Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Parent's Prayer

One thing I picked up from some really great women I met in Kuwait was how whenever they'd address their kids affectionately, they'd make dua at the same time - for example, "Habibi, Allah yahfadh'ak" or "Galbi, Allah ya3teech al3afiyah."
(Translation: My love, may Allah preserve you; my heart, may Allah give you health/security from illness & grief.)
And when praising them, whether for worldly achievements or otherwise, always following up with du'a - may Allah increase you in good etc.
It's a really great way to remind ourselves as parents that Allah is the One Who can make our kids better; & taking advantage of a parent's accepted du'a as well. It's far better than fawning over our kids with hollow words that may or may not be true.
The same of course applies to when we as parents are frustrated as well - never once did I hear these women, even if they were upset or disappointed by something their children said or did, become angry and start making it all about how their children were failures or doomed or somesuch.
Rather, they would always make du'a for them: "Allah yesleh7aalhum" - may Allah correct their affairs, and even acknowledge that perhaps they were emotionally blind to something which was in fact a source of khayr.
Although those women were not shaykhas or aalimahs, although they did not teach parenting courses or lifecoaching workshops, they taught me in our various interactions what it meant to be a genuinely outstanding parent: understanding that all power is with Allah, and utilizing the gift of du'a in the most effective and consistent manner possible.
Though they obviously experienced many emotions with regards to their children, they had the presence of mind to step away and understand that their view of the matter was not the only one or even the right one; they always turned back to Allah and prayed that whatever their child's Qadr was, it was one of good and guidance.
As parents, we should consider every moment of pleasure or frustration with our children as moments of du'a for them. Make it a habit to let them hear you make du'a for their good character, their health, their success in this world and the Hereafter. Let them associate you mentioning their names, with calling upon Allah and relying upon Him alone, seeking only goodness for them.
Rabbana hab lana min azwaajinaa wa thurriyyaatinaa qurrata a'yun, waj3alnaa min al muttaqina imaama.
{Our Lord, grant us from among our spouses and offspring comfort to our eyes and make us an example for the righteous.}

A Lesson in Ikhlas & Ihsan from the Outwardly 'Flawed'

While we 'religious' folk like to talk a lot these days about warm fuzzy spiritual stuff, we also tend to have a rather narrow and contrived ideas of how 'spiritual' people should be or look like. We figure that those who perform great acts of 3ebadah (worship) with ikhlaas (sincerity) are most likely to fit a certain mold - those who spend a lot of time studying the Deen, for example, even if they're not shaykhas and aalimahs per se; or those who noticeably recite a great deal of Quran on a regular basis; or those who exhibit an almost otherworldly serenity, a sakeenah, in the face of difficulty. Certainly, those people exist and are undoubtedly of those who are pleasing Allah, but we tend to overlook other types of people who may also be beloved to their Lord.
These are the people who may seem to have obvious flaws or shortcomings - a tendency to use somewhat, ahem, colourful language; or may know that a certain action is haraam but find it difficult to stop; or they may just not be as knowledgeable about Islam as we think we are.
Those from the second group may be struggling hugely: divorcees, single moms, financially insecure, students... or even all of the above. They might be going through numerous tests and challenges in their lives, but they are also sometimes the first people to come to your aid: to show up and help you when you are in dire straits, even if you haven't known them for very long; to babysit your child on short notice; to take you on grocery shopping runs every so often because you have no car; to take you to the hospital to visit ailing family members or help you move to a new apartment. They are always ready to help and show up with a grin and a lending hand, without complaint or expectation of reward or favours returned.
The difference is that when outwardly pious people do acts of good character, we chalk it up to their religiosity (which may be true) - but we rarely to stop to think about, or appreciate, latter category in such terms. So many of us have developed the unhealthy habit of subconsciously judging and chronicling others' mistakes that we don't stop to truly appreciate the depth of their gifts to us.
It is these people, whom we criticize or underestimate, who truly embody the spirit of Ikhlaas (sincerity) and Ihsaan (excellence) - because though they have shortcomings (just as the rest of us do), they are also honest in their sincerity, whereas we lack the same.
It is these people who are amongst the ‪#‎ForgottenHeroines‬ and‪#‎ForgottenHeroes‬ of our Ummah, ignored and underappreciated and even at times belittled. But it is these people who demonstrate what love for the sake of Allah entails, and I pray that for that person in my life - and those undoubtedly in yours - that they be of those beloved to Allah, and shaded on that Day when there will be no shade except for that which He provides.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Lioness of Ahlul Bayt

Either you carry Islam, or Islam carries you. Those in the former category are those who uphold the honor of this Ummah and are its strength; those in the latter category are like those who are carried in Ṭawâf – weak and unable to do much for themselves. – Dr. Zaid Al-Dakkan

WHEN PEOPLE SPEAK about the role of women in the Muslim Ummah, quite often the same phrases are repeated, “Women are created to be mothers, to raise the next generation of Muslims!” The only contributions required of Muslim women, it seems, are those of a domestic sort.
However, when we look to the history of Islam from its earliest days, when we turn to the life of The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and his Companions, male and female, we see something very different. Certainly, women did have a domestic role to play—but they were not limited to that sphere alone.
In the harsh desert climate of ancient Arabia, women were not weak and timid, but strong enough to withstand the prevalent oppression against them, intelligent enough to recognize the perfection of Islam, and strong enough to fight back against the Jâhiliyya that surrounded them.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib was one of those women—an individual who carried Islam forth from the very beginning, who embodied what it meant to be strong and indomitable. She was the paternal aunt of The Prophet œ and though she was younger than him in age, she was very close to both him and her brother Hamza ibn Abd Al-Muṭṭalib. When The Prophet ascended Mount Ṣafa and gave his historic speech to Quraysh, he addressed her directly, beseeching her to heed his call.
Knowing what it meant to defy all of Qurayshi society, to be in opposition to people like Abû Lahab –her own brother– Ṣafiyyah made the decision to accept her nephew’s message of Islam. It was a choice that required not only spiritual conviction, but an understanding of the brutal reality that she would have to face from then on. Without hesitation, she accepted Islam and all that it meant to be a Muslim in an environment of merciless hostility.
Safiyyah was a woman who came from a family that was not only noble in social standing, but full of individuals who were famed for various reasons. Her brother, Abû Lahab, held immense influence over the chieftains of Quraysh; her other brother, Ḥamza, was renowned as a warrior of unparalleled stature, and was given the unique epithet of Asadullâhthe Lion of Allah. When these were her brothers, and her nephew was the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), it was only natural that she, too, be a person of greatness.
She was much like her brother Hamza in temperament: a woman of strength, ferocity, and even harshness. She raised her son Al-Zubair ibn Al-Awwâm to be fearless and able to withstand the most difficult of treatment and circumstances. Her training methods with him were at times extremely harsh: She would push him to his limits and hold him to very high standards. Once, when he came to her complaining of bullying from his peers, she rebuked him and in fact struck him right there in the street. A relative passing by entreated her to treat the young orphan gently, and she retorted: “How else will he become a man of strength and power?”
Thanks to her, Al-Zubair was one of only two people in all of Makkah who were trained to wield a sword in each hand. She would take great pride in having him challenge others to duels, and then winning them. As a young man, he once got into a fight with an older man who insulted him – and injured him badly. The wounded man was brought to Safiyyah, who told him: “When you fight with Al-Zubair, this is what you deserve!”
When Al-Zubair had a son of his own, Abdullâh, Ṣafiyyah also took part in raising him, utilizing many of the methods she had used with Al-Zubair. She was determined to make her grandson as fearless and unbeatable as his father. One example of how she trained Abdullâh was that she would take him out to the desert at night and leave him there, instructing him to find his own way back home. When others expressed their shock at her unconventional methods, she told them: “This is the only way he will learn what it takes to become amongst the greatest of warriors.” Indeed, Abdullâh ibn Al-Zubair grew up to become renowned for his prowess on the battlefield and his mastery of the arts of war.
Ṣafiyyah regularly accompanied The Prophet to his battles. At the Battle of Uḥud, when the Muslim army began to retreat, she seized a spear and began to strike at enemy soldiers viciously. Alarmed, The Prophet told Al-Zubair to bring her back behind the fighting lest she be harmed; Al-Zubair had to physically seize his mother in order to pull her away!
When she heard that her brother Hamza had been killed, Ṣafiyyah insisted on seeing his body. Worried that she would be devastated and traumatized by the sight, The Prophet told Al-Zubair that it was better for her not to see him. Ṣafiyyah told her son to go back. “Why should I leave when my brother has been mutilated and killed for the sake of Allah?” Ignoring the protests of those around her, she strode forward to stand over her brother’s body. Poised even as she looked down at his mangled corpse, she recited Istighfâr (a short prayer for Allah’s forgiveness) and expressed the formal Islamic expression to be said at times of grief and calamity: “Inna lillâhi wa inna ilayhi râji'ûn,” (to Allah we belong and to Him we return.) As a poet, she expressed her sorrow in terms of elegance and eloquence, demonstrating once again that she was no wilting wallflower but rather, a woman of refined self-possession and grace.
During the Battle of the Trench, Ṣafiyyah considered herself the guardian over the other women and children. Though Ḥassân ibn Thâbit remained with them due to his illness, he was unable to do much. When an enemy soldier approached, Safiyyah grabbed a pole and impaled him. “Strip his body of the armour,” she told Ḥassân, who reminded her that he was incapable of moving. Shrugging, she rolled up her sleeves and stripped the body herself, beheading the corpse and tossing it over the fortress walls. Taking charge in the harsh manner required in the moment for her party to gain the upper hand, she unflinchingly accepted the role of a militant combatant who must kill or be killed. As the enemy approached, they all caught sight of the disembodied head and pulled back in fear—they were convinced that a great warrior was guarding the place. In truth, it was Ṣafiyyah alone who stood ready to destroy anyone who dared breach the fortress walls.
At the death of The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), she did not allow the confusion of others to influence her. She stood tall in front of the masses and composed an impassioned eulogy that remains recorded even today.
Safiyyah lived to see the khilâfa (caliphate) of Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb, and during her lifetime, was respected and consulted by many of the Companions.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib’s indomitable strength and her status as a member of the Prophet’s household easily mark her as a woman without parallel—a lioness of Ahl Al-Bayt. In her, we see the example of a woman whose role in the Ummah was neither shallow nor restricted; we see that women played an active part in the Muslim society at the time of the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam). She demonstrates to us that not every Muslim woman is required to fit a narrow, limited mold of what it means to be a female member of the Ummah.
Ṣafiyyah epitomizes what it means to be a woman of power, a force to be reckoned with, who felt no hesitation in engaging with society whenever she felt that she had a role to play. She never backed down and never allowed others to intimidate her—in fact, she felt no qualms in being the one to intimidate others.
Ṣafiyyah bint Abd Al-Muṭṭalib is a reminder to Muslim men and women alike that one should never underestimate—or under-appreciate—the power of a woman.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Passion and Power: The Politics of the Ideal Muslimah

IT IS HUMAN nature to be hyper aware and critical of those in the public eye, and Muslims are no different. Imams, shuyûkh, and other popular figures in the Muslim public sphere are all subject to scrutiny and fascination.
Muslim women who are engaged in the public sphere are even more vulnerable to criticism. Every aspect of their lives – whether it’s their marital status, the color of their hijabs and jilbâbs, how many children they have or (God forbid they get a divorce!) why they weren’t good enough wives to begin with (and how their publicity was probably the reason for it) – is up for discussion by the general masses, who are vicious critics with lots of sanctimonious self-righteousness and very little usn al-ann (benefit of the doubt).
No matter how religious or scholarly, Muslim women who find themselves having a public presence are always expected to fit a very specific mould – one of the ‘ideal Muslimah.’
However, this ‘ideal Muslimah’ is fictional: it was not fully embodied even by the best of women, the wives of the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), his female Companions, and the women of the Tâbiîn. We have allowed ourselves to create a false narrative that the women of those times spoke only in a certain way, dressed only in a certain way, and interacted with society at large in a very limited and specific way. We have been led to believe that they were devoid of personality quirks, strong opinions, and personal conflicts with even their husbands; we have been led to believe that they were Madonnas whose piety ensured a lack of normal humanity.
Yet none of this is true. It is true that they were women of taqwa; women of knowledge, wisdom and understanding; women of modesty and chastity; women who were dedicated to the worship of Allah. But they were also women who chose to lead armies into battle; women who not only disagreed with their husbands, but insisted on following their own opinions; women who were passionate and did not allow others to dictate how they would speak or behave.
One such woman was Âishah bint Ṭalḥa ibn Ubaydillâh. Her father was the Sahabi Ṭalḥa ibn Ubaydullâh, her mother was Umm Kulthûm bint Abi Bakr Al-Siddîq, and her aunt was Umm al-Mu’minîn Âishah bint Abi Bakr.
Âishah bint Ṭalḥa was a muadditha (scholar of Hadith), a faqîha (jurist), a muftiyya (one who issues non-binding legal rulings), and an abida (worshiper) who was considered nearly equal to Âishah bint Abi Bakr, the Prophet’s wife, in piety, knowledge, and intellect.
She was also known to be the most beautiful woman of Madinah, a woman who had three husbands, and who was unmatched in the sheer force of her personality.
She also did not cover her face. Though she observed hijab and covered herself with a khimâr and jilbâb, she left her face bare – and as a result, her beauty became famed both within Madinah and outside of it.
It is narrated that once Aishah got into a fight with her husband Abdullâh ibn Abd Al-Raḥmân ibn Abi Bakr Al-Ṣiddîq and left her home in a state of fury. On her way to Al-Masjid Al-Nabawy, where she was going to visit her aunt ¢Âishah, she came across the Sahabi Abu Hurairah. In shock, he stared at her and exclaimed, “SubânAllah! I’ve just seen one of the Hûr Al-În!” (As for the fight with her husband – Âishah stayed with her aunt for four months before she decided to go back home.)
Anas ibn Mâlik once told her directly, “By Allah, I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you other than Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyân when he is sitting on the minbar of RasûlAllâh!” Her response was one of complete self-assurance. “By Allah, I am more beautiful than a powerful flame seen by a man who is freezing on an icy night!”
Imagine how such a woman would be considered today – a woman who has the audacity to reply with such confidence, who not only acknowledges what others say about her, but emphasizes it. (And forget about a woman who leaves her husband’s home in anger and doesn’t go back until she so chooses!)
One point of note is that Âishah demonstrated that it was apparently not considered harâm for her to leave her husband’s home without his permission; after all, she spent the duration of those four months in the home of Umm Al-Mu’minîn Âishah. If she had committed a sin in doing so, wouldn’t her aunt have rebuked her and sent her back to her husband? The situation was a far cry from what we hear from many people today – that for a woman to even step foot outside of her husband’s home without his permission is wrong; that for a woman to leave her husband’s home out of anger is tantamount to minor kufr!
Her second husband, Mus'ab ibn Al-Zubair, was a man who loved her deeply and began to feel jealous over the fact that her beauty was so obvious to all who saw her. One day he told her, “Either stay within your home or cover your face when you go out!”
Her reply?
Allah has given me this distinction of beauty, so I want people to look upon me and know my virtue over them; I will never cover it when it comes from Allah. And by Allah, Allah knows that there is no fault in my character upon which anyone can comment!
The narrator who was relating this story to Imam Al-Ṣafadi commented, “This was true. She was extremely strong in character, and that was what the women of Banu Taym were like.”
In this incident, what stands out is that – lack of niqâb aside – this was a clear case of a man commanding his wife to do something… and the wife choosing to follow her own fiqh opinion in the full confidence that she was not doing something displeasing to Allah.
While one may disagree with her choice not to wear niqâb, it is particularly intriguing that for a woman known to be one of the greatest Tâbi'iyyât of her time. She was described as thiqa (strong and trustworthy in the Science of Hadith) by Yaḥya ibn Ma'în, Al-Dâraquṭni, Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and others; she was also classified as ujja (one whose statements and actions are used as evidence in legal matters), which is a category very few individuals were considered worthy of. Also, she defied what is commonly taught as a primary requirement in the marital relationship: the unwavering obedience of a wife to her husband in absolutely every sphere of life.
Obviously, it is undeniable that Allah gave men the role of qawwâm (guardian – a man responsible towards the women of his family) – but perhaps it is also time for us to acknowledge that over time, Muslims have over-exaggerated what that role entails. The Sahaba and Tâbi'în, it appears, did not have such a stringent concept of wifely submission to a husband’s every whim and desire.
Examples from her life were recorded in the books of fiqhAfter the death of Âishah’s first husband, Mus'ab ibn Al-Zubair proposed marriage to her, but for one reason or another, she refused to accept… and went as far as swearing an oath of dhihâr. “If I marry him, he will be forbidden to me like my father’s back!” she declared. It was an unprecedented moment of Islamic jurisprudence. For one reason or another, she eventually relented, and the scholarly decision was that she needed to pay an expiation for her oath. As kaffâra (expiation), she bought and freed a slave worth 2,000 dinars.
On another occasion, she swore an oath of dhihâr once again – and again, to her husband Mus¢ab. She locked herself in her rooms and refused to allow him anywhere near her, reminding him of her oath, though he begged and pleaded to be able to even speak to her. In the end, he summoned Âmir Al-Sha'bi, the faqîh of Kufa, to discuss the matter with Âishah. Having had a change of heart, she asked Âmir Al-Sha'bi how to resolve the matter. His fatwah was that the oath was invalid, and that she was required to pay the kaffâra. She agreed with his conclusion, and allowed Mus'ab to return to her. In appreciation, she gave Âmir Al-Sha'bi 4,000 dirhams for his efforts in solving the fiqh conundrum.
There are numerous other stories from Âishah bint Ṭalḥa’s life that demonstrates just how different she was from our preconceived notions of what ‘true scholarship’ was like. Today, a woman who conducts herself in such a manner would never be accepted as a person of righteousness and authority. She would be spoken of in harsh terms, accused of being a ‘fitna’(temptation, tough test) to those around her, denied any public position of Islamic education to the masses.
Yet in Â’ishah bint Ṭalḥa’s time, she was considered to be a woman of extreme piety and worship, a woman who taught men of the Tâbi¢în, a woman who was recorded as being amuadditha, a faqîha, and a muftiyya. Despite all these stories that were known about her, no one seem to have found a contradiction in the fact that she spoke and behaved in such a way, and that she was still such a woman of righteousness. There were many Sahabah who lived at her time, yet they apparently accepted her for the way she was.
What we can learn from Â’ishah bint Ṭalḥa’s life is not necessarily to derive fiqh opinions aboutniqâb or dhihâr –or whether wives can walk out on their husbands– but rather to reflect upon how we consider women, their personalities and their conduct, and their presence in the public sphere. Our ideas of what an ‘appropriate Muslim woman’ is meant to be has been so clouded by our own filters – both cultural ones and Islamicly justified ones – that we fail to realize that the greatest generations of Muslims often had very different ideas of what was considered acceptable.
Though we have come to believe that a pious woman is a silent woman, or a woman who restricts any and all aspects of herself to the private setting, or a woman whose public presence is as minimal and stark as possible, it is obvious from the biographies of female scholars of the past that this was not always considered the ideal. A woman’s role was seen as far more flexible as it is today; a woman’s ability to stand her ground and be more than automatically obedient was recognized and not castigated.
The Ṣahâbiyyât and Tâbi'iyyât lived as normal human beings with emotions, temptations, quirks of personality, issues in their relationships, and so on – yet this did not detract from their greatness as believers and scholars whose worth was recognized.
It may just be that we have a great deal of changing to do when it comes to how we perceive and perpetuate ‘the ideal Muslimah’ – whether she is a scholar in the public sphere, an individual in the domestic sphere, or both. For us to be able to raise new generations of heroines of Islam to revitalize the Ummah, it is necessary for us to challenge our own narrow ideas of what type of women those first heroines of Islam were to begin with.
(Author’s Note: The source for the narrations about Âishah bint Ṭalḥa were related by Sh. Muhammad Akram Nadwi, referencing Imam Al-Ṣafadi.)

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Double Standards of Desire

“Brother, the fitnah! It’s too difficult! If I don’t get a second wife right now, I’m going to do the haraam!”
This statement is not only common to hear amongst Muslim men, but acceptable as well. Guess what, bros – polygyny isn’t the solution to your all-important male arousal. And really, let’s face it… you can’t afford a second wife to begin with. So if your first wife won’t compromise some of her basic Shar’i rights in order to cater to your libido, what are you going to do, hire a prostitute? Watch porn? Really? Are you that desperate for ‘variety,’ when at the end of the day – as RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said – your wife has the exact same thing the other woman has?
Newsflash: Your physical desire isn’t the center of the universe.
Now how about we stop for a moment and consider the flip side. Oh, I know what you’re thinking – what flip side? Women can’t possibly understand what men go through; women don’t have anywhere near the levels of libido or triggers of desire… do women even have desire, really?
If you ever bothered to ask a woman, she’d tell you – hell yes. We know all too well what you’re going through, because the fitnah we go through is just as bad. It is, perhaps, even worse when you consider the fact that so many Muslim leaders perpetuate the idea that women don’t experience any sexual fitnah to begin with.
For every Muslim man who complains about the fitnah of other women, they don’t realize that Muslim women are going through the exact same thing… if not worse.
Muslim women are groomed from young adulthood to believe that their role as wives is all-encompassing: to take care of a husband spiritually by waking him up for Fajr, to take care of him physically by cooking and cleaning for him, to take care of him by fulfilling his need for progeny by bearing his children, and to take care of him sexually by being always, constantly sexually attractive and available.
A woman who is not perfectly coiffed, waxed, and shaved is responsible for any illicit sexual desires that he may be troubled by; a man who develops a potbelly and showers a couple times of a week within the first few years of his marriage is considered perfectly normal and ‘a good guy’ as long as he remembers to take out the trash.
While Muslim men complain that their wives don’t match up to the Hollywood actresses paraded before their eyes, they don’t stop to think that they in turn don’t match their wives’ standards of attractiveness either.
Even before marriage, Muslim women can expect very little of their male cohorts; Muslim men, it seems, are not raised with the some of the basic grooming standards that many nonMuslim men (especially today with the hipster and lumberjack craze) have picked up on. Whether it has to do with a sense of dress, hygiene, or beard grooming habits (the only reason so many Muslim women appear to be repulsed by beards is because of how poorly Muslim men keep them), nonMuslim men these days far exceed Muslim men in the basic necessities of looking decent. Many Muslim men seem to think that they deserve praise for wearing clean socks and putting on deodorant.
NonMuslim men are also raised in an environment where – with all its other unpleasant realities acknowledged – they are expected to put in some effort in wooing a woman. From at least high school onwards, they’re taught the basics: dress well, smell good, bring some flowers, and take the woman out somewhere nice. The woman is given the sense that she is wanted and that the man is willing to make an effort to be desirable to her in return. In short, there is a courtship ritual.
For all that people make snide comments that the only reason nonMuslim make any effort whatsoever in either grooming themselves or how they conduct themselves with women, is because they want to get laid – well, duh. That is precisely the point. NonMuslim men do all these things without a guarantee of having sex after all that work; Muslim men have a guarantee from their wedding night onwards that they will never, ever be turned down for sex (and if they are, then the angels are right there to curse those disobedient women)… and yet make little effort to maintain even a simple level of physical attraction.
Every Muslim woman has been through the cringe-worthy experience of listening to a pot-bellied imam lecturing them on how to be attractive to their husbands – and inevitably rebuking them for not doing enough to spare them from ‘the fitnah.’
Now imagine, if you will, the following scenario instead:
“Shaykh, the fitnah is too much… my husband is no longer attractive to me, he is overweight and doesn’t try to look good for me. If I can’t be sexually satisfied soon, I’m going to do the haraam!”
I’m pretty sure we can all agree that the response would be a collective outburst of self-righteous rage: “AstaghfirAllah sister, how dare you say such a thing! Have modesty and do not allow Shaytan to whisper to you in such horrific ways!”
There is little to no acknowledgment whatsoever of the sexual fitnah Muslim women experience when faced by well-groomed, courteous nonMuslim men in contrast to the men they are either married to, or can look forward to marrying – the type who either make a (painfully) half-hearted attempt in university before abandoning themselves to early onset uncle-hood, or those who assume that being religious means never daring to emasculate themselves by grooming their beards.
Few, if any, will stop to mention that Ibn Abbas (radhiAllahu ‘anhu) used to brush his teeth, comb his beard and hair, and scent himself before going home. When asked why he did so, he retorted, “For my wife! I like to beautify myself for her just as I like her to beautify herself for me.”
Rather, the idea that women need to be physically attracted to their spouses appears alien amongst many Muslims today. The idea that women need to find their husbands sexually alluring is almost bizarre. And it is precisely because of this refusal to acknowledge Muslim women’s sexual needs within their marriages, that the dangerous door to sexual fitnah outside of their marriage exists.
Neither men nor women are immune to sexual fitnah – it is a desire that exists in all human beings, not solely within one gender. Women have eyes that see as much as men do; women have desires that exist just as men do, even if that desire is considered socially unacceptable to voice. Unlike men, women do not have the option of marrying more than one husband… so it could be said, perhaps, that there is more of an onus on men to please their wives and be physically attractive and sexually available to them than is commonly purported.
So please, for the sake of your womenfolk – Muslim men, please do more than take a shower.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Archie, Betty and Veronica: America's (Polygynous) Sweethearts

Archie, Betty, and Veronica: 

America's (Polygynous) Sweethearts

Polygyny is so often presented as a strange, Eastern concept rooted in misogyny and chauvinism... yet few realize that polygyny has existed in Western culture for decades, flaunted right under everyone's noses.
Archie comics were a staple of hundreds of thousands of North Americans' upbringing - and, unbeknownst to many, are a perfect example of a positive, heterosexual polygynous triad.
Betty and Veronica are best friends both in love with the same man; two women whose minor rivalries for Archie's attention and fights over his affection never destroy their friendship. If it looks as though Archie might be distracted by another woman (in particular the nefarious Cheryl Blossom), Betty and Veronica unite to remind him very strongly of which two women are the only ones he should be paying attention to.
Though they might squabble over fashion, hobbies, and who Archie is on a date with that night, Betty and Veronica are also loyal to each other and love each other dearly. Many a comic strip has ended with the two of them spending time with each other instead of with him, proving that loving the same man doesn't mean being unable to love 'the other woman.'
Archie, for his part, can never make up his mind and choose one over the other. His love for Betty and his love for Veronica is certainly not the same, yet no one can say that he truly favours one over the other. He appreciates each woman for her own unique personality (and of course, physical appearance). He stumbles and bumbles between the two, torn by the expectation of having to choose when he obviously *can't*... and really, why should he have to?
Archie, Betty and Veronica are possibly one of the best and most realistic portrayals of ‪#‎positivepoly‬, one which recognizes natural human emotions that are not narrowed and restricted solely to rabid jealousy or unrealistic adoration. From the close friendship between the two women to their unwillingness to give up on Archie, these three characters have proven that through thick and thin, their mutual love for each other can withstand the test of time. There’s really nothing quite like a consensual heterosexual polygynous triad, after all ;)

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands (Book Review)

POLYGYNY IS THE pink elephant in the room for so many Muslims – a topic both titillating and embarrassing, one that comes up in questions from non-Muslims and in debate in Muslim gatherings, a subject that elicits strong emotional reactions from almost everyone.
There are books about coping with polygyny; there are arguments made as to whether it’s even Islamically acceptable in this day and age. Yet, fiqh rulings aside, there is very little discussion on how polygyny exists as a practical reality in the lives of many Muslims in the West.
Debra Majeed, a professor of religious studies at Beloit College, wrote the book “Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands” in order to better understand (and explain) the phenomenon of polygyny from the perspectives of African American Muslim women based on their lived experiences.
In her preface, she describes her motivations for exploring the topic, and the lens through which she has framed her work. She makes it clear that her primary focus is on African American Muslim women. She emphasizes that she is operating from within the paradigm of Muslim womanism, which she defines as “a ‘philosophical perspective’ that draws attention to the varied conditions of black womanhood as experienced by African American Muslims, and the values of Islam they articulate.[1]
Majeed’s book is divided into 6 chapters, not including the Introduction and Afterword, both of which are worthy of spending time on reading.
Despite the fact that the book’s main purpose is to be used as a textbook, Majeed’s writing style is refreshingly clear and easy to read, unburdened by the convoluted terminology one generally expects from academia. The context of the book is equally refreshing: an honest, realistic, practical, and most importantly, non-judgmental look and discussion at the many ways polygyny is lived in North America.
Though it is repeated many times that these stories are of African American Muslims, much of what the book discusses is applicable to the vast majority of Muslims in North America who practice polygyny. Sprinkled with anecdotes and quotes from individuals whom Majeed interviewed on the topic, Polygyny does not skew in favor of polygyny or against it – it is merely  frank, and provides a very balanced view at polygyny across the spectrum of both positive and negative experiences.
Chapter 1 is titled ‘The Road to Understanding Polygyny,’ and lays out a clear and well-organized introduction to key ideas and concepts that Majeed proceeds to cover. She is transparent about how she has gathered all her information and references those whom she has drawn useful contributions. As part of ‘the road to understanding polygyny,’ she introduces to us some of the individuals whom she spoke to – women who have either lived in polygyny in the past, or are living in it currently. There are those who found themselves, unexpectedly, not the first wives they believed themselves to be—due to the fact their husbands went behind their backs, and then there are those who had more positive experiences.
Additionally, she goes to some length to explain why polygynous marriage is considered a viable option by some women in the African American Muslim community. She further explains the importance of womanism in her work, and ties the various threads being introduced into a comprehensive foundation upon which to proceed reading.
Chapter 2, ‘Agency and Authority in Polygyny,’ talks about the agency, power, and authority that Muslim women wield in polygynous marriages, and how those choices are acted upon in different ways. This chapter also includes a section that I thought was particularly intriguing and enjoyable: a ‘dialogical performance as ethnography.’ That is, she took a semi-fictional approach by imagining that she had gathered together her various interviewees and put together their responses on various topics related to polygyny, in order to provide a compare-and-contrast discussion-based platform. Through this medium, she provides readers with the opportunity to better identify and relate to the variety of perspectives of individuals who have lived through polygyny.
Majeed broadly divides polygyny into three types: polygyny of liberation, polygyny of choice, and polygyny of coercion. These three categories roughly describe polygyny as it is experienced by the women within these relationships – the first being an extremely positive experience wherein women find joy and empowerment; the second being that of acceptance but not necessarily enthusiasm or preference; and the third being that in which the women felt pressured – due to various factors – to remain within the polygynous relationship despite their own displeasure with the situation.
From personal experience and observation of others, I strongly agree with Majeed’s categorization of polygynous experiences for Muslim women. I especially appreciated the nuance and thoughtfulness that went into describing these categories and validating them with the lived experiences of women in those situations.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 “Religious and Experiential Prescriptions”, “Legalities and Emotional Well-Being,” and “Imam Mohammed’s Commentary on Polygyny,” respectively, were a little denser in terms of content. The topics covered mostly revolve around explanations of, and discussions on, polygyny in the Muslim community, and specifically within the Nation of Islam community. There is some detail given to the history of polygyny within the NoI movement and how it affected its leadership, which to some non-NoI Muslims would be considered largely irrelevant – although I personally thought that there were various insights definitely worth considering and applicable to the Muslim community at large.
Of particular note were the observations of steps taken by men that made polygyny easier and more successful—or more difficult and burdensome—for the women involved. It is clear that those men who were respectful and considerate of their first wives’ physical, emotional, and psychological situations and well-being were those men with far more positive polygynous marriages. On the other hand, those who neglected the well-being of both wives, whether spiritual, financial, legal or otherwise, were of those who often ended up going through a divorce with one of them.
It is also interesting to note that in almost every successful example of polygyny, the women involved were aware, educated, and involved in how their husbands chose to marry other wives. Among my own favorite stories, the co-wives had friendships and close relationships of their own that were not dependent upon their shared husband.
Chapter 6, “Mental Health and Living Polygyny” was, to me, the most enlightening chapter by far. One aspect of polygyny that is almost completely neglected by Muslims is that of how polygyny affects the psychology of children raised within this family structure. Again, Majeed brings forth a balanced view of how polygyny can positively affect children, and how it can also be a source of anguish and negativity for them as well.
Describing the positive experience that one child of a polygynous family had underscored the importance of the father’s role: to be present in his children’s lives, to communicate with them about changes in their lives due to the introduction of another adult to the family, and to model healthy relationships with both his wives.
Unfortunately, such an example of lived polygyny is extremely rare not just amongst African American polygynous Muslims, but polygynous Muslims at large. All too often, men going into polygyny rarely deign to think about how their marital choices will affect their children, especially if it means creating two (or more) separate households and reducing the amount of quality time spent with each child.
In her conclusion, Majeed lists several key notes which she thinks are of utmost importance for polygynous Muslims to be aware of and to practice in order to ensure the safety and security of all parties involved.
Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands is a book that I consider a must-read for all those interested in, or involved in, a polygynous marriage. It provides candid glimpses into real-life examples of polygyny, indirectly making it obvious what the common denominators of positive poly marriages are – and equally obvious how to guarantee the failure of a poly relationship.
By discussing not only the religious aspect of polygyny in Islam, but also by going into detail about legal concerns, financial caretaking of spouses, the relationship between co-wives, and the mental health of women and children in polygyny, Debra Majeed highlighted a wide spectrum of necessary issues that Muslims are faced with when undertaking polygyny.
It is my hope that we see a great deal more literature – as well as speeches and workshops by qualified Imams and other community leaders – provided on these topics. Unfortunately, existing narratives about polygyny in the Muslim community are overwhelmingly negative, unhealthy, and stale, with very little practicality. Majeed’s book is revitalizing , and hopefully the beginning of a more realistic and healthy approach to polygyny amongst Muslims not only in African American communities, but all Muslim communities, both in the East and the West.
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[1] “Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands(2015) University Press of Florida, Introduction, page 3

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Women: The Milkmaid and the Empress

ONE LATE NIGHT, the second khalîfa Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb walked through the narrow streets of Madinah in silence, observing the state of his people. As he passed by one mud-brick home, two voices caught his attention. Both were female: one older and hardened by life; the other, youthful and quietly determined.
“Tomorrow, when you take the milk to sell,” said the older voice – a mother’s voice – “Mix it with water. We’ll make more money for less milk, when today you sold all the milk and brought back only a meagre profit.”
“Mother!” the younger woman exclaimed. “We cannot do such a thing. Didn’t you hear the Commander of the Believers, Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb, prohibit everyone from doing so?”
“And where is the Commander of the Believers now?” retorted her mother. “Even if he can’t see us, Allah surely sees us,” the daughter responded firmly.
Unseen, Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb smiled into the darkness and silently marked the door of their home with a piece of chalk. The next day, he brought his son Âṣim and had him propose marriage to the milkmaid whose taqwa was made clear on a dark night. “For perhaps,” ¢Umar told his son: “Allah will bring forth from this woman a people who are as pure and good as she is.” [1]
Umar’s words rang true. This story is famous, for everyone knows of the great khalîfa Umar ibn Abd Al-Azîz, often spoken of as the fifth of the Rightly Guided Caliphs… and how he was the grandson of Âṣim ibn Umar Ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb. Yet when Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb voiced his foresight, it was not only Umar ibn Abd Al-Azîz to whom his words applied.
Of the lineage of the unnamed yet famous milkmaid and the son of Umar Ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb was a woman who exemplified the knowledge, courage, and excellence of character found in her grandfather. Maymûnah bint Abd Al-Azîz was the sister of Umar ibn Abd Al-Azîz, and in her own way, was no less famous than her brother.
Maymûnah, also known as Umm Al-Banîn, was married to her cousin, Al-Walîd ibn Abd Al-Malik – who was at one point a khalîfa of the Umayyad dynasty, thus making Umm Al-Banîn the equivalent of a queen. Royal position aside, Umm Al-Banîn stood out as a unique individual due to her own qualities: she was known to be an âbida, an ardent worshiper who spent her nights in tahajjud; she was incredibly generous, and loved to donate her wealth for the sake of Allah; she was also an Islamic scholar in her own right – she was considered a great muadditha by Imam Abû Zur'a, who was himself an authority in the field of Hadith and specifically with regards to the chains of narration.
As impressive as all of this is, however, it is not the only thing that is known about Umm Al-Banîn. Rather, there is one particular incident that highlights the true mettle of her character.
Al-Walîd ibn Abd Al-Malik, Umm Al-Banîn’s husband, was an Umayyad khalîfa, and – perhaps somewhat shockingly – kept the infamously brutal Al-Ḥajjâj ibn Yûsuf in his employ as the governor of Baghdad. Al-Walîd’s father had instructed in his will that Al-Ḥajjâj be retained simply due to the fact that his vicious methods kept the unruly elements of the empire in check. Just because her husband had no qualms with Al-Hajjâj, though, it didn’t mean that Umm Al-Banîn would remain silent.
Umm Al-Banîn’s father, Abd Al-Azîz ibn Marwân, had been a man of strong principle and justice, who despised the methods that his siblings did not necessarily eschew. Abd Al-Azîz had instilled in his children a hatred for blatant evil, and the need to stand up to injustice wherever they perceived it.
Umm Al-Banîn abhorred Al-Ḥajjâj with a passion, and made her feelings clear to her husband. She would repeatedly ask him to get rid of Al-Hajjâj, citing his history of slaughter, his killing of some Companions of the Prophet œ and his corruption; Al-Walîd knew just how strongly she felt about his employee. As tends to happen, news spread, and Al-Ḥajjâj himself came to know of Umm Al-Banîn’s unfavorable stance towards him.
One day, Al-Ḥajjâj went to visit Al-Walîd ibn Abd Al-Malik, while the former was still attired in his armor and the latter was dressed in casual clothing. As they sat, a slave girl came to Al-Walîd and whispered in his ear, then left.
When she left, Al-Walîd said to Al-Hajjâj: “Abu Muhammad, do you know what this slave-girl said?” He said: “No, O Commander of the Faithful.”
Amused, Al-Walîd continued: “Umm Al-Banîn sent her to warn me about sitting in my home attire with an armed Bedouin (i.e., Al-Hajjâj) while innocent people are being killed. Umm Al-Banîn also said that she would prefer that I sit with the Angel of Death himself rather than Al-Hajjâj, for he is known to have killed many.”
Furious, Al-Ḥajjâj retorted: “Never listen to women! Do not apprise them of your matters, [nor] make them desirous of [knowing] your secrets, [nor] take their counsel, [nor] use them for other than their beauty. O Commander of the Faithful, do not be tender towards women nor frequent their gatherings because their gatherings are a humiliation and ignobility.”
Al-Walîd stood up and went to his wife directly to inform her of Al-Hajjâj’s words. Furious yet clever, Umm Al-Banîn arranged for Al-Ḥajjâj to meet her the next day. Desperately, Al-Ḥajjâj appealed to Al-Walîd to countermand her order, but he refused, and so, Al-Ḥajjâj was forced to present himself to Umm Al-Banîn. She made him wait for a long time before she would permit him to approach, and even then, kept him standing – a major insult. She addressed Al-Ḥajjâj with a speech so powerful and blistering that Al-Ḥajjâj later admitted: “I wish the earth had swallowed me up while she spoke!”
Some of her words were recorded and transmitted in the book Balaghât Al-Nisâ’[2]:
O Ḥajjâj, you most graciously conferred the murders of Ibn Al-Zubayr and Ibn Al-Ash'ath upon the Commander of the Faithful. You were a mere freeman (i.e. an insignificant slave). Truly, by Allah, were it not for you being the most worthless of Allah’s creation to Him, He wouldn’t have tried you with bombarding the Ka'bah nor with the murder of the son of Dhat Al-Niâqayn.
As for what I mean by the murder of Ibn Al-Ash'ath—by my life—he had overwhelmed you and dealt you one blow after another until you appealed for help. Were it not for the Commander of the Faithful summoning the people of Greater Syria—their arrows protecting you and their combat saving you—while your predicament was more straitened than a pulley, you would have had your head in a noose. Even given this, the wives of the Commander of the Faithful, had dusted the perfume from their locks and removed the jewelry from their hands and feet and dispatched them with his agents’ monetary support.
As for that which you’ve prohibited the Commander of the Faithful from –in terms of interrupting his pleasures and having his way with his wives– if, on the one hand, they open their legs for the likes of the Commander of the Faithful, then he will not comply with your request. If, on the other hand, they open their legs for the likes of whomever your mother opened her legs, then he would be deserving indeed of heeding your advice.
May Allah wage war on the one who said [these lines] while looking at you as Ghazalah Al-Harûriyya’s spearheads were between your shoulders:
O lion of peace, ostrich of wartime,
Black-plumed, you panic when a whistle sounds.
You should have faced Ghazalah in that war.
Instead, you flew with fear above war’s grounds.
Ghazalah cleft your heart with knights who left
A massacre, for fate must make its rounds.”
Having expressed her disgust fully, Umm Al-Banîn dismissed Al-Ḥajjâj from her presence.
Pale-faced, Al-Ḥajjâj went to Al-Walîd and asked him: “Why did you let her come and speak to me?! She did not stop talking until I felt that my soul had departed and that being buried in the earth was more beloved to me than walking upon it. I did not think that a woman could reach that level of eloquence or master that level of enunciation!”
Al-Walîd laughed and said to Al-Ḥajjâj: “Woe to you! Don’t you know who she is? She is the daughter of Abd Al-Azîz ibn Marwân ibn Al-Ḥakam!”
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The milkmaid and the empress: these two women stand out in Islamic history on their own merit. Their piety and their determination to live according to principle, to stand for what is right, overrode what their surrounding circumstances could have convinced them to do otherwise.
The milkmaid’s poverty was an easy excuse to be less than ethical, yet her consciousness of Allah made it impossible for her to prioritize wealth over her spiritual awareness. In the darkness of night, with only her mother as a witness, she sought and expected nothing more than Allah’s Pleasure; in turn, Allah expressed His Pleasure with her by marrying her to the son of one of the greatest Companions of the Prophet.
The milkmaid’s story didn’t end with her living happily ever after, though. The du'a’ of Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb was accepted, and from the milkmaid’s progeny came the fifth of the Rightly Guided Khalîfas, and his sister, the empress, who stood up to Al-Ḥajjâj ibn Yûsuf.
As the wife of the leader of the Islamic empire, as an empress who could have accepted all the luxuries afforded to her without caring where they came from, Umm Al-Banîn proved that piety is not merely for the poor. Her royal status did not affect her willingness to make a stand against injustice; being married to the man who employed an oppressor did not stop her from making her feelings clear to them both.
Two women from dramatically different backgrounds, yet linked by blood and their courage to do the right thing – the unnamed milkmaid and Umm Al-Banîn show Muslim men and women today that one’s social, economic, and political status should never be a barrier to living in accordance to piety and principle. When faced with situations wherein it is all too easy for us to benefit from injustice or oppression, we must know that these are in truth the hardest tests that Allah places before us. True faith is that which is tried, tested, and succeeds precisely because we have chosen to make a difficult decision – the choice that is most beloved to Allah.
Do the people think that they will be left to say: “We believe” and they will not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars. [Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:1-2]
It is those who profess their belief and who act on it, whether in private or in public, whether in times of difficulty or of ease, who are the heroes and heroines of this Ummah.