Between the Opposites

I was talking to my cousin in Italy recently. He is an atheist. He says he cannot believe in a god who allows the pervasive suffering that lies inherent in the lives of human beings.  The God who is called “good”  allows suffering disproportionately and arbitrarily, maybe even inflicts it, in no relationship to the commonly regarded virtues of any society or individual.  What kind of god is this? According to my cousin, no god worthy of the position would insult his creation with such perversity. Disbelief in God makes life easier, more understandable.  Ironically, this is the exact opposite position of believers, but he’s got a point.

The religions have explained suffering well enough, and have justified it through their teachings. I won’t challenge any of that; it’s an essential part of the glue that keeps religion vibrant. What interests me is not the evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of god, let alone a good god, but the fact that people who have led agnostic lives will turn to God in times of suffering.

Everyone knows someone who found him/herself in danger or illness, and implored God to save them, sometimes even making deals with God: “Oh, God, if you save me from this, I will…” I, myself, offered God such a deal. Thirty years ago,  during an unobservant period of my life, I  ended up in an unfortunate personal situation. I prayed to God, telling him that if he’d protect me, I’d look for a religion in which I could comfortably participate. What is the source of such a plea from a scientist who does not believe in any sort of phenomenon that could fall qualify for the definition of superstition?

It wasn’t until twenty years later, while studying Islam, that I learned about Islam’s claim that Allah has placed an instinctual yearning for the Divine within each human being.  I accepted that claim more because I wanted to accept it than because I was convinced. 

Ten years after that, while I was studying Progoff’s Intensive Journal, I encountered the ideas of Pierre Tiehard du Chardin. His concept of the evolution of spirit, and the noosphere, resonated with me, because it offered a bridge between the poles of unbelief and devotion.

Now, I’ve seen hints of a similar concept in some Sufi writings that have found me. In my characteristic way of detached evaluation, I will examine them. Maybe I will yet meet with a way to reconcile my scientific training with my (inborn?) yearning for the reality of God. Between my Italian cousin’s reasonable, evidence-based atheism, and my perennial  spiritual agitation that borders on agnosticism, I will find a way to “hold the tension of the opposites” (as Jung taught). Perhaps Allah will bless me with secure faith even before I meet him. 

Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women


Though Islam is growing in America, one bumps up constantly against ubiquitous incompatibilities between Islam and Western culture. Nowhere is this incompatibility more prominent than in an American Muslim woman’s search for a mate.


The stories in this book reveal the problematic position of American Muslim women who would like to get married. They must either make compromises, or take a hard line with respect to their religion, further limiting their chances for finding a mate in a society that is still composed of mostly non-Muslim residents. Some of these writers have shaved the edges off Islamic teachings , even to the extent of doing haram behavior, knowingly, deliberately. The instinct to find a mate and establish a family often takes precedence over familial and religious dictates regarding how to do so.


Islamic customs, which relied heavily on community relationships, now operate in an anemic facsimile of their original effectiveness. American customs for dating, sex and marriage, are not officially available to these women.To make matters worse, Muslim communities in the United States are composed of people from varying cultural and linguistic traditions. American Muslim women sit between a rock and a hard place; even men tiptoe across a loose tightrope when courting them.


When the Abrahamic religions were being codified, the human life span was much shorter. Young people did not have to navigate a prolonged period (named adolescence) between childhood and adulthood.  Mating occurred at  physical maturation. These days, physical maturation plays second fiddle to religious mores that were not written for adolescence or homosexuality. Add to that the economic and educational demands of today that also postpone marriage well beyond the best physical stage for it.


At least one of my readers will remind me that Islam is applicable to all peoples for all times, and to that reader I say, “Then it will have to find a way to reconcile human nature with the unnatural frustration arising out of modern  adolescence. It will also have to accommodate an increasing incidence of homosexuality.”


Homosexuality, by the way, does not recede when it manifests in a Muslim, and several of these writers are brave enough to talk about it. One would think that if Allah hated homosexuality enough to forbid it, He would give us better tools for coping with it in a halal manner, but this is not the case. Homosexuality will prove to arise from physiological  and genetic predispositions, and therefore will never be responsive to blame or volition on the part of those who find themselves claimed by it.


I respect the women who’ve told their stories, and I admire their courage in trying to find a third way, a way to live as Muslims and as Americans, partaking in the blessings of both identities and navigating the inherent troubles. Some women have tossed Islamic teachings out the window, while others have have cut themselves off from the benefits for which people choose to live in America.  None, however, have turned their backs on Islam, itself, and most have become stronger in faith as a result of their trials, regardless of whether they succeeded in finding a mate.


Not all the essays are marked by conflict or frustration. Several of the women met their husbands in the traditional Islamic way, through the help of parents and relatives, without having to date and sift through a succession of boyfriends. These women are the lucky minority. Several others met their husbands by means unconventional in either American or Islamic cultures; their stories prove that finding a mate need not conform to a strict prescription.


The women represented in this book are pioneers, and through them, especially with respect to how they raise their children, a stable American Islam will develop.  Oh, I know. There’s no such thing as “American Islam” or “Saudi Islam” or, or… Well, yes there is. How do you suppose Islam, or any other religion, survives over the centuries, migrates to different continents, and serves populations that have never have heard of one another? An Islam that thrives in the West is still evolving.  This book forms a link in the process, and will eventually be regarded as an historical document. I hope the children of this book’s authors will read their mothers’ stories with a sense of relief because they will not have to blast through the moral and social difficulties endured by their parents.





A Difference of Degree, not Substance?

With the approach of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are seeing many programs on TV, on the Internet, and in print media, programs that honor the lost lives as well as try to heal the residual emotional trauma felt as a nation and as individuals. We see programs outlining the museum and park that has been built on ground zero,and also programs that underscore the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America.

This last focus– upon the continued tension between Muslims and non-Muslim America, concerns me.

I was laying on an acupuncture table when the planes hit the towers. The partitioner did not know I was Muslim– I do not cover. My gut reaction was that “Muslims” did it, and that I did not want to be associated with those who had caused the catastrophe. I did not want to belong to same religion they belonged to, especially after they’d used that religion to justify their heinous, megalomaniac cruelty.  From that day forward, I stopped efforts to practice Islam here in America, where the practice of Islam is a challenge, to say the least. This was not an active decision on my part. I merely stopped. If I had not embraced Islam years before 9/11, I would not have done so afterwards.

As the chain of events leading to the catastrophe unfolded, two words were heard repeatedly: extremists and fundamentalists. I cringed, as I still cringe, every time I hear these words. They imply that those who fit the definitions are indeed Muslims, just like the rest of the Muslim community, with the exception that their ideology had taken on an “extreme” character. Their ideology is one of degree, not substance.

That means that the entire Muslim community holds similar views, but stop short of committing murder. First-hand accounts from Middle Eastern countries support this idea. Muslims were seen celebrating, smiling, cheering, as the images of the falling towers dominated the screens and headlines. Those Muslims, surely, endorsed the ideology of the terrorists, and were maybe too cowardly to act upon those convictions, therefore cheered the handful of brave souls who gave their lives for their ideals.  Books have been written to prove that Islam is a religion of force, misogyny, and oppression of all.

Over the years, Muslims groups have denounced the terrorists and tried to convince the greater society that Islam does not condone terrorism and murder in the name of Allah. Qur’anic ayahs have been dug up to testify to Islam’s peaceful nature. Why has that message not prevailed? Why, for instance, does the opposition to the New York Mosque project still chug along?

Well, Muslims themselves have not eradicated these two words: extremism and fundamentalism.

They have never said, “There is not such thing as extremism. There is no such thing as fundamentalism. The majority Muslims practice Islam using the customs and rituals into which they have been born, and much diversity flourishes. Men and women who murder in the name of Allah are not Muslims. The constellation of ideals and acts that are commonly referred to as extremism and fundamentalism do not embody the spirit of Islam, nor illustrate its teachings. People who subscribe to them are not Muslims. They may have been born into Muslim families, or they may have embraced ideals of terror and murder as a result of mental illness or severe political oppression that have nothing to do with Islam, but they are not Muslims.”

As long as the Muslim community cannot say the above, it implies that extremism and fundamentalism are indeed, part of Islam, and that the difference between peaceful Muslims and terrorist Muslims is one of degree, not substance.

Claiming a Religion— an Active Choice?

images bismillah Who is a Muslim? Who is a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, etc? Is it enough to call oneself by any one of these names, or must we actually observe the distinguishing rituals?

No one has a problem with taking someone’s word for it, when the statement is heard. “I am a Christian (Jew, Buddhist, etc…).” That’s the end of it, but when someone says, “I am a Muslim,” we don’t always know what that means.

Before 9/11, we knew. We may have known nothing about Islam, yet had we heard, “I am a Muslim,” we would have said, “Oh, OK.”

After 9/11, we didn’t know. Now, when we hear, “I am a Muslim,” we want to know what kind of Muslim— Fundamentalist, Moderate, Reform, Observant, Non-Observant, Born, Convert, Revert, Muhajibah, Beard, no beard, drinking, not drinking, praying, not praying, Arab, non-Arab… you get the idea.

What’s going on here?

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

Most Hajj stories focus upon the sense of awe and inspiration that arise upon gathering in Mecca with thousands of Muslims from around the world, to perform one of the five pillars of Islam. I felt those emotions, too, but something else stands at the forefront of my memories.

Dhul-Hijja  in 1996 corresponded to April, when full summer already blazed across  Saudi Arabia, hot enough to kill a person. My husband and I decided to make Hajj, before the calendar advanced Dhul-Hijja into an even hotter season. Transportation would be easy; we would take a bus across the country, from Riyadh to Mecca.

I was not worried about the heat, however. I was worried about crowds. Every year, returning pilgrims came with stories of stampedes resulting in death by the hundreds. An average of two million people converge and move together from place to place along a twelve mile tract of desert from Mecca to the Plain of Arafat and back again.

Everyone told me the Hajj would be difficult. Now, years later, memories of my Hajj experience float through my mind as if I’m watching someone else’s film. Certain scenes are frozen, but most are lost in the maze and flash of the changing shapes, colors of Mecca, the desert, and the flowing clothes of the pilgrims. Sometimes I wonder whether I was really as sick as I felt, but I no longer need to know.

********************************

I was still worried about crowds when we stopped on the Plain of Arafat, where we stayed all afternoon, in prayer and contemplation. Neither the men’s nor the women’s tent was air-conditioned, and as the afternoon progressed, my heart rate increased dramatically and I could feel my cheeks throb with blood.

The other ladies noticed how red I’d become. They encouraged me to persevere. The day would be over soon.  We sat in the tent, prayed and read the Qur’an. Allah would reward my suffering.

My head ached with every blink of my eyes; I feared I’d faint from dizziness, or suffocate from lack of air; my heart beat so fast that my respirations became shallow. I had planned to say prayers for each of the dear people in my life, as well as for my worries and hopes, but I forgot them all. I couldn’t pray for anything except a quick end to that day, and the stamina to endure the rest of it. Toward evening, my husband came to check on me, and seeing my condition, fetched a magnificent block of ice, for which I wept in relief and thanksgiving. One of the ladies told me to put the ice in the barrel for community use, but I didn’t. I used it to rub myself from head to foot, over and over until the ice had melted. I felt ashamed, imagining the other women regarding me as stingy, but  the instinct to self-preservation had taken hold. I believe I might have died that day, had I not rubbed myself with ice. I was a fair-skinned Westerner, out of my element, physiologically unprepared to endure long hours of extreme heat.

That evening, I moved with the crowd to Mina, to prepare for the next ritual.

This time, we stayed in air-conditioned tents, the men in one huge tent and the women in another. My tent housed forty women—I counted them— each of us entitled to space sufficient to roll out just one smaller-than-twin-size pad. I rushed into the corner spot, with the tent skin on my left side and the air conditioner at my feet. It was the coolest location in the tent, yet the air never became cool. The air-conditioner churned twenty-four hours a day, except for sudden five-minute power outages during which all of our movements froze in mid-air, as we waited impotently for the box to re-start itself.

I suffered from too much heat that week during the Hajj—heat exhaustion or heat stroke, I don’t know, because I had been too sick to shuffle over to the doctor’s tent, that day on the Plain of Arafat where my husband saved my life with a block of ice. I’d been too embarrassed to ask the doctor to come to me, where he’d have had to invade the privacy of Muslim feminine living quarters. The other women had been hot, too, but none of them actually fell sick, as I had. They were Egyptian women, all except me and one other American ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter than me. They appeared to tolerate the heat well, but I did not. The temperature those last few days of April 1996 ran between 40 and 50◦C, maybe higher (104◦F–122◦F).

I could not perform the ritual of stoning the pillars, not only because of heat but because of crowds; my husband did it for me. During that unit of the Hajj, I sat inside the tent during daylight, afraid to go outside. I would emerge gratefully at dusk, and at 3AM I would walk between the tents to the portable showers. Even then, I was hot. The heavens dealt out relief in stingy little puffs of hot air, which never brought comfort, just a momentary lessening of the heat. In the tent, the air-conditioner labored, and I listened to it intently, as if by listening, I could keep it functioning. Even though I was lying with my feet at its base, the cool air dissipated before reaching my head. Only my feet remained comfortable. I didn’t know how I’d survive if the air-conditioner stopped working entirely. This possibility seemed imminent, as the wiring didn’t appear neatly or deliberately connected. In idle moments, I studied the paths of the various wires, in case I’d be called upon to re-establish connections. The five minute power outages which occurred several times each day scared us all, because the machine had to work that much harder to make up for the brief outages. Temperature rises by the minute in the desert.

One night, falling asleep after my 3AM shower, I was awakened by the sound of a downpour. Yes, desert rainstorms do occur, with forceful bursts of water rushing down from the sky all at once. Rain doesn’t usually fall in April, though, so I was sure Allah took pity on my suffering and sent that rain just for me. I opened my eyes slowly, savoring the comfort of the now cool air. The other ladies must have all been sleeping; I didn’t hear a single voice or whisper. I wanted to lift the bottom of the tent and peer out, just to verify that my other senses weren’t playing tricks on me. I wanted the water seep into my side of the tent. I rolled over, opened my eyes and gingerly lifted the bottom of the tent skin. Dawn had infused the night. No water trickled forth. I lifted further. No water danced and curled into sandy rivulets along the edge of the tent. Where had it gone so quickly?

Full consciousness spiraled up, and with it the oppressive, pervasive heat. Could the water have dried up already, in a matter of minutes? Had I fallen back to sleep after the cloudburst? The sand should have borne telltale darkening of not quite evaporated wetness, but I saw no such evidence, and now the air carried not a single discernable molecule of moisture. All forty women seemed to awaken together, for I heard many voices going about the routine of the morning. The air-conditioner droned on and on, like a steady, heavy downpour.

************************

One never knows what awaits. I had feared crowds, yet nearly died of heat.  From then on, I knew in my gut –not only in my head– that the future is unknown, and that one’s imagined fears can collapse into irrelevance before they materialize.

The opposite is true, too. One’s imagined joys can fizzle into hazy retreat, while totally unexpected blessings flood in, bringing immense happiness, but that is another story.

Cover! Cover! Cover! A Sort of Quiz

Cover! Cover! Cover! A Sort of Quiz

This post does not address the Islamic requirement for hair-covering, or lack thereof, (face covering could be included by extension). It’s about the emotions, reactions, and the psychological meaning of the practice.

Covering, more than praying, fasting or any other behavior associated with Islam, elicits strong reactions, and divides sister Muslimahs as well as larger groups, but why?

My premise it that the divisiveness of covering derives from the many meanings associated with it, not from the argument for or against an Islamic requirement. To illustrate this (and in the spirit of the popularity of the blog quiz!) I would like to hear comments that specifically avoid the writer’s belief in whether or not covering is required or recommended in Islam. Perhaps this request is somewhat analytical, but I think it will broaden our (read: my) perspective on the subject.

I won’t start off by elucidating my experience or attitude toward the practice, except to say that it has fluctuated.  I won’t even post any photos of covered and uncovered women, lest bias influence response.

Coverers: Why do you cover, apart from your presumed belief that it is a directive from Allah?

Non-coverers: Who do you not cover, apart from your presumed belief that it is not a directive from Allah?

Men: How do you react to covered/non-covered women?

All: Do you believe that covering is associated with increased piety, and/or with the society in which one lives? On what basis? How do your surroundings influence your practice of covering (or not)?

 

Books by Bloggers– Master of the Jinn

 Author Irving Karchmar is Master of his Craft

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Master of the Jinn?  All I can do is repeat that this is a most extraordinary work of art, full of action, suspense, well-crafted plot development, and complex characterizations.

As if these qualities were not sufficient to guarantee a deeply satisfying reading experience, the book also accesses timeless themes of spiritual teaching and religious history, all wrapped up in modern language, and narrated by a main character who speaks to the reader in the reader’s own language—- literally as well as figuratively. The book has been or will be published in eight other languages by the end of 2009, insha’Allah.

I might not have discovered this book except that author Irving Karchmar’s blog Darvish, www.darvish.wordpress.com,  attracted me, on several levels. His poetic writing style, combined with an earthy humility, charmed me as it revealed nuggets of Sufi wisdom within the context of  each post.  I found myself checking in with Darvish regularly.

MOJcover

This is not a book to read with a calm, contemplative spirit, at least not the first time around. It’s too exciting.  I literally could not put it down except by an act of will.  I won’t tell you who is  master of the jinn, but I will tell you that Irving Karchmar is master of his craft.

www.masterofthejinn.com