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Monday, February 14, 2005

Playing God, when I'm just not up to it

I am wandering around Eaton Centre when I notice a woman coming towards me. She is wearing an apple green salwar kameez. Her hair is black, held in place by a silver clip on each side of her head. A wispy yellow cloth hangs loosely around her neck.

She sees me - one quick glance taking me in. Then, avoiding eye contact, she deftly pulls the thin yellow material over her head as she passes by.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered women like this one, frantically dragging their scarves over their heads as I pass.

I am tempted to glance back, but I spare her the humiliation. I know that if I did, I would see that same yellow cloth sliding back down to reveal the blackness of her hair.

As I make my way around other shoppers, I feel uncomfortable, almost as embarrassed as the woman who has just passed by.

Inadvertently, I’ve exercised some sort of power over her. My divine presence impelled her to sacrifice beauty for the headscarf – albeit for just a second or two.

I do not enjoy being equated with God.

But like this woman, the Muslim community has found ways to personify God. We’ve sought out intermediaries - religious leaders and religious-looking people - and made them our consciences. And in the process, we’ve crippled our true relationship with God.

Sadly, our sense of obligation is connected to the community rather than to God. We yearn to please worldly beings; we crave their admiration and approval. That poor woman in Eaton Centre was ashamed for me to see her without her headscarf, yet unaffected by the thought that God could see her long after I’d passed by.

In Islam, the concept of ihsan is to act at every moment as if God is watching you. Islam is not about show; it is about being sincere to oneself and to God. It is about an awareness that guides the inner sense of an individual towards what is right and away from what is wrong. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and yet there are no outward manifestations: One could eat a whole plate of biryani in secrecy while claiming to be fasting – no one but God would know.

We would do well to rekindle our relationship to God. It would save lots of Muslim women the trouble of learning complex hand movements. And of course, it would rescue me from the confounding awkwardness of playing God.


  • At 2/15/2005 02:03:00 a.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…


    reminds me of what Shaykh Abdul-Hakim Murad talked about in his ISNA speech: how people are making 'idolatry' of "Islam and the Ummah"; how faith and assuring doubt used to be the focus of our theology and how that has turned in our age into political blame and focusing on the material condition of 'muslim countries' (I don't particularly like the phrase)...

    'Previous peoples were concerned with their relationship with God and theologians challenged the doubt/disbelief raised by philosophers. From the way we speak today, you might think we don't have these doubts. But if you listen closely, many of us, in private and in public, are full of doubts, have questions and concerns - we are not more certain than our predecessors. [We don't have haqq ul-yaqin - Dawud] But when Allah 'becomes fuzzy', we focus on what seems clear in front of us...'

    That said, it's good that there are people who remind us of God. One of the sahaba (abu Ubayd al-Najdi, if I remember correctly) was found crying by Abu Bakr, and asked why - he said 'I'm afraid I'm a hypocrite. When the Prophet is with us, I remember Allah, but when he's away, I become distracted by the world and my family.'

    Abu Bakr (radhi Allahu anhum) started weeping as well, and the two went to the Prophet and complained of the same thing (hypocrisy). The Prophet smiled and said "If you remembered Allah as you do when you're with me, the angels would greet you as you walk in the marketplace. But now this, and now that..."

  • At 2/15/2005 01:51:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…


    Interesting insights. Are you saying then that I should get over my discomfort?

    I agree it's nice to find people who make us remember God, but it's different when they seem to equate religious or religious-looking individuals with God.

    I guess the question is, what does the scarf-tugging exercise signify to that woman? I may be interpreting the action in a different way than she intended.

    Perhaps it's because I feel uneasy with coercion of any sort. In any case, I think we'll both agree that I'm not on the level of the Prophet (SAW), and so the discomfort remains:)

  • At 2/15/2005 04:54:00 p.m., Blogger Lyvvie said…

    Hi Saffiyah!

    As always, I love reading your thoughts. This one is interesting though.

    To pull a comparison, I am not heavily relegious in practice and do not attend church, but I feel I have a very close relationship with God and it thrives through prayer and gives me great comfort, without the support others' may need from a church based community.

    If I pass a Nun while walking about town, I do not ever feel a twinge of guilt that my level of dedication is not equalled to that of hers (I mean, as if,she's a "bride" of God after all). I so often feel that religion and faith get muddled together, and people often have a "Keeping up with the Jonses" mentality; as if "God likes me better than you because I believe more than you Neener neener." Faith and devotion should be a comfort, not a competition or instrument to induce shame.

    I think the woman you saw, thought her level of dedication was challenged, but as you say, God knows the truth and depth of her devotion, so why should your opinion of her matter?

    I don't think you were equated to God...but served as a reminder to her of what "proper" devotion should be, by her definition.

    I understand why the headscarf is worn, and until recently (past 30 years) Christian women were required to cover their heads when in church (They usually wore silly wee hats)but the rules have relaxed, and it's not so big an issue today. The Church are now desperate for a parish.

    What I find shocking, is that this has not gone the same for Muslims, and yet headscarves are being discriminated against by employers and schools across Europe and the UK. They would never tell a nun to remove her wimple, so why a Muslim woman must remove her headscarf is hypocricy.

    Besides, If I lived in Toronto, I'd live in a hat too.

    Love to you Saffi!

  • At 2/15/2005 11:15:00 p.m., Blogger kaleidomuslima said…

    "We’ve sought out intermediaries - religious leaders and religious-looking people - and made them our consciences."

    Bingo! I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. But I wonder if men go through this same issue? Does a beardless topiless man feeled ashamed when he crosses paths with a thobe-wearing, bearded, topi-wearing brother? I highly doubt it. Unfortunately, women will always be obsessed with image, regardless of faith.

  • At 2/18/2005 03:24:00 a.m., Blogger ephphatha said…

    You make some really good observations in this post. I must confess that I'm a bit guilty myself.

  • At 2/23/2005 10:17:00 p.m., Blogger John said…

    "Sadly, our sense of obligation is connected to the community rather than to God. We yearn to please worldly beings; we crave their admiration and approval."

    Very true. But that's human nature - we all (non-muslims included) need to feel part of a community.


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