Archive for July, 2013
Years ago, what I would have meant by “Ramadan questions” are questions about the technical minutiae of Ramadan, and particularly, the fast: Has the moon been sighted yet? Do we start fasting if some people are saying that it has been sighted, and some people are claiming that it hasn’t? Does swallowing one’s spit by mistake nullify the fast? What if you eat thinking that it is still night, but your clock is off by a few minutes and it’s already fajr, and you find that out later in the day—is your fast null and void? Should tarawih prayer be eight rakats or twenty?… and so on.
There’s an endless supply of questions of that kind. They kept us so busy that we seldom got around to asking the kinds of questions that I ask now. But that was just as well, I suppose—because in the communities that I was involved in, Ramadan wasn’t the time for asking the kind of questions I ask now. Ramadan was not a time for questioning (aside from asking the technical, legal kinds of questions just mentioned…), but a time for strengthening one’s faith—which to us meant fasting, feeding fasting people, praying extra prayers, reciting the Qur’an and listening to it recited, giving charity… and for us women, doing all the cooking and housework and other “support work” required to enable husbands and kids to fast, in addition to fasting ourselves.
We didn’t have time to question, and anyway, we were far too occupied with attempting to rack up as many good deeds as possible. Asking searching, existential questions wasn’t really compatible with that. What if we unknowingly slid into heresy, or even kufr by questioning, and then unintentionally nullified our fasting and our good deeds?
We wanted to be able to sit in the congregation on the morning of Eid in our Eid clothes (if we got the time to sew them…), with our freshly-scrubbed kids in their new Eid clothes beside us, and feel at least some sense of accomplishment: We had fasted x number of days, prayed tarawih prayers x number of times, put on x number of iftars and brought food to x number of iftars that we had been invited to, read through x number of juzes of the Qur’an, managed to stay up watching for lailat al-qadr at least once…. Even though our kids and our heavy domestic responsibilities made it very hard for us to carry out such acts of worship, we tried hard to do them. Because wasn’t that the point of Ramadan?
But somewhere in the back of my mind was a hadith—something to the effect that a believer’s meditating for an hour is better than praying all night. But meditating on what? And why would meditation be superior to prayer?? I asked that question once—why meditation is better than prayer—and was told by the shaykh that what it means is that a worshipper who understands what he is doing and how to properly do it is superior to someone who doesn’t know the details of fiqh or aqeeda. This didn’t satisfy me—in that case, why didn’t the hadith praise the man who seeks knowledge or asks legal questions? Is learning the fiqh of worship really the same thing as meditating? Isn’t meditating more like asking oneself questions, and thinking deeply about things? But I didn’t pursue the issue further.
Today, I tripped over a modern neo-traditionalist Muslim scholar’s discussion of reasons why hijab is a Good Thing when I was looking for something else.
According to him, there are three main benefits to wearing hijab. First, because women supposedly always dress with the idea of whether or not men will find them attractive (even when they are supposedly dressing in order to impress other women…), hijab protects women from being constantly concerned about the male sexual gaze. Second, because wearing hijab trains the wearer to behave in a chaste and self-disciplined way. And third, because it marks gender difference, allowing women to look like women while not also being sexually alluring to men.
This type of pro-hijab rhetoric was all too typical in the conservative community that I used to belong to. Back then, I used to say similar things when I was asked why I wore hijab. While the argument that it marks gender difference always made me uneasy—after all, if gender differences are so “natural,” why do they have to be highlighted through clothing?—I was very happy to go on about hijab as a shield against the male gaze. As a young woman who experienced street harassment (which had sometimes turned quite threatening…), the idea that I could wear what amounted to a magical harass-repellent suit was appealing. (Even though in my experience, hijab didn’t really repel harassment so much as change its tune—instead of receiving frankly sexual comments, I routinely got told to “go back to where you came from” and worse.)