Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pride & Prejudice: #Forgotten Heroines

Muslims very often say things like, “there is no racism in Islam!” and “there is no classism in Islam!” To a certain extent, this is true – Islam has no place for racism nor for favouring the wealthy over the poor. Yet there is a difference between Islam, the religion, and Muslims, the human beings who strive to live according to the faith.

We also tend to romanticize the Companions of the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) by making it seem as though they were free of human biases. What we forget is that Allah chose them not because they were perfect or free of fault, but because they were human beings with human weaknesses – and had the potential and determination to change themselves for the better.

Racism and classism were two issues which plagued pre-Islamic society almost as much as it plagues our current societies. The difference between slaves and masters, the noblemen and the Bedouin, the impoverished and the dramatically wealthy, was significant and considered to be a normative fact of life. Self-worth was attributed not to an individual’s character, but their social and economic status… and it was this very state of mind that RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) sought to change amongst his Companions.

Whereas RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) himself came from a very noble family amongst the Quraysh – that of Banu Hashim – his love and affection extended to any and all who loved Allah and accepted Islam. In fact, many of the earliest Muslims came from backgrounds of poverty and slavery, such as Sumayyah bint Khayyat and her family. Not only that, but RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) accepted such individuals into his own family; Zayd ibn Harith was his freed-slave, and was for a significant portion of time known as RasulAllah’s adopted son.

Zaynab bint Jahsh, on the other hand, was the epitome of a Qurayshi noblewoman: beautiful, wealthy, intelligent, and from an elite woman, she was considered to be a woman without peer. She also happened to be RasulAllah’s cousin, and the sister of another famous Sahabi, Abdullah ibn Jahsh. Thus, both amongst the Qurayshi society and the Muslim community, Zaynab stood out as a distinguished woman.

Between Zayd and Zaynab was an ocean of difference – two individuals who came from drastically varying backgrounds, who were viewed as polar opposites. RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was not oblivious to this; if anything, he was most keenly aware of what it meant to have believers from every level of society. What he wanted most, however, was to eradicate the disease of racism and classism; to build and foster a society where, regardless of socio-economic class, greater value was played on one’s Taqwa.

With this in mind, he brought up the subject of marriage to both Zayd and Zaynab. Heavily influenced by a lifetime of ingrained conditioning about classism, both of them were surprised and somewhat doubtful. Though Zaynab protested initially, bringing up both her social status and economic background, she acquiesced when the following verse was revealed:

{It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error.} (Qur’an 33:36)

In obedience to Allah and His Messenger, Zaynab bint Jahsh and Zayd ibn Thabit agreed to marry. Their marriage was hugely symbolic – the coming together of two disparate societal classes, a noblewoman and a freed slaveman, and proved to the world that it was perfectly acceptable for such a thing to take place.

However, Zayd and Zaynab’s marriage was tumultuous. Despite both of them being exceptional believers, they were still human, and found it genuinely difficult to let go of certain biases and prejudices. In addition to the issue of class, their personalities were also quite different. Zaynab was a woman of wit and eloquence, unyielding in her opinions and famous for her temper - and in Zayd’s case, it was difficult for him to feel comfortable with her.
Several times, Zayd went to RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) for counseling and mediation. Each time, he was told, “Have patience” – an interestingly marked difference from today, when it is women alone who receive the advice for patience in a difficult marriage.

Eventually, however, RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) received permission from Allah to permit divorce for Zayd and Zaynab. The original wisdom for establishing their marriage had been fulfilled – racism and classism were being recognized as inappropriate for Muslims to act on, and important to overcome. Their divorce, in turn, also became an important lesson for believers: the importance of compatibility in a marriage. Two individuals being pious or religious Muslims does not automatically mean that they are right for each other martially. Should their marriage not work out, it is not meant to be a source of shame, but a reality to be accepted. It is said that when Zaynab heard the news of her divorce, she actually prostrated out of thankfulness to Allah.

Zaynab’s story was still to continue. From above the seven heavens, without any earthly ceremony, Allah declared Zaynab bint Jahsh (radhiAllahu ‘anha) to be the wife of His Messenger (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). As Zaynab was quick to remind her fellow Mothers of the Believers, she alone was accorded this honour. Just as with her first marriage, her second marriage was the source of a Divine ruling to the Muslim community – that the adoptive son is not like the biological son, and the permissibility of a man marrying his adopted son’s widow or divorcee.

As a wife of RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), Zaynab bint Jahsh found true joy and happiness in marriage. Her personality and her previous divorce did not disqualify her from marrying the Messenger of Allah, nor were they considered to be negative factors – rather, they were just facts of life, and part of what made her unique. What made her incompatible with Zayd ibn Harith was what made her compatible with RasulAllah, as evidenced by the fact that he loved to spend time with her.
In a time when women are often told to minimize their own presence and personalities, Zaynab’s story stands out as an example of how one doesn’t have to change who they are simply for the sake of marriage. Just because one man doesn’t feel comfortable with an aspect of a woman’s personality, it does not mean that another man won’t appreciate it.

Despite being known for her temper, Zaynab bint Jahsh was also described in glowing terms as a true believing woman. A’ishah (radhiAllahu ‘anha) said of her, “She was given to fasting and performing prayer.” She was also ‘better in religion, fearful of Allah, truthful in her speech, dedicated to family relationships, known for giving sadaqah, and was completely committed to achieving perfection in her deeds.’ She was a woman of principle as well as Taqwa – during the time of al-Ifk, when she could have easily used the fitnah surrounding A’ishah (radhiAllahu ‘anha) to advance her own status with RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), she swore to A’ishah’s innocence and refused to engage the slander and gossip that had swept Medinah.

Zaynab bint Jahsh is a symbol for so many people, men and women alike: a sincere human being struggling to overcome ingrained biases and societal conditioning; an individual of strength who finds it difficult to tone themselves down for others’ comfort; a person seeking to please Allah in words and actions, striving to remain committed to their Lord even when opportunities for personal benefit arise.

Her story shows us that to be someone significant in the eyes of Allah doesn’t require perfection, but rather a commitment to the higher principles of Islam. Zaynab is a woman to be emulated, a reminder and a role model of what it means to be a heroine of Islam – someone whom we can both relate to and whose standard we seek to meet.

10 Things I Learned From My Ex

Whether it’s sprung on you suddenly, or it’s been creeping up on you for a while; whether it’s something you needed for yourself or something you never wanted… divorce is a difficult experience to go through. It is a painful process with a deep emotional toll, and for many, it can (understandably) be the source of a great deal of anger and bitterness towards one’s ex-spouse.
However, RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) taught us that there’s always a silver lining to even the darkest of clouds in our lives.

“How amazing is the affair of the believer! Verily, all his affairs are good and this is not for no one except the believer. If something of good befalls him, he is grateful and that is good for him. If something of harm befalls him, he is patient and that is good for him.” (Saheeh Muslim #2999)

In the months after my divorce, both celebrating and mourning the end of a chapter of my life, I realized that my marriage and divorce alike were a learning experience. To that end, I offer the following ten things I learned from my ex-husband. 

1)    I am beautiful. When I first got married, I was both incredibly young and crippling insecure about myself. For the longest time, I had been a tomboy and a late bloomer; by the time I hit my mid-teens, I was already insecure about how I looked.
It took quite a bit of convincing from my then-husband for me to eventually believe that I was, in fact, pretty – and more than that, beautiful. Marriage gave me the freedom to explore aspects of beautification that I had avoided out of awkwardness, and to grow into both my body and positive self-image. I will always appreciate and be grateful for the fact that my ex was the one who coaxed me out of my shell and made me both comfortable with myself. 

2)    Being flawed doesn’t make you evil. By the time I recognized that my marriage was toxic, I had come to resent my then-husband. Often, I conflated his flaws and faults with him as a person, and had some very unpleasant things to say about him. It was a struggle to realize and remember that he wasn’t evil; he had his own inner demons and baggage that he was wrestling with, and while it didn’t excuse his behavior, it didn’t mean that he was all bad. It just made him painfully human… like me.

3)    Just because it isn’t true love, doesn’t mean it isn’t love. I spent a great deal of time conflicted over the nature of my feelings for him. As his wife, wasn’t I supposed to be truly in love with him? How could I think that I loved him, when I knew that I wasn’t going to be spending the rest of my life with him? While we grow up hearing about how we’ll meet our one true love, nobody really tells you that sometimes, you’ll find yourself loving someone who isn’t your one true love… and that’s okay. Allah has put you in that situation for a reason, and it is very often a blessing. There are many more types and shades of love than we are taught, and it is a blessing to experience them. 

4)    Unrequited love is painful even for the one who doesn’t love you back. Perhaps one of the worst feelings I ever experienced was knowing that he loved me more than I loved him in return. It was brutal, it was harsh, and it made me feel like the worst person on earth. It’s the unrequited lover who usually gains everyone’s sympathy – the story of Barirah and Mughith is quite apt – but to know that you aren’t the right person for the one who loves you with all his (or her) heart, is an incredibly painful feeling, especially when you do care about them deeply.

5)    Remember the good, not just the bad. There’s an infamous hadith that mentions women who become so upset that they forget the good that has happened to them. Having been in a situation where it was tempting – and easy – to overlook the bright spots in favor of brooding on the dark times, I can say that gratefulness to Allah goes a long way in healing painful hurts. Even in deeply unhappy situations, there can still be moments of small happinesses, little joys and pleasant memories; things to think back to and smile about (even if that smile is a little sad). Don’t let the bitterness completely overcome the traces of sweetness left.

6)    You don’t stop caring just because you’re divorced. My marriage ended slowly and agonizingly, and my divorce was painful… to be horribly honest, it was probably worse for him than it was for me. Yet although I was elated and relieved to be divorced, I wasn’t able to stop caring for him entirely. After years of being together, of a relationship that was unique despite its turbulence, it’s impossible to just throw out the feelings of tenderness and compassion and to feel apathetic. Even though we are Islamically non-mahram to each other and will have minimal contact for the rest of our lives, there will always be a part of me that worries about him and hopes that he will be really, truly happy. The heart doesn’t have an on/off switch, so don’t expect it to.

7)    Don’t be tempted. Some nights, when you wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and roll over in search of a warm, comforting body, you’ll realize with a lurch that they aren’t there anymore. Some days, you’ll find yourself daydreaming about what if… what if you went back and things would change? What if you want to stay in touch with him/her and you’ll find that s/he’s not so bad, after all? Don’t go there. In many cases (I would venture to say most), the person you divorced is going to be the same person they were when you were married. Unless you both actively choose and commit to try again, with marriage counseling and a firm decision to resolve the issues that caused your marriage to end in the first place, don’t be tempted to fantasize about Happily Ever After, v. 2.0 with the same person. Instead, trust in Allah that He will give you both what you actually need.

8)    Toxic relationships are real. Unfortunately, few of us learn about – or how to identify – toxic relationships in the many lectures and books we’ll devour prior to marriage. However, it is something necessary to learn about, in order to be aware of unhealthy behavioral patterns that may emerge in your marriage, whether it’s coming from you or from your spouse. It doesn’t matter what cultural background you’re from, toxic relationships are real and can become worse – even abusive – if not recognized and dealt with as soon as possible.
Some people conflate sabr (patience) with enduring an unhealthy marriage without striving for resolution or positive change, but the Qur’an describes the marital bond as being one of love, mercy, and compassion. A marriage that lacks these qualities can be detrimental to one’s emaan, and should not be left to fester.

9)    It won’t always end well. Sometimes, even if we really want to have the kind of amicable divorce where everyone conducts themselves with politeness and respect and maybe even friendly cooperation… it’s not so easy for the other party to share that vision – and sometimes, it’s just impossible.
Whether you’re the one who initiated the divorce or the one who received the news of it, the pain and inner torment of it all can be too much to shelve away neatly and go on as though none of it matters. Some of us are able to acknowledge our emotions and move on, and some of us aren’t. It can get nasty, it can get even more painful, but at the end of the day, we have to realize that as much as it would be much more convenient for things to go smoothly between you and your former spouse… it just might never reach the point of being an amicable divorce. Once again, this is a time to turn to Allah and make du’a for the other person (even if we really, really don’t like them right now) that He ease their pain and yours.

10)  Divorce can make you a better person. The struggles – and the good times – that you shared with your ex-spouse all took place for a reason. Allah tests those whom He loves, and divorce is just one of those trials and tribulations in life that we can emerge from as stronger Muslims and better people.
Not only are we given the opportunity to turn to Allah with a broken heart and find healing in the Words of al-Shaafi, the Healer, but we are now equipped with life skills that will help us recognize our own faults and shortcomings. We are also, inshaAllah, better able to understand and empathize with the ex-spouse, which is an excellent reminder of the importance of humbleness and forgiveness (and how hard they both are to truly embody).

Divorce is undoubtedly a difficult, unpleasant life experience and there’s no way to really put a positive spin on it… but there are ways to recognize the blessings that accompany every fitnah in life and to benefit from them, knowing them to be a part of the journey to Jannah, inshaAllah.

{Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while such [trial] has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you?} (Qur’an 2:214)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Unveiling the Hoor al-Ayn (Part 1)

Originally published here for AlJumuah Magazine.

{… And wide-eyed beauties [Ḥûr În] to wed, who look as though they were well-preserved pearls.} [Surat Al-Wâqi'ah, 56:22-23]
There are few âyât which trigger as much emotional turmoil as those describing the Ḥûr Al-În: those otherworldly women created to spend eternity in Paradise, without ever stepping foot in the Dunya.
The Quran describes these women in detail alongside the other pleasures of Jannah. And while many Muslim men exult in these verses and make a point of repeating and emphasizing them, many Muslim women find them to be a source of discomfort and even emotional pain.
It is all too easy for others to respond with, “You must accept the Quran and be content with the Words of Allah.” While this may sound correct theoretically – after all, every believer is obliged to accept the Divine Revelation as being the ultimate source of truth, justice, and wisdom – this approach does not address human reality. It is human nature to question, and indeed, the Quran itself recognizes this, responds to this, and many times even encourages an inquisitive spirit. However, the Quran and Sunnah also present a method of responding to such questions with emotional depth as well as facts.
Unfortunately, there tends to be a callous attitude when it comes to discussing the Ḥûr Al-În and especially in responding to the concerns that women express regarding them. Rather than taking the time to understand why so many women feel uncomfortable, the standard answer is often one of rebuke. ‘Worry about getting into Jannah yourself,’ some retort; ‘Be good to your husband, and you will be better than the Hûr,’ others say.
All of these answers, however, completely miss the point and do little (if anything) to provide the reassurance that women seek.
Human Women vs. Al–Hûr Al-‘În
Many discussions regarding the Ḥûr Al-În are framed in such a way as to present them as rivals or even enemies to believing human women. It is no wonder, then, that some Muslim women feel antagonistic towards them and question just how ‘perfect’ Jannah is.
Whether classical scholars or modern-day imams, there is a clear focus on describing the Ḥûr Al-În in detail – often disproportionately in comparison to the many, many other rewards and features of Jannah that are mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah. From the opalescence of their skin to their large, dark eyes, their virginity and their ample bosoms, men in general are very enthusiastic when talking about the Ḥûr. Unfortunately, they also phrase these descriptions in contrast to human women. One common sentiment is that the Ḥûr are ‘better’ than human women because they don’t experience ‘dirty’ bodily functions such as urinating, excreting, menstruating, child-birthing, and so on.
Another way that the Ḥûr are pitted against human women is as a threat. There are men who will deliberately quote the following ḥadîth as a means of emotionally and spiritually blackmailing their wives:
No woman annoys her husband (without legitimate reason) in this world except that his wife among the Ḥûr Al-În said: ‘Do not annoy him, may Allah destroy you; he is only like a guest with you, soon he will part from you for us.’ (Tirmidhi and Ibn Mâjah)
While the intent of this ḥadîth was as a deterrent against excessive marital discord, it is largely misused to make Muslim women feel inferior. Though the Arabic phrasing of the du'â’ they invoke is quite harsh, it is a turn of phrase found in other Arabic expressions that are commonly used, such as “May your mother be bereft of you,” “May your nose be rubbed in the dust,” and so on. Such phrases are often lost in translation, and misused inappropriately.
Furthermore, discussions about the Ḥûr are inescapably linked to the topic of polygamy – which in turn has, in general, been spoken about, taught, and practiced in a less than ideal manner. Due to the lack of positive frameworks and references for earthly polygamy, it is no surprise that the idea of polygamy in Paradise is met with similar resistance. When polygamy is so often used as a tool to oppress women and to deprive them of their rights, while at the same time accusing women of not being ‘pious’ or ‘patient’ enough, we truly cannot blame such women for having such negative reactions.
In short, it is all too common to see many men purposely using the idea of the Ḥûr Al-În to manipulate women, and as a means of spiritual abuse. This is extremely disturbing when one considers the fact that Jannah was created as a reward for all believers, men and women alike. Paradise is meant to be a source of motivation, something that is looked forward to and is desired by the believers. In fact, Jannah is explicitly described as a place wherein there is no sorrow, grief, jealousy, or any type of negative emotion whatsoever.
Why, then, are some people so determined to make Jannah appear more favorable to men than to women?
For the Believing Women…
“Do women get male Hûr?” is the question asked as a retort to repeated mentions of the Ḥûr Al-¢În. “What do women get in Jannah?” The reactions to such questions tend to be predictable – “AstaghfirAllah! Women won’t want anyone other than their husbands!” “Women don’t have a desire for more men anyway.” “You’ll get jewelry!”
It is quite understandable that many women are unsatisfied with these responses. Indeed, there are those who try to actually downplay a woman’s reward in Jannah, by implying or saying outright that unlike men, women will have no sexual desires whatsoever. There are also those who say that those who were unmarried (or divorced, or whose earthly husbands did not enter Jannah) will be satisfied being alone.
However, none of these statements holds any weight whatsoever. In fact, there is an explicit ḥadîth to the contrary:
It was narrated that a group of the Companions once either boasted or discussed whether there would be more men or women in Paradise. Abû Hurairah said: “Did not Abû Al-Qâsim (the Prophet œ) say: The first group to enter Paradise will look like the moon when it is full, then those who follow them will look like the most brilliant planet in the sky. Each man among them will have two wives whose marrow can be seen beneath their flesh, and there will be no one in Paradise who is unmarried.” (Muslim, Ḥadîth No. 7147 (2834), Book of Paradise and Description of its Delights and its People)
From this ḥadîth alone, it is clear both that women will make up the majority of the inhabitants of Paradise, and that all women will be married to similar believing spouses.
In addition, the believing women are described in two other narrations:
Umm Salamah (the Prophet’s wife) narrates that she once said to the Prophet: “O RasûlAllâh, are the women of this world superior or the Ḥûrs (the houris of Paradise)?” He replied: The women of this world will have superiority over the Ḥûrs just as the outer lining of a garment has superiority over the inner lining.
Umm Salamah then asked: “O RasûlAllâh, what is the reason for this?” He answered: Because they performed Salah, fasted, and worshipped [Allah]. Allah will put light on their faces and silk on their bodies. [The human women] will be fair in complexion and will wear green clothing and yellow jewelry. Their incense-burners will be made of pearls and their combs will be of gold. They will say: ‘We are the women who will stay forever and we will never die. We are the women who will always remain in comfort and we will never undergo difficulty. We are the women who will stay and we will never leave. Listen, we are happy women and we will never become sad. Glad tidings to those men for whom we are and who are for us!’ (Ṭabarâni)
Abû Hurairah narrated that the Prophet œ said: Every man in heaven will go to seventy-two of the creatures of Allah (houris) and two of the women of mankind. These two (human, believing) women are superior to the houris with their worshipping (good deeds) they had performed in this world. (Bayhaqi and Ṭabarâni)
Another fascinating narration exists that references an âyah from the Quran itself.
An old woman once came to the Prophet and said: “O Messenger of Allah! Supplicate for me that Allah grants me entrance into Jannah.” He replied: Mother! Don’t you know that old women cannot enter Jannah? The woman began to weep, and turned to leave. The Prophet quickly told his Companions to follow her and inform her: Allah will make all the women of Jannah young virgins, for didn’t Allah say: Indeed, We have produced the women of Paradise in a [new] creation, and made them virgins, lovers and of equal age… [Surat Al-Wâqi'ah, 56:35-37] (Al-Shamâ’il Al-Muhammadiyyah)
These above texts are the most explicit regarding the status of the believing women in Jannah, and in particular, their superiority over the Ḥûr Al-În.
However, there still remains a great deal to discuss with regards to concerns that women have regarding the Ḥûr Al-¢În, and how one may try to address them. Part two of this article will, Inshâ’Allah, delve into more detail and consider various questions and responses that arise.