Ramadan: Kareem vs Mubarak?

Ramadan kareem / mubarak to anybody reading! (whichever you prefer, more on that later). The first few days of fasting have been hard at times, the days are long, the summer hot, but the relief of eating come sunset and the effects I can feel on my own willpower and disposition make it worth any difficulty.

Ramadan is not only a time of hunger and constructive self-denial, it is also a time of contemplation, which makes it a great time to read about other’s experiences and thoughts, especially given the flurry of seasonal posts from Muslim bloggers. In that spirit I am going to try to post regularly, either commenting on things others have written or other more original unprovoked rants. I said in my last post I would be focusing more on gender, and that religion was hard to write about, but it seems the spirit of the month has hit me harder than I anticipated.

I have written a bit previously about the changing use of Islamic vocabulary and how it relates to representations of Islam and Muslims from outside. Similar linguistic tricks are pulled within the Ummah too, and something as simple and innocent as wishing another Muslim a good month can become insanely politicised.

This (old) article from Dawn.com, an English language Pakistani newspaper goes into the use of “Ramazan Mubarak” vs “Ramadan Kareem”, the first considered more traditionally Pakistani, while the latter is part of a newer trend of viewing the more “authentically” Arabic words and phrases as more Islamic, and therefore correct. Even as a white Brit I see this a lot first hand in the UK, my other half and her side of the family being Arab, but my social circle being largely culturally Pakistani, terminology can be critically important.

Things as simple as calling the morning meal “suhoor” with my desi friends can lead to them feeling the need to apologise for using the more common “sehri”, as if it is in any way the wrong thing for them to call it. People may claim that Islam is for all cultures and doesn’t elevate any one people over another, but there is no mistaking that with the rise of neo-traditionalism, some people (of any cultures or ethnicity) will equate non-Arab culture with being inferior. It serves as means of equating Islam with perceived Arab cultural norms and essentially weaponising the concept of the Sunnah to erase utterly innocuous features of other cultures not deemed appropriately Islamic.

Recently I have been told by people that the only language spoken in Jannah will be Arabic. I have read people sincerely arguing that Arabic is a divinely created language, completely unlike all languages of purely human origin. I have heard that the most sincere Du’a will not be accepted if it is not in Arabic. I can only really roll my eyes at these kinds of assertations.

This isn’t to say I think Arabic isn’t a beautiful language. I chose the ridiculous hippy-muslim name for my ridiculous hippy-muslim blog based on a love for the language and my Arabic-speaking other half, and I love hearing the Qur’an recited in the old classical Arabic, my mind just boggles at those who think being a good Muslim, or even a good person hinges around correct pronunciation.

What I like most about the article is that it is written by someone who prefers the more traditional Arabic greetings and expressions (as do I to a certain extent) but recognises that it is her choice of how to practise her religion, and accepts both the validity of other ways and the need to find common ground.

Regardless of one’s religiosity or belief as to the origins of a religion’s tenets, it is crucial to remember that religions largely operate as socially constructed complexes of ideas, concepts narratives and ideologies. They do not exist in a vacuum, and distinguishing what aspects are “cultural” and which are “religious” is insanely difficult. Some would say impossible.

Personally I don’t care if you say “Allah” or “khuda” hafez. I don’t care if you say “as-salaamu aleikum” or use the english “peace”. I don’t really care what frameworks or traditions you use to relate to your concept of the divine, even if you don’t couch it in terms of “divinity”. It’s not for me to judge another person based on the words they use to talk about something so complex and unknowable as to be impossible to properly put into words. 

So “I hope you have a good month, whether you are fasting or not” is the meaning. Hear it how you want.

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A Return and a focus

I think someone once told me the trick to blogging was to write regularly and often, especially when starting out. Well, that didn’t happen. I started this thing back in February and I have written 6 posts, one of which doesn’t really count, and a few I am not really happy with. It’s been a busy year with a lot of personal, professional and soon, geographical upheavals, but more than anything I think I have lacked a focus of what to talk about. Despite reading constantly and having loads of thoughts that I wanted to write about I have felt like they seemed haphazard and unimportant.

But recently I have been feeling like there is an area I would like to focus on. I always knew I wanted to write about religion and gender issues, but felt lost within those broad areas on what exactly it was I wanted to say.

Being a male feminist or pro-feminist blogger, (to be honest I’m not even sure if I like labelling my gender politics at all) can be an awkward position to be in, fascinated by and supportive of women’s struggles with gendered issues, but unable really to bring myself to speak on them. There are plenty of actual women who can do that far better than me. But I am increasingly aware of the fact that there are serious gendered issues that affect and harm men and boys. The feminist saying “Patriarchy hurts men too” often gets repeated but a lot of the time discussing the ways it does and how we can fight it is left in the hands of the misogynist anti-feminist brigade. Gender equality is not a zero sum game, and it worries me to see a lot of both feminists and those supposedly interested in helping men and boys seeing it in that way. I don’t.

Religion on the other hand is hard for me to talk about, even anonymously because while I still consider myself staunchly Muslim, I am at best a bit unorthodox in my approach to it and quite often completely unsure about some Big Things. That can be quite painful to talk about, but I definitely have a few thoughts I want to write about it. I can perhaps see that side of things taking a backseat for a little while, but it constantly informs and influences the way I think and talk about things, so it will inevitably crop up in my writing.

So with that out the way I definitely feel like I want to keep up with the writing, insha’Allah. I will see where this takes me.

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Islam, Metonymy, Fatwas and Fox News

Ask An Islamicist is an awesome blog. It’s written by Jessica, a non-Muslim Theology academic that talks about various Islam-y things in various awesome ways. It’s a good blog. Read it.

I was going to comment on the latest post which touched on a kind of casual, linguistic Islamophobia, but what I wrote ended up ridiculously long and went off on all kinds of tangents so I thought I might as well adapt it into a post for this place.

Jessica makes some good points about metonymy, using a word as a stand-in for something perceived as similar, in relation to Islamic terminology. She talks about those who are seen as wanting to limit freedom in an entirely western, non-Muslim context as being called “mullahs” and “Taliban”, regardless of the original usage of the word.

This made me think that, off the top of my (admittedly exam-addled) head, I can’t think of a single “Islamic” term that has entered into mainstream, non-Muslim discourse that carries positive connotations. If anyone who actually reads this can think of any I’d be thrilled. I guess “Imam” and “Mosque” are widely known and generally neutral, but otherwise it’s looking quite bleak.

“Fatwa” is a good example of the kind of linguistic shift whereby words associated with Islam gain ominous connotations. “Fatwa” simply means the official opinion of a religious scholar. But since the word entered non-Muslim mainstream discourse through Ruhollah Khomeini’s call for Salman Rushdie’s death it has become synonymous with “death sentence”. The meaning is ubiquitous, to the point where the word in English seems to carry a dual meaning depending on whether or not you are Muslim.

In fact even some Muslims will use it in a negative way. The song “Sour Times” by Riz MC, Muslim musician and actor Rizwan Ahmed, contains the line “Dictatorships, injustices and wars cause fatwas”. Given that the song deals with media distortions of Islam that paint it as synonymous with terrorism and fanaticism it’s quite ironic.

Even the very word “Allah” is subject to this shift of values. Some evangelical Christians have argued the idea of “Allah” as being an Arab moon-god, distinct from the Abrahamic monotheist deity they worshiped, othering it with implicit connotations of  being “foreign” and “primitive”.

Similarly, some years ago, after a Dutch Catholic bishop suggested western Christians call God “Allah”, in what I assume was a well meant if slightly odd attempt at fostering understanding of Muslims, Fox News (I know.. I know) hosted this discussion:

Father Morris actually goes as far as to equate the concept of God denoted by the term “Allah” as being identical with and exclusive to the one held by violent terrorists. The billion or so people, some of whom are Christians who use it who are not terrorists do not factor into that analysis. He instead suggests we could use the Latin “Deus”. The eurocentricity of the whole argument is astounding. I’d also like to point out that by the same logic, since “Deus” is from the same Indo-European root as the Greek “Zeus” that it refers to a concept of God that likes to turn into a swan and fuck anything that moves, but that would be as grossly intellectually dishonest as his point was.

To come back to another of Jessica’s points I think this is all about exotification. Words associated with Islam are “foreign” and “intimidating” appealling to a sense of Orientalist barbarism only to be found outside the “Civilised West”. And it can be hard to blame people who have little contact with Islam or Muslims if the only times they are introduced to these words by the media is in negative connotations.

I think the answer lies partly in consciousness raising exercises like the #myjihad campaign in the USA, to reclaim depictions of Islam from both Muslim and Non-Muslim extremists. While I don’t take the whole “clash of civilizations” narrative particularly seriously, there is no denying there are a lot of gaps in understanding to be bridged. Making sure we are all on the same page when we use certain words is vital.

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Why I Am Not Happy Thatcher Is Dead

Life is a big chaotic ball of exam stress at the moment, but it is amazing how little things can still make me feel good about the world. An old woman that I didn’t know’s death is definitely not one of them.

And yet it is for a lot of people, or at least some of the people on the various social networking sites I use, that seem to be feeling pretty good that Margaret Thatcher is dead. Street parties are being organised, the one word website Is Thatcher Dead Yet has finally changed from “no” to “yes” and the hashtag #nowthatchersdead has been used to celebrate the event, with the admittedly hilarious side effect of mistakenly convincing a lot of people that American singer and Autotune pioneer Cher was no more.

I am no fan of Margaret Thatcher, but this darkly mawkish celebration of her death baffles me.

Thatcher was, like anybody in a position of power, a product of social and ideological forces pushing and pulling at her at every turn. I don’t deny that she had agency, but she was still what history made her and allowed her to be. Yes, her government helped prop up Saddam. Yes she was cozy with South Africa’s apartheid government, and yes I think a credible argument could be made that her obsession with privatisation has led to the political climate that gave us the Health and Social Care act and the creeping abolition of the NHS as we know it. She was involved in a record breaking arms deal selling weapons to the Saudi government and her son helped fund a failed financially motivated coup in Equatorial Guinea that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the Die Hard films. There are a whole host of things that she and those around her did that caused incredible harm to other human beings, you will never find me disagreeing with that.

But now, abstracted from that power and any relevant participation in politics, she is just a symbol. The woman who died this afternoon wasn’t that symbol. Both the “Bold Conservative Saviour” and “Warmongering Fascist Hellspawn” archetypes we like to portray her as are alive and well, but the human that became that myth ceased having much to do with it a long time ago.

I don’t take anything from an old woman I broadly disagreed with dying devoid of the context that made her so contemptible to so many. I could understand a degree of satisfaction from Tony Blair being beaten to death by an international coalition of Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians and British soldiers, for example (not in any way a personal endorsement of that actually happening, for the record) but having a stroke in the Ritz after years of irrelevance has no moral poignancy at all, and celebrating it happening is just ghoulish. Thatcherism and its ugly neoliberal sister ideologies are still very much alive. Seeing the woman herself as this ancient personified evil that has been finally vanquished by her death is buying into the same hyper individualist “no such thing as society” bullshit ideology she peddled as Prime Minister.

Inna lillaahi wa inna ilayhi Raaji’oon

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Tripping With Allah: Islam, Drugs and Writing

“It was crazy, completely off the chart heretical , but also really Islam-positive
MMK after his experience with Ayahuasca

Michael Muhammad Knight’s 9th book is not going to be for everyone. It’s right there in the title.  Never afraid of controversy, MMK’s career in writing has always dived headlong into topics considered taboo by mainstream Islamic discourse. From his early depictions of Muslim punks full of Iman but free of (or from) Adab, to his engagement with Five Percenter and Nation of Islam ideas in previous books, he has created his own corner of discussion of Islam that could alienate many who read, Muslim and Non-Muslim alike. Tripping With Allah is almost the distillation of that principle.

A word of advice before taking the plunge into this fascinating mess of a book. It’s a trip in itself that requires caution. MMK delves into activities and interpretations that would probably give those upset by a lack of theological orthodoxy a heart attack, and still considers himself proudly Muslim. There is graphic depiction of some seriously messed up sexual imagery. You probably will have to have read most, if not all of his other books to understand why he is referring to certain figures or ideas. The language used can be impenetrable if you don’t have a passing knowledge of the Five Percenters’ systems of Supreme Mathematics, the Nimatullahis or who the Nuwaubians are. And I guess finally you have to be aware that Islam isn’t a monolith. Mike Knight is Mike Knight and his Islam is his alone.

So with that out the way what of the book? Well, there’s a purple, Zulfikar-weilding Transformer on the cover and the dedication is simply a mugshot of a man who may have been Master Fard Muhammad, enigmatic NOI founder and general mystery man, captioned “to Poor Righteous Teachers”. The subtitle is Islam, Drugs and Writing. You will find all of these things here and more. The text alternates between a real (but with some characters semi-fictionalised) story of Knight’s journey towards a transformative experience with the psychedelic tea Ayahuasca, and more academic explorations of the status of drugs in both Islamic and American thought, prophethood, masculinity, coffee-colonialism and, centrally, the social constructions that make up what we call “religion” today.

Far from the wounded kid living in his car and journeying chaotically through the USA’s various Islamic and quasi-Islamic cultures in Blue Eyed Devil, Knight is now a graduate student at Harvard, and finds that pure academia is killing his spirituality, and with it his writing. The journey he undertakes to undo this through stoned hipster-Muslim-Five Percenters who see divine wisdom in Transformers cartoons to the semi-outlawed yet overwhelmingly normative and white members of the Ayahuasca imbibing Christian sect Santo Daime proves fruitless initially.

After further chapters meeting truly unhinged and genocidal anti-terrorism agents at conferences on Al-Qaeda and delving into the moral complexity of professional wrestling’s mythology, Knight finally has one final experience with the psychedelic vine, resulting in an extremely personally meaningful yet mind meltingly weird religious experience. The quote at the beginning of this review is as far as I will go in describing what happens there, you really have to read it yourself. I’ll warn you again, it isn’t for the faint of heart. By the end of the book, the vine has chewed up the old, broken and gleefully heretical MMK and spat out a new man, more at peace with his religion, his fellow Muslims and, perhaps most surprisingly for him, his manhood.

If this sounds completely batshit crazy, it is because it undoubtedly is. But it is a certain kind of batshit Knight as a writer can pull off in a way that makes it seem intuitive. On a personal level it tugged at things in me I wasn’t even aware of. Throughout the book I nodded, laughed, rolled my eyes and at one point found myself crying quietly. And yeah a lot of it is a personal affinity for weirdo convert angst, but more than anything it was his examination of the ugly sides of his masculinity that touched me, never afraid to admit to the ugliness, and unwilling to hide it behind veils of authorship. His exploration of what he now identifies as an eating disorder, and his experiences of using compulsive exercise almost as a form of self-harm prompted serious contemplation of my own behaviours. Describing his transition from sexually repressed to sexually reckless, highlighting the harm both approaches caused to him and others, Knight truly tears apart some of his demons in this book. I’m planning on following this review up with some of my own personal reflections on how the book dealt with gender. As a Muslim feminist man interested in issues of masculinity it would be odd not to really.

Should you read this book? If you have a low tolerance for self-confessed heresy or white men navel-gazing about their whiteness and maleness, then it’s probably not for you. On the other hand if you loved MMK’s other work, then absolutely, it’s equal parts informative, gripping and bizarre and for anyone following, it potentially provides some closure to that painful and confused part of the author’s journey that started with The Taqwacores back in 2003. The next book is hinted at in this one’s final chapter. I can only hope it is as shocking and thought provoking as this one.

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Malcolm X Did Not Die For White People’s Sins

On February 21st 1965 El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X was shot and killed in New York by three members of the Nation of Islam. His story is a well known one, epecially to Muslims, and especially to the scores of converts to the religion inspired by it. The story follows him from a troubled life as a child, through to his hustling days, to his time in prison where he joined the Nation, fell under the spell of Elijah Muhammad, who taught that the white man was the devil, before becoming disillusioned and finally seeing the light of Sunni Islam in Mecca. Here he shared food and water with white Muslims, saw that all racial barriers were erased by the beauty of Islam, and returned to the USA to preach true equality, which led to his martyrdom at the hands of the Nation’s gunmen.

This is the story as white people tell it. It was the story as I believed it in my teens, and is the lens through which a typical sympathetic tale of his life is told. It’s the alternative to the other interpretation of events which normally plays him as the violent radical hatemonger as opposed to Dr King’s establishment-friendly peaceful protester. None of these show the complexity of the whole truth of Malcolm (or indeed Dr King).

I have seen Muslims talk about how he left the “racist Nation of Shirk” and “redeemed” himself for his past after seeing the colourblind perfection of Islam. The problem here is his whole life is defined by this one moment that made him more friendly to individual white Americans, rather than, say the incredible personal transformation that took him from professional burglar to clean-cut, charismatic NOI minister, or his vast intellectual and rhetorical contribution to struggles for social justice. When people do this, all it looks like is people using his death to “forgive” Malcolm for saying mean things about white people.

Criticise Elijah Muhammad’s unorthodox-to-the-core theology all you want, but not only were the Nation’s beliefs about white people a direct response to the crushing oppression heaped on African Americans by a white supremacist society, even after Malcolm left the Nation he was no less militant about the evils done by white America. This is not an issue of morality, or how useful his methods were, it’s an issue of historiography.

He didn’t follow this fictional colourblind approach people seem to attribute to him post-Mecca because his society still had open legal discrimination against African Americans, never mind the systematic and cultural discrimination that still permeates it today. While there are and were plenty of decent individual white people in the USA, it was still an endemic feature of white American culture to hate, fear and look down upon black people. Acting as if every white person was his brother or sister would not only have done nothing for his people, it would have been nothing but pure submission to white power structures. White people did, and to this day continue to use institutionalised racial privilege to act in devilish ways. Malcolm’s change of beliefs only meant he saw that we* didn’t have to.

To act as if Islam as practised in the world today is a magic solution to racism and division is equally disingenuous. Despite the beauty and power of the Prophet’s anti-racist message, the Ummah is still not a colourblind utopia. Shii Hazara people are currently being slaughtered in Pakistan by their Sunni brothers. And don’t try to tell me for a second that that’s a purely theological issue, as if that was in any way a legitimate reason to murder innocents in the first place.

I know of Muslim Arabs who still call their black brothers and sisters “slaves”. I have friends whose parents absolutely forbid them from marrying a black person. South Asian Muslims are treated as a de facto slave labour force in the Emirates and referred to derogatively as “Hindus”. And while all this goes on, many still treat white converts like we are some kind of hard won prize, like we are more worthy of the religion than the roughly two billion non-white people who also practice it.

My Islam doesn’t erase my white privilege, it amplifies it. Even if Malcolm genuinely believed Saudi Islam automatically dissolved all racial oppression, I don’t think the rest of us got the memo.

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* By using “we” I mean to clarify that I am white, and that I am not talking from any kind of external or appropriated criticism of white people. While I am not American, I am as involved in this as any other white person. I am not presuming the ethnicity of anybody reading.

See also:

Michael Muhammad Knight’s article on a similar theme

Malcolm after his house was firebombed

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Valentine’s Day

No I am not even going to entertain the question as to whether or not it is haram to celebrate Valentine’s day. This is not going to be that kind of post.

I had a rough plan for this entry together before the brilliant Nahida wrote this, but after her points on a lot of men’s negative responses to Valentine’s day it seems especially relevant to talk about my experience this February 14th.

First off there can definitely be a lot wrong with Valentine’s day. It’s often an especially egregious example of traditional “romance” being a mask for some pretty toxic gender roles. Men exchange money or gifts for a woman’s social obligation to give affection and often sex. This is apparently the cutest thing in the world ever.

Seems a bit gross for everyone involved to me.

But while that grossness permeates patriarchal society, it doesn’t mean those of us attempting to circumvent or redefine those assumptions about gender and relationships can’t have a day to officially celebrate our love.

And what a day I had!

This was the first Valentine’s Day I spent with my other half, she decided to spoil me rotten, and I have to say she went all out.

Flipping the expected roles on their heads she surprised me with a truly incredible night, showering me with chocolates, chocolate roses, a giant card with hearts and teddy bears and the sweetest, corniest poem in the world that she wrote for me, before whisking me off to a candlelit dinner in a beautiful little restaurant. Reading this back I might think it was a bit tacky myself, but that’s the point.

She gave me the most clichéd and traditionalist Valentine’s day a (stereotyped) girl could dream of. And I loved it! Every bit of pink, every rich piece of chocolate, every hyper-soppy sentiment was us affirming that we never want to limit each other based on the unreasonable and constrictive expectations society places on our respective genders.

I think the most politically charged moment of the night was when the waiter looked expectantly at me to pay, only to realise moments later that the bill was on her side of the table, and that she was holding out the card. His face went from disbelief to surprise to profuse apology.

But, hilarious, heart-warming transgression aside, I don’t want to simply exchange traditional gender roles with her for one night and be done with it. A heterosexual ciswoman buying a heterosexual cisman a bunch of fancy fluffy things on a day when the reverse is expected to occur isn’t going to change the world, and if things were right in the world it wouldn’t be such a novelty. But it is an important part of our ongoing love for each other, affirming who the other is, and loving them for it regardless of whether or not it is how we are “supposed to be” based purely on our gender.

Next year, and every day I spend with her will iA be a more openly egalitarian affair. And I am damn sure going to make sure I make her feel as special as she made me feel that night as often as I can, however much that conforms to, subverts or totally disregards so-called “traditional masculinity”.

I am now a man who owns a teddy bear holding a heart that says “I love you”. And I am so fiercely proud to love a woman who would know what that would mean to me.

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