What is the Purpose of Suffering?

I haven’t blogged in a long time but was asked a question and thought people might benefit from the answer. The question was:

“What is the purpose of suffering?”

And this is my response:

Hey there Amal,

Thanks so much for your question and sorry about the delay. I’m going to assume you’re asking me to answer from what I know of the Islamic perspective about the purpose of suffering and will answer as such. I first need to address the underlying assumptions which I’m assuming are behind such a question.

We live in a society in which we try to live happy lives. In our modern society, and certainly in the UK/US, the happy life is the good life. Not only this, but there is a form of happiness that’s also being pushed upon us: it’s often about entertaining ourselves, having a good time with friends, involving some kind of marketed consumer product and perhaps a holiday package. In this understanding of life, the idea of suffering is very bad. It goes against the purpose of life, which is to be happy and have fun/good times, etc. Of course, I’m kind of painting a caricature of how things are here, but essentially this is the case. Popular media, TV, social media, advertising etc. constantly bombard us with these ideas. Importantly, this modern perspective of life assumes no existence of God, no eternal afterlife, and no human soul. Without these three existential details, it is very hard to argue or justify a case for suffering. It is bleak and morbid within such a secular paradigm that promotes ego-based happiness.

Now let’s move that aside, and consider how we understand suffering within the Islamic perspective. I don’t know exactly what you are searching for, but I’ll make my answer quite broad in hope that it might catch something that resonates with you. In Islam, the primary purpose of life is not to be happy; rather, the purpose of life is to have an intimate Relationship with Allah. This means that anyone, regardless if they are happy or not, is free to engage in that Relationship if they choose to do so. The interesting thing about this is that those who are undergoing suffering, might be quicker to call on Allah than those who are not. So instantly, suffering in Islam, actually has an advantageous quality. This is not to say that Allah wants everyone to suffer – of course not. But sometimes, just like you never know who your true friends are unless you are in a time of need, being tested in discomfort is when we really get a chance to demonstrate our sincerity and genuine faith in God.

There are so many examples of people coming to the Prophet (pbuh), suffering some kind of hardship, whether struggles within themselves, problems with family, to physical illnesses, and the prophetic response always had the same core message: that Allah will be pleased with you and reward you and bless you with paradise for following the religion as much as you can, *inspite* of your pain and discomfort.

A very important point is that suffering or going through any discomfort or difficulty in life is the only way in which we can exercise one of the most important virtues, which is sabr (patience, endurance, stamina, forbearance). Not only does this trait develop us as human beings, but it also demonstrates to Allah that we submit to His will. I’m reminded of the story in which a man was going through difficulty and called out to Allah, and Allah delayed in responding to him, so the man then complained to Allah. Allah finally replied to him saying, “oh my servant, how can I have Mercy on you, by taking you away from that which brings you Mercy?” The issue here was that while this person was exercising patience in hard times and calling to Allah, that was the blessed state. In Islam, it’s not necessarily about trying to push the negative situation away from yourself, it’s about the quality of your conduct while you are in it. Someone might be going through the worst heartache or life difficulty, but if they are doing it while holding on to their good character as best they can, and keeping communication with Allah, they are absolute winners in the sight of Allah.

Finally, there is another purpose of suffering/discomfort which the believer might face: Sometimes our moods are a reflection of our spiritual states. Whenever something bad happens to us, it might just be a nudge for us to check something about our life that might be out of place. I have personally seen this in my life many times over. When things aren’t going well, I think, ‘maybe there is something that I’m doing that I shouldn’t be doing; or maybe there’s something that I should be doing that I’m not doing.’ It might have no obvious link to the problem showing up in your life, but peculiarly enough, once you rectify the spiritually-relevant practice/issue in your life, the problem seems to go away. Certain moments of difficulty and discomfort are a way for Allah to steer us back on course when we’re walking off the straight path. If He didn’t give us these nudges, we would go further, further astray. So even that is a great Mercy from Him. In other matters where the pain or discomfort is not linked to something we’re doing or not doing, the above would apply.

Ultimately then, what is the purpose of suffering? Suffering might be a divine nudge from Allah as a means for us to check ourselves. It is a necessary way for us to draw closer to God and to exercise the highest of virtues, which is patience. Going through such trying circumstances with increased success, reveals our sincerity and fulfils our highest purpose, which is to have an intimate relationship with Allah.

Hope that helps,

God bless


The Gift of Ramadan

Ramadan is a gift. Not only because of the most obvious and important sense of increased reward and multiplied blessings, but also for its ability to re-structure our environmental patterns. Negative habits within us usually feed off our established sense of routine, not stand alone impulses – since impulses are almost always based on our environment. The misunderstanding leads to a conceptual underestimating of the workings of the shaytan, who is merely and mistakenly seen as one who only ‘whispers’, rather than one who is hell-bent on the more subtle task of manipulating our routinely environment, to institutionalise within us negative habits and mental states that occur automatically. If the ball is already rolling downhill, there is no need to apply another push. In other words, many of us are running on our own habitualised momentum of self-limitation, or worse, self-destruction, and not much further effort from a malicious, external source is needed. This would explain why it is natural to carry some of our negative impulses into Ramadan, despite the shayateen allegedly being chained.

Herein lies the genius of Ramadan for those who seize the opportunity. The holy month, if followed properly with all its recommended requirements, breaks normative patterns and demands personal improvement. A re-structuring of our daily environment is combined with a dramatic incentive to do good, making the blessed month a unique opportunity to strive, more easily, for personal excellence. Our eating and sleeping patterns are altered by the times of iftar and suhour, re-orienting the flow of our day. Aside from increased self-restraint and patience cultivated from a lack of bodily consumption, not eating and drinking also causes a physiological change which can break (or make it easier to break) psychological patterns. Nights of Ramadan, ideally spent performing taraweeh/night prayers, or spent with the Qur’an, are also routine-changes for the vast majority of us, bending our nightly patterns towards something inherently soul-disciplining. I’ve often marvelled at how clever the faith is to practically oblige all its followers to recite or hear the entirety of the Qur’an, systematically, every year; not only a powerful way to make a religious faith and revelation survive across centuries, but to repeatedly pull its believers back to its complete, core message. These environmental changes make us more susceptible to spiritual transformation, particularly in a month so sacredly rich. Furthermore, emphasis on better character invites a moral cleanse in the knowledge that the fast is compromised by the one who still gossips, backbites, lies, or gives into anger. Multiplied good deeds are an incentive to give more in smiles, love, generosity, charity, and service to others, while multiplied bad deeds are a stern reminder to avoid engaging in what really works against your soul this month. And of course, any intentional sexual release, whether alone or with a partner categorically breaks the fast, building further self-restraint and patience. All such components of the month open opportunities to collapse old negative habits and patterns in replace of better ones.

That Ramadan lasts for around 30 days adds to its positive value. A month is a good amount of time to organise, expel and instil certain patterns of behaviour. In this way, it can be used as a periodical ‘springboard’ to leap you into the person you want to be. However, it would be most effective to psychologically prepare for the month prior, and to continue its positive momentum once it has passed. Since old environmental structures of life often immediately resume after Ramadan, it is easy to instantly fall back into old habits, even if one had been – for the most part – successful in giving them up for the month. Therefore, a continuation of some of the daily and nightly practices of Ramadan become vital, particularly after the crescent moon has waned. Similarly, a sudden jump into Ramadan with no psychological or physiological preparation might cause the first portion of the month to feel uncomfortable and somewhat daunting. This, in my opinion, might be a reason why voluntary fasting is particularly encouraged in the preceding and consecutive months of Ramadan. Fasting in Sha’ban and Shawwal, eases us into and out of the pinnacle of blessed months, to help the graduation and maintaining of optimal character and excellence.

So if you’re someone who is keen on bettering the self, do not waste this paramount opportunity. The birth-month of the Qur’an comes once a year, and for many of us, will be the only time we get to work on ourselves so effectively. Finally, regarding the fast, be wary of what you consume with your eyes and your ears, not just your mouth. For some of these things are respective equivalents of poison to the stomach; subtler, but no less hazardously intrusive. May the sight of grateful believers and the speech of God fill your eyes and ears this month. God bless.

Early Muslims, Captivity and Sexual Ethics (Event)

This presentation explores classical Islam’s sexual mores on female prisoners of war. Highlights include:
• The condemnation and tolerance of concubinage in early Muslim law and ethics.
• The ethical boundaries around female war captives in early Islam.
• Orthodox readings on the Qur’anic term: “what your right hands possess”.
• The influence of Persian “harem” customs on medieval Arab court/palace culture.

An extended Q&A will follow.
Friday 5th Dec, Room: G3, 8pm
SOAS, Russell Square Campus, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London, WC1H 0XG

Audio file link in comments.

Getting Over An Emotional Obsession: An Email

OK so, it’s taken me a real long time to post this for a couple of reasons. The main reason being that I wanted to make sure that it worked. To give a brief outline, I got an email from someone I didn’t know explaining that she had this year-long uncontrollable love for a guy and wanted my advice to make her feelings go away (tall order, no?) In her case, she was a Muslim, in love with a non-Muslim, BUT faith really isn’t an issue here. The advice I gave (though at times directed specifically to her circumstances) is for ANYONE. It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim/atheist/spiritualist, whatever, nor does it matter what the other person is; the advice is psychological, and concerns thinking patterns. If you’re human, it should work (love-struck dog groans and turns away from computer screen). So fellas can use this too – if a guy had emailed me, the advice would have been the same.

I just have one major thing to mention before we go into the emails. If you are someone who has an uncontrollable love or obsession for someone and no longer want this feeling, in order for the advice here to be effective, you need to WANT to get better and you need to want it BAD. If you’re just reading this out of interest, pass it on to someone else who is sick to their stomach from their ordeal. The girl who messaged me clearly wanted it bad (heck she emailed a stranger). And that’s a major reason why this worked for her. I do have her permission, and have obviously censored the email for the sake of anonymity. Where my advice is specific to her circumstances, just substitute them with your own.

Email from young woman:

“Salaam aleikum,

I have read your tweets and your columns.
I have the following matter.
I have been struggling for a while with this.

I’m a young woman who lives in X. I’m in love with a non-Muslim man and I don’t want to pursue with this because I know its haram. He actually doesn’t have a faith but he is into spiritualism like sufis.

I pray everyday to Allah to release me from this passion and feelings for him but they wont go away. I’ve tried not to contact him but my heart ends up bluffing and I call or text him.

He lives in X so I don’t see him that often. But I love him when I don’t want to, because I know in my life I can never have the halal life I want for myself and my family. As a practicing Muslim that’s my problem but my heart doesn’t want to acknowledge this.

This has been going on for a year and I don’t know who to tell this because I don’t want my surroundings to know…

If you could share some advice I would be grateful.”

Philo_Human REPLY:

“Salam X,

I want you to take these words seriously because I know about these situations and have had plenty of experience. What I will say might sound harsh, but I sympathize with you a lot.

In the same way the body falls sick, the heart and mind can become sick too. You have a disease of the heart. Make no mistake about this. It is a habitualized feeling that you have constructed in your head. There is nothing “special” about this individual or your relationship to him. You may suffer from some kind of addiction to him, and it is like any other addiction – be it to sugar, or alcohol, or sex, or whatever. Know this. It could have been anyone. That it IS him is purely due to the specific circumstances that have led you to this outcome: right place, right time, right background, right words, and hey presto – you’re in “love”. But you’re not in love in any positive way because clearly this situation is bringing you great difficulty.

Know this: You create further “love” in your heart the more you invest in him. By “investing” I mean putting time, effort or money into him. This includes sending him a text, calling, checking his online profile (if he has one) etc. By doing these things, you FUEL the attachment, and will never get over it. You must cut off contact entirely – not even a glance to a photograph of him.

You need to make sure other things in your life are in order: Your health (eating well and exercising), your other relationships (family and friends), your job, your goals and ambitions (what are you trying to achieve in life; who do you want to be?). Often people aren’t able to move on from the past because they don’t have a great enough future to aspire towards. I obviously don’t know your situation, but this is all very important.

Most crucially, you need to RE-CONDITION your mind to change what he means to you. This is what it’s all about. You have falsely associated certain positive meanings to him: “happiness” “love” “completion” whatever, you need to radically change this. I want you to write down a list of new associations to him: “He’s bad for my faith”, “He takes me away from God”, “He will destroy my state in the akhira”, “He compromises my job ambitions”, “He makes my life miserable”, “He wastes my time and energy” “He brings out the worst in me” etc. Add your own, make them general and specific – make them emotional; and make them MEANINGFUL TO YOU. Feel the effects, contemplate on each one. I want you to do this EVERYDAY. Preferably before you sleep and when you wake up, as the defenses to the subconscious are weakest at these points.

In addition, I want you to remove the assumptions you have about him, as you are currently filled with them and they are a huge cause of your distress. You may have hoped that he will somehow come round, embrace Islam and marry you. Or you might think that he’s truly perfect for you. These are all likely fantasies and have no basis in reality. I want you now to make a list of questions that undermine and destroy these assumptions. Make them in the form of QUESTIONS. So for example, ask yourself something like: “Will he get married to someone before I get married, or after I get married?” (here the assumption is that you will both marry other people) or “Why waste precious time, energy and thought on someone you don’t ever want to see or hear from again?” or “How grateful will I be when God blesses me with someone who I am so much happier with?” (the assumption here again is that you are not going to be with him). It’s all about undercutting your assumptions. Make some more up of your own and ADD THESE to the list of associations I mention in the previous paragraph. Ask yourself these questions EVERYDAY. Make sure you FEEL the effects of asking these questions, because the subconscious is shifted more strongly when there is an emotional charge to it.

Try not to talk about being depressed over him to friends or family as this is also a form of investment and will fuel the attachment. If you must talk about it, make sure it’s from a position that empowers you.

In general, pray to Allah and repent. Repent until you feel like crying for all faults major and minor, hidden and open. Do this EVERYDAY or as often as you can. Know that He loves you and will not put you through anything without it strengthening you in some way. In-sha’Allah, you will be able to help someone with the same difficulty in the future, as it is a common problem among people.”

Now thankfully, she did as I said and emails that followed were very positive on her part. I won’t paste them all in full here because I want the focus to be on the method, but let’s just say it worked better than I imagined. Within a few days she was seeing dramatic changes, and by two weeks she displayed a huge turn around. Here is a part of one of her later emails (2 weeks later):

“I’m in a state now I’ve never experienced before. I’m enjoying my life again, I have a wonderful time with my family and most of all I’ve found peace in my mind and connected stronger with my Faith!

I’m no longer desperate in this kind of love. He’s been trying to reach out to me different times but I can handle it very well. He called me once because it was his bday. I clearly showed no interest and I told him that I have no intention in going further in such kind of relationship. He asked to skype etc but I refused. I said goodbye and that was it. I cried after but those were these of closure and joy at one side.

I can truthfully say to myself that I can look back at his pictures/memories without feeling any emotions (love kind)…

There are times where I have a moment because something I see or hear makes me remind of him. But then I just laugh it away and think, I was blind to not see the signs but hamdellah on the other way it brought me closer to my truth and to Allah and my family.”

But girls and guys, before you start sorting your lives out, I just want to add a few points:

When you do this just like I said, you may start feeling better to the extent that you feel you don’t need to carry on doing the daily re-conditioning. This is a mistake. You must keep going. The mind is like a rubber band; if you stop pulling it in one direction, it will slowly relapse back into its old thinking patterns. You need to create a new default. The girl had emailed me a few weeks later saying she had had some set backs due to “some brief encounters with him”. When I spoke with her much later (when everything was good again), I asked her if she had stopped doing what I told her during that time and she said yes. So do not stop. Feel great, but just keep doing it. Do it for months if you have to. And later you can start doing it less. I can’t stress this enough. Do not think, “OK I’m fine now, enough conditioning,” especially not for the first few weeks.

This leads me on to another point, which is that you should feel free to change and add to the list of new associations or questions according to how you feel. In the course of reframing the way you think about this individual, you might realize more reasons why this person isn’t good for you, or why you need to stop thinking about them. Add them to the list. Or, a new negative thought might arise which means you need to ask yourself a new question to undercut and uproot it. The mind can be nasty like that – you get over one negative thought and then it’s like, “oh yeah…? well, remember THIS!!” And you’re like “Noooooo!! I just remembered some sentimental detail which has made me mushy again!!” (or whatever).

And this leads me to a final point, which is: expect triggers to spark off emotional reactions now and then. Don’t worry, they’re totally natural and not a set back. They’re just associations. It could happen when you see the road he or she lives on, a park bench you sat on together, a gift they gave you, etc. This is normal, and eventually these strong emotional associations will fade away the more you just keep doing everything I mention in the email. And don’t skimp on the healthy eating and exercise – that’s all important too! (trust me, everything in that email is thought out with rifle-scope precision).

Please bear in mind guys, I’m not an agony aunt. I might even take this down later because this isn’t really my “field”. I just want to give you the tools to help yourself. I’ve now given you more than I gave to the young woman who got better just from that email. If you do everything there, you should notice big changes. Feel free to comment but pardon me if I can’t be so responsive because I will not have a life if I addressed everyone’s relationship issues individually. But it would be nice to hear how you are doing.

I really wish you all the best and am genuinely excited, because I know you can be happy again.

Peace be with you.

And with Allah is all success.

Time: An Over-Rated Healer

It’s commonly perceived that ‘time is a great healer’ of emotional pain. If we take this claim at face value, it would imply that the mere extension of sequenced events carries with it some intrinsic medicinal or healing value, which appropriates itself to remedy feelings of emotional pain. If time truly was a great healer, the human being would indeed exist in a state of great fortune. By definition of our space and time-bound existence, no human being would ever be outside the healing process so long as they were alive. We would all, by default, be in a state of constant emotional recovery.

Obviously, this is not true. Many people still deal with emotional pain or traumatic experiences from years in the past, which negatively impact upon their lives in the present. Sometimes a situation could appear to get better over time, but in reality, the pain has merely taken a different form. Tears and anguish might characterise a broken heart in the relatively short-term period, only to be followed by bitter resentment and anger in the long term. In such cases, the negative attitude is then often projected onto other individuals who have nothing to do with the experience, spreading the pain further.

Sometimes emotional pain worsens with time. The mere realisation that a certain problem has relentlessly continued to trouble an individual for so long can in fact accentuate the feeling of its burden. In other instances, the later discovery of how a personal problem affects other parts of one’s life – in a way previously unknown to the individual – can progressively complicate the emotional disorder, increasing its intensity, and further one’s loss of self esteem. In such examples, the individual doesn’t necessarily do anything self-harming to feel worse, yet one’s emotional state can quite easily deteriorate as time passes.

The confusion of the myth that time heals may lie in its false analogy with the healing experience of physical pain. Broken bones, cuts and bruises heal in time. The body possesses biochemical properties, which temporarily ‘address’ injuries immediately after they occur. Here one doesn’t need to do much. Chemical signals send the correct cells to perform their own consecutive tasks best suited to the problem. In the case of a cut, platelet cells instantly rush in to cause congealing at the opening to prevent bleeding, while white blood cells follow to kill any unwanted bacteria from the intruding instrument. After the area is cleared, other cells arrive to form new skin beneath the now dried congealed area (scab), and the area is well on its way to full recovery. What’s important here is that although the healing process occurs in temporal stages, time itself is actually not a cause of healing. In fact, time is no more of a cause to physical recovery than it is a cause to the building of a house, or to the winning of a tennis match. The causes are respectively, the biochemical processes and the skilled physical and mental activities involved in these occasions. Time, on the other hand, is impotent, having no causal or healing properties whatsoever.

So why is this now hopefully obvious fact important? Because the general assumption that ‘time heals’ makes people do nothing about their emotional pains. It validates the idea that prolonged anxiety or depression will eventually just go away. Even the language of ‘moving on’ implies that some kind of temporal ‘passing’ is required to get over something. This is simply not true.

Our ability to overcome an emotionally painful situation has little to do with time and much more to do with changing the way we think about the experience. This is the ‘healing process’ of the mind. Like the processes involved in physical healing, it’s active, characterised by various methods that address one’s thinking patterns. We don’t have the equivalent of automated cells to rush in at the scene of a problem and patch things up; hence, emotional healing is conscious, and comes down to our cognitive choices. In particular, it concerns how we interpret what an incident or circumstance means to us. It’s about keeping grounded in reality and not lost in baseless negative assumptions. Deeply seeking answers to questions such as: what can be learnt from this experience; what good can come from this, and thereafter, letting answers to those questions become the ultimate meaning of the situation by consistent review and repetition, can alter, quite profoundly, the way one feels. How you talk about the issue to yourself and to others, and the extent to which you interrogate the assumptions on which this speech is based, can also effectively cause your trail of thoughts and therefore your emotions, to break out of the limiting, negative, cognitive frame in which they are trapped. (Good friends, family members or psychiatrists can also help with this process.)

Such examples are just some of the ways in which one can begin to re-evaluate and re-organise one’s thoughts regarding a situation. Negative thoughts bouncing within falsely constructed frames do not just naturally break out after some time. However, it is possible that this may happen accidentally. That is, eventually, something may happen, or something might be learnt that naturally causes an empowering shift in one’s understanding of the situation, changing the way one feels. But there is no guarantee here. It could take years for a person to break out of a negative thought pattern in this way, and even still – given the accidental nature of this solution – it doesn’t equip the individual with the correct mental tools to prevent the same feelings or heartache from being experienced again and again in the future.

So, no. Time is not a healer. No one should leave his or her feelings to the mercy of time. Rather, we should take active control over our emotions by looking into the cognitive methods that re-interpret what our emotional experiences mean to us. The body may have its rescue functions to heal its pain, but when it comes to the mind, we really need to get to work ourselves. With enough training and conditioning, such healing can eventually occur naturally.

The Essence of Romantic Love is Nothingness?

A controversial title, no doubt, but certainly not intended to arouse your momentary attention. It comes from a genuine concern regarding a phenomenon so central to our lives – romantic love. Specifically, the passionate, companionship-based love between two people; the kind of love that that we assume was the force behind what gave us birth; the kind of love we see in the movies; the type of love that we desire insofar as we are affectionate beings.

So what do I mean by claiming that its essence is nothingness? Well, it’s quite simple. It rests on the idea that romantic love is conditional. Its formation and maintenance depend on certain criteria being present, and if these things cease to be present, it leads to breakups, divorces, and heartache. Such criteria can take a variety of forms for different people. They can be the enjoyment of someone’s appearance or wealth; the appreciation of someone’s good character, intelligence, understanding, charm, or spirit; the giving and receiving of support or emotional attention; feelings of trust, and so on. However usually it’s through a combination of many such desired attributes that love is established. There is no magic to the feeling of love. In most cases it is nothing more than a high score on a list of a person’s personal criteria. If you meet someone who satisfies many of your preferences – especially the most important ones – you will fall for them, and not necessarily through choice. There is more to the feeling of love of course, much of which is related to the subconscious mind, unmet needs, upbringing, association, etc., but the causes of love are not what I want to focus on. I’m more concerned with the idea that two people can fall out of love. That is, two people can share the most intimate, meaningful connection with each other, and then later, treat each other like strangers, or worse, even be agitated or repulsed by that ex-lover. How many people do we know who have loved a certain someone, perhaps used to make love to that certain someone, and even produced life with that certain someone, but are now largely estranged from them? What an odd phenomenon. Given the fact that the average person feels such a connection to more than one person throughout their lives, it’s fair to say that the construction of love, followed by its deconstruction, is actually the norm. That, is a worrying fact about love.

After the established passion, intimacy, and bond between a couple, we see too many cases where passion is replaced with indifference, and intimacy with distance, as the ‘magical’ bond ceases to exist. In essence, love becomes nothingness. Once certain criteria or needs cease to be met, it reveals an emptiness underneath. There is no transcendental, everlasting, underlying bond. It is a construction. Literally, like the building of a house on empty space, enjoyed for a while but always potentially destructible insofar as it was constructed in the first place. Some buildings last a few months, some a few years. The lucky ones make it last a lifetime. But this doesn’t deny the emptiness beneath. It’s just the case that these minorities of lasting relationships are fortunate enough not to arrive back at this emptiness. They build a strong enough house and maintain it together through the internal and external challenges that threaten its construction. In such a sense, the nothingness at the heart of romantic relationships is consistently masked. All the while, our culture, media, family and friends constantly tell us that ‘true love’ does exist, that it is ‘unconditional’, and that it ‘never dies’. I’m afraid the overwhelming evidence around us of break ups, divorces, and the endless examples of people contently moving on with new lovers, suggests otherwise.

In sum, it is impossible for something to be unconditional if it has evolved from the presence of certain conditions. And insofar as anything is conditional and constructed, it can be deconstructed. All loving relationships begin from a lack of feeling love towards that significant other. Over time, whether through a friendship or at first sight, love is conditionally created and strengthened through the satisfaction of certain criteria. Thus, insofar as romantic love starts from nothing, it can always return to being nothing and can never be associated with an underlying, unconditional connection. The nature of relationship breakups and divorces, followed by the finding of new love, offers overwhelming support for this.

I’m not claiming that romantic relationships are therefore a waste of time. By all means, people should construct and maintain these houses, and indeed, such constructions can be beautiful. However, the general popular perception of love as this transcendental, abstract, everlasting connection is quite unhelpful and leads to a lot of disappointment. It’s far healthier for us to be grounded in reality, and to see love for both what it is, and what it is not.

Victorian Perspectives on Islamic Sexuality

The issue of sexuality in Islam has been a common target of criticism against the religion since the earliest European perspectives. From the 9th Century, writers and travellers understood Islam as sanctioning the fulfilment of lusts, which Christian thinkers perceived as being detrimental to the spirit, and rationally argued as being contrary to natural law.

The framework within which such reproaches were deployed held Christian marital and sexual values as the benchmark from which all morality was measured. Christians had perceived marriage as strictly monogamous and permanent till death to the extent that divorce and remarriage of other traditions was seen as legalized adultery. The ideal was that of unconditional commitment – evidence of mutual respect and relational sanctity. Moreover, Christian thinkers understood Muslim marital law, which fell short of permanently exclusive monogamy, as sexist. Victorian writer on Islam, John J. Poole, in his Studies in Mohammedanism (1892), makes a stark comparison between the treatment of women in the two major faiths: “nowhere on earth will you find woman so degraded as in countries where Islamism reigns supreme! A Mohammedan regards woman not as a companion and helpmeet for him, but as a plaything, a pretty toy, as soulless almost as his turban, his pipe, and his amber mouth-piece. How blessed is the contrast when we look at Christianity, and think of Christ, who reverenced women, who made them His friends, who chose them as His co-labourers, and who regarded them as heirs with men of the Kingdom of Heaven!”

Similarly, in his foundational work “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1894), Austro-German psychiatrist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, expresses that “Christianity gave the most powerful impulse to the moral elevation of the sexual relations by raising women to social equity with man.” Krafft-Ebing goes on to refer to Islam and its treatment of women in comparison: “the Mohammedan woman has ever remained essentially a means of sensual gratification and procreation; while, on the other hand, the virtues and capabilities of the Christian woman, as housewife, educator of children, and equal companion of man, have been allowed to unfold in all their beauty. Islam, with its polygamy and harem-life, is glaringly contrasted with the monogamy and family life of the Christian world.”

There was a general fascination towards the ‘looseness’ of Islamic sexuality, which permitted the fulfilment of desire in and of itself, against the strictly pro-creative function of the sexual union, rationalised by earlier Christian thinkers. Early 19th century scholar of religions, Robert Adam, described the laws prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad as “too loose for the most compliant moralist to justify, and too favourable to afford the most abandoned sensualist any probable ground of complaint.” The perceived sexual laxity of Islam was even seen as means through which to attain conversions from Christianity. It was as if Victorian scholars could not see past the question of sexuality in the Muslim faith in judging the religion or the character of its prophet. Adam continues: “the retirements of Mohammed, from his first acquisition of power to his last decline of life, were continually disgraced by every excessive indulgence of that passion, which has a more particular tendency to degrade the dignity of the human character even below the brute creation.”

Such was the sentiment across the Christendom of 19th century Europe. In the modern Western world, the perspective of Islamic sexuality has changed. No longer are followers of the Muslim faith seen as lax with their desires and passions, but rather, they are seen as sexually restraint and reserved. The simple reason for this is that the ethos of sexuality has dramatically changed in Europe, altering the standard from which Muslim social law is judged. In contrast, Muslims have remained relatively consistent in those practices and beliefs that so appalled the 19th century western onlooker: divorce, remarriage, polygamy, sex without the intention to procreate, and a sensual paradise.

Moreover, the modern liberal resentment towards Victorian prudishness, with its narratives of sin, shame and guilt (particularly for women), is often imposed upon the Muslim faith. The modern perspective is, therefore, also deeply psychological. The ‘contained’ and ordered sexuality of Islam is associated with a past self that most Europeans are happy to have left behind.

In many respects, the altering of European values undermines the stability and validity of its moral judgments. There can hardly be any absolute “truth” to a set of values if they are based on a shifting essence. And if moral relativity is self-acknowledged, it makes little sense to be so staunchly judgmental. Nevertheless, moral absolutes are typically deployed in anti-Muslim thought. Despite Europe’s evolving values, there is remarkable and almost perplexing consistency in the fact that in both Victorian and liberal modern times, Islamic sexual values are seen as negative, backward and unenlightened. This would unfortunately imply that the desire to construct Islam as negatively oppositional is a top priority in perceiving the religion at all, regardless of its actual content.

Adam, Robert (1818) The Religious World Displayed: or, A view of the four grand systems of religion, Judaism, paganism, Christianity, and Mohammedism, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Moses Thomas

Krafft- Ebing, Richard von (1894) Psychopathia Sexualis, with special reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct, 7th ed., Chaddock, Charles G. (trans.) London: A, O. Watts & Co.

Pool, John J. (1892) Studies in Mohammedanism: Historical and Doctrinal with a Chapter on Islam in England, London: Archibald Constable and Company

India Part 6: End

I wish that I was sending this from some hot, loud internet cafe in Jaisalmer Market. But I’m not. I’m sending this from my cold, badly lit kitchen in London. Yes, I have returned from my travels and feel quite sad about it. Sand has been replaced by snow all around me, and female models on billboards once again resume their role of distorting my perception of beauty.

I really thought that I would be one of the most capable at dealing with coming back, but this has not been the case. Everything seems so empty, static, and cold. I sit around my house without purpose and wonder between the kitchen and other rooms aimlessly. I keep checking my fridge but don’t want anything in it. I’m really not happy. My brother and friends seem convinced that the feeling is natural and will pass with time. I’m open to this thought but not entirely convinced. It is for that reason that I am literally about 2 clicks away from booking a flight back out of the country for some time. It’s really that bad.

Ten weeks in a simple, desert environment feels much closer to what life should be like. It’s better at representing what living has been like for humanity on this planet due to its simplicity and closeness to nature. It is for this reason that I loved India. Not because of India itself, but because of the environment we were in. There are so many things that I miss and that I want to continue to experience. I want the sun to beat down on me throughout the day; to sling a sheet-blanket over my shoulders in public when it’s cold; to wear flip-flops in the sand; and to have 3 meals like clock-work and have no say in what they are. I want to be anxious about the temperature of my water before I shower; to want to walk around in the evenings where my trusty hand-held companion isn’t my mobile phone, but my torch; to sleep in the company of others; and to see exactly when the sun rises and sets. I want to share smiles with children who have little; to wake up each morning guaranteed that I’ll be doing something meaningful with my day; to hear the number 5 pronounced “pipe”; to be charmingly shouted at by market sellers as I walk passed their stalls; to be able to bring down the prices of things I buy, and to see and dodge animals everywhere I go. I want the opportunity to have an adventure at any moment.

On the last day of teaching, I was able to see the fruits of my labour with Amida, when she sat outside the Day Care Centre and was teaching a couple of the village kids some of the first words that I taught her 9 weeks ago. It would be the first time she had ever taught any English to the kids she cares for. I was so happy to see this, I almost cried. It’s exactly what I wanted.

Even the other volunteers, I will miss greatly. Despite the gossip and ‘banter’ as they called it, they were the people I shared this experience with. When the vast majority of them sent around sentimental notebooks for everyone else to sign and write their goodbyes, I made sure I wrote a personal message to each one highlighting a trait that I especially liked. I took Amida’s address and gave her mine so we could write to one another. I intend to stay in touch with the village, and I do intend to return someday.

It’s been a pleasure writing to you all. Thanks for reading. I never did get my phone back. And I never got to try out the mystical ritual whereby the thief’s identity would be revealed in person’s finger nail at the recitation of some prayers. So alternatively, my brother popped to Brent Cross and bought me a new phone from the 02 Store. My (same) number should be up and running soon.

Over and out

India Part 5: Values, Beauty, and Theft

Things have been quite hectic for me on camp recently. And much of it has to do with different people’s moral perceptions. I as a Muslim, follow – as best as I can – a specific detailed moral code. Non-Muslims on camp (absolutely everyone else) also have their own moral awareness and principles. Sometimes, our moral opinions see eye to eye, and sometimes there are differences to various degrees. We would all think favorably of someone who gave gifts in charity, for example; or think badly of someone who stole a mobile phone. In terms of differences there are also many. Intimate relations before marriage is a big one. For Muslims its not cool, for those with more secular values it is, and is largely celebrated. The extent of freedom of speech, or freedom to offend is another example. But these don’t represent the biggest gap between Muslim values and general secular ones. No. The biggest difference between the Muslim view on some moral matter relating to the day-to-day, and the corresponding secular view has got to be on the issue of backbiting – to talk negatively about someone behind their back. It’s analogous to eating your dead brother’s flesh in the Qur’an and is said to be “worse than adultery” by the Prophet. In the secular world – it is like discussing the whether. It’s hardly even seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Now of course, not everyone thinks it’s OK, and there are many people of all backgrounds who look down on it, but generally speaking, pointing out someone’s faults, or making an unflattering comment about them when they’re not around is a branch of standard conversation. And this little camp here, is proof and testimony to this. Indeed, I was a victim of slander. It was spread around camp that I was trying to seduce different girls, and so instead of only getting annoyed at it, I confronted every individual who I was meant to have ‘sleezed’ over face to face. They didn’t know what I was talking about. It turns out there was a main individual who was a major source of discrediting me – the same girl that doubted my sincerity before. Thankfully, I forced out the truth by voicing the rumor myself to virtually everyone on camp just to expose how ridiculous it was. Everyone then turned to question her, which suffocated her and made her feel guilty. We now actually have a good relationship.

My views on the irrelevance of teaching English to these village kids has changed somewhat. I’ve now come to see that education – irrespective of the subject matter – gives a lot more to these kids than academic content. It gives character and discipline. When I look at some of the uneducated girls or boys in the village there’s something incredibly ‘scatty’ about them. Like, really uncontrolled and all over the place. I’d do a good impression but can’t show you now. But when some of the educated boys come through in their little school uniforms (blue shirts, khaki coloured trousers and bare feet) there’s something so dignified about them. It’s like education has taught them self-control, patience and respect. This realization has helped me teach with more zeal. Teaching has been good and Amida has been making steady progress. I felt like I reached a landmark a few weeks back when, in one of her reading sessions, I wrote a longer word for her to read. She stared at it for a little while and uttered in and Indian accent.. “ye… yesterday?” I was so happy. Especially considering that she couldn’t read the word “am” when we started. Her pronunciation was great too. We’re now going through kids books picking up new vocabulary along the way. It’s been beneficial for me also in the sense that everything she is learning in English, I am memorizing in Hindi, so that I can test her on it. It’s going to be a real shame that it will all end when I come back to England in a couple of weeks. Amida is incredibly graceful about her disability. The other day she was building a house for her brother beside her own. She would move on one arm and one leg back and forth across the sand picking up sand stones, and pile them up to construct walls of a new house – or at least the beginning of it. I felt that I wanted a home there too. She wears a purple Indian style dress now.

Strolls around the village have generally done me good. One day, when Amida was visited by some of the village women for chit chat – rendering my teaching services on hold – I walked to the out skirts of the village and followed a small path into the unmanned natural distance. The area around the village in which we teach is much more vegetated than the camp area. There are trees, bushes and hills, though it is still generally dry. Terrain consisted of uneven rocks, and dry grassy patches which all reflected the intense heat of sunlight. I walked continuously in an unknown direction for a good 30mins till I came across a flock of 150 sheep and goats being led by an 18 year old shepherd named Kareem. I asked if I could join him, and talked with him in what little Hindi I knew. He explained that he would walk with the animals from sunrise to sunset everyday. There was endless, untouched natural existence in every direction as all 152 of us made our way up an inclining hill, which elegantly revealed a picturesque lake in the distance. I stood in the shade of a tree close-by as the animals drank and ate around the lake for a good 20 minutes before being taken to their next destination. I stayed behind alone. The lake water was clear – possibly the first clear water I had seen in India. I prayed the noon prayer, dabbled in the lake, and laid in the sun alone till a next flock of goats and sheep came with their shepherd. Time to go. I tried to head back in the direction that I had come with the shepherd but failed miserably. I really wasn’t around when God was blessing people with a sense of direction. Again, nothing and no one was around and the flocks were way out of site. Just when my steps in any direction were becoming arbitrarily chosen, I heard my name being shouted by some of the street kids from the village. They had come far out to harvest grains for their livestock and were heading back in with their hands full of a certain green plant. I helped them carry their load and was escorted back just in time for the bus’ arrival to take us back to camp.

In other news, my phone was stolen within camp grounds. My £450 Nokia N900 super computer phone – jacked. I was seriously pissed off. It had diaries I had kept, all my images and videos of India, which I was looking forward to show everyone, my poetry, thoughts etc. I would care a lot less if I’d lost or broken it, but just the idea of someone’s hands snatching it from a table in the canteen while it was charging is just low. I felt like I never wanted to own anything valuable ever again. A lot of people tried to help me though. I made friends with a guy here called Aziz who was introduced to me through a local tok tok driver, Musa. The latter saw me as a practicing Muslim and therefore wanted to introduce me to another practicing Muslim, Aziz – his friend. I met Aziz in a mosque here and was invited to his humble abode one day where I met his little son. Aziz is of average height, slim build and probably in his mid-late 20’s. He has a very confident way about him. As he sat me down for something to drink, he went off to change out of his traditional Indian clothing for work. All the houses I’ve visited here are incredibly simple: stone walls, dusty bed, old pots, pans and occasionally an old dusty TV. He came back shortly afterwards dressed as a Police Man. He had been working in the Police for 8 years. This explained his confidence. On one occasion, he took me to an Islamic shrine on the back of his bike and didn’t seem happy with what was going on there. There were Hindu men and women on site who were taking photos in holiday snap-shot fashion. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying but he sounded unhappy and everyone in the shrine went quiet. He was in plain clothes at the time but spoke with authority in a way that made everyone make way for him. He later explained that he was telling them not to treat this place like a picnic spot. When Aziz heard about my phone being stolen on camp, he wanted to do everything in his power to get it back for me. One of his ideas was odd, to say the least. It was communicated through him and the Head Executive on camp: “They read Qur’an, and then thief will appear in nail”, Aziz pointed to his thumb nail. “…But only a child can see it.” I looked at Aziz, who waited for a response from me, then at the Head Executive on camp who was looking at me, nodding his head as if it was a solution that I should have thought of myself. I was obviously quite surprised. I know we believe as Muslims that the Qur’an has medicinal ‘powers’, but this sounds a bit too surreal. Even so, I accepted the offer. The process apparently had to be done by someone who had memorized the entire Qur’an. The only problem was that this person was out of town at the time.

So I continued to be pissed off because of my phone. JJ lightened the situation for me along with Josh, another male volunteer and 3rd of 4 members of our musical group, The Desert Boys. Josh is a good looking, fair skinned, dark haired, music graduate. He plays a variety of instruments very well and has a great sense on humor. I recall him saying on one of our musical/chill-out sessions together that “everything in life is a distraction, from alcohol to orgasms.” He followed it up with saying that he didn’t know what he was being distracted from, but that’s how he feels. I felt no impulse to give him my opinion on this matter and appreciated the point for what it was. So anyway, on the black day that my phone got stolen, JJ and Josh spent about 2 hours deciding and debating over which fictional detectives they would be since they would carry out their own ‘investigation’. They settled on a couple of characters from the US drama, “The Wire”. They then went around camp in the dark shining their torches on the most unthinkable ‘suspects’, blinding them and mockingly interrogated them in a way that really lightened up my mood. JJ would occasionally shine his torch on his own face from below claiming, “Don’t worry, we’re on the case” before disappearing into the darkness. Oddly enough, an actual ‘lead’ was drawn from this comedy sketch which pointed to the Night Watchman’s son: a thirteen year old scruffy-looking farm-boy who wanders in and off camp ground who was seen once with an ipod which he in no way could afford. Aziz wanted to search the entire camp – staff and volunteers individually, but I thought that would be too much. He came in and questioned some staff anyway in plain clothes. Still annoyed at my phone being stolen, I looked at all the staff on camp with suspicion and hardly wanted to say hi to any of them. The next day at school, I wasn’t in the mood to teach. I asked my supervisor if I could leave and go for a walk around the village for a while. On my return from my walk, my attention was caught by a large goat laid down on its side making repetitive screaming noises. It looked like it was in pain. As I circled around it, I noticed what I can only describe as a small bubble coming out from its rear end. I re-assessed the size of its stomach and came to the logical conclusion that it was hungry.. oops, no.. pregnant! The goat was in so much pain that it was rubbing and hitting the side of its head against the sand and stones beneath it. Slowly, and little by little, a see-through jelly bubble was being forced out with a moving creature inside. I’d never seen anything like it. Some street children thought it was funny to try and prod what was coming out with sticks, but I scared them off. Then an old Indian woman in an old dusty purple gown came over, lent down by the goat and delivered the baby with help from one of those street kids. The boy tossed the wet, feeble, mucus-covered lamb in front of the head of its mother as she commenced to constantly and compassionately lick the sticky wet substances off her newborn. The love from mother to child was so strong, necessary, and instinctive, that it made me think of the innate creature-love that our mothers must have for us underneath all the attributes that make us human beings. At this point I realized that all my anger and sadness about my phone was killed at the sight of this birth and the love that followed. It was a lesson much appreciated and well timed.

India has traditional values when it comes to women. This is good in many respects but unfortunately has a negative consequence also. Current Muslim countries are guilty of the same thing. Basically, instead of traditional values on women bringing about noble, dignified, respectable men, it produces pervy natives who think every Westerner is willing to have sex with them. It is so annoying. You’d be sitting in an internet cafe, and the conversation with the dude who runs it would go something like this: (Indian accent) “Ooh so you wolunteer, huh?”, “Yes”. “How many people you are?” “About 48 of us.” By this time I’m wondering if he’ll allow me to add on the internet-time that he’s about to take up with this conversation at the end of my timed-session. He’d continue with great subtlety: “Many girrls in your camp?” At this point my face drops in a sigh as his would brighten with a smile. Then at some point they would use the term “jiggy jiggy” which sounds ridiculous enough when its not said in an Indian accent, and I would want to leave. Why do traditional values on women breed perverts in the modern world? Possibly because the teaching of such values are incomplete in that women are taught to be ‘women’ in a certain way, but men are not taught to be men in any way. Instead they are left morally unchecked with little respect for the opposite sex. It seems to be a general problem in many poor, conservative countries.

I’m learning a lot about myself out here. One of the most solid traits that I seem to be known for, is being dangerous/adventurous. It seems like a new trait, but I guess in London, there’s no real need for the trait to ever surface because everything is so ‘civil’ and controlled. I’m also picking up a few new skills. One being learning to play the guitar. We have so much free time here and two guitars kick about the boys room so it made sense. I’ve learnt to play my two favorite songs of all time: ‘Street Spirit’ by Radiohead and ‘Drugs Don’t Work’ by The Verve, and have not really felt inspired to learn anything else. They’re both quite depressing, which possibly reflects something about me. I’ve also learnt how to ride a motorbike. (This is omitted from Mum’s email- so do not tell her). I took out a scooter first, then a crappy kick-start bike with gears, and now I ride the best electric-start bike on rent. As the Bike Rent Man offered me his best bike he laid down a helmet for the first time and offered me to take it. In my head there was a toss between ‘safety’ or ‘fun’. I chose the latter, but I am careful. Have I mentioned the cows that are EVERYWHERE in India? Like literally in the markets on the roads, pavements – its like they own the place and life just goes on around them. It seems like some kind of Cow Paradise here. I wonder if the cows over the border in Pakistan have heard and are trying to make a break for it. I’ve also revisited that wind turbine on a few occasions and have scaled its height and even stood on its head. It is amazing. I lay down on its small platform and saw so many constantly moving stars in the sky and thought I was tripping out. It’s the only place out here where you are not bothered by people, flies or mosquitoes since none of them will travel that high.

Anyway, sorry for the delay, will try and update again sooner.