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

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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aah, the issue of gender segregation - to put it simply, no woman would want another to have lustful thoughts, or a lustful gaze even, or a gaze at all (!) towards her husband and vice versa...

I think when one is so used to interacting with the opposite gender, it can seem strange when Muslims are very much for segregation. It's not a question of equality - for in acts of worship, a man and woman enjoy the same reward. However, the physical makeup and psychological makeup of a man and woman are very different as you would agree.

Women are seen to the fairer of the two, and as such don the hijaab, veil etc....the likeness of which could be explained better with a metaphor. Anything precious in this world, be it the gold that must be dug for, or the pearls hidden in the oyster....have been made difficult to reach by Allah. When something is precious, you want to hide it and keep it away from all harm - women have been given such a high status by Allah, that they are asked to cover their beauty and keep it is not oppression but a sign of modesty and protection from unwanted attention.

8:38 PM  
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