Chances

Another thing that I have learnt during these first two decades of my life is about giving people (and, indeed, oneself) chances. We change and we grow; it is not (not ever) a solid, reified, definable ‘you’ or ‘I’ that follows us through time. Our ships are always being developed, rebuilt. We find that some things work; we may wish to keep them, and hone them. Some things, we come to discard. We look within ourselves, think about who we are; some things, we change. Some things, we allow to be kept the same. And Time does not stop for anybody.

Besides, all human life is stories, and what are stories without character development? 

Of other people, we may only see glimpses. And then, we might hear of them from the mouths of others. Words are ascribed to them. And words – definitions – by nature, limit. They facilitate the fastening of certain characteristics and ideas to certain people. We might come to hear of one or two things a particular individual has done, way back when. What we may not hear about are all the extra contextual considerations. We may forget that they are only human, just like us; they will necessarily slip up sometimes. We might not listen to and accept additional information, about how these people have changed, for example. We really ought to give people a chance to do so – to be messy, sometimes, and to grow and to change; no human being’s character is a necessarily reified and consistent-through-time thing. Nobody is perfect; people do not suddenly become the picture of evil as soon as they do something wrong.

So is it not foolish to portray individuals in such ways, in our own minds – as if they in their entirety are only the one, or two, or five, or sixty, individual picture frames you have seen of them – or, worse still – heard of them? As if they are either wholly ‘good’ or wholly ‘bad’?

I have certainly fallen into similar traps before. Hearing about various things about a certain person. Blindly believing it. How can we meaningfully come to determine which side of a story is the most valid, the closest to Truth? 

People do change; it is in our nature to. So now, I guess, when I hear about the doings of certain people from five years ago, or even from five weeks ago, I try to stop myself from forming any sort of judgement that may feign, in my own mind, being solidity or holism. Doing so would be quite unfair.

I have known – and really liked, actually – certain people whom others have loathed. Stupidly, at times I allowed myself to become swayed by popular narratives.

She’s so annoying. My blood boils whenever she speaks. She must be evil too.” And they proceeded to make fun of her and to eat all the brownies she had made for them, and to speak ill of her as soon as her back had been turned. They, and their daily Starbucks drinks, and their chronic inability to be funny, their astute ability to convince everybody that they were just so nice. But hey, then again, that is just my opinion of them, based on what I have seen.

The most popular opinion is not necessarily the truest one; likewise, I suppose, the most ‘popular’ people are not necessarily the ones whose characters are most beautiful. I thought she – the one who made them brownies and biscuits and cookies all the time – was quite lovely, actually, but for some reason, in light of what they had said, I found myself questioning my own thoughts about her.

And is it a sign of loyalty, to dislike the people your loved ones may dislike? Hmm. I guess we just need to accept that a human being, in his or her entirety, is not a singular and consistent being. We are holistic and social creatures; we are fluctuation, development, and a range of different social personas.

So why not give people a chance to be human. At the end of the day, you will look at them through your own eyes, through your own perspective. They are who they are, to you, witnessed through your personal relationship with them.

It is completely natural to make judgements about people, internally. We gauge their actions, make decisions on who to trust or not to trust, decide on whom we are willing to grant the most ‘chances’ to. I think it is reasonable to choose to look at people’s behaviour – how they are towards you – and to focus on this, in lieu of ever taking others’ comments as gospel. And yes, ultimately, we only have access (through fallible eyes, fallible minds) to people’s speech and behaviour. Allah (SWT) has access to people’s hearts; He knows each of us best.

“The merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.”

– Prophet Muhammad (SAW)

Note to self: forgive people, and try to have mercy on them, even when you are alone and inside your own mind. You are not the Judge; you are fallible, and you do not know anybody in their entirety.

A person who is despised by hundreds upon thousands of people may just be completely beloved by God. So, I guess, we really must be careful about trusting our own judgements of others, and about relying on what others say of them, or of past versions of them. To quote the theme song of ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’,

Everything is not what it seems. 


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Ageing

Someday – if good friend Time doth permit it, that is – our hair will become made of silver. There will be fine lines – like those cracks that trees sometimes make, in pavements – beneath our eyes, and around our smiles. Our voices will sing of old age; nostalgia will be what sweetens our tea.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to reach old age, though. To look behind at a life nearing graceful completion.

I hope I do accept it gracefully.

It is a relatively alarming prospect, though: the idea of being so dependent on others, again. Coming full circle, almost. That post-birth dependence, then the pre-death one, I suppose.

Life peaks, maybe, somewhere in its middle. But we do not go downhill from there. Maybe we will come to see the entire world in different ways. Maybe senility will give us that gift of child-like wonder all over again.

But I hope that family holds us while we do so. When walking down the stairs becomes harder, and when we ask those same questions, over and over again. Perhaps we will be grandmothers and grandfathers, beloved by those jumpy and joy-giving little beings.

How much wisdom will we be able to impart unto them, for their use? How different will the world look? Will we remember what it was ever like, to be that young?

I’ve forgotten just where I read about this, but often old people – women, in particular – look back on their youthful days, and they think about how beautiful they had been, back then, and about how much they didn’t know it. But they know it now, in retrospect. [Aw!]

I want to live in a complete way; I want to have stories to tell

[Insha Allah!].

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck! 

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Essences Vs. Appearances

Who are you? No, I mean, who are you really? Are you the labels that may, over the years, have been ascribed to you – first by your environment, and then, also by you?

When are you most ‘real’? And who knows the ‘real you’ best?

Are you the ‘realest you’ when you are at home, alone, when the rest of the world seems to have fallen asleep? Are you whom the people you live with, insist that you are? Or, do the ones you actively choose to love, and to maintain relationships with – your closest friends, for example – are they the ones who know ‘you’ best?

The ‘true’ ‘you’. By definition: the version of ‘you’ that is in accordance with fact, with reality. But, the thing is, we each perceive ‘reality’ through our own eyes, processed via our own individual minds. We are all, for various reasons, in our own unique ways, crucially unreliable perceivers and narrators.

In a world that does not (in theory) consider God, we must concede to the fact that all realities are subjectively determined. Then, the most popular, the most popularly recurring, versions of reality are decided as being ‘truth’. The sky is ‘blue’. But some cannot see the colour ‘blue’. It does not exist for them; they might instead insist that the sky is always grey. But we take the most popular view – that which tells us that the sky is blue – and we take this as being ‘true’ [points for rhyming?]

Likewise, we say that people with abnormal psychological conditions – say, those who are prone to seeing what we term as being ‘hallucinations’ – as being detached from ‘reality’. But, see, this is a ‘reality’ that is intersubjectively decided, an implicitly democratised ‘truth’.

What if things had been different, then? What if the world had been populated mostly by people who could not see ‘blue’, and who insisted that the sky is perpetually grey, even on cloudless days? What if there had been seven billion of these grey-for-blue-seers, and only one person who saw the sky as being ‘blue’? Would the latter’s view be true, or would this person become abnormal, in our eyes, as a result of circumstance? Maybe we would come to say that he suffers from some sort of adverse ophthalmological condition.

Mutatis mutandis for the example with the psychological abnormality: what if we all started seeing ‘hallucinations’, all except for one person? Statistically, this one person would become the abnormality. Reality, when God is not considered, is simply that which most of us see, and which we can implicitly, strongly, collectively agree on.

So, back to truths about people: who knows ‘you’ [best]? Is the ‘realest’ version of you the one that the majority of people who know you are known to tell and retell? In a world that does not consider God, there is no other way to arrive at a truth. There are only human eyes, human minds, human perception (which are, by nature, limited, prone to error, etc.) – and there are only, from these, a series of popularly-decided convictions.

Where ‘truths’ are only decided and determined by the people, there is allowed much room for biases – a whole plethora of them, actually. A person’s vices may be seen as being virtues, as a simple result of the environment they situationally find themselves in, and vice versa for vices with virtues. You may find your ‘likability’, among other things, shifting drastically, based on changes in the people you find yourself surrounded by.

And if we say that people are the most ‘real’ when they are alone… well, this necessitates our looking-over-the-fact that we are who we are in relation to other people. Humankind: an intrinsically social, eusocial, species. Some people are more extroverted than others, though. Some people rely more on others, for their sense of self-identity. And our personalities are all made up of varying personas – which emerge and hide and develop in light of (social) circumstance. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

[It is in our nature to care about what others think ⁠— in particular, we will naturally seek validation and approval from those whom we love and respect, and from those whom we want to love and respect us. This is okay. But we cannot lose sight of the objective… that is, Objectivity. We must care about things like our place in society, and about our reputations and such, in decent measure. But once we have what is necessary, from this, I think we need to step back and remember how crucial moderation and balances are…]

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…”

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It

All these facts, together, do beg some highly pressing questions, for us. Is there an ‘essence’ of truth, to any of us: one that is undeniable, one that does not change based on all such demographic considerations? We do all find ourselves changing much, over time, yes, but at any given moment, is there some sort of a solid and discoverable ‘truth’ to us? Might it be a thing of averages – between everything you say about yourself, combined with what your loved ones may say, and with a pinch of what those who might dislike you say of you?

We each see others through ourselves. We are known to be unfair perceivers and judges; to be given to projecting; to be given to irrationality, and to heightened emotions that may ‘warp’ our views of people. [Well, is there even an objective ‘truth’ there, to warp, to begin with?!]

Objectivity fails to be a reality, where one does not consider God. God’s view is the only objective one; holistic, just, all-knowing. So the ultimate ‘truth’ of you is whom God knows you to be. And as He tells us, He judges us by our intentions – that which is inward and private, the stuff of the heart. It matters not, to God, if you are a prince, or if you are a pauper. These are all things that concern appearances, in the grander scheme of things. It does not matter how many people approve of you, nor the opposite: these are all mere appearance-based considerations. God knows your essence, though, even if every other man alive rejects the things that are objectively true, of you. And you certainly have much control over who you are: you regulate your thoughts, generate intentions, allow them to translate into behaviour.

On an exclusively human level, maybe it is true that the closest one can get to the ‘truth’ of oneself is by reviewing what one does. “You are what you repeatedly do”. Of course, even these considerations can be tainted by things like illnesses, which can hinder the ability you have, with which to do certain things. Ultimately, your intentions are what count the most.

God knows who you are: what you have begun with, the decisions you have made, in light of it all. You are the state of your heart, and this state is determined by factors that concern intentionality: decision-making, your pursuits of virtuous activities, what you do, and why. 

God’s Truths are the only real ones – even if every person alive comes to disagree with them. So why chase the positive regards of fellow men in such ways? Just like you, you see, they are all biased, flawed, and altogether unreliable, when it comes to matters of Truth.

So trust your Creator; fear and serve Him, and Him alone. His Word is objectively True, immortal, while the words of men are finite, limited, attempts at truth… attempted by all these minds that each find themselves affected by various half-truths, in all of these similar time-worn ways.

Also: I think it is very important for us to pay attention to whom we are with, when we feel our best – not necessarily the most euphoric, all the time, but the most unified, comfortable in ourselves. We need not feel anxious about filtering ourselves too much, before them, and nor are we overly anxious about impressing them. They just feel like… home, somehow. They care for us, and for our growth. The best of our companions are the ones who bring out the best in us; in our character, and on a spiritual level, first and foremost. You may look into their eyes, and see the best of you, reflected back.

These people are the ones that, I think, are most worth holding onto, most worth deeply investing our time and energy into our relationships with. 


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Concise Compositions: The Dual Burden / Triple Shift

I have an aunt who does not work. I mean, she does not ‘partake in paid employment’. Some people rudely remark that she does nothing all day. But this is far from the truth. Do you know how physically toiling it is, to maintain an entire four-floor house? She also has four children; she is the nucleus of their household, and she is their – and her husband’s – rock.

It’s weird – our expectations of women, today. We claim that making paid employment the absolute core of our lives is ‘liberating’. I mean, it is true that humans need things like projects and creative pursuits and things that challenge us in terms of our skills, so as to not get bored, and to feel happier and more useful.

But these expectations on women – to maintain the household, and to work crazy hours, and to be a holistic mother for their children. It is outrageous – so much pressure! Of course, wealthier individuals can afford to hire cleaners and nannies and such, to help spread the labour. Automated ‘helping hands’ like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, upon being invented, have been said to be able to help with this much.

But in truth, I think, we are thinking too ‘modern’ and individualistically. Traditionally, when we consider what Islam says, the point of ‘work’ – whether this is more domestic, or more with regards to the marketplace and the ‘outside world’, so to speak – it should all ultimately benefit the family at large. The household. Serving one another.

It should be (according to Islam) a man’s duty to protect and to provide for his family. It should be a woman’s duty to be in charge of the household and what it accommodates. Women are allowed to work, but she does not have to. She does not have to spend her own money on the running of the home; in fact, what she does spend on the other people in her family – on food, their clothing, and such – is considered as being charity on her part!

Sadly, nowadays, many women overwork themselves. The dual burden, triple shift. It is physically and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes they come home and just sleep, unable to emotionally care for their children very much. Exhaustion, but we think well of it, because in this society, the value of most things is thought of in a capitalistic way.

We need to relax. We need to let women relax; nurture good homes. And, ‘work for the sake of work’? – no thank you.

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck! 

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Forgiveness

“It’s okay — I forgive you.”

Forgiveness. What on earth does it actually mean? Apparently, it is a phenomenon that is separable from forgetting. Somebody wrongs you; it is difficult to forget what they have done. But you forgive them.

You have mercy on them, I suppose, on an inner level. Maybe you try to justify what they have done, in your own mind. The abusive, for example, must have been, at some point, abused themselves. Hmm. I don’t think anyone is ‘good’ and non-human enough to be able to fully pardon people, not without hoping that justice reaches them somehow.

In Islam, forgiveness is encouraged very much. You are meant to go to sleep each night having removed any ‘rancour’ that lies in your heart. I guess much of this can come from the fact that God is the judge. You, holding onto anger, resentment, and all these emotions that run antithetical to feelings of peace and forgiveness… well, they will not really do you any good. So let go of it. Have faith that it will all be taken care of, in due time, by a Being who is far more powerful than you are.

Forgiveness does not necessarily benefit the oppressor, unless they have been forgiven by God too. Forgiving those who have wronged you so much – it benefits you. You show your mercy – to yourself, first and foremost. We are meant to forgive – but not necessarily forget. Forgiving and forgetting renders us fools, I think, because it becomes far easier to allow people to repeat their abuses against us.

Protect yourself, by whichever means are necessary. Maybe some distance is needed from certain people. But do not lash out; do not look back in anger – or, try not to. And know that all is being taken care of. So there is no need to grieve.

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck! 

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Friendship

A friend is someone who holds your breath. Friendship. It is such a wonderful thing. If you are blessed enough, in this life of yours, to have at least one amazing friend, then you are truly blessed indeed. How awful would it have been to be alone – without friendship – in this world?

A friend is someone who looks into your eyes, and understands. Friendship is sacred, even if, these days, we often act like it is not. It takes things like trust and effort, yes. Humour, love, adventures. Sometimes just sitting in silence, enjoying one another’s company.

You are indeed who your friends are. Well, you are you, a separate entity. But so much of you will be dependent on who they are. They will be reflections of you, too. So choose wisely.

You know, we sometimes act as though every person we have met, whom we perhaps shared a class at school with, or whom we worked alongside as colleagues – we (or, do I mean I?) act like these are ‘friends’. But, no, I think, realistically, these are…acquaintances. They might be circumstantially somewhat close acquaintances, sure. But I think the term ‘friend’ ought to hold far more weight.

Friends are here for the best of your times. They are equally there for the worst ones. Your happiness and sadness becomes theirs, somehow, and vice versa. Friends are the family we are fortunate enough to be able to choose for ourselves; their lives become intertwined with ours, in parts. We end up sharing some of our flowers.

Okay I’ve got like twenty seconds left. I love my friends; over and over again, I would choose them. I love having good food with them. Good food, good friends. And FLOWERS. Life complete.

4 seconds left. 3, 2, 1.

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck! 

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Concise Compositions: Privacy

What does it mean, to be a ‘private person’? And is this – being ‘private’, keeping things ‘lowkey’ – truly a virtuous trait? Why do we claim to admire such people so?

It is true – that trite statement that tells us that we “live in a society”. We are, at our cores, social creatures. So, so much of who we are is not independent of others: we develop our personalities and such in light of others. We all want to earn the approval of certain people; be loved by our loved ones; impress certain other people.

The ‘private’ person, then. Just does things, theoretically without other people in mind. I wonder if this can ever actually be the case. It could be the case for misanthropes and hermits, perhaps. But I do think that attempting to go against human nature by closing oneself off from ‘society’ makes people miserable.

I mean, it is true that some people are super public. They do most things ‘for show’, so it would seem. They lose things like what we may term ‘authenticity’. I think an obsession with being popular and being famous just cheapens things.

And then, there are those who obsessively say they are guarding themselves, somehow. By not sharing their work; by refusing to talk about details of their own lives, with others. How arrogant. Maybe both – the excessively ‘public’ and the excessively ‘private’ are driven by pride.

Hmm. I think it is important to be more or less the same person in private and in public. Worrying not about being popular and public and such; also not worrying about hiding oneself and one’s goodnesses. It’s when you’re anxious to either be public or to be private, when it just seems a little pathetic, methinks.

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck! 

(Let’s see what might spill from that mind of yours, when it is forced, under time constraints, to speedily think and write…)


Sadia Ahmed J. 2020

 

And what might it feel like, to Die?

To run away from all talks of death is to run away from reality. In this world, all those things we plan for – the graduations, the weddings, and the like – they are all mere possibilities. But death: death, as you would find yourself rather unsurprised to know, is the only actual inevitability. 

And what might it feel like, to die? I really do wonder, sometimes. The human mind and its accommodations of our experiences of consciousness: what fascinating stuff. Mind-boggling, the stuff of dreams. We are conscious, and we are thinking. Alive, helpfully facilitated by these more physical things that we collectively refer to as our ‘Biology’.

Have you ever had some sort of a death-like, or out-of-body, experience? I have. I mean, areligious science pins it all down to mere REM intrusions; they say that these things – astral projections, sleep paralyses, experiences of near soul extractions – they can all be attributed to mind-generated hallucinations. Essentially, they say, your own mind orchestrates these things, maybe gets a kick or two out of absolutely terrifying and confusing its own self…

I say, correlation does not always mean causation. Islam tells us that “Sleep is the brother of Death” [Hadith]. This makes a great deal of sense, if you think about it. When you sleep, your body stays still; you drift off into some other world. The body needs to stop and rest sometimes, but the soul is ever-active.

The more ‘scientific’ dimensions of… biological expiration… they are also extremely interesting, I think. For example, when and how does a body know to end itself? What fails first; is there some sort of innate timer that determines all of these things? What prevents an eyelash from growing into being the same size as the strands of hair that grow from our scalps? And what prevents the human being from living for, say, two hundred years?

Death. It sort of terrifies me, a little bit. The fear of the unknown. And also in light of these near-death experiences that I have had: the feeling of something significant being tugged out of my chest, leaving in its wake some dull ache. But something in me had been fighting. “I’m not ready to die yet, Ya Allah. I’m not ready to die”. Such friction, such fear: I had been too afraid to open my eyes, to witness this soul of mine, almost above its own body, floating. You know, all of it actually really solidifies my conviction in notions of integrated dualism. We are body and soul, and they are separable, albeit strongly linked. I wonder if my actual (eventual, inevitable) experience of death will be this physically unpleasant, too.

What also scares me quite so is that it is such a terribly solitary experience, passing away. Dying people see things that we, at present, cannot. We come into this world alone, and yet as part of human communities. We live with them; we die alone, though hoping to be reunited with them in the world that will follow.

Do you find yourself living, currently, in such a way that you would be satisfied with yourself, if Death were to come to you right now? Prepare for it, dear reader. It is inevitably coming, this portal to Eternity: unstoppable, irreversible.

Yes, why, I could bet my entire life on it.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Short Story: Johnson

I have four guests coming around for dinner later today. One, two, three, four. Susan from work, Matilde from work, Hassan from work, Hassan’s wife, who isn’t from work, but whom I wanted to thank for all her Pakoras and what-have-yous with… whatever food we’re serving for them today.

The house needs to look perfect. Not IKEA-showroom ‘perfect’ – no, no, that won’t do – but it must seem quite so nonetheless.  I need to make it known that we – Karen and I – are not like those couples who obsessively clean and bleach things down. We do like to let our children play. They can get their crayons out sometimes; once, I even let them use watercolour paints in the living room. Yes, they should be very grateful indeed to have parents like me… I mean, us.

Two of Jake’s paintings have been lovingly displayed on the top compartment of our fridge. Three of Gemma’s miniature paintings have their place, in a straight line, of course, on the bottom compartment. Ooh, and I need to check the bathroom for any signs of messiness. It’s probably true what they say – about how judgemental people can be when it comes to others’ bathrooms.

We don’t really actually use all those ‘designer’ shower gels and body cremes that we keep being gifted with at those abysmal work New Year’s parties. Still, it won’t do to have the ones we normally use, out, for everyone to gawk at. So I pour out some of the product from the ‘designer’ bottles, and place them on the shelf. The blue-y ones on one side, and the more reddish ones on the other. And, of course, the kids’ toothbrush holder in the middle – the Disneyland one. Our guests just have to know that we’ve been to Disneyland. We’re good parents, we are.

Next, Gemma’s room. Bed made, check. Things in good order, yes. But the pots of kiddy slime that currently plaster her desk. No! We can’t have them thinking that my precious daughter is only like any other abhorrent little child. The thought of them thinking that my Gemma is fascinated by… goo. Preposterous, absurd. My Gemma is a little genius, and she has three certificates from school to prove it. “Karen, darling! Have you seen the Blu-tack anywhere?”

Jake: my firstborn. Heir to whatever titles I may claim to have, all-round apple of my eye. But why oh why, Jake, do you insist on keeping all those books of yours under your bed, away from view? How else are my guests going to know that you’re an avid reader? I’ve seen your books. You’ve been reading about (what’s it called again? Dinosaur facts and stuff? Paleo… Paleology? Oh, no, yes —) palaeontology – since you were barely six years old! Okay, now where’s your sports gear? Also under your bed? Wait, what’s this? Football certificates, framed, and on your wall? Atta-boy, son, atta-boy!

My mug collection, everything in its correct place. The one from Berlin, the one from Jerusalem, the one from Athens. We need to let people know that we are a well-travelled bunch. After all, what’s the point in having something – an experience, or a brilliant trait – if it cannot be shown, known?

Karen has informed me of the fact that she thinks I only do all of this stuff before dinner parties because I’m “given to exhibitions of tasteless showiness”. But I always think, shut up woman. I married you for your pretty face and for your hourglass figure, mainly. Don’t give me all that, all those big words. What could they possibly even add to your character – to your role as my wife?

My wife plays tennis. The evidence: framed pictures lining the hallway. Sometimes, my wife and I play tennis together. The evidence: more picture frames, in our living room, of course. She’s perfect for me, Karen is. We are both so in sync with one another, so undeniably compatible. We both like brown bread and we both work in the financial sector!

We’re serious people, too. See, I, for one, really like to follow the advice of renowned architects when it comes to interior decor. I do like reading those stylish urban magazines. Put the most recent edition on the coffee table, naturally – the one that talks about the value of rustic vases. Five minutes after reading that article, I purchased four of said ornaments online – the most expensive ones I could find, naturally. 

We’re also interesting people, don’t get me wrong. Our home is not black and white. We have coloured rugs. Our kettle is blue. And did I mention, we like to put our children’s artistic creations up on the fridge. My best friend’s half-Muslim; Hassan from work knows this. I think we’re quite liberal, as parents, and as people.

Karen, your hair. Your hair, Karen. Why does it look so messy? A French braid, Karen. Tie it into a French braid. How do I tell her to tie it into a French braid, without sending her off into another one of those strops of hers? I can’t have her embarrassing me, in front of them. Hassan’s wife, by contrast to this sorry woman, seems like she is quite a cheerful lady. I have never seen her frown, not once. Actually, maybe the Botox on her forehead has something to do with it. Oh, and her Pakoras – have I told you about her Pakoras? Heavenly!

Karen only knows how to make sandwiches. Sandwiches made with brown bread. I loved this about her for a short while. But, boy, do I crave some homemade stew sometimes. Some Pakoras. Our solution, a happy compromise: we buy homemade food from a local bistro. Arrange it on plates to look like Karen made it. And everyone’s a winner! Well, except me, of course. I’m married to her!

The kids are sitting on the stairs. They are holding their instructional flash cards. Good; they are doing exactly as they should. My wife, on the other hand, she simply objects to using these cards that I make for her. If she messes up today, without them, it will be entirely her own fault. If she messes up, I will simply not speak to her for two days and half of another one. Then, we will go and play some tennis, take some pictures for Facebook…and maybe we will have some brown bread sandwiches.

Can you keep a secret? I don’t actually like brown bread — not even by a crumb. I only told her I loved it pre-marriage, you see, when I had been trying to impress her, at work. I’m not even sure if she likes brown bread all that much, either. I’m not sure if she thinks anything of anything, most of the time. In fact, I am convinced that the only thing she talks about with her therapist each week is her most recent weight loss venture.

DING DONG. Okay, they have arrived. Everybody in their places. Do not get me wrong. This household belongs to me, and I am its director. Bueno. Now, Door, smiles, 

Action!

 

Book Review: Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity – Tariq Ramadan

There are some books that you may come across, in your life, that are rather subtly powerful. They hold within them the ability to really change your life and your ways of thinking – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For me, this has certainly been one of those books (for the better). This ‘book review’ series on my blog will be dedicated to my reviewing – and independently commenting on the ideas explored – of different books that I love. I won’t review every book I read – only the ones I feel must be shared in this way. 

Tariq Ramadan, I think, is my all-time favourite non-fiction author and academic. He has an undeniable ‘way with words’, Allahummabārik; he presents some very interesting and comforting ideas in a manner that harmoniously merges clarity with profundity. His works focus on Islam – Islamic ethics and legislation, history, Islamophobia, modern politics in light of ‘Islamist’ movements… I am particularly fond of this work of his – as well as another one of his books, entitled: ‘To be a European Muslim’.

As Muslims living in this current (rather confusing, rather intense) epoch, it is natural for us to deeply question many things. Our place here, how to be.

To be a Muslim (today, always) is to be a stranger – a traveller, as the Hadith goes – in the Dunya. To “be here in order to be better over There”. And how true this is. The most prevalent ways of doing things, of thinking, and of being, here can often be quite antithetical to the teachings of our faith.

What are some of the defining characteristics of this modern world? Undeniably, this is a world that is heavily focused on appearances. Facades, the ‘outside’, shells. Lies (which are widely and eagerly devoured), rumours, scandal-mongering, narcissism, widespread distrust. Brutalisers being convincingly disguised as the respectable ones.

The world of modernity is also heavily focused on the principle of individualism. And these two tenets – that of appearances and that of (an inhuman level of) individualism – marry to render the modern world one that is fuelled, very much, by selfishness and deceit.

The society of entertainment, excessive consumption and generalised individualism coexists with the most extreme destitution and the most total misery”

People churn out ‘wealth’ – sell their bodies and souls to do so; many people end up becoming richer — leading richer lives, but rarely necessarily happier ones. Many become so caught up in these images of ‘plenty’ that they forget about the stuff of actual value. One of the breaking wings of modernity is made of speed, computer science, fashion, blaring music with the most peculiar lyrics, cinematic illusions, facades of ever-growing ‘freedoms’. The other: exploitation, weariness, poverty, loneliness, dissatisfaction and despondency, and the children who die at the hands of those who claim to fight in the name of ‘freedom’. One wing functions as a mask for the other. A colourful exterior pressed atop an inside that is soulless and rotten.

“Modern times have, for our memories, a concern for image, and also the infinite neglect of reality and meaning”

There are many problems around us, which serve as evident threats to our spirituality, to our humanity and to our ‘Muslimness’: they are detrimental to the human Fitrah. Many of these things, we find ourselves becoming increasingly desensitised to: senseless violence, shameless vanity and arrogance, greed and overindulgence, chronic intoxication and/or distraction, widespread nudity and sexual immoralities… The list goes on.

In modern society, secularisation tends to be championed. The sacred is desacralised. Modesty, the beauty and elegance of simplicity, the excellence of manners, deeply caring for and tending to the natural environment. These things become obliterated by the army tanks of the modern world. We are a society of individuals; all that seems to matter is the capitalist ‘value’ we can find in things. Morality comes from nothing but the human imagination; it is ‘decided by society’.

“…modernity renders us so unfaithful to our humanity […] The daily running of the world steals us from ourselves, to the point, sometimes, of rendering our personality double and tearing us apart.”

The interactions between Islam and global politics are also a deeply significant thing to consider, here. Often, ardent nationalists operate under the (highly mobilising, highly unifying) guise of religion in order to do their damage. Religion devoid of spirituality, and whose cold exterior latches onto political (nationalistic) movements actually defeats the point of religion itself: religio, to relegate oneself before God.

What else is ‘modernity’ characterised by? I think Ramadan describes it perfectly. Adding to the aforementioned theme of covering up the truth and engaging in (indulging in) falsehood, much of modern society is composed of examples of one part in direct conflict with another: thus is the basis of all neuroses.

Many comedians, for example, wear happy faces but a lot of them (a shocking number) have revealed that they suffer from deep (exogenous) depression. This pattern of double personalities can also be seen in the wider world of celebrities; in the culture that they collectively champion and foster in others.

“When men lose morality they find the jungle and become wolves”

To be true to our Muslim identities, in this world today, we must commit to being committed to Truth, no matter what. “[Saying] the truth and [re-saying] it, before God, without fear”. Despite any material difficulties or emotional struggles we may face: we must vow to be true to Truth, in its exactness. And to justice. Authenticity. Goodness, kindness, fraternity, the pursuit of beneficial knowledge. Spirituality — the heart and soul of this religion.

As Muslims, the deceitful adornments of the world should not faze us. The Qur’an and Hadiths tell us about its reality: marry the world, and you actually end up marrying, essentially, what resembles the rotting insides of a camel’s carcass [Hadith].

We really ought to favour ‘Barakah culture’ over ‘Hustle culture’. Our bodies do not exist to be used, in their entireties, by corporations and such. Our Lord is far more important and powerful; our Haqq is more, well, Haqq. We bring Barakah into our lives by favouring three things – worship, the pursuit of knowledge, and the graceful servitude of others. And these things undoubtedly interact with one another: the quality of one affects the quality of the others.

Today, we are just so self-absorbed. We care too much about how we look, and about our titles, and about our social media accounts — about how we can best come across to others. We have lost the art of sincerity, so it would seem; often, things are done for the primary purpose of social recognition, and in the names of efficiency and rationalisation. When we exclusively focus on these particular things, the world becomes one of black and white, and of smog and several other hues of grey.

As Muslims, we do need to tend to our ‘portions in the [current] world’: we go to school, and to work. We eat, we have friends. We partake in creative and personal projects. But, for us, Deen takes precedence over Dunya. Our religion gives true life to our lives. And here, we “live and learn how to die, live in order to learn how to die”.

And prayer should be our lives’ lifeblood. As Ramadan writes, prayer “[gives] strength, in humility, to the meaning of an entire life”.

I love that books like these incorporate history, personal anecdotes, politics, philosophy, and more, all into one. It was fascinating to read about why Islam today looks like what it does, and in various parts of the world; about things like the Islamic Centre of Geneva (est. 1961) for instance, and how it broadcasted a certain form of Islam to several other European Muslim communities; about the growing religious influence of the Saudis, the Islamic World League, how pan-Arab politics both informed, and was informed by, all these happenings.

Our problem is one of spirituality. If a man comes to speak to me about the reforms to be undertaken in the Muslim world, about political strategies and of great geo-strategic plans, my first question to him would be whether he performed the dawn prayer (Fajr) on time”

– Said Ramadan

“Power is not our objective; what have we to do with it? Our goal is love of the Creator, the fraternity and justice of Islam. This is our message to dictators.” 

These days, many influential Muslims are actually, unfortunately, walking epitomes of the notion of religion without spirituality. They may sport lengthy beards, quote the Qur’an almost endlessly. But Islam would not appear to be in their hearts: instead, the love of things like wealth, power, titles and territory are.

There are many things that the Muslims of today – in particular, we youngins – need to unlearn. There are also many things that we must learn and then proceed to internalise. For example, our hearts (if we are to truly find peace) must come to sing the idea that “solitude with God is better than neglect with men”. The link with God is the way.

The concept of modernisation is constantly valorised by those who live under it. Why wouldn’t a person or a place want to be ‘modern’? Granted, there are some ‘positives’ to this whole global project. A certain type of work ethic, in conjunction with certain personal liberties, does breed invention. Innovation, efficiency, improvement, sanitisation, gigantic systems that work (mostly) for the benefit of the people.

In the European Middle Ages, dynamism in this way had simply not been a thing. Feudalistic power structures and the unshifting dominance of the clergy in circles of thought contributed to a certain sort of “numbness”, a stifling of sorts. “Nothing seemed to move; men were as if paralysed…” So today’s constant state of movement may be seen as a welcome change from these erstwhile times. But instead of a steady state of flow, we seem to now be moving recklessly, too quickly. Growth for the sake of growth; it is not healthy.

But modernity is also, unfortunately, the things that are hidden beneath the veneer of shininess. Massive inequalities of wealth and resources. Poverty and exploitation. Pandemic addictions. Increased rates of severe mental illnesses. And, of course, all those other things – what, now, are hallmarks of modernity – that our Prophet (SAW) had warned us about.

There are certainly some good things from the current state of things that the modern Muslim can benefit from; these things are not anti-Islamic. Science, technology, the pursuit of wisdom, and progress. [It is important to note that, in the Christian world, science and progress had come about as a result of that society’s parting with religion, for the most part. On the flip-side, the Muslim world had flourished when it had been more in touch with its spirituality; it declined when this had been lost]. An issue arises solely when people cling to these things in lieu of a link with God. Knowledge should breed Taqwa; what we learn should come benefit our own souls, as well as those of the people.

In (temporary) solitude and seclusion, muddied water – agitated, noisy – slows down; the dirt settles, and then there is peace. Clarity, flow and focus may be achieved here. When Islam is in our hearts; when we are able to exhibit due Khushuu’ in our prayers, life becomes warm. Meaningful. Animated with gratitude and Barakah; a separateness from the cheapness of meaningless chatter. A walk – even if it be a solitary one – towards wisdom and elegance. It slows down; the roses bloom. Beautiful heart, beautiful thoughts, and all the rest of it.

“To be good and do good, before God, is the meaning of this call.” 

And, right now, we all find ourselves in our own houses, quarantined, mostly in solitude. As much of the Islamic tradition demonstrates, there is much Khayr – goodness – to be found in solitude and seclusion: this is where the sacred tends to reveal itself. Where you can train yourself to be a contented observer of the world, in it, but not wholly devoted to it… being somewhat distant from all the noise and the crowds, for here is where one may find clarity.

From the very first pages of its Foreword, I was enthralled by the messages this book contains. I considered it to be very informative, and yet so very soulfully validating. It has inspired me to try to get closer to God; to give my daily prayers their due diligence, Insha Allah; to not be distracted by the distractions of a noisy world that is filled with busy people who talk far too much.

In case I didn’t manage to make it clear earlier, I so love this book; I would truly recommend it.

“Be like a fruit tree. They attack you with stones, and you respond with fruits.”

– Hasan al-Banna


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020