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To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?

As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.

However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating).  All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?

Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.

Why Decorate or not to Decorate

There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.

But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)

Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.

The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship.  What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way?  If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) or scholars have advised us to do in any way?

Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.

How to Decorate or not to Decorate

It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.

The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.

The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.

  • Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
  • Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
  • Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?

The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating

So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.

It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,

  • Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
  • Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
  • Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
  • Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.

I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.

Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)

Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.

Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating

The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.

And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.

The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).

حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،‏.‏ وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ‏”‏‏.‏

We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.) 

Standing at just under 5’2,” Meena is still growing (figuratively, sadly no longer literally) into her place in the world. She is a graduate of Comparative Literature studies at the University of California, Irvine, where she was active with the Muslim Student Union.As a student of knowledge, Meena has discovered the power and beauty that words can have, the highest example being the Words of Allah preserved in the Holy Quran. In her own capacity and with the help of Allah, she hopes to capture and communicate her reflections and thoughts as she continues on in this exciting time of her life.You can follow her on Twitter @imeanking & read more of her posts on her personal blog: http://imeanking.wordpress.com/

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The Creation Of The Stereotypical Arab

Omar Sayadi

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Robert Entman, professor of media and public affairs, published an excellent study in  1993 in which he explained the inner workings of framing. Framing is a well-known concept within communication sciences and the study of mass communication, and concerns according to Entman both selection and promotion. He describes it as:

“The selection of some aspects of a perceived reality to make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”. (Entman 1993)

A typical frame consists therefore of four qualities. It selects a specific problem by considering and checking the related actors, with which resources they act and observed from their own cultural framework. Then, the greater forces behind the problem are identified, i.e. the broader context. Subsequently, ethical questions are raised that interpret and evaluate the effects and actions of what is taking place. Eventually, solutions and treatments are offered.

Entman illustrates this by giving the example of the Cold War. According to him, American media made during that time frame extensive use of the so-called “Cold War frame”. This frame selected for example the Vietnamese Civil War as a specific problem. It then identified the actors and greater forces behind that war, usually Communist rebels supported by the Soviet-Union and China. Subsequently, these media ethically appraised the whole situation, interpreting the war as instances of severe Atheist agression. This frame could then eventually lead to the promotion of specific solutions being presented to the common man, among which support of the United Stated to the opponents of Communism, and military intervention.

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The caption of the Looney Tunes show Ali-Baba Bound reads: “Ali Baba, the mad dog of the desert.”

Framing is a means used by mass media to transmit specific messages to the audience. This is accomplished by using the classic transmission model, i.e. the sender who sends a message to the receiver through a channel/medium. However, Entman adds culture as an additional element for the transmission of a frame. Professor mass communication, writer and expert on racial and ethnical stereotypes in the media, Jack Shaheen, expands on this theory. After all, the framing phenomenon can not be completely understood when detached from the social and cultural context in which the message is transmitted to the audience. The era of Communism and the “Cold War frame” may be over, traditional mass media keep using frames to promote specific images among their audience.

Images that would certainly have a hard time to take root where it not for it adaption to existing and established cultural convictions. Convictions that were built up and developed through decades-long illustrations and representations within cultural productions, most notably in the movie industry.

Hollywood

Shaheen did some extensive research on the cultural depiction of Arabs in the Hollywood society. The results of his observations were brought together in the documentary Reel Bad Arabs (2006), one I’d recommend everyone interested in this subject. “Arabs are the most malign group in the history of Hollywood. They’re portrayed basically as sub-humans,” says Jack Shaheen to open his argument. “These images have been with us for more than a century.”

During no less than thirty years he watched thousands of movies, from the oldest ones to modern blockbusters, to observe and analyse the depiction of Arabs en Muslims in Western cinema. He subsequently discerns a dangerous and systematic pattern of hateful and racist stereotypes that strip a whole people of its humanity and depicts them as the embodiment of evil, fanaticism, and ignorance. According to Shaheen, this is an established fact from which filmmakers rarely deviate.

The land of the Arabs! An image Hollywood eagerly adopted from long-lost British and French explorers and writers that depicted the Arabs based on their own biased imagination of the Orient, the strange and exotic land that seemingly emanated stories like “One Thousand and One Nights”. The land with its eternal deserts, its threatening roughness, and ominous music. The desolate wilderness littered with palaces of rich and decadent pashas and their harem. The mysterious melodies that guide the movements of voluptuous belly dancers and snake charmers, watched by the all-seeing eyes of the scimitar wearing guards in movies like Invitation to the Dance from 1956.

Even today, such stereotypes are being used, even in children’s movies. Disney’s Alladin (1992) has been watched by millions of children all over the world but recycles nearly every stereotype that had been already used by the silent black-and-white Hollywood past to depict the so-called Arabland. A rough, unfriendly desert landscape where “they cut off your ear when they don’t like your face”, as stated in the opening song of the movie.

In the Looney Tunes animated cartoon Ali-Baba Bound (1940), we see the fairy tale character depicted as a cunning, insidiously grinning Arab with a beard, big nose and evil eye-brows who calls his companions by literally barking at them like a dog. The caption of the show reads: “Ali Baba, the mad dog of the desert.

Not only children, but adults as well see Arabs depicted in movies as hot-headed and impulsive simpletons who deliver some cheap and funny laughs. Take for example the India Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in which Indiana ends up face-to-face with a threatening and completely random armed Arab. The man tries to impress the American hero with his evil smile and some sword tricks, to which Indiana simply shoots him dead and runs off to continue his adventure.

The same Arab that prefers dogs over women. Indeed, an Arab states in The Happy Hooker goes to Washington from 1977 that “dogs are better than sheep. They’re cleaner, I know, I’ve tried dogs.” And if it isn’t dogs or sheep (think of the popular nickname “goatf*#ker” used by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to publicly denote Moroccans), than it is blond, American women.

The stereotype of the obtrusive Arab obsessed with white women appears so many times that it becomes ridiculous.Click To Tweet
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Two Lebanese terrorists from “The Delta Force” (Cannon Film) – 1986

 

In the Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983), Kim Bassinger is being undressed by a filthy  Arab businessman to be sold, with an unintelligible gurgling and crackling (Hollywood Arabic), to a bunch of miserable Bedouins. Arabs are being depicted as primitive and aggressive desert dwellers obsessed with American women as a welcome change to their usual covered and invisible womenfolk hidden in their palaces.

Those Arabs, on the other hand, that do effectively have access to modern society, technology and progress are being imagined as a faceless nuisance to Western society or death and destruction craving terrorists anxious to ruin the West.

Two businessmen in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) jokingly state that Arabs “don’t go anywhere without their animals.” Note that they were talking about a recent trip by plane!

How was London?” the main character of the movie Chapter Two (1979) is being asked. “Full of Arabs,” he replies. Movies that are in no way related to Arabs or Muslims and aren’t connected to the Middle-East in any way still can’t resist to the urge of making racist and humiliating comments on screen.

Back To The Future

Even in the hugely popular Back to the Future from 1985, the above statement is sadly the case. The movie is a plain, American Sci-Fi picture for teenagers in which stereotypes about Arabs are nevertheless again introduced. Emmett Brown, scientist and the inventor of the time-traveling car is minding his own business when he suddenly gets shot at, without any motive or reason, by a bunch of Libyan terrorists. They shoot him and then focus on the main character Marty McFly. The shooter curses violently when his weapon jams and fails to kill McFly. When he finally resolves the issue with his machine gun, their car breaks down so they again fail in an almost cartoonish way to continue.

The reason for this sudden and random occurrence is completely unknown, and all throughout the rest of the story no reference is made to it. But the fact remains established, a group of inept Arabs killed the beloved professor.

Foreign Policy

Just like the above-mentioned Cold War frame, this frame on Arabs and Muslims is a perfectly suited tool of the mass media and the political establishment to help shape American foreign policy in the Middle-East and North Africa in the minds of the American citizens. Four different events caused Hollywood to radically increase its use of Arab and Muslim stereotypes. Before anything else, the creation and establishment of Israel in 1948 en the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars resulted in a clear positioning of the United States and Hollywood on the side of their Israeli ally. The Arab embargo that hit Europe and the USA during the 1970’s and the Iranian Revolution further contributed to the role of Arabs as thugs and greedy businessmen. The notorious War on Terror could count as the fourth reason for the establishment and representation of the Arab and Muslim as enemy of progress and freedom.

Take for example the plans of a rich Arab oil sheikh to buy his way up through the United States, conquering it in the process. In the movie Network from 1976, it’s insinuated that a group of Arab businessmen threat to almost run over the Unites States financially by buying up several companies and building plots. The character of Howard Beal than calls live on television to rise against these Arabs, that are planning to buy his TV network. A memorable and frightening scene than follows in which the audience can see a mob of angry citizens take to the streets to express their rage, an image of social hatred against a common enemy, the Arab.

The Ultimate Demon

If it’s not an evil, perverse, and decadent Arab businessman, the Arab gets the role of dangerous and hostile terrorist assigned. Reserved for Russians and Cubans during the days of the Cold War, Palestinians would later figure as the antagonists of the hero in American action movies. The terrorist antagonist stripped from any bit of motive and humanity, serving as fleshly embodiment of the ultimate evil.

This image is already used as early as 1960 in the movie Exodus, where the Palestinians are depicted as invisible enemies hiding in the desert who perform appalling acts against the innocent Jewish colonists because of their radical antisemitism. It’s no wonder that this movie was considered a major promotion for Zionist thought and a support for the Israeli cause.

Theologian and writer Roland Boer writes in his 2009 work on Biblical themes that the depiction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in American cinema still influences American citizens to this day with regard to their opinion on the conflict.

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Palestinian terrorists in “True Lies” – 1994

Over a decade later, we find the same old story in the movie Black Sunday (1977). A Palestinian female terrorist wished to detonate a blimp over a typical American sports stadium during the Super Bowl, with about 80.000 ordinary Americans present. The caption of the movie on its release poster reads: “It could be tomorrow!” Again, a decade later, Arnold Schwarzenegger faces a group of Palestinian terrorists that wishes to destroy American cities with nuclear missiles in True Lies from 1994. Again and again, Arabs and Muslims are being identified with hatred, terror and the ultimate failure of their plans due to the American action hero.

An image that, not unimportantly, was fed extensively by two Israeli producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who created The Cannon Group company. For over twenty years, The Cannon Group produced at least thirty movies in which everything Arab is being mocked and demonized. Yes, the political relationship between the USA and Israel does indeed trickle in the world of cinema. What could be a more effective weapon than a seemingly unending source of full-length movies in which enmity and distrust against a certain people is promoted? A cultural alliance to dismiss these Arabs, “sand n#^*rs”, “goat f*^#rs” and “ragheads”, fed by a billion dollar business.

The most striking example of this would be the movie Rules of Engagement from 2000. The film leads the audience to Yemen, where a mob of dusty Yemenis are protesting loudly in front of the American embassy. American marines are being asked to evacuate the present staff, when they suddenly open fire and mow down every single protester, including women and children. As a result of this event, an investigation is started to examine the decision of the marines to open fire. Towards the end of the movie, however, the audience is revealed a whole other story than initially portrayed. Plot twist, the Arab protesters were armed themselves and they opened fire on the American soldiers.

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“Rules of Engagement” (Paramount Pictures) – 2000

Men and woman wildly brandishing guns and even a little girl that aims her pistol on an American soldier. A little, Arab girl that wasn’t nearly as innocent as she looked. A whole bunch of Arabs that weren’t as innocent as initially thought. They deserved to die! It was their own fault they attacked the mighty American army of the free! The marines had the right to kill them, to protect themselves! Sure, it was a massacre, but a legitimate one against the enemies of the USA. Against faceless, unknown human beings killed like animals.

Debunking Cultural Practices

Such movies present complicated and nuanced conflicts as a caricatural fight between Good and Evil. They polarize the wars in the Middle-East and North Africa by presenting the American cause as the necessary and just fight against demonized and inhuman enemy, an intrinsic evil. A propaganda weapon arises on a massive scale because of popular cultural injections.

Entman also describes culture as the “stock of commonly invoked frames“. In fact, he defines culture as “the empirically demonstrable set of common frames exhibited in the discourse and thinking of most people in a social grouping.” The fact that framing is then used extensively in the mass media, which includes movies, soaps and news reporting, could be explained from this point of view.

Because of the prolonged cultural impact of Hollywood, the frame of the Arab and Muslim is undoubtedly established within those societies that lie within its sphere of influence. The frame is developed as a cultural element within that society and determines how people look at messages and images that fit within that frame. The Arab that appears in the news is usually no individual. He’s a terrorist, a religious extremist, a zealot, a Muslim, a Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian or Iranian. These are all frames that evoke certain connotations among the traditional receiving audience, developed within a shared consciousness.

It’s a dangerous trend, but the best solution is the simplest one of all: look beyond the message alone. Don’t let popular culture or traditional news reporting decide how you see the world, because there’ll always be agendas being followed to guide and manipulate you. Common sense, an open mind, and sufficient dialogue can debunk the most stubborn cultural prejudices.

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Prayers Beyond Borders Offers Hope to Separated Families

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Which deeds are most beloved to Allah?

Alhamdulillah, by the blessings of Allah (swt) and readers like yourself, MuslimMatters has been an independent platform for our best thought leaders to educate us in our faith and catalyze change through powerful, necessary conversations. Since our humble beginnings as a basic wordpress blog in 2007, our content has remained free.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support us with a monthly donation of $10 per month, or even as little as $1. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

On the border of San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, several families live their lives torn apart—they were born on the wrong side of a wall. Now, faith groups are joining together to give them hope through prayer. Since the Mexican-American War in 1848, the boundary that divided the two countries transformed from an imaginary line, to a monument, to a simple barb-wire fence where people on either side could meet, greet, hold hands, or exchange a warm smile, to a heavily monitored steel wall stretching across almost 15 miles between San Diego and Tijuana. 

In recent years, crime, drug trafficking, an influx of undocumented workers, and increasingly white nationalism created stricter immigration policies in the U.S., directly impacting those who live straddling both sides of the border. Included in these are families whose loved ones have been deported – parents, spouses, children, and other relatives – to Mexico, undocumented workers providing for their families, and relatives who have not made physical contact with each other in years, sometimes decades. They gather along the steel mesh barriers of the border wall at Friendship Park to touch each other’s fingertips and pray.

The documentary, “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” produced by CAIR California, MoveOn, and Beyond Borders Studios captured some of these emotive moments during a Sunday prayer service held by the Border Church in partnership with the Border Mosque. Christians and Muslims came together in solidarity at Friendship Park on September 30, 2019, and held a joint bilingual ceremony, led by Reverend John Fanestil, Pastor Guillermo Navarrete, Imam Taha Hassane, and Imam Wesley Lebrón.

Imam Lebrón, National Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for WhyIslam, witnessed the nightmare families separated at the border endure when he was invited to participate in this first meeting of the Border Church and Border Mosque. As a Puerto Rican, U.S. born citizen who never experienced the hardships of immigration, he was moved by what he witnessed. He said, 

“I entered Mexico and reached the border at Friendship Park and immediately noticed families speaking to each other through the tiny spaces of an enormous metal wall. They were not able to touch except for their fingers, which I later learned was the way they kissed each other.”

He described families discussing legal matters and children crying because they could not embrace a parent who traveled for days only to speak to them briefly behind the cold steel mesh partition. 

“Walls are meant to provide refuge and safety from the elements and they are not meant to prevent human beings from having a better life,” he explained, “As I stood behind that wall, I felt hopeless, angry, and had many other mixed emotions for our Mexican brethren who have been completely stripped of the opportunities many of us take for granted.” During the service he addressed the crowd gathered on the Mexican side of Friendship Park and recited the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. It was the first time the call was heard in Friendship Park, but not the last. 

The Border Church and Border Mosque will continue to provide a joint service on the last Sunday of every month and are calling for a binational day of prayer on Sunday, October 27th. They will be joined by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and indigenous spiritual leaders to “Pray Beyond Borders.” The event will be filmed and possibly live-streamed to a global audience with the objective of raising awareness and requesting financial support to address issues related to family separation in the region. 

On October 7th CAIR California with MoveOn, Faith in Action, MPower Change, and a social media team and distribution partners released the film “A Prayer Beyond Borders,” With the digital launch of this film in English and Spanish they wish to reach millions of viewers in telling the story of the Border Church and the Border Mosque and bring more faith leaders and activists on board to protect families’ right to gather. Please join them at Pray Beyond Borders – A Binational Day of Prayer – Sunday, October 27th at Friendship Park. 

when the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles(Psalm 34:17 – NIV).

“And seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the humbly submissive [to Allah ]” (Qur’an 2:45)

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

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Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman

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I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

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