An Online Ummah for an Online Generation

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More and more, our social lives unfold online. Today, we develop friendships, meet romantic partners, and find jobs via the Internet. Muslims today are no exception to these trends, and so a unique phenomenon has arisen: our community is increasingly growing and interconnecting online. Many seekers and converts are first being exposed to the Deen [Islamic religion] and the Ummah [global Muslim community] via the Internet. Many of us are also being taught and mentored partly or even primarily online.

I, for one, first meaningfully encountered Islam online. I was active on Google+ back in its heyday (who else misses it?), and by chance connected with some lovely Muslims on there. I also encountered Muslims on other online platforms as I began wearing Christian headcoverings. As my spiritual journey progressed, I educated myself on Islam partly via the Internet. Alhamdulillah, I had the blessing of cultivating relationships online with Muslims who held my hand along the way, answered so many questions (may Allah reward everyone of them!), sent me books (oh, the international shipping some of them paid!), and just generally oriented me in this new world I was discovering. My story is not terribly unusual. My continued lack of in-depth engagement with my local Ummah is less common. But the way I discovered Islam? Taking my Shahada [see here] before witnesses via Skype? Those things are becoming increasingly ordinary.

I have nothing but positive things to say about this trend. Allah guides who He wills. It seems that more and more, the Internet is being used to show people the Path. It is beautiful to me how many people are finding Islam and support on their path via this incredible tool. Many converts would have next to no, or no, support along the way if it weren’t for the online communities that have arisen in the past few years.

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Of course, the potential downside of this trend is the erosion of our local communities. Our local masajid [plural Arabic word meaning mosques] are invaluable to our spiritual welfare as Muslims. As we utilize online platforms to foster genuine, meaningful connections with other Muslims and to help seekers as they investigate Islam, we mustn’t neglect our local Islamic centers and mosques. We mustn’t forget to connect with other local Muslims, even in the smallest ways, such as exchanging salaams [Islamic greetings of peace] in public. At the same time, as Muslims we now have a fantastic tool for helping seekers and new converts. So, let’s utilize it! Let’s strike that balance between using the Internet to strengthen the Ummah overall and not letting our use of it to weaken our local comunities.

 

How is Life as a Muslimah?

On this blog I often write of being a Muslim convert. That tends to be the primary theme here, actually. But a lot of you may not know what that means in practical terms. So, I’d like to open up to you about my experience living my daily life according to Islam.

One of the main themes of my day is prayer, or salat. Five times a day, I offer prayers in Arabic to Allah. Unfortunately, I sometimes fail and pray fewer times than that. That is in part a personal failing and in part due to my current health, which is not good. In these prayers, I recite a portion of the Quran, as well as other things that the Prophet Muhammad taught us Muslims to say. These prayers can easily be found online. Click here for a great link that explains how salat works. Different sects of Islam have slight variations of how to pray, but that’s basically how we do it.

The prayers are said at prescribed times each day. Fajr is the pre-dawn prayer, Dhur is the midday or early afternoon prayer, Asr is the late afternoon prayer, Maghrib is the dusk prayer, and Isha is the final evening prayer. The exact time of day at which these prayers are recited depends on the position of the sun in the sky, and it changes throughout the year. There are also additional optional prayers that Muslims may recite – some repetitiously, some not. That’s a post for another day. In any event, salat is around what our daily schedules revolve. Of course, we Muslims can also offer dua, or prayers that we make up as we go along rather than recite from memory. This form of prayer would be familiar to many non Muslims.

In addition, I try to read Quran every day, even if it’s just a couple of verses. I also make an effort to read a few passages from some Islamic book as well. I pretty much always have some Islamic book that I’m in the middle of reading, in hopes of not letting my Islamic education stagnate. I’m also currently trying to memorize another sura (chapter) of the Quran to recite in my daily salat.

There are a lot of other things that aren’t exactly part of my daily schedule per se, but which are part of being a Muslim. For example, my diet is dictated partly by my religion: I don’t eat pork and I don’t consume any alcohol – no, not even if it is “cooked out” of the food! I am also vegetarian; this is in part to avoid meats that don’t come from animals slaughtered according to Islamic rules, partly to avoid consuming animals that were tortured, which doesn’t seem halal (religiously permissible) to me, partly for other ethical reasons, and partly for health reasons.

Another thing that my religion affects is my entertainment. I don’t listen to music that has vulgar lyrics and I don’t watch TV shows or movies that have vulgarity in them. If I’m watching something on a streaming platform where I can skip over objectionable parts of the video, show, or movie, then I do that. And, I don’t read vulgar or “dirty” books or other printed media. Furthermore, I don’t use vulgar or crass language. I don’t talk about sex with members of the opposite gender, or in a casual way. I dress in long, loose clothing and a headscarf and only show my face, feet, and hands. This mode of dress is called hijabHijab is also sometimes used to refer to the headscarf worn by Muslim women. I also don’t go out alone with men who aren’t specific close relatives. I don’t stay alone in a room with such men, either. I’m careful not to act in a way around others, especially men, that could be interpreted by anyone as flirting. I don’t speak irreverently about the Divine or spirituality.

As you can see, Islam affects every part of my life and daily routine. The above were only some examples; I couldn’t possibly list all the minutiae of being Muslim. This is something that I love about my religion: I can’t go a minute without remembering that I am Muslim and must seek to submit to Allah. So often, I don’t get it right. I make mistakes so terribly often. I am no example. But I keep trying; I wouldn’t trade the trying for anything.

One of my favorite quotes reminds me to keep trying, imperfect as my practice of faith may be. It always gives me hope. I’ll close with it:

“Come, come, whoever you are,
wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,
it doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.
Come, come again, come.”


― Rumi

 

 

The Joy of Interfaith Marriage

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When I converted to Islam, countless people expected that one of three things would happen in my marriage to my Christian husband: 1) we would divorce; 2) my husband would join me in converting; 3) that it would be too much and I would change my mind. We’re three years into being an interfaith couple and none of those things have happened. Why? The simple answer is that we put our love for each other and our commitment to our wedding vows ahead of every bit of social pressure or intramarital conflict. In a way, that took some doing, but in a way it was simple.

In this context, I have referred to my husband as “my Christian husband.” The thing is, when I married him, I didn’t marry a Christian husband – or for that matter, a Buddhist husband or a Muslim husband. I simply married the love of my life, regardless of labels. And I didn’t vow to be united in holy matrimony “…unless one of us changes religions.” We made a vow for eternity, no ifs, ands, or buts. So when I converted, allowing our marriage to fail wasn’t an option for us. There were a number of moments when we could’ve made a different decision…

For example, when I converted to Islam, a number of people told my husband in so many words that he needed to pressure me to change my mind because I was in danger of hellfire and he was “the head of the household.” He chose me and our marriage over listening to such people. They are no longer in his life. Likewise, a number of people encouraged me to set a deadline and give him an ultimatum: either convert by X date, or divorce. I gave such people and their outrageous ideas zero space in my life.

On the other hand, we have had moments when inaction could’ve changed the trajectory of our marriage. There were many moments shortly after my conversion when we had to have hard conversations about what this change would mean. We could’ve stopped talking when the conversations brought up difficult emotions. We could’ve said, “We’ll talk tomorrow,” and never let tomorrow come. But we didn’t. We asked each other hard questions. We reassured each other of our love even as we cried through the uncertainty and the confusion. And we left each conversation even more certain that the future of our love was bright. The difficulty strengthened our marriage.

We could have pretended that we didn’t have different theological beliefs. We could have pretended that all this wouldn’t change the way we’d raise potential children, or change where and how we’d connect over spirituality. But we didn’t. We were and are honest with ourselves and with each other. And we realized that love is enough. The decisions we made about future children, houses of worship, and a laundry list of other things, aren’t important here. What matters is that we had and, as necessary, continue to have hard conversations. Those conversations were and are made easier with the knowledge that our love will always make things okay.

So many interfaith couples tell each other, “our love will get us through,” and then don’t do the work to nourish their love and find out what that means for their marriage. Yes, love is enough. But you must put it into action! Love your spouse and your marriage enough to ask each other hard questions, to give hard answers, and to listen to understand rather than listen to rebut. It’s not optional to talk about and make decisions together about how to handle getting along with the in-laws, celebrating holidays, praying, dressing according to your respective faiths, having and raising children, the dynamic of the relationship (will the wife submit to the husband or will it be an egalitarian marriage?), your diet, your social life, and every other aspect of your lives that religion affects – whether you want it to or not!

Interfaith marriage comes with unique challenges, but it is also uniquely rewarding. My husband and I never have the option of being too set in our ways, or of doing things out of unconscious habit. We never get to be so shortsighted that we forget that there are other ways of doing life. We never get to disrespect other people’s faiths; by our mere presence in one another’s lives, we each obligate the other to respect and celebrate differences and diverse beliefs and cultures. We are so grateful that we continue to affirm our “I dos” every day. We are thankful that we held onto our love when the world said it wouldn’t work. I know that I implied that interfaith marriage has had its difficult moments. But truthfully, it hasn’t been overwhelming! Waking up next to my soulmate every morning, hearing and saying “I love you” at the end of every day – those things never get old. And we have never once wavered in loving each other through every moment of my faith crisis. To us, loving each other has always been instinctively and unquestionably worth every moment.

 

Four Years of Hijab / Quatro Anos de Hijab

(PT ABAIXO) It’s been four years since I put on hijab for good. The funny thing is that for me, the hijab came before Islam. Wearing it as a Christian practice brought me through my crisis of faith and kept me committed to persevering in my pursuit of Truth. It was a reminder of my desire to please God. I became, as you probably know, Muslim.

My hijab is now a richly rewarding manifestation of my adherence to my Islamic faith. It helps me as I fight to control my lowest nafs, to subdue my vanity, my pride, and my focus on my body. It makes me, and those around me, see me first as a soul, a personality, and an intellect, rather than a mere body. Hijab is a barrier between my sexuality and my public being, between myself and those who might be attracted to me, between myself and many temptations. It is a protection. When I’m wearing hijab, I represent Islam. And it reminds me of what I’m supposed to live up to. It’s hard to watch a dirty movie, swear, drink, look at others in a lustful way, enter sinful establishments, mistreat others, be dishonest, and so forth, when dressed in hijab.

Hijab also restores my sense of ownership over my body, and grants me an accompanying sense of dignity. My body is mine. It is not for public consumption. It is not for the enjoyment, use, consumption, judgement, critique, or commentary of others. Allah has told us to whom we may show our bodies. Obeying Him frees me from other people’s rules about my external being, and is a realization of the fact that my whole being was created by and for Allah – not for others. How I use it and present it is up to Him, not me.

If you’re struggling with hijab, or wanting to put it on but are not sure how, feel free to get in touch with me. I’d be honored to offer any counsel or support that I can.

Until next time, Assalaamu Alaikum.

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Photo from / Foto de: muslimheritage.com. (With my added edits. / Com minhas edições adicionais.)

Fazem quatro anos desde que comecei a usar o hijab fielmente. Por estranho que seja, para mim, o hijab veio antes do Islam. Usá-lo como uma prática cristã me sustentou durante a a minha crise espiritual e me manteve comprometida a perseverar na minha busca pela Verdade. Era um lembrete do meu desejo de agradar a Deus. Afinal, como vocês já devem saber, eu me tornei muçulmana.

Agora o meu hijab é uma manifestação ricamente recompensadora da minha aderência à minha fé islâmica. Ele me ajuda a lutar contra o meu nafs inferior (o nafs inferior é o ego inferior do ser humano, que atenta ele a cometer pecados), a subjugar minha vaidade, meu orgulho, e meu foco no meu corpo. Ele me faz, e faz as pessoas ao meu redor, me ver primeiramente como uma alma, uma personalidade, e um intelecto, e não um mero corpo. O hijab é uma barrera entre mim e as pessoas que poderiam sentir atração por mim, e entre mim e diversas tentações. É uma proteção. Quando uso o hijab, eu represento o Islam. E ele me faz lembrar daquilo que tenho que cumprir. É difícil assistir um filme sujo, falar palavrões, beber, olhar para os outros de uma forma lasciva, entrar em estabelecimentos de pecados, maltratar os outros, ser desonesta, entre outras coisas mais, quando estou vestida de hijab.

O hijab restaura o meu senso de domínio sobre o meu corpo, e além disso ainda me fornece um senso de dignidade. O meu corpo é meu. Ele não serve para consumo público. Ele não serve para o divertimento, uso, consumo, julgamento, a crítica, ou os comentários dos outros. Allah tem nos dito para quem nós podemos mostrar os nossos corpos. Obedecer a Ele me liberta das regras de outras pessoas a respeito do meu ser externo, e é uma realização do fato que o meu ser inteiro foi criado por e para Allah, e não para os outros. É Ele, não eu, que determina como eu o uso e o apresento.

Se você está tendo dificuldades com o hijab ou quer começar a usá-lo mas não tem certeza de como fazer isso, fique à vontade para entrar em contato comigo. Eu me sentiria honrada de oferecer qualquer conselho ou apoio possível.

Até a próxima, Assalaamu aleikum.

On Performing Femininity

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When I was a child, I loved makeup. I thought it was an expression of womanhood, of adulthood, of being, as children say, “grown up.” Then, as a teenager, I lost all interest. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I adored femininity and expressions thereof. But makeup seemed fake to me. It struck me as a mask, an attempt to meet other people’s expectations. Always the nonconformist, I didn’t want to bother. Eventually, though, I did try it and liked it. But it still seemed like a lot of work, and so I didn’t wear every day.

Bras, of course, were very important from a certain age. I needed to wear them, because to not do so would’ve been immodest by my own and by society’s standards. It didn’t occur to me to cover my chest’s shape by other means. The playbook for modern women says to either wear a bra and thereby be normal, or wear a bra and modest clothing and thus be modest, frumpy, old-fashioned, or whatever term they’re using these days, or to not wear a bra and thus be edgy and sexy – or maybe even a stereotypical bra burning feminist.

Removing body hair is also a ubiquitous practice for women. To look professional, classy, modern, sexy, or even merely normal, is to be, among many other things, clean-shaven, with the sole exclusion of the eyebrows and scalp hair.

While none of the things mentioned above are inherently bad or oppressive practices, they are all imposed on women. And this imposition is indeed oppressive. To be a woman is a performance, and to deviate from the script is to deviate from womanhood itself. Women have had little say in writing that script, yet by and large we still follow it. We must be beautiful, but not distracting. Sexy, but not slutty. We must wear makeup as a matter of course, but not too much or we’re being dishonest. We must be thin, but also curvy. We must dress nicely, but without making other women jealous of us. Women Of Color have even more rules to follow. They have to look “exotic”, but not too different from the white standard. Hair must be straightened and made flowing, thick eyebrows trimmed, unibrows and body and facial hair shaved, waxed, and plucked into palatable-to-white-people submission.

Sadly, while men, especially white men, overall have been the rule makers, our fellow women too often are the enforcers. For some strange reason, even as we chafe at these impossible standards, we balk when other women don’t follow The Script. Women are the first to step on each other in order to climb the ladder. Heterosexual women brag to men that they’re different, special, real women who follow the rules and yet stand out just enough to catch the right man’s eye. “I’m not like her,” we are quick to clarify when we see a woman stepping out of line. The only room for being special is in being especially dutiful in our performance.

As I have grown into feminism and come to recognize the ways that the rulebooks for men and women are very different, I have simultaneously become more religious and have valued traditional Islamic modesty. I have long viewed the hijab as a way to opt out of society’s rules for women. Makeup has seemed less important. Nobody sees, and therefore no one cares, what I do or don’t do with my body hair, my bras or lack thereof, or my hair.

Sadly, hijab or no hijab, Muslim and other religious women have by no means managed to entirely escape the stage of the performance that is womanhood. Within many religious communities – this goes for pretty much every religion, to be clear – women are often expected to be meek, and men to “lead their families.” Women who want to pursue careers typically reserved for men, be child-free, be single long-term or marry “too early,” or who are (GASP!) queer, are suffocated because there is simply no room for such deviations from The Script.

It is clear that neither religious modesty nor secular dress are the solutions to this mass theatrical performance in which women are born, live, and die on stage, forced to memorize and perform their lines and parts as soon as they exit the womb. While I believe that Islams offers complete liberation to all women, I am admittedly biased. And frankly, a belief is worthless unless put into practice. The first step, I believe, is to throw down our scripts and stop performing. Refuse to conform, and refuse to police other women. Support and celebrate maverick women. Find the stage directors and playwrights, and expel them from your life. Rebel. Cover yourself from head to toe, or go topless. Whichever you choose, uncompromisingly support the women who choose otherwise. Refuse to compromise your soul for the comfort and satisfaction of others. Define your own womanhood, your own femininity, your own self.

 

Ramadan 2018 Preparations

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Image creator unknown. If this is your work or know whose it is, let me know!

Ramadan of 1439 AH (a.k.a. 2018, on the Gregorian calendar) is predicted to start at maghrib, on May 15 of this year. Of course, this won’t be official until the moon is seen. If you want more info on Ramadan, and on the moonsighting topic, this Vox article is really useful! Being that Ramadan is almost here, I am working on getting ready for it. Frankly, my preparations only really began in earnest on Thursday. Someone graciously sent me the PDF for a free Ramadan planner. I printed it out, put it in a binder, and used it to map out my goals and plans for this month. Inshallah I will be using it daily throughout the month to stay on track, tweak my goals and efforts to reach them as I go along, and reflect on my progress.

Some of my Ramadan goals include consuming less secular entertainment and more khutbahs and Quran recitations, as well as studying more about the Deen in general. I also want to work on exercising kindness and patience. Notably, I plan to work on some other more private spiritual challenges. Personally, I find that I am more productive and focused if I plan ahead and stay organized. Or maybe doing that makes me think I’m more productive; I don’t know, and am not so sure that I want to find out! In any case, now that I have finished that, I am already taking some steps to put my plans into action. I’ve already removed most of the secular videos from my Youtube “watch later” playlist, so that by Tuesday evening, inshallah I will be ready to watch only really useful videos. I still plan to listen to and watch secular things that I find therapeutic, as I don’t believe I need to become so focused on spiritual matters that I forget to laugh. But Islamic content will be my top priority.

I am also trying to think of things that I can read to enrich me spiritually; the Quran is an obvious choice, but reading the Quran without understanding it isn’t as enriching as reading it once you understand the point of a given passage.  So, I’d like to find a book or two to guide me in my Quran reading. Speaking of Quran reading, I plan, inshallah, to read the whole Quran by following the thirty Juz. Click here to learn about the way the Quran is divided into sections. Note that I cannot vouch for any part of the above site other than the page I linked

Another thing that I plan to do to help me stay focused is to deactivate my social media accounts for the duration of the month. The exceptions will be Whatsapp and Youtube, as I need the former to stay in touch with loved ones around the world, and the latter to access Islamic content, as well as educational resources both secular and spiritual. As those who have read my last post already know, I have been on a quest for some time to distance myself from (anti)social media, to instead connect with people one-on-one – even if online! – and to be more productive in several areas of my life. Being that Ramadan is so important, it feels fitting to step away from the bombardment of distractions that are Facebook and Instagram, and to instead use my time to build a closer relationship with Allah and meaningful relationships with people.

My greatest hope this year is to recalibrate my spiritual compass after a year of tailspins. Crushing mental and physical health problems, combined with sudden lifestyle shifts and other emotional shocks, left me reeling and disconnected from the Source, right when I need Him the most. Ramadan seems to be the perfect opportunity to make this right. I am genuinely looking forward to it.

To all those observing this holy month, Ramadan Mubarak!

 

In Need of a Hug? You’re Not the Only One

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The US South is supposedly known for its hospitality and warmth. My husband and I haven’t found it to be that way. Maybe that’s due to our minority identities. Maybe it is due to our lack of resources. Maybe it is because of our personalities – perhaps we put people off without meaning to, because we have mannerisms that don’t fit in well with those of most US people. It is, I suppose, one of those things that aren’t easily explained. Probably each person who has crossed our path would have a different explanation for why we never clicked. I guess it’s “just one of those things.”

But this whole experience of being socially cut off for numerous reasons has made me think a lot about the way we Americans* interact with each other, form relationships, and define a friendship (*note: I don’t like using that term to refer only to people from the US because it erases people from other parts of the Americas, but in English it is pretty much my only option. So, please bear with me!). You see, I have always been an outgoing person. I am introverted, but I still love people! I was reprimanded as a child for hugging people too much. To this day I will chatter away at any captive audience: people in elevators, nurses in doctors’ offices, Lyft drivers, people in line… I am talkative and will generally open myself up easily. I have learned to filter how much personal information I share with people, but still. I talk a lot! My husband is from Brazil, a.k.a. Outgoing People Central! He is just like me in this regard.

Much to our disappointment, we’ve found people in the US to be far more reserved and inhibited. Oh sure, people will talk about the weather or pop culture. But it is difficult to get someone, including people that you’ve known for a while, to open up about their lives. It isn’t just us; other people we meet agree that it is possible to know someone for years and yet not ever discuss one’s feelings, sorrows, pasts, or other similarly personal topics. Hugging is offensive to many people here, and a kiss on the cheek is considered highly flirtatious. Crying with someone is an embarassment, only excusable if you’re drunk, and to be pointedly “forgotten” the day after. If someone asks, “how are you?” the only acceptable response is, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” The other person promptly confirms that their life is also free from any difficulties, and then one moves on to a drawn out discussion about the weather. To deviate from that script is to over share, to burden the other person, and to – you guessed it! – embarrass yourself and the other party. Such an outcome is to be avoided at all costs.

And to make plans? Any occasion must be put on the calender at least two weeks in advance. If it is something meaningful, such as a birthday or anniversary celebration, it must be set up a month in advance. Spontaneity is reserved for close relatives, and sometimes a very old and trusted friend. People always say, “Let’s keep in touch! Let’s get together sometime!” but they never do. If a friend moves away, that’s the last you’ll see of them. If you meet someone new in a public place, the best you can hope for is to add them on Facebook and then proceed to never speak again.

The sad truth is, I’m not the only American overwhelmed with loneliness. More and more Americans are feeling lonely and cut off. There is an epidemic of touch starvation, a phenomenom in which a person experiences skin to skin contact very rarely. This has numerous negative effects on said individual, including mental health problems and even heart disease! People who are rarely touched, and even more rarely touched with a purposeful, affectionate intent, feel lonelier, and suffer profoundly for it. Personally, I only regularly receive intentional affectionate touch from my husband, and once a week my therapist always gives me a hug. Before getting married, I was unimaginably touch deprived. I had become so accostumed to this that I either recoiled or cried when people touched me. You see, everyone needs to be touched a lot. One person giving you affection isn’t enough. Caring physical contact is a basic human necessity! Sadly, however, Americans have demonized touch. Doctors and other health practioners don’t touch their patients unless absolutely necessary, and even then will often apologize. Teachers aren’t supposed to hug their students. And hugs between colleagues are scandalous! Friends don’t touch, and no one can seem to articulate why. Many families never or only rarely show physical or even verbal affection.

Meanwhile, in many parts of Europe, in a lot of Arab cultures, and in most Latin American cultures, touch is ubiquitous. To not touch is insulting. People hug and kiss upon greeting and when parting, often multiple times. People will spontaneously hug, touch one’s arm, or throw an arm around their companion. People are more spontaneous when making plans to go out. They’re verbally affectionate, too! Case in point: I’ve known people here for years, people who used to be close to me. My friends here, whether I have known them for years or not, whether in person or online, have never told me that they love me. It simply doesn’t happen. And if I were to initiate such a demonstration of fraternal or sororal affection, the other person would find it awkward at best. Meanwhile, my friends abroad – excluding those from the UK, as it seems that they have the same problem there as we do here – show affection liberally. Besides the aforementioned physical touch, they also say “I love you” far more often, and it is normal for me to say the same. When people care, they show it. Caring isn’t shameful or weird. Love is beautiful, and meant to be expressed.

Back here stateside, we have a long way to go to stop starving each other of love and affection. (TRIGGER WARNING: suicide discussion between the asteriks!) **People literally kill themselves because they feel alone. Frankly, telling each other that people do, in fact, care, and expecting deeply depressed people to believe that, despite that no one is showing it, is ludicrous. The truth is, far too many of us either don’t care about each other, or else do care but find such feelings too embarrassing to mention and therefore never express our feelings.**  If we want ourselves and others to stop suffering profoundly because we find feelings of love and friendship to be awkward or difficult to express, we must step out of our comfort zones.

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Photo: Antonio Guillem – Shutterstock

To that end, I propose some changes! Don’t read bad or romantic intentions into simple hugs. If someone asks you, “What’s on your mind?” open up a bit. And if someone else looks down or sad, ask them the same thing. If someone looks lonely on a bus, ask them if the seat next to them is taken and try to strike up a conversation about the weather (or not – everybody talks about the weather!), their adorable shoes, or the book in their hand. They may not want to talk, and that’s their right. But try! Maybe they need a kind interaction. And when it comes to people you’ve known for a while, try to arrange to spend time together. Stop feeling like you need an excuse to be around each other. Go to a park or invite someone to your home, and avoid using an activity to intentionally distract yourselves from connecting in a meaningful way. People here feel the need to go to an occassion to be able to be together. God forbid a long silence or an unchecked emotion should occur! Try this: talk about your day. Talk about politics, religion, and football. Talk about food, and yoga, and books. Have an awkward silence. Get comfortable with truly connecting, not merely sharing space and frivilous conversation that does nothing to enrich either of you.

Touch someone on the arm. Say, “I’m a hugger, not a handshaker,” when saying hello and goodbye to friends and family. If they express that they’re not comfortable with that, you must respect that of course. But they might actually find it refreshing, and both of you will benefit. And when someone you know asks, “how are you?” tell them the honest truth. And when you ask them the same, and they say that they’re fine, ask, “Are you really? You know, I’m here for you if you want to talk!” Sure, it’s “weird” at first. But that makes it all the more important.

If the numbers of people experiencing the epedimics of depression, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and touch deprivation were instead numbers of people with influenza, malnutrition, diabetes, or any other physical illness, major health organizations and even world governments would be in tailspins. But because society hasn’t yet learned to take mental and emotional well-being as seriously as it does matters of physical survival, few people are aware that they’re not alone in feeling like nobody cares, in longing for a hug or kind word, and in wishing more people would have real, meaningful conversations. It’s time we changed this!

 

Minimalism’s Effect on My Social Media Usage

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My long-time readers will remember that after I returned from what for me was a landmark trip to Portugal in 2014, I had an epiphany regarding consumption, usage, and the difference between a socially programmed want, and a true need. To make a long story short, I spent three months in a small village called Santa Cruz da Trapa in the Portuguese countryside. Because I didn’t have enough money to pay for extra checked bags, I took only two average sized suitcases; one for toiletries and medications, and one for clothing. I also didn’t have money to buy a lot of souvenirs, or the luggage space to bring them home with me. So I took little with me, brought little home, and lived simply due to the nature of where I was.

When I came home, I was confronted with so much STUFF: a collection of dozens of CDs, a walk-in closet so overflowing with clothing that the floor was even covered with it, and an absurd amount of accessories and shoes. Having become accustomed to living simply, the absurdity and extravagance of my consumerism finally became apparent to me. So, I spent the following months purging my belongings and redefining what I valued and wanted to make room for in my life.

 

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Image credit: bemorewithless.com

It’s easy enough to recognize the way that the concept of living with less should affect one’s buying habits. But what about our internet habits? What about who and what we connect with, and how? Shouldn’t we scrutinize and filter the online content that we consume with the same thoughtfulness and reflection that we should filter the material objects that we let into our lives? I think so! As of 2015, the average American checks their phone about 46 times per day! That number goes up for 18 – 24 year olds. That means that we are consuming digital content almost non-stop. Even disregarding the debate about whether or not our attachment to our phones constitutes a clinical addiction (I do believe that it does), surely we can all agree that spending that much time on our phones opens us up to a barrage of images, sounds, and connections. Our time is precious, as is our emotional energy. We shouldn’t be spending it immersed in a world that doesn’t really exist.

Social media is designed to keep you coming back for more, more, more! It does this by exploiting humans’ need for attention, and the brain’s chemical response to the pleasure of an extrinisc reward. We can’t help it; the more we use it, the more likes we get, the more we feel that our peers approve of us, the more our brains will oblige us to go back for more dopamine. It may not be a chemical dependency, but it is an addiction in the informal sense of the term. Whatever you call it, this habit can and does consume us. How many times have you taken multiple selfies, sifted through the snapshots looking for the one that will portray you in the best light and garner the most positive reactions, edited and posted it, and anxiously awaited the likes, loves, and comments? You’ve certainly done it more than once. That doesn’t make you egotistical or narcissistic; it makes you human, and therefore vulnerable to exploitative programming.

I personally live a fairly socially isolated life. I don’t have a car, my husband and I have a very low income, and I am disabled. I don’t have any close friends near me, and I don’t really have opportunities to go out and make friends. My social life has mostly consisted of online interactions. My husband and I got together because of Facebook and Skype! I’ve spent years fearing complete isolation if I were to step offline. But over the past couple of years, I’ve desired ever more strongly to make sure that the people in whom I was investing my time and energy online, cared as deeply about me as I have about them.

I’ve also been trying to make sure that my time spent online isn’t interfering with real life opportunities for connection, reflection, and creativity. I’ve frequently abstained from social media for a day or two at a time. At first, it seemed daunting, a real test of my willpower. But as it has become easier, every time I’ve gone offline, or “unplugged,” as it were, I have been rewarded with something much richer than likes, comments, or superficial interactions: tranquility. The contrast between being present online, and being present only for people, is clear. When I am on social media I am bombarded every time I scroll or swipe through my feed and notifications. Mentally, it is as if I am being shouted at by dozens of voices at once; likes, comments, shares, tags, advertisements, status updates, posts from pages, and photos all join together in a cacophony of insistent demands on my time and attention..

But what do those things really add to my life, besides a momentary dopamine rush from split second expressions of approval, often given mostly just in hopes that I’ll return the favor? They drain my time, dragging me away from precious time with my husband, to pray and read Quran, or for doing homework, learning about things that interest me, free thinking, leisurely reading, writing, art, singing, and other forms of creativity and growth. It has only enriched my social life in a few rare cases. Even then, nurturing those friendships won’t be done with likes and comments. It will be accomplished by talking and spending time together, even if only in a video chat or via text messages. Staying online in hopes that out of hundreds of interactions, I’ll stumble across one lifelong friendship, instead of investing in pre-existing friendships that are in their infancy, isn’t a smart idea. It’s like throwing your gambling winnings into even more games – it’s usually wiser to just stop while you’re ahead!

Last week, I took the initiative and deactivated my Facebook account for a week. Instead of scrolling a newsfeed, I exchanged phone numbers with those select people on there who cared. I spent some of my newfound free time to chat with those people, respond to a backlog of messages, and reach out to some people who I hadn’t really talked to in far too long. I didn’t see or focus on the people who claimed to care but never reached out. I didn’t think about all of the events I wasn’t getting to participate in, or the people who’ve forgotten about me because I’m not out in society enough to be remembered. Instead, I was focused on my faith, on writing (I’m finally back to writing here – that should tell you something!), having enriching conversations, and studying. I was more productive and less depressed and anxious.

When I finally came back online on Monday, the shock of the flood of content and noise – I can’t put in any other way, mentally Facebook is just loud to me – felt overwhelming. I also realized that I hadn’t missed anything. Truly, there wasn’t much of value there to be missed. I’m still working on connecting via Whatsapp with a few more people from Facebook and Instagram, and then when Ramadan begins around May 15, I plan to, inshallah, deactivate both of those acounts (Facebook and Instagram are my only social media accounts now) for the entire month. In the meantime, I won’t be online much, inshallah. After Ramadan, who knows? I’m not eager to lose myself to base instincts in a desperate search for happiness that, contrary to my evolutionary programming, is best found far beyond quick dopamine hits.

For me personally, my minimalism journey started out with learning that God didn’t create humans to be Pavlov’s dogs, doing as we were trained, hoarding posessions in hopes of finding the abundance that we actually should be seeking on a spiritual level, not a material one. And now, it is teaching me that part of not losing my mental autonomy is minimizing what my mind consumes, in much that same way that I strive to minimize my material posessions. Instead of stuffing my life full of things, digital content, and superficial interactions, my hope is to fill it with enriching spiritual practices, relationships, creative outlets, and increased productivity in my pursuit of an academic career.

Wish me luck ✌

Hamsas and Spiritual Heritage

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Hamsas have enchanted me for years now. I’m wearing one around my neck now, in fact. I find meaning in the hamsa for a multitude of reasons.

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Artistic rendering of a hamsa. Google download. Image credit unknown. If this is your work, comment below!

Hamsas are typically meant to be used as protection against the evil eye, a concept which is often foreign to Westerners but which has been around in some variation for millenia. Likewise, the hamsa as an amulet has been in use just as long. It, along with the concept of the evil eye and a couple of other evil eye amulets, has been widely accepted in Judaism, early Christianity, and Islam, as well as other non Abrahamic faiths. It is present in almost every culture, especially Eastern ones. The ancient nature of this symbol to me represents a connection to my ancestors and to my adopted Islamic faith. It reminds me of how much Jews, Christians, and Muslims have in common with each other and with other humans.

I personally do believe in the power of the evil eye. The idea that the way that humans regard each other, and the intentions that we have, can and do affect each other’s lives, is a belief inherent to humanity, and one which instinctively resonates with me. The hamsa, therefore, serves as a conduit for Allah’s protection and blessing. I believe in the idea of such a conduit.

Because this symbol is indigenous to a plethora of cultures, races, and faiths, it doesn’t seem right to me to say that Westerners or members of any other given group shouldn’t use the hamsa. However, it is notably offensive to those of us who treasure it for those ignorant of its meaning to use it as a fashion statement or to seem “exotic” or cultured in the eyes of their white, Western peers. The hamsa is a symbol of faith and tradition. It isn’t just one more accessory. By all means, read up on the meaning and use it reverently. But don’t buy an overpriced cell phone case with it, or a $130 microscopic hamsa as a statement of wealth and fetishization of “Eastern religions.” For many of us, the hamsa connects us to those who have gone before, and protects us from the gaze of those who  would wish us harm. Please don’t cheapen it.

 

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We Are What We Eat

Sometimes I get too caught up in secular entertainment. Even though the secular stuff I consume isn’t vulgar, it still isn’t usually reflective of what my highest priority is (or at least, should be.) You know that saying, “we are what we eat,”? Well, that applies spiritually too! We are what we consume; spiritually, mentally, and physically. If all we ever consume is secular media, we’ll end up letting our Deen fall down on our priority list. At least, that’s been my experience. Dhikr is an essential part of a Muslim’s life. It’s more than the tasbeeh and saying bismillah before we eat. It’s about remembering Allah in every moment. Even when we’re looking for entertainment, we’re well served if we bring remember of Allah into those moments too. So, today I’ve turned on my Islamic playlist. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up samba, chorinho, and classical music. But, I also need to make an effort to listen to more nasheeds, more Quran, and more khutbahs, inshallah. // Às vezes eu me apego demais em entretenimento secular. Mesmo que o entretenimento secular que eu consumo não seja vulgar, ainda não reflete a minha prioridade da vida (ou pelo menos, a prioridade que eu deveria ter.) Você conhece aquele ditado, “somos o que comemos,”? Bem, isso é espiritualmente aplicável também! Somos o que consumimos; espiritualmente, mentalmente, e fisicamente. Se tudo o que consumimos for somente mídia secular, acabaremos deixando a nossa Din cair na nossa lista de prioridades. Pelo menos, essa tem sido a minha experiência. O dhikr é uma parte essencial da vida de um muçulmano. É mais do que o tasbeeh e dizer bismillah antes de comer. O dhikr é lembrar de Allah em todo momento. Mesmo quando estamos à procura de um entretenimento, faz bem trazer a lembrança de Allah a esses momentos também. Então, hoje eu coloquei a minha playlist Islâmica pra tocar. Isso não significa que eu vá deixar o samba, chorinho, e as músicas clássicas de lado. Mas, eu tenho que criar tempo para ouvir mais masheeds, recitações do Alcorão, e khutbahs, inshallah.