Br.Yousef is the moderator of www.straightstruggle.com
MuslimMatters has carried a number of articles over the past few years related to the topic of homosexuality. Some of these have focused on the scriptural evidence (here) and moral justifications (here and here) for Islam’s prohibition of same-sex acts and relationships, while others (here and here) have offered perspectives on the stance Muslims should take with respect to the larger gay rights movement. Yet other pieces (here and here) have dealt with the issue from a more pastoral angle.
While all these pieces deal admirably with the topic of homosexuality from an Islamic point of view, none of them seek to acquaint the reader with an “insider’s perspective” on the issue, that is, the perspective of a faithful Muslim who actually experiences same-sex desires and attractions. This perspective is important, however, for two reasons. First, many Muslims today are seeking a way to respond to the question of homosexuality that is both principled and compassionate, particularly when it comes to fellow Muslims who may be dealing with same-sex inclinations. At the same time, Muslims, like all members of society, are constantly being bombarded from all quarters by a strident and increasingly aggressive “gay affirmative” public discourse that presents itself as the only reasonable, just, or even moral response to the phenomenon of human same-sex desires and attractions. It is no wonder, therefore, that Muslims – both those who experience same-sex attractions and those who do not – have recently begun ceding to this pressure at the expense of their religious integrity and Islamic moral commitments. With very few voices to counter the dominant narrative, many Muslims today have become sincerely confused, and troubled, over this issue.
In these circumstances, the voice of an insider to the same-sex struggle is perhaps uniquely qualified to put a human face on this issue and to tell us how we as a community can best be of help to our brothers and sisters who need it. When such a person is also a practicing Muslim committed to dealing with his or her same-sex attractions in light of the teachings of Islam, their witness can also provide perhaps the most credible, and nuanced, alternative to the one-sided, black-and-white public narrative currently shouting down all other considered and principled perspectives on this issue.
The essay below is written by Br. Yousef, a Muslim with same-sex attractions who, along with many other Muslims in his shoes, has committed to living his life on the basis of established Islamic moral and spiritual teachings. In addition, Br. Yousef has moderated an online support group for same-sex attracted Muslims (www.straightstruggle.com) for the past 13 years, giving him a wealth of experience and a unique perspective from which to address this topic. His essay is addressed to imams, chaplains, Muslim activists and community leaders, to the Muslim community at large, and to other fellow Muslims who find themselves dealing with same-sex desires and attractions.
[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]n the late 1990s, one of North America’s most prominent Muslim leaders was giving a lecture at a large convention. In that lecture, he described how disgusted he was that he had been sitting next to a gay man on his flight over to the lecture. An 18-year-old Muslim experiencing same-sex attractions was at that lecture, and the words like raining bullets are stuck in my head till this day.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Yousef and I write to you as a Muslim who has experienced same-sex attractions since adolescence. I am currently married with children, al-hamdu li’Llah, and have been working for many years now as a professional. My same-sex attractions, while still present, have diminished significantly over the years, and I have been blessed to enjoy a healthy relationship with my wife, whom I love. (As a side note, while marriage was definitely the right decision for me, it may not be right for every person who has same-sex attractions; no single rule applies to all situations.) I have also been the moderator of an online support group for Muslims with same-sex desires, called Straight Struggle, for about 13 years now. In that time, I have transformed, grown, and evolved in my thinking many times over, specifically with regard to the topic of homosexuality and Islam.
Critical Terms and Concepts
I will be using two main terms in this essay: same-sex attractions (SSA) and same-sex encounters (SSE). I believe these terms more accurately describe the relevant issues with respect to the topic of homosexuality, particularly for us as Muslims. The terms “homosexual,” “gay,” “LGBT,” “queer,” etc. in today’s culture are labels that mean different things to different people, whereas there is no mistaking what is meant by “same-sex attractions / desires” and “same-sex encounters.”
It is also important for me to stress that I do not believe that my same-sex attractions are my identity. Same-sex desires are feelings that I, and others, have that I contend with in my daily journey towards Allah. They do not make me different in any essential way from any other Muslim. For this reason, I reject the idea that Muslims who experience same-sex attractions should be given a special label or that we should “self-identify” as “LBGT,” “gay,” “homosexual,” or “queer.” I believe these labels isolate people with such attractions and, from what I have seen, sometimes force them to conform to certain lifestyles even if they do not really want to. Also, these labels have the effect of elevating sexual desires – basically shahawat – and making them part of the “core of who I am” as a person. This seems arbitrary to me and something that I find hard to justify from an Islamic perspective, both legally and spiritually.
To be clear and upfront: there is absolutely nothing haram or to be ridiculed about anyone just having SSA (same-sex attractions). What is forbidden in Islam are SSEs (same-sex encounters and behaviors). No one that I have met over the years ever chose to be attracted to the same sex. Let me repeat: not one single person among the dozens and dozens that I have interacted with over the years ever wanted to have SSA or chose to have SSA. This needs to be understood and taken into account when thinking about your brothers and sisters who are dealing with this issue.
It is also critical that people in the Muslim community understand that there is a very important difference between SSA and SSE, between attractions and actions. Practically all of our religion rides on this distinction, not just in the sexual realm but across the board. I am not judged for merely experiencing a desire (to the extent that it is beyond my control), but only for what I choose to do – or not to do – with it. A person is not cursed or diseased or a walking sin just because they experience SSA. Only an action can be haram, not a person. Rather, they are people just like anyone else who are dealing with a particular difficulty or test in life, and they are doing the best they can with their life and faith. They have failures and successes just like everyone else. Of course, if we apply the distinction between desires and actions consistently, then we who experience SSA also have to concede that just because we have these desires – which can be very strong, as sexual desires often are – this does not justify us acting on them in defiance of Allah’s command.
Who Are Your Brothers and Sisters That Struggle with SSA?
I have thought long and hard about what to write in this essay and it has been something that, in some ways, has been years in the making. I thought I might proceed by giving you some examples of the brothers and sisters that I have encountered over the years. I could tell you about the brother who, from a very young age until he was a young adult, was sexually abused by his older neighbor. I could tell you about the guilt he had since the abuse “felt good” at the time, along with the attention. Or maybe I can tell you about the brother who attempted suicide twice since his family found out about his SSA. Or the sister who lost her job because of rumors about her SSA. Or the brothers who contracted HIV as a result of SSEs.
On the other hand, I could tell you about the imam who chose his faith over his desires and continues to preach, practice, and live as a pious Muslim on his path towards Allah even while keeping his desires in check. Or the community leader who chose a life of celibacy while learning and teaching the faith to others. Or the man who was living a homosexual lifestyle with his partner and who left it all for the sake of Allah when he converted to Islam. Or the number of university professors and doctors and other professionals who made the conscious decision to defeat their nafs and who chose Allah above all else in order to attain the ultimate reward. These brothers and sisters, myself included, firmly reject the idea of making religion conform to one’s needs and desires and rather struggle against themselves in order to follow the teachings of our faith.
What Causes SSA and Can It Be Changed?
The question sometimes comes up as to what causes a person to have SSA. There has been a lot of discussion and research on this issue, and the fact is that no one really knows. It seems that it is most likely due to many convergent factors that are different for each person. Also, the exact nature and intensity of one’s SSA can vary from person to person. I have learned through my long experience that no two people’s profiles are exactly the same. Some people with SSA experience attraction to their own sex as a rule but are not positively repulsed by the other sex. Some of these might be able to see themselves with an opposite-gender spouse one day, if the right person and conditions came along and they had their SSA firmly under control, were confident they wouldn’t fall into SSEs while married, etc. This, in fact, has been my experience and that of a number of others I have known. Other people have no attraction toward the opposite sex at all and may even cringe at the thought of engaging them romantically. Conventional marriage, needless to say, would not be an advisable option for such a person, at least as long as this remains their state.
Also, some people really feel a need to “get to the bottom of” their SSA, to try to understand it and figure it out: what it is, where it came from, why it’s there, what it “means.” Others don’t care much how it got there or why they have it, but prefer just to focus instead on how to manage it effectively and get on with their lives. Personally, I have come to belong more to this second camp. When I was younger, I did spend time trying to figure out why I was this way or what “went wrong.” Eventually I stopped because I figured I didn’t really need to know the “why” of it, but rather just the “how” of how to deal with it. And even this “how” is not something I can explain in any scientific way. It is just things that have worked out for me over the years – mostly through following the Sunna, learning how to outsmart my nafs through the practice of tazkiya, and a fair amount of good old trial and error.
All this raises another common question, namely, can SSA be “cured”? If “cure” means total elimination and 100% “heterosexuality,” then probably not. Statistically, it seems uncommon for someone who has experienced predominant or exclusive same-sex attractions consistently past the age of adolescence one day to have zero SSA susceptibilities and to become fully “heterosexual.” But this goal isn’t just unattainable (for most); I also believe that it is unnecessary. Nothing in Islam says that I have to be “heterosexual” (in fact, we don’t even have a word for that in our deen), but only that I must refrain from prohibited sexual acts (which are named and specified in our deen). Past scholars, for example, differed over whether it was blameworthy for a mature man to be enticed by the beauty of a younger male (typically a “beardless youth,” or amrad). Some thought that such susceptibilities were indeed blameworthy, but many apparently did not – as long as no haram actions were committed.
This last point about avoiding haram actions has been agreed upon by all Muslim scholars. This is why it is so important for us to keep in mind the distinction between desires and actions. As Muslims, we know that Allah will ask us about what He has put under our control. This always includes our actions, as well as our thoughts and fantasies to the extent that we have control over them. Taklif (moral accountability) would be meaningless if Allah had not given us jurisdiction over our actions and made us fully responsible for them. Of course we will all mess up and make numerous mistakes along the way, whether we are people who happen to be tested with same-sex desires or not. This is exactly what Allah has made tawba (repentance) for. It is also why Allah refers to Himself eight times in the Qur’an as “al-Tawwab al-Rahim,” the Merciful One Who ever turns back to His repenting servant, and assures us no fewer than 72 times (!) that He is “Ghafur(un) Rahim,” the Ever Forgiving, Merciful One – subhan Allah! Therefore, no amount of sin should cause a person to lose hope in the Mercy of Allah. At the same time, our chances of receiving Allah’s help, and earning His ultimate pleasure, are always greater when we minimize our sins as much as we can.
Coming back to the question of change, the fact remains that many people with SSA have experienced meaningful change over time in the intensity of their desires and the hold their same-sex attractions have over them, and/or in the role these desires and attractions play in their lives and their sense of who they are. Sometimes this may happen on its own. Sometimes it is the result of long-term spiritual discipline and self-control. Sometimes it’s a question of changing how you conceive of and define yourself in relation to your desires and to others, particularly those of your own sex. More often than not, any progress a person makes on the path of dealing with his or her SSA will usually come about through a combination of techniques and approaches. Some have benefited from professional, faith-friendly therapy in learning to understand and address their same-sex desires and related emotional and psychological issues that many people with SSA are often also struggling with. Others have reported benefiting greatly from books, programs, and resources meant specifically for addressing, comprehending, mastering, and reducing or minimizing one’s SSA. (A wealth of useful, principled, and thought-provoking information – grounded in a Christian, but also a more generally religious, perspective that Muslims can derive benefit from as well – can be found, for example, at sites such as www.samesexattraction.org or www.peoplecanchange.com.) But again for me, the real goal is not “heterosexuality” per se, but rather contentment, fulfillment, and being at peace with Allah, myself, and others.
Islam as a Middle Path: Avoiding Extreme Narratives
“I Am a Walking Monstrosity and Allah Hates Me for Existing” vs.“Out and Proud: It’s Okay to Be Gay!”
I believe a key step in reaching equilibrium in the process of dealing with SSA is learning to avoid two common extremes: the extreme of despising ourselves for mere desires and attractions we did not ask for and the extreme of “identifying with” these desires as somehow defining who we are as human beings and as Muslims. Islam, as always, is a Middle Way, and it can be very liberating when we learn to get beyond all the false scripts we’ve been fed by our modern culture and to conceive of our particular moral struggle as no different in essence from the moral struggle of any other Muslim. When we do this, we can then learn to see ourselves as no worse, no better, nor even different in any fundamental way from any other sincerely striving servant of God on this planet.
We also reject any attempt on the part of anyone to pressure or to bully Muslim communities, imams, leaders, mosques, schools, or other institutions into accepting what Allah has clearly made haram in the name of “tolerance,” “affirmation,” “acceptance,” “inclusion,” “diversity,” or any of the other buzz words that are normally used for this purpose.
This talk of extremes – which are always un-Islamic – brings me to another point. Many Muslims dealing with same-sex attractions find themselves stuck today between two sharply opposing forces. The first, which has been debated and now effectively refuted on the level of Islamic teachings (see M. Vaid, “Can Islam Accommodate Homosexual Acts? Qur’anic Revisionism and the Case of Scott Kugle”), are self-described “progressive Muslims” who have taken it upon themselves to offer distorted interpretations of the Qur’an and who reject or dismiss ahadith and the consensus of Muslim scholars, all in an attempt to make SSEs – same-sex acts, encounters, and relationships – permissible in Islam. This group, however, is appealing to some because it offers a “safe space” for Muslims with SSA and offers them a lifestyle that they can easily identify with. Of course, the biggest drawback is that the life such Muslims would be leading is likely to be sinful in many ways. I feel I have to say it clearly here once again: I and many other same-sex attracted Muslims that I have encountered over the years completely reject such attempts to manipulate our religion in order to “accommodate” our (or anyone else’s) “sexuality.” We also reject any attempt on the part of anyone to pressure or to bully Muslim communities, imams, leaders, mosques, schools, or other institutions into accepting what Allah has clearly made haram in the name of “tolerance,” “affirmation,” “acceptance,” “inclusion,” “diversity,” or any of the other buzz words that are normally used for this purpose. The meaning of Islam is “submission,” and my submission to Allah and my faith come above all else, including my own desires, sexual or otherwise. This is the test that Allah has chosen for me and I accept it from Him in hopes of attaining His pleasure and His reward, insha’Allah. Allah mentions in the Holy Qur’an in Surat al-Baqara (2), verses 155-157:
And We shall surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when affliction strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him will we return.” Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided.
According to the tafsir of this verse, these tribulations from Allah come in many forms that we have no control over. It is only Allah that can choose what these tribulations look like. The only control that we have is how we respond to them. Will we give in to temptation? Will we give up? Or will we persevere with patience and remind ourselves of our ultimate goal in the journey towards Allah? Then Allah can count us among the muhtadeen, the rightly guided who deserve Allah’s blessings and mercy.
So how do we know that we will be tested even if we believe, and that tests and trials are actually proof that we do believe? In the Qur’an in Surat al-‘Ankabut (29), verses 2-7, Allah says:
Do people think they shall be left to say, “We believe” and they shall not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars. Or do those who do evil deeds think they can outrun Us? Evil is what they judge. Whoever hopes for the meeting with Allah – indeed, the term decreed by Allah is coming. And He is the Hearing, the Knowing. And whoever strives only strives for [the benefit of] himself. Indeed, Allah is free from need of the worlds. And those who believe and do righteous deeds – We shall surely remove from them their misdeeds and shall surely reward them according to the best of what they were wont to do.
These verses are very clear in their message that belief will be met with trials. Accepting that these are trials and striving against them for the sake of Allah is what is of utmost importance as a statement and proof of our faith, because ultimately it is Allah’s meeting that we seek in the Hereafter no matter what hardship we face in this life on our path towards Him.
So, on the one side are people who try to distort the deen by changing its clear teachings, but then on the other side there is often the culture of hate and stigma within the Muslim community with respect to people who experience SSA: whether it be the fact that this topic is hardly ever discussed – leading Muslims dealing with it to find themselves in bubbles where many young people think that they are literally the only people in the world that could be dealing with it – or the fact that if the topic ever is “discussed,” it is likely by imams who describe how “the punishment of homosexuality is death” and how evil the people of Lut were. Other ways it is “discussed” are with groups of friends who seem to find it okay to make fun of, ridicule, and put down “gays.” (Even for many of us who don’t act on our same-sex desires and reject the notion of self-identifying as “gay,” we still feel that people like us are being targeted by these kinds of comments.) In my many years, I can only recall twice when someone who spoke about the topic of homosexuality in Islam was actually compassionate and understanding enough to say that these are our brothers and sisters and they need our support and help. Twice is not enough. This needs to be the mainstream message that is presented the majority of the time to ensure that people get the correct understanding.
Our Responsibility as a Community
It is no longer – and really never should have been – acceptable that we sweep this issue under the rug. We are losing far too many of our brothers and sisters because of the ignorance of those in places of authority and the indifference and carelessness of the general community. Where are the khutbas and durus where this topic is properly addressed and correctly presented so that people have the proper understanding of the issue from an Islamic perspective? Where are the imams and scholars explaining that the presence of a spontaneous desire is not sinful in and of itself and unpacking the amorphous categories of “homosexuality” and “LGBT” into the more concrete – and religiously faithful – distinction between SSAs and SSEs? Where are the khawatir telling people to watch their tongues when speaking about “gays and lesbians” and “homosexuals” so as not to hurt the feelings of their brothers and sisters who are suffering in silence (even as we reject these identity labels and caution the community against taking them over from secular culture)? Where is the research to allow parents properly to guide their children so they can come to them with such an issue? And where are the tools parents need to be able to help their children who do end up coming to them with the issue of SSA?
Until we, the mainstream Muslim community, find a way to offer a safe environment for people dealing with same-sex attractions to open up to caring and compassionate individuals among us, we will be losing many of our brothers and sisters to a falsified understanding of Islam, or to leaving the religion altogether, or even to suicide (wa’l-‘iyadhu bi’Llah). Now, I certainly do not mean that people should start waving the rainbow flag, wearing pink triangles, and proclaiming their same-sex attractions publicly. What I do mean is that we need to end the isolation and the misinformation about SSA, on the one hand, and the twisting of the deen, on the other, by way of imams and leaders propagating the correct understanding presented above about same-sex attractions (SSA) versus same-sex encounters (SSE) in terms of halal and haram. I also mean that imams, leaders, and parents should acquire the tools necessary to be able to support their children if/when they disclose their SSA to them. If we cannot count on our leaders and our communities both to uphold the integrity of our faith and at the same time to support us – your brothers and sisters who are dealing with same-sex attractions – with wisdom, discretion, and compassion in this test that Allah has chosen for us, then who can we count on?
Please note that I am not asking for anyone’s pity. What I am asking for is some compassion – true compassion rooted in proper Islamic teachings that ensure our welfare as Muslims both in this life and the next. When someone, especially a young person, hears things like “gays should be killed” or “gays are disgusting,” I don’t think one can exaggerate the lasting effects such words can have on a confused and vulnerable soul. No wonder so many of our youth are leaving the deen over this issue or else going over to groups that “affirm” them – however misguidedly – in a gay identity and lifestyle. We as a community should feel sadness and a sense of culpability on both counts. But in addition to the true compassion of our Prophet – who was the most merciful of all mankind yet never compromised in warning people against violating the command of Allah – I am also asking for respect. It is my right as your brother in faith to have your full respect and support. This includes respect and support for brothers who might be effeminate in their behavior or sisters who might be masculine in theirs through no fault of their own. Imam al-Nawawi has stated, concerning a male with effeminate mannerisms (mukhannath):
“The scholars have said that the mukhannath is of two types. The first is one who was created like that; he did not deliberately take on the characteristics of women, their appearance, speech, and mannerisms. Rather, this is a disposition (khilqa) upon which Allah created him. For this [person], there is no blame, no rebuke, no sin, and no penalty, and he is excused as he has no hand in that. The second type of mukhannath is the one who was not created upon that disposition (khilqa). Rather, he deliberately takes on the characteristics of women, their mannerisms, appearance, and speech, and adopts their dress. This is what is blameworthy and has been reported in authentic hadiths as cursed [behavior]. This accords with the meaning of another hadith: ‘Allah has cursed men who (deliberately) imitate women, and women who (deliberately) imitate men.’”
Imam al-Nawawi is clear here that there is no blame on a person for such tendencies as they have little or no control over. (Scholars agree that a person whose mannerisms mismatch their biological sex should try to recondition their mannerisms to the degree possible, but that they are not blameworthy for what lies beyond their capacity in this domain.) So long as someone is not committing haram acts – and really, even if they are – they are still your brother or sister in faith and there is absolutely no justification for disrespecting or bullying them. As long as they are not trying to justify or to normalize any haram behaviors – like same-sex acts – or calling to them publicly, they should be accepted and treated just like anyone else.
Words of Advice to Fellow Muslims Dealing with SSA
In closing, I would like to offer some nasiha to my many brothers and sisters who read this that also deal, as I do, with unrequested same-sex desires. First of all, you should know that you are not alone. There are many of us out there just like you, who know exactly what you are going through – the confusion, the pain, the isolation. We are here to lean on and to support each other with helpful words of advice, an ear to listen, and brotherly/sisterly encouragement along what we know through experience can be a very difficult path. Secondly, as all help and support ultimately come from Allah , I cannot stress how critical it is to maintain one’s relationship with the One Who created us, to trust in Him, and to remain as close to Him as possible – no matter how many times one may have messed up or fallen flat on one’s face in managing one’s sexual desires. Many factors are necessary in dealing effectively with SSA, as I have mentioned, but in my experience, the single most important overriding factor for me has been my faith in Allah, and my unwavering faith in and commitment to His deen. Without this critical element, I do not believe I would be anywhere near where I am today in all of this, wa’l-hamdu li’Llah. Finally, I would like to point out that there is no “one path” on the struggle with same-sex desires, no single place that every individual will end up in this life. Every person will walk his or her own path, and every person will have to live with his or her own choices.
The truth of the matter is that neither I nor anyone else has a complete and total solution for SSA. But the good news is, based on what I have seen and experienced, we really don’t need one in order to carry out our lives and to fulfill our mission as God’s khalifa on this earth. All we need to have are the key facts. And the key facts are that Allah has created us to worship Him, that He tests each of us with something unique to him or her, that He has concern for us and wants to see us succeed in our path to Him, that He has made certain actions halal and others haram, that He has given us the gift of moral agency and has made us responsible for our actions, and that, as He has promised us in the Qur’an in numerous verses, He “never burdens a soul with more than it can bear.” We can and we should use whatever means are available out there that work for each of us to help us control our actions and behavior first and foremost, as this is what Allah has made us responsible for in front of Him, and to address and work through our various issues as best we can. How our individual lives end up after that, what Allah ultimately has in store for each of us here below (not to mention “there above”) when we struggle patiently in His Way, with faith and trust in Him – all of this is in the hands of Allah, our Master, Who says in the Qur’an: “No soul knows what joy is kept hidden for it as a reward for that which they used to do” (Surat al-Sajda, v. 17).
Walking the Straight Path
I think, in sum, that this is a way forward: self-control and self-discipline. And no, I am not saying that we “pray away the gay,” but that we learn how to tame and control our nafs such that it doesn’t govern our actions. This is what Allah has asked of us – no more, but also no less. What happens beyond that is open and is different for each person according to what Allah has decreed. Some may one day find marriage a viable option and go down that path. Others will remain celibate and continue on that path. Some will use their time and their talents to pursue Islamic knowledge and community work and go down that path. Each person’s road to Allah is unique and specific to him or her, but we believe firmly in the words of our Lord when He says: “Those who struggle (jaahadu) for Our sake, We shall surely guide them to Our ways. Truly God is with those who practice virtue (al-muhsineen)” (Surat al-‘Ankabut, v. 69).
As we all affirm as Muslims, Allah’s path – which we ask Him to guide us to a minimum of 17 times a day in our daily prayers – is none other than the Straight Path (al-sirat al-mustaqim). It is for this reason that we Muslims who have been given the test of same-sex attractions refer to our struggle as the Straight Struggle. In reality, we as Muslims are all engaged in the Straight Struggle – the struggle to remain on the Straight Path of our Lord and Maker. We each have our own challenges to deal with and our own hurdles to overcome along the way, but our road in the end is one, just as our Goal is One.
In reality, we as Muslims are all engaged in the Straight Struggle – the struggle to remain on the Straight Path of our Lord and Maker. We each have our own challenges to deal with and our own hurdles to overcome along the way, but our road in the end is one, just as our Goal is One.
To the Muslim community as a whole I would like to say: the time to act on this issue was yesterday. Let us catch up now, because I might be the person standing next to you in the masjid. I might be your coworker, your friend, your blood brother, or your spouse. I might be your child or your parent. Who knows? I might even be you.
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.