What attracted me to Islam? Tawheed. For those who aren’t familiar with Arabic, or Islamic terminology, this means oneness, or the belief in One Creator Who begets not (has no children), nor was begotten (was not born). Like the Native American Creation Story, there’s no end to the turtles upon which other turtles reside; there’s instead a sense of the infinite that goes beyond comprehension, but is satisfactory in that it doesn’t attempt to limit The Creator to creation’s understanding and experiences. Like Christianity it has a moral code and an expressed desire to connect with this Creator on a regular basis. This oneness has been shown to be directly linked to happiness, or contentment, as revealed in a recent German study at the University of Munich.
When one changes one’s religion there’s this overriding urge to “get it right,” having been given a second chance, much like a near death experience. The relief of having been freed from the shackles of ignorance and superficiality, confusion and disillusionment brings with it a whole new energy and motivation that can only be described as a rebirth of sorts. Which is, I guess, why a certain branch of Christianity calls itself “born again.” I wanted to learn everything, and do everything perfectly, a bit because I felt I had wasted twenty years of my life doing and believing the wrong things, and partly because I was grateful to God for guiding me to what I perceived to be the ultimate truth about life.
My expectation was that Muslims, because they are raised with this knowledge, without all the distractions that I had experienced, would have to be perfect. Their belief system was flawless, and having lived with it for generations, they could only be full of wisdom, knowledge, kindness, and boundless insight. It had to be this way, how else could it be? Well, obviously I was surrounded by remarkable Muslims who did a tremendous job of showing me the best Islam has to offer, and whenever they lived short of its outlines, they made it clear that it was due to their own shortcomings. I, for example, knew Muslim girls who didn’t wear hijab – the headscarf, which I immediately began to wear as soon as I said my shahada (testimony of faith) – but instead of debating with me about the pros and cons, the extra-temporality of certain dictums, they simply told me that they believe they should wear it, but for the moment they wanted their hair to show, it was their own weakness that prevented them from embracing it, although they had no issue with it as a concept. It was refreshing to see the humility of these Muslims, who were merely being human, and admitting their flaws, whilst declaring their wish to improve.
It’s not often that people admit they’re wrong. Many people will attack the religion before admitting they’re too short-sighted or weak to fully embrace the fact that God knows better. But it also takes courage to be so forthright, as I’ve come to know. Societal pressures can be enormous, and for someone to openly declare their unwillingness to abide by a norm that has been enforced for generations is no small feat. It is true that some women wear it only because of these social pressures, but I’ve found that the vast majority choose to donne hijab sincerely as an act of worship to God, independent from everything else.
But I don’t want this article to be solely about hijab, despite the fact that I could go on for many more pages about it. A tremendous amount of literature has already been written on the subject, and I won’t bore you with redundant information. Suffice it to say that I love my hijab, I’m proud of it, it makes complete sense to me intellectually, spiritually and in practical terms. I have my weaknesses, but this is one thing I fortunately never fell short on. Although some have argued with me that my hijab may not be “true” hijab at times, I consider that like arguing over how to pronounce tomatoes or potatoes.
Islam offered me a view of the world that is very neatly in line with Native Spiritualism, not only from the Creator’s point of view, but from creation as well. It encompasses a respect for nature, animals, and human beings that is rarely discussed in other religious traditions. This need to preserve nature is something that I appreciate not only because of my Mi’kmaq roots, but also because of my Swiss upbringing. Switzerland is known for its obsessive care of nature, often associated to its aesthetics, though certainly not limited to such superficial considerations. In Switzerland we paid for and re-used plastic bags fifty years ago, preferably we’d use our own trolly or fabric bags, but when we didn’t have enough of those we’d buy a few more and try to neatly fit as much as they could carry, so as to minimize the number of bags required. This is in deep contrast to what I experienced in North America, and North Africa (though I understand in North Africa this is a fairly recent trend). Reusing and using everything to its fullest potential is something I learned in elementary school. My sister and I were responsible for dividing and taking our glass jars and bottles to the recycling container down the road. We circulated bags of used clothing among neighboring families before passing them on. We sewed, patched, and mended our clothes until we outgrew them. We made new meals out of left-overs. We used everything we had until it became unusable: we used vegetable peelings to make broth, we grated and peeled fruit peelings for future sweet dishes, we re-purposed containers to make scoopers, rubbish bins, candle holders, etc.. We did this not because we were poor, but because we lived in an environment where waste was frowned upon, nature exalted, and chores were seen as a family affair, a communal effort, and our Mi’kmaq mother felt right at home with these concepts.
All this I also found in my Muslim extended family, although there’s an increasing desire to consume more, re-use less, and the stigma attached to such environmental practices as being indicative of poverty is hard to shake. Like in other countries, many people in Libya feel like they’re playing catch-up with the “west.” But whereas the “west” has become more aware of its sinful ways (in terms of environmental impact of disposable goods) and is attempting a return to a gentler, slower, more sustainable way of living, in Libya (and other countries that are only recently coming out of anonymity in terms of economic global significance), there’s this feeling of not having had a chance to sin as much as the rest of the world. It almost feels like they’re being “punished” and “pushed back” into remaining where they worked so hard to get out of, due to the tremendous impact that a century of bad ecological choices in a small part of the world has had on our planet. It’s understandable, no doubt. But it really speaks to a departure from our priorities, and perhaps a lack of appreciation (maybe partly thanks to colonial brainwashing) of old values, which although sometimes carried negative consequences for certain segments of the population, weren’t altogether ill-conceived. As they say in common parlance: why throw away the baby with the bathwater? It doesn’t have to be either or, all or nothing, black or white, to put it bluntly.
What causes me to feel frustrated more than anything else in this regard, is that a very considerable number of people involved in the making of the products we purchase are Muslim women, especially in the fashion industry, though not exclusively in this segment of consumerism. For example, for Ramadan, I see many people going out to buy new dishes, new home décor, and savvy Muslim ladies making a business out of providing increasingly more such products, often single use, and often made of plastic. Fashion is similar, women in particular, though men are not trailing far behind, are starting to change fashion trends much more rapidly than ever, and, unfortunately, even those who claim to uphold fair labor practices, use synthetic materials almost exclusively. Even Shukr, which I’ve been raving about for years, has been steadily increasing its use of rayon and polyester, despite having garnered a great reputation as an ethical and sustainable brand. When I speak to Muslim women about these issues, some feel just as strongly as I do, some even more so, most tend to agree, but aren’t particularly willing to drastically change their ways, and many may listen, but have no intention of changing anything about their shopping habits. Image is more important than the ethics behind it, unfortunately, more often that I care to admit.
This worries me, because Muslims are on the rise, conflicts in Muslim countries are on the rise, instability and insecurity of livelihood is at an all-time high among many Muslim communities, and yet here we are allowing ourselves to be lured into getting poorer by purchasing way more than we need, shunning used and reusable products for new, shiny but flimsy ones, and disregarding the impact all this is having on the Umma and the earth as a whole. There are millions of well trained, poverty stricken Muslimas working for the various industries, curtailing their health to scrape a living, just so we can continue to pretend that our keeping up with the Joneses is more important than our own sisters’ wellbeing. If we continue to turn a blind eye on what profit-driven companies are inflicting upon our sisters, then how can we expect to be taken seriously as practicing Muslims?
I’d like to see Muslims all over the world realize that we have much more power than we think we do, simply by the purchasing choices we make. But it’s not just Muslims, it’s Natives and Aboriginal people all over the globe, it’s Africans and African-North Americans, it’s many Asian and Latin American communities, it’s countries at the peripheries of wealth hubs such as eastern, southern, and western Europe. We’re all targeted in similar ways: on one end through exploitation of cheap labor, and on the other by promising that we’ll be magically better than if we only buy more, shop more, consume more. We’re all being duped out of our ancient beliefs and moral codes and into a deceitful lie about what it means to be better in this world. And yet, we literally represent the majority of the world’s population if we stick together, so what’s stopping us? Are we really this gullible and foolhardy?
Simply by emailing the companies you do business with, you can inquire about working conditions, you can ask to have more environmentally sound processes and materials, to allow workers to unionize, and/or provide education and opportunities for advancement among their workers, and you can demand more transparency. In return, you can assure them that you’ll gladly continue to purchase from them and even spread the word if they address these concerns and are able to demonstrate concerted efforts in this direction. Experts in the fashion business have claimed that a single email (yes, the one email you send) is considered by the company that receives it as indicative of 500 customers who hold the same opinion, but just didn’t bother to write. How often does your individual vote count for 500? How often does your dollar speak as loudly as it does when you move it from an unethical/unsustainable business to an ethical/sustainable one? YOU MEAN MORE THAN YOU THINK!
I’d like to see all of us stand together on this, as we can clearly see the nefarious consequences caused by not doing so. Because nobody spoke up for minorities before us, more minorities have suffered, until we’re all touched by this injustice. It was Natives, it was Africans, it was Asians, it was Jews, and some of these groups are still suffering. Now it’s Muslims, but not only. For Muslims in particular, we ought to behave like we appreciate the legacy that our Prophet (SAWS) left us, of solidarity, and environmental consciousness. Because this is what Islam taught me, it didn’t appeal to me because of what the hijab looked like, but for what it stood for. It’s not about the individual sins of each of us, but about solidarity, and standing up for the greater good, near and far.