Posts Tagged worship

The way we were: all the stuff we didn’t read

Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons has a post for Banned Books Week, called “The books I didn’t read.” Some of the attitudes she discusses are all too familiar to me. She writes,

“I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.”

Oh yeah. That pretty much describes how we tried to raise our kids… and what our lives were like in the highly conservative, insular Muslim communities that I was involved in.  For a complicated bunch of reasons.

books

When I converted, the first Muslim communities that I encountered were usually led by immigrant men who had been heavily influenced either by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat-i Islami. Some of them were engineering or medical students. They had little time for the arts, and that included literature of any kind. After all, what good was it? How did it help teach people Islam or make them better Muslims? Literature was most often ignored, or when it wasn’t, it was treated with some suspicion.

As a new convert, most of what I wanted to read was about Islam. Books in English on Islam were in short supply back then where I was living, but we would comb the public library for them (and occasionally mission out to the ISNA-run Islamic book store, which was just a hole in the wall in those days… but that’s a subject for another time). Most of the books related to Islam at the library dealt with modern political issues. I read a certain amount of that, but didn’t often find that it answered the questions I had.

I and my convert frinds read other stuff as well, but we self-censored a fair amount. We usually read books that were practical in some way,  or religious, or old. But we seldom read contemporary fiction, and when we did, we often found it unsettling for various reasons. Looking back, I can see that some of my negative reactions to fiction were trauma-related—stuff like The Color Purple was frankly triggering. But some of it was due to my discomfort with the ideas that the books expressed, as well as their “sinful” characters and open-ended plots that didn’t end with the punishment of those who did wrong and reward for those who were righteous.

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Thinking about stories of holy women

I see that the Feminism and Religion blog has an awesome article up about stories of holy women in Islam. This got me thinking about a number of things. I was one of those converts who was really drawn to those stories. Still am in some ways, I guess.  And I wasn’t the only one. A number of female converts I knew were into stories about holy women, whether these were women in the Qur’an, stories about female Companions, Sufi women, or Muslim women today. We devoured books like Daughters of Another Path (about American women converts). We loved hearing stories about Muslim women political activists such as Zainab al-Ghazali and Merve Kevakci.

What was that all about, exactly? Because, looking back, I recall that (as Laury points out in that article), that having “too much”  interest (aka more than a superficial passing interest) in such stories was discouraged in the Muslim communities that I was a part of. And, that even though this interest of ours was fairly controversial, we ardently pursued it… although now that I think of it, once you’d read several of these stories (especially about Sufi women or modern political activists) then there wasn’t usually too much that was surprising in any of the others. In other words, they were often pretty stereotypical. Why would they be controversial, when they were so utterly harmless? And what effect did reading them have on us?

And… along comes another Debbie Downer. 😦

I think that our interest in these stories was suspect because this was something that the male leaders in our communities weren’t really comfortable with, and feared that they couldn’t control.

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It’s all about control

Several weeks ago, one of my daughters had a school field trip that involved visiting a Hindu temple, a Christian church, and a mosque. A class project on world religions.

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. My body is not an obscenity. If you don't like what I'm wearing, how about you try lowering your gaze??

Actually, stop judging and body-shaming. The female body is not an obscenity. If you don’t like what someone is wearing, how about lowering your gaze??

Along with the permission forms sent home for parents to sign came a letter from the teacher explaining the type of behavior and dress that would be required of the students. Much of it was very reasonable, reminding the students that these are places of worship, so they needed to behave respectfully. But the girls were also told that they needed to wear long, loose pants (preferably sweatpants) and headscarves when they were at the mosque.

I paused, reading this letter. The field trip was going to take place in the afternoon, in the middle of the week. They would not be attending Friday Prayers, or any congregational prayer. They were not going to pray, either—they were there to see the building, and to hear the imam explain a bit about Islam and the community and the kinds of rituals and activities that would normally take place in a mosque.

In other words, what on earth would be the reason for requiring a bunch of mostly non-Muslim teenage girls to wear headscarves?? Or even to worry about what they might or might not be wearing on their legs??

My daughter wasn’t bothered by this, however. Because she took it for granted that somehow, a girl entering a mosque with uncovered hair or limbs profanes the mosque. And she was proud that at least she knew better than to even think of doing that, unlike some of the non-Muslim girls in her class, who didn’t seem to understand that you have to really watch what you wear to the mosque.

I pointed out to her that when I had first visited that same mosque in the early ’80’s, I saw women wearing short-sleeved, tight, scoop-necked shalwar kameez entering that mosque with transparent dupattas loosely draped over part of their heads and not concealing much of their hair, in order to attend Friday Prayers. They entered through the main door, along with everyone else. Then, they went up to the women’s balcony, put on the large white cotton prayer khimars that were kept there for all those women who did not come to the mosque dressed “suitably” for prayer, prayed, and left at the end of the service.

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Of religion-related ptsd

Some of the comments that have been coming on the last few posts seem to be referring to what I am calling religion-related ptsd. As in, people who have had traumatic experiences with religion being triggered by certain religious buzz-words, stock phrases, ritual practices, or other things.

I didn’t used to know that this existed, either. Until I experienced it. Because it was one of the many things that supposedly didn’t exist, in the various insular, conservative Muslim communities that I have been part of or otherwise associated with.

We vaguely knew of it, in the sense that we had heard stories of supposedly hard-heartedly secular Muslims who for no discernible reason would get very upset by things such as seeing a relative pray. People would tell such stories for various reasons—sometimes, as a way of expressing just how misunderstood or persecuted they felt when dealing with non-supportive Muslim family. And people would listen to such stories, and shake their heads… we’re living in the end times—those times when holding onto faith will be like holding a burning coal in your hand. But hey, give good tidings to the strangers!

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What a tangled web of issues…

…it is when a woman wants to claim the right to ownership of her own body.

The comments that I have received since the last post have been overwhelming. Partly because they’re unintentionally triggering. But mostly because this is such a complicated, interconnected mess of issues. It’s like saying “no” touches a wire that threatens to blow out a bunch of circuits. Or threatens to blow you up. Or something.

Men using porn and justifying it “Islamically” because their wife supposedly isn’t attractive enough, and their kids having to witness their mother being treated like that. Questions of marriage law and whether it can be reformed… and if it is even ethically possible to have an “Islamic” marriage… and what the ramifications of this are for those who want to remain within Muslim communities. And the internalized guilt for not following the rules, for refusing to “sell” your vagina in marriage in exchange for nafaqa and a new guardian. And internalized guilt also because, well, doesn’t the Qur’an say to men that “women are your tillage”? How can a woman refuse to be tillage, or in the very least, refuse to pay lip-service to the idea, and still claim to be a Muslim?

And yet another issue that no one has mentioned yet (but give them time…): the implications of all this for the laws and community practices governing acts of worship. (more on that in a minute)

Oh God, in other words.

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Musings on Muslim identity (IV)

Recently, I was talking to a secular Muslim, who doesn’t practice and who regards the antics of North American Muslims of all stripes (convert and otherwise) with some amusement.

He mentioned something about admiring the Muslim ideal of humility.

And I thought, “WHAT?? What humility?”

I wondered, do you mean the “humility” of the rock-star imams who charge large speakers’ fees and stay in five-star hotels? Or maybe the faux “humility” of that shaykh or study circle leader who says that oh no, they don’t know anything at all compared to the great scholars of the past… but they do know more than enough to tell everyone around them how they should live their lives, down to the last detail? Or maybe the “humility” that I was taught that I should have—which amounts to being grateful for what you have even if it’s awful, because you don’t merit anything better.

But I knew that he didn’t mean any of those things.

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Musings on Muslim identity (III)

“O you who believe! Stand up for justice, bearing witness for God even against yourselves…” (Q 4:135)

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So far, my musings on Muslim identity have been very much centered on MY particular experiences as a white North American convert. Which is unsurprising, but also potentially distorting in a way. Perhaps the problem is not so much with all the racial and gendered dimensions of conversion in North America, but… me?

I mean, sure, conversion to any religion is bound to have its challenges. And becoming Muslim in North America in the early ’80’s was very much a leap in the dark. I thought that I knew what I was doing at the time, of course, but looking back, I just shudder at how remarkably unaware I was of the implications of just about everything that I was doing. Yes, those were the pre-internet days, and I was young and very naive about the way the world works, but really….

And once I had begun to get a sense of how race and gender and class and a whole host of other factors were going to make my relationships with both Muslims as well as non-Muslims a lot more complex now that I had converted and become a practicing, conservative Muslim, then surely any half-way sensible person wouldn’t still expect any sort of warm welcome, much less a sense of belonging? Maybe I just had very unrealistic expectations—not only due to the dawah literature I read, but due to… white privilege. After all, in this racially polarized society, how was it reasonable to have expected anything other than what ended up happening?

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