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Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Conference of The Birds: An Excerpt and Some notes

This was written a while back for a class. The Conference of the Birds is a handbook on Tasawwuf (spirituality) written by Farid Al-Attar, circa 1145. Attar was a Persian poet and the following was taken from an online translation:

Lines 94-108: Bayazid’s annihilation (q.s.)

One Night from out the swarming City Gate

Stept holy Bajazyd, to meditate

Alone amid the breathing Fields that lay

In solitary Silence leagues away,

Beneath a Moon and Stars as bright as Day.

And the Saint wondering such a Temple were,

And so lit up, and scarce one worshipper,

A voice from Heav’n amid the stillness said:

‘The Royal Road is not for all to tread,

Nor is the Royal Palace for the Rout,

Who, even if they reach it, are shut out.

The Blaze that from my Harim window breaks

With fright the Rabble of the Roadside takes;

And ev’n of those that at my Portal din,

Thousands may knock for one that enters in.’

A similar narration in Tazkirat al-Awliya’ quotes, from Bayazid himself –

“one night, when I was a child, I left the city to go to the desert. The moon was shining and the world was at peace. Suddenly I had a vision; I saw an illuminated silhouette. The image was so bright that the light of the sun looked pale compared to this apparition. I fell into a state of rapture and a deep feeling of joy came over me. I whispered to myself, ‘Oh Allah, such a beautiful gate, yet empty, such an almighty realm, yet lonesome!” I heard a voice say, “the doorstep is empty, not because no one comes, but no one is admitted to come. This is not the realm of the impure; not many have the honor of admittance.” I thought, from whom in creation could I call upon to intercede for my admittance? And I remembered that the only one to intercede was the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). I could not call upon anyone but wait for him to give me permission to enter. It was then that I received a message saying, “because of such politeness I will raise your name so you will be remembered as the Sultan al-’Arifeen, Bayazid.”

Here the Almighty realm is empty because no one is granted permission. This is because only Allah exists and for one to reach this realm he must have annihilated in Him. No permission is granted as long as the self is present.  Also, the path to the Divine is through His Beloved, Muhammad s.a.w.

 

 

Lines 109-126

Thus spoke the Tajidar: and the wing’d Crowd,

That underneath his Word in Silence bow’d, 110

Clapp’d Acclamation: and their Hearts and Eyes

Were kindled by the Firebrand of the Wise.

They felt their Degradation: they believed

The word that told them how to be retrieved,

And in that glorious Consummation won

Forgot the Cost at which it must be done.

‘They only long’d to follow: they would go

Whither he led, through Flood, or Fire, or Snow’—

So cried the Multitude. But some there were

Who listen’d with a cold disdainful air, 120

Content with what they were, or grudging Cost

Of Time or Travel that might all be lost;

These, one by one, came forward, and preferr’d

Unwise Objection: which the wiser Word

Shot with direct Reproof, or subtly round

With Argument and Allegory wound.

Bayazid’s account, as told by the Hoopoe (here called the Tajidar, meaning ‘the adorner of the diadem’, a symbol of wisdom), humbles the birds as it becomes a reminder of the journey’s cost. The self is a hefty price to pay for anyone who thinks he is something, and that is most of us. The Nafs al-Ammarah and Nafs al-Lawwamah are susceptible to worldly obsession, which oftentimes becomes the barrier to feeling the sweetness of devotion. A related quote narrates, “verily in your heart sits the daughter of Iblis and that is Dunya, and it is incumbent upon the father to visit his daughter in her home, and his visit brings nothing but destruction”.

Lines 127-150

The Pheasant first would know by what pretence

The Tajidar to that pre-eminence

Was raised—a Bird, but for his lofty Crest

(And such the Pheasant had) like all the Rest—

Who answer’d—’By no Virtue of my own

Sulayman chose me, but by His alone:

Not by the Gold and Silver of my Sighs

Made mine, but the free Largess of his Eyes.

Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes

As to Itself is good: and no one knows

Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court

Not he most finds who furthest travels for’t.

For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long,

And yet may never reach, or all go wrong:

Another just arriving at the Place

He toil’d for, and—the Door shut in his Face:

Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride,

And suddenly—Behold he is Inside!—

But though the Runner win not, he that stands,

No Thorn will turn to Roses in his Hands:

Each one must do his best and all endure,

And all endeavour, hoping but not sure.

Heav’n its own Umpire is; its Bidding do,

And Thou perchance shalt be Sulayman’s too.’

This begins with the Pheasant’s judgment of the hoopoe – questioning his authority and on what grounds he was chosen. This reflects the Hadith, “the believer is a mirror to his brother”. Whatever the pheasant saw in the hoopoe, was what he had in himself. The hoopoe answers that it was not by his virtue alone, his dialogue explains extensively the lessons behind the aforementioned account of Bayazid.  The point here being that the fruits of ‘amal are never granted by one’s own virtue, everything is by the Mercy and Favour of Allah Almighty – dare we question His Wisdom?

Lines 151-191: The story of Shah Mahmud

One day Shah Mahmud, riding with the Wind

A-hunting, left his Retinue behind,

And coming to a River, whose swift Course

Doubled back Game and Dog, and Man and Horse,

Beheld upon the Shore a little Lad

A-fishing, very poor, and Tatter-clad

He was, and weeping as his Heart would break.

So the Great Sultan, for good humour’s sake

Pull’d in his Horse a moment, and drew nigh,

And after making his Salam, ask’d why

He wept—weeping, the Sultan said, so sore

As he had never seen one weep before.

The Boy look’d up, and ‘O Amir,’ he said,

‘Sev’n of us are at home, and Father dead,

And Mother left with scarce a Bit of Bread:

And now since Sunrise have I fish’d—and see!

Caught nothing for our Supper—Woe is Me!’

The Sultan lighted from his horse. ‘Behold,’

Said he, ‘Good Fortune will not be controll’d:

And, since Today yours seems to turn from you,

Suppose we try for once what mine will do,

And we will share alike in all I win.’

So the Shah took, and flung his Fortune in,

The Net; which, cast by the Great Mahmud’s Hand,

A hundred glittering Fishes brought to Land.

The Lad look’d up in Wonder—Mahmud smiled

And vaulted into Saddle. But the Child

Ran after—’Nay, Amir, but half the Haul

Is yours by Bargain’—’Nay, Today take all,’

The Sultan cried, and shook his Bridle free—

‘But mind—Tomorrow All belongs to Me—’

And so rode off. Next morning at Divan

The Sultan’s Mind upon his Bargain ran,

And being somewhat in a mind for sport

Sent for the Lad: who, carried up to Court,

And marching into Royalty’s full Blaze

With such a Catch of Fish as yesterday’s,

The Sultan call’d and set him by his side,

And asking him, ‘What Luck?’ The Boy replied,

This is the Luck that follows every Cast,

Since o’er my Net the Sultan’s Shadow pass’d.’

Here the story of a boy and his encounter with the Sultan is narrated. The boy is in a destitute situation: his father had passed away; his mother barely has a morsel to feed their big family. They now count on the boy, who has had very little luck fishing since sunrise. The Sultan chances upon him and offers to help, and strikes a bargain with the boy:  whatever he (the Sultan) catches today belongs to the boy, but whatever the boy catches tomorrow will be for him.

This story is highly metaphorical in that the boy and is representative of the individual. His situation the Hell he creates for himself when one chooses to rely on his own resources.  In gnosis, the Master of everything is recognized, and one should have no resource other than Him to rely on.  The Sultan’s arrival represents Gnostic recognition and how it is the key to abundance. Abundance is a state of being rather than a physical phenomenon, therefore it is irrelevant what form it comes in. It lies in the satisfaction that accompanies every moment of remembrance, and the awareness of God’s hand in everything.

 

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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Poetry, Rants, Spirituality

 

Unhijabed #3 : Background Check (1)

wildflower-meadow-deHere I shall recount the essential years of my life that played the biggest role in shaping the ideas I hold so steadfastly to now. This was mainly the period spanning from my early childhood to my graduation from secondary school.

My initial contentions with cultural norms resulted as a culmination of the issues I had with Malay/Muslims ever since I was first introduced to the community. This was, namely, when I first enrolled into a local Madrasah (religious school). Before, I spent the golden years of my childhood in acting school and Montessori, and I had always felt right at home with my multi-cultural friends and teachers (in fact, I can remember each and every one of them, faces and names, even now). It was a very healthy social environment, nurturing and conducive. The same goes at home. We spoke English almost all the time and there was much emphasis on reading. Life was very halcyon, so to speak.

Of course, in an attempt to balance my education, my parents sent me to religious kindergarten as well. The demographic was a Malay majority but under an English syllabus. Things weren’t so bad if you don’t count the bullying. I remember my Montessori friends being distinctly different from the friends at religious school. One group was definitely more benign and accepting than the other.

My years of misery and misfit officially began on the first day of school in the local Madrasah. No exaggeration intended, but no amount of melodrama could justify the traumatic experience that was my first 2 weeks of school. It was a huge struggle especially because I didn’t speak colloquial Malay. I learnt it formally, but that definitely didn’t prepare me for such an environment. Everyone was so similar and so different from where I previously came from. Needless to say, I was automatically ostracized as per the idiosyncratic herd mentality that both my friends and teachers had.

So that was it. I knew I was radically different from the beginning. I gave my caretakers (parents and otherwise) a hard time to get me to go to school. I loathed everything about it initially, especially my teachers. Their methodology of teaching was very fear-based. It seemed as if the only way to get into heaven was to fear hell. The key to being good was to fear punishment. The teachers, despite being all female, seemed bereft of the loving, motherly nature my previous teachers had. They were older and hard-faced, merciless or otherwise indifferent.

After much resistance I finally succumbed to the expectations of the Madrasah community and tried my best to fit in. Being a mere child and under so much pressure, I decided the only way to get by was to do so. It took a lot of effort to suppress my thoughts and feelings in the tender years that followed, and as a result I remember being a very temperamental and confused child.

My angst continued into my teenage years, and the confusion developed into a deep sense of loneliness. It was something very typical of my enneagram type (I’m a 4 with a 3-wing), I realize now. But that period of my life was no less painful than my childhood. My temperament worsened and on several occasions I took it out on my friends in school (verbally and psychologically). This also manifested in a few attempts at suicide and self-mutilation. I thought I was unreasonably sensitive but I never knew why.

I was never a fan of the school system and rebelled in my own secret ways (I suppose there isn’t any harm in talking about that now that I’ve left it 4 years ago). I fail to recall exactly what I did but I always sought ways around the stipulated guidelines. I purposely skipped classes, broke rules. However, I never rebelled outwardly. The act of defiance in itself satisfied me that I didn’t need to be seen, just acknowledged by the Universe.

With the exception of one or two of them, my teachers generally never made an impact on me. This was simply because we came from completely different worlds. I never understood the love my classmates had for them, and hardly ever cared anyway. The few who did make an impact, for some reason, never stayed long. The year they taught me was almost always their last year in the school. And I’ve always wondered why.

I also expressed myself a lot in artwork and poetry – particularly character design and extensive, mournful ballads. But that itself never sufficed for I never felt validated by the people around me. My parents and teachers were often dismissive of the things I drew and wrote (not that I often showed them anything, but these things had the habit of being ‘discovered’ by them). I now realize, of course, that I was denying myself my own validation all this while. It took a long time for me to finally accept that I am talented.

The things I studied in school didn’t occur to me as questionable at the time of learning. Religious subjects were taught in Malay, with the textbooks and exams being in Arabic. To me, it was all simply a test of memory, not understanding. Despite this, I was very clear about certain principles in terms of Islamic creed that were repetitively taught over the 4 years of secondary school. Which will be the topic of discussion … in my next write-up.

[ Post Scriptum ]

It has been roughly 4 days since the first unhijabed article was published, and I am very pleasantly surprised by the sheer amount of support I’ve been getting. It is very comforting to know that many are conscious of what’s happening, and share my sentiments on the matter. Or otherwise, as with those who have made an effort to show their concern for me in their own ways, I am thankful for their honesty and kindness.

Of course, on the other hand, I have predictably received a fair share of hate mail. I knew what was coming and really wasn’t surprised at all. I cannot say, however that I have emerged from it all unaffected due to my chronic, idiosyncratic resentment of stupidity. But nevertheless we wish these people well for we are all where we are, reality just is, and resisting it is to suffer. 

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Unhijabed

 

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Unhijabed #2: Giving Modesty a Name

5-beautiful-eyes-www.cute-pictures.blogspot.com_In recent decades the community I come from has shifted its focus in several aspects. I am being conservative by only referring to my community, when truthfully these shifts have been in lieu with the evolving global environment. We cannot argue that there has been a serious lack of values and an overwhelming sense of superficiality dominating many aspects of life. As a reaction to this development, religious communities, which are supposedly the dispensers and enforces of such values, become all the more coercive and uncompromising in enforcing their respective laws. These laws are seen as barriers between them and the corruption of the outside world. There was suddenly so much emphasis on building a unique, Islamic image that would give its followers a sense of security. Of course, after much branding and marketing, this successfully gave birth to an ‘Islamic’ pseudo-culture, much based on long-accepted traditions and superficial understanding.

Little did these enforcers know that they have become exactly like their worldly nemeses. They are just as superficial, arrogant, hypocritical but most importantly, judgmental of the people around them, and each other. But of course, all that is merely my opinion.

So now everything ‘Islamic’ has a theme, so to speak. Suddenly, a certain way of speaking is more Islamic than any other mode of talk, for instance. Akhi, Ukhti, you must speak with correctly transliterated Arabic words even though you haven’t a clue about Arabic grammar because it is the language of the Al-Qur’aan and of Jannah. Also, it makes you look a lot smarter than you really are.  Suddenly, the Arab way of dress is deemed more ‘Islamic’, because any other clothing is deemed an imitation of the infidels – thus I surmise from here that anything non-Arab is virtually cursed to Hell. But let’s not forget that the Arab culture was once Paganist, and even now still belong to several other ancient faiths.

Now, still on the topic of dress, it would be unwise to say that only women who dress a certain way are ‘religiously approved’ (for lack of a better term). But sadly it has long been so, and from experience, it is believed a woman can be chaste and well-mannered, but all that will go to waste if she didn’t wear the Hijab. Again, the chauvinistic misconception of socially acceptable Muslims (as mentioned in the earlier article) is at play. I’d hardly think God would be so petty to throw her to hell just for that, you know.

That said, I think the headscarf has been overly glorified for the wrong reasons. Not only are the various scholarly opinions related about this unknown at large, the judicial instruments and developments herewith are totally ignored. For some reason or other context has lost its relevance almost entirely in the formation of customs, which is pure insanity. There isn’t a problem with donning it, of course. The problem is the way we see the individuals who don’t.

I’ve had numerous Muslim friends (converts or otherwise) who did not grow up accustomed to wearing it and to my knowledge now suffer under the judgmental eyes of the local Muslim community. This undertaking was to prove a point.  I know I don’t need society’s approval to be modest. I don’t need to be part of a shallow community that validates me by what I wear.

And these are my rants.

[ Part 1: Being ‘Irreligious’ ]

[ Part 3: Background Check ]

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Unhijabed

 

Unhijabed #1 : Being ‘Irreligious’

I know clear and well this is a precariously controversial angle to take this topic from. I anticipate much outrage to be directed at me henceforth, but I also hope the ones I speak for will find comfort and a supportive soul in me. If you have often dabbled with the idea of putting the hijab on or taking it off, or struggled with society’s preconceived notions of the ‘modest woman’,  this is especially for you.

Firstly, a little background: I come from a fairly average family and have zealously covered everything save my face and hands since the age of eight. I was educated in a school whose graduates are looked up to as the ‘religious pioneers of the future’ (which I will prove wrong very soon). I even taught religious classes for a significant period of my life. Basically, I grew up in a rather sheltered environment, with principles that were never to be questioned, and a blind idolatry of a religion that is supposedly supreme over every other belief.

At the age of 19* I developed a healthy skepticism towards what I was taught, or rather, what I was programmed to think. My reflections concluded thus: my so-called ‘religion’ has made me nothing but a self-indulgent hypocrite.

One moment, though. If you happen to believe any of the following…..

  1. Angels are afraid of and/or dislike dogs and hence will not enter your house should you keep them as pets,
  2. All Muslim men should have beards because it helps you tell them apart from Jews and Christians, or
  3.  Only Islam is the truth and that anyone who does not believe in, namely, Allah and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), will go to Hell,

….. and, even now, have never questioned any single one of these ideas, I would not recommend that you continue reading. If your curiosity is suddenly piqued, then congratulations, your life is on the way to making sense. I will digress a little further to give a clearer picture of the way I see things, so that you will know where I am coming from when I eventually come to talking about the Hijab.

Firstly, to do any of the sacred text justice, you have to put it in context. To do otherwise, in my opinion, is an absolute violation of human intelligence and, not to mention, the text itself. Look at statement (a) – and let’s put it this way. Angels are majestic creatures of light, created to carry out specific, honourable roles, et cetera. But somehow this narration has given the idea that for some reason or another, angels do not go near dogs. Dogs. Seriously? What are they, retarded? They’re technically not even in the same realm for God’s Godly sake. Then it occurred to me that the dogs normally kept during the time were for hunting or sheep dogs. You know, really big ones whose natural habitat is the wonderful wild world beyond. So of course, keeping them in your house would be an act of oppression, no? Remember how sorry you felt when you saw your neighbour’s canary all alone in its cage? Try feeling that for a Great Dane locked up in a house. It’s exactly the same thing.

To prove my point, here’s a picture of a puppy. I personally think puppies are fluffballs of Divine Love.

Image

So it wasn’t the dogs that the Angels were so wary of, it was the oppression. And that being the case, I’d assume this narration is applicable to all creatures, not just dogs. So, myth: busted.

And then there are some narrations which make you wonder if they are still applicable in your context, like (b). Coming from Singapore, I’d naturally wonder what’s so important about being different from the Jews, considering I’d be hard pressed to even find one around here, or the Christians, many of whom I’ve made good friends with. Why do we have to be so exclusive, anyway? Because we’re special? That’s real mature. Understandably, it would make perfect sense if that narration came from a time of war. Naturally, you’d want to attack the right bunch of people, and because there’s so many of them, and I don’t recall Arabs of that time having uniforms, there has to be some form of identification. So I suppose that’s another myth busted.

Lastly, the biggest culprit behind all that is pompous and unholy in my life thus far. Let’s look at (c) and pay special attention to the conveniently italic ‘namely’. Yes, because apparently there is only one way to express the inherent Divine Oneness of existence and that is through verbal expression, people. Of all realms, media and cultures, and the times and languages therein. There is only one exclusive (and limited) ticket to paradise. And God created everyone else to burn in Hell eternally. This thought, especially, has screwed with my mind for longer than I can remember. Now, what if I told you that God doesn’t live in a word? That the Divine is something so obvious yet so hidden at the same time?

You would go mad trying to understand that there was no duality in the first place. If there was no duality, why would God create heaven and hell? Why is there good and evil? Or is there? What am I doing here if God is the only reality? Am I really here? Is God in me?

Does your head hurt yet? The point I’m trying to drive here is, how are we subjecting people to the punishment of a God we don’t even know?

… well, the answers are attainable, actually. The answers are within. All you have to do is inquire. Drop the texts, the dictionaries, the fatwas. The years I spent swimming in them never amounted to much, and it probably won’t do you much good either, not yet.

[Part #2: Giving Modesty a Name]

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*I know what you’re thinking. Only 19 but has teaching experience? Beats me. I think it’s ridiculous, too. So here’s some advice, if you have any kids attending conventional weekend classes to learn their religion, pull them out NOW. They were better off finding God by themselves before they got brainwashed. 

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Unhijabed