Notes on the Qur’an: Introduction

The year is 2020. Quarantine year. It has already been over a month since we bid farewell to Ramadan. This year, Alhamdulillah, I essentially re-embraced Islam. It took a lot to get here – to this state of Yaqeen (conviction). Much exploration, many helpful conversations and realisations.

This blog series of mine will document my attempts at developing a far stronger bond with the Qur’an, first and foremost. I mean, I am trying to learn Arabic [fun fact: you know how vast and complex the English language and its vocabulary are? Well, Arabic is more complex and contains at least 20 times the number of words that English does! Over 12 million words, in comparison to English’s approx. 600,000…] and I do believe – well, it is known – that fluency in this beautiful language allows for a better connection with our Holy Book. I do hope to become fluent in it one day, Insha Allah (God-willing) and to then acquire a good grasp on classical (Fus’ha) Arabic – the language of the Qur’an.

Perhaps I will write and publish a ‘revised edition’ of this article sometime in the future, once I have (again, Insha Allah) actually mastered the Qur’anic language. For now, however, this series will comprise some of my notes on the Pickthall explanatory translation of the Qur’an. I will include some random facts and some of my thoughts. And I would greatly appreciate it if you shared your own thoughts, questions, and other additions, too [you can leave a comment below, or you can email me at: sadia.6@outlook.com].

The Qur’an is a fascinating book. Of course it is. Even many secular scholars – linguists and the like – find themselves utterly enthralled by it. Its words are undeniably symphonic and rich with meaning. It is a book of guidance for humanity, and so, naturally, it contains information on things like social rights and responsibilities; matters of Law and of Philosophy; economic and political guidance, and more.  Linguistically, terms and idioms from other languages – like Ethiopian, Syrian, Assyrian, and Persian – are also employed in the Qur’an.

For more about the Qur’an – about the questions it presents, historical information, structural methods, contextual points, and more – do check out this wonderful (highly recommended) book, made available for free by the iERA [the Islamic Education and Research Academy]: https://iera.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/iERA-The-Eternal-Challenge-Shop-EBook.pdf

The articles in this ‘Notes on the Qur’an’ series will mostly be in bullet-pointed form. I will include, for the articles on individual Surahs (and there are 114 of them!) a link to some live recitation, as well as an English translation [and do bear in mind that English translations are markedly ‘less than’ the essence that can only be conveyed through Arabic – the language it has originally been authored in], followed by some of my own notes, thoughts and findings.

Bueno. Let us begin, then.

Muhammad (SAW)’s Early Life / More Background Info 

  • Muhammad (SAW), son of Abdullah, son of Abdul Muttalib, had been born to the tribe of Quraysh, in Makkah. His father had died before he was born; he was looked after first by his foster mother, Halima tus-Sadia, and, after the death of his mother Āminah (when he was six years old) he had been looked after first by his grandfather Abdul Muttalib, and then (after his grandfather’s death) by his uncle, Abu Tālib.

 

  • The Makkans claimed descent from Abraham through Ishmael (indeed, Arabs today are known as ‘Ishmaelites’, while Jews are known as being ‘Israelites’). The Ka’bah had been built by Abraham for the direction of worship towards One God – a God unimaginable and not wholly intelligible to we mortal and fallible beings, what with our limited frames of reference and capacities for understanding.

 

  • During Abraham and Muhammad (SAW)’s times, respectively and alike, many people had been given to worshipping idols. Indeed, Abraham had used his capacities for reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that his father and those around him had been wrong to direct their worship towards inanimate beings. He left his father’s house, and decided to abandon the culture that he had been born into.

Aristotle had been correct in saying that the thing that separates humankind from other animals is our ability to reason. Our capacities to use logic, to arrive at various conclusions and decisions. Abraham had used his personal reasoning faculties – those abstract processes that we collectively refer to as the ‘mind’ – to arrive at the conclusion of monotheism, even in spite of the fact that everyone around him had been given to other practices. 

Once, when there was nobody inside the community’s temple, Abraham crept inside, and used an axe to destroy the idols there. He demolished all but one of them – the biggest one. He left his axe hanging around this remaining statue’s neck.

When the people had returned to the temple, they expressed shock and anger, demanding to know who had done this to their ‘Gods’. Abraham wittily told them to ask their ‘God’ over there – the one with the axe around his neck. They responded to this by arguing that doing so would be absurd: the idol cannot speak, cannot hear, cannot defend itself. So Abraham questioned them: why do you worship it, then? 

Abraham’s claims made sense to them. There is One God, [and it is not in the (current) nature of the finite to comprehend He who is Infinite] and He is the Source and the Cause, and the only one who is worthy of worship. Even though this message of Oneness (Tawhid – Pure Monotheism) had appealed to the God-given hearts and minds of these people, they had refused to embrace the message, as a result of pride, and because idol-worship had been the practice of their forefathers. So they became the rejectors – Kuffar [linguistically, ‘Kāfir’ comes from the linguistic root meaning, ‘to cover up’. To know the truth in one’s heart, but yet rejecting it, not rushing to embrace it, refusing to activate it, as a result of things like pride and pride in antithetical traditions].

The opposite of a ‘Kāfir’ is a ‘Munāfiq’ – a hypocrite. One who, by flipped contrast, does not accept Islam in his own mind and heart, yet outwardly claims to be a Muslim.

  • Modern idol worship: We are told to worship none but Allah (SWT) – the giver and the sustainer of life. To worship something or someone is to devote one’s life to it; to think about it often, to make decisions in light of it, and to commit physical acts of servitude towards it. In modern times, it is not very common to worship idols in the sense of their being shiny or clay statues with anthropomorphic features. Rather, the idol worship of today tends to take a more abstract form: people worship (the interrelated) notions of capitalism, materialism, individualism, and more. Terrifying, and terrifyingly normalised.

You know what? Nowadays, much like how Abraham had been ostracised for his beliefs, we tend to see those who actually, devotedly, adhere to Pure Monotheism (Islam) as being ‘strange’, or ‘uncool’, or ‘no fun’. But look around: everyone is worshipping something. Some worship materialistic delusions; some worship their own reputations; some worship women; some worship capitalist structures; all these abstract ideas, these ghostly idols. These things that, rather like the idols that Abraham himself could destroy with an axe, cannot really love you back in the same way. They either have no power to, or it is not in their interest to.

Would you not rather devote yourself to the Creator of the Universe?

It is not irrational to do so – (even if the rest of the entire world manages to convince you that it is): it is quite the opposite, actually.

  • Muhammad (SAW) had received revelations over a period of twenty-three years. It is important to note that, for the first thirteen of these years, the Muslims had found themselves under much persecution and humiliation, and facing ostensible failure, coupled with unfulfilled prophecies. These had been the ‘Makkan’ years. The following ten years had been remarkably different to the pre-Hijrah period. These years had been marked by a number of consecutive (and miraculous-seeming) successes. Ultimately, this one man – a shepherd, who had been offered riches and even royalty on the condition that he ceased from his preaching – managed to alter the very fabric of pre-Islamic Arabia:

In the latter ten years, Muhammad (SAW) had turned Arabia from being a society centred on idol-worship, misogyny (where baby daughters had been buried alive, and where women had the social and legal statuses of mere chattels), drunkenness, ignorance, rampant vanity, senseless violence and other immoralities, into one where men loved God, sincerity, honesty, and knowledge.

Rather interestingly, the Surahs that had been revealed in Makkah are the ones that focus on the human soul. On the command to prostrate to God, and to God alone. Pre-Hijrah, Muhammad (SAW) had been a preacher only. By a series of fortunate twists, however, he ended up becoming the ruler of a state, which then later grew to become the empire of Arabia.

The Surahs that had been revealed in Madinah contain a different nature of guidance, for the most part: they give guidance not only to the individual human soul, but to a growing social and political community, and to the Prophet as lawgiver, reformer, and an example for mankind to follow.

I really do believe that it is important to focus on the individual soul, one’s personal relationship with God, before concerning ourselves too much with the community aspect of things, though both are certainly important.

  • (Human) Reason, and Revelation are the two lights of guidance that we have been granted. We must use them wisely.

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

The Allostatic Curve

This article has been written at the request of a certain young lady who goes by the name of Tasnim. Therefore, this article is dedicated to a certain young lady who is called…Tasnim. 

 

Stress. That feeling. The biological push, an instinctual thing that urges us to get something done about something. Fight, flight, or freeze.

‘Stress’ is not a bad thing in and of itself. It can be an excellent motivational force, when experienced in moderation. Aside from urgent biological threats (e.g. the intense ‘stress’ we may feel when some threat of physical attack looms before us) we tend to stress about things we care about.

A drive to get things done, always towards some end goal, towards some overarching philosophy. You might experience some stress when thinking about your to-do list. “I need to get these tasks done. Send this email. Check this essay.” Why? “Because the deadlines are coming up. I don’t want to be scolded by my teacher.” Why? “Because I care about my education. It adds some meaning to my life; it is a part of me, and a part that I fear losing.” 

‘Eustress’ (‘good’ stress) is, well, good. Without it, we probably would not do much at all. We would not care about doing things. With eustress (see: the left side of the given curve – a theoretical curve that shows stress that is good; where this peaks; then, where it falls – where the stress becomes more harmful than ‘good’) we are driven to carry out the work-related tasks we need to complete [we care about doing well, about not losing our jobs, about maintaining our social reputations and our self-expectations] and we are also motivated to, for example, pray on time, feed babies on time, and to do things for the people we love.

In our heads, we think about the potential rewards of doing certain things, and about potential negative reinforcements and punishments if we fail to do them. The stress, I believe, comes mostly from the latter. And also from the internal and self-inflicted punishment that may arise, if we end up missing out on the rewards, or if we end up losing certain things – like our jobs, or our statuses, or beloved elements of our identities.

The allostatic curve is probably quite an important thing to bear in mind. It is also probably a very subjective thing: some people work better than others do when under lots of stress. What is represented by the ‘optimum point’ on one person’s curve may be different to that of another person.

And, beyond our optimum points, we can quickly descend into harmful stress: the type that may, for example, result in sleeplessness, psychosomatic pains, and more. The key difference is that eustress tends to result in action and ensuing satisfaction from this action. ‘Bad stress’ – after the optimal point – tends to result in inaction. Worrying so much, for example, that suddenly, stress ends up doing the opposite of what its ‘job’, so to speak, is to do.

Threat, stress, action, resultBut, sometimes, there are no obvious courses of action to take, against certain perceived threats. This is when stress can balloon, multiply; it has nowhere to go, unfortunately. Nowhere to go but everywhere inside of your mind. Somehow, we need to teach ourselves to mentally minimise these particular ‘threats’ – the more abstract ones.

Moreover, I do not think that stress is an inherently bad thing – again, when experienced in moderation – but I do prefer it when there is also a good helping of that other sort of motivational force. Call it passion, maybe. Stress may make us worry about letting a friend down when they have tasked us with something, because we do not want to disappoint them; we do not want to compromise the friendship in any way. But that other type [passion?] makes us joyfully run towards doing certain things, because we cannot wait to see the smile on their face when we do this thing for them. Yes, stress is about the avoidance of negative reinforcements, driven by thoughts of negativity. Passion is about positive reinforcements – about a drive towards gaining something, maybe a new lovely experience.

Doing things towards love and towards a want to be appreciated: I do not think these forces count as being ‘stress’-based ones. Also: simply enjoying the process. Stress may drive you towards completing work-based tasks and such [which is great when in moderation – if it helps you to get the required things done, on time, and if it prevents all those potential negative consequences from eventuating]. But passion will make you enjoy the process, too!

Furthermore, I came across an interesting idea [I forget where I came across it, though, as I tend to do] that general considerations concerning the allostatic curve ought to be reflected in one’s day. The calm part in the morning, some eustress – preparing you, building up, for an optimum point. This might be during midday, when we should aim to be the most productive. And then, wind down time. It is certainly a bad idea, for instance, to put pressure on oneself to experience one’s optimal performance immediately, right at the start of one’s day, or right before one intends to go to sleep…

So, the allostatic curve then. A wonderful idea, and something that is very useful to think about, especially right now, in a busy world driven, so it would seem, by freneticism and stress. The health component, and the passion one, ought to be deeply considered, too.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Ageing

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

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

I hope I do accept it gracefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Insha Allah!].

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

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Forgiveness

“It’s okay — I forgive you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 seconds left. 3, 2, 1.

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

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Concise Compositions: Privacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sadia Ahmed J. 2020

 

And what might it feel like, to Die?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Moving

There is something that is rather special about this generation of ours. I am saying this, now, amid the period of the notorious coronavirus, and of the race-related uprisings. I am saying this having finished watching ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ – a series that looks at prominent social issues in what might be seen as a rather ‘raw’ way – and while partaking in a Zoom seminar organised by a friend of mine, on the topic of ‘Racial Disparities in Mental Healthcare’. 

I may be generalising massively here, but just look at us. We are young, and, yes, we feel a little damaged. There is a fire within us, though, and oh, how it burns. We are trying so hard to be more real, and to be better. A heightened sense of empathy, and a willingness to learn and to self-educate are what characterise us. We yearn for justice, and for healing; we care about dismantling all those frameworks that fail to serve us.

We are the children of immigrants; of religious Facebook users; of helplessly devoted ‘what-will-people-think?’-ers. Of people who are ostensibly quite afraid of their own selves, and of truly facing themselves; who have shaped our worlds to seem as though what might matter most may be… how publicly consumable it all is, or may appear to be… that the ‘undesirable’ things simply go away if you put them away somewhere; if you just paint pretty pictures on top of the rot, perhaps.

Some of them had been jealous; fiercely competitive; often quite emotionally unintelligent. What a mess, with all due respect, we find that they had made. Now, we are here, and we are trying to pick up all the pieces, in the best ways we find we can.

My beloved generation: we speak, often, of matters of race, and of gender. Of anxiety and depression. Some may say we talk about these things far too much, but I mean… why wouldn’t we? We know, from firsthand experience, how ineffective, how damaging, the whole stiff-upper-lip pretend-it’s-not-happening-and-it-will-simply-go-away thing. We are saying, we are fed up of it; of all of it.

Yes, as children, we often ‘played pretend’. Now, though, we are members of the real world – decidedly in it, decidedly of it.

People are suffering quite deeply in this world, and all around it. And maybe it is true that we do not want to pretend anymore; these grand lies, we find that they are irredeemable. The preceding generations – maybe (it could be that) many of their actions had stemmed from some really good intentions, but… they had surely lied to us about certain things.

Did you know, for instance, that the average [American] high school student of today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient from the 1950s? [Leahy]

What had all these dreams really been, that they had been selling us all this time, and why are we finding so many faults upon seemingly arriving at all of it? Why is darker skin still being frowned upon; why do we see some individuals as being superior to others on the basis of mere lineage; why do they say that women who demonstrate femininity in certain ‘other’ ways are somehow ‘doing it irrevocably wrong’?

Why do they tell us that we are intrinsically ‘not enough’, and why do they convince us that mere ‘hard work’ might allow us to ‘make up for it’, somehow?

We are angry,

and rightfully so, methinks. And how can we learn to be angry, but in ways that are with grace, and not without it?

I want my generation to know that we are absolutely ‘enough’ already. I say, we must try not to take much advice nor criticism from those whom we undoubtedly do not want to become like. We start from here, and from ourselves. Self-regulation and self-improvement are wonderful things to commit to, but we must start from ourselves, rather than from expectations that may be utterly alien to who we are, whom we cannot otherwise be — at least, not without the presences of myriad internal conflicts and detrimental frictions.

It is not a shameful thing to struggle – as humans do [and nor is it a bad thing to just write, or paint, or sing badly, sometimes!]. Furthermore, it is the farthest thing from repulsive, to allow ourselves to be real — to begin from there.

“I am human; I consider nothing that is human to be alien to me.”

– Terence 

I think it’s really interesting, actually, how the best conversations of all are those ones that just feel like they are the most ‘real’: the ones, I suppose, that do not stem from premises of obsessions with particular image constructions and/or maintenances.

Human beings are really quite… awfully real things… and I kind of love that about us — don’t you?

And it is true that some of the stuff of these lives of ours can be quite humouring at times. What a wonderful thing laughter is: it is emblematic of a body failing to contain its own joy!

But – and – life is also necessarily grief, and this, too, must be known. Sorry to be morbid here, but life, in addition to those moments of simple glee… it is also the thought that, within this lifetime of yours, you may have to attend the funerals of one beloved person or two. Things begin; they end. But we must always have faith in the things that may come after them.

You know, it is rather cool indeed that no two moments in our lives will ever be – nor even look – the same. And we shall never again get this very time back – never again.

And this day, much like Life itself, it is going, going, (gone). I really hope that, in the meantime, the waiting days, and on these days of action and of adventure…

I hope love, even on the days that you feel intensely lonely — I hope it finds you in all those little moments between the confusion and the grief, interweaved between all of Life’s gifted damages, a satin ribbon.

I hope we always find it within ourselves to be brave, and to be honest, and, dare I say: this, in a beautiful way. You know, there is much beauty in you; nobody else does Beauty the way you do. So, from here, may we begin, and, no matter what, may we never lose ourselves;

and as ourselves, may we keep moving, and breathing, and being.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

On Jealousy

Jealousy, envy, covetousness. Feeling (perhaps fiercely) protective over one’s own possessions, or, indeed, over one’s perceived possessions – such as social statuses and particular positive characteristics that are heightened, relatively, when compared to those of others. Or, resentfully yearning for the things – or the particular hues and degrees of these things – that others may have. Beauty, wealth, intelligence, material achievements, personality, attention from a particular individual, perceived likability. These are all things one can feel rather jealously protective of in oneself, and/or covetous for, in our perceptions of others. 

Almost indubitably, we have all come under the Green-Eyed Monster’s cunning clutch at some point in our lives, becoming either a tad obsessively territorial (maybe following the birth of a new baby sibling, whose newness, whose effortlessly adorable countenance threatened to steal away the parental doting that we had previously held a monopoly over), or feeling rather helplessly inadequate, perhaps when witnessing a crush seemingly flirtatiously conversing with (gasp!) somebody who isn’t you! 

Insecurity – that is the word (especially when it comes immoderate levels of jealousy/envy) here. And protectiveness – that is the other word. Feelings of jealousy and/or envy are not, in and of themselves, the worst things in the world. They are actually rather ‘natural’, instinctive, a fairly universal human emotional phenomenon. And, as a matter of fact, such feelings can actually prove fairly useful at times: a jealous protectiveness over one’s academic status at school, for example, can really motivate an individual to work very industriously indeed. Envy can also inspire a little, can motivate people to realise their desires to be better in various ways.

In Islam, for instance, men are indeed encouraged to have Gheerah – a kind of protective jealousy – over their womenfolk. This is not to say that they should be oppressive nor abusive in any way. The term encompasses a sense of earnest care and concern, combined with a certain degree of protective zeal. We should want to protect the things we have rights over and/or responsibilities towards. We should also take inspiration from people who have the things we ourselves wish to have: a good work ethic, a certain professional position…

But these things can, and often do, quickly slip into such uglinesses. Men, for example, can become quite abusive and obsessive under the guise of Gheerah. People can work themselves up into ongoing furies as a result of envy and envy-related ruminations. Jealousy, jealousy, jealousy. It can be a rather suffocating ordeal to be the object of it; it can be a potentially equally torturous thing to be the one whose mind generates it.

In Islam, we accept that all blessings are from God, and that no person is superior to another (not in terms of race, nor ancestry, wealth, gender, or other factors) except as a result of piety and good action. The ultimate objective – Heaven – is open for everyone, non-finite in this regard. This is the ultimate goal, the lasting Peace and Happiness. Everything good in this world (according to a Hadith, is either an adornment or a provision and) can be a tool to getting there; on the flip side, these things can lead to us becoming arrogant, and to our losing sight of what is truly important.

On this Earth, youthful beauty does fade, and intelligence can just become a dormant and futile thing if not used. Wealth does not buy lasting happiness: it can quickly just be wasted, and the super-wealthy can be overcome by intense boredom and restlessness. We can find ourselves piling these things up, spending our time being jealous and envious. But eventually, all of it goes away. In the case of wealth, for example, it all may go to those who come after you, while your corpse rots in its grave [apologies for the morbidity here, but hashtag reality].

“If you are grateful to me, I will surely increase you [in favour]”

– Holy Qur’an, (14:7)

Maybe it is true that we all want to be unique, special, somehow. And when the perceived ‘things that make us special’ come, in our eyes, under attack as a result of competition (or, indeed, if we long to be ‘special’ in a particular way, but feel inadequate, and feel a heightened sense of this inadequacy when we juxtapose ourselves with people who have what we wish we could have had) we become a little hyper-competitive, aggressive, maybe a tad unreasonable.

But if this is a fear of yours (losing your ‘uniqueness’, your ‘specialness’) fear less, for you are you. To quote Dr. Seuss, “There is no one alive who is you-er than you”.

You are entirely unique – in terms of all your experiences, thoughts, the daily reality of being you. It is futile to compare you to another (although it could, at times, be useful to isolate a particular habit or behavioural trait, and look to others’ expressions of the same thing as a source of inspiration).

You must be easier on yourself, and fairer on any person who may be the object of your jealous or envious tendencies, too. Humanity certainly has its good parts – its golden, shinier parts. But all human beings also trip up and fall; must use the toilet on a daily basis; eventually… die. In honouring our humanness, we must know that we – and they – are not computers, nor dolls, nor anything else that is materially possess-able, manufactured via machines, or quite predictable. We are never-ending projects. There is good and bad in you, and the same (but expressed differently) in them.

God has decreed for you to have certain challenges and certain blessings; other people too – irrespective of who they may be – have their blessings and their challenges. Allah (SWT) is the granter of blessings, and He is also the one who is testing us – through our blessings and our challenges: through our intentions and actions. 

Ultimately, the only real competition you have in this life is… yourself. Your own bad habits, your own limiting beliefs, perhaps some of your own delusional ways of thinking [e.g. the quality of my life would be so much better if I just looked like him, or if I were as photogenic as her]. We all want to improve our personal experiences of Life; we are all in this pursuit of Happiness. But drastic changes – like suddenly coming into the possession of much wealth, or becoming the most academically adept person, or beginning to look like an Insta-model: in reality, these things might bring you a high or two. And then, perhaps, some secondary highs from the external validation you may receive. But eventually, our minds seek to normalise all novelties. It all just becomes ‘daily life’, nothing special, to you. You can observe this phenomenon in many people you may admire or envy because they are very beautiful, or very intelligent, or very materially successful. Many of these people just become used to themselves and their lives; what we see as enviable and special in them, they may simply overlook. And likewise, there may be some very wonderful, externally very admirable or enviable things in you that you are prone to overlooking as a result of familiarity with yourself.

Jealousy and envy can push a man – or a woman – to do crazy, heinous things: things like repeatedly violating a partner’s right to privacy by rummaging through their personal belongings; displaying otherwise obsessive and stalker-ish tendencies; displaying abusive behaviours; torrentially slandering the objects of one’s envy, thus leveraging social power over them in their absence, seeking ways to belittle them, to make yourself seem ‘better’ than them, in some respects, by comparison. And, of course, there is that timelessly obnoxious habit that can arise when one becomes a little too intrigued by another person’s being and achievements: interrogation, excessive questioning, wanting to find out about them and their lives, as much as you can…

There is a fine line between sentiments of admiration and those of envy. This line, so it would seem, is remarkably easy to cross. Even when it comes to ostensibly harmless feelings of admiration for a person, one finds oneself treading on dangerous ground. Why? Because when you put human beings upon imaginative pedestals, you essentially dehumanise them. The human imagination is an exceptionally creative thing. You may begin to ascribe features and ideas to this person that are not necessarily true. In doing so, you are not being very fair to them [for they are a fellow human being, and are thus flawed, unbelievably complex, multifaceted] nor are you being very fair to yourself, seeing yourself as being ‘far less’ than they are.

Today’s celebrity culture certainly unabashedly promotes things like the idolisation of people, and envy, and focusing on things like others’ beauty, relationship statuses, and levels of wealth. Audiences wait with bated breath, sharklike, waiting for a person to slip up. Media outlets forever find themselves gathering evidence – reasons to place certain people on some sort of spectacular angelic plane – while also seeking reasons to debase them – perhaps partially as a result of collective envy, to demolish the pillars that might hold these people’s pedestals up. All this happens on this wider scale, and it can tend to happen on far smaller interpersonal ones, too.

“One is not a Muslim until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”

– Prophet Muhammad (SAW)

And, of course, demonstrating the above can be hard at times. If you pride yourself on being the funniest or the prettiest or the smartest in the room (or whatever else) for instance, jealousy can overcome you. You may end up displaying some hostility towards someone else who happens to also be rather funny or beautiful or academically competent. But we need to have faith and trust in Allah. We must seek to overcome our egos and to support others; indeed, according to the Qur’an, the reward for excellence (and of related self-overcoming) is “nothing but excellence”. And we must seek to be good to the people and to be grateful to God; verily, He multiplies blessings.

Interestingly, another Hadith tells us that when we pray for good for others, an angel within our proximity says, “And for you, the same.” 

Remember, firstly, that there is more than enough beauty, enough wisdom and intelligence, enough positive character traits, to go around! 

And, secondly, know you are the custodian of your own life; spending your time attempting to peer into others’ lives does not really do anything good for yours.

So, the jealousy cure, then: a tranquility-giving concoction of trust; acceptance of Divine Decree; remembrance of the nature of life as being a test (both in terms of our tribulations, and in terms of [what we do as a result of] our blessings); expressing gratitude to God and asking Him for His protection over the blessings we have; accepting that we can be prone to cognitive distortions (e.g. when, as a result of distance, we come to believe that some people’s lives are pretty much perfect; that appearances are more substantial than substance itself); praying for and working towards the things we would like to have (while knowing that we are indeed each unique. One person’s beauty or intelligence will naturally look rather different to another’s); accept that it is okay to take inspiration from others, but you are you:

focus on yourself. 

 

Addendum: I do believe that many jealousy and envy issues can stem from childhood. This is just an observation, but it would appear as though many only children and first children are more territorial – more jealous – than others. This may be because they are more used to ‘not sharing’ things, and to being ‘special’.

Moreover, it may be true that those with envy issues want what others have a lot of the time because they were compared to other children by caregivers in childhood; made to feel inadequate – like they were lacking, while others were not.

Of course, this ties into what I speak about a lot – questions of Free Will and Blameworthiness. Envy is seen as a ‘destroyer of deeds’ [Hadith] in Islam. But to what extent does he or she have agency over such sentiments? Insha Allah I hope to delve further into such questions in a (near) future article.


Sadia Ahmed J., 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