Life / Bleach

Yesterday, I decided to peruse over some of my old blog articles. There were some things I had written, which I had long since forgotten about. Some things that, today, make me truly cringe. Things that humour me. Sometimes I wonder if I should go back and delete some of those entries; go over my old journals and cross some things out, with a thick black marker pen.

But, no: truly, I appreciate those times and those experiences. Those days made me. Helped to shape me; I could not have been whom I am now, and know what I do, without them. Our cringe-worthy, awkward days: the ones we are prone to looking back on with equal amounts of fondness and warmth, and regret and “why, why, why?” — really and truly, they shaped us.

And I guess one of the weirdest things about reading over old writings is this: that others see, and saw, of those entries what they see/saw [Tangent time: why are see-saws called see-saws? Why are they not called up-downs or sit-sats?] and I, when reading over them… it’s like I get transported, almost, back to the times in which I had penned – or typed – them. I vividly recall the thoughts and feelings I had been experiencing. All of those former versions of my own headspace. Awesome.

[My childhood best friend and I have chosen to lovingly call these last five years or so of our lives our ‘Kind of just feel like an Idiot’ years. No real regrets, though. Just gratitude, (mutual cringing,) love.]

There are so many things that we may find, we take for granted, these days. Erstwhile experiences, journeys of learning. Fall down, graze your elbow, get back up, be kind and patient: let it heal. From the most elementary things (e.g. our abilities to sit and eat calmly, without getting baby gunk all over our faces, as well as our abilities to read words with ease. Long gone are the days of ‘robot phonics’; of forgetting how to spell ‘beautiful’ or ‘friend’). To other things. Like how to deal with our own mistakes. Feelings. And with failures.

Coming to know other people. The possibilities. How best to take care of ourselves and others when we are unwell. How to be kinder; a better friend. How to fit a duvet cover; how to choose what to repair, and what to leave alone.

The women and men we seek to be. The opportunity presented, within each and every moment, to go ahead be them!

I have a feeling that, in about five years or so, I may (Insha Allah) read over this very article. Recall what I had been going through here and now, at age twenty. I think I will likely half-cringe, half-be a little endeared, then, too.

I think one thing that had followed me throughout this past almost-decade is… caring too much – fearing, even – what other people think. At times, I have aligned my own judgements of myself, with other people’s (perceived) judgements of me. Not great. Arguably quite instinctive and ‘natural’, but, still… not great.

The strange thing is, I never used to care so much. As a child, I did my thing, and I loved doing it. Granted, there were some things that I had done/taken part in that were a little [childish and innocent, but… a little] crazy. [Perhaps I should substitute the c-word for the word ‘spirited’!] I cannot bring myself to regret those things very much at all. Childhood is for fun and exploration. For being you, and for being loved precisely for it.

Seven-year-old I, I suppose, had been… a younger version of whom I continue to be, today: life is sort of childhood continued, but with some additional things added to the grand, often-confusing, mix…

I guess, somewhere along the line, the expectations changed dramatically. And those expectations did not begin from whom I had been already. Abruptly stop, be something else: considerably different, I think, from whom I had organically been in the process of becoming. People expect girls to be [their fixed, superficial, unrealistic idea of] ‘perfect Muslims’, ‘perfect daughters’, perfect in domestic terms, perfect in social terms. We must always, always, be hyper-aware of how we… look.

And that, right there, I think, is the key word. Look. How things seem, often centrally at the expense of what things are. Perhaps, ‘ideally’, I would… wear a Selwar Kameez all the time; a neat, crease-less headscarf. Know when to speak; be neat, never slip up. Perfect grades, but no… opinions. Smile flawlessly for pictures. Creativity only in secret, perhaps. Be so instinctively great with screaming babies. Be social, but talk about a limited range of ‘acceptable’ things. [But the standards and goal-posts seem to always be shifting, changing!] Nothing ‘too much’. Maybe: how school is going. “Good”. How work is going. “Good”. How are we. “Fine”. Nothing that really makes you a person, but… some un-fault-able impression, a picture of one. Keep everything else hidden. Keep a house spotless. Faultless. Nothing that ‘people’ could ever single out and fault. I’m [not really] sorry, but:

Spotless things must be quite intrinsically unfortunate: they would appear to be devoid of what life is really, truly, all about. They do not exist. But if they did, I really do think they would be missing out. Growth, and learning, and trying, and failing. Stories can only really stem from things… happening. Taking place. One cannot have a cake without a(n at-least-somewhat) messy baking process. And even if we could be extremely neat and precise: I think the joy would be extracted from it all. Everything would be controlled and systemised. Predictable, and character-less. When everything blends in: nothing really stands out.

Bleach is a chemical product that tends to leave things spotless. Faultless. So… clean. Bleach also happens to be a substance that effortlessly kills things that are organic, alive. Life. Is simply not meant to be so (to paraphrase something my friend said, which really stuck to my mind) efficient and sanitised.

I so love exploring the field of Child Psychology. Children, you see, come into the world telling us who they are. They cry: they (and we) need food, warmth, comfort, love. The first seven years of our lives tend to be when we express what our personalities are. Over time, personality is honed, moulded into character. First, this responsibility of nurture is placed, primarily, on the families that are entrusted with our upbringing and care. And then, when we reach an age of understanding, we acquire a personal responsibility. A duty of care over our own selves; our souls.

Ideas pertaining to innate personality are supported, for instance, by a particular Hadith, which informs us that the first seven years of a child’s life are to be dedicated to play. Through play, we get to clearly see that some children are more outgoing and imaginative. Make battle-ships out of see-saws [that word-of-mysterious-origins again, semi-deliberately re-employed]. Some children are very emotionally sensitive; need more hugs, more loving words, than others do. [And are so terribly sweet that it just makes your heart melt.] Some like to sit and play alone for hours on end: there are whole entire worlds, whirring away within their brilliant (and, also, highly impressionable) minds. Some children get a little kick out of using swear-words; want to feel all grown up. Lipstick and big words. Some love making others laugh. Some are so completely captivated by washing machines, cars, and Iron-Man. Some do not like to get their clothes dirty, and do not like to share. Some get socially drained very easily. [Why don’t we just let them, for example, have a rest and sleep, rather than making them feel bad for not being like this or not being like that?]

Yes, ultimately: perfection is not to be expected of anybody. Maybe it is something that we sometimes think we want, but not really. We have an objective moral code to follow. For example, Allah instructs us, in the Qur’an, time and time again, to not be arrogant. Do not act superior; like you are mighty — something you are fundamentally not. I think I would rather be exactly who I am (Alhamdulillah) than some delusional arrogant boaster who picks at others’ flaws, while overlooking my own. Convincing myself that I am… superior.

I really do believe in the inherent beauty of looking at – and loving – what is there, and not singling out and exaggerating what is not there: perceived faults and inadequacies. Watering those former flowers, instead of those latter…weeds. People are not problems. Every human being, complete with our own stories, strengths, weaknesses: is a blessing, a Divine gift.

Maybe if ‘perfect’ men existed, ‘perfect’ women would exist too. Maybe if the women who seem to expect us to be ‘perfect’ were ‘perfect’ themselves, we would have ‘better role models’ to take after… But they don’t; we don’t. We are real, and full; each of us is unique. We are too cold sometimes; we cry; we forget to do something; misplace our keys. Run into interpersonal frictions; get stressed; get insecure. Our houses are a bit more messy when we find ourselves a little more occupied with other things. We are former babies, with gunk everywhere, and then we learn, over time and with due patience, how to eat more neatly. Not robotically, though. Each person has a style: of writing, of eating, of speaking, of being. How to pronounce the word ‘scone’. How to write a polite email. We are not born knowing how to ride a bike; how to change a nappy; how to please the probing eyes of every insolent busybody with access to a phone line. How to stop being scared of things that need not be so scary any more.

We will run into shortcomings, mistakes, faults. We are designed to be able to work on things; learn, practise, fall again, get up again. I love, love, love this. It is not ‘perfect’. Thankfully, it is interesting, though. Fascinating, not some predictable conveyor-belt porcelain ‘picture-perfect’ straight line. So worthwhile, and deep, and unexpected, pleasure-and-pain, and complex.

This matters to me because, to me, it is life and death. And I need to know: it is not boring, character-less ‘perfection’ I ought to expect of myself, just so others do not talk; so that people do not express angry disapproval. Besides, how boring a thing to talk about: what appears to be ‘wrong’ with others and their lives. And, how indicative of self-delusion and arrogance!

Expectations of ‘perfection’ are sort of a ‘double-bind’ thing. You either become that quiet, ‘normal’, ‘perfect’, negligible character with nothing vaguely interesting to do or talk about. A walking picture-frame, trophy, silent-for-the-most-part accessory. Or, you understand that there is an innate you, a personality. A complete, living, breathing human being, within whose rib-cage is this wonderful beating heart, beating for life and for love.

A character you are going to, Insha Allah, work on, for the rest of this life of yours. You will be tested, over and over and over again; you will learn and grow and develop. Other people: I suppose you’ll continue to see who is good to hold, within your heart. And who… might not, so much, be. Let people approach you – from their own perspectives, biases, attitudes, values, demeanours. Alhamdulillah, we are mature enough to decide on things for ourselves. Commit to certain things; set our boundaries and make them clear; choose these things, or those. This whole entire thing: it is between you and the one in whose very Hand is your very soul; your whole entire being:

‘Quirks’, ‘flaws’, uniquenesses.

Sharpnesses, capabilities;

softnesses, fragilities;

thorough, undeniable humannesses —

life, unbleached — and all.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be you;
I don’t know what it’s like but I’m dying to


So tell me what’s inside of your head:

No matter what you say I won’t love you less” — S.M.


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021

Race to Nowhere

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (Mark Hanson) and his wife Nabila Hanson discuss education and ‘modernity’, in addition to other things like wellbeing and methods of learning.

So, so, so, so fascinating.

[Again, you may wish to view (listen to) this in chunks]

As always, please do share your thoughts and views, Insha Allah

Learning

Friday (the 18th) had been, for me, my last day of being nineteen years old – and thus, of being a nominal ‘teenager’ – and it also happened to have been the last day of my first term of being a teacher. Subhan Allah. I have much to write (type) about, in this article. Reflections, random thoughts: about teaching; about what I have learnt; about the art of ‘learning’, in general.

Usually, I scribble in my journal quite frequently; doing so has been, for a long time, a favourite hobby of mine, in addition to being an ‘outlet’ thing. For a while, I would write in my journal multiple times a day. On the train; by the river (Thames, of course. London-born, London-raised!); at school, in class [leading some classmates of mine, at sixth form, to, in earnest, ask me if I were actually some sort of undercover journalist or a spy or something!] But, wow: during term-time now as a teacher, this had been rendered practically impossible. I cannot, of course, simply sit and journal while delivering lessons… and, much of my ‘PPA time’ (the teaching equivalent of ‘free periods’) is taken up by a seemingly endless list of things to do. During my breaks, I tend to sit down for a while, and rest, often with a book. Actually, I have been enjoying listening to audiobooks a little more, lately [Sponsor me, Audible! I’m basically a YouTuber, but written version]

Alhamdulillah times a million, though: this whole experience has been wonderful; a true gift from Allah. But, since starting at this job, I have scarcely been able to sit in peace, and with the necessary energy levels – which are a prerequisite for that crucial feeling of ‘inspiration’ – to simply do nothing but write, to my heart’s (and, to my mind’s) content.

Teaching has been: waking up quite early, even though the beautiful wintry months make me really, really want to remain blissfully in bed; cycling or walking (and, admittedly, occasionally – when I am feeling especially lazy or have too much to carry – taking an Über) to work; getting there before the sun has even risen [I am not, by nature, a ‘morning person’]. What a lovely thing to witness, though: the stillness of an empty classroom; the pinkish, purplish glows of nascent sunrise, glinting off of the nearby high-rise buildings. The light, creeping into gorgeous wintry gloom. And all this, just before that incrementally increasing rush of students walking through the door. Subhan Allah.

“Assalamu ‘alaikum, Miss!”

Teaching has also been: going over things I myself had learnt in Year Seven and Eight and thereafter; it has been learning quite a few additional things, too. Planning, and then some more planning. And lots and lots of (submitting requests for) printing. Also: marking, administrative activities, among other things. Oh, and a lot of eating. Just prior to beginning this job, my aunt had remarked that if there is one thing I ought to know about being a teacher, it is that teaching makes you hungry. And, yes: it really, really does.

[Ah, food. How I love thee, food. Thy sugar and thy spice, and thy goodness and comfort. Healthful foods, and how they are known to nourish, but also some doses of indulgence and chocolate.

Making food; breaking bread and sharing food. Connection. Good stuff.]

At my workplace, there is this lovely ‘middle-of-the-table’ tradition: individual staff members often bring foodstuffs to share with everybody else. Doughnuts, falafel, soup, Turkish food, some good-good (Masha Allah) chicken karahi, once. And anything that is for anyone is placed in the middle of the long staffroom table.

The start, to now

This has all been one of those things: I could never have seen any of this coming. But, oh, how I love these very things. The ones that arrive kind of quietly, and then they show you how powerful they really are. The ones that can, quite quickly, take over significant parts of these lives of ours by storm. This year alone: we moved houses; I stopped wearing makeup to go outside [just a personal preference thing. I really do think it is a problem that most women wear it every day since we have been led to believe that we look “ugly” or “dead” without it. We do not, though. And Allah is the Best of Creators]; we got a cat [the most unexpected happening of them all: my mum has been known to absolutely hate the idea of having pets. And now, this cat is her third child!]; this whole pandemic took place – it has been approximately ten months since the start of all this; I started this job.

“You can only know something when you know it. Not a minute before.”

Gilbert Blythe, ‘Anne with an E’

It is true that I had been tutoring for a fairly long time, but I had never before been given the responsibility of teaching thirty students at a time. Tutoring involves sitting with between one to about, maybe, six, students at once, once or twice a week. There is some preparation that goes into it, sure, as well as some marking to do. But teaching is, altogether, something quite different. Greater responsibility, no doubt. An honour, and, certainly, an Amānah, too.

It had been my aunt who had encouraged me to apply for this post, actually. She works at the same school as I do – part-time – and teaches A-level Biology there. We tend to walk home together on her workdays. Roughly two weeks ago, I had some PPA time and found I could not concentrate nor do much in the staff room. I went all the way upstairs [the sixth form and ‘Alimiyyah faculties of the school are located, rather interestingly, on its roof!] and sat comfortably at the back of her classroom.

She had started her lesson off by asking her students what the term ‘gametogenesis’ might mean. She then asked me if I could explain what ‘genesis’ means. This made me smile. Biology teacher aunt, and her now-English-teacher niece. A nice moment. But then she proceeded to talk about puberty, and my ‘inner child’ re-emerged, and I wanted to laugh. [Thankfully, I did not.] Anyway.

There had been something quite nice about that particular sixth form classroom. The floors – unlike those of the secondary school ones on the floor levels below – are carpeted. You leave your shoes at the door. Moreover (if I recall correctly) there had been a lot of natural light flooding in, as opposed to glaring and sharp artificial ones. Also, her students had been sitting on the floor, with floor desks before them. Sunnah vibes. Teacher and slideshow at the front; students really paying attention, albeit in a calm sort of way. It had all felt quite serene, (connected, and meaningful) and not at all stressful, sort of reminiscent of some mosque classes I had taken in my early adolescent years:

Spatial escapes from the ever-‘busy’, the autopilot-modes, the grimy, the dizzying, the confusing, the relentless ‘grinds’, searching for things that might, in the end, be so far away from peace. And into carpeted-floor room, all clean. A glow of sorts; frosted windows, softened voices.

There is something about sitting on the floor, don’t you think? It makes you feel more… grounded. Connected. Learning, eating – even sleeping – on the floor, at least sometimes. There is something that is essentially quite lovely about it.

This ‘modern world’. It is fast-paced, rat race, relentless. Dog chase, altogether so industrial. All in the name of ‘progress’, of uncurbed growths. People just do not know where they are headed, but we find ourselves chasing all these abstract uncertainties, regardless. “We are surrounded by all of these lies, and people who talk too much.” [E.S.]. Maybe I am too sensitive, in this sense. But it all makes me ache and feel drained.

A personal preference, maybe: but I far prefer the presences of plants, and of warm lighting. An emphasis on connection, on good mannerisms. Moderation, and not ‘too much’. Places in which to deeply connect (with places, people, the contents of good curricula), and to learn – via mind, heart, and soul – and not merely in which to ‘work hard’: all that stuff of harsh lighting, caffeine-driven sleeplessness, desk-chair, desk-chair, desk-chair, unquestioning obedience. I so believe in holistic humanity being nurtured within places such as schools and hospitals. And, with the former in mind at least, it should not be about the incubation of mere ‘workforce robots’: obedient slaves to some deified ‘Economy’.

Schools should be houses of wisdom, and not factories or… prisons. Warm and inclusive; not cold and steel-gazed, wolf-like. Places in which mind, heart, and soul, are truly, deeply, nurtured: all three.

What I have learnt

As far as ‘learning’ goes, I have learnt oh-so-much, Subhan Allah, from all of this.

My first day at the school had been my observation/interview day. Prior to walking in, I admit I had envisioned Madrassa secondary schools in general as being… stern, serious, sad places. Draconian. No colour: just rules, rules, rules. Scarcely a student laughing, or having fun.

It was like I had (perhaps in part as a consequence of having been away from distinctively Islamic places of learning such as this one, for a while) rather shamefully internalised a particular sort of prejudice. And I had been wrong.

When I first walked in, I noticed the nice colourful displays on the walls. Basketball hoops, martial arts, for PE. The lovely scene – and sound – of a group of students sitting in a circle, on the floor of the hall, reading Qur’an together. The lovely light; how bright and energetic the Year Seven students were. Our first lesson together had gone well, Alhamdulillah [We had discussed how to use different punctuation marks so as to make our writing more effective, and wrote short imaginative stories about going on hot-air balloon rides in Turkey]. And it was thanks to them: my first class. What a funny, ambitious, clever, often downright melodramatic, bunch they are, Allahummabārik.

The art of learning is about discovering new things – information, stories, ideas. It is about piecing things together; making/finding connections between things. And it is also truly about being reminded about certain things that you may already, somewhere in your mind, already know. And you are granted the ability to come across them again, albeit in different, and unexpected, ways. As I have spoken about in a previous article, life is an adventure; a story, and – it is a school.

I have learnt that sunshine is always nice. But storms are what tend to leave us with the best stories, at the end of the day, aren’t they? They are known to bring us something that is altogether more than just ‘nice’. Sure, they can bring up, in us, feelings of fear. Unpredictable, and unknown. And, yet, how woefully, tragically straightforward and bland these lives of ours would be, without them.

One of my Year Seven (English) students had penned – for a competition – the following poem. Its message deeply inspires me [Everyone say Allahummabārik laha!]:

By M.M., 2020

I have learnt things: new and previously-known alike, at this school. From students, and from staff members, alike. From books; from videos. Textbooks, podcasts, sometimes, and from outside of them. But mainly: from people. We humans learn (best) from other humans. We are fundamentally needy, imitative, receptive of and responsive to the subtleties of human connections, relationships.

Like about the temporality of life. It just keeps on moving: one moment, straight to the next, and then to the next, and so on. There is no ‘preparation time’, then ‘practice time’; no clear-cut delineation at all between ‘theory’ and ‘praxis’. There is only life. And here we are, living it. No dress rehearsals: these are our lives.

Our relationships with the past (i.e. before we were born, and also the past[s] of our own personal histories) and our experiences of the present moment, and… notions of ‘the future’. We will meet those (the latter) moments, Insha Allah, as and when they come.

A number of things have forced me to give notions concerning the past some more thought, this term. Teaching History for the first time, for one thing. And, also: back in October (I had started in the middle of the first academic half-term. Hectic!) I had been taking a particular route to and from work. That is, until, I had stumbled upon an alternative route: a shorter, simpler one. And en route this route, I came across a building that my mother, uncle, and aunt sometimes speak about. A quite old-looking tower block: the first home they had dwelled in, actually, upon having migrated to this country.

‘History’ – including our own personal ones – is filled with events, happenings, which we can truly fascinate ourselves by interrogating the following, of them: what if this particular thing had not taken place? What if my grandfather (Allahu Yerhamu) had never made the decision to move here (alone, no less, and as an adolescent!)? And what if my grandmother had rejected his proposal for marriage? Or, what if they had chosen to settle in, say, Kent, or in New York (as some of my other relatives had done) as opposed to in this very part of East London? [What if I had been born a boy?!] And so on, and so on.

So many potential questions. But here we are, in the present (a gift). Much of it: a summation of the consequences of a series of individual decisions. The rest… remains to be seen.

[I am accidentally-on-purpose including quite a few ‘AWAE’ references in this article. You are a certified awesome person if you have managed to pick up on them…]

I think it is very easy to become ungrateful, though, and to take things for granted. But knowledge: one of its key purposes, I believe, is to cultivate and foster deep appreciation within our hearts, gratitude. I, and my family, Alhamdulillah, live in a state of economic stability. But my grandfather had to work hard for this: back when East London (which is now increasingly becoming gentrified) had still been a centre for the British textile industry, he had worked at a coat-manufacturing warehouse. The building is still there: it stands on the opposite side of the road from the bus stop I used to wait at almost every day, after secondary school. Over time, I watched it – the warehouse, that is – be converted into a ‘hipster’-style hotel, all painted white.

And maybe it is true that we humans learn best through experience: I never could have told you what teaching is actually like, until doing it. The strangest of feelings, particularly right at the start: being on the other side of the teacher’s desk. Having to be this responsible, for the first time. I was quite worried, right at the start: What if they won’t like me? What if I don’t do a good job? What if I’m really awkward and they’ll find it off-putting? Worries done away with, Alhamdulillah, as a result of experience. The barrages of (repeated) personal questions, too [“Miss, where are you from?” “Miss, what are your plans for the weekend?” “Miss, are you married?”]; ten students attempting to speak to you, at once; the “Miss, have you marked them yet?” the literal day after they have all sat the assessment. The classic borderline-frustrated response of, “Teachers have their own lives too, you know!

I think, another thing that has significantly changed – for the better, Alhamdulillah – has been my relationship with ‘work’. It is good, insofar as it is good, in good amounts. But it is no ‘saviour’, no deity to be worshipped, slaved after. I have my responsibilities; I will try to fulfil them. But aside from that, ‘work’ itself does not give me selfhood nor meaning. It… is not my master.

It seemed almost as though different weeks had different overarching ‘themes’ for them, in terms of what they had in store, to teach me. During one week in particular, I believe, I began really thinking about how on Earth other people live. How do some mothers, especially, manage to work for forty hours during the week, and carry out all of their household/family responsibilities, without collapsing as a result of exhaustion?! I remember thinking about this, on my way to work, one day, and I had passed by a (most probably, at least) working mother. Bulging backpack on back, coffee flask in hand, 07:30AM. And she had been on the phone to her (by the sounds of it) young daughter, likely providing some moral support as her husband had shouldered the burden of breakfast duties.

At work, in the staffroom, I am surrounded by some young and unmarried women; some who are newly married; there had been some expectant-mother teachers; some who have a child; some who have a handful of children. Older mothers who are teachers, too: speaking about their children-in-law as well as about their grandchildren. Discussing childminders; speaking on the phone to their kids, at the end of long school days, about homework, and about matters pertaining to ‘playground politics’, and some of the other things that matter deeply, to children. Teachers who are also mothers. How do they do it?! Subhan Allah. The (joys and) stresses that these screaming, energetic children give rise to. Exchanged, at the end of the long academic day, for… those ones (the ones that look half-like them, and call them “Mum” in lieu of “Miss”) …

We are watching, witnessing, as time moves [us] on and on and on. As relatives of ours grow and grow older; as we, ourselves, do much the same thing, too. Our relationships with different places – and with different people – are ever-changing. Sometimes, for the better: development, evolution, we may term it. And sometimes, we find that some leaves simply have to fall, in order to allow for new growth to take place.

Take heart, dear one. Some things will be somewhat (very) hard, some of the time, perhaps the whole way through. But you are more than well-equipped enough to face it, and to get through it all. In a beautiful way, I hope.

We crave permanence, don’t we? This sense of… feeling entirely at home. But I regret to inform you (both you and myself, dear reader) that that is not what this world is for. This whole experience – this maybe eighty-odd-years-long one – is an essentially dynamic one, and it will take you by surprise, over and again. The best thing to do is to locate Earthly home in Sujood: this is what stays. Your soul, in conversation with its Author, Creator. Everything else, you see, is etched only in sand. A gust of wind, or two, and then it is gone.

Here for a time, and then it falls, to dust.

Here, I have learnt (been aptly reminded) about how actions are but by intention [it is the intention behind an action that counts. So we ought not to concern ourselves too much with the outcomes of things. Even with regard to numbers and such… the Qur’an tells us that saving one life is equal to saving the whole of humanity (5:32). The weight of a deed is derived from the intention(s) underlying it]; about the art (the beauty, the tender humanness) of sincere apology; about the rich complexities that individual minds can house. Sometimes, even eleven-year-olds are quite ‘mature’ in demeanour: they have been through so much.

I have learned that we often learn things best as a result of stumbling and falling. That when it comes to deeply difficult things: Healing and Patience are lovers. That it is good to take rest when it is good to; you can then begin again, at a good pace, when the time is right. When you are ready.

That there is no use in ‘crying over spilt milk’ [or spilt Coke, to make reference to something that actually, for some reason, took place] as the aphorism goes. These things happen. Mistakes are made; you will also likely have done and said (and will continue to do and say) some utterly cringeworthy things, during this lifetime of yours. But it is okay. We grow from them; look back and laugh at them, even. Time and other considerations move us on.

That staple-gunning can prove to be an excellent way of releasing aggression. That ‘Resource Rooms’ are, to stationery lovers, what drug dens are to drug addicts. [My gosh, I sound like Amy Santiago here…]

Hopefully no Copyright issues, here (?)

My Bengali-speaking skills have improved, too, Alhamdulillah, as a result of some conversations with a particular colleague of mine, in Bengali. At first, I was not too confident in speaking with her: my Bengali skills had been rather rocky, disjointed. Altogether, in my own head at least, quite embarrassing a thing to behold. ‘Benglish‘. But my gradual improvements in this regard have not gone unnoticed!

A key word, that one: gradual. Trial and error; some things work, some things do not. We learn, and we develop, and this all happens over time. Reflection, then effort. Some courage, maybe, and then patience. God’s Command.

How things can develop over time. Or: You versus the guy she told you not to worry about

I think, yes, learning is illumination.

And “اللهُ نورُ السماواتِ و الأرضِ” [Qur’an, (24:35)]. Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth. Truth is Light, and in truth’s absence, there is darkness.

“What is school for, do you think?”

“…to get a good job, innit.”

Separately:

“Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do,

and die”

Lord Alfred Tennyson, ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’

Work is only meaningful when it has real meaning. Otherwise we (ultimately) find ourselves doing for the sake of doing. Work for the sake of work. ‘Growth’ for the sake of itself: the ideology of the cancer cell [E.A.]

Do we learn solely towards economic-benefit, and/or social-status-related ends? [A good job, in order to earn good money. To provide for my family. To give back to society.]

Fair enough. Economic and social considerations are all well and good — they are deeply important, actually. But, as Muslims, we know that the absolute queen of all these considerations ought to be: our relationships with Allah. Helping people is a noble thing to do; providing for one’s family is also a noble thing to do. Social connections are wonderful, but some of them may come to fray, or be lost. Money, beyond what is needed for survival and to fund for necessities, is not everything. The way of God ought to be the path we seek to always be traversing; the consideration that all other ones are tethered to. This is Light; this is Truth; this is true Purpose and Meaning. This is concerning your Origin, and your place of Return, and this is concerning every single moment,

after moment,

after moment, in-between.

And in the absence of truth, what is there? There is only darkness and delusion. Looking for these things where they cannot ever truly be found.

Some things that we encounter will seem quite a challenge, at least at the start. But we learn through experience; we [pardon the cheese. A little statement, that one, which ought to extend over the entirety of this blog of mine…] grow through what we go through.

It is quite nice, at times, to look back on things, and to see how we – and our circumstances – have changed, progressed. When, at the start, in conjunction with the hectic novelty, I had been given an actual form class [whom I now, thankfully, share with a colleague, so I now only have them for certain days of the week. We joke that we are like a divorced couple: we have shared custody over the kids] I had found myself feeling quite overwhelmed. I thought it would be a sign of ‘strength of character’ if I just continued, grinned and bore it. But my aunt had noticed how stressed I had seemed that week; she persuaded me to go and speak with the Assistant Principals. Then, the aforementioned changes were made. ‘More’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’!

Kind of linked to the above: a certain family member had remarked that he thinks I should become a headteacher someday. Which had been a nice thing to say. But, firstly, I have realised that in order to do ‘good’, and to do it well, you do not always need to have a ‘big’ official role. And, secondly, I am really trying not to think too much about ‘the future’, while here. Where I am now is where I am now, Alhamdulillah, and I do not want to fall prey to ‘destination addiction’ or idealising, again [looking at other than who and where – and, when, and why – I find myself]. Over-contemplating secondary school while at primary school; thinking so much about sixth form while at secondary school; university, while at sixth form. Being married, while being single. Always obsessing over ‘the Next Thing’. Besides… once, in Year Eight, I had shadowed my school’s headteacher. What a gargantuan, stressful, role, Subhan Allah. Meeting after meeting; I do not think it is for me. I do not know where I will be, this time next year; I do not know what Allah has planned for me, for the rest of my Dunya-based existence…

For now, here I am, as I am. The ‘here and now’. I want to honour it, as best as I can. Very soon, this moment will be gone. The next one arrives; takes its place.

Other People

This is a big one. For we are crucially, essentially, undeniably, social beings.

Your family, and then, your friends (i.e. the family you come to choose for yourself). The people you love; your sources of joy, goodness, comfort, security.

The love of your life, too (Insha Allah). If it is in your kismet to find them, you will find them. All you have to do is… be exactly who you are (not anything ‘more’, not anything ‘less’) and you shall be loved precisely for it: for you!

Other people are other people. Allah (SWT) is Allah (SWT). Other people have no ‘power’, of nor from, their own selves.

اِنَّ اللّٰہ علیٰ کل شی ءٍ قدیر

[Perhaps best translated as: “Indeed Allah is, above all things, Powerful and competent”. Qur’an, (2:109)]

We do need other people, though. We need to love, and to feel loved in return. And in these very endeavours, there is a great amount of ‘vulnerability’ (openness) that has to go into it. Maybe we need to speak our minds and explain our hearts better and a little more often, to those whom we wish to share love with. Maybe we need to also do a better job at listening, understanding. Stopping; turning our hearts toward them. Giving our loved ones, whom we have been blessed with, the time of day. Chasing whatever it is we may find ourselves chasing: that all can wait.

We absolutely need to make time for ‘the boyz’ (this is a non-gender-specific term). Surround ourselves with good company, which, as a particular Hadith explains, can leave us with the mark of its good fragrance. (Just as unfavourable company can leave us with the mark of its stench).

And our Salāh, Du’a (the weapon of the believer), Adkhār, and so on. The relationships we servants have with the Almighty. This ought to be the fundamental consideration, for us.

What is the point of ‘learning’?

I would like to continue to be both a teacher and a student, Insha Allah, in this life of mine. I have to think about what my learning is to be ‘for’.

I want to be a good Muslim, Insha Allah. To improve; to develop. I want for the awe and the wonder that learning often exposes me to, to bring me closer to my Creator. I want it to help me in serving people (my wonderful students, for instance) for the sake of Allah.

The process of learning illuminates. Our hearts and minds. Places. We learn; use our intelligence and knowledge, pass it on.

Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.

— Sahih Hadith

We learn for good; to make us better. Towards beauty, too. Truth. A Muslim – a human being – is, at his or her very core, a learner. And may it all drive us to say “Subhan Allah” and “Alhamdulillah” and “Allahu Akbar“, over and over again, Āmeen.

[Below, I have included a list of some ridiculously awesome facts, taken from this article. How astonishing are the creations of the Creator!]

– The journey which the sperm makes in order to get to the egg is equivalent to us sprinting for 150 kilometres nonstop. The journey is not straightforward. Many obstacles and hurdles await it, yet it overcomes them without losing direction. [Subhan Allah!]

– Your heart weighs around 321 grams. Its size is around that of your fist and beats around 60 to 80 times per minute. On a yearly basis, it beats around 40 million times and pumps around 2200 gallons of blood per day, and approximately 56 million gallons of blood per lifetime.

– The blood which the heart pumps to the brain returns back to the heart within 8 seconds, and the blood which it pumps to your toes – the furthest distance from the heart – returns back to the heart within 18 seconds.

– The blood is home to around 5 million red blood cells per cubic millimetre of blood. If red blood cells from one human were to be placed side by side, they could cover the surface of the Earth 6 to 7 times over.

– Platelets are the cells that circulate within our blood and bind together when they recognise damaged blood vessels. A normal platelet count ranges from 150,000 to 450,000 platelets per microlitre of blood.

– The human body is home to over 600 muscles, and the average sized muscle is comprised of approximately 10 million muscle fibres.

– The human body has around 2 to 5 million sweat secreting glands to regulate our body temperatures.

– The brain is home to approximately 100 billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections.

– Neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.

– The human retina contains about 120 million photoreceptor cells. How it communicates this information to the brain, and how the brain then processes this information bringing about love, hate, hope, despair, fear, security and so on, is a completely separate and highly sophisticated discussion.

– The tongue has a role to play during the process of chewing, swallowing and tasting food as well as for speech and sounds. It has 17 muscles to allow it to move in any direction. The surface of the tongue has 9000 taste receptors to differentiate between sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

– One kidney weighs around 150 grams and is made up of about a million filtering units called nephrons. Each hour, it filters 1800 litres of blood and about 1 and ½ litres are extracted in the form of urine. Consider the difficulty experienced by those who are undergoing dialysis treatment. They are required to spend around 12 hours a week connected to 150kg worth of machinery, let alone the side-effects, in order to carry out what your 150 gram kidney is able to carry out within moments.

– Your outer layer of skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. You are given a new liver every six weeks. Your stomach lining replaces itself entirely every 4 days, and the stomach cells that are involved in digesting food are replaced every 5 minutes. Our entire skeletal structures are regenerated every 3 months. Your entire brain replaces itself every two months. In fact, the entire human body, right down to the last atom, is replaced every 5-7 years.

How is it, then, that if one’s brain replaces itself every two months, they can still retain long term memories? The nerve cells in the human body are the only exception to regeneration. If they did regenerate, say, once every six months, you would need to relearn your language every time.

Consider also the sounds from within the digestive system following the consumption of an apple, the sounds of a real factory at work. Consider how matters would have been if people were able to hear such sounds from each other, whether at interviews, marriage meetings, circles of knowledge, communal prayers or around the dinner table. One would need to escape to a remote corner to eat and drink in dignifying solitude. This dilemma has been, by divine design, overcome.

The briefest moments of reflection on creation are sufficient to leave one lost for words, and such bewilderment will only ever intensify as time progresses and discoveries are made. Our only words are therefore:

فَتَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ … So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators” [Qur’an, (23:14)]

“Does He who created not know, while He is the Subtle, the Acquainted?” (67:14)

Of course, He who created you knows you better than you know yourself. Thus everything He commands, prohibits, or sends your way is, as the āyah above alluded to, out of His Subtlety towards you, and out of Him being Acquainted with you.

Trust Him, […] and watch how you will live in [true contentment] with Him.

In Difficulty

This year. Did you feel it too? When our world felt itself grind to a halt. We had to stop. Turn back. Grief took over. It was hard. Hard to get out of bed; hard to do much at all. Hard to not question and question and question things. Hard to escape.

It had not happened without reason. A number of reasons. And it was – and is – so difficult.

The acute feelings of entrapment, loneliness. Uncertainty: that anxiety. Heavy, and at the same time: minds whirring, whirring away, feeling almost detached from our bodies. The disruption, and the difficulty. That terrifying sense of stagnation… and nobody really knew what on Earth to do.

Did you feel it too?

Mental unwell-ness. Not feeling particularly mentally ‘healthy’. Anxiety, depression, and all the rest of it. These things do not signify ‘character failures’. It need not be some ‘shameful’ secret, which you carry: which you pretend is not there, does not exist. It is something very real; something we can go through. And it might take years. Maybe we will never completely be rid of it: maybe depression will continue to dawn on us on those days on which we may least expect it. Anxiety often takes us by surprise too; turns our very nerves into jelly. But, over time, things do get better. And Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear [Qur’an, (2:286)]. You are strong enough.

A few articles, by ‘The School of Life’, which I have loved and benefitted from:

I want to be open and honest with the people I love; I would hope they feel they can be open and honest with me, too. And I will love them no matter what. Sometimes up close; sometimes from afar. In light of the texture, and never ‘in spite’ of it.

It might feel as though you are quite alone in this. While others go ahead and just ‘live’. ‘Nobody gets it’? But people do. Many of us are pretending. Depression, for example, is a fairly widespread reality. It often results in people taking their own lives: suicide, unfortunately, is the leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds.

Why is it important to better understand mental health conditions? So many of us suffer as a result of them.

In 2014, roughly 1 in 5 people in the UK (aged 16 and over) showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. The rates have almost undoubtedly risen significantly, since.

So many people are hiding, because they feel they need to. And, I get it: you do not want to be seen as being ‘broken’ or ‘defective’. But you are not. We are all fundamentally imperfect; we are our essential ‘upsides’ and we are our ‘downsides’, and you are neither somehow ‘evil’ nor some sort of ‘failure’ by consequence of this. Pardon my cheese again; this ongoing cliché. But, you know what we are? We are human beings. Not shiny robots; not filtered pictures, carrying ourselves around; not made of porcelain. Insān. Allah is closer to us than our own jugular veins are, and He knows, even while others may not know. Other people do not somehow hold the keys to the truth(s) of you, anyway. And we can get through this, together, Bi’ithnillah: it will (likely) not be easy — but it will be worthwhile.

Acceptance can be hard: that first step. I have certainly found it to be liberating, though.

Rejecting hyper-individualism, hyper-‘productivity’, hyper-competition; these obsessions with images. Depression, for instance, is a reality, and one whose numerous (dumb) stigmas require some doing away with. So that some of the ridiculous pressure might be taken off from the shoulders of those of us who experience it.

An informative video on depression.

1. We must live right now. As Muslims.

2. When the time is right / if it is in your Qadr. (When Allah decides.)

3. You are going to die. And you will return to Allah.

We are Muslim in the morning, when we open our eyes. Muslim before we start eating; Muslim after eating, too. Muslim, first and foremost, when we choose to don additional titles. Doctor, lawyer, engineer [I am very Asian indeed for instinctively listing these three occupations…]. Muslim in the courtroom; Muslim when in scrubs. Muslim when young and healthy; when older, when sick, when out-of-work, for a while, perhaps, too. Muslim when driving our cars; Muslim when riding our bikes. When standing on stages before thousands; when all alone, in the dark. At 5am, at 5pm. In Winter, in Summer, in the less-easily-definable bits in-between. Muslim when it might feel like the entire world is at our feet; Muslim, still, when it feels like the entire dark sky weighs somewhat heavy upon our chests.

We are Muslim. And may we be so, first, last and always.

There is so much to (possibly) do, here, in this big world, and so little time. This fundamental conflict can bring about quite a lot of… worry, ache. So many things that can potentially be known; done; written about. But so little time. So we must focus on essences; we have to be quite selective. And if we focus on the Why of things, all will be well – swell, even, in the present and in the end, Insha Allah.

I think, for me, the essence of this general time is captured very well by Siedd’s [whose works my students seem obsessed with] song, ‘God Knows’:

Back when I was eighteen
We used to live in daydreams
Then woke up in our twenties
Life passed us by so quickly

Said I’d put You above me
But been so busy lately
Out all these hours daily
Been driving myself crazy

I’ve been losing myself each day
Losing my rest each day
All these things I want for me
Oh I’ve been
Caught in distractions
Oh lost in my passions
I don’t know where this road will lead

Oh God knows, God knows, God knows
Oh God knows, God knows, I’m trying
Oh God knows, God knows, God knows
God knows I’m trying

Been soul-searching for purpose
Is there more to life than this?
Been carrying these burdens
Hoping this will be worth it

It’s not as I imagined
I’m losing all my balance
Take me from all this madness
I just don’t understand this

All these bills and burdens
A jester in this circus
From midnight till the morning
Can someone save me from this

I know I’ll be buried ‘neath the same ground
No matter rich or without a pound
The only things that matter now
Is finding You somehow

[…]

I reach my goals and see another three
I’m never satisfied, always wanting to be
No mountain of gold can feed my soul

I get and I get and I just want more

Cause I reach my goals and see another three
I’m never satisfied, always wanting to be
No mountain of gold can feed my soul
I get and I get and I just want more

[…]


Oh God knows, God knows, God knows
God knows I’m trying
.

I am not perfect; life is not perfect. And nor will I, or this life of mine, ever be. That is what I need to let go of: these ideas that I must be ‘smooth’ and sort of perfect. No. I am so anxious, at times, and I am quite awkward. I get socially drained, quite quickly. Sometimes I find myself feeling inexplicably, profoundly, sad. Sometimes I am very quiet; sometimes I talk far too much. And it shocks me that my loved ones can still love me this much, even with all of this.

But, then again, what on Earth would I be without all of this? I would be… character-less. Smooth, and shiny. No texture, to allow for authentic love’s grips to grip onto.

I have held, in my head, all these unrealistic, over-simplistic, standards and ideals for myself. I cannot live up to them. Today, I (metaphorically) burn them all. They are not fair. Besides, these fancies of simple perfection are quite boring [nothing to learn, no challenge, no storms nor surprises!], in reality, aren’t they?

I worry, sometimes, that I do not deserve patience, or chances. But this, too, is so untrue. All humans deserve these things, don’t we? God knows I am not perfect. But sometimes parts of my mind tell me that I am crucially, fundamentally, terrible. This is… not true.

God knows, I’m trying. Learning, developing. And this is what matters.

Things can change a lot, as they do. And, they should be allowed to. The present moment, also, is beautiful. And I am thankful for every historical twist and turn that has led me to this here, this now.

For both you and I, dear reader: may Allah grant us so many answers to our questions. And may some things take us completely by storm and by surprise. May they cause our skins to quietly fire up with awe, sometimes [have you ever felt that? When something is so lovely and/or amazing that you feel (what feels like) light wash over your entire being, somehow?] and wonder. May they make us say, over and over again, “Subhan Allah”. Āmeen.

May it be true wisdom that we seek; may it all make us more human – better Muslims – and not less so. Haqq-rooted, Deen-rooted, learning. And not merely towards ‘the life of this world’ (الحیاة الدنیا) which, as the Qur’an clarifies, is “only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children” [Qur’an, (57:20)]. Things of illusion, and then they just up and wither away. And I think: our learning ought not to simply be for amusement, nor for the collection of titles and ‘glory’. We should not perceive it as being ‘wealth’ – stuff we can ‘own’, and through which we readily compete with others. May our learning be truly and everlastingly meaningful, dear reader. And may it benefit us on Yawm-ud-Deen: Āmeen.

وَقُلْ رَّبِّ زِدۡنِىۡ عِلۡمًا

“And say, ‘My Lord, increase me in [beneficial] knowledge'”

Qur’an [20:114]

From our Lord, Allah, did we come. He sustains us, every breathing moment of every living day. And to Him shall we return, at the end of this journey; after the final full-stops of these stories of ours; at the end of these school days:

when the lights are turned off; when the tables and floors are cleaned; when the boards are wiped blank. After all the learning; the fun. The structure and the unpredictability. The getting-into-trouble here and there, as well as those feelings-of-triumph. The time we are given for eating; for chilling. The streams and streams of things to do. At the end of the school day, we pack up; say goodbye to our friends, and then we make our (own) ways home.

Jannah, dear reader. For you, and for me. Good, and better, and the best. Eternally. Āmeen.


2020

On Debating

“Point of information!”

“No thank you,” accompanied by a simple ‘sit right back down’ gesture. 

 

Debating is, undoubtedly (and when done properly!) an art form – the art form that concerns facts, figures, rhetorical devices, humanity, logic galore. Impassioned speeches, appeals to the…humanness… of humans (to all three – logos, pathos, and ethos – components). Witty comebacks, tensions, a heightened sense of intellectualism, coupled with a (deliberately) heightened sense of its seeming opposite, emotion. Disagreements and/or discovery, with a necessary helping of civility and perhaps a touch of theatricalism. 

Recently I came across what would appear to be an ongoing post-debate debate – an  intellectual back-and-forth – between two of my most favourite debaters. And it really got me thinking about what the point of debates might be, as well as the foolishness of the use of personal attacks, among other things.

Honestly (and my apologies if I sound glib and condescending here but) I do pity those who have never been part of a debate club before, or who have not taken part in a debate before. Of course, some debates take place ‘informally’ (i.e. without formal adjudicators and/or hosts and moderators) – at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park (London), over dinner tables [I have this one uncle who has always, since my childhood, initiated ‘deep conversations’ and debates with me – on topics ranging from time and space, to the properties of water. I have him to thank for so much – insert cheese – of who I am and for how I think, today] and indeed while with friends, talking about certain things.

Something that is not fun, in my humble opinion, is constant argument – bickering. Arguing for the sake of arguing; tendencies that tend towards utter solipsism. Indubitably, the point of debating should not be the surrender to, nor the ardent nurture of, the ego.

Ah, formal debating, how I miss thee. The unparalleled joys – the motion being set; things being set in motion. Moments of inspiration under timed constraints, rushing to brainstorm various things on paper, trying to get your team to agree on things and to complement one another. You will forgive me, dear reader, for my shameless displays of nerdiness here, but the rush. Knowing how to win over the audience; knowing how – and when – to expose perceived faults in the opponents’ lines of reasoning.

But, thinking bigger here, the point of debating is not to commit to consistently being right. Something that I love about traditional debate clubs and competitions is that sometimes one is forced to assume a place on the opposite side of the table – to argue for something that normally, one disagrees with. What does this do – what benefits could come from this? These particular challenges do much to boost a person’s cognitive skills, as well as one’s capacities for empathy – for appreciating a range of perspectives.

The person representing the view or idea being debated is undoubtedly important. I must stress the aforementioned point that we are human, centrally emotional creatures. We love humour and narratives and imagery, among other things. And any debate would just be… fleshless, robotic … without all of the things that render it a potentially brain-stimulating, mind-expanding art form.

Rhetorical questions, lists, statistics, anecdotes. Points of information, rebuttals. Anacoluthon, analogies, apophasis, anadiplosis, litotes. And in bigger debates, the unique opportunity to witness the power of your words in action, (potentially) shaping the atmosphere of the entire hall.

And then, some of the things to steer clear of: ipsedixitisms [I love that word], shouting and heckling [you’d think that the folks who sit on those infamous green benches over at Parliament would be above all this puerile stuff, at their ages and in their positions. But, alas… the House of Commons might as well be renamed ‘the House of Heckles’. Many MPs, with all due respect, often debate in a completely uninspired manner, sometimes just reciting statistics from a piece of paper, sometimes not even including any facts in their addresses at all. Some even take naps on those very benches while debates go on. But I digress. Order! Order!] And then, of course, there’s the ever-prevalent tendency of things to sometimes be taken a little bit too far… thus leading to things descending into hyper-emotionality, irrationality, and ad hominems – personal attacks, which do nothing to bolster or undermine any actual arguments. In general, these signify a pathetic attempt to divert attention away from the actual topic at hand, and more towards a (pathetic) battle between egos.

Something I need to constantly remember, in any debate-resembling situation (that is not an actual formal debate where the very point is to stubbornly stick to a view even if I myself do not agree with it – though even then, my ultimate purpose should be to learn something, no?) is that intentions are paramount. What is my intention here? To prove that I am ‘right’, at any cost, even if I am actually wrong? And, are they attacking me or just a view of mine that I may sometimes mistake as being an unchangeable part of my identity? And, am I being fair to them? Am I truly listening to what they are saying? Do I really, truly agree with these views I have chosen to be a spokesperson for, or am I simply being unproductively stubborn, deploying ego defence mechanisms where, perhaps, they are unneeded? 

I love that debates can easily become awfully – tremendously – conceptual, abstract. You put some sort of ideology or view – all these intangible things, figuratives, potentials – on a metal plate, under surgical lighting. And you proceed to poke and jab at them; attempt to dissect it from a a range of different perspectives. What might the economic implications be? And the political ones? How would this motion affect…women? What might the physical sciences have to say, on the matter [oof, pun not intended, but what a pun indeed, right]? All in all, I have learnt so much from partaking in, and from watching, debates – both formal and informal ones. I have learnt about Islam, about Philosophy, about abortion, the education system… Knowledge in action, interdisciplinary considerations, and all this (hopefully,) with a fine helping of humanness and enjoyability: this all makes the learning component so easy!

Usually, with these things, there is no single ‘right’ answer. And perhaps this is one of the things that makes such oratory duels so interesting. No two people are the same; people’s perspectives – the bases of their speeches – tend to be wholly unique, too.

One can – and should – always try to respect a debating ‘opponent’ (partner) and their humanity. Ad hominem attacks ought to be avoided at all costs – and, actually, from my observations, it is clear that the use of these personal attack tools (falsely) promise a quick and easy way out – and to ‘victory’. It is easy – and quite pathetic – to state or insinuate that a Muslim dialectical partner is being… threatening or ‘terroristic’, or that a woman who identifies as a feminist is being ‘whingey’, or that someone who is a supporter of the political right is, by default, a ‘Nazi’. Ad hominems – insults – can be effective in causing offence to, perhaps disgruntling, one’s opponents. But they do nothing to fortify one’s own arguments; if anything, they only perceptively undermine one’s integrity and authority in the given dialectical situation. So, respecting human beings is paramount [- that is, if you buy into the whole ‘innate value’ thing. If you are, instead, of the opinion that this is a wholly indifferent universe, in which we are happy accidents and biological robots with no objective morality or purpose, then… you… do your thing.]

But also, the merits of freedom of speech should certainly never be overlooked! We (only, really) become more learned and wise through discussing things with others; in the process, we may grow in security in terms of sticking with certain views of ours. Or, we may find ourselves outgrowing certain views.

Anecdote time: before beginning my time at sixth form (which was almost three years ago, now – wow!) I had always staunchly identified myself as a feminist and as a leftist- in terms of everything. And, it is true what they [who is ‘they’? And is it the same ‘they’ that DJ Khaled constantly expresses remonstrances with?] say – about how the issue with definitions is that they tend to result in us overlooking the capacity for change, and sometimes, for nuance. This notion had certainly held true for me, during the majority of my pre-Year Twelve days. And what did it result in? An inability to truly see and listen to the other side.

It can be so easy to dehumanise, in our minds, people who share very different views from us – and to create false dichotomies. Us versus them, us versus them, us versus them.

But, at sixth form, I met a friend who also loves debating. And we would debate all the time. I must admit, I began to take things a little too personally when we began to discuss topics like racism, sexism, and Islam, respectively. But this friend – who is different to me in terms of race, religion, gender, political leanings – truly challenged some of my established ways of thinking. He remained respectful throughout all of these discussions of ours, even when it would have been easy for him to resort to actual personal attacks; props to him for this.

I ended up learning a lot from him. I ended up developing my critical thinking skills, through these debates, and as a result of them, some of my views certainly changed.

Now, another random tangent [which makes sense, because this friend and I used to debate in our Maths class, the most] – I used to love debating with Twitter trolls, back when I was fourteen years old. Why? I don’t really know. I probably just wanted to debate more, but Debate Club (which I had acted like it had been a personality trait of mine that I had been President of. Weird, weird flex) had unfortunately come to an end. So I debated topics like politics and Hadiths on Twitter, and learnt much through researching to take part in these arguments, along the way. And insults like the P-word (something I had been called a couple of times, when I was younger, by random strangers), insults pertaining to my being Muslim, and a Muslim woman, at that… they were all hurled at me, left, right and centre.

Now, this aforementioned friend of mine – he had experienced his fair share of ad hominem insults, too. Labelled a Nazi, for stupid reasons, when his own grandparents had campaigned against the Nazis during the War.

These labels are not helpful. They prevent us from being able to really see people, and their humanness. Echo chambers are not helpful. Bad manners in debates simply just have the adverse effect of pushing people further away from what you want them to come to understand. And, surely, every person you meet has something – at least one thing – that you can learn from them. So (I hope you will) debate. And, welcome debate.

Some pet hates of mine, though: that… academic arrogance that can often be brought into such discussions. Stubbornness, mocking others, those ice-cold glares, at times. Seeking leverage through means of big words and sophism. If your views are defendable, I entreat you to defend them! Your views need not be permanent; your mind need not be in a state of closed-ness and stagnation.

Debating: I think it is wonderful, and, when done well, is one of the greatest skills a person can have. Enjoyable, a potentially hugely educational thing to do, facilitating discovery and connections between communities.

Words can indeed change worlds; debating is one of the very cornerstones of democracy and of intellectualism. But it can all become extremely ugly when what should be a battle of ideas – the things we ought to place on that dialectical silver plate [main course: discourse!] – devolves into a senseless exchange of personal attacks, or indeed, when people gratuitously take things too personally [e.g. “I love to debate. But I hate it when people want to debate about Christianity, since I am a Christian and these are my views and I don’t want to hear opposing views”] or when irrationalism, along the same lines, is allowed to take centre-stage: “I believe in this thing because I believe in it. Because… I believe in it. And that is all.”

Put the thing on the plate – first. And let this be the focus, the centre, the point, of it all.

Also, argumentation for the sake of argumentation is futile and foolish. It’s like that quote: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” [Edward Abbey]. I find myself being deeply sceptical of (most) things being done for the sake of… themselves. In debating, this is precisely what provides the perfect breeding ground for ego-based bickering, arrogance, irrationality, the counter-productive encouragement of close-minded behaviours.

Intentions and intentionality, maintaining good Adab – decorum, decency, humanness – and having a purpose, there and then, which is perhaps greater than the lodging of your flag into someone else’s ego. These are certainly some debate-related principles that I seek to go forward with.

And oh, how I long to be in a debate club again. 


Sadia Ahmed, 2020 

Imposter Syndrome

There is a common phenomenon- a disease of the mind, if you like- that a staggering number of people are plagued by, and it often goes unrecognised. It can lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, and, as a consequence, masses of wasted potential. The disease was termed ‘Imposter Syndrome’, by two clinical psychologists, Clance and Imes, back in 1978, and it can be defined as a constant feeling of intellectual fraudulence, of never being good enough, despite all the evidence that might suggest otherwise. Imposter Syndrome is the polar opposite of qualities of exaggerated superiority (like arrogance, narcissism, or egomania) and it comes as no surprise that whilst many women suffer from the former malady, more men seem to suffer from the latter, perhaps as a result of gender socialisation.

Feelings of inferiority tend to stem directly from comparing oneself to others, and it goes without saying that people tend to be intimidated by those who are more ‘clever’ or more experienced than them, but the very people who are guilty of frequently belittling themselves in comparison to others fail to look beyond this initial erudite disparity, and they also fail to realise that they too have the capability to reach the same level, and to venture even further. Moreover, they fail to remember that people tend to specialise in different branches of knowledge and intelligence. While some people excel in writing stories, or in endeavours of the aesthetic kind, others are mathematical geniuses, or doctors-in-the-making, or chess champions. Sure, there are several people who are academic ‘all-rounders’, but this was almost undoubtedly the product of hard work, as opposed to mere luck. As most students discover at different points during their educational journeys, there are no substitutes to self-belief and hard work.

People are unique and varied, but something that seems to connect us all is our shared curiosity and desire to improve. This is where the notorious notion of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ comes into play: irrational self-doubt can severely limit us and hinder our intellectual growth, so the next time somebody compliments your talents, consider humbly accepting and internalising the compliment, rather than desperately trying to evade the spotlight. Acknowledge your brilliance, but don’t let the toxic sentiments of inadequacy or (on the flip-side) complacency cloud your mind-set. Your cerebral hinterland is neither static nor limited, so let it grow. Get involved in things, and contribute to discussions and debates, irrespective of how ‘inexperienced’ you might be. You can, and you will, get there (and even further): it just requires some time and effort.

The main determinant of intelligence, in my view, is not a factor that is genetic, nor arbitrary. All human beings are born with roughly the same amount of intellectual potential, but what sets some people apart from others is (aside from the lottery of birth, of course) how well they nurtured this innate potential, and, ultimately, how strong their passions for their chosen fields were.

Personally, I have found that the best way to combat the monster of self-doubt is through adopting a growth mind-set, rather than a fixed one- by telling yourself that although you may not be where you want to be yet, you most certainly can get there. You must strive to keep growing; self-doubt and self-pity will restrict this growth, but self-belief, on the other hand, will proliferate it.

I hope that you soon come to see that you are good enough. You are not stupid or less worthy than anybody else, and nobody belongs here (or anywhere) more than you. You are an individual with a fertile mind and an immense amount of potential, and anything that you deem worth learning is learnable. So grow, into the person you know you can become, even if doing so might make a few people uncomfortable.

As the cliche saying goes, the key is to simply believe in yourself, and, as Stephen Hawking once said,

“Remember to look up at the stars, and not down at your feet”.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Relax

This week, I have learnt a quintessential life lesson: when things become unbearable, step back and relax for a while. This may seem like a simple concept, however in the current fast-paced, indomitably frenetic society we live in, relaxation is- no doubt- something that is easier said than done. 

I am a Year 11 student, currently in the process of studying for my upcoming GCSE exams (85 days remaining!). At the start of the academic year, I made a vow to myself. I told myself that I would work hard, and that I would have no zero days- no days utterly devoid of any work, even if that meant dragging myself out of bed to work on some coursework while gradually dying due to being a sorry victim of the flu.

Granted, I have had no ‘zero days’, but throughout the academic year, there have been times when my body pleaded me to stop- to relax, to allow my brain to heal itself. I know that I have been unduly dismissive of the signals my brain has been sending. I disregarded them as excuses for procrastination, but in reality, I needed to relax.

My ultimate advice to fellow students is to create a revision timetable, but within this timetable, allow yourself some time to take a walk, or have a bubble bath, or even to just stare at the ceiling for a while. Your mental and physical health are a thousand times more important than any letter on a grade sheet. That being said, education is vital, and we are fortunate enough to have such amazing opportunities at our very fingertips.

So, fellow comrades: work hard, sleep well, exercise, and treat yourself- chocolate doughnuts were made to be consumed. 


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

The Value of Money

When people think of success nowadays, the amount of monetary income one receives usually springs to mind. The youngsters of my generation habitually mistake the pursuit of money- mere tokens of exchange- for the pursuit of happiness. The idea that money is an intrinsic source of happiness is centred on an exceptionally flawed premise. Children nowadays are indoctrinated with the idea that hard work leads to a higher income, and that, in turn, a higher income is somehow synonymous with happiness- with finally being at peace with oneself. 

In reality, the accumulation of wealth does little more to the soul than threaten to poison it with greed and eternal restlessness. As human beings, it is wired into our nature to constantly pursue things that give us a temporary rush- a fleeting escape from reality. We want and want, and we receive, yet still we are never satisfied. Ultimately, I can only compare the blind pursuit of money to one concept: attempting to fill a void of despondence with paper money, unaware of the fact that the money will simply disintegrate and decompose.

The only thing that can truly sustain and replenish our souls is love- love for people, for concepts, for the beautiful existence we share. Money cannot make a person infinitely happy. Granted, it can buy you certain material goods that will give you a short-lived taste of ‘happiness’, but no number of designer handbags or super cars can ever replace the inherent bliss that stems as a result of the shared human experience: love, friendship, laughter, peace.

The evidence for this is everywhere. The world is full of inconceivably wealthy men and women who possess everything their hearts have ever desired, and more. But these people forget about the aforementioned human experiences- too often we read about celebrities who have developed severe mental disorders or resorted to drug abuse because the money they owned did little to sustain them spiritually. In the same vein, the world is also filled with people who only possess bare necessities- young children in rural parts of Africa and India who own little more than a few rags they wear as clothes, yet they still somehow manage to be happy. Their happiness is prolonged and genuine; it does not rely on something as soul-destroying and illusory as money.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

Why GCSEs are a problem

Every British student has his or her own story to tell when it comes to the topic of GCSEs. There are the ridiculously bright, organised and perpetually energetic who jump with glee at the thought of endless hours of revision. Then there are the other 99% of the British teen population: the insanely intelligent and unique individuals who are not particularly compatible with the GCSE system of broad memorisation.

This article is dedicated to all of you: the brilliant, creative beings who have been labeled “dumb” or “lazy” due to your reluctance to sit down for hours on end, memorising an abundance of pointless information; the ones currently suffering from anxiety or depression or ADHD, so revision becomes synonymous with torture; the teens whose lives are currently too unstable for them to bear the burden of the responsibility of such a task, and, of course, the model students who suffer endlessly for their grades. I understand you, and I believe in you. You are not stupid or incompetent, and the system has failed you.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

To any non-Brits reading this article who are wondering what on Earth GCSEs are, they are a series of examinations fifteen and sixteen-year-olds take here in the UK, across eight to fifteen subjects in total. Most of these tests rely not on creativity, practical skills or logic; they rely primarily on memory retention. Imagine having to memorise subject content (usually about three textbooks of information for each subject) across numerous subjects. Some students have to sit over thirty exams- exams that do not focus on a particular career path, but across a desultory range.

Of course, as a keen socialist, I am all for education- it is the key to success both on a personal and global basis. However, that being said, the GCSE system here in the UK is in desperate need of reform. Not only does it counterproductively dull down intelligence and creativity, it also does little to prepare young individuals for life in the real world, especially in the digital age.

The system has failed to modernise- the constructors of the GCSE system must be unaware of the existence of Google. We do not need to memorise useless dates such as when the NHS Act was introduced, nor do we need to memorise complex algebraic functions or how dust precipitators work. The education of our generation- Generation Alpha- is being placed into the hands of a group of old, incompetent, privileged politicians who are simply making it increasingly difficult for the underprivileged to succeed.

GCSE grades lull high achieving students into a false sense of security and subsequent academic arrogance (which is sometimes absolutely demolished come A-levels) and give underachieving students the false impression that they are stupid and good for nothing. The truth is, not every GCSE Physics student will grow up to become a Physicist, and the same can be said for every other GCSE subject. Everyone excels at something- whether it be painting, baking, engineering or politics- and everyone deserves to be commended for their talents, irrespective of whether or not they were able to bag 10 A*s at GCSE level.

I do not, in any way, believe that GCSEs should be scrapped altogether, however I believe they are in desperate need of reform; the British education system must keep with the times, make learning more accessible and enjoyable (without leaving students with a feeling of perpetual exhaustion and dread), and do a better job at preparing us for the future.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

Response to Daily Mail’s Littlejohn

The Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn is a very pleasant, intelligent chap, known for writing about pressing issues such as immigration (a manifestation of “extremist, expansionist Islam”) and calling a new mother a “gypsy”, before asking her why she “even [came] here in the first place”. 

Recently, I came across an article by him about Michelle Obama’s visit to Mulberry School- a girls’ school in Tower Hamlets, earlier this year. I was simultaneously humoured and appalled.

See the article here

In the article, Littlejohn begins by asking a very crucial question: “Did Michelle Obama not see the irony in delivering a speech on female emancipation to a school full of girls in headscarves in the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets?”. I must admit, I found this hilarious. He obviously believes (without cited sources or statistics) that the Hijab is somehow a symbol of oppression, and that it is absolutely impossible to be a liberated female British human being if you wear a scarf on your head. With regards to the ‘Islamic Republic’ aspect, according to the borough’s website, Tower Hamlets is the only British local authority where the Muslim population is the largest single religious group.  35% of people in Tower Hamlets are Muslim, whilst 27% are Christian. The rest of the population is made up of atheists, Jewish people, Hindus e.t.c. I don’t think such figures add up to make the borough an ‘Islamic Republic’.

Littlejohn claims that “majority [of the pupils] have no option to wear headscarves and long robes”. I wonder if he’d conducted a survey of some sort before reaching this conclusion, or whether his statement was entirely speculative, designed to conform to an Islamophobic agenda. Hmm… I’m going to go with the latter.

He goes on to state that his “guess” is that the Department for Education chose the venue deliberately to showcase “our new, rigorously enforced State religion: ‘Celebrating Diversity'”. Well, sir, your article seems to be full to the brim with similar “guesses”, unsupported by solid evidence of any kind.

The term ‘ultra-religious’ is used to caption an image of the First Lady standing in front of a group of Mulberry students. Granted, most of the girls are pictured in Hijabs, but does this reflexively mean that they are ‘ultra-religious’?

Many conjecturable statements are made in the article, including Littlejohn’s view that “Mulberry School is one of the least diverse schools in Britain”. I doubt he has ever ventured out of London to schools in Kent, where most of the students are white. My cousin attends a grammar school in Kent; she is the only Hijab-wearing student in her entire year, and is one of the only two non-white students in her class.

The idiocy does not stop there. Littlejohn claims that the article is “not directed at the…pupils”, however he mentions how the pupils come from a predominantly Bangladeshi background. He goes on to talk about the then “Muslim mayor” of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, as though religion was a central factor in his vote-rigging fiasco. Essentially, through this article, Littlejohn is denigrating Islam; he finds it ironic that the First Lady “delivered a speech on female emancipation in front of a [mainly Muslim] audience”, as though the students are feeble, submissive, voiceless victims of oppression, who “have no option other than to wear the restrictive clothes imposed upon them by their parents”. When will the media accept Muslim women as the powerful and creative people that they are?

Littlejohn speculatively labels  the Hijab a “symbol of seperatism” and “female oppression”, but who are the oppressors, I wonder? The truth is, Muslim women who choose to express pride in their religious identities are oppressed by ignorant imbeciles who write entire articles about their ‘oppression’ without even consulting them first.

In an attempt to save himself from inevitable accusations of racism and Islamophobia, Littlejohn makes clear that his intention is not to vilify, but rather to prevent “young Muslim men and women” from being “susceptible to extremist interpretations of Islam”. Yeah, right. If that was truly the case, he would have portrayed the fine students of Mulberry school in a positive light- for they are brilliant individuals, as the school’s achievement statistics show. Littlejohn unfairly uses their Hijabs to demean them, insisting that they will probably be “forced to stay at home” or “take part in arranged marriages”.

“Now try to gauge your reaction when you discovered that Michelle Obama was actually in London”. Here, Littlejohn conveys just how disgusted he was at the fact that none of the prefect students pictured with the First Lady were white. How adorable.

This was not the only instance where a Daily Mail columnist openly expressed Islamophobic attitudes: when the Queen of the Great British Bake-Off, Nadiya Hussain, was crowned, journalist Amanda Platell was actually offended by the fact that Flora Shedden did not win, claiming that she would have stood a better chance if she’d made a “chocolate mosque”.

In conclusion, the Daily Mail is an ocean of bigoted tears, and its columnists are in desperate need of a lesson in intersectional feminism.

Unfair media representations of Muslim women