Bismillahir Rahmānir Raheem.
ت’s nan (who lives here in the East of London, el este de Londres) is, according to ت, “a hunnit percent Bengali”, even in spite of her passport, which still says that she (ت’s nan) is ‘East Pakistani’.
ت’s Nanee (one way of saying ‘nan’ in Bengali. Pronounced ‘nuh-nee’) had been born in 1947 (the year of the partition between India and Pakistan) [“we think,” ت remarks. “We don’t really know [when she was born]…”].
Bangladesh had become an independent nation from Pakistan in 1971, with the name ‘Bangladesh’ (‘the land of Bengal/Bangla’) having become official in 1972.
[Subhan Allah, I had just been thinking about the book that ت had borrowed from me (‘The Muslim Heritage of Bengal’, by Muhammad Mojlum Khan). When: a knock at my door. And it is she, outside my house, holding said book. Allahu Akbar: God is Great.
ت also, before leaving, showed me a little carrier bag filled with coins — amounting to fifty British pounds, apparently — which her nan had given to her, for when she needs to get “milk” while at university. And when she returns to her nan’s from uni, “arroh dimuneh“, says her nan: she will give her more money.]
Some British-Bengalis call themselves [i.e. ourselves] ‘Bengali’. Others say ‘Bangladeshi’. Both are true, correct, and okay to say. ‘Bengal’, technically, comprises Bangladesh as well as certain parts of India. (The People’s Republic of) Bangladesh is (nominally, at least) an Islamic country, bordered mainly by India, and in part by Myanmar; it is apparently the eighth most populous country in the world (even despite its relatively small geographical size).
ت explains that a lot of her exposure to Islam earlier on in her life had been mainly “cultural”; sometimes people confuse Islam with elements of ethnic tradition and such. Things might be made up; things might get cut out.
Many people in Bangladesh, she explains, like in many other (if not all) Islamic nations, tend to practise their “own type of Islam”.
And there is an issue, perhaps, with the authority that many Imāms (spiritual leaders) might lay claim to, there. ت’s nan, for instance, had grown up, of course, without a phone or the internet; without much access to sources of knowledge aside from these ‘religious community leaders’. ت’s nan cannot read or write; perhaps like the majority of young women from Sylhet from that time, ت’s nan had grown up being illiterate. And where there is illiteracy and a lack of access to sources of knowledge (libraries and such) people tend to trust those who would appear to be the most sincere and knowledgeable.
Trusting men who sport lengthy beards, and who wear white thobes, maybe, and who can quote the Qur’an and Hadīth. Of course, many ‘Mesabs’ (a word often used for ‘religious men/teachers’ among Muslim Bengalis) and Imāms are genuine and sincere.
However, the unfortunate truth is that some (abhorrently) use religion as a guise, a face… behind which hides much of the stuff of corruption and malpractice; misogyny, lies, arrogance, and baseless practices and the like. ت compares these particular ‘Mesabs’ to what she knows about the practices of some Catholic priests in Ireland [ت loves knowledge, Masha Allah. Whether obtained through conversations with different people, and/or through Netflix documentaries…].
Un-Islamic superstitions are seemingly part-and-parcel of more ‘cultural-Bengali’ (less pure) versions of ‘Islam’. Islam came to liberate people from ignorance–infused practices. And, yet, you still get certain so-called/seeming ‘religious’ individuals touting (baseless) ideas like how ‘women should cover their hair when they hear the Adhan*’; you should ‘dry-spit on your hair in order to protect yourself against Evil Eye’; kind of absurdly: another one I’ve heard is that ‘hair you find on the floor should be picked up and placed between the pages of the Qur’an’. These things do not have a basis in the Qur’an or Sunnah*.
ت also notes that, while Sihr – ‘black magic’, is a reality, perhaps there is an excessive emphasis on it, among Bengali Muslims — at least among the generations older than we — as being the ‘reason’ behind [too] many things. She explains that through using black magic/Jinni* influences as a primary excuse for many things, personal responsibility can often be alleviated. The capacity for free will dismissed. For example, in a village, if a woman does wrong, rather than attributing the fault to… her own self, metaphysical influences may be blamed first and foremost, most instantly.
ت mentions another qualm she has with some practices of ‘cultural-Bengali’ Islam: what many Bengali Muslims do not acknowledge is that our tradition is not one that necessitates any sort of ‘middle man’. No saints, no ‘holy individuals’. Islam allows you to have a direct relationship with your Creator. And all we have to do is call upon Him, and He will respond to us.
“And when My servants ask you, concerning Me – indeed I am Near. I respond to the call of the caller when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me and believe in [trust in, depend on and obey] Me that they may be [rightly] guided.”
— Qur’an (2:186)
I ask ت about which individuals have been significant upon her Islamic journey. She says… Sweetie (who is my maternal aunt. This is her family nickname, which would appear to be used more than her actual name). Sweetie is amazing with children, Masha Allah. My cousins from my dad’s side, my friends… love her, Masha Allah, Allahummabārik. And with such good reason too:
ت explains that Sweetie has always just “treated [her] like another niece”, and that she (ت) always “really felt loved” by her. [Just the other day, ت got a cup of pink bubble tea for Sweetie’s little daughter, since she said she likes it. And how happy this made my aunt and cousin!]
Recently, someone whom both ت and my aunt know got married. Even though Sweetie and ت are not ‘blood-related’, Sweetie asked ت, “does she [the bride] know you’re my niece?”
ت remembers the things we used to do with Sweetie. Sweetie would treat us to food, buy us things, take us to various places [she has taken myself and my cousins to adventure places, laser-tag, museums, the planetarium, the art shop (since we would paint canvases with her) and more, Masha Allah]. Remind us to pray; teach us so much (Masha Allah. Like when, as a child, you’re watching something on TV and don’t know what something means. Sweetie tended to have the answers); introduce us to things that bring up, for ت, a sense of “Islamic nostalgia”. Old nasheeds* and the like, such as Tala ‘alba [if you know it, you know it].
Also significant on ت’s Islamic journey had been her م Khala [‘Khala’ means ‘maternal aunt’ in Bengali. ‘Fufu‘ is ‘paternal aunt’.]. In م Khala (who led a session or maybe several at a weekly young sisters’ circle ت and I used to attend) and Sweetie, ت had seen “two young, practising, relatable, approachable“* Muslim women. You could connect with them, trust them, tell them things, talk about your emotions.
Human beings connect with other human beings: what and who speak to mind and heart. And Islam is the Deen for humanity. How you encourage people – especially young people – to Islam is by… being human, and merciful, and understanding. By seeking to speak with them in their language.
Sweetie and م Khala’s kind, fun, loving, friends from the mosque have been significant too, Masha Allah. And now, ت loves the ‘wholesomeness’ of going to the mosque with her own friends, and the silly things they might laugh about on the way home.
ت says that م Khala has also inspired her with things like… picking up litter off the ground, if she sees it. You can always wash your hands later, but it’s important to do things like this, since “this place is not ours. It belongs to Allah, and we have to look after it.”
ت reflects on how this probably applies for physical health too:
“Verily, to Allah we belong,
and to Him we will return.”
— Qur’an (2:156)
ت and I have, over the years, attended a few Islamic schools together: a couple of weekend ones, a summer one or two, with our ‘madrassah bags’ (black satchels that ت’s mum had given us). At madrassah*, ت had realised that Salāh* is obligatory for Muslims. She had also found herself worrying quite a lot, since someone close and beloved to her didn’t pray regularly. She made sincere Du’a to Allah for this person to be protected, and for them to start praying. And now, this person does pray (Masha Allah).
Sometimes people are reluctant to enter into Islam ‘completely’, even in spite of being nominally/culturally Muslim, because of traumatic experiences associated with people who come across as being ‘religious’ — or even, unfortunately, ‘the most religious’. People who might not show much mercy at all; people who push rules, rules, rules, devoid, in how they preach, of very much ‘spirituality’ or kindness, gentleness. People who might resort to violence, also: physical, verbal/emotional. [Contradictorily mixing Islam — the tradition that is against arrogance — with… arrogance, perhaps].
But if we are to follow Muhammad (SAW)’s Sunnah, then knowledge, emotional intelligence, mercy, understanding, bridging the rivers between mind and heart: how crucial these facets are, for the one who [truly] Believes. And if we present our Deen to others through unfavourable and insolent behaviour, then people (including Muslim young people) will find [attempts towards] ‘happiness’ through other means. Like… Bollywood (i.e. Desi, subcontinental, cinema. An example that ت mentioned during this conversation), and other ‘trendy’, ‘shiny’ aspects of Dunya.
Our religious tradition is, as aforementioned, one that encourages a personal connection with our Creator (although community is rather important too). Critical thinking, coupled with respect, is not frowned upon either.
And, in nurturing Īmān*, people are essential. Of course, we do have free will and personal responsibility, however people: friends, self-proclaimed ‘religious people’… can either [help to] make us, or break us…
Yesterday, ت and I sat together, before Maghrib. We are both currently twenty years old (Masha Allah) and we have walked these brick paths around us time and time again, always ‘the same thing yet different’, from infancy to now.
ت says that she has loved what the sun/sky looks like before Maghrib, and when with the right people; how lucky she feels, a sentiment perhaps augmented in these moments, to have Allah and this beautiful religion.
Our nans (who were neighbours for a long time, here in East London, Masha Allah) had grown up in Bangladesh. With the land’s tea gardens, and rice paddies, and [overpopulation issues, perhaps, and] lakes and riverboats. And now, here we are, with our canal, and the pre-Maghrib sky, and with our [PG Tips, London-y expensive costs of living, and our] River Thames.
I ask ت what she would say, to, say, ten-year-old her, if she could give her some piece of advice or something. She would remind herself that:
“Allah is always protecting and loving you.” He has always loved you. Even before you were born.
She adds that she would tell her younger self to “keep being myself. Keep being fascinated by ‘silly’ things.” They’re an excellent distraction.
Life is indeed often struggle. Financial, interpersonal-relationship-wise, health-wise, mental health-wise… but there is also solace, and lightness and humour here. Good company, enjoyable and lovely moments.
ت recalls being a ten-year-old and making “mud pies at school”. And ‘having a ‘rock shop”, where she would put small rocks into little After-Eight (chocolate) packets. Her ideas of fun as a youngling consisted of “really dumb stuff,” but she found “so much contentment in it“. Even today, she says: this ‘silly’ stuff makes her happy, and it is important for us to embrace whom we are; be confident in our ‘weird’.
Islam is a Deen: a way of life. One that connects us to the Source of all things True, and good, and beautiful.
And “Īmān is something that tends to [naturally] fluctuate.” ت explains that she has had multiple ‘turning points’ when it comes to Islam: a repeated process of ‘straying a bit, and then coming back’.
She started praying Salāh at around the age of twelve or thirteen. However, at fourteen, other things threatened to take precedence over Islam, in her life, in terms of her attentions: things like friends and studying. And music, perhaps, and its addictive nature.
She says that it is easy to ‘forget’: a sort of slippery slope. For example, missing a single prayer might lead to someone missing Salāh for a day. Which may then become a week. And so on, and so forth…
Reminders are of crucial importance, when it comes to maintaining Īmān. Re-connecting, re-centring ourselves. Good company is practically essential: be they family members, friends, people at the mosque. Arguably, even the media we consume functions as ‘company’.
We go away a little; we come back: this is often the way of things.
“Allah has given me time.
Allah has reminded me.” So:
“Allah must love me.”
On the way to our meeting point (‘the Bridge’), I saw that ت had been wearing a black Abaya (loose, long outer-garment). How elegant Abayas are, Masha Allah. [There is such elegance in simplicity. Modesty.]. She had her phone in her hand, and she had been on the Adhkar* App (which she highly recommends), reading her pre-Maghrib Adhkar.
In terms of significant people, she tells me about her friend ح (whose name means ‘garden’ in Arabic). An absolutely gorgeous soul, Masha Allah; I’ve personally seen and spoken to her twice or so.
“She’s so incredible, Masha Allah,” says ت.
ت’s friend ح, for example, no longer celebrates birthdays, however she (ح) turned twenty-one the other day. She didn’t want for anybody to make a big fuss out of it, but her (ح’s) family members and friends wanted to do at least something for her, to show her how much they appreciate her, and how proud they are of her. [They did end up doing something for her. It ‘just so happened’ to have been… on her birthday].
ت explains that ح doesn’t tend to say she ‘wants’ things (unlike many young women. We tend to want skincare products, clothes. Some want bags, jewellery, and the rest…).
But one thing that ح mentioned even “remotely” wanting (and she only mentioned it once, apparently) had been a particular designer bag. The cost of the bag had been around £250. And this, while some of ح’s friends, who are quite well-off (Masha Allah), ordinarily have several designer (£700) bags and such.
ت mentioned wanting a similar bag, from that same collection. And before even thinking about herself, ح said she wished she had enough money to buy ت that bag. That she would buy it for her “now” if she could.
ح’s sister ended up getting the £250 bag for ح. And when ح received it, she had “burst out crying”. And then her friends, who had also been there, also started crying: they so love their friend, their sister in Islam. Yesterday, in telling me about this, ت had been teary-eyed too. She says ح is the sort of person who
“literally deserves everything.”
Recently, I accompanied ت to (outside) ح’s house, on our way home. And ت had bought a few snacks for ح’s siblings. Then, upon leaving, ت received a lengthy text from ح, complete with such a sweet and heartfelt Du’a*. What a kind, beautiful, and appreciative, soul ح is, Allahummabārik. May Allah increase her evermore in blessings, Āmeen.
She (ح) is also going to Law School (Masha Allah). But since she does not want to use student loans [in Islam, consuming interest is prohibited. And some maintain that this is true in the case of student loans also], ح works hard to earn money. She has also, for example, borrowed money (interest-free) from her sister. She is paying her way through her formal studies.
And ح’s brother — also ح — on the ‘appreciation day’ for his sister, had given her a cake… with £250 hidden inside of it. He (her brother) is around our age, earning money by working at a restaurant and such. And he “loves to see his [older] sisters happy.” Masha Allah, Allahummabārik, Āmeen.
ت explains that the first thing that had ‘come to [her]’ in terms of Islam had been prayer. And then, “many years later,” the Qur’an. Among many (older, perhaps, in particular) Bengali Muslims, in terms of the Qur’an, the emphasis is not always necessarily on… understanding it and taking in its Message. More so, the focus tends to be on… reciting (which is still a most noble exercise). But, among many Bengalis, it is read somewhat passively, and mainly, perhaps, for the purpose of being able to say that one has ‘completed the Qur’an’, ‘once’ or twice, or maybe even three times…
Parts of Islam, like the weighty significance of the Qur’an, can quickly become more ‘rote’ and taken-for-granted if we do not cultivate, maintain, and intermittently renew, our spiritual connectivity.
In terms of coming to (gradually learn the Arabic language and) understand the contents of the Qur’an, a turning point for ت, perhaps, had been, when, during a weekend Islamic circle (‘SLP’: the School Link Project) a session-leader had said something along the lines of:
Imagine if we received a letter. And it was written in, say… Mandarin. And we knew that this letter contained the secret of life. To fulfilment, to happiness, to eventual Eternal Life and Bliss…
Would we not want to… spend day and night trying to learn the Mandarin language, in order to decode the letter’s meanings?
This is what it is like with the Qur’an. It is possible to learn what this Book contains; the numerous things Allah refers to, in it. We have these lives of ours, and there is our Instruction Manual.
I ask ت what her advice might be for anybody who may be going through a bout of low Īmān. Her practical tips are as follows:
Focus on that Salāh whose time it now may be. [Is it Dhuhr time? ‘Asr*?] Try to reconnect immediately; try not to think about “other things”.
Do Wudhu; take your time.
And, at the end of your Salāh, tell Allah everything. Whatever is saddening you; whatever you are anxious about. And thank Allah for bringing you back. And, there:
Begin again. Fresh sheet of paper; clean slate.
A trick of Shaytān, says ت, is trying to trick you into thinking things like, maybe, you are ‘too far gone’. There is ‘no use’ in trying to come back.
And how could you be good enough?
But the Door is always open. Allah loves us. We can go through the troughs, as they (naturally) happen. So long as we always come back. Whether the means for this be through… a prayer, an Adhkar app, or a conversation…
ت tells me about a particular Du’a that she so loves, which she came across in the Du’a book ‘The Fortress of the Muslim’. It is:
اللَّهُمَّ رَحْمَتَكَ أَرْجُو فَلا تَكِلْنِي إلَى نَفْسِي طَرْفَةَعَيْنٍ ، وَ أَصْلِحْلِي شَأْنِي كُلَّهُ ، لا إِلَهَ إِلَّا أَنْتَ
“O Allah, I hope for Your Mercy. Do not leave me to myself even for the blinking of an eye. Correct all of my affairs for me. There is none worthy of worship but You.”
Supplication during times of fear and distress.
In the months preceding a particular exam period, for example, ت would recite this Du’a after each prayer. Slowly, and out loud, and she would also read the translation too.
“Allah is in control of everything.” He is Perfect, and He (Alone) Knows what is best for us.
ت loves learning about history, and learning languages [Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin. And a touch of French, even, for a while…]. She loves the idea of meeting new people, and visiting new places; to realise, time and time again, how the “world is bigger” than just us and ‘ours’. At first, her curiosity and love for discovery led her to want to simply venture outside of her local area, to explore. But since, Masha Allah, she has been to places like Vienna and Prague, Morocco, and the USA.
In terms of languages, she explains that to truly connect with someone, one must speak to them in their language. She quotes Nelson Mandela:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
ت loves the idea of speaking to people’s hearts; making people smile.
And, like numerous other fellow Muslims, ت also finds herself fascinated with the links between Islam and the other Abrahamic traditions. How it is, for instance, shalom in Hebrew, and salaam in Arabic.
We talk about Sabr for a while. Translatable to: patience, steadfastness, perseverance. What’s comin’ will come. An’ we’ll meet them when they do. [Ten points if you got that reference].
ت’s formal-academic journey, for instance. What is meant for you will always be yours, even if you must wait for it for any while:
Some two years ago, ت had an offer to go and study Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University (Masha Allah).
But she ended up missing the offer, for a number of reasons, but ultimately as a result of Allah’s Plan:
She tried again. Got the offer again. This time, a different set of circumstances (and pandemic-tinged), but the grades were missed again.
But it had been meant for her, and Allah showed her a way: an opening. To resit some exams, over a period of two months. And she worked hard, Masha Allah. And she did it. In the meantime, between that first offer and now: an entire pandemic period!
It all happened for a reason. And although there have been tears along her personal formal-academic journey, she has developed in understanding since; she has grown (Masha Allah). The second time she missed the offer, she only cried for “a minute”. Then got up, and decided she’s “too old for this.” She had not been ‘bothered’ to waste her energy on lamenting things.
If we (rightfully) trust Allah, He will make for us a way out, and everything falls into place:
“And whosoever fears/is cognisant of Allah and keeps his duty to Him, He will make a way for him to get out (from every difficulty).
And He will provide for him from sources he never could imagine.
And whosoever puts his trust in Allah, then He will suffice him. Verily, Allah will accomplish His purpose. Indeed Allah has set a measure for all things.”
— Qur’an (65:2-3)
Two years ago, ت says, her expectations and desires in terms of her university experience had been rather different to what they are now. Back then, she had been looking forward to the “formals”, and to the “extravagance” of the university and such.
But now: more maturity, a better understanding. She looks forward to maintaining her connection with the masjid, and with the Qur’an, and to the natural beauty within Cambridge town. Good company, also. Islam: the complete Way of Life; her relationship with her Creator, and where and how all else aligns with it.
She tells me about a pen-pal she had for a while: an American Evangelical Christian girl by the name of Abigail. A practising Christian, and ت had met her through a youth club worker. Some similarities between Abigail and ت: both stay away from things like partying. However, with things like dating, Islam has clearer, stricter rules. While for Abigail, the rule had been that dating is allowed, but certain things within it are not.
Abigail and her family once visited London, and came to ت’s house.
ت talks about how “no one really practises Christianity”, from what she has seen around her. People may wear ‘cross’ jewellery, and may sometimes even occasionally visit the church.
But for Muslims, Islam encompasses life. It is a Deen — a way of life — and not merely reserved for any single day of the week or something.
ت says that Judaism, perhaps, is more similar in practice, to Islam; she has a “really big respect” towards practisers of Judaism. They don’t eat pork, many Jewish people are adherents of tradition. For example, like how Muslims (according to understandings of the Sunnah) are not allowed to be alone with one non-mahram* person of the opposite gender, the rule for Jewish people, apparently, is that not even two men are allowed to be in isolation (seclusion, Khalwa) with a non-mahram woman.
The thing about Islam is that while, among Christians, ‘culture’ (arguably, Al-Hayaatud-Dunyaa, ‘the life of this world’) often seems to trump ‘tradition’, and while for Jews it would appear to be the other way around, in Islam, there is an encouragement towards ‘compatibilism’. Eat, drink, marry, study and have jobs, have your own character and personality; your own friends. Enjoy things, but [and,] in balance. While being Muslim, and practising Islam, the whole way through.
To conclude, ت says that she has (genuinely. As a result of having met Michelle Obama. A time she would rather forget, as a result of her school’s fixation over it afterwards and such) been interviewed by the BBC, [“almost, by CNN”], ITV, Channel Four…
But this ‘interview’, betwixt two old friends (Masha Allah) in our hometown, and while the sun had been gracefully setting, had been her “favourite“.
[Mere corporations, after all, are no match at all for family, and for the friends who are family too].
“Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation.”
— Oscar Wilde
*Sunnah — the traditions and practices of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), a model, a Way, for us to follow.
*Adhan — the Islamic call to prayer.
*Jinn — beings that are metaphysical (beyond human vision).
*Nasheed — an Islamic song.
*Madrassah — a Muslim educational establishment (school/college/university) that is traditionally typically connected with a mosque.
*Salāh — the Islamic prayer, observed at least five times daily.
*Īmān — ‘belief, faith’, having trust in Allah, and nurturing the Trust that he has entrusted us with.
*Du’a — supplication. Calling upon our Lord.
*Fajr, Dhuhr, ‘Asr, Maghrib, and ‘Isha — the names of the five daily prayers. Pre-dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk, and then the night prayer.
*Mahram — [for a woman, her husband, as well as] relatives to whom marriage is permanently forbidden, e.g. direct nephews, uncles, grandfathers, sons.
*Some quotations are paraphrased, and not 100% verbatim.