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

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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.

To stay up to date with more articles from Omar, sign up for his email list at http://ibnabeeomar.com/newsletter

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umm Al-Ameen

    August 23, 2019 at 9:18 AM

    Excellent, excellent piece. A very balanced response to Duckworth’s book. I do have the book which I bought a while back on Amazon and yes, it’s good and worth buying. Yet, after reading the book, I felt there was something missing in the narrative and the author of this piece just gets it.

    “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”. Excellent.

    And of course, the God-factor in the success of any endeavor because as Muslims, we know we can only will if Allah wills. Personally, I see grit as “tethering one’s camel” to the best of one’s ability but ultimately, the final outcome belongs to Allah.

    Great piece brother, May Almighty Allah reward you for this effort.

  2. Avatar

    Sam

    October 20, 2019 at 9:27 AM

    I don’t really care about grit.

    Thank Allah I decided to not be critical and keep an open mind as I read the passage. Excellent message!

    As the commenter above mentioned, this is a new perspective to me:
    “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”.

    It seems rational to say it’s difficult to think about the future when a collection agency, your landlord, and your own family is desperately in need of cash today. Show me your grit when you are drowning in the middle of a stormy ocean struggling to survive. Verses someone on a calm cruise preaching that “it’s easy, all you have to do is meditate and focus on your goals to succeed”. OK buddy.

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The Summer When Everything Changed – A Middle School Islamic Fiction Novel

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Let’s write a book together.” That is how it all started in the summer of 2016. As two young writers, passionate about our craft, we ventured together to fulfill our shared dream: to write a relatable novel about Muslim youth. 

Nura Fahzy and I had already developed a strong bond with each other in the years since we had first become e-pals. We bonded over our common interests: we both are very passionate about writing, we were both homeschoolers, and we pretty much have the same name! We regularly communicated about our writings, gave honest feedback to each other, and even wrote a few articles together. This new project, however, was a big step forward in our relationship. We now had to brainstorm, develop, and write a novel together. 

I had recently moved to North Carolina, and Nura lived in Texas. We worked through our book entirely through online communication, never having actually met in person. Google Hangouts was our go-to for planning and discussing every detail about our characters, storylines, and potential plot holes . We had countless Google spreadsheets to organize our characters and story. After much back and forth for three years, writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, we finally published our first novel, “The Summer When Everything Changed” this summer, alhamdulillah.

“The Summer When Everything Changed” is a middle school Islamic fiction novel. Our book is a mixture of all the things we love to read in novels. It has a touch of mystery, halal romance, and lots of drama: sibling drama, friend drama and other day to day dramas of young kids. What makes our story extra special to us is that it incorporates Islamic lessons and practices throughout the book in a subtle way that avoids being very preachy but still gets its point across.

Both Nura and I had grown up avid readers and writers. We had read through all the Islamic fiction books we could get our hands on, but were still left wanting for more. Having grown up in a time when halal entertainment was scarce, Nura and I strongly believe in the importance of Islamic literature for fostering children’s imaginations and strengthening their connections to their Muslim identity.

Living in a time when there is so much divisive rhetoric and hate around us, we believe that we need representation in the media and in literature now more than ever. Children need to read about others like them who are imperfect and have similar daily struggles and joys. Our characters are everyday American Muslim kids with common life experiences and challenges that other kids can relate to, as well. Therefore, our book is targeted towards not only Muslim boys and girls, but also to children who come from all backgrounds. 

We believe that literature is an important tool that can help bring people together. While allowing us to understand and appreciate other cultures, it also shows us just how much we have in common with each other. When we first wrote this book, we thought of our younger siblings, cousins, and family friends and the kinds of books we wanted them to have available to read. We hope that “The Summer When Everything Changed” and future books in our series serve as steps forward, making all Muslim children feel represented and proud to be Muslim.

Story Blurb: 

For Hanaan, the freedom of summer means hours of uninterrupted quality time with her sister and countless sunny days spent writing in her special place. For Ameerah, it means shooting hoops with her friends and working out. 

But unwelcome family circumstances shatter their plans, throwing the two girls with vastly different personalities together. Can they set aside their differences to resolve an important union or will their mutual dislike result in disaster for both of their families?

Amazon Link

Barnes and Noble Link

Author Bios:

Nura Fahzy is the second-born of four siblings. After 5 moves in 5 different states, she is currently settled in Texas. An American-born Malaysian, Nura studied digital art and design at North Lake College, Class of 2019. Her favorite color is pink, and her preferred ice cream flavors are coffee and chocolate. She enjoys drawing and making food. 

Nur Kose is an American-Bengali-Turkish Muslim who is the eldest of five siblings. Nur has roots in upstate New York, Delaware, and North Carolina, where she studied English and Arabic at UNC-Chapel Hill, Class of 2019. Some of her favorite things are reading, snow, and ice cream. Her favorite ice cream flavors are Snickers and banana split. She is also the author of the STAIRS series. 

For updates and more information on our book series, check out our social media pages. We have a facebook page, The Two Lights as well as an instagram account @thetwolights. We also have a blog thetwolights.wordpress.com. We encourage you to follow us on social media to see sneak peeks of our work, new content, and updates about our future projects.

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Muslim Literature: The Pros, The Progress, And The Pitfalls

The burgeoning field of Muslim literature, and Muslim fiction, in particular, is an exciting development for the English-speaking Muslim community. However, it is necessary for Muslim writers to seriously consider the quality of their work.

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Once upon a time, it was extremely difficult for English-speaking Muslims to find good books – fiction and non-fiction alike – that was catered to their demographic. Fiction, in particular, was scarce, for both young children as well as teens. Much of it was poorly written, filled with atrocious spelling and grammar, and stilted from beginning to end.

It was not an enjoyable reading experience.

Alhamdulillah, the Muslim literary scene has evolved significantly since the early 90s. Today, we have award-winning Muslim authors such as Na’ima B. Robert, whose excellent YA novels have been published through mainstream publishers and numerous emerging writers whose debut novels are wonderful contributions to the existing body of modern Muslim literature.

Muslim publishers such as Kube Publishing, Daybreak Press, and Ruqaya’s Bookshelf are taking the lead in producing and distributing stories by and for Muslims. In addition, the publishing company Simon and Schuster launched an entire division dedicated to books by Muslim writers. Hena Khan, S. K. Ali, Karuna Riazi, and Mark Gonzales are just some of the authors whose Muslim-centered stories have been published through Salaam Reads and made accessible to schools, libraries, and the general public. The We Need Diverse Books movement has also played a significant role in promoting multicultural and marginalized voices within mainstream publishing, and the results are wonderful. 

Elevating Standards in Muslim Literature

Within the Muslim community, however, work still needs to be done. Unfortunately, as ever, the tendency to fall short of professional continues to make itself clear, in both self-published works as well as work that is published through Muslim publishers. It is common to find children’s stories that are riddled with typos, run-on sentences, poor plot structure, and nonexistent character development. In the pursuit of promoting Islamic values, too many fall into being overtly preachy and moralizing, with no regard for the fine art of storytelling.

The result is that time, effort, and money are wasted; having a plethora of “Islamic books” does us very little good when the final product is of little benefit and serves to turn children and young adults away from Muslim-focused stories. Parents and educators also find themselves frustrated with these poorly developed books, especially when they are seeking stories more representative of religiously observant Muslims rather than those who take Islam as a cultural identity marker. 

While it is certainly encouraging to see more Muslims actively contributing to the field of Muslim literature, we must recognize the difference between quality and quantity – and the importance of the former over the latter. It is true that traditional publishing is a difficult niche to get into, especially for those with no previous experience with writing or the publishing industry. This is often a motivating factor for many Muslim writers to either go with a Muslim publisher or turn to self-publishing as a means of making their work available.

However, the push to keep costs low comes at a price of its own. The vast majority of the time, it is clear that a qualified, professional editor was not hired to look over the manuscript. While some people may think that it is not a serious issue, especially for children’s books, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Children’s books actually require extra attention; one must be clear on the targeted demographic and tailor the story and language appropriately, and the illustrations and the words alike need to be engaging and lively, regardless of the intended age group. In particular, when the subject matter is religion-focused, it is important that the approach taken is not dry, academic, or presented in a way that young readers cannot connect with personally.

The quality of a book should never be sacrificed in order to keep costs low; as Muslims, we should be even more particular about producing high-quality work that will be a valuable resource to be used both within our own communities as well as to the non-Muslim public. 

Self Publishing Woes

Self-publishing is particularly dangerous when the aspiring author has done little to no research on writing and publishing and has even less experience with writing well. Unfortunately, too many Muslim writers over-estimate their own abilities and rush headlong into self-publishing… with painful, often cringe-inducing results. It is particularly distressing when certain over-confident and under-qualified Muslim writers then exult over unearned praise from readers who, unfortunately, are not always as discerning as they should be – leading said writers to feel secure in their writing abilities and going on to produce even more subpar work.

The importance of having a strong editor cannot be overstated; having a “friend of a friend” with no qualifications to review and ‘edit’ the story simply does not cut it. Choosing the professional way to write and publish will inevitably take more time and effort – and yes, financial cost – to produce a final result, but that investment of energy will be much, much more worth it in the long run (and will also spare readers the agony of seeing “there,” “their,” and “they’re” constantly used the wrong way).

Having higher standards and holding Muslim writers (and publishers) accountable for their work is not meant to be discouraging. Rather, our intention is to encourage their success – in a way that is meaningful, not blindly supportive. We all wish to see our brothers and sisters in Islam succeed and to continue to contribute to an extremely important field. Addressing these weaknesses from the very beginning will ultimately result in long-term success and benefit the writers and the readers alike. 

The burgeoning field of Muslim literature, and Muslim fiction in particular, is an exciting development for the English-speaking Muslim community. However, it is necessary for Muslim writers to seriously consider the quality of their work, and to seek professional and qualified editors and publishers with whom to work and produce their books. The current substandard quality of many Muslim-produced books is counter-productive to the intended goal of providing beneficial resources for Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. It makes parents and educators reluctant to use and share those works with their children and students.

Investing time and energy into improving the quality of our literature will only result in success, for the writers and their readership alike – so let us truly take our work seriously, and be committed to undertaking our efforts with Ihsaan.

Credit to MuslimKidsBookNook for her valuable contributions.

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

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Death In A Valley Town, Part 4 – The Psychology of Forgiveness

He let the vision go, feeling a moment of dizziness as he did so. He stood stock still until the dizziness passed and the world resolved before him.

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

Previous Chapters of Death in a Valley Town1. Moving Day2. The Black Jesus. 3. A Fighter and a Thief.

Jinx

Moroccan teapotThe hot tea stung Yahya’s bruised mouth and swollen lip, but he did his best to drink as he sat in Imam Saleh’s living room, sipping from a small ornate glass, and eating a bit of baklawa. It had been two days since his release from the hospital. The Imam tried to refill his glass from an old-fashioned looking Moroccan teapot, but Yahya waved him off.

He’d spent the previous day recuperating in bed. Yusra had tried again to talk to him about their father, but he’d told her he was too tired. Tired and unwired. This morning he left while the sky was still dark and the household was still asleep. He went to Masjid Madeenah in Fresno for Fajr prayer, and exchanged a few words with Imam Saleh, making an appointment to see him later that day.

He knew his wife would be angry that he had not spent more recovery time in bed. She’d taken time off work to help him recuperate. He was being ungrateful by going back to work so soon. But he needed to get out. Hit the road for a bit, open his window and let the crisp night air rush over his face. Work the city like a speed skater on ice. Downshift his mind and let his hands and feet take over. Or hand and foot, more like it, since his left leg and arm were still incapacitated.

So yeah, he’d done a handful of Uber rides in the morning. If anyone minded him driving one-handed, they did not complain. People going to work, college students going to school. He always crossed into neighboring Fresno to work, as it was a big city. At one point he arrived at a drugstore to pick up a woman named Caridad. Spanish for Charity, he knew. There was no one in the parking lot but a rail-thin, middle-aged white woman carrying a frayed duffel bag, and a young Latina hanging out near the bus stop, examining her phone. He rolled down his window, called out, “Caridad?”

The middle aged woman took a step toward him.

Yahya frowned. “Are you Caridad?”

“Uh-huh.” The woman came around to the passenger side, opened the door and dropped in, her duffle bag resting on her lap. Yahya studied her. She didn’t seem to have a phone. Her blonde hair was disheveled, and she smelled bad. Her arms were as thin as curtain rods, and the skin on her face was pulled tight across her cheekbones. An old tattoo of a swastika defaced the side of her neck.

At the same time he noticed the young Latina approaching, looking at her phone then up at him quizzically. Hmm.

“You sure you’re Caridad?” he asked the middle aged woman.

“Uh-huh.”

“And you’re going to…” he checked the Uber app. “Hoover High School?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re a high school student?”

“Uh-huh.”

The young Latina was now a few steps away. Yahya nodded a greeting to her. “I’m guessing you’re Caridad?”

She nodded earnestly. “Yes.”

Yahya gave his would-be passenger a reproachful look. “You’re not Caridad. You have to get out.”

She glared at him. “I am so.”

Uber stickers“You’re not.” He looked at his phone. “I can see her picture right here.” That was a lie – Uber did not display photos of passengers – but this woman would not know that.

“You mean this picture?” The woman threw her hands up, opened her mouth wide and stuck out her tongue. Then she took her duffle and exited the car.

“Hey lady!” Yahya called the homeless woman back and handed her a twenty dollar bill, which was half of what he’d made thus far that morning, along with his business card, which provided his name, contact info and Uber referral code. Anytime someone signed up for Uber with his code, he got paid. Not that he imagined this woman would be signing up for Uber. “Get yourself something to eat,” he told her. “Some meat.” He wanted to add, “would be neat,” but restrained himself. People didn’t always appreciate his rhymes and alliteration. “My number is on there. If you’re ever hungry, call me and I’ll bring you some food.”

“Thank you,” the woman said solemnly, her demeanor becoming saner, as if the craziness was a tattered garment she could shuck off at will. “My real name is Jinx. But my really for reals name is Barbara.”

He did a few more rides after that, and was now here at the Imam’s stately, tree-shaded home near Fresno City College. The Imam sat before him, a tall man with midnight black skin and a trace of an African accent. Yahya had heard he was highly educated. He had also, from what people said, shaken the community up a bit. He’d founded his own masjid and stipulated that half of the board of directors must be women. Converts too were well represented. The mosque was open to walk-ins by non-Muslims any day of the week. And the Imam was not afraid to address controversial topics. He was a strong advocate for combatting violence against women, mobilizing the Muslim vote, and ending FGM. But this was Yahya’s first time meeting him one-on-one.

“My wife says I should sue the boy,” Yahya said after explaining the situation. “But it doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t the Quran say, ‘Repel [evil] by that which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.’”

The Imam nodded. “Are you hoping this young man will become a devoted friend?”
“Ehm,” Yahya stammered. “Not really. I just don’t believe in taking personal vengeance. Didn’t the Prophet forgive the woman who used to throw garbage in his path every day? When he went out one day and there was no garbage, he went to see her to check if she was alright.”

“That’s true.”

“And when he conquered Mecca and all the Meccans were afraid he would take revenge for their abusing him, he forgave them all.”

The Imam smiled. “That’s true, but you’re all over the map, akh Yahya.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are conflating incidents from the Meccan period with those from the Madinan period. That’s a mistake, especially from a psychological standpoint.”

“What do you mean psychological?”

“It’s very popular these days to speak of forgiveness. New Age spiritual thinkers and pop psychologists love to talk about the power of forgiveness, and how those who forgive live happier lives. There’s a brother who lives right here in Fresno who writes a blog called Islamic Sunrays. He penned an article titled, “When you forgive, you live.”

“Catchy.”

“And true, to a degree. The brother says that forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself, regardless of whether the perpetrator deserves it. But here’s the problem. When the perpetrator holds the power in the relationship, forgiving them is pointless and dangerous. It gives them permission to continue abusing. And with narcissists, forgiving them merely signals that what they did was not so bad. Look at it this way. Say a woman comes into my office. She’s being beaten by her husband on a regular basis. She looks like you.” The Imam gestured to Yahya’s body. “Bruised and bloody. She’s afraid her husband will kill her. Do you think it would be right to counsel her to forgive her husband and remain in the relationship?”

“No, of course not.”

“Right. The question of forgiveness must be tied to the power dynamic between oppressed and oppressor. On the other hand, if she were to escape her husband, divorce him and start a new life, there might come a time when she could forgive him. Not reunite with him – she might never speak to him again – but let go of her hurt and anger, for the sake of her own soul. That brother with the blog, he points out that holding onto resentment ties us to the abuser, but forgiving liberates us. He’s right. But security first, then forgiveness. Can we tell the Palestinians to forgive the occupiers who gun down their children, torture their fathers, and beat their women at checkpoints? Can we say, ‘Never mind, go about your business and pretend it isn’t happening, and we will do the same.’”

“Well, no.”

“That is the example of the Meccan period.”

“But,” Yahya objected, “the Prophet forgave his tormentors even then, like the old woman with the garbage.”

“She was no threat. When the Prophet went to see her she was bedridden. Forgiving her was an act of compassion. But when the family of Yasir was being tortured by Abu Jahl – the archenemy of Islam – in the desert, and the Prophet passed by them, did he tell them to forgive? No, he told them to be patient, and that their meeting place was in Paradise, because that was all he could do. And in the end, at the battle of Badr, when Abdullah ibn Masood – who was nineteen at the time – encountered Abu Jahl as he lay gasping on the battlefield, what did he do? Everything had changed by then. It was the Madinan period. The Muslims had established a sovereign state and were officially at war with the Quraysh. Abu Jahl, though wounded, was an unrepentant torturer and murderer. A monster. So did Ibn Masood forgive him? No, he stepped on his neck and killed him. That is the proper end for tyrants. I’m not suggesting you go to war,” the Imam added hastily. “Not at all. I’m saying, safety first. Forgiveness has a time and a place.”

Yahya was a little taken aback. This was not the line of reasoning he had expected from the Imam, who was known for his moderate, progressive views. “But I’m not talking about forgiving acts against other people. Only against myself. Isn’t it true that the Prophet never sought personal vengeance?”

“Yes. That was his role. He was a bringer of truth to the world, and therefore had to come with unlimited compassion, or he would have sabotaged his own mission. Furthermore, he had the protection of God upon him. Abu Jahl, who I mentioned earlier? Once, during the Meccan period, he vowed that the next time he saw Muhammad prostrating in prayer, he would crush his skull with a heavy stone, consequences be damned. So the next time he saw the Prophet praying before the Ka’bah, he tried to do exactly that. He picked up a boulder and approached him to kill him, then suddenly dropped the stone and fled, pale with terror. The Quraysh questioned him, and he said that when he approached Muhammad, a camel’s stallion got in his way. ‘By God’, he said, ‘I have never seen anything like its head, shoulders, and teeth on any stallion before, and it made as though it would eat me.’”

“And when Suraqah Bin Jusham came at him on a horse, intending to kill him with a spear, the horse kept stumbling and stopping and would not advance. The Prophet was protected because his mission was vital to the world. Are you similarly protected? If you forgive this man Chad, will it mean anything to him? Will it stay his hand from future attacks? Or will it encourage him?”

Yahya thanked the Imam and left feeling confused and conflicted. He understood what the Imam was saying, but he wasn’t sure he could change who he was at his core, or that he even wanted to. As he was leaving, another brother came up the walkway and greeted him and the Imam. There was something about the brother that immediately caught Yahya’s attention. He was of average height, maybe 5’10”, and lean, and wore a brown fedora tipped sideways on his head, like some old school detective. Even though the guy wore worn jeans, surplus army boots, and a shirt that looked like it came off the rack at Walmart, and even though he seemed weatherbeaten and literally hungry, he emanated personal power and charisma. Yahya could see that even without looking at his light.

A Mountain of Gold

Imam Saleh greeted the newcomer warmly and said, “Zaid, I’m glad you’re here. This is brother Yahya. He might need your services.”

Yahya shook the newcomer’s hand and tried to smile, though it hurt his face to do so.

“Oh? What do you do?”

“I’m a private detective.”

How cool. He’d never met a Muslim private detective. He broke out in a grin, but his bottom lip split and a trickle of blood ran into his beard. “Sorry,” he said, wiping his chin with the back of one hand. “I was going to say, that sounds exciting.”

“What happened?” Zaid gestured to his face and arm. “Car accident?”

Yahya shook his head. “No. But I have it in hand. It was good to meet you.” He started down the walkway. Then, curious as to the source of Zaid’s strength, he turned and quite deliberately looked at the man’s light. Relaxing the muscles around his eyes, letting his gaze go soft and unfocused, he looked past Zaid’s rough exterior. At the same time, he consciously dropped his own guard, opening his chest as he thought of it.

Mayon volcanoWhat he saw stunned him. Whereas the man he’d given his shoes to in jail had been a living mountain physically, this mountain was a spiritual mountain. That was in fact what Yahya saw: a mountain, shimmering before him. That was a new thing. He normally just saw colors. This mountain was not tall but was wide and covered in forest. Animals moved through the trees, but they were unfamiliar: a jaguar, something like a cow with a long nose, and some sort of thick groundhog with long legs. There were birds, and monkeys that hooted and roared. A long fissure ran vertically through the center of the mountain, and red light and smoke emanated from it, as if the mountain were filled with fire. Yahya looked deeper, to the very heart of the mountain, and saw ribbons of pure gold that ran all through the stone like veins. As Yahya watched, clouds gathered around the peak. Thunder pealed, and rain fell in dark curtains.

He also saw that the man was torn from his moorings, for the mountain was not rooted in the earth, but drifting through the sky like a cloud. No, that wasn’t quite it. It wasn’t that it had broken away from the earth: it had never belonged in the first place. Yet the man was not lost. He did not despair. It was almost as if he carried a beacon fire within him, and never had to wonder which way to turn. Seeing this prompted Yahya to think about the concept of home, and what it might mean to such a man.

He let the vision go, feeling a moment of dizziness as he did so. He stood stock still until the dizziness passed and the world resolved before him. Imam Saleh and Zaid stood regarding him quizzically. Yahya felt as if he’d been gone for hours, but it seemed no time had passed. It was always that way when he looked at the light. He asked a question before he had time to consider. “What do you say about home?”

Zaid cocked his eyebrows. “Pardon?”

“I can see that you’ve been uprooted. The place that should have been your home never was, the place that actually was your home should not have been, and your latest, truest home has expelled you. So what is home, really? How do you even define it?”

The man gaped at Yahya in apparent amazement. His mouth opened but nothing came out.

“It’s not magic,” Yahya said, realizing that he’d already said too much. He must not reveal his full talent. People rarely believed him. Sometimes they thought he was crazy. If they did believe him, they either feared him or they became over-attached, wanting him to be their personal life coach or spiritual guide, neither of which he desired to do. “I read facial expressions, body language.” That was true as far as it went. “Anyway… Maya Angelou said that home is the safe place where you can go as you are and not be questioned. So if that doesn’t exist, then what is home?”

“Uhh…” Zaid cleared his throat and paused, thinking. “Maybe home in this dunya is not meant to last. Maybe it’s a series of moments when you felt safe and loved, and maybe you hold on to those moments, each one like a thread or a patch, and make a suit out of them that you wear wherever you go.”

Fascinating. Yahya nodded slowly. “I’ll take your card after all.” Zaid handed him a card and he took it, limping as he left.

Think Outside the Bag

“So here’s my idea,” Chad said. He sat on the floor of his room with his back against the wall. Ames’ lanky frame was sprawled across the bed on his back, looking up at the ceiling, his long blond hair fanning out across the pillow. Bram sat at Chad’s little wooden desk. The desk and accompanying wooden chair were holdovers from when Chad was a kid and used to like to draw. Chad was worried that the little chair might collapse beneath the weight of Bram’s hulking, muscular body.

Each of them had a beer in hand. It was a bit cramped with the three of them in this small room, but it was private. His mom and Amelia knew not to enter his room without knocking.

“The raghead works for this new Uber thing, right?” He pronounced it ubber, rhyming with rubber.

“It’s not Ubber,” Bram corrected, still looking up at the ceiling. “It’s Uber, rhymes with goober.”

“Uber goober, Uber goober,” Ames parroted. He might be a karate master with all-American good looks, but he was not the brightest bulb in the box.

“Uber?” Chad frowned. “That’s not a word.”

“German,” Ames explained. “Means exceeding the norms of its kind of class. Super, basically.” He took a pull from his beer.

Chad was annoyed. “German? Why does everything have to be foreign? What’s wrong with American?” And how could Ames drink beer while lying on his back? Chad was jealous. “Anyway,” Chad went on, “my grandma used to have this country house about a half hour out of town. It’s abandoned now, nothing else around. Nobody goes there. So we set up there and call Uber to that address. We tell them to send the new guy, the raghead, because he’s our favorite driver, yakkity yak. Then-”

“Won’t work,” Bram interrupted. “Uber doesn’t work like that. You order it on the internet, through your smartphone-”

“Sh*t.” Chad didn’t have a smartphone. He had a basic phone, an LG Chocolate. He thought it was cool the way it slid up to open. “You have a smartphone, don’t you Ames?”

“Also,” Bram went on, “you get the closest driver, as determined by GPS. You can’t request a particular person.”

Chad gave a disgusted snort. “That’s shot then.”

“How about this?” Ames pointed his beer bottle upward as if it were a pen and he was writing on the ceiling. “We put Ex-Lax in his food to give him diarrhea, then when he goes to the hospital we pose as nurses and kidnap him. We roll him out of the hospital on a gurney and put him in an ambulance that we hijack. From there we drive him to your grandma’s house. We tie him up and kick him in the nuts for what he did to Amelia. We kick him in the nuts until his face turns blue and his eyes pop out.”

Chad and Bram exchanged a look. Chad rolled his eyes. He was about to tell Ames to shut his idiot mouth when Bram said, “That’s problematic. Hospitals require I.D. badges. And I suspect a stolen ambulance would be easy for the authorities to track. Built-in GPS, you know.”

“What about this then?” Ames gestured at the ceiling with the beer bottle, still brainstorming on his imaginary white board. “We invite him to a rave at a downtown warehouse. When he shows up we spike his drink with a roofie, then tie him up and kick him in the-”

“We don’t have a warehouse,” Chad broke in disgustedly. “And there’s no rave. And the guy’s a Muzzie. They only drink camel wine or some crap.”

“We break into a warehouse,” Ames countered. “Throw a rave, give him cranberry juice. Think outside the bag, guys!”

Chad was about to tell Ames to get his skinny blond ass off the bed and make tracks, which would have been a bad idea since they needed his karate skills, when Bram said, “The grandma’s house isn’t a bad idea. But we must be realistic in our approach. How about this? We follow him when he goes to do Uber. We wait until he’s driving alone on a dark street, and we bump into him from behind at a stop sign or light. He gets out to exchange insurance info, we club him with a baseball bat, toss him in the trunk and take him to your grandma’s house.”

“And commence nut-kicking!” Ames crowed.

“Indeed,” Bram agreed.

Chad considered. “Not bad,” he said at last. “Not bad at all. Gentlemen, we have a plan.”

Author’s Note: There will be a delay before the next chapter. I’m working on the final edit for the print version of Zaid Karim. That’s my priority at the moment. Also, with this story, I feel like I need to take time to get to know Yahya better. I’m not quite ready to proceed. – Wael

* * *

Next: Part 5 – To Be Nazi or Not To Be Nazi

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

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

Wael Abdelgawad’s novels, Pieces of a Dream and Zaid Karim Private Investigator, are available on Amazon.com.

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