On the First Day of Ramadan, My True Love Gave to Me

“Virtue does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West; virtue means believing in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; the virtuous are those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives and to orphans and to the poor, and to travelers and those who ask for charity. The virtuous are those who set slaves free, and who attend to their prayers and pay the alms, and who keep their pledges when they make them, and show patience in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the true believers; and such are the God-fearing.”

 -The Qur’an 2:177

I’ve been struggling with this verse all day. It’s one of my favorite verses of the Qur’an, but it left me pondering an existential-crisis-inducing question.

How can you possibly be virtuous today?

In our post-industrial age of perpetual technological bombardment, is virtue even possible?

How do you find virtue in your actions in the endless cacophony of pop culture and superficiality?

Does virtue even matter? Or, as post-modern philosophers would argue, is the idea of virtue a nonsensical, moral boundary that can be dispensed with in our era after the supposed death of God?

Here, I disagree with the post-modernists, but that’s where my distress comes in.

"Dis dress comes in?"

“Dis dress comes in?”

Bad pun, sorry.

I consider one of the most important moments of my life to be the moment I stopped thinking personally and started thinking politically.

Politically meaning with regards to social relationships and social structures.

When I was around 15 or 16, I walked by a television that had been left on in an empty room. Immediately as I passed, on came one of those missionary evangelical Christian commercials.

“For the price of a cup of coffee, you can feed this child for a week.”

Despite the self-serving, imperialistic, evangelizing message of the commercial, it has influenced me more than perhaps any other single moment.

The images of the sick, impoverished children haunted me.

I suddenly realized that these were real people.

Real people.

Not on some intellectual level, but on a true, deep, visceral level.

It made me ask the most important question that someone could possibly ask.

Why?

Why is it that children around the world are starving and are in need of a mere 65 cents in order to get food?

Why is it that my clothes are made (mostly) by poor women across the world, but never in my own country?

Why is it that so many innocent people are dying needlessly in wars across the globe?

But, more importantly,

Why is it that I’m not?

disney_sweatshop

Today, nine years later, on the first day of Ramadan, I’m stuck asking those same questions.

The amount of money I give to charity is a pittance compared to my income. The shirt I’m wearing as I write this was made in India. Perhaps it was made in a city that I visited last year as a rich, white, awful tourist. And, as everyone knows from the news, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Honduras, The Central African Republic, Egypt, Myanmar, Thailand, Somalia, Mexico, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan aren’t doing so hot right now.

That’s why being virtuous is important to me. How can you look at the world with callous indifference?

The United States is funneling money and weapons into Syria and Iraq.

Obama is pursuing an absurd foreign policy of supporting the militants when they cross into Syrian territory and killing the militants when they cross into Iraqi territory.

This only makes sense if you consider the fact that the U.S. clearly wants the Syrian conflict to continue.

And why would the U.S. government ever want that?

It’s a very meticulous historical strategy of divide and conquer.

Like an empire?

Bingo.

And how can you be virtuous when you live in the center of an empire at its peak?

George W. Bush’s State of the Union in 2002. I’ve had a difficult time watching that clip for years.

Something about it makes me want to cry.

I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that Bush said that in an apparently sincere way or if it’s the insidious policies he pursued that contrasted that statement. How do you say Muslims are people and then subsequently drop bombs on Muslim children?

Maybe it’s just the way he said “Allah“, as though we worship some alien god.

Maybe it’s all of those things simmering together in a minute of intense emotion.

Honestly, it’s not easy to be a Muslim and an American.

Not because I feel discriminated against. Not because I’ve ever felt the racist backlash against Muslims. Not because I’ve ever felt the micro-aggressions and evil glances for my attire.

But for me, the difficulty is reconciling my beliefs with how I live my life.

For me, the difficulty is in being virtuous.

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boo hoo

How can you possibly be virtuous today?

As an American, the ability to live a virtuous life sometimes feels as though it has been stolen from me.

The taxes I pay go to funding militant groups and corrupt governments across the globe.

The gasoline I buy props up oppressive dictatorships and monarchies in the Middle East.

And any money I put into the economy by purchasing any item directly fuels this entire system of imperialism and capitalism.

It’s easy to feel helpless.

But for the next 29 days I will try my best to think deeply politically.

As a human being, thinking politically means opposing the structures and hierarchies that lead to mayhem, war, and genocide.

It means acting upon that base compassion for others and being mindful of your words and deeds.

It means recognizing the world as it is, but striving to continuously make it better.

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This Ramadan is my fourth. It gets easier every year. From dawn to sunset, over a billion Muslims go without food or water.

Why?

In order to fulfill the divine injunction on all able Muslims to fast.

In order to remember the poor and the hungry.

In order to empathize with those who are suffering.

In order to increase self-reflection, humility, patience, kindness, and strength.

In order to find an outlet to be virtuous. Or at least to learn virtue.

In order to be like the Prophet Muhammad – may God’s peace and blessings be upon him.

In Surat al-Imran, the 3rd chapter of the Qur’an, it says:

“Say, ‘If you love God, follow me and God will love you and forgive you for your sins. God is most forgiving and most merciful.'” (3:31)

The goal is to be the best person you can be. If not, then why bother living?

On the first day of Ramadan, my true love gave to me some guidance when I felt lost.

InshaAllah, that will only continue.

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Doesn’t Islam Oppress Women?

This question, more than any other, is supposed to be the magic scoreboard that shows that the Enlightened West is morally superior to the Islamic world. Its point is to accuse Muslims of being backwards, medieval, and driven by a fundamentally misogynistic religion. But there are some presuppositions that ought to be addressed.

Firstly, Islam doesn’t say anything. Just like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism don’t say anything. Muslims say things. Christians say things. Buddhists say things. If you ask different Muslims about the status of women in Islam, you’d probably get as many answers as there are Muslims.

You may be asking, “Yeah, okay, but what does the Qur’an say? And what did the Prophet Muhammad say?”

The response (based on fourteen centuries) is that no one completely agrees on what the Qur’an “says” or what the Prophet Muhammad “said”. This is by no means a cop out. If you ask the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia you’ll genuinely get a different answer than if you ask the Grand Mufti of Egypt or the Ayatollahs of Iran or Iraq.

If this seems dubious, then you need to read “Qur’an and Woman” by Amina Wadud, a female Qur’anic scholar, who has a deep and practical reading of the Qur’an as well as a critical attitude towards the male-bias in much of the dominant traditions. And she is just one of countless people who reject, on Islamic grounds, patriarchy, misogyny, or the oppression of women in any circumstances.

Or check out Zohreh Sefati, a female Ayatollah, who believes that women should also be able to be sources of religious emulation in the Usuli Ithna’asheri Shi’a school in Iran. Check out the countless female academics, scholars, activists, revolutionaries, artists, and writers who are present in the Islamic tradition historically and today. In order to miss Muslim feminists, you have to be willfully ignorant of countless individuals about whom you could learn with a cursory google search.

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There’s also the important aspect of singling out Islam, as if Islam is the wellspring from where female oppression flows.

This first-world, culturally-imperialist “feminism” begins with an absurd comparison between drastically dissimilar societies. “Well look at how women are treated in Sudan and how they’re treated in England. Islam is to blame!” Instead, let’s present a more honest comparison in order to judge how misogyny and Islam actually blend together.

Are women in Muslim Somalia more oppressed than women in Christian Ethiopia? Are Muslim Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian women worse off than their Christian counterparts? How about Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs? Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians? Muslim women in India and Hindu women in India? Are Muslim Indonesian women worse off than Christian Filipino women?

The answer is no.

So why are you even asking the question: Doesn’t Islam oppress women?

Of course, it’s because you’ve heard it before. Repeated endlessly in the West and perpetuated by miseducation and a malicious (not uninformed, intentionally malicious) mass media, we’ve all been told that Muslim women are oppressed. After all, they all wear those headscarves! They look oppressed!

I imagine it must confuse a lot of people when practicing Muslim women choose not to wear hijab.

The real reason this question exists is because of Orientalism. Because the West has conceptualized and maintained a series of attitudes and stereotypes about Muslim culture and religion for centuries. The Muslim world is monolithic and there all women are either bellydancing or under a burqa.

Pakistan had a female prime minister throughout the 90s. The United States didn’t even have a mainstream female presidential candidate until 2008. Which standards do you want to use?

However, this question also implies something even more insidious than imagining that all Muslim women are oppressed. It assumes that non-Muslim women aren’t. As if Muslim women are experiencing oppression, whereas Christian, Hindu, Atheist, Jewish, and Buddhist women are all doing swell. You absolutely white-wash patriarchy and misogyny outside of the Muslim context.

Let’s not forget that the core assumption in the question is sexist. The question emboldens the patriarchal idea of male agency and female passivity. In painting Muslim women as all being oppressed, you are also painting them as powerless and ignorant. And to make it even worse, the real travesty is that they don’t even realize that they’re being oppressed. We must save them!

Does Islam oppress women?

No, but plenty of Muslims oppress women. Just as plenty of other people oppress women.

For the time being, we live in a sexist society with a sexist history and a sexist culture, and we all need to face that together. Throughout the world, patriarchy and misogyny structures almost every social interaction in disgusting ways. The only way to directly combat oppression is to embrace radical feminism, and nothing short thereof. More and more Muslim women are doing just that, regardless of whether or not they call it feminism. And if you’re not a Muslim women, you need to stand in solidarity with them, not try to tell them what to do. Women’s liberation does not mean cultural imperialism.

It’s not feminism to force a woman to take off her burqa.

Richard Dawkins: Racist

Richard Dawkins has recently made some incendiary remarks on Twitter towards Muslims. In classic form, he utilizes skewed standards to attack Muslims on his own terms. Considering that this isn’t the first time (and it’s likely to happen again), I decided that it’s about time that I cut any ties I’ve ever had to this man.

Anyone who’s known me for a few years will certainly be able to remember a time that I prescribed to Dawkins’ atheism. In fact, I still own a copy of “The God Delusion” that I got autographed by him a few years ago. Fortunately, I’ve moved on. Unfortunately, he hasn’t.

So if you aren’t caught up: Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, former professor at the University of Oxford, and atheist extraordinaire. He’s famous for books like “The Selfish Gene”, “The Extended Phenotype” (which is my favorite and is, admittedly, an excellent book), and “The God Delusion”. He’s also a bumbling fool when it comes to anything outside of his discipline.

DawkinsCrazy

Woah.

Dawkins is notable for constantly defending his position on the infallibility of scienceScience, he argues, is the only valid standard to measure the world, as if science was something outside of humans. If you can’t prove something scientifically, then it’s entirely bogus.

This week he got on Twitter and posted this incredibly scientific gem: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Let that soak in for a second.

He’s basically mocking 23% of the world for not having enough Nobel Prizes. The irony of course being that Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand that Alfred Nobel’s society, based in Sweden, maybe has a bias. Who hands out Nobel Prizes? A bunch of Europeans. To whom do they hand out Nobel Prizes? A bunch of Europeans.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

For someone who prides himself on using the standards of Science, Dawkins isn’t being very “scientific” when he criticizes Muslims in this way. The Nobel Foundation is not some perfect, absolute measure of human worth with regards to thinking. Let’s not forget, these people gave Obama a Peace Prize.

On this argument, however, Dawkins doesn’t even get creativity points. Neil deGrasse Tyson, another one of these atheist scientists who shouldn’t stray from his/her discipline, made this very same argument a few years ago in this idiotic lecture:

(For a break down of deGrasse Tyson’s lecture, check out: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Myth of Islamic Anti-Science)

Apparently, these scientists aren’t interested in learning anything about history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, area studies, cultural studies, critical theory, development studies, geography, colonialism, philosophy, or anything that relates to actual human beings living out there in the world.

If you think I’m being too harsh, let’s assume that the Nobel Foundation is infallible. Okay, so now, where do most Muslims live? Asia and Africa, right? Do you think that they’re getting a whole lot of grant money work in super high-tech labs with state-of-the-art equipment? Are students there provided with education on par with Europe and North America?

Of course not. Because of historical circumstances (colonialism, wars, genocides, mass migrations), Africa and Asia did not develop on the same trajectory as Europe. Is this because Muslims are backwards and stupid?

The answer, just in case you’re wondering, is: no.

What makes Dawkins’ analysis so pathetic is that he was born in Kenya! He is a direct product of one of the most destructive forces in the world in the past few centuries: English colonialism!

job creatorr

Whether we want to take about how the Middle East was carved up by a Frenchman and an Englishman or if we’d like to talk about English colonialism in Egypt, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Malaysia…you get the idea…the fact of the matter is this: there’s probably a good reason that the “Muslim world” isn’t producing a whole lot of Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

So I don’t make this accusation lightly: Richard Dawkins, either because of willful ignorance or sheer stupidity, is a bigot and a racist.

Oh, and by the way, Dawkins has never won a Nobel Prize.

On Being a Muslim Ambassador

When I accepted Islam a couple years ago, one thing I failed to anticipate was all of the new roles that I would immediately have to play. This was obviously due to my own naiveté, but being a white American Muslim has definitely had an affect on how I view the world and, in turn, how the world views me.

First off, I neglected to realize how many Americans simply know next to nothing about Islam, Muslims, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, cheese making, origami, beekeeping…

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And this isn’t any one individual’s fault per se, but it put me in a position of representing every single Muslim ever in history since the beginning of time. Let’s not forget that right now, Muslims make up about 1/4th of the planet.

That’s a lot of pressure. Especially when I’m competing with bizarre, yet common stereotypes and fears of the other. Seriously, people in this country are petrified by stuff they don’t understand.

Another thing that surprised me was the latent racism against Muslims in supposedly “tolerant” circles.

Over the past two years, I’ve had multiple white people accuse me of somehow not being sufficiently Muslim for one reason or another. What this tends to mean is that I don’t fit into their box of what a Muslim ought to be or how a Muslim ought to act.

What do they have in mind?

Probably a brown person with a beard and a turban.

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You called?

Of course, these people are often well-meaning, enlightened Liberals who probably don’t see themselves as having a racist bone in their body. The problem is: however well-meaning one might be, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Finally, there’s a general concept among many Americans that Muslims are all the same.

Many people speak of Muslims as one, undivided whole. Can you imagine grouping all Catholics or Jews or Atheists into a singular group? No, probably not.

In reality, the Islamic tradition is filled to the brim with differences of opinion.

Ramadan just began a few days ago and I’ve started to receive a whole bunch of questions from friends and family. No food? No water? How do you survive!?

I think that I should elaborate that I love getting asked respectful questions, because it means that people are curious and interested, which is the only way to fight against these negative stereotypes.

At the same time, it’s easier for a lot of people to talk to me, because I’m the nice Westernized white Muslim. I’m about as non-threatening as you can get, considering I come in the shape of a pasty twig with glasses.

But this is another huge problem of me serving as a representative, isn’t it?

Especially considering the demographics of Muslims in the United States. I serve as an interesting bridge between white suburban middle class America and black and brown Muslims who have an entirely different way of engaging with the United States. (I use the word “interesting” in place of “really fucked up”)muslims-are-coming

In all honesty, I don’t mind playing this role, even with all the setbacks and frustrations. Ultimately, it’s going to take Muslims in the West opening up the doors for dialogue and discourse in order to break down these barriers and move forward.

I just hope that when I’m acting as an ambassador for Islam and Muslims, I’m not doing a terrible job, inshaAllah.