Posts from July 2017

Is nigg(er/a) really a term of endearment, or do we just not know what else to say?

July 24, 2017

man-person-black-and-white-people-photography-boy-1053497-pxhere.com“And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames.” [49:11]

Let me first say that the argument about whether white people should get to use the n-word is both tired and played out —the answer has always been no. It is a word used within a particular community and that has nothing to do with white people and needs no further explanation.

Yet unfortunately, black people do feel a need to repeatedly explain to white people faking ignorance why they shouldn’t use the word, that’s where things get tricky. The explanation goes that when we use the word it is a “term of endearment” and when white people use it, it is an insult because of the historical connections to the myriad of indecencies white people have perpetuated against black people. While I agree with the second part of that explanation, the first?  Not so much.

Nigg(er/a) is at best a neutral term when black people use it amongst each other. “Look at that nigga over there” connotes no intention of endearment, it’s simply a stand in for man/guy/brother/human being,  there is no deeper meaning except the fact that one could guess you’re talking about another black person. And yes it can even be derogatory when used between black people -not in the same way as if a white person used it but derogatory nonetheless, “You ain’t never gonna be nothing but a nigga”, is not a positive statement by any stretch of the imagination. And yes the word can be positive, “These are my main niggas, love ’em death”, ah, yes now we feel the love. But the question must be posed -positive,  negative or neutral, why exactly do we call ourselves niggas in the first place?

My parents never let me use the word, being Caribbean —and therefore a bit of an outsider from African American culture –my dad, in particular, saw nothing but hypocrisy in AAs claiming no one but us could use the word. So I never heard it said casually in my house and never used it with friends. Richard Pryor, a black comedian who —like most black comedians, used that word as often as possible, stopped using it once he came back to the U.S. from Africa, stating “I didn’t see any niggers there“. What did he mean? If nigger was a term of endearment or at worst neutral, why did he feel uncomfortable using it for Africans subsequently making him feel uncomfortable to use it at all?

Our use of the n-word only masks our pain, we tried to take the word back to no avail -we tried to take the pain back, to no avail. Sure white people will plead with us ‘hat in hand’ if they get caught using the n word, and we feel a bit of power by making them cower to us. But the reality is, it’s not stand in for the lack of apology for slavery,  Jim Crow, and the continued destruction of our bodies. It’s a facade. It’s a mirage. It’s not the thing we’re really after.

Maybe calling ourselves niggas connects us with the pain of our ancestors, a pain that was never rectified in any way what so ever. Or maybe it’s a signal that we’ve forgotten, forgotten the pain they went through making light of the word they might have heard last before being hung from a tree. It’s hard to know —how can you dig into the unconscious of a people? But it is clear that we have an unhealthy attachment to that word –and how can we not, how many centuries can a people be called something and not begin to think that’s exactly what they are?

And it’s pointless for anyone to get on their high horse and simply state that we ought to stop using the word, I agree with Ice Cube who said, “that’s our word”, it is -but why is it our word? Why do we hold on to it so tight?  Why do we refuse to let it go?

Stop teaching your kids to speak up

July 17, 2017

If you grew up a generation or two before mine —or within particular cultures (Caribbean or African for example), you know that when you were a kid, no one really cared about what you had to say. There was such a thing as a “grown ups table” and a “kid’s table” at large family gatherings. You knew that you ought to speak when you’re called upon, and not any sooner. You knew that if your parents were retelling a story incorrectly and you happened to know the real story —it’s best to keep your mouth shut. Repressive, no?

But something much worse has happened in the generations that came after, kids are not only be allowed to speak in adult conversations, they are encouraged. I remember a shuyukh once recalling an incident where two children were in his midst, he remarked to his teacher at how smart the talkative one must be but the teacher disagreed, it was the quieter one who probably possessed superior intelligence.

Smart people know when to be quiet. If I’m in a room full of chemists talking about chemistry I’d be best to listen and hold my thoughts or pose them as questions so I could learn if I’m in a room of psychologists or students of psychology, I should feel comfortable speaking up as appropriately as my knowledge allows. Children don’t have anything to offer an adult conversation but they aren’t yet smart enough to realize that, they have to be taught. The old system where you kept quiet if adults were talking wasn’t repressive as much as it was an initiation process into adulthood. Slowly, as you learn more, as you know more, and as you grow older, you begin to join the conversation while still holding your elders in esteem. But entering the conversation arbitrarily —talking just to talk or to make our kids feel important, does nothing but inflate their ego and give them and an unhealthy sense of self. It is why students in college stand up in lecture halls to give their opinion and debate known experts, they’ve been taught from an early age that their opinions —no matter how ill informed, matter.

At some point we became obsessed with children having good self-esteem, so we began to do everything we could to heap on the praise, ensure they know they’re loved no matter what and to always listen to them. But what is the use of an inflated ego based on nothing but external gratification for which you’ve done nothing to deserve? As my dear father explained to us recently, when you overpraise a child you lead them to believe that they are important in and of themselves, leading to a self-absorption that says, “I’m great because I’m great,” yet how can one not also develop a fragile ego under the veneer of greatness when they are fully aware they’ve done nothing to deserve praise? Yes, you love your child no matter what, but giving them a reality check to let them know that actually they don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute to a conversation with adults whose life experience —if nothing else, informs their opinion and that the moments when the child is called to speak amongst them is a privilege. This creates a healthy respect for knowledge. People, who know something —whether through book knowledge or experience and people who don’t, are not the same, can we please stop teaching the younger generation that they are?


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Learn about how the concept of childhood has changed over time and varies between the West and traditional Islamic teachings, sign up for my upcoming course: nooralshadhili.com/childhoodandsociety

There is no reading of Islam that supports terrorism -or homosexuality

July 11, 2017

Liberals and far right conservatives (within and outside the Muslim community) have the same problem -they think that one can read absolutely anything into Islam/Islamic texts (primarily the Quran and Hadith). Reza Aslan, bless his heart, continuously goes on TV and talks about his “version” or “interpretation” of Islam, his “reading” of the Quran and his “understanding” of a Hadith. Let me make a note that I actually do like Reza Aslan on many fronts and appreciate his defense of Islam and criticism of Western hypocrisy but in some ways he makes the same error as far-right Islamophobes, far left Islamophobes (I.e. Sam Harris, Bill Maher), and Salafis -he believes that all interpretations are legitimate interpretations.

It’s true that when one reads the Quran they come to it with their own baggage and life experience, no one reading can purely asses what God Himself meant but that doesn’t mean everyone’s interpretation is equally valid. There is a myth that gets repeatedly pass around in the Muslim community that says that unlike Catholics, Muslims to not have central religious leadership. This is sometimes said in a positive way and sometimes in a negative light but the biggest issue with it is that it is simply not true. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “Scholars are the inheritors of the prophets.” [Related byTirmidhi] Since the death of the Prophet, peace to him, Muslims have followed scholarship that is until there was the Wahhabi movement which won over the hearts and minds of many Muslims by telling them they didn’t need to listen to scholars, no -they just need to follow the Quran and Sunnah. While I’m not interested and no have the ability to give an extensive account of that history, it left us in the state we are today where we believe that reading the Quran and Hadith directly is somehow following the sunnah more than if we were to follow scholarship.

Reza Aslan is right in pointing out that we all come to the religious texts with ourselves (our context) and our understanding is tinted by our personal realities but that is precisely the reason we depend on scholarship. A man prone to wife beating is going to enjoy interpreting verse 3:34 as an allowance to beat his wife whenever and however he likes, a woman leaning towards homosexuality will happily interpret the story of Lot not as a punishment for the sin of homosexuality but as a punishment for rape, a man who enjoys being authoritative would be absolutely gleeful to interpret the story of Kidr and Musa as meaning that authority should be listened to without question. This is the reality, yes -but it is also the problem.

A scholar -though they too are not perfect and they too will make mistakes, can tell us the context of these verses, their ruling as it pertains to various areas of life, how they can be understood through a Fiqh lens and the lens of tassawuf, how the companions understood it, what did the prophet do or say in relation to it, what are the verses that connect to those verses to give us a fuller meaning and so on and so forth. Yes, a scholar can be incorrect, insincere and make mistakes. But to pretend that their mistakes are equal to ours is a self-delusion -Is the one who knows like the one who doesn’t know? (39:9) God probes us in the Quran.

The mistake of the wife beater who wishes to believe he has a God-given right to abuse his spouse and the mistake of the homosexual who wishes to interpret away God’s punishment for the sin of homosexuality is the same. One may say they are Salafi and the other may say they are Progressive but they are in fact in the same camp -they want Islam to fit into their already predetermined ideology, that is a grave mistake.

One of the companions -Ibn Majah, may God be pleased with him, said: “When we were young we learned Aqidah (Islamic belief system) then we learned Quran and it increased our belief”. Sadly we lack -in some ways for reasons beyond our control, a systematic approach to learning Islam. We buy sophisticated books of tassawuf before we ever receive a basic education in Aqidah. For this reason one of my shuyukh ruminated on the danger of our printing fever -classical works of Islam are being translated into English and available for all to read, but without the scholarship to match -what use is it? The saints and scholars who wrote these books often didn’t intend for a wide readership, they were guide books for other scholars to teach their students.

Fringe interpretations of Islam and Islamic texts can only be demolished once we reinstate the value of scholarship in our understanding of Islam, without that -all claims will be equal, and equally dangerous.

Necessary Losses | Visual

July 5, 2017

Necessary Losses

July 3, 2017

I don’t know how mothers do it so gracefully, whenever I think about it makes me a bit mournful.

I’ve been a close part of my eldest niece and nephew’s lives for a large part of their early years. I saw them both the day they were born, carried them when they wept, fed them when they were hungry, played with them, laughed with them and comforted them when they cried. I tried to teach them good values and be a listening ear.

Now, they’re teenagers. My nephew stands about two inches above me, my niece plasters on makeup like a pro. They are, in many ways, different people. People I don’t know as much about as I once did. Their problems are no longer about learning the value of sharing toys. I feel more concerned for them now than I did when they could barely feed themselves. Are they getting a decent education? Is my niece being harassed by the boys when she walks down the street or the halls of her high school —like I was? Is my nephew kind to girls his age? Is it wise of him to pursue football? Will he really benefit from studying overseas? Is my niece trying her best in school? Is she getting involved in the nonsense gossip and girl clicks? Are they positive influences on their friends? Are their friend’s decent people?

And on and on. Maybe it’s because of those questions and the deep involvement in them that allow mothers to not experience the pain of loss —or maybe they do but never share it with us? Since the time of our birth all we do is grow and become increasingly independent until we eventually leave them. We start our lives dependent on their very bodies, then we’re born and completely dependent on their care. Soon we learn to crawl so they don’t have to carry us every place we’d like to go. Then we learn to walk, they cheer us on until we no longer need their help to move about, we don’t have the limitations of crawling and or the confinement of our initial immobility. We also stop needing their bodies for nutrition. Once their bodies were our sole source of nutrition. Then they start to feed us bits of soft food along with breastmilk until eventual they remove us (or we remove ourselves) and allow us to fully enjoy the range of tastes known to mankind. They still feed us, no longer with their bodies but with the preparation of their hands. Chopping things and mixing things, stirring and using fire —which they warn us not to touch. She might hit us if we try to come close, we’re confused that mother —our source of all that is good, would hit us, we don’t realize that only someone who doesn’t care would let us touch the fire.

Soon we’ll get dressed by ourselves, we’ll even argue with mother about which clothes we’d like to wear. She’ll guide our choices without being too imposing. Once in a while she’ll give in and let us wear those old bunny ears that were only for the school play. As we grow we become even more independent. Somehow mother gracefully guides us without constantly weeping over memories of the small innocent wide-eyed baby that is no longer. Sometimes the tension will grow between who we want to be and who they believe we ought to be. We grow angry because we think,”who is she to tell me anything, this is my life!” We forget that once there was no she and us, there was only one. She gave us her all and we consumed the nutrients in her body like leeches, giving back nothing in return.

How does it not tear mothers apart that the once inseparable bond will never be again? How do you deal with the fact that the small baby that once smiled at your very presence now sometimes scowls or frowns? If you were self-absorbed, as most of the world is, you wouldn’t let us grow, you wouldn’t teach us to be independent, you would force us into servitude until we paid back every ounce of your exhaustion, every pain in you’re pushing, every “pick me up” you obliged to —but you don’t. You let us grow and go and hold us in your every prayer hoping God will stay close to us even if you can’t. Do you ever miss that all dependent baby you rocked in your arms? Or do you simply realize it was a necessary loss?

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