Monday, March 28, 2011

Sufi Comics - review

  40 Sufi Comics by Mohammed Ali Vakil and Mohammed Arif Vakil is an amazing collection of forty one-page comic strips that illustrate key spiritual teachings in fields such as ethics, prayer, existence of heaven and hell, and existence of God.  On the facing page of each comic are relevant excerpts from the Qur’an and traditions of Ahlul-bayt (as).  Some facing pages also include artist’s notes which serve to relay a personal application or further explanation of the lesson in the comic.

One of the great beauties of this work is its suitability for all audiences and ages.  An 8-year-old child, a 55-year-old adult, or an open-minded non-Muslim – indeed almost anyone – will enjoy and benefit from this material.  Some of the comics do have a bit of humor in them, but really they are perhaps better described as illustrated anecdotes, each revealing a principle or idea that one can live one’s life by.  For example, one comic shows Imam Baqir (as) being insulted by someone using a play of words on his name, calling him Baqara (cow), followed by the calm and polite response of the Imam (as), which brings about a change of heart in the insulter.   One of the Qur’anic verses accompanying it is 25:63 - “And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them [harshly], they say [words of] peace…,” and an artist’s note explains how he thinks of this anecdote whenever someone is rude to him.  In no more than 5 minutes’ reading, a life lesson on how to deal with rude people is well taught in an insightful, succinct and entertaining way.

The graphic format of 40 Sufi Comics encourages reflection and application.  People who do not like to read, people who are very busy, or people who prefer to get straight to the point or take things in small chunks can all easily digest a short comic and a few short related verses and traditions and then put the book down for another day.  The lessons in each anecdote are simple enough for a small child but deep enough for a learned and pious religious scholar to both be able to transform their selves in application.  The format and nature of the content also makes it a prime candidate for regular re-reading because there is always something more to learn or improvement to be made in its application, and the comics are so brief and clever that they will not become mundane or boring when seen multiple times.

There is a potential for this to be used in a madressa or study-circle type format. It would certainly be more novel , engaging and have broader appeal than many other choices, while being no less in content or quality, and further could be used for almost any age group that is able to read or be read to.  One of the shortest comics at only three panels relays a saying of Imam Ali (as) about man being food for worms.  Some worms are at a grave and are saying “Yum!”  The Qur’anic verse and two traditions that go with it simply remind us of death  and the importance of remembering that it comes to all of us.  A topic that could be frightening or heavy-handed is well served by brevity and honesty.  There is no sugar-coating and yet the lesson is accessible to youth.

40 Sufi Comics
can be read or previewed online (as well as a few comics published at Islamic Insights)and can be followed on Facebook .  The book is a delight and highly worth having in hard copy where its formatting can really be appreciated.  It would also serve as an excellent gift for young and old. It can be purchased currently for only $6 on Amazon where it is listed as "Volume 1". Let us hope there are many more volumes to come!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Believing Woman

Who is a believing woman that she should be yours?

What women are not existing merely for the comforts and elevation of others,
their humanity an inconvenience
but women with trust placed in God,
whose souls resist subjugation and dependence on people
and who know God is the only one on whom they can rely?

Women who give themselves freely
to the one who will not hurt them
- neither through ignorance or arrogance -
but rather one who is merciful
and honors their complex femininity
and does not cheapen it, sell it, abuse it, confuse it, or deride it.

Is a believing woman out of sight, out of mind, out of heart?
In the dark night she rises for communion with one whose heart can hold her
one who she can accept as guardian and leader without fear of error
for what greater misfortune befalls a believing woman but to be held
by a weak man or a prideful one or an angry one or a misguided one
or one who is farther from God than she is?

What man's heart can be entrusted with hers so that she is uplifted by it toward her Creator?

What sacrifice should a believing woman make?
Surely not the freedom of her soul to be real and complete
in order to disappear into the whims of a man's desires and conceits?
Is she a worldly comfort for the other gender or is she a fully-realized being
whose comforts are blessings not constrained by constructs of others nor
ever claimed to be possessed and traded by them as commodities
or leverage against her soul?

A believing woman is selling nothing and must fight being sold.
She struggles for education and enlightenment -
rather she is told her salvation is in servitude,
and some would have her serve them rather than God
and tell her that only by this indirect means can she draw near
to the one she seeks.

For she alone is not worthy or capable of approaching Him of herself
and she has no real value or piety unless she gives herself to one of them.
But what greater misfortune befalls a believing woman than to be held
by a weak man or a prideful one or an angry one or a misguided one
or one who is farther from God than she is?

Warsan Shire - for women who are 'difficult' to love.

I like this poem especially for the line I put in bold....

you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
forget you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one who
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn't you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him travelling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do love
split his head open?
you can't make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.
Posted by Warsan Shire

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Love in a Headscarf (Review)

Love in a Headscarf is a memoir written by award-winning UK Muslim blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, light-heartedly depicting her decade-long spouse hunt. Her fantasy as a 13-year-old of marrying John Travolta (after he converts to Islam, of course) and of finding Prince Charming is juxtaposed with the difficult realities of modern young Muslims in the West trying to get married. All the lectures from the imam at the masjid about marriage notwithstanding, she reports that her community finds itself in a situation of large numbers of Muslim girls being unable to find spouses, with too many of the boys marrying “back home”, seeking marriage primarily for residency purposes, being uninterested in marriage, or being wholly unprepared to be husbands. The match-making Aunties fret over the possibly too-high education levels and aspirations of the girls while the girls fret over the contrast between the Islamic teachings on love and marriage and the cultural realities.

Her tales of potential matches gone wrong are humorous, candid, and disconcerting. From the brother who announces up front he will not consider marrying her because she is only 5’3” but wants to meet her for dinner anyway, to the one who agrees to meet her at 5 p.m. for introductions over coffee, only to show up at 7 because he was busy watching a soccer match on T.V., and who then proceeds to pocket her change from the Dutch-treat evening along with his, to the one who admits that he is only meeting her and her family because his mother insisted it was time for him to get married although he has no interest, Sister Shelina is left to wonder where the “good men” are and why aren’t they interested in her and her friends. Over time, she and her friends begin to contemplate the possibility of never getting married, a fate met with sad clucks, admonitions, and shakes of the head at the masjid.

She goes through a mild rebellion by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, traveling to Egypt with her girlfriends, and buying a fancy car – the kind of car boys, not “good girls”, get - all the while trying to balance her independence against the possibility of ruining her reputation with the match-making Aunties. Initially her searches are entirely traditional, but she gradually expands her methods to include online matchmaking sites and even disastrous Muslim “speed dating” events in London. Eventually, she does meet “Mr. Right” at an Islamic conference, but it appears only perseverance and good fortune or blessings from God, rather than any solution to the marriage problem of the Muslim community, gets the credit.

Love in a Headscarf is a fast, easy, almost frivolous read and would primarily appeal to young women. Janmohamed supposes a non-Muslim audience and addresses it with occasional, generally engaging monologues on why she wears hijab or about her post 9/11 experiences that do not quite fit seamlessly into her theme, but may nevertheless serve to educate. Her delineation of Islam vs. culture is perhaps not always clear enough for that non-Muslim or different cultural-background audience, particularly early in the story, and might create some confusion or monolithic interpretation of Islam and marriage that is not fully warranted. Some, like myself, may be a little uneasy with her implicit depiction of the marriage problem as primarily a male one, but perhaps others will claim she hits the nail on the head. If the Muslim women have some contribution to the problem, she seems unable to get a good grasp on it, aside from blaming general cultural matters. She does not come across as a male-bashing feminist, but all the failed matches in her tales have either fate or men to account for them, with the women merely victims- a fact which becomes wearisome and may even invoke pity or concern for the long list of potential matches whose private conversations with her during the matching process end up aired publicly in this book. Perhaps the men were made anonymous through name and/or detail changes or were fictionalized, but if so, this was not announced, and members of the community the author is part of could likely easily still determine who is being talked about. Although the stories are nothing out of the ordinary, the unflattering depiction of some men left me to wonder if they had been backbitten, which, if true, would be cause enough to avoid recommending this book.

Although this memoir contains humor and seems to be light-hearted, it is not uplifting. To the contrary, for those single Muslim men and women who are enduring the struggle to find mates or are preparing to embark on that journey, it is not helpful and is even rather despairing at times, although that was clearly not intended by the author. The unwounded in the modern Muslim marriage plight may miss that negative tenor, but the potential emotional drag for those with real-life experience in this arena may be enough to recommend passing over this book. Those with plenty of optimism and with time on their side may yet be able to thoroughly enjoy this energetic, youthful true tale.