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Between a Rock and a Hard Place- Black and Muslim

Margari Hill

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Margari Hill

The path to autonomy can be treacherous. In the early 90s, my International Relations professor would describe leaders in newly independent Africa and Middle East nations as being “between a rock and a hard place” during the Cold War.  He used it so much, that it became a catchphrase.   However,  I always heard the phrase, “Between Iraq and a hard place.” Every time he’d say it, I’d look at my Libyan American classmate and say, “is he talking about Jordan?”  I enjoyed the class. It satisfied my curiosity about current affairs, but I was also interested in a world that existed outside of white supremacy, of colonialism, or slavery.

Similar to those newly independent nations, our American Muslim communities also navigated uncharted territory, pressured by political forces outside our control. Inspired by the thoughts of Alija Itzbegovic who wrote Between East and West, by W.D. Muhammad who told us the sun would rise in the West, I believed in the relevance of Islam to addressing the social ills in my society. Many of these I faced personally, including family instability, substance abuse, street violence, and lack of education opportunities.  I had no idea about the complexities of building  Muslim communities, but I became a firebrand within the campus bubble. National conventions  like ISNA seemed like a distant vacation place that only my affluent friends could afford to go in order to participate in the halal meat market. From my position on the periphery of community life at the Muslim Community Association and South Bay Islamic Association, I grew tired of being upheld as some example of  perseverance through obstacles. I didn’t want to be the female version of Bilal raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), to inspire nonBlack Muslims, “See how beautiful Islam is, she believes even with that boulder weighing on her chest.”   I wanted to exist free from the things that were weighing me down and feel free from being tethered to the hard place that was my past.

At the time of my conversion, I only knew one Muslim family, a Black American family, and had little clue about the social and political dynamics of community life. Shortly after converting, I found two small scarves to cover my head and soon found myself developing relationships with Muslim men and women from the Philippines, Iran, Albania, Libya, Palestine, Nigeria, and Syria. Although I had a lot of passion for my faith, I was by no means an ideal Muslim convert. I also found the community to be less than ideal.  Dreams of racial egalitarianism faded as white converts were put on pedestals, as some of my peers told racist jokes, as colorism was rampant, and as our community was divided along  ethnic lines.  Whenever I brought up issues about race, some people blamed colonialism, others said I was making things up and or that I was too sensitive. Being Black, being a hijab wearing woman, being a college dropout, being rejected by family, being abandoned and left to fend for myself, that weight started to weigh me down more than I could bear. It would take me years to reconcile with Muslim community life.

It was only when I started blogging in 2006, over a decade later, that I began to find my voice and wrap words around the pain I experienced. Islam and the Blackamerican came out while I was in graduate school in 2005. While many Black American  Muslims nod their head in agreement when Dr. Sherman Abdul Hakeem Jackson describes the power dynamic between first and second generation American Muslims and Black American Muslims (described as the Immigrant/indigenous Muslim divide), there are many nonBlack Muslims who fail to grasp how much truth that book speaks to our reality. Privilege can provide blinders to the overt and subtle experiences racism.

In my early quest to understand my place Muslim communities, I  found anti-blackness in classical Arabic literature. This drove my quest in graduate school to understand pre-colonial racial formations in Muslim majority societies. I wanted to find myself in my tradition outside of the Bilal trope. I also wanted to be equipped to have those difficult conversations about race. Back then, there were a few bloggers who came into Islam through the Black experience. They also  wrote about race and Muslims, these bloggers include Charles Catchings, Umar Lee, Tariq Nelson, Jamerican Muslimah, Marc Manley, Abdur Rahman Muhammad, and Umm Adam.  Whenever we wrote about racism our comments sections would explode with heated exchanges that included people dismissing our views or sometimes it would devolve into ad hominem attacks. In 2007, Muslim Alliance of North America tackled the issues of race in Muslim American communities head on. But they faced push back and I remember reading  some non-Black blogger who wrote that we should just get over it with vociferous agreement in the comments section. In 2012,  Hakeemah Cummings started a campaign, “We are All Slaves of Allah.” Then Dawud Walid took the mantle in 2013 by tweeting at Muslims who used racial slurs. The chorus picked up  and since its founding in 2014, MuslimARC has helped sustain the conversation about race in Muslim communities.

My Arab American friend, who is a mother of a mixed raced Black child, told me about her daughter’s experience at an Islamic school. Weekly, she gives her daughter a pep talk to counter the negative messages her peers give her about being too dark with fuzzy hair.  While she has a loving extended family, she has no friends at her school. Another Sudanese family pulled their child out of the same school. Whenever parents share these stories, and there have been too many, I realize the gravity of my work. It is also deeply personal. My daughter is only four and I dread the experiences she may have at school. Positive peer experiences contribute to Muslim youth developing their religious identities, but many Black Muslims in multi-racial communities are bullied or socially isolated. This continues in college, with Black American Muslim youth  disassociating from the MSA. While I know a few Black American Muslim families who are  three generations strong, I also know other families whose kids cite their experiences of marginalization as a reason why they don’t practice or even identify as Muslim. I know firsthand the devastating consequences of not feeling a sense of belonging in the Muslim community.  Between Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, the cultural production of Black American Muslims is at stake.

Facing these pressures, Black American Muslims are often have divided loyalties and must make difficult choices.  Do we try to integrate into communities that seem to not want us or do we work on forming havens where we can be free of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism? The principle that drives my work is that we are one family, an Ummah. So, I hold a mirror up to my brothers and sisters as a reminder. For that reason, I will not disengage from any community or organizations that seeks to serve our collective interests. I believe that Black American Muslims are like the Ansar (Helpers) and Muhajiroon (Immigrants) and we truly need each other to thrive in this society.

Despite the model that we have from the Seerah,  I have faced criticism from Black American Muslims for wasting my time working within predominantly immigrant communities.

They stress the importance of building up institutions within the Black American Muslim community. Without institutions and wealth, Black American Muslims remain on an uneven footing from their counterparts.  Questioning the benefit of my work, several Black American Muslims have urged me to refocus my energies to support Black American  Muslim self reliance. While I support Black American Muslim self reliance, I also believe in the importance of building bridges because we need allies. Inner city community organizations rely on support from affluent donors in the suburbs. Sometimes these relationships can reify hierarchies in our community.  My work is to dismantle paternalistic attitudes and relationships by training organizers and community members about systemic oppression and our shared interest in addressing it. With this in mind, I work to build relationships with individuals and organizations. It is difficult to address problems such as lack of diversity on their boards, exclusion of Black and Latino Muslims,  and ethnocentric messaging that erases the plurality of the American Muslim experience from an adversarial relationship.

My hope is that working with organizations, we can make important shifts in policies, cultures, and practices.  For working with these organizations, I also face criticism and at times derision. This year, I have faced criticism from Black American Muslims for working with ISNA to organize  a panel addressing the Muslims and the New Jim Crow and for facilitating the ISNA Black Lives Matter Roundtable. On the day I landed in Chicago for ISNA 52, I was tagged in a thread critiquing the Black Lives Matter as a kumbaya event. I have also faced criticism for working with CAIR.  I have been reminded of the importance of “do for self,” a motto of Black self determination. Some have likened my anti-racism work as an attempt to earn the respect of non-Black Muslims. In my Counter Violent Extremism organizing, I have been warned by Black American Muslims to not be used as a token by non-Black Muslims in their battles. Others encourage me to utilize my energies in Black led initiatives, rather than work on multi-racial Muslim campaigns.

I also get criticism from non-Black Muslims for my engagement with mainstream Muslim organizations. While I issue statements and am not above a protest or drop the mic moment, I haven’t followed their calls to boycott ISNA, the White House Iftar, or other organizations. I believe in speaking my truth. I have weighed in on the marginalization of Palestinian American voices during the MLI controversy and critiqued Counter Violent Extremism programs from a racial justice lens. And because I take a stand, some people think that also requires I break off relationships.   In November someone sent me a screenshot of a conversation where I was the subject. They were discussing their concerns about  my acceptance of the  MPAC  Community Change Makers Award.  They were concerned I would be co-opted and stop my critique of the  Safe Spaces Initiative.  People approached me during the  months leading up to the award ceremony to express their opinions about what I should do or say. But for the most part, they expressed their support telling me the award was well deserved.  As I said in my acceptance speech, my critiques are out of love because I believe we can do better as a community. I was deeply humbled to be considered a Community Change Maker and be acknowledged  alongside the phenomenal Nahla Kayali, Founder and Executive Director of Access California Services, and Dr. Shamim Ibrahim, Founding Executive Director of Niswa Association. While they provide direct services, MuslimARC is a racial justice education organization. We have changed conversations, but these women have changed lives.  Yet that recognition helped normalize anti-racism work in Muslim communities. After I received the award, someone messaged me to express disappointment over my decision. It does hurt in many ways to think that people would take rather take a cynical view of that moment. This individual argued that my decision was an unprincipled act of hypocrisy because I had criticized MPAC. As someone who values being understood, it bothers me more that others do not want to acknowledge the reasons why my acceptance of the award is guided by my own principles. I am not sure what space some people hope for me to operate in, not at ISNA, not in multi-ethnic coalitions, not with established institutions, but maybe from the periphery in operating between a rock and a hard space.

Sometimes doing anti-racism work makes me feel like Sisyphus, punished by pushing a boulder uphill. There are times when I feel the weight of that rock crushing down on me. Everyone who has done work in the Muslim community knows that heavy criticism comes with the job. I know I am not beyond reproach. Because of social media and my accessibility to volunteers and the public, hardly a day goes by without me receiving negative feedback about my work. I take it all to heart, sometimes too heavily. I understand concerns about our tactics and methods of anti-racism work: whether too confrontational or too soft.  Even in our most successful campaigns or programs, there is no time to celebrate. We have to look at it with a critical eye and think how we can do better.
When making choices, I always keep my identity, my context as an African American Muslim woman. I often seek advice from trusted friends, family, community members, and above all guidance from my Lord before making decisions. I also take into account the vision of MuslimARC and think about the long road to liberation. In truth, MuslimARC is beyond me as an individual. But people will look at my actions to affirm or delegitimize this work. And that’s also a heavy weight.  To get out from between the rock and a hard space, I have had to carve out my own space in our community. But I may also have to  begin to dig even deeper, beyond my comfort zone, to create help create inclusive spaces where we can thrive and struggle for a world that is just.

Margari Aziza Hill is co-founder and Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), assistant editor at AltM, co-founder of Muslims Make it Plain, and columnist at MuslimMatters. She is on the Advisory Council of Islam, Social Justice & Interreligious Engagement Program at the Union Theological Seminary and winner of the 2015 MPAC Change Maker Award. She has nearly a decade of teaching experiences at all levels from elementary, secondary, college level, to adult education. She earned her master’s in History of the Middle East and Islamic Africa from Stanford University in 2006. Her research includes colonial surveillance in Northern Nigeria, anti-colonial resistance among West Africans in Sudan during the early 20th century, and race in Muslim communities. She is also a freelance writer with articles published in Time, SISTERS, Islamic Monthly, Al Jazeera English, Virtual Mosque (formerly Suhaibwebb.com), and Spice Digest. She has given talks and lectures in various universities and Muslim communities.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    GregAbdul

    February 25, 2016 at 10:09 PM

    Fascinating article! The true dilemma of the thinking black American Muslim: separate or integrate. The Fantasy of black American nationalism ended with the decline of the Nation of Islam. In one of his famous lectures, Malcolm X talked about blacks doing business with blacks alone and not relying on “outsiders.” If we properly understand the teachings of Malcolm, we see new interpretations and adapt them to our circumstances in the modern world. We seek to integrate, but as Muslims, with our identities undiluted. There is no black bubble where money goes in and never goes out. If we truly want such a setup, then we must move to Africa and even then, tell me which African country is insulted at the idea of Western aid?

    We must work to build wealth as individuals, not because we are black, but be cause the proper practice of Islam takes money. Islamic education takes money. You have to have time to go to the mosque to learn and that means you have to have enough money for leisure. It takes money to build a mosque. It takes money to go on Hajj. Having a middle class or better income is not a black struggle. It’s a Muslim thing. I am an African American Muslim. The biggest challenge we face in our double bind in America is not going backwards and debating things that were settled 50 years ago.

    The biggest obstacle to our unity that I see is us getting our due respect from the immigrants. Sometimes in this we are our own worst enemies. In the last year, I have seen over and over old black American Muslims, for reasons that totally baffle me, who want to resurrect and legitimize Elijah Muhammad. This guy called himself a messenger, who spoke directly with God after Prophet Muhammad. He impregnated six teenage girls outside of marriage in the 60s and sat silently while his people gunned down Malcolm X.

    As individuals, we must strive to create success in the dunya as we build for our Akhira. But we must never lose sight of the fact that our goal is not to please men or be seen as good by other people. Our goal is Allah (swt). When black American Muslims use the term “the honorable Elijah Muhammad,” we are telling the greater Ummah that we don’t mind shirk and fornication, because a black man did it. Elijah was NOT honorable and using this term demeans us as people and demarks us as a people who do not understand basic Islam. Allah determines our risk. But we as individuals determine if we will stand with the good and against the bad, even if the bad happens to have dark skin or champions pseudo black nationalism. May Allah guide us.

  2. Avatar

    Anees

    February 27, 2016 at 2:15 AM

    Loved this very much. The work you are doing is absolutely necessary – building bridges within the Muslim community among the different groups is key.

    Though we have a great Black Muslim community here in Portland (the masjid/community center that our Black brothers and sisters attend to on the East side of the city, was recently lost to fire), it is clear that much of the community don’t value their place as much as their own. We recently had a fundraising event at our Islamic school (itself which has moved into a new building), but it was noticeable that the crowd was not as large as for other events, though still a good crowd by Allah’s Grace. Being a South Asian Muslim, I notice more of the outside picture, but as far as those allies that subgroups, such as the Black Muslim community need, I’m glad that those who did attend the fundraising event or those who help behind the scenes, in secret, are doing their part. It is encouraging, but as you’ve surely seen, there is still plenty of work to be done.

    Once again, so proud that the Muslim community at large has someone like you Sr. Margari. May Allah (swt) continue bless you with success, strength and patience as you move forward.

  3. Avatar

    Aafia

    February 29, 2016 at 1:10 AM

    Feel sorry that you recieve negative feedback . But does that feedback really matter If the Purpose is the Pleasure of Allah(swt)You are doing great work , Sis.

  4. Avatar

    junaid

    March 9, 2016 at 4:23 AM

    Loved this very much. The work you are doing is absolutely necessary – building bridges within the Muslim community among the different groups is key. The true dilemma of the thinking black American Muslim : separate or integrate.

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OpEd: Why We Must Reconsider Moonsighting

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Ed. Note: We understand that this is a matter of debate in many communities, MM welcomes op-eds of differing points of view. Please use this form.

When the Crescent Committee was founded in 2013, the Muslim community of Toronto was hopeful that this new initiative might resolve the long-standing problem of mosques declaring Eid on different days. This moonsighting organization was to follow global moonsighting as a methodology – if the crescent were to be sighted anywhere in the world, they would declare Eid. Global moonsighting was seen as a potential way of solving the yearly moonsighting debate which local sighting had been unable to solve thus far. It was hoped that this approach would also ensure congruence with Fiqh Council of North America’s (FCNA) lunar calendar which determines the Eid day in advance based on astronomical calculations.

This year, however, all those hopes were put to the test. Early afternoon on June 3rd, the 29th of Ramadan, the Crescent Committee (CC) started receiving reports that the moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia. Given that it was not possible for it to be seen there based on visibility charts, the committee required corroboration from another country in order to declare Eid. As the day progressed, they got reports from Iraq, Nigeria, Brazil, Mali and even from Maryland in the US. All those reports could not be relied upon because either the committee was unable to get in touch with their contacts in those countries or because the reports did not satisfy the criterion they laid out.

As they were sifting through the reports, the CC was shocked to learn that one of its founding members, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto (IFT), had already declared Eid! IFT is one of Toronto’s oldest and biggest mosques and their leadership decided to declare Eid based on the announcement from Mauritania. Mosques following FCNA’s calendar were already celebrating Eid the next day, so IFT thought it best to join with them with hopes of preserving unity.

With one of its own members having declared Eid and mounting pressure from the community given it was past 10 pm, the CC decided to wait to receive the final (hopefully positive) reports from California. This meant having to wait till sunset on the West Coast which would mean midnight on the East Coast. Unfortunately, even from California, there were no confirmed reports. Finally, at midnight, the Committee declared that they would complete 30 days of Ramadan and celebrate Eid on the 5th of June.

Alas, after spending a frustrating day waiting for an announcement till midnight, Toronto Muslims were told that this was going to be another year with two Eids in the city. This year, however, the split was not between proponents of astronomical calculations and moonsighting, but been proponents of the exact same moonsighting methodology!

Solving a 50-year old problem

This year’s debacle in Toronto represents nothing new. There have been numerous failed attempts to unite the moonsighting community. In 1995, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Ministry of Warith Deen Muhammad joined hands to form the ‘Islamic Shura Council of North America’ with hopes of having a unified Eid declaration. Just like the Crescent Committee, this too was eventually disbanded due to dissenting voices. Other examples to unite and better organize moonsighting include the 2007 National Moonsighting Conference in California and the 2009 National Hilal Sighting Conference in New York. These attempts simply haven’t worked because there are far too many independent mosques and far too many moonsighting methodologies – uniting everyone in the absence of a governing authority is nearly impossible.

The story also highlights the three main problems that proponents of moonsighting have struggled to solve for nearly half a century in North America and other parts of the Western world. These can be summarized as follows:

1) Mosques declaring Eid on different days based on differing moonsighting methodologies. This has created notorious divisions within the community and has led to the awkward situation of families, often living in the same city, not being able to celebrate together. It can also lead to endless argumentation within families as to which mosque to follow with regards to this issue.

2) The unpredictability of the Eid date means that Muslims continue to have difficulty taking time off from work and planning family vacations. This problem is particularly challenging for the hourly-waged working-class individuals who work in organizations with little flexibility. The process of having to explain to an employer the complications surrounding Eid declarations can be a source of unnecessary hardship for many. It is not uncommon for many to take off a day which ends up being the ‘wrong day’.

3) Delayed announcements, especially during the summer months, due to process of receiving and verifying reports after sunset. Not knowing whether or not the next day will be a holiday, often until the late evening, has been a continued source of distress for families every year.

It was the desire the solve these very problems that brought together a group of visionary Muslim jurists and astronomers in Herndon, Virginia in 1987. Organized by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Lunar Calendar Conference was one of the first attempts to find an innovative solution to the problems posed by traditional moonsighting. A detailed history of the events leading up to the conference and its aftermath have been documented before. In short, Muslim scholars and mathematicians continued work on the astronomical lunar calendar for nearly two decades after the conference and it was finally adopted by FCNA and ISNA in 2006.

A valid methodology from the Shariah

While opposition to FCNA’s lunar calendar was quite strong when it was first introduced, there has been growing acceptance of astronomical calculations over the past 15 years as a result of continued research and education on this subject.

The use of calculations to determine the dates of Ramadan is something which numerous reputable scholars have allowed throughout Islam’s history [1]. While this has always been the view of a small minority, championed mainly by scholars in the Shafa’i legal school, it is still based on a sound interpretation of religious texts. The difference of opinion on this issue arises from hadith of the Prophet where he stated,  “If [the crescent moon] is obscured from you, then estimate it” (فإن غم عليكم فاقدروا له ). A detailed exposition in support of calculations from a classical perspective was recently presented by Shaykh Salahuddin Barkat.

Shaykh Musa Furber, one of America’s leading Shafa’i jurists, also comments on the towering figures from our tradition who supported calculations: “Since the time of Imām al-Nawawī, there has been an evident trend within the Shāfiʿī school of law for acceptance for the personal use of calculations for fasting. While a small number of earlier Shāfiʿī scholars did accept it, it seems to have been confined to a small minority within the school. It was not until the time of Imam al-Nawawī (may Allah grant him His mercy) that the opinion amongst scholars of the school started to shift towards accepting calculations as valid and even binding — even if limited to the calculator and whoever believed him. Although al-Subkī (may Allah grant him His mercy) is usually accredited with causing this shift, some scholars credit Imam al-Nawawī’s himself with starting this trend. The opinion was accepted by both Shaykh al-Islām Zakariyā al-Anṣārī and Imām al-Ramlī, though not by Imam Ibn Ḥajar (may Allah grant all of them from His mercy). These imams form the basis for reliable opinions in the late Shāfiʿī madhhab.”

Understandably, this opinion was considered weak and ignored through much of Islamic history. Some limited its scope and allowed it only when the moon was obstructed or for use by experts in astronomy. There really is no need for calculations in Muslim lands where there exists a centralized authority to sight the crescent and there are public holidays for the entire populace. However, in secular countries with Muslim minorities, this position must be revisited as it offers a very practical solution to the crises we find ourselves in.

Only one way forward

According to a 2011 survey of over 600 mosques in the US, the adoption rate of FCNA’s calendar stood at 40%. At the writing of this article nearly 8 years later, this number has likely increased to over 50%. The survey indicated that about 40% of the mosques followed local sighting while the remainder followed global sighting. Given the recent shift towards global moonsighting, it is likely that the moonsighting community is evenly split between the two positions at this time.

These statistics represent the only logical way forward to solve this decades-old problem: the most efficient way of achieving unity is by converging behind FCNA’s lunar calendar. This methodology is the only real solution to the crises we currently find ourselves in. Not only does it address all our needs, but this approach has also shown to provide immense ease and facilitation for Muslim communities that have followed it in the past 15 years.

The moonsighting leadership has failed to unite despite a half-century of effort; it is inconceivable at this point that this would ever happen. Even if it did miraculously happen, 50% of the community would still be following FCNA’s calendar and all three of our main problems will remain unaddressed. Additionally, with the current trend of uniting behind the approach of global sighting, ‘moonsighting’ has largely become an administrative exercise. It involves the hilal committee simply waiting for reports from abroad and trying to ascertain their veracity. Only a handful of communities go out looking for the moon and establish the sunnah of moon sighting in a bonafide sense.

In large communities where differing Eid dates is a reoccurring problem, advocating for the adoption of the lunar calendar must come from the grass-roots level. Muslims most affected by this problem should lobby their local mosques to change their positions and unite behind FCNA’s lunar calendar.

While it may seem impossible to get the leadership of mosques to abandon an old position, it has already been done. In 2015, nine major mosques in the Chicago area set aside their differences and put their support behind the lunar calendar. This is an incredible feat and has created ease in the lives of thousands of people. If similar initiatives are taken in other cities split along lines of lunar dogmatism, it is conceivable that the moonsighting issue could be resolved in North America within the next five to ten years.

The Prophet told us to calculate the moon if it is obscured by clouds. Today, the moon is not obscured by physical clouds but it is clouded by poor judgment, distrust, egotism, disunity, and pride. We must resort to calculations to determine the birth of the new moon, not because it is the strongest legal position or a superior approach, but because our status as minorities in a secular land necessitates it.

References:

[1]  From SeekersGuidance: Scholars upholding this can be traced all the way back to the first Islamic century. The textual basis for this opinion is the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari, “When you see it [the new moon of Ramadan] then fast; and when you see it [the new moon of Shawwal], then break the fast. If it is hidden from you (ghumma ‘alaykum) [i.e. if the sky is overcast] then estimate it (fa-qdiru lahu);” (al-Bukhari, hadith no. 1900). The last verb, fa-qdiru, can be validly understood to mean calculation. Of the scholars who held this, are Abu al-‘Abbas b. Surayj (d. 306/918), one of the leading founders of the classical Shafi‘i school, the Shafi‘i scholar and renowned mystic Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), the leading Shafi‘i judge Taqi al-Din al-Subki (d. 756/1355), the Shafi‘i legal theorist al-Zarkashi (d. 794/1392), the renowned Maliki legal theorist al-Qarafi (d. 684/1285), and some Hanafi scholars. The late Shafi‘i commentator al-Qalyubi (d. 1069/1659) held that all sighting-claims must be rejected if calculations show that a sighting was impossible, stating, “This is manifestly obvious. In such a case, a person may not fast. Opposing this is obstinacy and stubbornness.” See al-Mawsu‘ah al-fiqhiyyah al-kuwaytiyyah, c.v. “Ru’yat al-hilal,” vol. 22, pp. 31-4. The leading scholar of the late Shāfi‘ī school Muhammad al-Ramli (d. 1004/1596) held that the expert astronomer was obliged to follow his own calculation as was the non-astronomer who believed him; this position has been used by some contemporary Shafi’i scholars to state that in the modern world, with its precise calculations, the strongest opinion of the Shafi’i school should be that everyone must follow calculations; see ‘Umar b. al-Habib al-Husayni, Fath al-‘ali fi jam‘ al-khilaf bayna Ibn Hajar wa-Ibn al-Ramli, ed. Shifa’ Hitu (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), pp. 819-22. See also the fatwa of the Hanafi scholar Dr Salah Abu al-Hajj (http://www.anwarcenter.com/fatwa/معنى-حديث-لا-تصوموا-حتى-تروا-الهلال-ول) last accessed 9/5/2016) which states, after arguing against relying on calculations, “However, the position of [following] calculations is the position of a considerable group of jurists, so it is a respected disagreement in Islamic law, whereby, if a state were to adopt it, it is not rejected, because the judgment of a judge removes disagreement, and the adoption of a state is [as] the judgment of a judge.

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Eid Lameness Syndrome: Diagnosis, Treatment, Cure

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How many of you have gone to work on Eid because you felt there was no point in taking off? No Eid fun. Have you ever found Eid boring, no different from any other day?

If so, you may suffer from ELS (Eid Lameness Syndrome). Growing up, I did too.

My family would wake up, go to salah, go out to breakfast, come home, take a 4+ hour nap and then go out to dinner. I didn’t have friends to celebrate with and even if I did, I wouldn’t see them because we stuck to our own immediate family just as they did.

On the occasion that we went to a park or convention center, we would sort of have fun. Being with other people was certainly better than breakfast-nap-dinner in isolation, but calling that a memorable, satisfying, or genuinely fun Eid would be a stretch.

I don’t blame my parents for the ELS though. They came from a country where Eid celebration was the norm; everyone was celebrating with everyone and you didn’t have to exert any effort. When they moved to the US, where Muslims were a minority, it was uncharted territory. They did the best they could with the limited resources they had.

When I grew up, I did about the same too. When I hear friends or acquaintances tell me that they’re working, doing laundry or whatever other mundane things on Eid, I understand.  Eid has been lame for so long that some people have given up trying to see it any other way. Why take personal time off to sit at home and do nothing?

I stuck to whatever my parents did for Eid because “Eid was a time for family.” In doing so, I was honoring their cultural ideas of honoring family, but not Eid. It wasn’t until I moved away that I decided to rebel and spend Eid with convert friends (versus family) who didn’t have Muslim families to celebrate with on Eid, rather than drive for hours to get home for another lame salah-breakfast-nap-dinner.

That was a game-changing Eid for me. It was the first non-lame Eid I ever had, not because we did anything extraordinary or amazing, but because we made the day special by doing things that we wouldn’t normally do on a weekday together. It was then that I made a determination to never have a lame Eid ever again InshaAllah.

I’m not the only one fighting ELS. Mosques and organizations are creating events for people to attend and enjoy together, and families are opting to spend Eid with other families. There is still much more than can be done, as converts, students, single people, couples without children and couples with very small children, are hard-hit by the isolation and sadness that ELS brings. Here are a few suggestions for helping treat ELS in your community:

Host an open house

Opening up your home to a large group of people is a monumental task that takes a lot of planning and strength. But it comes with a lot of baraka and reward. Imagine the smiling faces of people who would have had nowhere to go on Eid, but suddenly find themselves in your home being hosted. If you have a big home, hosting an open house is an opportunity to express your gratitude to Allah for blessing you with it.

Expand your circle

Eid is about commUNITY. Many people spend Eid alone when potential hosts stick to their own race/class/social status. Invite and welcome others to spend Eid with you in whatever capacity you can.

Delegate

You can enlist the help of close friends and family to help so it’s not all on you. Delegate food, setup, and clean-up across your family and social network so that no one person will be burdened by the effort InshaAllah.

Squeeze in

Don’t worry if you don’t have a big house, you’ll find out how much barakah your home has by how many people are able to fit in it. I’ve been to iftars in teeny tiny apartments where there’s little space but lots of love. If you manage to squeeze in even two or three extra guests, you’ve saved two or three people from ELS for that year.

Outsource Eid Fun

If you have the financial means or know enough friends who can pool together, rent a house. Some housing share sites have homes that can be rented specifically for events, giving you the space to consolidate many, smaller efforts into one larger, more streamlined party.

Flock together

It can be a challenge to find Eid buddies to spend the day with. Try looking for people in similar circumstances as you. I’m a single woman and have hosted a ladies game night for the last few Eids where both married and single women attend.  If you are a couple with young kids, find a few families with children of similar age groups. If you’re a student, start collecting classmates. Don’t wait for other people to invite you, make a list in advance and get working to fend off ELS together.

Give gifts

The Prophet ﷺ said: تَهَادُوا تَحَابُّوا‏ “Give gifts to increase love for each other”. One of my siblings started a tradition of getting a gift for each person in the family. If that’s too much, pick one friend or family member and give them a gift. If you can’t afford gifts, give something that doesn’t require much money like a card or just your time. You never know how much a card with kind, caring words can brighten a person’s Eid.

Get out of your comfort zone

If you have ELS, chances are there is someone else out there who has it too. The only way to find out if someone is sad and alone on Eid is by admitting that we are first, and asking if they are too.

Try, try, try again…

Maybe you’ve taken off work only to find that going would have been less of a waste of time. Maybe you tried giving gifts and it didn’t go well. Maybe you threw an open house and are still cleaning up/dealing with the aftermath until now. It’s understandable to want to quit and say never again, to relent and accept that you have ELS and always will but please, keep trying. The Ummah needs to believe that Eid can and should be fun and special for everyone.

While it is hard to be vulnerable and we may be afraid of rejection or judgment, the risk is worth it. As a survivor and recoverer of ELS, I know how hard it can be and also how rewarding it is to be free of it. May Allah bless us all with the best Eids and to make the most of the blessed days before and after, Ameen.

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Bipolar Exiled: Oscillating between the Mind’s Terrain and Physical Boundaries

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By Farzande Jehan

 

“And what is the matter with you sister, you are not well either?”

She is speaking to me in Urdu. We are both Pathan. And now I am thinking of one universal ailment that I can supply this lady with and leave it at that. I say that I have depression. She looks at me puzzled, looks at the lady sitting next to her, searching her face for a clue but to no avail. Can I explain ‘depression’ to her? This is going to be difficult. Why don’t I..

“I have a mood disorder.”

Pakistanis use the word ‘mood’ and ‘moody’ all the time; she should know. As I wait for a response, the same blank expression on her face. No comprendo. Rescue her furzy, she is losing you.

“Okay, so sometimes I am very happy, bohth khush,” I raise my hand as high as possible, “And sometimes I am very sad, bohth khafa.” I bring my hand down low.

Ahhh!”

The thing’s been expressed in the right words.

To elaborate I say: “What I come here for…” -and there is newfound confidence in my voice too- “…is to make sure that it is leveled.”

This I demonstrate by slicing through the room with my theatrical hand. I resettle in my chair. I have successfully regained my right to be here. I am quiet not because I am rude, but because I need composure.


2009

I was 23, visibly Muslim, living in NYC, and just about ready to enter an adulthood promised to many of the youth of my time. I was a graduate student the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had all but completed two of the courses that led to my degree. I owed many of life’s successes and some failures too -but more of the good- to my ex-commuter status. My family preferred that I live at home, so I’d take the D from Brooklyn and transfer to the 1 somewhere in Midtown (God help you on the weekends when maintenance reroutes).

The summer of my onset, two white passengers in an underground train whispered about the news of Michael Jackson’s death. The couple scheduled to get help from martinis to cope with their pain.

The isolation I experienced and the spiritual inclination I harbored from a young age worked as seamless elements in the pursuit of removing me from my reality… your reality. I lived in a place that was in extreme contrast to the ideals I cherished. New York did successfully provide the tools that accurately identified the whatnots so that the whats that mattered remained.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How do you reconcile a reverence for a Deity that felt too far? My jugular vein reminded me of vessels and of things that hold quantity. Water indeed is life and Muslims agree that God is everywhere, so where do we draw the line? If I labored just enough, the distance that separated me from my Creator would shorten, I believed. The city that never sleeps left me sleepless.


A dirty curtain separated the men from the women. We were in the fourth season of the year and I start counting mine from Spring. My family returned to the go-back-to-your-country type of country in 2014, before Trump came to office and after Obama dropped drones on my ancestors’ homeland. A heater was supplied for the menfolk. The woman who was interviewing me earlier tended to her sick child, laid stretched out on the seat because her daughter had difficulty sitting up. Mental distress carries the marker of a plague struck in nations like the one where I live. Poverty exposes what little cover there is.

The office we were in was Dr. Rehman’s. His portrait was grinning at us. It seemed to be saying, “Give me your money you lunatic, you need help!”

An ayat from the Holy Quran about shifa, remedy, that it is ultimately in the hands of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), hung on the opposite wall, punching the arrogant grin in the face. In life we seek balance. The verse reassured me: “Don’t worry so.” It seemed to say: “Answer the man’s questions and go home happy – all is well.”

I breathed in as I looked down at my feet. I know that in Spirituality, things have specific destinies too and not just mortals. The thought that visits me from time to time: maybe it’s the shoes I am wearing that are carrying me to places where I don’t belong, belong.

A woman placed a prayer mat in front of me that day for herself. She was facing the qibla for the fourth time. I patiently waited for my number to be called. “Twelve!” I heard. Covering my face -because now I will be passing through rows of men- I got up to leave the patients’ patience testing room.


1997

I was twelve-years old in the year we immigrated to America, eleven when I first landed on the brave soil. We were arriving in two hours and mother wanted everything in order. The first thing she saw was the sight of her younger daughter’s head. My head! It needed attention. It required attention. I almost wanted to cry when she was brushing my hair, and not because she was pulling at the strands. I had tears in my eyes because I had tasted Tropicana orange juice with no pulp for the first time in my short life.

My best friend from high school had paid me a visit on my second hospital stay, I had been in treatment for four months and in denial of my initial diagnosis. The proceeding to dump all medicine and carrying on with life until trouble lurked once more -the serpent raising its head drama played itself out. It’s a common prelude that way too many people experience in the initial processing of a newfound knowledge about the self.

Brooklyn was hit by a storm so severe that my family walked several of the miles on the day I was getting discharged. There were no taxis in sight for hours and the MTA was not functioning. My friend was expecting her first baby and had rushed to see me. She had a bag full of oranges to give to me. The setting and the process of checking in to visit your loved ones -and not to mention the presence of other patients who are sometimes in worse condition than you are- has the potential to throw your visitors off. I did not want to shock her but I was too helpless in offering an alternative view.

People go to zoos to see animals in cages. Seeing me in a gown, though I had my head covered, a scarf -in that was the familiar-, had I seemed weak to her? Was I the sight people conjure when they think ‘mentally ill’? This was my friend, and I wonder how much of the stereotype I filled in for her and to what degree, if at all? Had she had pity on me or was being sympathetic her character trait? Shouldn’t unborn children be kept away from sick persons like me at that time?

Shattering The Stigma of Mental Illness

For those of us in societies where there is  chaos within and a violence outside, was I mentally ill if my brain is part of my body? I was bodily ill, wasn’t I? Organ-ly ill. My mind had not stopped working. I was not pagal*, No! (*refers to somebody who is insane and is mainly a pejorative in South Asian communities) My brain had gone into overdrive and my thoughts were shooting at each other. This I know because I lost control. How did I allow myself to become so wild that I needed to be tamed? What was this force? Was it even my fault and does every event have a cause? I must have looked like a prisoner yet I have tasted freedom. Out of my own free will, I carried a transaction to deposit the ‘me’ in me in the hands of the One who made me. Whereas qismt (destiny) is sometimes cruel, God we know is always Merciful.

It requires strength to hold an image of a person you care for, far removed from a space that you once shared and to meet them at that threshold. An image like that is etched in memories for long times. Sadaf knew of my liking of oranges. Her gesture meant more than any flowers ever could represent her love for me. My employer was her ex-employer, otherwise knowledge of my hospitalization(s) was usually limited to family. After getting discharged and being somewhat stable at this point, I visited her at her house. Ibraheem assumed that the beauty mark on my chin was nothing but a button! That if he pressed on it, I would turn into a walking/talking toy. I let him play for as long as he wanted since I loved seeing the smiles on his face and the way he would giggle. I’d behave like a robot and only stop the awkwardness when he’d press the button again.


The disorder that I have and the control that it has over me is somewhat like little Ibraheem’s curiosity. It presses a button and I turn into a person other than me. I please it. I entertain it to the extent where it starts to get bored or needs a diaper change not when I lose the strength to continue. The only downside in playing this game is that the thing habitually forgets to turn the button off. It leaves me running into walls and breaking things and getting hurt in return. We need a team of rescuers, a hospitalization, and strange medicine with stranger names to bring me back.

I was shocked when I first read in our Islamic literature that the Creator laughs.

Abu Razeen reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) laughs at the despair of his servant, for he will soon relieve him.” I said, “O Messenger of Allah, does the Lord laugh?” The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Yes.” I said, “We will never be deprived of goodness by a Lord who laughs!” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 181]

I understand a thing like that somewhat differently from how others read it.

After spending my twenties toiling in making sense of it all, my recovery has a lot to do with a change of terrain. It is the distance I needed to sort things out. I studied Orientalism in New York but read Edward Said speak of his love for an aunt who helped Palestinian refugees find shelter in his Out of Place: A Memoir here in Pakistan. The human component of scholarship, something that was missing previously, became vital at closing the gaps of humanity I was made deprived of. Healing begun.

By sharing my story, I’d like for people who are diagnosed with illnesses like bipolar to keep steadfast. No matter your creed or the place where you are from, know that you are not alone. And for family and friends who bear witness to the turmoil that infects a loved one to stand strong. Your strength or lack thereof has a direct impact on our wellness.

In the Quran it says that we will be tested with sons and wealth [Surah Al-Anfal;28]. Having a mental illness is a kind of test that has no beginning, nor a definite end. Take care of your health before sickness visits you is a famous saying of Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). There will be days when you feel frustrated and question the just ruling of a Just God. Reach out and feel blessed, for being a Muslim carries the weight of family keeping bonds.

Ideally, the Ummah is one that conducts checks and balances so that the affairs of our Muslim brethren are running smooth. Unlocking and internalizing the goodness and the kheir that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has placed in the world for our taking requires humility, an admittance of our own neediness followed by the realization of and acknowledging our smallness in a universe that is run not by us. Believing in God and trusting in Him are not the same.

The meaning of the word Islam is peace. Muslims exchanging the greeting of peace with other Muslims is an experience. Transferring that practice and truly living that peace needs patience. The challenge of living with and sometimes outliving a mental illness requires a tailored kind of submission. The hush of stability hums low in the beginning when loud is the announcement of a calamity. Faith after all is belief in the existence of hope alongside the tragedy that is life. What is more, our bodies are rented to us. The obligation of living inside them is not a punishment. It is a privilege. The challenge is to be at peace with our predicaments and that can be easily achieved since I believe that all of us are capable of nourishing our minds and feeding our souls, perhaps not at the same pace but the possibility of recovery is guaranteed once we take that initial step. It is realizing the potential of and exercising resilience itself that saved me. To transfer that hope in the mode of words is the least I can offer. May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) accept, ameen.

Show, Don’t (Just) Tell – The Right Way to Tackling Mental Health

 

The writer is currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Area Study Centre 
of Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Previously, she holds a Masters in Liberal Studies from Columbia University. You may reach the editorial team of Muslim Matters if you wish to contact her.

 

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