Having spent an hour this evening repeatedly smacking my hand against my forehead whilst watching a documentary on some random American Doomsday cult, I found the same hand twitching slightly when, straight afterwards, I witnessed an advert for an upcoming Channel 4 production called: Make Me A Muslim. What is it with Channel 4 and quirky shows about religion? They obviously know what draws the punters in.
Can Islam help repair the moral fabric of British society? To test it out, Imam Ajmal Masroor asks six non-Muslims and one lapsed Muslim to follow Islamic teachings for three weeks. The six come from Harrogate, in Yorkshire, a town with very few ethnic minority inhabitants. [Channel 4]
Among the characters who explore the religion are a mixed race couple, one of whom is a lapsed Muslim, a gay hairdresser, an atheist taxi driver with a porn habit, and a glamour model who enjoys flashing on her nights out. Helping them are Muslim mentors guiding them in the dos and don’ts of the religion. Broadly speaking, these include a ban on pork products, alcohol, immodest outfits, sex outside marriage and homosexuality… [The producer, Narinder] Minhas says he was tired of watching “po-faced” programmes about Islam and, always on the hunt for hybrids, wanted to turn religion into factual entertainment. [The Guardian]
I will start with optimism, which was a trait loved by our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): even with the wacky premise, I am sure there are many positive aspects to such programming for Muslims in Britain; as I mentioned in an earlier entry, when it comes to Muslims in the media, all news should be treated as good news. In addition, it bodes well for the image of Islam that a real imam (who I will automatically assume is the kind that we would all be proud to have in our local masjid, insha’Allah) is involved in this particular production.
Oh yes, there had to be a “but”.
Doesn’t this all seem a tad superficial, and even… tacky? To herd together a bunch of people who would clearly have issues with the stance that Islam takes on certain aspects of their personal lives (as if Islam is the only moral authority that looks down on pornography, homosexuality and glamour modelling), and force them to live like Muslims for three weeks – that’s just asking for trouble. But trouble is the magic ingredient that leads to higher viewer ratings, greater profits from advertising revenues, and more attention for the producers and broadcasters (yes, the irony of this entry does sting a little, if you’re wondering).
Besides, Islam is not about the praying, and the fasting, and the general abstinence from harmful activities, such as drinking, gambling and adultery. It is not about the hijab. Islam is not about the Shariah. These are simply the things we should or should not do as Muslims. Islam is the belief in the oneness of God, and that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the messenger of God. It involves our acceptance of God’s status over us, and recognition of our obligations to Him. These obligations do include the acts of worship, and the regulation of our behaviour – but they are firmly rooted in the faith we have in the oneness of God: Tawheed. Without Tawheed, we are not Muslims. We may be “good people” in the eyes of others because of our morals and manners – but not Muslims.
Wrt the position of the Shariah in Islam, I am reminded of the words of the Prophet’s beloved wife, Ayesha (may Allah be pleased with her), when describing the order in which the Qur’an was revealed:
“(Be informed) that the first thing that was revealed thereof was a Sura from Al-Mufassal, and in it was mentioned Paradise and the Fire. When the people embraced Islam, the Verses regarding legal and illegal things were revealed. If the first thing to be revealed was: ‘Do not drink alcoholic drinks’ people would have said, ‘We will never leave alcoholic drinks,’ and if there had been revealed, ‘Do not commit illegal sexual intercourse, ‘they would have said, ‘We will never give up illegal sexual intercourse.'” [Al-Bukhari]
I love this narration because it clearly illustrates the wisdom that Ayesha was blessed with. She realised that although the Shariah is an important aspect of Islam, it is not the be all and end all, and that taken alone, it can even be quite off-putting to those who do not have a firm foundation in the faith; the foundation that is built on the love of Allah, hope for His reward, and fear of His punishment.
Of course, for those Muslims who already have this foundation, the Shariah must be respected and upheld. But I wonder whether forcing six non-Muslims (and one “lapsed” Muslim) to observe the practices of “devout” Muslims will bring them any closer to Islam, or will it push them even further away? Especially considering the “colourful” profiles of the panel of volunteers they have gathered. And what about the viewers? The programme may help them to understand the Islamic way of life, but I fear it will be more of an exercise in cultural acceptance, rather than a journey towards seeking the truth. It all depends on how well Islam is explained by the “mentors”; you cannot expect anyone to change their way of life overnight – or even in three weeks – if their hearts have not been moved by the message of Islam.
Saying all this, it is obvious from the Guardian article that the intent of the producers was not Dawah in the strictest sense, but rather “factual entertainment”. Even so, I am still confident that it will serve this purpose on some level, even if it be by simply encouraging more water-cooler talk on the topic of Islam; thus, it is important not to get too side-tracked by the exact content and format of such shows, but rather, to see them as potential ice-breakers to help us spread the real message of Islam to the people around us, insha’Allah.
For this reason alone, even with my early reservations, I would actually suggest that we encourage our non-Muslim acquaintances to tune into Channel 4 with us this Sunday evening at 8pm – just be prepared to do a lot of explaining afterwards – but that’s the fun part!
Fitnah of Our Times: Never Ending Debates and Drama On Muslim Social Media
It is extremely sad that the only excitement and enjoyment many Muslim youth get from the deen – and for some, their only involvement – is by getting embroiled in controversies, polemics, debates, seeing people argue, refutations, etc… I am referring to the general masses and not those that are directly involved in polemical dialogue.
Rather than spend time in worshiping Allah, perfect one’s prayer, fulfill the rights of Allah and the creation and engage in productive activities, so many of us today are hooked on the quarrels and disputes that take place between different groups/sects/religious leaders. We love the drama that takes place, we can’t wait for the next episode of the debate, we get excited when one person challenges another about some matter of religion. Get a few brothers or sisters together, and the only discussion that takes place these days is who won the debate and which scholar refuted which other scholar, and so on and so forth.
Stop being an Audience: Deen is Nasiha Not Entertainment
Anyone who talks or writes about polemics gets a big audience, whilst there is very less interest in listening to someone who avoids such things and teaches you your deen. It’s the same type of enjoyment – in a sense – that people get from football rivalries or boxing matches, but with a religious flavour to it. Social media is amass with such controversies.
One scholar posts something about his dispute with this person or that group on his Facebook page and his followers all comment and even argue amongst themselves in relation to his post. The followers of the refuted group/individual then start attacking the person who refuted and they also argue amongst themselves. This soap opera just continues and never seems to end. Many of us sadly thrive on this. We enjoy all the bickering and argumentation, such that being a Muslim would be boring without it.
When I was growing up, we didn’t have the internet and social media, and Al-hamdulillah it saved us from much fitna. These days, what someone thinks on one side of the world is debated and counter debated several times within a matter of hours. The harms of social media are increasingly outweighing its benefits.
The debates of today are not munadara- these were supposed to be cordial discussions.
My sincere advice to especially young Muslims is that please do not let your precious time be wasted in such matters. Let those that are arguing and debating fight it out amongst themselves; you do not need to get involved. Avoid giving them ammunition or pouring oil on fire. Instead, identify those who you trust and learn your deen from them and then get busy in beneficial things – and avoid the others. We seriously need to reconsider our priorities.
May Allah guide us, Ameen.
Top Read Muslimmatters Posts Of 2018
What the Niqab Taught Me About Myself As A Muslim Convert and a Latina
The year 2019 is only few weeks in and already has its very own social media challenge, the “How Hard Did Aging Hit You Challenge,” with its accompanying hashtags, the #10YearChallenge, #2009vs2019, or for the more seasoned veterans, #1999vs2009. The goal? Compare how your appearance has changed over the past decade or two. Have you aged gracefully or are you a hot mess compared to when you were younger? Simply find an old picture of yourself and place side by side with a current picture, post on social media with the appropriate hashtag, and voila! Let your followers comment away and tell you how gorgeous you are, lie about how you haven’t changed a bit, or laugh at the photos of you with no facial hair or loads of acne.
I have only started sharing pictures of myself recently on Facebook as a means of rekindling relationships with distant relatives, but the temptations to cave in to the latest social media trends pop up every now and then. I was thinking of finding a picture from 2009, but then it dawned on me that a lot more than my appearance has changed since that year. In fact, there would be little benefit in trying to compare a picture of me from 2009 with a picture of me now on Facebook, because back then my face was covered. I was wearing the niqab (the Islamic face veil). It has been so long since I stopped wearing it that I had almost forgotten.
In 2009 I was just returning to the US from Egypt, still high off an increase in iman (faith) after being in a Muslim land surrounded by towering minarets, the melody of a dozen adhans, and the sight and smell of the street markets where smiling Muslims sold warm flatbread and falafels. I started reflecting on why I had chosen to wear a face veil, and then later remove it. To me, that has more weight than how many wrinkles I have gained in ten years.
A little background… Prior to moving to Egypt to study Arabic for a year, I had been living in Northern New Jersey with my family. We were attending a predominately African-American mosque in Paterson which strictly adhered to what they described as the “Salafi” methodology, taking guidance mostly from a list of “approved” Saudi scholars. As such, most of the women who attended the mosque dressed in all black and wore niqab. Some of them wore niqab “full time,” while others only wore it to and from the mosque and at Islamic gatherings. The male congregants often complained or inquired (for marital purposes) about the sisters whose faces were uncovered, causing newcomers to often feel awkward and uncomfortable, myself included. Most sisters opted to bring along a niqab to wear to the masjid rather than deal with unwanted attention and unsolicited marriage proposals.
Before you, the reader, make any assumptions about this masjid based on the above, I want to express that I still consider it, at that time, to be one of the most welcoming centers I have attended. There was a warm, family atmosphere that I have only found in few mosques in the years that I have been Muslim. The sisters helped each other in taking care of the children, they never reprimanded anyone for bringing their young children to the mosque, they hosted regular classes for free (up to three or four times a week), the imam was approachable and relatable (a convert, himself), and they were very meticulous about following the Sunnah to the finest detail.
Nevertheless, as the Spanish saying goes and the Prophetic hadith confirms, Dime con quién andas, y te dire quién eres (Tell me who you hang out with, and I will tell you who you are), you are on the religion of your close friend (At-Tirmidhi), so I believe my decision to don a niqab was prompted by this environment. As a convert, I was even more inclined to follow the people around me. I would not say I was completely ignorant; I had converted about seven years prior to attending this masjid, I had read about the reasons why women wear niqab, general ahadith about hijab, and different scholarly opinions. I counted on the fact that my husband and I would be moving overseas, and I thought it would be easier to wear it in a Muslim land. Why not get a head start? What I failed to grasp was the lifetime commitment that it entailed, and how much it would change me.
One thing that I was not willing to do was disclose this choice to my parents. As a Latina, Puerto Rican, and ARMY brat, there was no way that my family would accept such a thing. It had been challenging enough to get them to tolerate the headscarf. Telling them that I would be wearing all black and covering my face would either enrage them or give them a heart attack, or both. Likewise, some of my husband’s family, like his 90-year-old grandmother, would probably not take it well.
Being Latino and Muslim around non-Muslim family is, for a lack of words, crazy hard. Aside from some aspects of our cultural traditions that need to be tweaked to make them halal, we tend to be very affectionate, family-oriented people, and that includes with extended family. Forget navigating the corporate world without shaking hands with a woman as a Muslim man, try not kissing all your 50 male cousins on the cheek at a family gathering! Women from Latin America also tend to be obsessed with taking care of their appearance. Some of the conversations that I have had with my mother, even as an adult, go something like this:
Mom: Why don’t you just wear the scarf with a pair of pants?
Me: Ma, I have to cover my figure.
Mom: But you look like a vieja (old woman). You’re so palida (pale), put some make-up on.
Me: I did… er… put a little bit.
Mom: Don’t listen to your husband, :::closed fist in the air::: you don’t have to be submissive to him! Here’s some lipstick (pulls out red lipstick from purse and begins to smear it on me).
I couldn’t even imagine the telenovela type of drama that would unfold if I tried to cover my face. The compromise was that I would wear the niqab as much as I could, but never around my parents or other family. I stocked up on black abayas and long khimars, along with the Saudi niqabs that tied in the back and had an extra thin veil that flapped over the eyes for extra coverage, should I feel the need. I later realized that wearing this style of all black or even very dark colors was more of a regional thing, than a strict ruling. I could have just as easily, and comfortably, covered my face with one of my colored scarves. But, alas, as the saying goes, we live and learn. When anyone asked me, “Why do you wear all black?” I used to respond, “It makes me look thinner!”
Contrary to popular opinion, the niqab was not restrictive, it was empowering. As an introvert, I welcomed the sense of privacy and complete ownership of my personal space. If I cried, I could do so without displaying my vulnerability to the world. If I smiled, I could do it from ear to ear without being self-conscious about something being stuck in my teeth! It also tamed my Latino non-verbal communication methods of exaggerated body language and hand gestures that I had been told by some “born Muslims” were not compatible with the modesty and manners of a Muslim woman (I stopped believing that after living in Egypt).
But, of course, with this empowerment came great responsibility. If before, with hijab, I was a billboard for Islam, now, with a niqab, I was a billboard for oppression. On the one hand, non-Muslims looked at me with disdain or pity, and on the other, fellow Muslims either saw me as an extremist or looked up to me like I had vast amounts of knowledge, like the niqab and abaya were my cap and gown and I had just graduated with a PhD from Islam University.
There is something about the niqab that brings out other people’s insecurities. Either they feel guilty because they put you, the niqabi, on a high pedestal of understanding and spirituality (even though you do not deserve it), or they are envious for not having the courage to also wear it (giving more importance to a piece of fabric rather than their relationship with Allah), or they hate niqab with a passion, think you are absolutely crazy for wearing it, and they constantly lecture you about how it’s not obligatory. This added stress, ridiculous accusations, and false expectations make wearing niqab a real test of faith, in which one can easily fall prey to arrogance, self-aggrandizement, religious doubt, exhaustion, or even depression. I felt like the best way to avoid these issues was to isolate myself from people.
I wore the niqab for two years mostly on, but sometimes off. I found it easy to wear in New Jersey, especially surrounded by other sisters who wore it, and in Egypt, where it provided the extra benefit of filtering the sand, dust, houka and exhaust fumes. I felt comfortable and well-protected. However, it was when we returned from Egypt that I started noticing the increasingly negative attention I was getting from strangers for the way I dressed.
In one incident, a couple of Latina women began speaking about me in Spanish, not knowing that I could understand their conversation. I was standing behind them in line at a store in the mall with my 2-year-old in a stroller. They were saying, “Poor kid, having to be raised by ‘that’ in that horrible culture.” They shook their heads and looked at me condescendingly. Rather than be confrontational, I simply turned to my son and started speaking to him in Spanish, making sure they overheard. Both women turned away embarrassed. I thanked Allah for the niqab, because my cheeks were burning red out of anger.
Similar incidents occurred to me whenever I would go out, but it was when I moved further south that I felt afraid for my safety and that of my children. At that point, my eldest was 2 and a half years old and my second was a baby. The verbal abuse came more frequently. I was called a terrorist by Walmart employees in front of my children. I was also violently confronted at a gas station, while my children were in the car, by a man who thought I had been staring at his wife, even though I was not even looking her way (I guess he couldn’t tell because my face was covered). A gentleman who worked at a grocery store where my husband and I would frequently do our shopping stopped us and demanded to know why my husband forced me to “dress like that.” Again, in front of our children. These hate-driven incidents grew until I could no longer go outside alone out of fear.
I started to realize the niqab no longer offered me a sense of closeness to Allah or protection, and it became a burden on my own children. Not only was it a physical veil, but it had also begun to obscure who I was as a person. Dawah became more difficult, because people were no longer willing to see beyond the piece of fabric covering my face. My own people, Latin-Americans, did not see in me, as they had in the past, a similarity to the Virgin Mary, which made Islam more familiar and appealing to them. This was the same reason why I knew I would never wear niqab in front of my family, and why it could never be part of me 100%.
I went through a period where I questioned why I was wearing niqab, and I questioned why I was questioning it. I read and reread fatwas, articles, and books about hijab, and made du’a for guidance and strength. I no longer had a community of niqabi sisters around me, and as I read more about niqab, I saw that things were not as black and white as some people make it seem. I realized eventually that I was guilt-shaming myself for something that I had never considered obligatory in the first place. Unfortunately, for convert sisters and some who are raised Muslim and finding their way, learning that there are varying opinions on certain religious matters is a long process. I have known of some newly converted Muslims who rush into the Deen, and overburden themselves with unnecessary practices, only to then abandon Islam altogether. Likewise, there are others who take baby steps and their faith grows gradually over time, like a firmly rooted tree.
Once I resolved to remove the niqab for good, I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary. Alhamdulillah, I sought advice from a friend about my struggle and surprisingly, she shared with me her own failed niqab story. She (a South Asian “born Muslim”) had also worn it and stopped after years for the same reasons, and although some people in the masjid shunned her for some time, she felt it was the best course of action for her and her family. She reassured me that it was my decision and advised me to seek comfort in the mercy of Allah.
When I removed the niqab, I started to find myself again. Now, ten years later and almost two decades into the Deen, I feel reconnected with my culture and have long accepted that I can be Puerto Rican while being a Muslim, and that I can be modest while maintaining my identity. The process of converting and then really “owning” your faith take time, and we will hit many bumps along our journey. Wearing the niqab was part of my learning curve, and I appreciate both the good and the bad from it. So, for those who want to compare how they looked ten years ago to now, I challenge you to instead reflect on how much you have learned about yourself.
Note: This reflection is by no means a criticism of the niqab. Many sisters, some Latinas, wear niqab with pride, and the beauty of Islam is that we are free to decide what works best for us. May Allah make your personal journeys easy. Ameen.