Genesis 11:5

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. Genesis 11:5

that you may be grateful

Tonight Reem invited me to join her for Vegetable Noodles and Vegetarian spring rolls. I ventured out on a limb to eat Chinese in Colchester, but it was well worth it. Reem is a beautiful young woman, a friend who I originally met when she was seeking a tutor for the IELTS exam last summer. We now consider each other sisters. 

She is the kind of young woman who I want to be like. I deeply respect her conduct with her children and the commitment she enacts for her family. Even with two young children, she is determined to perfect her English skills and complete a Bachelor's degree. Although Reem is a very modest woman, always adorned in an abaya and niqab in public, she has never judged me or made me feel inferior. During graduation at Essex last summer, I happened to be wearing the most risqué item in my wardrobe - a sleeveless summer dress that at least fell several inches below my knees. Reem spotted me as I dashed into the Wivenhoe Co-op; I think I was trying to hide. Instead of letting me go, she called out for me from the bus stop across the street. She didn't stop calling my name until I turned around. There she was, standing at the bus stop with her entire family, who had just come from Saudi Arabia to visit. Her mother, her Aunt, her younger sister, and her mother's friend were all wearing abayas and niqabs. I was so embarrassed, and begged Reem not to introduce me to her family until I was dressed more respectfully, but they were all eager to meet me. The following week when I visited Reem and her family in their home, I wore a long-sleeved shirt. It was not cool outside at that time, and they encouraged me to dress more comfortably the next time, as they sat there relaxing in spaghetti strapped shirts and leggings: "Don't you know what we wear in our homes?" they asked, inviting me to be more natural with them. They welcomed me so warmly, and I never felt a hint of judgment.

Muslim women like Reem help me to value more deeply the modesty that they demonstrate. They lead me to feel something that Lauren Booth refers to as "hijab envy." Islamic Awareness Week speaker Tarek El Diwany shared a striking image, as he described the criticism often faced by Muslim women for dressing modestly.

This photo from the Dubai World Cup illustrates the contrast between western and Islamic standards of dress. When I see this photo, I am struck by the beautiful modesty represented by the Muslim women. Sure they might have £500 handbags, but at least they have their self-respect. Although critics might label these Muslim women "oppressed," I find the blonde woman to be in a far more vulnerable and subservient position.  Such a photo leads women to ask who we are dressing for, and why. The two Muslim women in this photo seem to be asking why the blonde woman feels it necessary to expose herself. I believe that women have been mistaken to equate showing our skin with freedom.

When I wear hijab, sometimes I am afraid that people in the street will treat me differently, or be less inclined to help me if I ask. This morning I stopped a British man in the street, and asked him to give me change for a £10. He had it, but I had to convince him to exchange the money with me. Even walking away, he asked me if the £10 note was "good." I was not wearing hijab, but I wondered to myself if he would have given me the time of day, had I covered my hair on my journey to work, as I normally do. At the same time, my sense is increasing that not every strange man needs to see my hair, and that a woman's hair is both beautiful and private. Women have the right to modesty.

In addition to envying the modesty portrayed by Islamic dress, I told Reem tonight that for a long while I was jealous of Muslims who pray 5 times daily. "That's why I learned to pray," I said, after describing the months I spent memorizing Quranic passages and prayers with my Libyan friend Aisha. I remember the day she started to teach me how to physically go through the motions of prayer, and the responsibility I felt when I got back home. I didn't have an excuse after that not to pray - unless I have a reason to stop, I should pray. And how beautiful a discipline I find it to be. Praying five times daily completely transforms the way one thinks and lives.
...exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting; and during periods of the night [exalt Him] and at the ends of the day, that you may be satisfied. al Ta Ha 20:130
Constantly I consider my state in relation to Allah: The sun is coming up, so I should pray. What have I done in the last few hours? Am I in a state of prayer? How can I arrange my schedule in a way most compatible with the prayer times? Ahmed has done the best to teach me what it means to prioritise prayer. I've learned from his example how to keep prayer in the forefront of my mind. He finishes class, and the first thing he will do when he returns to his room is pray. He's been in London for the day and the first item on his agenda is prayer. There is a sense of responsibility in the heart of Muslims to honor and remember Allah through prayer.

As in every aspect of Islam, the gracious intentions of Allah are reflected in the Islamic Pillar of Prayer. Although prayer challenges Muslims by calling them routinely to accountability, the prayers are not intended to make life more difficult.
O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. And if you are in a state of janabah, then purify yourselves. But if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and do not find water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and hands with it. Allah does not intend to make difficulty for you, but He intends to purify you and complete His favor upon you that you may be grateful. al-Ma'idah 5:6

Misrepresentation of Arabs & Muslims in the Media

Yesterday at the University of Essex Islamic Conference, Jalal Ibn Sayeed recommended a poignant documentary entitled Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. The documentary is based on Jack G Shaheen's book of the same title, and is available in its entirety on Google Videos. Great effort must be made by conscientious Muslims and non-Muslims alike to adamantly oppose such discrimination of any people group.

To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed the 5th annual Islamic Conference yesterday. Honestly, I expected that I would feel uncomfortable or disengaged, and leave early. I thought that I would feel too pressured by the high hopes of Muslim friends, and try to escape them. On the contrary, I felt warmly welcomed and at ease. 

The Islamic Conference is held in order to dispel widespread myths about Islam, and to open up dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslims who spoke on stage and from the audience lamented the misrepresentation of Muslim people and the Islamic faith in the media. Muslims and non-Muslims alike wept together over the promulgation of false stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. The Muslims took this opportunity to defend themselves and their faith, and made apparent their wish to be respected and understood. Lifelong Muslims, converts and reverts* to Islam shared openly about their struggles to practice Islam in the face of discrimination and hatred rife throughout local and global communities.

*Muslims believe that every child is born a Muslim. Some converts to Islam prefer to consider themselves "reverts," or one who has returned to their original religion.

I do not know suffering

"Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings." Exodus 3:7
I am thrilled about the success of the Egyptian revolution. This is a day in history that I will never forget. I'm so inspired, wishing that people everywhere, myself included, will cease to underestimate the power in numbers, the power in unity, the power in faith and hope. Watching video after video of footage of celebrations in Cairo, hearing the overwhelming joy that Egyptians are feeling, a thought has occurred to me: I do not know suffering. Truly, these people have suffered, and we can sense how much they have suffered for 30 years under Mubarak in their tears of joy. I will continue to be inspired by the bravery of the Egyptian protesters, and their willingness to give their lives for freedom. 

Furthermore, I would like to highlight religious unity displayed at the protest. I was so happy to hear hear reports of Christians in Tahrir Square protecting Muslims at prayer: 

This is one photo that has been released by Nevine Zaki, an Egyptian woman present at the protests.

This PressTV news report also provides footage of Christians protecting Muslims at prayer during the protests. Equally, there are widespread reports of Muslims protecting Coptic Christians as they conduct mass in Tahrir Square, as seen in this video.

Not only has Egypt shown the world the strength of the people united, but they have given the world an example of true religious harmony and respect. May their example be followed the world over!

Firm as a spider's web

Recently I was reminded that I am indebted to the University of Essex Islamic Society--after all, I wouldn't be in the UK had they not invested in me and funded my Post-study work visa. I'm working full-time now, so I am not able to volunteer at the Islamic Awareness Week events like last year. For this reason I am determined to attend all of the Islamic Awareness Week events in order to show my support.

I strolled into the Awareness Week display area, where informative posters about Islam decorate the walls, and tables are covered with free Islamic literature. I was drawn into several bits of reading material, a few providing information about women in Islam, advice for Muslim parents, Islamic perspectives on topics including smoking, pork, and drinking. I felt quite comfortable, until I found a brochure on Adultery and Homosexuality. I was disappointed, immediately, to see Homosexuality coupled with Adultery. I then skimmed through the brochure and was disturbed by bold comments calling homosexuality sinful, insisting that no one is born homosexual, just as no one is born a murderer or a thief. 

My heart sank, and dropped the pamphlet back onto the pile. This perspective, I must admit, repulses me, and feels far too close-minded. I couldn't remember why I had come to the seminar. Knowing this, how could an LGTB person respect or even consider Islam? I've said before that if there is an issue in Islam that makes me hesitate to convert, it is this one. Perhaps I need to do more research, but my sense is that there is little to no wiggle-room in Islam on topics like homosexuality. At the same time, I am drawn to the reality that one cannot bargain with Islam, that to pick and choose the aspects of Islam that one wants to obey, and to forget the rest blatantly contradicts what it means to be Muslim.

With a box of tissues and two bags of throat lozenges in my backpack, I found a seat in the seminar room. Tonight Surkheel Sharif Abu Aaliyah honoured us by tackling the following question:

 I'll say right away that the entire seminar far surpassed my expectations. I was completely captivated by Surkheel Sharif's entire exploration of the question at hand. Sharif began by describing some rifts between Modern Britain's mindset, and the Muslim mindset. First, Islam promotes a visible and public religious practice, while religion is considered a private matter in modern Britain. Second, the mindset of the British Liberal Democracy dramatically contradicts the implication in Islam that there are nonnegotiable rules and commitments to abide by. These religious guidelines may in one sense limit individual freedom--the individual is not entitled to create their own moral code, as in Liberalism, even if their behaviour does not intend to harm another human being. But overall, the religious guidelines are established to keep human beings collectively in their place before God--humble and in submission.

Sharif quoted Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who says there there are two types of religions: Catholic and Protestant. Sharif went on to call Islam a 'Catholic' religion, because Islam has something to say about the behaviour and practices of people in the public realm, as well as the private. Islam is to inform how politics are conducted, how buildings are constructed, and all human actions.

I appreciated Sharif's explanation that Islam is much less about redemption, or being saved from original sin, than Christianity. Islam is much more about reminding human beings that we have an innate disposition to recognise truth and goodness. Throughout the text, the Holy Quran is described as a reminder to people of their higher purpose in life, and responsibility to Allah. When Sharif mentioned a city or world where religious symbols that function as reminders are taken away, I imagined how different it must feel to live in an Islamic country, where mosques are so frequent and noticeable. The experience must compare to Orthodox Churches in Greece--whether you are in the islands or the heart of Athens, you will pass churches and symbols of Orthodoxy. And when Greek Orthodox Christians pass a church,  they are reminded to pray and make a cross three times across their chest.

Sharif mentioned the establishment of prayer in Islam, which functions as a reminder to the people of God. I actually think this is how I described the meaningfulness of the 5 daily prayers to me in discussion with Alysia and Brandon. I appreciate how the prayers make me more conscious of my behaviour in relation to Allah. For example, will my action here or there put me in a state of ritual impurity, so that I will have to wash myself in order to pray? The prayers remind me to give thanks, to acknowledge God's authority over my life every day. The rituals keep me firm in the faith, and prevent slothfulness. Sharif described Islam as an 'Orthopraxy,' that emphasises actions over theological belief.

He explored 4 types of Muslims attempting to make a home in Britain, which I will summarise briefly: 1) Muslims who consider Modern Britian to be immoral, and narrowly insist on isolating themselves as much as possible from the surrounding culture. 2) Muslims who value faith above all, and utilise Muslim institutions whenever possible, but also make a great deal of effort to interact with and integrate into the society. 3) Fundamentalist Muslims who are angry with the West for its immorality, foreign policies, and seemingly anti-Islamic conduct. Fundamentalists are determined to Islamify Britain inside and out, but according to the scholars of Islam, base their actions on misreadings and perversions of Islamic texts. For example, Fundamentalists violate prohibitions against killing women and children in battle and they ignore the Quranic mandate that jihad be initiated by a head of state. Sharif's suggestion here is that more religion, more religious education that is, be made available to such people, not less.

I believe the least amount of time was devoted to the fourth category, although it is the category that concerns me the most. The fourth category is made up of Muslims who pour Islamic traditional teachings through a sieve of liberalism, what Sharif warns is 'pandering to the times.' These Muslims are hoping that they can develop a version of Islam that is compatible with the surrounding culture and liberal society.

I think it is this dilution of religion, in part, that distanced me from Christianity. To water down religion is to undermine the authority of God and the entire faith. Again, Islam is not a faith that allows one to select those rules he/she would like to apply, and dismiss the others. Because once any religion is filtered through the sieve of our own wishes, the faith is unrecognisable. God is lost, and what was once a moral code is now simply a resource, one option among many.

At this point, I am hypocritical. Could I convert to Islam at this moment if I wanted to? Well, some of my behaviours would be warmly welcomed by the Muslim community. But not everything. And right now, to keep what is important to me, I think I will have to wait. Generally, should we wait until we are perfect to approach God? Or does God make us perfect in submission? I really wish for a future that is vastly different from my past. I want my children to be raised in a bedrock of religious and moral sensibility - I want them to have more blessings than my family does now. Sometimes I dream that this unwavering faith will help them, and me too.