Musings and Mules

‘This is really a miserable trip’, said my foriend, trousers torn, passport lost and sympathetic towards our other friend who was taken ill of food poisoning. We could never have guessed that such an experience would turn out to be quite so insightful.

‘Let’s hike the colca canyon?!’ I convinced my friends ahead of the trip, excitement of seeing condors and stars and Andean valleys was too good an opportunity to pass up. I admit my line of thinking had considered the high altitude but didn’t extend far enough to gauge the level of difficulty in descending and ascending such a feat of land. It will be a leisurely stroll, I told my self – we will have enough water, snacks and company to keep us going.

What transpired next were three brown people lagging behind the rest of the group. One of us falling ill with food poisoning and the  symptoms generously demonstrating themselves as we walked on, one of us struggling with the high altitude and the third simply ill prepared and unfit to complete such a task (despite being the proud owner of a fitbit, deceivingly purchased merely for measuring sleep patterns). The only preparation sought was a fashion backpack, a bar of snickers and an unflattering hat bought at the spur of the moment for just in case. Three separate stories, three collective lessons learnt.

For one of us taken ill, a humbling lesson was learnt. Once you have no choice but to quite literally empty yourself of all poison across a path that has no hide of shelter or shade, you begin to humanise yourself and through that realisation, other people. You recognise you are no different than anyone else and that in the end all we are is body, soul, dust. That experiences and circumstances influence actions- and that you can never ever know what someone else is going through and the reasons why. I think there are few things that can bring a person back down to earth than having to use the toilet in public and hoping no other group come walking round the bend at that precise moment. Having the very person you judged to also be the same person who then takes care of you provides a great slice of humble pie.

For the second one of us, the concept of letting go was practiced. Deciding that the high altitude was too much and recognising personal limits, led to having to wait for a mule to arrive in order to return to town. ‘The wait could be 20 minutes or 3 hours’ the guide said, ‘that’s fine’. Any wait would be better than trying to walk for 5 hours on unsteady footing.  The wait was a 2 hour practice of patience, oppressive heat and hallucinations of donkey hooves hitting against the ground. A sense of vulnerability and fear began to set in, but realising that a passport was missing, the lack of oxygen, a fall on the ground and one side shot of an iguana lizard later, the principle of letting things go and accepting things as they are made themselves at home. A knight in shining armour and carriage finally came in the form of señor Julian and his mule. Gratitude was expressed in two rakaats of prayer and finding solace in the matrimonial suite of a random little hostel that took American Express.

Finally, the third musketeer.  The one who got off lightly but not without a lesson of her own.  Not wanting to leave ill friend behind, the thought of accompanying her by mule seemed like a great idea. The trek was hard and there were still hours left to go of walking. The air was thin and breathing was intentional and heavy. What seemed like a moment of physical rest was made up in the form of emotional and mental gymnastics. The path across the canyon was uneven and the mule’s makeshift saddle uncomfortable. A disciplined mule, yes, but a mere slip or fall could lead to an unfortunate turn of events. A genuine feeling of dread and fear cultivated into a plea of desperation but also hope. Unbeknown to the mule, its rider was close to tears, quietly whispering calls of ‘Ya Salam, Ya Kareem, Ya Rahman’, all the while holding on to a saddle that cut through skin and trying to not fall off. Observations were made throughout the day. That of how the human body is so weak and the value of good health but also just how strong the human spirit could be and how one could push themselves to do anything if there is enough will and courage. Observing the hard work of the señors and their mules bought a real sense of perspective in where we place priorities and our sense of gratitude.  Putting bread on the table is never easy but labour undertaken with honesty and effort, despite the difficult conditions was a great reminder of still showing up even when you don’t want to. First world problems were also gently pushed to the side when a shower had to be taken in a shared shack and a bedroom had to be slept in that was hosted by mini scorpions and spiders.

A few days later, after the calves had healed, the stomach had settled and the awful back pack that led to the temporal loss of a passport was thrown away, we recalled the lessons learnt from such an experience. Though still raw in my mind, I constantly think back to that night, and despite the misery of it all at the time, I recall the night star and truly, the stars have never shone so bright.



This year.

This year.
This year I saw in the new year under the covers. I was tired and didn’t fancy staying up 10 more minutes just because it’s the thing to do.
This year, I marvelled at the lessons my baby niece is learning in how to share, how to jump and how to not give up, forcing her to continue to colour in despite her lack of self-belief, ‘I can’t do it Khalti’. These lessons in self-confidence is like muscle memory and they need to start from now. I also discovered that leg cuddles from little human’s arms are the best kind of cuddles.
This year, I saw a shooting star, or a dying star or a whole load of star dust enter the earth’s atmosphere with such sparkle, only to disappear, far too abruptly. Beauty gone in an instant, but it didn’t take away that such glorious magic existed to begin with. I had the big dipper pointed out to me as I was standing by a lighthouse on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. I gazed up at the sky, at the light shining from the moon and the stars, and knew, reality is more than this; than the joys and the struggles, the mundane and the temporary distractions.
This year.
This year, I finally got a compliment of encouragement from my ballet teacher on good posture (and many a comment on more work to do on my arms!). This year I danced with heels on, and heels off, with ballet shoes and swollen toes. I began to see dance for how I always saw it as a child, as not only a form of creativity and an art, but an expression of voice. My voice.
This year, I woke up to the news of a fire that incinerated homes and souls and that there was nothing anyone could do to get them back. I kept replaying clips and reading news that only made me slump into a state of despair. I found that for some people, news feeds force them to act, but for others, only to freeze. This year I went to sleep cosy, warm and satiated, knowing full well that many a one didn’t, and yet, still I slept. This year, I realised the extent of my hypocrisy in that I can care about a cause, only to forget about it later. This year, I realised the extent of my privilege in that I can make choices in how I respond to global calamities and troubles. This year, I forgave myself in that I can only do so much, but I also held myself to account that I should at least try and when I falter, to try again.
This year, I walked around the souks of the medina and found a young man who sells okra out of a bucket for 40p a kilo. He refused to accept a contribution given by some benefactors as he said he has enough and pointed us in the direction of people who didn’t. This year, I learnt about honesty and sincerity, about excellence of character and gratitude, about contentment and trust. I learnt this all from a minute with a young unassuming man selling vegetables out of a bucket. A poor man in our twisted sense of reality, but a rich man in Truth. This same trip another elderly man was just around the corner. He accepted the donation and exclaimed that only God knew how much he needed this gift. I too learnt then about reliance in God for provision (rizq), for our eyes to remain open to who is in need and for our hearts to remain open too when we are the ones in need.
This year. This year I learnt to value the silence over the noise. To shut out the unnecessary. That sometimes things are actually better off unsaid. To remember to balance maintaining self-worth without the overpowerment of ego. To seek knowledge from learned people and to be comfortable in saying ‘I do not know’. I found that worry and prayer cannot exist at the same time. This year I decided I would no longer care what people thought of me. This year, I realised I still do care about what people think of me. This year I met women who carried such grace in their forgiveness of others that I knew I still have far to go in both receiving and giving of it. This year, I met people who have enriched my life. This year I found that I learnt something, then forgot it, then re-learnt it and forgot it again. This year I went paragliding over mountains and forests. I looked down, took in the view and then completely freaked out about being held up by a gust of wind. My heart forced my mind to stop rationalising things, to trust beyond my own abilities and to just enjoy the journey; this journey in the sky, the one down below and the transition inbetween.
Last year and the one before that, I thought I lost hope, this year I found it.

Connections with the Prophet

The best compliment I have ever received was about a protruding vein I have on my forehead. It’s a vein that only surfaces when I am experiencing particular states in extremities such as tiredness, anger, sadness or joy. I feel largely indifferent towards it, but on occasion I rather it not be there.

Until of course, I had a comment made about it. A friend I had met during a course looked at me one day, pointed and touched my forehead and excitedly said ‘you have the same vein like our Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him)!’ I can’t explain the exact feeling I had at the moment of her making such an observation, but I remember a very intense feeling of closeness and longing for the Prophet (peace be upon him). My friend had pointed out that the Prophet (peace be upon him) and I share a feature, and that connection increased a sense of love and gratitude in me; that even if I constantly fall short in my attempts to emulate the Prophet (peace be upon him), at the very least if people aware of his description were to be reminded of him when spotting my vein, then that reminder might be a cause for prayers (salawat) upon him or a rekindling of love in their hearts of him. Surely as and when this vein appears and I notice it, it would be a reminder to me first and foremost of the most blessed of creation.

Her comment at that moment demonstrated knowledge that she acquired earlier that day. We had been going through Shamaa’il al Tirmidhi- a collection of hadiths regarding intricate details of the Prophet (peace be upon him). In a few hadiths, there was a description that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had a vein on his forehead (more specifically between his eyebrows) that would become obvious if he was cross or upset.

I thought about how happy this comparison had made me; how I was going to now look at this feature of mine with affection and how my heart opened with more love for my Prophet (peace be upon him) by feeling like I could relate to him. I reflected on how this was only because I learnt something about him and realised how incredibly crucial it is to continue to revise and read up about him as it is only through knowing him, can we love him, and through loving him can we emulate him in every single aspect of our lives.

Using pointers to remind us of him is a helpful way to maintain constant salawat and reflection. For instance, this summer a friend pointed out something that has now completely changed how I view Mondays. She said that Monday was the day that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was born and rather than being seen as a day of gloom, it should be a reminder of the greatest man to ever live and a day of celebration and remembrance. Reading up on how he acted, what he loved and what he looked like support a greater understanding of him and is a way to foster emulation in behaviour. We can only relate to what we recognise and understand.

Ali (may God be pleased with him) said of the prophet (peace be upon him) that …’He was the most generous-hearted of men, the most truthful of them in speech, the most mild-tempered of them, and the noblest of them in lineage. Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him. And whoever associated with him familiarly loved him. Anyone who would describe him would say, ‘I never saw, before him or after him, the like of him.’ Peace be upon him.”

I know that he loved to smile, that he respected the elderly and honoured the young. He was playful, kind, generous and loving. He was forgiving and caring and would fully face each person as he spoke to them, such that the person thought he was the most loved by him. He was ethical and cared about the environment and not wasting food and water. He had a name for each of his items of clothing and appreciative of what little he had.

This knowledge of who he was serves as examples for us. Peace and blessing upon him <3.

A little effort goes a long way

I was in a bit of a low mood at the weekend so when Monday came round, I was determined to make it a good week. A good Monday for me is one where I rise early and I did. Battling against thoughts to hit the snooze button, I crawled out of bed and somehow made it out the door. Now that I was out, I was hopeful of a day full of productivity. However, what is the point of getting up early to get stuff done, if you then miss your train that would have got you to the place where you could get stuff done. My train was at the platform and I was not there. Running to get past the gates, and still in a sensitive mood from the weekend,  I was already contemplating how annoyed and upset I would be if I was to miss the train. As the train doors were about to close, a man held the doors open for me. I managed to run in and the doors promptly closed behind me. It was no big deal one might say to hold the door open (although this may be at the dismay of the other passengers on the train), but I was really grateful for his effort. Not only did he help me catch my train, but he also stopped me from having what really would have felt like a bad start to the day.

Another time, I had needed to get home and was struggling to catch a bus that was about to leave. A kind stranger stopped the bus, proceeded to get on, stalled at the door, then once I ran and reached the stop, got off and waited back at the bus stop for their own bus. They had no reason to go out of their way and do that, but they did simply due to their generosity of spirit.

In the Islamic tradition, it is said that when a person dies and is lying in their grave, a beautiful form will appear to them. This form will reflect all the happiness that was felt by others through one’s good work.

Small efforts like this feel like nothing, but to the person on the other end, it might make all the difference. One upside of taking public transport is witnessing all the sweet things that happen between people. A while back, I remember seeing a man in a high vis jacket resting against a pole and falling in and out of sleep after what looked like a really hard and tasking day. A man in front of him, gently touched his shoulder and told him to take his seat, which he did. Within seconds, the man in the high vis jacket was fast asleep. At a time when it was needed most, a stranger provided another with some relief, ease and comfort.

There is a hadith that putting in effort (however small) to help another is a form of charity: ‘Charity is owed on every limb that people have. Every day on which the sun rises in which someone establishes justice between two people is charity. To help a man with his animal and help him onto it is charity. Or to lift his goods onto it is charity. A good word is charity. Every step you take to the prayer is charity. Removing an obstacle from the road is charity’.

There are so many opportunities to ease another’s load, and often with little effort required. That little effort you make however, might just be the relief needed for the person you help- it might spark some joy or a smile, it might remind them of the kindness that still exists, or it might just very well turn a bad day into a good one.






The legacy of those around us

I was really moved recently by a talk given by Photographer Peter Sanders. He had spent the past 45 years travelling the world and taking photographs of people he connected with on a spiritual level. His aim was to create a visual legacy of godly people, ‘mountains’ as he called them, some of which had never been photographed before and who lead very discreet, simple and humble lives.  He was clear that he wasn’t attributing sainthood to them, but that he had been touched by their presence, words and way of life in a way that conveyed truth, beauty and goodness.

I was moved by this project because the aim of documenting a type of heritage reminded me of my grandparents, particularly my maternal ones who although have now passed on, still deeply inspire my understanding of ‘living and breathing’ Islam. You see, growing up spending summers in Morocco meant summers of eating from a communal plate with 15 other relatives, it meant summers of greeting my grandfather at the door on his return from every communal prayer he made at the mosque (and having young teenagers from the neighbourhood accompany him), it meant summers of requesting water from the relative nearest to the kitchen and as part of the request, praying that they be able to drink such water in the gardens of paradise and it meant giving others that which you would love for yourself- my grandfather was once gifted a pair of shoes to replace his shabby old ones. A few days later, when probed on where his new shoes were, he explained that he gave them away and kept the old pair for himself.

When both my grandparents passed on, I hadn’t quite realised what this meant. Not only were their physical selves no longer in presence, but also some of the habits they maintained while alive were no longer routinely kept to by their children and grandchildren, or sometimes even remembered. My grandmother loved to sing words of remembrance (dhikr) in a communal setting (sometimes my grandparents would lead my family in an impromptu hadra!) and she had a beautiful song about the beginninglessness and everlastingness of God.  Since her passing, I have tried to remember the lyrics to this particular dhikr, asked relatives if they know of the words and tried googling many a phrase to try and locate the song. My grandmother grew up at a time when local women would sing and make up their words of remembrance as they went along. I fear this was the case here. With my grandmother’s passing, a personal tradition and heritage passed too. It made me think of how more present I should have been around her, noting her songs, taping them and engaging with her about how an illiterate woman could create and combine such words that move the heart, much more eloquently than many a book.

I then recall my father telling me about pre-partition India and Pakistan, how my paternal family, though originally Lahori, lived in Delhi and that as tensions began to rise, the Scottish Manager who employed my grandfather at the railway company, paid him 3 months wages and told him to leave the country before things got worse. When my grandfather returned home, he found my grandmother in tears. She recounted that a mob of men had begun to circulate around the houses. A Hindu neighbour tried to protect my family and stop the mob from entering the house but he warned my grandfather that he could only do so much to protect them and that it would be safer to leave. My father, a young boy at the time remembers time spent at a refugee camp in the days following the partition and how our family were initially frustrated when they couldn’t board the train back to Lahore due to overcrowding. Luckily, they couldn’t, as the train returned to Lahore entirely full of dead bodies, caught up in a raid by a mob on the journey.

When I reflect on these stories, I realise the importance of narrative, of personal history, of identity, and of legacy. Too often we allow others to narrate our stories, to define our identities and to recall our histories- despite the level of nuances, complexities and attachments of meanings that exist.

Ustadh Usama Canon once said that ‘Your whole life is an interlude, between what your ancestors put into you and how your descendants depend on you. Convey what you are able’. He advised that one should learn about their lineage, to write about it and to preserve it and to go to one’s elders and ask them to speak of their childhood and background.

This is especially important when we live in an age and time where your worth as a particular type of human being is questioned and denied. Understanding your personal history enables you to understand yourself, understand the personal legacy that was left by those who came before you and understand the type of legacy you too wish to leave behind.

Growing hope: Reflections

These reflections are based on a talk given by Anse (super colloquial Syrian word for teacher) Tamara Gray. The theme was about learning from the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him- ) and ‘growing hope’. Anse Tamara studied in Syria for 20 years before moving back to the US. Her area of specialism is in the seerah and the life of the prophet Muhammad ().

Five of the prophet’s () wives were highlighted in Anse Tamara’s talk, and though she mentioned one brief defining quality or characteristic of each of them, she made it clear that there was more to them as complex and multi-faceted individuals.

Khadija (may God be pleased with her)

Khadija was a divorced 40 year old woman when she married 25 year old Muhammad    (). She had two children from her previous marriage; a boy and girl who both went by the name of Hind. She was already a believer in God and it is understood that she was very much aware that there was a prophet to come in later times. When she married the prophet (), she believed him to be the calibre and quality of a prophet and when he was given the message 15 years later, she was ready and waiting as the first believer.

Khadija teaches us the virtue of trust and patience, and of honouring your beliefs.

Umm Salama (may God be pleased with her)

Umm Salama was married to Abu Salama and they loved each other intensely. She even made a deal with her husband that when one of them dies, the other would not re-marry. Abu Salama tried to persuade her that if he was to die, that she be able to marry someone much better than himself. When Umm Salama found herself a widow, the prophet () proposed to her. She initially refused, stating that because of her intense sense of love, her jealousy would cause her to act in a manner that would be inappropriate towards the prophet’s () status. She added that she was also old and had children. The prophet () won her over; he told her that as for her age, he was in the same position, that as for her children, they would also become his , and that as for her jealousy, he would ask God to cure her of it.

Umm Salama reminds us of the raw intensity of love and the importance of honesty.

Umm Habiba (may God be pleased with her)

Umm Habiba and her husband both migrated to (then) Abyssinia when Muslims first started to be persecuted. She was vulnerable, in a new land and unfamiliar with her surroundings, but she was happy that she at least had her husband. One day she had a terrible dream about Abu Habiba and recounted to him that she had dreamt he had left Islam. He responded that indeed he had left the faith and that he was now, also leaving her. Umm Habiba was broken and lost. Her heart break was made worse due to the vulnerable state she was in, yet she never made betrayal her story. She healed and after married the prophet ().

Umm Habiba teaches us the truth of forbearance, of healing and of hope.

Zaynab (may God be pleased with her)

There was an instance whereby the prophet () was walking with his companions until they reached the mosque and a rope was spotted hanging between two pillars. When the prophet () enquired about the rope, he was told that it belonged to his wife Zaynab, who would pray late at night. When she got tired, she would hold on to the rope to support her while she prayed. The prophet () then requested that the rope be taken down, advising his companions that when one is overcome with sleep while praying, they should sit. This was taken to mean that one either sits in prayer or that one should rest instead.

This story highlights Zaynab’s piety and devotion to her faith.

Aisha (May God be pleased with her)

Aisha’s age always tends to come up whenever she is mentioned, and although there are vast differences in opinion in relation to how old she was, one of the more important defining features of Aisha is that she is the source of some two-thirds of Islamic law and shariah. So much of our understanding of our faith is due to Aisha’s sheer brilliance and intelligence.  After the prophet’s () death, Aisha proceeded to take on and teach a substantial number of female and male students.

Aisha’s commitment to learning, scholarship and teaching is something for us to also aspire towards. Anse Tamara Gray advised that one should aim to learn something new every week for at least an hour, and to then also teach something every week for the same amount of time.

The prophet’s () wives were known as the ‘mothers of the believers’ (umuhat al mumineen) and this title of ‘mother’ denotes a number of rights that are due to them by us. The prophet’s () wives knew him so intimately, that it is crucial we learn more about them, in order to learn more about the prophet ().

After all, ‘revelation began in the cloak of Khadija and ended in the lap of Aisha’*.


*I noted this final quote from the internet but am now unable to find the source of the quote. 

Embodying the steadfastness of Hajar

There are usually two ways to deal with a rut or unfortunate situation one may find themselves in. One is to attempt by any means possible and with all sense of determination to change things, no matter how hard it may seem or the number of struggles that are experienced along the way. The other is to remain in the rut, either becoming content with the way things pan out or feeling hopeless that things will never change.

In these blessed days of Dhul Hijjah, I am reminded of the importance of perseverance and determination no matter how dire a situation may seem, through our mother Hajar (may God be pleased with her).  I am also reminded how incredibly honoured she is in Islam’s faith tradition.

The story of Hajar and her son Ismaeel being left out in a hostile and barren desert is one that is often taught to children from a young age. I knew that baby Ismaeel (peace be upon him) was thirsty, that his mother Hajar was desperately attempting to find water and that the blessed water of zam zam miraculously arose out of the valleys thereafter.

What I didn’t realise however, was just how steadfast and patient Hajar was, just how incredibly frightening the environment she was in and just how trusting and hopeful she was of God’s care for her and her child. I believe these are the bigger lessons to be learnt.

In Sahih al Bukhari, the Hadith explains how Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) was to fulfil divine command and leave Hajar and their beloved son in an uninhabited valley of Makkah. As Prophet Ibrahim takes them into the valley, Hajar asks ‘O Ibrahim! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is neither any person nor anything else (to survive)? She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her. Then she asked him, ‘Has God instructed you to do so?’ He replied, ‘yes’.  She then said ‘then God will not neglect us’.

After finishing the small amount of supplies Hajar had with her, she and her baby began to grow thirsty. Seeing no sign of life in sight, she began to run between each mountain of Safa and Marwa, each time extending her sights over a barren land in the hope of seeing something.  Narrations explain that she ran with such urgency and desperation, holding her clothes up to enable swifter movement. She did this seven times until she came back to the mountain of Marwa and saw the Arch-angel Jibreel accessing water from the ground for her and her child.

There are lessons here for us. Hajar’s efforts are commemorated through the rituals of Umrah and Hajj. Adhering to and practicing the five pillars of Islam is not complete unless one (who is able to meet the conditions) has gone through the motions that Hajar had to go through. Physically, the ritual can be gruelling even for the fittest person, and this is despite the easier conditions of marbled flooring and shade that the Grand Mosque of Makkah provides.

Internally there are lessons too. Of faith, courage, steadfastness and perseverance; of putting in the effort despite the hurdles one conceives of and of unwavering trust in God that He will not neglect, ever.

This active sense of reliance can also be understood through the hadith narrated by Anas ibn Malik who reported that a man said, ‘O Messenger of God, should I tie my camel and trust in God, or should I leave her untied and trust in God?’ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Tie your camel and trust in God’.

Some traditionalists say that ‘everyone has a share in his own name’, meaning that a person may embody the characteristics of one’s good name. My parents honoured me with a middle name that is Hajar and although it is hardly used, I pray that her noble characteristics inspire me and all around me, even if just by name association.