Saturday, May 30, 2009

Angels and Demons

So today I saw the movie Angels and Demons, which was surprisingly good considering I didn't really like the Da Vinci Code. Anyway a quote at the end of the movie really struck me: "Religion is flawed because man is flawed." This was said to Tom Hanks by a cardinal.

This of course is applicable to all religions. The minute a human interacts with someone sacred, our negative human characteristics also interact with it. The Qur'an is the perfect example. Reza Aslan once wrote that anyone looking for gender inequality in the Qur'an will find it, and anyone looking for gender equality will find it. So for the past 2000 odd years we've had old Arab men interpreting the Qur'an. I wonder what they were looking for: gender inequality or gender equality? Were they looking for a social system that would treat everyone equally, or one that would value them above others? Were they looking for a strict God that would punish more than reward or one that would be kind? Which type of God would have benefited them more?

Most Muslims don't think about these things, but I feel it is important to consider human nature, especially the nature of the imams and sheikhs who for centuries have been telling us what Islam is.

A lot of Muslims like to copy the Prophet, but they pick and choose. They copy his beard and his dress, but they don't copy his behavior. These same men beat their wives and are unkind to animals and the environment. Don't think that dressing and looking like the Prophet is enough. I think copying his behavior and his compassion towards other people is a little more important. The Prophet was known for never having beat any of his wives. How many Muslim men today do not believe in beating their wives?

An author once wrote that the difference between the way orthodox Muslims and Sufi Muslims see God. Orthodox Muslims see God as a strict father who does not love us but is responsible for us; God is also very unforgiving. Sufis see God as a kind loving father who wants us to be happy, and teaches us lessons that can be harsh; God knows we will make mistakes and forgives us. This really touched me. I feel that most Muslims today see God as distant and unloving. But is this what the Qur'an is telling us? God repeatedly says he is all-forgiving, all-compassionate. So why do we obsess about every little thing and make religion harder than it has to be? In this process we are driving many people away from Islam, and also many people away from happiness. God did not tell us NOT to enjoy life. God did not mention that the rest of humanity has to live like the Prophet and his companions, as if we still live in the desert of 7th century Arabia. Would God want us to suffer unnecessarily? There are many Muslims (too many in my opinion) that say if you aren't constantly suffering, you're not a good Muslim. Of course religion is challenging and you should constantly challenge yourself to do more. But that doesn't mean that you should always be in pain.

Anyway back to the topic of the post. Angels and Demons is a good movie, I recommend it to everyone :D.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Women and Mosques

Today it seems to be accepted that women are not required to go to Friday prayer, and that in general it is better for women to pray at home. But what happened at the beginning of Islam? Did women pray alongside men at the first mosque in Madinah, in an area that was unsegregated? Did they pray all 5 prayers at the mosque, or just Friday prayers? Was the mosque more than just a place of prayer? What purpose did that first mosque serve the first Muslims?

In Imam Bukhari's Book of Friday, there is the following Hadith: "Do not forbid the mosques of Allah to the women of Allah." The Prophet somehow sensed that future generations of Muslim men would attempt to prevent women from praying at the mosque, and thus made it clear with this Hadith that women should always be allowed access to the mosque.

In her book "The Forgotten Queens of Islam", Fatima Mernissi shows how only 400 years after this Hadith, Muslim male scholars began casting doubt on whether it was necessary or even recommendable that women pray at the mosque. Ibn al-Jawzi mentions that if a woman fears disturbing men's minds, she should pray at home." What does that even mean? How would a woman disturb a man's mind? He gives the example of how if a male prays behind a row of women, his prayers are worthless. Aside from whether this is even true, shouldn't he then advise men to come on time, instead of advising women to stay home?

From this time on, many historians noted that most mosques were not frequented by many women. "We are certainly a long way from the Prophet's mosque, open to all, welcoming all those interested in Islam, including women" (Mernissi).

The female companions of the Prophet clearly did have access to the mosque. In fact Aisha's hut was connected to the mosque itself, showing how the Prophet did not feel the need to completely separate private from public, a need most modern Muslim men feel intensely. In Egypt in the early 1900s, feminists had to ask for the right to attend public prayer. How did things deteriorate to this extent for Muslim women, to the extent that we are not always granted access to the MOSQUE - a place of worship!

I will leave you with this quote by Mernissi: "The mosque was something other than a mere place of worship. It was a place where showing ignorance was permitted, where asking questions was encouraged, both activities that today are strongly prohibited."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


It's been almost a week since I've been back from Umrah, and I still don't feel ready to move on. I keep remembering every little thing: walking down the street in Madinah to go to Masjid al-Nabawi; sitting in Masjid al-Haram with my prayer beads; meeting lovely Muslim women from all over the world as we wait for prayer to start; seeing the Kaabah every day; the call to prayer; the voices of the muezzins and imams.

I think what I miss the most is my whole day revolving around prayer, God, and Islam. It's such a beautiful thing when that happens. I wish I could continue doing that but I feel like it's impossible in everyday life to make prayer the centre of everything, although I have been trying. Maybe it was the atmopshere in Makkah and Madinah that makes you think of God and makes you want to be as religious as possible. I found myself constantly saying "inshallah" and "mashallah", whereas here I don't always remember to say/think these things.

I would love to be able to live in Madinah or Makkah, and be that close to the two most amazing mosques in Islam and the Kaabah. Imagine how wonderful it would be to live in the Prophet's beloved city, Madinah (not a big fan of Makkah; I would definitely choose to live in Madinah if I was given the option).

I hope these feelings pass soon because it's getting kind of depressing. Inshallah I'll be back there soon.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Books on Women & Islam

This post is a list of books on women and Islam. I got interested in the subject of gender and Islam about a year ago, so I'm still finding out about good authors and books, but these are the ones I've read so far that have really impressed me and changed the way I see Islam.

Women and Gender in Islam
Leila Ahmed

This book traces the historical roots of the debate on whether Islamic socieites are inherently oppressive to women. Ahmed looks at societies from the ancient Egyptians to modern day nation states, and analyzes how Islam has been used time and again to deny women their rights.

Qur'an and Woman
Amina Wadud

I blogged about this book before. This is the first interpretive reading of the Qur'an done by a woman (funny how the first interpretation by a woman was done in 1999). "Muslim progressives have long argued that it is not the religion but patriarchal explication and implementation of the Qur'an that have kept women oppressed. For many, the way to reform is the reexamination and reinterpretation of religious texts."

Beyond the Veil
Fatima Mernissi

Mernissi argues that the Islamic view of women as active sexual beings resulted in stricter regulation and control of women's sexuality, which Muslim theorists classically regarded as a threat to civilized society. This book blew me away when I first read it, and really got me interested in the issue of women and Islam. Mernissi is a fantastic writer and every single book of hers has impacted me.

The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam
Fatima Mernissi

I just finished reading this book and it was amazing. Mernissi analyzes several Hadith that show women in a negative light, for example the one that has the Prophet saying that entrusting ones affairs to a woman will not lead to prosperity. Mernissi shows that the men that reported these Hadith were not of sound character and also that these Hadith were rejected and challenged by Aisha. Despite this, they were included in Bukhari's collection of strong Hadith and remain unchallenged until today.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam
Fatima Mernissi

I just began reading this one. Mernissi talks about how it seems impossible that a caliph could ever be a woman. She goes on to discuss various female Islamic leaders throughout history, and how society reacted to them. She begins the book by talking about Benazir Bhutto, and the outrage by Islamic fundamentalists when she was elected, since they could not imagine a woman leading a Muslim country. This book is denser than her others but looks like it'll be really interesting.

Gendering the Middle East
Deniz Kandiyoti

This is a collection of essays by different authors on the issue of gender in the Middle East, and some are related to Islam. I like books like these because you get different perspectives and debates all in one.

The Hidden Face of Eve
Nawal el Saadawi

This book deals with the kind of oppression facing women in the Arab world. What I liked about it is that she meticulously proves that this oppression has no basis in Islam, and is completely cultural. Her views are seen as "wrong" by many Muslims because she claims that the veil and polygamy and incompatible with the essence of Islam.

Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject
Saba Mahmood

Mahmood did ethnographic fieldwork on the grassroots women's piety movement in the mosques of Cairo, and this resulted in this groundbreaking study that is quoted everywhere. The topic of the Egyptian Islamic revival is explored in detail, and she focuses specifically on how women in these movements respond to patriarchy.

Sexuality in Islam
Abdelwahab Boudhiba

Arguing that sexuality enjoys a privileged status in Islam, this book aims to integrate the sexual and the religious. Boudhiba looks at the question of male supremacy in Islam, and the strict separation of the masculine and feminine. Topics include homosexuality, concubinage, mysoginy, mysticism, and eroticism.
This book has a lot of interesting ideas and a lot of shocking information. Definitely worth reading if you are interested in the subject.

The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam
Jennifer Heath

I haven't read this book yet but I was excited about buying it. This book is the first popular history and overview of Muslim women and their accomplishments. It portrays over 50 extraordinary Muslim women, including the women who played a crucial role in Muhammad's life, as well as scholars of the Hadith, saints and mystics, queens and warriors, rebels and concubines, and outstanding poets, musicians, and storytellers.

Reading Lolita in Tehran
Azar Nafisi

This is one of the best books I've ever read. I'm really interested in Iran and the women's movement there, and so this book was perfect. "Azar Nafisi's luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran."

That's all I can think of now. Does anyone have any good books on women and Islam? I would love to find as many as I can. Hope you enjoy :)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Last Thoughts on Umrah, Makkah, and Madinah...

I wrote part of this post while I was in Makkah, and part now.

Today after praying Fajr I did 4 rounds around the Kaabah. I know that during this you’re not supposed to get angry or annoyed or mad but seriously, that’s almost impossible. People are so rude! Most of the people here just push, shove, yell, and walk without looking where they’re going. Especially when going around the Kaabah, people just seem to think that it doesn’t matter if they push and interrupt other people’s prayers. I found it really hard to concentrate and say my prayers while constantly being shoved and elbowed. I can’t imagine what Hajj is like.

I feel like Muslims worry way too much about appearance. We always hear about what a Muslim should dress and look like: veil, no veil? Niqab, no niqab? What part of the body should men cover? And yet we never hear about how Muslims should act more considerately. We should cover that first, before focusing on dress. We should talk about how you shouldn’t talk on the phone while doing tawaf or sa’i; how you shouldn’t gossip while waiting for prayer to begin; how you shouldn’t sit right in front of the Kaabah while people are doing tawaf; how you should maybe look in front of you while walking to make it easier for everyone else; and about how you shouldn’t push people in front of you and be patient. When thousands of people are doing Umrah everyday, these things would definitely help.

I’m not saying that my experience was negative. On the whole it was amazing, but these things are starting to get to me now. When 10 people have pushed me and almost made me fall over, I can’t help but get angry at the 11th. Inshallah people will start being more considerate.
I was in the mosque today and one of the men that works there handed me a flyer and began saying I should cover my face, i.e. wear niqab. Of course, he couldn’t look at me while he was talking, he just kept saying how it was important. I look down at the flyer, and see that it is about ethics for women.

What annoyed me is not that he was telling me to wear the niqab. What annoyed me is that I didn’t see him telling anyone else to stop yelling, or pushing, or running around the mosque. Islamic authorities today seem to be solely focused on appearance, especially that of women. What, are we going to trick God by dressing a certain way? Is God not going to see the way we act, behave, think, and treat others?

I’m back in cairo and I miss Makkah terribly. There were so many things that I loved about being there. The fact that everyone calls you Hajji; the call to prayer coming directly into my hotel room and waking me up for fajr; the Kaabah being a 3 minute walk away; seeing Muslims from all over the world; and having my day revolve around prayer. If only life could be like this: fitting everything between prayer instead of prayer between everything. Inshallah I need to start working on this now that I am back home.

Another thing I really miss are the amazing voices of the imams and muezzins. They were absolutely amazing, and I really miss hearing them.

I really miss praying in a mosque. There aren’t any good ones near my house, unfortunately, otherwise I would at least start going to Friday prayers. I think if I had the chance to live in Makkah or Madinah for the rest of my life I’d be the happiest girl on earth.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Saudi Segregation

I’d heard a lot about Saudi Arabia’s segregation in malls, ministries, and other public buildings, but wasn’t really sure whether to believe it or not since most of it came from Western media sources, which can be slightly biased, to put it nicely. Anyway, Madinah wasn’t bad at all. Of course I never saw women driving or working in any of the shops/restaurants, but that I had already expected. Makkah however, was another story.

I first noticed the segregation when I went to the Starbucks in our hotel complex and saw a sign saying “Singles”. I looked around the corner and saw another sign saying “Families”. I went into the singles section and ordered, and saw a partition between the 2 sections. As I walked around the mall, I noticed this was the case in every eating place: KFC for example has a line for women and a line for men. There is also a whole separate shopping mall for women.

To be honest, I don’t understand segregation. If we all act like mature adults, surely there is no need to put barriers between men and women in coffee shops. In a mosque, fine, I understand that some women feel more comfortable when men aren’t around, and after having lived in Cairo and gone through a lot of sexual harassment, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t want these men behind you while you pray. However, does every single public place need to be segregated? Is this deep mistrust of human nature healthy?

There are a lot of things about Saudi Arabian culture that bother me. The problem is that because Saudi Arabia has such a prominent place in the Islamic world, these cultural things get associated with Islam. Were mosques segregated at the time of the Prophet the way they are today? Would the Prophet not have allowed women the same access to prayer in front of the Kaabah or the to his tombstone? Would the Prophet have forced all women in Makkah and Madinah to veil (not during prayer or Umrah, but in general)?. These policies seem to go against the spirit of Islam. Are they Islamic or are they Saudi Arabian influences?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Back to Cairo

I'm sitting in the Jeddah airport waiting for my plane to leave. Today has been a good and bad day. Good because the experience of Umrah has been amazing, and I am thankful that I got the chance to do it. Bad because I feel very sad and emotional about leaving Makkah. I've come to love it here and I wish I could spend the rest of my life praying at Masjid al-Haram and sitting by the Kaabah. My last prayer at Haram was Duhr and I couldn't stop praying. It was very emotional and before I left I went and looked at the Kaabah one last time. Inshallah I'll be back soon. It'll be difficult because I'm not married and I don't think my dad is coming again soon. I don't understand how a woman can't come to Makkah or Madinah alone until she's 45. Another one of Saudi's ridiculous rules, which I'm sure has no basis in Islam. So a woman is a mature adult when she's 45. Great. And I'm assuming a male reaches maturity at age 16. Ugghh. Anyway I'm trying to ignore all the annoying gender-related stuff that happened and focus on the good.

Someone asked me to elaborate on how Umrah changed me. I'm not sure how exactly, but I know something is different now. It's not that I didn't take Islam seriously before, but I feel like praying was something that I would do quickly before I went back to whatever I was doing. Here in Madinah and Makkah, my day revovled around prayer, and I would interrupt whatever I was doing to go and do it. I need to try and continue this in Cairo. I guess I'll have to wait till I get back to Cairo to see what exactly has changed. I feel more at peace, more calm, and definitely more happy. I've also been so inspired to become a much better Muslim, to focus on Islam as much as possible, and to study it. I'm planning on starting my MA this September inshallah, in Holland, and I'm planning on doing my dissertation on something to do with women and Islam. Umrah definitely made me even more excited about this.

I also can't wait to do Hajj now, even though I'm not ready for that yet. Learning classical Arabic is another to-do. Inshallah all these things will happen soon.

Overall the past 6 days were the best 6 days of my life, and I'm really sad that it's over now. I hope I'll be back in Makkah soon.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Makkah and Umrah

My last prayer at the Prophet’s Mosque was Friday Fajr. It was really busy but I got a nice place since I went about 45 minutes before the call to prayer. Fajr is my favourite time to go to the mosque, so I like going early to pray and read Qur’an. I prayed that I would be able to do Umrah properly, and that this wouldn’t be my last prayer at the Prophet’s Mosque, inshallah.

We left Madinah at 5:30 a.m. The taxi ride took 4 hours, and so we arrived in Makkah at 9:30. At first glance Makkah is nowhere near as nice a city as Madinah. The centre with Masjid al-Haram and the Kaaba and the hotels is beautiful, but the outskirts are not very impressive. We arrived at our hotel and checked in. The hotel is absolutely amazing, Mashallah. It’s called Abraj Zamzam and I definitely recommend it to anyone staying in Makkah.

We went to pray Duhr In Masjid al-Haram. The mosque took my breath away. It’s unbelievably big and the architecture is simple yet beautiful. It was early so we did 4 rounds around the Kaabah. Seeing the Kaabah for the first time was amazing. It’s a bit smaller than I had imagined but much more striking. The cloth over it is midnight black and the gold embroidery is very elegant. I think the moment every Muslim sees the Kaabah is something they never forget.

We went back into the mosque and we had to go to the second floor because it was absolutely packed. The men’s section was basically full but my dad found a spot, and the women’s section still had a lot of space. The mosque has space for 4 million people! I think there were about 40,000-50,000 there for Duhr, because it took about 30-45 minutes for people to leave the mosque after prayer. We were worried that it would always be that crowded, but when I went to pray Asr it was much much emptier, and I found a place right at the front.

There’s something that really made me angry and I want to let it out. The mosque is segregated, but not as segregated at Masjid al-Nabawi. There are short partitions between the men and women’s section but we all enter and walk around the same areas. Outside the mosque in front of the Kaabah of course there is no segregation. However, inside the mosque, the women’s section is basically on the side-i.e. we don’t have a view of the Kaabah at all. The men’s sections are basically the ones with the best views: in the middle, and even in front of the women’s section. Seriously, what is this? Like I said before, if Saudi feels like they need to segregate everything then fine, but make it equal! I would have loved to pray facing the Kaabah. Imagine how amazing it would be to see it right there in front of you while you pray. But I couldn’t. It’s really frustrating. Also the women's prayer area is tiny compared to the men's. I feel like this is Saudi bias seeping into the way they manage Makkah and Madinah. Mashallah they do a great job but when it comes to women it gets annoying.

Right after Isha I began Umrah. I had already said the niyyah and talbiya earlier that morning, and had prayed 2 raqaats. I can't really describe how it felt doing the tawaf. It went by in a blur of reciting prayers and praying. It wasn't too busy and I managed to walk without having to concentrate, I just followed the flow. I felt choked up the whole way; like I was about to start crying. There are no specific prayers for tawaf but a book I have recommended some really beautiful ones. Mashallah it was an amazing experience. On the 7th round I didn't want to stop. I managed to touch the Kaabah once. I just held on to it for a few seconds and said a prayer. I think it's hard to describe how I felt; it's something you'd have to go through. It definitely surpassed all my expectations.

After tawaf I prayed 2 raqaats, had zamzam water, and then began sa'i. I honestly didn't think it would be hard because I'm a gym rat and I thought walking 3 km wouldn't be too bad, but it was! I think because it was at night and I haven't slept much since we got to Saudi. It took about 20 minutes and was really fulfilling.

After this, a woman cut some strands of my hair, and then I prayed 2 more raqaats, and then I was done! It was absolutely amazing, mashallah. Indescribable.

Of course there were really annoying things that happened. A guy was actually on his phone during tawaf, while another guy was closing a business deal during sa'i. A lot of men were walking around half naked because they weren't wearing their ihram properly, and of course there was pushing and shoving. But finishing Umrah was an amazing feeling, and I hope it won't be my last.

Thanks to all of you that have been posting on my blog ☺ I prayed for during Umrah and I really appreciate your support.

Photos of Makkah

Our hotel

Masjid al-Haram

Safa and Marwa

Safa and Marwa

Masjid al-Haram

Our hotel

Masjid al-Haram

Masjid al-Haram

Masjid al-Haram

Masjid al-Haram

Masjid al-Haram

Friday, May 15, 2009

i just finished umrah

It's 11:11 pm and I just finished Umrah! I'm too tired to describe it all now, but I will definitely post tomorrow.

photos of madinah!

The Prophet's Mosque

Our hotel

Prophet's Mosque

Prophet's Mosque

Prophet's Mosque

Masjid al-Qiblatayn

Masjid al-Qiblatayn

Prophet's Mosque

Prophet's Mosque

Prophet's Mosque

Prophet's Mosque

Inside the Prophet's Mosque

Inside the Prophet's Mosque (my dad took these photos, since cameras aren't allowed in the women's section)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

more of madinah

I just tried posting photos but the connection at the hotel is pretty slow so it didn’t work. I’ll try posting them at the hotel in Mecca, otherwise I’ll do it as soon as I’m back in Cairo.
Last evening I decided to do Rawda after the Isha prayer. I’m not sure why exactly, but it is only open to women three times a day for a short period of time: 7:00 am, 1:30 pm, and 9:30 pm. Now since there are literally thousands of women who want to see the Prophet’s tomb, this seems ridiculous. I’m not sure why it is organized like this, or why the men seem to have easier/longer access to it. My dad just went into the mosque around 2 pm and came out 10 minutes later having seen it. If you want to segregate the sexes, fine, but at least allow equal time for each. I ended up waiting from 9:00 till 10:45 before I could get anywhere near the tomb. What they do is separate the women into groups according to nationality. Egypt/Arab was the last group to go in, which is why I ended up waiting for 1.45 hours. By that time everyone was tired, angry, and frustrated, so the minute our groups was allowed to enter, people began pushing and shoving and yelling. I couldn’t get near the tomb because of the hysteria and commotion, so I prayed 2 raqaats near by and left. I really wish I’d had the chance to get close and pray right there, or at least not get pushed constantly. Like I said before, I’m not sure why it is organized like this, or why it was easier for my dad to see the tomb. I would love to find out.
It was a really emotional moment for me when it hit me that the Prophet (pbuh) was right there, and that he had prayed in that mosque, and that this was his beloved city. I think a lot of people felt close to the Prophet (pbuh) at that moment, and many were crying. I cried too, just because it really is such an amazing and overwhelming experience. We think and talk about the Prophet (pbuh) so much, so being this close to all these places is indescribable. Mashallah.
We woke up at 3 again to pray Fajr, which is such an amazing experience at Masjid al-Nabawi. I then went back to the hotel and slept a bit, before going to see the Uhud mountain, the site of the famous battle. We then went to Masjid al-Qiblatayn (Mosque with the 2 minarets) which is a really nice mosque and a beautiful green area of Madinah. Mashallah Madinah is an amazing city. I’m seriously considering moving here at some point. Imagine being able to pray at Masjid al-Nabawi anytime you wanted!
I can’t wait for tomorrow, when we leave to Mecca. I keep imagining the feeling of first seeing the Kaaba. It must be amazing. Inshallah we’ll be able to pray salaat al-Jumaah in Masjid al Haram.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I'm in love. With Madinah and the Prophet's Mosque to be specific. This city is absolutely amazing. It seems like the perfect Arab city, mostly because it's nothing like Cairo. It's quiet, calm, organized, the taxis are nice, the people are friendly, and everyone's really helpful. We got here at around 8:30 Tuesday night, and checked into our hotel before walking around a bit. We saw the Prophet's Mosque from far and it looked absolutely breathtaking. You can imagine how speechless I was when I saw it up close and then when I went inside. Seriously, it is an architectural masterpiece. The size, the detail, the magnificence, and the scale all make it absolutely beautiful. When I went in I just never wanted to leave.

We woke up the next morning at 3 am Fajr which was at 4:15. I was surprised to hear the adaan go off at 3:15, since in Cairo it goes off 15 minutes before prayer time. I looked out my window and saw groups of people already making their way to the mosque, so we quickly dressed and walked the short distance. There were literally thousands of people there, of all nationalities. It really is something I'm never going to forget. So many clothing styles, languages, countries. It reminded me of the verse in the Qur'an: "we created you in tribes and nations so that you may know each other".

After Fajr we walked around some more, took photos, and had breakfast. It's hard for me to go to sleep after I've woken up so I don't think I'll be sleeping much for the next 5 days. I feel exhausted but the excitement keeps me going.

I just prayed Duhr and am about to go see the Prophet's grave. There are separate hours for men and women, and the women's hours just started. Inshallah I will get to see the mosque with 2 qiblas soon.

I met two really nice people yesterday. One was a woman in the lounge at Cairo airport, who asked me if I was doing Umrah after she saw me reading a guide on Hajj and Umrah. I said yes and she spent about 20 minutes giving me advice on what to do and what not to do. I was wearing my veil kind of loosely so she said I shouldn’t do that in Mecca because they’re really strict there, and that once her 9-year-old daughter got hit with a stick because her veil slipped(!). She also explained how to sneak a phone into the Prophet’s Mosque (by hiding it in your sock) since you’re not allowed to take phones with cameras into the mosque. She was really sweet.

The second person I met in the elevator at the hotel. She asked me where I was from and I said Egypt, to which she replied that she was from South Africa. This got me all excited and I told her I’d grown up in Zambia, which got her all excited. It really made me miss home. She gave me her room number and told me to visit her. She was so nice, and she seemed so excited to be doing Umrah.

On a concluding note, I hadn't realized how far globalization had gone till I found a Starbucks outside the Prophet's Mosque! Good for me though, since I'm a bit of an addict.

Photos soon!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

today's the day!

In exactly 8 hours my flight leaves to Madinah! I can't wait. I've been feeling really excited but today for some reason I'm calm. I'm worrying about all the things that Umrah entails and hoping I don't forget anything. If it's already complicated I can't imagine what Hajj will be like. On top of that you'll have millions of people.
I'm really excited about seeing so many people from so many different countries. It should be a nice experience. I keep remembering Malcolm X's quote when he went to Mecca, about how he had never thought he would see equality between people, but he saw it there. Of course I'm sure everyone there won't be perfectly well-behaved or courteous but still, the atmosphere should be unforgettable.
I'll be taking my laptop with me so I'll update as much as I can, especially with pics :).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

qur'an and woman

I just finished reading Amina Wadud's book, "Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective", one of the few interpretations of the Qur'an done by a female that is widely available. She made a lot of amazing points but I'll only mention a few here.

I believe the Qur'an adapts to the context of the modern woman as smoothly as it adapted to the original Muslim community fourteen centuries ago. Any interpretations which narrowly apply the Qur'anic guidelines to literal mimics of the original community do an injustice to the text. No community will ever be exactly like another. Therefore no community can be a duplicate of that original community. The Qur'an never states this as a goal. Rather, the goal has been to emulate certain key principles of human development: justice, equity, harmony, moral responsibility, spiritual awareness, and development. Where these general characteristics exist, whether in the first Muslim community or in present and future communities, the goal of the Qur'an for society has been reached.

I love the message she's giving her: to focus on general characteristics of the Qur'an (some call it the spirit of the Qur'an) instead of only obsessing about specifics. Many Muslims today focus on dressing and living like the Prophet and his family/companions. Should this be something modern Islamic communities aim for? Or should we recognize that every community is different and the Qur'an is made for this diversity?

If readers of the Qur'an have assumed in any manner that men are superior to women intellectually, spiritually, ontologically, etc.; that men are "in charge of women"; that men are natural leaders; that men should "rule" the family and get obedience from women; that women do not have to participate and contribute in order to maintain the family and society or that her participation is marginal; then those readers will interpret the Qur'an in accordance with those assumptions.

In a previous post about interpreting the Qur'an, I mentioned that each person interprets the Qur'an according to their pre-existing beliefs and world view. Thus the assumptions Wadud mentions will influence someone reading the text.

I will post more from this book soon.

Friday, May 8, 2009


So this Tuesday I'll be going to Saudi Arabia for Umrah! I'm really excited about it but also kind of nervous. I've been planning it for a while and I got the visa last week and now we've booked the trip.

Being the obsessive compulsive person that I am, I feel like I need to know every single thing now. But obviously that isn't possible. I guess a lot of things you just figure out when you get there.

I wonder how I'll feel afterwards. I remember when the idea came to me a few months ago and I got really excited at the thought of seeing the Kaaba. Everytime I think of how it'll feel to actually see it I get really hyped up. I hope it's as amazing as I think it will be. Inshallah everything will go well!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

interpreting the qur'an

I recently bought a translation of the Qur'an by Tarif Khalidi. It is definitely the best translation I've ever read, because I feel like he focuses on translating concepts rather than word for word. Anyway, in his introduction he writes:

If we turn back to the questions posed above, we might argue that a knowledge of, say, conditions in pre-Islamic Arabia would clearly enahce contextual understanding of the Qur'an. But the very allusiveness of the text, its impersonality, its meta-historical tone, seems almost deliberately to de-emphasize context, and to address its audience or readers in a grammatical tense that I have elsewhere called 'the eternal present tense'. Yes, the Qur'an explicitly recognizes the danger of a wilfully perverted reading of the text, but if approached in a pious frame of mind, or what today we might call sympathy, interpretation must in theory be limitless, since God alone is its perfect interpreter. Thus, of all sacred texts, the Qur'an is perhaps the one that most self-consciously invites its readers to engage with it exegtically.

Relating it to my last post, I feel like every individual is bound to have their own interpretation of the Qur'an. Is this wrong? Is there one correct interpretation? I don't think so, because as Khalidi points out, that perfect interpretation is God's alone. We all read the Qur'an with certain ideas already in place, which probably explains why interpretations of it have varied to drastically. As Reza Aslan pointed out, someone looking for gender inequality in the Qur'an will find it, and likewise someone looking for gender equality will find it. Our preconcieved notions, prejudices, and stereotypes will undoubtedly reflect in our reading of the Qur'an. So should we then trust sheikhs and scholars instead of or alongside ourseleves? Aren't they human too, with their own prejudices and stereotypes? A sheikh who was brought up in a strict patriarchal society may not see gender equality in the Qur'an. If he does not believe that women and men are equal, would he interpret any verses in the Qur'an as saying that?
I feel like I do not have enough knowledge of history, arabic language, sunna, and hadith to interpret the Qur'an as well as it should be interpreted. On the other hand, I don't trust authority figures in Islam, because of how many of them have abused this power. I wonder what the solution will be?

Monday, May 4, 2009

the new islam

I moved to Cairo 5 years ago, and have noticed many changes over this time. One example is the niqab: 5 years ago, I barely saw any women wearing the niqab. Today, they are everywhere. Similarly, 40 years ago there weren't many veiled women in Cairo. Now, over 70% are veiled. The whole culture has become conservative, and who and what a Muslim is is now defined very narrowly. I know this term "extremism" is problematic, since many people don't think they are being extreme, but rather that they are following the "correct" Islam. However, there is no "correct" Islam. Islam is an interpretation of a variety of sources, including the Qur'an. Thus it varies according to person. "There are as many Islams as there are Muslims." I don't remember where I heard this quote, but it really struck me.
Anyway, to go back to the topic: why has Cairo become so conservative? And I don't think this is happening only in Egypt; Muslims all over the world seem to be becoming more conservative and narrow minded. Who a Muslim is is now such a narrow definition that many Muslims no longer fit into it. Apparently unless I cover myself head to toe, stay at home, obey my husband, and as long as I do not derive pleasure from anything in life, I am not a Muslim. Is this the new Islam? It certainly appears to be, from what I see in Cairo.
I have nothing against the niqab, but I think it is wrong to see it as a way of judging whether someone is a Muslim or not. Many good Muslims do not cover, while many niqabis are not practicing Muslims. Being a Muslim is more than just about what you are wearing. Sadly, the new Islam means being judged by your outward appearance. The new Islam is about making your supposedly private relationship with God public. The new Islam is about radical, literal interpretations. The new Islam ignores the SPIRIT of the Qur'an, and focuses solely on the pratical aspects, such as prayer. Why not a balance?
Coming from a liberal background, I find it sad that Islam has become to most people a strict, uncompromising set of rules. This is not the Islam I see when I read the Qur'an.
I wonder what the reasons for this growing conservatism are? Economic problems? Loss of identity? More narrow interpretations of Islam, on a global level?

Saturday, May 2, 2009


I was reading through some notes and I came across this quote:

“I want to pour water into hell and set paradise on fire, so that these two veils disappear and nobody shall any longer worship God out of fear of hell or hope of heaven.”

It is by a famous Sufi woman called Rabi'a.

I absolutely love this quote and just wanted to share it.