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History and Seerah

Podcast: Five Historic Events That Rocked The World During Ramadan | Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter

We all know that Ramadan is the month of fasting, abstinence and reflection. Ramadan also just happens to be a month of awesome history defining events that shaped the world we live in today.

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Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter - Doctor, Medical Tutor (Social Media, History & Medicine) - Islamic Historian - Founder of, and current board member to Charity Week for Orphans and needy children. www.charityweek.com - Council member, British Islamic Medical Association

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#Current Affairs

Will The Real Aya Sofia Please Stand Up?

They say history is the biography of great men and women. Well, history is also the story of great buildings. This case is rarely more painfully obvious than when it comes to identity of The Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofia (“the Holy Wisdom”).

Church, Mosque, Museum: the Aya Sofia has lived under many guises over the years and each transformation came hand-in-hand with momentous political change. This year, it was no different.

By reverting to the previous designation of Aya Sofia into a mosque, the Turkish courts have set off a firestorm of controversy across the world. It is understandable that faithful Christians would object. The sense of loss they must feel is the same feeling that many Muslims get when they see the Grand Mosque of Cordoba’s conversion into a cathedral. However, what is confusing is that some Muslims are also conflicted – or even downright hostile – to the idea of the Aya Sofia being used as a mosque.

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Why are they upset? Is there weight to their feeling that this was an act that was against the laws and spirit of Islam? How true is it that this was pure political theatre?

A summary of the arguments are detailed below as each point reveals a great deal about us as Muslims today and our current mentality:

The Vatican – a clear example of Museum and Church buildings in one

1. “It should just remain a museum…”

The Aya Sofia IS remaining a museum. The ruling states and the government echoes that it is a mosque and museum but, unfortunately, if you read the headlines you will be given the impression that the museum is being destroyed. This is not the case.

The world is full of buildings with dual functions. The White House is the seat of government and the residence of the President. The Vatican is a museum, a church and the home of the Pope. St Paul’s Cathedral is a tourist attraction as well as functioning church. If Muslims alone were somehow exempt from the ability to combine museum and mosque in one building, then that would be very strange indeed. Yet that is exactly what opponents of the mosque designation are saying.

What opponents for the reversion of the building are arguing for is not for the preservation of the museum – in fact, it will be more accessible than ever by becoming free and open till the late evening – but for the prevention of worship in a building that was built and intended for that very purpose.

2. “It was illegal to turn it into a mosque in the first place…”

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: many Muslims quote the example of Umar (R) and his treatment of the Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In fact, this is the number one excuse used by many so-called Muslim intellectuals who lazily have projected their own biases on to our pious predecessors. They say, not without a little pious sanctimony, that Umar (R) exemplified that Islam is not a triumphalist religion and – though he could have converted the church into a mosque – he chose not to.

For most of history, it was common practice that any conquering army gained full ownership of the conquered lands. Islamic law was actually quite progressive in this regard, stipulating that property in surrendered lands would remain with their owners and not the conquerors. It was only if a land was taken without surrender, according to Imam Al Qurtubi amongst others, should their properties be forfeit. Jerusalem surrendered and Damascus surrendered. Constantinople – despite multiple attempts requesting it to do so – did not. Therefore, Islamically and according to the norms of the time, the conversion of the Church into a mosque was legal.

This is highlighted by the case of a district of Constantinople called Psamatya (present day Koca Mustafa Pasha) whose residents surrendered to Muhammad Fatih separately. The area had the highest density of extant churches, since none were touched or taken over.

Muhammad Fatih and The Patriarch Genaddios discussing the patriarchate

3. “But it has been a museum for so long now, so why turn it back?”

Some sources say that they have found evidence of the Church being purchased by Muhammad Fatih with his own money. The evidence has yet to be verified by external sources although it is accepted by the Turkish authorities, but even if you withhold it, the established status of the entire complex as a Waqf (Islamic endowment) is definitive. Waqfs cannot be unilaterally taken over or converted to another use.

The reality is that the conversion of the Aya Sofia from mosque to museum was a highly contentious decision taken in a manner that went against the then legal, moral and spiritual standards. It was a state sanctioned action to satisfy a political objective of the hyper-secular post-war Government. This was an injustice and it is not a good look to say that an injustice should be allowed to continue because it has been there for over eight decades.

4. “We don’t need more mosques in Istanbul…”

Would anyone think it reasonable if their local mosque was taken over unilaterally by the Government and then, when they ask for it back, they are brushed off by officials saying, “there are lots of mosques in the city and many are half empty: we are keeping this one.” Of course not. So, if it is not good enough for you, why should it be good enough for anyone else? In fact, this was the argument used by the RSS in taking over the Barbari mosque in India.

A mosque is not a property like every other. It is owned by Allah and not something we are allowed to rationalise or barter away. Allah has no need for even one mosque, but that does not mean we should stop building them or start giving them away. To go by the utilitarian argument, then anything that is not in full use by its owner is fair game for someone else to usurp. We would never accept this for our possessions so how can we accept it for something that does not belong to us?

The hadith about the conquest of Constantinople and praising Muhammad Fatih

5. “This is all a politically motivated…”

Every decision in a public sphere is political, or can be construed to be political, in some way. Building the Aya Sofia into a magnificent cathedral was a political decision by Justinian. Turning it into a mosque upon conquest was also a political decision by Muhammad Fatih. Stopping prayers in the mosque and converting it into a museum was a political decision by Mustafa Kemal. And now, returning the building to use as a mosque and museum is also a political decision by the current Turkish state.

The question is not whether it is a political act to convert the building: it will always have a political dimension. The question is whether you like the politics of someone who was praised by the Prophet ﷺ in a hadith and turned it into a mosque (Muhammad Fatih) or someone who insulted that same Prophet ﷺ as an “immoral Arab” and turned it into a museum (Mustafa Kemal.)

Pick a side.

The Grand Cathedral of Cordoba – formally the Grand Mosque

6. “This will hurt the feelings of non-Muslims and make us look bad.”

This is perhaps the only real argument of them all that has any weight to it. All the previous arguments are intellectual (and less than intellectual) smokescreens for the desire to not hurt the feelings of others – especially when we need all the friends we can get. This is understandable given our current geopolitical situation. This is also why you are more likely to find those Muslims living as minorities objecting to the change of status, reflecting their own precarious situations in their respective countries.

However, if looking at it objectively, we see that this argument also has limitations. Muslims are equally if not more hurt at the ethnic cleansing that took place in Andalusia. Does that mean we get the Al-Hambra or the Cordoba Mosque back? What about the Parthenon – since that used to be a mosque – conquered by the same Muhammad Fatih? What about the Kremlin, where St Basil’s Basilica was made from bricks of a Tatar mosque? And can we have the Philippines back while we are all trying to not offend each other?

Making decisions such as these on the highly subjective grounds of causing offence is not only impractical, but untenable. Many expressions of Islamic faith outside a narrow paradigm of what is palatable to specific audiences, can be seen as offensive to some. If we were to make decisions based first and foremost to protect the comfort of others, you would end up with a set of groundless rituals rather than a faith. It is the equivalent of changing your name to Bob instead of Muhammad since you were worried that even Mo was too exotic. Sometimes, the proper practice of our faith and upholding of our cultural and historical traditions will upset others not because what we are doing is deliberately offensive or wrong, but because we have different values and different standards.

Conclusion

What is most upsetting about the change of use for the Aya Sofia is the double standard at play. Athens has not even one mosque whilst Istanbul has hundreds of churches and synagogues: yet the Greeks are calling the Turks intolerant. The Roman Catholics plundered the Aya Sofia of all treasures and took them to St Marks church in Venice (where they still are to this day): yet it is the Pope that says that he is distressed at the Muslims – who preserved the Byzantine inheritance- for turning it into a mosque and Catholic churches calling for a day of mourning.

All the commentators calling for it to not be converted back into a mosque are also correspondingly mute regarding the Granada Cathedral built on site of a mosque, or the Barbri Mosque turned temple in India, or the Al Ahmar Mosque turned into a bar in Palestine.

But this is human nature and they will shoot their shot. Nonetheless, as Muslims, if we are against the reversion of the Aya Sofia to be a mosque again, then we really need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Just as Muhammad Fatih conquered Constantinople, we need to conquer our own ignorance, our own inferiority complex and our own insecurities.

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#Culture

Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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Aqeedah and Fiqh

Prosperity Islam And The Coronavirus Problem

Hadith: “Hasten to perform good deeds before seven events: Are you waiting for poverty that makes you forgetful? Or wealth that burdens you? Or a debilitating disease or senility? Or an unexpected death or the False Messiah? Or is it evil in the unseen you are waiting for? Or the Hour itself? The Hour will be bitter and terrible.

Islam encompasses all of human experience. We believe in the good and bad from divine decree. The ‘problem of evil’ is not a Muslim dilemma because the abode of this world is a test, and the next life is the abode of recompense. Those who do evil in this world may enjoy comfortable and pleasurable lives. Pious Muslims on the other hand may live in immense suffering and oppression.

One’s state with Allah is not known through worldly position.

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The Quran has lots of mention of suffering in this world and the reward for the pious is constantly in the hereafter. Distance from the Quran distances us from what our Creator told us about living in His world.

Habituation to feel-good religious programs and motivational talks has left us unable to know how to be serious. The Coronavirus pandemic should be all the motivation we need for serious learning and hasten to good deeds.

New-age religion and the prosperity gospel

Modern Islamic discourse intertwines notions of sulook (spiritual wayfaring) with new-age spiritual ideas which make spiritual progression a self-centering endeavor of ‘personal development.’ Missing from this discourse is submission to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), which entails doing what one is obliged to do- even if there is no apparent personal win. A self-centering religious perspective is antithetical to true religion, and ironically a spiritual pursuit becomes a selfish pursuit.

Within this approach, we see our practice of Islam not in terms of fulfilling obligations or understanding we must develop virtues we lack; rather we approach Islam as consumers and form identities around how we choose to be Muslim. This is visible on marriage apps where Muslims will brand themselves around how often they pray, whether or not they eat halal, and how practicing they are. Once this identity is formed, such Muslims are less likely to experience contrition and ultimately improve. The self is then a commodity on the marriage market.

When it comes to worship, for example, giving charity becomes an ‘act of kindness’ to fill the quota of selfless acts to becoming a better person. In other instances, acts of worship are articulated in worldly language, such as fasting in Ramadan being a weight-loss opportunity. One can make multiple intentions, but health benefits of fasting should not be used to articulate the primary benefit of fasting. In other instances, some opt to not pray, simply because they don’t feel spiritual enough to pray. This prioritizes feelings over servitude, but follows from a ‘self’ focused religious mentality.

Much like the prosperity Gospel, Muslims have fallen into the trap of teaching religion as a means of worldly success. While it is true that the discipline, commitment, and work ethic of religious progression can be used for material success, it is utterly false that religious status is on any parallel with material status.

Too many Sunday schools and conferences have taught generations that being a good Muslim means being the best student, having the best jobs, and then displaying the power of Islam to non-Muslims via worldly success and a character that is most compliant to rules. Not only does this type of religion cater to the prosperous and ignore those suffering, it leaves everyone ill prepared for the realities of life. It comes as a shock to many Muslims then that bad things can happen even when you work hard to live a good life. The prosperity gospel has tainted our religious teachings, and the pandemic of COVID19 is coming as a shock difficult for many to process in religious terms. There will be a crisis when bad things happen to good people if we are not in touch with our scripture and favor a teaching focused on worldly gains.

Why it leads to misunderstanding religion

Tribulations, persecution, and events that are outside of our control do not fit the popular self-help form of religion that is pervasive today. Islam means submission, and while we must avoid fatalism, we cannot delude ourselves into idolatry of the self. An Islam that focuses on our individual life journey and finding ourselves has no room for the ‘bad stuff.’ This type of religion favors well-to-do Muslims who are used to the illusion of control and the luxuries of self-improvement. Those who believe that if you are good then God will give you good things in this world will have a false belief shattered and understand the world is not the abode of recompense for the believer.

Islam means submission, and while we must avoid fatalism, we cannot delude ourselves into idolatry of the self.Click To Tweet

Tribulations may then effect faith because it questions the often subconscious teachings of prosperity gospel versions of Islam that we are in control of our own destiny, if we are good enough we will succeed. If this is the basis of a person’s faith, it can be proven “wrong” by any level of tribulation. Having one’s ‘faith’ disproven is terrifying but it should make us ask the question: “Does this mean that Islam is not true, or does this mean that my understanding and my way of living Islam are not true?”

My advice is do not avoid struggle or pain by ignoring it or practicing “patience” just thinking that you are a strong Muslim because you can conquer this pain without complaint. Running from pain and not feeling pain will catch up to us later. Learn from it. Sometimes when we are challenged, we falter. We ask why, we question, we complain, and we struggle. We don’t understand because it doesn’t fit our understanding of Islam. We need a new understanding and that understanding will only come by living through the pain and not being afraid of the questions or the emptiness.

Our faith needs to be able to encompass reality in its good and bad, not shelter us from reality because, ultimately, only God is Real.

Unlearn false teachings

Prosperity religion makes it much easier to blame the person who is suffering and for the one suffering to blame himself. As believers we take the means for a good life in this world and the next, but recognize that acceptance of good actions is only something Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows, and that life is unpredictable.

Favor from God is not reflected through prosperity. It is a form of idolatry to believe that you can control God or get what you want from God, and this belief cannot even stand up to a distanced tragedy.

Responding appropriately requires good habits.

Tribulations are supposed to push us towards God and remind us to take life very seriously. Even with widespread calamity and suffering, many of us still have a very self-centered way of understanding events and do not hasten to good actions.

For example, reaching old age is supposed to be an opportunity to repent, spend more time in prayer, and to expatiate for shortcomings. Old age itself is a reminder that one will soon return to his Lord.

However, we see many of today’s elders not knowing how to grow old and prepare for death. Most continue in habits such as watching television or even pick up new habits and stay glued to smart phones. This is unfortunate but natural progression to a life void of an Islamic education and edification.

Similarly we are seeing that Muslims do not know what to do in the midst of a global crisis. Even the elderly are spending hours reading and forwarding articles related to Covid-19 on different WhatsApp groups. This raises the question of what more is needed to wake us up. This problem is natural progression of a shallow Islamic culture that caters to affluence, prosperity, and feel-good messaging. Previous generations had practices such as doing readings of the Quran, As-Shifa of Qadi Iyad, Sahih al-Bukhari, or the Burda when afflicted with tribulations.

If we are playing video games, watching movies, or engaging in idle activities there is something very wrong with our state. We need to build good habits and be persistent regardless of how spiritual those habits feel, because as we are seeing, sudden tribulations will not just bestow upon us the ability to repent and worship. The point of being regimented in prayer and invocations is that these practices themselves draw one closer to God, and persisting when one does not feel spiritual as well as when one does is itself a milestone in religious progression.

While its scale is something we haven’t seen in our lifetime, it’s important to recognize the coronavirus pandemic as a tribulation.  The response to tribulation should be worship and repentance, and a reminder that ‘self-improvement’ should not be a path to becoming more likable or confident only, but to adorn our hearts with praiseworthy qualities and rid them of blameworthy qualities. Death can take any of us at any moment without notice, and we will be resurrected on a day where only a sound heart benefits.

Our religious education and practice should be a preparation for our afterlife first and foremost. Modeling our religious teachings in a worldly lens has left many of us unable to deal with tribulations to the point where we just feel anxiety from the possibility of suffering. This anxiety is causing people to seek therapy. It is praiseworthy for those who need to seek therapy, and noble of therapists to give the service, but my point is the need itself serves as a poignant gauge for how much our discourse has failed generations.

Benefit from Solitude

We should use solitude to our benefit, reflect more, and ponder the meanings of the Quran.  Completing courses on Seerah, Shamail, Arabic, or Fiqh would also be good uses of time. What should be left out however are motivational talks or short lectures that were given in communal events. In such gatherings, meeting in a wholesome environment is often the goal, and talks are compliments to the overall atmosphere. When that atmosphere is removed, it would be wise to use that normally allotted time for more beneficial actions. Instead of listening to webinars, which are not generally building an actual knowledge base that the previously mentioned courses would, nor is it a major act of worship like reading and reflecting upon the Quran. In other words, our inspirational talks should lead us to action, and studying is one of the highest devotional acts.

The pandemic should serve as sufficient inspiration and we need to learn how to be serious. I urge Muslims to ignore motivational and feel-good lectures that are now feel-good webinars, and focus on studying and worshipping. We should really ask if we just lack the capacity to move beyond motivational lectures if we still need motivation in the midst of a global pandemic.  The fact that after years of programming the destination is not the Quran for ‘processing events’ or studying texts for learning is symptomatic of a consciously personality oriented structure.

Muslims struggling to process a pandemic (opposed to coping with associated tragedies, such as loved ones dying or suffering) show the lack of edification feel good talks can produce.

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