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Posts Tagged ‘Muslim’

Many of you know that when I first started teaching at Staten Island, it was an incredibly difficult experience at first. Many of you were even concerned for my safety and suggested I get out of there. Somehow, I ended up staying. And what I’ve realized is that teaching there has been one of the most enlightening experiences I have ever had. When I first wanted to be a teacher of literature since the age of 6 when I was still in Bangladesh, I had no idea that when I would finally teach my first class, it would be across the world in a time in which America was electing a president who vilifies, degrades, and seeks to persecute Muslims. Nor did I know that I would be teaching at the heart of a community that overwhelmingly supported this man and his policies. And thus, nor did I know that my simple dream of teaching would become so much more than I ever intended – just because of the hijab I wore on my head.

For many of the students in this Staten Island community, seeing me up there in my hijab all semester long, every single week, talking to me, engaging with me, was the most interaction they had ever had with a Muslim, especially a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. And these interactions were based on often controversial issues – in which they had the opportunity to openly contribute. In my desire to teach, I never intended on any political purpose – but, social issues are inherently political, and thus politicized inevitably and unfortunately. Even my hijab is politicized in this current world. That seems to instantly make my very act of teaching in a hijab political. And I teach in a way where I risk making my students uncomfortable in our discussions – because discussions of race, prejudice, police brutality, mass incarceration, war, or historical injustices are always uncomfortable, and it is necessary to therefore make people uncomfortable if such discussions are to be had. More than anything, my purpose in teaching is to enable students to see from perspectives other than their own, other than what they are used to. And of course, nowhere is that more possible than through literature. Most people fail to see that. But never had I been more aware of the importance of enabling students to see different perspectives than when teaching at SI and getting to know these students.

To have a space where people’s views are not shut down simply because of political inclinations and biases, but to engage in a discussion without malice, respecting each other’s perspectives no matter how different they are. Because understanding between conflicting perspectives do not come about through denigrating each other through political labels. Because what I learned from these students is the reality behind their perspectives. For example, for a significant portion of them, their parents are police officers and law enforcement. If your parents represent these very fields, if it creates the whole entire value system you have ever known, then you are automatically going to be defensive about anything that seems to challenge it, and therefore never really be willing to consider anything else. But to have an open discussion about it without anyone denigrating the very values others hold is the first step in engendering a dialogue. Because that is how I perceive teaching – a dialogue. Not between just me and the students, but the students themselves. Many of them have been raised their whole lives to see through black-and-white lenses, and that is all they know. Most of them do not know people of color or minorities on a personal level. So it takes that open dialogue for them to see the grey areas which they don’t even know can exist.

I had a student that first semester whose goal was to join the military, who had staunch military views, and wrote a successfully cogent paper arguing for the advantages of drone use – for the soldier. Yet, as the semester progressed and in class we discussed both advantages and disadvantages, in his final paper he switched perspectives entirely to now consider the effects and perspective of civilians in the path of war casualties. In his presentation he explained why he had chosen to switch perspectives, and how he would be aware of these perspectives when he joined the military, and would strive to make others in the military aware of the consequences of their actions. I could not stop thinking about how it was the ultimate embodiment of everything I strove to do in my work, subhan’Allah.

I had another student, while I was teaching on gender inequality, who asked/implied that I did not or could not possibly believe in women’s equality (because of course it makes total sense that I am a Muslim woman teaching and yet believe that women should be oppressed). But for him it was inconceivable that I could possibly believe otherwise. This and many other instances (more positive ones) made me realize that for many students, just by my very presence in a hijab, it confounded their perceptions of me and what they thought they knew of who Muslim women and Muslims supposedly are.

Since then, I have been teaching at another campus that is the complete opposite of the demographic at SI – mostly underprivileged students and minorities. And yet, the confounding remained here as well. Teaching, for me, has always been about more than just teaching reading and writing – it has always been a means of breaking the boundaries between the us vs. them mentality that resides in our societies, in human nature and human history. But I did not know that simply by the very act of standing in front of a classroom in a hijab day after day for whole semesters would be an act of enabling the very thing I hoped to teach. In a way, teaching right in the heart of a place that perceives me as something I am not became more than just teaching. It became, unintentionally, unexpectedly, in ways I could never have anticipated, a way of breaking the boundaries, the misconceptions of who I am and what I represent, simply through my hijab.

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“Know ye all, that the life of this world is but play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting and multiplying (in rivalry) amongst yourselves, riches and children…” (Surah Al-Hadid, 57:20)

Although I’ve read this verse numerous times, I recently encountered a slightly different translation that caused me to think about the insight it provides into the nature of humanity, particularly the bolded words.

So, yes, we have heard numerous times the comparison/description of this current world as a place of mere indulgence in the follies of life. But the “mutual boasting” and “in rivalry amongst yourselves” part exhibits something much more insightful about the human condition in this world. One of the most significant contradictions and problems of the notion of a Utopia on earth has always been that, if everyone is equal, then there is nothing for humans to strive towards (I don’t mean spiritually, but sociologically) – the world would be stripped of all sense of any necessity for ambition. There are two ways this could happen:

1. If everyone is simply equal in socioeconomic status and is given the same position in occupation – (which is realistically impossible anyway)

2. If an Utopian world runs on technology that does everything for us and abolishes the need for jobs altogether (which would also create the problem of sheer boredom with idleness).

This is where the verse sheds more light. Humans are innately ingrained with 1. the necessity for some form of occupation 2. the desire to strive higher, to reach further, the ambition to be better than others. Especially when considering the modern world, we are always striving socioeconomically or personally. You might say the latter is not necessarily always true, for example, serfs in Medieval Europe who did not have any semblance of an opportunity to strive higher, or for people who are content with a simple life and means of living, like farmers – but the point is, they still had/have an occupation – they still have some form of meaning, some work by which they are occupying their lives. Without either of these two factors, society itself would become listless and feel meaningless (again, I’m not talking about spiritually, I’m talking about sociologically, the natural structures by which the society of this world functions). This is also of course where such ideologies of Capitalism and Socialism comes into factor, but that’s a whole other long conversation.

Thus, in such a supposedly Utopian society, we could never truly be happy (not on earth anyway) – which is of course why the concept of Utopia becomes paradoxically and ironically a “Dystopia.” This is why in verse 57:20 Allah equates the “the life of this world” to the ambitious nature of humanity – we are always “in rivalry among ourselves,” and that is the very nature of the life we live, because without it, the earthly life would not truly exist. This gives us a mere glimpse into the sheer understanding and knowledge Allah has of the nature of humanity, since he is the One who created us – and thus this provides a whole different understanding of how and why Allah knows what is better for us than we do ourselves. This is further exhibited through the next part of the verse:

“Here is a similitude (to this life): The rain and the growth which it brings forth, delight the hearts of the tillers; soon it withers; thou wilt see it grow yellow; then it becomes dry and crumbles away…And what is the life of this world, but goods and chattels of deception?” (57:20)

Ultimately, Allah reminds us that the the ambitions of this world will not matter – all of it will, eventually, some day, “crumble away” – because this is not the world to which we truly belong. The natural structures by which this world functions will never enable it to be where we truly belong, for the same reason why a Utopia on earth could never exist. It will never be where we truly belong because no matter what we have, where we are in life, we will always want more, strive for more, crave for more – and it will never be enough until we reach the very world for which we were created.

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