Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tajweed Time!

It isn't just a piece of cake trying to learn Arabic in a country like America, especially if you're learning to better understand the Qur'an. Which is strange, considering the fundamental importance of understanding Qur'an for all Muslims. And also, I think it's sad, even scary, to see what seems to be only superficial treatment given towards in-depth studies of the Qur'an. Isn't that how knowledge is taken away?

Those who want to study Arabic at a later age have limited opportunities. They might be able to take classes at a local college or university--undoubtedly this method will teach "Modern Standard Arabic" which might be useful for reading the news but probably isn't proper for learning Qur'an. Another option is to travel overseas--often expensive, but the immersion tends to help a student quickly gain familiarity with the language. A third option is internet institutes offering virtual classrooms to students--I can't say one way or another how successful these tend to be. And some Muslims can subscribe to classes offered by someone in their community for adults (instead of children) which lead the students through a painstakingly slow process of learning the language--often without much ability to advance in their study, and with constant repetition as old students drop out and new ones begin.

That being the case, a program like Bayyinah's is very useful because it offers certified instruction, opportunities to advance through the program (without being stuck in a loop repeating the same material) to higher levels of understanding. It offers the personal touch of an instructor, but one who is also qualified, and who travels around so the local Muslims don't have to resort to college-taught Modern Standard Arabic as a substitute, or to travel abroad which is too expensive for many.

So I'm really happy that Bayyinah is visiting my community again, offering classes in Tajweed. I think this is something really important, and which also has not been available (especially for sisters) for the time I've been here. A few months ago, a tajweed class for brothers was started with the imam... only for brothers. I inquired about having one started for sisters as well, as I really wanted to learn tajweed and had not been presented with an opportunity at all simply because I was a woman. I found that the imam had agreed to teach such a class but that I would be responsible for finding enough students and scheduling it, in order to make it happen. At the time I was overwhelmed with other activities--namely, the 4-week da'wah course I was planning--so I just gave up on the idea.

But alhamdulillah, a much better alternative is now available, and that is the class for brothers and sisters being taught by Wisam Sharieff inshaaAllah in just a few weeks. It is a short and intensive program, but the instructor promised a variety of follow-up options for those who take the course to continue practicing and improving upon what they learned.

He came here last Friday, supposed to give a talk about whether Tajweed was part of the Revelation. Instead of tackling that topic, he just sort of gave it an aside at the end--of course it was, he said, supposing nobody had really come wondering what the answer to the question was. So his focus was on preserving the Qur'an (which includes pronunciation!), understanding it properly, and using it to know Allah better, and to show gratitude to Allah.

So I am, of course, eagerly waiting for the course to begin, encouraging as many folks as I know to join it. And those of you who live in/near Raleigh and read my blog--yes I'm talking to you--you should definitely check out this class. If you somehow don't know what I'm talking about, email me and inshaaAllah I'll forward you the flyer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Science Fiction Fantasy

I have to admit, I've always had an affinity towards science fiction--it's what led me in to engineering. It started with Rama... a guy I knew when I was in 6th grade or so recommended a book to me called Rendezvous with Rama. To be honest, I found it pretty difficult to get through, and it took me a while to read. But the sequels were much more interesting to me, and easier to get through. I read them very quickly, and have reread some of them a couple times. I asked the same guy later on for another recommendation, and he suggested Foundation, which became pretty extensive due to its popularity, and I also explored the other Asimov series and books, which are a lot lighter than the Rama books, and still very interesting. I also branched out to some other science-fiction writers.

My dad had always enjoyed watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as I grew up, so I was familiar with that. And I didn't realize it but when I was young, my sister was friends with a bunch of trekkies--she even had a pin-on Starfleet insignia and collar pins!

The show I was more exposed to, though, was Star Trek: Voyager, which I loved, and Deep Space Nine which I watched less often even though it's generally touted as being better than Voyager. But Voyager appealed to me for new reasons--the captain was a woman. That is highly significant to a young girl growing up with an interest in science fiction. But in addition to the captain, the Chief Engineer also was a woman! Chief Engineer! And that might have had an influence on me, towards engineering. That's still one of my favorite shows even though it's long been off the air.

I kept reading science fiction books in high school--not really branching into fantasy until college, but I never went far down that route. I've stopped reading fiction for now, spending more time trying to learn about religion and current affairs.

But it has left me with an interesting quirk--I name my computer equipment after science-fictions items that it seems to resemble, at least in appearance if not in function. My wireless network at home is (or was, until recently) called HAL. Bluetooth identifies my cell phone as a Tricorder, and my work computer has labelled my USB flash drive as Hypospray.

I wonder if anyone else does that? :-)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Amish Friendship Bread

I'm afraid you have a yeast infection.I really don't like getting chain email. I've even made personal requests to some people who tended to frequently direct them to me to be taken out of the person's email lists entirely--I find it really aggravating. I can't think of anything I've ever received which I found important enough to send to everyone on my mailing list. Today, for example, I receiving a "lucky chinese proverb" that apparently originated in the Netherlands. Right... why do people send this on? Do they really believe that they're going to strike it rich because they sent it to everyone the knew? And last week one person I know forwarded a kind of missing person alert which turned out to be, of course, entirely false. I've also been emailed strange new (not to mention bizarre and dubious) scientific "facts" like... wearing a bra contributed to breast cancer.

I hate to see my mailbox be cluttered with this kind of junk. I also find it odd how Christian inspirational messages make it on to mailings lists for Muslim women. I really don't like the ones that imply you are somehow sinning by refusing to clutter the inboxes of your nearest pals because you don't pass on a powerpoint presentation.

But this past weekend has introduced me to a far greater foe than the email chain letters... and it calls itself Amish Friendship Bread. Now, I've always been fairly decent at baking and have lately been trying to hone my culinary skills, but I don't eat bread. I might occasionally buy a loaf of say, pound cake, for example, to make strawberry short cake. But I very seldom eat toast and in general stay away from bread altogether. So when one of my friends tried to give me a ziploc bag full of some gooey mixture to make "Amish Friendship Bread" I balked. No, no, no, I told her. I don't eat bread, I don't bake bread. But it's more like cake, she tried to reassure me--as if that isn't worse! If bread alone isn't bad enough, add a ton of sugar... yes, very healthy--NOT! I told her that I wouldn't bake it, nor eat it, and so I definitely didn't want the recipe. And I got out of it! Lucky me... so I thought...

That is, until, the same friend manages to convince my roommate to give it a try. And the next day as I wake up there is a ziploc bag of a growing yeast culture staring up at me from the counter. The recipe came with the "starter" (the ziploc bag mix) and I looked it over. It was something to the effect of:

Day 1: Mash the bag.
Day 2: Mash the bag.
Day 3. Mash the bag.

Okay, you see where this is going, don't you?

On some days during the 10-day incubation period you add more food for the yeast--milk, sugar, flour. On the other days... you mash the bag. That's right--10 days of bag mashing yeast growing before you can bake it.

So for a few days I watch it growing on the counter--not that you can tell it's growing by looking at it, at first. So I guess instead of watching it... I was smelling it. Before I realized what was going on in the bag (that is before I became wiser on the yeast factor in the ziploc bag) I was unnerved by its awful smell in the kitchen. I couldn't figure out what was making the smell, and sometimes could even smell it in the living room--most unpleasant, I promise.

But in the last couple of days... the fermentation really took off. And that bag was just filling up with more and more air. Too bad, it was right at the end of the cycle that my roommate decided to take a little vacation and go out of town for a few days! Even though I promised I would NOT bake her bread for her. She ended up coming back a day late--a day after it was supposed to be made--and as promised, I didn't bake it. I just watched it getting bigger... figuring I'd let some air out if it got too full, since I wouldn't want to have to clean it up if the bag exploded. Essentially, I'd choose the option that grossed me out less.

So eventually my roommate comes home... and then discovers this complicated recipe and the fact that she doesn't just get to bake one loaf. She gets to bake two loaves. And then, she has to give away four more ziploc bags of the starter! (Now is time for "ROFL")

She got home kind of late, though... but she had to bake it that night, meaning she had to procure some odd ingredients from the grocery store near closing hours--like a box of vanilla pudding. (Which makes me wonder about the Amish-ness of this friendship bread.) So my poor roommate was up way past midnight baking this silly sugar loaf. And staring up at me on the dining room table are... that's right, you guessed it: four more ziploc bags of starter.

She resolves to get rid of the excess by tricking her coworkers into it--taking a loaf up to work to share, as well as the starter bags and copies of the recipe. Snicker...

But that's not the end of the bread story. Last night I was having dinner at the home of the original friend who shared the starter. And naturally, she still had a dish of bread to share with guests... without asking them first! Yes, this is how you get rid of unwanted Amish friendship bread: hand them the bread without asking so they don't have a chance to turn it down! It's already on a plate just for them.

My roommate and I both tried to politely decline the bread--after all, we had two loaves at home! We weren't successful.. and were forced to eat the bread. On the upside, the friend who baked it opted to use much less sugar than called for, so the bread wasn't as heavy or as sweet. That's always a bonus, when you find yourself being forced to consume calories you'd rather do without.

But of course--along with the baked bread, this friend also had four more bags of starter (bwahaha) she had to give away. One of those bags was going to another friend who was present to my snide comments about the evil bread. Yes, it was evil. I began to blame the bread for minor problems--something sticky on one lady's pants, for example, earned the retort "Maybe it's bread," from me. Well... maybe it was!

So now the only goal (for us) with this friendship bread is to avoid at all costs EVER being given a starter. You see, that's why it's called friendship bread--you give it to all your friends, not just to eat but to BAKE! With a 10-day procedure of bag-mashing. I guess if they take it, they must really be your friends, huh?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dirty Rotten Television

Sometimes I really hate the TV. Sometimes I'm angry at myself for sitting in front of it. It just sort of sucks you in, your body motionless while your eyes are glued to the images flashing past at high speed.

Since the sister at MyHijab brought up her feelings about her daughter watching the Simpsons, I started to think a little more about my own tube-gazing habits. Which might be odd, considering I don't own a TV. That's right, I don't own one. I have never bought one, I have never had one in my bedroom, and as soon as I moved out of my parents' house I resolved not to ever get one.

But in both my current apartment and my previous one, I had a roommate with a television in the main sitting room. Now my bedroom is very small and it's uncomfortable to be in there all the time, so usually I am out in the living room instead. And occasionally even turn on the television. For a while, it was more than just "occasionally" but several times a week!

Now, most of the time I do spend watching it is either to watch the news, CSI reruns on Spike, or Star Trek. The news for legitimate reasons (especially on primary nights), Star Trek because I have a bizarre fascination with the show (especially Voyager), and then CSI I turn on because I don't really want to watch television (the prime-time evening shows) but I'm here by myself and sometimes want something to do.

But I've unfortunately been watching enough TV now to be acquainted with a couple of shows--shows which really ought to remind me why I don't want a TV in my own home, and why I don't think I would want my kids watching it. My parents were actually pretty strict about what we could watch on TV--adult humor shows were off-limits. Anything from Saturday Night Live to the Simpson's, it was just not allowed in our home.

One of the worst shows on TV right now, I think, isn't even that but a show called 'Gossip Girl' on the CW. The fact that it is a show about teenagers should attract a certain audience, but the behavior of the characters has yet to demonstrating anything to redeem the show. Among the evils:

1) Drinking--the characters who are high school juniors (or less than that) have a tendency to wind up in fancy bars, falling-down drunk. They don't have to hide beer under the bed, oh no, they can drink in public. Which they do quite often and it's gross to imagine.

2) Drugs--as if the drinking wasn't bad enough, they have easy access to drugs and nothing to stop them... except perhaps their moral compass which seems to be broken.

3) Sex--the characters with their boyfriends/girlfriends and also with their arch-enemies, and their best friends' boyfriends and girlfriends. Often this is a result of aforementioned reasons for impaired judgment.

4) Lying--naturally, to their parents about what they've been doing, and to each other, about who they've been sleeping with.

5) Envy--those with less wealth want more wealth, and popularity, while the ones who are rich and popular already want the happiness of the others, resulting in catty torment of younger characters who don't yet subscribe to the politics of mean girls. And of course, envy of someone else's boyfriend/girlfriend or how much time they get to spend. I could call it jealousy but envy seems even more appropriate. They want everyone else to suffer...

6) Gossip! Naturally on a show called 'Gossip Girl' there is going to be the backbiting, slander, and innuendo which comprise gossip. An anonymous blogger of sorts manages to get all the dirt on the major characters and SMS it to everyone in the school, with pictures, with lightning speed.

The whole show just makes me sick (which is why I never watched more than a couple episodes.) But I guess that since I have watched, and can point out how icky it is, I should remember why exactly I don't want to have a TV in my home, and probably make more of an effort to keep it off. And I should point out to anyone else that society in general (thanks to shows like Gossip Girl) doesn't make staying on the straight path any easier. And if there were ever a reason to shun part of American society, I'd say that prime-time television ought to be near the top of the list of things to be avoided.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Taqwa in Da'wah

Sometimes when a person becomes committed to the da'wah effort, he or she might lose sight of the importance of having taqwa, and relating their taqwa to their da'wah.

The only time I ever really hear about taqwa is at the onset of Ramadan, and throughout that month. That's because taqwa is supposed to be the reason Muslims fast--to acquire taqwa, to become muttaqeen (i.e., people who have taqwa, or people who are conscious of Allah.) So let me first review a description of taqwa that I have found, as I grow in Islam, to be a truly beneficial aid to understanding this concept.
'Umar bin al-Khattab asked Ibn Ka'ab for the definition of Taqwa. Ibn Ka'ab asked 'Umar how he would traverse a thorny path. 'Umar said he would carefully walk, gathering his clothes so they would not get stuck on the thorns and hence causing him injury. Ibn K'aab said "This is the definition of taqwa, to protect oneself from sin through life's dangerous journey so that one can successfully completey the journey unscathed by sin."

Now, I heard this description before my first Ramadan, and to be quite honest I didn't really understand it at all. But I wrote it down, to think about. Now let me tell a story to explain how it applies to da'wah.

There was a new Muslim sister who was eager to share her faith with the world. Browsing some blogs, she came across a man who had acquired an interest in Islam, and though he had emailed a local imam, he never received a response to her questions about Islam. So the new sister, wanting to reach out and give the man some da'wah, answered his questions, which he had posted on his blog, leaving a link to her blog. Appreciatively, the man followed her back and through what she had published he was able to learn her story about accepting Islam, and her reflections on how it now applied to her life. That intrigued him even more but he also became interested in the new sister, and began a correspondence with her to ask her questions about Islam.

Through that communication, the two became close friends--closer than was appropriate. The man shortly embraced Islam, and made his romantic inclinations clear to the girl, who through the process of teaching him about Islam, had also developed a friendship she thought significant. Because the sister had been trying to get married, the new brother began suggesting that he would make her a good husband and pressured her to meet, offline. The communication which had first been email, then instant messaging, then phone calls, escalated to a meeting in person. With neither particularly familiar or concerned with the Islamic etiquette of courtship, the two met alone. The sister, with no wali or even any friends in her Muslim community, agreed to meet with the brother very new to the faith who was beginning to seem much more concerned only with the sister than with Islam at all.

There are a few obvious problems with the scene--the couple being alone, the sister especially without anyone to watch out for her interests, and even the brother's conversion coinciding with an increase in romantic feelings for the sister.

Alhamdulillah, Allah saved her from further sin, and the sister managed to keep her Islam in tact although the brother apostated shortly thereafter.

I think this is a sad story, because it represents a real failure of da'wah (demonstrated by the apostasy) and also a comprising situation for new converts, who could not be alone except that Shaytaan would be among them.

Now maybe you're thinking about these two concepts--the description of taqwa, and the story--and wondering how they are related? So let me explain. When giving da'wah, having taqwa is absolutely essential (along with sincerity (ikhlaas), and mercy (rahma), and knowledge (ilm)) because this is what happens. Shaytaan, the avowed enemy of every Muslim, will try anything he can to lead a person astray. Which means, he might even try to convince them to give da'wah... or rather, use the excuse of da'wah to lead them to a compromising situation. And this is why scholars rightly caution men and women both against giving personal da'wah to someone of the opposite sex. Because Shaytaan will use the opportunity very swiftly to lay a trap.

But if a person has taqwa, and he is walking the path while trying to keep his clothes from getting snagged, he will stay away from this trap, seeing that it is a trap. And he will see that even though there is an opportunity for goodness (through the da'wah), that there is also a very dangerous opportunity for harm.

So what is the solution, in an example like the story? Da'wah is good, and if a person shows interest in Islam it is always good to give them some information, right? But if the person is someone whom you could marry (so this doesn't apply to siblings), the better approach is to acquaint the seeker with another Muslim of their same sex, who you trust to convey the message of Islam.

This is a gentle reminder to myself above all, and everyone else who might be interested in giving da'wah.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Amy vs. the Jilbab

I try, I do really try to dress more modestly. I try not to wear jeans every day, I try to wear shirts and coats long enough to cover my butt. I try to find shirts with sleeves long enough to reach my wrists. And I even try to wear jilbabs...

They just don't look right on me.

What? They don't!

It never fails--if I do wear a jilbab, I inevitably get compliments on my appearance. I've been described as not just looking nice, but "dolled up!" despite the absence of even an ounce of make-up or any attempt to beautify myself. One sister even offered me "Mabrook!" the first time she saw me wear one, which confused me so much I had to ask her "for what?" with a bizarre facial expression of puzzled shock. And the compliments are good... it makes it easier for me to wear the funny-looking jilbab instead of jeans, and is subtle encouragement even though I think I look dumb.

But I have these problems. First of all, I have practically zero budget to spend on clothes. The last items I have bought were underwear, socks (both out of necessity), a pair of pants, and two shirts. The last three items totaled about $10--and I didn't buy them all at once, either. Most recently it was just a shirt that I found for $1. One dollar. I say that to emphasize that I don't really buy clothes that often. And jilbabs are expensive--$30-60. So if in two months I have spent a combined total of maybe $20 (all the aforementioned items) on clothes... that means it would take me about 6 months of saving to be able to afford a jilbab, new.

Another problem with buying a jilbab, is that it's a little difficult to come by my size. Any jilbab I find is always a few inches to short at the hem, and at the sleeves, assuming that it's even big enough around. So if I can find my size, that means it is on the upper end of the price spectrum. And I don't want to wear something that is cheap and poor quality--especially if it is a jilbab which covers everything, shoulders to toes. It should look nice, shouldn't it?

JilbabI can't say that it's hard to find jilbabs around here--it is hard to find them in my size--but with how easy it is to buy clothes online, that isn't really excuse. Although, that does add to the expense sometimes, and makes it difficult to be assured of the fit until it arrives.

Now despite all of that, I do own a handful of jilbabs--hand-me-downs, mostly, plus a gift, and one I bought myself at a convention--and that one, of course, is my favorite, and the only one I think actually looks good on me. After all, that's why I bought it! But among the others that I own, none fit particularly well, all are too short at the hem and most in the sleeves as well. A couple are the button-up style which I really don't like, but I wear them anyway, sometimes.

Usually when I wear them, though, it's because I'm going to the masjid, and my other "modest" clothes are dirty. I don't like wearing jilbabs to work, or out in public, I feel like I never can match it with a scarf, but I do sometimes wear them anyway--and get compliments, so strange. When I am wearing these jilbabs I have, I feel uncomfortable and I feel like I am dressed lazily, and not very put-together. I don't really like that feeling, I would rather look neat and professional, but the jilbabs just don't make me feel that way at all--mostly because of the bad fit (and often, the fabric color.)

So while I do try to dress modestly, and I honestly feel more comfortable wearing a dress or skirt over top of my jeans that just a shirt, the jilbab is a style I prefer to stay far away from--since most of those I own makes me very uncomfortable and self-conscious about my appearance. I just wish it weren't such a fight for me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The words of war

I thought this article was sooooo interesting. "White House bars loaded labels from words of war--Some speech aids extremists, insults Muslims, report says."

Here's a short snippet:

Federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center, are telling their people not to describe Islamic extremists as jihadists or mujahedeen, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press. Lingo like Islamo-fascism is out, too.

The reason: Such words may actually boost support for radicals among Arab and Muslim audiences by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or by causing offense to moderates.

Some people might think this is just politically correct posturing to appease Muslims, but I think it's much more than that. How often do we (as Muslims) have to explain the concept of "jihaad" and how it doesn't mean "holy war?" But yet the vast majority of Americans are convinced the two words are interchangeable. They also think that the world's population of over a billion Muslims are waging "holy war" against everyone else. Such idiotic notions might begin with a few rogue and isolated groups attempting to affect political change in their own country or region--who use the language of Islam to gain broader support for their cause.

But when the media picks it their rhetoric, rather ignorantly, and attempts to sound more informed (pseudo-experts) regarding the movements on which they are reporting, the concepts which aren't explained get a free ride on the propaganda, giving people the false impression that Islam is somehow their enemy (because it's waging holy war on everyone) and they start distributing a variety of hate literature targetting Muslims.

The article suggests that government agencies see that when the media uses the religious language for political movements, they give a sort of credibility to the terrorism. People start to think that this is a widespread teaching about Islam, and while I'd like to think that Muslims know better, maybe in some cases they don't. And then people really get confused when the media starts to identify the ideologies of terrorists with known religious movements--you know that has happened when you hear your senator or representative talking about how dangerous "wahhabis" are.

Here is another neat opinion piece about the first article, and it's called Words for the evildoers.

Overall, I think this demonstrates the fact that higher-ups in the American government (like in the State Department and the White House) have realized that endorsing the neoconservative anti-Islamic sentiment is really damaging to American interests, at home and abroad. And it shows that the vicious rhetoric of politicians is just that--rhetoric, and not being passed off as actual policy. At the very least, I think it's a step in the right direction.

Bacon, Etc.

The first Muslims I met were not really upholding some ideals and standards of Islam. In the group, one had no problems drinking at all. Another felt bad working at a company where the job was packaging meat--some, pork. Another had this idea that pork was forbidden (haraam) in his home country but here in the USA it was allowed (halaal) so there wasn't really anything wrong with eating it... he went from totally refusing the pork fried rice at a Chinese place, to experimenting with a sausage patty at McDonald's.

I guess America will do that to some people--tempt them and trap them away from their religion.

But what is so tempting about pork?

Giving it up wasn't the hardest part of converting to Islam--for the most part it was really easy. Except for two things--I had always really loved waking up to the smell of bacon frying. And my mom made some really good BBQ (which here in NC is a pulled pork dish.) Giving up the bacon was the easier part, actually, and the BBQ harder because it hurt my mom's feelings that I wouldn't eat it.

But now, my roommate likes to cook beef bacon every now and again, and even though I used to love the smell growing up (which meant hot, fresh, breakfast for the whole family), now it just drives me nuts. She doesn't fry it in a pan, but she bakes it in the oven. I guess that lets the grease drip into the pan so it's a little lessy fatty? (As if it wasn't mostly a slice of fat to begin with...) Anyway, it still smells--and it's a smell that seems to take hours to clear out.

And even though it's just beef bacon--and therefore I guess it's halal, with no pork?--the smell just reminds me of something I've given up in Islam, and I don't want to feel any temptation to head back down that road.