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Why Buying “Experiences” Won’t Make You Happy | The Muslim Skeptic

Pop psychology has this unique ability to take the worst of philosophical sophistry, combine it with the shoddiest research methods, and spit out ill-begotten, yet Scientific™,  platitudes about how we should live our lives. Whether their work sits on the bookshelves of airport kiosks or is featured on the latest episode of Oprah, these gurus of good living know exactly what human fulfillment consists in, and they are more than happy to share that with the ADHD-addled, depressed, morbidly obese masses.

The latest slice of wisdom to make the rounds is more insidious than usual because it has the virtue of kinda, sorta sounding true, maybe. The claim is this: If you want to be happy, stop spending your disposable income on things, e.g., TVs, cars, jewelry, etc. Instead, spend your money on experiences. As one recent article puts it, if you have to choose between buying the newest BMW or vacationing in an exotic country, definitely choose the latter as that is more likely to make you a happier, more fulfilled human being.shutterstock_145434475

 

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Over the past twelve months, this simple directive of “experiences over stuff” has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and everywhere in between. Perhaps the idea is so popular because it sounds like solid advice, even noble, as if it eschews the baser materialism of our times. The Gordon Gekkos of today are enlightened enough to know that yachts don’t beget happiness. No! True happiness is hiking in Africa and watching the sunrise on Mt Kilimanjaro (with your family, of course).

Psychologist Dr. Thomas Gilovich gives two main reasons why experiences are a better investment in your happiness than buying that yacht.

First, a yacht is a thing and things get boring after a while. Experiences, on the other hand, have the virtue of ingraining themselves in our memories and thus becoming part and parcel of our identities. As Gilovich figures:

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

Secondly, experiences are more likely to connect us to other people than material objects:

“We consume experiences directly with other people,” says Gilovich. “And after they’re gone, they’re part of the stories that we tell to one another.”

Quite profound insights there from Gilovich so long as you don’t think about them for more than a few seconds.

For example, is there really that much of a distinction between experiences and things? Surely Gilovich can imagine how owning a yacht can be conducive to creating lasting memories and connecting with people, as much as any two-week vacation in Africa. Of course, a yacht is on the more opulent side of the stuff spectrum, but the same can be said about any material good. Owning a product is always an experience, and as a matter of fact, that is exactly how many products are marketed!

Beyond advertising, the driving force behind many of our consumer purchases are the experiences we associate with those material goods. From that perspective, it is almost like the physical object at the center of those experiences is merely incidental. The kid who saves up to buy a brand new basketball is actually interested in all the fun he is going to have playing with his peers at the park and all the potential friendships he stands to forge. The grandmother who buys her three year-old grandchild a new bike is actually interested in the joy and the excitement on the boy’s face as he receives his gift and all the firsts of learning how to ride a bike. The basketball and the bike — or the BMW and the yacht for that matter — are in many ways simply conduits for that memory-making, those experiences.

In this way, the entire distinction between experiences and things collapses, as do the pseudo profundities of Gilovich, et al.

Beyond these conceptual incoherences, what is especially vexing about Gilovich’s experience fetishism is the idea that experiences are something that can be bought and accumulated. Gilovich wonders to himself, “As a society, shouldn’t we be making experiences easier for people to have?” as if we need social welfare programs that, in addition to doling out blankets and hot soup to the needy also ensure people are getting their daily minimum requirement of experiences.

Joking aside, I often ask myself, why don’t I have more experiences? Usually, it’s a question that comes up when reviewing my resume. Upon further reflection, that seems to be the underlying context in which this focus on experiences makes sense. In terms of a resume, an experience is something compact, packageable, something that quantifiably adds to your overall worth as a potential hire. I suppose there are incorrigible careerists out there who cannot resist conflating that professional meaning of “experience” with the “experiences of life.” In that sense, a “bucket list” is the final resume some envision their lives culminating in.

Maybe for some, the entirety of life is one long resume building opportunity for a job opening that will never be. Even if we do not personally see ourselves in this category of people, do we nonetheless see our own lives as ultimately a series of experiences, one after another?

That conception seems to be overly beholden to a kind of empiricist, representationalist view of human consciousness, that what makes us who we are is a series of sensations and sense data that we store in our heads and, then, at a later date, we can replay for ourselves and interpret as if watching a movie of our lives. With the ubiquity of social media and cell phone recording technology, many of us do see our lives as essentially a movie production or a series of Facebook or Instagram posts. What is the perfect social media profile? What “experiences” would such a profile showcase? With this mindset, it is hardly surprising that many in our society do derive significant pleasure from having “experiences” that they can photograph, video record, upload, and show off to friend, family, and follower. But is that pleasure contributing to one’s happiness or to one’s vanity?

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And that is another thing that bothers me about “chasing experiences” — the vanity of it. There is something disturbing and artificial about the idea that experiences — as the fundaments of life itself  — are to be pursued insofar as they contribute to one’s sense of self, one’s personal satisfaction.  What is valuable in any given place and at any given time is the fact that you are there to take in that moment and make it a part of your personhood, to add it to the list of experiences you have had. All world religions and ethical systems decry this kind of egotistical impulse to see one’s self as the focal point of this cosmic drama of life. But modern psychologists like Gilovich urge us to embrace this instinct and even cultivate it, to make a vacation out of it.

Then again, stroking one’s ego does contribute to some version of “happiness.” Or, is it just base pleasure, a sating of the nafs? Unfortunately, Gilovich and social psychologists in general do not ponder too deeply on such distinctions. Their research conclusions depend on respondents’ subjective assessment of their own happiness. But, do people in general have the depth of insight into their own mental states or even the conceptual framework to distinguish between, say, a carnal, transient satisfaction and the deeper, more meaningful happiness that most of us are presumably striving for?

Of course, the materialistic, atheistic paradigm that dominates the social and physical sciences denies that there can be any metaphysical or spiritual happiness above and beyond mere bodily pleasure. In the end, its all just dopamine flooding our brains, nothing more, nothing less — certainly nothing meaningful about it. For those of us who do understand that happiness is of various shades and significances, that true happiness is something otherworldly, inexorably tied to our purpose as human beings on Earth, then not only are Gilovich’s conclusions on “experience vs. material” fundamentally flawed, but so is all social psychological research that assumes this flat, reductionist view of happiness.

The fact of the matter is that science cannot tell us what happiness truly is because science is not — or, at least, should not be — teleological. Science, by its very nature, cannot tell us what our purpose is, what we are here for, and, therefore, it can never determine how we can be fulfilled in that unique way that entails real happiness. One does not have to be Muslim to accept this reasoning, but Muslims especially should be wary of these often spurious claims coming from the multi-billion dollar self-help and positive psychology industry, which, if the frenzied devotion of its adherents is any indication, has become a modern secular religion unto itself.

But, as Muslims, we do know the purpose of life and we do know that happiness in this life and the next comes from fulfilling that purpose. (And how merciful is our Creator that He deliberately made it so that fulfilling our purpose is also the source of happiness; He could have made circumstances different, where fulfilling our duties and doing good were a source of depression and sadness.)

In the final assessment, we have to be impressed by how Gilovich, et al., were able to repackage and promote what is essentially consumerism, i.e., the decadence and blameworthy self-indulgence sages have censured throughout history. Tying consumerism to happiness is as cynical as it is bold, but thankfully most people understand that consumerism and consumption have nothing to do with happiness, at least not the deep, meaningful happiness most of us care about. If we can all agree on that much, then what difference does it make if the consumption is of the stuff-buying or experience-buying variety?

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Yuma

    April 20, 2015 at 9:23 PM

    Awesome and insightful essay mr. Haqeqitju. Thank you for the very readable opinion piece.

  2. Avatar

    Abdul Sattar

    April 21, 2015 at 3:36 PM

    salaam Ustadh Daniel,

    BarakAllahu feek for these reflections. I’ve actually been reviewing some of the work on this and thinking about it recently as well.

    When I approached all the pop-journalism that has been coming out about this, I actually saw it as more of a confirmation of the Islamic worldview, than a materialist opposition to it.

    Although the articles may contain encouragements to “Spend Your Money On Experiences, Not Things”, I think the wording might be focusing on encouraging people who have money to spend and plan to do so to redirect that spending to gain greater utility.

    I see the articles attempting to prove a more fundamental reality: “Having Experiences Makes you Happier Than Having Things”. It seems like the word “Buying” kind of gets in the way of the true results of the research.

    Once we change the word Buying to Having, I feel the entire thing fits well into our psycho-spiritual paradigm as Muslims. Happiness comes from the experiences that we have – whether the experience of prayer, of loving, reciting the Quran, and so forth.

    All I’m saying is, while I fully appreciate your points – I think “chasing experiences” is not so bad when one frames *what* experiences one wants. Every prayer can be chasing an experience. Every walk on a beach an opportunity to say: “You have not created any of this in vain.”, and so on. Experiences do not have to be bought, they can simply be lived.

    I think the research is pretty reconcilable once we get past the the word “Buying”, which seems to have been included primarily to provide an alternative to collecting and amassing objects for those who have disposable income.

    I may be lacking some knowledge about Gilovich’s intents or previous research that leaves me under-informed about the implications about his publishing these ideas. With slight changes, I see it as an opening to our belief that hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah, and as Shah Waliullah (ra) wrote, that the soul cannot be satisfied by the accumulation of objects because it was not made from dust as the body was, but from a higher level of creation.

    JazakAllahu khairan for the reflections
    Abdul Sattar

    • Avatar

      Daniel Haqiqatjou

      April 21, 2015 at 4:28 PM

      Wa alaikumussalam Abdul Sattar,

      Thanks for your comment; wa iyyakum! I absolutely agree: there is nothing inherently problematic about traveling, going to beaches, climbing mountains, etc. In fact, these activities can draw one closer to Allah as we reflect on the magnificence of His ayat in creation.

      But, as you point out, money has nothing to do with that. What is problematic about these articles is that they focus on the buying aspect. The kind of tourism the NYT, WashPo, the Atlantic, etc., are promoting is not cheap. And it has nothing to do with prayer or reflection about one’s higher purpose, and so on.

      Nonetheless, even if we take out the buying aspect, I still wouldn’t make the unqualified claim that “having experiences makes you happier than having things” because experiences can be just as hollow, spiritless, purposeless, vanity-inducing, nafs-sating as material objects. Sometimes more so. Just look at party culture.

      Furthermore, where do we have this idea that material objects, in and of themselves, are negative? The Prophet (sas) is recorded to have loved a number of material things: perfume, watermelon and other fruits and foods for example. The sahabah also had prized possessions. As scholars discuss, there is nothing inherently wrong about enjoying material things of this nature (so long as those things are not prohibited or blameworthy and do not lead to that). It is only when love of the dunya penetrates the heart, leading to vanity, pride, and ghaflah, such that one is distracted from the akhirah and one’s duties to Allah, preferring to accumulate wealth to helping the needy, etc., then that becomes a big problem. But the same dangers are associated with “experiences,” so there is no real distinction there.

  3. Avatar

    Hibaysh

    April 22, 2015 at 7:40 AM

    Assalamu’alikum,

    Enjoyable read. Very intellectually stimulating and refreshing to have an Muslim’s perspective on this topic. JazakAllahu Khair.

  4. Avatar

    Muhammad Kamrul

    April 22, 2015 at 3:15 PM

    Your view is praiseworthy, MashaAllah! May Allah reward you. But, is it correct to criticize other’s view when each view is based on metaphysics and other-worldly thoughts? We know, everything is valid in it’s own perspective but when one sees a thing from another perspective then it may not look valid! Perspective is an issue.

  5. Avatar

    Amoona

    September 20, 2015 at 8:58 PM

    SubhanAllah! This is just what I have been looking for!
    May Allah reward you immensely for this and grant you and your family Al-Firdous.

  6. Avatar

    MSD

    June 12, 2016 at 4:50 AM

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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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Searching for Signs of Spring: A Short Story

At the party she stood near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. At least the food was good.

Golden Gate Bridge at night

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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The Beginnings Of The Darul Islam Movement In America

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

Much of the history about Islam in United States of America and of the pioneering Muslims upon who’s shoulders we stand, has never been told. Some of them unfortunately may never be told and may die with the death of those who were there. When it comes to American Muslim history, the narratives of those who lived it is more poignant than that of those who only heard about it. As in the hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), “He who is told is not like he who has seen”.

Much of what is written about Black American Muslim Sunni pioneers is written about us but not by us. 

One story that has remained largely unchronicled is that of the Darul Islam movement. Darul Islam was an early indigenous Sunni Muslim community made up of Black American Muslims and converts to Islam. At its height, it comprised 25-30 Muslim communities and masaajid across the country. It was started by Rajab Mahmood and Yahya Abdul-Karim, who were formally attendees of the famous State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, New York in the Atlantic Ave area west of Flatbush. The State St, Mosque which was started by was Dawud Faisal, a Black man who came to the United States from the Caribbean to pursue a career in jazz music, became a beacon for early Muslim immigrants as there was already a spate of Arab businesses along Atlantic Ave near third street, not far from the Mosque. My father used to take us to Malko Brothers bakery on Atlantic Ave in the early sixties where we would buy pita bread and halal meat from one of the other stores. It was one of the few places you could buy pita bread on the East Coast and there was no such thing as a halal store in America then.  

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Partially because Shaykh Dawud was black, and perhaps because of his jazz background and affiliation, the Masjid also attracted Black American converts to Sunni Islam. Many early Sunni Muslims were associated with and came from jazz musicians.  The Legendary John Coltrane was reported to have been a Muslim, he was married to a sister named Amina and his daughter was named Na’eema. My father performed her marriage in New York in the 1980’s. It’s rumored that he never publicized his Islam because it would have damaged his career as it had done to so many others. Hajj Talib Dawud, who started a masjid in Philadelphia (not related to the Darul Islam movement), used to be a trumpet player for Dizzy Gillespie. 

Meanwhile, , there was a chasm between immigrant Muslims who were new to the country. Converts to Islam, who were overwhelmingly Black, were new to Islam.  In 1960, Shaykh Dawud hired a teacher who was Hafiz al-Quran named Hafiz Mah’boob — he was associated with the Tabligh Jamaa’ah movement— but he was Black or looked black. The young African American converts, Rajab Mah’mood, Yahya Abdulkarim, Suleiman Abdul-Hadi (my uncle and one of the founding members of The Last Poets), Muhammad Salahuddin, and others. were drawn to him, He was “down” with educating the brothers from America and he used to teach them Arabic and Islam. It was a different time then and the immigrant, mainly Arab Muslims, and the Black American converts to Islam were from two different worlds. There was an unspoken uneasiness. Eventually Hafiz Mah’boob suggested that the African American brothers go and start their own masjid.

Rajab Mah’mood and Yahya AbdulKarim eventually left the State Street Mosque and started their own Masjid in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods, they named it Yasin Mosque, and that was the beginning of the Darul Islam Movement in the United States. That’s also just the beginning of the story.

I was born and raised a Sunni Muslim in Philadelphia, PA; my parents converted to Islam in the 1950’s.

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

History matters. 

Taken from the Upcoming Book. “The History of the Darul Islam Movement in America” 

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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