A struggling academic’s spiritual challenges in Ramadan

In this month of Ramadan, I expect to be above worldly concerns. I find myself facing a spiritual challenge.

I’m thinking of certain colleagues I worked with in the past who were deceitful and unconscionably backstabbing. At a time when my career just taking off, I was diligently teaching and publishing my research. I was courted for my scholarship, my ethnographic work, my rich experience, and yes, the “diversity” I brought to the White institutions I served.

But due to certain colleagues/supervisors in my past, I am now in a non-tenure track position.

At my first tenure track job, I thought, if I worked hard,  I’d be safe from internal expectations are the same.jpegpoliticking among a mixed bag of underperforming academics, xenophobic White evangelicals, and dogmatically anti-faith Islamophobes. Not to mention some White anti-Muslim students whose consistently rude behavior inside the classroom shocked other students. The year I was supposed to get my 3-year reappointment, just a month or two after an excellent evaluation with good teaching and *outstanding* publications and no red flags: I was denied reappointment. I still remember my utter shock and speechlessness at that meeting. I still remember the White woman who had been mentoring me and listening to all the accounts of backstabbing against me, as she turned, baldfaced to me and said, that despite my evaluations and my work, “we know you.”

Of course the paperwork didn’t add up, so the Provost overruled it, but each of these events threw me into a fury of legal activity and job-seeking – instead of publishing and scholarship. Instead of staying put in a position where I might get tenure but would definitely be miserable, I was heavily courted for a position at a small college and left. Tenure would not be a problem. I’d go up for tenure the next year.

Back-stabbing-teacher-at-table.jpgTurns out, I got hired into the middle of a turf battle between a Dean and a VP.

My new dean held my paperwork back for a year because of his grudge against the VP who hired me. Only the Faculty Council’s expression of great concern got him to meet me for annual evaluations and start paperwork. Soon after the VP got hired by a new institution, the Dean took action. Turns out (according to my department head) he had planned to get rid of me all along. Months after he communicated this decision secretly with bigwigs in the small college, he moved against me.

The year that I was supposed to go up for tenure, with my file ready to go, I published an award-winning book. Everyone told me I was a sure thing. I was at a teaching institution, with good evaluations, a heavy load, and a new book (which few of my colleagues had). That same year, one week after giving me a great evaluation, my dean gave me my termination letter.

Sometimes I think of those colleagues, deans, department heads, and the people who could have been allies but chose to throw their lot in with the powers-that-were.

I think, I should have been tenured by now. I could have been full professor. I could be focusing on publishing instead of job security. I am in a non-tenure track position with an uncertain future.

I’ve had cancer twice in this journey, which made it even harder to pull myself up off the ground by my bootstraps and overcome my terror of venomous colleagues.

Everyday that I wonder about my academic and professional fate – and my ability to support my family …

… In my heart I have difficulty forgiving these people.

Oh, I do nothing to hurt them. I only blog, to warn others of the dangers of higher education institutions – often, waters infested with smiling crocodiles.

But I struggle because I bear wounds in my heart, and injury in my soul, and it holds me back.

The gendered division of household chores: manager and helper

When asked “how can I help?” women often feel like they’re supposed to be grateful. The problem is, she’s the one who is always in charge of planning, shopping for, preparing, cooking, serving meals, while the helpful man asks if he can chop onions. 
Thing is, when he does help, he doesn’t remember how to perform helpful tasks because his help is not regular but occasional. So he asks, “how thin should I chop them?” ‘Help’ becomes an additional burden – another person to teach, guide, manage.
If asked to do more than one task at a time, his machinery will malfunction: “I burned the rice because I was busy chopping onions!” Meantime, she’s making a healthy salad while cooking the chicken curry and washing up the fruit, and getting the kids ready for bed at the same time. 
Asking him to do something means she has to ask him multiple times (often because he’s listening to music on his headphones in order to help him through this drudgery). He’s also doing something ‘important,’ so he’ll say ‘in a minute’ (and then forget), – which means she’d better do it herself. If there’s a phrase that’s calculated to destroy me, it’s that one: “In a minute.” Because among all the different things I’m managing simultaneously, I don’t have a single minute.
In my family, I’ve noticed that when we sit down to watch a family movie, I usually sit down with eggplant and garlic so I can chop while watching. Sometimes I’ll sweep the floor while watching. My friend says the same thing happens when he’s on the phone; he just talks and relaxes while his wife talks on the phone while cleaning up the kitchen at the same time.
And then there’s tidiness. By and large, no one sees the stray sock sitting on the living room couch (I have experimented with this: it stays there) except me. No one physically sees the dust bunnies but me. No one changes the bed sheets or towels. I am the expert on the kid too, so I am the only one who can pack for her, or pick outfits, or be ready for weather the next day. Men are conditioned to think as individuals, and women are conditioned to think for everyone.
 
But this job – it’s not a job, it’s a way of being – means women are constantly on task. Doing the groceries means she’s shopping for the family meals and he is shopping for work lunches and snacks. 
 
This is not unusual. This is the patriarchal ‘normal.’ My mind is so clogged with household management, I can often not find the space for the academic work I need to do. And so the household division of chores bleeds directly into the workplace and income inequality. 

Ramadan: Giving up religious habits

We have said our goodbyes to coffee and various other midday loves, and launched into a month of restructured schedules.

When I was pregnant and had gestational diabetes, it was terribly strange to not eat cookies, or chocolate, or any glucose-laden fruit in any quantity.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. Not eat something I really wanted to do. Not do something I really wanted to do. Wake up when it wasn’t necessary to wake up; stop eating when it was fun to keep eating; not eat pudding because my nafs wanted it; turn off the tube when I didn’t have to; close the curtains and close my eyes and talk to the Beloved when it wasn’t time for an obligatory prayer.

In his “Discourses,” Hazrat Shahidullah Faridi (RA) discusses how both fasting and tahajjud (the optional night prayer) break your aadat, your habit. This is why Da’udi fast (associated with the Prophet Daoud, or David) is highly recommended: fast one day, don’t fast the next, and so on. Otherwise fasting just becomes habit, something your body desires and easily falls into. Hazrat Zauqi Shah (RA) says that when you take some form of medication constantly, it ceases to be medication and becomes regular food.

The tahajjud prayer in the middle of the night breaks habit too. You go to sleep, and then you wake up. This is difficult.

“Soon shall We send down to thee a weighty Message.
Truly the rising by night is most potent for governing (the soul), and most suitable for (framing) the Word (of Prayer and Praise).”
– Surah al-Muzzammil (73:5-6)

For those who have at times done tahajjud — (not by accident, like, “Man, I can’t sleep so I’ll just get up and pray,” but by design) — you know how it is. You can feel that:

“Every night, when the last third of it remains, Allah, our Sustainer, the Blessed, the Superior, descends to the lowest heaven saying, ‘Is there anyone to ask Me so that I may grant him his request? Is there anyone to invoke Me so that I may respond to his invocation? Is there anyone seeking My forgiveness so that I may forgive him?’” (hadith).

The 5-time namaz is awesome, and necessary to keep you on track. But it’s more like a regular meal. Tahajjud, or optional zikr, or optional charity, or meditation, is more like the ambrosia that brings you back to life, to appreciate everything that had become habit.

Sometimes I feel like we Muslims of relatively moderate religious observance simply organize our lives so that religious observance becomes aadat, habit. We don’t push ourselves on an everyday basis. We don’t venture every now and again.

It’s not a struggle for me not to drink alcohol, because I was raised with a visceral disiike of it. Because I don’t like the smell, and because I don’t socialize at bars. Do I still get credit, or does my habit, upbringing, and tradition get all the credit? And how do I grow from adhering to my no-alcohol principles? Not drinking is simply part of my routine, and drinking would actually be very inconvenient and uncomfortable for me.

Does that mean I plateau from leading a religious life that has little element of effort?

“And for such as had entertained the fear of standing before their Lord’s (tribunal) and had restrained (their) soul from (lower) desires.” (Surah al-Nazi’aat, 79:40).

Habit is like a cocoon that encases us and almost protects us from the exhilaration of spiritual experience.

Sometimes, the spiritual masters say, even sinful acts which make you humble are better than acts of piety that make you arrogant and confident. (Of course you shouldn’t plan on those sinful acts. Obviously). By Mercy, they serve a purpose in your spiritual progress.

You build a persona of yourself, as The Pious Goodly Moderately Conservative Yet Open-Minded and Ecumenical Muslim. Every day you turn to that persona, and follow in its footsteps from the day before. — Which reminds me (speaking of ego) of a poem of my own from my niqabi days, Ghalib Day at the Quaid-e-Azam Library (1991 maybe):

… [It] shocks me
into realising that the years for me have
swept past in a fever of doing
something or nothing, of something happening,
or nothing happening, chewing
the endless gum of every day. We unstick it
from under the table, grey
and hard and stale though it may be –
(we must continue from yesterday), every day
unthinking — Lord, slow me down; remove me from
the pointless race of every day,
and let the ceaseless rattling train of
routine fears, joys, sorrows, hopes, stay
its deafening motion, – stop, and let me
see the landscape of eternity
and see each individual moment bloom like a flower,
and wither naturally.

The gestational diabetes diet made me stop for a moment to see the moments bloom.

This Ramzan, I’m intimidated at the thought of not drinking coffee at midday. But I’m still grateful of the reminder – of a time when I used to give up something, every now and again. Not because I had to. Not because it was haraam – but like the crazy lover Majnun who foregoes food and rest to catch a glimpse of the camel that carries Laila in the curtained palanquin. You rush to the mosque, not because you should, or because you must, or because you get to see friends, but because of the flame in your heart that makes you run in different directions to seek, even blindly.

“No means whereby My servant seeks My Favor are more pleasing to Me than the observance of Faraa’idh (obligatory practices). And My servant ceases not to seek nearness to My by optional practices until I make him My favorite. And when I make him My favorite, I become his ears by which he hears, his eyes by which he sees, and his hands by which he holds, and his feet by which he walks. And if he asks Me for something, I fulfill his desire, or if he seeks refuge against anything, I grant him refuge” (hadith).

These words of the Beloved shed light on the secrets that I am blind to, the beauties that I’ve veiled in words, in do’s and don’ts.

Religiosity can become such an idol. Such a persona. Such a stagnant pool.

Ramzan helps shatter that idol so we must struggle to see what lies beyond it.

Break it up, and truly BE, in freedom and in love.

PS: This was a re-run from 2007.

 

The creativity-killing pressure of the academic market

This post is loosely based on a old post I wrote in 2006. My life now is very different from that intense moment of my life then, but some things are deeply similar.bird

I was struggling to meet my advisor’s deadline to submit most of my dissertation. I was also very pregnant, and under pressure to eat healthy and exercise (which, given the time crunch of the dissertation writing, was highly unlikely). I really did almost nothing but sit on my rear end and type. I ate whatever I could get, ate more because of the stress, and ate more cream puffs and chocolates and ice cream. Consequently, at my OB visit, the nurse told me I’d gained 8lbs in 2.5 weeks, and I know I did no exercise except walk to the bathroom now and then.

The day before I wrote this old blog post was a high, high-stress day, because I had to turn Chapter 6 in right away. I woke up and got to work, and worked till 3:30pm.

When I was done, I was ravenous, and wanted to weep loudly because a) I’d just been under so much stress and b) I’d just finished the stress-inducing task–and now what?

I was lost.

So I felt a bit like the day after Ramadan. I barely knew what to do with myself.

I wondered, when I emerge from my dissertation and my defense, what will remain of me?

Something about graduate school kills the creative impulse. And then the ensuing/continuing pressure to finish and then be productive forever kills all liberty to just get up and run out spontaneously and have fun. To write for fun. To write adventurously. To do anything that comes from within.

The anomie and alienation of the academic profession today threatens to disconnect academic writers from the very source of their intellectual and spiritual inspiration.

Where work should allow us to flourish, academic labor under capitalism alienates us from our work.

Sometimes when I decide, like once or twice a year, that we should really “do something,” I come up empty. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to be still and be nothing. I don’t know what I want. I am a domestic mule for academic work and the endlessness of the work is devastating to the creative impulse. I’ve lost some of that inner child. No, not that inner child that I had in my womb. My own inner child.

At that time, I thought: When I come out of my defense and they tell me I’m Dr. Mir, I wonder how I’ll feel. When they grant me liberty from this task, and instruct me to go forth in triumph, I bet I’ll have an impulse to break into song, loudly and soulfully:

آشیاں جل گیا، گلستاں لٹ گیا
هم قفس سے نکل کر کدهر جایئں گے
اتنے مانوس صیاد سے هو گئے
اب رهائ ملے گی تو مر جایئں گے

My nest has been burned, the garden has been plundered
When they let me out of my cage, where shall I go?

So intimate I have become with my captor
If I were to be granted freedom, I will surely die 

(Raaz Allahabadi)

Today, years hence, I find that I am in the same position as many others. Our cage is wrought of the job market, cannibalistic employers, and the hordes of un/der-employed academics. The ropes of the broader economy tense and chafe against our skin, never allowing the freedom to listen fully to the free mind/heart.

The Face of the Endeavor: Muslim Female of Color

As a Muslim woman academic of color who is pretty good at public speaking and who is not a shrinking violet, I’ve often found myself drafted into service as the Face and Voice of various endeavors, organizations, and institutions.

I get drafted as the Face and Voice of various endeavors because I rock. But often, less talented male colleagues imply that it’s because I’m female/Muslim/a POC/pretty.

I’m female/Muslim/a POC/pretty, yes. But I also rock. I work hard.

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Silently judging you

In mainstream (predominantly White and predominantly non-Muslim) academic institutions, this has meant that I have served as a dash of color, a sprinkle of exotic faith practice, and a flash of academic talent and brilliance – just before I’m shoved out the door because I’ve served my purpose. (Check out my resume. You’ll see which institutions I’m talking about.)

At times this also means that in Muslim and predominantly non-Muslim settings, I have to do more, because I have to speak and shake hands with people and confer legitimacy on the host/endeavor. (Check out our resident vibrant Muslim immigrant female! Listen to her speak accentless English! How awesome are we!)

It also means that in certain conservative religious settings, I’m irrelevant because I’m not enough of a shrinking violet. At the Mosque Open House, I’m great. At the Friday prayer, not so much.

At times, too, once I’ve done more by way of lending Face and Voice to an endeavor, I’ll hear snide comments from male colleagues – who have been sitting idly in the peanut gallery – about how I surely don’t mind providing my pretty female Face and Voice to the endeavor, do I?

To those male colleagues, I present my most prized ability, one I share with Dave here:

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Islam in the local public library

A few days ago, I happened upon my local public library‘s children’s section on Islam. My disappointment and shock knew no bounds.
 
Today, looking for books to use for my Fall 2017 courses, I went to the adults section on Islam in the same urban public library.
 
I now no longer want to get off the couch. 

My heart is filled with despair. In order not to communicate it to others, I will quit writing about this for now.

Fixation: Gender and faith

I’m planning on teaching a Gender and Islam course this Fall, and as I collect readings, I realize popular and scholarly sources are ALWAYS producing work on gender-and-Islam.
 
Fascinating that, to Muslims and non-Muslims, gender is usually the primary shaping factor of religious identity, and the most salient Issue.
 
So my reading list grows, and grows, and grows. Works on spirituality, service, creed, etc? Much less so. So when people say they are “just human” and not feminist, or they don’t see gender, I tend to giggle inwardly. Let’s accept our general fixation and examine it, instead of pretending it’s not there. GENDER SEX GENDER SEX GENDER …

Daddy Sang Bass

“Daddy Sang Bass” playing on my car stereo brought tears to my eyes, as we drove to Guardians of the Galaxy, me thinking of my dispersed and ageing family. My child sat in the back, Svend in the driver’s seat and I’m thinking back to me sitting in the back seat, with my teenaged brother and sister. They’re now in their 50’s.
We’re driving to Hiran Minar on a sunny day. My abbu is singing in the front seat:
ماں پیاری ماں
گودی میں تری کهیلا بچپن میرا
Mother, my beloved mother
My childhood played in your lap
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When he stops, ammi in the passenger seat, is singing 1950s Lata in her absolutely beautiful melodious voice:
مٹی سے کهیلتے هو بار بار کس لئیے
ٹوٹے هوئے کهلونوں سے پیار کس لئیے
Why do You play with earth again and again
Why this love for broken toys
Abbu is now lying, smiling meekly in bed, a third of his size, a fraction of his strength. Ammi is helping clean his bedsheets. Abbu looks at my face on the computer screen and smiles mildly, saying, “Pretty.” “It’s Shabana,” ammi reminds me. He seems okay with that and moves on to muttering about something quietly.
No, the circle won’t be broken
by and by, Lord, by and by … 
I’m gonna join the family circle at the Throne

The crushing power of the mundane

It hit me Saturday after 4 in the afternoon, long after we’d watched Frasier re-runs (again), long after scrolling through the unending outrageous and provocative tweets and posts.

It was just as I was re-filling the dishwasher, all the plates lined up just so, all the bowls compactly queued, all the tupperware lids on the top shelf, reminding my husband to make sure and not put the brand new tupperware lids in the bottom shelf please so I don’t have to replace them because they’re all twisted.

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It was around the time I started re-heating a stale pot of rice with the last piece of thawed chicken from last weekend and some thawed eggplant.

I lit a frankincense incense stick in desperation, because if I can’t change anything, I can light a fire on an incense stick and make it glow, can’t I?

And a song rose from my heart, somehow:

تم همیں یوں بهلا نه پاو گے

You cannot forget me so easily

You cannot forget the times You and I had. I glance at the small kitchen and the surfaces that are perpetually covered, screaming at me endlessly There is no surface for cooking tasks here, somebody take away the random objects, somebody take it all away, somebody — oh wait, I’m that somebody. 

لگ جا گلے که پهر یه حسیں رات هو نه هو

Embrace me, for who knows, this beautiful night may never return

My heart fills up with the oppressive sense of the mundane everyday. It crushes. It will not let me breathe. I want that taste of the Eternal, the Limitless, the power of madness again. But I am in my late 40s, and I am crushed by bills, work, demands, expectations, norms, career, parenting, long overdue goals, poor health, calendars, coordinated schedules, so heavy, so powerful that I can barely feel my own heartbeat.

I can barely remember who it was that navigated 40 years on this planet in mad seeking.

عشق بهی هو حجاب میں، حسن بهی هو حجاب میں
!یا تو خود آشکار هو، یا مجهے آشکار کر

Love concealed, and Beauty too!
Reveal Yourself to me, or reveal me to myself!

Where is the insane confidence that led me to the doorstep where I threw down my belongings and stamped my foot, and said, I shall not leave, no, not until I have my wish?

ذرا سا تو دل هوں مگر شوخ اتنا
وهی لن ترانی سنا چاهتا هوں

I am but a little, pitiful heart, but so bold am I
I wish to hear the same You cannot see Me Moses heard on the mount

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The dishes, the leftovers, the groceries. That’s all I recognize anymore.

Yes I got your email I’ve been busy with grading I’ll be there for the meeting Sure you can turn it in late Have a great day No problem I’ll get it done Thanks I’m a bit tired Oh sure I’m better now 

Honey, remember to flush the toilet Did you get your snack for school You need to take a bath Don’t shut the door on me You need to take a bath What’s wrong now Let’s get the homework done now  

Can we please go away this weekend But there’s always work Can we please sit at the beach Can we at least watch a movie Can we go for a walk Can we sit on the porch for a bit at least Can we talk

Amazing Awesome Fabulous Beautiful Cute Powerful tweet post photo update 

Where is the air Where is the sky Where is the sun Who am I

Why is the ceiling so bloody low   

The middle space of academic Islamic education

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On the last day of classes, I asked my students: If you were to teach this course, how would you do it differently? Our discussion took us to the usual themes: topics, structure, readings, guest speakers, activities. But as we wrapped that discussion up, we wandered into the other questions: What kinds of Islamic education are there, and what kind do you really want?

There is the other kind of religious education – I’ve experienced it, and benefited from it – where you memorize Quranic surahs, master the correct recitation of the Qur’an, master the corpus of Hadith and jurisprudence, engage in devotions and prayer together. This is beautiful, and I hope everyone has that valuable experience.

But what about the academic study of Islam? We asked the tough questions. We agonized over what happens, and what can happen, when we engage in the academic study of Islam.

Students said they learned about diversity of perspective within Islam at American Islamic College. They heard a few of my graduate students express discomfort with the critical study of Islam and gender (no surprise there!). Other graduate students saw this study of gender as a lifeline for their faith. Students read books and heard opinions that seemed critical of key figures in the Islamic tradition. They saw, in other words, that this Islamic education wasn’t merely religious socialization or religious transmission.

Did that bother them? I asked. Was it a problem when the notions and knowledge they were raised with were interrogated, complicated, framed as one among many?

It was at times difficult, some of them admitted. But overall, they embraced the complexity. They accepted the possibility that instructors of certain courses might wish to personally approve the students who enrolled, ensuring they had the stomach for the interrogation involved.

At American Islamic College, I feel we have the best of both worlds. We interrogate and complicate, yes, but we explore and investigate as believers, ranging across the potential expanse open to us as believers. We do not identify with the secular dogmatism of much higher education. But we consume and sample secular studies of Islam, and we complicate those as well. We do all of this in a faithful community of scholarship, and we connect with scholars in academia broadly, Muslim and non-Muslim. There’s nothing black-and-white about this.

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Between the two modes of confessional and critical religious education, my students seek a middle ground. It’s still a tight-rope. We’re still figuring out our trajectory as we step carefully into the wilds. Scholarship of all kinds is an adventure, and what kind of scholarship would it be if it wasn’t exciting?