For Wapping

Wapping, a small former parish town in East London, is a place that truly embodies a ‘tale of two cities’. The district begins at the riverbank, where muddied but gleaming Thames water crashes upon small broken-pottery-laden shores. The Met Police Marine Unit is situated there, along with some other small quirks and gems. And Wapping ends where village-like serenity does: the Highway, where trucks, Lamborghinis, and Mercedes-drivers (the latter of which are presumably on their way to their jobs in Canary Wharf and the City) all coalesce.

What I like about Wapping is that it is truly a liminal place. Always moving, yet timeless, caught between times. A village trapped in the midst of a city. Quaint is the best word for it, I think.

Take a walk through Wapping, and you take a walk through a living history book or a museum. This is, I think, as preserved as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London gets, really. The gorgeous and majestic Tower of London on one side, looming over the road to Tower Bridge.

Walk too far one way, and you get to Peckham. A bustling place, full of energy, in its own right, but simply not comparable to this place. Walk too far the other way, and you get to that rather unfortunate little place that is known as Shadwell… and then, Whitechapel. These places have their good parts, too, don’t get me wrong. But (you guessed it.) they are just not Wapping. 

How unique this place is, and how grateful I am to have grown up here. The other day, a friend of mine told me that she had come here for a visit – specifically, she went to the marina part, where chic little cafes overlook a substantial collection of yachts. The ‘Dickens’ Inn’ is here too, a former brewery dating back to the 18th Century.

The teeming waterside life of Wapping’s former days actually inspired some of Charles Dickens’ writing: he used to come here sometimes, as a child. The workhouses, the docks, the warehouses (which have now all been redeveloped, turned into ridiculously expensive living spaces). The way the lazy summer sun hits these still-cobbled streets. The quaint little pubs, the riverside parks. There is no place I have ever been to that is quite like Wapping.

Wapping Lane: a post office, a pharmacy, a bakery, a greengrocer’s, a butcher’s. A fish and chip shop. A gambling shop, too (rather unfavourably, in my own opinion). A few churches, and my former neighbour – the priest – who laments at the noisiness of the little boys who play upstairs, and at the growing presence of these “thugs” who he says will be borne from the nascent council flats nearby. Then, another pub, and a small café (one of those deliberately vintage-looking ones that charge extortionate prices for almond-based coffee, frequented by all those yoga mums, ‘babyccino’ buyers and and whatnot. But still, I love it).

It is nice that one can set foot into Shadwell, and into Central London, from nucleus Wapping. But, thankfully, there is always this place – peace without boredom, city without too much of it – to return to.

On one side dwell and play the truly wealthy. The yacht-owners, the ones who frequent all these dainty riverside restaurants. Their homes have concierge offices; they are tall and made of glass. The fountains and private rose gardens probably exist primarily to be enjoyed by them, but it’s nice that anyone who passes by can enjoy the view, too.

On the other side, the somewhat less wealthy. The Cockney accents. “‘Ello love!” “You aw’ight babe?” The drunk man who is always fixing something in his flat. The council homes, rows of little ones, and all their washing lines. The lovely old lady who is forever outside, tending to her plants, and feeding the birds. Occasionally, a conversation betwixt two – maybe about the weather, or an angrier one about how certain dog owners do not clean up after their dogs, or about the price of bread at our local bakery.

Dame Helen Mirren lives here. So does Rio Ferdinand. Graham Norton, too: I see him fairly often, actually, at Waitrose.

There are the white working-class people (the ones who chose to remain here, during those periods of ‘White Flight’), and there are all these Bengali ones. There are the sort of ‘hipster’-y people who are increasingly moving in: all these young-ish professionals who live alone; the under-bridge warehouses that have been converted into food places. There used to be a thriving Jewish community here in the East End, too. Here was where the Battle of Cable Street had taken place, years and years ago.

Someday everything that is taking place here right now will be a thing of ‘years and years ago’, too.

And I think I like taking my place, here in the middle of things. It allows one to walk this way, and then that. And you belong to all of it, but you belong to none of it at the same time. There are no obligations; you find yourself untied to anything at all. And, yet, there you are, firmly rooted in the actual midst of things. Everything unfolds right before you. The little wooden bridge that takes you from one side of the canal to the other [the one that used to always be impossibly slippery during the colder months!]

Good things come from balances, from middles. And here Wapping is, you see: caught right in the middle of things.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Shades of Reality

I am almost certain that I have already said the following numerous times before, but:

is the human mind not… just the most fascinating thing ever?!

We just become so accustomed to our own realities; we can very easily fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else sees the world, and thinks, in the same ways that we find we do.

I know of some people who don’t have an inner monologue, for example; some of them do not ‘live inside their own heads’ at all, cannot ‘dissociate’ from whatever is immediately surrounding them, retreating inwards. They do not really form emotional attachments to past happenings; they do not idealise the future. They live very much in the present; nothing in their heads instructs them to do otherwise. Knowledge of this came as a shock to me, truly. My inner monologue is pretty much always there. I can recall, during a certain phase in my life for instance, being able to visualise words as I thought them, as I spoke to myself internally.

Some people can conjure up, in their ‘mind’s eye’, distinctive scents. On command, they can remember, bring into being via their own minds, the exact smell of freshly-baked cookies, or of perfume. Some people can visualise actual 3D things, in such vivid ways. I find this absolutely fascinating. When I think of something – say, an apple, I know what an apple is, and what it looks like. But when I try to close my eyes and visualise an apple, I sort of only remember… a ‘feeling’ of what it looks like. I have what might be classified as being ‘aphantasia’. Many others do not have this: they can visualise things powerfully, and to their hearts’ content!

Everybody thinks in different ways. Some people’s thought processes work quicker than others. Some are given to experiencing vivid daydreams. Some always have music playing in the back of their minds. Some seek poetry in everything. Some think more logically, more mathematically. Some are more creative: imagining things beyond themselves. Some are more analytical, able to quickly make links between things and identify patterns. And some are more practical: they have things like better spatial awareness, among other things (an ability that I truly lack, as evidenced in my inability to be better than a six-year-old, at Fortnite).

The ways in which you process the world are so, so different to how others do. 

From the uniqueness of how the photoreceptors in your eyes work together, to the uniqueness of every single memory and frame of reference you have gathered over your lifetime… Cognitive frameworks, and then there are also different neurological conditions to consider.

I mean, did you know that some people view the entire world as a series of individual pictures – snapshots, as if time works differently for them! Some people see the world, usually following a very traumatic experience, as if it were all a series of comic-book-like sketches. We assign all these different names to these general conditions, attempt to collect and categorise: dissociation, depersonalisation, derealisation, depression. OCD, ADHD, and the like.

But, we are all experiencers of our own realities, and this, while we are necessarily outsiders when it comes to others’ realities. We can only use our words, really, to try to understand where others’… entire worlds… are coming from.

But language, also, is by nature limited when it comes to the matter of attempting to describe our realities. Because when I think of a ‘tree’, for example, the word signifies the thing itself. But I will only know of the thing itself what have seen – experienced – of it. No human being knows what a tree looks like ‘objectively’ – without our ocular and mental filters…

[In the middle of writing this, I am reminded of things like the Blue/Gold dress. And about the fact that some people may have acute phobias towards things that I may adore. Because we are, each of us, the sum total of our own cells, ensuing cognitive processes, experiences…]

Moreover, when a person who suffers from depression tells you they suffer from depression, perhaps, by reflex, you encourage them to make some lifestyle choices, to try to ‘shake it off’. You may not realise that depression, if I may use this limited tool that is my language, is a disease of the mind. It is absolutely not the same as reactive sadness. It is an insidious disease, ravaging, and it can tinge an entire reality with an inexplicable darkness, an ongoing feeling of grief and mourning, the feeling of one’s brain being trapped inside of a fiery cauldron. You know how, generally, feelings can be said to be borne from thoughts? The thing about depression is that, often, the (afore-described) feeling comes first. And you may find yourself at a loss, trying to explain them.

Reactive sadnesses may have a ‘why’. Sometimes people refer to these reactive sorrows as ‘depression’. But the thing about depression is, it tends to be scary in how unconditional it is.

What happens is that people often respond from a place of ignorance when it comes to things like this. They demand explanations, yet when explanations are offered to them, they sort of impose their own mental realities onto others’.

You and I are not the same. I cannot see things precisely how you do: this is impossible. And you cannot see things how I do. The very best we can do is to talk to others; to read things borne from others’ minds. Bridges, you see, are (semi-)built through words. But the complete realities of what they represent… well, these remain a secret to all of us outsiders. They can only be known by the experiencer. And, on this Earth today, there are roughly seven billion different (human) experiencers, roughly seven billion different human realities, different eyes looking out into different worlds, and coming to some very different conclusions about all of it…

Subhan Allah. 

  • Some very cool questions to ask people: How do you think? How do you see the world? Do you have an inner monologue? If I were to tell you to visualise, say, an apple, right now, what goes on inside your mind?

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Water

Today, I allow myself to just write badly. Messily. No editing, no excessive holding-back. The idea of ‘perfection’. It necessitates cutting all the edges off, sanding things down. I think the ensuing results of this might be a bit… boring. I want to learn how to truly honour the parts that make me, me, and while honouring those that make you, you.

I think this life is too short for too much cynicism. People are just beautiful. Eyes, hair, smiles, knees. And, yes, so too is the sky; in its majesty, it is cleansing to bathe. And look how mighty the river’s waves are. And look at the flowers that are turning into fruits, this season. And, have I done enough today? Of course I have. This is one day out of the finite number of days I shall be allowed to have, upon this Earth. I ate an apple today, you know, and I sat by the river with a friend. I made my brother laugh a lot, today; I listened, sat close to the window, while it rained outside.

And I don’t mind anymore. I don’t mind if people think I am too talkative or too quiet. It’s okay if they think me too childish or too mature. Smart or stupid. Or anything else, for that matter. You may think what you wish of me; I live not for your applause. I see you through my own eyes; unless you truly value (me and) my opinions, why should they even matter to you at all? And vice versa, you to I. The point of all this is not to ‘convince’ anyone of anything, conjuring up all such labels, subsequently looking for all the evidence that may bolster them. The point is not to ‘convince’ people that you are ‘perfect’ in any way. People will look for a few seconds, form their judgements, based on what goes on inside their own heads all the time; they will look away.

You will be what remains. If, today, you wish to paint an orange in a less-than-van-Gogh way, then so be it. If you find that you do not ‘vibe’ well with some people, this is okay too. Nothing wrong with you; nothing wrong with them. Just different; you can still honour them from afar.

Their ideas of what is ‘perfect’ are boring; so are yours, most likely. And oh how such notions differ, from person to person.

And I cannot be who you are, and vice versa; I cannot be whom you want me to be; I cannot be whom you wish you could be, either. [I urge myself, first and foremost, to simply] Take people as they are, and look for the beauty therein: it is surely there. When you let a person be, extracting from your mind whatever you think they may lack, you will watch the beauty of this being unfold before your eyes. I can promise you this much.

It is scary to think, sometimes, just how quickly time is moving. Right wherever you are now, whatever you may be doing (reading this blog article, no less) — blink, and you will surely miss it. I hope we choose not to live these lives of ours in sedative states; I hope we live not for brief applauses, here and there, either. Let it be understood that we can make mistakes; help ourselves up, and then laugh at ourselves a little. It is okay, it is okay, it is okay. You are doing just fine. It is okay to colour outside of the lines, sometimes — so long as you are using your own colours.

I have faith in you, dear friend. Nobody has ever existed who is quite the same as you. You have dreams, you have those awesome personal characteristics of yours; you have this entire world inside your head, and I hope you are kind enough to yourself to also listen to your heart. She might be telling you: it is not about what others may see. It is not about titles and pride and chasing images whose templates you think you’ll be able to somehow step effortlessly into. It is about beginning from this gorgeous being that is already you, going some places on this life journey of yours, and then ending there, at you, too. It is about the people who will be there with you, along the way, and all the times you will laugh, and all the times you will cry, and all the times you will cringe at yourself for actually publishing such cliché-infused works. All the secrets you will tell, all the cakes you will eat. This moment just now is so new. So what do I reckon I wish to do with it?

Call me childish, call me ‘primitive’ — I don’t care. It is not you whom I am aspiring to be. And, it’s true: I do crave a particular closeness with my Fitrah. I want for it to be quite fruitful, a tree. I don’t want to chase things, and for these very things to then just turn me cold, stressed and tired. I’ve been scared, felt unduly lost before — but, to a great extent at least, no more. I know not what is coming, though I do know what has gone. And this gorgeous moment of existence right now, how do I learn to honour it as best as I can? How do I learn how to flow through life much like how water does?

 


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Tomorrow

Dear friend,

The nature of Truth is such that it is (meant to be) for the one who experiences it, utterly transformative. And this is true equally when it comes to matters of friendship, and of love, selfhood, and, indeed, when it comes to matters of Truth itself. This is what True things tend to do: they aid with the clarification of muddied waters.

When Truth arrives, it has this tendency to strike you rather like lightning, to take you by surprise. And when what is Real becomes, well, realised… usually, all the surrounding noise tunes out; the static ceases to be. One’s focus tends to sharpen, while what is peripheral gradually fades out of view.

But how can we get there, in the first place ⁠— to the embracing of what truly matters, and to the dissolution of all that does not?

Each of us has our own life story (as well as the various splinter stories that the ‘bigger pictures’ are comprised of), and a life story that I find particularly fascinating is that of my uncle.

When he was younger, he had been something of a ‘gangster’. He had come to this country at the age of fifteen. All the girls had wanted him – the white ones and the Bengali ones, alike – apparently. And I used to listen to such stories, thinking this was likely something of a massive exaggeration, but no: I have heard the same things from the mouths of his sisters (my mother and my aunt) who had attended secondary school with him, and from others who had grown up with him ⁠— including my friend’s mum, who insists that, yes, all the girls (including, rather disgustingly, some of his own cousins) had been after him, but not her: she just used to find him annoying (and still does, apparently).

My uncle used to get into a lot of intense fights. While the ladies used to find themselves completely infatuated with him, some of the boys around him had not been, towards him, so open and welcoming. They used to hurl insults at him ⁠— “freshie” and the like. And thus arose a number of bloodied fistfights, one of which had resulted in my uncle’s dismissal from his part-time job at PC World. One time, a certain conflict with a certain man (which concerned his sister) led to his eventual use of … fire. Let’s just leave it at that.

Sometimes, when I listen to all these stories about my uncles and aunts ⁠— about who and how they had been when they were younger ⁠— I wonder what it would be like for them, now, to sit with a former version of themselves. How much does ‘now’ they know, compared to ‘then’ they? And how much would they be able to relate to one another?

My uncle, for example, is nothing like this past version of him that I constantly hear about. He has probably retained the ‘popularity’ element to some extent ⁠— it would appear as though most people I come across know, or know of, him.

I guess you could say that he grew up. And he changed – as it is in human nature to do. We are not, not at all, set in stone. [I mean, without these scopes for change and for the allowance of complexity, what, really, is the point?!]

What I like is that his story reminds me of that beautiful quote from ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’:

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit; stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same; there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”

It was almost like my uncle had chosen to live his youth again – but in a different way – from the age of thirty, onwards. His own children noticed the change in him; it had been a noticeable shift. Perhaps the first and most significant of his life changes had been his coming to Truth, at the age of twenty-five, or so. But even thereafter, his relationship with Islam had been (noticeably) ever-changing.

He had started off, maybe, by adhering to a version of the Deen that had been quite strict, quite rules-orientated. But the point of this religion is not to lose one’s spirit. It is, rather, to hone the soul, and to cherish it.

My uncle had always resented the fact that he never had the chance to go to university. But, throughout his twenties and his thirties, he had made sure to spend a great deal of time educating himself.

I distinctively remember his bookshelf from over a decade ago, for example. Filled with books on Islam, on the hijab, on Christianity; he even had his own annotated copy of the Bible.

I think, what is nice is that nobody really thinks of him as who he had been way back then, anymore. He is no longer the pugnacious and thrill-seeking ladies’ man he had once been popularly known as; he had wanted to change some things, and so he decided to actually do so.

And the beauty of it all is that, throughout this journey, while some things of ours will necessarily change, some things will stay the same, but in differing ways. For example, now my uncle chases thrills and adrenaline rushes through climbing mountains and through braving 3G swings and the like. He drives up to Scotland at least six times a year. He travels quite a lot, and learns some pretty cool things every time he does. The University of Life, as he is known to call it.

He takes his wife on picnics; these days, they act like they are two eighteen-year-olds in love… after twenty-one years of being married to one another! A relationship is the coming-together of two people. And, firstly, people are ever-changing entities. Secondly, it is not the job of another person to complete you. A relationship is the coming-together of two complete-in-and-of-themselves, ever-changing individuals. Symbiosis; allowing the other to lean on you, and you lean on them too.

And if, day by day, people are changing, it must necessarily follow that, day by day, interpersonal relationships change too. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.

We ought to be defined, in the popular sense, not by what we may have done, nor by what people may say of us, nor by anything else other than what we (present tense) do. What we are choosing to do now. 

So, with that information, dear friend, I say, very well then, perhaps we ought to see this day, today, as being Day Zero.

And tomorrow shall be

 

Day One.

The clocks have turned; we have flipped all the calendars. We have chosen to begin right wherever we may be now.

And if you are, say, twenty years old while reading this, then you are roughly 7,300 days old.

7,300 days ago, you popped outta the womb, so to speak, and you said hello to the world, all red-faced and confused, presumably.

And if you are to live to the age of eighty, then there are roughly 21,900 days left, for you, here. Such a vast amount of time, and yet, such a small one. 21,900 days left – if even this much – until you reach the gates of eternity.

 

Dear friend,

Where are you going; where are you trying to go? And which people are you trying to follow, to get there?

What are you going to do with these days that remain – that remain untouched by you, thus far? And will you, perhaps, give yourself a try? I so hope that you do. I hope you chase your passions like the wind chases the leaves. I hope you sleep very well tonight; that there is something beautiful in every new day, for you.

Perhaps it is time to part with a lot of these preconceived notions of ourselves, and of the world around us, too.

You will find that there is very little use in renewing one’s sorrows, by looking backwards too often. And there is so much good that may come from having Sabr and from praying one’s Salah, today. Pray for today, and for tomorrow, and for your Ākhirah. Learn, I guess, to wave goodbye to good – and bad – days that have now passed you by. And remember that all old chapters had been relatively new, once. But they had only been allowed to happen, via change. Via some necessary goodbyes. Like… goodbye to the womb; hello to the world. Goodbye to always being at home; hello to Nursery [where, apparently, I kicked and screamed at my teacher on my first day. I tried to escape, a few times. Separation anxiety, I guess]

One educational experience ends. A new one takes its place; a new place, for a newer version of you. One friendship ends. You change, and they change. Maybe you will meet again, at some point soon. But, in the meantime, may Allah bless you with the most beautiful connections, and ones that truly nurture your being and your growth; Ameen.

 

What I think I have realised about Life, by now, is that it tends to give rise to periods of action (which, yes, can be good or bad) followed by periods of… relative inactivity, transitional phases. But there are some golden threads, we may find, that can be weaved through all of these days. It begins at Fajr, and continues with the intentional cherishing of all of the ‘small’ things. The ‘little’ ones ⁠— those timelessly valuable ones. The ones that actually make it all worthwhile, I suppose.

You have got to remember that, in reality, in your reality, your own mind and spirit are all there is. Your field of vision, what you see, and how you process it all. That is all there is, for you. Objective truth, which is from Allah, and then, the truth of you, the experiencer.

It is hard to allow yourself to end certain chapters in your story, I know. And it can feel like time is stealing you away from yourself; like the ground beneath you is about to give way, any time soon. But, no, it is not. It is not going to give way. You are safe, and you are going towards some things that

you are not quite able to put your finger on, just yet. But there will be awe, and laughter, and butterflies. Afternoon naps, perhaps, and sleepless nights. You will not be here forever. You will not live here forever; you will not look just like this, nor think just like this, forever. Who knows whom you might turn out to be, after, say, 1,000 of these days?!

And Day Zero could be today; Day One tomorrow. 

One of the most important things to bear in mind is the notion of authenticity. Hypocrisy is a scary thing, and it is a disease of the spirit that seems to affect so many. Analogous to people always auditioning for roles that they do not actually ever play. Blindly pandering to others’ expectations; obediently cutting out parts of oneself due to perceived criticisms. I would personally say that this – hypocrisy, irony – is the biggest ill that plagues numerous Desi communities, today.

It gives rise to misery; it allows for the concealment of abuse behind closed doors; it makes us lose trust in various things, from very young ages. Well, with all due respect, I say, fudge that!

I do not wish to live an infallible life: I want to live a real one.

We want to make our days count, somehow, don’t we? We fight with consciousness; we look for love. We eat food that sustains us; our slumbers take us someplace else. We want to own things; we fear death so. But fear not. It is all just an unwinding story; maybe it won’t all make sense right now. The ways of today will not be the ways of forever.

We are, each of us, divinely-decided souls, coupled with limited compilations of breaths. Inhale, exhale. We lose a little part of ourselves each and every time we do so. But we also gain, as time runs forth, through loving and through learning.

In living, dear caterpillar, one must not forget to dream; do look up at the sky, from time to time. Oh, and in dreaming, little butterfly, one must not forget to live; look down at your feet, too. These days are passing you by, surely. And, in you, there is such potential; doubt it not. The yous of yesterday are long gone.

So I ask you now, dear friend, who is the you of today? This is the only version of you that truly counts, right now. And, a question that is completely unanswerable at present: who is the you of tomorrow? 

(And just where will you end up, in the life after this one?)


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

On Weddings and Marriage

Over the course of these first twenty years of my life, I find I have attended many weddings. Some people I know have told me that they have never been to a wedding before, but for me, and probably for most of the fellow Bengalis I know, this is far from being the case. Our ‘culture’ is one that is very much rooted in the importance of family. Many of us belong to rather big extended families; it is difficult to deny that marriages are really the cornerstone of such family units. And weddings are generally really celebrated, and are a chance for extended (and, indeed, extended-extended) families to come together, and to meet and greet the new additions to them.

The number of times I have opened up my letterbox to find yet another wedding invitation inside is, quite frankly, unreal. And, another thing that I find to be quite ‘unreal’ is… the fact that these Asian weddings I have been to, the average spend for each of them is £60,000.

And for what? With all due respect, these weddings can feel quite… soulless. A generic big hall, accommodating hundreds of guests, many of whom the bride and groom do not even personally know [I, for instance, have been to cousins’ cousins’ cousins’ weddings, pretty much not knowing anybody else there] and the same sorts of food, over and over again. Have I even found any of these dozens of weddings to have been particularly memorable? Well, there was one at which they had a pretty cool fireworks display on the field outside, afterwards. Oh, and the ones that have had chocolate fountains at them certainly get higher approval ratings, from me. I think the best wedding I have been to thus far has been my uncle’s one. Venue by a lovely winding lake, chocolate fountain, and even a bouncy castle!

But I think the main factor that puts this particular wedding on a plane above the rest of the ones I have attended thus far is this: the soul factor. The fact that this was a close family member getting married; we got to ride in the ‘close family’ limo, played much with the little kids, saw and spoke to people we actually knew and wanted to converse with…

Another wedding that I particularly liked the look of: ’twas one I did not myself attend in person, but I sort of experienced it vicariously, through my friend’s Snapchat story: my friend’s relative’s wedding, and one that she (my friend) had done a lot of the artwork for. It had been a garden party, an intimate and seemingly soul-enriching event, and they had hired a Turkish band for it, among other things.

Anyway, back to what I had been saying about all these £60,000 weddings. Often, those paying for these events do not really even have this money just lying there, to begin with; they cannot really afford these lavish displays that they put on. All these expenses (spent on things like £15,000-for-one-evening halls, fleets of hired Lamborghinis, and on impossibly heavy – excessively adorned – dresses) actually often lead to the newly wedded couple spending the first years of their lives together, in crippling debt.

The primary underlying concern and motivating force behind how so many Bengalis plan their weddings is this one: appearances. Reputation, how ‘picture-perfect’ everything can seem; minimising the potential for ‘negative press’ from the aunties who gossip too much [but, I mean, they are going to gossip anyway. Whether you spend £60,000 on your wedding, or next to nothing, on it. Whether you invite them or not. They will talk… So, I figure, we might as well focus on what we like, and what is actually good, for us. Let them talk until they possibly get tired of themselves…]. And, thus, the materialistic side of things tends to be focused on, very much at the expense of the more spiritual, essential, sides of things.

There is certainly much elegance and beauty to be found in simplicity. But, in the eyes of traditional Desi society, more is seen as being conducive to ‘better’. The more makeup, food, people, money spent, the better!

If we were to strip away all of the extravagance, what is it, really, that would remain? The things of value, surely. Really and truly, for a wedding, one needs: a nice venue (with some nice décor); some good food; some entertainment, and some good guests… i.e. people who actually care about you, who actually feel something (hopefully, good) towards the fact of your getting married, and with whom you – the bride and groom – actually want to spend this big day of yours with. And, of course, the thing itself: the signing of the Nikkah papers. Et voila! A soul-enriching, meaningful wedding event…

I think it is quite sad to think about how many married Desi people cannot remember very much from their own weddings, save from all the stress, the… financial debt, and the feelings of overwhelm that one would understandably experience, from sitting, caked in makeup and under glaring lights, in front of hundreds of spectators. And for what? To satisfy whom? 

Whose life is this? Who is actually, and who actually ought to be, involved, here? Is it you who will possibly spend the next sixty years with this person? No? Then… stop talking so much. 

I have known, over the course of my life, dozens upon dozens of people who got married young, and people who have gotten divorced and remarried, people who had had ‘love marriages’, people who had had ‘arranged marriages’…

There appears to be, on the whole, this pressing disconnect, between more ‘traditional’ ways – the ways of the ‘elders’ – and some of the more ‘modern’ ones. But, really and truly, we are not too different from those who might be older than us. We are all human beings, and marriage is quite important, for us. Humans are not only ‘biology’: we are emotions, we are ‘society’, and we are spiritual considerations.

Of course many of our ‘elders’ had fallen in love, when they were younger, experienced passion and poetry, just as we do. Sadly, though, these cultural norms of arranged marriages – on stupid bases, like social reputation (lineage, etc.) had come in the way, for many of them. And then, the unjustifiable mixing of these ethnic-cultural traditions, with Islamic ones, until they had just begun to present the two as though they are one and the same, inseparable.

But they are not. Islam says, marriage is good – excellent, actually – and that, for example, sex is not shameful at all. Human beings have been made for marriage: for emotional, physical, spiritual connection. And I firmly believe that Muslims need to start talking about sex far more; I mean, historically, this is very much in our tradition!

But! Islam also outlines some particular social rights and responsibilities, and instructs us to really take care of them, for they are sacred. With marriage, for example, only your spouse should have a right to you, sexually (and you, to them). And, more than this, the idea is that your spouse is also perhaps your best friend of the opposite gender: you share an emotional and spiritual intimacy that is quite exclusive.

These days, however, marriage (in the secular world) is often just seen as a decorative addition to a relationship. It, I would argue, is often diluted by a lack of that important exclusivity. You can hug whomever you want, for example, kiss whomever you want on the cheek. Spend time alone with whomever you want, of the opposite gender. And, the female body is commodified, animalised. Affairs – sexual, and indeed emotional – are very much normalised, these days.

By contrast to this, the Islamic way is often dismissed as being ‘backwards’. But, no, think about it: it makes sense. This is what true commitment, true appreciation necessitates: only your spouse should have a right to you, in these particular ways. Before strangers, modesty is strongly encouraged. In your private sphere, though, the defences can come down, and you and your spouse may thoroughly, boundlessly, enjoy one another’s company (as well as the enriching exclusivity of this bond).

Allah (SWT) created us “in pairs” – as a dimorphic species. He has given us spouses, so that we may find “tranquility” [Qur’an] in them, as well as “affection and mercy”. Sadly, so many marriages around us nowadays would appear to be centred on the opposite of these Divinely-ordained things; they are full of restlessness, emotional emptiness, and argumentation, as opposed to peace. Lacking affection, and cold, and without emotional intelligence, as opposed to being filled with love and mercy.

Unquestionably, issues that are left to fester within marriages also tend to lead to spirals of outcomes that affect others. Children often suffer much as a result of their parents having loveless, and/or abusive, marriages. There are many intergenerational issues within Desi families these days, that I really think could do with some love and some meaningful communication by way of remedy.

The Qur’an also tells us that spouses ought to be like “garment[s]” for one another. What a fitting [pun not intended, but still, very much there!] metaphor. What do our clothes do, for us? They allow us to express who we are; they keep us warm; they give us comfort; they help us to preserve our modesty. And we wear them; are intimate with them, have them as extensions of us.

Islam says that falling in love with someone is completely fine, so long as the legitimate avenue through which to realise a romantic relationship is sought: marriage. Some Muslims today, (who notably tend to be those excessively black-and-white ones, the ones who act as though being a good Muslim means caring about strictness and rules above anything else, as though being pious means that one should deny oneself of all the pleasures and joys of life — even though there is to be no monasticism, zealotry, or celibacy in Islam [Hadiths], but I digress…) they act as though… one cannot get to know potential spouses before making the decision to marry them; as though one person should not fall in love with another, and later approach them with a proposal; as though physical intimacy is shameful and disgusting, but ‘must be done’, sometimes, and is solely for procreative purposes; as though “affection and mercy” (despite these being the very words of the Qur’an) are not necessary in a marriage.

It is actually out of character for the Muslim to not love – and express much love towards – their spouse. And to be hard-hearted: this is completely outside of the faith. Muhammad (SAW) had, and had nurtured, a very soft heart indeed; he had been a man of such high emotional intelligence. So why do we take the spirit, the soul, the beauty out of things, and then say that ‘this is from Islam’?

Recently, my aunt asked me if I would ever consider getting married ‘young’ (at this age, nineteen). I said, sure, why not? I mean, I know that there are some, within my extended family, who themselves got married young, but who suffered much, as a result of it. But this is because of certain facets of the how of things, as opposed to being due to the fact of marriage, itself: how certain family members got involved rather intrusively; the heavy expectations that had been placed upon the new brides, and more. This particular aunt of mine had been shocked that I had replied in the affirmative to her question. She told me, no, get your education first. ‘Live your life’ first. She said, if I do meet somebody whom I definitely want to marry, I should wait it out. Wait for years (and years); experience things together — like graduation — and then maybe go for it. 

My views, right now, are rather different to this. If I met somebody whom I wanted to marry, would it not be better to legitimise things with the Nikkah – a contract – that protects me, than to pursue an illegitimate relationship with them? Marriage does not have to be an unfortunate ‘end’ to days of youth and laughter and education and adventure, not at all. It can actually liberate; one can continue to live one’s life, retain oneself, while having the lovely addition of a life partner — somebody to share the majority of one’s days with, and to travel with, and spend time with… maybe even study with. Life just goes on, as it does, somewhat differently, but still somewhat in the same way.

And here are my issues with that mentality: the classic mentality that merges ‘feminist’ thought, with traditional Desi ones. Marriage is seen, by so many, as an end. An end to your days of youth, and of having fun. A new era, of being ‘controlled’ by your husband, sort of being enslaved to him and his family, losing yourself in the process. It is almost treated like a thing of legal slavery; the woman is simply not honoured as she should be.

Islam does not say that, after getting married, one must sacrifice one’s entire own life to go and live with a husband and his family: to just become a part of his world, a mere accessory. Hearing over and over again about the trope of the ‘evil mother-in-law’, for example, and the tensions that frequently ensue as a result of introducing a new woman into her household… I am growing quite weary of them. This is a very Desi idea: that, with marriage, a woman is to lose most of her selfhood, while the man only gains. She gives it all to a husband who, more often than not, does not honour her (though he should). He simply expects her to cook and to clean, and to suffer so many hardships, and to just get on with it.

Based on what Islam says, though… this need not be the case. In fact, as for mutual respect and compassion between spouses, this is an absolute must. But, technically, it would be fine to live with one’s partner as many modern boyfriends-and-girlfriends do. One could carry on with one’s education, with one’s current hobbies… The only addition – and an excellent addition, at that – would be the Nikkah!

Once, while delivering a lecture to a large group of female university students, the renowned feminist author Betty Friedan posited the idea that the first most important decision a woman will make in her lifetime is this one: whom she marries. This statement of hers had been met with gasps and groans of protestation. She added, things like what you study and the career you may have are not as significant as this particular decision. She had not been wrong: your spouse, marriage (if, indeed, you do end up getting married) will come to form a big part of your life. The hours you will spend with your husband or wife, how much they will be able to influence your day-to-day activities, your ways of thinking, and more… Marriage is very important, actually. And, since many of us are fine with the idea of constantly talking about and preparing ourselves for our future careers, I do think more conversations need to be had, around marriage, and about how to have healthy and nourishing ones.

One of my (younger) aunts — the first in my extended family to be studying for a PhD, Allahummabārik! — does not want to get married, at all. Her exposure to marriages has been rather like mine: we have witnessed so many couples who appear to be trapped within affection-less marriages. Where the woman is made to do all the housework, and the two (husband and wife) simply complain about one another to others, all day. Incompatibility is a major issue; I really think meddling family members who choose partners for others have a big role to play in this. I find it deeply concerning how surprising we now see healthy marriages – ones rooted mostly in love and positivity, authentically, and not ‘just for show’ – as being. 

What I find additionally infuriating is that, sometimes, when Desi parents, for example, choose a spouse for their child, they actually choose on such superficial premises as: the tribe in Bangladesh that this person comes from… even if said person had been born and raised here in the UK! And other things, like how good their job title sounds (once again, that highly-detrimental overarching ‘appearances’ factor), how fair their skin is. And, sadly, another thing: interracial marriages continue to be strongly looked down on, too, even though Islam permits and even encourages these. [Islamic teachings also teach us to steer away from pride-based considerations. Yet, this is undoubtedly a very significant contributing factor in the making of these decisions, by the evidently-so-wise ‘elders’].

Ultimately, whom an individual ends up marrying should marry them based on their own executive decision (yes, aided by well-meaning friends and family members, maybe). I find many Bengali ‘elders’ to be unnecessarily meddlesome and insolent when it comes to matters of marriage. When… reviewing the prospective spouses of their ‘youngers’, many are given to turning their noses up, disapproving of this, or that, feature of a person. She’s too fat. He’s too short. But the question for these ‘elders’, if they truly have the best interests of the ‘youngers’ at heart, should not be, “Would I, myself, marry this person?”, as it too often is.

For those who are involved in any of these matchmaking or approval processes, the first question should be about religion — Do they pray? (etc.) After all, marriage concerns an entire half of your Deen! And, then, the other ‘scrutiny’ should be about character. What is this person’s conduct like? Finally, matters of lifestyle should be considered. I wish I could tell all these Desi elders to stop placing undue emphasis on appearance-based considerations. Focusing on these, in lieu of the more meaningful stuff, is an almost surefire way to set your child up for a lifetime of marital misery.

I also disagree with the notion that a woman who is marrying a man should brace herself for marrying his family. The primary consideration should be a) husband, b) wife, and, c) are they — in terms of lifestyle, values, expectations, chemistry, and more — truly suitable for one another? And while I am able to deeply appreciate this cultural emphasis on family [I do also benefit from it much] I do still maintain that maintaining certain boundaries is invaluable. 

[To indulge myself further on this tangent about boundaries, perhaps this term sounds slightly harsh. I much prefer the idea of ‘Doors’. One should be able to protect one’s own space and time and energy; be able to politely but firmly close the door on others, sometimes, and open them up when they decide it is good to do so.

Unfortunately, many newly wedded Bengali women do not get to exercise their right to their own ‘doors’; many have to move into their husbands’ bustling homes, adapt very quickly, welcome and entertain constant streams of guests, cook and clean, listen to floods of gratuitous criticisms directed towards them, and more…]

Anyway, back to the young aunt of mine in question: when she informs people that, no, she does not want to get married, she is met with gasps of disapproval. Shock, anger. They express pity towards her. But, rather ironically, and humorously, they also happen to be the ones who incessantly complain about their married lives, and about how wholly unsatisfying they are!

In these particular marriages, the husband and wife rarely even interact in positive and meaningful ways, at home. That classic stereotype of the nagging wife, and the ever-annoyed husband. Tragic incompatibilities, unhappy tropes repeated over and over again.

Ah, but to the rest of the world, many of them will make it a point to try to show that they are the world’s most in-love couples! Yet another display of that classic Desi caring-about-what-people-will-think, prior to all other considerations (e.g. those of… authenticity, essences).

Muhammad (SAW) had left us with the wisdom that the best of men are the ones who are best to women, and specifically, to their wives. Kind and consciously nurturing treatment is very much encouraged, in this tradition of ours, towards spouses: on the physical and spiritual and emotional levels.

Muhammad (SAW) had loved his wives deeply, and tenderly, and honourably; he would recline beside them, speak to them for hours, help out with the housework, even kneel and offer his thigh for his wife to mount her camel. Just like the Qur’an says, a marriage should be centred on the principles of love, mercy, and affection.

Incidentally, the whole idea of modern ‘dating’… apart from how heavily commodified it has all become (and, how, often meaningless and taken-for-granted) it does stem from the idea of courting someone, prior to, and with the intention of, marrying them. So what does the Islamic tradition say, about courtship before marriage?

Unrelated men and women should not spend time in isolation, with one another. If someone would like to get to know somebody else, with the intention of marriage, the two are allowed to talk, and to ask questions. But, generally, this should not be done in a private place; some sort of third party should be present, too (typically a male relative – a Mahram – of the woman).

A Muslim man can approach and express his desires for the pursuit of marriage to, a woman. And a Muslim woman can do the same, to a man. And then, I suppose, after taking care of the practical side of things, the Istikhara (literally, ‘seeking goodness’) prayer should be prayed.

I am unsure as to why some Muslims argue that men should simply not speak to women, and vice versa. The guidelines simply tell us to speak to one another respectfully, to maintain good boundaries, “lower [the] gaze”.

It is worth remembering, here, that Muhammad (SAW)’s first wife (Khadijah) had been a wealthy businesswoman, and his employer. Of course the two had spoken to one another; in fact, it was Khadijah (RA) who had proposed marriage to him. 

And, ultimately, the Islamic way – the Shari’ah – is there to protect us, for example from developing excessively deep (and, potentially life-devastating) connections with someone, before marriage. The rules are here to aid in the preservation of our dignity.

There are many things that I think many of us Desi youngsters need to make it a point to unlearn. Firstly, I think we need to actively make it a point to focus on essences first, before appearances. And, specifically on the wedding-and-marriage front, the things we must remember are these: it is okay to be human; there is no other way to be. We crave companionship; we have been made for marriage, and marriage has been made for us. Islam concerns the human being, and feelings of shame should only come into play when it comes to things that are actually immoral (the guidelines for which our Deen informs us).

I think we really should focus on the things that are of value, when it comes to weddings, and to marriage. What is the point of a wedding? It is to celebrate the forging of a (hopefully) lifelong, and sacred, relationship. And, yes, it is to truly celebrate, with people who truly care about you. It is to welcome Barakah – blessings – into this new start in your life. [A very good way to attract Barakah into your marriage is by ‘inviting poor people to your Walimah’ [Hadith] (the Walimah is the name for the celebration, the feast, that takes place after the Nikkah ceremony). I came across a news story online about how a newly wedded Turkish couple went, in their wedding clothes, to distribute food at a refugee camp, presumably as part of their Walimah!]

Surely, at these events, it is better to focus on increasing Barakah, making them as… love-infused and genuinely nice as possible, than to spend so much money and energy on attempting to impress people who are often simply committed to being… unimpressed?

And, marriage — it ought not to be cold and only-for-show, a mere ongoing sugar crash from the contrived ‘highs’ of these over-indulgent wedding ceremonies. But marriage is not – is never – like what these Bollywood movies depict it as, these ideals that many young Desi women copiously consume. Much like the rest of life’s several aspects, in marriage, there will likely be some times of ease, joy, and pleasure, and some times of friction, tedium, and uncertainty.

Much of Desi society seems to focus on the shells of things. Adorning the outsides, what people can see. Attempts to minimise negative ‘press’. But, like I said before, if people are committed to gossip, they will talk, regardless of what you do. Regardless of how much you spend on a wedding, regardless of whether the man you have chosen for your daughter is a doctor or an engineer, or not.

Beautifying the shells of things does nothing to beautify their contents, their realities. And this – thinking about the essences – certainly should be the primary motivation. Any additional decorative qualities should only be a secondary consideration, really. And, you know what? Nobody’s opinion should really matter, apart from those whose opinions actually matter: those of the bride, and the groom, in question. And those of the ones they love and care about, and who love them too, and have their best interests at heart.

Nikkah, then: a union of two people, two lives, before Allah. A greater commitment, a bond, which is contractually solidified, from which one should extract much Khayr (goodness), love, enjoyment, peace and comfort, and blessing. Much of the modern world appears to attempt to de-sacralise, and to proceed to commercialise, ‘most everything. But I maintain that marriage is sacred; marital relationships probably take much effort to preserve and nurture, but I know that, when both participants equip themselves with the correct guiding principles for it, it is one of the most worth-it ventures a man or woman can undertake.

And, through marriage, this blessing from Allah, one gains a lover, a friend, somebody to experience this life with, and to have fun with, (perhaps) raise children with; someone to learn with, and grow (and hopefully also grow old) with.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Gratitude

What does it mean to be grateful?

Gratitude is good for the human being; for the soul. And I really do believe that choosing to have (and focus on) fewer things necessarily makes way for higher feelings of gratitude. This does not mean that one needs to make one’s lifestyle all bare and boring. Rather, one perhaps ought to minimise, and retain the things that are of value.

Minimalism makes way for more gratitude primarily because, well, we can only truly appreciate a particular amount or number of stuff at a time. For example, even when we look at the most extravagant of tapestries, our eyes and our minds only allow us to focus on and thereby appreciate – be grateful for – certain parts, at any given time. The same sort of concept is true for most things, actually. Why do some people want, for example, more than one supercar, or more than one bed, or whatever? You can only use one of them at a time. What is ultimately important is the experience, and a grateful mind always has a better experience: higher emotional and spiritual gains from the daily happenings of life.

Chasing lives of extravagance surely leads to lower feelings of gratitude. There is so much evidence for this.

And we can only really be grateful for things once we know what it feels like for the thing to not be there. We are more grateful for a thing’s presence, when we have come to know its absence. Things like joy, like good friends, maybe, and like food. Doesn’t food always taste that much better after a day of fasting?

There is so much wisdom behind Islamic principles of fasting, minimalism, and expressing gratitude.

One’s actions are important, too. When you are grateful for a thing, you must show this in your behaviour. You must care for it. You must tend to the rights it may have over you.

In the Qur’an, Allah tells us that He increases in favour the one who is grateful. We only really need what is enough to get by. Survival, and then some additional comfort, peace and joy. We do not have to deprive ourselves of goodness. But there are certainly some things – and these are usually the things that are characterised by lavishness and ‘plenty’ – that we might, in the moment, think will bring us much good. Might solve some of our problems for us, and so forth.

But when you have fewer things – like friendships, like projects you are working on, for example – I do think you are able to focus on them more. Cultivate them like flowers, and then se cosecha lo que se siembra: you reap what you sow.

Gratitude is good for you. Zooming in on all the ‘small’ things, for example the things you cannot live without. A glass of water. The gorgeousness of sunrises. The comfort of your duvet. There is much use, and much Khayr, in certain things.

And for these things, may we always find ourselves grateful.

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself ten 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 

On Beauty

The human woman is a thing of beauty. This is, without question, how she has been designed and made: beautiful. From her eyelashes to her voice, and to the soul that rests between them, the human female is different to the human male. Both, in general, have differing essences, and each are attracted to differing things, in the other.

In this article, I want to talk about beauty standards. I may also touch on the topics of body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and the like. I want for this article to encapsulate my indignation towards, for instance, the fact that some of the most beautiful women I know think themselves to be hideous; I think current popular conceptions of ‘beauty’ are symptomatic of, well… a world gone mad, taken to deceit, superficiality, and shallowness, among other things.

One of my little cousins, I tell her, she does not need to worry: she is gorgeous how she is, Masha Allah! But she says, no, she is not. Why, I ask? Because, as she tells me, she does not look like her, and she points to a girl she is watching on Tik-Tok, whose face is laden with makeup, whose features are accentuated through the use of certain poses and filters.

The ‘Instagram face’. This is an important concept in today’s world, so it would seem.

I so wish everybody could just know how beautiful they are. A few months ago, I carried out that survey thing, for which the fourth question was about people’s main struggles and insecurities. Everybody responded to this with, looks: they struggle with accepting and appreciating how they look, and this actually holds them back, they find, in other areas of life. People find themselves ugly; want to do away with certain features of theirs, acquire new ones.

What a world we live in, huh? Our notions of beauty are so distorted. This ‘Instagram face’, this template that begins with European features, takes from ‘ethnic ones’, merges them together to create the notorious almost-bionic template that plasters our social media feeds these days. My issue with the culture that this has been fostered by (and then, in turn, fosters) is that we now have humans who are disgusted by some of the baseline stuff of being human: who spend hours hating their own reflections, who look beauty right in the eye each day (when they look into a mirror) but who cannot at all recognise it for what it is.

The media we consume on a daily basis undoubtedly has a massive impact on the ways in which we come to see things. It is all quite interconnected, too: how addictive these platforms are, how much of its content we consume each day (often quite ‘mindlessly’. But it is always having an effect on our minds…), advertising, the cosmetic industry…

The truth is, looks do matter. Of course they do. But it gets awfully political, if you think about it enough: how the ones with the most power, have the power to truly influence how we view things. Like beauty. The thing about beauty is, it is meant to be indicative of goodness [and, I would argue, of Truth. We tend to see things that are unified, proportionate, and harmonious, as being beautiful. I think this points us towards a supreme wisdom, a Oneness. Allah].

An envelope, and then you open it, and there is goodness to be found. But as soon as we come to believe that only some women (i.e. those with European features, lightly infused with more ‘exotic’ and ethnic ones) are truly beautiful, we are also allowing ourselves to believe that they, by nature, hold unique goodness within them. Such ideas – pertaining to both the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ – are strongly linked to European colonial ideas. That white women, for example, are more ‘feminine’ and ‘angelic’ than other ones. [And that white men are more civilised and intelligent than other – the more ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ – ones]. Then, these notions of what constitutes seeming ‘angelic’, and how these have, over time, developed into modern conceptualisations of the infantile woman, who is at once childishly adorable, ‘angelic’, and very sexually fecund… doesn’t it all make you a little uncomfortable?

The human Fitrah does ‘naturally’ recognise beauty. Most human beings absolutely love ‘nature’. It is visually, aurally, atmospherically beautiful. But our Fitrahs can be, and very often are, affected by environmental factors. By the media, for example: what we cognitively consume, and just how much of it. These things that can acquire power over you, a hold on you, can in turn deeply influence your thoughts and beliefs.

I wish humanity would just accept its own humanity. I wish we would stop worshipping plastic notions; stop allowing ourselves to be fooled so. Whenever I come across pictures (e.g. at museums) from the past, of people simply having fun, and while looking unashamedly human, I think about the ways of now. How we dress ourselves up so much, to go just about anywhere, and how hyper-aware we can tend to be, of our own physicality.

Sadly, this hyper-awareness stops a lot of people from playing. From having pure, unbridled fun. And from bearing witness to their own inherent beauty. It makes people compare themselves (to heavily engineered images) and then come to consider themselves as being ‘ugly’. It motivates people to go on a lot of these unhealthy ‘diets’, to think about getting nose jobs, bodily implants, and more.

How did we get to this point, at which normal human faces are seen as abnormal? Where, if a woman walks out without makeup, she looks ‘sickly’ and un-groomed.  If she wears ‘subtle’ makeup, little girls come to think that this is how they ought to look without makeup [this is what the ‘no makeup makeup look’ does, in truth].

Nobody is born ‘ugly’, and nobody is born seeing themselves this way. In fact, it goes against the inclinations of the human Fitrah, to see ‘ordinary’ humans as being ‘ugly’. This would be tantamount to denying the beauty within walking definitions of beauty!

I reckon it began with makeup. With the arrival of new potential, for women with ‘ordinary’ faces to look special, ‘exotic’ and sexy: to accentuate their features with the use of substances that blacken and bronze and ‘beautify’. Interestingly, the basis of all these makeup products is the promise of an ‘ethnic’ look, a ‘sultry’ and ‘exotic’ one. With mascara, white women could now darken and elongate their eyelashes. With bronzer, they could achieve that ‘sun-kissed’ look. Lip-liner allowed them to achieve the full-lip look. Other various cosmetic powders and liquids allow for skin to look ‘flawless’, glowing. But women who are South Asian, black, Latina, and Arab (generally) naturally have these features already. So where do they fit in, in terms of how the global cosmetics industry direct their advertising and relevance?

To put it simply, white women started to want these ‘exotic’ ethnic features. They were seen, undoubtedly, as being fascinating, and (thus) ‘sexy’. But some ‘exotic’ features had been left behind, in the conceptualisation of this model: uni-brows, for example [and thick eyebrows, too. These only became ‘fashionable’ far later]. And hooked noses, and certain face shapes, among other things. So, it is almost as though a makeup template for white women had been created deeply inspired by certain ‘ethnic’ looks and features, but then, in turn, ‘ethnic’ women took from the new European-with-hints-of-‘exoticism’ model.

And so, lots of white women rushed to get lip fillers, while lots of black women rushed to acquire straighter hair. Lots of Arab women rushed to get nose jobs. Lots of South Asian women rushed to lighten their skin.

See, the entire cosmetic industry peddles the idea that no, you are never ‘enough’, never quite done yet. You do not yet look like the ‘models’ we have created. So keep going, keep buying, keep ‘improving’. 

And yes, I think ‘celebrity culture’ has played a notable role in all of this. From the beginnings of Hollywood, to the ways of things now, this culture has always relied on some people being presented as being extraordinary, very special, worthy of much popular attention. They had to be set apart from everybody else: talent-wise, and, of course, ‘beauty’-wise.

But, gradually, the cosmetics that only the rich and famous had access to became increasingly accessible to the rest of the public. And, with this ‘celebrity culture’ mentality in mind, of course, people wanted to emulate whom they had been made to perceive as being the ‘successful’. And thus, I think, was birthed these ideas of the most non-human-seeming human things being the most attractive ones. Terrifying, really.

Hooked noses and pointed chins, for example, are not objectively ‘ugly’. And nor are rounded faces, or thinner lips, stretch marks, tummy rolls, or whatever else.

I do think it is a very human, ‘okay’ thing to want to be beautiful. In general, women in particular have innate desires to be beautiful (on the inside, and the ‘out’), while men tend to obtain the majority of their self-esteem from how ‘strong’ they are (both on the physical, and inward, emotional level). But I think our paradigms of beauty ought to be more ‘from us’. Beginning with us, and ending, for the most part, with us: with the beautiful features and things that Allah has given us, already. The goal, perhaps, ought to just be: being as healthy as we can be. Developing according to our own natures (and this should be true, for us, on both the physical level, and the mental ones).

Hey, did Aphrodite not have tummy rolls? She is, then, perhaps more human than most of us today will, unfortunately, allow ourselves to be.

I worry for my little cousins, I really do. In fact, I worry for every woman – especially the younger ones – who finds herself alive, right now, in this world of ours. I want for beautiful people to know that they are beautiful, even where their faces do not fit with the whole Instagram cut-out template.

If I ever have a daughter, I hope I can teach her how to stand before herself and bear witness to the beauty that is inherent in her, a gift from God. I know I would want to protect her from these never-ending streams of media that may seek to tell her that, in terms of beauty, she is lesser than what she, in truth, is.

Dear reader, I want you to know how beautiful you are. So, for today at least, I challenge you to exchange those critical lenses through which you may look at yourself in the mirror, for ones of appreciation. When you actively look for the beauty that (I promise you) is already there, you will surely come to see it, Subhan Allah. Nobody else in the world has the beauty that only you do.

And why would you ever want to look like anybody else?


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Home

Yes, when I think of the idea of ‘home’, I immediately think of IKEA. I think about wooden furniture and wooden floors. Keys, walls, defences, dropped at the door. I think of comfort and pillows and plants, and of warm mugs of coffee. I think of friends and of family – the ones who see the worst of you, and perhaps the best of you, too. I think of messy morning hair. And of books and paint and days spent blissfully indoors, in this personal and private ecosystem.

Home is where the heart is; where the heart longs to be. It is your part of the world, an extension of you, and a place that is meant to nurture you. Sometimes homes break, and that is because home is more than a property and some furniture. It is made up, for the most part, of human relationships. And home is where the heart is [I guess I repeated that for dramatic effect or something].

I like the idea of big windows and a little garden. I don’t know why some people are obsessed with notions of bigger homes being better homes. Ultimately, you can only inhabit so much space at a time. You sit in one particular place, and this particular place ends up meaning something to you. And then you go outside, and you do other things, and you may become sort of homesick throughout the day [I know I do!].

You come home and you get clean. And home is there to greet you with a hug. All is well when you are at home, and safe, and sound. Recuperation, and nurture, and sanctity. Turkish prayer mats and the like.

What else, what else? I like it when I am at home, and when it is raining outside. A beautiful sort of privacy tends to ensue, an unmatchable sense of peace. And you realise that all there is, for you, is your own little world. Your little world made up of the people that inhabit it, for the most part. There are the things that you do outside of home. Like going to cafés, walking around, travelling. But home is the nucleus that calls you back, and it is there for you, every single time.

  • 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 

 

Pretences of Piety

Don’t you find it frightening (and infuriating), for example,

Just how many Qur’an teachers and self-proclaimed Maulanas have abused little girls in their own homes?

The Deen. In actuality, it is meant to protect, not hurt. But, see, we seem to have all these cowardly men who hide under their thobes; what they do is they feign these unmatchable levels of piety. What they do, then, is they slander innocent women (which is one of the major sins in Islam, actually) and they try to control their wives. Some of them sexually abuse little girls. These are just misogynists trying to be Muslims.

And, when they find themselves having been exposed for things like this, swathes of men tend to flock to their defence. We are taught to see them as the bastions of this faith of ours. It seems shameful to exist before them, as women; to look them in the eye.

We seem to commonly mistake image-based expressions of piety for piety itself. What piety necessitates, actually, is a pure heart. The pure-souled do dwell among us, of course they do. Maybe they are not always the ones who sport the longest beards; maybe they do not wear black robes all the time.

Maybe they are what a Muslim ought to be: one who remembers God, and remembers that God is ever-cognisant.

“The best among [us] are the ones who have the best manners and character” [Hadith].

I refuse to trust anyone whose image-based manifestations of ‘piety’ render them arrogant. The attempted ‘holier-than-thou’ mentality: it goes against the teachings of Islam, and pushes people away from it, too.

Beating people into submission, for example. Feeling proud, thinking you are so much better than them. And I am absolutely sick of all of these double standards.

Men who recite the Qur’an in public, for example, and then quietly sanction the bombing of children as they sleep in their cots. Who preach Islamic values, but whose families are oppressed under them. Who secretly lust after and abuse women, and then proceed to blame the female kind for… existing.

Men who maintain that any woman who does not wear a Niqab, and who is not… personality-less and almost perpetually scared, before them… is not worthy of the ‘religious’ title. They call any woman who does not fit their ‘ideals’ a “feminist”.

They tell us not to speak to non-Mahram men. Don’t even look at them. If they say “Salaam” to you, walk away from them. Okay. Why are you speaking to me then? Follow your own rules. Why do you speak to women whom you are not married to, in such boundary-less ways? Who are you to think that you are better than her, because you happen to attend some class every week?

Do you find yourself so insecure in your masculine identity that you find you must now either sexualise every woman you come across, or demean and debase her?

You question all of her actions.

You make the same human mistakes as she does. Yet, in your eyes, she is the only fallible one.

You put certain other men on pedestals. Yet, for women, you erase, in your mind, all the good that they do. You expect so much of them; what do you give them, back?

You slander female Muslim scholars for… being scholars. (Wait… I thought you thought we – this monolithic ‘Modern Muslim woman’ – are not educated-in-the-Islamic-sciences enough for your liking?) You call her names, because she happens to be pretty. You say, she is despicable – attracting men by standing there, speaking.

And yet you are willing to give your fellow men chance, after chance, after chance. Hide their sins, you say, for them. But, for women: if she breathes, you say that she is blameworthy.

Misogyny – the like of which has no place in our Deen – is what pushes many Muslim women towards notions of Liberal Feminism. We should remember, though, that while women do have certain responsibilities towards men, men have certain responsibilities towards us, too. We also both have rights over one another. I think modern feminism sometimes forgets that we are, in fact, an intrinsically dimorphic kind. I think modern Muslim misogynists often forget that Allah has given us certain inalienable rights. Like the right to not be treated like worthless little objects, like misbehaving children, just as an example.

Seeing is not believing. I refuse to look at the clothes a person wears to gauge how ‘religious’ they may be. The words of many of these revered ‘Maulana’ types, I refuse to ever take as gospel. He is a human being, just like I am.

And if he ever treats me like I am somehow lesser than him, well then, I already know that he is lesser than me, at least with respect to respect ⁠— to Akhlaq and Adab. These are the words. They beautify the human being.

Maybe some of the (actual) best Muslims alive right now wear football shirts. Maybe they skateboard. Maybe they are primary school teachers, painters, boxers.

The sincerity of your soul, and its being in servitude of God ⁠— well, this is between you and your Creator, actually. The eyes and minds of the people, these are fallible. But, with regard to the people, know that it is a command of God to serve them, and not to walk with pride before them.

Justice, humility, compassion, mercy, honesty, trustworthiness. These are what make a man, a Muslim.

“إِنَّ مِنْ خِيَارِكُمْ أَحْسَنَكُمْ أَخْلَاقًا”

Verily, the best among you are those who exhibit the best character. 

[Hadith]

 

“أَلَا أُخْبِرُكُمْ بِخَيْرِكُمْ مِنْ شَرِّكُمْ خَيْرُكُمْ مَنْ يُرْجَى خَيْرُهُ وَيُؤْمَنُ شَرُّهُ وَشَرُّكُمْ مَنْ لَا يُرْجَى خَيْرُهُ وَلَا يُؤْمَنُ شَرُّهُ”

Shall I not tell you what distinguishes the best of you from the worst of you? The best of you are those from whom goodness is expected and people are safe from their evil. The worst of you are those from whom goodness is not expected and people are not safe from their evil.

[Hadith]

And, a Hadith that I particularly love:

خِيَارُكُمْ الَّذِينَ إِذَا رُءُوا ذُكِرَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

The best of you are those who, when they are seen, inspire others to remember Allah Almighty.

Whom have I come across, who have inspired me to remember the Almighty upon looking at them? I think these are the ones with radiant faces, and they have this peace about them. They are humble before fellow creatures. Their hearts gleam. Their mannerisms tend to be quite soft, their laughs hearty, their levels of emotional intelligence quite high.

I aspire to be like them. Light – Noor – radiates from them; it is hard to express such a thing through words. They smile often, and they are humble, at peace and quite integrated within themselves, it seems, and rather true.

I do try to be open to and welcoming of advice – Naseeha, sincere counsel. But I think there is a distinction to be made, between sincere and empathy-based advice, and unproductive criticisms that come from a place of clear haughtiness and/or hypocrisy.

 

True piety beautifies, and the truly pious remind you of Allah, almost as soon as you look at them. It is difficult to not have a strong affinity towards people like this. They walk the walk of Islam, true Islam, while others bark as they mostly talk a talk, frequently stomping all over others as they do so. 

 

Remember that Islam is for you too. We are all imperfect; most of us are just sinners doing the best that we can. But know that if you are sincere, then Islam is for you.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020