Welcoming Ramadan

Bismillah.

This week, at work (our final week before a two-week Easter break. But as we are a Muslim school, ’tis, de facto, a Ramadan break) we enjoyed – and, many of us ended up becoming thoroughly exhausted by – a rather eventful ‘Welcoming Ramadan’ day — during which we had probably collectively amassed enough food to feed a small country, followed by an INSET day — at which we took part in some ‘spiritual meditation’ exercises, so as to recover from a hectic (and somewhat chaotically COVID-tinged) term, and an even more hectic end to it. [Personally, I found the ‘Welcoming Ramadan’ day really fun. One of my students made me my own paper crown to go with my outfit, and I (with the benefit of being a little… vertically challenged…) just blended in with the students for a while, and was invited to join in with some of their activities!]

We had workshops on: fruitfulness during the blessed month; another one on improving and maintaining our physical wellbeing; a third, on self-purification. The students got to make their own samosas, followed by chocolate truffles. They decorated their classrooms – with class advent calendars, paper lanterns and the like. They had an extended lunchtime, during which Nasheeds were played, and food was shared [and drinks were spilled, and slices of cake went splat! onto the floor]. There were different (fun and reflective) exercises for the different year groups to enjoy. One that I found thoroughly useful and enjoyable was the Ramadan bullet-journal workshop:

Each student in the class was given a black book. On the board, the instructor of the workshop (an older ‘Alimiyyah – Islamic knowledge – student) put up some pictures of some of the ‘Alimiyyah students’ own bullet-journal pages, for inspiration. They were absolutely gorgeous: calligraphy, colours, such neatness and creativity.

The idea was that each student would design a book that was personal, and hopefully useful for them. Personal religious goals; personal health goals; Qur’anic Ayahs and Hadiths that speak most to them; personal Ramadan timetable ideas, and the like.

Moreover, an important thing that one of my colleagues had been talking about, in the staffroom, had been, essentially, the danger of running into the ‘productivity trap’ way of thinking, in our considerations surrounding Ramadan. Asking, for instance, what others’ ‘goals‘ are, for the month, and feeling inclined to respond to such questions with a burdensome-sounding string of quantitative goals: “I want to read four books about Islam, and make food for my neighbours four times, and read the entire Qur’an twice, and…”

Ramadan, fundamentally, is about three things: praying (our five daily prayers, with some additions during the holy month); fasting (from dawn until dusk; fasting from food and drink, and from bad or time-wasting habits, and from intimacy, for people who are married); giving (Zakah and Sadaqah. Giving from one’s money/material wealth, as well as from the other forms of wealth that we have been given. Knowledge, acts of service for family members, and for strangers, even, alike. Even a smile is an act of Sadaqah!)

There are other things that can be done: little additions that we can learn about and practise, along the way. These are fruitful, but not compulsory. And, ultimately, Islam is fundamentally (meant to be) a religion of moderation. “All things in moderation. Including moderation.” [— Socrates]. Doing ‘more’ is not necessarily ‘better’, and we believe that (holism is important, and that) it is the spiritual value of things, which count.

Religion is easy; whoever overburdens himself in religion will be overpowered by it (i.e. he will not be able to continue in that way.)

So pursue what is good moderately; try to be near to perfection, and receive the good tidings (that you will be rewarded, for trying).

— Prophet Muhammad (SAW) [Hadith, Al-Bukhari]

In Islam, we are taught that Allah certainly has supreme rights over us. Our bodies have rights over us, too: they need to be cared for; we need to sleep, and to take things relatively easy, as much as possible. Our families have rights over us, also. And then come our other social responsibilities: towards extended family, other acquaintances, and our neighbours.

In close connection with the ‘productivity trap’ mode of thinking (and this is something that I must stop myself from doing!) is the reliance on ‘aesthetics’ for a sense of spiritual value. Fairy lights, Arabesque lanterns, plants, Turkish rugs… It is nice to try to create a nice Ramadan-themed atmosphere, but… the point of this month is neither consumerism nor materialism. It should be more about gratitude: for appreciating what we have, and not splurging on food and décor to ‘augment’ the experience.

Ramadan is for those three core things, mentioned above. And it is for personal reflection, and for family, and for gratitude. As much as I do wish to ‘make the most of’ this (upcoming) month, I know I cannot do everything: there is no comprehensive checklist for how Ramadan ‘should’ be done, and each individual will spend and celebrate this blessed period differently.

There are, for instance, some new Muslims, who live alone. Maybe they will be attending a weekly class, or watching some videos on YouTube, to learn more about the Deen. Maybe they will open the fast after enjoying a bowl of cereal and a plate of fruit; perhaps they are going to close the fast with a sandwich or two.

Maybe this is their first time praying Salāh. Maybe they are going to try to wear a headscarf for the first time. Crucially, it is not about the external considerations, but about the essences and the intentions guiding them. That is the thing: we never know who is actually ‘doing Islam ‘right” because, fundamentally, religion is about the connection between a man or a woman, and their Creator. It is not necessarily about who knows Arabic the best, or who has the most Du’as memorised.

The experience is not about what makes for the most ‘aesthetic’ or ‘Instagrammable’ Ifthar, either. It is not about cooking the most food, or about memorising the greatest amount of information. It is more about the internal: the patience, the gratitude, the love, the effort.

Personal journeys, varying situations and circumstances. Effort: no human being alive is ‘perfect’. And, something that I had been reminded of during that aforementioned ‘self-purification’ workshop: each and every one of us has a thing or two, within us, that needs to be fought against, and curbed. Anger, and/or envy, and/or greed and gluttony, and/or pride, and/or lust, and/or laziness, and/or otherwise.

“The [real] Mujāhid is one who strives against his own soul [Nafs].” [Sahih Hadith]

And a random addendum [we love a half-rhyme, in this house]: within and against [parts of] our souls, we struggle. We can feel, sometimes, (for instance, on the religious front) like we are ‘too much’, or, at times, like we are ‘not enough’. At times, I have felt like an… ‘inside-outsider’, within Islam. This is because I had internalised some warped ideas about this whole thing. That to be a Muslim (in addition to the actual requirements of faith) one must be a certain way, ‘culturally’, and otherwise: like… a Saudi sheikh, or like an Arab-Muslim vlogger, or something. But, genuinely: Islam can be (or is) yours as much as it is anybody else’s (and vice versa). Everywhere, there is inspiration, and ultimately Deen is very much a ‘together’ thing.

It is this beautiful ongoing conversation between you, and the One who created you. And then, in an ancillary manner, it is also, very importantly, about your comportment with fellow human beings.

And, in Ramadan, that very ongoing conversation becomes a little more blessed, while our hearts and souls, in conversation with the people in our lives, become a little more nourished.

May we all have a wonderfully restful, spiritually rewarding, relatively easy, and fun(!!!) Ramadan.

Ramadan Kareem!


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Pubs and Prejudice

Being a South Asian Muslim living in the UK, I have often been made to feel like a victim of prejudice. Stares, comments, tuts- you name it, I’ve received it. That being said, I must admit that I also harbour my own prejudices; labelling people is a flaw that is common among every member of our species.

Precisely a year ago, I went on a little family holiday to Blackpool. Any trip to this seaside resort is incomplete without a visit to its notorious pleasure beach. Although I despise rollercoasters and fairground rides, I decided to get onto the water ride, despite the fact that it was cold, and I was wearing summery clothes.

Inevitably, I was absolutely drenched. I walked around, shivering, looking for a public toilet where I could dry myself off a little. The only public toilets within close vicinity were situated within a pub. This was my first time ever entering a pub (as alcohol is Haram, or forbidden, in my religion). My second time entering a pub was when, earlier this summer, we went on another little trip to Ipswich, and stayed at a small inn. We had breakfast at the adjoined pub.

My initial view was that English pubs were always full of ignorant drunkards, huddling around, discussing sports and why they support UKIP. When I went to dry my skirt underneath the hand drier, I noticed a woman- drunk, white, middle-aged, with a giant tattoo on her arm- staring at me. I braced myself; I thought she would impart some sort of racial slur to me, but she didn’t.

Instead, we had a little conversation about the wretched water ride, and about how hand driers in public toilets are always so weak.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

I am an immigrant

I am two people. I am Bangladeshi and I am British. The first version of my identity stems from the fact that I am the daughter of two immigrants. I say this with a tremendous amount of pride. Especially in recent months, the word ‘immigrant’ has come to be a dirty word, synonymous with images of filthy, diseased, impoverished people who ‘drain the economy’ and refuse to integrate into society. As the product of two immigrants, I can safely say that this is far from the truth.

My mother came to this country at the age of eleven: she left her friends, her beloved grandmother, her livelihood behind, because her father (my grandfather) had made the brave decision to move to England to start anew. He worked at a coat factory, laboriously attaching buttons to coats to provide for his family.

My grandfather (may he rest in peace) first came to this country when he was a teenager. Alone and almost penniless, he travelled to a country that promised work and stability, in the aftermath of World War Two. He often told me stories of how, during the coldest winters here, he and his friends would attempt to identify their houses beneath the many inches of snow, by leaving bricks beside their homes. These simple but endearing stories reminded me of the fact that my ancestors suffered for me to have this life, and for that I am eternally grateful.

My nan’s story is perhaps the most heart-rending of them all. She was born to a poor family with six other children. My great grandmother often went for days without food in order to ensure that her children did not starve. She would tell them white lies, insisting that she had eaten, to fool them into thinking that there was enough food, but there was not. Miniscule rations of rice and lentils were shared sparsely, and eventually, my nan saw through her mother’s façade of strength. The women that I am fortunate enough to be a descendant of are the strongest, most admirable and brave people I have ever heard of, and I aspire to pass their legacies on to my own children.

When it comes to my own mother, I can see that it pains her to retell her story. Her eyes brim with tears when she recounts her euphoric childhood in Bangladesh- how she couldn’t even bear to spend a day away from her grandmother, until a plane brought her to an alien country with people who would look down upon her. My mother started school here when she was in Year Seven. She was forced to learn an entire language with little support, and even then, managed to excel at most of the subjects she took (save for History, which she abhorred). My mother worked ridiculously hard, refusing to let any adversities get in her way: indeed, she was the victim of many a racist incident. Despite this, she acquired a good job, and supported herself through college and extra training. She managed to do all this without much guidance; as supportive as my nan and grandfather were, they were very limited in their English-speaking abilities, and the family’s situation quickly became a case of my mother and her siblings teaching my nan and grandfather. My mother was her own mentor, her own teacher and her own student. She raised me to be inquisitive, resilient and determined. My mother is the definition of strength; she epitomizes the type of magnificence that only women of colour can claim to possess.

My father was also rather independent in his journey. After completing his secondary education in Bangladesh, my father worked a number of temporary jobs at mini cab offices and restaurants, in order to provide for our little family: my parents had me at a relatively young age, when my mother was 22 and my father was 23. They were still finding their way around things: around their identities, around work and around integrating into an unfamiliar society and its customs. Now, sixteen years after my birth, my father owns a successful technology business in East London. He is surrounded by loving friends in a comfortable environment, however I know that deep down, nothing will ever replace my father’s true home, amidst the luscious green fields of Bangladesh. Sometimes when he speaks of his childhood, his voice breaks and he becomes teary. I know that in those moments, my father recalls his mother, who passed away when he had just entered adulthood.

My parents and grandparents have sacrificed and lost so much, in the hope of a better life for my family. The stories they tell are saturated with pain and loss and love and hope, and they have instilled in me values of gratitude, resilience and unbreakable strength. Though I was born here in London, I am the descendant of a family of immigrants. I listen to the tales of their childhoods, I enjoy the aromatic curries that remind them of their former lives, and I enjoy engaging in the hundreds of beautiful traditions that they have imparted on me. I am an immigrant, and I honestly could not be prouder of my identity.

A Silent Revolution

It is 1965 and she is bleeding.

The ragged edges of their words has managed to cut her once again.

Paki. You do not belong here. 

One end of her crimson Saree is draped over her head,

Her Bindhi sits atop her forehead like a sun waiting to rise.

Her Mendhi seeps into her veins and mixes with her blood,

And warrior bangles cover her warrior arms.

She is sugar, and she is spice, and she has a heart that is made of ice,

She is a pair of brown eyes in a blizzard,

Burning ice- a freezing cold fire.

A bird without her wings,

A warrior in pacifist skin,

A silent revolution.

It is 2016 and he is bleeding,

Arms outstretched, lying helplessly on the ground,

He can’t breathe. 

Justice may be a hypocrite, but he is a king,

His wispy afro hair is his crown,

And each tightly-wound curl is a fist,

Fighting between love and pain and melanin.

His dark skin is his kingdom- but it is bleeding now.

They say he smells of deviance and drugs,

But he smells of his lover’s arms, holding him, telling him desperately,

You are loved, and your life matters.

He is a pair of brown eyes in a blizzard,

Burning ice- a freezing cold fire.

A black-feathered angel without his wings,

A criminal whose only crime was being brought into existence-

a black man- the darkest shade of rejection.

A warrior in pacifist skin,

A silent revolution. 

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect refers to the idea that minuscule, seemingly insignificant, actions can lead to significant reactions- a ripple effect, if you like. This term is typically used in meteorology, to describe how even a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can cause a tornado on the other. The phrase can also be seen as a metaphor. The fragility of the atmosphere can be compared to that of human emotions: the little things we do can have remarkable consequences. A simple smile or a hug can illuminate a person’s otherwise miserable day. A ten-minute conversation over coffee can be the thing that dissuades a person from committing suicide.

We must acknowledge, firstly, that we are all in need of each other, and we should be more reflective upon our actions.

Meanwhile in Syria…

Recently, many regions of Syria (Aleppo in particular) have been subjected to mass airstrikes and bombing- a furious war between extremists, rebels and Western interveners claiming to be carrying out their innate responsibility of “defending democracy”. Caught between the crossfire are little children who once lead ordinary lives, going to school, talking about superheroes and princesses, and living the boundless, colourful lives that children are supposed to live. 

A lot can change in a few years. Whereas before, the children of Syria went about their daily lives very much like the children of Britain or America, their state of being today is a whole different story. Countless documentary-makers, journalists and photographers have sought to capture the daily plight of Syrian children in photographs and films, and although these productions give us a glimpse of their struggles, we can never truly understand what these children are being forced to endure on a daily basis.

A chilling picture drawn by a Syrian child: Notice how the dead, mutilated corpses are smiling.

Two days ago, a very overwhelming image of a little Syrian boy was released, and took the world’s media by storm. His name is Omran Daqneesh; he is around five years old, and he was pictured sitting dazed, afraid and alone in an ambulance, after being rescued from the rubble and remains of what was once his home; the other three children within the vicinity sadly passed away. Their last memories of this life were of missiles, shouting and being trapped under piles of rubble.Thousands of Syrian children have been killed, scarred for life, and forced to grow up beyond their years due to the atrocities they are being subjected to incessantly.

A CNN newsreader breaks down on live TV as she reports on Omran Daqneesh

These children should not simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage’. They deserve to enjoy the deliciousness of childhood without the constant anxieties associated with bombs and attacks. In truth, Western intervention is largely counterproductive; airstrikes by Russian and other Western governments are, in reality, feeding the flames and sustaining the war and merciless bloodshed. These incendiaries are destroying Syria’s remains of centuries of rich history; they are killing children as they sleep in their beds; they are killing newborn babies as they fight for their lives in incubators, and then heartlessly denying these children entry into their lands. Where is the humanity?

A powerful political cartoon by Khalid Albaih: Omran Daqneesh’s home in Aleppo was destroyed in an airstrike, and he was extracted from the rubble. Aylan Kurdi (right) drowned in the sea after his family tried to escape a similar fate.

Ultimately, there is only one clear solution, and that is to stop bombing Syria. 


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

Twitter: @sadiaahmedj | Instagram/Snapchat: sadiaahmedj | Youtube

An Urban Countryside

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London is undoubtedly a truly magnificent city, arguably most famous for its high-rise business districts and iconic landmarks. Normally, in order to get a break away from the incessant buzz of the city, I escape to the mountainous regions of Rhayader, Wales, or the tranquil beaches of Folkestone, Kent. This time, however, I managed to escape from the fumes and urban bustle of London without actually leaving the beautiful city.

Walthamstow is a picturesque town in North East London. It comprises scenic forests and hills, as well as lakes where one can hire rowboats for no more than £5 per person, per hour. The atmosphere of the lake park in Walthamstow is very family-oriented and pleasant- the perfect location for picnics, football, walks along specially designated nature trails, and dreamy (though manually propelled) rowboat voyages.

For more information about Waltham Forest London parks, visit: http://www.ourparks.org.uk/borough/waltham-forest

Was Corbyn being anti-Semitic?

This morning, I logged into Twitter to find that the phrase ‘Israel to ISIS’ was trending in London. After further investigation, I discovered that Jeremy Corbyn (the current leader of the British Labour Party) was (yet again) being pressured to resign amid claims that he had made a strikingly anti-Semitic comment in Parliament.

Here is the exact statement he made:

“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations”

I had several initial reactions to this statement in contrast with the intensely negative responses it received. Firstly, what kind of anti-Semitic person in his right mind would refer to Jews as “friends”? Moreover, Corbyn did not compare Israel to Daesh- rather, he compared the relations of ordinary Jews and Muslims in the UK to fundamentalist organisations, such as the Netanyahu government and (presumably) corrupted governments like that of Saudi Arabia. Daesh was not mentioned in this particular assertion, and yet this is what hundreds of Brits are focusing on.

Corbyn has always voiced views in support of British Jews and Muslims, and yet, due to the above statement, people have deemed the Labour Party “unsafe” for Jews under Corbyn’s leadership. Many gentiles seem to be anointing themselves as spokespeople for the Jewish community, criticising Corbyn’s ‘antisemitism’. But is it really anti-Semitic to oppose the actions of a particular government? Similarly, is it Islamophobic to oppose the actions of the Saudi government? Is it anti-Semitic to actively oppose anti-Semitism on the basis of scapegoating? No. These ideas are fundamentally absurd- they are mere excuses for people to thrive on in order to meet a political objective (in this case, pressuring Corbyn to resign from his position).

Corbyn was right in declaring that Zionism should not be conflated with Judaism, as far too often, ordinary Jews are forced to pay for the crimes of IDF soldiers, and (in a similar sense) ordinary Muslims are forced to pay for the crimes of various ‘Islamist’ organisations. This unjust culture of scapegoating is precisely what Corbyn spoke out against.

Many Jews are tweeting in anger and frustration against the calls for Corbyn to resign, arguing that the Labour leader was right to make such a statement, as people habitually conflate Zionism with Judaism, and physically and verbally attack Jews as a result of this foolish notion. Ironically, the statement that many are branding as ‘anti-Jewish’, was in fact, to protect the best interests of the British Jewish community.

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Source: lbc.co.uk

What I find most disconcerting is that many of the politicians who have criticised Corbyn’s leadership (especially in the past few hours) have never championed the rights of the British Jewish community until now- this is an example of political tokenism at its worst. The interests of the British Jewish community are, once again, being exploited to conform to a political agenda.

Here’s how one of the Jewish activists I follow on Twitter expressed her views on the topic:

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Source: twitter.com

Post-Brexit, British politics have morphed into a thing of childlike folly and deceit, and politicians of high morals and integrity are being held liable for the actions of their (polar opposite) counterparts. Corbyn is not a monstrous anti-Semite as British media outlets are currently portraying him, and anyone claiming Corbyn has an antisemitism problem because ‘compared Israel to ISIS’ is in desperate need of a remedial lesson in basic logic.

 


Sadia Ahmed, 2016