah Abraham

What is the job of an Imam? In the most basic sense it is simply to lead the prayers including the Friday Jummuah. But what does it usually mean in our communities? Often the Imam becomes our prayer leader, our counselor, our adviser, our teacher, Masjid maintenance, our match maker, etc. It’s not to say that’s wrong but when the average salary of an Imam is $30,000 it may be too much to ask. The job of our Imam becomes a full time never ending task list and worst yet none of this is really in the job description.

When someone becomes an Imam they’re usual called to do so because they are the most knowledgeable in Islamic matters in their community. Fundraising for a leaky roof, answering 2am calls from a single mother kicked out of her home and helping congregants get married isn’t explained as part of the job. Worse of all is this, when an Imam allegedly falls short of his duties he is blamed as being unworthy of a position whose expectations were never clearly laid out. How many other positions work that way? How can we accuse any religious leader of being incompetent if we keep the job position so vague?

More recently I’ve heard talk from many that religious leaders need to be trained counselors, trained in leadership, trained in social media, etc.  Well two issues I find with this is one questioning the merit of increasing the role of the imam instead of inviting more people in to take on the leadership work in the Muslim community, secondly if we are going to officially increase the responsibility of the Imam and increase his necessary qualifications, are we willing to officially increase their pay? Are we willing to pay for this increased training? In my opinion the idea of the Imam being the end all be all in any community is a bad one. We have Muslim psychologists, building maintenance workers, fundraising professionals, etc. in our communities, instead of asking the Imam to do more why not ask less? While others help with community leadership by contributing their skills? Why would we want one man to to be our end all only to then criticize him when he falls short? More of us Muslim professionals -especially in high paying professions, need to volunteer our time to help in our communities. I see the job of the Imam as being closer to a ‘scholar in residence’, the Imam has usually spent years of his life studying Islam, let him teach the people, answer their fiqh questions, lead the salah, etc. and free him of periphery responsibilities that can be better filled by people trained in those areas. But whatever any community decides an Imam should be, let the job description be clear before hire.

Unfinished Business (Review in progress)

August 4, 2016

UnfinishedBusinessSome time back I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s excellent essay in The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All‘. It was a much-needed response to the nauseating cry that women in the 21st century, in the West, can ‘have it all‘. The car, the kids, the husband, the education and the career not to mention the beauty and the ever youthful glow. I remember being in a grad school class on Motherhood and a similar subject came up. I said, with the exhaustion I felt, that the expectations on women seemed to have grown exponentially since our fore-mothers. It was once satisfactory for a woman to receive a high school or college education, then get married and settle down -maybe she’d work for some time before finding Mr. Right, but it was perfectly acceptable for a woman’s life to be linear -this, then this, then this. But now we are expected to, in the decades of our twenties and thirties, get a higher education, get married, have children, start a career, and maintain societal beauty expectations all at the same time.

It’s no longer acceptable to simply go to school and then get married, one who does is considered to have given up on life and lack motivation. Worse yet, if a woman decides to do as society tells her, to get the job the husband and the kid, she’s still judged as too weak-willed and unmotivated -and not “leaning in”, if she decides to work in a career that offers more flexibility and less prestige. So many aspects of this dramatic change have not really been contemplated by modern society. For one, when a woman is pushed to be just as successful as her male counterpart: What happens to the kids? What we forgot, as Slaughter so aptly puts in her book, “The men who have chosen to make that trade-off over the decades have… been supported… by full-time or at least lead care givers”. When women with husbands and children make the decision to lean in yes the husband may “step-up” to help more, but it largely means the children are simply getting less care. Which, as hard as we may attempt to ignore as a society, is not only a problem for the kids but for the mother as well. I’m also currently reading Maternal Desire by Daphne De Marneffe and she discusses the fact that we’ve had a very real problem in the West being honest about maternal desire, the idea that a woman may in fact want to raise her children as a primary responsibility. These conversations are difficult to have because being honest about the differences between men and women have become taboo in our society. But whether the desire to care or the willingness of women to be full-time parents as their mates pursue their career is biologically driven or socially based doesn’t really matter in my view, what matters more is the here and now.

What do women feel here and now? What do women want? Instead of women like Sheryl Sandberg telling us what we should want or what we should do, instead of telling us to ‘lean in’ why don’t we deal on-the-ground asking women what they want out of life? And if the answer is spending more time with children, raising a family, why don’t we give them the best solutions? ‘Women can have it all’ is a nice slogan, but it is just a slogan and Slaughter, in her book is peeling back from the slogans and asking questions about reality. We have to be honest about all of what we want in life and also how we want it, we also need to be honest about the sacrifices we will have to make. But this also isn’t an individual decision that we must all make on our own, as Slaughters point out, a lot of woman are being pushed out of the workforce because their jobs are simply too rigid. As a society and as individuals we made many dramatic changes post feminism but now that we’ve accepted a new normal we have to ask ourselves if we can do better and if our times call for a new movement and new ideals and a more balanced approach towards work and family life.

Women, the Tariq and marriage

August 1, 2016

D56H22 Paper doll graffiti in a public street - Rome

I once reflected on why it might be that in the past Sufi Tariqas, including my own, have not been filled with many female students. Of course, modern day women would say it’s because of plain ‘sexism’ but I wonder if it was not the wisdom of the women of the past not to be involved in a Tariqa. When you’re a religious woman, as you probably are if you’re in or considering joining a Tariqa, the sheikh becomes the only man outside of your family that you are emotionally and spiritually connected to. When you get married your husband would then become the second man you’re close to outside of your family. That’s where the issue begins. Men don’t like competition even if the competition is an old man and spiritual saint. There’s a difference between chatting with him about how amazing and clever your dad is as opposed to how amazing and clever your sheikh is. Our Sufi sheikhs take up a major place in our heart -for both men and women, but for women that space may lead her husband to be jealous or plain annoyed as I’ve been told by some female mureeds.

Our Sufi sheikhs are also our guides in life. If the sheikh says not to do something, you don’t do it (Or begin your journey of struggling against it until you stop). But what if your sheikhs’ advice is opposed to what your husband wants? If your sheikh tells women to wear a looser version of hijab indoors but your husband enjoys seeing your hair how do you think he’ll feel if you decline his interest to follow your sheikhs guidance? Our sheikhs can also guide us in the details of our lives. We ask them intimate questions about what we should do in this or that scenario, we cry in front of them, we come to them at our lowest points, we completely trust them, but what if our husband doesn’t feel the same? What if you’re going to you sheikh for advice feels more like a violation of his trust than a solution? What if he believes the vulnerability you have before your sheikh is closer to emotional cheating than it is a means of help?

I once heard a scholar say “(some) women will get their boss a cup of coffee before ever getting it for their spouse”. The related point is that we as women don’t seem to value marriage as much as it seems out foremothers once did. The idea that our independence could jeopardize our relationship and that we should care enough to reconsider that independence is a foreign idea to us. I understand, I believe, why there might not have been many women in the Tariqas of the past, they understood there was a conflict of interest. They were also wise enough to realize that marrying a man of Tassawuf would also lead them to benefit from the Tariqa without harming their marriage.

God knows best.

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