Saturday, October 25, 2014

Recalling a visit to Najaf and Karbala – Ten years later

Is it a city?
No, its Najaf's cemetery Wadi-as-Salaam, wherein 5 million bodies are buried. 
In January 2004, a year into the US invasion of Iraq, I visited Najaf and Karbala. It coincided with the Hijri month of Dhul Qa’dah 1424. We stayed at the White Palace hotel in Baghdad, its most white or palace-like feature, the foyer chandeliers through thick cigarette plumes. Over breakfast we discussed the large rats in the cupboards and how they darted across the carpets, the military jets overhead, and the fallen monument to Saddam we’d seen the day earlier. Baghdad was on fire. Our guileless breakfast banter was punctuated by the arrival and departure of silent, severe looking, chador-clad women. They wordlessly partook of the black tea, cheese and apples on offer and were off. “Ziyareh” – “the visit” or “homage” I was to learn later that day and up to now, is a form of rotational knowledge. I make my own ziyareh to the memory of it, unpack and revisit angles, compare it to (non Arab) Shia Iran, and world current affairs regularly. As 10 Muharram 1436 H or Aashura approaches, Karbala and Najaf, the sites where Ali, his son Hussain, and brother Abbas (may Allah be pleased with them all) are allegedly buried, receive more media attention than usual.

Karbala is located about 100 km southwest of Baghdad. It houses the grave of Husayn ibn Ali (ra) the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (sa) and the Abbas shrine, the burial place of the son of Ali (ra), and half-brother of Hussain (ra).

Najaf is about 160 km south of Baghdad. The walk to Najaf from Karbala is about 80km’s, often walked as a pilgrimage, a Camino de Santiago ala Safavid. The tomb of Ali (ra) is said to have been discovered at Najaf around 750 AD by a Dawood Bin Ali Al-Abbas. A shrine was built over the tomb by Azod Eddowleh in 977, but later burned down. It was rebuilt by the Seljuk Malek Shah in 1086, and rebuilt yet again by Ismail Shah, the Safavid, in the 1500’s.

At the time, I remember being more incensed with the USAID oil gallons littering the soil north of the Imam Ali Mosque than perturbed by self-flagellation, the procedural sarcophagus’ to the tomb and fire walking. There, outside Wadi as-Salam ("Wadi of Peace") a fascinatingly huge cemetery, the US and its coalitions' rape of Iraq had already sprouted in the soil. The charity oil gallons were a twisting of the knife. They were still to get to Fallujah in April/November to use phosphor and depleted uranium ammunition. In Fallujah and Ramadi we met young students of knowledge and Hidfh. Allahu A'lam if they're still alive.

Today’s blogpost addresses one method of moulding women and female behaviour via the symbolism of Karbala.

Shia sacred narratives assign prominent roles to two female figures, Fatima Zahra (daughter of Muhammad (sa) wife of Ali and mother of Hasan and Husayn (ra)) and Zaynab (ra) the daughter of Ali and Fatima (ra) who was present at Karbala. She was led with other women and children as a prisoner to Damascus where she reportedly confronted Yazid:

"O Yazid, You can never reach the level of our lofty position, nor can you destroy our remembrances, nor can you wipe out the ignominy you have earned for yourself by your abominable and vile performance. Your decisions are poor and your days are numbered. Your party will disperse the day when the Announcer will announce - Allah's curse be on tyrants and transgressors." Bibi Zainab binte Ali

"O you the son of freed slaves! Is this your justice that the ladies of your house remain veiled and we the Prophet's daughters should be paraded from place to place?" Bibi Zainab binte Ali

"O Yazid! Your misdeed has proved your rebellion against Allah. This action of yours comes as no surprise from a person whose ancestors chewed the liver of such saintly martyrs. The descendants of such enemies of Allah should naturally be the most deadly!" Bibi Zainab binte Ali

"O Yazid! You did what you wished, but remember that you have cut your own skin. In the near future you will be taken in the presence of the Holy Prophet. On that occasion you will be burdened with the sins of the misdeed committed by you shedding the blood of his progeny and dishonouring the sanctity of his family." Bibi Zainab binte Ali

"O Yazid! Practice any trick you can and do anything that you think would vanish Islam, but you should know that you cannot eradicate our message, path and memory. You should know that our memory will never die." Bibi Zainab binte Ali

As noted above by Shia texts, Zaynab bint Ali (ra) is a deemed a revolutionary figure for pious Shia women.  She’s considered brave and outspoken. She is believed to be The Foundation of Mourning (Majales A'azaa) as she kept the sacrifices of Imam Hussein alive. Shia tell stories that after every Majlis, women would offer their condolences to Zainab (ra) and the men to Imam Zain-ul-Abedeen, making a stir in the cities - the sound of crying and beating of chests and heads affected the minds of the inhabitants, and making them sadder and wiser to the events of Karbala.

Interestingly enough, Ibn Kathir (ra) narrates the words of Hussain (ra) which concur with the teachings of the last Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (saw) -

“Shortly before his demise, Hussain (ra) had advised his beloved sister Sayyidah Zainab (ra) not to mourn over his death in this manner.

He said, "My dear sister, I swear upon you that you, in case I die, shall not tear your clothes, nor scratch your face, nor curse anyone for me or pray for your death". (Al-Kamil, ibn Kathir vol. 4 pg. 24)” [Taken from Muharram - By Mufti Taqi Usmani (db).

A few years ago I came across a marriage book in a “Sunni” store replete with says of Imam Ali (ra). Among them:

Asbagh bin Nubatah quotes Imam 'Ali as follows: "Almighty God has created the sexual desire in ten parts; then He gave nine parts to women and one to men. And if the Almighty God had not given the women equal parts of shyness, then each man would have nine women related to him." (Wasa'il, vol. 14, p.40) -- In other words, Allah has given the women greater part of sexual desire but He has also neutralised it by giving equal parts of shyness to them.

The following ties with further discussion points on the moulding of women in Shia texts and to juxtapose with questions of the “progressive Shia” and the “ backward Sunni” discourses that are de rigueur in Islamic study circles especially when it comes to the rights and emancipation of women.  Further, I’d like to hear more from those who believe Khomeini kept the reforms of Pehlavi’s White Revolution which granted female suffrage, increased literacy, reduced and willfully amended Shia jurisprudence to fit them, and thereby greatly affected the outlook and influence of Shia women in Western societies.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nope, I don’t miss being married

We meet lovely people along this road of inconsistent blogging, a.k.a gut spilling. She would like me to write more, pressure-hose a moss-covered ability of reaching out. In fact I owe her. She even put my long, complicated, badly constructed, technical sentences through the Hemingway application. Yes, it’s a thing. I scored poorly, naturally. There is talent somewhere there, but I’m lazy. It boils and bubbles, and then down simmers to a clump of mawa (khoya) - one of those that sits in the freezer for years - you only see it when you annually defrost before the Ramadan savoury stocks log in. Then you stick it back in the freezer for another year, for a snowballs chance that you’ll actually make burfee that year. Last week sometime I was tagged among writers of blogposts/articles that touched lives (or something like that). I don’t mean to sound blasé. It took me a while to ponder the enormity of that. Sure, I’ve had words move me, but soon enough I’m ready to throw emo out the window. Save a life I say, become a neurosurgeon or an Ebola curer, a freedom fighter, or run a marathon, climb Everest. Don’t blog and write and feel. It’s a waste of a good mind. And body?

I didn’t re-read the article she mentioned. Yes, it’s that one – “I miss being married”. I remember it vaguely. You remember it. I awkwardly remember feeling it. I recall howling through it, having a crying headache, being pummeled by the experience. And when I think back to the bravery it entailed and vulnerability it exposed me to, I cringe. Yep, I do.  Fact is, I’ve shifted in the circle, indifferent to which part of the circle it actually is. It’s certainly not full circle because I don’t miss being married. Allah’s Grace. I don’t feel those things any more and I haven’t in a while. It’s so long ago that it’s just the past. Simple Past. And I don’t confuse it with cynicism or indifference or a bad attitude. It is what it is.  And yet I’ve never felt the need to remove that post nor this one from the public domain in the past year or two of feeling this way. The best thing about reading is that moment when you honestly connect. “What? You liked that book too?” “I loved that part when…” “Yeah, I really feel this” “This person knows it too”. I could relay a thousand like moments of connection when for that teeny tiny moment when it’s all dark, and then there’s that one thing. That one moment when someone cared enough to write something that physically helps. Because by that time emotions are masked by vomit or blood or pain or anger.

So, read, stalk, linger here – whatever keeps your tea warm. I’m happy to make you happy. Even for wee moment of self indulgence

Monday, July 14, 2014

7 days in Makkah - a realisation that people are the pathway to Paradise

People - people everywhere; people are the pathway to Jannah

Our last night in Makkahtul Mukarramah till I am invited back. Please Allah I plead that you bring me back - and until then, let the heat of what I've gained (through your mercy) remain kindled - let our bond be as hot, at the very least very warm. It's been hot and humbling stay. Hot and trying. Hot and jarring: a startling awakening to my own weaknesses.

I reflect fleetingly (lest I forget) on what this last week has taught me, especially because being Ramadan, it's a barometer of my own weaknesses, rather than devilish insinuations(!) The weakness of the vulnerable nafs without the excuse that Shaytaan tempts. A cleansing.

Madinah always call me. This time however Makkah has made a mistress of me. For the first time I consider that my makeup may be more Makki than Madani. I once wrote that Makkah takes no prisoners - you're either an Abu Jahl or Bilal. Perhaps as I grow older I too must reconsider whether I am as (soft) an honorary Ansar as I've always assumed myself to be.

I am impatient. I must learn to accommodate - [arrogance, ignorance, indifference, differentness] rather than make excuses why I can't.

I have an unecessary flaring temper, that lasts stupidly long for minor infringements such trampling in my personal space. What starts as a niggle flares disproportionately in my mind. I must realign my priorities & react in measure to the long term repercussions, not just immediate ones.

I am but an unneeded flyaway atom to my Creator. He has billions of weighty slaves who earnestly and eagerly praise, glorify and deserve Him more than my lackadaisical whimsical worship. Mine is far too much emotional and far less physical prayer. Physical prayer is what is desired first. The feeling will follow. The feeling is not paramount. The feeling passes far too quickly. The weight of the actual deed is what remains.

I sniffle fluishly now partly because of the disdain on my face delivered to the unclean? I may have been hurtful to a fellow Muslim; perhaps? I am wholly unfit to withstand these levels of heat. What does that paper fitness even mean - the cardio,  the tighter leg and arm muscles? Physical stamina was a prerequisite for Sahabiyaat; to be like my beloved Asma bint Abi Bakr. Pilgrimage is a jihad for women - the true meaning of feminine weakness I have learnt and understood here many a time. It is a grating answer to many questions I have about my own femininity and about Quranic allotment of gender roles in general. Women are prey. Even when you're playing, you're being played. Hence, You Are closer to the Fitra woman! Submission is a jihad. Accept it and be rewarded for its huge toll on your ego, or leave the Faith.

"When she leaves her home Shaytan stalks her" -- measure your hijab (even in speech) to fit the specific circumstance. This is a newly matured take, and signifies new personal growth.

All women are not equal in understanding and maturity. The Quran is universal. It is forever. It transcends your or my namby-pamby negotiations and platitudes regarding "open communication" and a "round table" discussion. I stood in Qiyam and pondered the wording - "women you have entered" "now you can touch them" "your women are a tilth" etc. The Quran also says "hit them" if they lean to infidelity if your talking and separating from them doesn't work. Taj Hagey may say it means "undertake a journey" with them, but who is he anyway? Hit them / the brash, crude, uncultured, unwashed. (I use this specifically to indicate that fishy menstrual uncleanliness & the cottage cheese, ripe odour baking in layers of the Makkah summer.) The unsophisticated, labouring badwi I specifically have in mind will no doubt hit that man right back. She will pour hot oil on his head. She will deliberately connive and lie against her co-wife or daughter-in-law to win favour. She is shrill and loquacious, verbose and garrulous. All this, at once. She is the queen bee. She, for all her lumbering swarthiness or seemingly fragile leanness - that misleading intricate nose and bird wrists is a tour de force. Reasoning will not work with her. She may need a smack. Yes. The Quran is Divine and Allah is Al Hakeem, Al Aadil.

I am a needy mother. Just as my baby needs me, I need him. Unashamed symbiosis. I must accept this. It is biology. The cycle of life.

Like the sahaba said they looked at Abu Bakr like he was reading that verse for the first time after Muhammad (S) died, I too listened to many verses like I've never ever heard them before during Qiyaam. Indicative that I am not listening to enough Quran for pleasure. This has to change.

My friend Alameen wrote:

"My view of family is it's there to soften your heart. Unlike friends, you can't get rid of family. And for good reason. That unbreakable chain - it exists even if you deny is - means we're stuck with the always-in-trouble brother, the lame-duck cousin, the interfering aunt and the Nazi uncle. Some we love and some we forgive. And some we love and then hate and then love again. We're forced into constantly forgiving, building, breaking and rebuilding. In that process, our hearts are put through the mill. It's alternately hardened, broken, shattered, kneaded, massaged and filled and expanded mainly through our family. All that sharpens our sense of identity and forces us to examine ourselves and others; to be more considerate and stronger."

Yes. Family, close family, distant family and people. People teach you all this. The path to paradise is through people. Sabr with people. Like nabi (S) taught us: "The Fire has been surrounded by lusts and desires and Paradise by hardships." [Bukhari, Muslim]. Persevere, and be grateful for every opportunity to grow.

Allah, save me from a Jahannam I may earn through a minute unqualified utterance.

11 Ramadan 1435

Friday, June 6, 2014

To my friend – On your wedding

Image Source
I don’t know if this is tribute to our friendship or sentimentality to our bonding during the Hajj. Both I guess. 18 years later is a long time. Long, in light of our ages then, and our audacious irreverence for what was. I’m smiling remembering that you were actually knocked by a bus! Laughing in memory of our languid, loping gait that still left our amir in the dust; of the double marriage proposals we received and turned down. In so many ways that was an Ave Maria – an adieu to one way of life for another.

I got you a box. Its empty. Such a cliché for the least hackneyed, least clichéd, least box-stock girl I have the honour of being friends with. Marriage is an empty box. Empty it of what you thought you knew, and Fill it. Fill it with the things you want, not with the things you don’t want. Fill it with Faith that you deserve happiness, companionship and family. Fill it with Hope that your every prayer has always, and is always,  answered. Fill it with Love. Love for a default design that allows for a shifting of goalposts and ideals; love for human jabberwocky - the lies we tell ourselves about what perfection means and the meaning of good relationships. Humankind has been winging it from day one – altering; adapting; changing landscapes and mindscapes.

He will learn to love - like we all do - your quirky charm; your jet-black comedy; the sharp curve of your brows and your magic carpet eyelashes. He will learn to appreciate your courage, strength and fortitude. He will respect your candour and generosity. He will honour and love your mother as you do, and together with you, serve her from afar. He will take equal pride in you being your father's daughter.

You will love and revere him, and he will be your Paradise.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

In her Warm Shadow: Isabelle Eberhardt’s shahada

Image Source
I first heard of the Geneva-born Isabelle Eberhardt in a lecture by Sh. AH Murad. I’m sure some of you may be as intrigued by the life story of one of the most prolific (and appropriated) female travel writers of the 19th century; certainly one who called Islam her greatest joy.

Isabelle Eberhardt was born in 1877 (illegitimately) to an aristocratic Lutheran Baltic German Russian mother, Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt), and an Armenian-born father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, a former priest.  Her tutor father taught her Arabic and other languages, horse riding, theology, and literature. Her interest in literature led her to the work of Julien Viaud, a French lieutenant serving in North Africa and writing under the pen name Pierre Loti. His writing sparked a fascination with North Africa, which coupled with a weariness of Geneva’s formal society and hostility from her older step-siblings, who disliked her father, convinced Eberhardt that she needed to do some travelling of her own. She died aged 27 in a flashflood in the Algerian Sahara. Her mother died suddenly in Algeria too and was buried there under the name of Fatma Mannoubia.

One of Eberhardt’s post-humus translators, Robert Bononno, describes her as “an artist and a rebel, [who] eschewed the conventions of bourgeois society (French, Swiss, and Russian), despised city life, sympathised with the Algerian people's plight during the height of French colonialism, dressed as a man, drank to excess, smoked kif, and was an outstanding equestrian. She spoke Arabic, studied Islam, became a Muslim, married a native spahi, and was initiated into the religious confraternity of the Qadiriya.”

Isabelle wrote of her travels in many books and French newspapers, including Nouvelles Algériennes ("Algerian Short Stories") (1905), Dans l'Ombre Chaude de l'Islam ("In the Warm Shadow of Islam") (1906), and Les journaliers ("The Day Laborers") (1922). She started working as a war reporter in the South of Oran in 1903.

Nicky Gardner, a travel writer and editor of Hidden Europe Magazine writes in [2012] about one of Eberhardt’s books, Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam; In the Warm Shadow of Islam:

“Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam is a wonderful book, but in my view the English title is an atrocity. The title of the French original, Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam, is superb. It is full of passion and warmth. It invites the reader to smell the blossoming pomegranates of the oasis. It pulls the reader into the dead heat of noon in the ksar and to the welcome shade of the mosque. The English title dwells on fear more than an enveloping warmth. Was this imposed by the translator or the publisher? I suspect the latter. It’s a cheap trick, one that plays on public apprehension of Islam. In the desert every shadow, every fragment of shade, is something to be cherished. The title Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam captures Eberhardt’s life perfectly and positively. The English title just does not work in the same way. That the paperback edition has on the front cover a quote from the Daily Telegraph, a sentence so full of fear of Islam, just adds insult to injury. Throw in a marketing man’s back-cover blurb on ’authenticity’ and you have one of the worst book-covers ever. Prayers and dreams should live forever. Isabelle Eberhardt gives her all to make sure they do. Read the French original if you can. But, if you go for the English translation, just ignore the title and the cover blurb.”

This touching excerpt, which ties in with my earlier post on soul connections, rather than word connections, is from her book “Silhouettes d’Afrique” (1898):

“Of all the evils which afflict the human soul, Doubt is the slowest and most arduous to fight off. And the man who thinks is no more a master of belief than of denial. It was, then, in great sadness and with an intense anguish that I searched for the felicity of faith.

One clear summer evening, when the great heavy warmth of the day had lifted, I passed through a silent crowd of Muslims in the little white alleyway lying in the shadow of the old minaret, gilded in its vague sheen of sunlight.

There above, in the purple light of golden iridescence, Hassene the muezzin sang in his melancholy voice with such sweet, slow modulations, the eternal hymn of the One God. In this dreamlike voice was translated, strikingly, all the grand serenity of Islam.

Suddenly, as if touched by a divine grace, in absolute sincerity, I felt an exaltation, without name, carrying my soul towards previously unknown regions of ecstasy. On the doorstep of the mosque, an old blind man in rags—in his resignation, the tragic image of a Biblical Job—moaned in a tone of unending sadness, the following plea: “For Sidna Abraham and Sidna Abdelkader and Sidna Belkerim…For the Lord, give me a coin, O believers in God!”

Everyone who passed contributed some alms to him, in silence, and he blessed them with this word of hope, always the same: “May God repay you!”

For the first time in my life, I entered with an inexplicable joy, sweet and intense, into the perfumed coolness of the djema, which filled little by little with muffled murmurs and vague echoes. For the first time, crossing this familiar threshold, I murmured with their unshakeable faith: Allahu Akbar!

In that blessed hour, my doubts were dead and forgotten. I was no longer alone, facing the sad splendor of Worlds. In a shiver of mystery I had, in the precise instant whence died up there the sad call of Hassene, something like an intimate foreshadowing of Eternity. And I went, eyes bathed in ecstatic tears, to prostrate myself in the dust, before the majesty of the Eternal.”

Hyperlinks within the text will point you in the direction of more of her writings, or writing about her.

Yours in Islam  

“They talk most who have the least to say”

“They talk most who have the least to say.” - Matthew Prior

That we talk not of spirituality, but we physically do what Tauheed demands. That we pray and fast; recite Quran and remember God, that we seek depth in the seemingly mundane.  That God will speak His secrets through the reverence we display to what He has commanded. That weakness in this regard makes us speak of spiritualty cheaply, in too many words, just too many words.

From (Fihi ma Fihi) -- Discourses of Rumi,  chapter 2:

Someone said: “Our Master does not utter a word.”

Rumi answered: Well, it was the thought of me that brought you to my presence. This thought of me did not speak with you saying, "How are things with you?" The thought without words drew you here. If the reality of me draws you without words and transports you to another place, what is so wonderful with words? Words are the shadow of reality, a mere branch of reality. Since the shadow draws, how much more the reality!

     Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words. If someone should see a hundred thousand miracles and divine blessings, still, without an inner connection to that saint or prophet who was the source of those miracles, all these phenomena would come to nothing. It is this inward element that draws and moves us. If there were no element of amber in straw, the straw would never be attracted to the amber [Rumi is referring to static electricity here]. They would not cling to each other, even if you rubbed the amber with fur. This exchange between them is hidden, not a visible thing.

     It is the thought that brings us. The thought of a garden brings us to the garden. The thought of a shop brings us to the shop. However, within these thoughts is a secret deception. Have you never gone to a certain place thinking it would be good, only to find disappointment? These thoughts then are like a shroud, and within that shroud someone is hidden. The day reality draws you and the shroud of thought disappears, there will be no disappointment. Then you will see reality as it is, and nothing more.

"Upon that day when the secrets are tried."

     So, what reason is there for me to speak? In reality that which draws is a single thing, but it appears to be many. We are possessed by a hundred different desires. "I want vermicelli," we say. "I want ravioli. I want halvah. I want fritters. I want fruit. I want dates." We name these one by one, but the root of the matter is a single thing: the root is hunger. Don’t you see how, once we have our fill of but one thing, we say, "Nothing else is necessary?" Therefore, it was not ten or a hundred things, but one thing that drew us.

[Feehi Ma Feehi contains Malfoozat (discourses) of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. It is a recent discovery, only published in the 20th century from some rare manuscripts in India and Turkey. According to B. Forouzanfar, an editor of the book, it is likely that Sultanwalad, the eldest son of Rumi, wrote Feehi Ma Feehi based on manuscripts and notes taken by himself or others from the lectures of his father.]