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Muslim Chaplains In An Evolving Profession

Muslim Matters - 11 February, 2022 - 03:55

This article has been jointly written by Chaplains Shazeeda Khan and AbdulMalik Negedu.

“Do we call ourselves ‘Chaplains’ or find an Arabic word for a Muslim/ah Islamic equivalency within this profession?”

This was one of the questions pondered by the men and women who had gathered for a workshop in a quaint lecture room on Yale University’s Old Campus over a decade ago. The workshop was part of a historic Shura and In-service Training Conference for Chaplains, Imams, and other service providers to the Muslim community held in March 2011. It was the first such Shura that brought together imams and religious leaders (lay and otherwise), counselors, scholars, students, and other stakeholders in Islamic chaplaincy (Muslim and non-Muslim). The Shura was convened to explore the professionalization of men and women who work as chaplains in various  institutions through education, training , professional and personal support, and endorsement.  Among the objectives of the conference was that Muslim chaplains would begin to attain parity with those of other faiths, in terms of professional competencies, as well as having the qualifications to serve as leaders and representatives of the American Muslim community.

The Roots of Chaplaincy

So, the question was primarily about identity and professional development. It was a pertinent one to ask due to the Christian roots of chaplaincy, specifically of the word from which chaplaincy is derived. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a chaplain was originally a priest or member of the Christian clergy. The word originates from the latin cappellani (singular: cappellanus) which referred to a religious order of men who were originally charged with guarding the half cape (cappella, diminutive of cappa) of Saint Martin of Tours, and later, with providing notary services and advice in religious and secular affairs in the royal courts of medieval Europe.

Among the things that were explicitly discussed  at that Shura was the question of the compatibility of the principles of Christian chaplaincy with Islamic  practices. Also, since chaplaincy was primarily a religious vocation and secondarily, a profession, the acceptability of women serving as chaplains in certain settings was discussed. Muslim women have historically and traditionally served and excelled in similar roles by bringing their love of Islam, stories, and natural instincts to relate to others. The example of women who train and work as spiritual guides (or Murshidat) in Morocco was underscored.

Also understood was the role duality of chaplaincy. Chaplains are members of one institution serving in another institution. Like the priests in the European courts of the Middle Ages, Muslim chaplains were acknowledged and accepted to be Muslims, first and foremost, representing Islam and the American Muslim community (in all its diversity) while they worked in various settings as professionals.

Evolution

Since 2011, the field of Muslim chaplaincy has evolved, and continues to evolve due to the diverse and multifaceted  settings in which chaplains work.  There has been a tremendous increase in the number of Muslim chaplains and in the number of institutions where they work. And the words “chaplaincy” and “chaplain” -including the Islamic or Muslim prefixes- have gained acceptance within the general American Muslim community.

Another part of this evolution is the professionalization of chaplaincy in general, which now places greater emphasis on providing emotional care to support persons during times of crises, and helping them to navigate grief, anger, or depression, regardless of the persons’ religious beliefs -or lack thereof-, and lesser emphasis on religious or spiritual guidance. Religious or spiritual guidance is limited to facilitating religious services and/or accommodations.

The foundation of this shift in emphasis is mostly attributable to the prevalence of a theological or philosophical paradigm about connectivity with the Spirit of Self or Being, within and beyond religion or inter-spirituality.  As a result, many lay people with little or no formal religious education, including Muslims, are hired as chaplains in various institutions if they have received professional training in chaplaincy only. Even God has either been relegated or removed from the chaplaincy equation. In August 2021, the New York Times published an article that Greg Epstein, an avowed atheist, and humanist, who authored “Good Without God” was elected as the president of Harvard University’s organization of chaplains.

Religion at its Core

Muslim men and women who elect to be and serve as chaplains do not have the luxury of de-emphasizing religiosity, and or relegating or removing Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) from their paradigm.  The duality of leadership, service in the way of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), and representing the Ummah in the United Statesand by virtue of this, working in an institutional setting- places additional responsibilities and expectations on them.  The field of chaplaincy affirms the principles and the spiritual, emotional, psychological, and mental healing qualities of Islam –a faith tradition, belief system, and way of life. Therefore, in addition to providing pastoral care and counseling and arranging for religious services to persons of all faiths and beliefs, a Muslim chaplain is required to provide advisement on matters relating to Islam to the institutions in which they work. They also provide classes on religious education to Muslims and non-Muslims as required, lead other worship activities as needed, and conduct learning circles on the application of Islamic theology and morality.

Muslim Chaplaincy in a Pluralistic Society

The general expectation for these men and women from the Ummah is that, in choosing to tread the path of chaplaincy as Muslims, they have acknowledged that the foundation of the vocation is built upon religion – that they are primarily inspired by Islam, as their professed religion, in wanting to live, work and impact others from within its paradigm; that they are bound by the dictates of the religion; and that, regardless of setting, they are assuming religious leadership with its requisite responsibilities.

In terms of religious leadership, chaplaincy is unique for Muslims in that it is a spiritual ministry which functions in a pluralistic environment. This ministry provides both opportunities and risks.  The chance to counsel from within one’s religious context is a boost to contributing to the overall healing and well-being of society.  It elevates trust in the relationship between the chaplain and those whom the chaplain is serving. The efficacy of psychosocial support interventions provided by Muslim chaplains would be much more powerful and authentic if Islamic principles are combined with pastoral care techniques.

The risks inherent in functioning in a pluralistic environment are the confrontations with issues and encounters with situations that can create doubt and potentially lead to either loss of identity, belief, or both.  A Muslim chaplain must demonstrate wisdom that is based on sound knowledge, and confidence that is based on their identity to maintain their own religion, while dealing with those of other faiths or no faith. Therefore, it is imperative for him or her to maintain his or her Islamic identity and acquire knowledge that is far more than incidental or rudimentary. And it is critical to remain grounded in Islam by communing daily with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) through Salawat and listening to His subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) response by reading the Qur’an. It is also essential that the chaplain fortifies his or her heart through daily spiritual praxis.

The participants in the workshop at the Shura in 2011 concluded that “Muslim Chaplain” was acceptable.  At the core of this self-identification is the appellation that is directly given by Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to those who believe in the Qur’an and are witnesses over all of humanity:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And strive for Allah with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty. [It is] the religion of your father, Abraham. Allah named you “Muslims” before [in former scriptures] and in this [revelation] that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give zakah and hold fast to Allah . He is your protector; and excellent is the protector, and excellent is the helper. [Surah Al-Haj:78]

A Muslim chaplain has influence as the face of Islam in the settings where he or she serves. The chaplain has the potential to reach the masses beyond that setting and with this potential, can affect how Islam is perceived in the United States.  Therefore, it is important that male and female Muslim chaplains be mindful of how they will be held accountable as a witness in this regard.

 

Chaplain Shazeeda Khan has an economics degree from New York University. She began her career as a commodities accountant at a Wall Street firm. She has a certificate in Islamic Studies and is currently a volunteer chaplain at the United States Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, CT since 2005 where she serves Muslim women. She is the Director of Islamic Education and teacher for the Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury. There she develops the Islamic Studies curriculum for the youth ages 5 to 18 and supervises a team of teachers. She also develops halaqa programs for women. Since 2000 Chaplain Khan has served on the board of the Association of Religious Communities (ARC), an interfaith community service organization. She is one of the founding board members of the Muslim Endorsement Council (MEC, Inc.) and the Secretary of The Islamic Seminary of America (TISA).

Chaplain AbdulMalik Negedu is a community Chaplain with and Secretary of Malik Human Services Institute, Inc. He provides staff services to MEC. A founding member of the Association of Muslim Chaplains and former VP for Community and Membership chair, Chaplain Negedu completed his Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency at the former Hospital of St. Raphael (Now Yale-New Haven Hospital – St. Raphael campus). He taught Islamic Studies, Personal Financial Planning, and Leadership in Islam and is a contributor to the New Haven Register ‘Faith Matters’.

 

Related links:

From The Chaplain’s Desk: Welcoming IOK Chaplaincy To MuslimMatters

 

The post Muslim Chaplains In An Evolving Profession appeared first on MuslimMatters.org.

Travesty of justice, travesty of science

Indigo Jo Blogs - 10 February, 2022 - 22:02
The cover of Shouting at Leaves by Jennifer Msumba, showing a tree with yellow and red leaves falling on the ground, and a young Black girl in brown dungarees over a red and yellow striped T-shirt is standing next to it amid the fallen leaves. This is on an orange background. The title and author's name are at the top.

I recently bought and read the autobiography of Jennifer Msumba, an autistic YouTuber, musician and film-maker who lives at a group home in Florida who spent seven years at an institution in Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenberg Center (see earlier entry), which is notorious for using electric shocks to control the behaviour of many of its students. Last year, the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency which regulates not only food and drugs but also medical devices, finally (after a decades-long campaign by disability and human rights advocates in the US and abroad) banned the devices, only for the ban to be overturned by an appeals court which ruled that they could not ban devices for specific purposes, only in general or not at all. As a result, the institution has returned to using the device on 50 or so students. The true crime podcast Least Of These also covered the saga in an eight-part series, telling the story of its founder Matthew Israel, how he tried to build a utopian community off the back of a novel, tried his abusive behaviour modification methods on a friend’s child before starting schools based on it in both California and Rhode Island, the latter later moving to Massachusetts; she interviews Msumba in the 7th episode, published 23rd Sept 2021. (Shouting At Leaves can be ordered from Waterstone’s or your local bookshop or bought from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format.)

Shouting At Leaves tells the story of Jennifer Msumba’s childhood, her family life, her school life, her friendships and how they broke down (in some cases very brutally), her experience of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and the onset of mental illness which led to her being withdrawn from high school and admitted to hospital, and then her progress through a number of hospitals, group homes, residential schools, the JRC and finally a spacious group home campus more than a thousand miles from her family where she has lived for 13 years now, where she has been able to pursue her interests very freely. I see some parallels with other stories of autistic people who have experienced a traumatic early adulthood and a history of being institutionalised; back in 2008 I watched a French film titled My Name Is Sabine (see earlier entry and this article from the Guardian), about the autistic sister of a French actress who was institutionalised in her 20s, spending four years in hospital, drugged and for a long period barred from seeing any of her family. Ultimately they moved her into a newly founded care home where she began to be weaned off the drugs and to have more control over her life and to be able to do more and to go out. Very often it is the changes that occur in the teen years, where brothers and sisters move away and the certainties of school are withdrawn, that precipitate the crises that lead to someone being hospitalised; often this lasts some years before their families are able to make arrangements for them to live independent or partly independent lives.

Sadly two opportunities to help Jennifer Msumba in her young adulthood were missed. She was admitted to hospital while in high school, and it was there that her OCD was diagnosed and some progress was made, although it was also there that she was introduced to psychiatric drugs which made her sleepy and caused weight gain, as they so often do. However, she was diagnosed after ten days or so and became a “revolving door” patient, being admitted again and again as she and her family found living together impossible, and while some staff were kind to her, others were cruel and favoured putting her in restraints for hours; in one case, a male nurse tried to kill her while restrained. As a young adult, she moved into a group home, which started out well, with staff that played games with the residents, took them out and taught them life skills, but the home was sold to a company that ran it into the ground, allowed the house to become filthy, did not engage with her or the other residents and failed to budget for food properly, nor keep her safe from other residents, including a male flatmate who stole from and bullied her. This led to a suicide attempt. Ultimately, she was admitted to a “state hospital” where she was kept in seclusion and restrained when she refused orders. So desperate to get out of there, she agreed to move to JRC despite her misgivings; the place was brightly decorated with Disney and Coca-Cola themes, among others, but students did not react to her presence but tapped mindlessly on keyboards. An old friend warned her that if she went there, they would shock her, but he was pulled away. But desperate to escape the ‘cruel’ State Hospital, she overlooked her misgivings and accepted the move to JRC; she notes that she did not even complain when restrained hand and foot to a stretcher for the journey.

There, she experienced the worst excesses of JRC’s notorious ‘treatment’ programme. For the first two months, she was kept restrained for hours at a time and expected to perform pointless tasks, barked at when she asked for explanations, and made to wear a nappy (unnecessarily). Then she was offered a place on their so-called GED programme (GED stands for Graduated Electronic Decelerator, the fancy name for the electric shock device they use) as a way of being able to sit at a desk rather than on a “restraint board” on the floor, which she gladly accepted, and was then presented to a judge in full restraints and a helmet which stopped her seeing properly. The device was contained in a backpack which weighed about ten pounds (for the batteries) and had electrodes which stuck to her arms, legs and body and was secured to her with a locking strap. This device was used to deliver shocks not only for self-injurious behaviour, which is its purported purpose, but for any behaviour the staff deemed undesirable: answering back, refusing to follow orders, shouting, becoming distracted from work, or pretty much any behaviour they deemed odd or irritating, as well as natural reactions to the shocks themselves such as screaming or tensing up, or to seeing others being shocked. The devices sometimes misfired, would continue shocking until disconnected, would activate when wet (and they were not removed when students were being bathed), and would sometimes be simply used for fun by staff. Staff were discouraged from showing any kindness to students or from chatting or socialising with them. As noted in the episode of Least of These she appeared on, staff were expected to “write up” other staff members for these and other real or imagined offences, including not delivering enough shocks.

You might ask how an institution has been able to continue such a scandalously abusive practice for so many years: the answer is that the judiciary have actively colluded and regulators have been cowed or looked the other way. There have been reports by inspectorates that go into great detail about the electric shock treatment, how it’s dished out at the drop of a hat and how it traumatises its victims and how no other school in the civilised world sees the need for it, and about how little interaction staff have with students other than barking out orders and terse corrections at them, and how inadequate the education is, and when authorities move to cut off funding or to withdraw students or, God forbid, close the place down, the school wheels out a few parents who claim that their children are so much better off on the shock treatment than in their previous placements where they may have been in restraints, or drugged into a stupor, or harming themselves (sometimes very seriously), and judges have accepted their arguments rather than the obvious: it’s torture, it’s abuse, it’s plainly unacceptable, and it’s unnecessary. So, the institution trades on the inadequacies of others: so many other schools cannot handle them, or don’t understand autism (especially as it presents in women and girls), and a lot of state hospitals are hellholes and do indeed drug and restrain people. As Jennifer Msumba said in her interview with Least of These, her mother was swayed by that argument and fearful to pull her out when she became her guardian because before being moved to JRC, she actually was like that. But why have state hospitals been allowed to become like that? Why is that kind of cruelty allowed there either?

But the biggest share of blame for allowing JRC to continue to abuse its students must go to the judiciary. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “in this land of litigation, the judges are sleeping”. In two states with famous universities that attract the brightest minds from all over the US and the world, judges have allowed an argument based on an elementary logical fallacy to be presented, and win: “it works for us”. That argument is the justification for every kind of quackery. The truth is that the shock treatment does not work, of course; it simply keeps their child quiet because they are afraid. They are enduring one awful life rather than another. But in actual science, including medicine, something appearing to work does not prove that it does what it appears to; one has to investigate what is causing what and whether the apparent good effect actually represents good health or the masking of a symptom, leading to something dangerous.

In allowing students to be placed on the shock treatment, each of which requires court approval, judges have turned their backs on good practice time and again. They admit as ‘evidence’ the JRC’s laundry lists of the students’ ‘inappropriate’, ‘destructive’ or ‘aggressive’ behaviours without investigating whether they even happened, whether they had been greatly exaggerated, whether they were provoked (and there is ample evidence that JRC’s staff provoke students into ‘behaviours’ to justify shocking and/or restraining them), whether they were understandable stress behaviours or harmless repetitive, odd or mildly irritating behaviours associated with some impairments. They allow students to be presented in restraints and helmets but fail to ask them any questions. This particular practice runs contrary to the behaviour in adult courts, where an accused person cannot be shackled as it is known that the appearance of a shackled person leads the jury to see them as dangerous. Even in juvenile courts, many states have outlawed shackling in court as it has come to be recognised that this is prejudicial as well as degrading to a young person who may be no more than a runaway, or near the end of a placement and appearing for administrative reasons. Yet judges in Massachusetts continue to allow a disabled person, adult or child, to be fitted with a device that allows a staff member to attack them at will, at just the touch of a button, on the basis of such thin evidence and obviously prejudicial presentation. JRC bucks trends, maintaining abusive practices that the juvenile justice and mental health systems have gradually abandoned.

On the subject of restraints, this is an issue with JRC’s behaviour that has flown under the radar somewhat, perhaps because the shock treatment is so egregious and has occupied much of the activists’ time and energy and ink, but it uses restraints in the same abusive way it uses the GED; as punishment, as humiliation, as torture, given that it is often used to keep people in stress positions. Jennifer Msumba noted that they use a device calls a ‘cross-over’ which keeps the arms even further down than the usual wrist/waist restraint used both in criminal justice and in the mental health system (especially during transport), and this is the first time I have heard of a restraint like that, which suggests that the JRC is inventive in this area of abuse as well. No other institution habitually transports disabled people shackled like felons; it would be a reason to close a place down in many jurisdictions, but not, it seems, Massachusetts. The GED is itself a restraint, as its weight is an encumbrance. A ball and chain, effectively. Yet, Massachusetts’ and New York’s judiciaries have turned a blind eye to these practices too, and even if the GED were outlawed tomorrow, the restraints would likely continue.

Most of the material about abuses at JRC are about events before about 2010. I am aware that they have ceased some of the practices described in Jennifer Msumba’s and others’ testimonies, including the four-point floor restraint/shock board, but the GED has been in continual use since then. Perhaps they have been less rash in their choice of victim, choosing less articulate victims and perhaps people with less involved parents. But it is clear that, with or without that particular form of torture, the people running the JRC are manifestly unfit to run any caring or educational establishment. They have no understanding of autism. They have no interest in looking behind people’s behaviour, only in curbing ‘problem’ behaviours that are not even always problems and may be communicating something. They have no compassion, they are not kind, they actively discourage and indeed threaten staff with the sack for both. They are abusive to their staff, expecting them to spy and inform on each other. They do not respect their students’ right to their families, let alone family life. For all the disabled people they present in court trussed up like Hannibal Lecter, their founder resembles a real-life evil doctor, one who carried out scientifically invalid experiments on unconsenting captives: Joseph Mengele (valid experiments on such captives would, of course, still have been criminal). He and his acolytes must be barred from any involvement in care or education for life, and prosecuted for their decades of abuses. Judge Rotenberg Center, this wretched institution, this wretched employer, must be shut down. In places where there are regulators and inspectorates with teeth, and where it is understood that Black and disabled people’s lives and rights matter, places like this get shut down. This happened to somewhere nowhere near as abusive as JRC in the UK very recently, with 24 hours’ notice. This can happen if there is the political will.

A link to a petition to ban the electric shock device can be found here.

An archive of material on the abuse at JRC and efforts to stop it or close it down can be found here.

Possibly Related Posts:


Niqabi In A Chocolate Shop: A Niqab Story

Muslim Matters - 8 February, 2022 - 03:58

Willy Wonka’s got nothing on me: a Canadian niqabi who has worked in multiple chocolate shops, deftly maneuvering past racist comments, silly questions, explicit Islamophobia, and managing to sweet-talk (get it???) customers into buying way more chocolate than they really need (first rule of thumb: there is no such thing as too much chocolate). More often than not, customers left with a box of treats and a basic primer on niqab.

Okay, let’s rewind a little. 

I grew up on a picturesque island on the West Coast of Canada; like any self-respecting Canadian, I have a healthy relationship with Tim Hortons – but like any hijabi, quickly learned that a powdered sugar donut is a very bad idea to eat outside (the evidence lingers far too long on one’s hijab and abaya). Perhaps the sweet addiction was foreshadowing my future? Apologies, I digress. My mother was the first niqabi I ever knew, and for a long time, she was the only niqabi in our city. 

I started wearing the niqab at age 17, athough I had wanted to wear it years earlier, since I grew up seeing my mother wear it. My parents, unconvinced of my maturity (to be fair, I don’t blame them), didn’t let me start wearing it until I was safely nikah-ed (at that point, if I was old enough to be married off, I was clearly old enough to wear niqab). They wanted to ensure that I wasn’t just doing it as a phase or to be rebellious (a recurring theme in my life, I will admit).

A Beloved Good Deed

While I did my due diligence and researched the Islamic evidences for niqab, and hung out with some of my mom’s friends who also wore niqab at the time, my true spiritual relationship with niqab developed over time. To clarify, I follow the opinion that it is sunnah, not waajib; even so, it is an act of worship. As someone who isn’t spectacularly amazing at praying her sunan ar-rawaatib every single day, or fasting Mondays and Thursdays, or other exemplary worship habits, my hope is that it counts as one of the deeds praised by the Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him): small but consistent. 

“The most beloved of deeds to Allah are those that are most consistent, even if it is small.” [Bukhari]

While my daily worship may fluctuate, and while I may have some days where I recite a juz’ of Qur’an a day (or days when I barely do my daily wird), there is one thing that I have managed to keep consistent alhamdulillah: that when I leave my house, I wear my niqab. 

In the Footsteps of the Sahabiyyaat

One of the great motivators behind my choice to wear niqab was a desire to be like the female Companions of RasulAllah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). I remember reading something online many years ago (this was back in the internet forum days – if you know, if you know; if you don’t, you’re young and I am clearly an ancient crone) about the tafseer of Surah al-Ahzab; that when the ayaat of jilbaab in Surah al-Ahzab were revealed, the believing women rushed to cover themselves immediately.

‘Aa’ishah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) used to say: “”May Allah have mercy on the Muhaajir women! When these words were revealed – “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” – they took their izaars (a kind of garment) and tore them from the edges and covered their faces with them.”” [Bukhaari, 4481 and Sunan Abu Dawood (4102)]

Narrated Umm Salamah, Ummul Mu’minin:

“”When the verse “That they should cast their outer garments over their persons” was revealed, the women of Ansar came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing outer garments.”” [Sunan Abi Dawud]

The believing women of both the Ansaar and Muhajireen exemplified, to me, what it meant to be a Muslim woman who strives to please and obey Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). They did not wait to be told how to cover themselves, but had incredible zeal in seeking to act upon the command of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) in the fullest way possible. I wanted to be like them: doing not just the bare minimum, but striving to excel in fulfilling the command of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). You can learn more about the details of the verses of hijab here.

A Connection with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)

As I would tell my customers, niqab is much more than a piece of cloth: in many ways, it functions as a visible reminder of my connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). As the Qur’an reminds us, hijab is a way to ensure that we “will be known” as Muslim women – there’s just no way to hide it, especially with niqab. Being so overtly identifiable as a Muslim woman means that, first of all, we can’t just sneak around and do something shady – we’re obviously Muslims. It is a reminder to us that we cannot hide our Islamic identity; if we are wearing niqab, there is no way around it. And that’s a good thing. 

Amongst other things, wearing niqab is a reminder of the commitment we uphold to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) regarding hayaa’ (modesty): a code of conduct alongside a mode of dressing. In niqab, one is far less likely to accidentally flirt, or hang out in an Islamically inappropriate environment.

And, of course, we know that anything we do in public will reflect on our Islamic identity, and be forever ingrained in non-Muslims’ minds as an example of what Muslims are like. So yes, although everything we do should be for the sake of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)… it does help, sometimes, to have a physical reminder that I can’t just pop off and say the nasty thing on the tip of my tongue, because onlookers will forever associate niqabis with potty-mouthed street fighters. Which I am not. (This does not mean that one cannot let fly a particularly acerbic retort towards especially stupid comments, however.)

Resisting a Culture of Hypersexualization

I’m sure some folks are wondering why I haven’t yet waxed lyrical about the function of niqab as a metaphorical lollipop wrapper, or phone cover, or whatever the latest stupid hijab meme tries to equate women and hijab with. Despite my absolute loathing of such poor, uncreative analogies, I do recognize the value of hijab – and especially niqab – in resisting the pervasive culture of hyersexualization of women that exists not just in the West, but around the world. Whether one lives in the East or the West, the pornification of girls and women is found everywhere: on billboards, in media, and on the streets.

Women have internalized so many harmful messages about our appearances, resulting in an epidemic of self-esteem and body image issues that can turn into full-blown diagnoses of eating disorders, severe depression and anxiety, and more. Further, there exists a bizarre expectation that complete strangers are entitled to have access to our bodies in some way, visually if not physically. Not only that, but hijab and niqab continue to be used as proxies in imperialist culture and political wars against Islam and Muslims – in Europe, in Canada, and elsewhere. 

The concept of hijab (as opposed to the mere donning of a physical headscarf) establishes a clear boundary: we are believing women, whose Lord has determined who has the privilege and / or right of access to our physical appearances. We are believing women, who push back against the vicious agenda of objectification. We are believing women, and no human being has the right to demand our unveiling for their own twisted gratification or implicit imperialism. 

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates… You Never Know What You’re Going to Get

It’s been about fourteen years since I first started wearing niqab. Since then, I’ve worn niqab in Canada, in America (California, Chicago, and, for two brief weekends, Texas), in Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. I’ve worn it while traveling, as a tourist, as a resident, while working in retail (starting with the chocolate shops!), on public transit, in college, and in human services work. I’ve dealt with verbal abuse, threats of violence, gross comments, and creepy stares (because niqab doesn’t stop perverts from perving… and yes, Muslim dudes took part in said creepy staring, it’s not just non-Muslim guys), and completely unoriginal racist and Islamophobic remarks. 

I have also received sweet sentiments of support, genuine interest, and sincere curiosity about niqab and subsequently Islam, hilarious conversations with little kids (“Are you Batman?” “Yes, I am.” “THAT’S SO COOL!”), and many opportunities for positive da’wah alhamdulillah. (Also compliments on impeccable style, because who said you can’t look epic and modest? But also not in a weird co-opted-hijab-fashion-industry way.) 

The secret behind handling all of these situations is to always place one’s trust in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) (don’t forget to say your du’a for leaving the house!), have the sincere intention to do good da’wah, be confident in how you conduct yourself in niqab…and never be afraid to dish out a sarcastic comment to people who only feel emboldened to make stupid statements because they think you can’t understand them. (Alternatively, you could be extra nice and bewilder them with your unfailing politeness and sweetness. I’m still a fan of engaging in a battle of wits, though.)

A Sweet Schtick

My chocolate shop days are over, but if there’s anything I learned during my days of sugar-slinging, it’s that most people will be a lot nicer to you if you’re offering them chocolate alongside some slick da’wah. 

Customers asked me about niqab so often that I ended up fine-tuning what I call my “niqab spiel” – a concise version of everything I have shared in this article. I would start with my sense of connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), my identity as a Muslim woman, and finish off with resisting hypersexualization and an invitation to them to come by again if they ever had more questions about Islam (and to buy more chocolate – I was great at upselling). 

Most conversations about niqab are excellent opportunities to give da’wah to people who genuinely don’t know much about niqab, or Islam, and want to learn more. Sometimes they’ll start off with negative assumptions that they hold, largely due to media misinformation. Have patience, gently but firmly correct them, and don’t be afraid to stand your ground instead of getting defensive! Your confidence will change the tone of the interaction and leave them with an impression far different from their initial assumptions, inshaAllah.

I Could Give Up Niqab Chocolate, But I’m Not a Quitter

Wearing niqab in today’s global political climate is not always easy, but it is worth doing for the Sake of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone. 

For sisters who are thinking of wearing niqab, my advice is to forget about how other people will react (beyond a healthy dose of safety awareness) and focus instead on your intention for worshipping Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). For sisters who are wearing niqab but thinking of taking it off because of school or work, I encourage you to keep it on as an act of worship for the sake of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Most people will turn out to be a lot nicer and more respectful than you’d think, and those who aren’t…can probably be sued for religious discrimination. For sisters who have taken it off but miss it and are thinking of taking it up again – pray Salatul Istikhaarah, consider your circumstances, and ask Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to guide you to what is best for your dunya and aakhirah!  And finally, for sisters who are considering hijab itself for the first time (or returning to it): know that while the path is rarely simple, trusting in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and seeking His Pleasure is always a step in the right direction, to earn both reward and His Love.

May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) accept our good intentions and good deeds for His Sake, ameen!

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5 Reflections After 5 Years Of Being A Muslim

Muslim Matters - 6 February, 2022 - 15:43

Today marks 5 years since I first accepted Islam, alhamdulillah. Here are 5 reflections from 5 years as a Muslim:

1) Keeping good company is crucial

We often forget the value of a good friend. We are a mirror of those we surround ourselves with and we will find ourselves engaged in the same acts and habits that they are. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) tells us, “A man follows the religion of his friend; so each one should consider whom he makes his friend” [Sunan Abi Dawud 4833]. There’s also another famous narration of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) where he analogizes a good friend to be like the one who sells musk, whilst the bad friend is like a blacksmith. The musk seller has a pleasant aroma and could benefit you in a multitude of ways, whereas the blacksmith is the total opposite [Sahih al-Bukhari 5534]. Similarly, a good friend will uplift you. A bad friend will drag you down with them. As a new Muslim, it will be crucial to surround yourself around good people who will support you in your journey.

2) Find the right balance in your progression

We all move at different paths on our road to God. There are things I’m doing now that I would have never been able to do when I first accepted Islam. New Muslims sometimes feel overwhelmed with all there is to learn about the religion. In the early years, I struggled with reading Arabic and thought I was falling behind. We should learn to be patient with ourselves, set realistic goals, and always strive for excellence. We should seek comfort in the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) where he said, “Take up good deeds only as much as you are able, for the best deeds are those done regularly even if they are few” [Sunan ibn Majah 4240]. There will be others who are progressing at a fast pace but our focus should be on achieving excellence in every act, no matter if it is big or small. A small act done sincerely and consistently can be a means of Paradise.

3) Don’t let people discourage you or bring you down

Chances are, you have people close to you who are not happy with your faith. Oftentimes, they are usually old friends or family members who likely have misconceptions about what Islam really is. Let your actions represent who you’ve become, and try your hardest to display the best character possible. Lastly, pray for the guidance of those around you regardless of how they may feel about your faith. Find the necessary support and use this as a moment to grow. There are Muslims in the community that can assist, whether it be brothers and sisters at the mosque or local new Muslim organizations. The negativity you face right now is only temporary and the ones who truly care for you will always come back around.

4) Learn about God and His Messenger

You will go from not knowing God to worshiping Him five times a day. You will go from not feeling that connection when you make dua’, to raising your hands often to God and confiding in Him for everything. Focus on learning about Him and all of His beautiful names and attributes. You will find relief in knowing that God is Al-Wali, the Protecting Friend, and Ar-Rahman, the All Compassionate. You will go from not knowing who the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is, to loving him more than your own self. Read and watch lectures about the life he led and the trials he had to go through. It’s very easy to draw parallels between his life and yours. You will find a connection with the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) in your most difficult moments. You will find inspiration to model your life around. You will find peace.

 

5) Never forget your blessing

God guided you and brought you out of darkness. He showed you His favor. There were days of hopelessness and misery, yet, He gave you a way out of every calamity up until this point. God tells us in Surah Ad-Duha:

“Did He not find you unguided then guided you?” [93:7].

You were finally able to actualize your purpose of living and find genuine happiness in the remembrance of your Lord. You were lost and He gave you the blessing of God-consciousness. No matter the turns that life takes and no matter the turmoil, you will never fail when you have God. God tells us in Surah Ibrahim:

 

 

 

 

“And He has granted you all that you asked Him for. If you tried to count Allah’s blessings, you would never be able to number them” [14:34].

Live your life with God guiding your every step.

 

1) Keeping good company is crucial. 2)Find the right balance in your progression. 3) Don’t let people discourage you or bring you down. 4) Learn about God and His Messenger. 5) Never forget your blessing. @sanjaysubhag @muslimmattersClick To Tweet

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