Tag Archives: Islam

The Spirituality of Tidying; My thoughts as a Muslim on Marie Kondo

I was fortunate enough to watch ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’ on Netflix without having been exposed to too much of the criticism currently being posted about her on social media. I think I probably came across one meme of her with a speech bubble saying something about books. I’d seen the show come up on Netflix recommendations but never really paid attention to it till I saw her name popping up on Twitter a couple of times. I’m not big on home décor or lifestyle programmes and so it wasn’t something I considered my territory – that is, until I watched the first episode.

Marie Kondo met her first clients – a married couple with children – and asked them if she could greet their home. I thought her request would be met with amusement/cynicism/something negative (as I’ve later seen to be the case on social media), but I was pleasantly surprised when the couple said; ‘I love that!’, and she proceeded in her ritual. They even joined in with her and sat in silence, taking in the atmosphere of the house. And what’s more – they felt emotional doing it, feeling the significance of the silence. It was clear that they were visibly moved when Marie had finished.

This glimpse into Marie Kondo’s spirituality had my attention. (For more on the culture behind her spirituality/philosophy see this great Huffington Post article tackling the negativity being posted about her on social media: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/marie-kondo-white-western-audineces_us_5c47859be4b025aa26bde77c)

As I continued watching, she went on to present other aspects of her beliefs (aspects which form the basis of her philosophy of cleaning): that we should keep a hold of items that make us feel joyful, that we should hold onto what we would like to go into our future with, that we should remember the significance of the objects we possess so as much as to thank them when we do let go of them. I can well see how all these things promote a healthy outlook to living – helping one to move away from an unhealthy possessiveness, hoarding or the indifference which allows clutter to build up within our living spaces, and help one be happy with what they possess. What’s more, Marie’s spirituality is one that is accessible to people of no religion just the same way that Rumi’s translated poetry is – in that there is no mention of ‘God’ to frighten away the atheist, there is no gratitude towards a divine deity. The gratitude is posed upon the object, the house, the memory, the experience, really – upon ourselves. And I think spirituality – even in this form – benefits the person practicing it, giving them a basis upon which to feel something greater than themselves without having to give that something a name if they feel uncomfortable doing so.

This is the reason why Marie’s show really got my interest. As I watched her process of tidying, I thought about my own spiritual beliefs: to want less, to possess only the things that matter, to have a healthy relationship with everything around me (including my memories). When she tells her clients to thank their clothing, I think about how I could thank Allah for the objects I hold, how I could thank Allah for giving me the means to have them even when I am choosing to let something go.

I have heard teachers of Islam say that we should live like travellers in this life, that we should develop good habits, live with meaning and purpose, and work to clean our souls. I have heard stories of great people who have lived with very little – the objects they did possess being those of great worth to them. I have also looked at the millennial trend of minimalism and seen how this can apply to a follower of Islam who wants to rid themselves of the many material possessions which, in reality, they have no need for. And yet I never made the connection between tidying and my own spirituality as clear as I did when I watched this show. It was like the knowledge was there, but the practical means were not. And now…I’m thinking of the many things I want to donate to charity, the many things I own that I want to pick up and say alhamdulillah for before placing them respectfully into their rightful places around the house. These are not small acts, I see this also as part of dhikr.

And so, I’m grateful to Marie Kondo for fearlessly being herself and presenting her philosophy to a Western audience – even at the risk of it being ridiculed or completely misunderstood. It was a breath of fresh air which helped me to consider something seemingly mundane as tidying as having the potential to be spiritually cleansing. I would like carry a greater purpose with everything I choose to include in my life, and if I can handle objects as gently and gratefully as I see Marie teaching her clients to do, I’ll know that I have achieved a greater appreciation for what God has given me.

Dear Diary; the Words of the Beloved

When you first start to read all you see are letters making up words,
you don’t see the words,
the page is just full of letters strung together.
Then you learn the sounds,
the way those strung-together letters should sound when you say them.
Then words start to become meanings as you learn definitions.
Sentences begin to pull together to become thoughts.
Thoughts come together, meld into each other or build up to make sense of the world,
and if you read the best of words they start to light the heart.
They’re not just letters anymore, filling up a page.
They’re inspiration, uplifting and alive.

These are the layers of worship.
You learn the rules, you see them like strung-together letters.
Even before you begin to learn their meanings, you have to content yourself in repeating them over and over again
to form the habit of memory.
To form the virtues of discipline.
Then the meanings come to light.
You build your understanding by putting them together;
by acting, by thinking, by learning more.
These actions move you, you start to see the patterns.
You always find something new, you realise you’ll never find the end,
you’ll never know it all.
But that is not what you want anyway, anymore.
You want to feel the love of those pages, behind those pages, above those pages.
Then the world releases you and you hold it in your hand, to turn over and open as you please,
like a book.
But of course that last stage is only for the fiercest lovers.
And I’m just describing what I’ve learnt is the ultimate aspiration.

Dear Diary: Confessions of Inertia

Ya Lateefu, Ya Lateefu,

My husband told me that tayammum, the dry ablution, the washing of the skin and soul with dust, would not have been permissible with the earth if the beloved Prophet’s (pbuh) feet did not walk upon it. The beauty of this haunts me, drowns my lungs as something outside of my surroundings. Different – just as consciousness is different to matter. The epiphany is beautiful. I need it as fruit to devour, to survive, to transcend above survival in the grip of the darkness I feel inside, falling as I am into that same earth the Prophet (pbuh) walked upon with such purpose, humility and grace. I do not know how to rise to its surface, but keep digging at the dirt to try and find a way. He (pbuh) made the earth move with his steps, but I can only suffocate in it – cannot even become it.

I have watched as an elderly woman cried beside me about the son she lost to illness at an age too soon, and I did not hug her. This haunts me. I have held her a million times in the confines of my thought, sharing her grief as my own, but unable to make my rock-like bones move in reality where it may make a difference. I think about the times I have hesitated due to overthink, running something over in my head so much that my body became stiff. The times I have not spoken when I should have. The times I have not cried when I should have. I despise the way my voice comes out from my throat, barely audible when greeting strangers. The times I have not acted when I should have. The times I have not followed a decision because all I could do was stare into my thoughts trying to find a way to get up from the floor. The peace does not come. I did not call my mother the night I missed her so terribly that I lost myself to a living sleep, but the morning after numbed my brain into the routine of the day. I switch off. I put things off for years. I can put people to the side for a long time, and in that time they live inside my thoughts. I speak to them, apologising, praying for them, hoping that one day perhaps they can benefit from something I have intended although I have not done for them as I should have when required. To just be there for someone is a beautiful thing. I have never underestimated the strength of those who show their faces where they must, as propriety demands. As is a Muslim’s right over another.

For all of these regrets the dear diaries have been trapped inside my head. It is hard to release a great many experiences locked within their time which could not be written in the moment. It is difficult to write when most in need, just as it is difficult to talk to someone and get a grip over the subtleties of tears and madness. My husband holds me and does not give up. It is not good to submerge into water to deal with oneself. It is selfish.

I write now with a stronger hold over my mind than in such times. But the thick of battle offers no mercy. That battle is between one’s life and one’s limbs. I write after it has taken place – in retrospect, missing how the breaths of those moments wheezed out from my throat, how mind-numbing the onslaught of anxiety was. Internal darkness is a reality, not part of a diagnosed state of being, but a hardship with its own reasons that are above and beyond my understanding. But the depth of the heart’s abyss reveals itself in times of sorrow, showing how the human being has a great deal more inside than what the surface of happiness can expose. This darkness is not simply to be sad or in grief or in anxiousness or fear. It is the inability to move. It is inertia that takes over. A great weight bears down on me, as if a huge shadow is holding my body, engulfing my mental and physical form, and hugging tightly my heart. All I want is to have the strength to swing it off me, and by the same movement be able to get up and do something; to do what I should do, to follow propriety, duty, act justly, act mercifully, give myself to something other than this lull,

“don’t fall into a lull,” he says,

this silence, this extended pause, this spiralling thought. Something other than it.

This is not simply a wish, this is a desire, this is a prayer, this is dhikr.

Ya Lateefu, Ya Lateefu,

my love holds the hand of my inertia, rocking it back and forth until I get up with him and pray.

“Do women have a soul?”: Religious Revival & The Feminine

Religious Traditions and the Secular

Being asked to talk about women in Islam at an interfaith meeting may be seen as the perfect opportunity for many in the whole ‘dawah’ scene. It’s the one area Muslims are put under a microscope for in today’s time. This is a chance to remove misconceptions about the victim status of Muslim women perceived by non-Muslims. But I didn’t really take such an approach. In doing research my main intention was to move away from answers that are always given on such occasions. I had no intention of presenting a defensive dialogue which situates a Muslim woman not as the victim of religion, but the victim of modern day society, or alternatively one which describes her as ‘a pearl’ or a precious object or anything similarly patronising.

Although I didn’t get onto it fully in the script I wrote, I really found myself delving deeper into what I think of as an individual yet collective way of looking at gender, which is to say, I found myself focusing on the soul and the essence of the male and female and the way they’re connected. To my relief, before the actual meeting I got a message from the imam who invited me saying that he’d forgotten to mention; ‘…They [the organisers] prefer the style of delivery in an informed and explained manner rather than a debate style speech. They stress that in their ground rules that it’s not about one [religion] above the other or better than the other, but a mere explanation of religion.’ This was good news for me and in-line with the way I approached the task in the first place. I really had no intention of debating because I didn’t want my presentation to take some crude format as I’ve seen from the ‘dawah’ scene in which speakers’ responses are framed entirely around the criticism received, i.e. we approach our religion from the box we get placed in, responding to critique which views religion from a very simplistic foundation. And we’re to blame for this continued simplistic perception because we respond to it in its own language. The very fact that we now approach ‘women’ as a subject to tackle at a dawah event is a clear sign of a modernised, category-obsessed reduction of religious tradition. That is the reason I originally found this presentation difficult to put together.

Within the meeting itself what I found interesting was the initial openness to the essence of the feminine presented through the image of the mother. I suppose it was my own misconception that I’d prepared myself for criticism from secular voices, as is the case in the university environment. This was quite different. In fact, the speaker of the Jewish tradition began his speech by talking about the woman’s importance in the household – a difference from certain contemporary voices which would attack the notion of the woman even being connected to the household. Although there were definitely opinions about how men and women should be free to switch their traditional roles, along with the strong position of an Anglican speaker on how women should be able to take leadership roles within the church which is something of a hot topic, I found a common ground in the essence which meant not having to explain from scratch that the role of the mother is sanctified. Its sanctification as a wholesome truth and not just in the case of Mary (mother of Jesus) was something not everyone could agree upon however, because otherwise there would be no issue regarding how no matter how important a father’s role is he can’t take the position of the mother in bringing up the child. But what did get interest was the etymological connection I mentioned in my presentation between rahm and rahma, their link to the feminine and their perfection in the characteristics of God (Ar Rahman and Ar Raheem) as I quoted from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf;

‘The Arabic and Hebrew word for womb (rahm) is derived from the word mercy (rahma) and is an expression of the creative power of God in man.’ (Hamza Yusuf, p.20)

I can’t do justice to the above sentence in an explanation, I only hope it makes you think about something beyond just biological, an interconnection of Creator and created – especially to the feminine, the nature and wisdom in life as a phenomenon and the profundity of the characteristic highlighted here in giving a soul to who we are, or making us aware of the soul (I will come back to this later).

The Soul and Religious Revival

In my research I came across a short documentary called ‘Women in Islam’, and one sentence in particular struck me; “At a time when Europe was still debating whether a woman had a soul or not, Muslim women throughout the Islamic empire were excelling in all fields” (Discover Islam 2010). It’s the first part, the fact that they were debating whether or not a woman had a soul that really got me. I feel like we’re living in a time when there’s more likely to be a debate about whether or not anyone has a soul. And when it comes to a woman, it’s as if her soul is increasingly being hidden.

This is not just because of the whole ‘women competing with men’ thing, but because we’ve left aside our tradition’s study of the soul itself. What I find when delving deeper into the work of scholars such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad is that the religious sciences of the past wrote of a woman as all soul, as well as the bearer of the soul, and the bearer of spirituality; the personification of the aspect of the world that gets brushed aside now perhaps because of the enlightenment’s defining of religious tradition, and also because of our own fascination only with outward form, therefore our ignorance towards inward knowledge. Religion was never meant to be a response to scientific rationality. For all the Muslims trying to respond to the scientific-mathematic-rationalistic etc. criticism posed by modernity, I’d like to tell you now that you’re already out-of-date in the context of postmodernity. Time has already moved on. And now, apparently, many of the intellectual elite are finding themselves ‘disillusioned’ by the enlightenment, and instead ‘rediscovering’ spirituality which has become their individual escape, a refuge from their ‘disillusionment of grand truths’. In all of this confusion I’d like to possibly add some more.

At the Q&A session at the end of the interfaith meeting I was asked what connections there were between historical developments of a women’s status and what the Islamic tradition has to say about women in relation to today. In my answer I said that among the Muslims there has been ‘an enlightenment’ recently, however what I really meant was a revival (I really did mean a revival – enlightenment was a slip of the tongue and unfortunately we can’t turn back time). Anyway I continued to say that within this [revival] I’ve found Muslim women to be much more proactive than men (simply from my own experiences, so of course this is debatable). I’ve found that women, while learning more about Islam, have pulled up historical narrations about important women in our tradition, and now there’s a resurfacing of knowledge regarding the female scholarship within the intellectual lineage that leads all the way back to the Prophet (salallahu alaiyhi wasallam). Our knowledge of this is allowing us to understand our part in the sociological, historical and political narrative of our tradition. And this resurfacing can only have come about through the questioning of; where are the women? But not only has our revival brought about such practical details regarding names of prominent female scholars, but also the revival of traditional thought.

It’s like all those years and years ago, past scholars were writing about the soul and the spiritual heart knowing that there would be a time when people would be in need of it. I critiqued the way in which religious followers have tried to shape their beliefs as a response to modernity, to rationalise their beliefs so that they don’t fade away into secularism. The revival of the religious sciences, however, is far from a settlement with postmodernity, far from a response to it. Although postmodern thought may have triggered it in some aspects, the revival of inward knowledge is not postmodern. Ancient wisdoms regarding morality, life, regarding the essence of worship, the cleansing of the heart, the awareness of the soul – are all contradictory to the sentiments of postmodernity which is ungrounded. However, in a time when our culture makes us so obsessed with ourselves as individuals, I feel that the revival of inward knowledge is perfect. Al Ghazali talks to the individual, in doing so he makes one aware of themselves while at the same time destroying one’s self-obsession in order to serve a higher purpose, putting human flaws into perspective and providing the medicine for our ailments within wisdoms that address the core of the issue.

What does this have to do with the discussion on women I began with? Well to begin with, what I’ve increasingly found on this path is that when you really start to sincerely want that cleansing of the self you look to all such means, you look to scholars who have talked about these things, who teach you how to live a more dignified life, and one of the first things you realise is that they talk about the cleansing of the human heart – they don’t talk about the male and female heart, just the heart. The ailments are within both genders, we both need the cure. We find common ground here – a kind of equality of being and in the potential to ascend that is beyond any contemporary concept I’ve come across. But at the same time, these scholars don’t look to present equality in all aspects of the human picture. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf once said, within the Islamic tradition cosmology is wholesomely understood; you won’t find a better understanding of it, unpolluted by outside forces, than the way it’s looked at in Islam. Scholars have written about the essence of the male and female and how they tie together perfectly, and what I find repeatedly in such discussion is the dominance of female spirituality. I find this repeatedly, while not even looking for it. It makes me think about how Islam can be seen beyond reflecting a patriarchal system, unlike any other religious tradition I’ve ever come across, if only people could be more aware of this kind of knowledge. In order to undo our polluted perceptions I’m in no way calling for overcompensation by way of a feminist theological response, because I don’t find much soul in those either. Also I hope you understand that when I say soul here I’m using it metaphorically. So if I were to ask you if a woman has a soul and what that soul is…I guess what I mean is; what is the essence of the feminine? I’ll show you with extracts from three separate sources, each of which sent me spiralling when I came across it.

The first two are part of detailed articles and I would highly recommend reading them in their entirety (links provided below). Abdal Hakim Murad (1999): ‘Drawing on this explicit identification of rahma with the ‘maternal’ aspect of the phenomenal divine, the developed tradition of Sufism habitually identifies God’s entire creative aspect as ‘feminine’, and as merciful. Creation itself is the nafas al-Rahman, the Breath of the All-Compassionate…’ ‘This ‘female’ aspect of God allowed most of the great mystical poets to refer to God as Layla – the celestial beloved – the Arabic name Layla actually means ‘night’. Layla is the veiled, darkly-unknown God who brings forth life, and whose beauty once revealed dazzles the lover. In one branch of this tradition, the poets use frankly erotic language to convey the rapture of the spiritual wayfarer as he lifts the veil – a metaphor for distraction and sin – to be annihilated in his Beloved…’ 

Hamza Yusuf (p.19-20): ‘Chastity and purity have always been the great virtues that come naturally to women but which men must learn. The Qur’an uses Mary, the mother of Christ, as the great paragon of chastity and purity of the heart and describes her as an ideal. “And God has made an example for those who believe of Mary who guarded her chastity, so We breathed some of Our spirit into her, and she confirmed the pronouncements and the scriptures of her Lord, and she was among the devout. (66/11-12).” It is from women then, that men learn chastity and purity, which in turn protect the sacred nature of women, alluded to in the Arabic word for woman, hurmah, which means “what is sacred.” Now, the failure of men in imitating women in their natural virtue has resulted in women rejecting the double standard and imitating men in their natural vice. The spiritual power of women is great, but so too is the power of their physical attraction to men. It is this power that causes vile men to want to dominate women, and virtuous men to honor and protect them. But that physical power of the female form over men is a sensory power that veils men from her metaphysical meaning. Her sensual form prevents the man lost in carnality from knowing her spiritual reality, that she is the source of mercy in the world. The Arabic and Hebrew word for womb (rahm) is derived from the word for mercy (rahma) and an expression of the creative power of God in man. In degrading woman, we degrade the highest qualities of our human nature; in elevating her, we elevate our highest nature. When her natural virtues—compassion, kindness, caring, selflessness, and love—predominate in men, men are able to overcome their natural vices and realize their full humanity. When, however, those virtues are absent, men descend to the lowest of the low and are worse than beasts. In unveiling the outward beauty of a woman, we become veiled from her inward beauty.’

Jalaluddin Rumi (Mathnawi; Abdal Hakim Murad 1999, Hamza Yusuf p.18-19): ‘The prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals They have no kindness, gentleness, or love Since animality dominates their nature. Love and kindness are human attributes, anger and sensuality belong to animals She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is the creator – you could even say she is not created.’  

Abdal Hakim Murad (1999), ‘Islam, Irigaray, and the retrieval of gender’ (http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/gender.htm) Discover Islam (2010), ‘Women in Islam’, MuslimByChoice, Youtube, Part 1 of 2 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfDFLF2Ktz8) Hamza Yusuf, ‘Climbing Mount Purgatorio: Reflections from the Seventh Cornice’, Zaytuna College, p.1-20 (http://t.co/Lpe1hkhobp)

Self-Expression & the Clear Image

If you’ve read my piece; ‘Twitter-Presence; Identity, Death & Jahar’, you’ll know that questions of identity have been important to me. People rarely acknowledge that categories of identity classed as normal are not ones anyone would accept outside of their cultural and social framing. Patriotism is really an odd concept if you’re in an environment where you’re not reminded of its signs – if it has no real function to your daily existence, as I’ve found in my life. I think that my dad did talk occasionally about a ‘Kashmiri pride’, but it felt more like he was speaking of it out of interest, like he was referring to it as something tangible now only because we’re away from it, something that might be used like a piece of clothing to wear the way tourists wear ‘I heart New York’ t-shirts. They don’t wear them all the time, they change their clothes, but perhaps there’s a sentimental attachment in so far as it holding memories of a place they once visited –maybe a few family members live in New York, but there’s not much more than that.

I don’t know much about our family background and haven’t been taught to love our ‘heritage’ or ‘land’ or ‘country’, but the lack of knowledge of such things has made me interested since youth. In fact, I was quite bitter as a child about knowing nothing of these things. As a result, an interest in the idea of culture developed. Reading fiction hasn’t helped when filling my head with stories of ancestors, family bonds, destinies, blood lineages, inherited character traits etc. But to take an interest in something you still have a detachment. If you really love something you go beyond taking an interest, you own it, it’s yours. But I’ve always treated culture as something interesting to look at; aesthetics, history, anthropology. I’ve held a fascination for traditions, been drawn to tales of conflict, aggression and suffering. I am my own orientalist. Or – maybe not. Because with this kind of thought all ‘culture’ ends up holding the same superficiality if expressed only as outward show, something fake, an unnecessary addition to an individual. What I realised was that – perhaps because I’m so drawn to writing – real culture is carried within the languages people use.

And so, in opposition to the conscious outward shows of expression of a ‘culture’, or an allegiance to something that would label one as ‘a patriot’, I’ve  always found something more liberating in the idea of the ‘self’ – the ‘individual’; something free of a set category, something much closer to the truth of one’s being.

If you spend a lot of time in reflection, in wonder, writing, drawing – if it’s something you’ve become accustomed to since childhood, you’ve already made yourself very aware of a self – unpolluted by the tyrannies of social flows. You learn how to let your self speak out freely in whatever way you’ve found. Artistic expression today is centred on this. People find themselves and try to make their life more bearable (beautiful even), expressing things people generally don’t want to sit and talk about. You can lay your soul bare on a social media platform, a canvas in a public art exhibition, on a stage blinded in your spotlight.

You realise through the expression you’re able to justify the behaviour that has put you on the edge of acceptance for so long. It’s such a vengeance. Anthony Anaxagorou’s; ‘The Sadness of Art’ comes to mind (http://anthonyanaxagorou.com/post/33585598795/the-sadness-of-art). In fact, I remember reading his piece and feeling so justified afterwards. I don’t even know how to describe it. It just felt like finally not being an oddity anymore. Actually – it still felt like I was an oddity, but I didn’t despise myself for it. I remember someone saying to me jokingly once; ‘You’re weird, you know that?’ And I thought to myself; yes – I am – but wait till I’m comfortable with it. That was my ego. In fact, all this self talk is perhaps from a dark place.

A lot of my expression really kicked off from Hip Hop. I don’t go out of my way to hide my previous obsession for it during childhood to teens. It’s not like an unspeakable part of my life or anything like that. What’s actually happened is that I don’t think much about it anymore. You may find my mention of Hip Hop hard to understand – an odd thing to connect to someone like me. The problem with today is that Hip Hop has so many false connotations attached to it; it’s shown as a joke. I came across a lot of middle-class snobbery at university where students only knew it as far as their stereotypes – and I was personally offended by their talk. I don’t need to be an African American born in South Bronx, New York to be offended. Hip Hop knows that because if you ever listen to any serious artist speak on the subject, they’ll tell you it’s all about being comfortable with you. Confidence is key. If you want more insight on that check this speech by Lauryn Hill; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1cq0bhSrq4. And if you want to know about Hip Hop as an art form, check her spoken word; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpXJs3CtDfE. While you’re at it, you can also look at the likes of Amir Sulaiman, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Suheir Hammad.

Who now remembers the roots of Hip Hop as a flow of culture that didn’t even know itself, before the superficial categorisations that come now? Like a flower growing out of the brickwork – like The Rose that Grew from Concrete. I’m not even talking about music; I’m talking about kids on the street rhyming about their day because it’s the only way they felt some kind of agency in their lives. I’m talking about identity ownership in political lyrics and writing and graffiti, where downtrodden people rebel against hegemony and create their own narratives.

Anyway, I haven’t talked like this in a long time. I just want to show you that I’m writing about a Hip Hop very different to the one you’ll probably have heard of. This is the ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’, Def Poetry Jam, Amiri Baraka, ‘I am not my hair’ kind. At 15, I read Tupac’s poems published in ‘The Rose that Grew From Concrete’ with only one thought in mind; I can do that. When I started writing I was in contact with people who were also doing the same thing. The Hip Hop base of poetry doesn’t really talk abstractly in the same way as contemporary poetry. Unlike postmodern poets, Hip Hop artists run on rhyme. What the culture also does is centre itself very much on hyperbole. The way you write is from feeding off other people’s work, you find your mind working to play with language in a way that specifically shows your skill in metaphors, rhyming that doesn’t sound forced and of course – at the highest end of Hip Hop lyricism – references to politics and popular culture. It’s all about leaving the onlookers silenced. When you have people to compete with, the interaction improves the writing and performance. I was never good at the performance part, but the written stuff; rhyme, referencing and metaphors – I used to enjoy a lot.

Away from the hyperbole, what I also realised was that Hip Hop spoken word artists would play on the emotions of their audience. Their subject could be something personal, but it was heightened in such a way that purposely brought about an emotional response. If they talked about history and politics and culture, they would sometimes romanticise certain concepts. I had a conversation with someone not long ago which began with them asking me about whether or not it’s right for an artist to want to ‘feed off’ an audience or have the audience impact their art. And is it right if the artist manipulates the audience’s emotions? Sometimes such expression becomes an intoxication to find something new to be moved by. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that – I haven’t figured that out yet – but it becomes a problem when the thing we’re moved by is our own pain or insecurity, when that becomes an addiction. With this conversation, the self-expression I had always held up as righteous was for the first time being questioned. At first I fought it, I said that artists use the emotions of others to enhance their creativity, that the artist can be moved by his/her audience or the people he/she is creating for by taking their stories and making them into a piece that others can relate to. I also said that artists can’t stand on their own; they come up with their best work by feeding and in competition. And I said to myself that there is beauty in being able to justify one’s own cuts and bruises, in seeking vengeance and helping others to acknowledge themselves. There’s beauty in trying to enhance one’s abilities by seeking to perfect the word so that we can be moved every day.

And then I had to take a step back and think about my own writing and the reasons why I stopped finding peace within it – which is what happened when I became too involved in the concept of mastery over something that was essentially meant to be about sincerity, not self-indulgence.

I stepped away from a lot of stuff. Or actually, a lot of stuff stepped away from me. The ability to write had actually left me not long after I moved away from Hip Hop. Hip Hop was replaced by contemporary poets and literature. I thought the fault was that I was no longer seeking the same inspirations that made me want to better my writing technique, and that if I went back to the lyricism and trying to compete maybe I’d be able to pick up again, but I realised that it felt empty. None of it was me; I was trying too hard to make an identity which didn’t fit – something I previously resisted.

I considered all of these things. I also considered what I loved about the artists from contemporary poetry and literature whose words impacted me, what I was drawn to in their art of expressing and trying to make people feel profound things. I realised I had gone to the excess and I wrote an article which I decided not to publish on here because most of it was half-thought and not well articulated – as much as I tried to make sense of what I was trying to say. But here is an extract;

 ‘The emotionally intelligent, the artists, the poets, the writers, the ones creating those things which cut through you and send you spiralling in awe – do you know how much they’ve got you idolising their creation? I know that passionate mind-set very well. You almost want to be crushed in the strength of human expression because you feed off it. You want to feel something deeply. You need fine concepts, abstract ones that can’t fill in their own spaces and don’t want anyone else to either. The leaders of this movement masquerade as the intelligent, the elect, the darkness, the misunderstood understanding. They’re the ones who weave to you those stories you go to bed with. They’re the Majnuns of this time, forlorn in the effort to call out to Laila. You’re in love with their tears.

They want everyone to read their poems. And they love their scars.’

This was to me a poison of the nafs – the self – in a form that had completely gone unnoticed in my understanding of things. It was a self-indulgence that not one of the artists I loved could have told me about. Most of them don’t want to believe in a greater force, in God. And just as the rest of post-modernity, their art is what takes the place of morality, love, humanity, goodness – making up for the lack of certainty that the human by nature desperately needs. I felt like I had been playing with something dangerous. When it revealed to me its own loneliness – which is all there is to self-indulgence – and its road away from genuine help which is nearness to God (the only One always there when no one else is) I just didn’t understand what was left as an identity to hold onto when I had to cut out the things people normally find grounding in (first culture and patriotism, and now artistic self-expression).

My reaction wasn’t to say that I had completely removed artistic expression. I don’t think I could ever do that. But what I found was a truth; people can find themselves in an unhealthy addiction and false identity, even if they’re trying to oppose those things. But not many people will understand this, because most of us don’t know how high the bar can go, we think we know the expanse of the sky, but we don’t. We actually do have the ability to purify ourselves; an attestation to this is the stories and teachings of those saints who came previous to us. It’s just that we don’t know how. And if you think you can’t relate to this post and I’m just talking madness about artists etc. then please understand that most of us are clinging onto meaningless identities, desires and ego-boosters. And we’re all addicted to something – if not many things – it’s just a case of figuring out what it is for you individually.

I’ve started at page one again and am writing from scratch – this time trying to lessen the control of the nafs, instead trying to find the best way to describe the real essence of things. The truth is that individuality and expression is a God-send. But there’s no better identity than a clear mirror – which is the ultimate aspiration for every human being. The identities we get told we are or should be are like a fog over the clear image. What you’ll find is that it’s far harder to try to remove the unnecessary – especially when you’re trying to grasp what the unnecessary actually is. And the hardest thing in the world is trying to reconcile that clear image (of someone at one with God) with the baggage of this life.

I haven’t meant to attack the vulnerable artist here – far from it. It’s that artist’s disposition that will give them a new way to find Him. It’s just that when you’ve found your passions you have to direct them to the right path. And the final destination of elevation is to only have one passion; the passion towards Him – to want to know Him – which I don’t know how many of us will get to without also having passion for other things. But one thing I do know is that a person who is weakening themselves in a sincere love – even if in excess – is much easier to correct in their object of love (like what happened to Hafiz). It’s much easier to straighten such an individual than someone with arrogance, pride, or who is in the enjoyment of fitting in via superficial categories of identity. In sincere love, people try to do something they genuinely believe is right. And in a selfless love people don’t try to hurt others, which is what I think makes the difference.

Anyway, as an endnote; this post was actually meant to be about individuality, self-expression and hijab, but took a life of its own! So I might write about that next time. You may or may not agree with what I’ve written here, which is understandable because I’m not sure how many would share these views. But whether or not you agree, if all of this makes complete sense to you then you’ve accomplished more than I can at this current point in time. Maybe you can teach me.