Thursday, June 26, 2014

My Accidental Jihad (Book Review)

“My Accidental Jihad” is a book which proves that sometimes all it really takes to pick up a book is the title. In that, Krista Bremer was successful – I was certainly interested by the cover, and the blurb that describes her book as an “unlikely love story” between the author (an all-American surfer gal) and Ismail, a Libyan man raised in what could very well be an entirely different world.

The author is clear that her book is a very personal memoir, a journey that explores her own subconsciously held stereotypes and prejudices against the mysterious ‘other’… even as she fell in love with and married an Arab-African man. Her honesty is commendable even as it is uncomfortable; excerpts like the following made me wonder if I could make myself finish reading the book:

“Suddenly the regal Arab before me was gone, replaced by a cartoon Arab, a Disney character on a magic carpet. Now he was a dark bad man in an Indiana Jones movie, part of the hypnotized throng who prayed on all fours to the evil lord of fire, chanting mumbo jumbo and raising their backsides into the air. Or he was the bloodthirsty Libyan hell-bent to slaughter the brilliant scientist in Back to the Future, the one who ca¬reened through the mall parking lot in a VW bus, his checkered head cloth snapping in the wind as he sprayed gunfire like rain onto the asphalt.”

While I did realize that the purpose of mentioning such things was to highlight her ingrained prejudices, I still felt a sense of aversion to the turns of phrase utilized.

Ms. Bremer does a lot of compare and contrast between her own upbringing and background, and that of her husband’s; and the many unexpected challenges that arose during their marriage. From the purchasing of a new car to haggling over diamond rings, the author ruefully and good-naturedly talks about the beautiful ups and challenging downs of her inter-cultural marriage. The differences between Ismail and Krista are more than just cultural. Ismail is careful, deliberate, and serious, his outlook on life shaped by a harsh, poverty-stricken childhood in Gaddafi-ruled Libya, while Krista is the product of a luxurious, consumer-driven American society, longing for all the trappings of the American dream. It is interesting to note the author’s admission of being unable to relate to her husband’s background, with how she tries to look at her own culture through his eyes, and realizes that it may not be as glamorous as she’d always thought.

Each chapter reads somewhat like an anecdotal essay; by themselves, easy to digest, although it lends the book a somewhat choppy feel.

However, what really drew me into the book was the author’s description of her first visit to Libya – and many of her thoughts and experiences echoed my own, down to the agony of a first pregnancy in a foreign country where the concept of personal space and privacy are nearly non-existent.
The awe and wonder, as well as the confusion and frustration, of being surrounded by strangers who are now considered family; of sights and smells both pungent and oddly appealing, of a lifestyle that had deeply held traditions mixed with wisdom and superstitions… reading Ms. Bremer’s story reminded me of my own past, and much more able to relate with her reflections.

One thing which I found disappointing – and which had the potential to really capture a reader’s interest, and emphasize the ‘point’ of the book – is that the author mentions her own foray into Islam, and her earliest prayers, only as a casual aside. I wanted to know more about her spiritual journey, which, surprisingly, was not discussed in much depth.
Though her husband is a Muslim, religion does not play as direct a role in their story as one might think… although she was frank in how she struggled with the first Ramadan, particularly the somewhat noxious oral side effects. Perhaps most of the most interesting anecdotes was that of her young daughter’s choice to start wearing hijab, and her own internal struggle with how others would view her daughter – and how she herself viewed her daughter’s decision. It was this, more than anything else in the book, that truly highlighted the message that Ms. Bremer was trying to convey… the paradoxes, contradictions, immense frustrations, and imperfect beauty of an unconventional love.

“My Accidental Jihad” leaves one with – at the very least – a glimpse into another person’s unique experiences, with reflections both new and familiar. What readers derive from it most likely depends on what the reader brings with them when they start reading; for myself, I was not particularly swept away or impressed, but I was most certainly able to appreciate those experiences which were so similar to my own.
This book may be a helpful read to those with non-Muslim families who may not have been exposed to or interacted with many Muslims (or inter-faith marriages involving Muslims). For some, it can be an educational experience or simply an enjoyable read; all in all, “My Accidental Jihad” is a welcome contribution to the ever-increasing material of the collective Muslim narrative.

Rating: 3 out 5

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Lioness Amongst Scholars

The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said:
"The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them (i.e. the next generation), and then after them, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness."
(Sahih Bukhari)

The era of the Tabi’een is often referred to as the golden age of the Islamic Sciences – a time during which scholars studied at the feet of the Sahabah of RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), traveled the world in search of ahadeeth, and began to compile what are now known to be the greatest books of classical Islamic knowledge.
The names of the Tabi’een are many: Fudhayl ibn ‘Iyaadh, Sa’eed ibn al-Musayyib, ‘Urwah ibn az-Zubayr, Imam Malik ibn Anas… and many more, besides.

However, amongst all these masculine names, a feminine name stands out: Hafsa bint Seereen.

Hafsa was the daughter of Seereen, the freed slave of Anas ibn Maalik (radhiAllahu ‘anhu), and Safiyyah, the freed slave of Abu Bakr (radhiAllahu ‘anhu). Due to her parents’ proximity to the Sahabah, Hafsa and her numerous siblings were raised in a household that was permeated with knowledge. Hafsa and her sister Kareemah were both known for memorizing the Qur’an at a young age; Kareemah at the age of nine, and Hafsa at twelve.
While Kareemah grew up to be known and revered as a great ‘aabidah (worshipper), Hafsa’s destiny was slightly different. Though it is her brother Muhammad ibn Seereen who is better known today, in particular for his book on dream interpretation, it was Hafsa who was respected most highly in her time.

Living up to her namesake, Hafsa was a lioness amongst the scholars of Madinah. Hafsa was a qaari’ah (reciter of the Qur’an) and was well-versed in the various recitations of the Qur’an; she was a muhaddithah (narrator of ahadeeth); and she was a faqeehah (Islamic jurist) as well.
To be a scholar in any one of these fields was and is considered to be a major achievement; in Hafsa’s case, she excelled in all three.

Her knowledge and expertise was not limited to a select circle, or restricted only to women. The men of Iraq, scholars in their own right, publicly acknowledged Hafsa’s superiority.

Iyaas ibn Mu’awiyyah said:
‘I did not meet anyone whom I can prefer over Hafsah.’ He was asked: ‘What about Hasan al Basri and Muhammad ibn Sireen (her brother)?’ He said: ‘As for me, I do not prefer anyone over her. She learnt the Qur’aan by heart when she was twelve years old.’ (Al Mizzi, Tahdheeb al-Kamaal, xxxv. 152.)

Hishaam ibnu Hassaan said:
“I saw Al-Hasan (Hasan al Basri), and (Muhammad) ibnu Seereen, and I did not see anyone whom I thought was cleverer than Hafsah.” (Sifah As-Safwah, Dhikr Al Mustafiyaat min A’abidaat al Basrah, Vol 2, Page 709.)

Hishaam narrates that when Ibn Sireen (her brother) would find something difficult and ambiguous (ashkala ‘alayhi) regarding the Qiraa’ah (recitation), he would say, “Go and ask Hafsah how to recite.” (Sifah As-Safwah, Dhikr Al Mustafiyaat min ‘Aabidaat al Basrah.)

As a muhaddithah, Hafsa’s chains of narration were both short and strong, which resulted in her narrations being included in all six authentic books of hadith (as-Sihaah as-Sitta).

Despite her impressive qualifications, despite the fact that the male scholars of Medina used to visit her in search of knowledge, Hafsa didn’t live in an ivory tower of academia.
Keenly aware that the upcoming generations were tempted to abandon knowledge for entertainment, and worship for luxury, she reached out to them repeatedly. One of her most well-known pieces of advice to the youth of her time was recorded:

“O youth (Ya Ma’shar ash-Shabaab)! Take from yourselves while you are young, for certainly I do not see (real) action except in youth.” (Sifah As-Safwah, Dhikr Al Mustafiyaat min 'Aabidaat al Basrah)

Hafsa was just one of many intelligent, educated women in Islamic history, but she is also one of the few who achieved mastery in fields which are now considered to be predominantly male. Her accomplishments prove that in the earlier generations of Islamic history, it was not gender which merited renown, but excellence of intellect combined with wisdom and worship.

Today, there are Muslim men who claim that women’s education is not a high priority, that it is nigh-impossible for them to be good wives or mothers while pursuing a vigorous education and career in academia. Yet if they were to find themselves before Hafsa bint Seereen, they would find themselves justly humbled before the knowledge and power of the ‘Aalimah, the Saa’imah, the ‘Aabidah… the lioness amongst scholars of Islam.

Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse aka The Salafi Feminist) is a young woman who finds constant inspiration in the lives of the Sahabiyaat and other great women in Islamic history. She hopes that every Muslimah is able to identify with the struggles of these inspirational women and follow in their footsteps to become a part of a new generation of powerful Muslim women. She blogs at