When I first heard about teenage girls in the West leaving their homes to join ISIS, I couldn’t begin to fathom how and why they would overlook the obvious evil of ISIS. But as I started reading their stories, their motivations and the baits thrown their way; I began recalling my own teen days as a member of The Ameer Club* nearly two decades ago.
Honestly, I know how it feels to be trapped in a cult mentality. Although it has been almost eighteen years and I have totally moved on from it, I can still remember the appeal of belonging to something different, tasting the thrill of rebellion especially when it is guilt-free— because it is “for a higher purpose”.
Before causing any confusions, let me state very clearly: the only thing in common between The Ameer Club and ISIS is the cultish mindset and slow brainwashing. My sole purpose is to show how– knowingly or unknowingly– young girls can become targets of a cult. This similarity highlights the need of embracing non-typical parenting by our societies, and the need for female leadership within Muslim communities.
I interviewed a 17 year old British Muslim who was almost swayed by the tactics of ISIS through Twitter last year but alhamdulillah pulled out before it was too late. (Editor’s Note: This interview will be published in a followup article). The journey she described and many ISIS strategies that she recalled showed patterns and effects on young girls, parallel to what happened with me as a teenager and to many teens who are affected by cults in various parts of the world
Some groups are more dangerous than others. But once trapped in a cult’s ideology mindset, one fails to see outside the box, and it is that state of mind that can deviate young, seemingly level headed, women into leaving their loved ones and joining ISIS, foolishly believing that they are serving a higher purpose of spirituality and religiosity; just as I did when I was stuck in such a mentality that caused a lot of harm not only to myself but also to my Muslim community as I had believed that I was establishing good and repelling evil.
TAC was an active organization led by young adults and very different from the rest of the community. It called to a unique methodology that most Islamic organizations at the time disputed. Many leading-members of TAC were fierce, outspoken and fearless. The rest of the Muslim community often sidelined them because TAC’s leading-members were unusually harsh and brash. But instead of being a cause of concern, this became our organization’s stamp of pride. It was thrilling and also fulfilling because the leadership gave us a sense of direction, laid out strong but precise goals in life and always gave specific black and white answers to all questions under an Islamic guise.
If I were to go through a list of characteristics associated with cult groups, I can easily check off more than 50% of the list of traits that were present in me and the in-crowd of TAC back then. For example, one of the signs of a cult-movement is the belief that we were the only ones steered in the “right” direction and every other sect else is misguided. Most of our lectures started with the reminder about the hadeeth of 73 sects, and we were brainwashed into firmly believing that every other sect of Islam was destined to hellfire. And that other Muslims who simply weren’t as conservative as us and didn’t 100% agree with us, were entirely another sect!
This was very different from how I was raised, without any specific guidance on how to practice the religion and without a passion for it. For the first time in my life, I learned about the evil of “innovations in acts of worship”. Along with this, we were taught about the necessity of eliminating it from our community. Members were lauded for openly calling out (in extreme and offensive ways) the innovative practices that occurred within our mosques. “Establishing good and forbidding evil” was taken to an extreme level by TAC’s leading members going to gatherings where ‘innovations’ took place, just to denounce the practice. One common tactic was to purposely attend lectures by “off the manhaj” speakers to openly rebuke them while they were speaking. Siraj Wahhaj, Hamza Yusuf and Dr. Jamal Badawi were some of the prime targets. We actually went through the phase of doing whatever we could within our power to “purify” our city from Hamza Yusuf and co.
A female TAC leader once wrote a refutation in the newsletter of the largest Islamic Society in the city simply because they had added a few more lines to the Eid-takbeerat. As Bidah-phobic as we were, she sardonically pointed out the “evil” that had been done by the addition of a few lines. I personally admired that girl for her courage and strength! Whether adding takbeerat to eid prayer is an act of bid’ah or not, but criticizing an organization in such a manner for a few mistakes while ignoring the tremendous good that the organization had done for the community was not a way of establishing good. Islam teaches us that causing fitnah is a greater sin than killing someone, but I justified causing fitnah in our communities, along with other members of our cadre in the organization, because it was for Islam.
I can only thank Allah that although TAC-leadership made extreme demands of us to fit their particular worldview, it never posited or supported violent positions, nor did it call for any bloodshed. TAC was not pro-khilafah, nor was it interested in changing governments. We were told to never sign any petitions, and never participate in any protests because we were taught not to “beg the kuffaars”. In fact, we were taught to stay firm against politics and any political involvement, that’s why we opposed CAIR, MAS or any Muslim organization that showed support for civic engagement.
TAC was pro-Hijrah [migration for the sake of Allah] and “change via education”, not through khilafah, government or politics. We were taught to focus on educating “deviant” Muslims (which constituted majority of Muslims!) and calling non-Muslims to Islam.
Everything was “haram”, from voting to participating in on-campus food fairs, even bake sales were forbidden! We opposed local Muslim organizations, mosques, and we especially hated ICNA and ISNA. We were bent on importing “fatwas” from Saudi scholars and implemented them blindly without ever distinguishing the legitimate cultural differences, hence most western non-religious norms became wrong and any Muslim involved in those “norms” was “imitating kuffar”.
We weren’t allowed to “befriend” non-Muslims either because we were taught that it wasn’t allowed in Islam. We avoided befriending non-Muslim classmates, co-workers and even neighbors. There was a clear us vs. them mentality.
The verse often quoted to back up this claim forbids from taking non-Muslims as “Auliyah” which does not translate to ‘friends’ but has a specific meaning. A Wali (singular of auliyah) is someone you take as your religious/spiritual guide, not a mere friend.
As I said, we were always given a very black and white answer. Every action was either right or wrong, there was no in between. So we lived in a bubble—a bubble guided by very selective “scholars”.
This phase incited me to rebel against the wider Muslim community, to unnecessarily become and act different from my parents and even to break long bonds of friendship. Although a straight-A student, I eventually dropped out of the university because I was made to believe that it was not allowed for a female to attend mixed classes (unless it was a necessity), and that necessity would be nullified by my marriage! So I gave up my life-long dream of pursuing a career in the medical field and to this day not completing a college degree in secular studies remains a source of regret.
A Little Knowledge is Dangerous
Little education of religion with the belief that “we know it all” is more dangerous than no education at all. At least with the later, a person acknowledges his/her ignorance, but to believe that one’s limited knowledge of religion that was learned over few months is most authentic and valid is a serious sign of concern.
Islam teaches us to obey our parents but I often disobeyed them because I looked down upon their understanding of Islam as rudimentary (while I ASSUMED mine had reached advanced levels by virtue of attending a few classes). So disobedience became cognitively justified as (ironically) a way to “please Allah”.
Knowledge without manners is like a cactus tree, though it’s a plant but is harmful when touched
A speaker taught us eating with three fingers was sunnah. In my zealousness of establishing sunnah, I started eating with three fingers. It wasn’t easy and often messy. My mother noticed once and asked me not as she was particular about table manners. I, on the other hand, was trying to “establish sunnah” and hence disobeying my mother was completely justified. I still remember the argument, my mother’s disappointment and my audacity of walking away from dinner table with pride because I had “obeyed the Prophet” over my mother.
Strange are the traps of shaytaan, every wrong seemed right and every right was wrong. Establishing sunnah wasn’t the issue but the manners in which it is established is the key to obeying the Prophet, but we weren’t taught the manners of our Prophet. Besides, whether eating with three fingers was a sunnah or not, obeying my mother was obligatory!
TAC was Our Life
For many of us, TAC wasn’t only an organization, it was our life. As one of the girls from that phase often says whenever we talk about our TAC-days, “We had gone totally crazy!” TAC dictated us how to eat, dress, interact with others, marry, and live our lives. Men with beards and women with hijabs had a “higher” ranking in the organization. The more “super-salafi-conservative” views one held, the more respect s/he earned.
Again, it is the similarity of cult behavior, narrow interpretation, and brainwashing young minds that made me think of my days in TAC when I read about young girls joining ISIS. Other than that, TAC of the 90s and ISIS share no common ground.
However, and this is important, once fully inculcated, had “leadership” called for participation in violent movements abroad, I may have been “brave” (and foolish) enough to heed the call! I fear that under those brainwashed circumstances and “religious high”, I may not have been able to differentiate right from wrong. Of course it would require the addition of poisonous political narrative, as we know that it is almost never piety but politics that drives violent radicalization.
At the same time it must be mentioned that not ALL TAC members fell into this cult mindset. The organization had earned a bad reputation within the extended Muslim community and many members, especially novices, were warned to keep away from core leadership.
The percentage of the girls affected severely by this were literally two or three out of hundreds of Muslim girls in TAC, just like how only a handful of girls are joining ISIS in comparison to the vast majority of Muslim girls who are denouncing ISIS.
Aunty Politics and Lack of Female Leadership
No teen goes to join a cult, they join a religious movement or a political organization that reaches out to the feelings of angst or isolation that many troubled teen’s experience. I was young, searching for spiritual guidance that should have been made available at home and within our masjids. Unfortunately typical parenting with “cultural religion” doesn’t attract or satisfy young, inquisitive minds; and “aunty politics” at masjids pushes teens away from the main Muslim community. This is basically what made me loyal to TAC.
In hindsight once I got married and moved away from the “cult”, my husband and I had an opportunity to break off from the cultish mindset. As I gained more knowledge of Islam through proper academic channels, and I opened myself to listening to other scholars and not just a handful “shaikhs” of TAC, I found room to grow. As time passed, I continued to learn more and more from a variety of scholars, moved from one community to another, traveled and most importantly I was lucky enough to find teachers who focused on ikhlaaq (manners) and character building. More so, I was no longer a 17 year old teenager rather I got space to mature under more broad and visible circumstances– outside the box!
I want to reiterate, becoming more religious and spiritual is not wrong or dangerous. However, Islam is supposed to make a person peaceful, not aggressive. Becoming a better Muslim is supposed to bring us closer to our families, more respectful towards parents, more patient with elders, and more involved within our mosques/communities. But, if someone starts taking an opposite route in the name of “Islam” then there must be something wrong with his/her understanding of this peaceful faith…
* Name changed of the organization for security reasons.
How To Be Positive In Hard Times
We all know that we should be grateful. And we definitely know that we should be certain that whatever happens is good for us as believers. However, when we are tested -as we inevitably are-, many of us crumble. Why is that? Why are we not able to ‘pass’ these tests, so to speak? Many of us after a tragedy become hapless, sad, depressed, angry, or bitter.
The essence lies in knowledge that is beneficial, and the best form of knowledge is that which an individual can apply to their day-to-day life on their own. Here are a few tips to increase your patience in hard times. Like building muscle at the gym, it takes time to exercise this habit, but becomes easier over time:
Unfortunately, stressful events are abundant in our lives. People under stress can find themselves falling into thinking errors. These thinking errors include -but are not limited to-: black and white thinking, mind-reading, self-criticism, negative filtering and catastrophizing. Together this can affect how we perceive reality. Next time you are tempted to make a catastrophe out of a situation, stop and ask your self two questions:
- Is this really a big deal in the larger scheme of things?
- Are there any positives in this situation?
Have a Realistic Perspective of Qadr:
Although it is part of our creed to believe in divine destiny, personal responsibility is still of importance and we cannot simply resign ourselves to fate; especially if we have some sort of influence over a situation.
Allah says in the Quran:
لَهُ مُعَقِّبَاتٌ مِّن بَيْنِ يَدَيْهِ وَمِنْ خَلْفِهِ يَحْفَظُونَهُ مِنْ أَمْرِ اللَّهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ ۗ وَإِذَا أَرَادَ اللَّهُ بِقَوْمٍ سُوءًا فَلَا مَرَدَّ لَهُ ۚ وَمَا لَهُم مِّن دُونِهِ مِن وَالٍ
For each one are successive [angels] before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah. Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron. [Surah Ar-Ra’d;11]
This puts the responsibility on us to change ourselves. Notice the word, themselves. We are not responsible for events beyond our control. These events include the behavior of our spouses, the affinity of our children to the religion, the love in the hearts of people, the weather, the gender of our child (or how many we have), or even the amount of money we will earn in a lifetime -to name a few. Often we become stuck and focus on our conditions, rather than focusing on our own behavior.
Nourish Positive Thinking:
In order to be able to have a wise and calculated response to life’s events, we must learn to interpret these events in a way that assign positive meaning to all. Allah is after all, how we perceive Him to be. Shaytan interferes with this process through waswaas (interjecting thoughts that are based on negativity and falsehood). His goal is for the Muslim to despair in Allah’s mercy. The goal is not to be happy all the time; this is unrealistic. The goal is to think well of Allah as consistently as possible.
- Create a list of what you are grateful to Allah for daily.
- Remind yourself everyday of the positive aspects of situations when your mind falls to default negative thinking. Self-criticism will will only encourage you to take full responsibility for negative life events and become depressed, or at the opposite end take no responsibility whatsoever; either mind-set does not help us improve our self.
Remind yourself as well as others of the benefits of Positivity:
- On an individual level, once we begin to think positive about ourselves and our life, we become optimistic. This positivity will then also effect our perception of others. We become more forgiving, over-looking, and patient with others when we can see the positives in any situation.
- Increased rizk and feelings of well-being
- Reduced likelihood of reacting in a negative way to life’s events; increased patience.
- Increased likelihood of finding good opportunities in work, relationships and lifestyle.
- Higher energy levels and motivation to take on acts of khayr and benefit.
Practice self-care as a daily routine:
Our bodies have rights on us. Our souls have rights on us. Our family has rights on us. Allah has rights on us. Often, when there is an imbalance in one area, our whole being can sense it. This creates anger and resentment towards those around us and life in general.
- Take care of your body, feed it well and in moderation and exercise in a way that makes you feel relaxed.
- Pray your prayers, read the Quran, maintain the rights Allah and your own soul have on you.
- Take care of your tongue by avoiding back-biting and complaining.
- Take regular showers, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and wear clean clothes; even if you are at home.
- Take care of your mind by doing dhikr as much as possible and letting go consciously of ruminating on situations.
Do not over-rely on your emotions:
Our emotions are a product of our thoughts. Our thoughts can be affected by slight changes in the environment such as the weather, or even whether or not we have eaten or slept well.
كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.” [Surah Al-Baqarah;216]
Ultimately, our perception can be manipulated by our thoughts, shaytan, and other factors. Allah is not limited in His perceptions due to stress, emotions, or circumstances and moods. Therefore, we should be humble to defer our judgements to Allah’s ever-lasting judgement. Far from naval gazing, the more we are aware of our internal perceptions, emotions, and motives, the more able we are to practice Islam in its full essence. Our forefathers understood this deeply, and would regularly engage in self-assessment which gives you a sense of understanding and control of your own thoughts, emotions and actions.
Go Visit Bosnia
I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.
Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.
To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.
Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.
What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?
So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.
However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.
Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.
Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.
Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.
Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.
The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.
As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.
As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.
As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.
Our trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.
Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.
You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city. I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.
In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!
Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.
If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.
Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.
Museum Tunnel of War:
This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.
A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.
This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.
It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans. The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.
It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.
Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.
Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.
Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica
Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman. Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.
Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.
We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.
Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.
This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.
Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.
Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):
On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.
You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.
Mindful or Mind-full? Going From AutoPilot to Aware
“Remember that God knows what is in your souls, so be mindful of Him.”
[Sūrat al-Baqarah 2:235]
Mindful or Mind-full?
Ever felt frustrated when you were trying to talk to your spouse, your children, your students, or your youth group and they would just not pay attention? This is a prime example of being on autopilot and getting carried away without actually being aware of what is most important in the present moment.
A recent Harvard study shows that our minds are not present in the moment and wander about 47% of the time1. In a world of technology and continuous sensory overload, the lines between work and home, friends and family, necessity vs. purpose, world-centric vs. Allah-centric have become blurred. We are either living in the past or ruminating about the future, and in the process, we are forgetting to live, enjoy, cherish, and make the most of our present moments.
For parents, teachers, youth leaders, and anyone in the beautiful role of guiding, teaching, coaching, or mentoring others, we can make a huge difference by modeling Mindfulness ourselves. But where do we start? The answer is to go from autopilot to becoming aware.
Autopilot to Aware
Being on autopilot is when you are distracted in the present moment, where your mind is wandering into the past or the future, and you are less aware of yourself, surroundings, or others. Autopilot can actually be pretty helpful for your regular habits. Waking up, brushing your teeth, getting ready for your day, going to school or work – many of the things we do habitually every day can be done more seamlessly without having to think, and that is a good thing. But there are times when you have to learn to turn off your autopilot to become aware. But how?
Here is a Mindfulness tool that can be done in just a minute or two for you to become more aware.
Step 1: Breath as a Tool. Say Bismillah. Focus on your breath. See where you experience the breath – the breathing in and breathing out of your body. Is your breath stemming from your nostrils, your chest, or your stomach? Just bring your attention to your breath and relax and stay with it there for a few moments.
Step 2: Body as a Tool. Relax your body. We carry so many emotions in our bodies2. Our stress from the past or anticipation for the future sometimes finds its way into our necks, other times in our chest muscles or our backs. Pay attention to what emotions and sensations do you feel, and try to relax all parts of your body.
Step 3: Intention as a Tool. As you have centered your thoughts to the present moment through your breath and your body, ask yourself: “What is most important now? In this present moment?”
Just simply being aware makes us more mindful parents, teachers, youth and professionals – being aware makes us more Mindful of Allah SWT. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your mind and body and bring your attention to the present moment.
Real Life in the Present Moment
You are an on-the-go parent: It has been a long day and you have to pick up the kids from school, but work is still pending. You’re picking up the kids from school, feeding them, and then shuffling everyone to their afterschool activities, be it Qur’an, softball, soccer, swimming, or the million other things that kids seem to have these days. You squeeze pending work in between drop-offs and pick-ups, and you function by living from one task to the next.
The Autopilot Impact: You’re getting a lot done, but are so engrossed in quickly moving your children along from one thing to another that you are unable to really cherish your time together.
The Mindfulness Suggestion: You can try to go from autopilot to awareness by focusing on your breath, paying attention to your emotions, and relaxing your body. As you do so, ask yourself: “What is most important now?” Make the intention to slow down, listen to the children more mindfully, and cherish and enjoy your time together.
You are a busy teacher: Last night you had to take all the grading home and spent two hours poring over students’ work. This morning, you woke up early to pick up some classroom supplies after dropping off your own kids to school. You’ve already had two cups of coffee and are trying to think through everything you have to do today. You like the idea of Mindfulness, living life in the present moment, and enjoying every day to its fullest, but your mind is not free to even enjoy the beautiful morning sunrise as you drive to school.
The Autopilot Impact: You want to listen and pay attention to every child’s needs, and enjoy the rewards of their growth, but you can’t. What’s more, you judge yourself for just trying to get through your activities for the day. You wish you could connect with your students better.
The Mindfulness Suggestion: Whenever you are stressed with an unpleasant parent or student interaction, think about breathing, relaxing your body, and asking what you need to focus on now. Try to do one thing at a time, and relax into what you’re doing.
You are an overstretched youth director: You are a role model. You have this major weekend event you are planning with the youth. Your budget is still pending from the board, you have to call all these people, have to get the graphics and remind everyone about the event, you have to visit all these masjids and MSAs to announce and remind people about the weekend.
This weekend’s theme is Living a Life of Purpose and you are super passionate about it. However, the whole week you have had a hard time remembering to even pray one Salah with focus. Instead, your mind has been preoccupied with all the endless planning for this weekend. You love what you do but you wonder how to also be mindful in your everyday worship while you are always prepping and planning engaging activities for the youth.
The Autopilot Impact: You enjoy shaping the youth but you are losing steam. You are always planning the next program and unable to focus on your own personal and spiritual development. It is difficult for you to pray even one salah without thinking about all the events and activities planned for that week.
The Mindfulness Suggestion: Get serious about taking some time for yourself. Know that becoming more mindful about your own prayers and self-development will also make you a better role model. Take a minute or two before every Salah to practice the simple, 3-Step Mindfulness Tool. You say Bismillah and breathe, focus your mind, and then relax your body. Empty your mind from everything else – what has past and what’s to come – and ask “What’s most important now?” to develop better focus in your Salah.
In Conclusion: Practice Simple but Solid Steps towards becoming more Mindful Muslims
Mindfulness is to open a window to let the Divine light in.
[Imam Al Ghazali]
Mindfulness gives us the ability to be aware. We can use Mindfulness tools to remember Allah , refocus, renew our intentions, and engage with the present moment in a more effective and enjoyable way. Mindfulness also invites awareness of our potential negligence in being our best selves with both Allah and His creation. To put it simply, being more aware of our selves can help us be better versions of our selves.
Mindfulness is both an art and a science, with brain and behavioral science research validating the importance of Mindfulness in improving our health, managing our stress, navigating our emotions, and positively impacting our lives3. In today’s modern and distracted world, let us treasure every tool that helps us center our attention on what matters the most.
- Bradt, Steve (2010). Wandering mind not a happy mind. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
- Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, Jari K. Hietanen (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111
- “What are the benefits of mindfulness,” American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx
To learn more about how to become mindful take the Define Course on Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence.