Thursday, 27 August 2009

Don't be outraged for Muslim women

Western feminists should not assume everyone's struggle mirrors their own – their obsession with the burqa has a patronising whiff

"Did you wear a burqa when you lived in Saudi Arabia?" a young woman I met at a party recently asked. I responded in the affirmative, upon which she inquired again: "But weren't you outraged?" "Not particularly," I said. Fixing me with an earnest stare she declared, "Well if you weren't then I am outraged on your behalf!"

It's tricky to respond to this with equanimity. The sentiment behind the utterance is undoubtedly a sincere and genuine one, free of any deliberate intent to patronise, but it was patronising nonetheless. This seems to be the initial turn-off when western feminism comes to the rescue, the blanket assumption that the victim has no volition nor can respond to adversity with the commensurate degree of outrage because she is so accustomed and desensitised to her own subjugation. It is a strange mix of protective sororal sympathy and smugness.

I could have launched into all the reasons why outrage would have been futile, why, while the burqa wasn't particularly comfortable, it was the least of my concerns in a country of institutionalised misogyny. Besides, there seems to be an assumption that the salvation of Muslim women must mirror that of western women. Inordinate focus on sartorial garb for example misses the point and assumes that all women should want to dress a particular hijab-free way when what we should be trying to ensure is that the choice to do so or not is what is protected. While this very process of choice is murky and itself subject to its own conditions and social pressures, it can be argued that the same applies to women in the west and that we can do little beyond ensuring that the right to choose is not circumscribed by law.

Although basic rights and dignities are universal, there are ways of enshrining them without perfectly emulating a western experience. That is not to say that Muslim women should be left alone and be allowed to choose to be repressed because it is their right, but in deeply traditional societies, women choose their battles and make distinctions between wants and needs.

In addition, treating all Muslim women's problems as monolithically attributable to their religion is a cul-de-sac. There are vast cultural differences and influences that go beyond the simplistic attention-grabbing headlines. Even in diaspora, Muslims tend to perpetuate cultural strands of religious practice; thus engaging with communities, as opposed to with some faceless religious body, might be more productive and focus efforts.

The endeavour to help Muslim women is also undermined and treated with increased cynicism when it is morally hijacked in order to underwrite less idealistic campaigns. The latest developments in Afghanistan prove how easily women's rights can be relegated even under western sponsorship. Is female education, the violin that accompanied the drum beats of war in Afghanistan, no less universal a right than freedom from sexual terrorism?

Western feminism needs to divorce and distance itself from high-profile military campaigns in order to win back goodwill. Neo-colonialist sensitivities run deep in Muslim societies and many a fruitful joint venture can be sabotaged due to such prickliness. Finding local partners and supporting indigenous role models can minimise this effect. While working briefly at the UN mission in Khartoum, I realised that the most influential figure in a campaign to promote contraception and sexual health was a middle aged Sudanese female member of parliament. Young women listened to her, and their patrons, older women and the men in their families, were not alienated and thus allowed her access to their homes. Any whiff of visible western practical support for Lubna Hussein for example, would have robbed her campaign of most of its credibility.

What will help Muslim women is spending less time and effort being outraged on our behalf and more on differentiating the different faces and needs behind the burqa.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

A day in the life of Shaykh Murabit al Hajj (God Preserve Him )

This is narrated by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf:

During the blessed time that I was fortunate to have lived with him in his own tent, I observed his daily routine: He would usually awake at about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning and begin the Tahajjud or night prayers. He would often recite for a few hours, and I heard him repeat verses over and over again and weep. Just before dawn, he would sit outside his tent and recite Qur’an, and then when the first light of dawn was discernible, he would walk to the open-air mosque and call the adhan. He would then pray his nafilah and wait for a short period and then call the iqamah. During that time, I never saw anyone else lead the prayer, and he would almost always recite from the last 60th of the Qur’an as is the Sunnah for a congressional Imam to do so according to Imam Malik.

After the sun rose and reached the level of a spear above the horizon, he would pray the sunrise rak’ahs and then return to his tent where he would have some milk brought fresh from a cow. He would then teach until about 11:00 in the morning and nap for a short while. After that, students would start coming again, and he would continue to teach until about 1:00pm at which time he would measure his shadow for the time of the midday prayer. He would then call the adhan at the time his shadow reached an arm’s length past the post meridian time as is the Maliki position on the midday prayer, if performed in congregation, to allow for others to come from their work after the heat dissipates. He would always pray four rakahs before and after the midday prayer and then return to his tent where he would teach until afternoon. He would usually have a small amount of rice and yogurt drink that is common in West Africa. Then, he would measure his shadow for the afternoon prayer, and when he ascertained its time, he would proceed to the mosque and call the adhan.

After Asr, Murabit al-Hajj would return to his tent and usually resume teaching and sometimes listen to students recite their Qur’an lessons from memory and he would correct their mistakes. During any lulls in his teaching, anyone in his presence could hear him say with almost every breath, “La ilaha illa Allah,” or he would recite Qur’an. At sunset, he would go and call the adhan, pray Maghrib, and then sit in the mihrab and recite his wird until the time of the night prayer. He would call the adhan, lead the pray and return to his tent. He would usually have some milk and a little couscous and then listen to students recite Qur’an or read Qur’an by himself. At around 9:00 pm whe would admonish himself with lines of poetry form Imam Shafi’s Diwan and other well-known poets. He would often remember death with certain line that he repeated over and over again, especially the following that I heard him many times:

O my Lord, when that which there is repelling alights upon me,

And I find myself leaving this adobe

And become Your guest in a dark and lonely place,

Then make the host’s meal for his guest the removal of my wrongs.

A guest is always honored at the hands of a generous host,

And You are the Generous, the Creator, the Originiator.

Surely kings, as a way of displaying their magnanimity

Free their servants who have grown old in their service.

And I have grown old in Your service,

So free my soul from the Fire

He often repeats these lines for what seems like an eternity, his voice penetrating the hearts of all those within earshot. He once admonished me with lines of poetry, one after another, until I wanted the earth to swallow me. He said to me, “And what is man other than a comet that flashes brilliant light for a moment only to be reduced to ashes.”

He told me several times, “Hamza, this world is an ocean, and those who drown in it are untold numbers. Don’t drown.”

I have never seen anyone like him before him or after him, and I don’t think that I ever will. May Allah reward him for his service to this din and his love and concern for the Muslims. He was never known to speak ill of anyone. Once when a student was studying Khalil with him and asked what a certain word meant in the text, he explained to him that it was a slow and clumsy horse. The student then said, “like so-and-so’s horse?” At this Murabit al-Hajj suddenly became upset and said, “I don’t spend much time with people because they backbite, so if you want to study with me, you must never speak ill of anyone in my presence.” It is not well known by Muslims that to speak ill of someone’s animals falls under the ruling of backbiting.

Shaykh Murabit al-Hajj is a master of the sciences of Islam, but perhaps more wondrous than that, he has mastered his own soul. His discipline is almost angelic, and his presence is so majestic and ethereal that the one in it experiences a palpable stillness in the soul. As the Arabs says, “the one who hears is not as the one who has seen.” I was told by many people from his family that had I seen him in his youth, I would have been even more astonished at his devotional practices