Harry

Utter desolation. The playground’s swings creak; sway back and forth to nobody-in-particular’s tune. The ground gathers dust; prepares itself for… nothing in particular, really. Pathetic fallacy; the sky sighs, and then breathes out an atmosphere of sheer anticlimax. Harry sits alone, his suitcase beside him his only companion. It quietly whispers promises of adventure, mobility, dynamism… But for now, all is still.

The air is pregnant with possibility; cold and crisp. There is not a soul in sight, apart from one. The wind rolls itself out like a red carpet, announcing the arrival of… nobody in particular. Lightning strikes – there for an instant, and then completely gone. And it leaves behind no inspiration; instils no fear in Harry’s heart. It does, however, as Harry notices, bear some sort of likeness to the scarlet bolt on his forehead.

All that is true, right now, is the cold, and the darkness, and the sense of anticipation that cloaks the Chosen One’s entire being like an oversized winter coat. And the frost bites all his recollections of yesterday; all that was there before this encounter – this meeting with a great big Nothing. Harry does not know about all the adventures that eagerly outstretch their fingers towards him. See, they belong to their mistress Future, and what a laconic and mysterious woman she can be… Harry only knows that a bus is coming to pick him up. A night bus – knight in shining armour.

His legs are tired, and his teeth chatter unstoppably. In this stagnation, and in this unwearying weariness, all Harry can really do is watch his watch tick; comforted, at least somewhat, by the constant creak of the pendulum swing; the gradual encroachment of blackened clouds – forming a canopy of sorts above his somnolent head.

And a bus is almost certainly on its way. Wondrous, wonderful, things are almost certainly going to happen once the vehicle’s motions are introduced onto this scene. But in this moment, neither Harry nor his companion suitcase (and not even the certainty of the creaking swings) are able to tell us precisely what.

In Anticipation of Ramadān…

Come, Ramadān, and welcome. Oh, how we have missed you. Month of mercy; month of peace; month in which blessings fall like heavy redemptive rainfall. Come, Ramadān, and hurry. 

Ramadān is the best time – a wonderful and unique opportunity – in which to renew oneself. Spiritually, and physically, and in terms of all our emotional attachments and stresses. In this month, we are truly reminded of what our purposes are, here, and of the realities of this life. Fasting brings about mental clarity; it quells certain spiritual ailments, such as our inclinations towards gluttony as well as our more carnal desires. And Ramadān is a great time to contemplate, and to truly and deeply ask of ourselves: who am I? What are my faults? And how can I be better? Ramadān is an ideal time in which to convert restlessness into peace; deep worldly attachments that weigh heavy on the heart, into spiritual beauty and lightnesses; all past regrets and mistakes into contentment and positive action.

Truly blessed is he or she who makes the most of this holy month: spending time at the mosque, studying for upcoming exams there, perhaps, and then getting up every so often so as to enjoin in congregational prayers. Sharing Ifthar with others: there is so much Barakah in this. Those blissful little naps that we take throughout the day; the anticipatory hour before the breaking of the fast; that first gulp of crisp cold water as soon as the time arrives…

Roughly thirty days, characterised by sacrifices, and hunger, and a widespread atmospheric stillness, and by a potent potential for powerful self-development. Love, and community, and charity. The most splendid nights experienced after Tarawih prayers – when the floodgates of the mosque open, and when worshippers ooze out onto warmly-lit streets like molasses.

Come, Ramadān, and hurry. Our souls, right now, are in dire need of you. We find ourselves down here, stargazing, and thinking of you, and eagerly awaiting the first signs of your moon…

New Ramadān, New Moon, New You. Bismillah.

Songs of the Earth

The Earth, much like the rest of the Universe, yearns to tell you about its Creator. The sunlight that manages to shine through cotton curtains; the cockerel that wakes you up for morning prayers. Mountains stand mighty, unbothered, their pinnacles pointing upwards. The Earth is spherical – an oblate spheroid, to be precise – and so whatever points upwards (minarets, mountains, and the like) points outwards. God’s might and majesty is all-encompassing. And the Earth yearns to tell you about its Creator. Bees do their thing; golden liquids are made within their bellies. Fruits in almost every conceivable colour are borne from stalks that, upon first glance, do not look like they could ever produce anything so beautiful and succulent. Symmetry is another thing: how one side mirrors another, upon Divine instruction. Waterfalls fall, as they do; male birds dance to woo their women. There is so much beauty to behold here. Golden spirals: how a tiny snail upon the tip of your finger (and the tips of our fingers are magnificent in their own right) bears a mathematical resemblance to the aerial view of a hurricane; to the perfect arrangement of seeds upon a sunflower. Mother Earth is gorgeous; terrifying. An adornment, in the fruits and the friends and the wondrous cycles and processes she presents before us. A provision – her material capacities are each opportunities for us. Earth worships her Master; her symphonies are in servitude to the One who created her. And Allah (SWT) knows what we love; we have been given the gushing beauty of this Earth. The best of us are promised something even better with what is to come.

On Vessels and Causation

What is a ’cause’? According to the OED, this term refers to “a person or thing that gives rise to an action, phenomenon, or condition”. It must be noted that something [thing A] preceding something else [thing B] does not render A the (ultimate, first) cause of B. For example, at train stations in London, the tannoys blare out the words, “Mind the gap” before swathes of passengers exit the carriages. Does this mean that the tannoy’s repetitive words have caused the passengers to depart the train? No. These are just different components of a certain chain of causation: the respective thoughts in the passengers’ heads (e.g. “This is my stop”, “If I don’t get off here, I won’t get to work on time”, etc) give rise to certain actions – like preparatorily getting up from their seats, and gathering near the doors. The ultimate cause of the passengers’ collective departure is intentionality. But what is the cause of this ability to funnel thoughts into intentions, and later into actions?

Well, one could argue that the physiology of the human brain gives way to the functionings of the human mind – rather like technological hardware being a point of projection for technological software – like, say, apps on iPhones. What can we narrow such functionings down to? Decision-making arguably takes place in the human frontal lobe. So can we point to this segment of the brain and say that it is the cause of certain actions? But we can delve deeper: what is the cause of our decision-making capacities arguably dwelling in this part of our brains? The interactions between certain cells? The brain’s inner electrical happenings? Can we magnify this all and state that the atoms that form certain cells, which consequently form this part of our brains, is the cause of intention-fuelled human actions? What about considerations of the sub-atomic level? What about the level on which everything can arguably just be reduced to energy? Can we look at any individual human being’s intentional actions, and say, “energy, man. Energy was the cause“. 

And what was the cause of this energy? The process of creation requires a sense of will – whether this is a direct and calculated will or not. Something needs some sort of motivation in order to do something else. Should we go on to say that base-level energy is the ultimate creative force; the Cause; the Cause with a Will, which translated into the materialisation and fruition of everything? 

The universe – and all the caused processes it accommodates (from the gestation of mammals in wombs, to the controlling of the tide by the moon, to gravity, to… [and so on]) had a beginning. This is undeniable. Things do not give birth to themselves: this is a logical fallacy. The Big Bang [Sheldon says “Bazinga!” here] had a cause; otherwise, it would not have occurred. But was energy the cause, or was God the cause? But energy does not do anything unless it is made to do something – by some external force. It is not conscious; it does not have a will.

Surely, then, God is the most logical explanation – the Islamic, Qur’anic conceptualisation of Him? A Rabb [a complex and multifaceted Arabic term that describes the Creator]? Self-sufficient; He does not require a cause. In fact, He is not in need of anything [and this is truly difficult for we extremely needy beings to ever comprehend]. Eternal. The Cause. The Unmoved Mover. The One who is totally unlike His creation.

Does energy have a brain, in order to make these decisions in the first place? But then again, we must bring the following into question: is the brain the cause of human thought and intentionality, or is it merely a vessel? Uniquely human traits – like the ability to make art; the ability to love so deeply; the ability to write; the ability to create; to think – can we not see all our abilities (so boundless and yet so limited) as diluted subsets of Divine qualities? What is the cause of love? Mere neuro-chemical cocktails? But what if these, too, are just vessels – the ways, vehicles, through which Divine qualities pass through, and into the material realm? And eyesight? At which level can we look at our eyes beneath microscopes, and say, “Aha! The ultimate cause of eyesight!”

We find letters in letterboxes. This does not render the letterbox the cause of the letter. Likewise, we find the ostensible ‘origins’ of certain functions within certain bodily organs (etc). Are these organs the (unguidedcauses of said functions? This is all just something to think about; something through which one may cause oneself to have an existential crisis, on the spot…

 

For students who are suffering from depression.

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

Please note: I know that some people get wearied – ‘fed up’ – of all this talk about mental health. They lack the emotional intelligence to even begin to empathise with things they have not experienced. If this is you – if you think things like depression are talked about ‘too much’, and that these conditions can just be resolved through willpower and people ‘[getting] over themselves’, I regret to inform you that, a) you are suffering from an ailment characterised by deep ignorance, and, b) this article is not for you.

Depression – the ongoing mental health condition, that is (and I refer not to its erroneous conflation with a reactively sad state of being) one of the hardest things a person can ever go through. It is a dark monster that latches onto the mind; it is parasitical and oppressive, and it renders rotten whatever it touches. Depression can ruin your self-image, and it can absolutely annihilate your capacities for joy, as well as your energy and productivity levels. It is certainly the most difficult thing I have ever been through.

The peak of my experience of depression took place in Year Thirteen. Few people really knew what was going on: some people saw the sudden inexplicable spells of tears. I found myself constantly repeating the words, “I’m tired”. I smiled on the outside; I tried to make light of it all. But it was so, so heavy. And I know this weighty experience – of suffering from depression, while having to cope with the natural stresses and pressures of upcoming exams – is so very difficult indeed.

Recently, I heard about a girl from my old school who is going through what I did last year. I have heard about students from Brampton Manor who have been through, or are going through, depression; students from LAE; students from Harris Westminster; Queen Mary, Oxford, City. My aunt’s friend who is a medical student went through it rather intensely, too. All over Twitter, university students attempt to evoke humour out of the fact that they have degrees to achieve while also suffering from depression. All in all, the combination of depression with exam-related stress makes for a very debilitating experience indeed.

Depression makes the simplest activities unbelievably burdensome for individual sufferers: waking up in the morning; showering; eating a full meal. Having heaps of work to do, while, say, finding yourself ideating suicide (a rather common symptom of the mental health condition) is exhausting. Wanting to be productive; wanting to do well; sitting for hours and hours, trying to get your mind to cooperate while all it seems to want to do to itself is rot… this all adds to how terrible the general ordeal is.

It is hard, having, say, once been a top student, and now battling with depression. Deep down, you feel a sense of self-resentment: why couldn’t you be normal? It is hard knowing that you probably could have done amazingly well, if your mind were not currently betraying you. And it is hard feeling all alone during this time; you may even begin to feel guilt at the fact that you are complaining of your depression, because everyone around you is now suffering, with exam-related pressures. You do not want to burden them. You do not want the people around you to see you as a failure, either. But depression makes you feel so down; it makes you let yourself down.

I want to tell you that your grades are not everything. Heck, I missed out on a whole Cambridge offer because of my mental health conditions! But I am very glad I did: I could not pretend anymore. I could not pretend my depression was ‘not there’, for the sake of academic ‘productivity’. For whom was I trying to prove myself? And especially at the detriment of my own mental health…

Those were dark, dark times. I tried everything: eating more, eating less, eating better. Exercising. Breaking my work-related tasks into ‘manageable chunks’. But my depression did not lift; it became worse as the days went by. Mid-summer holidays, before Results’ Day, I was pretty much incapacitated by it. Thankfully, I took a gap year, and managed to heal [Alhamdulillah].

It took some medication (and some trying-out-different-ones); some spiritual practices; a lot of relaxation, and more, to heal. You cannot rush such a process. Moreover, although I will always have a strong affinity for academia, it is liberating to realise that I am human. I am a human being who went through the darkest of depressions, and who has come out on the other side! My academic ‘productivity’ does not define me; any academic qualifications – degrees and the like – are not for me to ‘prove myself’ to anyone. I will not pretend I did not go through depression, either. My qualifications and academic and professional pursuits will not be at the core of my life. I will not let my mental health suffer as a result of them. Health first, always. I do not mind if people saw my academic downturn as a ‘failure’: I am not an academic-success-churning machine, and neither are you.

We are human beings. Depression is a dark, heavy reality for us. But our health and wellbeing means far more than A*s and such ever will. It is okay if ignorant people think you have failed, or whatnot. In actual fact, nobody really cares (unless they care about you). You can let yourself fall, for a little while. Rest, there. Eventually, Insha-Allah, you will get up again.

PS. If you are suffering from depression (and, perhaps, are also about to sit some exams) I am always, always, always, here to talk.


Sadia Ahmed, 2020 

What makes a friendship grow?

Everybody is just so prideful nowadays. Well, I say ‘nowadays’ as if I am eighty years old or something. The 1960s would be my time of age-based peaking, if it were up to me. But, back to nowadays: everyone claims to have friends. Few people are willing to acknowledge the true value of friendship – a precious tree that requires careful cultivation if it is to flourish and be fruitful.

True friendship does not come easy: it requires effort, on all sides and fronts. Time, empathy, humour, sacrifice, commitment, effort. These things make one’s friendship garden grow.

Nowadays, and nostalgic self-proclaimed ‘old souls’ tend to latch onto this word and what it may entail like leeches to blood, people seem to be reluctant to actually make an effort. ‘Trust issues’, extremely busy schedules, and good old clingy friend Ego are usually to blame.

Often, it’s a vicious cycle: you want your friend to pick up the phone and call you first – implicitly, you are too proud to make the first move. But she does not call, so you become ‘protectively’ apathetic; distance yourself a little. But what if she is also waiting for you to make the first call? What if this cycle is doomed to repeat itself for years and years, until you have amassed enough contactless hours for a lifetime-remainder of regret?

Sometimes it gets tiring being the first one to do something about it all. Friendships can come to feel rather asymmetrical. Your effort may seemingly be matched with indifference, or with taking your emotional grafting for granted. And then Ego comes to visit once again – that opportunistic fox. It tells you, why do you even bother? You’re embarrassing yourself, dear. They don’t care about you. Protect yourself; let your heart grow cold towards them.

I think everyone will, undoubtedly, let you down in one way or another. And you will let others down too, often inadvertently. But the fact of the matter is, friendship is based on autonomous choices. We become friends not with fantastical images of ‘perfect potential friends’. Nay, we become friends with people. People will always let you down.

But apathy and feigned indifference and a resultant lack of effort on your part is not the way to go. If everyone resorted to this easy (foolish) solution, all friendships would either be very shallow, or would cease to be real friendships at all.

We get to decide who we accept as friends; who gets to be in our lives in this right. We choose whom we like, and whom we are willing to forgive, over and over again, when they (inadvertently, for actions are but by intention [Hadith]) hurt us. We should aim to be willing to put our pride-based barriers down, over and over again, for this select few.

Who wins – all the time – in this game? The ones who pridefully refuse to try? They gain nothing from this endeavour, except the loss of friends, as well as the loss of the softness of their hearts. It is the ones who try, try, and then try again who always win: they either succeed in nourishing dormant friendships, or they fail in this activity; at least they have the satisfaction of knowing that they tried. This friendship has died not because of them, but because of an indifferent other.

For my friends, Insha-Allah, I will try and try. I hope they know me as the one who makes the effort. But, over time, if these efforts are not reciprocated, they will never get to know me again.

Orbit

I see, in you, a part of the world that is beautiful. And I really do hope you see it too.

I watch you, head upon hands, back against Mother Earth’s earthy clutch,

Looking for the Big Dipper, and for Orion’s Belt, and then for Sirius.

The sheer gorgeousness of what lurks up there, above us,

And below us, and while dear friend Gravity stops us from falling –

It is all mirrored in those eyes of yours. And I really hope you see it too.

Your eyes are black, like space, but I see in them little flecks that

My mind perceives to be stars. I will make of them constellations, and while I do

Will you stay here a while – just as you are –

In this, our dual orbit? Can we rest here a while, with stars in our eyes,

As we quietly, furiously hurtle

Through Time and through Space and through all these days that fall just like dominoes do

Illuminated by Venus’ burnt orange glow; by the ebullience of the way you smile?

God made you. This I know to be true, and the evidence is you.

The sun just continues to burn; she is so angry and so beautiful.

And Mother Earth spins, spins. We’re just so used to all her spinning.

Moon kisses sun goodnight; reigns radiantly above her empire in spite of darkness.

And we, too, are part of this universe; it runs through our souls and through our veins,

 

And I see, in you, a part of this universe that is wonderful.

There’s just something about you that makes all its vastness seem so

Small, so simple, so… like it is not ever-expanding, and like it is never spinning.

Slow, certain,

Lit up like tea-light stars. Like orbiting beings reflected in orbit of your iris around its pupil. And I know:

We can count on Space to be kind to us. Time, perhaps, not so much.

I prefer what is cyclical, really. Pilgrims encircling Ka’abah in Makkah, and hurricane spinning around epicentre. Time is just too linear.

What we lose, you see, always has a way of coming back to us – cyclically –

Granted that the core is sturdy enough. Burning sun, or large black cube, or vacuum pupil.

 Orbit person,

Human galaxy,

Would you care to rebel against tyrannous Time with me,

even if only for a little while?

Will you remain, right here, just as you are,

Finding comfort, somehow, within the terror of all these planets and moons,

The black holes in our stories,

And what they might all tell us about the meaning of us? 


Sadia Ahmed, 2020

The Right People // The Wrong People

For my wonderful friend Hannah [Mahmoud, not Baker].

The wrong people do not matter, but they will, almost certainly, mind. They will say that you are too much. But when you trim yourself around the edges for them, they will say that you are too little. You talk too much; you do not talk enough. You are so, so annoying! And yet, you are so, so dull. Your colours are too vibrant – blinding – and yet, somehow, in their paradox-creating eyes, you are black and white, black and white. Always, “no”, never “yes”. Critics, these bored and often envious souls, create moulds for you, which they swear they will approve of you if you adhere to them. But their moulds are illusory; a disappearing act; hypocritical little jumpers. As soon as you harken towards them, eager to appease and please, they are gone. New markers of approval are pitched in their places; you rush towards them like a dog. You’re weird; you’re too talkative; you’re crazy; you’re too religious; you’re such a nerd. Listen a bit more carefully to these criticisms, to these fingers pointed like guns, to these minds that think more about you and your life than they really ought to: they criticise in you what they dislike of themselves. Projection, this is called. You’re such a nerd: they are unhappy that you scored way higher than them in that test. You’re so annoying: they worry that they have no personality in juxtaposition to yours. You’re so weird: they worry that, whilst you stick out a little, they simply merge into the background, consumed by the bubbling slimy monster of normalcy.

The right people, on the other hand, will always twist things a little to make you feel good about yourself; to paint you in a positive light. Their minds do this reflexively; their hearts expand to make space for you. You’re not weird: you’re wonderful. You do not talk too much: talk some more, please, so that I may listen in fascination and admiration to your silky words! And wow, how attractive you look when your hair is a mess and you look like an exhausted alcoholic! How do you make it all look so beautiful?! How are you so beautiful, so adorable, so delightful to be around, and to befriend? Your soul, my friend, is truly something to behold. Of course the critics will rush towards you, like flies toward fruit.

Listening to the critics – actually taking all their bullet-like words into account – will drive you insane. They – those haters – are a confusing, insecure, (relatively) insignificant bunch. Their chosen role, so it would seem, is to locate all your colours, and to perceptively turn them all into something ugly. It makes them feel better, to make you feel worse. But the right ones will never see ugly in you: they will only find beauty where there is clearly much beauty to be found, and they will find only beauty even when they must force themselves to look a little harder.