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Yet the Coffee Still Stirs


بسم الله و الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله

“A student asked his teacher: ‘If the shaytan (devil) is locked up during Ramadan, why do people still do bad things?’ The teacher answered: ‘What happens when you stir a cup of coffee for a long time? After you take the spoon out the coffee continues to stir on its own, right? Shaytan is that stirrer and we are his coffee. Our bad habits continue to stir even when he is away.'” (source unknown)

I heard this quote from a shaykh quite a long time ago, and it was only until this Ramadan that I got it.

Although this blessed month of Ramadan is one where there are so many opportunities for change and personal growth presented to us, many of us are still experiencing many of the same struggles and issues that we did from pre-Ramadan.

That is, we find ourselves trapped in the same unfavourable circumstances (which may be getting worse) or indulging in the same sins and poor habits that we hoped would magically disappear in Ramadan – but they haven’t. Indeed, what we find is that instead, we haven’t changed much, or very little. Or, we started this Ramadan with soaring levels of iman, only to find ourselves back down to our natural baselines – maybe even lower since now, we are disappointed that we haven’t met our Ramadan goals.

Shaytan had been working on us all year and we expected, just like that, that the month of Ramadan would stop our spiritual coffees from stirring. That we’d be completely – and immediately – cleansed of the satanic imprint left on our souls.

Alhamdulillah, I’m sure that some of us blessed few truly have been purified this month. Yet for many of us, we’ve found our spiritual cups of coffee still stirring in the blessed month. We’ve found ourselves stumbling over our personal spiritual blocks and feeling distant from Allah (SWT), or completely unworthy of the immense forgiveness He (SWT) offers us this great month.

I have often found myself in such a situation, but what makes this Ramadan unique for me is that for the first time I have asked myself: could it be that although the shayateen are locked up this month, I have always been my own shaytan?  

This realization was pivotal; to take personal responsibility was both humbling and freeing. Humbling in the sense that truly, this month there was none left to blame for my own unfavourable actions but myself, and freeing because I now felt further empowered to sit in the front seat of my life and do the hard personal work that was clearly needed.

As such, my perception of Ramadan has slightly changed. I now view it in a more realistic sense; I probably won’t have a character overhaul this month, my circumstances may not get better (or may get worse), I may carry on with the same sins that seem to always hold me back and I may not feel the taqwa (God-consciousness) that this month is supposed to cultivate.

Although it may not seem like it, thinking this way has been very healthy for me. Instead of viewing Ramadan as a machine where I enter as my sinful, faulty self and come out completely transformed into the ideal Muslim I hope to be (whatever that looks like), I now view it as a training ground: a launchpad from which I will be thrust into the rest of the year with some new spiritual equipment to fight my personal demons and those from among the jinn.

My coffee may still stir, but without a doubt, this month has slowed down the rate. InshaAllah, once the devilish spoon is returned, the momentum will be weakened while my grip on the spoon continues to strengthen.

And Allah (SWT) knows best.

~ ubah

(note: I’ve been wanting to somehow infuse coffee into my writing for ages! I finally did it! :) )


People and Their Flaws

بسم الله و الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله

If there is one thing I am learning this Ramadan, it is the navigation of the flaws of others in a way that is compassionate and wise.

Let me start by saying that we have a tendency, as Muslims, to romantisize Ramadan; to portray it as a month where everything goes right – the execution of prayers on time and with khushoo; delicious suhurs and iftars; bountiful energy; soaring levels of iman and taqwa; no arguments or disagreements, and so forth. The reality for many of us (maybe most?), however, can be captured in this statement that I came across recently:

“Not every day or night of Ramadan is one of spiritual uplifting and glowing soulfulness. Sometimes we will be overcome by anger, frustration, resentfulness, despair; sometimes there will be good reason for it, sometimes they’re more than the situation deserves, but either way, we will feel them. It’s not all from Shaytan, necessarily – these are simply human emotions and realities that we are guaranteed to go through and be tested with.

It’s easy to feel like we’re ‘failing’ Ramadan because of it. It’s easy to feel as though the day of fasting was wasted, that the night of prayer in the masjid was pointless, because our minds are still roiling and our hearts are still feeling heavy and it feels like our souls are pretty much doomed because, well, we suck.

I’m not going to give some warm fuzzy platitudes about how to feel warm and fuzzy. (I’m not particularly good at that kind of thing anyway.)

I’ll be blunt: Ramadan is *meant* to be this way. It’s not a month where we magically turn into angelic creatures; nor will all our bad habits (physical or mental) disappear; nor will our lives suddenly become easy.

To the contrary, everything becomes exponentially harder.

There’s the obvious fact that we are trying to fast from ill speech and ill deeds in addition to physical needs, but there is also the fact that everything in our daily lives becomes suddenly highlighted and almost exaggerated – average things like food and drink are deeply appreciated, small annoyances become spectacularly aggravating… and our sorrows are felt more deeply, our character failings become more obvious, and our daily struggles become infinitely more difficult.
Many of us are praying Taraweeh in these blessed nights seeking reward from Allah, and a precious sense of peace and tranquility. But that sakeenah is not always – and not necessarily – the true goal of our worship.

Often, we don’t realize that it is bringing ourselves to Allah with our negative emotions that is the real litmus test. He already knows us better than we know ourselves, but the challenge is in *us* trusting in Him – instead of turning to other human beings to vent our frustrations. So many times, our first instinct is to tell our best friends, or our parents, or our spouses (or Facebook) how upset we are, yet we forget that the only being capable of doing anything about it is the One in control of Divine Decree.

Whatever is happening in our lives, whatever we are feeling, it is because He has decreed it to occur – perhaps as a test, perhaps as a punishment, perhaps as something that will result in benefit for us in the future, perhaps as something that we don’t realize is actually preventing us from a greater harm… and perhaps as a means of us growing closer to Him.

While we should certainly try to seek patience and contentment (and of course that ever-elusive yet ever-desired inner peace), we must remember that the Prophets, the Messengers, and the pious had their fair share of feeling restless and troubled. Their tests didn’t disappear because of their prayer, yet they consistently turned to Allah with their distress.

As Ya’qub (‘alayhissalaam) said:
{…I only complain of my suffering and my grief to Allah…} (Qur’an 12:86)

And what better time to complain to Allah than now? “(source)

I’ve highlighted some relevant parts of the post above; for me, this Ramadan has been really challenging in terms of confronting certain flawed aspects of other people’s characters, and then having my own character tested as a result. It is in these tests that I’ve come to be more aware of my own character flaws.

Now, this is a good thing. Seeing the flaws in others helps me to  a) see the same, similar, or other flaws in myself and b) become more forgiving towards others as a result.

However, it’s not easy. Not in the least.

Indeed, this week has been especially tough for me; for some reason – certainly not coincidence, but Divine wisdom and decree – I found myself confronted with some exaggerated forms of poor character every day. It became almost comical; I couldn’t help but constantly wonder, “Ya Allah, what’s going on?”.

It was such a test of patience this week. The worst of it was driving on the road; any fellow driver will attest to the often abhorrent and appaling behaviour people exhibit while driving. I try my best to be reasonable and even acknowledge if I make a traffic error. However, in one instance where I was honked at for not immediately moving as soon as the light turned green, I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with people.

I certainly have placated my annoyances by trying to make excuses for others; maybe the driver above had an emergency, or some personal crisis he was attending to. However, I must admit, the behaviour I’ve witnessed this week – in myself and others – mostly boils down to one thing: character flaws.

For me, these flaws have been completely magnified in this month of Ramadan. I keep reminding myself that the Shayateeen are locked up and so, what I’m seeing in myself in others is the truth. It’s our states without the influences of devilish whispers, temptations, and inclinations. This is who we are, flaws and all.

In one sense, I am thankful for the difficult people I’ve encountered this week because they have taught me so much. Such as the importance of:

  • Being courteous, polite and forgiving towards others.
  • Being careful of giving others sinister looks or sliding in demeaning comments into conversations.
  • Good communication styles; not to be overly critical of what others say and instead, listen and respond with empathy (as opposed to getting defensive once your critical nature puts others on the defensive).
  • Making a substantial effort to reach out to those who have reached out to you. (Yes, we are all busy, but I can’t help but always wonder about those who can’t seem to take 1-2 minutes (if even) to respond. After multiple instances of this occurring, it does come across as disrespectful, and sends the message that you don’t want to talk to the individual reaching out. If that’s the case, be direct instead of passive aggressive).
  • Being on time for scheduled get-togethers, or meetings.

These are just a few things; I’ve certainly exhibited all of this behaviour in the past, and may still do. That’s not something that I deny.

Indeed, being aware of the effects that other people’s poor character and behaviour has had on me has done two things for me:

1. Made me more self-aware of my own flaws, and striving to be diligent in overcoming them.

2. Miss the Prophet (SAW); all of these poor examples of character has constantly had me thinking of the Prophet (SAW) and how, with his excellence of character, he embodied the things we lack or partially have: loyalty, dependability, compassion, forgiveness, manners, excellent communication skills, etc.

So for these lessons, I am grateful.

I’ve noticed that as humans, we tend to pick up on our negative experiences, while ignoring the positive ones. Indeed, for every rude person this week, there was a polite one. For every poor communicator – an efficient one. For every late arrival or response – someone diligent and respectful of your time.

Ramadan has placed a magnifying glass – for me, at least – over the reality that most of us need total character upheavals. Considering the importance of character in our deen, it is critical for us as Muslims to recognize our flaws, and then work on them. As well, to have more compassion for others once realizing that they may be struggling with the same challenge. However, that is key: to assume that people are working towards rectifying their flaws as opposed to accepting that they don’t care about how they come across. Doing the latter leads to tons of bitterness and resentment towards others. So let’s try to assume the best of others and most importantly, work on our personal flaws that surely irk others just as much their’s irk ours.

And Allah (SWT) knows best.

~ ubah


Another Silent Ramadan

بسم الله و الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله

Last Ramadan, there was a specific thing that I noticed which transformed the entire month for me.

So much of the incessant thoughts – whether negative, useless, redundant or random – ceased to circle in my mind. It was the most incredible thing to actually recognize the silence that had befallen my mind. Because of this, I was able to remain more consistent in certain acts of worship and as well, be more mindful in my day to day activities.

I genuinely think that a big part of this silence was due to the shackling of the shayateen (devils) which occurs during this blessed month. No doubt, I was able to decipher pretty clearly between my own personal thoughts and the whisperings of the shaytan by the end of last Ramadan.

As expected, however, my ability to do such deciphering has greatly been hindered in this passed year due to distractions, sins, and the constant berating of the shaytan, no doubt. Regardless, I feel as though the ability to listen closely to my own thoughts and gain greater self-awareness was the single biggest gift I took away from last Ramadan. And with this Ramadan set to arrive in a few days, I hope for another silent Ramadan.

For me, this silence also means minimizing the constant distractions that I have allowed to grasp my mind in the past year. I am already off of social media (except my blog, of course) and have blocked all email notifications to my phone. Thankfully, not watching TV is not a struggle I deal with, however I definitely have to stop checking online news outlets – now. One thing that I’ve never really liked about the internet is the barrage of so many bits of news. It can’t be healthy having all of this (often useless) information circling your mind. Sure, it’s good to be aware of what’s going on in the world, but I’ve realized that if this awareness isn’t going to translate to any significant change in your life, what’s the point? My main focus is to keep the Ummah in my duas, consistently, as opposed to following news feeds that often show the graphic and grizzly realities of human suffering – something that I’m sure can’t be good for one’s mental health in the long run.

With that said, journalling has been a useful activity that I’ve re-started in the past weeks. This has helped me to really organize my thoughts and release the contents of my mind in a productive fashion. I imagine that I’ll be doing a lot of this journaling during Ramadan; I did online journaling for two Ramadans (see here) however, I have a lot of personal work to do this month which I think is best kept to myself.

In my spare time, I have a large assignment and many readings that I’ll be working on, inshaAllah. As well, I hope to channel my energy into some artwork, writing, my girl’s program, and family. I also hope to keep fit through regular exercise and good eating, something that I’ve already been doing, Alhamdulillah.

Beyond these things and my personal religious goals that I haven’t mentioned, I hope for a simple Ramadan; one that is marked with consistency and personal growth, inshAllah.

Feel free to share your personal goals/thoughts below!

And Allah knows best,

~ ubah


Shame, Islamic Events, and the Inevitable Spiritual Bypass

بسم الله و الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله

I want you to take a moment and think back to all of the Islamic events/conferences/lectures/halaqahs or any related gatherings you have ever attended. Try to remember the impact that the speaker had on you, or moments of inspiration that had you promising to yourself that today was the day you’d change.

My question is: have you?

When I was younger, I remember feeling a strong excitement whenever the next Islamic event was around the corner. Like so many Muslim youth, I was part of a clique, so to speak, that would not only attended these events, but feverously advertise them through networking and social media. Truthfully speaking, it sometimes became less about the event itself, and more about being part of a group that got to listen to popular speaker X on popular topic Y.

It felt inclusive…at the time.

Yes, I was also learning about the basics of my deen which helped to create a foundation on which I could build my religious identity. However, at some point, I couldn’t help but realize that I’d been met with a wall.

Somewhere along the way, the topics at such Islamic events started to meld together; certain stories, hadiths and Qur’anic verses were so often quoted that the impact they had on me were gradually dulled. I couldn’t help but find myself yearning for something more deeper and meaningful. As well, I had become keenly attuned (and later, excruciatingly bored) with the jokes and attention-grabbing tactics that many, if not most, of the speakers employed in order to gage the audience.

I soon realized that I had stumbled upon a spiritual plateau. This realization was marked by the reality that despite the numerous Islamic gatherings that I had attended, I had barely changed. Sure, my mental bank of basic Islamic knowledge had grown, but when I was honest with myself, I had to admit that very little of that knowledge had actually translated into practical action on my part.

Upon realizing this, I felt consumed by guilt. Was I a hypocrite? After attending so many Islamic gatherings – to the point where things sounded the same – why was I still battling with the same demons? Why did I commit the same sins? Why did my books and notes end up lost or collecting dust somewhere?

And then it hit me: I had come across a spiritual blockage which, at some point, led to a pause in practical learning and instead, a sophisticated and glamorized means of information collecting. That is, a library of profound ahadith, ayat, or stories that made me feel good but would eventually be stored in the back of my mind, rarely to be accessed again.

I began to realize that where at one point these events served as beneficial reminders for me, they now began to fill a spiritual void; one where I was falsely – and temporarily –  left feeling good about attending the event for the sake of doing so, and not necessarily for the sake of leaving a better person.

For so long, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the anxiety I began to feel once I noticed how bored and uninspired many of the events I attended left me feeling. It was only through intense research at the time, and my current training as a psychotherapist that I have even came across a way of defining my experience as such: spiritual bypassing.

In a fantastic piece on Psychology Today, Dr. Ingrid Mathieu says about the issue:

“We’ve gotten progressively more skillful in our methods: turning away from drugs or alcohol to alter our consciousness and turning towards things like self-help books, meditation, yoga, prayer, and special diets. In some ways, we are now spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings, thinking that we are walking a healthy spiritual path.

This experience is called spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don’t even know we are doing it.”

How many of us have yet to recognize the ways in which we have been using spiritual bypassing as a defence against our deeper emotions and issues?

Once I became aware of this concept, I intentionally increased in awareness; I made sure that I attended events and circles that were relative to my spiritual journey and that genuinely interested me. As well, I began to shed the position of the passive event-goer and instead, assumed a role of critical thinking and engagement (something that, unfortunately, sometimes got me in a little trouble). What I found shocked me and helped me lift some of the self-blame and shame that I felt towards my spiritual plateau.

Firstly, I came to question (out of curious truth-seeking and not hostility) the actual organizations or groups that were hosting such events: What was their mission? What was their history of active community engagement and service? What were their underlying Islamic values and concepts? What progressive strides have they made in my community – or have they at all?

I also began to actually question the speakers from whom I was learning – something that we are usually conditioned not to do, especially as young Muslims. I began to become attuned to not only what the speaker was saying, but how they said it and how it made me feel. I also began to consider the context from which they came; shortly, I realized that much of the reason why I couldn’t connect to some speakers or why their words would often leave me feeling uneasy was due to our complexly different world views and experiences. I began to see why I, as a young, coloured, educated Somali-Canadian female was having trouble connecting with what the speaker – who might’ve been an older, Pakistani or Arab male with orthodox Islamic knowledge –  was telling me about Islam.

Yet, it wasn’t about race or politics, but about relatedness. That is, my difficulty with establishing congruence  between the Islam I was learning in these controlled environments and the Islam that I faced on a day-to-day basis may have stemmed not from an inherent deficiency in my sensibilities – or that of the speaker – but deeper issues rooted in race, privilege, authority, socio-economic status, gender, upbringing, education, perspective and heirachy – just to name a few.

In time, I began to see how my true struggles were not being addressed at these events. Yes, it was nice to learn about our wonderful and enriched Islamic history, but what did that mean for me right now? After I left this event? I’m sure the onus of responsibility in creating meaning and connection lies mostly with the individual, however, what about the roles of our speakers and Islamic organizations and workers? This is a thought that I’ll return to in a moment, inshaAllah.

Through discussion and community work, I’ve come to realize that I am not alone in these realizations. So many Muslims, especially females, have long felt underrepresented at these mainstream Islamic gatherings. Sure, if one came to these events solely for an “iman-boost” or something to add to their already healthy spiritual states, then great! However, what about those sisters struggling to gain footing in the job market and sitting quietly in the audience while listening to the speaker’s biased views on females in the workplace? Or the silencing of those brothers in the audience suffering from depression or low-self esteem by constantly being compared to the manliness of the sahabah they are encouraged to emulate? Some might question whether or not it is the responsibility of these events to delve deeper and strive to form connections with the audience through recognizing their struggles – many of which are race, gender, and context dependant. Considering that Islamic events (somewhat) serve to the fill the gap between the mosque and the home and, for many Muslims, serve as their only means to direct Islamic learning – I’d answer with a resounding yes.

I now know that I was certainly not the only one often leaving these gatherings feeling worse than I felt upon entering them; for me, it was about feeling never Muslim enough, feminine enough, good enough – not enough. Reading the work of shame-expert Brené Brown has led me to the sad conclusion that the spiritual bypass so many of us may be experiencing as a result of attending these events may in part be due to the fact that our Islamic teachings are often delivered in a package of shame. This has less to do with the teachings themselves – which are glorious and uplifting – and more to do with the scare-tactics employed by those doing the teaching.

Perhaps we feel miserable and inadequate at these events because we are shamed for the burdens we carry.

Shame on you for having done drugs and alcohol.

Shame on you for having a boyfriend or toying with the idea.

Shame on you for having a poor relationship with your parents.

Shame on you for occasionally missing your prayers.

Shame on you for ever considering to remove the hijab.

Shame on you for being sexually assaulted.

These things may not be said outwardly, but they are certainly implied. As well, even if you are reminded to find solace with God’s forgiveness and mercy, this usually is preceded by dollops of shame, shame, and more shame. How do you recognize this shame? Sit with your feelings, and question whether or not what you’ve heard has actually had a deep impact on your life – or has left you feeling terrible about yourself. Remember, the true teachings of Islam liberate the human mind and soul. So, if you’ve found yourself experiencing the opposite of this, which is undoubtedly some form of oppression, it’s high time that you question whether or not it is actually Islam you are learning – or the subjective views of another individual/group.

Further, if what you have learned has had any true impact on you, know that your behaviour would change. You would become the better person you wish to be. You would go from being inspired to becoming a source of inspiration.

But for many – and might I argue, most of us – this just isn’t happening.

Instead, like a drug fiend looking for a high, we attend event after event searching for that iman-rush. Yet, once the high of the hit has faded, we are back to our terrible habits and troubling states of mind – subconsciously seeking the next event or gathering to fill our spiritual voids.

I am not blaming the events, the event-organizers, or the speakers. Nor am I blaming you and I. I just think it’s high time for all of us to start asking questions like: Do I truly have the intention to change after attending X event or seminar? From whom and where am I learning my Islam? What perspective or worldview is informing this speaker’s understanding of Islam – and is it truly Islamic? Am I using this Islamic event to genuinely grow or make myself feel better without any practical intention of changing? Is the knowledge I’m learning spiritually fulfilling, or is it time that I seek something greater?

These are all very personal questions and the answers will be even more subjective. However, if we are looking to overcome the spiritual impasse we have found ourselves in, it is critical that we begin to take a closer look at ourselves and our surroundings. To answer the above questions will take intentional self-awareness, honesty, courage, increased emotional intelligence, and a striving towards critical thinking. It will also require for one to strive to learn Islam on their own; to engage in a healthy amount of self-study in order to equip oneself with the truth, as opposed to solely relying on external resources to fulfill one’s personal responsibility for seeking knowledge.

With some soul-searching and healthy questioning, you may find that in actuality, Islamic events have been taking the place of what you truly really need: a personal teacher, a therapist, a friend, a loving family member, community, acceptance, an Islamic identity and so forth.

I believe that one’s Islamic self-concept should extend outside of Islamically conducive environments such as events, lectures, halaqahs, retreats or the mosque, and into other realms of one’s life. Only then can one truly examine the practical impact that their learning is having on their lives. That is, anyone can be a great Muslim when surrounded by other great Muslims at various events and gatherings, but the truth is in who you are when you are with your family, at work, at school and especially, when you are alone.

Further, beyond calling my brothers and sisters in faith to self-examine, I call for a reform on our delivery and approach to any of our Islamic events.

For organizers:

  • Know your audience (e.g. have less conferences on marital relations and more on drug abuse if you have found a spiked number of deaths due to drugs in your community).
  • Focus less on surface issues such as how to segregate the genders, and more on the spiritual condition of your community members.
  • Be intentional on choosing speakers who understand your community’s needs, and are equipped with not only sound Islamic knowledge, but an inherent – and practical – wisdom and spirituality.
  • Quality >>>>> Quantity. Seek to draw spirituality, and not just high attendance numbers.
  • Invite speakers from diverse backgrounds, whether that be ethnically, gender-wise, or career wise. As well, focus on capitalizing on the talents of intellectuals who already exist in your community as opposed to consistently bringing in speakers from outside.

For speakers:

  • Have an understanding of the community you are presenting in, and seek to relate personally with the audience.
  • Gain self-awareness and recognize when your personal bias is leaking into your Islamic teachings. Learn to separate and critically examine the two.
  • Encourage questioning and healthy debate in your circles.
  • Refrain from shaming and instead, be compassionate.
  • Identify spiritual and religious weaknesses without putting people down – you never know who’s listening and what they may be going through.

For the individual:

  • Be aware of what you are learning and who you are learning from.
  • Always question in order to learn, not to debate.
  • Be intentional in engaging with any Islamic event. Ask yourself, “what do I hope to gain from this?”
  • Engage in constant and personal self-learning from reliable Islamic resources/individuals.
  • Recognize that the solutions to your issues may not be found at an Islamic event and instead, that you may need to consider other resources.
  • Pay attention to how you feel at any given Islamic event. If there is a mismatch between how you truly feel and how you should feel, explore that. Your body, mind and spirit are telling you something.
  • Attempt to practically apply any lessons that you learn, and explore where any difficulties in doing so may come from.

I pray that this piece encourages us all to increase in self-awareness, personal spirituality, and intentional engagement in the community through Islamic events/gatherings. The solutions above are mere suggestions; only you can identify the blockages that have led to a personal or communal spiritual bypass, and only you can strive to remove them.

And Allah knows best,

~ ubah