Muslim for a Month

I teach Social Studies in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area at a very diverse high school. In an attempt to better understand a significant portion of the student population, I have undertaken the idea to become "Muslim for a Month"; hence the title for this blog.

Location: Fairfax County, VA, United States

Monday, November 27, 2006


To borrow a phrase from a fellow teacher: You’re Problem, Not My Problem.

I have now listened to Hamza Yusuf’s Men and Women CD three times, and have taken some time to digest its content. As previously, I really enjoyed Shaykh Hamza’s method of explaining things; his use of analogies and stories to enlighten the points he makes is particularly helpful for me. However, my mind keeps coming back to the issue of women, hijab, and the reasons for wearing them. I have no problem with women who choose to wear hijab to be modest before Allah and the general public, although at times I think that since God created us, we should not be ashamed of how we look or appear. Anyway, the point that women wear hijab to protect themselves from men and men from their own baser instincts troubles me, thus the title of this post. I feel that it is the responsibility of men to be accountable for and in charge of their feelings (base or otherwise) and their actions that stem there from, and not the responsibility of the women to cover up to shield men from temptation. Not that I am advocating people walk around naked, although that does seem the logical end to this line of thinking. My turn for an analogy: statistically people in the United States are overweight – we have numbers and health claims to back this up – yet we do not advocate closing all bakeries, fast food restaurants, or ban selling the ingredients to make cookies, simply because people lack sufficient self control to stop themselves from consuming them. (Do not get me started on the people suing McDonald’s etc – I think that is one of the most absurd things I have ever heard.) People need to take responsibility for their own actions – I believe that is one thing that separates adults from children and humans from many other species on the planet – our ability to not act on every thought that flits through our minds because we understand the difference between right and wrong. Asking women to wear hijab, or more, to assist men with their weaker nature seems to be an abdication of the men’s responsibility for their own behavior.

I do understand that men have some responsibility in this arena: to lower their eyes and not look upon someone who is not a relative or not their spouse, to work on the mutual modesty from their own side of the equation. However, I guess I just feel that the equation is not balanced; that women have been given greater responsibility in the modestly arena, and not just for their own relationship with Allah, but for the men’s benefit as well.

For an extreme take on this issue see,,3-2422621,00.html, about the Australian cleric who equated uncovered/un-hijabed women to meat left out and then eaten by cats, taken by many to be blaming women for rape.

On a separate note: Thank you to the several people who corrected my misunderstanding/misperception of women and men spending time together. In previous blog entries, I talked about finding a chaperone so that I could “hang out” in public with a male friend. I have been informed that I needn’t have taken those measures: we could have spent time together in public without concern or chaperone. Again, another example of something I would have continued to misunderstand had I not undertaken this experience – and written about it in a public forum.

As always, I reserve the right to change my mind on how I feel/think about everything in this post, as I continue to read/discuss/learn about these issues.

Monday, November 20, 2006

I apologize for not posting in a while. I have been listening to the Hamza Yusuf CD entitled "Men &Women" that I received as a gift during Ramadan (I have listened to it three times now). I am mulling over my thoughts on the subject, and want to think a little further before I put thoughts on paper, as it were. I appreciate the patience of people who wrote to me asking where I have been. It is approaching Thanksgiving holiday here, which makes school a little more hectic than usual. I hope to post my reflections this coming long weekend. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving - hope it is filled with family, friends, and no acrimony.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

“Why do you wear those earrings?”, “welcome back!”, and feeling like Paris Hilton

Let me first address the third and last part of this entry’s title. I tend to regard Paris Hilton as someone who is famous for no reason at all. She is not a movie star, or a successful singer or musician, or an inventor, or author, etc.; yet she is famous, and people read about her exploits on the internet and hear about them on television. That is kind of how I feel. I am not a movie star, or a singer or musician, or an inventor, or author, and have not done anything particularly worthy of note in my life, yet people want to meet me and talk to me and read this blog. I am honestly kind of baffled. I did not think that my experience would be so interesting to other people, and did not consider it so odd or unusual that it would garner such attention. Yet it has. I shared a meal with a group of people (a friend, and friends of hers) on Sunday, and one of the women indicated to me that several women she knows in Arizona have been reading my blog (Hello!) and were excited to learn that she had met me. That really boggled my mind – I consider myself a nice person, a good friend, an interesting individual, but not someone that people are excited to know someone has met. Additionally, it seems that I, and others like myself, have caught the attention of people the world over. Although I have gotten universally positive feedback from Muslims I have met during the past weeks, my endeavor is apparently offensive to others (see This was never my goal, and I have tried to be clear on that point, and took measures to ensure that my efforts would not be construed that way. I simply believe that the best way to learn is by doing, and what better way to try to understand someone else than to “walk a mile in their shoes”? I never believed I would garner anything remotely approaching ‘more than a surface understanding of “what it’s like” to be one of us’. And I do not consider my actions to be ‘play acting and dressing up for the cameras or the blogosphere, recounting their experiences being “just like” one of the Others’. I never felt that I was play acting, I was completely sincere in all of my efforts during the month of Ramadan; and I never sought attention for my undertaking, unless it was to explain what I was doing and why. I know that I have much, much, much still to learn, and that my month uncovered for me barely the tip of the iceberg that is Islam. Honestly, I am okay with people not liking what I did and not understanding it or my motivation either. What really made me emotional were the comments posted by two of my new friends who came to my defense. Their support is what makes me tear up, not the comments of someone who has never met me. I am sorry that I offended her, but my goal was to build understanding on my part, and I am regretful that it was not taken that way. Additionally, I am kind of glad for this occurrence, it was a refreshing change to have someone not like me! (That sounded really egotistical, but is the best way I can describe how I feel.)

On to the second part of the title: Numerous colleagues have welcomed me back, as if I had been gone on a long trip, or as if I had been a different person during the month of Ramadan. I must say this perplexes me a little bit. Just as I was completely sincere in all my efforts during the month of Ramadan (praying, fasting, etc.), I was also completely myself. While some of my behaviors changed (not hanging out with friends if they would be drinking alcohol), who I am deep down never did. Although, at least one of the “welcome back”s was because I had not attended a happy hour activity in a while, and this person was, I believe, happy to see me. I must confess, though, that this past month did change me somewhat. While I have attended happy hours with colleagues semi-regularly in the past, 99% of the time I drink ice water, and leave before anyone becomes inebriated (not my idea of a good time), I believe I will attend even fewer of them in the future. This past week we went bowling, which I enjoy doing. But for some people, the activity and friends seems simply an excuse to consume alcohol, and that does not appeal to me at all. I do not begrudge people from choosing to consume liquor, provided they are adults and do so in a responsible manner, but for that to be the raison d’etre of the event is something with which I am not at ease. I want to hang out with friends to do just that, and I do not need lubrication to do so, and would like to believe that they do not need to be drinking to hang out with me. Additionally, that evening was the first time in more than a month that I went home with clothes and hair smelling like cigarette smoke, something I had not missed during Ramadan.

After some consideration, I would probably define myself as somewhat of an agnostic. I believe in a higher power, but do not identify myself with any one faith or belief system or scripture or method of worship. However, I met a gentleman this weekend who told me a shortened version of his own journey to Islam, sparked by the question at the beginning of this blog entry. You can read the account here: I was very moved and inspired by his experience. It is wonderful that he found Islam, which filled a place in him and was a perfect fit. I have yet to find that fit, and am okay with that. While the prayers five times a day was a novel and thought provoking method of worship for me, the most attractive and enduring part of my experience was the people that I met. If being swayed into joining a religion was based solely on the community that one finds within it, I would be Muslim yesterday. The people I have been blessed to be introduced to, and the openness with which they accepted me and my attempts at understanding, and the resulting discussions about faith and religion and practice have been a very important part of my education during this experience. And one analogy that I will hark back to numerous times in the future is the idea that Islam, or any new experience or idea or faith, is like a pizza. When the delivery person comes to your door, you accept the entire pizza, even if you are only going to consume a slice or two right away. In this sense, Islam is the pizza – it is impossible to know all that it contains or means immediately or to eat it all in one sitting, but the faith should be accepted as a whole and studied and learned/understood over a lifetime. Which I intend to continue doing. I have contemplated making my Ramadan experience an annual event, and will continue to think on that as time passes, but I would like comments on that notion. Would making it a yearly thing eventually become offensive – would it become the play acting that I have been accused of? Does it matter, at that point, what my intentions are, or would outward appearance be more important? Obviously, I have not settled on an answer yet, which is why I would appreciate input.

As previously mentioned, I will continue to maintain this space as I keep reading and learning and reflecting. Thank you to all who joined me, directly or vicariously, on my journey, and I hope you enjoyed it, although it would be impossible to enjoy it nearly as much as I did!

Monday, October 23, 2006

I just figured out how to make comments available!

I sincerely apologize to everyone who posted a comment - I just spent a great deal of time reading them all and greatly appreciate them. I believe I have made them available for everyone else to see (except for a couple that were marked private). Me and my lack of blog-saviness, that only on Eid, the end of Ramadan, have I figured it out!

So for everyone who has been reading the blog, take a minute (or several) and go back and read all the highly informational comments that people generously took the time to post in response to my queries.

I am still processing my experience, so will post a summative reflection in a couple of days, but wanted to say a few things now.

This past month has gone by so quickly. When I began, I worried what I had gotten myself into (i.e. could I handle my undertaking), and a month seemed like an eternity. Now, the opposite seems true, a month is very short and I feel like I handled the situation very well, and am already thinking of repeating the process next year.

A colleague seems to think that my experience is only quantifiable in the fact that I know when sunset is each day. She has asked me this question several times during the past month, as if that is all I have gotten out of the experience. I know that not everyone understands my motivations (and they certainly evolved over time, so are hard to keep track of), but I am sad that the effort does not seem more broad reaching than when iftar is.

I attended an iftar at school sponsored by the MSA, and was asked to speak briefly. I was listed on the agenda as having 15 minutes, which was a very daunting prospect. Happily for me, the evening ran behind, so I was able to explain my process, etc. briefly and answer the one question that was asked, which ran much under 15 minutes. Despite being a teacher, and speaking in the pseudo public situation that is a high school classroom on a daily basis, true public speaking is something that still makes me nervous. Cross that with the notion of speaking about something that has the potential to seem uber-personal to me at a given moment, and I was anxious. I believe it went well, and as always, people were very welcoming and wonderful to me before and after. In fact, a woman who will be working in our school’s career center had greeted me when I arrived at the iftar and wanted to know if I wore hijab to school everyday, and was very glad to hear that several teachers do, without concern. Honestly, our school is so diverse that it never even crossed my mind that I would have any trouble or upsetting encounters there; my curiosity had more to do with dealings out in the community. In fact, given absences today for Eid, the hallways were noticeably less crowded than normal during passing time, and markedly quieter too (not to imply that the Muslim students are the loud ones, just that the amassing of 1500 students moving between classes simultaneously can create quite a din!)

I got a gift of new clothes today for Eid. A student whom I have become friends with gave me a beautiful set of clothing that I will be wearing to school tomorrow (my first non-hijab day in more than a month). It is from her home country of Pakistan, and is lovely - both the outfit and the thought and generosity behind it. So I started this month with receiving material gifts for my journey, and end it with material gifts as well; and all along the way the understanding and support and interest in my endeavor have been non-quantifiable, intangible gifts that I can never repay except to again say "Thank you".

Lastly, for today, I intend to keep posting here as I continue to read all the books and websites that people have loaned and suggested to me, and watching the videos and DVDs as well. I have found this site to be a great way of processing my thoughts, feelings, questions, etc. and intend to continue to do so. And now that I have found out how to read and make comments available, it has been a great source of answers to my questions! One thing that I have learned this month is that there is so much that I don’t know that I don’t know, that all I can do is continue to learn by reading, and talking, and reflecting, and experiencing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Three iftars and a field trip later…

I have attended three iftars (breaking of the fast dinners during Ramadan) in the past four days.

Iftar one:
I was invited to the home of a colleague, who also invited another teacher to attend as well. This was a small gathering (the host, her husband, their two children, and three female guests, including myself) and I was the only one wearing hijab, which did not really occur to me until later. I have just gotten used to wearing it when I am not at home and I do not think about it.

I learned a lot at this iftar, as I spoke with the husband of my colleague (who has been reading this blog) and he was kind enough to clarify some points and enlighten me on others. I had known, prior to undertaking this experience, that there were Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but my knowledge of the differences between the groups was practically non-existent. I knew of the reason behind the split, had understood that theological differences between the two exist, and that the two groups do sometimes not get along at all (see sectarian violence in Iraq recently as an example). But I had never stopped to think about the differences in practice and tradition that would have developed over time; although I should have – my mother is Catholic and my father Congregationalist, and they have different practices even as they worship the same God in many similar ways. Anyway, I was told that the book I have been reading (Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam) is based on Sunni practices and beliefs, rather than Shiite, and the masjids I have been attending are Sunni as well. When I undertook this endeavor, I never even thought: will I be Sunni, or will I be Shiite? I just thought I would be Muslim, which, honestly, seems now so uninformed and not completely thought out, since I knew of the existence, etc of the different sects. Anyway, I was informed at this iftar that two topics I have blogged about, divorce and zakah, differ between Sunni and Shiite. Apparently, for Shiite Muslims, divorce involves more than a declaration made three times, even for a divorce initiated by the husband. There have to be two witnesses involved, and it sounded like, an encouragement of counseling to try and prevent the divorce. Also, I was told, that while Sunnis consider 2.5% the correct amount for zakah, that Shiite Muslims give 20% and consider that correct (both groups cite from the Qur’an, but disagree on how the ayah should be interpreted).

Iftar two:
I was invited via a colleague to attend an iftar at the home of a woman I met at the Mustafa Center last Monday evening. I would guess there were about 60 or more people there. It was a very large gathering, with the women congregating in the living room and the men in the basement, which is also where almost everyone prayed before and after dinner. This was my first experience with the extra prayers for the “Night of Power”. The Night of Power is, according to many but not all Muslims (I have no idea on the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims on this issue), believed to occur sometime during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Some say anytime during the last 10 days, others say on odd nights during the last 10 days, etc. Anyway, the belief is that the prayers offered to Allah on that night are worth the prayers of one thousand months, so people stay longer at the masjid and pray more, hoping to benefit from this opportunity. At the iftar on Saturday night, 8 extra prayers were done. I was talking to a woman after the eight cycles had been completed, but before the singing began, and she asked for my impression of the extra prayers. I explained that since the surahs (excerpts from the Qur’an) were recited by the gentlemen leading the prayers in Arabic, I tended to sometimes go into a Zen-like state, where I was enjoying the cadence and tonal qualities of the recitation, without understanding what was being said. However, those times were very relaxing and I felt very “one with the universe”. The only problem with my mind drifting is that I lose count of the rakahs, and would often go to stand up and realize we were to remain kneeling or vice versa. I really enjoyed the singing (which was in English, so I could follow along) which was accompanied by a drummer.

Iftar three:
Last evening, more informal, 6 women (myself included), how many men I do not know, as they entered through a separate door into the basement, prayed and socialized down there while the women were in the living room. Additionally, the men waited for the hostess to tell them that the kitchen was empty so they could come and get dinner without mingling with the women. After dinner, my colleague, her mother, and I went back to the Mustafa Center for more extra evening prayers. I stayed for 10 of the 20, I believe, and left around 10 pm. The masjid was very crowded in the beginning but after about 8 of the 20 prayers had been completed it started to empty out, and rows were combined and more room was available for all.

Field trip:
On Saturday I went along with a group of students recruited by a fellow teacher to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. My role was only to assist on the bus, and I did not have any responsibility to monitor the students once they were at the Festival. Many of the students had arrived and were signing in, and I was standing around talking with other teachers, when the mother of a student approached me. She too was wearing hijab, asked if I would be going on the trip, and seemed very reassured when I answered in the affirmative. I was the only one she spoke to, asking me about what time I believed we would return, and what her daughter was doing at that moment. I sort of felt like a fraud, because she was reassured by the presence of a Muslim woman it seemed, which I am not. Not wanting to get into a long explanation of my personal journey, however, I let her believe that I was what I appeared to be. I hope this was not a faux pas or truly disingenuous on my part.

The field trip did enable me to see the friend that I wrote about earlier. A friend/fellow teacher was able to act as a dual chaperone – for the students and for myself and my friend who happens to be male – the three of us spent the day together at the Festival.

One thing I have to say at this point is that I was worried at the outset of this experience that I would be unintentionally offending Muslims with whom I came into contact. However, reality has been so very different. Everyone I have met has been so welcoming, even people I have never met before: willing to provide information or resources, inviting me into their homes and truly making me feel that I am a real part of the community. I knew before I began (in an intellectual way) that community was something very important to Muslims, but the reality is so much more than that: women I have never met saying “asalam alaikum” to me in the mall, getting hugs from women I meet at the masjid or at an iftar, having people want to meet me because of what I am doing and who may have been reading this blog (which as I told someone on Saturday evening is a little weird: at times it feels as if people I have never met are reading my most private thoughts and feelings, which I guess I have invited you all to do!). And the most recent generosity: I received just this afternoon a CD of Hamza Yusuf in the mail, a gift from a woman I was introduced to last week at the Mustafa Center.

P.S. Success! I was able to successfully make and distribute some of the apple cakes (with halal vanilla) yesterday, with a few more to make this weekend.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

In trying to be appreciative, I gave haraam gifts to two of my friends.

Over this past weekend, I set out to thank people who have been so kind to me over the past several weeks. Since people have often gifted me with food or invited me to attend meals, I thought an appropriate thank you would be a home-baked-from-an-old-family-recipe apple cake. I made enough for four thank you gifts, one for myself, and another to take to school to share with my colleagues. It was only on Monday evening, after I had already handed out one of them to a friend (and watched her twin 3 year old sons each eat a piece) that she asked if it was halal. I asked what she meant, since there is no meat in the cake (and as a vegetarian, my kitchen is close to kosher), and she mentioned vanilla. I thought about it, said that I use real vanilla, and believed that it was all right. Honestly, I had never even considered that the vanilla I used in the cakes might contain alcohol. When I got home that night I checked my cabinet, and lo and behold – my pure vanilla extract contains quite a high concentration of alcohol! I felt terrible; I felt like I had poisoned her sons. The next morning, I immediately emailed the two recipients of the cake thus far and informed them that they should not eat any more of it, and why. I know that my intentions were good, which counts for a lot in Islam, but I also knew about the prohibition on alcohol, and feel like I should have considered the vanilla angle, since I know baking extracts often contain alcohol (the peppermint extract in my kitchen is even more potent than the vanilla I discovered). I will spend this weekend finding acceptable vanilla and making new cakes to appropriately show my appreciation to those whom have been so generous to me. And my colleagues at school yesterday got the gift of several apple cakes to enjoy.

One of the reasons I have so much to be thankful for was the invitation to attend a fundraising iftar for the Al-Qalam Academy this past Monday evening. The evening began with a prayer after breaking the fast with dates, bread, and water. The women were on one side of a divided ballroom from the men, and there was no microphone set up to allow the women to fully hear the prayer being given on the men’s side, but we were near the door connecting the two rooms, so were able to make due.

The dinner featured several speakers, all knowledgeable, but some who I agreed with and enjoyed listening to more than others. The first speaker on the program was Imam Safi Kahn who began his remarks by relaying “horror stories” (his words, not mine) about parents who come to him and say “we should have listened to you”. Instead, they sent their children to public schools, where they “lost them” when they “became Christian”. As a Christian-raised public school teacher, I was somewhat offended by these comments. I understand that for some parents there are elements or influences at public schools that they would prefer their children avoid or not be exposed to. However, when I was in high school (a public one), I had friends who attended private schools (both secular and religious) and the stories they told of outrageous behavior (including drinking, partying, etc.) put to shame anything I ever heard about at my own school. Additionally, much of what I have read and heard talks about the respect that Islam has for Christianity and Judaism, given the common roots of the religion, and in the early days of Islam (and prior) they referred to the other faiths as the “people of the book”. Imam Kahn also talked about parents being afraid to name or call their children Islamic names, he mentioned that Mohammad becomes Mike, and Abdullah becomes Abner. Given that I have two students with the first name Mohammad, and one with that last name (and many other students with names of various ethnicities), but no students named Mike, and certainly none named Abner, I do not believe this fear to be manifesting itself in the D.C. metropolitan area.

The second speaker was Imam Zaid Shakir (for bio see who spoke of the importance of teaching young sisters the Qur’an and encouraging them to memorize it [for an interesting article on young people who have memorized the Qur’an see, and highlighting the fact that the first compilation of the Qur’an was entrusted to a woman. He also mentioned the idea that in Islam the “best of you learn the Qur’an and teach it to others”, and that the Al-Qalam Academy (which the fundraiser was for) is providing the needed generation of pious, upright, strong Muslim women which is so important as they will be the mothers of the next generation of Muslims.

Imam Zaid mentioned that he would not be focusing on the failure of the public school system, but proceeded to talk about the recent spate of school shootings that targeted females, and stated “that if we need a reminder that we need to put our students in a place that we can secure” such were these events. Having just recently attended a training on school crisis plans, including how to deal with school issues before they get to the point of a student instigated shooting, as well as how to deal with the reality of such a horrible situation, I believe that the recent Amish school shooting on the same day as a potentially dangerous situation in Clark County, Nevada (the 5th largest school district in the nation) proves that there is no school immune from this trend, even when people choose to separate themselves from other parts of society. Or maybe, particularly when they choose to separate themselves from society; the Amish shooting was not carried out by a current student, or an alumnus, or a member of the community, it was an outsider who invaded that space to a tragic end. One thing that Imam Zaid talked about needing to be addressed by Islamic schools is the reality that Muslims in the U.S. have to struggle to secure their rights and protect their existence, and a public school might erode the understanding of this struggle or of its primacy, particularly troubling when parents will be sending their children out into a world that is anti-Islamic. I understand (in theory if not from personal experience) that Muslims in the United States and elsewhere in the world feel and are persecuted and are portrayed as and believed to be terrorists, fanatics, or extremists. However, I do not believe that the best way to have people change their feelings and opinions and behaviors about a group is to completely cut yourself off from the people who misunderstand you. Imam Zaid said that Islam “is only perpetuated through knowledge”. The same is true of understanding a religion – exposure to and interaction with it and its followers is the best way to gain real knowledge of Islam and to change minds. I guess this goes back to my comments on learning to live in the world and my opinion on segregation by gender: living and learning together with people of different faiths only serves to highlight the similarities between people and faiths, and can only serve to break down barriers rather than make them stronger and taller.

The last speaker of the evening was Hamza Yusuf (for a brief bio see, and frankly, although he talked longer than the other speakers (I believe), I took many fewer notes, so enthralled was I by his message and his method of delivering it. Here was a man who was obviously very knowledgeable on a broad range of subjects, who could ultimately connect what seemed very tangential back to his original point, in such a way as to be captivating and inspiring and energizing. I can only aspire to be that engaging and knowledgeable as a teacher myself one day. Hamza Yusuf also spoke about the Amish school shooting, and about the idea that the Amish felt it necessary to separate themselves from society in order to live life as they feel it should be lived; presented like that I understand more the idea of a Muslim school or community. However, I still doubt that such a deliberate separation will yield the understanding that Islam seems to crave (and deserves) from the rest of the world.

Hamza Yusuf equated being a good Muslim to being a good human; he talked about needing to tread lightly on the world, to have less impact than Americans generally do (including the crazy notion and common practice of individual automobile ownership in the United States and later the depletion of fish populations due to over fishing). He talked about working for the world as if you will live forever, but working for your afterlife or day of judgment as if you will die tomorrow, and I cannot disagree. The earth (ideally) will be around and habitable for many generations to come, and all humans need to be respectful of that. Additionally, being kind and considerate to your fellow humans and doing what is needed to have a clean, clear conscience is also an important aspect of being a responsible member of society. Personally, rather than considering how my actions will be judged by others or at the pearly gates or by Allah on Judgment Day, I tend to make decisions that I simply feel are right or it is the action that needs to be taken.

After the fundraising iftar, we (my gracious host and I) headed to the Mustafa Center, where Imam Zaid and Hamza Yusuf were to be speaking again. I had never been inside the sanctuary of a masjid, and this one was lovely (as Hamza Yusuf also remarked). My gracious host also made sure that I was introduced to both gentlemen, Imam Zaid at the iftar and Hamza Yusuf outside the masjid. It was as I was waiting to be introduced to Hamza Yusuf that I had my first experience with religious groupies (and I mean this in a really good way). There was quite a crowd inside the masjid when we arrived, people who had heard that Imam Zaid and Hamza Yusuf would be speaking there, and afterwards outside, there were groups of people waiting, it seemed as if they were hoping to see, meet, speak to Hamza Yusuf up close (more women than men I think, since the women sat in the back of the masjid, and were not as able to see him as he spoke). I now consider myself an ardent member of the religious groupies of Hamza Yusuf, and will be checking out his pod casts that I was told exist. On the “religious groupies” designation: it was refreshing to see people so interested in being close to someone who is not a professional athlete, movie or music star, but rather someone urging them to live better lives.

P.S. Hamza Yusuf and Karen Armstrong (author of the biography of Muhammad that I am reading) were featured in a really good video I just watched titled Muammad: legacy of a prophet.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

I have a lot to say today.

I was afraid that I would be late to the mosque today for Qur’an class. I was walking down the stairs from my apartment when I stopped upon realizing that I was wearing blue jeans, and was not sure that was appropriate for the mosque (had I been going for prayers, I would not have worn jeans, or even considered it), but the class is held in a room with chairs that is just part of the building or school, and not in the sanctuary. I stood there for what felt like several minutes, walked out to my car and proceeded to try to call several people who I thought could guide me. I was unable to reach anyone to answer my concern, so returned upstairs and changed into slacks and other shoes (rather than the sneakers I had on previously). There was one woman at the class who was wearing jeans, but she was the only one, and I believe I was more comfortable for having changed.

The ayahs that the teacher and group were discussing today began with Chapter 17 Verse 26 which in the Qur’an I recently purchased reads: “Give relatives their due, and the needy, and travelers – do not squander your wealth wastefully” which led to a discussion of zakah (helping those less fortunate than yourself) which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Zakah is 2.5% of net profits or salary in a given year, but only if you can spare it; if you need it for ongoing medical treatment, for example, then do not give zakah. The teacher explained that Muslims give that money because it belongs to Allah anyway, and anything beyond that is not zakah, which is mandated, but is simply charity. My only point of comparison is tithing in the Catholic Church, which is supposed to be 10% of the gross salary in a given month, each month. Now, I am sure than there are many Catholics who do not tithe (including myself, a lapsed Catholic), but I guess 2.5% just seems small in comparison. I have no numbers or studies to cite how much charity is given by Muslims each year, or by Catholics, so I can only comment on the concept. Mandated charitable giving is a wonderful idea, especially if it accomplishes what we have set out to do: help those in need. Muslims, I have learned, are supposed to help those close to them first, beginning with family, if no family is in need, then neighbors, but always fellow Muslims before non-Muslims, since Muslims consider themselves a large extended family.

We also got to another ayah a little further along that states “Do not kill your children for fear of poverty – We shall provide for them and for you – killing them is a great sin.” This lead to a discussion of family planning (which is allowed for numerous reasons, just not fear of being able to support the child) and abortion (before 120 days when the baby receives their soul, and only in cases where the mother’s life is in danger). We were told that Allah will provide for each child sufficient sustenance; when a woman becomes pregnant sufficient sustenance is set aside for that child, and the parents are not to worry. I asked a question during this time regarding how this idea is reconciled with famine stricken areas of the world, where children die from malnutrition on an alarmingly regular basis (or for that matter, in our own rich country), since there is a lack of sufficient sustenance. The answer I was given was that the child dies due to our crime, our neglect, for failing to provide for the poor and allowing them to die. I both agree and disagree, since it was sounding to me as if Allah was saying that Allah would provide sustenance directly or personally, rather than through an intermediary. Going back and reading the ayah again, I am still not sure how I feel, because the use of “we” could be a royal “we” meaning Allah, or could be plural indicating the Muslim people as a whole. Either way, I feel that mothers in those areas of the world are right to fear bringing that child into such a situation, knowing that they cannot provide sustenance, and the rest of world can or will not either.

Today was the second time I had attended Qur’an class at the mosque, therefore my second experience entering through a door reserved for women and children. The room where the class is held has chairs on the left for men and chairs on the right for women. Women enter the door on the right side of the room, and men the left. Both weeks, there have been many more women than men at the class, and the women ended up sitting in the doorway, along the back of the room (behind, but not beside the men on the left side), and out in the hallway. I understand the rationale behind this division, but all that keeps running through my head is “separate but equal is inherently unequal”. I kind of relate my feelings on this practice to my feelings on single gender colleges. I understand all the statistics that tout how successful women become who attend all female colleges. However, I keep coming back to the notion that you have to deal with men and women in the world – in business, etc – so how will living sheltered from half of the population prepare you to do so? Granted, I was temporarily distracted from the teacher today by a good looking gentleman on the other side of the room (there is no curtain to prevent me from being thus distracted). However, I was also distracted at times by people entering and leaving the room, young boys running down the stairs outside the room and banging the door, and admiring the very beautiful, colorful scarves of the women on my side of the room. Distractions come in all forms, and learning to deal with them, and not get swept up by them, is a part of being an adult (i.e. my distraction with the handsome gentleman was not permanent or even very long in duration, and I returned my interest to the discussion at hand).

Obviously, gender in Islam is something I am still struggling to understand fully. One last example of this was the issue of how to contact the people who attend the class if it has to be cancelled. The teacher indicated that he would like two female and two male volunteers who attend every week to supply their phone numbers or email addresses to him so that he could contact them if he would be unable to attend unexpectedly. This way, the females could contact the other women, and the males could contact the other men to pass this message along, but would not involve any sharing of email addresses or phone numbers between the genders. This seems overly cautious to me. How dangerous or tempting is it to call and leave a message for a member of the opposite sex that class on Sunday has been cancelled? Is it so likely that men and women will be unable to control themselves if they find in their possession the contact information for someone of the opposite sex? I know that women are (generally) only supposed to associate with male members of their family and not any others (socially), but this seems extreme and strikes me as pessimistic and as having low expectations of the ability of people to be responsible and mature and committed to their principles and their spouse. And what about the teacher (and any substitutes) – they will be in possession of the contact information for two women in the class – will they not be tempted to call and make contact when none is warranted?