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My first trip to a mosque

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going to mosque

The pious (and blurry faced) family

I was hoping to write this yesterday, with my experience fresh on my mind, the every thought still vivid, but any Muslim reading this will know how hectic the first day of Eid is, and it was certainly no exception for us. But, it was the first thing we done that was the most, perhaps only one with religious significance. My first trip to a mosque.
The feast prayers were starting at 9am, but when you have a toddler alarm clock that isn’t particularly early. Still full up from the night before, having breakfast wasn’t a worry and instead I focused on getting ready. Firstly there was performing wudu, I knew after I done that I wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet or even so much as fart as I just did not have the courage to perform wudu again at the mosque. I then slipped on my abaya and began pinning my hijab. Now that was a challenge, despite having a month of practise I didn’t know how conservative I had to do my wrap for mosque, how long should my scarf be at the front and back, how tight under the chin? And socks! Was I supposed to wear them? Was my feet meant to be bare? I felt like I was messing up before I had even got there. After a frantic SOS post on a FB group I decided that I shouldn’t wear socks (thankfully I didn’t read the posts that later disagreed with the first reply, I think my head would have imploded). And then we were off.
What if I was one of only a few women? What if my clothes looked nothing like anyone else’s? What if I completely mess up the prayer? Will people see my hands shaking?
According to the website the building can hold 300 people with room for women. I’ve heard some horror stories about the women’s spaces in mosques, and that some didn’t allow women at all. What if I was stuffed into a dark closet sized space, in the sweltering heat, not hearing what the imam was saying?
My heart really was pounding in my chest. I did feel slightly better when we pulled up near the building and the street was lined with cars and Muslims pouring out. Plenty of women that I can just follow to show me the way, and the more women the less likely my total inexperience will stand out.
Outside the building there were mats laid down just in case the men couldn’t all fit indoors. Surely that means women really will be crammed in some tiny space as the men will take priority (as men have to pray in a mosque but women can pray at home)!
I spotted a small doorway to the side of the building that women were going through. I don’t think I have ever experienced segregation like that, to the point of a different entrance. I admit it, it seemed very reminiscent of black/white segregation in America less than a hundred years ago. What was waiting for me inside? Was the feeling of second class citizen going to continue?
With a pounding heart I said goodbye to my husband and son and went to my door. Just on the inside of the entrance were shelves to place shoes, thankfully I was already aware of this. I took my shoes off and slowly edged forward. To my left was a bathroom where women were removing their hijab and performing wudu, I was glad that I get to at least avoid the stress of doing that publicly. But then, was I supposed to do it there? If I didn’t would people criticise me? I couldn’t deal with the added stress that I may already be making a mistake, and instead focused on the room to my right.
From my angle all I could see was a line of chairs full of women chatting away. I wasn’t sure if that was where I was meant to go, of if that was some informal meeting. Well, it was either in there or the bathroom, so holding my breath I entered.
As I stepped in a realised this was certainly no closet space! We wasn’t even in a separate room to the men, instead the hall was divided by a barrier, probably no more than 6ft high. And not only that, but the barrier divided the room equally. I was shocked, of course more men would be coming to mosque, but still they made the space 50/50. The barrier was placed diagonally (to indicate the direction of mecca, the direction we have to face to pray), and we had fans! Large fans lined the back wall, keeping us cool on the hot summers day, a luxury the men did not have.
Women were sitting on the chairs in the back or in little groups chatting away. There was still plenty of space, so after a moment or two looking dumbfounded, I shuffled slightly away from the door and quickly sat.
There was still fifteen minutes before the prayers began, so I assured myself that there was nothing I needed to do other than sit and take in my surroundings.
salwar kameez

The type of clothing most were wearing


The women were pouring in and my did they look stunning! I wasn’t in a room with women in black burkas looking miserable, but a room alive with fantastic colours and sparkles. Some were in diamante encrusted abayas like me, but the majority were wearing the Indian/Pakistani salwar kameez in the most gorgeous bright designs. Hijabs were wrapped in all the ways you can think of, some accessorised with flowers and brooches. Bangles and earrings didn’t seem off limits either, and to my relief there was a mix of socks and bare feet.
Looking around though I noticed I was the only one sitting alone. I felt like I was in a no mans land circle as women came in and then went off to greet their friends and family, leaving the space around me bare, and making me feel more and more lonely.
“Ria?”
My name that has been with me all my life didn’t make sense to my ears at that moment, after all, who would know me here, who would speak to me here?
I turned and expecting to see no one, but instead I saw a face which seemed somewhat familiar from years ago smiling at me.
She reminded me of her name and that we had gone to school together. I think my wide, petrified looking eyes very quickly gave away that I had no idea what I was meant to be doing, and probably with sympathy she sat down with me and we began to chat.
I couldn’t have been more thankful and my nerves finally began to calm. I didn’t mention the blog but did say I have spent the month reading and learning the Quran and hadn’t done any official declaration of the faith. I regretted not being more honest from the get go, but to be fair I didn’t feel like I had much control over what I was blurting out of my mouth.
She invited me to come sit with her mum and herself, an invite I gladly accepted. Her mum greeted me warmly, as a British convert to Islam, married to a man from a Muslim country, she seemed to emphasise with the manic emotions I was feeling.
Eventually people began to sit in their rows. Although crowded, there was enough space for me not to worry that my backside was going to go in someone’s face when I had to bend down. The Imam was speaking from the other side of the barrier, not like I could really hear him. This wasn’t the fault of the barrier though but the women! Despite the Imam constantly reminding people to be quiet, the women chatted away endlessly, all distracted with their “Eid Mubarak’s” and kissing cheeks. The nerves that were fading returned with vengeance however when I heard the Imam explain the differences in the prayer. Differences? My husband hadn’t warned me this prayer was different to any other. All I heard was something about four “Allah Akbar’s”. I was certain I was going to mess up.
And then the prayer began. I didn’t have to worry about messing up, after the first “Allah Akbar” most of the women then moved on to the bending down position, only to quickly realise their mistake and stand up straight again, my husband later told me the men had done the same *phew*.
My mind was blank, I forgot the little part of the prayer that I had learnt, instead I just went through the motions trying to look like I had been doing this for years. And then there was another bit of unknown territory. After the prayer, people stayed sitting with their hands raised and palms towards their face. Unsurely I done the same, I don’t know if they were reciting quran, or saying some other specific words, but something told me, rightly or wrongly, that I should pray, this was my time to ask God anything I wanted from him.
So I did. I asked (perhaps cliché) for a sign.
What the sign should be is personal and needed to be shown before the end of the day, but it wasn’t something like moving a mountain, appearing in front of me, letting me win the lottery etc. I also knew that even if the sign came, it would still be the start of a long, perhaps difficult journey, but it would also be the only time in my life that I seriously prescribed to the idea that God is actually real.
After the prayers we all got up and once again the room was alive with kissing cheeks and happy Eids, dates were also passed around. After giving my thanks to my old school friend for taking me under her wing, I made my way out and found my husband and son (who had been given a lollypop).
Despite the nerves I left on a buzz, it wasn’t a negative experience and many parts of it pleasantly surprised me. I didn’t feel like a second class citizen, and the women didn’t look solemn and oppressed. Praying in a group is perhaps something that takes getting used to, and the more you go the less you would be taking sneaky looks around and just fully immersing yourself in the prayer. Although the sneaky looks around did prove fascinating as well. I saw elderly women performing their own version of the prayer with the aid of a chair, children either attempting it or just watching on, and then a couple of girls sitting on the chairs in the back, sporting the camel bump hijab and sleek abaya, with a sour, bored expression as if they were the cast of an Emirates version of “Mean Girls”. Yes, the room was certainly diverse in more ways than just race.
I wish I had gone during Ramadan, although I’m not sure if it is always open as a mosque/Islamic centre , or just for the special prayers. But I have to say it was not what I was expecting at all, and there really is nothing to be worried about, even if you are not lucky enough to have someone recognise you.

As for the sign I asked for. Well at some parts of the day I actually thought it would come to pass, I was ready to declare “la illaha illallah” (there is no god but Allah) the moment it did, and although it might take a long time to truly understand what that means, and what path that placed me on, I was ready to take the first step.
It didn’t happen. I’m trying to work out exactly how I feel about that, is the disappointment simply stemming from the fact I didn’t get what I asked for, or because of something bigger? Why do I feel slightly betrayed?
I know I know, people will come up with every excuse- “God has already given you the signs”, “look around you isn’t that enough”, “you can’t manipulate God”, “maybe he didn’t give you it for a greater purpose”, etc etc etc. I know all that, but obviously those “signs” that other people find enough doesn’t work on me, and God knows they don’t, not because I choose to ignore them, but because I look at things such as the universe, nature, birth etc, a different way. After starting the day on a religious high, as midnight came I was at a low. Tomorrow is the last day of the journey but right now I’m not sure where to go from here.

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What type of Muslim would you be?

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I’m starting to realise something, if I didn’t know any Muslims, if I wasn’t told anything about Islam from websites and information pamphlets, if all I had as my source of information was the Quran, I would practice the religion completely differently to how it usually is now.

Ok so I still haven’t finished it (I know I know tick tock) so I can only base this blog entry on what I have read so far. I also cannot read Arabic so basing it on an English translation (M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, oxford classic, to be precise). But the Quran doesn’t seem to make Islam as ritualistic, OCD, complicated and nitpicking as Muslims would have you believe.

First things first: Hadith. Now these are the stories/sayings of the prophet Muhammed, they are not part of the Quran. For the most part they are considered pretty essential to a Muslim to tell them how to practise their religion and to expand on what the Quran says.
I have noticed in the last few years that all too often Muslim’s seem to put hadith equal to what is meant to be the word of God, the Quran, in fact in some cases they put it above.
I’ve thought that strange before truly knowing the religion, now I am learning the religion I find it wrong/haram.
Hadith’s were not written by the prophet, they were collected after he had died. The prophet was also just a man, he isn’t the son of god, or divine, a human with the faults that humans have. So why are people using his alleged teachings and sayings as an essential part of their religion?

niqab

God’s wish, or mans?


The Quran states that it is the completed word of god, it has perfected the religion, you need nothing else. It gives the rules, it tells you who god loves, it tells you who will be punished, it tells you the sins, it even tells you heritage laws. It also tells you time and time again that Muhammed’s ONLY duty is to deliever the Quran

“We did not leave anything out of this book, then all will be gathered before their Lord (for judgment). Those who do not believe our verses are deaf and dumb; in total darkness. God sends astray whomever He wills, and directs whomever He wills in the right path.” (6:38-39)
“Shall I seek other than God as a source of law, when He revealed THIS BOOK FULLY DETAILED? (6:114)
“The word of your Lord is COMPLETE in truth & justice.” (6:115)
“You (Muhammad) cannot guide even the ones you love. God is the one who guides whomever He wills, for He knows best those who deserve the guidance.” (28:56)
“You have NO duty EXCEPT delivering (Quran)” (42:48)
“Your ONLY duty is delivering (Quran), while we will call them to account.” (13:40)
But how is it that they come to you for judgment while they have the Torah, in which is the judgment of Allah? Then they turn away, [even] after that; but those are not [in fact] believers (5:43)

These are just SOME quotes from the Quran to show my point, there are more. Things such as stoning are not mentioned anywhere in the Quran, that comes from hadith, the burka/niqab too. People tell me the hadith helps them know how to be a muslim, but surely if it isn’t in the Quran, then there is a reason why God didn’t put it there? He doesn’t strike me as the forgetful type.

Wudu. This is the specific way to clean before you pray. To me it seems very OCD. I was told to perform wudu as follows:

1. Wash hands 3 times
Use left hand to wash right hand, up to and including the wrist, 3 times. Then, use right hand to wash left hand, up to and including the wrist, 3 times.
2. Rinse water in mouth 3 times
Cup right hand with water and put in mouth, then spit it out, 3 times.
3. Snuff water in nose 3 times
4. Wash face 3 times
5. Wash forearms 3 times
Wipe right forearm with left hand, all the way up to and including the elbow, 3 times. Wipe left forearm with right hand, all the way up to and including the elbow, 3 times.
6. Wipe water over head/hair 1 times
7. Wipe the inside and back of ears 1 time
Wash both ears at the same time
8. Wash feet
Wash right foot, including the ankle, with left hand, 3 times. Wipe between each toe on right foot, with left hand pinky, 1 time.
Wash left foot, including the ankle, with right hand, 3 times. Wipe between each toe on left foot, with right hand pinky, 1 time.
So can you imagine how much my jaw dropped when I read wudu in the quran (5:6) as: “When you intend to offer prayer, wash your faces and your hands up to the elbows, rub (by passing wet hands over) your heads, and (wash) your feet up to ankles”.
Where is the awful sniffing water in my nose bit? Where is the obsession with the number three? Where is the specific right/left hand order? I can guess where… I feel lied to!

God doesn’t beat around the bush, he is pretty happy to say exactly who is going to hell and who isn’t. He also states that he can forgive anything other than disbelief and putting another god equal to him. There are certain obligations in Islam that are repeated again and again: regular prayers, giving to charity, being just to orphans, believe in Allah and the last day. These people will receive great reward, and considering how often this message is repeated, it is safe to assume that it reflects on the importance of them. If I only got my Islamic information from Muslims and never read the Quran I would think: “women put a scarf on your head” was written on page one in bold.
So much focus is put on that and many other little details, things that have only been given a blip of a mention, or perhaps no mention at all. So many arguments, so many threats. God is probably highly confused why so many are happy to harass uncovered women whilst orphans are being neglected.
halal butchers
Halal: Muslim’s have to eat food that is slaughtered in a certain way, with God’s name said over it. Oh and of course, they can’t eat pork.
Ok, halal, now this is something I thought was very black and white. It is a pain in the west, especially when you don’t live in a high Muslim populated area, your food options are limited. But wait, once again the quran shocks me:
“He only prohibits for you the eating of animals that die of themselves (without human interference), blood, the Meat of pigs, and animals dedicated to other than GOD. If one is forced (to eat these), without being malicious or deliberate, he incurs no sin. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful.” (2:173)
“Prohibited for you are animals that die of themselves, blood, the MEAT of pigs, and animals dedicated to other than GOD. (Animals that die of themselves include those) strangled, struck with an object, fallen from a height, gored, attacked by a wild animal – unless you save your animal before it dies – and animals sacrificed on altars.” (5:3)
“I do not find in the revelations given to me any food that is prohibited for any eater except: (1) carrion, (2) running blood, (3) the meat of pigs, for it is contaminated, and (4) the meat of animals blasphemously dedicated to other than GOD.” If one is forced (to eat these), without being deliberate or malicious, then your Lord is Forgiver, Most Merciful. (6:145)
Hang on, where is the mention of slitting the throat? What in those passages say I can’t go buy chicken from my local Tesco? All those times my husband has looked longingly at steak on the menu but opted for the fish, for what? Maybe this is where I need the hadith, maybe the details are there, but God also says:
“Today, all good food is made lawful for you. The food of the people of the scripture (Jews & Christians) is lawful (halal) for you” (5:5)
“Why should you NOT eat from that upon which God’s name has been mentioned ? He has detailed for you what is prohibited for you, unless you are forced. Indeed, many people mislead others with their personal opinions, without knowledge. Your Lord is fully aware of the transgressors.” (6:119)
So he even states that he has detailed what you can and cannot eat, I guess that means we don’t need any more information, it is all there. So I can’t eat pigs, I can’t eat a bit of road kill, no running blood, I can’t strangle the animal, nor can I go steal meat from a pagans alter, or push a cow off a building to eat it, or beat it to death. Ok, I understand all that, so why can’t I go buy my chicken from Tesco?!
This halal business is, well, just that, a money making business. What I’m reading seems to be pretty clear that unless specifically stated in the quran, ALL other food is lawful, ALL other ways of slaughtering is lawful. Over 90% of halal meat in England is stunned before slaughter, some countries state that all meat must be stunned, therefore exactly what is different between halal and normal supermarket? The price for one (halal is often more experience). Maybe it’s the fact that supposedly a halal butcher is saying the name of God over the animal? Well my husband does that before he eats anyway. So it is the specific way of cutting the throat. Our butchers slit throats too, however that is neither here nor there because the Quran doesn’t say it has to be killed in that way, just not in the ways given.
Using common sense, when they hunted in the time of the prophet they likely killed their game with a bow and arrow etc, not chased after it with a dagger to slit it’s throat. A nice clean kill from a distance is far more humane than wounding until you get close enough to finish it off too.

Ok I’m going on and on now. I just feel like I’m reading a completely different book to the Muslims I have met. People often ask me if my husband and I have lots of problems due to having different religions, but I actually believe we would have far more disagreements if I was Muslim: I would be a Quranist, I wouldn’t put much emphasis on hair covering, I wouldn’t only eat halal, my wudu would be short and simple. To some it might look like I would be a half arsed Muslim, but I actually think they are the ones making it harder than it was meant to be.
I cannot wait to read more of the Quran, it is truly fascinating to see what the Quran actually says compared to what I have been lead to believe it says.

My last day as an atheist

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(Figuratively speaking that is).

What do you do the day before you change your life? Well, shop and eat, oh and run around like a headless chicken seems to be the answer.
Now a frantic Ramadan eve rush appears to be the norm if the sudden boom of hijabi’s (women who wear the headscarf) that were up the town are anything to go by. Not only did I have to make sure my meal plans were ready and food bought- which had to be gathered in four different locations across my town- but I also wanted to fully indulge in what I would be leaving.
Eating during the day was number one. I met up with a friend who I have regular “luncheons” with and fully enjoyed my bacon and sausage sandwich. Then it was off to have my last Wispa mcflurry, Mcdonalds would have moved on to the next limited edition by the time I can eat during the day again, and boy do I love Wispa. And then I took my son swimming. I felt no shame having my body revealed in a swimming costume in front of men, I wonder if I would have a different view on things once this month is up?
I know I shouldn’t be focusing on the things I am giving up, I also know that I need to remember not eating during the day isn’t the typical Islamic thing- it is Ramadan, I picked that month so I only have myself to blame, not the religion, I cannot use it against Islam.

I almost expect that I should wake up tomorrow and just *feel* different, that I shouldn’t be just sitting around, I should be doing “Muslim” stuff. Ha! Of course a Muslim has to get her children up, dressed and fed just like an atheist does. A Muslim has brush her teeth, get herself dressed, tidy up, just like an atheist. I’m not becoming a different species, so why do I feel like I’m holding my breath before something big happens?

So far I have had nothing but positive reactions (to my face). People are curious, they are asking questions and I am getting first hand experience of how naïve so many still are about Islam. Would I have been any different if I had never met my husband? No, I too would ask the same confused questions in their position. The first thing I get asked 9 times out of ten (amazingly it isn’t “WHY?!”) is: “So are you going to cover your face?”
I have only ever seen one person ever wear a niqab/burka in my town. I see half a dozen wearing hijab every time I go to the shopping centre, so why o why is it the “burka” that is seen to represent Islam here? A part of me is curious as to what it would be like wearing one, but then the thought of stripping myself from all outward identity makes me shudder. I have become friends with a couple of naqabis on the internet, where personality is known before clothes worn, I am making baby steps to becoming more open minded and tolerant to the garment.

This is more than just a fast- Islam has to be in my thoughts with all the actions that I do. I will have to ask myself “this the Islamic way?”. My studies have only just begun as tomorrow I open the Quran and read, and try to understand exactly what it is I am reading. I don’t have my personal Imam to go to, but I do have some Muslim friends who have earned my respect time and time again with their knowledge and perception. Hopefully they don’t mind me pestering them, and of course I will write down any questions I have here.

Will I miss pork? No.
Will I miss showing my hair? I doubt it.
Will I miss being able to do things on my own moral compass instead of one that I have been told I should have? Absolutely.
I guess that is the biggest problem. Muslims have the morality that the Quran gives them, it is a fit. I however feel as if I’m trying to fit a square into a circle. I can act like a Muslim, thinking like one however might just not come. What if I get nothing from this month? Will I just be an atheist in a colour coordinated head scarf?
I will dedicate all that I have control over to this, my biggest fear though isn’t that I find nothing, it’s if I really dislike what it is I do find. And what if my husband likes the “new”, albeit fake, me? What if we become closer than ever before, how will I then feel on the last day?
I promised I would not write a hypothesis as I didn’t want to steer this to a premeditated conclusion, instead however I am constantly thinking of all the different scenarios- the good, the bad, the boring.
I guess there is only one way to find out, and what will be, will be. “It is in God’s hand”, as my husband says, “Who knows” as I say.

Good bye Atheism- forgive me Dawkins!
Ma’a salama

Does a Muslim woman have to walk behind her husband?

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Barbara Walters of Television’s 20/20 did a story on gender roles in
Kabul, Afganistan, several years before the Afgan conflict. She noted
that women customarily walked 5 paces behind their husbands. She
recently returned to Kabul and observed that women still walk behind
their husbands. From Ms Walter’s vantage point, despite the overthrow
of the oppressive Taliban regime, the women now seem to walk even
further back behind their husbands and are happy to maintain the old custom.
Mr Walters approached one of the Afghani women and asked, “Why do you
now seem happy with the old custom that you once tried so desperately to
change?
The woman looked Ms. Walters straight in the eyes, and without
hesitation, said, “Land mines.”

Ten days to go, time to get the word out. I have already passed the obstacle of my husband, who I had originally feared would see it as an insult to his beliefs, but actually he was more interested in the technical side of blogging, so now the rest of the world.
During last nights work shift I dropped it into conversation.
“So you have to walk behind your husband?” asked a co-worker.
Oh dear.
I guess I can’t really blame co-workers with little to no experience in Islam to confuse culture and the religion when I have seen many Muslims do the same. Things like female genital mutilation and women not being allowed to drive do not represent Islam, it represents a country.
I for one will not be walking behind my husband unless window shopping (a woman’s right).

“Can you get fired for covering your face?”
I am by no means an expert in Islam, but face covering (naqab/burka) is a hot topic on certain groups I’ve been on. I have read all the sides of the argument- from those who wear it and think it is compulsory, those who wear it just because they wish to, those who just wear a hijab (head scarf) and Muslims who do not cover at all. I have read the Quran passages about a woman’s clothes and have come to the conclusion that covering your face is not in Islam.

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…” [Abdullah Yusuf Ali]

Phew.
However, I will cover my hair. I’m not a complete novice in this, in Egypt I sometimes wear a hijab to get less hassle, and during the winter in England I wore it a couple of times as it keeps my head, ears and neck warm (suits me better than earmuffs).

My parents are abroad so I get to put off that conversation for a little bit longer. My dad is easy going and will probably think the thing on my head is some sort of new celeb fad, but my mum… oh dear my mum…