September 19, 2008

Motionless Journey I: A Dawning Reality

I was always a bit naïve when it came to the way things worked in love and life. I was born and raised in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, but somehow felt that really, the society around me didn't tread too far away from our traditions of marriage and companionship. The process was a bit different, but the goals were ultimately the same.

I always assumed that what I saw on sitcoms, where characters would have a new girlfriend or boyfriend every week or two (or sometimes several in one episode), was purely fiction. Or, if not fiction, then more a product of American society, and not at all reflective of my image of pure, pristine Canada. A completely different world, I thought! In Canada, any relationship between a boy and a girl was just the precursor to marriage and traditional, suburban life. Kids, minivans, and problems that are solved in thirty minutes minus commercials.

I am not sure how I managed all those years being so aloof. What really went on around me, among my friends and classmates at the time, was quite far off from my understanding. Eventually, friends would confide in me with their stories, and I was quietly horrified by the clearly foolish decisions they made. I didn't understand how people could be so negligent of their own realities.

As I grew up and began living on my own, I became much more appreciative of the traditional rishta system of family and marriage; when executed in conjunction with the rest of Islamic principles, it actually worked. During my early university years, there was no pressure, and I was free from the stress that complex emotional relationships bring while navigating through my engineering degree. I understood that everything had a time, and my time was not soon. I didn't need to worry.

Of course, things changed, and MSA began consuming a good chunk of my time. And of course, late night discussions with fellow MSA brothers would invariably lead to discussions about marriage. The popular opinion was that the system was "broken" in North America, or that it was, at best, an unsolved problem. I observed with great curiosity as others took their steps on that path, many unsuccessfully. I kept myself comfortably distanced, making mental notes of every mistake I caught and every good idea I witnessed.

The stories I heard were not uncommon; issues with potential in-laws, conflicting ambitions, incompatible cultures, distance, et cetera. None of these seemed all that threatening to me, having heard much worse from my high school days. I didn't find the system to be broken, per se, as rarely did any of these incidents leave lasting emotional scars. In the entire journey, they were mere blips, frustrating only for those who expected instant results.

A broken system, in my mind, involved men and women scouting singles bars, drowning their inhibitions to score for a night, without much thought about the days or weeks after. A broken system makes "commitment" a bad word. A broken system involves suppressing your good conscience via intoxication or ignorance, letting animalistic desire take over. A broken system includes "relationship experts" who can't get their own act together, let alone advise others. Just by providing me the foresight and tools to avoid all this, I qualified our pseudo-Islamic-but-largely-cultural system, even in North America, as functional and credible.

I remember watching an episode of Frasier one day. The ongoing storyline in that series involved the infatuation of Frasier's brother Niles with the housekeeper Daphne. Eventually, Niles won the object of his affection, and at some point had this conversation with his brother:
Niles: I think we may be taking our relationship to the next level.

Frasier: Oh, my God, Niles! You're going to propose?

Niles: No, not that level, the level before that.

Frasier: You're going to ask her to move in with you?

Niles: One more level before that.

Frasier: Well, you're already dating...

Niles: No, that's two levels.

Frasier: Oh, for heaven's sake, just tell me!

Niles: Well, you know. We're going to... consummate our relationship.
According to this exchange, the sequence is as follows:
  1. Dating
  2. Consummation
  3. Living together
  4. Engagement / Marriage
The model is almost a complete reversal of the Islamic model. Thinking about all the stories I heard from friends and colleagues who attempted to exercise this model, it always struck me as stupid - as evidenced by a success rate that would barely qualify as a passing grade in the substandard Ontario school system.

I would have thought that, at some point, people would have re-evaluated this process and realized it needed tweaking. No high-performing business would maintain a business model that yielded such a high failure rate. In any productive society, the family is the most fundamental structure, and should thus be built on the most solid foundations. Exposing the family to this much risk is not enlightenment, it is simply poor planning.

When I think about the quality of most of the Muslim brothers and sisters I have known over the years, particularly those born and raised in the West, I can only conclude that the traditional system works reliably. These wonderful people I have known are the products of this system, and many have already established families of their own. Yes, we complain about the actual search for a spouse being difficult and convoluted, but this is only one stage in a much larger process. In the context of the lifetime influences this system has on us, we should feel extremely grateful. Life could have been so much more complicated.

The West introduced first generation Canadian Muslims like myself to a system which appeared liberating, exciting, and emotionally gratifying. In reality, it's not any of these things. It's much more of an unsolved problem than Muslim marriage in the West, inefficient and prone to failure. While things are not always perfect in every Muslim household, the traditional Muslim family structure is still something to cherish and be proud of. Certainly, things can always be improved, but nothing in life is easy; furthermore, if things were too easy, we would have no appreciation for it. The day we recognize how fortunate we are to have our convoluted system is the day our own journey becomes smoother.

The steps to achieving that realization, of course, are not always smooth in itself. A few stories in particular helped shape my understanding, and continue to help forge my path forward. To be eventually continued...

September 17, 2008

Geometry Lessons

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Diamond Shreddies, a product of the "latest advancements in cereal rotation technology". Last night, I received an e-mail from someone on the Diamond Shreddies marketing department about their latest press release.

Some noteworthy excerpts:
Records obtained from an unnamed Shreddies source reveal that not everyone supports Diamond Shreddies self-proclaimed geometric superiority.
"You are sending the wrong information to kids about geometric shapes," says one concerned parent, to whom The President of Shreddies responded: "You are partially correct, the true geometric name is Rhombus Shreddies, but unfortunately Rhombus failed miserably when tested against Diamond Shreddies in consumer groups."

Rhombus Shreddies sound delicious.

Further investigation revealed some complaints focused on the issue of product shape controls gone awry.
One consumer wrote "I purchased a box of the new Diamond Shreddies and only half were the diamond shape!"

I can relate. Sometimes, my Cheerios are Cheeriovals, and it drives me nuts.

September 10, 2008

Jar of Raisins

On the upcoming election: I love how in Canada, an election can be announced, campaigned, and settled within seven weeks, whereas our neighbours to the south have been in election mode for over a year and will continue to be for another few months. And the worst "scandals" in Canadian politics wouldn't even raise an eyebrow down there, amid all the prevailing stupidity.

Canadian politics are terribly boring, which is something we should all be thankful for.

On hockey and deciding: What on earth is Mats Sundin waiting for? If only he knew about istikhara.

On praying: When praying for something, one shouldn't ask for the means to an end; rather, ask for the end itself. If you are having financial difficulties, don't ask for lots of money; that money won't necessarily provide your solution, and may in fact bring about more difficulties. Simply ask for relief from your financial woes, and let Allah decide the means. If you're feeling sick or lonely, don't ask for a specific medicine or a specific companion; instead ask for relief from these afflictions, and insha-Allah, you will find what you need even if it is not what you expected.

Pompous uncles: This was supposed to be a post in itself, but just a few things have been on my mind of late. Often, Muslim scholars are often the subject of ridicule by uncles who think they know better. I have observed that, whenever an uncle begins to mock one of these scholars, he will switch over to English, as if speaking a Western language gives him more legitimacy in his tantrums. It is a sad reality that those scholars living in the West who are not well versed in English often get a bad rap, and are not taken seriously.

I understand the importance of speaking the local language, in order to be able to relate to the youth and the greater society. However, the inability to speak English should not detract from all the studies these scholars have pursued; what they have spent their lives learning is far more valuable than any basic language. It might take some time for them to integrate, but if we bear patiently and help them out, the community as a whole will prosper. Our 'ulema have a very high status according to many hadith, and we should appreciate that in its own right irrespective of language or background.

Furthermore, Muslim scholars are, by default, very studious individuals, and learning a simple language like English should not be a huge challenge for them. Many complained about a recent decision by a prominent local mosque to have an Arab government appoint their imam; the new imam speaks very little English right now, and I was among those who thought it was a poor decision. In retrospect, I realize that we should give him and all imported scholars a chance, and not let our pride in language get in the way of appreciating what they have accomplished; the language skills will come with time. I still find it bizarre that the decision came from a government, but that is a topic in itself.

On ignorance: Avoid it if you can.

Peace and Tranquility Descend Upon Them

Abu Hurairah and Abu Sa'id al-Khudri radhiAllahu'anhuma both bear witness that Nabi salAllahu'alayhi wa salam said, "There isn't a group of people who sit in the remembrance of Allah 'Azza wa jall, except that the angels surround this group with their wings, and Allah's Mercy covers them, and peace and tranquility descends upon them, and Allah mentions them in the gathering of angels."