Concise Compositions: Knowledge

Why seek knowledge? What is the significance of wanting to know, and then coming to know, and then passing this knowledge on? Wanting to know: this impulse is etched into our very nature, as human beings. We are curious; we have all these questions. We ask, and we ask, and we ask. Sometimes, we find answers. Sometimes, we even find answers to questions we did not even really know we had. Often, over time, we may become accustomed to those answers; we may take the things we have learnt along the way, for granted.

We all begin in a state of not knowing. Not knowing what the word ‘material’ means, or why flowers have stems, or how some creatures are nocturnal, while others are diurnal. Coming to know is an extraordinary, and invaluable, process, and one which we repeat, albeit in varying ways, over and over again.

Like when we meet new people. There is so much to come to know about them; every other person alive is just as complex, multi-faceted, with minds and hearts filled with millions of different experiences, as we know we are. Or, when we meet a new day. We explore uncharted territories; fundamental to who we are are the impulses for adventure and discovery. The moments of awe, and of, “oh, that’s why!”

Why is seeking knowledge – and the institutions and such built around this pursuit: why are they so important? I, personally, am not a fan of the idea of doing anything ‘for the sake of itself’. I cannot content myself with the idea that my desires to learn are ‘self-explanatory’, and ‘for the sake of themselves’. I want to learn because

I know I am passionate about my interests. I find the process of having questions, and then consulting different places and people in order to try to find answers to them, altogether quest-like. Novel, and ever-refreshing. But, more than this:

More than the ‘entertaining’ side of such explorations, and more than the ‘socio-economic’ dimensions that are ever-touted to us. [e.g. “to become a billionaire, you must read a hundred books a year,” as well as the idea that knowledge is integral to defining social statuses, and for ‘social mobility’ and competition.]

I guess it depends on how we view life, and on how we view success. My ten minutes have ended here, but I am going to continue. Might make the new time limit I give myself fifteen minutes. Bismillah.

Life, and what it is for. Our aims. Knowledge is the only thing that can help us to get there. If you want to, say… make a really good biryani [I think about biryani so much, it’s unhealthy], you need to know how to do so. If you want to… be a good lawyer, or teacher, or mother, or friend, or Muslim, you need to know how to do so. I do believe that the best types of knowledge we can acquire are the ‘experiential’ forms. Learning ‘on the job’; making our mistakes, and then learning from them. But also, we learn well from hearing about others’ experiences; what worked for them; what they would advise.

Hence, the value of books. And of YouTube videos, podcasts, Quora and more.

We are navigating our ways through these lives of ours. World, (universe,) selves, other people, education, careers, daily dilemmas. Knowledge enlightens; illuminates. It paves out maps, for us. We conceptualise what we want; our knowing is what facilitates our being. And vice versa. Knowledge and the human existence: we are inextricable. I think it is a great thing indeed, to love: the pursuit of, the preservation of, the sharing of, knowledge.

Being ‘without’ an understanding: darkness, ignorance. And then, being ‘with’ it. Gaining information; understanding; insight.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘knowledge’ refers to “Facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.”

There are those more ‘abstract’, theoretical forms of knowledge. There are the practical forms that we ourselves have not directly experienced, but we are able to learn about them through others’ recounts and explanations: vicarious experiencing, for us. And there are the direct forms of knowledge that we, ourselves, do directly experience; these may be complimented by what we have learnt, from coming to know of others’ experiences.

Moreover, a snippet from the Wikipedia page [try not to use Wikipedia for research, kids!] on ‘Ilm (an Arabic word generally translated as meaning ‘knowledge’, but which would actually appear to have a wider definition), “knowledge in the Western world means information about something […] while [from the] Islamic point of view, ‘Ilm is an all-embracing term covering theory, action and education [so, learning, doing, and perhaps teaching]; it is not confined to the acquisition of knowledge only, but also embraces socio-political and moral aspects”. ‘Ilm might be summarised as meaning ‘active beneficial knowledge’; something that is meant to illuminate, in (not just) mind, (but also in) heart, and soul.

Knowledge does not ‘belong’ exclusively to a certain group of people, even though we do have experts in different fields. Knowledge is for goodness, and it ought to be for the goodness of everybody. It is from our Creator; it is for anybody who loves it. Yes, I quite like this idea — that ‘Ilm is about more than just ‘collecting information’. It is:

towards Truth; in Beauty; for Goodness.

The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself fifteen 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. Have fun writing! 

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Maybe she’s born with it

Our genes. Those basic units of heredity of ours; the segments of our DNA that inform – or, determine – our characteristics. The knowledge that we are these moving, thinking, breathing human beings – with so much going on within us, maintained via the presence of roughly thirty trillion cells (!!!), innate forms of information, and communication between all these microscopic parts. Mind-blowingly fantastic, amazing.

A while ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘Three Identical Strangers’, and it is safe to say that its contents – the topics explored through it – blew my mind; I would strongly recommend it to anybody who is even vaguely interested in psychology.

The documentary is centred on the story of three identical triplets who had been separated at birth, and who had been adopted into three different families. So, they had been practically the same on the ‘nature’ front, but brought up within three distinctly different household-types, of different social classes and such — and so, they had ended up being quite unalike on the ‘nurture’ front.

This had been a real-life occurrence; not something plucked from some work of fiction:

Nineteen years after being separated at birth, two of the three biological brothers meet, by ‘chance’, at university. One of them walks in, as a new student; his fellow students are already acting awfully familiar with him. He wonders why. Turns out, there is another student at the university, who looks just the same as him, and whom he is now being mistaken for. [Once again, I would truly recommend watching the documentary, for the details of the triplets’ story, and for more about… the experiment they later discovered they had furtively been made a part of, from birth. An absolutely astonishing story, which had given rise to a number of fascinating findings and resulting questions…]

The young men discover that they are indeed twins; later discover that there is a third brother: they are a trio. They looked pretty much the same: almost entirely identical facial features; hair type; build. Moreover, the brothers discover that they exhibit very similar behavioural characteristics too (in terms of ways of walking, of sitting, and such); they favour the same brand of cigarette; they even have the same ‘type’ (the same ‘taste’ in women)!

Tragically, one of the brothers eventually ended up taking his own life, after a battle with bipolar disorder, the actualisation of which had been pinned to social/environmental factors: namely, the man’s difficult relationship with his own (adoptive) father.

But I guess what I am trying to express, in this particular article, is how awesome it is, that we have, within us, these forms of innate knowledge, and how elusive the answers to these questions about ‘nature’/’nurture’/’autonomy’ really are.

We operate on information that is in-built, pre-existing, and here we are, as experiencers. We did not get to choose the colours of our skins; the texture of our hair. We did not choose whom we had been born to; whom we are connected to ‘by blood’. All of those ‘bigger’ things. And… so many of the ‘smaller’ ones, too.

Last year, I decided to purchase a ’23andMe’ test for myself. To find out more about my genetic predispositions, and also after years of being asked,

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, where’s that?”

“Oh, but you look Moroccan/Mauritian/Pakistani…”

Within my immediate-extended family, some of us look more ‘South Indian’, while others look more ‘Northern Indian’. Some look more Turkish, North African, Persian. The list goes on. For example, one of my first cousins and I attended the same primary and secondary schools together. We’d mostly been in the same classes, but nobody really ever suspected that we were cousins, or even that we had been ‘from’ the same country, until we told them so. People assumed he was Algerian or something, and some people guessed correctly that I’m Bengali, while others insisted that I look like I’m from “somewhere else”. [“Where, though?” “I don’t know. Just… somewhere else”]

I wanted to find out more about the story of my ancestry: about the people who had come before me.

Outside of my familial circle (which is actually so huge that we could probably easily populate a small country) some of my friends who are Bengali look quite like they could be Malaysian; some look more European; some look more Arab.

From what I know, on my mother’s side, my great-great-great-great (with eight ‘greats’ in total, I believe) grandfather had been from Yemen. Other than that, ‘we’ are from the Bengal region in India – a large fraction of which became ‘Bangladesh’ (literally, ‘Land of the Bengals’) in 1971, when the region declared its independence from Pakistan.

According to ’23andMe’, modern-day Bengalis are mostly the descendants of Central Asians who had migrated southwards, roughly four thousand years ago. Bangladesh is also bordered, on one side, by Nepal – which forms a sort of ‘bridge region’ between ourselves and China. It has (or, should I say, ‘we’ have?) been under Mughal – so, Turco-Mongol – rule, and under British colonial rule, in the past.

I never really realised how alike Bengali ‘culture’ is, with Nepali ‘culture’ until I met one of my cousins’ friends, at my uncle’s wedding. Language, ‘cultural dress’, food. Extremely similar. [Also, I’ve used inverted commas around ‘culture’ because this word seeks to describe the entire way of life of a particular group of people. But, of course, ‘culture’ is never really static, not really reified — but it is useful when it comes to describing what might ‘generally’ be the case].

From reading about my own genetic analysis results, I learned that, in addition to the ‘big’ things that are genetically determined: hair colour, eye colour, susceptibility towards particular illnesses… many of the ‘smaller’ things are thought to be genetically predetermined too. How likely you are to… be averse to coriander, for instance. Preferring sweet foods, or savoury. Being more of a ‘night owl’ or a ‘morning person’; whether you’re more likely to be a ‘deep sleeper’, or a ‘lighter’ one. Earwax type. Finger length ratio. ‘Asparagus odour detection abilities’.

Maybe she’s born with it: maybe it’s in her genes.

So much of ourselves would appear to be… predetermined. But where does predetermination end; where on Earth does auturgy (acting independently, without external influence) begin?

I know for a fact that my genetic makeup has been greatly affected by the actions, the decisions, of those who had come before me. Migrations, and marriages, and perhaps far, far more than these. Perhaps one of my Yemeni ancestors had developed a real penchant for coffee, and maybe that is why I love it so much, today.

Why do I love the things I love? Why am I who and how I am? Is it just a ‘self’ that I am presented with, which I myself can only ‘discover’ and never actually creatively contribute to?

Maybe it is that we start off with a lot of these things, which are predetermined. Perhaps it is the case that within these given features and factors, we have the ability to act with auturgy.

When you receive the ’23andMe’ testing kit, the box reads, in large print, “Welcome to you.”

You: an alive, breathing, and conscious part of the story of humanity. Our very beginnings. A world to get to know, and to be conversant with; our selves, and other people, too. And every single thing that had to happen to get here, to you. The migrations; the meetings. The language barriers – and the breakthroughs – between Bengali and Arabic perhaps, and then came English.

Selfhood. The journeys of our lives. The innate information that tells us how – and when – to begin. Two cells fuse together; growth occurs. Majestic and precise. The innate knowledge within a woman’s body – cycles, circles – which knew how to nourish you, converting the food your mother ate, into food for you. The capacities we have, to learn. How words – language – sounds from our mouths, and scratches on paper, fit into our minds like puzzle pieces into gaps, ready for them, and waiting.

Our bodies know to begin to decline, too. The forthcoming, the inevitable. We are here for a while, and then we return.

We are not the creators of our own selves; it is not each of the trillions of cells that make us – nor the atoms that make up them – that are sovereign. How do they know what to do? How do we know what to do?

Strangers on an island, we are. We “[discount] all this learnedly”. We “[grow] accustomed to these mysteries and [ignore] them, just as [we ignore] the miraculous throbbing stars.” [William Golding, Lord of the Flies]

It is all just too amazing for words. Subhan Allah.

Also, a free pick-up line to use on your Bengali friends:

“Are you Bengali? Because I think you are… peng…-ali.”

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Puzzle Pieces

It is a bit of a puzzle, at present, and we are working on understanding it. Living life as though it is something we deeply, fundamentally comprehend – and also crucially, dizzyingly don’t. Moving forward, I question what my motivations are;

What they have been; what they will be. It takes an awful lot of trust, sometimes, to do things, and to get on with it. I know, though, that the little things add up – even when you cannot exactly reach out and touch what you have done, or earned, or built.

            Grand puzzle, this, and it is a mystery to all of us. Things are not yet ‘solid’; not lasting: they just flow and flow, continuously, with time. But pardon me [the dramatic hippie in me is speaking, again] none of it is without reason. Trust – Tawakkul – and effort – will get you there, Insha Allah. Even if – and when – you feel absolutely deserted, and lost, at times. The world does not need to witness it how you eventually do, in order for it to be true.

Are you able to find it within yourself, to trust that each individual moment, action, is meaningful,

And that, in due time, Allah will give you, in spite of whatever you may currently hold of human ‘expectation’, better?

[Dear reader: I have faith in you; in everything you have known, and done, and been. In this moment; in the way that time flows. There is Wisdom behind this, too brilliant for our naïve selves to fully be able to comprehend, right (here and) now.]

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Depression, Collectivism and Care

Dear reader,

Depression. Looking back, I realise I never really understood how common this ailment is. Generally, it does seem as though the signs of it can manifest very differently, between men and women, and between one person and the next.

            ‘Depression’ is a heavy term, which seeks to describe a rather heavy experience. It may be caused by, accompanied by, or intensified by, experiences of stress — financial, academic, interpersonal, existential; rage; hopelessness; fear. A feeling that might mimic… jet-black tar being poured into your very brain.

            Recently, I learned more about how worryingly commonplace it is. Postpartum depression, for instance. An illness that affects so many women – new mothers. Recently, I had a very interesting and insightful conversation on this topic, with someone I know. About her own experiences with postpartum depression. First child. The ‘baby blues’; an encompassing sense of discomfort and restlessness; difficulties with bonding with the child, at first; fatigue… and also insomnia; suicidal ideation. Depression is always deeply difficult, and it is all-encompassing.

            But what had made her experience especially difficult, she told me, had been the following: the (almost-malicious) reluctance from other women, who had been through the very same thing, to be there for her; to help — and to help in a compassionate, no-interrogation-required, sort of way.  

            The most curious thing of all is when fellow women open up about their struggles; explain that they had been through the same things. But then, in subsequent conversations with these same women, they proceed to actively deny it outright. Like they are there for you, one minute: being all ‘present’ and relatable and empathetic. But then, and maybe this is an attempt-to-have-the-‘upper hand’-thing, it is withdrawn. Presence, comfort, empathy and assistance: simply gone with the wind. Enter coldness, lying, and ‘competition’.

            “Postpartum depression? No, never me!”

            “Anxiety and depression? Why is it always ‘anxiety’ with you? Why can’t you think more positively?”

            What can we do to be there for new mothers, or fathers, or students, men or women, old or young, friends and family – anybody who might be facing depression? According to the person I had this conversation with, there had been some people who had insensitively interrogated her; had essentially blamed her for this mental health condition; fled from her, at the very time during which she needed them the most.

            And others were present with her. Shared their own experiences – and some had experienced post-birth depression with each child they had – willingly and honestly. Told her she is not alone; proved this, to her. Took care of her baby, while she got a chance to catch up on some much-missed, much-needed sleep. Some people, when they assist another in their times of need, it is straight-in, caring, no-questions-asked. And others: you guessed it. It is like they need to feel superior; gain some sort of advantage; may remind you of their ‘kindnesses’ long afterwards.

            When I went through major depression myself, I know I too just wanted people to be there for me. And some people really, really were. I felt bad: it must be draining to be in the company of… what I had been like. Lost in my own world; in deep, murky mental waters. I am most thankful for the friends and the family members who were just ‘there’ for me. The particular friend who came round all the time; the cousin who did the same, just to sit and watch movies together. They made me feel cared-for; far less alone.

 During that time, I also really, really just wanted to know that others had been through the same – or a similar – thing, and that there was a possibility that I could make it out alive, and okay.

            If you are going through depression right now, I can promise you that it is possible to make it out of this alive, and okay. It may necessitate quite a lot of patience – Sabr – though, and some effort.

            It may feel like the whole world is just carrying on – exactly as it does – and there you are, trapped. Stagnant, and suffering. And so alone, and how on Earth could this ever get better?

And aren’t we all just meant to pretend? That we are men – stoic and ‘strong’ – and women: ‘faultless’ and put-together, and surely depression only affects those of us who… lack willpower? Lack mental strength and resilience? Do not exercise a ‘positive outlook on life’?

Depression is not a personal failure, and between ourselves and others, there is no fair comparison at all. Depression is very real. It affects more people than we might be aware of. From the ‘class clown’ who would always appear to be smiling, to the high-achieving student, to the gym-obsessed lad.

            In Islam, we believe that all of life, ultimately, is a test. And so, if, for instance, someone were to open up to you about their depression, what would you do? Be there for them, or turn away from them?

            Treat them with empathy and compassion, as true as you can manage, or… turn your nose up at them and affect superiority?

            When talking about depression, I really think we must also talk about loneliness. So many of us feel lonely. Even when surrounded by people.

            I do not want to ‘blame’ the schooling system here, but for example, I, personally, noticed that my social connections began to become drastically, terribly frayed as and whenever school became more intense and demanding. Like my personal studies – work, and work-related pursuits – had been fighting to become all there really ‘is’, and the most valuable thing of all, in my mind.

Plot twist: it is not. ‘Work’ and my academic and professional pursuits only augment my life where they are good for me. Rooted in purpose, and not in burdensome immoderation; not when I am perpetually feeling alone and like I am not good enough, and like I must be fundamentally in conflict with my own self in order to be ‘successful’.

            Individualism. Racing after; chasing personal goals, and sometimes sacrificing all that we are, and have, in order to get there. This time in my life has sort of made me fundamentally reframe things; giving the most valuable things their due value in my life. These things are tremendously ‘fruitful’ and worthwhile for and to me, though they are not ‘economically productive’. I don’t think the most valuable things are particularly ‘quantifiable’; we are known to seek undue amounts of worth, purpose, meaning, community, and self-definition, through work, almost exclusively. Like everything else comes only secondary to it. This leads to that detrimental cycle of focusing primarily on ‘work’ in order to seek to compensate for those other things we may be lacking and seeking; this primary focus on ‘work’ holding a monopoly over our time, and efforts, and energies, altogether necessarily takes away from what we are able to organically ‘invest’ in our families and communities; the structures that are actually able to organically love us back.

            When my cousin wants to speak to me about how much she loves Ariana Grande, that is probably more important than I can, at present, realise. Understanding the Qur’an better: that is also very important. Purpose, and ‘goodness’ and community: these things are profoundly, unavoidably, important. A strong, love-bonded community: there for us when times are somewhat ‘good’, and there for us when times are more difficult, too.

            Good, supportive relationships; honesty, presence, consistency, and community. If we stoop down and build, then they will come, Insha Allah.

I think that, ultimately, Deen and collectivism – taking care of our relationships with Allah and with and of other people – are the most important things. But also, when we commit ourselves to making these very things our priority: know that Allah, Al-Razzaq, takes great care of us, too.

Whoever helps ease one in difficulty, Allah will make it easy for him in this world and in the Hereafter.” [Sahih Hadith]

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Concise Compositions: Confidence

What is ‘confidence’? And what is it… not?

A friend of mine and I both seek to be ‘confident’ in a particular way. A ‘self-comfortable’ way. Both ‘passive’ – a comfort, a security, in being – but also with a good helping of being ‘active’. Being both deeply kind – but not in a performative, nor over-the-top and ‘cutesy’ sort of way – and strong – but not in a way that ever necessitates stomping all over other people to make ourselves feel superior.

Nowadays, it seems like the image of the cocky and abrasive suit-clad man, and the mean, nose-up and otherwise-indifferent-seeming woman, make for the most popular benchmarks for what constitutes ‘confidence’. Is confidence rooted in power – i.e., the ability to influence others’ thoughts and behaviours? To me, the need to be ‘powerful’ in order to be confident seems slightly paradoxical. I guess it can work either way: a person may feel so secure in themselves that they become uncaring about how they are making others feel: attitudes of superiority might eventually simply come naturally to them. Or, maybe some people are fundamentally insecure and uncomfortable within themselves, and so look to have power over others, in order to compensate, to fill the ‘gap’, so to speak.

One can have power over others intellectually; sexually; professionally; in terms of familial roles, and more. To me, the most authentically ‘confident’ people seem to be the ones who exude this sense of peace within themselves. They do not seem restless, or scared, or desperate for others to validate them; there is a strong sense of trust, from seemingly deep within themselves, and a significant gentleness, that would appear to be indifferent to whether or not the next person agrees with them.

The dictionary definition of ‘confidence’ points to notions of certainty in oneself; trust. My ten minutes have ended here, but I’m going to continue.

At what point does ‘confidence’ lean into arrogance?

From reading the meaning of the Qur’an [and I am still not done yet!] I have learnt that, time and time again, we are told by Allah (SWT) to not be “arrogant”: to not act greater than what we actually are. A hadith (Prophetic saying) clarifies that the definition of arrogance is, a) to disregard the truth [when you know it, I’m assuming], and b) to look down upon the people, and to scorn them — to treat other people like they have little worth, and to treat them without respect.

Islam is, fundamentally, about two things: one’s comportment before, and relationship with, Allah, and one’s demeanour before, and relationships with, fellow human beings: from one’s closest family members, to complete strangers in lands that we do not call our own. With this in mind, then:

Confidence. Trust and strength and peace. I want to have so much trust in my Creator, and in the unique merits of being – inside and out – that He has given me. Shukr: they are not from me. In terms of worth and being deserving of (authentic) respect, nobody is above me; nobody is beneath me, either. Respect for others; respect for myself. No human being at all is high and mighty, or even vaguely omnipotent.

I used to look at certain people I know – male and female, alike – and think that they must be archetypal examples of ‘confidence’. A man who is always taking pictures of himself, always around people, always being pursued by women and being praised. And, no disrespect to him, but then I learned that all this is not always indicative of ‘confidence: he really cannot do without streams of compliments from people.

Women, too: people at secondary school would sometimes say that I came across as being “really confident”… which I secretly found absurd, because a lot of the time, I was actually quite scared [I know not why], and yes, I habitually relied on ‘what other people were saying’ – good and bad – in order to inform my self-view.

Even with people I know who are really beautiful (Masha Allah) and sort of walk around like they own the place: they say they experience anxiety with going up to shopkeepers to pay for their things, for example.

Is anyone fully, thoroughly, and across all different social circumstances and such, ‘confident’, then? Would this not be a little … impossible, without dipping at least a little into delusion? We are all blessed with our own merits, talents, nice physical features, comforts, and more. And we are all certainly quite limited, in various ways, too. We all do need validation and affirmation, though – whether in these ways, or those – and to be told by others that we are doing okay.

So maybe authentic confidence – and two particular people come into mind when I think about this – is about these recognitions, simply in line with the truths of things. In a way that acknowledges that it is all from Allah, and that we are also very limited: I quite like myself – 10/10, would be friends with – and you are very likeable, in your own unique ways, too — though there will almost undoubtedly be some people who may dislike your personality, and disagree. I have my merits, and my flaws; you have yours, too. You, by nature, deserve my (authentic, not-restrained, but also not-excessive-and-performative) kindness and respect; I, by nature, deserve yours, too. You are allowed to dislike me; to fundamentally disagree with me, and I am allowed to dislike and/or disagree with you, too. But we walk on the same plane, in terms of core worth and value; in terms of the wombs from which we are born, and in terms of the earth we physically become part of, when we are gone.

And there will be mutual respect, here, or nothing.

Treating others how we ourselves would like to be treated. Oh, and also, treating ourselves how we like for those whom we love, to be treated. ‘Confident’, and at peace, as and within ourselves.

(Authentic confidence in people definitely leads to a magnetic sort of attractiveness: good vibes and all)

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. Have fun writing! 

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

“Human beings are stupid. We’re a stupid species”

Another gem from Shaykh HY. Ultimately, the human intellect is what separates us from animals: how we are able to reason, and seek knowledge, and understand. Discern, discriminate, and ultimately choose.

[And this, dear wonderful readers, is precisely why I really need to cut down on how much chicken biryani I am known to consume — nay, devour. If someone can give me the recipe for a really great vegan alternative to chicken biryani (the actual love of my life) I will forever be indebted to thee]

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Once in a lifetime, these moments do come

You know when it is raining, suddenly, in the darkened part of an otherwise busy city? Even at this moment in time: here in lockdown. The cars jetting past, and you can almost hear exactly what the pitter-patter might sound like, from the inside of each and every one of them, inhabited by different people, coming from entirely different worlds.

That feeling of being snug, and warm. In good old-fashioned checked pyjamas, maybe; safe from the cold, and from the wet, the racing, the Anonymous and Alone.

On rainy evenings, it seems like everybody is simply in a rush to get home. Umbrellas look drizzly and forlorn; streetlights glow orange, while makeup, we find, begins to drip into something a little grotesque. Suits, also, at such times, do not look all that comfortable to find oneself wearing.

            Some shield their lacquered heads with newspaper, or scarves; crouch and, in the whirring, pouring noise, make that face: the one that looks rather like disgruntlement. Phone pressed to their ears; water getting hopelessly into their eyes.

Children, in fur-coated hoods, fixate on the excitement of puddles; stoop towards them, in fascination, ready to jump and splash and see themselves again (much to the annoyance of their parents, whose primary concern it now is to get home as quickly as possible, and to make something suitably comforting to eat). Faces rippled: recognisable, and yet, at the same time, hilariously zig-zagged and distorted.

Wellington boots, roof windows for a better view, and acrylic-coloured mugs of hot chocolate. The ‘little’ things, but why on Earth are we known to call them ‘little’? What might the ‘big’ things be, then, in contrast? The… loud, the shiny, the demanding-our-attention? The distracting; things that are extravagantly hard-to-get, the hundred-things-at-once, or the… once-in-a-lifetimes?

This here moment is a once-in-a-lifetime one. Even if it is quiet, and seems ‘unremarkable’, and ‘everyday’: it will never, ever be here again. Not like this, anyhow. And everybody you know and love is getting older, and this here world of yours will never be the same again:

Everything, dear friend, is going to change. As they always have done, and as they always will do:

(until the End, that is).

And I hope we get to see the rain again. Here, perhaps, and in another place;

Another time, another age, and maybe in an altogether different way.

Alhamdulillah for the rain, though. And for the feeling of it on our hands and on our cheeks: Barakah, Rahma, and hope. And for the ability to go home. To close the door. To feel warm, and dry; your entire world, and that you are not alone.

Because it is a big, big, big world out there. Bee-lines, and busy bees. Loneliness and exhaustion; superficiality and disease.

Tall shiny buildings, buzzing away with productivity. A million and one things to buy, and to own, and to try to feel powerful — seen — through. Cars racing through traffic, and the like. But would this life not be… a little unbearableterrifying, actually – without this peaceful slice from all that madness,

which we are thoroughly fortunate enough to call our own?

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.


Do you ever experience a day – or a series of them, perhaps – during which things feel a little… weird? Like the things that still need to get done have really overcome you: swimming around, here, all around you. And it just feels a little… like you are running some race that seems like it cannot really be won.

And in this world, there are diseases. And darknesses. And difficult people, who fill others’ hearts with dread. And you might long for justice; for those bruises to hurry up already, and to grow into something beautiful.

And time moves, all dreary-swift, almost without our noticing. Though sometimes, once in a while, it might hit you that five years ago had been half an entire decade ago. That there are only ten decades in a century;

what sort of version of this world are we going to come to meet, in those days before we leave here? I so wonder what will matter to me, then.

I think, maybe, many of these notions of ‘respectability’ that we have swallowed like necessary pills – and which we have internalised, feel we simply cannot do without – oft feel a little cheap, to me. There are they, the mighty and ‘established’, attempting to tower over fellow human beings. On account of what, exactly? Money? Knowledge? ‘Taste’, ‘culture’, ‘style’?

But we find that there is no fulfilling replacement for sheer, unaffected love.

Yes: I think I ought to appreciate, for example, the validations of children, far more so than those of those particular adults who find themselves, rather tragically, lacking what may speak of authentic kindness; human humility – that sense of acceptance of what it is we truly are; imagination, encouragement, optimism.

A continual race to some sort of ‘top’. Maybe, most likely, to earn and to ‘still deserve’ the respect of people I do not really, myself, think I respect. I mean, I can respect them as people: being a human being – a child of Adam – is what it takes, to be a being of worth.  

I realise, now (though, yes, it is still rather hard to fully ground myself in this understanding) that it will necessarily be difficult to stop directing my pursuits towards what other people might deem ‘best’ for me; the ‘best’ routes to take, and things to do. I do know, by now, that certain environments suit me, while others simply do not. And that other people do have all sorts of ideas and fancies and… unrealised expectations with regard to what constitutes a (in Dunya terms) ‘good life’, which are often projected onto us.

People are quick to criticise what they are ignorant of; what they do not understand. And we are also quick to idealise, from afar, realities that are not ours.

            Subhan Allah, though: the ways through which Allah helps us to understand things better. The other day [insert that meme, here, about how when I say ‘the other day’, I could be referring to any day between yesterday, and the day I was born] I had to call up my brother’s school, since we had lost his online-school login details. [The previous day, we had gone on a little storage-clearing spree – and ended up also wiping his internet history, including saved passwords – because brother mine had been eager to download Fortnite on his laptop.]

            My brother currently attends the same primary school that I had attended. And the receptionist who picked up the phone is the same receptionist I had known, throughout my time at the school. She still remembers me; she had also been a learning assistant to our class, in Year Two. A decade after my having left that school, during this phone conversation, the receptionist asked me what I am getting up to. I told her about my current job. She said she could really picture me as a teacher [it always means so much, doesn’t it, when people who know, or have known, you well tell you this] but also added that she always thought I’d do something “big”; something ‘more’, with my life. Something political, perhaps, on account of how “outspoken” and academic I had been.

I completely understand this way of looking at things. ‘Ambition’. Having goals; progressing, moving forward. And I am only twenty years old. Very happy with where I am, Alhamdulillah, and also not at all keen on the idea of staying in one place and doing the precisely same thing, my entire life. I explained to the receptionist that I thought I would like the world of politics too, at one point. I took part in local (council) politics, and met with a local MP, to learn more about her life. But in the end, I decided that this – as well as the many other options I had looked into, including commercial journalism and even investment banking – do not suit me, and I do not think I suit them.

The receptionist also told me that she, too, had been presented with the option to take a ‘higher’ job – further up the career-based hierarchy. But ultimately, she had refused it. For a number of different personal reasons. ‘More’ in one sense is not necessarily always best for everyone, in terms of the holistic picture.

I guess what I have been struggling with quite a lot – and I know that many Desi women struggle on a similar front: developing a lifestyle that is best for ourselves, in line with our own values and priorities. And having to hear, over and over again, from people who may (claim to) fundamentally disagree with it. We come to deeply internalise this sense of guilt. And, yes, we are meant to listen with open ears, for what the authoritative ‘aunties’ and such are saying. Wise, wise women they must be. Always knowing what is ‘best’ for us, and all. Insulting, and degrading, and always looking for something they can ‘find’ and fault. To truly, truly bring you down. How else would they manage to sit on a seat that feels, to them, ‘higher’?

I know that, the way I am living my life, currently, and the way I hope to live my life in the future: not everybody ‘agrees’ with it. Not everybody would want such a life for themselves. People want different things; enjoy different things. And this is okay, so long as we can learn to respect different people, and their choices.  

I would not want the life you have chosen, for my own self. But I have no right at all to comment negatively on it, nor to make you feel bad. I am not living your reality – our values, priorities, and ultimate outlooks might be profoundly dissimilar – and you are also not living mine. And I find I cannot bring myself to reject what I know I truly want for myself, in favour of creating some version of things that is neatly packagable and explicable to scrutinising eyes.

Take, for example, the eyes of the man (a distant family member) I met at – get this – a family funeral. I had been sitting there, minding my own business, when he came up to me to ask, in quite a demanding tone, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing, really,” had been my response. I was slightly alarmed: although I had heard of this person before, I do believe this had been my first time meeting him in person.

“No,” he meant, what I had been doing with my life.

“Oh,” I understood. I began to tell him, still slightly taken aback by the fact that this entire conversation had not even been prefaced with a “hello”.

He looked at me with disapproving eyes. “Oh, you mean… you’re doing an apprenticeship?!”

It felt very much like a strange, unwarranted telling-off, of sorts.

“No –” I tried to explain. He proceeded to speak, at length, about how, well, his own children are at university, and how they have also made strides in terms of Qur’anic memorisation. I said, “Masha Allah,” but still felt awfully uncomfortable. A) funeral setting. B) No “hello”. No semblance of any real human connection established. Just cornered by a near-stranger, in strange conversation. C) kind of, sort of rude. D) …okay…?

I guess I just cannot wait to be forty-years-old or something – when it will be a little more socially acceptable for me to respond to incidents like this one with questions like, “In your eyes, what do you think… the purpose of this conversation might be?”

Because such interactions are certainly not uncommon. A second example: last year, during an Über journey, the driver – a Bengali uncle – asked me what I am currently ‘doing’. I explained that I had chosen to take a gap year. He asked why. Sternly. I said, because I really struggled with my mental health. He said, with such self-conviction, that I should have just carried on; my gap year had been a bad idea. ‘Mental health’ is just an excuse. Yes, because clearly, with the fare for this twenty-minute journey, I had also paid for a stranger to become my father, and he knew me so well.

I guess I did not want to be rude. So I just tried to ‘explain’ a little, but mostly just listened. I really want to locate that perfect balance between being strong, without being rude, and being kind, without letting others assume undue ‘authority’ over me, which might resemble gaping disrespect. Muhammad (SAW) was probably somebody who had managed to master this skill; I really want to know more about how he dealt with such things.

A big part of it is likely: truly understanding, and remembering, that others’ perceptions are just… others’ perceptions. One can take what might be good, useful, from what they say. And leave the rest. [Another key Prophetic character trait]. Through my own way of viewing things, I perceive such intrusive comments as being indicative of ignorance and insensitivity. And Allah does instruct us, in the Qur’an, to respond to words of ignorance with [words of] peace. This is certainly something I hope to get better at, Insha Allah.

I know what matters to me. A key question, though, moving forward ought to be: can I develop and love my own lifestyle so much, that my love for it is enough to look upon words and attitudes of disapproval and criticism as being, for the most part, empty and unimportant? These ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ look down on women who do not work as professionals – and whose children would appear to enjoy uniquely deep bonds with them, on account of the benefit of their mother’s greater sense of presence in their lives – and they also look down on the women who do – their accomplishments and such suddenly become ‘unimportant’. With the human being, there are always decisions we must make. We necessarily forego certain options, when choosing others. Limited resources; decisions must be made. We cannot do it ‘all’; certainly cannot do it ‘all’, ‘perfectly’. And nor should we ever feel expected to.

I must say, as a human being, I do need positive validation. Everybody does. But I think I should deeply value validation from those whom I truly, authentically respect. And the litmus test for this – whom I truly, authentically respect, that is – is: who would I want to be more like? What are my ideas of success, and do these people fit into it? Would I want for my brother to be like this person?

Who are they? What are they saying? Why might they be saying it? Why should it mean something, to you?

Off the top of my head: the people I have the most respect for are… the woman with the such-kind smile, who went around telling other women how beautiful she thought we looked, at her own wedding! My uncle who, as I recently found out, did something pretty amazing a few years ago, but never really made a big deal out of it. It seemed like he had just been so secure in his life decisions that the praises or the criticisms of the Bengali masses had seemed a little meaningless in contrast.

I thoroughly respect someone I know who treats everybody – including little children – as though they, each of them, might just be the most important person in the world, even when he might think that no fellow human being is watching. The woman for whom everyone’s views really seem to matter; just the way in which she speaks. She is a colleague of mine, actually, who has been recognised by Ofsted as being an outstanding teacher. Her students seem to truly love her, and I think she also truly loves them: they are important. And it is not a job position, or a badge, or a trophy or such, which makes them so.

I respect people who make it clear who they are; make clear what they will not compromise on, and they prove this through their very being. Respecting others, while also respecting oneself. Never one at the expense of the other. People who are positive and encouraging; never seeking and ‘finding’ others’ faults and flaws, in order to ‘shoot them down’, through exaggerated, unfair deployment of them. If you have to go out of your way to make others feel bad, in order to feel good about yourself: you might just be a little (quite) insecure. Desiring respect, maybe. But this is not how you go about really earning it. I reckon true respect is gained through goodness and humility, and not through coldness and arrogance.

All I know, though sometimes I might feel a little more doubtful, is that there are these things that I truly, unwaveringly, believe in. It is undoubtable that we are going to be tested, here in Dunya, through everything we do have; likewise, with everything we don’t. There will be critical talks of us, comparisons, illness, fears, losses and grief. Endured before, by the ordinary men – and, indeed, prophetic examples – of old. And here we are, I suppose, doing it all, albeit in our very own ways, over again.  

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

The Spider’s Web

And just how does the spider – that most humble and noble creature of them all – know exactly how to spin, ceaseless – until the job is done, at least – and with such instinctual grace, even its very first attempt at a web? [Yes, a thought inspired by my recent re-watching of ‘Charlotte’s Web’!]

By the grace of Whom, is this life-giving, life-sustaining and -beautifying, information imbued? Our innermost longings, for example, and those tendencies of ours towards desiring… purpose, and justice. Connection, and love. Our instincts for language-acquisition. The resulting ability we are given, through which to reason, and then decide, and to ask that most fundamental of questions: Why?

Our own versions of the spider’s web: what we can spin, and produce, with what we feel, and through what we can claim to have of power: our words. And with our muscles, and with our hands. And what we know already, and have known — from invisible spec, to developed human being. And all those spaces within us, which are so well-pre-disposed, inclined, to coming to know.

How does it know how to work so quickly, and in producing a thing of such utility and geometric beauty, and a strength so seemingly antithetical to how altogether… silk-like those structures may seem?

            The knowledge that, within us, is just so utterly powerful and instinctive. Woven right through our veins, and through our skins; between our finger-tips. Fundamental. I think I know, by now, what love might be. It is a type of knowledge that, within me, feels quite innate. Like I am afraid, for what may or may not happen. And yet, there is something in me that tells me to have faith; give it a fair chance — it seems thoroughly strong enough — and give it time.

It caught me at a weird time. Which had, mysteriously and yet without doubt, been the right time. Would appear to be quite fluffy and fragile; that one wrong turn and that is it, and it is gone for good.

I think it means something very special when these things come. Out of the blue, and quickly, and so intricately, gorgeously designed. A spider can settle on the decision to build its home between (almost) any two sets of walls. Or bars of a fence. Or between the plastic wires of an outdoor drying-rack. Gets to know its space. Proceeds to simply go ahead, and do what it would appear to do best.

I think I know, most ardently, though not in a way that might render this heart of mine restless, nor despairing, that there is something very special, very important, that I want to protect, here. And, well, here is to quietly hoping and hoping, that you might see, in this, the inherent truth and its beauty, too.

            Even the most obstinate of soul-denying ‘materialists’, whose (no offence but) muddied-over-time intellects seem to prevent them from seeing the inherent, intrinsic beauty of things: the dangling legs of the spider, for example, its clockwork, tapestry-like missions. Even they cannot deny that we are born of love, and we are made of love, and we know that we love. That most noble and humble of our interpersonal pursuits. Between (almost) any two suitable walls, or metal rods, or tree branches, or twigs. A glistening thing, and so quietly, unobtrusively brilliant. How much strength there is, in softness.

The spider sits in its centre and knows. The mystery of its own beauty; the core, undying knowledge – that gentle, determined flow of artistry – that has guided its work. A labour of love, so clear and inspired. Albeit, seemingly transparent, almost, to those even only moderately far-away from it.

Yes. How encompassing, expectation-defying, dizzying, dazzling

(and fragile, and yet enduring)

and unpredictable

a thing is love.

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021

Qur’an (Mus’haf) Recommendation

Assalamu ‘alaikum folks,

I just wanted to tell you about this version of the Qur’an (or, Mus’haf the term we use for physical, written forms of the Qur’an). I have looked at many different versions of Qur’anic translation, and thus far have found this one to be the most comprehensive. It provides historical context for each Surah; includes some very nice summaries; divides the Qur’anic message into different themes, for ease of access and understanding.

I am really glad that I have a copy of this Mus’haf. On Amazon, the hardback copy costs around £20, and it. Is. Gorgeous. [See above. Matches my window stickers, too!] The paperback version costs around £8.

Previously, I had planned to research (and write about!) the meanings, and contextual backgrounds, of each Surah individually [and there are one-hundred-and-fourteen of them!]. Thankfully, the compiler of this version of the Qur’an has already done so for me.

The Qur’an is an Arabic text. Insha Allah, I do hope to develop my level of understanding in and of the Arabic language: this is undoubtedly the only way to truly come to appreciate the richness and profundity of the Holy Book. There are so many things to consider: syntax, morphology, contemporary uses of figurative language, the unique poetic styles of classical Arabic…

In the meantime, however, translations will have to suffice. Translators, especially in the case of attempting to translate the classical Arabic language into modern European ones, have to make choices. The specific translative choices made in ‘The Majestic Qur’an’ make for, in my opinion, an eloquent, highly accessible, comprehensive, and enjoyable read. A sense of flow is conveyed in the English parts, coupled with a good sense of flavour and feeling — and these, far more so, I think, than other translations into English that I have come across have managed to achieve.

In Arabic, the Qur’an is undeniably, inimitably beautiful. In Musharraf Hussain’s translation, the English is a thing of beauty, too; I think it feels far less disjointed, less somewhat-perplexing, than other translative attempts often do. Aesthetically, too. What a book to read from, in the earliest hours of the day, perhaps. To turn back to. A book for comfort, and for illumination. Knowledge, guidance; some much-needed reminders for us.

A potential downside, however: the Arabic in this Mus’haf is written in Urdu script, which might prove a little difficult to read, for some.

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.