Sunday, July 11, 2004

Literature, debate, or just cheap school boy fiction?

MWU! Sex and the Ummah Column

Some times I wonder whether this is just the rantings of a frustrated guy. There are a few issues raised, dealing more with refusal to abide by ritualistic rules.

Not to mention shallow name-calling bordering on blasphemy which I will not even discuss.

I still want to comment on the column, and throw out my own subversive ideas. This will only make sense if you've read the column.

So she went to a masjid in the suburb of Amherst and took shahadah. They gave her a hejab but were nice about it. They were nice about everything; those guys could say the meanest, most ignorant things but still use a gentle voice and try to sound rational and loving through it all. Told her she had to break up with her then-boyfriend, get rid of her dog, throw away old kufr clothes and cover it all except the face and hands, take a nice Arabic name, stop listening to her favorite artists, give dawah to her family or else their brains would burn and boil like Abu Talib, the whole nine. Eventually Lynn gave up on it, kept to her Rumi and stopped going there.

Sure, I get it. A barrage of orders, most of them negative, all of them at once, with no ideas on how to live your life really. Too much pressure ... go slow, man! But the point is, sometimes you just have to do things you don't like. It's called discipline. It differs from ascetism because, you know the right way to do those things. It's the difference between a balanced diet (which is healthy), and starving (which is not). May be she is being told to starve, withoutbeing toldd how to be balanced and not waste her life. How not to be a punk junky. But that doesn't mean you don't try to be a better person. Did she talk to her boyfriend about her faith. Did she consider engagement and marrying him, or just going it slow meanwhile - non-physical. The point of spiritualism and soft sufi-ism is to concentrate on your higher senses so you can easily control baser ones.

“I’m a spiritual person,” she said. “I believe in Allah, you know, though I don’t always call It ‘Allah’ and I pray the way I want to pray. Sometimes I just look out at the stars and this love-fear thing comes over me, you know? And sometimes I might sit in a Christian church listening to them talk about Isa with a book of Hafiz in my hands instead of the hymnal. And you know what, Yusef? Sometimes, every once in a while, I get out my old rug and I pray like Muhammad prayed. I never learned the shit in Arabic and my knees are uncovered, but if Allah has a problem with that then what kind of Allah do we believe in?”

Whoa!! What kind of spiritual person are you, if you can't change one little bit for your God? I still have all the sympathy with the character of Lynn, but please don't justify your weakness. Sure, liberal muslims should accept people like her into the fold, but accept that not being the perfect person is weakness. Weakness should be sympathised with, but not glorified!

“As-salaamu alaikum!” she said with a huge smile and matching hug.

“Wa-alaikum as-salaam,” I replied. “Good to see you.” With her face outlined in cotton hejab, a certain positive energy beamed from Lynn’s expression; but it was also obvious that she had strayed from her natural character.

The narrator has a crush on Lynn. Nothing wrong with that, its nice, beautiful and cute, but don't disguise it as something else, call it what it is.

“Sometimes I don’t know where I feel more out of place.” I looked at the floor, slowly making my way up to her eyes. I did not know what to do with our eye contact. She crinkled her eyebrows. I clumsily leaned toward her and it happened. I could not tell you really how it happened—I can’t remember making any conscious decision to go for it, and I have no memory of her taking the initiative. The kiss came of its own volition without asking for help from either of us.

Likewise, it continued and demanded more of us, like tongues and hands. Then her shirt was off and we cascaded onto my mattress. I opened my eyes briefly and looked at her shoulder, deciding the bra should come off and soon realizing I was out of my element tugging on the hooks. She reached behind herself and it was off.

The problem here is one of control and discipline. I don't mean to be condescending here, but see it for what it is. They like each other, that's cool. How old are they? Old enough, I guess. If that is so, why don't they consider marrying? If people will object, then I guess that's where practical liberal Islam comes in. To make marriage for two consenting individuals easier than fornication, adultery, whoredom and everything else that demeans people.

“Because I led you astray, wearing a tight little shirt so you could see my shape, right?”


“And I’d lean over so you could see right down…” As she said it she did just that, but almost in caricature of what the intention would have been.

“It’s all me, I’m the—”

She is talking about the hypocritical, double standard of blaming everything on the woman. She has a point.

There are some interesting and subversive comments by a reader there. One g.l. writes :

i see lust for white flesh is still a mainstay with muslims. this story proves it! funny how the "white" muslimah in this fiction story throws herself at whatever man passes by... typical occidentalist stereotype!

Lust has nothing to do with being muslim or white or whatever. But the story tries to say something about muslims and liberalism but if its really liberalism and equality and all that how come the protagonist was not african american? There are certainly more african american muslims, aren't there? If it is true that Lynn is more attractive than most Muslimas the narrator has met, then this should be said so openly. But the point here is that many Asiatic people find Caucasian, or specifically blonde people more attractive, it has got nothing to do with ideology or Islam, liberal or conservative. What it does have to say a lot about is the hypocritical stance of many asians who complain of racism but are even more racist towards africans and others. And even this supposedly liberal piece of fiction by a white american has that subtle racsim against the white woman. The "throwing herself at any man ..." thing.

I might add more on this, but I'd love to hear criticism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Always great to see thoughtful critiques of our pieces, even (especially?) ones I disagree with.

I do think this criticism suffers from the same difficulty some of our readers have with fiction that features Muslim characters in less than exemplary situations (or at least ones not approved by orthodoxy). The tendency sometimes is to start talking about what a character SHOULD do instead of dealing with the realities of that character and the voice of the author. For example, if a character commits murder, then we might say, well, you know, it would have been better if they understood that killing was wrong, etc.

In any case, congratulations on the blog. And really, we at MWU! aren't so bad.

Ahmed Nassef
Editor, MWU!

July 12, 2004 2:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Ahmed was very nice in his post. I guess I was gonna write something nasty in response to your critique of Michael's story. But I will follow Ahmed and simply invite you to read the piece with the authorship in mind. You seem to want to divorce Michael, who is someone experiencing and coping with existence and humanity, from the reality of the characters, be it actual or constructed; as if the story was written for the narrow purpose of you judging characters. Give the dude some respect.

July 12, 2004 4:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

salaams,I think you kinda missed the point,who made lynns race an issue? commenters on the story thats who,it wasnt an issue in the story,so the fact she was white means nothing,also whats with the throwing herself at any man,was yusef not the only man she was with in the story?The way I see it this story was about the struggles to do what is right islamically according to sunna etc.for a convert there can be alot of heartache over what you feel is unjust or unfair interpretations that are directed at woman.This is where PROGRESSIVE islam comes in.Loving allah without all the judgement.

July 12, 2004 12:39 PM  
Blogger Abdusalaam said...

To be honest I don't understand Knight. He sounds like a fully grown man still going through puberty. Sometimes its just pathetic.

Anyhow, the only part I appreciate is that I get to see the world through a white confused convert who has some unresolved issues with life.

And as far as giving him respect goes, he deserves as much respect he gave to siraj wahaj at ISNA. Great show of progressive spirit knight, real smooth.

July 12, 2004 2:50 PM  
Blogger qawukzi said...

Thank you for your comments. I understand what it is - a piece of fiction, and it refects on real situations. However, art can never be neutral, or value free.

We have to argue about the purpose of any writing. Is it just to reflect on what is happening? If that is the case, then I think it adds little value to any debate - whether about liberal Islam or not. In this specific piece, Lynn is the protagonist, and Yusef the narrator. Protagonist from the Greek agein, to drive, lead or agon, to contest. She is driving a point of view, (to which she has every right to do so). She is contesting the attitudes she faces. She is subverting the system. MWU!, and similar sites, including criticisms like this blog are examples of subversive writing. We are out to throw out ideas which are not the norm.

Now I do not criticise the person of Mike when I criticise this writing, I criticise the protagonist, the cause of this writing. It is also not a totalitarian rejectionist argument, for I sympathise with the characters and try to relate. The point of my criticism is to give space to another point of view. One I will call moderate liberalism for lack of a better cliche.

Another criticism that I had with this writing was that it reflects problems we are all already aware of. Not that there is anyhting wrong with that. But what is hepful is a discussion of the solutions. May be the novel was not a good place for that. That's ok. But there still needs to be debate on the attitudes that we are trying to profess and encourage. When you get rid of something, something else has to replace it. I am writing about what should come next, and I am asking you to give your input.

As for race issues, I think they do crop up, very subtly because everyone wants to be politically correct. I am going to talk about it because it is something others avoid, conservatives and liberals alike.

July 12, 2004 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Balanced diet ... what is this, analogies section on the SAT? :))


July 12, 2004 4:24 PM  
Blogger Abdusalaam said...

Qawukzi:"She is driving a point of view, (to which she has every right to do so). She is contesting the attitudes she faces. She is subverting the system."

You are absolutely right. But the people at MWU won't admit it. They keep saying its fiction and we shouldn't get riled up for what they write. It's not fiction for fiction sake. There is an agenda being pushed under the pretext of fiction.

Frankly, I don't mind if they are pushing one. But you've gotta be open about it.

July 12, 2004 5:40 PM  
Blogger qawukzi said...

Exactly, and I'd like to hear what other people have to say to that. So, to anybody out there who relates at all to any of the characters, what's YOUR agenda?

July 12, 2004 5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my agenda is to understand who the hell i am - and i do not and likely will never want to say that lynn (or michael, or anyone) is a Muslim or not -- i could care less. if i had reason to think that what it means to be Muslim was some platonic, inexplicable truth, then i would probably also be angry if Lynn had sex for the purpose of pushing some mwu agenda. But I can't find any such reason to think (only) this way. so if the agenda of getting minds active on understanding who we are (as humans and perhaps as Muslims) gets on your nerves, i'd ask you why that is the case. is it something blasphemous about their language?

Tahir Butt

July 12, 2004 10:04 PM  
Blogger qawukzi said...

Tahir, thanks for your comment. I think I understand something from your post that I did not realise earlier. So the purpose is to explore issues and the perspective of characters like Lynn, Yusef, and Marcos to understand who we are. It makes sense to a certain extent.

I think you have mis-understood me. I am not 'angry' at Lynn, it's not my job to be 'angry' at someone for having sex, much less an imaginary character. My commentary was about giving answers to the questions being raised in the story. My criticism was about the story not even trying to provide answers. Mike, or anybody else is free to write any story they want. But whether you want to admit it or not, MWU! tries to give an alternative perspective on issues. A perspective that is different from conservative opinion, whether Salafi, Sunni, Shi'a or Sufi (a much abused term). But the perspective portrayed in this column is mostly shallow, empty, and not very enlightening. MWU! claims to be the voice of the liberal muslim majority. I sometimes think that I am part of that group, and that is why it is even more important for me to speak out and say what I think is terribly wrong with the perspective put out by the story.

I think you are also over estimating what I mean by criticism. Criticism as in the practice of analyzing, classifying, interpreting, or evaluating literary or other artistic works. I am just telling you what it is. What the views are, and what is wrong with them.

Yes, there are other parts of the story that veer towards topics that are particularly offensive to me, passages that degrade God, the prophets, or the early Muslims. I had stated initially that I will not even comment on these, as these are beneath me. When I ask what your agenda is, I was asking if you have any views you want to share regarding the issues raised in the story.

July 13, 2004 12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a must read post on the topic at hand: MWU.

July 14, 2004 1:33 AM  

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