Reflections

We have to talk about male modesty

December 5, 2017

The bare minimum for a man to cover his ‘awra’ (‘nakedness’ according to Islamic law) is much less than that for women. Men must cover from their navel to their knees and women must cover all of themselves except their hands and face. That is the law, but the spirit of Islam dictates that male modesty in practice is relatively similar to female modesty. It’s always baffled when the West criticizes the way Muslim women in particular dress around the world (calling their style of dress ‘backwards’ or ‘oppressive’), I think to myself But the men are dressed almost identically? In the Emirates where women dress in long flowing abayas, covering their heads and often covering their faces as well, men dress in long white thobes and also cover their heads. That is just one example among many, throughout the Muslim world the standard dress for both men and women has been long and loose clothing covering most of the body, some men —like the Tuareg (Mali), also cover their faces.

This is not the case, however, in the West. While many Muslim women retain their Islamic head covering and relatively modest clothing. Many Muslim men opt out of looking distinctly Muslim. They give no outward signal that they share the faith of their covered female counterparts, they instead look indistinguishable from non-Muslim men. And for the most part, as with women’s fashion, Western men’s fashion is immodest.

The typical style of men’s clothing is ‘separates’, i.e. pants and a shirt that give maybe 1-3 inches of space from the body, this being the case it often outlines the shape of a man’s body to the point that you could recognize the one who exercises regularly from one who doesn’t. On top of showcasing the outline of one’s body, exposure of one’s ‘nakedness’ is highly plausible. A typical shirt will reach slightly above the hip bone (far from the knees). Despite the very low requirement for the coverage of male ‘nakedness’, many men are barely fulfilling it, a man in the typical t-shirt and jeans outfit is likely to expose his back throughout the day —when he sits, when he bends down and other minor movements. While men’s hair is by far not as attractive as women’s hair, traditionally it would be covered, instead, in our culture, Muslim men mimic their non-Muslim counterparts with the latest trendy haircut.

I’m by far not making a “what about men” argument as a retort to the excessive attention on the way women dress —women, in general, are more attractive than men and so maybe it is appropriate to spend more time discussing female modesty, its requirements, and its virtues, but that doesn’t excuse the overwhelming silence from many male shuyukh concerning male modesty. There are few exceptions, of all the lectures I’ve attended or listened to I’ve only heard male modesty discussed three times. Both Shaykh Rami Nsour and Imam Zaid have suggested Muslim men wear kufis in solidarity with Muslim women. This is a valuable contribution to the relatively mute discussion on male modesty. As Muslim minorities, Muslim women often get the brunt of Anti-Muslim abuse (though on the opposite end it allows us to be on the frontline of dawa), if more Muslim men would boldly “dress like Muslims” maybe some of that negativity could fall on to them. But this should not be the only reason Muslim men consider dressing more modestly. Modest dress is a part of our faith and so it is their duty as much as it is ours to dress as modestly as possible.

The third exception to this nearly mute conversation on men’s modesty was during a three-day seminar with Sheikh Nuh Ha Meem Keller, may God preserve him. He dictates a particular code of dress for those who come to seek knowledge with him —both men and women. Once during a gathering, he told a man in the audience, who was in the process of asking him a question, that he ought to cover his head, then tossed him a kufi. I recall him saying that it did not befit the status of knowledge (that one should have their head uncovered).

What we wear contributes to our mood, says something about who we are, and advertises our values to the world —it doesn’t tell the whole story, but it says something and both Muslim men and Muslim women need to be conscious of that. Umm Sahl, a shaykha in Jordan, once told us, “The dress of righteous people has always been the same”. Look across religions and cultures at priests, monks, nuns, Imams and their followers, the dress is always the same —loose, long, covered and often unassuming. Modesty is not gender-specific, somewhere along the way Muslim men in the West got way too comfortable with barely fulfilling the minimum all while criticising Muslim women —a bit of a ‘pot calling the kettle black’ scenario, this has been the case for far too long. While the conversation on women’s modesty should continue, male shuyukh need to take the time out to scold their brethren for opting out of modesty and taking the easy road of assimilation.

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Freedom to choose

October 16, 2017

Art by Bobbie Burgers

There’s an old saying that behind every great man is a great woman, I think most of us still believe that but we nevertheless would rather the woman stand for herself instead of behind her man. A lot of what feminists —Muslim feminists included, complain about and fight against are legitimate concerns, but in reality, within an Islamic framework, that fight would cease to exist. In American society, there was a time when women were told they ought to stand behind their man. That the only appropriate role for a woman was that of housewife and mother. That is a deeply limiting view of women and one that should have been —and successfully was, fought against. But it’s a fight that has no relevance in Islam.

In Islam, women are told that within their marriage they must make their bodies available to their husbands, that is the most explicit command. Cleaning the house and cooking are not explicit duties of the wife. As one Islamic teacher explained, “At least in the Shafi’i school… the wife’s primary obligation and role is not taking care of the house, but taking care of herself for her husband to enjoy being with her physically”. While I’m sure there will still be women and non-Muslims who find that responsibility “oppressive,” it is still a lot less restrictive than what was expected of the ideal 1950s American housewife (and less overwhelming than what is expected of the modern wife —that she works full time outside the home, be sexually available to her husband —and still end up taking care of most of the housework and childcare). One cannot simply take the feminist fight to any and every community, sometimes it simply doesn’t apply (Hence my issue with “patriarchy” being seen as a worldwide system that oppresses women and uplifts men). But, it is important to make the point that some Muslim men, some Muslim communities and some Muslim-majority countries will reinforce these narratives of the ideal housewife as if it is part of Islam —some also think wives have to serve the husband’s mothers or that having a daughter is shameful, these are unfortunate cultural attitudes that persist in some Muslim-majority countries despite Islam, not because of it.

As Muslim women we have to realize that our framework is completely different, outside of “conjugal rights” to our spouses, we have a great deal of freedom in choosing our life’s path —in some ways we have more freedom than the men who are charged with making a living to take care of us. This freedom opens a world of possibilities that neither chains us to a particular narrative nor forces us to fight against one. That allows us the freedom to work outside the home, yes —but it also gives us the freedom to be homemakers, to fully embrace either role without force or embarrassment.

And a lot of women would choose to be homemakers if they felt free to do so:

“Working mothers with small children now say they work, “Because I have to.” Why do so many women say that? If we have been freed from oppression and are supposed to be liberated, then how has it come to pass that so many women are forced to do what they do not want.” — Wendy Shalit, Return to Modesty

Islam gave women the perfect framework —freedom to choose homemaking, working outside the home, or something else entirely. We have to stop fighting a fight that isn’t ours. In fact, we have a way out for all women through the lens of Islam.

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Related: Daniel Haqiqatjou’s (pronounced: Ha-qee-qat-joo) article on feminism, here and my video response, here.

Join our monthly reflections on womanhood, femininity, and faith (starting this November): bythefigandtheolive.com/reflections and sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Womanhood, Femininity & Faith: Monthly Reflections

October 9, 2017

Our monthly reflections will serve as a continuation of our 3-day workshop: Womanhood, Femininity & Faith (Nooralshadhili.com): “In modern society, much of what was once sacred about womanhood has been lost in the constant urge to be “equal” to men. This workshop is meant to explore what it means and has meant to be a woman outside of superficial rhetoric that we can “do everything men can do”. We want to explore the distant feelings, voices, contributions and even relationship to God that women have.”

Here are some of the topics we plan to discuss:

Each month we will present a different topic from a social science perspective, Islamic foundation, and societal framework followed by discussion. Each session will run about 2 hours. Here are some of the topics we plan to discuss:

+Seeking Knowledge

+Modesty

+Femininity

+Inspiring Men

+Faith

$100 for the entire year (2018) pay here: http://bit.ly/2yrLGHD

Family Ties

October 2, 2017

A week or so ago my dad, sister and I were talking about the family, not simply our immediate or extended family but our entire lineage as far back as we knew it. My dad held a lot of people in his memory, my sister had done some extensive research. Family trees go something like this, first you pick a parent, then you look at their parents, their parents’ siblings and their parents’ parents, once you look at their parents’ parents and their parent’s siblings you can either briefly avert the ascending order to go down and discuss your parent’s cousins or continue up. We could also simply start with my sister and me’s generation including all siblings and cousins they proceed upward to our parent generation continuously until we get as far as we can, or we can start from my niece’s generation —which would be the youngest generation, explore cousins then move up to parents —essentially start with the youngest, move one up through parents note all peoples (cousins and siblings) of that generation then endlessly move upward in the same manner until memory and research wanes. So there are two things we use when exploring lineage: Relation through marriage and relationship through blood. But what about when the first begins to fall apart?

Looking back at our lineage there were two categories of people that didn’t quite fit, “Outside children” and adopted children. These are only a few instances but they stood out —the first had blood relations but were produced outside of marriage, the second had neither blood nor marriage relations but was chosen to be part of the family for one reason or another. Adopted children, though notable, aren’t alarming. Adopting a child is a noble act whose good deed will always be remembered, however simultaneously it’s understood that though this person is a chosen part of our family they technically aren’t part of our family, they have their own parents, their own siblings and their own roots. But “outside children,” feel like a stain on the family name —a permanent reminder of one person’s misstep, disloyalty, and sin. The mother or father of the child born out of wedlock and not related by blood will more than likely be remembered as a ghostly figure from an incident everyone wants to forget —they conjure up images of a sneaky, deceitful, lying family member whose sin was brought to light through the birth of a child. One incident disrupts the entire family tree.

But “outside children” were an anomaly as far as we know —one or two names could be recalled as ancestors born outside of wedlock. And despite its mark on the family tree, the lineage continues since there was at least still a legitimate family, the “outside child” stands outside of the legitimate family. But what about now? Again, lineage is through two things: Marriage or blood relations. It started in my parent’s generation and to a greater extent in my own generation, blood relations continue i.e. people continue to have children, but creating relations through marriage is nearly disappearing.

One parent’s parent has children out of wedlock, that we still haven’t met. We don’t know who these people are and they remain shadowy figures. On that same parent’s side, all siblings are married, though most had children before wedlock and later married the parent of their children, there is no divorce in that generation, in the following generation (mine) only one has a child out of wedlock with plans to later marry the parent of that child, everyone else is either married with children, married without children, or still single —and two were previously married before their current marriage —one with children from that marriage one without children from the previous marriage. In my other parent’s generation (siblings and cousins), most are divorced or never married, those who are still married with kids are in the minority. In the following generation (mine), of people with children there is an even split between those who are married with children and those who are not married with children (and have never been married, i.e. had children out of wedlock), people divorced with children and people who are single with no children are in the minority.

As I thought about all this I began to conjure up an image in my mind of all these newly nonexistent horizontal relationships, all we have left is vertical. This is how my mind saw it, horizontal is marriage, two people choosing to come together, two people choosing to continue their family lineage together. Two people making a choice to choose each other in the union of marriage that will produce a new generation of children (that is the vertical relationship). Think of how powerful that is? The horizontal (marriage) is the only relationship in our family we get to choose, we don’t get to choose our children, our siblings, our parents, our cousins, Aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. but we get to choose our spouse (which also means actively choosing the person we have children with since many will consider whether or not someone will be a good parent before committing to them in marriage whereas that consideration doesn’t often take place when people have children out of wedlock). And that spouse leads to a connection with an entire lineage of their own. And even more powerful than the individual choice, we bring this person into our entire family, this person becomes —simply through marriage, they become someone’s Aunt/Uncle, Cousin, Granduncle/GreatAunt, Son (in law), Brother (in law), and Nephew (in law). But what about when you simply have a child with someone? That person becomes nothing to no one, s/he is simply the mother/father of that child. More than likely we won’t even remember their names. Admittedly I didn’t have a big wedding myself but I do appreciate what big weddings do, they explicitly bring two families together through the union of two individuals. But even without the big wedding, marriage still holds the same weight, when you get married people rightfully want to know who is this person that you’ve brought into the family —what’s their name and when can we meet them? We don’t take the same interest in the parent of someone’s child not linked through marriage. We take some interest if the family member is in some kind of relationship with that person, but without marriage, we unconsciously note that this relationship isn’t serious enough to take a real interest in —one year they’re at the family gathering, next year they’re not and no one will think much of it. That person was never a part of our family, only the product of their union is. Blood or marriage, nothing else.

In the conversation of marriage, divorce, children out of wedlock, and “outside children” we can’t fail to include the larger picture of ours ascending and descending familial connections, people who never marry or produce children don’t add to our family, people who have children out of wedlock passively add to our family, those who divorce with children break family ties and those who have “outside children” create a black spot on the family name that people would rather ignore. Only the people who marry and produce children through that marriage actively shape the fate of our family.

Is it any surprise then that in many other cultures families involve themselves in choosing the spouses of younger generations —that they want a say in the shaping of their family? It’s also why divorce, out of wedlock births and “outside children” are taken so deeply personal by every family member (dishonor, disgrace, shameful), in reality, they’re not the ones in err, we are for not realizing how impactful marriage is for the entire family.

One of my uncle’s recently remarked at a family gathering how important education was to our family. His parents were educated, instilled education in him and his siblings and they instilled education in us. Looking around the room at our family we could all feel proud of our educational backgrounds, some with college degrees and others in the process. For at least three generations the importance of education was actively instilled in our family, we already know the importance of having intergenerational values yet somehow forgot to pass on the importance of creating a family in and of itself.

There have been black families in the U.S. that actively decided —generation after generation, only to marry light skin people. This wasn’t internalized racism, this was a matter of survival. Back then and there are still remnants of it now, having lighter skin could not only give you better opportunities, it could save your life. And so they preserved their light skin, in order to protect their family.

Kings and Queens have, for time immemorial, only married other people of royalty. Not because there weren’t beautiful kind people among non-Royalty but because they wanted to continue the legacy of royalty for their entire family lineage.

Many of the prophet’s marriages, peace and blessing to him, actively linked together warring tribes —in one such marriage immediately after his marriage every single bondsman from the tribe of his new wife was freed. His cooled tensioned between the tribes and linked them together for all time to come.

Black Muslims often view the Pakistani imperative for their children to become doctors and lawyers and only marry Pakistani doctors and lawyers with disgust. Yet, however racist or elitist it may be, at least they understand what exactly the point of marriage is —actively choosing who becomes a part of your family and making an effort to shape their family as they choose.

Black people in particular and slowly American society at large, have forgotten what marriage is for and what it can do. Marriage creates a family, people who are a part of your family through marriage are the only members you get to choose. So why are we so mum on this issue? Why are we passing up the opportunity to create the family we want? Why don’t we have a vision for the kind of family we’d like to create? That doesn’t mean adopting the ways of Kings or discriminating cultures, but it does mean taking family very seriously. That starts with ourselves, we can continue to talk about how “unrealistic” abstinence before marriage is -for instance, or we can begin to understand how damaging having children out of wedlock is, not merely to the products of that union but to our entire family lineage. We need to understand how grave a mistake it is to not actively establish a family instead of passively having one (having children out of wedlock), and we need to think about what exactly our contribution to the families going to be.

When we discuss the breakdown of the family in the Black community and society at large we can’t forget the magnitude of what that means. We are failing to actively create our families we are failing to shape our future —we’re failing to even have a vision for what we might want it to be. Passively adding to the family instead of actively establishing a family is a dishonor on the entire family —immediate and intergenerational, precisely because the one who does so passes up a powerful opportunity to shape our legacy. We need to instill intergenerational values in our families —like education, honesty, and hard work, but the most important thing we can instill is the value of family itself. We should tell future generations to find someone out there in the world that will add value to their lives, a positive contribution to your entire family, and someone whose family would greatly benefit our own.

When we talk about what we want in a spouse we should be focused primarily on the things that will have a positive lasting impact on generations to come. If we considered the reality of our interconnectedness as a family we’d think twice before stepping out on our spouse or engaging in pre-marital sex, really wouldn’t seem worth it. The reason so many people are divorced, having children out of wedlock or outside of one’s marriage is that we’ve made marriage into a selfish act that is solely concerned with the happiness of two people but that was and never will be the reality. It’s no wonder God calls divorce the most hated of allowed things —there is a need for it, sometimes things just don’t work out but the destruction it causes becomes perfectly plain when you consider the consequences on the entire immediate family, extended family, and generations to come. And it’s no wonder one of my shuyukh compared a child being born out of wedlock to death itself if we could see long-term fruits of its destruction we’d run away from it quicker than we’d run from a blazing fire.

We don’t have to refine our marriage choices as much as Kings and Queens do, nor do we have to engage in honor killings to understand the grave importance of marriage selection and reserving one’s virginity until after marriage. All we have to do is think about the family tree, what would we like it to look like? Do we want our lineage filled with vertical lines of child to parent but missing the horizontal lines that should go from husband to wife? Do we want our descendants to have second-hand shame because distant relatives didn’t honor their marriage? Do we want there to be a ton of blurry parental figure whose names we don’t know because they and our relatives never married? And do we want broken horizontal lines from failed marriages? And though it is no sin to remain unmarried and childless, do we really want no part in shaping the family lineage? Our lineage, these vertical and horizontal relationships, are the very core of who we are. We have complete control over the latter —so why aren’t we using it?

A walk down honesty lane: Consensual illicit relationships in the Muslim community

September 26, 2017

I’ve discussed the issue of shaykhy crush/fangirling from both the student and teacher’s perspective before and as much as many seem to enjoy creating villains and victims I don’t think most of these cases are as clear-cut as people would like to pretend they are. A victim is someone who is preyed upon, a villain (predator) is someone who preys upon others. The problem is most of these relationships are quite murky and don’t fit into this clear-cut victim-villain/prey-predator dynamic. In some ways I think people already know this. But newer definitions of what exactly a victim (prey) is, causes us to view even consensual relationships through the prey-predator prism.

It should be clear that a relationship merely being consensual doesn’t make it halal. At the same time, a relationship being haram doesn’t equal it being predatory. Nevertheless, many still categorize shuyookh as predators and their behavior as predatory in consensual illicit relationships. This is because they believe the uneven power dynamics in these relationships to be inherently harmful. The activist wing in and outside of the Muslim community believe that women can be victims even in a consensual relationship especially if the man is in a position of power. If a consensual haram act takes place between a sheikh, imam, or celebrity scholar and his female student he becomes the predator and she the prey. He used his power to tantalize her into a secret marriage, emotional relationship, degrading social (media) exchanges, and the like. I understand this narrative and for the most part, I geared towards until very recently. I understand the comfort a woman can take in portraying herself —both to herself and to the public, as a victim and the man as the evil sheikh. The problem is, it very often isn’t the whole truth. If women were completely transparent about these situations, they would admit to often being just as culpable as the men.

While it’s fair to say the one with more knowledge deserves more blame, it doesn’t take years of Islamic studies to know the basics of right and wrong. But what’s also problematic is the fact that quite often these relationships enter into a “grey area” without ever crossing any technically haram boundaries. For instance, what are we to think when a leader is accused of “spiritual/emotional abuse”? What does that mean and how do we deal with that as a community? Is a shuyookh “predatory” if he entertains marriage proposals from his students? Is it problematic for a female student to “offer herself” in marriage to her teacher? Is it an abuse of power if he accepts? I don’t know that there are explicit answers to these questions and I don’t know that its fair for our shuyookh to be labeled as predatory in any of these scenarios.

Yes, it may be true that a woman leaves one of these relationships feeling used and abused but it’s probably also true that the relationship was not one-sided, while it lasted it’s doubtful that the women in these scenarios didn’t enjoy the attention and special treatment that being around the sheikh permitted. The problem with seeing one’s self as solely a victim is that it alleviates one from responsibility, it creates a false picture whereby the woman is just an innocent party something happened to and not an adult with agency fully able to choose to engage or disengage in that relationship. It important to understand how difficult it is to get out of a relationship with a “power” man, but difficult doesn’t equal impossible and it’s in the difficult situations that we get to test our moral character. Even if you put most of the moral obligation on the man, the woman still has her part to play.

I also question the categorization of these relationships as predatory because I question whether or not an uneven power dynamic is an inherently negative thing. In some ways I agree with this stance because those in power over others naturally have an opportunity to oppress them through that power —if the man is more knowledgeable than she can be manipulated by him because of her lack of knowledge, if he is wealthier than her she can be oppressed through her dependence on his wealth, if he is her teacher she may fear bad grades if she doesn’t cave to his will, if he’s her boss she may fear being fired if she doesn’t do what he wants, if he is the community leader she may fear isolation if she doesn’t give in to his demands, and on and on. As real and as dire as this power dynamic is, it bypasses something more fundamental that we all intuitively know —women (often) desire to be with men who have a higher status (greater power) than themselves.

When things go bad it’s easy to blame the power dynamic and to categorize the more powerful person (the man) as a predator and the less powerful (woman) as a victim —for instance, once the secret marriage is in shambles it’s easy to say the sheikh forced her into such a union but the reality may be that she was willing to bypass her wali and agree to the marriage because she desperately wanted a part of the perceived power this sheikh possessed. If we’re honest with ourselves as women —despite society deeply desiring our dishonesty, we sometimes do crazy things to be with powerful men. Whether it’s the fangirls sneaking backstage to be close to their favorite musician or the fangirls sending secret messages to their favorite shuyokh “offering themselves” for marriage, many of us have a thing for powerful men and will do a lot of crazy nonsense to be around them. To pretend as if we don’t actively participate in pursuing these relationships is disingenuous and frankly, infantilizing.

None of this means men in power don’t bear the brunt of responsibility —they do (with great power comes great responsibility), and no man who engages in unIslamic characteristics should be put forth as a leader —we can do better than to have leaders who engage in blatantly haram or questionable activity especially involving the opposite sex, but it doesn’t do us any favors if we as women continue to play the victim game. Your Islamic knowledge is your responsibility and Allah gives us all an inner conscious to guide us in questionable situations. To pretend as if the women who get involved in these relationships don’t know —for instance, that zina is haram, secret marriages are questionable, sending illicit picture is a bad idea, etc. is to say that women are somehow desperately ignorant of the religion and should be treated like children who don’t know even the basics, that’s insulting and I have a hard time believing it’s anywhere near the truth.

This essay isn’t meant to overlook the actions of the shuyookh, men who behave like that or who constantly draw suspicious attention to themselves through questionable actions don’t deserve to be our leaders. But can we stop treating women like damsels in distress? Even if we put 90% of the onus on men when these relationships are consensual there are no victims and villains, just a lot of sinful folks in need of repentance.

May Allah restore our adab and give us guidance in this increasingly “grey” world.
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What is lawful is evident and what is unlawful is evident, and in between them are the things doubtful which many people do not know. So he who guards against doubtful things keeps his religion and honor blameless, and he who indulges in doubtful things indulges in fact in unlawful things, just as a shepherd who pastures his animals round a preserve will soon pasture them in it. Beware, every king has a preserve, and the things God has declared unlawful are His preserves. Beware, in the body there is a piece of flesh; if it is sound, the whole body is sound and if it is corrupt the whole body is corrupt, and hearken it is the heart.” (Muslim, 1599)

[To note: I hope it’s completely obvious to any Muslim that in the case of non-consensual relationships we get the secular law involved. If anyone (especially among our leaders) is known to be involved in or in serious suspicion of committing domestic violence, molestation, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, etc., they should be prosecuted and punished in a court of law, as one sheikh said, “If someone acts like a kafir, treat them like one”.]

“Let him make the living, and you make life worth living”

August 1, 2017

Decided to make a video today discussing one of my favorite books, Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin. I read this book quite a few years ago -before getting married and now I’m rereading it. The book is such a powerful reminder in a society that urges us to be “gender neutral”, that there are values that solely woman can add to a marriage if they so choose. I’m excited to read this book and inshAllah put a lot of what she says in practice in my own marriage. If you haven’t read the book yet, purchase below and take a listen to my reflection (Watch in HD for better quality). And maybe reflect on this, are there different and even better ways women can add to their marriages besides an extra income?

Purchase the book here: Fascinating Womanhood Publisher: Bantam; Updated edition

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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

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