Good-deed friends

The first kinda-roommate I had – I didn’t room with her, but I used the attached bathroom that she had all to herself, instead of the hallway bathroom used by up to ten women of varying tastes in hygiene – she was pious. She accommodated me, putting herself out with with an other worldly smile or a restrained pout and lowered eyelids.

This was the first time I’d roomed with anyone, and I was uncomfortable imposing on people. I was uncomfortable sharing space too. From a comfortable though frugal middle class family of doctors, I had my own room and my own bathroom, and I was the youngest of the family. As a roommate, I felt terrible a lot of the time, and I felt clueless about negotiating space in the situation. I took a while to connect with people, because my protective family hadn’t been socially  very active. It was hard work letting people into my life, and simply sharing space wasn’t enough to connect with them.

One day, as I struggled with my feelings and felt deeply alone, I expressed my gratitude to my kinda-roommate. Her eyes lit up. I thought, oh, maybe we will connect now. Maybe I will know the real person behind her piety. Maybe she will say, “oh, don’t worry about it! It’s a pleasure to hang out with you!”

“It’s only for the sake of Allah that I do it,” she said. Her face glowed with a sense of charitable piety, and I realized that there was very little behind the piety to connect with. I felt stumped, and I felt deeply depressed, shut out.

Good-deed friends are exhausting. They reach out to lend you a helping hand. But they don’t really want to. They do it for God, for sawab, accumulating karma or Paradise points. But their hearts are so contracted within themselves and their own grasping desire for God, karma, and paradise, that even for God, karma, and paradise they cannot give of themselves. They end up draining you of zen and happiness because it is not out of generosity of spirit that they give but competitive point accumulation.


Believers, do not make your charities fruitless by reproachfully reminding the recipient of your favor or making them feel insulted, like the one who spends his property to show off and who has no faith in God or belief in the Day of Judgment. The example of his deed is as though some soil has gathered on a rock and after a rain fall it turns hard and barren. Such people can not benefit from what they have earned. God does not guide the unbelievers (Qur’an, 002:264, Sarwar translation).

Not all good deed friends are like this. Some of us earnestly want to do good deeds for others, but occasionally, on a bad day, we will run out of goodwill. Others, however, habitually run on empty.

If your heart isn’t able to give of itself to someone, you are a good-deed friend. A good deed friend ends up taking rather than giving. And when you take from someone who is down and out, you are doing nobody any favors.

The best deed you can do, before rushing into the world to help others, is to remedy the emptiness or the damage in your own heart. The same goes for da’wah warriors who want to invite others to God and the Prophet, but who are desperately in need of spiritual first aid themselves. The same goes for many first world wanderers who seek out the poor, huddled masses in the developing world, and who inflict harm by their ultimately self-serving desire to do good.

If you have nothing to give, stay in and cure that emptiness.

As a novice in my tariqah (which I still am, to be honest), I was keen to share my newfound ecstasy with others. I spoke to circles of women in Islamabad, and enjoyed the lights in others’ eyes when I shared my disconnected set of inspirations. It was a tumult in my heart, and I felt that I had to leak in order to contain it.

I was surprised and disappointed when my shaikh told me to stop. Stop leading dars circles, he said. Stop writing so much poetry. You cannot grow unless you bottle it up for a while. Not everyone must share with others. Not everyone must go out into the world to make a difference. Focus first.

Good deed friends, until you are ready to be a friend, bottle up your love for a bit. Help yourself before going out to help the world.


Visits to the hospital


Source: Sophie Borland, The Daily Mail, 17/2/16

When I go to see my doctor at the hospital downtown, I find the crowds overwhelming.


A steady stream of people driving into the cavernous garage, parking (badly), limping and hurrying over to the elevator, down on the street, weaving their way around tourists.

Pregnant women with anxious men by their side walking to the women’s hospital; elderly people with walkers, walking slowly on the cross-walk, making their way to and from Oncology and Orthopedics; harried women pushing strollers with tiny premies sleeping in them.

It’s profoundly depressing being around them. So many, many broken bodies and hearts.


Source: AHRQ 

It reminds me of going for chemotherapy back in 2009 and 2010 in Stillwater. I’d show up, and all these heavy eyes stared at me, as if to say, What are you doing here? 95% of the patients there were elderly, a good number of them in their 80s. I felt like a ghost already.

And yet, in these crowds of sick people, I sense something else too.

All these young parents – tired, anxious, struggling to keep track of multiple offspring, pushing wheelchairs with pre-adolescent children in them. All these bent, old, gray, tottering men, helping their sick wives into the elevator. Middle aged women walking at a slow pace with their elderly parents.

I’m surrounded by a great beating heart. These broken, sick, suffering bodies held close and treasured by their healthy loved ones. Daily they wend their way through Chicago’s frenzied traffic, the parking garages, the impatient crosswalks. Daily they trudge the long way to the correct medical department, check in with the businesslike desk staff, and wait until their beloved sick dear one can see the doctor, get their imaging done, get their blood drawn, lie under the CT scanner or the radiation machine. Then they come for follow-up, for more follow-up, more tests, more consultation visits.


This place is a source of limitless hope and energy.

Allah created mercy in one hundred parts and retained with Him ninety-nine parts, and He has sent down upon the earth one part. And it is because of this one part that there is mutual love among the creation – so much so that the animal lifts up its hoof from its young one, fearing that it might harm it. – The Prophet Muhammad

Chasing dust-bunnies

This week, while the spouse and the child are away, I find an endless joy in achieving and maintaining a level of cleanliness and tidiness denied to me otherwise. My Swiffer sweeper is busily exploring corners and edges underneath furniture. My Lysol wipes are attacking every bit of grime and grease in the kitchen, every splatter of coffee, every spot of gunk. I am particularly triumphant because we now live in a small city apartment with hardwood floors. You can traverse the entire apartment, at a leisurely stroll, in a handful of seconds. This is bad, I know. But in terms of keeping tidy? It’s wonderful. There are no corners I cannot reach. I am master of this domain.

But now that I am going micro on this endeavor, I’m finding that the endeavor is also bottomless.

I am chasing dust-bunnies all day. Wikipedia claims that dust-bunnies are “small clumps of dust that form under furniture and in corners that are not cleaned regularly.” Wikipedia LIES. Dust-bunnies appear within hours of a thorough cleaning.

Is it the cat? Is it hair-shedding season? I don’t know. But is this level of constant vigilance is what normal people live? Is this how they maintain a lovely interior whenever you drop by? Because that’s just not acceptable. Maintaining this level of tidiness most of the time is like air-brushing. It sets the rest of us up for failure. It’s completely impossible. I can maintain it when I’m the only person at home, but it’s going to be difficult when the other two return, and dump their devices, shoes, receipts, etc etc etc on the kitchen table, by the shoe-rack, on every clear surface available. When you are the only person in the family who actually sees dust-bunnies, you are at a huge disadvantage.

Abusive practices by senior colleagues

There is much to unpack in this video created by a South African doctor, Yumna Moosa, about her experiences of being sexually harassed and essentially hounded out of the medical career by senior colleagues. Her crime? She did not toe the line of submitting to the abusive behavior of her senior colleagues.
First: Institutional coercion. As a former medical professional who has been hazed out of her profession, she has nothing left to lose. I have been there. There is a “systematic culture of abuse” in many professions. “This is what your seniors went through” and if you complain about it, your bad attitude will get around, and no other senior colleagues will want to hire you. Being a victim at the hands of dysfunctional senior colleagues is a black mark against you. I have had similar experiences in the academic profession, and I have been cautioned – by critical, progressive, Left-oriented colleagues – to remain silent about them. Because you cannot afford to be perceived as a complainer.
An example: one of the accusations against Yumna Moosa was that she was an undesirable employee because she wouldn’t want to have a beer after work. This is precisely what many young Muslim American women worry about, even as undergraduates – that their teetotalism will earn them pariah status at work as well as in informal networks (See Chapter 3 of “Muslim American Women on Campus.”) In American life, this expectation that you will want to have a beer with other adults is pervasive.
Dr. Moosa’s case is a South African one, but the abuse by senior gatekeepers in professions is worldwide. Policies and procedures are in place, but practices are separated from such regulations. Power rules.

The defiling gutter of political rhetoric

At age 48, I’m a veteran of political talk. As an anthropologist, a feminist, a Muslim, a student of global issues, I’m an avid consumer of political talk.

I’ve lived through many rousing speeches. As a child in Pakistan, I watched Zulfiqar Alibhutto.jpg Bhutto use Islamic Socialism and the slogan roti, kapra, makaan (bread, clothing, and a house) to strengthen his government. I remember ration cards. I watched as ready-cooked roti appeared in the market for purchase – supposedly as fulfillment of the promise of ‘bread.’

I watched General Zia-ul-Haq re-deploy Pakistan ka matlab kya? la ilaha illallah (What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no god but God). I watched him run a referendum that asked “Do you wish Pakistan to be an IsMuhammad_Zia-ul-Haq,_Ronald_Reagan_and_William_Clark_1982.jpglamic state?” and I watched his speech where he celebrated another 5 years as president of Pakistan. I remember speeches where democracy was framed as a stupid, Western, idolatrous project, and Reagan’s America was right behind Zia.

benazir.jpgI then remember the days of Benazir Bhutto, who did practically nothing for the protection of women except be one in the prime minister’s chair.

As a graduate student, I remember many Islami Jamiat Talba speeches – where the terms Islam, shariat, government, Quran, sunnat, risalat, iqamat-e-deen (the political establishment of religion in life) were deployed around to establish a worldview where Islam was a panacea for all our many problems. Where our main problem was the existence of people who wouldn’t commit themselves to purdah and Islamic discourse, and the fact that the politicians who could do the work of this iqamat weren’t actually in Parliament.

Now I hear other kinds of speeches.

I used to yearn for talk. Representative talk. Powerful talk. If only, I gasped inwardly, if only someone important, someone eloquent, someone with power, someone who mattered would use the right words.

If only someone would say Islam. 

If only someone would say human rights. 

If only someone would say Afghanistan. If only someone would say Kashmir. 

And then, as I grew older, and saw the micropolitics of gender, I wished, If only someone would say mercy. If only someone would say feminism. … 

But now, I’m like a teenager in a sulk. I don’t want to hear anything. I want to slam my door on all the adults and say, no more. I don’t want to hear your talk. Your talk is meaningless. Your talk over china cups and sandwiches means something completely different. When it enters the lives of the powerless, your talk becomes something else.

When you say The status of women in Islam in your pamphlets, it really just means patriarchal oppression with a paisley border of groundless optimism.

When you say Afghanistan or Kashmir or Waziristan or Syria or Iraq you’re using it for your own purposes, for your routes to oil, to sea, to mastery, to control.

And when you speak of melting pots and integration and E Pluribus Unum, you accept our laborers and our highly skilled professionals just so long as they come through the cultural crucible of assimilation.

You talk of countering violent extremism, when you really mean to enforce internal and external surveillance in our communities.


A British leaflet against radicalization

You mean to install outsiders in our mosques, those that will prey on the vulnerable, the persons with mental health struggles – so you will pull out the rabbit of a supposed extremist from your hat, voila! The machinery of the security industry has been rationalized. You create a binary of good Muslims and bad Muslims, so that the good ones – the ones in jeans and t-shirts, the ones in the nightclub, the occasional beer-drinkers, they will hate and fear the hijabis, the bearded men, the mosque attendees, the ethnic-garbed, the poor, the under-educated, because they are the problem.

The language of mysticism and Sufism are utilized to establish good Muslims, ones who recite Rumi and Hafez and consume art and biryani, and never contemplate the social reform possibilities of Islamic frameworks.

We are not people to you. We are merely means to your strategic ends.

And when you say feminism, you use it as a fanfare of trumpets, a red carpet rolled out for

a woman candidate who, like Benazir, does almost nothing for women except be one. This feminism means one thing in a gentrified Boston suburb, and it means something else entirely when the Feminist Majority calls for the US to liberate Afghan women via military intervention. The White feminism you deploy is entirely non-intersectional.

Even a concern for all humanity is deployed primarily to erase the murders of black people in Chicago, via All Lives Matter

The language of hope is woven with open-ended promises to harness the energies of the Left, and they are left behind by the war machines, yet again.

How can we retrieve our dearest values from the political gutter that defiles them? 

How do we manage?

You could withdraw into the world of activism where you consciously decline to consume utilitarian political discourse. You could choose not to associate with opportunistic upwardly mobile “handy-men,” aspiring one percenters who are available for hire by the next biggest thing. You could choose to go micro, but how can you do so without being completely out of touch?

You could remain entangled in the larger political discourse, constantly struggling to rip your beloved values from the clutches of the hegemon. You could keep calling foul on the machine: no, that’s not feminism; no, that’s not anti-racism; no, that’s not human rights.

And plenty of people will insert themselves into that political discourse. They will cheer because feminism and human rights and universality still mean something to them. Not only that, but the glamor of power is infectious and irresistible. Many of these will become cogs in the machine, – but happy ones! Because, after all, if they are in the machine, surely it is changing? If they, with their fundamentally good values, are drawing paychecks, handshakes, grant moneys, and honors from the powers-that-be, then surely there must be something good about these powers. Some day, when they’ve had enough handshakes, they’ll be able to bring about real change. Some day, the great and gracious handshaker will turn to them and say, “But Shabana, what do you really think I should do? Change Wall Street? Stop interfering in other nations’ business? Support the troops by actually keeping 20-year olds in college rather than shipping them off to keep Lockheed in business? Do something about agriculture? Save the bees? Save the planet? Save our tomorrows? Well, now, of course I will!”


I now cringe when the capitalist market of political discourse picks up something new. I fear the political gutter that defiles everything I hold dear. I fear the political machine that bleaches agendas clean of meaning, and keeps putting them through the wringer until they mean their opposite. I no longer call for representation in political rhetoric. People get excited when Obama says hijab, and we snicker and cringe when Trump says Here’s my African American, but this is what power does with us: it uses us as a photo-op, and then tosses us in the gutter.

In fact, once an agenda becomes harnessed by political rhetoric, like diversity it is neutralized. Throw it around a lot, the theory seems to be, until the consumer of the ideology is sated. Light a fire under the term, make it into an Issue. Until polarized groups are exhausted with ideological tennis, hashing and rehashing its meanings. And while distracting battles are fought over terms, values, and ideologies, actual hegemonies of the 1% over the bodies and lives of the 99% will be reinforced. They will be marked by happy photographs of smiles celebrating an inch of representation in The New York Times. 

We have to demand more.

And more than anything, we have to be clear about what we want and why. If our personal ambitions to “make it” in the world are uppermost, let us be clear about that, and back away from those with a broader agenda. More and more, I am realizing that broader agenda of change has to be protected from not only many of my dear ones but myself.

How children understand xenophobia

assThe world reacts to the spectacle of the Republican National Convention yesterday. 
 Given his promises (um, threats), many of my friends who are White and middle class feel angry and distressed about a potential Trump presidency in a “Hobbesian America that is nasty, brutish and short.”
gettyimages-484797712_custom-695b9781e4a550ac0cdd3eba481660feefd333a8-s900-c85But what kind of fear and discomfort is experienced by non-White people? Mexican Americans? Immigrants? Blacks? Muslims? The LGBTQ (painfully spelled out by Trump) community?
Consider how fear and stigma are experienced by children. My friend who is currently in the US shared this:

“Yesterday on our cab ride home, my 9 year old said to me “mommy, I am glad you are white” and I said “I am not white” and she was nearly in tears and said “you are white, don’t you see you are white? Your skin is white. You are not Latina. You are just simply white. Make sure you never tell anyone that you are Brazilian or Pakistani or Muslim. You are white, mommy. Okay?”

Two days before this, she came home and said that when Trump is in power, minorities like herself would only be allowed to live in basements. And she wondered out loud if we walked really softly, would “they” be okay to let us live in the penthouse apt we are renting out now? Or will all of us be moved to some basement if we were living in US. And then her concern moved to Amy, who is half [South American] and half European. Where will they put children like Amy?

(This conversation happened at camp, when some kid pointed out that soon people like my daughter will be living in basements and then other kids laughed!)

I am spending my summer in the most diverse city in US, and my daughters are at the receiving end of such fear mongering and outright racism from other children, which is so heart breaking. And painful still that my daughter didn’t challenge why her place should be in some basement!

Whether Trump wins or not, US is losing the very qualities that made it so special: inclusiveness being one of them. I don’t even want to know what is happening in less diverse school/camp settings with children who are Muslim, immigrant, minorities, from multi-racial families, or same gendered couples.”

On her way out of the US, she wrote:

“In the club lounge, the men I am sharing the table with exclaim that there is not one thing wrong with banning all Muslims from entering the US. That policy makes a lot of sense. It should have happened earlier. They say this right in front of my child, and moments later walks in a family with Trump t-shirts on.
I feel like this is goodbye to United States. Heavy heart.”

Religious identities in the college classroom

Many observers of higher education believe that the college classroom demands a performance of objectivity from instructors. Lay persons often assume that professors are the embodiment of positivistic scientific knowledge, free of emotion, bias, and values. This article, “Forum: Insiders, Outsiders, and Disclosure in the Undergraduate Classroom Forum”, refuses to perform such objectivity. Instead, the academic authors explicitly discuss how they deal with religious identities in the college classroom. By engaging with their religious identities, these academics problematize binary notions of outsider and insider. These professors  ask their students to explore religious traditions with fearless curiosity, using such strategies as role-play and such frameworks as reflexive analysis.

DP159383Context has much to do with how we engage with religious identities. It is significantly easier for me to bring my faith to the classroom in my Muslim college than it was in the mostly-evangelical Christian classroom in the American South. When I first arrived there, I was encouraged by some colleagues to discuss my research in the classroom: my response was to move cautiously. As I correctly assumed, too many of my students (and colleagues) thought of Muslims as the cultural, religious, and political Other. Context is everything.

Context is everything, I repeat. We wrestle with this election season, and wonder who America will be next year. What spaces will our college classrooms be? What possibilities will be available to us as professors?