Category Archives: Islam

Converts and “Cultural Baggage”

Reading this article, “Violence Prevention: Place Blame where it belongs” on AltMuslimah reminded me of a topic that is near and dear to me, the idea of “mixing culture and religion.” I have heard a lot of Muslims (especially converts) express frustrations: “I just want pure Islam. I want the Islam of the Prophet.” So many act as if culture and religion are clearly separate entities, but when asked to define the borders it appears that very few people can articulate them at all. (Not to mention that as far as I know in Islamic law, or fiqh, culture and custom, urf, are a part of determining the local application of law in certain contexts!)

What people don’t always say explicitly, but what I have gathered that this really means is that “I don’t want to deviate from the true spirit of Islam based on or for the sake of someone’s cultural norms,” which can also mean “I don’t want to feel culturally irrelevant.” Whether because certain groups have the money to fund their “type” of Islam or if their majority presence in the mosque is what determines the “norm,” cultural imperialism is an international issue of great scale, one that the American Muslim community is not immune from, and one that is discussed ad naseaum among the groups and individuals I have as facebook friends.

American-Muslim Self-Loathing: I don’t claim to be an expert of minority issues in any context in any possible way, but since joining the Muslim community I’ve jumped into one particular experience and I can tell self-loathing is a huge issue. The ways it is articulated in a religious context is incredibly scary (yet not that far away from certain rhetoric by the majority on Original Sin, mind you).

One particular article that went viral among people I know was Islamic Monthly’s “Deconstructing the Hijabi Bride”. In short, it placed blame on the American Muslim community for its looking down on other Muslims and “Muslim cultures” worldwide.

“For better or for worse, American Islam is so American. Reflecting on my attitude towards my mothers’ hijab choices, I saw in my own Islam the arrogance and assumed superiority Americans (and Westerners more generally) have had historically towards all things non-Western.”

I responded in the comments, and was thankful enough to get a response from her (although she didn’t clarify). She later added a footnote to the article once others had begun to point out the flaws in her argument, mostly that she was making a much larger generalization that did not acknowledge various sub-communities within the larger American community, especially African-American Muslims. Here was my response:

I think you make a lot of valid points in this article, especially that culturally predatory “back-to-basics” movements do not leave room for cultural expression in Islam and are often self-righteous. At this point, I became confused: “I saw in my own Islam the arrogance and assumed superiority Americans (and Westerners more generally) have had historically towards all things non-Western.”

However, I do not see the link between “American hegemony” and “American Muslim hegemony.” Within the context of Islamic practice, how does “American hegemony” manifest itself within the practice of Islam? (Since the vast majority of Americans, and therefore American hegemony, are not related to Islam.) Do you feel that Muslims in America have somehow imbibed some sort of American arrogance and believe that everything “made in America” is superior to Islam from abroad? I find this hard to prove as a uniquely American problem that instead reflects a universal problem of arrogance.

Are you specifically talking about “American” converts (from a variety of backgrounds) who did not grow up with a cultural background from a Muslim-majority country/culture? Do these converts still possess a prejudice against everything “non-Western”? If this is the case, I can see your train of thought, but I do not feel it is fair to stereotype all converts having this type of cultural hegemonic attitude (especially non-white converts), many of whom feel significant cultural confusion and instead often adopt a “Muslim culture” to try to fit in.

Are you speaking of American hegemony in the sense that second generation American Muslims growing up in the United States have felt the need to assimilate into “American culture” and in doing so are absorbing “American hegemonic” behavior? If this is the case, is it the fault of second generation American Muslims for (re)connecting with their religion in a new cultural environment and not practicing Islam the same way their parents did? I feel this also is hardly fair to judge second generation American Muslims for not imitating their parents exactly in a totally different time and space (which also reflects a complex generational, cultural, immigrant struggle).

I am not attempting to point fingers, per se, but I think that what you may be describing is the age-old problem of Arab hegemony in which back-to-basics movements privilege the earliest “Muslim cultures” who happened to speak Arabic, in your examples such as the switch from Ramzan-> Ramadan. In my limited experience, I have found this to be a bigger problem with “Desi” and non-Arabic-speaking Muslims, rather than among Arab Muslims. I am curious to hear what Arab Muslims think about your argument and my comment.

I see the American Muslim community struggling to find a unique identity that is a combination of so many cultures and I think that hegemonic behavior is something that must be avoided, so I am thankful that you raised the issue, especially with something as debated as hijab…
I do not quite understand how you are defining “American” or “American hegemony.” I find that there is a great variety of American Muslims who do not think the same way, so I’m sorry to confess I cannot understand the overarching label you are using, which is why I tried to break it down into categories (immigrant, convert, second generation, etc).

With regard to “American hegemony,” I’m not sure in what sense you mean. Do you see the arrogance of American Muslims as a reflection of the economic and military power of the United States? Is it related to American “white privilege” and you feel that American Muslims are buying into that (while still being alienated from it)? I still hear many khutbahs about the corrupting influence of American culture and materialism, the “us-them” mentality, how American Muslims oppose American foreign policy and how American Muslims stand opposed to such “American hegemony.” I find it hard to believe that American Muslims are truly behind the state and the culture so as to promote “American hegemony.”

Also I cannot see how the “arrogance toward other Muslim cultures” stems specifically from an American prejudice against such cultures. Are you talking about “orientalism,” the desire to define and subjugate people? Is there equal bias against Arab, African, Central Asian, European, South Asian and East Asian visions of Islam? I think not. Do you find this to be only in the United States? I think not, I have seen scholars from all over the world who are participating in the very same trend.

I rather see a preference for “early Muslim cultures” that speak Arabic, as well as the preference for Islamic modernist movements (generally Salafi) which privilege “back-to-basics” ideology stressing the Arabic linguistic origins as well as the cultural norms of the Sunnah, Sahabah and the Tabe’in. By insisting on the purity of the roots of Islam, the “Quran-and-Sunnah” ideology privileges the early generations of mostly Arab Muslims against later developments in Persia, Spain, India, etc and reject them as cultural deviations. I see the fight against “impurities” from other cultures stemming NOT from American arrogance or Western “orientalism,” but an ideology DEEPLY rooted in a long historical view of Islam.

What you describe, in my opinion is less of a reflection of American hegemony and more of an international Arabization of Islam. The formation of the American Muslim community is not in support of “American hegemony” in the political, cultural or economic context, it is merely another Islamic “culture” asserting itself.

Vice Magazine and Orientalism: Yet another article went viral among my Muslim friends called “The Problem with White Converts” by Michael Muhammad Knight of Vice. In my Islam and Pop Culture class last year, we watched Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, a movie by MMK about Muslims in the punk music scene. It dealt with a lot of issues of identity, exclusion, authenticity, and expression. It was clear to me that MMK has a lot of personal issues (this is not meant as a criticism to him, we all have our issues) which he is working out through his writing (why not? I am!). Growing up with an extremely bigoted father, according to the movie, and then falling in with the Nation of Islam and then Salafism, it is not surprising to me that MMK would espouse particularly extreme or harsh views of the world. However, it did surprise me that his article above would be read as such a voice of “truth” and “critical thinking.” In my opinion, anger is not righteous in itself. Critical thinking does not come from pure criticism, and this is an important distinction to be made (one that I am surely still working on).

“You’d think that two white American guys embracing Buddhism and Islam in the age of colonialism could have become awesome champions of antiracism and solidarity with oppressed peoples. But no. Unfortunately, they treated their new religious affiliations like other white men of their time treated entire nations: they marched in and immediately claimed to own them.”

He talks about two particular cases from the 1800s, men who believed that they had the duty to “save” their non-white fellow believers and promote their own purified vision of their religions.

“Over a hundred years later, it’s still a problem. When people assume that “religion” and “culture” exist as two separate categories, culture is then seen as an obstacle to knowing religion. In this view, what born-and-raised members of a religious tradition possess cannot be the religion in its pure, text-based essence, but only a mixture of that essence with local customs and innovated traditions. The convert (especially the white convert, who claims universality, supreme objectivity, and isolation from history, unlike the black convert, whose conversion is read as a response to history), imagined as coming from a place outside culture, becomes privileged as the owner of truth and authenticity. People forget that these white guys aren’t simply extracting “true” meaning from the text, but bringing their own cultural baggage and injecting it into the words. When a white guy wears the hats of brown guys and talks about “reviving the Islamic spirit,” it might be time to run fast.”

While I actually agree fully with him about issues of cultural predatory rhetoric and the fact that converts absolutely DO have cultural baggage, I’m not sure who he is claiming to be doing this. All white converts? Hamza Yusuf as he is pictured at the top of the article? Is this unique to converts? Is this unique to white people? Once again, other culturally predatory groups and movements are forgotten (namely the Arab supremacy-type groups I mentioned earlier).

This also points to racism within the Muslim community that idealizes the experiences of white converts over non-white converts (I’ll find some links to add here, it’s a HUGE problem). There are born-Muslims (much like in the hijabi bride article above) who are embarrassed by their various cultural backgrounds because they want to distinguish between culture and religion in ways that are frankly impossible to do.

When people say that converts don’t have any cultural baggage (and many people say that), I say that my cultural baggage is “Islamophobia.” I was 11 years old on 9/11 and from then on my world was flooded with imagery of “Muslim terrorists” and “oppressed women.” As a white person, I didn’t even understand the concept of white privilege until recently, and I found Black Girl Dangerous’ video “Why Reverse Racism is not a Thing” incredibly helpful. Becoming Muslim has been an education in a lot more than theology, and one that I am extremely grateful for alhamdulillah.

The deep and vast problems of the history and current realities of white supremacy, colonialism and American political and economic dominance do not make this an easy conversation for anyone. Especially when “facts” can be disputed and emotions are so high, especially among converts who often feel victimized in their new context and do not fully understand the difficulties others have faced.

NOW FOR SOME GOOD NEWS: Read this fantastic article by (SHOCK HORROR) a white male convert, Umar Farooq AbdAllah “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” for an antidote to all this anger. (Though one might ask, where are the women?)

[Side Note: It’s important to understand where this article was published, although it is probably best to not get me started on the problems of Vice, an internet publication and studio which produces high-intensity articles and high-value documentaries. I give them a lot of credit to them for investigating hard topics, ones that are rarely addressed by “mainstream” media, and for going into incredibly dangerous places. I’ve watched many of their documentaries including their series on North Korea, Libya during and after the fall of Qaddafi, bridge kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, the heavy metal rock scene in Baghdad, and of temple sex “slaves” in India. Critical journalism that addresses topics that are not well known is attractive, and for people who like to think they think critically, this is the place to start: a gold-mine of topics. However, the documentary on India (in which the host knew NO Hindi and made fun of her translator’s imperfect English, as well as making pejorative statements about Hinduism which she clearly did not take the time to research) as well as this article on “burqa for a day” (as if wearing someone’s clothes for a day gives you insight into an entire civilization?) really made me begin to question their motives. In the end it merely reinforces their own values of Western supremacy, which is so explicitly orientalist I cannot don’t even know where to start.]

~Please forgive me for any mistakes~

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Reflecting on Paris: Tawheed, Saints & Images

Google image search ftw

So I’m no Islamic scholar, (and jetlag got me up around 5am), but I wanted to write about a religious topic of importance to me: Tawheed.

The single greatest thing in Islam, according to me, is the core concept of tawheed. Tawheed is the idea of absolute monotheism: there is no god but God, there is nothing worthy of worship except God, there is no power or control except that of God, that there is no truth except God(‘s truth). It stems from the first half of the shahadah that says: لا اله الا الله, often translated as “There is no god but God” which can be replaced by any of God’s 99 names rendering it something like “there is no god but The Truth.” Without delving into a discussion of the essence or names of God (which I am not capable of), I think it is safe to just point out that in the Islamic view of God, there is NOTHING we can perceive that is equal to God in any way: God is above all of creation, there is nothing in creation that is like God in essence, God’s knowledge and power is greater than all of creation, the extent of God’s attributes are greater than anything we can perceive. (When I first learned this, I felt I had become an atheist! Where was God then? If not in creation, then how can we interact with God?) Instead, we know of the attributes of God, like that of mercy, in our lives because it originates with God’s ULTIMATE Mercy… (Check out all of Book 50 Chapter 4 for the hadiths on God’s mercy!)

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We are God’s creation (our regular and irregular heartbeats and breaths making dhikr) or we interact with God’s creation (the blessings of food, water, community, shelter, etc), we see God’s “miracles” whether they are the laws of physics, biology, etc or the breaking of those laws, we see evidences or traces of God… ayat, and we have the privilege of appealing to God directly through prayer. It is not the creation we worship, but the source of everything. This to me is the essence of tawheed. (Surat An-Nahl (16) and Surat Ar-Rahman (55) have really moving reminders of creation that help me remember God!)

Shirk: Just as interesting to me as the concept of tawheed is what constitutes a violation of it (which is another science unto itself). The label for this in Islam is shirkanything one associates with God (person, object) and anything puts between oneself and God as an object of worship (also usually a person or an object). “Major shirk” is usually classified as something that one explicitly worships as God other than God or if one believes that something other than God can ultimately control your fate, etc. “Minor shirk” is usually something like ‘pride,’ like for example when you engage in very public, loud worship not for the sake of God, but for the sake of people’s admiration (also discouraged in the Bible). I have heard scholars even classify loving someone more than God as shirk!

“Shirk on any level breaks the human spirit like no worldly tragedy could. By making the soul love, revere, or submit to something as it should only God, you are contorting the soul into a position that it, by its very nature, was never meant to be in. To see the reality of this truth, one only has to look at what happens to a person when they lose their object of worship.” –Yasmin Mogahed

This directly related to my fascination with Sufism. One of my academic interests is saints in Islam, often called awliya (~friends) of God, which have historically been a complex topic. The Sufis, as targets of (orthodox and Salafi) criticism, are deemed as threats to tawheed because of “grave and saint worship” in which the affection of students for their teachers appears to cross the bounds of Islam: excessive admiration leading to the worshipping of people! (I plan on learning more about tawwasul, or intercession with God of the saints on behalf of their students, and writing about it here inshaAllah!) To Muslims who insist on the absolute purity of tawheed, elevating humans who are not Prophets or Messengers is a slippery slope towards deification and shirk. (Side note: In my classes on Hinduism, western scholars have used the exact same progression to describe the development on the Hindu pantheon: local holy men and women were elevated past humanity to divinity and eventually collected into an inter-regional “pantheon.” One look at any hagiography from any tradition does not make that hard to believe!)

This to me is the essential challenge of tawheed: It is in our human nature to want to see and touch things (not to mention hear, taste and smell), but the element of faith in God goes beyond on physical senses in a way that is generally uncomfortable. Yet, the Islamic idea of fitra is just as strong as our desire for physical confirmation. Despite our reliance on physical senses, there is still a deep longing for knowledge and experience of God. The challenge is that we cannot cling to what points us to God, we must rely on God alone.

The words of the Companion of the Prophet, Abu Bakr (may God be pleased with him) are incredibly striking in this regard:

“O People! If anyone among you worshipped Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad is dead. But those who worshipped Allah, let them know that He lives and will never die. Let all of us recall the words of the Qur’an. It says: ‘Muhammad is only a Messenger of Allah, there have been Messengers before him. What then, will you turn back from Islam if he dies or is killed?'”

While I fully disagree with the idea of worshipping people (or anything besides God), the aggressive and anachronistic view of Orthodoxy (which I MUST write about sometime soon inshaAllah!) prefers to forcefully edit out people who they believe deviate too far from the established norm. I think it’s really important to see what 1) these people thought themselves, 2) what they preached, taught & wrote about those around them, and 3) what those after them did and promoted. Certain awliya who inspired people to Islam are accused of injecting “innovations” into Islam, a much often heard word bidda’hthe enemy of orthodoxy, but I am passionate about learning what people meant in their own context as much as I am passionate about seeing the consequences and future interpretations of their ideas, which is why I study Sufi saints.

Saints: As it relates to tawheed, my interest in Sufi “saints” also stemmed from the fact that I am always inspired by people who have deep connections with God and point to the worship of God, whatever religious tradition they are from. Thankfully, I have been able to make deep connections with people from various faiths, whether it be my dear Orthodox Jewish friend from SoCal or the Hindu mother of the home-stay from my study abroad in India, which reminds me of a story…

While it was difficult being Muslim in India, I was still able to discuss spirituality with my BJP Hindu home-stay family. During the first week I was there as an undercover Muslim, there was a bombing at the Supreme Court. The father of the home-stay family sat me down to tell me “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim,” only to later find out that I’m Muslim.

The mother was a peaceful Pahari Krishna devotee, who took pleasure in viewing God’s “form” in Krishna, a beloved child to Yashoda, a dear friend to Arjuna and a passionate lover to Radha. She especially loved to tell me about the meaning behind spirituality–it was about treating people well, showing respect and compassion to others. She is one of the most loving people I have ever met. She told me about her deep respect for other religions (different ways of approaching God): she felt comfortable in a Hindu mandir, a mosque or a Sikh gurudwara. Aunty-ji and I even went to go visit a gurudwara about an hour away from their house one day, as she would always go every Tuesday.

Uncle-ji, on the other hand, was a vibrant Panjabi and member of the Arya Samaj movement, a decidedly nirguni form of Hinduism that rejects the notion that God takes any physical form (not totally unlike Islam). In one of my discussions with Aunty-ji, Uncle-ji chimed in to ask what is the point in worshipping a murti, or statue, made out of stone? The stone can do nothing for you, it is not alive and it can do nothing for you.

It was not until I realized this point explicitly, both from Uncle-ji, from the Quran, from my other friends, etc that I began to really see the beauty of tawheed–not just from Islamic sources, but also from practical experience of the world.

In cathedrals

The reason I bring all of this up is that on my trip to Paris, I decided to go see some cathedrals and I was reminded so deeply of tawheed and the challenge of tawheed I mentioned earlier.

I absolutely adore spaces of worship and it deeply pains me when as a foreigner or a woman I am not able to visit these spaces (Muslims are SO incredibly guilty of this it makes my blood boil! See Hind Makki’s AWESOME project “Side Entrance”). I love places of worship because the entire point (usually) is dedicated to a spiritual experience and worship of God. Whether it be a plain little side room without windows that is the allocated “interfaith prayer space” in an office building to a grand cathedral taking up a block or more of a city with the greatest art money could buy, I love them all.

Cathedrals are also fascinating places to me because they are not merely a church, but they have many chapels. Notre Dame has many side chapels dedicated to various saints by various patrons over time. It is like a museum that shows a history of piety, both of local saints who have inspired others and the rich patrons who dedicate the chapels. Not to mention that these cathedrals are still living spaces of worship! With confessional booths and a list of services in various languages, the religiosity lives on, uninterrupted. Notre Dame de Paris, for example was started in 1163CE and finished in 1345CE. It took nearly 200 years just to build the structure, and imagine what that building has metaphorically “witnessed” since then! That kind of heritage is not something that should be taken lightly… and imagine the even more ancient stones in Greece or India or Egypt, for example! What is the point of history if not to learn?

Back to tawheed & saints… As I mentioned my interest in Sufi saints, I decided to visit the cathedrals and reflect on the tradition of saints in Christianity. I will admit early on that I don’t know that much about sainthood in Christianity, but I know that it refers to holy people in different places over time who have been inspirational for their close relationship with God, their good deeds, etc. In global religious such as Christianity and Islam, it only makes sense that the localization of religion is absolutely necessary.

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Saints, as far as I know, are the catalysts for localization. They are local people who walked the walk, inspired God-consciousness in their own cultural and historical context and served as important models for future generations. Saints often wrote poetry and gave sermons in local languages, they adopted local stories and turned them into religious parables, they even adopted local holidays, clothing, food, etc. It is a fine line between unorthodox “innovation” and local adaptation that is necessary for the local survival of a global religion. In India, for example, a religious scholar from Mecca speaking only Arabic would not be useful. If this necessity is not obvious, why not reflect on the fact that even the Prophets were sent by God speaking the languages of the people!

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We know that Christianity did not die after Jesus (pbuh) and Islam did not die after Muhammad (pbuh). The legacy was carried on by pious individuals who retroactively are deemed “saints.” Of course this spiritual legacy (not to even mention political!) is the point of disputation among Muslims, whether Sunni, Shi’i, Salafi, Sufi, or any other “S” groups. 😛

It only makes sense that each society needs pious individuals to lead and teach them in spirituality (just as we need leaders in all fields). But my question comes down to an issue of who is relatable? Is it solely based on commonalities of language, culture, ethnicity? Good deeds and charisma?

Modern relevance: This is not entirely unrelated to the issue of race (especially as it has come up recently with Fox News correspondents declaring that Jesus and Santa were white). If they weren’t, would this make them less relevant to White Americans? As a convert to Islam, I have tried to follow the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even though I am not Arab, I am not from the 7th century, and I am not a man. Is his Sunnah still relevant to me even though we do not have many things in common? Is our common humanity enough? These are fascinating tensions: time, place, gender, ethnicity, etc that continue to foster arguments on all sides.

It worries me when we can only relate to people who are “exactly” like us, yet it is an incredibly important point. The people would not have believed the Prophet (pbuh) if he had not been from them as the Quran points out. This xenophobia, in my opinion, is one thing that Islam at its core is trying to erase–to see past exteriors and even to see past differences on the inside as well (ideology, etc) to get to the root of a common humanity (which is not wholly unlike secular systems). The dedication to a global “ummah” is something that I am honestly very proud of. Those who push for a uniform Muslim community that has no differences are incredibly misinformed, in my opinion, for I believe Islam is not wholly prescriptive.

“Mary” the mother of Jesus (Hijab inspiration?

Images: This is in part why I have come to understand the wisdom of the prohibition of images in Islam. Like I mentioned before, I see the importance of relating to people who are “like us.” We want to feel that religious leaders are part of our heritage, that they are human after all “just like us.” After all, it’s  reassuring to feel like part of a group, I kind of look like Mary (pbuh) in hijab now, no?

One thing that struck me deeply when I was in South India was to see images of “white” Jesus in churches with attendants who are mostly very dark-skinned people. These churches had been founded by European missionaries who naturally had brought their iconography with them, which is not surprising. Did Jesus (pbuh) look like a South Indian man? Probably not. But was he extremely fair with blue eyes and red hair? Probably not. I don’t know what the credible descriptions of Jesus are, but I have a feeling he didn’t look like either depiction.

Besides the idea of Jesus not being the Son of God in Islam, even the depiction of Prophets is problematic for the very same reason, in my opinion, of limiting their messages to people who merely look like them. There is something seductive about images that invites shallow external comparison. Leaving aside the large and complicated issues of racism and colonialism that I don’t fully understand, I can still see the religious basis for reaching beyond commonality in favor of greater ideals.

Both in the context of images and saints, I think this is part of the “Salafi” argument that I find extremely valid. The tension here that I see is between the local and the universal, which I find fascinating… The universal risks the individual’s ability to relate to something too abstract, the local risks the individual’s ability to relate to the greater whole. If only we could see the forest and the trees at the same time, but alas, even our beautifully complicated eyes (subhanAllah!) can only focus on one field at a time.

[My brain is fried… I had a few other points I wanted to add, perhaps I’ll edit this later inshaAllah]

On the plane

For my last reflection on tawheed, I wanted to mention my recent fear of flying. I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve become an incredibly nervous flier. Whether it has to do with the fact that I’m conspicuously Muslim and worried about harassment in airports, my “InshaAllah syndrome” (when I take the phrase InshaAllah very literally and worry that I could die at any moment) or a misplaced notion that “if I’m not in control, I don’t trust anyone else who is” (probably stemming from others driving my car, even though I’m clearly NOT qualified to fly an airplane!), or a combination of these I’m not sure. I start plane rides with a lot of dhikr and ayatul-Kursi.

I listened to Surat An-Nahl, a recent favorite of mine and I was reflecting on my dependence on technology. I was hoping that the pilots, the instruments and the plane wouldn’t spontaneously fail (I’m such a worrier, I know!) and then I realized I could just focus on God instead…

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My favorite sources on Tawheed:
The Quran, obviously
-Bilal Philips’ “The Fundamentals of Tawheed”

~If there is anything right in this post it is from God, if there is anything wrong it is my sincere mistake.~

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Paris Dec ’13: On language

Assalamu alaykum ❤

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Alhamdulillah I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Paris with my father for a week. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the city (so much I even hurt my feet!) in the past few days: walking past monuments, taking my time in museums, and experiencing cathedrals and the mosque etc. It has made me reflect on the similarities and differences between the United States and France (based on what little I know). I have been looking at Paris as a city of major political and cultural influence for a long time, from the Romans to the current French Republic. Through the days of the Renaissance and colonialism, Paris has so many layers of history and so many different facets I find it thoroughly fascinating. I have quite a few ideas I want to explore in a series of blog posts, but I will first start with a facebook post and the story behind it inshaAllah.

The post

Le français était ma première langue étrangère quand j’avais 12 ans. Je suis tombée amoureuse avec les mots, l’accent, la France et les autres pays qui parlent français. Dans mes classes, nous avons étudié un peu l’Afrique et la Martinique, etc. Même si je ne savais pas la colonialisme vraiment ou les problèmes de l’inégalité du monde en générale, j’aimais beaucoup avoir l’capacité de parler avec les autres dans leurs langues and je savais la valeur aussi. À connaitre les gens dans leurs vrai âmes est un plaisir qu’on ne trouve pas assez facilement que parler les langues d’autres…
Aprés le français j’ai appris un peu le chinois, le hindi, le persane, l’arabe et je me suis tombée amoureuse plusieurs fois… autant que j’ai tellement oublié le français, je pensais seulement à l’Inde, des “pays musulmanes,” etc mais ici maintenant le français revient à moi de plus en plus alhamdulillah et je me souviens ma première joie profonde de pouvoir parler les langues étrangères…
Hier soir quand j’ai parlé en français, anglais et un peu arabe avec le chauffeur marocain de taxi… j’ai réalisé encore la vrai pouvoir et privilège de connaitre les gens differents, je suis humiliée toujours de entendre la joie, les difficultés, l’amour et la douleur des vies differentes. La langage n’est pas seulement une système grammaticale, c’est un vrai lien significatif entre les gens qui n’est pas toujours beau… (Je peux pas parler des dialectes, je peux parler seulement en des langues colonialistes…) mais c’est les liens beaux qui vont nous sauveront inshaAllah ❤

[Translation] “French was my first foreign language when I was 12 years old. I fell in love with the words, the accent, France and other French-speaking countries. In my classes, we studied a bit about Africa and Martinique (in the Caribbean). Even though I didn’t truly know about colonialism and the problems of inequality in the world in general, I loved having the ability to speak with others in their own languages and I knew the value of it as well. To know people in their true souls is a pleasure that one does not find as easily as through speaking other languages. After learning French, I learned a little bit of Chinese, Hindi, Persian and Arabic and I fell in love over and over again, so much so that I had forgotten French. I only thought about India and “Muslim countries” but now French is returning to me more and more alhamdulillah and I’m remembering my first profound joy in being able to speak foreign languages.Last night when I  spoke in French, English and a little bit of Arabic with my Moroccan taxi driver I again realized the power and privilege of knowing different people. I am humbled every day to listen to the joy, difficulties, love and sadness of different lives. Language is not only a grammatical system, it’s a truly significant connection between people (that is not always beautiful)… (I cannot speak in dialects, I can only speak in colonial languages) but it will be the beautiful connections that will save us inshaAllah.”

IMG_8950The story

It all starts after injuring my feet through a bad choice of shoes on days 1&2, I still managed to get to La Grande Mosquée de Paris (Great Mosque of Paris). Alhamdulillah this is not the first time I’ve been to a mosque outside of the United States after becoming Muslim. My first experiences had been in India, where I was often turned away as a woman (you might spontaneously start menstruating and dirty the place! or we have no space for you anyway, except maybe next to some graves). Other times I was turned away as someone who does not appear to be Muslim because the color of my skin is wrong (clearly just a foreigner trying to sneak in at prayer time to snap some shots!). Similarly, I was met with less resistance but still confusion in Casablanca. However, I showed up at the mosque in Paris and I was pleasantly surprised that it felt as comfortable as in the US. I managed to find the wudu area and after following some women I made it to the women’s prayer hall (around the corner, down the stairs, through a back entrance I never could have found myself). After prayer, there was a men’s group dhikr session for over 15 mins coming over the loudspeakers that reminded me of Morocco 😀 ❤

[Side note: One of the beautiful things about Islam, in my opinion, is the fact that in prayer Muslims all face the Kaaba in Mecca, saying nearly the same words with nearly the same prayer movements (with minor differences between schools of thought). It doesn’t matter if I’m in Paris, Seattle, Fez, Delhi, or wherever–I can join in and have a meaningful spiritual experience anywhere in the world. It always feels comfortable because I can always fit in. Perhaps some Muslims might take this for granted, but this is something that is profoundly beautiful to me and it strikes me every time I partake in salah abroad. Whether I am in the mosque for Jummuah in Hyderabad or Palo Alto, I can partake in unified worship of God.
Some might rightfully point out the potential for Arab supremacy given that we are all required to pray in Arabic. But my argument against it is that the unity of the Muslim community in prayer and worship, as well as the confidence that the words have not been changed over time, the ability to partake in worship comfortably anywhere in the world triumphs greatly over any frustration in learning to pray in Arabic. If anything, I have often seen non-native Arabic speakers, in their striving, have found deeper meaning and pleasure in learning the Arabic. Of course the issue will always remain that people might say the words out of habit without any meaning or feeling, but this is not limited to foreign languages… but I digress.]

After visiting the mosque, I went to buy some books at a local shop across the street and to the Institut de Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) and the museum there. Perhaps it was my feet aching and/or general fatigue, but I was not really feeling the museum… By the Seine, I caught a taxi and in my un-trained (and unaware!) American rudeness (I only later learned is rude…) I bluntly asked to go to the Louvre.

My hijab gives me away instantly, and I have found that to be a blessing more often than a curse. The driver told me that there was a lot of traffic (a word I hadn’t heard before: bouchon) and we started talking. He asked me if I was Muslim and I said yes, I asked him and he said yes. In fact I am not Française but Americaine which was a surprise to him even if I had mistaken the gender of every noun I managed to say to him. He was Moroccan and Berber, and happy to know that I have so much affection for Morocco as well. We talked about Islam in France and in the United States, I said I didn’t know much, but he was very happy to be Muslim in France, the problems were the same: l’Islamophobie. The concept of laïcité (a particular brand of French secularism, also manifested in Montreal) has its logical limits as he described his daughter who is prevented from wearing hijab at school while she is surrounded by Christmas trees on campus. He lamented that what a shame it is that people commit crimes in the name of Islam and that those voices are often the loudest or at least the ones most listen to. Even the smallest of offenses, whether it be lying or saying a bad word to someone “ce n’est pas Islam!” he said simultaneously with such compassion and passion. We also talked about language. If you can speak French and Arabic, I’m convinced you can speak any language, I said. He agreed that Arabic has very unique sounds that cannot be found elsewhere. We talked about Edward Said’s Orientalism and many other such things. The more I write, the less I seem to remember…

Recently I’ve increasingly become more of a nervous type, fearing being taken advantage of or verbally abused in random contexts, but in a 20-minute taxi ride with stimulating conversation with a complete stranger in which I was able to connect deeply (my French actually worked!) made me feel so much more at peace with the world. I always knew that one of the best things about traveling it meeting people. There is little to no chance I would ever see this man again, meet his family or his friends and get a chance to experience more of the French Muslim community, but these small gems of experience are what makes life worthwhile. It is the unexpected gems that keep me interested in my life (or maybe I’m just narcissistic HAH) Alhamdulillah.

Travelling produces a hyper-reality, one is more aware of what is going on because one knows how little time one has for a trip. The departure date looms over my head, Sunday is too soon! The fact that I can’t get my prized American-style Mexican food (not to be found outside of the US) for a week is not an issue, because I can experience French bread! The hardships don’t mean so much now because I see the end in sight and I can enjoy what I have here and now. But it is also true about life although we do not know the departure date and therefore I often forget the greater point…

Besides the explicit mention of Islam or my reflection on language, this experience also made me think about the hadith: “Be in the world as if you were a traveler or a stranger.”

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Normally I have heard this used to talk about how life is difficult, how one can never assume that one will ever feel comfortable in this life,  because the idea is that we are “from” God and “to” God we will return, and that this life is a test. We will never feel true, lasting comfort until we are reunited with God in heaven (God-willing!). The focus remains on the joys of the afterlife, how in this life we should not be so materialistic and focus only on achieving in the eyes of God etc. We never know when we will die, so we need to squeeze in as much good as possible and ignore the difficulties!

I don’t know if there have been other more optimistic interpretations of this hadith, but I propose one as a total lay person. Why not think of the joys of travelers or the unexpected happiness one may find as a stranger? While I hate tourists (and I strive not to be one) who go places for the sake of “being there” and taking all the necessary pictures as a badge of honor, assuming the new place will cater to one’s needs (*ahem* the SPEAK ENGLISH attitude), one cannot deny the BEAUTY of visitors who savor every moment of their travels. The visitors who take pictures so that their memory might not deceive them, in the hopes to one day share their experiences with others, to provide a visual that they might fill in the other details when recounting their stories to a captive audience. They are the visitors who cherish each moment by trying their best to make the most of their experience, to accomplish as much good as possible for themselves (and potentially for others by buying souvenirs, etc). They are the visitors who throw aside their pride in not understanding a new culture, a new language, a new place and are unashamed by their ignorance but use it as an excuse to explore, to open their minds and hearts to new ways of living, thinking, and, often, eating. Why is this a way of life that we restrict to two weeks a year or when we are in a place far away from home? How much do we not know about our own places? How much more is there for us to discover? This openness is not something that need be cultivated in foreign places, though it most often has occurred to me away from home.

This kind of traveling, as I always try to do, has reinforced the absolute need for humility and hospitality in everyday life. It is only when you have felt so intensely the difficulties of being a stranger or a traveler do you realize how that is truly the lifestyle for so many people on a regular basis. Whether it is my deep awe for international students who navigate foreign languages and cultures for the sake of their education, or for refugees who do not have a place to call “home,” or for minorities who have a complicated relationship with a “home” that constantly marginalizes them, I cannot see any proper response other than compassion for those who are suffering, humility about one’s own blessings, and hospitality for those who do not feel at home.

I am endlessly grateful to my friends who have shown me compassion and hospitality, for speaking to me in English that I might understand better, even when they are acutely aware of how much better they might express it in another language. Alhamdulillah.

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December 13, 2013 · 10:20 am

Hello world!

Bismillah (in the name of God)

This blog has been a long time coming. As a Muslim convert involved in the American Muslim community and as a grad student who thinks too much, I’ve realized I have a lot to say, and facebook comments/messages are probably not the best place for me to do all my thinking. I am addicted to facebook because I love the exchange of ideas, articles, pictures and comments but I should graduate to my own blog now, right? I look forward to exploring different topics and getting feedback. My intention is to 1) learn by writing reflections and responses (what can I get from different articles? what can I learn from my peers who comment?) 2) not feed the trolls (grow up and learn how to deal with haters, let them hate perhaps?). In short I hope this can be a shamelessly selfish project where others can help me learn instead of me telling others what I think. 😀

I’m thankful for my family and friends who have encouraged me to start writing more, and writing publicly. Writing need not be a chore, and even after what I considered to be a fail of a BA Honors Thesis, hopefully I will learn to love writing again through more casual writing about topics that mean a lot to me: Religion, Pluralism, History, Politics, Identity, etc. Hopefully this timid grad student will learn not to be so afraid of disagreement…

Upcoming ideas:

1) Why I love the “Prince of Egypt” ❤

2) My favorite Qaris ❤

3) Why I don’t believe in “levels of faith” in Islam

4) The problem of MALE modesty

Favorite articles/posts of the day:

Mipsterz: Maryam Amirebrahimi on the Mipsterz, “Somewhere on the Internet Muslim Women are Being Shamed“, Buzzfeed’s Surprisingly good take on the Mipsterz, Socio-Economic critique of the Mipsterz video, Sana Saeed’s article that sparked a great deal of debate

Islamic Feminism: Against the Politicization of the Quran (Qantara.de) Original German by Nimet Seker, Translated by Nina Coon

Why Americans are so Ignorant” Alternet by Lawrence Davidson

Because ICE MUSIC IS AWESOME (Siberia for the win!)

“Why Traveling makes you a better person”

Articles I’m planning on reading later inshaAllah:

“White Women and the Privilege of Solidarity”: De-colonial Islamic Feminism with Houria Bouteldja 

There was an article in response to the Mipsterz video that was taken down. If I can find the cache version I’ll post it here inshaAllah.

Also, I felt like doing facebook art 😛

© Kate Bridges-Lyman 2013

© Kate Bridges-Lyman 2013

Here’s to hoping I’ll learn and grow through a new project,

Salam ❤

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