Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Musings on Ramadan, Faith, and Being Human

Every year I get so excited for Ramadan. I start talking about it months in advance. This year, I even bought lights to decorate - including the oh-so-shocking (to the pearl-clutching crowd of Islamophobic evangelicals) moon-and-star tree topper that Walmart sold over Christmas, which I put in the window. I have a nice cloth calendar to count down the days of Ramadan to Eid al Fitr. I even made a "Happy Ramadan" banner in an effort to create that holiday feeling that everyone here tends to enjoy around Christmas. I got a journal to write in during Ramadan and signed up for a Productive Muslim Ramadan course online.

And yet... I wake each day, dreading the fast. I hate the feeling of weakness, of exhaustion, from not eating and the pain of headaches from dehydration. I hate that even sweeping the floor is too monumental a task for me when I'm fasting. Doing nothing (when not in school or work) makes the time go by SO slowly during the day, but I have no energy to do more. I get mad and frustrated that I'm not supposed to drink or eat anything (although not being able to drink a nice cold beverage is definitely worse in my book, especially considering the "over 100 with heat index" wave we've been going through and will keep going through for another week or so). I hate feeling so useless. I have no motivation to read Qur'an or do that web course I spent $100 on. I don't even believe in the whole "women can't fast when Aunt Flo is in town visiting" thing (because it's not in Qur'an, so don't even try to twist Qur'an to fit that misogynistic interpretation, mkay?), but I will break fast just to get a break from fasting (and because cramps can be agonizingly painful for a day or two and without meds, I'm a miserable lump on the sofa).

I go through the fasting day trying so hard to ignore it, trying to cultivate this sense of productivity and enhanced spirituality that pretty much everyone else claims to experience, and nothing happens. It's not there. Is it me? Am I not doing enough? Okay, given how I basically turn into a lump on the couch in Ramadan, that's probably a big part of it. But even when I try... it feels like I'm forcing something that just isn't there. Like I'm whistling into the wind, you know? Not that my belief is lacking. I believe in Allah, in Islam, 100%. I just can't seem to make this connection that everyone else claims to do.

It's really frustrating. It makes me wonder if I'm a hypocrite. I mean, if I'm a "good Muslim/real Muslim", then I'd feel some sort of fulfillment in Ramadan, right? I'd feel some extra special connection that makes my heart and spirit sing and reaffirm what I believe to be right. Why is standing up for prayer so hard? Why do I miss more prayers, even in Ramadan, than I've ever actually made? How is it that the promise of Allah's pleasure with me not enough to motivate me to overcome fatigue or sheer laziness? Why does my nafs trump my desire to please Allah, even in what is considered to be the most sacred month?

Sometimes it feels like the only thing Muslim about me is the scarf on my head. :(

Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Review: "Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace" by Patricia and Alana Raybon

I mentioned this book last week. Well, I got an advance copy for free (yay!), so I spent the last few days reading it.

For the official stuff: I received a digital ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

And now... on to the review!

I was really really excited about this book when I first heard about it. "Finally!" I thought. "A real book about a Christian mom and her Muslim convert daughter and how they got past the hurdles of interfaith issues." It is so relevant to me (being the Muslim convert in a family of Christians) and I thought it might have some good tips or show how Patricia was able to resolve her struggles with her daughter choosing another faith.

I was wrong. What I found in this book was frustration. I was frustrated at Patricia's rambling, nonsensical way of writing. She jumped from topic to unrelated topic. Maybe I'm just not accustomed to evangelical histrionics, but it seemed like a lot of the drama getting in the way of their relationship (at least in the last few years) actually came from Patricia, not Alana.

Allow me to give a few examples:

Patricia refers to her daughter as a Christian (rather than a Muslim) throughout the book - as if "Muslim" is "just a phase". She constantly invalidates her daughter's spiritual path by mocking it as a "copy", a "knockoff" of Christianity.

She also says multiple times that her daughter "no longer believes", a notion that Alana soundly rejects, stating that she "believe(s) stronger than I ever have in my life. I struggle with the frustration of conveying to her that my walk in Islam has filled my heart with so much faith and love that I no longer feel the empty void that I once felt. Then after she hears this, I wish she could be content and happy for me, that I found a love like no other. A love for God."

Patricia describes Islam as her daughter's "defiant choice of faith" (this is a verbatim quote) - as if Alana went to Islam to spite her mother, rather than because she found spiritual fulfillment there.

She also consistently links Muslims and Islam with insanity and violence. Example: she says "Muslims get crazy" when Christians say anything about the Qur'an, after stating that the Qur'an doesn't resonate with her (as if that alone is enough to set off a firestorm in response) - although she and her husband also "got crazy" when the veracity of the Bible was questioned.

Patricia talks about her fears that her daughter

"if...granted a reason and platform to defend her chosen religion, she'll use it as ammunition, to put down her family's faith. Even more, I feared she'd do a good job. That she'd make Islam look good - while I'd fail to life high the Cross. That pressure I feel - to make Jesus and his good deeds and perfect life and extraordinary sacrifice look phenomenal and far better than Islam - weighs me down the most."

Ironically, it's Patricia who uses her faith like ammunition, who puts down her daughter's faith. If she is so concerned about making Christianity "look good", then why doesn't she trust God to do the job? Why does she make it her own personal job?

Patricia intends to fix the relationship with her daughter - the end goal of that repair being to get her daughter back in Christianity. She dismisses the notion that belief in Islam can be just as deep and satisfying for Alana as she finds in Christianity.

In short: Patricia makes Alana's conversion all about herself, rather than about Alana. She takes it personally. She keeps wondering "what did I do wrong?" and moaning and gnashing her teeth and crying, rather than realizing that Alana choosing Islam had NOTHING to do with Patricia in any way.

Alana's parts of the book, however, didn't ramble all over the place. She actually addressed the issues at hand in a fairly straight forward manner - why she became a Muslim, what she sees in Islam to this day, her frustrations that her mother refuses to accept that she does, in fact, believe in God - she simply doesn't called Him by the name of "Jesus". Her worries that her mother will try to teach her kids Christianity, after Patricia states that she wants her grandchildren "to know Christ" (although I will give Patricia props when she actually attempts to respect her daughter's wishes and not teach things that are contrary to Islam). The way she feels like she has to walk on eggshells around her mother, like she can't be "too Muslim" around her family. I'd love to quote whole pages of Alana's words - she's open and honest, but without the drama her mother brings.

In many cases, as I read Alana's sections, I felt like I was reading dialogue from my own head. Things I've thought, felt, and said. We have many of the same frustrations in dealing with our Christian families (even when those families are, in many cases, nominal in their practice of Christianity, they rarely waste time jumping up on the soapbox to preach to us of how "wrong" we are).

In the end, I wasn't convinced that there was any peace, any sort of resolution in their relationship. Patricia has decided to hold her tongue (for now), to grin and bear it, but that's far from peace or acceptance and her thinking about Islam hasn't changed even a bit.

This book was an exercise in frustration. If I'd read it in hardcopy, I would likely have thrown the book at the wall. I was going to give a copy of this to my mom, but now that I've read it, I may go with "Daughters of Another Path" (written by a Christian mother after her daughter converted) instead. I wish Alana would have written this book on her own - it would have turned out much better.

Still want to read it? "Undivided" releases on April 28. Purchase it at your local Christian bookstore, Books A Million, Barnes and Noble, or at Amazon. Then come back and tell me what you thought of it!

Monday, April 6, 2015

I'm Baaaaaaack... and What I'm Reading

Salam aleikum! After going MIA last summer, I'm back. Sort of. I went back to school, so that (with the assistance of employment) has been consuming my life.

I'm going to try and post more often and actually think of something to say (not that any of you probably even give a hoot, but whatever). There's a book coming out here at the end of the month called "Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace" by Patricia and Alana Raybon. I've read the first seven pages (gracias to The Today Show's link) and really can't wait to read this book. I'm wondering how much it's going to tread the "you're my kid and I love you but I disagree with you and think you're wrong and going to Hell because you aren't Christian" line, largely because it's being published by Christian powerhouse Thomas Nelson (which seems to publish 3 out of 4 titles, fiction and non-fiction alike, in the Christian market). I guess we'll see. I'm gonna get it ASAP and will review it here, inshAllah.

Click here to read a sample

Click on the picture to go to Amazon:

Friday, June 20, 2014

Setting Goals for Ramadan

Salam aleikum, all. The clock is counting down. Ramadan is almost here, inshAllah!

Now, if you're like me, in the past you've had some vague, nebulous goals for the month of Ramadan. You say "Oh, I'll read the Qur'an in Ramadan" or "I'll pray all five salah" or something else, but you don't go beyond that. You don't make a plan - or, if you're like me, you don't hold yourself accountable for meet those goals.

As a result, the past couple of Ramadans have been less than successful for me. Isolation (lack of community) aside, I could have gotten much better benefit out of Ramadan by putting more effort into it, rather than laying on the couch watching all the Burger King commercials for bacon double cheeseburgers!

This year, I wrote down my goals. It took almost no time at all, largely because I got out a notepad and pen and actually WROTE them down. Ideas seem to flow so much more easily that way for me, which I never realised.

Now, before we get into our goals for Ramadan, what should we do? We need to make our sincere intention that this Ramadan fast is for the sake of Allah, to seek His pleasure and to draw us closer to Him. After all, tossing aside all the babble about rewards and devils being chained up, etc, this is what Ramadan comes down to: our relationship with Allah.

So why do we fast? To purify us - to remove our sins, inshAllah, and to make us thankful for the bounty we take for granted every day.

"O you who believe, fasting has been decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, perhaps you may be righteous." 2:183

" A month of aspiration, in which the Qur'an was revealed; as a guide to the people and clarities from the guidance and the Criterion. Therefore, whoever of you witnesses the month, then let him fast therein. And whoever is ill or traveling, then the same number from different days. God wants to bring you ease and not to bring you hardship; and so that you may complete the count, and glorify God for what He has guided you, that you may be thankful." 2:185

Ramadan is generally called "the Month of the Qur'an". We can see why from the above ayah - this was when the Qur'an was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad. In keeping with that, we shouldn't just recite the Qur'an in Arabic, but we should read it in our language so that we *understand* it and can allow it to challenge and change us from within.

Goal #1: Read one juz of Qur'an each day.

This will allow us to read the Qur'an as a whole, from cover to cover, by the end of the month. I read a statistic that said some 95% of Muslims polled stated that they never, in their whole lives, have read the Qur'an in their own language and, in consequence, understood it. Let's start changing that this Ramadan.

Goal #2: Make all five salah every day - on time, if possible, but make them all, no excuses.

I think we've established that making the five salah is a constant jihad for me. I struggle with it - inshAllah, it will become easier and part of the natural flow of my day during Ramadan and afterward.

Goal #3: Learn one new surah each week (in Arabic), at minimum.

There are a lot of short chapters in Qur'an. Starting to pick up Quranic Arabic from those chapters is a good thing to do. Every language nerd, at heart, wants to be able to read something in the original language and appreciate the nuances and power of the words in their original form, rather than through the lens of a translator's cultural traditions and influences.

Goal #4: Be mindful of my tongue - no gossiping, backbiting, or ranting allowed.

This one can be a bit of a challenge sometimes. Not all the time, alhamdilullah, but being around certain people makes keeping to this harder. I shall keep in mind the old axiom: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Silence will help me to ponder those Qur'an verses I'll be reading, inshAllah. :)

Goal #5: Be mindful of what I eat.

Food is important, but when you're fasting? It's even MORE important. Everything we eat should be healthy and hydrating - but it's so easy to fall into the junk food trap! Fried foods, desserts, soda, tea... none of these things are good for us. I will strive to drink way more water and way less tea. (Yes, I know, tea is actually good, but it's a diuretic, and where I'm from, it comes loaded with sugar - this ain't no Yankee town, y'all!) I also want to eat more fruit and veggies, less processed stuff. Fruits, especially, are loaded with water - they help us rehydrate even as we eat. Grapes, melons of all kinds, citrus fruits, etc, should all be my best friend in the hot and thirsty month of Ramadan! I also need to buy a container of dates - the fructose in them is quickly absorbable and will give me a fast and much-needed energy and blood sugar boost at the end of the day.

Well, there you have it: my plan for Ramadan. Seems a bit daunting, now that I look at it, but it also doesn't seem like much. (How does that even work? lol)

Here's hoping that everyone is successful this Ramadan, inshAllah, and that you all establish plans to help you get the most out of this holy month!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Adhan

"Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!"

You hear the call and it's strange, foreign, exotic.

I hear a call that is as familiar to me as the beat of my heart.

"God is the Greatest, above all things, all people, all animals, all of creation!"

You think "terrorist", the vocal sub-minority you hear on selected news coverage, the same people who twist Islam into something I don't recognize.

But they don't speak for me. I speak for me. This call speaks for me.

"Ash-shadu illah ilaha il Allah!"

Firm conviction is the armor of my heart and mind.

"I bear witness that there is nothing, no god, no person, nothing in all existence that is worthy of worship except GOD, ALLAH, Lord of the Throne!"

"Ash-shadu anna Muhammad rasulAllah!"

"I bear witness that Muhammad is a messenger from Allah, bringing the same message carried down through the centuries by other prophets, by Abraham, Noah, Jacob, David, John, and Jesus (peace and blessings of Allah be upon all of them)."

I bear witness that the Qur'an is the truth of my soul, recognized by my soul, inscribed in the fibers of my heart and the memory of my soul, awoken by the world "Iqra! Read!"

"Read! In the name of your Lord who created! Read! And your Lord is Most Generous, who taught by the pen, who taught men what they did not know."

"Haya a salah!"

Come to prayer. Lay down your worries, your fears, your sorrows, your joys. Rest your heart. Quiet your mind. It's time to pray.

"Haya a falah!"

Come to success. Forget your wealth, your poverty. Forget your station in life, be it the highest or lowest of consequence to others. The best success is yet to come. It's time to pray.

"Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!"

Allah is the Beginning and the Ending. He encompasses all things. He knows all things. He hears all things.

"La illaha il Allah!"

There is no god but GOD.

Marital Intimacy in 2:223

Today's post is a wee bit of a powder keg. Why? Because I'm going to be looking at what the Qur'an says about sex.

Specifically, what the Qur'an says in 2:223.

"Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will; but do some good act for your souls beforehand; and fear Allah. And know that ye are to meet Him (in the Hereafter), and give (these) good tidings to those who believe." Qur'an 2:223 (Yusuf Ali)

This verse is often used by non-Muslims (and even Muslims) to assert that women are property and have no right to deny sex to their husbands. Muslims will often then quote the hadith about angels cursing until morning the woman who denies her husband sex when he wants it.

I want to look at this verse a bit differently, though. My goal is to hopefully show that the Qur'an endorses sexual gratification not only for men, but also for women.

Women are often made to feel like they shouldn't think about or want sex, and that if they do, they are somehow "impure", "loose", etc. We're also taught that discussing sex is immodest and something that "good (Muslim) girls don't do". As a result, many a young Muslim woman marries without understanding that she, also, has sexual rights within the marriage. (I wonder if, before marriage, men are informing the groom of his wife's Islamically-endorsed sexual rights, the way that women are bombarded with a "if your husband wants it, you have to say yes" message.)

Let's take another look at this verse. It says "your wives are as a tilth unto you".

"But wait!" We think. "What does that even mean?"

A tilth is fertile, cultivated land.

Making the connection between "fertile land" and reproduction is a bit too obvious, so I'm going to approach fertility from a different way. When you're just married, your freshly-halal relationship with your spouse is like newly tilled earth. You've made your vows and signed the marriage contract. You're now permitted, with Allah's blessing, to enjoy marital intimacy with your spouse. It is, in fact, an act of worship. Whether you've had sexual experiences with someone else or been married before or are a virgin, this experience is unique. Your sexual relationship is new, fragile, and you don't want to spoil it by leaving your spouse unsatisfied and frustrated. Sexual frustration is damaging to a marriage; despite popular belief in some circles, women have as much of a need for sexual gratification as men do. If one person consistently is satisfied and the other is not, this inequality can build feelings of resentment, reluctance, and even anger in the latter. You don't want that. You want your relationship to grow as a result of your marital intimacy.

What does it take for land to produce its fruit? Sunlight, water, and time. Too much darkness? Most crops won't grow. Too much or too little water? The crops will rot or dry up. Farmers take the time to irrigate their crops, to ensure the best yield possible.

In the same manner, mutually satisfying intimacy in marriage takes communication, effort, and time. Too many people get married and don't even have a basic, general understanding of human sexuality. Men think that what pleases them is pleasing to their wives, and the women, if they aren't happy with the situation, have been taught that talking about sex isn't something modest women do and that they shouldn't say anything that might hurt their husband's feelings. Being afraid to discuss sex with your spouse is ridiculous. Yes, sex is a powder keg. Your spouse may have hurt feelings because he thinks he's a stud, and your revelation that your experience hasn't been so great can wound his pride. Isn't your marriage worth honest communication? Isn't it better to address the issue now, rather than let your marital intimacy potentially feel like an unwanted chore?

"So approach your tilth when and how you will."

The Qur'an doesn't place limitations on what sexual acts spouses may do. Nor does it say "only do these things at night with the lights out". Instead, it tells us to do what we find pleasing. Allah created our desires, and within the privacy of the marital relationship, we are urged to satisfy those desires.

This verse does not advocate marital rape. It does not disregard a woman's (or a man's) right to say "no". It merely tells us that what we consent to do for the pleasure of our spouse and ourselves in private is up to us as individuals and couples.

"But do some good act for your souls beforehand."

The "good act" beforehand could be clear communication. It could be making the intention to Allah that you want the experience to be mutually enjoyable, to increase your love and the overall quality of your relationship. It could be understanding that, for women, sexual satisfaction is tied up in our emotional and mental states, and putting in the effort to engage her complete interest and cultivate her desire long before the bedroom door closes.

From now on, when I see this verse, it will stand out to me as a Qur'anic declaration of the importance of taking the time and effort to nurture the tilth of marital intimacy.

"Your spouse's sexuality is as fertile land to you, so cultivate that land with care, and satisfy your desires in a way that is mutually pleasing."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Drawing the Line

I'm just pondering a situation recently where a sister and I were discussing the Shi'a practice of saying "Ya Ali madad" ("Oh Ali, help me"). (The topic of this post isn't on the Shi'a, btw, so don't focus on that. This can and does apply across the Muslim spectrum.)

Some folks accused us of being Salafis and pronouncing takfir on people (declaring who is and isn't Muslim) because we pointed out that Allah forbids calling upon other than Him in the very first chapter of Qur'an ("You (Allah) ALONE we turn to, You ALONE we seek for help"). They accused us of being intolerant. How, precisely, is it intolerant to remind people of one of the most basic teachings of Qur'an? Just because they don't like it doesn't make it any less the truth.

Is it okay to pronounce takfir on people? No. But recognizing it when their own words and behavior pronounce it on them? You're not judging them - they're announcing where they stand to you! There is a lot of stuff that Muslims "advise" each other on that is, frankly, stupid. A lot of things that are simply their own opinion of what is Islamic and what isn't, with no basis in Qur'an.

If you see a Muslim calling on other than Allah for help, then that's not pronouncing takfir. We are duty-bound to remind our brothers and sisters of Qur'an's teachings - especially when it relates to shirk, the most hated, most warned-against sin in the Qur'an! If they hate the reminder, there's nothing we can do about that.

As Muslims, if there is ANYTHING we should be paranoid about, it's shirk. The day we become lacksidaisical about shirk and excuse it among our Muslim brothers and sisters is the day we risk falling into it ourselves. Shirk is a very slippery slope.

I think that, sometimes, we can go to such lengths to give people the benefit of the doubt and not judge them, that we're actually risking being detrimental to our own selves, by surrounding ourselves with influences that can subtlely affect us (example here: Muslims who call on other than Allah for help). Does that make sense?

There has to be a happy medium - neither condemning everyone for "not thinking like me", but also not happily accepting it when our brothers and sisters say "La ilaha il Allah" and in the same breath seek aid with something/someone else.
I think that many people have reached a point where, in the name of tolerance, they're willing to ignore some serious issues and try to blow it off by calling it "a difference of opinion". We can have different interpretations of SO many things in Qur'an, and that's okay! Nothing wrong with difference of opinion, but there's a difference between that and attempting to change Islam.

There are some rules that are hard and fast. Not setting up partners with Allah is the bedrock of our faith - if we're willing to overlook it when our brothers and sisters are veering dangerously in the direction of shirk, if we're more afraid of hurting their feelings by reminding them of the Qur'an's teachings or them branding us as "intolerant" than we are of allowing them to go astray from tawhid, then we have a serious problem.

Sometimes Muslims think, by virtue of being Muslim, that they are impervious to shirk - that they could NEVER, no matter what they say or do, set up partners with Allah. We need to get over this erroneous notion, this arrogance that makes us think what others fall into isn't also a potential trap for us.

Being Quranist or Progressive doesn't mean we sit around the campfire singing Kumbaya, regardless of what our brothers and sisters in Islam are doing. There's difference of opinion and then there is clearly laid out Qur'anic "DO NOT DO THIS" criteria. People can turn away if they choose to do so, but why would any Muslim turn a blind eye to another Muslim doing something that falls within the realm of shirk? We love each other enough to nitpick over beards and hijabs and fingernails and socks, but not enough to remind one another of the Qur'an when we appear to have forgotten it? SubhanAllah....