Posts Tagged self-acceptance

“Whoever imitates a people is one of them”

As a former conservative Muslim, I still receive emails from time to time that hark back to my past. (Part of the issue is having ended up on various mailing lists….) Among the emails that I have recently received has been one from ISNA (no, not the Intersex Society of North America, unfortunately).

Give this season to ISNA…

Most of us are familiar with the concept of the “giving season,” which arrives toward
the end of each year. People find ways to be more generous and kind to others, try
to make a positive difference and contribute to organizations they believe in. For
Muslims, this is often emphasized in Ramadan, but fortunately, this time of year
allows us another similar giving opportunity.

Our wonderful supporters enable us to continue working diligently to promote a more
harmonious society, through community development, interfaith collaborations and
education. Without your support, we could not succeed.

Although 2013 is ending soon, our work continues as we set new and higher goals
for ISNA, in order to reach and impact communities further.

We need you! If you want your donation to be tax-deductible for 2013, you must make
your gift by midnight on December 31st.

Well, when I read that you could have practically knocked me over with a feather.

Because, for the last several decades, the Christmas season has basically been utilized by North American immigrant-dominated orgs in several predictable ways: (1) To remind us of all the ways that our beliefs differ from (and are superior to) those of the Christians. (2) To remind us that we absolutely must not get sucked into celebrating Christmas in any way, shape or form. Don’t put up a tree or lights, avoid work Christmas parties, try to even avoid wishing anyone a “Merry Christmas.” (3) To provide alternative, sternly pious ways for the youth especially to spend their time, by holding Islamic camps or gatherings over the holidays. (4) To rant about the empty materialism of Christmas and especially to “expose” the pagan origins of Christmas trees, Yule logs, Santa Claus, etc in shocking detail.

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If you know what your life is worth…

Several months ago, I ran across a short film on youtube about twospirit people. The thing about it that particularly grabbed me was Joey Criddle’s description of traditional Native teachings on people who are different:

“You know, there’s a saying we say—We don’t throw our people away. So, people who are born differently, whether mentally, physically, emotionally, whatever, were considered sacred or holy people. There was a reason why the Creator made them different. So historically, traditionally, twospirit people were viewed as very special people. That all changed with the coming of the Europeans. When the Europeans came, they attacked that….”

Wow, I thought. That’s just such a really, really different attitude to human variety than what I am used to.

A particularly difficult part of putting my life back together has been learning to see my life as being worth anything. Some days, it seems as though all that's left is shards of cheap glass. The remnants of something that was not worth much in the first place, and is now simply worthless. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Broken_glass,_Belfast,_April_2010.JPG)

A particularly difficult part of putting my life back together has been learning to see my life as being worth anything. Some days, it seems as though all that’s left is shards of cheap glass. The remnants of something that was not worth much in the first place, and is now simply worthless.
(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Broken_glass,_Belfast,_April_2010.JPG)

I can’t even begin to imagine any of the Muslim communities I have been involved with looking at queer people—or at anyone who didn’t fit the mold, really—in such a positive way. Especially not if the person who didn’t fit in for some reason was female-bodied. This was just not how we were taught to think about difference.

More recently, I heard a Catholic priest say that God created every single person, individually and deliberately. Which again struck me as just a very different way of looking at human variety than what I am used to

And then, I was rather taken aback. Sure, the idea that God created human beings is a very familiar one, and we certainly believed it. We even believed that God creates and recreates the world continuously—“yas’aluhu man fi’s-samawati wa’l-ard, kulla yaumin huwa fi sha’n.” That nasheed by Dawud Wharnsby is still stuck in my head, about how even an autumn leaf “only breaks away and sails on the breeze / when Allah commands it to do so.”

And yet. Somehow, I hadn’t connected the dots. I hadn’t really regarded myself as having been created individually and purposefully by God, much less thought about what that would mean.

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It’s Eid

It’s the end of Ramadan, and I spent it thinking (at least, when I could).

I have considered some difficult questions—some I have blogged about, some I have not.

I was hoping to arrive at more definitive answers, I suppose. Though, I suspect that it’s the process of questioning that really matters, and that that’s something that shouldn’t come to an end.

Remembering back to those days when I rarely if ever questioned—I thought that those leaders we looked up to, who pontificated on everything from “Islamic psychology” to architecture and spoke in pompous tones as if they knew what they were talking about… knew what they were talking about. And that they held the keys to our salvation. So, I felt duty-bound to stifle any questions that bubbled up from my sub-conscious before they could possibly contaminate my faith. I wasn’t really being honest then, deep down. The results of that were destructive.

Moving on… I am trying to put the shards of what is left back together. That which seems to be worth keeping. And trying to find antidotes to the flashbacks and lasting effects of the past. And I can see from some of the search-terms that people use and arrive at this blog that there are some others out there who are doing similar things. Who knows how many of us there are out there.

Three things seem to help somewhat in the moving-on process—humor (even if it’s more like gallows humor…), art (other peoples’ art, not mine—I can’t draw or anything worth beans) and being in nature. More on those things anon.

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Ramadan question #3–What do I do with my body now?

In Islam as I was taught it, following the sunna in the literal, mimetic sense was the goal. Belief wasn’t separate from physical practice.  Sure, our intentions, as well as having sound belief (aqida) were seen as absolutely essential, or one’s actions wouldn’t be accepted or rewarded by God. But it was the physical practice was the focus, really.

And the sunna as it was presented to us was all about the body. Molding our daily physical habits—how we slept, woke up, used the toilet, bathed, ate, drank, dressed, left the house….

But this focus on our bodies worked out differently for men and women and genderqueer folks: Men were to follow the life-example of the Prophet. Women were to follow his example too, except when it came to the (numerous) points when gender affects the law, and then they were to follow the example of the Prophet’s wives and female Companions. Genderqueer people… didn’t have a pattern to follow at all, because their existence wasn’t even acknowledged. The bodiliness of the practice of the sunna effectively erased their very existence, forcing them to lie daily to themselves as they attempted to live a gendered pattern that wasn’t their own.

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Ramadan question #2 — how can I know what God wants me to do?

The interpretations of Islam that I was taught had pretty straightforward answers to that question.

At the most basic, the answer was that God has provided detailed and authoritative guidance to all human beings (including me) in the Qur’an and the sunna.

Possible answers to the question of how to access that guidance and apply it to my life varied: Do you need to follow a scholar or scholars? If so, which one(s)? What about madhhabs? As a convert, how would you go about choosing which madhhab to follow?… and so on.

But whatever the answer, it was the sunna that in the end was central. Even the Qur’an was read and interpreted through the sunna. And out of the sunna came a template—a pattern that we were supposed to live our lives by.

What exactly following the life-example of the Prophet meant in reality depended on the interpretation and the community. There were those men who tried to follow it down to the last seventh century Arabian detail—peppering their everyday speech with Arabic words, carrying miswaks in their pockets, wearing short thobes or even turbans. (Mind you, their poly-cotton blend thobes had been made in China, but let’s not get overly technical here….) Then, there were other men who argued that this is taking things too far (especially in North America), but they had their own pet aspects of the Prophet’s example that they saw as non-negotiable, whether it was praying tarawih or wives being forever held hostage to the appearance of her husband’s guests (who would drop by without calling and who would of course have to be fed and served and might even elect to stay the night, regardless of whatever other plans she might have made).

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Ramadan question #1 — What about thinking, and questioning?

I know the scripted answer to this question, of course—at least in North America, especially as found in popular dawah literature and online stuff:

Lake_Hopatcong_State_Park_NJ_fish_in_bucket

Yes, of course! Islam is the religion of logic, thinking, science, and seeking knowledge! Sister, haven’t you heard about all the scientific miracles in the Qur’an?? And look at this white convert brother’s youtube video where he explains why he left Christianity and embraced Islam, because his pastor used to always tell him to “have faith” when he had questions, but Muslims could answer all the questions that he had!!….

But that’s NOT what I’m talking about. That’s apologetics. It allows thinking and questioning, but only as long as your questions remain within the predictable, and the answers don’t undermine “mainstream” conservative Muslim ideas of “what Islam teaches.” It is meant to support faith, and as soon as the questioning threatens to not do that, it is shut down immediately with pat answers and dismissive claims.

Or another scripted answer:

Yes, of course! Muslim scholars of the past discussed everything, from God’s attributes to prophethood and revelation, as well as the relationship of faith to deeds, fate (qadr)… and many other theological questions. Have you read al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error? Read kalaam. With a teacher who is qualified with an ijaza, of course. You start out reading basic aqida, and then students with the aptitude may progress to more advanced texts. And for very advanced students, there is Sufi metaphysics, again, with a properly qualified teacher….

Again, not what I mean by thinking and questioning. Those sorts of texts are complex, and thinking through them is certainly a very cerebral process… but in the end, the thinking and questioning must remain within strict limits. There are certain questions that cannot be asked, really, and the results of the questions you are allowed to ask are essentially predetermined.

The entire exercise reminds me of shooting fish in a barrel. Or, of Forugh Farrokhzad‘s lines in her poem, “Wind-up Doll”: “whether adding, subtracting, or multiplying / like zero, one can obtain a constant result.”

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Ramadan questions

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.

Cave_Hira

The Cave of Hira, in the mountains above Mecca.
[www.wikimedia.com]

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.

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