Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Ummah

While I was living in Zambia, about 4 years ago, I had begun thinking about Islam. I began talking to people about it and reading up on it, to try and get more of an idea of what it was about. About a month after that, I moved to Egypt. My quest for knowledge ground to a halt when I saw what life was like in an "Islamic" country.

I was 16 at the time, and so it was hard for me to realize that what Egyptians were practicing was something different from Islam: it was a mixture of culture, tradition, and Islam that had been mixed together for so long no one could tell them apart anymore. People were rude, people were impatient, there was rampant sexism everywhere, there was an unbelievable amount of sexual harassment, the driving was intolerable, and life in general was frustrating. At the same time, most Egyptians claimed to be very religious. They would pray, fast, pay zakat, and fulfill all other outward obligations. So I stopped thinking of becoming a practicing Muslim because to put it simply - Egypt turned me off Islam.

When I began university, things changed. I began reading, talking to other people, and exposing myself to alternative ideas of Islam. That's when I realized how far Islamic societies are from what the Qur'an states. That's when I realized that many Muslims fulfill their OUTWARD obligations (i.e. things other Muslims will see) while ignoring their inward ones, such as compassion, forgiveness, justice, etc.

I would read the Qur'an and get one image of Islam, then interact with Muslims and get another. At the time I thought it was just Egyptians who had it wrong. But now I can see that not only Arabs have warped Islam. Converts, Americans, Europeans, Africans - there are people within every group that prefers to focus on showing others how Islamic they are, rather than showing God. Similarly, there are people that like to complicate Islam and make it much harder than it needs to be, thinking this is the fastest way to get to heaven.

My question is, how happy are you with the Ummah? Do you feel like Muslims make it harder or easier for you to practice Islam the way you see fit? Do you find that your views on Islam are the same as other Muslims around you, or are they different?

(This post doesn't apply to all Egyptians of course. Just to the majority of those I have interacted with/observed).


Lisa said...

I really enjoyed this post and thank you for sharing your story, habibty.

So everything you said is 150% normal. Shocking, right?

The same exact thing happened to me. As a student at The University of Texas where I was surrounded by intelligent/thoughtful/educated Muslimahs, my Islam soared.

I gave presentations on everything from women in Islam to the Shia movement in front of large audiences.

And then something changed. I graduated and became a stay-at-home mother. Suddenly, my only interaction with Muslims was with a few uneducated/annoying masjid moms.

You know, the ones that ask you if your trying to be better than them by donning niqaab. The ones that tell you that ice is haram and your son could get sick and die from it. The sisters that inform you that you shouldn't take a shower for 2 months after giving birth (!)

All of this is to say, that what you have endured after leaving school for Egypt is a common response to a crazed Ummah. An Ummah who often associates the evil eye and all sorts of voodoo stuff with real Islam.

They have been endlessly disappointing, though I've found refuge in the blog world like I did at college. Of course, a number of the sisters in blog land are reverts, but many, many Arab, Pakistani, and everything in between have also been compassionate.

I've always believed that the very best Muslimah's are not outwardly so. One of the most religious girls I ever met, was a Turkish girl who has always refused scarf, but never misses a prayer or chance to make dua.

The only real difference between my beliefs and the Ummah's is that no one and nothing can make me like polygamy. And so that makes me not really a Muslimah, right?

In the end, we're all the same. There are Christians who attend church solely to keep up appearances. There are Muslims who pray Jummah at the masjid only so that their hoped-for suitor witnesses their "strong deen."

The trick is to lower our expectations.

Love you, another awesome post! Keep em coming, I'm coming over anxious :)

WhiteOrchid said...

you do find plenty of musilms all over the world who concentrate more on these 'outward obligations'. In addition to sending out the wrong image to people of other faiths, they do make it harder for us .So many muslims have deviated from the quran and sunnah, to such an extent, that it affects those who want to practise islam properly as well said...

You're quite right about how people tend to neglect their inward obligations. But I've also met too many around me that only neglect their outward obligations too. When it comes to some difference in opinion with madhabs, culture and politics, that's where my views start to differ with many adults (who keep telling me to be "Proud to be Malaysian"). Most of my friends I have usual contact with have the same view as me.

What disturbs me most is how many lack the fundamental knowledge such as tawheed. Maybe that should go under inward obligations.

Anonymous said...

I love your posts! Yes, it does seem the way you described - the emphasis on outward appearance and not the inward condition. I'm not happy with the ummah. My views on Islam are different, more inclusive than others. For example, my MIL might say as long as you pray, fast, due the 5 pillars you're good to go. My thoughts are you can do those things but be a nasty person and you're not guaranteed heaven b/c you pray. That's just not logical.
What I mean about being more inclusive is I don't believe you necessarily have to be a 'Muslim' as what's understood to be today to be a true Muslim. I really like Muhammad Asad's introduction in his translation about the usage of the words "Muslim" and "Islam" as it was understood at the time of our Prophet (saw).

Umm Omar said...

You really hit the nail on the head with this post. I loved how you said that Muslims focus on the outward obligations and not the inward obligations. Beautifully said, really. No, I'm not happy with the Ummah. Is anyone? I'm especially unhappy with our (lack of) sisterhood. The jealousy, backbiting, gosspip, cliques, judging of one another, etc. that thrives on us is overwhelming to me most of the time. I, too, started practicing Islam when I started college and I, too, was so disapponted with what I saw, felt, and experienced. And it hasn't ended since. Every now and then I come across a really incredible person or some random act of kindness, but sadly these moments are isolated and not the norm, as they should be for us.
Thanks for a great post, anyway. Makes me want to be a better person, insha'Allah.

Jaz said...

You know, I thought you were Egyptian. Where are you from originally? Egyptians in general think that they are the most religious & pious Islamic country, and the most peaceful lovely Muslims on the planet (I'm not insulting Egyptians but from what I've seen, of course I don't mean all of them).

I think that there are some problems in the Ummah, such as in Muslim countries sexual harassment seems to much more obvious! It's within the Ummah that women should feel most safe, however I put this down to a number of socio-political factors rather than a problem of religion. It's not a "muslim thing" in my opinion.
I also don't like it when people fight political wars and put an Islamic name on it.
However, Muslims are like everyone else. There are imperfections within every community and we're all only human as long as everyone is trying their best.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Lisa: thanks for posting :) Part of me felt that what I was saying was normal, but for people to confirm it still surprised me!

I love your point about how your Islam soared/plummeted depending on which Muslims you interacted with. It's the same with me. When I talk to educated, open-minded, liberal Muslims here (and there aren't many), I feel much closer to my religion, but when I interact with other types of Muslims I feel myself getting angry at what Islam has become, and this anger obviously isn't constructive.

I can't believe those stories about ice being haram and not taking a shower 2 months after giving birth!! Where do they get these things from??

I COMPLETELY agree with you - the best Muslimahs I've seen are not outwardly visible.

Nothing and no one can make me like polygamy either but so what? Do you know that the Prophet refused to let his daughter's husband marry any other women while married to her? I wonder what the moral of that story is! (And of course we never hear about that particular story).

Thanks for your lovely comment!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Whiteorchid: I totally agree with you. These Muslims make Islam look bad and this turns people off the religion completely. It also creates massive social pressure to be like them (since they are the majority) and thus people who were good Muslims before now feel pressure to fulfill outward obligations over inner ones, like you said. It's sad!
Thanks for posting!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

SirAdib: there definitely should be a balance between outward and inward, since the Qur'an specifies things we should be doing in both categories. Sadly for many Muslims, they think outward obligations are much more important, when I think the opposite.

It's so true that many Muslims lack fundamental knowledge, and I think knowledge definitely goes under inward obligations.

Thanks for posting!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: I agree, you're not guaranteed to go to heaven just because you mechanically carry out rituals. A lot of people think that way though. A lot of people also think they can commit as many sins as they want and do Umrah/Hajj and everything will be okay. I'm pretty sure that's not how it works :S
I'm interested in what you said about not being a "Muslim" according to today's definition. I hate the modern definition of being a Muslim so I'd love to hear what Asad said about hat a Muslim was at the time of the Prophet (pbuh).

Thanks for posting =) And I think hijabwoes is gone :(

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Umm Omar: great point about the lack of sisterhood. Can you imagine how amazing our journey into Islam would be if we were welcomed by warm, knowledgeable Muslims, ready to help us? Instead I'm scared to interact with a lot of Muslims because of their judgmental, ignorant behaviour.

Random acts of kindness and incredible people are few and far between unfortunately even for those of us living in "Islamic" countries. Funnily enough, they are much more frequent in Holland.

Thanks for posting!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Jaz: my dad is Egyptian, my mum is Dutch, and I grew up (16 years) in Zambia, in Southern Africa :) I've been living in Egypt ever since but I should be leaving soon, inshallah. So I am Egyptian, partly. Although I never really feel Egyptian.

It's true about Egyptians thinking they are the most religious Islamic country, but a look at everyday behaviour really contradicts this. Not that there are amazing people here, but generally I wouldn't classify the whole country as peaceful.

Like you said, within the Ummah women should feel more safe, yet here in Cairo it is impossible to leave my house without getting harassed. From the second I step out the door and get into the car, someone is looking/saying/doing something. And so it continues. I think the reasons are definitely socio-political, but as Muslims, these men should hold themselves back, no matter how crappy their lives are.

There are definitely imperfections in all communities. At the end, God knows who tried their best and who didn't.

Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Cairo - yes doesn't the Qur'an say [7:8-9] "And true will be the weighing on that Day: and those whose weight (of good deeds) is heavy in the balance - it is they, they who shall attain to a happy state; whereas those whose weight is light in the balance - it is they who will have squandered their own selves by their willful rejection of Our messages."

In Muhammad Asad's foreward, he states: "Furthermore, one must beware of rendering, in each and every case, the religious terms used in the Qur'an in the sense which they have acquired after Islam had become 'institutionalized' into a definite set of laws, tenets and practices. However legitimate this 'institutionalization' may be in the context of Islamic religious history, it is obvious that the Qur'an cannot be correctly understood if we read it merely in the light of later ideological developments, losing sight of its original purport and the meaning which it had - and was intended to have - for the people who first heard it from the lips of the Prophet himself. For instance, when his contemporaries heard the words islam and muslim, they understood them as denoting man's 'self-surrender to God' and 'one who surrenders himself to God' without limiting these terms to any specific community or denomination - e.g. in 3:67 where Abraham is spoken of as having 'surrendered himself unto God' (kana musliman), or in 3:52, where the disciples of Jesus say, 'Bear thou sitness that we have surrendered ourselves unto God (bi-anna muslimun)'. In Arabic, this original meaning has remained unimpaired, and no Arab scholar has ever become oblivious of the wide connotation of these terms. Not so, however, the non-Arab of our day, believer and non-believer alike: to him, islam and muslim usually bear a restricted, historically circumscribed significance, and apply exclusively to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad.

Anonymous said...

cairo - oh I forgot to add - yes it appears she has, and has had a personality change, if I had your e-mail addy I would e-mail you what I know. :D

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: I love what he wrote! Technically a Muslim is anyone who submits to God - Christian, Jewish, anyone, since that's literally what the word means. Today it's become an identity marker for whole communities, thus changing the meaning of the word. Asad sounds amazing! My email is - let me know what happened!

ellen557 said...

Great post.
Since I don't consider myself part of the Ummah at the moment, I can't really answer the first question.
But the second? Wooooah, yes.
To be honest, it's the Muslims I haven't met that make it hard for me.
I've been to places in hijab and been death stared, completely. I had a woman just shake her head at me when I smiled at her.
People talked about me right in front of me, it was horrible. So, to answer that question, I feel many make it harder.

I think my views on Islam are very different. Because I have a Christian background, that influences any opinions that I form in regards to Islam, e.g. I have a different view on the forgiving nature of God when compared to even my husband's view.
And I really understand the inward/outward thing! I myself haven't converted because I need to feel the "inward" stuff first. Without that, I'd feel like a failure and a liar. That should always come first.

Lisa said...

Struggling wrote about the reasoning for not showering after a baby for two months a few months ago habibty. I never asked for an explanation when one of the sister's asked if I had done it.

"Female neighbour barely spoke to me except the few odd questions about healing after a c-section. I was asked how long I waited until I had a shower, "the next day, how long did you wait?" I asked with deep curiosity. I shouldn't have asked, apparently in Palestinian Culture they don't shower until 40 days after giving birth. Apparently they believe having a shower will invite infection after giving birth.......hmmm I always figured the opposite especially considering it was a c-section!"

And my best friend Michelle commented back with this:

I got the same useless advice, wrap YOUR stomach so you get all the air out and don't stay fat (huh?), the best thing you can do for a baby is lay him on the floor on a blanket and leave him to his own devices so he'll crawl faster, dont swaddle him because he'll be bowlegged, give him tea in his bottle to help him sleep, etc... Oh and I *hated* when those women practically tore my child from my arms!


This is why I love Michelle, she's hilarious! I almost wet my pants laughing over the years at this stuff.

These are just a few of the things that made me long for the university masjid small as it was, rather than the newly built one where my son attends school.

I can totally sympathize with your plight sweetie, and am trying to imagine Egypt where a native Muslimah would likely be even more set in her ways on such issues.

Love this post and you my sis!

struggling said...

I absolutly love this post!!!

1)ha this was a question in a poll I did a while back, and most people agreed with me that they were disapointed with the Muslim Ummah

2)"Muslims" make it harder definately. I don't feel comfortable going to the mosque, I don't feel comfortable going to Islamic events anymore because of how I was treated when I went before. Of course when I first became Muslim I stuck to the internet and those people just made me feel like yea I deserved to be Muslim but I better start thinking and believing my non Muslim family is going to hell, or else.

3)I don't have Muslim friends in the non cyber world, I know there are people out there that have simular views on Islam but I have yet to meet any in Vsncouver

Mrs. S said...

I'm not sure I've ever experienced the Ummah as I interpret that word. I grew up with extremely cultural Muslims and feel like I rarely interact with any Muslims who do not demonstrate either the cliches of cultural Muslims, overzealous converts or those who use economic status to separate themselves from others.

I feel like most Muslims in my life have forgotten that Islam and spirituality are a process. We all experience religion at our own pace, and it can be difficult when there are people in your life who don't allow that. I think this separates me from my friends and family in regards to Islam, especially because the line has been so blurred between cultural and religion for so much of my life.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Ellen: I love your comment about having a different view on Islam because of your Christian background. This is sooo true. Everyone's background affects the way the interact with Islam, which results in many different Islams, not one. Which is why you can't expect all Muslims to act the same (aside from the basic pillars).

I totally get your point about feeling the inward stuff first. That's what happened to me. I didn't start praying or say the shahada until I FELT Islam inside, and that's when I knew I was ready.

Thanks for the comment!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Lisa: oh my God, I can't imagine not taking a shower for 40 days, let alone after giving birth!! I'm pretty sure that's dangerous! Haha and the other things: tea in the bottle, get the air out your stomach, he'll be bowlegged...LOL wow. I really hope they're not attributing these things to Islam, you never know. Some people see weird things in the Qur'an!

You know what's funny? Native Muslims here are actually easier to talk to than converts. I'm not sure why, but they are more open to discussion than converts, who are usually dead set in their ways. I wonder why this is.

Thanks for the comment hun :)

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Mrs. S: that's interesting. Did you grow up in the Middle East or another Islamic country? I can identify with the way you feel, after having lived in Egypt, where the line between culture and religion is non-existent. If I had grown up in Egypt I probably would be a completely different type of Muslim, but thank God I didn't.

Islam IS a process! And it's different for everyone. Apparently a lot of people don't think that way.

Thanks for posting!

Jasmine said...

I completely agreee - I was completely entranced and inspired about what a Muslim is - but as I start spending more time with practicing people, I got to a stage where I was repulsed by the things that were going on and did a complete 360 degree turn and rejected it completely. Today, I realise that its wat's inside all of us that makes the world a better place - and now I am happy that tend to my heart, mind and action and intention and I dont pay attention to what others say or do. People infect eachother will ill thoughts, and I guess the whole point of free will is that you come to decisions yourself and learn to recognise good and bad and ignore symbols of piousness. The symbols mess up your "good person radar" and can easily send you in the wrong direction.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Hi Jasmine. I love what you said about ill thoughts infecting people. That's so true. When you're around a negative/jealous/ignorant person, I really feel it affects you.

It's great that you're now at a stage where you don't care about what others say or do. I haven't gotten there yet - a lot of things still get to me, and sometimes I even doubt my own interpretations of the Qur'an. I've realized that I just can't trust other Muslims (except a few) when it comes to Islam. In the end, we're responsible for ourselves on judgment day, and so should make our own decisions in life, like you said.

Thanks for posting!

sabrina said...

This was a really great post, and delivered in a surprisingly gentle way. I think everyone can relate to this topic on some level or another. Last Ramadan, while I was at work, one of my co-workers (who is half Christian, half Jewish) was asking me about Ramadan. She told me that her father (who is Christian) used to work in a Muslim country, and he hated Ramadan. He said that was the time of year when all the Muslims were impatient, rude, didn't want to fulfill their duties at work, and were always cutting corners because they wanted to go home, eat, go to the masjid and go to sleep. I know she didn't mean any harm in telling me that story, but it really hurt me because as a Muslim, I know that Ramadan is the most beautiful and blessed time of the year -- and of all the months, Muslims should especially be aware of their actions during this time. I guess I'm glad that she told me that because it motivated me to try even harder to follow God's teachings during that month and always, not only for my inner self, but because as a Muslim (man or woman, hijab or no hijab) people are always judging and watching us. They watching how we walk, and talk, and interact with people, and who our friends are, and where we go -- I mean, we talk about media scrutiny, but that's not the only scrutiny we're under. And really, who can blame people for associating Islam with the Muslims they meet? If you meet a Muslim that drinks, or swears, or is abusive toward others, I sort of think people have a right to associate those qualities with the religion -- because what else do they know? And the “Muslim countries” don't help either. Have you heard of Saudi Arabia's new law banning women from participating in sports because they're afraid that virgins might not bleed on their wedding night? I mean, it's disgusting. I've actually read an article written by Suhaib Webb where he quotes from the hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) that it's not permissible to ask a woman if she is a virgin, and that the “bloody sheet test,” which is dehumanizing and horrendous, is not from Islam, and not allowed because of the hadith where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) said that it is forbidden to talk amongst public about the private/intimate relations between a husband and a wife.
I think the bottom line is that we are the one's to blame. It is when we lack proper knowledge of the religion we follow that ignorance breeds. Most of us read stuff like this and get really fired up – we get mad, but we do nothing to change it. Change will spread when each of us take the time to seek knowledge and learn the proper teachings of our religion. We might not all become teachers and professors, and religious scholars, but by learning, we will implement the change within ourselves and our families. Social change starts small – it starts with the individual, and this post really motivated me to continue to learn so that I can be a good example, to please God, to be a good example for the people I love, and for anyone that comes in contact with me, even if momentarily, to know that Islam, in it's truth, is a beautiful, beautiful religion.

Jasmine said...

Dont doubt yourself Cairo - the message is meant to mean whatever it means to you specifically and every time you read it, your understanding will change - like when you watch a film as a kid, as you grow, everytime you watch it you notice different messages, themes and points - different signifcances. The written word is the same and whatever you get from it that is good is a good thing and whatever you get from it that is bad - abandon, and forget this "right" and wrong" stuff - right and wrong is relative and there is no stable meaning in any thing

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Hi Sabrina, thanks for the long & thoughtful post :)

I think I agree with absolutely everything you've said! The description of Muslims during Ramadan sooo fits Cairo. It's hell here during that month: people are irritable by day, and then spend 8 straight hours eating by night, so yeaaah. Nothing religious about Ramadan here! Even though like you said it's supposed to be THE most religious time.

Like you said, every Muslim is an ambassador for Islam, and I can't imagine the picture non-Muslims are getting when I think about the way the majority of Muslims behave. Seriously, the way Islam is being portrayed is probably not convincing many people to convert. And I don't mean Hollywood, the news, blah blah blah, I mean the image being portrayed by actual Muslims.

I hadn't heard of that new Saudi law. It's both shocking and not shocking. I've come to expect absolutely anything from Saudi since they let girls burn to death in a school because they couldn't get their veils on in time. It's still frustrating to hear things like this though. I'm reading a book right now about how Saudi was founded and it's pretty bad. All this from the first Muslim country and the birthplace of the Prophet!

As you said, we Muslims are to blame for the current state of Islam and the Ummah. I think most people think they can't change anything, but like you said, if YOU change, others around you will change too. The way I bring up my kids will change something, and this could start a domino effect. To be honest, most Muslims these days don't seem to be open to mature discussions, so widespread social change seems unlikely.

Thanks again for the lovely comment :) Very inspiring.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Jasmine: I agree with you and what annoys me is that I feel like the majority of Muslims would say personal interpretation doesn't count: what the sheikh/imam who has studied Islam their whole life says is what counts. But I seriously have a problem with this. When the sheikh is a 70 year old Saudi man I am PRETTY sure he isn't going to see women's rights in the Qur'an the way I do. They are human too at the end of the day, and have their own prejudices.

You're totally right - there is no stable meaning in anything, and right and wrong is relative. I think the beauty of the Qur'an is that everyone sees something different in it and has different experiences interacting with it. Relativity and difference are great things.

Anonymous said...

Jasmine - that's what I was trying to tell my MIL, and she looked at me like I had two heads. :)) To many, many Muslims, Islam is just a set of rules. They don't even read a translation of the Qur'an in their own language because they're told it's too hard to understand it.

cairo - every time I see the topic for this discussion that Sami Yusuf song starts playing in my head. :p
I'm thinking the same way, at least I can help my daughters when they're older and asking questions instead of telling them "that's just the way it is, you have to accept it".
I agree, most aren't up to discuss anything without resorting to character attacks or w/o getting really upset. I can't even discuss anything with my hubby without him accusing me of "attacking Islam". *sigh*

MuSLiMa FlOwEr said...

Hi how are you? My name is Sarah and I am Egyptian. Going to egypt this year changed my life. I realised that culture and religion are 2 different things.. If I didnt see how strong the culture is in egypt I would have lived thinking its "normal" to live by the culture which is not ISLAM. Thanx for ur post. Im not the only one who feels this way!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Muslim Flower: it sounds like we went through the exact same thing! When I came to Egypt I realized that culture and religion are not only 2 different things but that they shouldn't be mixed together! You are definitely not alone in feeling this way!