Even Angels Ask

By Naazish YarKhan

The days are just sliding by. Fun-filled days though. Days filled with downtime and slow time and getting-to-play-with-the kids-time. But mostly summer is a very busy time, with less alone time, with the children being home and on our watch. Amidst it all though, I’ve actually been able to think.

I've been getting pretty uptight about the way some Muslims are so wrapped up in the minutiae of our faith as opposed to the spirit of Islam. Some can endlessly fixate on which foot to enter the washroom with, or how wearing nail polish leaves the ritual ablutions incomplete, hence rendering the prayers unacceptable. Others can get into a tizzy about women having even a strand of hair showing during prayer. That too, apparently, renders the prayer unacceptable. Covering one's hair in public, is the other issue. I don't see it as 'mandatory'.

My understanding of God, is a loving, kind God, as long as we follow the five pillars, avoid what is 'haram' and practice the spirit of the religion. After all, each prayer, begins with the words, “In the Name of the Most Beneficent, the Merciful”. This is my version of Islam. All the 'little' rules, were they really necessary? I couldn’t understand all that energy being spent on fixing others ‘shortcomings’ rather than being energy directed on improving the environment, eradicating child abuse, domestic violence or changing the ills in society, all of which are part and parcel of the spirit of our faith. To me, leaving this world better than I found it, is an Islamic responsibility. Doing it each day of my life, is an Islamic responsibility. A friend reasoned that attention to minutiae, didn’t mean lack of attention to other broader issues. But I disagreed. We most talk about things that we are most passionate about and when nitty-gritty stuff are top of the mind consistently, it’s fairly obvious what one’s most pressing concerns are.

My annoyance at such ‘small-minded’ Muslims began when a lady at the mosque said I should come to the mosque only in full sleeves, (I was in half-sleeves, that day). I had tried on several full-sleeves shirts that morning since I knew I’d be visiting the mosque, but none seemed to match my skirt and I’d given up rather than get late. But she didn’t know that part of the story.

Her comment irritated me. Of what business was my attire to her, since I was only listening to a lecture and was not at the mosque to pray, I thought? I had my extra long duppatta covering my arms and was decently dressed by most standards. “If I stop attending this mosque because I’m insulted by your comment, would that be better?” I asked her, to which she replied that it would be better for me since men were also present to pray and skin distracts men.

The men were on a whole other floor! If catching a glimpse of six inches of flesh on my lower arms is enough to distract them, surely they can’t be paying any attention to their relationship with God. My temper boiled. But not wanting to quarrel in the house of God, as this has been expressly forbidden by the Prophet Mohammad, may God’s blessings be Upon him, I didn’t take the argument further.

This session, for me, got worse during the lecture, when another sister went into how important it was for Muslims to correct other Muslims from wrongdoing, albeit do it in a loving way. While she may have been thinking of asking Muslims to adhere to the five pillars of Islam or something major, I translated it to mean comments like the other lady had just made. Comments, which to me, were extraneous, meddlesome and impolite.

Why weren’t people more worried about their own relationship with God, than how close or how far others, strangers especially, were from attaining heaven? Did I go into their homes and see how politely or rudely they spoke to their spouses, servants or kids? Did I follow them to shopping malls and see if they held doors open for those behind them? Did I sit beside them on a train and see if they politely kept cell phone calls short versus force all the passengers to hear the conversation. A Muslim’s character is, after all, judged by all his deeds and actions. If I wasn’t following them around and critiquing them, what business was it of theirs to comment on my choices? What did they feel they would achieve by making someone feel unwelcome and ill-suited for the mosque? My irritation with that woman, and my annoyance at what some Muslims deem important, from then on seeped into every conversation. I ranted loud and clear to anyone who would listen.

As much as I held fast to my annoyance, I also knew something, which I was willing to accept, and hence examine. I know, when things (or people) begin to irritate us a lot, it is not about them as much as it about us. There was something that was going on within me that was causing me to react so strongly. I had to begin with me, especially since I know from the Quran that God doesn’t change a man's situation, until he changes that which is in himself. Or herself, as the case maybe. There are no free lunches, as my daughter says. You have to sow the seed, to harvest the fruit.

Maybe I was reacting so much because these ideas challenged my comfort zone? Or maybe, I'd rather not see that those ideas have validity, just because they aren't ideas I have intentions of adopting? Or, was it just a matter of me learning to live and let live? Me accepting that God gave us personalities, so that we would be different. By virtue of that, each of us is allowed to lean towards whatever appeals to us about Islam the most. That all of our practices can be and/and, instead of either/ or?

I thought about it, but wasn’t any wiser. I can sort out my thoughts and feelings better when I write, so I began writing an email. An email which I didn’t eventually send. As I wrote, it started to get clearer why some people make such a fuss about nail polish and a single hair showing through the hijab. Prayers in Islam are mandatory. And if one were risking them, one could very well be risking heaven. Hence, these individuals’ concern and feelings of righteous duty, to point things out to all and sundry. Ditto with the sight of women’s skin negating a man’s prayer! To these individuals, everything they knew and had learned about prayer, pointed to its importance. So anything that could challenge the perfect execution of prayer, was to be nipped in the bud.

That was one possibility. But I also realized that it was time to do some reading. I personally feel we often choose the easier path - herd mentality versus intellectual curiosity. We rather do it because our father’s did it, versus seeking the knowledge to find out why such and such, or so and so, applies in religion. It reminds me of a joke. A woman always cut a slice of turkey off before baking it for Thanksgiving. Her daughter, one day, asked why. And the mom goes, “because my mother did it.” And the girl asks her grand-ma, who also says the same. So then the girl asks the great-grandma, who says, " I cut the turkey because I had a small oven and it wouldn't fit in otherwise." I believe a lot simply based on faith. There are no two ways about it. But some issues raise questions. And it would serve me well to know why something says what it does, to understand it with my heart and my mind.

So I've just begun reading up on Islam. I really liked "Being Muslim " by Haroon Siddiqui because it is a critical look at both Muslims and those who are anti-Muslim. I'm also interested in reading Morrocon feminist Fatema Mernissi (http://www.mernissi.net/) . Dr. Umar Farooq Abdulla of Nawawi Foundation (http://www.nawawi.org/) in the USA is an amazing resource as well. Tariq Ramadan’s words are worth their weight in gold, too. Yusuf Islam, Amina Assilmi are others. Their works are often online, many times as free downloadable audio files. If you plan to do something similar, do be aware of those who write about Islam, but hate it with all their hearts. There are many of these writers around too, and the most touted have Muslim heritages.

I want to find out more about Wahabi-ism and what its interpretations of Islam are. It seems to have infiltrated mosques in the USA over the past 10-20 years, and I’d like to see in what way it is impacting the understanding we have of Islam today. I also want to learn specifically about Ijtehad which means intellectual endeavor to seek the solutions of day-today, current matters based on the Quran and Sunnah. Scholars bemoan the fact that there is almost next to nothing of this going on, currently. Again, what’s the impact?

God forgive me if I am wrong, but there is nothing wrong in asking questions and learning more. When God made man, it says in the Quran, that even the angels asked Him, if He would make a creation that would cause bloodshed on earth? When the angels, the most subservient to God, can ask, why not us? But, for Muslims, our intentions need to be clear. We can’t be asking questions, when our only intent is to look for wiggle room, or if our only intent is to dismiss the answers. Even when the intent is noble, certain others may look down on our desire to research religion. But it must be remembered, Islam began with the command ‘Read’. The Quran has repeatedly been addressed to those who ponder, who think, those who use their intellect. And as, the Prophet, God bless and keep him, said: “Seek knowledge even if in China, for the seeking of knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim.” His other injunctions were, "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave", and "Verily the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the prophets". And the journey ahead begins with a single step.