She Speaks We Hear

Bringing women's voices together, unaltered, unadulterated


Leave a comment

‘Su-Shi’ and interfaith dialogue with Anne Dijk and Arjen Buitelaar

su-shi-arjen-anne

Deviating slightly from our usual posts, we wanted to share with our readers an interview between Anne Dijk, a female Sunni scholar based in the Netherlands and Arjen Buitelaar, a male Shia scholar also from the Netherlands. They were interviewed by Arek Miernik who is from Poland, and the interview has been translated to English. You can read more about their backgrounds at the end of this post.

  1. What is the idea behind Su-Shi and how did it come about as your project?

Arjen Since the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ we notice heightened and more open tensions between the different Islamic creeds, mainly Sunnites and Shiites, and the voices of the extremes on both sides become louder. Of course this is a development that has been going on for several decades by now, and the extremes on both sides kind of hijack the voice of the common and good willing majority of Muslims. We see both sides recruit people to war zones in countries they have never been to, and tensions, incomprehension and impotency grow. This kind of reached a peak when Mosul was conquered by ISIL forces. It was that moment that Anne Dijk participated in a radio talk on the differences and similarities between Sunnites and Shiites, and she emphasized that the differences weren’t that big (more on jurisprudential level), but in practice it often seemed impossible to get the groups together even for something simple like an iftar. I then decided to approach her, because it was the bitter truth and despite the talks (and efforts) from authoritative scholars that we share so many commonalities, that we are brothers and sisters or even each other’s souls, and that we should work together, we see that communities simply don’t do that and we wanted to change that.

Anne The idea behind su-shi is that we want to bring together Sunni, Shia and all possible creeds within Islam, together, on an equal basis, to meet on a personal level. We don’t want to ‘create’ one single creed, or try to undermine the differences, which exist. We want to strengthen the ummah by informing about the differences and also speak out against stereotypes and prejudices that cause harm to both groups.

Often, the stereotypes of arguments against the opposite groups are based on prejudices, which often only hold for the extremes, and not for the mass-mainstream. Getting to really know each other, in a safe place, where genuine interest and curiosity for the other, is hardly happening. Talks on internet fora very often result in harsh language and conversations that get hijacked by extremes. That’s why we focus on small get-togethers, to really give a platform for personal meetings, based on proper (academic) information.

  1. How do you create a “safe” and neutral space during your meetings and events? Considering the deep level of division and animosity that these differences can cause, exacerbated by current political events in the Middle East, how do you make sure that these divisive attitudes don’t make their way into your meetings?

Anne During the 1,5 year of preparation, before we went online, formal and open, we discussed this issue elaborately. How can we create a safe and neutral space? Of course we can never guarantee anything, but we made clear ‘houserules’. A few elements therein are, are that dialogue is the goal, not debate. Trying to convince the other of your own truth is not allowed either, sincere and open questions are. Tafkir is not allowed; anyone who considers him/herself Muslim deserves within sushi that we treat him/her as such. Per activity we try to make a ‘risk management’ – for example: we held a iftar last ramadan – what to do with the adhan? (su of shi time?) and what to do with the prayer? We try to prevent any kind if discussion of such issues: how? We talk about them openly and elaborate on potential differences. For example, we elaborated en public on the different times of braking the fast, and that the dates were presented for everyone who wanted to brake the fast at that moment (Sunnis) and that we would do one adhan at the shi time. Later, the prayer was open for everyone – everyone must feel free to be able to pray together, but if someone wanted to pray later, that was also fine.

Arjen I agree with Anne’s answer; these are good examples in practice. Within the core group we have a dozen different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, so you can imagine we have lively talks on possible difficulties when organizing an event. I’d also like to emphasize that one of our core rules is to support respectful dialogue and denounce debate, which, in effect, could be focused on individual monologues only while dialogue forces to open up and listen to the other. It are these house rules that ensure the safe space individuals find themselves in. Added to that, it is important to note that we work with what we call an ‘oil spill formula’, by which we mean that every visitor is personally invited by someone he/she already knows within the ‘Su-Shi Community’. This way we ensure that people feel more secure to open up and say what is on their hearts. Another way we make sure people find themselves in a safe environment is that we do not use traditional set ups with podia for the speakers and people sitting on chairs for a few hours. Depending on the size of the group we either meet up at someone’s home and start with chit chat and dinner. Or like our last Iftar we met up in a ‘youth club’/lounge setting, having some armchairs, couches and tables to sit on, providing a more relaxed atmosphere and automatically ‘compelling’ people to mix up.

  1. The idea of meeting ‘the other sect’ in this environment presupposes that participants already have a certain degree of openness to it. Did you have any reactions so far from those sectors among both communities which prefer to maintain division and hostility?

Arjen Yes we did, though this was outnumbered by massive support messages. A certain degree of openness is definitely needed, simply because within the extremes of religions and ideologies people and or communities build virtual walls around them that make it impossible to reach out to. When people consider the other to be the devil, or inspired by the devil, or a hypocrite of some sort, and subsequently consider his words to be deceiving, how could one ever be willing to listen to it?

And this is kind of the scope of the hostile messages we received. Some extreme Salafists and Quranists who did not and will not acknowledge the existence of other creeds to be Islamic, and who attempted to defame some of our members on a personal level simply because there’s not much to argument about the content of our stance.

Because it is our policy to engage in dialogue and approach everything positively, instead of bogging down in endless debates, we do not react on that. Instead, these two negative approaches have given us plenty of points to further elaborate and communicate through the positive platform we’ve created.

  1. In your experience what are the main or most common reasons that the extreme sectors of each sect give as justification for their enmity towards the other sect? How much of it is theological, how much historical/political and how often is it perhaps rooted, or strengthened, by people’s personal experiences?

Arjen This is a fairly difficult question that needs some elaboration. It is most interesting that the extreme sectors from all creeds base themselves on core sources, just as much as mainstream creeds do. Sometimes even the exact same texts, yet interpreted differently. The narrower the boundaries of a sect become, the more stress they will put on their absolute authority to explain the meaning of texts and not to stray from the ‘right path’ by looking at explanations by authorities from outside their group’s ‘enclave’. The ‘other’ is literally demonized, and by defining ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’, and ‘divine’ and ‘satanic’ the justification easily becomes ‘theological’. It remains the question, however, whether the origins of the justification were theological by nature, or rather inspired by political motives. The same goes for stances on ‘historical truths’. These are based on the same kind of source texts that have alternatives that are consciously neglected, and have shortcomings. Subsequently these become indisputable dogma’s due to their absolute character, and are proposed as ‘real Islam’, yet are nothing more than fallacies. Used to manipulate and monopolize the conversation and hijack individual thought.

The main tradition that is used to justify sectarianism is that the prophet Muhammad ص would have said that Islam will be divided in 73 sects of which just one will enter paradise. This (weak tradition) is used to intensify the fear of individuals and groups to be amongst the dwellers of hell, causing people to know more about the ‘wrongs’ of the other than the ‘goods’ of themselves. With regards to other religions, Islam actually has the same opinion about truth as it has about herself. Christianity will be divided in 72 sects and Judaism in 71, both also have one rightly guided group. For Muslims it doesn’t seem to be their business to define which groups from other religions is the rightly guided one, as long as they do not interfere in Muslim matters. But as one reaction by a self-proclaimed institute wonderfully articulated their view on Islamic sectarianism: “the battle for influence over the Muslims continues…”

  1. Yours is clearly grassroots, bottom-up project. Do you think that the established Muslim leadership like traditional ulama etc. are falling short in building intra-religious bridges among Muslims at the top-down level?

Arjen The answer to this question has multiple layers; it would be too easy to say that they do or do not. In my opinion there are many efforts being made by the established Muslim leadership to build bridges, but their (and this is not reserved to Muslims or religious communities) focus is mainly on people from the top segments, not on community level. In the past decade alone we have seen the Amman Message, which is a great document that Su-Shi uses as well in our argumentation, and the Marrakesh Declaration, which apparently has been improved over a longer period since the 1990s and in its recent update specifically gained attention for its focus on minority groups such as the Yazidis and Christians who suffer much in the Middle East as we speak. Other attempts are being made as well, such as the annual Ghadeer Khumm Festival in Najaf, which I personally attended in 2013, and where leaders from different religious communities spoke. Including more subordinated sects such as the Druze community. All these attempts are very valuable and should be cherished.

At the same time, we see that these innumerably valuable official declarations are not lived after in practice. In real life they remain theoretical documents, that are sometimes not even lived after by important leader figures who endorsed them at first. Or that important religious leaders make statements that, unintended, lead to deeper sectarian rifts.

In parts of the Middle East region tensions are so high since the beginning of this millennium, that it is, of course, very hard to maintain these statements. Leaders can communicate with each other and make agreements at top level, but when blood is shed at ground level people will rather follow a leader that speaks their mind.

The main reason why these declarations hardly have an effect on ground level, however, is that most Islamic – and in fact Abrahamic – faiths are exclusivistic is in nature. When ground level believers hear from their leaders that they should respect and embrace believers from other faiths and sects, and at the same time read in their jurisprudences that those people from other faiths and sects are intrinsically ‘impure’ (najis) because of their ‘infidelity’ or being born to ‘infidel’ parents, than that is at least confusing. In practice, among migrant communities in the West, this means we see, for example, how certain Shiite groups try to find escapes from the statement by the highest authorities that ‘Sunnis are not our brothers and sisters, but our souls’, and try to explain how this still means Sunnis are not on the guided path. And vice versa we see the tremendous influence of Wahhabism which too, albeit being an extreme side faction, affects mainstream Sunnism as well by planting its poisonous seeds of hatred towards others. There is no other way to break this way of thinking, that is imported along with or even strengthened through immigration, down but by starting to work on this from a grassroots, bottom-up project. A project in which the participants themselves can add to the thinking process, and can themselves speak out for peace and cooperation instead of having to depend for that on top level leadership.

Anne It’s indeed a bottom up approach that we have, and that’s for many reasons. 1. We want to grow slowly in order to build real trust based on personal connection in stead of theoretical words only. And 2. To put into practise what those ‘top down’ approaches have tried to formulate but failed to implement.

  1. On a practical note, how do you fund your activities? The reason I’m asking is that as we know, with funding from established Muslim organisations often come agendas and expectations that might potentially jeopardise independence of a project or try to influence a project in a particular direction.

Anne We are up till now completely independent; meaning we don’t get any subsidies from any organisation from any denomination. We are very happy with our team; we all have a broad network so up till now we found free locations; the speakers were all unpaid and the food was covered by our volunteers alhamdulillah. But since we are a Foundation since this year, we are open for donations from individuals. Being independent and self-sustained makes you stronger. Maybe you grow slower, but inshaAllah the project can run longer. Being truly honest to your own values is the most important thing.

Arjen Before Su-Shi had become an organization and was still an idea, I have once organized an event in the Su-Shi spirit that we did receive donations for. From that I can confirm what you mentioned: there are donators that demand their agendas and expectations and try to influence what you do. This is very simple for me though; I reject such donators. Whenever the autonomy of a project or of our organization as a whole is in jeopardy, it isn’t worth what you gain. So when we think out a project, donators can support that of course, but not lay any conditions on us.

  1. Arjen, you are Shia and Anne, you are Sunni. What are the rough percentages in terms of sects among all people involved your project and those attending your events?

Arjen It’s difficult to speak in percentages. Few of our participants have a very homogenous background themselves, however some do. And the same then goes for who they invite through our ‘oil spill’ method. Overall, however, I think that people from a Sunni and Shiite background make up the majority -both close to the half- of participants of our events.

Anne We must also admit that we try to work towards a fair share as well. Meaning: we very consciously have 50% of the board Sunni, 50% of the board shi’i and one ‘neutral’ board member. In this way we direct towards an almost equal percentage of participants as well. Over all, most of our participants would consider themselves Sunni of Shia, we had a few Quranist participants and people with an Allevi background that are enthusiastic as well.

  1. What would be your personal message to people absolutely refusing to engage with the “other sect”, based in their conviction of the other sect’s “heresy” and their conviction that there is no “right” Islam outside their own school of thought?

Anne Allahu Alem. I would ask them so sincerely contemplate on this statement of “Allahu ‘Alem” and with this, try to focus on tazkiyya an-nafs, the cleansing of the soul. How can you, as an individual, be so sure? For me, in essence, ‘Allahu ‘Alem’ means absolute humbleness towards The Truth. Only God knows, that means, that we as human beings, per definition don’t.

Arjen I would like to emphasize that no layperson nor scholar is infallible, and that no matter what you personally believe, we do not all share the same beliefs and convictions. Nonetheless, we do live together, in a space that is becoming smaller and smaller. That brings tensions, but we are not animals. As humans we can use our reason to ‘defend’ our intellectual territories, we shouldn’t be so afraid of the other, and rather listen to each other. Dialogue is not about convincing one another, it is more about becoming stronger in your own convictions, but with respect for the other’s convictions in his or her own space.

***

Anne Dijk has a background in Religious Studies and a Master in Islamic Studies, specialised in Islamic Jurisprudence (Sunni). Fascinated by the transformations of the schools of law (madhahab) and the internal discussions, she found out that there is a deep ethical essence within the jurisprudence that differences of opinions (ikhtilaf) were deeply respected in history. In the hardened debate within Muslim communities nowadays, about ‘what is really Islamic’, she missed this ethical attitude. As Director of Fahm Institute she works on diverse ways to more understanding (fahm) of Islam. She is de co-founder of Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue, because she believes that world peace should start within yourself.

Arjen Buitelaar has a background in History and a Master in Religious Studies. From his Master’s thesis till now, he is conducting research of the Shi’ite communities in the Netherlands, at the moment primarily focusing on the role of rituals and symbolism in the shaping of (group) identity. Due to the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is since the start of the so called Arab Spring, he found it necessary to start with the Su-Shi Intrafaith Dialogue initiative to create better understanding between different Islamic creeds.

Arek Miernik has a background in English literature, is an Al-Mahdi Institute graduate, and leading figure of the wider Muslim community in Poland. Though primarily involved with the Polish Shi’i community, he doesn’t confine himself to it and is a heard voice in opinionated media on the wider Muslim community and its status in society. He is the heart behind the Strefa Islam blog, where this interview was originally published in Polish.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The above interview was conducted by another organisation and not SSWH but has been reproduced with the permission.


2 Comments

Jamilla’s story of dealing with Depression and Anxiety (Part 1)

14606145895_67cb2051bf_o

If you’ve met me, just like everyone else does, you wouldn’t expect me to be dealing with a mental illness, especially of this severity. I’m in my final year of university, expected to graduate with a 2:1 (Inshallah), VP of a society and always up for hanging out with my friends or getting involved in extracurricular activities. When people discover that I have depression, and that I’m on strong medication to help me with it, they act shocked, almost as though they think it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be.

It is a daily struggle, from waking up each morning to completing my university tasks as well as my basic duties as a Muslim, all the while dealing with sporadic suicidal thoughts. And that’s the reason I want this series of posts to be able to reach out to those who are going through the same or similar things. For those who have been told their mental health is caused of lack of imaan (faith), or that it is taboo to talk about it.

Depression, anxiety and all other mental health issues are real illnesses, ones that need to be dealt with appropriately, and ones that require support which we, in Muslim communities, have not really acknowledged. Sometimes, people don’t understand why we’re finding it hard to pray, or fast, or read Qu’ran. I want this blog to help myself and you, not only to deal with your mental health, and for you to know that you’re not alone, but to increase our faith in Allah slowly, so that step by step we can build ourselves back up. Inshallah.

Whilst depression symptoms can vary from person to person (I, for example have depression and anxiety, so I won’t have the exact symptoms as someone with only depression or only anxiety), there is lots of misunderstanding surrounding depression. I hope to clear that up from my own experience.

1. There is often no direct cause. Whilst someone can have many triggers, for example, with anxiety it can often be triggered by loud noises or being around too many people, there isn’t one thing that causes it all. It’s often not one thing that can be the reason for depression, but a series of things that build up over time. For me, symptoms of depression and anxiety have been building up over a few years, and it was only 6 months ago (when I went through a week of not being able to eat or sleep) that I chose to get help.
2. Depression and Sadness are not the same thing. “That’s so depressing”, “That’s made me so depressed”. We’re all guilty of using these expressions wrongly – I know I am, but depression is so much more than one thing making you sad. Depression is not a mood that you can simply “snap out of”, it comprises of good days and bad days, some days you might feel totally fine, other days you might not want to leave the house, but these last over long periods of time.

3. Depression can be easy to hide, so just because someone looks fine, doesn’t mean their depression isn’t bad. When I tell people I have depression they are often surprised. This is because I am usually walking around with a big smile on my face, not looking like anything is wrong. Just because someone is smiling doesn’t make their depression any less valid; you’d be surprised at how well people can hide these things.

4. Depression isn’t a weakness of imaan. Depression can stop someone from fulfilling basic Islamic duties, but this isn’t because a person doesn’t have faith or because there is something wrong with their imaan, it’s because maybe they are finding it hard enough to wake up in the morning, or just keep themselves alive. Maybe they don’t want to pray because they feel so guilty that they’ve let their illness get the better of them, even though it is not their own fault. Depression is an illness like any other, and it needs to be seen as such from the Muslim community.

The best description of depression I have seen comes from a Reddit post which said: “Depression, when it is present, is more like the force of gravity. It is there, pulling down on you under all circumstances. Though I’m depressed I am often very happy – but still there is the unfeeling wet blanket of muddled confusion and writhing frustration seething under it all. Waiting.
A creeping numbness that insidiously degrades and diminishes every aspect of conscious life. A storm of screaming and hatred in dreams. A dull apathy in waking. A sinking stomach in the face of joy and a faithless lassitude in the face of hope.
Depression isn’t an emotion. Depression is a contradiction to every worthy aspect of life.”

I hope this post helps give people a better understanding of what depression is and what it isn’t.

About the author: Jamilla recently graduated with a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies and is VP of the Islamic Society at the University of Exeter. Follow her on Twitter @JamillaTweets.

Image credit: Photo by Amen Clinics.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


2 Comments

Ramadhan – “Why Aren’t You Fasting?”

by Maaiysa Valli

@Maaiysa

 Every year, Ramadhan comes. And every year, I struggle. Not with the fast – which this year is around 20+ hours long – but with NOT being able to fast.

It’s a battle I quietly face every year. And here I’ll explain why.

You may know that certain groups are exempt from fasting. The elderly, young children, pregnant or nursing women, and those who are ill. I’d love to say I’m too young to fast (but definitely not too old!!) but unfortunately, the reason I can’t fast is due to a lifelong illness. It’s meant I’ve not been able to fast since my health took a real turn for the worse when I was in my teens – though trust me, that didn’t stop me from fasting back then! But now, as the fasts get longer, I have to take the medical advice that I just can’t do it. And that saddens me. To some of you, that might sound strange: “Why would you be sad at not being able to starve yourself from 1am to 9pm?” But for Muslim brothers and sisters, you’ll know that feeling of sorrow. For those who aren’t able to fast, you can pay a Fidyah – which is money that goes towards feeding poor people. I do that every year, but I also used to make up the missed fasts in winter months – when the fasting hours are much shorter. The last time I did that though was 2011 and I ended up in hospital, so that was that!

I’ve been in two minds about writing this blog for years, as it opens me up to more questions and I’m a very private person, but I need to do this for my own sake. I don’t talk about things that are important to me. My personal life is just that and you’ll rarely find me opening up about my religion, let alone my health. In fact,  I’m someone who likes to deal with big issues internally. But for years now, I’ve dealt with the question “Why aren’t you fasting?”. People ask if I’m pregnant (no!), if I’m constantly on my period (NO!) or they just assume that I’m a “lazy Muslim” (DEFINITE NO!!) Because I’m such a private person, I never tell people the full story, I simply say “I can’t because of my health”. (And I’m afraid to say I won’t be giving the full answer here either.)

But everytime I’m asked why – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike – it hurts. It hurts that I can’t feel those hunger pains, it hurts that I can’t feel tired through fasting or the thirst that parches your throat – all for the love of God. Despite not being able to fast, I’ve always done Iftar (breaking the fast at sunset) and work permitting – Suhoor (keeping the fast at sunrise) because Ramadhan is so much about family. It’s probably the only time in the year where you’ll eat together as a family day in, day out and I love that. I love being with my parents and praying with them. But still, I always feel like I’m “missing out” in Ramadhan because I’m not fasting.

It’s the holiest month for Muslims and when you hear the word “Ramadhan”, you’ll probably instantly think about fasting. But Ramadhan is SO much more than starving yourself from food. It’s about starving yourself from sin. It’s a month for self-reflection, sacrifice, and love and peace. So while I can’t fast, I try to make up for it in other ways. I’ll pray lots of Qur’an, try and keep up with my salah (five daily prayers) and listen to lots of lectures by top scholars. In my house the telly is switched off for the whole month! But still, I get that feeling that I’m not doing enough. I’m not striving hard enough or doing my best. I always feel lazy if I’m not spending every minute in prayer or doing something good. I know for some of you reading this, it will sound so alien, but some of you will understand.

I heard a lecture the other day that said Ramadhan always comes at the perfect time and it hit the nail on the head for me. As Muslims, we look forward to Ramadhan coming, we’re sad when it ends. And for me this year, I REALLY needed Ramadhan to come. Like I said – it’s a month of self-reflection. This year has been tough for me, and recently I had a run-in with my past that made me evaluate my life. I felt like a failure. Like I’d achieved nothing and that this wasn’t how my life was supposed to be. But Ramadhan came. And less than a week in, I’m already feeling the benefits. I’m reminded that THIS is exactly where I’m supposed to be in life. THIS is what’s written for me. And every battle I go through is just a test – and Ramadhan is as good a reminder as any of that.

So while I write this blog – probably my most emotional and personal outpouring – I pray you all have a peaceful and blessed month. Whether you observe Ramadhan or not. Whether you fast or not. Whether you’re religious or not. It doesn’t matter. This month is about remembering what you’ve been blessed with and being thankful for that. And I am very thankful and very blessed. I just needed reminding…

Maaiysa Valli

This post first appeared on Maaiysa Valli’s personal website and has been reposted with permission. 

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


4 Comments

The Feminine as the Balancing Force; Poetry & Literalism

by Roszeen Afsar

@Roszeen

The literalist way of thinking among certain Muslims is sad to say the least. I’ve been exposed to it many times, but the most memorable was in my university prayer room. I remember being hauled into a discussion about Sufism amongst a group of girls who carried a negative opinion of it. I mentioned Rumi to them and was surprised when they laughed, in amazement that I should bring up a poet in a discussion about theology (unaware of Rumi’s status as both poet and theologian). It was then that I realized how little is known nowadays of the history and fruitfulness of Islamic thought or more specifically, spirituality.

These girls were not new in their thinking. Their dismissiveness came from a specific disposition known as ‘Salafism’. Salafism is a literalist movement which, within its folds, narrows Islam to a dogmatic set rules, rejecting therein a great deal of tradition. From this conversation I came to believe that literalists were against poetry entirely. However, I have seen that rhyming is something used even by the Salafi’s, and amongst extremist groups there is something known as ‘jihadi poetry’. The rejection those girls had was specifically of Sufism or spirituality, Rumi being one of the key figures associated with this. But by rejecting Sufism, they also rejected the feminine, which as I have stated in an earlier piece is synonymous to spirituality. Further to that, in this piece I intend to compare the poetry of the Sufis to that of extremist groups as a tool to see their wider ways of thinking about life. By doing so we find an example in the literalist, in its most extreme form, of the result of removing the feminine (spirituality) from Islam.

The Feminine

Painting by Rozseen Afsar

Painting by Rozseen Afsar

You could easily believe while keeping up with current affairs and the goings-on of society that many of us have lost an understanding of the feminine characteristics God has given us from within Himself. God is both masculine (al-Jalal i.e. of Majesty and Power) and feminine (al-Jamal i.e. of Beauty and Compassion). His masculine characteristics are in names such as; The All-Compelling, The All-Mighty, The Afflicter of Retribution and The Supremely Strong. Examples of His feminine characteristics are in names such as; The most Merciful, The most Forgiving, The most Patient, The most Gentle. These latter names are those we regularly call Allah by, seeking His mercy, forgiveness, patience, gentleness. But within our Ummah we can see the result of being less inclined to embody these traits ourselves.

It was when I read a poem by Rumi that I found a beautiful and significant connection being made between Allah’s feminine characteristics and the creation of woman;

Love and kindness are human attributes; anger and
sensuality belong to the animals.

She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She
is a creator

– you could say that she is not created.

I thought of ‘She is a creator’ as referring to a woman’s role as a mother, or as the female being a creator of love and mercy as we know it on earth. Being uncreated could mean the wholesome possession of Allah’s feminine characteristics. These of course were prevalent more than in any of us in the character of the Prophet (pbuh), who had the balance of both feminine and masculine e.g. in his mercy and his justice. The general examples however – used by the Prophet (pbuh) himself – are those of the female. He (pbuh) said that God’s mercy is greater than that of a mother’s love for her child, thereby using the example of the highest love we know on earth to demonstrate the incomprehensibility of Allah’s mercy. When I read Rumi’s poem I immediately thought of the feminine as the civilizing force of the world, beyond the simple gender-based understanding of a woman, more as part of the balance of the human being.

To be balanced with both the masculine and feminine is an interesting notion and I have thought of it in connection with the concept of the genderless worshipper, as Rabia al Basri was seen to be. But this genderless-ness was not just in the balance of characteristics, it was in fact mainly in the annihilation of one’s physical form in the love of God. It’s been said that; “When a woman walks on the path of God she cannot be called a ‘woman’” (Women of Sufism*), the notion of gender/sexuality isn’t relevant anymore. This is seen in Rabia al Basri’s poetry which expresses her experience of dedication to Allah; an annihilation of self. An incomprehensible experience to us since we have not reached such a station.

Literalism and Poetry

In comparison to the essence of Rabia al Basri’s poetry, I recently came across an article called; Battle Lines; Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry’  in which there is a secular analysis of how and why poetry is significant to extremists. The article talks specifically about a woman named Ahlam al-Nasr, a member of ISIS who has written poems, as the writers state, ‘in praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…and a thirty-page essay defending the leadership’s decision to burn the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh alive’. Her work uses war and violence to play upon emotions by romanticizing martyrdom, emphasizing cruelty to Muslim lands and the bravery of those fighting against it. She puts forth an idyllic dream for how things could be under the ISIS imagined Islamic state, a place which in reality does not exist.

This romanticizing of ‘jihad’ is, needless to say, a dramatic break away from the poetry which has always been celebrated in the Islamic world. The insecurity brought about by the victim status of such followers overcompensates into a call for violence. The focus on sacrificing for God in classical Islamic poetry is instead in ISIS expressed as a focus on battle and a struggle seen through a political lens, for a call to take vengeance through their vigilantism and declaration of legitimacy. In the midst of such huge issues the focus on purifying the soul and seeking the Creator is seen as insignificant, even alien.

The secular world does not help with this in its incomprehension of spirituality. Secular means to not be connected to religion, but in this case I am using the term ‘secular world’ specifically in relation to contemporary thought which looks at religion from its subjective position of non-belief. In this world the voice of the extremist is religion because the concrete notions of violence and martyrdom through suicidal fantasies are part of a language secularism understands more than that of rectifying the heart and soul.

It also looks at the Muslim woman as a victim of the male gaze, having to wear a veil, thereby seeing her only as a physical entity. Similarly, ISIS has a ‘brigade’ named Al-Khansa which is the ‘female morality police’ of the cult who no doubt ensure that women are dressed appropriately and behave as they’re supposed to. And so, just as secular opinion makes a Muslim woman only her veil, Al-Khansa does no different. Just because a poetess is hailed as a voice for their movement does not mean that the feminine has found its presence amongst them.

In such groups the idea of the gender-less worshipper is nonexistent, it isn’t something that I imagine would ever make sense to those of literalist thinking. The poetry of Rumi, Rabia al Basri, Hafiz etc. which speaks about devotion to the Divine is about a love which is so fierce that were an individual to walk upon that path they would have nothing of themselves left. I think if we understood sacrifice such as this we would not ridicule such individuals or dismiss the way of the Sufi. Similarly, the feminine is not something to be hushed or underestimated, it is key to the meaning of life. Or else we have the other end of the spectrum in the form of groups like ISIS who might be able to deceive some with their romanticised jihad, but were anyone to study the works of classical Muslim poets they would see the utter emptiness in such dystopian fantasies.

*‘Women of Sufism; A Hidden Treasure’ by Camille Adams Helminski

You can view more art work by Roszeen Afsar [Inky-Art by Roszeen] on her Instagram @InkyArtbyRoszeen

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


Leave a comment

I got 99 problems, but judging people shouldn’t be one

haram police

It’s  difficult to be a Muslim online these days; if you’re not receiving backlash from Islamophobic trolls, then you can definitely rely on your own community to take the position of judge and jury when it comes to your morality.

Okay, so I’m being a little facetious. But I see it time and time again, and we need to stop it. Right now. Because although the Muslim community has its fair share of problems, one issue that we can fix ourselves is to stop judging other people. If we all took it upon ourselves to be less judgemental, the whole community would benefit. Judgemental attitudes in the community are definitely a major barrier to Muslims progressing in this modern media landscape.

Let me explain. It’s somewhat true that Muslims are misrepresented by the mainstream media. It seems rare that your average Muslim-neighbour next door gets a spot on TV, and more often than not, the position of representing the token Muslim view often goes to extremists, such as Anjem Choudary.

But, on one hand you can’t complain that Muslims never get a platform while simultaneously judging anyone who tries comes into the limelight. If we want more Muslim-next-door types to come forward, we need to stop being so judgemental.

The internet and blogosphere is perhaps the best example of this. There are lots of Muslims doing good things online. But given that there’s so much judgement from fellow Muslims, you have to ask yourself, who would want to put themselves out there and represent the Muslim view?

For example, any Muslim who doesn’t wear hijab or wears hijab with make-up, or doesn’t wear the right type of hijab or wears the “wrong” type of clothing or who puts pictures up of themselves enjoying a concert or music of any kind (etc. etc. etc. Yawn.) immediately gets a selection of comments from other Muslims who think they know better, who feel they are in the privileged position of deciding who’s good and who’s not. It’s no wonder Muslims are reluctant to step forward.

The truth is that we all pick and choose our actions to some extent and nobody can claim to follow the religion to the letter. We’re all struggling with our own internal conflicts and sense of morality. It’s hard enough trying to be a good person yourself without having to worry about anyone else’s path in life or relationship with God.

Furthermore, if deep down inside, you feel you’re doing the right thing, you need to have the confidence to be true to yourself. Life is too short to worry about what other people are thinking or to worry about the judgement of others. If you don’t feel something is wrong, why pretend otherwise, simply for the sake of others?

One of the most basic tenets of the Islamic faith is bismillah, the declaration: In the name of Allah, the most beneficent, the most merciful. If we really understood the essence of bismillah, then it really wouldn’t be possible for us to judge others are much as we do. If God is the most merciful, the most compassionate and the most just, then surely we need to leave judgement up to Him and Him alone.

If you believe in the justice of God, and you recognise your own pale insignificance in comparison, then logically, it cannot be possible for you to to judge anyone else. Because if you think you know just as much as God, then that has to be the highest form of arrogance. Moreover, by putting yourself on the level of being able to judge another human being, you’ve assigned partners to the Almighty. Therefore judging others surely leads you to committing a form of shirk. It’s a simple message; it’s basic, but please, let’s leave judgement up to the only one who we believe has the capacity to judge.

If we go one step further, it means that as Muslims we have no right to use anyone’s actions to judge who is a Muslim and who isn’t. In a recent interview, after being questioned about what it means to self-identify as a Muslim, Mona Eltahawy’s response was this:

“To say I’m a Muslim. That’s it … You see, when people ask you these observant questions, I know what the goal of this is, you’re trying to put people in a box and say oh you’re that kind of Muslim, oh you’re that kind of Muslim. All you need to know is that I’m a Muslim, and that’s essentially what the prophet said, that you’re a Muslim.”

All human beings are judgemental to some extent and it’s something we all struggle with. But if we want the Muslim community to be better, we must allow for different attitudes and try to avoid judging others. Afterall, diversity within the Muslim community can only be a good thing.

None of us truly know what pleases the Almighty or what anyone’s struggled with or what someone else’s true intentions are. If we believe Allah is just, we must leave judgement up to Him alone. Live and let live.

Image credit: http://www.quickmeme.com/Haram-police

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


3 Comments

The Aliens; Islam & Feminine Spirituality

by Roszeen Afsar 

Bird painting by Roszeen Afsar

Bird painting by Roszeen Afsar

In my previous post; ‘The Smiling Sister; Paintings of Hijab’, I wrote that knowledge of spirituality today is very little, and as such female spirituality is never brought up in discussions on Islam. I was asked why that is. This is an interesting question and one I touched on in my final year at university. The answer, I found, is both because of how Islam is perceived on the outside as well as how Islam has largely continued on the inside.

Islam from Outside

In terms of religion in the present day, although many believe the developed world to be mostly secular, I found in my research that there’s been a growth of new religions and the resurgence of interest in human spirituality. This is believed to be due to a backlash against the Enlightenment and modernity. In an age of globalisation many individuals in the developed world have lesser ties to the community, there’s a breaking up of the family unit (leading to a lack of identity), more focus on fiscal gain, and a lack of ‘standing for something’. The individual therefore has to find other ways to feel at peace. Followers of niche religions or agnostics (who believe in something but don’t follow any particular religion) see religions such as Christianity and Islam as rigid dogmas; too controlling, too backwards, not providing a way for their individual problems/needs to be addressed.

Although many Muslims would argue against this, we must understand that the Western view of Islam has always been rudimentary and I would argue that Western scholars haven’t made much effort in the past to understand Islam beyond seeing it from their knowledge of Christianity. If you add this to the Enlightenment’s criticism of, and moving away from, religion you have to question how Islam could have stood a chance in being recognised for the depth of its beliefs. I had this experience with my own lecturers; those of which I spoke to about Islam during my research had no idea about its spirituality or complexities. It’s no surprise then that individuals who are identified with Muslim backgrounds and who are causing harm in the world, bring about a questioning of the tenants of Islam itself rather than their actions being seen as perversions of religion or as politically motivated with political objectives as my research found was almost always the case.

Further to Islam’s alien position in the Western world, the appearance of Muslim women is seen from a black and white perspective – as alluded to in the previous post – in which the spiritual notion of hijab is never once brought up, but rather female attire is seen as oppressive or the result of fanatical ideology, or being socially motivated.

Islam from Inside & Feminine Spirituality

As amongst non-Muslims, the reason why female spirituality is not brought up in Islamic discussions by Muslims is because of the incredible lack of knowledge regarding it. Many cultural traditions which have taken on Islamic beliefs have unfortunately held strong to their backwards views on the position of women, disregarding the feminine in society. In both the secular and non-secular world, this ignorance leads to catastrophe, as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf writes;

‘When her natural virtues—compassion, kindness, caring, selflessness, and love—predominate in men, men are able to overcome their natural vices and realize their full humanity. When, however, those virtues are absent, men descend to the lowest of the low and are worse than beasts.’*

This is not just the case in cultural traditions, but also in those Muslims claiming to be following a ‘pure’ and ‘untainted’ version of Islam. I’m sure that many of you have noticed the literalism with which Islam is approached nowadays by some. I’ve come across writers commenting that Muslim literalism has been a result of the Enlightenment and Rationalism because of which some have approached their faith from scientific perspectives, using the Qur’an to verify mathematical and scientific notions rather than using it as a practical and spiritual guide to cleanse the heart. Along with this many have tried to ‘simplify’ the religion, leading to a kind of reductionism of teachings, principally the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh). Even worse, some have taken it upon themselves – disregarding any scholarly lineage – to make their own interpretations, leading to chaos. Spirituality and inward knowledge has been pushed aside in all of this, reducing worship to rigid, meaningless ritual at best, and incredible violence at worst.

Before I end up going too much into literalism, I’ll quickly bring it back to female spirituality. I’ve heard from many sisters recently, and even from some brothers, that there’s a need for more female scholarship and I wholeheartedly agree with this. This demand, it could be said, has also brought a revival of history which was forgotten of late regarding female contributions to Islam – just as I learnt of Rabia al Basri. And so I do believe things are changing.

 

Image of a woman wearing Hijab by Roszeen Afsar

Image of a woman wearing Hijab by Roszeen Afsar

 

Nowadays Muslim women demand for their spiritual space in the Masjid. They’re becoming more active in their worship and in their participation in the community (from my experience) than their male counterparts. They also participate in society in ways separate to other women, e.g. through the creation of businesses, sister study groups and socials, and events specifically catering towards the Muslimah – which become an extension of her worship and combine with her other duties. They’ve shown courage in their adherence to hijab in the face of criticism which comes from a real lack of understanding about the feminine virtue and its relation to God. And so I would like to end this article with another quote from Shaykh Hamza’s Yusuf’s writing – a piece I’m obsessed with and have also quoted in a previous article (https://ispeakinwriting.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/do-women-have-a-soul-religious-revival-the-feminine/);

‘The Arabic and Hebrew word for womb (rahm) is derived from the word for mercy (rahma) and an expression of the creative power of God in man…When her natural virtues—compassion, kindness, caring, selflessness, and love—predominate in men, men are able to overcome their natural vices and realize their full humanity.’*

*Hamza Yusuf, ‘Climbing Mount Purgatorio: Reflections from the Seventh Cornice’, Zaytuna College, p.1-20

You can view more art work by Roszeen Afsar [Inky-Art by Roszeen] on her Instagram @InkyArtbyRoszeen and follow her on Twitter @Roszeen she also blogs on http://ispeakinwriting.wordpress.com/ 

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website


10 Comments

The Smiling Sister; Paintings of Hijab

by Roszeen Afsar

“The hijab is much more than the external solid scarf, but it is worn as an internal spiritual means of faith, these collections depict that so well.”   – Nargis Akhter 

Image by Rozseen Afsar

Image by Roszeen Afsar

The above quote is the feedback I received from a friend after I showed her the piece I’d painted of her [above] based on one of her photographs. The photo I saw showed her with a peaceful yet sombre expression I would imagine of a Victorian woman saving her smile, but looking satisfied and elegant in her pose, confident in her femininity, dignified as a woman. The collection of mine she was referring to was not only the painting I did of her or the plans I’d shared with her of my future work, but also another piece I’d made previously which was inspired in the same light; by the expression of another friend whose hijab was also intrinsically melded into her closed eyes and subtle smile. I painted what struck me, inspired by their essence, and with the sole purpose of trying to capture peace. Peace is feminine in my eyes. And so is spirituality.

Artistic depictions of Muslim women in history have consisted of Orientalist ideas mostly, often portraying the Arabian (which is the only ethnicity of the Muslim woman in Western stereotype) female ‘other’ as an erotic being, an object hidden behind a veil. Discussion of the Islamic woman is concrete, black and white. As material, physical and solid as the scarf around her head – just as my friend referred to in the above quote. Although I may in future discuss something I’ve painted or drawn as a response to secular opinion or critique of female autonomy in Islam, I didn’t begin my work that way and it is not what inspires me. First and foremost my inspirations come by way of…the innocence of the unguarded moment, the natural beauty of the created, the split second of a peaceful smile, a feminine confidence, the image of the soul materialised. It is therefore the painted or drawn face itself which takes precedence above whatever opinion or stereotype others may have, which speaks for itself, which stands on its own before whatever follows from it and not vice versa.

Spirituality, Muslim women and expression.

Image by Roszeen Afsar

Knowledge or appreciation of spirituality in this age is naïve at most and non-existent at least. It is not surprising that female spirituality is never brought up in discussions regarding Islam, but Rabia al Basri is the woman who immediately comes to mind when I think of it. Rabia’s earlier life was very much concrete; poverty placed her into slavery. She was a woman tied to her circumstances and could have become the helpless victim Muslim women are often depicted as. However, her hardships and worship led to her rising spiritually, they led to her certainness of being, so much so that she freed herself of her circumstances and was seen as a saint. I would give a great deal to be able to witness the way she was and the aura surrounding her as a woman in oneness with God.

Without even intending to seek, I believe I have come across drops from such an ocean of spiritualism and being, cast upon the faces of women around me. Though the moments are fleeting, they exist. The expressions which have inspired me are from the lives of real women. And what strikes me about them is that their expressions are both close and distant, just as every single soul is both alive in the physical, immediate realm, as well as in the metaphysical, experiential one. I believe that what inspires me to paint and create is witnessing the presence of being at peace – something I have seen in its purest in the feminine.

You can view more art work by Roszeen Afsar [Inky-Art by Roszeen] on her Instagram @InkyArtbyRoszeen and follow her on Twitter @Roszeen she also blogs on http://ispeakinwriting.wordpress.com/  

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.