Concise Compositions: Gratitude

What does it mean to be grateful?

Gratitude is good for the human being; for the soul. And I really do believe that choosing to have (and focus on) fewer things necessarily makes way for higher feelings of gratitude. This does not mean that one needs to make one’s lifestyle all bare and boring. Rather, one perhaps ought to minimise, and retain the things that are of value.

Minimalism makes way for more gratitude primarily because, well, we can only truly appreciate a particular amount or number of stuff at a time. For example, even when we look at the most extravagant of tapestries, our eyes and our minds only allow us to focus on and thereby appreciate – be grateful for – certain parts, at any given time. The same sort of concept is true for most things, actually. Why do some people want, for example, more than one supercar, or more than one bed, or whatever? You can only use one of them at a time. What is ultimately important is the experience, and a grateful mind always has a better experience: higher emotional and spiritual gains from the daily happenings of life.

Chasing lives of extravagance surely leads to lower feelings of gratitude. There is so much evidence for this.

And we can only really be grateful for things once we know what it feels like for the thing to not be there. We are more grateful for a thing’s presence, when we have come to know its absence. Things like joy, like good friends, maybe, and like food. Doesn’t food always taste that much better after a day of fasting?

There is so much wisdom behind Islamic principles of fasting, minimalism, and expressing gratitude.

One’s actions are important, too. When you are grateful for a thing, you must show this in your behaviour. You must care for it. You must tend to the rights it may have over you.

In the Qur’an, Allah tells us that He increases in favour the one who is grateful. We only really need what is enough to get by. Survival, and then some additional comfort, peace and joy. We do not have to deprive ourselves of goodness. But there are certainly some things – and these are usually the things that are characterised by lavishness and ‘plenty’ – that we might, in the moment, think will bring us much good. Might solve some of our problems for us, and so forth.

But when you have fewer things – like friendships, like projects you are working on, for example – I do think you are able to focus on them more. Cultivate them like flowers, and then se cosecha lo que se siembra: you reap what you sow.

Gratitude is good for you. Zooming in on all the ‘small’ things, for example the things you cannot live without. A glass of water. The gorgeousness of sunrises. The comfort of your duvet. There is much use, and much Khayr, in certain things.

And for these things, may we always find ourselves grateful.

  • 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 

Book Review: Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity – Tariq Ramadan

There are some books that you may come across, in your life, that are rather subtly powerful. They hold within them the ability to really change your life and your ways of thinking – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For me, this has certainly been one of those books (for the better). This ‘book review’ series on my blog will be dedicated to my reviewing – and independently commenting on the ideas explored – of different books that I love. I won’t review every book I read – only the ones I feel must be shared in this way. 

Tariq Ramadan, I think, is my all-time favourite non-fiction author and academic. He has an undeniable ‘way with words’, Allahummabārik; he presents some very interesting and comforting ideas in a manner that harmoniously merges clarity with profundity. His works focus on Islam – Islamic ethics and legislation, history, Islamophobia, modern politics in light of ‘Islamist’ movements… I am particularly fond of this work of his – as well as another one of his books, entitled: ‘To be a European Muslim’.

As Muslims living in this current (rather confusing, rather intense) epoch, it is natural for us to deeply question many things. Our place here, how to be.

To be a Muslim (today, always) is to be a stranger – a traveller, as the Hadith goes – in the Dunya. To “be here in order to be better over There”. And how true this is. The most prevalent ways of doing things, of thinking, and of being, here can often be quite antithetical to the teachings of our faith.

What are some of the defining characteristics of this modern world? Undeniably, this is a world that is heavily focused on appearances. Facades, the ‘outside’, shells. Lies (which are widely and eagerly devoured), rumours, scandal-mongering, narcissism, widespread distrust. Brutalisers being convincingly disguised as the respectable ones.

The world of modernity is also heavily focused on the principle of individualism. And these two tenets – that of appearances and that of (an inhuman level of) individualism – marry to render the modern world one that is fuelled, very much, by selfishness and deceit.

The society of entertainment, excessive consumption and generalised individualism coexists with the most extreme destitution and the most total misery”

People churn out ‘wealth’ – sell their bodies and souls to do so; many people end up becoming richer — leading richer lives, but rarely necessarily happier ones. Many become so caught up in these images of ‘plenty’ that they forget about the stuff of actual value. One of the breaking wings of modernity is made of speed, computer science, fashion, blaring music with the most peculiar lyrics, cinematic illusions, facades of ever-growing ‘freedoms’. The other: exploitation, weariness, poverty, loneliness, dissatisfaction and despondency, and the children who die at the hands of those who claim to fight in the name of ‘freedom’. One wing functions as a mask for the other. A colourful exterior pressed atop an inside that is soulless and rotten.

“Modern times have, for our memories, a concern for image, and also the infinite neglect of reality and meaning”

There are many problems around us, which serve as evident threats to our spirituality, to our humanity and to our ‘Muslimness’: they are detrimental to the human Fitrah. Many of these things, we find ourselves becoming increasingly desensitised to: senseless violence, shameless vanity and arrogance, greed and overindulgence, chronic intoxication and/or distraction, widespread nudity and sexual immoralities… The list goes on.

In modern society, secularisation tends to be championed. The sacred is desacralised. Modesty, the beauty and elegance of simplicity, the excellence of manners, deeply caring for and tending to the natural environment. These things become obliterated by the army tanks of the modern world. We are a society of individuals; all that seems to matter is the capitalist ‘value’ we can find in things. Morality comes from nothing but the human imagination; it is ‘decided by society’.

“…modernity renders us so unfaithful to our humanity […] The daily running of the world steals us from ourselves, to the point, sometimes, of rendering our personality double and tearing us apart.”

The interactions between Islam and global politics are also a deeply significant thing to consider, here. Often, ardent nationalists operate under the (highly mobilising, highly unifying) guise of religion in order to do their damage. Religion devoid of spirituality, and whose cold exterior latches onto political (nationalistic) movements actually defeats the point of religion itself: religio, to relegate oneself before God.

What else is ‘modernity’ characterised by? I think Ramadan describes it perfectly. Adding to the aforementioned theme of covering up the truth and engaging in (indulging in) falsehood, much of modern society is composed of examples of one part in direct conflict with another: thus is the basis of all neuroses.

Many comedians, for example, wear happy faces but a lot of them (a shocking number) have revealed that they suffer from deep (exogenous) depression. This pattern of double personalities can also be seen in the wider world of celebrities; in the culture that they collectively champion and foster in others.

“When men lose morality they find the jungle and become wolves”

To be true to our Muslim identities, in this world today, we must commit to being committed to Truth, no matter what. “[Saying] the truth and [re-saying] it, before God, without fear”. Despite any material difficulties or emotional struggles we may face: we must vow to be true to Truth, in its exactness. And to justice. Authenticity. Goodness, kindness, fraternity, the pursuit of beneficial knowledge. Spirituality — the heart and soul of this religion.

As Muslims, the deceitful adornments of the world should not faze us. The Qur’an and Hadiths tell us about its reality: marry the world, and you actually end up marrying, essentially, what resembles the rotting insides of a camel’s carcass [Hadith].

We really ought to favour ‘Barakah culture’ over ‘Hustle culture’. Our bodies do not exist to be used, in their entireties, by corporations and such. Our Lord is far more important and powerful; our Haqq is more, well, Haqq. We bring Barakah into our lives by favouring three things – worship, the pursuit of knowledge, and the graceful servitude of others. And these things undoubtedly interact with one another: the quality of one affects the quality of the others.

Today, we are just so self-absorbed. We care too much about how we look, and about our titles, and about our social media accounts — about how we can best come across to others. We have lost the art of sincerity, so it would seem; often, things are done for the primary purpose of social recognition, and in the names of efficiency and rationalisation. When we exclusively focus on these particular things, the world becomes one of black and white, and of smog and several other hues of grey.

As Muslims, we do need to tend to our ‘portions in the [current] world’: we go to school, and to work. We eat, we have friends. We partake in creative and personal projects. But, for us, Deen takes precedence over Dunya. Our religion gives true life to our lives. And here, we “live and learn how to die, live in order to learn how to die”.

And prayer should be our lives’ lifeblood. As Ramadan writes, prayer “[gives] strength, in humility, to the meaning of an entire life”.

I love that books like these incorporate history, personal anecdotes, politics, philosophy, and more, all into one. It was fascinating to read about why Islam today looks like what it does, and in various parts of the world; about things like the Islamic Centre of Geneva (est. 1961) for instance, and how it broadcasted a certain form of Islam to several other European Muslim communities; about the growing religious influence of the Saudis, the Islamic World League, how pan-Arab politics both informed, and was informed by, all these happenings.

Our problem is one of spirituality. If a man comes to speak to me about the reforms to be undertaken in the Muslim world, about political strategies and of great geo-strategic plans, my first question to him would be whether he performed the dawn prayer (Fajr) on time”

– Said Ramadan

“Power is not our objective; what have we to do with it? Our goal is love of the Creator, the fraternity and justice of Islam. This is our message to dictators.” 

These days, many influential Muslims are actually, unfortunately, walking epitomes of the notion of religion without spirituality. They may sport lengthy beards, quote the Qur’an almost endlessly. But Islam would not appear to be in their hearts: instead, the love of things like wealth, power, titles and territory are.

There are many things that the Muslims of today – in particular, we youngins – need to unlearn. There are also many things that we must learn and then proceed to internalise. For example, our hearts (if we are to truly find peace) must come to sing the idea that “solitude with God is better than neglect with men”. The link with God is the way.

The concept of modernisation is constantly valorised by those who live under it. Why wouldn’t a person or a place want to be ‘modern’? Granted, there are some ‘positives’ to this whole global project. A certain type of work ethic, in conjunction with certain personal liberties, does breed invention. Innovation, efficiency, improvement, sanitisation, gigantic systems that work (mostly) for the benefit of the people.

In the European Middle Ages, dynamism in this way had simply not been a thing. Feudalistic power structures and the unshifting dominance of the clergy in circles of thought contributed to a certain sort of “numbness”, a stifling of sorts. “Nothing seemed to move; men were as if paralysed…” So today’s constant state of movement may be seen as a welcome change from these erstwhile times. But instead of a steady state of flow, we seem to now be moving recklessly, too quickly. Growth for the sake of growth; it is not healthy.

But modernity is also, unfortunately, the things that are hidden beneath the veneer of shininess. Massive inequalities of wealth and resources. Poverty and exploitation. Pandemic addictions. Increased rates of severe mental illnesses. And, of course, all those other things – what, now, are hallmarks of modernity – that our Prophet (SAW) had warned us about.

There are certainly some good things from the current state of things that the modern Muslim can benefit from; these things are not anti-Islamic. Science, technology, the pursuit of wisdom, and progress. [It is important to note that, in the Christian world, science and progress had come about as a result of that society’s parting with religion, for the most part. On the flip-side, the Muslim world had flourished when it had been more in touch with its spirituality; it declined when this had been lost]. An issue arises solely when people cling to these things in lieu of a link with God. Knowledge should breed Taqwa; what we learn should come benefit our own souls, as well as those of the people.

In (temporary) solitude and seclusion, muddied water – agitated, noisy – slows down; the dirt settles, and then there is peace. Clarity, flow and focus may be achieved here. When Islam is in our hearts; when we are able to exhibit due Khushuu’ in our prayers, life becomes warm. Meaningful. Animated with gratitude and Barakah; a separateness from the cheapness of meaningless chatter. A walk – even if it be a solitary one – towards wisdom and elegance. It slows down; the roses bloom. Beautiful heart, beautiful thoughts, and all the rest of it.

“To be good and do good, before God, is the meaning of this call.” 

And, right now, we all find ourselves in our own houses, quarantined, mostly in solitude. As much of the Islamic tradition demonstrates, there is much Khayr – goodness – to be found in solitude and seclusion: this is where the sacred tends to reveal itself. Where you can train yourself to be a contented observer of the world, in it, but not wholly devoted to it… being somewhat distant from all the noise and the crowds, for here is where one may find clarity.

From the very first pages of its Foreword, I was enthralled by the messages this book contains. I considered it to be very informative, and yet so very soulfully validating. It has inspired me to try to get closer to God; to give my daily prayers their due diligence, Insha Allah; to not be distracted by the distractions of a noisy world that is filled with busy people who talk far too much.

In case I didn’t manage to make it clear earlier, I so love this book; I would truly recommend it.

“Be like a fruit tree. They attack you with stones, and you respond with fruits.”

– Hasan al-Banna


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

What is The Good Life?

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

A few days ago my best [is it childish to constantly point out that she’s my best friend? Perhaps] – best – friend and I sat down to record an episode for my podcast, which we had decided to entitle, ‘The Good Life’. It is made extremely evident, simply by taking a look at the world around us, and by having a couple of sincere conversations with people, that many people are simply not living ‘good’ lives, for the most part: many of us live in metropolises – human zoos, if you will – in which our lives are characterised by confusion, stress, dissatisfaction, and the endless endeavours we commit to, so as to distract ourselves. 

Now, there was a slight issue with the podcast app that I use; this episode has been ‘uploading’ for days now. It is likely that the end result will never actually end up coming into publication. So, and while I am still able to recall some of the unexpected but meaningful things that Tamanna and I spoke about, I present to you a blog article on the topic of ‘The Good Life’.

For this episode-which-is-now-an-article, I decided to conduct some (qualitative) research: I carried out some interviews – some face-to-face, and some via online platforms. I amassed a sample that was (hopefully) as representative as I could make it. It contained some Muslims; some atheists; some agnostics; some Christians. Men and women; some little children. Working-class individuals; middle-class individuals. White Brits; immigrants. People who identify as ‘genderqueer’ and such; people who do not. Introverts; extroverts. Students; professionals… I posed four specific questions to each of them, and examined their answers. Their responses were rather interesting… in particular as a result of how similar they were, between these individuals who are rather different to one another on the surface level.

1) What is a good life? 

I think that, although the interrogation of people’s minds with this particular question tends to give rise to a lot of deep-in-thought “I’m-going-to-need-a-moment…or-a-hundred” expressions, the answer to this highly pressing, pretty much universally asked question, is already within us.

Most of the respondents agreed that a ‘good’ life is not one that would be rooted in idealism. Rather, it is more about sustenance and contentment: having enough money to get by, a satisfactory amount of love around you, and being in a content-enough state so as to not find oneself excessively comparing oneself and one’s life to others and their lives; being exceptionally okay with oneself, irrespective of external considerations like salaries or relationship statuses, at any given point in time. Almost everyone who took part in this survey also spoke about the pursuit of knowledge, and learning, as being crucial to the Good Life.

After gathering and analysing the responses I had been given, I realised I did not have any respondents, in my sample, who were over the age of seventy. But I came across a video online in which an 105-year-old woman, Jessie Jordan, shares her views on the ingredients needed for a long and happy life. “I think peace is more happiness. Peace. Having peace in your heart,” she tells us all.

So what is it that we all find ourselves chasing: peace or pleasure?

2) What would the ideal life entail? And how would it differ to the ‘good’ life? 

People tackled this question from a number of different angles. The more religious respondents were inclined towards talking about Heaven. I, personally, would agree with them: in the temporal, highly physically limited states we currently find ourselves in, in this world, although we may have the faculties to be able to think idealistically, in reality, we are simply not suited towards living such lifestyles, right now.

Right now, in this temporal world – in the Dunya – problems are pretty much ever-present; everywhere. But this is how we work, and this is how the societies that we each find ourselves part of work: we experience problems, and we discover great meaning and purpose in the pursuit of solutions. The role of a doctor would have been utterly pointless if human illnesses did not exist. The role of a teacher would have been futile if all possible knowledge had simply been pre-ingrained into our minds; if we were born in a state of omniscience, as opposed to one of utter ignorance.

People’s idealistic fantasies tend to revolve around things that are plentiful, luxurious, unearthly and fantastical. Heaven. Paradise. Right now, we are able to fantasise about such things, but these things would do little to bring us long-lasting peace and happiness in the (earthly, impermanent) here and now. If we were all to achieve all our idealistic fancies here in this life, there would be an evident incongruity between our human conditions, and the lifestyles we would be living: we could accumulate as many supercars, castles (etc.) as we could fathom, but human nature would surely, quickly, catch up with us. We would get bored and restless.

Some people did approach this question from a quite ‘down-to-earth’ perspective: quite a few of the respondents said that their ideal lives would comprise things like having a widespread, meaningful, truly noticeable impact on the world; the ability to go on long bike rides in the countryside…

3. When do you reckon, over the course of your life thus far, were you the most happy? Why? 

Unsurprisingly, most respondents said that they were happiest during their childhoods. Some pointed to specific memories that contributed to this being their truth: memories of waking up early solely in order to watch Disney Channel shows; being given glasses of milk by their mother before going to bed; being, for the most part, stress- and responsibility-free. Another thing that was evident, from a number of these responses, was that a significant factor that contributed to this childhood state of happiness was the fact that back then, we did not care what others thought about us. We were so blissfully unaware of things like our own physicality, while we were playing; so heedless of negative social judgement.

One respondent made a particularly interesting point: she said she thinks that “happiness can exist only when you know sadness”; that it is all a game of relativity. Thus, according to this view, because we may be sad now, or have come to know deep sadnesses since childhood, we have come to see our childhoods as having been the ‘happiest’ times in our lives.

4. What do you think most people dislike about themselves [and that acts as a barrier to their acquisition of the Good Life]? 

The most popular theme that respondents touched upon, in response to this final question, was this one: people’s looks. Most people are insecure about certain aspects of their (or about their entire) appearances. This can have several secondary unfavourable effects: insecurities with one’s looks can affect one’s self-identity, as well as one’s behaviour around other people, and in the classroom or the workplace, and it can all take up a great deal of time and mental energy: how we feel about our appearances has the power to mould our entire realities. And sadly, we are living in an extremely visual and consumerist world, and the combination of these aspects tends to be particularly noxious for those of us who look like, you know, human beings. Stretch marks, chubbiness, skinniness, large birthmarks, uneven facial complexions. We want to air-brush these things away; look like the people we see in magazines, and on Instagram. It would appear as though we have collectively fallen in love with illusory cyborg appearances. We delude ourselves, by our own volition, with all this – once again: we know that ‘natural makeup’ is not natural at all; that, after a certain point, enlarged biceps stop serving a functional purpose in the real world [um…how many crates of apples do you intend to carry with those arms?] and yet we blindly consume from the funnels of all these outlets – these outlets whose job it is to create an evident separation between the ordinary (and real) and what is extremely elusive and difficult to attain: the stuff of Übermenschen. 

The second most popular topic that was touched upon, in response to this fourth question, was about individual talents: discontentment with one’s abilities – academic, creative, professional – and a consequent ongoing feeling of being inadequate in comparison to others – leads to many being unable to taste the sweetness of their own lives, unfortunately. But it really does come down to that thing that we tell young children when they come to us and tell us why Maths could never be their favourite subject: “I’m no good at it”. But what is the point of being good at something, if you do not enjoy doing the thing in the first place? Personal enjoyment is far more joy-inducing and desirable, surely, than the knowledge that you have outshined others at what you are doing? Self-comparison truly is a notorious thief of joy, and it turns otherwise nice things – like the process of learning, or the arts of writing or painting – into mere competitions and boasting festivals…

The question of the Good Life has perplexed, fascinated, and inspired philosophers, poets, writers, artists, and humanity in general, alike, for centuries. What might a good human life look like? What are the barriers that prevent us from getting there? And how can we satisfactorily deal with said barriers?

We are, each of us, living on borrowed time; we are mere walking compilations of breaths – finite, and yet powerful. So small, and yet so inherently magical. And it is strange, really, how we all seem to know what decent and happy personal lives may comprise, but we still find ourselves rather stuck in our ways, stubbornly pursuing what brings us restlessness – in the absence of peace. These things, these ideas, may grant us some momentary kicks, perhaps, but they appear to leave behind them a lasting sense of discontentment.

It is truly peculiar, as aforementioned, how almost all of us know what the Good Life looks like, deep down. And yet we continue to romanticise and idealise the lives of YouTubers; music artists; athletes; models; extremely wealthy individuals… We hear all their emotional testimonies that perceptively bring them back down to the ordinary human plane: how sad they are, and dissatisfied, and confused. But yet, we continue to see their lives as the great ideal.

Celebrities buy flocks of super-cars (often) to compensate for erstwhile feelings of low self-worth. Cheap sex, cigarettes, drowning out unpleasant thoughts in alcohol and wild partying. The ‘Rich Kids of Instagram’ run out of even minutely meaningful things to do with their money; they come to realise that money actually exists as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. It is just paper. Models obsessively pander to seasonal beauty trends; undergo various surgeries and learn numerous makeup practices. Many of them, in spite of the millions of positive comments and such they receive on their pictures, still feel like they are ugly. The goal that we are injected with, constantly, is to always aspire to be richer, prettier, smarter, faster: to amass as many roses as possible, without giving ourselves adequate time and space to actually smell the ones in our possession.

A good life, as we can all fairly unanimously agree, involves the following:

  • Spirituality. This can generally be defined as the possession and maintenance of a positive connection with one’s soul, in conjunction with a sense of connectivity with the universe around us – and which we are a part of – as well as everything else it inhabits, including our fellow human beings, and animals. From all this, we benefit from an enduringly enriching sense of peace and purpose.

Although, in recent times, many have attempted to wholly secularise the concept of spirituality, presenting it and the notion of religion (i.e. the worship of our Creator) as  being two centrally separable things, I think – and psychologists know – that the instinct to worship, in humans, is an innate one. Atheists have actively unlearnt – subverted and re-channelled this instinct (mainly into following liberal ideologies, in tandem with these newly engineered notions of ‘secular spirituality’); meanwhile, theists are acting upon an in-built human desire.

I think that religion itself is a sort of ‘organised spirituality’. But, of course, within organised religion, spirituality can often be (counterproductively, and antithetically to the aim of religion, which seeks to connect humans with our Creator, and with the rest of His creation) taken out of the equation. Religion sans spirituality is like a body without a soul: lacking animation. Or like knowledge without wisdom: lacking purpose.

 

  • Tending, with great care, to our mental landscapes. To a great extent, life is what we each make of it: every experience we will ever have will be filtered through our mental landscapes. We must train ourselves to be more grateful; more able to see the good in things; more resistant to being susceptible to image-based and ideological deceit and delusion.

 

  • Also nurturing our physical wellbeing; acknowledging that our bodies, minds and souls are inextricably linked. This means eating what is Tayyib (pure, good) and Halāl. Doing what humans need to do: drinking water. Exercising. Sleeping. [Playing!] In this temporal world, we are, like everything else that is physical, a system of parts. Overall physical health relies on the health of individual systems – cardiovascular, ocular, respiratory… all of it.

 

  • Being content with who we are, at our cores. And [thus] embracing authenticity. Truly realising that comparing ourselves to our perceptions of others and their lives; trying to be other than what we are is unbelievably futile, and a waste of our (finite, precious) time on this planet. Everybody is made up of darkness (flaws, faults, past mistakes, and more) as well as light (talents, skills, merits, etc.). Perhaps true self-contentment  would rely on our acceptance of the darknesses; our ventures towards self-improvement (and not perfection); our consciously choosing to focus on the good, thus forcing it to grow.

The achievement of a true, deep sense of self-contentment naturally results in the enrichment of our social connections – which we can healthily, meaningfully, take from and give to.

 

  • Living a life of Mediums. The Qur’an and various Hadiths tell us that we Muslims are to be a nation of middles; that we should not commit excess in anything. No excess in food, nor in worship, nor sleep, exercise, consumption of news and information, studying… All this – this being given to excesses – disrupts the crucial balances that are needed for goodness. The Good Life is one that is not too quiet, nor too loud. Not too busy, nor too still. Not too routine-centric, nor too unpredictable. You get the picture.

 

  • Personal pursuits. Creative outlets; personal projects; businesses; our career-related pursuits. It is an innate human need to have to feel at once connected and communal, and like individuals, at precisely the same time. In conjunction with spirituality, our personal pursuits imbue our lives with a sense of purpose.

 

  • Reflection. Silence. Slowness. At least some time and space in our weeks – our days – for these necessary things. The world around us, in modern times, is just too frenetic, and too loud. Silence is one of the most beautiful melodies; it allows us to hear ourselves.

 

So many of us have been living in perpetual states of dissatisfaction, denial, delusion, and distraction, for so long. I think it is time for an awakening – a quiet but profound one,  and one that thrusts us back into the sorts of lifestyles we should have been living all along: the Tayyib life – the ‘good’, human one. We are due for a good, deep spring clean – of our minds, bodies, (living spaces,) and souls. We can all find our ways to the truly Good life, but first, we may require a slight reminder of what it actually means to be (and live in accordance with our being) human… 

Less: Materialism [“Things are just things; they don’t make you who you are,” – Macklemore. It is not about what we have, but about their functionality, and about what good we are able to (make ourselves) gain from them]. Jealousy. Restlessness. Exhaustion. Monotony. Over-thinking. Stress. Doing things for external approval or validation, rather than for the contentment of our own souls. Anger. Self-criticism; gratuitous criticism of others. Blind consumption of things that do not bring us peace [and this might include ‘muting’ certain people online; resisting the urge to check the news before bed; cutting down drastically on junk food].

More: Purpose. Helping others [“The best among you is the one who benefits others most.” – Prophet Muhammad (SAW)]. Intelligence: spiritual, emotional, worldly, historical, linguistic… Connection with nature [which we habitually forget that we are a part of. Caught between the terrestrial and the celestial, we human beings are…]. Positive experiences [after all, people don’t really want Lamborghinis: they want the experience of owning and driving one]. Learning. Love. Gratitude. Romanticisation of our lives [that cup of coffee in your hand is the best. Your train commutes in Spring are gorgeous, serene, like a cut-out scene from a Studio Ghibli movie. Romanticisation is not an identical concept to delusion. It is simply about taking heed of the fact that all human reality is experienced subjectively; through the vessels of our individual minds. Therefore, if you say to yourself that who you are, where you are – this very moment in time, and this point in space – and what you have are wonderful, and that it does not get better than this, this will become your personal truth – your reality]. A sense of connectedness. Self-comfort and -confidence. Making feelings of contentment far less conditional – whether on future periods of our lives, other people, or other places. Reflection. Becoming excellent – masters – of our personal pursuits. Hope. Īman. Excitement. Laughter. The goodness of life is to be found in all the intangible things.

It is, at once, entirely understandable, and yet quite surprising, just how many reverts to Islam – ex-avid partygoers, celebrities, people who had previously truly indulged in the adornments of this world (drugs, alcohol, sex…) without limit – have commented on how much peace the decision to accept Islam brought to their hearts and lives. The ‘sweetness of Īman’, they say, is worth more than all the pleasures of the world, put together.

“Alhamdulillah (thanking God) means everything. Drinking a glass of water – Alhamdulillah. Having an opportunity to speak to you – Alhamdulillah. Seeing my wife and kids – Alhamdulillah. I always have my creator in the front of my mind.

Look, I chased girls. I drank alcohol, spent lavishly and thought I was someone that I wasn’t. I lived that life and, in my experience, what did it give me? Hollowness and emptiness in my heart.”

– Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand Professional Rugby Player 

This is who we are: these are what our faces and bodies look like [Alhamdulillah]; these are our interests and hobbies; these are our financial situations; these are our histories; our ethnic cultures; our homes; these are our merits and talents. These are what our lives look like. The question is not about how much we can fantasise about being other people, about living different lives. The real question – the one whose answers can be conducive to us actually living Good Lives – is this one: how are we going to make the most of it all? 

“Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children, as the likeness of vegetation after rain, thereof the growth is pleasing to the tiller; afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow; then it becomes straw. But in the Hereafter (there is) a severe torment (for the disbelievers, evil-doers), and (there is) Forgiveness from Allah and (His) Good Pleasure (for the believers, good-doers), whereas the life of this world is only a deceiving enjoyment”

– Holy Qur’an (57:20)

Please share with others, if you found this post beneficial / think others might!

Sadia Ahmed, 2020 

You’re Weird.

According to the OED, the term ‘weird’ refers to something “very strange; bizarre”. This is its informal definition. The definition of ‘strange’ is as follows: “unusual or surprising; difficult to understand or explain.” Now, with regard to a more formal definition of the adjective ‘weird’, it actually means “suggesting something supernatural or unearthly”. Thus, if you are weird, the chances are that you are, a) different from the norm – and that you are therefore rare; b) as a result of your numerical rarity, you are also difficult to understand, by the general populace. Finally, c) there is a high chance that you also have about you a ‘supernatural’ quality; some sort of ‘unearthly’ mystique. 

In general, human beings tend to seek out a stable sense of belonging, via validation from those around us. Firstly, we need to feel like we belong within our nuclear family units, and then, in our extended family units; our workplaces, our schools. And, of course, we yearn for a sense of belonging within the wider construct of society. Without these feelings of authentic belonging, we become susceptible to some of the most unpleasant and unfavourable sentiments – those of feeling like societal rejects; like abnormalities; like weirdos. 

And we try, so desperately hard, to run away from this label. “You’re weird“. “Freak!” is what we hear. “Societal mistake”; “cultural anomaly”; “reject”. We crave not to be outcast in such a way; we need to feel like we belong. And we often find ourselves under the impression that to belong is to be exactly like those around us. 

This is a valid idea: many of the values, ways of doing things (etc.) that we acquire over the courses of our lives do come from the people around us – in particular, from those in senior authority positions, relative to ourselves. Parents, teachers, bosses at work, the ‘role models’ we place upon perceptive idealistic planes…

But who decides what is normal, and what is not? Is it merely a game of numbers? The majority of the population does this, and is like this, therefore this is the norm, i.e. what is normal. Does that mean that everyone and everything that strays from what is numerically most popular is to be deemed weird? 

What if the majority of the world’s inhabitants were to suddenly find themselves plagued by some sort of neurodegenerative disease that rendered them all prone to seeing hallucinations? What if they all were to start walking around barefoot, and hugging every tree they saw, and poking each other’s noses by way of greeting one another? According to our earlier definitions of normal and weird, this would all, by default, become the new normal. And anything and anyone who were to stray from this – what has become the most popular way of doing things – would be labelled as weird. 

The fact of the matter is, most of us fear being weird. We think the concept of being different naturally means that we are like science experiments gone wrong; like physical abnormalities in abstract cages, self-criticising, while the rest of the world gawks at and laughs at us.

But, and in reality, people laugh at what is different; at what causes them some discomfort. And what causes discomfort tends to be what is unfamiliar. This is why people often laugh at politically incorrect jokes; these jokes cause some degree of discomfort in people, which can be released via the outlet of laughter. Furthermore, with regard to criticism, people always display inclinations towards commenting on what is different; unfamiliar; discomfort-inducing.

If you were to walk along beside a line of pine trees, and if you then came across a single cherry blossom tree, the cherry blossom tree is likely to immediately catch your attention. And, whether or not you choose to acknowledge it, the cherry blossom tree remains objectively beautiful. Her beauty is only accentuated by the fact that there are few like her, in her vicinity. Few pine trees could ever possibly understand her. But she is there, and she is weird. And ‘weird’ is not an inherently bad thing; this is surely all a matter of perspective.

And, besides, what are we, all of us, but grown-up children? Do we not all trip up sometimes on pavements; spill food; go to use the potty? We still have tantrums – whether we choose to show these to the world or not. We feel unmitigated rage; we feel jealous; we show off. Pretty much all of the things that children – these beings that hold mirrors up to our true core selves – do, adults do, too. Adulthood is but a game of seasoned childhood, with some additional moral frameworks in the mix…

All the things you do; all the things you perhaps dislike about yourself are probably pretty normal. It’s just that some things, as we have all implicitly decided within greater society, can be shown. Other things must be kept hidden.

Interestingly, and in light of the fact that we are all merely overgrown children, human babies are born having only two ‘built-in’ fears: that of falling, and that of loud noises. Every other fear and insecurity that we may have is gained along the way, via ‘nurture’ – via experience.

We have learnt (from the adults who were in charge of our care back then) what is to be seen as normal, and what is to be regarded – dismissed – as being weird. See, if you were to give a young child the chance to dress him- or herself, chances are, they will appear before you, minutes later, clad in wellington boots in the middle of the summer; animal-print tops that do not match their tracksuit trousers; raincoats on days where rain does not look like a probable occurrence at all…

Children are the weirdest of creatures. And this is what makes them so intrinsically wonderful. Their intrinsic human creative faculties have not yet been curbed; rather, these are nurtured every single day by a general fearlessness of being labelled as strange.

Children see almost every fellow child in the entire world as a potential fellow playmate. They point at random squirrels, name them ‘Alison’ or ‘Percy’, and call them their “pets”. They get tubs of face cream and smear it all over their hair. They invent weird languages, and handshakes, and make pointless devices out of cardboard. Weird is precisely how they learn. 

And if you were to force a young child into modern accepted brackets of normality (e.g. forcing them to sit on a swivel chair in a sparsely-decorated office, filling out piles of paperwork, with a twenty-minute coffee break in between all their hours) they would, to put it succinctly, freak out. Such things – such notions that we gradually imbue children with as they grow up – that this is how you are meant to end up – are wholly unnatural to the unaffected child. These things run antithetical to the weird essence of the young human.

Do we truly outgrow our own selves, after childhood? Is that truly the case? Or is it more so a case of plastering atop our essential selves affectations of ‘adulthood’, and of ‘propriety’, and of blunted weirdness, and curbed creativity?

Weird is necessary for progress. If you try the same things over and over again, you will end up with the very same results, over and over again. This is true both on an individual, and on a wider societal, scale. The iPhone was invented because a certain man decided to be a bit weird. Frida Kahlo’s legendary works of art are intrinsically weird. “Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain,” she once said. Only one weird person can know the wonderful core of another weird person. 

How else did Barack Obama become the first black president of the USA? Was it a normal decision that he made – to run in the election? No – it was weird – it was unheard of to have an African-American person in such a noble and important position, back then. But weird is necessary for change, until the virtuous elements of weird become the new normal. Marie Curie; Prophet Muhammad (SAW); Virginia Woolf; the Buddha. Though widely celebrated individuals now, back then, they were utter weirdos. And this was precisely their collective superpower: they could be weird, and they could thus see things differently. This allowed them to do things differently – weirdly, albeit, in the direction of much good.

If you are weird, congratulations! Though you may be acutely self-conscious, self-critical, and numerically few, you are of extremely high value. And almost every single thing you frown upon yourself for doing or being can be either flipped or neutralised; it is all a matter of mindset and interpretation.

“I’m awkward.” No – you’re adorable, and your actions are so very endearing. 

“I’m too much of an introvert.” Your mind must be beautiful; you actively nurture it by being outwardly silent. Your words have more weight – more value – whenever you do speak. 

“I do x and y. I’m such a freak.” Millions of other human beings probably do – and have, throughout history done – exactly whatever you do. You’re not a freak at all. Every human action is borne from a universal human motivation… whether this be the motivation to play and to enjoy the world; to learn and explore; to experience platonic and romantic love… 

“I embarrass myself, over and over again.” Good. That means you are alive and human. And it means you are tryingKeep trying, please! 

Some of my most favourite fictional characters are ‘weird’, and, for the most part, this is exactly why I love them. Rudy from ‘the Book Thief’. How adorable and endearing is he? It is safe to say, I had the biggest crush on him when I was younger. Sadly, he does not exist.

Jessica Day from ‘New Girl’. Polka dots, wide-frame glasses, saying weird things, and at all the wrong times. Sweet, funny, super unique, interesting, unpredictable. Who wouldn’t want her as a friend?!

Riley from ‘Girl Meets World’. What a weirdo. She has stars in her eyes; gets excited at the smallest of things. She is a tad naive, but, and like Jessica Day, who wouldn’t want her as a friend?!

Farkle from ‘GMW’, too. Initially, he sported a bowl-cut hairstyle. He would wear turtlenecks, and he had a whole host of strange idiosyncratic behaviours. He was funny, and very strange, and such a sensitive and loyal friend. Fictional crush the second, who unfortunately does not exist.

Then, there’s Topanga from ‘Boy Meets World’, and, later, ‘Girl Meets World’. One of my (fictional) role models. Topanga starts out as the definition of ‘weird’. She is… a hippie. ‘Child of the universe’, glassy eyes that just gaze into distances. She spontaneously performs rain dances and applies lipstick, as warpaint, to her face. When she is younger, she is one of the most sensitive, intelligent, loyal, and beautifully different souls out there. And she grows up to be a lawyer and a cafe-owner, with a wonderful (rather weird) family. Adulthood catches up with the great Topanga in the end, sure, but the beauty of her weirdness remains.

Hermione from Harry Potter. “Mental, that one,” Ron (ironically, her future husband) remarks, upon watching her sit beneath the Sorting Hat. Hermione is proudly weird; Luna Lovegood, too. Sometimes they are both mocked by those around them. But people throw rocks at things that shine. And, oh, how Hermione and Luna shine. 

And, finally, one of the best (fictional, unfortunately) couples in existence: the legendary Jake and Amy from ‘Brooklyn-99’What utter weirdos! Jake, the joker: jumps on grown men, is forever making childish jokes, always embarrasses himself. And, Amy, whom Rosa and Gina initially deem “a loser”. Stationery advocate; crossword aficionado; she has one friend outside of the precinct. But – nay, and – she is so very loved, and she is one of the greatest sergeants of her time.

Of course, fiction does not wholly represent human reality. But, often, it can give an acceptably good indication of it. Both in fictional worlds and in the real world, weird is what gives rise to adventure, and to greatness, and to fun. So here’s to your weirdnesses, dear reader – to all of them, even to the ones you cannot bring yourself to love, just yet.

See, weird is the very thing that makes small children fall in love with the world, in the first place. And weird might just be what it may take for us to stay there, in that childishly blissful state we have all, at some point, had the pleasure of experiencing.

Nowhere and Everywhere

If you asked me where I come from, I would tell you:

I come from a place where mangoes are not a myth,

Where people walk without shoes,

Even when the sun is the only thing in the sky,

Caressed by a continuous cerulean blanket,

And even when the invading clouds become angry.

 

I come from a place where tea is drunk in copious amounts,

Where children spread the wings they do not have,

Where fingers are stained with henna and stories and secrets,

Where curry is the national dish,

And believe me, when I say that curry burns through my veins,

But don’t worry- I don’t mean the type that causes heart disease.

 

I am the product of sugar and spice,

Of curry and samosas and rice,

Of colours and jewels that indicate infinity,

Of heavy accents and songs about silence.

Of being, but never quite belonging.

 

Look at me.

I am writing love letters to a country I have only visited twice.

A country that is oblivious to my existence,

A country I am infatuated with the idea of,

The idea of belonging somewhere in the correct way,

And having the right skin tone and features to show for it.

 

You see, I am the daughter of two worlds, and both are jungles.

One is replete with coconut trees and charming waterfalls,

Little secrets hidden behind rolling hills,

Uncorrupted by the filthy hands of man.

The other world is bustling and the economy is booming

And prosperity is a thing now.

Time flies and houses are tall,

And fishing isn’t the preferred pastime there: making money is.

 

If you asked me where I come from, I would tell you:

I come from somewhere that is imperfect,

Where some of the pieces are in the wrong places,

And some of them are nowhere to be seen.

But the grass is still green beneath our feet,

And love roams free, and I know that peace will reign triumphant.

I come from a place where there is beauty to be seen-

Beauty that succeeds in drowning out the bloodshed.

 

You see, if you asked me where I come from, I would tell you:

I am the daughter of kings and peasants,

Of prophets and criminals,

Of storytellers and poets.

My story is your story too.

We are relics of the past and promises of the future,

We are children of here and there,

and nowhere and

 

everywhere.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Carved

We carved our names into the back of a seat on the bus

as it stopped momentarily outside a library.

 

side by side, white letters etched

hastily into a block of bright purple.

 

we guided our fingers along the lines.

the strokes were formed swiftly with little hesitation

and the little plus sign in the middle created an equation

with no apparent solution.

 

How effortlessly a penny had put together a mess of imperfect dashes,

forging them into something so mysteriously coherent.

 

Perhaps we should have resorted to clichés:

fixing locks along Parisian bridges and

engraving our names into tree trunks instead,

killing them to let ourselves live on.

 

but I don’t think there is a metaphor more apt for whatever we have,

a little secret tucked away in a corner at the back,

evoking wonder and curiosity and indifference

from strangers we will never meet.

 

Maybe one day the seat will be replaced

by a newer one, more purple and less vandalised.

 

but until then,

I hope somebody sees our little masterpiece on the bus journey home,

and I hope she writes a poem about it.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Time

Time. It changes things.
One day you are friends,
Souls intertwined, you run through the park
Arms outstretched like eagles, and nothing can stop you, for
Freedom is the only thing you know.

One day you hold her in a tender embrace- she is the only warmth in your life,
And the next day, the Earth is cold because she no longer walks upon it.

One day you breathe a sigh of content- your family is now complete,
And the next day, there is another heart beating desperately in your arms-

Time changes everything.

There is a blurred line between pain and euphoria, and it is time,
The resonance of a thousand souls pouring from the sky,
But all you can do is smile,
Because the ground will absorb your sorrows,
And time will absorb mine.

Soon it will be tomorrow,
and the uncertainties of yesterday will cease to be.
So consign yourself to the soil from which flowers grow-
For time will never awaken us from this dream.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

Paper

That was his goal in life.
He wanted to drown his sorrows in old, crinkled paper,
Tokens of exchange that had been touched by hundreds before him,
In the same despondent way.
He wanted the paper to dissolve into his bloodstream,
It would sustain him, it would distract him,
But little did he know that it would destroy him.
The paper might have been able to get him a nice house, and perhaps a nice car and a pretty wife,
Holidays, parties, escapism from the tedium of life,
But it would not buy him happiness- just a sad illusion of it,
A holographic representation that disperses as soon as you attempt to touch it,
It is not real.
He feels his success will grow based on the expensive things he owns,
But price tags will never compare to watching the stars, with hope in his eyes,
surrounded by the people who love him.
No, such things could not compare to the old, crinkled paper
That had filled his mind, and then his pockets, and then his blood, and then his life,
And then he drowned in it.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

She was beautiful

She was beautiful,

But not the type of beautiful that required crimson lipstick to accentuate it,

Or various powders to define it,

Or a hollow pout to perfect a hollow smile.

Her beauty was not skin deep, for it touched every branch of her soul,

From her fingertips to the deep, dark recesses of that beautiful mind of hers.

I could talk to her for hours on end, without ever growing tired of the universe within her eyes.

She was a hurricane of chaos and calm, of brilliance and tranquility,

Yes, in everything she said, and did, and was, and breathed,

She was beautiful.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

When the storms come

I wrote this poem at 1AM this morning; it is about facing adversity while maintaining one’s strength. 

When the wind blows and the clouds cry,

I will step outside and I will close my eyes,

I will not cry.

I will be

The girl that lives so anxiously within me.

When the storms come,

The rain will wash my shell away

And I will shed my skin

The rain will illuminate my soul and I will be whole

Again.

The clouds will cry to give way to the sun,

But I will smile and take what is mine.

When I close my eyes and walk through the rain,

I will be ‘born again’.