Friday, October 26, 2012

Islam or Hislam?

The other day while our children played together, I chatted with a couple of Arab Muslim men about problems facing people living in America. I mentioned that once, while walking to the grocery store in Detroit, a gang of teenage boys followed me and I overheard them discussing throwing me into the trunk of their car. One brother asked immediately whether or not I had been wearing hijab. I said, “No, that was before I became Muslim – but I was wearing totally normal clothes and it was broad daylight.” Nevertheless, he commented without a hint of shame at his audacity, “Women who walk around uncovered are asking for it.” Restraining my shock, I allowed the other brother to gently disagree with this extremely offensive statement. I ended my story by saying that an Iraqi shopkeeper noticed the hoodlums waiting for me outside his shop door and chased them away, likely saving my life. So then of course it became a story of how great Arabs are. The brother never even thought to apologize for insinuating that I had dressed provocatively and had thus invited attack.

How can it be that a young woman, minding her own business, on her way to buy some milk, could be asking to be kidnapped, gang-raped, or murdered? Those men who advocate hijab as a means for avoiding attack are only looking at their own perspective. Perhaps they themselves would be less likely to rape a woman who was wearing hijab, and perhaps in certain neighborhoods, wearing hijab would make a woman less likely to be harmed. But in some other neighborhoods, a woman would be more likely to be raped or killed if she was wearing hijab, because her dress would attract negative attention from people who hate Muslims – or who view hijab as a rejection of their manhood.

In some cases, wearing Islamic gear can even attract unwanted sexual harassment! My friend Layla mentioned to me that a stranger in a restaurant once came up to her and said, “You dress like this when you go out, but I bet you sleep naked.” Another woman Maryam, wearing full covering including niqab, visited New York City with her husband and overheard some passersby having a disagreement over whether or not she might be beautiful or ugly. Instead of protecting her from objectification, Maryam’s Islamic gear actually invited a conversation about her physical beauty (or lack thereof)!

Quran says women should dress appropriately when they go outside, so that they would not be harassed. Yet, those women who are serious about not being harassed will have to do more than simply cover themselves with a certain amount of cloth. Recent American women converts can be especially vulnerable to loud laughter and jeering from strangers, as they unsuccessfully attempt to gracefully don ill-fitting, hand-me-down foreign costumes. Women who are seriously trying to avoid attracting unwanted attention have to respect the culture of the majority of people around them. They should dress modestly in a way that says, “I am a high class lady who commands respect” in a fashion language, which the local culture understands. This will vary. Women who seek to avoid harassment should not dress in a way that invites attention, mockery, or disrespect, even if that dress is considered Islamic.

There are certain types of rapists who actually target women with loose-fitting garments, who lurk outside fitness centers because sweat pants with their elastic waistbands are so quickly and easily removed, even if the woman is resisting. Contrast that ugly situation with the scene in an alley that a friend of mine, Liz, witnessed from a window. A man was attempting to forcibly remove the clothes of a woman who was screaming and fighting. Liz called the police and shouted out her window as the man relentlessly struggled with the woman but just could not rape her. Why? She was wearing extremely tight button-fly jeans that were so incredibly difficult to remove that the police arrived before the man had succeeded in sexually violating her. Therefore women who are serious about not being raped will have to do far more than merely wear loose-fitting clothing. They should consider wearing skin-tight button-fly jeans underneath their jilbabs. 

While it is easy to find examples of male chauvinism in Muslim cultures, it also exists in the West. Because of the blurry lines defining what is socially acceptable vs. immoral behavior, women are easily violated and then blamed for being victimized. An American woman, Amy was at a party and was offered whiskey. Trying to be cool, she drank from the bottle that was being passed around. Before she realized it, she was unconscious on the sofa. When she awoke, she found herself without her clothes on, having no memory of the past four hours except for a few seconds in which things were being done to her, without her being in any condition to react or respond. Feeling horribly wronged, and knowing she never flirted with anyone nor agreed to get naked with anyone, she tried to get some sympathy from a friend but was told that she should have known that “men are pigs,” and was shamed for allowing herself to lose control of the situation. While this experience will certainly be a lesson for Amy about the evils of drink, is it really true that a person cannot reasonably expect to pass out on a friend’s couch without inviting oneself to be wronged in front of other party guests? Because she was a woman, Amy was expected to accept that “boys will be boys” and take the blame for what happened.

Huda al Khattab writes in “Bent Rib: A Journey Through Women’s Issues in Islam” about the hypocrisy of male chauvinism: “In most traditional societies, and even to some extent in the west, the entire responsibility for protecting morality is placed squarely on our (supposedly delicate and weak) shoulders. That this should be so is astounding – are men so feeble-minded and weak-willed that they are so easily led astray?… Moreover, such notions of women’s moral burden are in stark contrast to the Quran, where the command to lower one’s gaze and guard one’s modesty is given to men first.”

While moralists can argue that God commands mercy and justice among His people, and that all He basically asks of us is that we not wrong each other, realists can’t deny that there are plenty of egoists who would view only those aspects of Islam that benefit themselves as laws, while those aspects of Islam that require more in depth personal responsibility, they would view as mere moral recommendations.

As the weaker sex, women are always going to be vulnerable to various forms of oppression, tyranny and dehumanization. We cannot be fools.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Developing Creative Intelligence

This morning Gail, my hairdresser told me an interesting story. Some years ago, she had a dream that her mother had died, and during the funeral her father sighed, “If only she had gone to the doctor!” She and her mother speak almost daily on the phone, so Gail mentioned the dream in passing. A couple weeks later her mother told her that she was supposed to go in for a chest scan but had not made the appointment until after Gail had that dream. The scan showed that she had Stage 1 lung cancer.

“Is your mother still alive?” I asked. Yes! Gail’s mother is not only alive but well – thanks to early detection and treatment, something very rare with lung cancer, which is usually only detected in its final and fatal stages. Not normally mystical in her orientation, Gail explained that “God usually talks to me in the daytime, not in dreams.” But because at that time, she happened to be reading the story of the Prophet Joseph (sa) in the Bible, she took this dream more seriously than she had taken other dreams.

Most of us have had times in our lives when we allowed our creative intelligence take priority over our academic training or rational intelligence. Sometimes following our dreams can lead us to great things, and other times it can provide us with a deep and abiding lesson about the laws of cause and effect.

Einstein said that no problem can be solved on the same mental level as it was created. He experienced many of his brainy “jumps” to unique conclusions of various long-unsolved problems at completely random moments such as while riding the bus, simply allowing his mind to wander freely.

Solving problems creatively by overriding dominant patterns of thinking requires the ability to make subconscious connections between billions of memories of thoughts and impressions; bring that information into personal consciousness in a clear moment’ and translate this raw data into words and pictures, so that this information could then be transmitted to other human beings. Creative intelligence incorporates yet supersedes both emotional and rational intelligence, because it tunes into and taps into the Divine Spirit which is beyond ego.

How do we become creative and spiritual human beings?

“Failure often overwhelms people who desire, or think they desire, to take up and maintain a spiritual orientation to life. This is so because the ego is the greatest test there is. We may wake up any morning with the firmest resolve that we will concentrate only on the purest, most blessed, and highest thoughts. Yet all it takes is a phone call, telling us that we are overdrawn at the bank, or that the children have broken a window, and before we know what has happened, we have lost our concentration. Only later in the afternoon do we recall our resolution to remember God. Therefore, one must constantly restate and restart one’s intention all the time. At first, it may be difficult, and failures may occur. But sooner than one would imagine, the intention leads to a habit, the most positive habit possible. After a time, you don’t forget,” writes Shaykh Hakim Moinuddin Chishti in his “Book of Sufi Healing.”

Chishti concludes, “Thus with obedience and the grace of Allah does the soul progress from its state at inception – of helpless egotism – to divine unity, if Allah wills it.”

As parents, is there a way to help our children develop habits that will lead to creative intelligence? How do we help them move from a state of mind where the world exists only to meet the child’s needs, to a state of mind where a person develops, who wants to honor the Creator through service?

“Children with creative intelligence have a more developed sense of imagination. They can play games with a few blocks or faceless dolls. They often create imaginary friends. They don’t need a lot to be stimulated. When too much is done for them, they don’t develop their imagination,” writes popular psychologist John Gray, PhD, in “Children Are From Heaven.”

“Too much TV, where images are visual, can weaken children’s ability to imagine. Just as every intelligence grows by being used, a creative intelligence grows when imagination is stimulated, enabling children to think differently. They succeed in life where others fail because they can look at things in a new and different way,” Gray concludes.

“Because the images from television and the movies are so powerful and change so quickly, children often do not understand the story line, and are left imitating the rapid movements and the elements that make the strongest impressions: chasing, shooting, crashing, and so on,” writes Waldorf educator Rahima Baldwin-Dancy in “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher.”

“As a preschool and kindergarten teacher, I observed a dramatic difference in the quality of the play of children who did not watch television. Their inside play was much more imaginative and more likely to have a story line, compared to the running around and catching one another that was dominant with the other children.”

Since God is the Creator, developing creative intelligence requires aligning our consciousness with His, and often this is helped along by tuning into our subconscious inner symbolism. So, in a lot of ways, the less we do and the less input we give our children, the better. Instead of teaching them anything in particular, we can help them find what is within themselves, simply by eliminating distractions.

Halloween Descends Upon America

An Irish Blessing for Halloween

At all Hallow’s Tide, may God keep you safe

From goblin and pooka and black-hearted stranger,

From harm of the water and hurt of the fire,

From thorns of the bramble, from all other danger,

From Will o’ the Wisp haunting the mire;

From stumbles and tumbles and tricksters to vex you,

May God in His Mercy, this week protect you.

By Maureen McCabe

As the nights become chilly, the leaves turn crunchy. The autumn equinox has passed us by, with or without a bonfire. We feel a shiver in our bones. It is only natural to think about life and death at this sacred time when all the flowers have turned into shriveled compost and the fruit is being collected. What we harvest this year will be what we rely upon this coming winter. That is a terrifying knowledge. No matter what your line of work, life changes with the falling temperatures.

Is your car ready for winter? Do you have a snow shovel? Do you have a scraper for your windshield? Is your heater working properly? Do you need to weatherize your apartment? Do all your children have mittens and coats and boots? And to top it all off, have you planned out the appropriate family-friendly activities such as ice skating and sledding into your already overbooked schedule?

If you think your life is stressful now, imagine what your life might have looked like before electricity. You would be feeling a genuine fear right now, that you or some member of your family might not see spring next year. The shorter days of less sunlight didn’t just mean emotional depression, back not so long ago. You might actually die of hunger or cold as a working person living in America. The genuine human fear of the fall season dates back thousands of years and is validated in the Halloween tradition, a largely Pagan/Catholic festival that is celebrated in many countries.

The ancient Irish tradition of carving a jack o’ lantern was intended to ward off evil spirits and ghosts as they traveled to the next world on All Saints’ Day, November 1. The mask face and costumes were supposed to trick soul-grabbers into bypassing those whom we love, who would otherwise die this winter.

Many different countries and cultures have traditions of making lanterns and encouraging children to parade through the streets begging for food or candy at the time of year when the days become shorter. Even the squirrels are collecting nuts at this time. Humans are made to fear and prepare for the cold.

While irrational fear is uncalled for, the autumn season can call us all as a nation to rational fear, even if we don’t celebrate Halloween. Thanksgiving, the day of feasting, comes about three weeks after Halloween. After that will come Christmas, the day of gift-giving. All of these occasions are great days for charity, for helping out those who are cold or lonely.

But don’t forget! Eid ul-Adha is supposed to fall on October 26 this year. This is the time when we give meat to the poor. Much more useful than a pumpkin, a freezer full of meat would indeed help guarantee survival to any family worried about the coming winter. Perhaps there could be a way to create an interfaith activity combining the concerns of Eid ul-Adha and Halloween? For those interested in gore, a visit to the local slaughterhouse might be more than appropriate!

Islam could play a role in easing American fears of the supernatural. To a Muslim, our death should be the best day of our lives, because this is the day when we will meet Allah. We spend our lives preparing for that day. We remember death often, not for drama, but for perspective.

I asked the cashiers at Ashmont Market in Boston for their opinion on the meaning of Halloween in their lives. Two young men, probably in their twenties, informed me that, as Irish Catholics growing up in Boston, Halloween was about two things only. Candy – and egging people’s houses. However, they had no idea where the tradition comes from, of egging people’s houses. I laughed and said in Detroit, Halloween was all about setting things on fire! They mentioned All Saint’s Day as being the official Catholic holiday, but they had never visited a cemetery nor did anything other than get the day off school.

November 2 is a huge holiday called “Day of the Dead” in Mexico, while October 30 is called “Devils Night” in the American Midwest, and “Mischief Night” in England. So basically, Haloween is a four day international holiday celebrating and mocking the fear of death. Halloween has replaced Christmas as the ultimate secular holiday that brings neighbors together, that causes people to knock on each others’ doors. The love of candy has surpassed the love of Christ, but really it’s the same concept of connecting with people on the ancient level of survival: sharing food. Americans hang “Indian Corn” on their doors during the autumn season. Marketed as purely decorative, this tradition points to the fact that ancient Americans used to worship corn as life itself.

While we are alive, we prove our holiness or holy aspirations by loving our neighbor, while trying to balance others’ needs with our own legitimate requirements. We are possessed with the power to notice, or not to notice, the needs and feelings of those people around us. Now and then, we may have to knock on a door to inquire whether or not our neighbor is doing fine. Because sometimes, our neighbor might not be doing fine.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Benefits of Befriending Older People

One of the greatest things about reaching forty is that all people become truly interesting to talk to, regardless of age. When we are younger, we are generally encouraged to spend time socializing with people within our age group, who are experiencing the same life changes and struggles as ourselves. But finally, at a certain point, we reach a plateau and things are not changing that much anymore. We are simply living our lives. Often, we have made certain sacrifices so that we can provide a stable environment for the younger generation to thrive and grow and go through their own changes, very beautiful to observe. Other people come into focus, rather than the mere requirements of our own personal development. As we age, the years roll by faster and faster, like a rock rolling down a mountainside, but we fear less, because we have generally learned what to expect.
By the time we reach forty, we can truly interact as peers with anyone from age 20 to 60. It’s like being on a boat in the middle of a big lake and you can see the horizon from every angle of your vision and only the sky above. It’s a dizzying and electrifying time of life to experience! We are old enough to advise the younger generation on their path, and yet able to question the older generation still living. We must use our social skills to pry the personal stories out of our elders because there is probably nothing more valuable on earth, certainly not cash or gold, than the jokes and life tales of our elders. During my four decades, I have written tens of thousands of pages, but there are still things I have never mentioned to anyone. In many cases, it’s just because nobody ever asked. So, just ask an older person today, anything! Even if you have to beg them to tell you something that will make you really laugh hard or help you gain perspective on whatever it is!

Older people know what things are worth putting energy into and what issues are best to just drop like a hot potato. Heather, a woman with long white flowing hair who is still turning away suitors, who raised 8 children in a 2 bedroom apartment, only one her own, has many stories. Her advice regarding divorce? Her primary regret was that she spent way too much time in a state of rage at her ex-husband. “Think of him as a babysitter who sometimes shows up,” she advised others.
Joe, a semi-retired real estate attorney, admitted that when pressed, he told his wife whom he was planning to vote for. His wife protested in astonishment, and he explained to her that this is why he does not discuss politics with anyone. A brilliant part of growing up is realizing that not everyone has to agree with you, in order for you to love them; And also, that you can love someone totally and completely – without telling them everything. But you can really enjoy the stuff you discuss!
George, a retired musician, is absolutely thrilled by new inventions such as a microphone that plugs into an ipad, and thinks that Youtube is the best new thing since the car. Such things make his face light up like a child.

Leah, a housewife in New Jersey explains: “My first husband believed the conspiracy theory that America never actually landed on the moon, based on the observation that in the photo, the flag appeared to be waving in the wind. My second husband, who was older and remembered that day clearly, explained that it was in all the news back then that the US brought to the moon a wooden replica of a flag waving in the wind, just to look good for the photos!” Many old mysteries can be explained away simply by talking to people who were alive at that time. You don’t actually have to marry them, thankfully, but maybe feed them.
People who have lived through several decades can provide a certain amount of insight that we lack. When we have older friends, we can benefit from their successes and their mistakes. It is especially important to talk to people who have spent time in prison, or overcome major illnesses, for during that time they probably thought about a lot of things that we never had time to think about. And, unlike many of us, they really may have figured out what was important to them and what they wanted to do with their lives once they got their health and freedom back.

When we were young and had no idea about life, it appeared that there were so many choices and so many possible paths. Yet the older we became and the more wisdom we acquired, the fewer choices and paths there remained – because when you can predict the probable outcome of events, you will usually only choose the action that will lead to the desired outcome and avoid other choices. Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri calls it “The Freedom of No Choice” in his book by that title. This is the Islamic Middle Path between the competing philosophies of Destiny vs. Free Will.
If your will were completely aligned with God’s will, and if you had all the information about every variable past and present, you would make the absolutely best choice in every situation. However, in most cases, you are fluctuating in between the opinions of your various internal selves and reacting emotionally. Loss is an inevitable part of going through time on this earth. Only loss enables us to fully experience the value of what we had. As we grow in spiritual experience, we learn which actions will lead to loss, and which actions will lead to gain. At the same time, growing older helps many of us to appreciate and enjoy God’s everyday gifts, like the weather, a phone call, or our eyesight. The more you learn to pray and meditate deeply with a clear mind, you will more quickly recognize and fix mistakes that you have made as they occur. This truly takes decades of practice.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Importance of Pleasing Wives in Islam

“And among His signs is that He has created for you spouses from among yourselves so that you may live in tranquility with them; and He has created love and mercy between you. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” (Quran 30:21)

There have been several recent anthropological studies done on how feminism has influenced the goals of traditional Muslim women, and also a lot of discussion both private and public about the effects of Western influence on marriage and family within the Muslim community. When women marry young, with increasing frequency we find that around middle age, they start to feel like they have lost out on life because of their innocent devotion to husband, home and family. They start to regret that they never got their PhD, for example. The husband becomes in their mind like an obstacle to overcome in order to realize their true potential in life. One Arab woman commented to her husband that when she comes home, she doesn’t feel the same respect from him that she gets from her professors and the other students. An Iranian man whose wife left him after over 20 years of marriage was completely baffled by her decision. “I gave her everything. I bought her a car and let her drive all over the country. Maybe I gave her too much freedom?” An American woman abandoned her husband of ten years, leaving two young children behind for no reason other than to become a historical tour guide downtown.

These explanations for divorce focus on the lack of intellectual stimulation experienced by the majority of housewives and are no doubt partially true, but they overlook a key reason why some women might choose to focus excessively on personal or intellectual interests outside the home. Women around age 35 reach their biological sexual peak, while men begin to decline starting at 40. When a husband is older than his wife, this can become a serious problem, especially if he never studied the arts of love.

Imam Ali taught that “Almighty God has created the sexual desire in ten parts; He gave nine parts to women and one to men,” but that “God gave the women equal parts of shyness.”

“Many times this shyness makes the man ignore the desires of his wife,” writes Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi in Marriage and Morals in Islam. Fatima Mernissi has also written about the cultural tendency among many Muslim men to avoid emotional investment in women.

The Prophet (sa) said, “When one of you sees a woman and he feels attracted to her, he should hurry to his wife. With her, it would be the same as with the other one.” Yet a dawah pamphlet published in Pakistan summarizes this minimally offensive hadith in an astonishingly cheap way by stating that the man should hurry to his wife in order to “put his sperm in the proper receptacle.”

At a certain point, women who have been thought about or treated in such a way, if they have any intelligence, will become tired of it and want something more – whether or not they have been exposed to feminist theory. They will desire the passionate love that true Islam promises. A man should make love to his wife like he is worshipping Allah, with the same spiritual intensity.

The Prophet (sa) said, “When a man approaches his wife, he is guarded by two angels and he is like a warrior fighting for the cause of Allah. When he has intercourse with her, his sins fall like the leaves of the tree [in fall season]. When he performs the major ablution, he is cleansed from sins.”

Imam Jafar as-Sadiq said, “I do not think that a person’s faith can increase positively unless his love for women has increased… Whenever a person’s love for women increases, his faith increases in quality.”

There is no room in the prophetic tradition to regard wives as halal containers, like sacred toilets, for the collection of distasteful male emissions. Women in Islam are rather revered as spiritual pleasure mates whose physical enjoyment is regarded as a right.

The Prophet (sa) said, “Three people are cruel, [including] a person who has sex with his wife before foreplay.” The Prophet (sa) also said that the mutual foreplay of a man with his wife is haqq, in other words it is a means to the realization of Truth. Therefore, women who have learned how to actively pleasure themselves with their husbands are rewarded with high status:

“The best woman among you is the one who discards the armor of shyness when she undresses for her husband, and puts on the armor of shyness when she dresses up again,” stated Imam Muhammad al-Baqir.

Married people are described in the Quran as being “garments” for each other, because when people are satisfied at home, they can go out in the world with a clean heart and don’t attract sexual attention from others. They are spiritually “covered” because their chastity is protected by the love of their spouse. Yet many men are not aware of their Islamic duty to protect their wives spiritually by fulfilling their desires.

Imam Ghazali wrote, “The woman’s ejaculation is sometimes a much slower process and during that process her sexual desire grows stronger and to withdraw from her before she reaches her pleasure is harmful to her” (at-Tabrasi, al-Ihtijaj).

Imam Ali said, “When you intend to have sex with your wife, do not rush because the woman also has needs.” When Imam Jafar as-Sadiq was asked about this, he answered, “It means kissing and talking.”

According to a hadith related by Ubaydullah bin Zurarah, an old man owned a young slave-girl. Because of his old age, he could not fully satisfy her during sexual intercourse. She would therefore ask him to do some things to please her as she liked it.

It is remarkable to note that many Muslim wives today can only dream about the respect that even a slave-girl was given in the early days of Islam.