Looking back, I realise that my shyness paralysed me. It prevented me from achieving lofty heights. Instead of encouraging me and edging me out of my shell, teachers back then simply ignored me. Looking back, I wonder how my parents allowed me to make such a mess of my final years of education, but in truth: perhaps we had both given up by then. I remember my intense self-hatred in those awkward days, as I muddled through with zero self-esteem. I never learnt those preeminent skills: to have self-confidence or self-belief. For my own adventures, I know I am a lost cause. But at least this realisation will help me support the next generation. I hope we can encourage our children to achieve starry heights of their own, despite inner reserve. I hope they will develop the self-belief I never did, and live a happy and contented life.
My ego protests: “You must be known.”
But my heart responds: “Be content with your lot.”
Yes, be content to be unknown, forgotten.
Vanquish your ego. Worship your Lord alone.
Once more, it is the week before Ramadan, where by tradition the scheming nafs will summon ideas and plans from deep within, intent on knocking us off course. Be vigilant. Do not succumb to those whispers from within, calling us back.
For a few months we have been moderately successful in taming those nafs. Don’t squander all we have gained in submission to our private tradition. Be vigilant. For if we are not, that seed will grow into a vicious weed, corrupting our fast. Do not answer the call from deep within. Leave the nafs’ contrivances. Close the door tight. Be strong against its petitions.
O my soul, I plead you: stand strong against the scheming nafs — and my eyes, tongue, fingers, ears too. All together: vigilance. Let us not squander yet another year. Leave those ideas and plans.
It turns out that I am probably a workaholic. The blues hit me when I was not working. I often fall sick when I take a day off. Or perhaps that is too simplistic.
Perhaps joining a professionals social network heightened my feelings of inadequacy. Comparing yourself to your peers and friends of old is clearly unhealthy for mental wellbeing and a sense of self-worth.
Perhaps it was a momentary blip, caused by the stresses of lockdown, amidst the rivalries of children, the daily warfare, riots, tantrums and raised voices. Perhaps it was just cold weather and grey skies. Perhaps just whispers into my soul on a sleepless night.
Whatever it was, for now the blues have lifted. I have deleted the networking app. I have reminded myself to be grateful. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. I am learning, slowly, to let go of the past. Trying to hold a better opinion of myself.
One day I will overcome these blues.
The lies we must tell to feed our nafs. I shudder now, how my domineering nafs dominated me so completely. Numbed now, perhaps, only by minor melancholy, or an endocrine deficiency deliberately mismanaged in the pursuit of sanity. For years and years I led my own soul astray. Nightly, these recollections keep me awake. I fear my return to the One. I have failed completely. Lies upon lies upon lies. Can reform really obliterate all that went before? Can I repent enough? Can I become sincere? Can I make amends?
“He has succeeded who purifies the soul, and he has failed who corrupts the soul.”Quran 91:9-10
Ya Allah, purify my heart. Without You I am lost.
I have conversations with myself all the time, mostly in self-reproach. It is the natural order. In my writing too, I converse away, opening my inner ramblings to passersby, even as daily I almost delete it all.
I don’t really know where to go, and who to hang out with anymore. But then, on reflection, I realise I never did. I’m just an older, greyer version of the kid at school who would wander round and round the school grounds, aimlessly, alone, pretending to go somewhere, though fully conscious that I was going nowhere at all, for I had nowhere to go, forever the outsider.
He rebukes us for not disappearing, as we rightfully must. He cannot stand bloggers who write unceasingly, he writes unceasingly on a public forum, granting himself permission to do the opposite of what he says, for his own sentiments are profound and important and true. If only we would just disappear, when we say we will, instead of continually swinging from pole to pole, like manic depressives shunning benzodiazepines. If you are going to go, he yells, just go. Don’t return to pen another epistle when backs are turned, deciding not to become a hermit after all. Leave the about-turns to wise sages, whose gold embossed volumes decorate the homes of the truly enlightened, with their spiritual quest and authentic faith, that we modernites could never comprehend. Go, he demands, and leave us in peace, and purify your heart, and vanquish your attention-seeking ego, and disappear for good, and don’t come back, and remember your place, and be silent. Yes, cease, he urges unceasingly, returning to the forum he promised to abandon once more, to rebuke the returning writers who cannot keep their promises when they say they will put down their pens. Cease.
Every night when I head to bed, a voice within says, “Be quiet.” Speak good or remain silent. Restrain your tongue and typing fingers. As I lay my head on my pillow, these inner thoughts recur: “Disappear. Withdraw.” And each morning when I arise, I ask myself whether today will be the day when I respond to the inner petition: will I find the courage to vanish; to keep my thoughts to myself; to be like the commoners of old who had no reach or influence beyond their village or family.
But then the day wears on, and another voice says, “Express yourself. Speak good. Say what needs to be said.” And once more I am hammering on the keyboard, convinced for a moment that my words are important. That my words must be freed. And for a while it seems to be so. But by nightfall, that inner voice will return, petitioning me to withdraw. To free myself of these burdens. To become the nobody who walks unknown, influencing only his family and close companions.
Day and night, it has become a heavy weight on me, rending me in two.
Without fail, every time I resolve to reform my soul, I almost immediately become preoccupied with new matters that do not concern me, which become an obsession, undermining my good intentions. In short, I replace one set of sins with another, and find myself entangled in a completely new web of my own making. It is a constant struggle.
A compulsion regularly comes over me which insists: “Write!” But in my heart, after all has been said and done, there is disquiet, regret, remorse: my writing betrays arrogance. After the fact, I wonder to myself: would silence not be better for you? Would it not be better not to release these words? Are you not only portraying your ignorance? Would it not be better to recognise your station and withdraw, to unpublish and retire? Each day, these are the thoughts that follow every essay. Am I merely just poisoning my own soul? And yet before I have had time to respond, there comes yet another compulsive urge to write down all that is on my mind. Once more I spill my soul onto the page, momentarily thinking it urgent, as if my words had any impact on the world. And then once more the regret and remorse: what an arrogant, conceited fool.
It occurs to me with increasing frequency, that all the words that have been flowing from my fingers of late are merely a substitute for all the transgressions that passed before them. It took me an age, but eventually I fell down in repentance, resolving to make everything right and not return to those wicked ways. I closed the door, though it pained me. But all of a sudden this: opinions, essays, thousands of words. Have I merely been hoodwinked into exchanging one set of sins for another?
I have a habit of burning bridges and sinking boats. My impetuous nature causes me to make hasty decisions. To leave a group suddenly. To delete a hundred files. To speak my mind too freely. To be cynical in the midst of a frenzy of adoration. And ultimately, at my turning away, all my companions turn away too, tired of my abrupt reversals. In the end, there is no love lost: better to abandon the impulsive one and his frequent about-turns, as he burns yet another bridge and puts up another wall. Why invest any more time in our ferocious friend, they ask themselves, when he will ultimately just let us down? My friends have my sympathy: I can barely tolerate myself either.
Stuck in the moment of his own despair, he carelessly says to another no longer stuck in their own moment of despair, “You have absolutely no idea what we’re going through”, absolutely oblivious to the fact that they know exactly what they are going through. The one who complains that others judge unfairly judges unfairly and refuses to acknowledge that he is not alone in the world, nor is his situation unique, and that his own words and assumptions hurt just as much as those he complains about. Empathy is a two-way street.
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Others are tested by their circumstances. I am consistently tested by myself. And consistently fail. The battle with the nafs is unending. Success always illusory. Disappointed by myself but evidently not disappointed enough to change.
So I have withdrawn once again – or at least I have closed the door to Facebook. So I am heading for the hills once more – metaphorically speaking. It used to be that in times of crisis we would pull together and seek refuge in like-minded company. But on the internet this time, all we encounter is extreme polarisation. I don’t want to be a part of it. The perpetual cascade of news, opinions and stupidity is too much. The flood of excuses, conspiracy theories and discovered double-standards helps nobody – it just makes us reactionaries.
It was a tough decision. There are those I benefit from immensely, who I will miss. They have become true friends, although thousands of miles may separate us. But sometimes it is necessary to pull the plug – to go Cold Turkey, if you will – when the harm seems to outweigh the benefit. For me, the internal agitation to constantly check for updates, feedback, responses and the latest news. The new micro-rituals of reaching for a phone, or tablet, or switching tabs on the web browser to just quickly check, fifty times a day. A habit first thing in the morning and last thing at night. A growing dependence – an egocentric urge to be always connected to others elsewhere. No time for a break, for quiet reflection, for pause for thought, for silence. It is said, “A wise person once said nothing.” Social media makes no space for nothing.
For me, it was becoming like an addiction, preventing me from venturing out for the evening prayer. Or from making time for supplication and reflection. I could spend hours every evening doing very little, except follow a steady stream of articles, videos and unfounded, spurious claims. There would be no time to read a book. No time to study or learn something. In short, perhaps I have wasted two years of my life.
Yes, I make it sound so bad. What an incredible exaggeration! In truth I have benefited from the experience. I have made new friends. I have benefitted from others. But there is a balance, and sometimes it is hard to get that balance right. Years ago I took the same approach to another addiction. Some people viewed my response as an extreme reaction, but for me it was one of the best decisions I ever made. If you lack the self-restraint which allows you to act with moderation, sometimes the only course of action is to shut down the avenues to return to it completely.
Even now I am feeling the cravings for the news feed, but I am determined to turn back the clock a little, to that era before permanent connectivity. Who remembers the 1990s, or a time before that when we could exist without this perpetual narcissism? Yes, we should live in the age we find ourselves in, not in an imaginary past. But so too must we discover a way of living that provides equilibrium. For me, right now, the way ahead is to make time away from the glowing panels of glass. To make space for paper, driving rain and nothingness. An interlude away from the noise which populates too much of our lives.
There’s nothing new about these insecurities. Perhaps what’s different is that the folklore of this generation – the standard narrative in novels, films, TV shows and magazines – provides a hopeless caricature of relationships, reducing them to animalistic mating rituals: man and woman meet in a bar/restaurant/post-nuclear holocaust/alien invasion, and an hour later jump into bed together.
In my time, at university, nearly 20 years ago, those same insecurities were bubbling away in every dorm. As they leafed through their copies of FHM magazine, 3 out of 5 students in every flat were in despair, wondering what was wrong with them. Mostly they’re all now happily married or in long-term relationships. They probably look back on their naive, impatient youth with a mixture of self-loathing and tragic embarrassment.
But here, in the Muslim community, we have our own set of insecurities, or uncertainties, in the simplest of human relationships, such as a greeting on the street or a conversation on a public forum. When does a lowered gaze become I’m ignoring your existence? When does a greeting of salam become a huge faux pas? I admit that after 18 years navigating the Muslim Community, I’m largely none the wiser.
No new resolutions for me, but a reminder for my daily living… What does it mean to believe?
“And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off evil;
Those who spend of that which God has given them in ease and in adversity, those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind; God loves the good;
And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember God and implore forgiveness for their sins — Who forgives sins except God alone? — and will not knowingly repeat the wrong they did.
The reward of such will be forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever — a bountiful reward for workers!”
In summary, those who believe should be:
- Charitable (generous in giving money or other help to the needy / mild or tolerant in judging others; lenient)
- Composed (serenely self-possessed; calm)
- Clement (inclined to be lenient or merciful)
- Contrite (feeling regret and sorrow for one’s sins or offenses; penitent)
If we can try to act on these daily, then perhaps we too can be counted among those being referred to. The best of resolutions, inshallah.