40Days to transform my life!

Feel like you are letting yourself down? Know you can do better but aren't sure how? Make great resolutions but don't follow through? Sounds just like me. Which is why I am resolving to commit 40Days to making a lasting difference to my life, insha Allah. This blog is the online home of my personal 40Day Challenge - you can join me or simply follow my progress (or lack of it!).

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

My own private Ramadhan - article in The Times

The Times
August 29, 2008
‘Late afternoon is the hardest part of the daily fast’
Ramadan, now upon us, brings special joys and challenges for Muslim women in Britain
Na'ima B. Robert

Imagine that you cannot eat or drink from just before dawn until sunset, every day, for 30 days. No morning latte, no lunch, no afternoon tea, no snack. No wonder many non-Muslims imagine that hunger and a sombre atmosphere of austere religious devotion are the dominant themes of Ramadan. The reality of the month of fasting is, I’m happy to say, quite different.

For the fasting Muslim, Ramadan is a time of hope and excitement, of sacrifice and of celebration, of individual purification and community renewal, of time to focus on yourself and time to reconnect with family. And, while Ramadan is like a physical and spiritual detox programme, it also involves some very practical considerations, like when to shop, to cook, to run errands, how to be home in time for iftar — the breaking of the fast after sunset — and whether the children will manage the long tarawih prayers in the mosque.

One priority is the all-important Ramadan shop — no one wants to be caught out when iftar is less than an hour away. Typically it means trips to the supermarket for staples — cereal, rice, pasta, juice — the market for fruit and vegetables and the halal butchers for baby chickens for a quick roast, mince for shepherd’s pie and kebabs or lamb for a hearty Moroccan soup.

It is important not to forget the obligatory Algerian dates. I am sure mine is not the only Muslim family that develops a close relationship with dates during Ramadan. This is because it is the Sunnah, the way of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), to break the fast with dates or water. And indeed, the long day’s hunger and thirst can make a simple meal such as dates and water taste like the finest food on earth.

Planning your time in Ramadan is crucial. Work and housework go on. It is a constant challenge to fit everything, including extra time for worship, into a day. Giving the house a “Ramadan clean” beforehand cuts the household workload during the days ahead. Deadlines have to be scrutinised too. Is there anything you can get out of the way before Ramadan begins? Can anything be delayed?

Typically, Muslims like to break the fast together as a family, and that may mean some juggling. Food must also be prepared before sunset for iftar — easy enough in spring and summer months, but trickier in winter when supper time is essentially 5pm.

I have long become used to cooking on an empty stomach — and not being able to take a nibble. A taste on the tongue is allowed, to check the seasoning, but no food should pass your lips in order to keep your fast intact.

So how do we mothers keep up our energy while fasting? The trick is to eat a hearty suhoor (the pre-dawn meal). We also drink plenty of water before the fast begins.

The late afternoon is always the hardest part of the fast. This is when the rumbles of the stomach become more insistent, nerves start to fray and time slows to a crawl. I try to snatch a rest in the early afternoon. This helps me to keep up my energy, particularly when the kids are all home and need attention. That is the time for stories, for homework and distractions for the hungry fasting ones.

I like to involve the children in preparing the iftar: laying the table, cutting the fruit, getting out the dates, filling glasses with water and milk, waiting for the adhan on the radio that signals the end of the day’s fast. That moment is one of anticipation and excitement and even the little ones who have not fasted (children are not expected to fast until puberty) will break their fast with a date or two, a bunch of grapes and other treats such as samosas, doughnuts and savoury pastries.

In the evenings there are tarawih prayers in the mosque, in which the whole Koran is recited over the month. These prayers are longer than normal and draw worshippers out of their homes every night. As a student I attended tarawih almost every night with my friends. This is not so easy with small children in tow, and a babysitting rota with fathers, family or friends can be a life-saver. And of course, you can pray the tarawih prayers at home once the kids have gone to bed. This is your private time, all the more precious for being scarce in a month full of fasting, family, friends and food.

Ramadan does not always turn out to be the spiritual fix we long for. Daily life has a habit of getting in the way. We cannot abstain from the daily grind as we can from food and drink. We cannot even put it on hold somewhat, as they do in the Muslim world where they enjoy reduced working hours, shortened school hours, and national holidays for Eid at the end of Ramadan. And, of course, no one ever eats in public during daylight hours. In the UK, as in the rest of the non-Muslim world, life does not slow down: you are still expected to keep your deadlines and stay sharp in the office; the school run does not stop, babies must be fed and changed and sibling skirmishes averted.

Being a fasting Muslim on lunchbreak is like being a tree in a storm: your senses are assaulted from all sides and it is all you can do to bury your head in your miniature Koran and remember the reward promised the fasting person: to enter Paradise from the gate of Ar-Rayyan. And of course the samosas you know are waiting for you at sunset.

On a personal level I have been thinking about this year’s Ramadan. So much about my life is different from those early years of fasting. I am a mother of three boys now, expecting a fourth child, a working writer and I run my own magazine.

This Ramadan I am not so much thinking of the social aspects of the month, nor am I planning complicated dishes to treat my fasting guests. This year I would like to focus on the quieter aspects of the month of worship: concentrating on my prayers, reading the Koran with sincerity and an open heart, waking in the last part of the night to pray, fasting with awareness, increasing in the acts of worship that are quiet and secret: charity, sharing, kindness, forgiveness, reaching out, opening up, being there for others, being a better, more patient mother.

A tall order, I know, but Ramadan has a way of filling us with good intentions, with hope and confidence in our resolutions. As Muslims we believe that Ramadan is a sacred month in which we free ourselves up to concentrate on our life’s purpose, to tune in to our spirituality, to reconnect with our Creator.

It is my sincere hope that, in between children and work, friends and family, I will find my own private Ramadan, a spiritual sanctuary to call my own. And, if all goes well, I will emerge energised, rejuvenated, cleansed, ready to take on the world again.

Na’ima B. Robert is the editor of Sisters magazine for Muslim women and the author of From Somalia with Love. Read her online Ramadan diary: timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith

Preparing for Ramadhan

August 29, 2008

The fasting season: Ramadan is nearly upon us
The ins and outs of Ramadan for a Muslim housewife and mother
Na'ima B. Robert

Ramadhan is now less than a few days away and I can already feel the butterflies in my stomach, the excitement and anticipation that it's THAT time of the year again. This is of course accompanied by a rising panic when I realise that I am not nearly as prepared as I should be: I haven't read up on it all again to get myself in the right frame of mind for a month of intense worship, nor have I done the meg-shop in which my trolley groans under the weight of all the 'essentials' I hope to have in my cupboards, nor have I stocked up on my favourite Iranian dates, cherry juice, baby chickens and mutton at the halal butchers, nor have I prepared the Ramadhan activities I plan to share with the kids.

I'm useless!

You see, I learnt many years ago that a fulfilling British Ramadhan is made, not born. If you want to get the most out of this sacred month that seems to wave goodbye almost as soon as she has said hello, you need to prepare with almost military precision.

That means getting the practicalities out of the way - food shopping, major house cleaning, major assignments - and clearing the decks for all the good deeds you wish you had been doing throughout the year but never got round to. These typically include praying extra prayers with increased devotion, reciting the Qur'an daily, giving charity, keeping your temper, staying away from regular gossip sessions and basically being the paragon of virtue, sweetness and light for the next twenty nine or thirty days.

A tall order, but do-able as countless Muslim will attest, I'm sure. But anyway, back to practicalities. Obviously, if you are not going to be eating or drinking from before sunrise to sunset, you need to make sure that your apres-fast diet is packed full of the necessary nutrients to keep you going for the rest of the month without keeling over halfway through. For me, this means cramming in your 'five a day' right when you break your fast: dates, bananas, oranges, and apples are a favourite in my house. And of course, that first sip of water tastes so sweet after the day's thirst - you need to drink as much water as possible to replenish lost moisture.

Cooking in Ramadhan can be a challenge. Unless you are super organised, you end up doing it when you are at your hungriest: the last part of the afternoon. Add the smells of good things cooking - nourishing soups, fragrant curries and succulent roast chickens - and the fact that you can't really taste anything, and you've got a foolproof recipe for major tummy rumbles. Maybe that is another reason food tastes so wonderful after you've been fasting. And one of the sweetest pleasures of Ramadhan is sharing that food with others, be it as a bring-along dish at the mosque or with guests in the comfort of your home or, even more special, food given to a stranger you may never see again.

But Ramadhan is about much more than food. At it's most potent and most powerful, it a detox for body and soul. It is chance for Muslims to focus once again on our life's purpose, to tune into our spirituality, to re-establish our connection with our Creator. I like to write a list of my Ramadhan goals so that I can chart my progress: have I been slipping with my prayers? Have I read as much Qur'an as I intended to? Have I invited that nice sister from the mosque home for iftar? Have I been patient and hugged my kids enough? Without a list and a Ramadhan journal, I often feel I run out of steam and fall behind on my goals - so super-achiever tactics are in order.

However, Ramadhan doesn't always turn out to be the spiritual fix we long for. The main reason for this is that daily life has a habit of getting in the way. We aren't able to abstain from the daily grind as we can from food and drink. We can't even put it on hold somewhat, as they do in the Muslim world where they enjoy reduced working hours, shortened school hours, and national holidays for Eid - and, of course, no-one ever eats in public during daylight hours! In the UK, as in the rest of the non-Muslim world, life does not slow down: you are still expected to keep your deadlines, stay razor-sharp in the boardroom, the school run doesn't disappear, babies must be fed and changed and sibling skirmishes averted. Being a fasting Muslim on lunchbreak is like being a tree in the eye of the storm: your senses are assaulted from all sides and it's all you can do to bury your head in your miniature Qur'an and remember the reward promised the fasting person: to enter Paradise from the gate of Ar-Rayyan. And of course the samosas you know are waiting for you at sunset.

But maybe that is part of the challenge of Ramadhan, and of Islam as a whole: holding on to the spiritual while dealing with the dunya, the 'worldly life'. This challenge may not be as acute in the mountains of Morocco, far from the cut and thrust of modern society with its all-consuming angst, rising fuel costs and congestion charges. And on the occasions when I have had a less than fulfilling month, where I kick myself for losing the flow, for wasting time, for not wringing every ounce of blessing from this special month, I vow that next year I will leave the kids behind and flee to the mountains of Morocco where I can worship my Lord in peace and serenity. But then that wouldn't be real life, would it?

After all, this is where we live, this is where we fast and this is where we worship, in the middle of the canteen. This is our own special jihad, our own personal struggle. And maybe, just maybe, our holy month of Ramadhan is all the more precious for it...

copyright: Na'ima B. Robert

Na'ima B.Robert is editor of Sister's Magazine and the author of From my Sister's Lips
Her latest book is From Somalia with Love

My online diary for The Times online - part 2

July 25, 2008
Behind the veil: the online diary of a British Muslim woman
Na'ima B. Robert is a Muslim author, a wife and mother living in Britain. In the first of her regular articles for Faith Online she discusses the challenge of living the Islamic faith in a secular democracy.

As a Muslim woman living in the embrace of a vibrantly secular, liberal democratic society, you are constantly caught between two very different worlds.

On the one hand, there is your faith, Islam, a religion and way of life revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 1400 years ago, a religion that affects the way you think, the way you act, the way you speak, dress and eat. It is the world of worship and sacrifice, of duties and voluntary charity. It is the world of faith.

Then, on the other hand, there is the dunya, the "worldly life", where you live, work, study, shop, entertain and unwind. It is a world of trends and societal pressures, deadlines and promotions, summer sales and summer holidays. It is, in a nutshell, the world that almost everyone else lives in full-time.

And, interestingly enough, it is one that many non-Muslims are surprised that religious Muslim women inhabit at all. Despite the number of observant Muslim women active in public life in Britain (Respect party vice-chair Salma Yaqoob, editor and OBE Sara Joseph, activist and journalist Yvonne Ridley, novelist and dramatist Leila Aboulela to name but a few), media representations often fail to be anything more than stereotypes with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that Muslim women are oppressed, powerless, ghettoised, uneducated, devoid of ambition, with an unhealthy addiction to black clothes.

That is the only way I can explain the surprised reaction to the findings of a survey of Muslim women carried out by SISTERS Magazine and Ummah Foods. To some it apparently came as a revelation that Muslim women long for their soul mate and shop on the high street, that we too go out to eat and dream of running our own businesses one day.

This surprise struck me as puzzling. Where did people think we got our clothes from, if not shops like Hennes and Next, Monsoon and Zara? Or maybe they thought that, beneath our hijabs, jilbabs and niqabs, we simply wear more of the same: shapeless sack dresses and bloomers, stitched at home by hand.

What of the hijabi fashionistas, the undercover style queens, the ladies-only parties with beaded evening dresses and glitter hair gems? If nothing else, maybe the BBC television show Women in Black has shown audiences that there is indeed life beneath a black abayah. Do people really think that all Muslim women are victims of forced or 'arranged marriages' who live lives of dutiful obedience and loveless servitude with men who treat them like slaves?

How surprised people would be to learn of the 'halal romance', the deep love and affection felt by many Muslim couples, the years of companionship and support and, of course, numerous babies, that accompany many Muslim marriages. And, of course, even fewer know about the liberal attitude to marital intimacy that is to be found in the books of hadith and Islamic jurisprudence. But that is another story...

In essence, the Muslim woman in the UK is constantly negotiating the space between two worlds: Islam and the 'dunya'; East and West, the past and the future, her individual needs and ambitions and the needs and demands of the wider community.

It is tricky sometimes, straddling the divide, and it requires a great deal of balance, patience and compromise. But we wouldn't have it any other way. By choosing to practise Islam in the UK, this is what we have chosen: to have a foot in both camps and, hopefully, experience the best of both worlds, whatever those worlds may be.

Copyright: Na'ima B.Robert

Na'ima B. Robert is the editor of SISTERS magazine for Muslim women, and the author of From My Sisters' Lips; From Somalia with Love; The Swirling Hijab; My Around the World Scrapbook

Click here to access Sisters magazine


Life as a Muslim woman in Britain - Part 1

Islam took me by surprise: Na'ima B Robert's religious journey
Na'ima B. Robert was brought up in Leeds and Zimbabwe and led a typical Western lifestyle before she unexpectedly discovered Islam while holidaying in Eygpt
Na'ima B. Robert

I didn’t become Muslim for any of the reasons for which people often assume Western women decide to convert.

Our perception of Islam is such that we view conversion and, in particular, female conversion, with a sense of incredulity, of mistrust, perhaps even of pity. After all, what woman in her right mind would leave the comforts of a Western lifestyle, the freedom of an emancipated age, the promise of a secular future, for a life of God-consciousness, devotion and prayer – not to mention hijab?

There must be a plausible explanation for such a conversion.

It is often assumed that there is a Muslim man in the background, pulling the strings, offering marriage and family if she agrees to become a Muslim. Another explanation is that she has been brainwashed by a group of religious zealots and just needs time and patience to grow out of this “phase”. Other explanations include a desire to rebel against family and society, to make a political statement, to opt out of normal life, or simply cry out for attention.

But I did not become Muslim for any of these reasons. Before accepting Islam, I was at the height of a successful university career, had a great circle of friends, an active social life and a sense of confidence far surpassing my achievements to date! I wasn’t empty or lost or searching for the meaning of life: the desire for a deeper understanding of my life’s purpose was to come later.

I suppose you could say Islam took me by surprise. I wasn’t looking for it, didn’t expect to find and then, all of a sudden, there it was, on a trip to Egypt: this way of life, rooted in faith, grounded in firm moral principles, based on a belief in One God.

It’s simplicity and the clarity of its message took my breath away: there is only one God worthy of worship, without any partners, and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is His slave and messenger. It was, quite simply, the truth.

I read the Qur’an, that message revealed over 1,400 years ago, and it made sense to me. It was something I could believe, could uphold, could live, even in the UK, in the 21st century.

Unlike some, I admired Islam’s austerity, appreciated the emphasis on conquering one’s ego, of submitting to God with full submission. And so, through questions, debates and patience and prayer, God tamed my rebellious heart and I opened up to His service.

I accepted Islam after researching it for six months. And it’s ironic that, after 10 years as an orthodox Muslim, a niqab-wearing one at that, I look at my life today and find that, once again, I am at the height of a successful career (writing this time), have a great circle of friends, an active social life and a sense of confidence far surpassing my achievements to date. So, no, my life didn’t end when I embraced Islam.

It was just the beginning of a wonderful new journey, one I feel honoured to undertake. I wait to see where it takes me next.


Copyright: Na'ima B.Robert


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A blog too soon


Ok, after a 'hiatus' (more like a full stop and a coma, yes the spelling is accurate!), I am back (I hope).
Prompted by some manic Facebook activity and an interview slot on Huda TV, I have returned to my Flying Niqabi blog like a long-lost sheep (and yes, I do feel sheepish...)

The Shaykh who was present for most of the show was talking about marrying our children while they are young, even if that means we have to support them, have them live with us etc. because the fitnah that awaits them out in the streets, without the protection of marriage is great and too few parents pay attention to these things in their blind rush to see their children armed with degrees, high paying jobs and a one-way ticket to the top of the career ladder - boys and girls.

This means that Muslims in Muslim countries are delaying marriage until their late 20s, early 30s - and we see the societal effects of that everywhere.
But then he mentioned that, in Yemen, people get married young, I mean really young, like 12, 13 year old.

It was at this point in the discussion that I began to feel distinctly uneasy. My Islamic consciousness battled with my rationale as I listened to all the brothers agreeing that, yes, early marriage was a protection, was preferable, was the Sunnah etc. I panicked for a moment, thinking, 'I should not be here, in this discussion, right now.'

But, it was at that moment that the presenter began to introduce me and I realised I would have to say something. Would I dare challenge the Shaykh's view, would it be right to do so? Did I have any evidence for my opinion?

I took a deep breath and uttered a brief 'bismillah' before the presenter 'passed me the mic'.
I tried to compose my thoughts and sound as calm and unemotional as possible. I think, in all, I made the following points:

I started by saying that, in the West, we have seen the fruits of women and men delaying marriage in order to build their careers first. I thought of the many articles and studies I had read, in particular this one from the Atlantic in the States. And I said that that is one extreme.
- But, on the other hand, we must realise that, while the moral and social benefits of earlier marriage are clear and are supported by Islam, 'early marriage' is a relative term. The caller who rang in and said that she had her daughters married 'really young' was referring to them being 17, 18, 19. The Shaykh's definition of young was 12, 13. I said, to those of us raised in the West, 12, 13 year olds are still children.

While in most traditional societies, and certainly during the time of the Prophet sallallahu alaihi wasallam, reaching puberty meant you were ready for adult responsibilities, our youth, while being afforded many freedoms once they reach their teen years, are not brought up to take on adult responsibility at that time. This is mainly due to the influence of modern (aka Western) ideas about adolescence. The classic example being, they can have sexual relations from 16 (and are now sexually active at 11, 12) but are still considered 'too young' to get married.

So, my point is this: what 14 year old boy, brought up in modern society, is ready to get married and, by extension, start a family? He is not a man! HE IS NOT A MAN! Would you happily entrust your daughter to one of these boys who is still into playing computer games and hanging out at the mall? I could hear the brothers agreeing (I think!)

The presenter offered that different societies had different interpretations of what constitutes an early marriage. But still the Shaykh insisted: "Even if I have to support my son financially, have him and his wife stay with me, I must protect him from the fitnah that awaits him on the street as a young man. The same applies to my daughter."
He spoke more about how families should be facilitating these marriages, rather than forcing the young people to wait until they have fulfilled criteria that have no basis in Islam.

And do you know what, the more he spoke, the more I began to like the idea of my sons having a 'little wife' at 18, so that they can grow together, go on adventures together, travel, learn, see the world, protecting each other. Ahhh, what a sweet set-up.

But still, I had questions for the Shaykh: what about setting a condition in the contract that the girl finish her education, what about using birth control until she has completed her studies.
Hey, i had to ask! If you're talking about getting married at 16, even if you have an agreement that you will finish school, once the babies start coming, and for most Muslims they inevitably do, that schooling is out of the window.
Not to mention the fact that many young girls don't really know what they want out of life and, by extension, what kind of husband they would like. Would they like to work, to study, to teach, to give da'wah, to be homemaker, to travel, to live abroad? These are questions she may not have the answers to but will be greatly affected by the type of man she marries.

The Shaykh was reluctant to give a fatwa right then and there but i believe he said something to the effect that, if this fear of getting pregnant is enough to stop her getting married earlier, it may be permissible for them to do this for a while.
Pheww.... that's that sorted.

But, to be honest, another thing that concerned me was that marriage was being spoken about purely in terms of fulfilling one's desires in a halal way. Ergo, if you are ready for sex, you are ready for marriage.
Is it really that simple?
I thought marriage was a relationship between two people, a relationship that requires a certain level of emotional maturity and a high degree of responsibility and patience.
I hate to think that the kind of silliness that takes place between preteens and teenagers who are dating would be duplicated inside a marriage!

I dearly wished we could have followed up the discussion but, unfortunately, the show came to an end and all my questions were left hanging in my mind.
So i decided I had to blog instead.

I suppose, for me personally, early marriage is in your late teens, early twenties. But more importantly, both parties have to feel ready, emotionally AND physically for that crazy, wonderful journey that is love and marriage.

So, although I entered the discussion with my heart pounding and my head spinning, I left it with a different viewpoint, a lot calmer - and a whole lot more questions!

Til the next time, Huda TV - if they ever let me on again, that is!