“Why her?” A pseudo-philosophical ontology

Two days ago, a young student at the school I work at was fatally struck by a school bus. She was someone from the Muslim community, though I didn’t know her and had never seen her before. But I know people who knew the girl and her family.

The fact that it happened right in front of the building I work at and that she was a hijabi made me think about her death more than any other everyday death would have. I couldn’t help but think, “what if that were me?”

First of all, I don’t at all think this poor young lady was targeted because of her faith. I think the driver was just distracted. But I am a bit shocked, because bus drivers are supposed to be safe drivers. From preliminary reports, it seems the girl had the right of way when the bus driver hit her while she was crossing the street.

I don’t know the full details, but whatever facts do eventually surface, it doesn’t change the fact that a young girl died.

One of my friends texted me asking if I had heard what happened. I hadn’t until I came home later that day. She later told me that she went to visit the girl’s family to give condolences and mentioned that the look on the mother’s face seemed unbearable.

I can’t imagine the pain her family is going through. I am not a parent, but I would assume that no parent wishes to see the day where they outlive their child. It seems to go against the natural order of things. It’s tough when you lose someone you love, no matter how old they are. I still to this day think of my maternal grandmother and my uncle Baba from time to time, even though they were in their 70s and were suffering from illness when they died. I have such vivid memories of both. With the former, I still feel so much guilt for not having had the kind of relationship a granddaughter ought to have had with her grandmother and with the latter, gratefulness to have had the love of a “second father” in a world where blood is thicker than water.

This young girl however was so young (18 or 19 years old), presumably healthy. It’s particularly sad to hear about someone this age dying and so unexpectedly at that. She’d been on this earth long enough to have affected people, made experiences, but not quite long enough to experience the full life cycle. She won’t get to graduate from college, get married, or have kids one day. For some of us, that will never be our reality. But this girl won’t even have that opportunity.

As a Muslim, death is not something to fear or avoid talking about. Actually, our scholars tell us to think of it often. YOLO is not an acronym any practicing Muslim should live by (although when it comes to cake, it seems that I subconsciously do). Death should be a reminder for us all that the life we live in this world, our actions, our intentions, do matter.

In some ways, this girl is being saved from the ugliness of this world. She was young and more pure than many of us still living. That’s what a eulogy written by a friend of hers on Facebook seemed to suggest. And while I do believe it’s true… I think it’s also natural to want to have a good long life in this world, too.

Why did God decide to take her and leave me and the rest of us still living on this planet? We won’t ever know. And if you don’t believe in God, I don’t think your answers are any more rational than mine. In fact, I find the very fact of death to be faith-affirming. I’m sure there are some that would argue that believers cling to God in the uncertainties of life because it makes us feel better, but I say to them…. *Googles for 10 minutes* Man, I remember reading a great defense of this failed logic for a class! I did, I know I did! Was it Descartes’s ontological argument? I can’t remember! DARN IT! I know it wasn’t Anselm’s. UGH. THIS IS VERY FRUSTRATING.

Okay, I’m alright.

What was I saying?

If anything, death reminds me to be grateful for all the things I do have, two loving parents and siblings, a husband whom I love even if he is messier than I would have preferred, my friends, even if I met most of them within the past 5 years, etc. I have a lot to be grateful for. We all do.

I can spend hours ruminating over why God chose to keep me and everyone else still alive. Maybe it’s because we all have more things to achieve in this world. Maybe it’s because God wants to give us more time to come back to Him. Maybe it’s both… I don’t know. But in the midst of trying to rationalize the why, I’m reaffirming my faith in God and that there are some things we human beings can never know. That doesn’t mean we stop asking, just that we learn to accept our limitations and the limitlessness of God when we find no answers.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

I am lovingly drinking my morning tea as I type this post… because I finally can! (ETA: I was when I first started writing this post, anyway)

I haven’t been able to do this for a month (well… there was a week in between where I did, but that’s a minor detail we don’t need to get into now).

Yesterday, was the first day of Eid-al-Fitr, one of two major Muslim holidays; this one commemorating the end of the month of fasting in Ramadan. Eid is technically a three-day holiday, but since Muslims living in the West typically don’t take three days off, we fit in three days’ worth of eating into one! What a way to celebrate a month of fasting, eh? ;)

As much as eating is a reality, Eid is also a time where everyone from the community comes together for a special prayer. After prayer, as part of the Prophetic Tradition, there is always a speech, or khutbah, that usually ties up the month together. Yesterday’s was probably one of the best Eid khutbahs I have heard in my life. I haven’t felt chills like that since my time at UChicago. It was delivered by Hazem Bata, who’s a pretty awesome dude in his own right. As socially relevant as the speech was, it also touched on Islamic history and lessons, as well. Perfecto! That’s the kind of khutbah that speaks to my soul. But what really struck a chord with me was its very timely personal resonance: that some times things don’t work out as planned, but, as is a common Islamic teaching, God is the best of planners. Using the examples of Salman Al-Farisi and Muhammad Ali (yes, the boxer) to illustrate this beautiful lesson, I was reminded that I was a recipient of the Ramadan Miracle I was hoping and praying for – just not in the way I had originally envisioned it.

Yet again I was reminded that setbacks can be openings to beautiful things. Of course, my struggles pale in comparison to the struggles of these two men. But the stories of those who came before us are meant to serve as examples for us living now, regardless of the age or time we live in.

For the past two years especially, I’ve been racking my head trying to make sense of the apparently ill-thought decisions I have made. I do not and have never regretted these particular decisions, but I couldn’t help but feel they weren’t in line with the societal expectations of what I ought to do to live a successful life. I mean, who in their right mind gets a Master’s in Religious Studies and decides to not (immediately ;) continue with a PhD? (FYI: Thoughts of a PhD will never truly die).

I pined and hoped that things would somehow all come together. And though I am still young and hope to have many years ahead of me, this past week I have begun to see my own opening from the many setbacks I’ve experienced this past year. Thinking of Salman Al-Farisi’s and Muhammad Ali’s legacy gives me hope that the best is yet to come, God willing. It’s not foolish to think this way, I might add. It’s a part of having faith. Being a believer means knowing that God is Good and wants good for us all.

P.S. WRT to my title, I am pleased to share this quote is not originally from the ’90s one-hit wonder band, Semisonic, but the Roman philosopher, Seneca. How apropos however that “Closing Time,” the song that features this quote was played on the radio yesterday! OMG! OMG! OMG!

It has begun… or will begin very soon! i.e. some pre-Ramadan thoughts.

Ramadan Moobarak small
Ramadan Moo-barak from me, Mr. Rafia and our little baby, Mufia! :)

Ramadan will begin this evening and thus, tomorrow will be the first fast of this lunar year for many Muslims living in North America. I now live in the land of calculations (i.e. ISNA), so I know for a fact my first fast will be tomorrow. But whether one follows the moon- sighting or not, Ramadan begins this weekend for Muslims all over the world.

For the past couple of days, a lot of what I’ve been seeing in my inbox and Facebook feed are “How to prepare for Ramadan” articles. I’ve seen a few on how people who are fasting 17-hour days can still manage to fit in exercise. Normally I’d be like, “You people just need to SHUT.” But I kinda want to continue my yoga routine. I don’t want to lose all the momentum I’ve gained in the past month or so since I started doing yoga. But who knows?

(Yes, I started doing yoga, albeit at home in a relatively judgement-free zone… although sometimes Mr. Rafia will come home earlier than usual and I’ll have to hear him fake-mock me. No, I have not seen the benefits either in flexibility, balance, strength, mental stillness, not to mention my perennial goal of losing those “stubborn few pounds,” but I know I must continue to plow on).

Am I physically and mentally prepared for Ramadan? I guess – it’s inevitable.

Did I prepare? Do I ever?

I know it’s not the “right” thing to say, but I ain’t gonna lie. I had a conversation with a friend recently about our approach to food and as I was reminded again, my entire day is structured around meal time. Up until not too long ago – and I am not exaggerating – I used to go to bed with the thought of breakfast the next day… thus explaining why I was 100+ pounds overweight as a teenager.

Though I am no longer technically even overweight, food still dominates my life and so fasting is difficult for me. I think it’s safe to say that it is difficult for most people. But in addition to the void in rewards I receive in the form of food, Ramadan forces me to change the way I structure my day. And as my life is a testament to, physical changes are much easier to make than mental ones.

Sure, I intend to read more Qur’an, cut down on all forms of entertainment (pictures of cows are not entertainment, BTW, they are like breathing for me), read books that are Islamic in nature… I know there will be an element that is missing this year, like last year. Despite the difficulty in abstaining from food and drink from dawn to sunset, what Muslims look forward to is the communal spirit of this month. I’m going to miss my family even more than I normally do.

No more of trying multiple times to wake up my lion of a father to get him to eat the pre-dawn meal. No more thinking I’ve awaken earlier than others to only find my mother already in the kitchen going on with her day. No more of later reading Qur’an with her until mid-morning. No more of hearing my brother asking “Is it time? Is it time?” right before we break our fast. No more of praying all our salat together as a family. No more of being forced encouraged to attend taraweeh prayers in the mosque with the family.

I mean, I didn’t love it then. But nostalgia, you know?

I am not sure what Ramadan will look like this year for me or for Mr. Rafia. It’s only our second Ramadan together, but I hope it’s one in which our faith in God becomes stronger, that we both worry less (me, especially), and put all our hopes in God alone.

For all of you who are fasting this Ramadan – and even those who aren’t – I pray and hope for the same for you all.

You know what? I think I am ready.

The pants that got away… and an email to remind me

First of all, new layout! I know the previous one was only up for a month, but my amazingly talented sister (FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM!) drew this beautiful illustration at just the right time. I fell out of love with the last layout rather quickly; it lacked personality and made my site look a little too drab, I later realized. So when Baaj emailed me this adorable and Rafia-esque illustration, I didn’t care that I physically felt like death, the new layout was going up ASAP!

Look at it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I am not ashamed to say that because I did not make it ;)

So, what’s this whole business about pants, you ask? I guess you could say that I change my layouts as often as I change my pants. Har-dee-har-dee-har.

Okay, that analogy was a forced attempt to string together what will be a rather haphazard post. But bear with me. The layout and pants do have some sort of connection, which I will attempt to explain presently. Because along with this new and beautiful header image, my sister also sent me this pic from July 2012.

Me and my little nephew – The Nizmaster – at Gairloch Gardens in Oakville, Ontario.

This must have been a few months before I stopped wearing pants completely, a three-year period of my past that still haunts me.

If this is not the first blog post of mine you’ve read, then you’d know that I’ve started wearing pants again. “Whoop-dee-doo! Rafia, you really weren’t exaggerating when you say you always make a mountain out of a molehill. But this is a bit much, even for you,” I can hear your thoughts loud and clear.

See, my decision to stop wearing pants was made out of fear and being pants-shamed (it’s a thing, at least among Muslims). One comment from a parent at the Islamic School I used to work at is what triggered, what I can finally call in retrospect, an entire negation of my sense of self. I stopped wearing pants – that was the external. But I also stopped listening to music, I stopped singing, I stopped eating sugar around this time, too. In essence, I stopped being myself.

I look at this photo now and am angry at myself for allowing that woman to enter my mind and convince me that I ever dressed immodestly. Her actual words were “Haraam dressing,” which made me feel like I was committing a sin for wearing pants.

Though thankfully I eventually left that toxic environment – it literally took a seizure for me to make that much-needed change in my life – I still encounter this warped kind of thinking occasionally. Her words have stayed with me unconsciously ever since.

No more. It’s been about a year since I’ve started wearing pants again, but it’s been a slow process. This photo emboldens me to start wearing them metaphorically as well. In a mad dash, I made it my Whatsapp profile, uploaded it on IG. It moved me so much that I had to blog about it.

So, yes. Thanks, Baaj – for this new layout and for the photo. My sister is a catalyst for positive change! See? It all came together ;)

Sacrifice in the twenty-first century

Yesterday was Eid-al-Adha (“Festival of the Sacrifice”), one of two major Muslim holidays during the year. It is meant to commemorate the willingness of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham – the same Abraham of the Bible!) to sacrifice his son for God’s sake. Of course, it was merely his willingness that was being tested, for his son Ismail, as Muslims believe, was never intended to die that day. Eid-al-Adha is also the day that the yearly Hajj pilgrimage comes to its end.

Muslims all over the world celebrate this holiday, whether on the pilgrimage themselves or not, and are asked to make a sacrifice of their own. Ritually, it is usually a livestock animal, a portion of which is distributed among the poor. Yes, livestock includes cows, I know. Ours was a goat, I made sure. I asked my husband twice just to be safe.

For many, including myself, the sacrifice ends at that.

When I went to prayer yesterday, sitting at the back, I witnessed just how disconnected we are from Prophet Ibrahim’s story. We are reminded each year of his sacrifice and his level of faith moves us… for a time. But what do we do after the end of the sermon?

Some of us can’t even listen attentively to the entire sermon! The women to my left were busy taking Eid selfies and laughing. I was in the middle of making my own bi-annual “Eid Moobarak” status update when I realized: What am I doing? I am guilty of this disconnect as well. As soon as I remembered, I put my phone away. But it wasn’t an easy task. Theoretically, I knew my status update could wait, but I felt an internal struggle in putting my phone away. Seek instant gratification or listen to the speaker remind me of a story I’ve heard countless times before?

This situation later got me thinking about the meaning of sacrifice for us living today. This applies to Muslims specifically, but I think more generally to anyone who considers him or herself a devoted servant of God.

I used to think that sacrifice meant I had to give up something as precious as a son. But because I am clearly unable to do that, whatever I did do wasn’t a sacrifice at all. What this way of thinking resulted in was a whole lot of guilt and a pervading feeling that I am not a “good” Muslim.

After prayer, over tea and donuts, I asked Mr. Rafia this question, “What does sacrifice mean in the 21st century?” After he facetiously answered, “I think it means the same thing it always did,” to which I rolled my eyes, he told me that I was being too grandiose with my definition. “Just waking up for the morning dawn prayer is a sacrifice,” he said. “Is it really?” I asked. “It’s an obligation! That’s not a sacrifice,” I told him.

Is a religious obligation a sacrifice? Perhaps it is. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t wake up at 5 AM to pray if I didn’t have to.

I think a large reason why Muslims are so disconnected to our history is because the messages we’re hearing aren’t presented in a way that have salience in our lives. We could never sacrifice our children or even think of doing it. So how do we find inspiration in Prophet Ibrahim’s story? It’s not so easy. We need guideposts. Otherwise, we risk our history remaining just that – a bunch of facts that don’t have much meaning today. A part of me feels that because such a grandiose message is being relayed, it’s falling on deaf ears. It’s not enough for our scholars and religious leaders to know our history, they also have to know how to relay it to us, their students.

We haven’t reached this point yet in my opinion, based on my experience. The evidence is in the fact that taking selfies while our religious leaders are speaking is not only happening, it seems like a better use of our time.

P.S. I may have posted this prematurely, by not giving myself more time to properly compose my thoughts. I am by no means suggesting that social media addiction is not a problem. But this disconnect is not a result of solely that alone. There was a time when I had no social media presence whatsoever, but the disconnect was still there. Human beings need guided direction given the quagmires we have gotten ourselves into. Grandiose messages full of platitudes that are more disheartening than inspiring is not the answer.