Puzzle Pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Once in a lifetime, these moments do come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(until the End, that is).

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

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

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

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

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

which we are thoroughly fortunate enough to call our own?


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

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

The Roaring Twenties

The autumnal season always seems to bring along with it this potent impression of… renewal, does it not? Life, continuing just as it does, and yet, also starting all over again. A Janus season, this one: this sense of beginning and ending, at precisely the same time. Subtly electrifying, comfortingly poignant. The way the trees suddenly, both modestly and in a way that demands our attention, burn up into all these shades of red and orange, interspersed between fading, yellowing, greens. Autumn, I think, very much epitomises what this first life of ours, for us, is like; it powerfully demonstrates the states in which we, in this Dunya, exist. Half-sad, and yet, equally, half-ablaze with the quietly brilliant stuff of aliveness. Wonder and mundanity, dreariness and colour. And we find that things can be more than one thing  — can even be a thing as well as its very opposite, at the very same time — at any given time. 

Autumn is filled both with the sighs of tiredness, of nostalgia, and all the rest of it — and with sharp inhalations of excitement, novelty. What a perfect season in which to consciously savour the old, to reflect upon what has gone. It is also an apt time for regeneration: an emergent shoot upon an otherwise dying rose plant. Dark greens, browned, and then: lime green, all new and hopeful. So the plant is, at once, dying, dwindling, and reborn, anew. A new spring in its step, even amid, birthed from between, autumn’s rainy gusts, its approaching winters.

 

Two months left, for me, before the period of my life that shall be hailed as my ‘twenties’, arrives — the roaring twenties, these reputedly momentous years. And foundational, apical ones, too. Years of matured youthfulness, of lots of important decision-making, apparently. [According to the Islamic tradition, one is considered to be ‘young’, a ‘youth’, until the time of one’s fortieth birthday…]

 

Some people I know, or know of, who are in their twenties, are already investing in anti-ageing creams and serums and such. Taking their health — and ‘Beauty’, which is arguably Health’s main medium of manifestation — very seriously indeed. Gym days and Keto. And, also, ‘hustling’, and money-making. A need to make as much money as one can, with such ‘entrepreneurial zeal’, and to then save it up. 

Someone I know has discussed with me her desire to freeze her eggs in the near future. Fertility concerns: apparently half of the eggs we are born with are gone by the age of twenty-one… Another girl I once knew is now married, has already had children of her own. Many others are currently at university, will then begin job-seeking, or… -‘hunting’ (for it can all prove to be a rather difficult and aggressive endeavour, so it seems: this deciding on, and subsequently finding, an occupational role). Many twenty-somethings ‘get work done’ on their outer selves, too — on their lips, their skin, the curvatures of their bodies. Some go out to party quite a lot; ‘live it up’ outside of, so far away from, theirselves. Some young men will find that their hairlines are already beginning to recede; some will start to grow out their beards very soon. Many find that they are surgically attached to their phones, to social media. Most are fundamentally confused. Many are in quiet, intense competition with the next man, or woman; they are setting themselves up for a lifetime of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, of always getting something out of ‘impressing’ others: standing out, being ‘extraordinary’ through titles and possessions and such. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation [H.D.T]. And most are fundamentally confused. Cannot slow down, and nor can they quell all these distractions, for even a small while. Terrified of what might just bubble up to the surface, should they ever choose to ‘deep’ their lives, if even just a little. And so they favour whatever is ‘safe’, more ‘shallow’. Life’s short, they say. Live a little! YOLO!

 

In 1999, it had been the case that roughly 17% of all British women had tried to kill themselves before their twenty-fifth birthday. Now, with proliferating rates of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (intensified by all this filtered imagery that social media encourages and gives rise to), work-related stress conditions, a culture centred on hyper-productivity and -competition, ensuing self-comparisons and deep dissatisfactions, and more, it is almost undoubtable that this figure has, in the eventful two decades since, risen dramatically.

Quietly, secretly, so many of us are hurting as a result of all these unplumbed mismatches between appearances and reality. Profound ironies. But that is okay, because we have drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll, don’t we? We have noise. As well as all these expectations and ideals to live up to, which had never been conceptualised with… truth in mind, in the first place. Nay, for they are, at their very centres, hollow: at their very cores, they breed only the stuff of delusion. Fleeting fancies, hot air. But we can think about all that when we are ‘older’, can’t we?

 

Our twenties will likely be, at least somewhat, a time of existential-everything. Questions, dread. Some people cannot bear to sit alone with themselves, in silence, for even half an hour, you know. Cry whenever they are alone in the bathtub; cannot bear to be home by themselves, either; drown in their own darknesses in the depths of each night. Not even the most ‘stoic’ or ‘macho’ of men can escape nor surmount essential human nature. And, you see, accepting the things that are true about ourselves, and about life, is… okay. Should be okay. It is okay.

 

Most twenty-somethings are dealing with at least one thing that is really rather heavy, for them. Many are recovering from unfavourable childhoods. And it is okay to accept and embrace the truths of these things; it should be okay to speak about them, too. See, the only alternative way is… busying, intoxicating, ourselves with and in delusion. Hiding. But the truth will always gnaw away at us; it is always there. It has a way of always catching up to us, and of doing away with all falsehoods, in the end. Light, by nature, illuminates darkness.

We must come to accept that we are weak and we are strong; we are both, at precisely the same time. 

And so, these urgent invented needs to be filthy rich; to obsessively adhere to a very narrow construction of what it means to be ‘beautiful’ and/or ‘strong’; to have so many things to show [off with] to others. To ‘satisfy’, somehow, prying eyes; to ‘impress’ and ‘outshine’ other people… with mere image-based things, impressions. Excessive focuses on imagined futures, ‘super-‘realities. (Often) furtive addictions, through which the pain is momentarily benumbed; through which to take the edges off, from the truths of these passing days of ours.

 

Oh, what is it all for; towards?

Some moments of praise, applause? — to convince other people through our making the shells look shiny? Do other people hold the keys to the truths of you, to your day-to-day experiences, anyway? Should they ever be granted such power?  

 

Reality, essence, passed through layers of filtering, creating alternative ‘realities’ into which we might quietly slip into, escape. Is everything only… what we can bring it to seem it is? Small talk, deliberate omissions, heavily edited excerpts, simply ‘keeping busy’. Inebriation and suppression. Truth is uncomfortable to face… so why let ourselves think about it ‘too much’, in any case?

Polished surfaces, only, and all these… waxy ventriloquies. Our willingness to, and the ease with which we, accept… ‘not-accepting’… perturbs me. And we will find that, no, we can never actually escape Truth, especially not in the End. 

 

Very recently, a family friend of mine (who is aged twenty-something) got married. A period of celebration: a sacred union, a joyous occasion, a ‘milestone’. She moved into her husband’s home.

Five weeks after their wedding, her spouse passed away, tragically and unexpectedly, as a result of having experienced a haemorrhage in his brain. Five weeks ago, she had been a new wife. And now, she is a new widow. The tinges of orange from her wedding Mendhi had still been on the tips of her fingers at the time of his passing. On the inside of her wedding ring, her late husband had had engraved, in Arabic:

My wife — in Dunya and Ākhirah”. 

 

[May Allah (SWT) reunite the two of them in Jannah, Ameen.]

 

True things, by nature, can withstand even trials by fire. They exist outside of the realm of things that are prone to decay; true things are the opposite of those ones that are rooted in delusion, hot airs. They are, by nature, evergreen. And therefore, it is okay. True love, for example, is essentially strong and everlasting. It is not at all fragile. It will prove itself, time and time again. 

 

“And what is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion?”

— Qur’an, [3:185]

The Reality (and the derivative realities) of Dunya can be rather unsettling to think about — to ‘deep’. But I find comfort in reminders of what is substantial, true. That here is life, here in the Now. That all of (this) life is a series of breaths, and of sighs — a string of ‘imperfect’ moments, Nows. [And… therein lies the charm, no? The character, the meatier stuff that one can actually enjoy really talking about. In the ‘flaws’, the unpredictabilities, the texture, the edges…]

 

Here, we are surely being tested, and everything we do does count.

And every soul shall taste death, this necessary passing on. Through the gates of eternity, and into the lasting world of Home. That Home that our souls are always yearning for, just as they cry not, in this world, for bags of money and such, but for people to share love with, and alongside whom to walk. And for a connection to the natural world, too: with the crumbly earth between one’s fingers, and with spiralling sunflowers — with all these beautiful and unmissable emissaries of truth.

 

How do I fully come to make peace with it all, though? With the fact that I am, at present, quite alive, and that someday I will be dead? With how I am, by nature, quite an idealist; that there will always be a deep yearning for something, from within the very depths of my soul? [Well, of course, I must be, from the core of me, longing after the very abode of idealism — Jannah. “We dance round in a ring and suppose, // But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” [R.F.]]

 

And this worldly life is only pastime and play, and the abode of the hereafter is the real life, if only they knew.”

— Qur’an, [29:64]

How do I reconcile, in my own self, the truths of, for example, impermanence? Of instability, confusion, of how it often does not (yet) all make sense to me? That some people will stay; that others will go? That some interpersonal connections truly are bonds of the soul; that they are immutable; that they will not die, even when one of us do? How do I know which ones are rooted in Truth, and which ones may not truly be so? 

 

“Know that the life of this world is only play and pastime and adornment and mutual boasting amongst you and [the] amassing of wealth and children. Like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris.”

— Qur’an, [57:20]

 

And just what will my twenties be for? 

 

They will be for me, navigating my way through this Dunya, just as the decade preceding them has been for. We find we like to think of life in terms of neat stages, phases. Clear-cut periods: decades and such. The modern state education system, for instance, is centred on the idea that ‘life’ exists in some future; some… nothere, notnow. But, actually, this is all we find we have: a series of yes-heres, and yes-nows. Nothing else. Only these souls of ours, and all this sand-like time we have been gifted with.

 

A month ago, my cousin (twenty-something, too) also got married. While being a student of Law at university; while working, for lengthy hours each week, in retail; while mothering her two siblings who have special needs. Indubitably, she is one of the strongest, most incredible, and kind-hearted, people I have ever come across. Her life, thus far, has been riddled with difficulties. But despite — and, yes, in light of — it all, you see, her soul shines right through. She is a woman whose strength, goodness, and beauty, are True.

Allahummabārik. 

 

I do somehow always find it surprising when things like marriages and graduations take place. Witnessing all the preparatory efforts and such, which precede them [my cousin had been planning her future wedding since around the age of ten!] and then… they simply take place. They finally arrive, and then they go. Just another day. Not ‘underwhelming’, necessarily, no. Just… evidence for how we really ought not to live our lives within daydreams of the ‘future’. The ‘big day’, the new job: all these things, will come. And you will get out of bed, as you do, and you will eat and pray, and all the rest of it. By the end of the day, (just) another day of your life will have passed, as all these days that constitute our lives do…

 

I find I am very interested in education: in how children are taught, and in how — and just what — they learn, from it all. The halcyon days of primary school: when school had been a little community, a mini village of sorts. Where the focus had been, to a great extent, on the present tense: on nurture and development, enjoyment and true learning, far more so than on ‘future careers’ and such. Appreciating children for being alive, just as they are. A home outside of home, primary school had been, just as school really always ought to be. 

And then, secondary school. Where the building and the atmosphere it had accommodated resembled those of… a prison, more so than a ‘small village’. With these new emphases on institutionalised discipline, on sanding personalities, humanity, down. On work, and work, and on even more work, to then take home. People started coming into school sleep-deprived, often sad. But that’s okay, as the new message of school had now become. If you endure all this, you’ll be rich, ‘successful’, and ‘happy’ in the future, someday.

And so we had been indoctrinated with these new ideas of some hallowed ‘future’; with the notion that the days of these ‘futures’ meant far more than those of the present. Attitudes of materialism were heavily inculcated within us, too. You tell a teacher you would like to be a teacher, when you are older. “You can do way more than that!” they, rather ironically, tell you. But just what does ‘more’ even mean

These unfavourable ways of thinking that we are drip-fed through our formal schoolings are both symptomatic of, and actively serve, a society that evidently cares far more about the ‘economy’ and about how we ought to fit into it, (and which buys into foolish fantasies of ‘American Dreams’) than about humanity, about Truth, our souls… 

 

One boy whom I had attended the same secondary school as had passed away in Year Eight, as a result of terminal illness. And so he never even got to see this ‘future’ he had purportedly been in school every day, from 8:30 to 15:15, and which he had purportedly been doing all that homework, for. 

 

In terms of time, the Truth lies very much in the present. We do not know when it will be, that we go. The least schools can do, for all of us, is embrace and embody these facts; encourage attitudes of realism, present contentment, teach us how to navigate through life’s many (inevitable, inevitably ongoing) struggles. They should operate on the bases of kindness, and nurture. Call me idealistic, unrealistic, here, but I really do think schools should continue to be, for students, homes outside of home, even after primary school. School is where young people are made to spend the majority of their time, and thus, of their youths, at; school is where, for instance, children who live in abusive households, both seek, and deserve, much comfort, individual appreciation, an organic sense of belonging. It should not all be about sacrificing present contentment for some mythical ‘glorious futures’. But I digress, I guess. 

 

I just do not want for my twenties to be all about… running for a train I will never quite be able to catch. This would appear to be what many people do, and this is quite an alarming phenomenon, in my opinion. 

 

As well as all those more ‘spiritual’, existential-type questions that one’s twenties may traditionally be characterised by, there are also the other rather pressing ones, surrounding what to do. What, whom, to ‘be’. I really do believe that the best decisions, in these regards, are made when we put considerations of Purpose and Passion(s) right at the forefront. And, also, through following the maxim of ‘being whom [we] needed when [we] were younger’ — whom we ‘needed’, in both senses of the word. Who had been there, in our lives, if only briefly, and whose presence(s) we had really valued. And/or, who had not been there, but whose presence(s) we would have had really valued. 

A very encouraging older sibling, perhaps. A youth worker who had been there for us. A teacher who had taught us something about life, or about ourselves, that we would never, from then on, forget. A lawyer, perhaps, who had spoken to us reassuringly during, say, a parental divorce. A doctor who had displayed, towards us, a great level of care and compassion. An uncle or aunt whose home had always been open to us. A movie character — or a handful of them — whom we had been drawn to, and whose occupations and such, and their own individual ways of carrying out their roles, had inspired us deeply. 

I wish to emulate, in terms of their noble characteristics and actions, the people (including the fictional ones!) whose presence(s) had meant something to me. Who had taught me something important, or who had instilled some hope within me; who had told me something I really needed to hear: valuable presences. 

 

Recently, I had been fortunate enough to meet a fellow teacher who really inspires me. The good energy she seems to radiate; her evident love of and passion for learning. The good humour through which she connects with her students. And, crucially, her centred-ness. Khayr is usually found in the middle of things: through balance, through being centred, as she reminded me.

She seems to be rooted in Deen; does not seem to be always-in-a-rush. When she is here, she is here. She grew up between Algeria, (a mountainous region in) Spain, and Egypt; in Algeria, she had witnessed the bloodied brutalities of the Civil War. In Spain, she would go hiking with her grandfather almost every day. She cares an awful lot about nutrition; her mother is a naturopath. And her idea of worldly success — as she is courageous enough to deeply embrace, in spite of all these strong forces that may encourage her to think otherwise — is what she already has. Her job as a teacher, her family, and gardening. In a society that is so hell-bent on notions of ‘outdoing’ others, being (in terms of our shells, what we can most concisely, conveniently present before others) ‘extraordinary’ and ‘exceptional’… Perhaps being so centred is quite revolutionary, really. Being ‘special’ really is an ‘inside’ thing, in truth; a soul-based one. She — this awesome and radiant teacher who would appear to be just a tad obsessed with going to Tesco so as to purchase snacks — just longs to eventually get out of and away from the city, really [the city is designed with mainly industry, and with the ‘economy’, in mind. It can very easily, and often does, make soulless, tired, workaholic robots out of human men and women. I find I very much agree with these views of hers… Offices are like animal cages, drenched in lifelessness and misery. Harsh lighting, caffeination. A potted orchid plant — a measly attempt to make up for the callousness against the human soul that the office fundamentally embodies.] 

 

I now know that, throughout this life of mine, I will be faced with tests, and I will also encounter new blessings, Insha Allah. But actually, they are one and the same, are they not? For we are tested through our blessings, too; we are, though we may not currently know just how, also blessed through our tests. 

“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient/steadfast”

— Qur’an, [2:155]

Perhaps, Bi’ithnillah, I will die in the coming year. Or maybe I will remain alive throughout this newly dawning decade. Some days I will experience a little more sadness than on other days, and maybe on some days I will be more scared or confused. Throughout these years, though, there will be moments of joy, of peace, of happiness, Insha Allah. All will be well, in the present and in the end, so long as I hold on to all that is true (and good, and beautiful). And, in a way that, I hope, does not sound too narcissistic, in response to those ceaseless questions of what I wish to be in the future… I want to be whom and what I already am. The fabric of the worldly life will remain the same throughout, too. Always a set of blessings, and always a filled space for problems, issues, frictions, worries. And to find peace and centred-ness in Truth, and in my own truths (without feeling a need to anxiously accommodate for, nor internalising, others’ responses to it all) — this is what I want for myself. 

 

These autumnal months are the ones that the soul, I think, instinctively warms towards. These striking, undeniably (though sometimes quietly) gorgeous months of warmth, of reminding oneself of what truly matters; of what this life truly is. Its very fabric: brushstrokes of happy, tinges of sad, often at precisely the same time. Fading away just as it all comes alive. Is this not what it is, also, to be human?

 

That evening, even though we felt cold and were bleary-eyed: we came outside, and we got to see the stars again. Fingertips freezing, but there our souls had been, in full force, subtly ablaze. We were reminded of those smaller — and larger — facts of our existence. The deep blessings that begin, perhaps, with our capacities for breathing: and the flower-like structures that line our lungs. The knowledge of how water is known to connect us with everything else, upon this planet, that is alive. And how these souls of ours: these immaterial, unifying, experience-and-reason-facilitating vessels of ours… How they are eternal, and undeniable. And how they are true.  

How, even on those nights in which we might forget to pay much heed to those celestial bodies overhead — and even when the leaves, rather like secret stories penned upon little crinkled coloured pieces of paper — when they begin to fall… What will remain, and what actually carries meaning, are our souls. And, of course, their connections: to other sempiternal souls, and indeed, most crucially, to sempiternal Truth.

Money will enter our pockets, but at some point, we find, we must part from it. The praises of others may bring a wisp — or a hundred — of satisfaction. But this fades too. So may our focuses be on what ultimately remains, matters. 

 

I want for my life to be about tending to whatever is ever-true. The things that, when these presently tangible, quantifiable, material Dunya things fall to dust, will come to reveal the truths of their weightiness, significance. Substantiality. For what is presently untouchable is not necessarily presently unknowable: the soul has its own ‘eyes’ through which it sees, too. Sabr, Taqwa, ‘Ilm, Salāh, love, and all else that is true. I hope these twenties — if I am to be permitted to live through them — will be years of centring myself on reality, essence, Truth. 

 

Every soul must taste death, and they will be receiving their rewards on the Day of Resurrection, so whomever is removed from the fire and entered into the garden is successful, and the life of this world is only a passing provision.” 

— Qur’an, [3:185]

“You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves. And you will surely hear from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse. But if you are patient/steadfast and fear/are conscious of Allah – indeed, that is of the matters [worthy] of determination.”

 

Oneness, in recognition of, and thus in submission to, the One. May my twenties be a period of using what I have, over these years, learnt; a period of synthesis, of accepting and embodying what is real (and all of Truth’s derivative truths — quiet beauty, true goodnesses — also). 

 

Your soul, dear reader, is absolutely, undeniably, your core: the Truth of you. And the life of this world, complete with its mystifying ablaze-with-auburn trees, has its own soul, a non-visible yet all-encompassing truth, too. We speak of notions of meaning, of purpose, of direction and success; each of these concepts… they do not come from nothing, and nor is it to nothing they return. 

Throughout this life, in this impermanent abode of ours, we will always have things to be grateful for: the stuff of the soul, in particular. But this world is not Home, for us, although some of the people we come to love, here, may (Insha Allah) be segments of it, for here, and also, later, for There. With them, we walk along these (sometimes rather rugged) paths of ours. And here, we also have our capacities for patience, the capacities through which to maintain our relationships with our Creator, via prayer and other forms of remembrance. 

We will always, in this world, experience difficulty: mankind has certainly been created in hardship: Kabad. An ongoing state of incompleteness, experiences of grief, and of fear, and of sorrows and regret. Longing, longing, pangs of pain. Here, as you will find, you will need to be brave. And honest, I think. Loving, and hopeful.

Because the aforesaid displeasures, obstacles, are only facets of the worldly life through which we must walk, in order to get to the Lasting Attainment. Here, in this world, lies the means — dynamism, a journey — not the end.

 

And so, with all this in mind, dear reader, I ask you:

What is your journey — your adventure, your quest — to Jannah looking like? 

 


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Freedom

Freedom is not about being completely untethered to anything at all. We are human beings; we cannot be wholly self-sufficient. We rely on things like gravity to keep us grounded, and food to keep us going. Being independent of all other things is not what freedom — in the sense of the word that is actually good for us — is.

I think freedom is about being tethered to what is Khayr — good. Everything else — whatever is not good for the soul — we are held hostage under. We are all subjugated beneath at least one thing. This fact in and of itself is not something we can run from. The key question is: under what? 

The unquestioning obedience to authority that schools sometimes teach. Others’ judging eyes. Systems and people that do not actually love us. Mistruths. These can weigh us down.

But in true religion, one finds honour in what one submits to.

The best, probably most-used, metaphor for freedom is the imagery of birds. They use their wings, and they fly. But… notice these white-tailed eagles, taking their places in flight, between mountain peaks. Notice how they are not wholly self-reliant. They extend and contract their wings over and again, for a while. And then, gracefully and with such trust, they know to also rely on the wind for a while.

Freedom is flying, but it does not mean ‘independence’. If we expect the bird to only rely on its own flapping wings, it will become exhausted; it may continue to fly for a while, but ultimately to the detriment of its own self.

In life, we will have our wings. And the natures we are bound by. And, for true — what we may term, ‘freedom’ —

who and what will our wind be?


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Concise Compositions: Community

Community. Villages and the like come into mind. How things are done in the rural parts of Bangladesh, for example. My grandad’s village in Sylhet: surrounded by rice fields and lakes. There are several housing estates. He shares his one with the families of his two brothers. My grandfather’s house is in the middle; his brothers’ are on either side of his. There is a passage connecting the three of them, for the rainier days, when members of each of the households want to spend time with one another.

The community mentality – which, I would argue, all of us need and seek – is strong, over there. In the joint celebrations; when it is fishing season; when it is monsoon season. The men go out to work on the farm together, and some strong bonds are nurtured through this. Sometimes, they go to village cricket matches together; ride their motorbikes along dangerous cliff-sides. The women sing together, sometimes. Swim in the lake, do Mendhi on each other’s hands, go to ‘town’ for shopping, filter the rice grains together. The children of the families walk to school together.

That is the key word, in matters of ‘community’: ‘together’. It is about daily doings, while feeling like you are part of something. There are bedrooms for private time; things can be done alone, if desired. But, for the most part, it is nice to know that there is a reliable community around you. This is what we all need.

We don’t really want to be atomised; to feel alone. The effects of the feeling of being alienated are devastating for the human spirit. Feeling like you are on this spinning planet alone, and that there is no good community structure to run back to; to lighten some of the load for you, to enjoy your days with.

Sometimes, I think, we do things too selfishly, considering only ourselves and our ‘own’ lives. We forget just how dependent we have been designed to be, on others. There is an element of individualism in each of us that should be honoured, yes, but this in the greater context of community!

Sisterhood and brotherhood. Friendship, marriage. Being colleagues. United in something. Truly feeling like we belong to communities, I think, necessitates time (and space) spent together, things to bond over, challenges faced together, and more. A community unit, a number of individuals with their own personalities and roles, held together by something.

Community: I think this is where humanity comes most alive; we were made for it. We cannot do without it. In the absence of true community, we may seek it in ‘para-social’ relationships. Often, in this ‘modern’ world of ours, it is hard to be part of a consistent and love-connected human community.

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

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Shades of Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subhan Allah. 

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

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Tomorrow

Dear friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And tomorrow shall be

 

Day One.

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

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

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

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

 

Dear friend,

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

And Day Zero could be today; Day One tomorrow. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

On Weddings and Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

On Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020