My parents fled Iraq during the Gulf War and sought refuge in the UK. They were desperate to cling onto the cultural and religious ties they had, especially as my brother and I grew up in an all-white neighbourhood. In the hope of protecting their identity, at eight we went to Arabic school every Saturday and had a homeschooled religious teacher every Sunday – quite intense!
Our Islamic teacher would make us learn many Surahs off by heart, memorise dua’s for certain activities such as leaving and entering the house, and we stuck qur’anic verses on the walls of our home. I remember this experience vividly through the tantrums, not knowing and fully understanding what the significance and meaning was. How many times have you recited Surat Al-Fatiha without really absorbing the message that was handed to us? Unfortunately I began accepting the cultural interpretations of Islam that showed me that I was subordinate in society.
We then moved to Jordan, and the religious learning experience was the same. I would cry in my room feeling inept and incompetent when failing to memorise words that gave my teachers satisfaction but left no lasting impression on me. Last year, my eleven year old brother came back from Arabic school upset. He had been told off for asking ‘why?’ In response to a declaration that Islam was the only true religion. Something clicked inside me and I learnt a big lesson from this enthusiastic, curious spirit. Although there is great Barakah in memorisation, it did not in all these years bring me any closer to knowing and feeling the presence of Allah SWT – we were on auto-pilot.
This Ramadan has been a big shift for me in terms of my spiritual belief due to the effort I have put into understanding and interpreting for myself the message that was given to us. Now that I have the gift of understanding Arabic, I have discovered many inspiring subtle messages, especially for women’s empowerment. In fact, Allah compares the one who carries His book, that one may believe in it, act upon it and call upon it (the people) to it, but who fails to do so, neglecting to ‘bear’ it except in a literal sense, (meaning) reciting it, without putting it into practice and without understanding, without obeying it, without judging in accordance with it and without fulfilling its commands – to a donkey who carries a load of books or scriptures, without knowing what is in them. (Sonoran Al-Jumu’ah (62:5))
This depth of analysis, discussion and questioning seems to be vital to our worship. Just like the flawed revising method of memorising without understanding or critiquing your work before an exam. Memorising the Quran does not necessarily help us improve, critique ourselves, or learn what the message of Allah is. This month, despite having recited Surat Al-Fatiha countless times over the years, it is fascinating how the same words can have a new meaning in different circumstances when you discover its history and context. Surat Al-Fatiha is actually referred to as ‘umm Al Quran’ and ‘umm Al Kitab’ meaning mother of the Quran and mother of the Book. As a woman alienated by the cultural misogyny masquerading my true Islam, I felt invited to re-open my relationship with Allah with a feeling of equality. Interestingly, Prophet Mohammad SAS described this opening Surah as the ‘shifa’, the cure, or ‘ruqyah’ , the spiritual care for every poison. Thus I felt that Surat Al Fatiha was simultaneously my renewed entrance to the faith as well as my cure to the false patriarchal conceptions of Islam.
With a greater consciousness thanks to my younger brother, I am piloting my own nafs, renewing and creating a more significant, feminist, relationship with Allah.