Alhamdulillah. It’s only been a little over a week, but already, this Ramadan is starting out so much better than the last. It only took a nudging from a dear sister on Facebook and four or five of the same emails for me to get the sign of where my Lord was trying to send me next.
I kept hearing about a certain Anse Tamara Gray coming to town. I never heard of this sister before, but once I actually read my four or five emails and evaluated my own internal condition with which I was starting Ramadan, I quickly realized that going to my first ever Rabata Retreat event would be the cleansing of the heart that I needed. And that I would be in some of the best company that I could’ve had on last Sunday…that of one of those shaykhas hidden in plain sight.
So there I was, last Sunday around this same time, in a beautiful home setting filled with women and the smallest of children sitting around a woman demonstrating the art of giving back. You see, Anse Tamara is not like all shaykhas. She’s a daiyah from America, with a keen interest in assimilating new Muslims and helping people learn and practice Islam. As one who embraced Islam herself at the age of 18, she knows what it’s like to educate, develop, and revolutionize yourself in a new religion, language, and culture…as a woman. She embodies the ideals of the talk that I was attending, entitled “Saving Superwoman.” She holds both “secular” and sacred degrees: degrees in political science and education, as well as the equivalent of a BA in Shariah and an ijazah (certificate) in Quranic tajwid. She also has translated several books from Arabic into English, including a seerah and tajwid book. She has spent 17 years in Syria getting her formal Islamic education. And she’s a mother. And she’s a wife. So how could I not go to this program? She has achieved or is achieving what I want…the ultimate superwoman feat of being mother, wife, author, student…all the while being a terrific example of a servant of Allah. She comes back every year to give back to the American community, and is back now making a tour across the United States. Washington, DC was her second of ten stops around the U.S. “dedicated to building spiritual ties between women, the spiritual upbringing of women by women, and the establishment of the female voice in scholarship”.*
Dramatic and engaging, listening to Anse Tamara wasn’t like attending a lecture. It was like being told a story…from an aunty…in a conversational way. And she began by telling us the story of “superwoman”, a constructed word from the 70s…from the West. Aligned with feminist zeal, the understanding of who/what woman is changed in the West from the 60s to the 70s with the advent of birth control, popularization of divorce, and the alignment of the feminist movement with gay (lesbian) rights which made feminism the “dirty” word that it is today.
She then carried the story to the present–sad stories from Muslim lands of girls who are encouraged to be the exact opposite of the Western superwoman…all the way down to not being encouraged to memorize Qur’an. In this parallel, Anse Tamara Gray reminded us that we should be looking at how a superwoman is defined in Islam, rather than the dichotomy of the West’s do-it-all-without-any-help vs. the prevalent attitude in Muslim cultures that females only have value in motherhood and wife roles. In fact, she said the contribution to anxieties amongst Muslim women today is mainly because of this dichotomy of the anti-superwoman rhetoric in Muslim cultures combined with the superwoman of the Western world.
So to define superwoman as she should be, we looked to the Qur’an. Anse Tamara said that the Qur’an holds in it every role a woman could ever have: a single woman, a single mother, a happily married woman, an unhappily married woman, a career woman, and a barren woman. And then she gave us examples…delightful examples filled with drama, intrigue, and suspense. It was Qur’an stories like I’ve never heard them before…and she made you feel as if you were in the presence of these women of the Qur’an, perhaps meeting them for the first time in all their glory. They were all cast in a new, rare light. But they weren’t foreign to you…you knew them, you were them.
Our first role and example came from Hannah, the mother of Maryam (may Allah be pleased with them both). She was a happily married woman who had difficulty conceiving. When she did finally conceive, she gave her child right back to Allah instead of keeping the child for herself. She gave her child, Maryam (ra), to the temple, even when she found out the baby was a girl, which was revolutionary at the time! Imagine the gossip about her…this was unheard of at the time! And sadly, in many ways, it’s still unheard of in our time. Who dedicates their child to the service of Allah? Who prays unceasingly for their children and seeks refuge for them from the accursed outcast, Satan? Who loans to Allah a beautiful loan?…
As a child dedicated to the temple and the only woman of the temple under the care of her uncle, the prophet Zakariya (as), Maryam (ra) was always in the spotlight. Her first role was as an advisor, in that she gave advice to her uncle who asked where she received her sustenance from. In her response, “Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure,” she taught Zakariya his mistake, that he didn’t make du’a and ask for the child he wanted (Yahya). So she inspired the du’a that brought Yahya (as) to the world (see Surah Ali’ Imran for more on this story). And then she became a mother herself…and she was utterly alone…as the only woman in the temple, in her pregnancy, labor and delivery, and after the Prophet Isa (Jesus) (as) was born. She was a normal human being with her reputation on the line for having such extraordinary circumstances in her time, and she didn’t cower from it. She spoke up about her chastity to the angel who visited her disguised as a man (unlike the Biblical story where she is portrayed as cowering and afraid). She was happily unmarried and a single mother, and she still was a beautiful servant of Allah…recorded forever in the history of mankind in every culture, and I think possibly in every book worth mentioning.
Then we have ‘Asiyah. She was married to the scum of the earth (Pharoah), and yet she believed. Her husband was arrogant and told people that he was their lord. She was barren, and was married to someone who killed newborn babies, for crying out loud!!! Somehow though, through all of that, she was able to keep and raise a newborn son…a prophet no less, the exact target he was after, right under the nose of the head of the kuffar (unbelievers). Anse Tamara said it plain and simple: ‘Asiyah is the beginning and end of the excuse that some women use, “my hubby won’t let me.”
On the other hand, the absolute opposite of ‘Asiyah is the wife of Lut (as). Lut (as) was a great husband–he was a prophet! And yet, she did not believe (see, there really is no compulsion in religion…but some Muslims would have you believe otherwise…). Her example and role in the Qur’an demonstrate the autonomy of a woman. A woman has choice and her reputation isn’t based on her husband. We are who we are because of who we are, not because of our husbands.
Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, is our careerwoman. She was the head of her country and her story is cast in a positive light–she was a good queen, and was respected for it. And this was before she met the Prophet Suleiman/Solomon (as).
And my all-time favorite from Anse Tamara’s beautiful narration is the story of Zuleikha. I will never think of her in the same way again…hers is the story of the tempted woman. She was faced with a man, a prophet, who had 99% of all the good looks ever created (Yusuf/Joseph, peace be upon him). Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and whoever else the girls of today think of as eye candy had nothing on him. Not a thing! And she was living with him under the same roof! How much patience can a person have? He was also her slave…The poor woman, having to look at that eye candy so much, she locked him in a room and attacked him. She just couldn’t take it anymore. And you can imagine the gossip about her: an elevated woman running after a slave. Her story shows that a woman has sexual drive. We aren’t just for the use of our husbands. We have urges and feelings, too. And she was attracted to someone to the point that she’d wrong herself. She stands for all those temptations that we may have: lust, adultery, you could even take it to the level of chocolate…but her temptation was a scandal, a soap opera, broadcast in the news for her whole community to hear about…(and we’re still hearing about it)! But the best part of her story (and I didn’t realize this) is that she tells Yusuf (as) after he gets out of jail that she doesn’t want him anymore. It wasn’t he who changed (he was still that delicious eye candy, mashAllah), but it was her own heart that had changed. We will all be tempted and make mistakes, but it doesn’t define us. What matters is how we react and grow from it, rather than succumbing to it. And aren’t all of us tempted in some way or another? There’s so much to learn from this story…
So with that, Anse Tamara Gray gave us four tips to utilize in our lives to become the ideal superwoman in Islam…the true superwoman!
- Know who you are–a servant of Allah (swt) first and foremost–every other role is secondary. Your relationship with Allah takes Spot #1, and when you become confident with this you become these great women of the Qur’an. Trials won’t be so trying then.
- Establish a consistent worship schedule. As women, our ibadah becomes erratic. We often stop wirds when we are on our menses or postnatal bleeding. But even though we aren’t making salah, that doesn’t mean that our dhikr and du’a have to stop. In fact, they shouldn’t! It takes 21 days to make or break a habit. When we stop everything during our periods, we truly become women who aren’t praying at all. We become the dangerous term in Syrian dialect for a woman on her menses–”a woman without prayer.” Anse Tamara reminded us though that that time of the month is not for vacation. There is a very controversial hadith that most women frown upon, but Anse Tamara proved was true for most women. In it, the Prophet (saws) says, “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you“ to a group of women [Muslim, Bukhari]. Worship wise, if we allow ourselves to take a “vacation” from Allah everytime we bleed, we are missing out on prayer for 25% of our lives..that’s about 10 years of our lives without prayer if we hit menopause around 48 years old. Subhanallah! We shouldn’t cut ourselves off from Allah just because he ordained for us to bleed. We should schedule our ibadah like everything else in our life–it shouldn’t be less than our studying, work, etc. Scheduling ibadah and making it a habit that’s at the forefront of our days, weeks, and months will help tip #1 (solidifying our Islamic identity as servants of Allah). And while it’s nice to work towards a heavy schedule, ibadah is like a muscle. If you start out running a marathon, you’ll end up in bed doing nothing for two weeks. So it’s best to start with something small that you can stick to–if you haven’t already, when you are praying, start working out that ibadah muscle by praying 2 rakats of tahajjud at night every night and your life will change immensely. In fact, make your tahajjud salatul tasbih. There was a side note to this recommendation though because of the present time we are in. Though we should start out small regularly, Ramadan is a time to intensify your ibadah. It’s a spiritual season where great feats can be accomplished if we put our minds, hearts, souls and bodies to it! So plan your reading of the Qur’an and push yourself. This time is for buidling and cleansing a heart good enough to use outside of Ramadan. Ramadan is a time to make drastic moves. Find out how many rakats you can pray at night, how long you can stand in qiyyam in a rakat, how much Qur’an you can read or memorize…our example here is Zaynab (ra) who held on to a rope to stand longer in prayer during Ramadan. The Prophet (saws) had the rope cut down and told her to sit down when she couldn’t stand anymore, not to stop praying altogether. Taste what you have yet to taste…Anse Tamara asked, “Have you ever tasted a long ruku? It’s really nice.”
- Get some help–any kind of help…with anything. The house, the children, Arabic, whatever. And use your skills to help others. By helping each other we build community…and raise each other to new spiritual heights.
- Mandate a minimum of 2 hours of “alone time” for yourself weekly. Don’t let your brain turn to mush–learn something. One hour is to give back (teaching, helping, etc).; the other one is for taking time out for yourself. And get this, Anse Tamara actually said in response to a question about knowing what and when to teach when you yourself feel undeserving of the teacher role, “teach knitting”. You may not be able to teach someone ahead of you or in the same state as you in matters of the deen, but you can teach them something. Teach them knitting! Subhanallah! My dear sister-friend Miriam (who you often see commenting on the posts below) drove me to this class, and we looked at each other in amusement. Safiyya was with us and she was wearing shoes I knit for her. I had been getting a lot of questions that evening as to whether I made my newest daughter’s shoes. Was it a sign? I started teaching crochet this past spring…And while I don’t teach knitting (yet!), ya’ll know you can always knock on my door for crochet lessons, right? Hit me up on Good AfterNoora for that!
All in all, the lesson from the day was that Islam is about female empowerment. And more than that, it’s about human and humane empowerment. So to the men reading this out there, take what you can from these notes and reflections. You can look to the Qur’an for roles as well. In the prophets, you have excellent examples. Some supermen need some saving.:) In this day and age where more Muslim men are rising up to the beautiful example of the Prophet (saws) by cooking, cleaning, and sharing some of the housework, let us not forget that they may need some saving too. In that same hadith quoted above in green, the Prophet (saws) talks about women being ungrateful to their husbands. Anse Tamara shared a quote from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled (1978) in the “Spiritual Child” class that would do well here: “Love is the willingness to extend oneself for the spiritual growth of another person.”
We, men and women of the world, are more than just roles–we are servants of Allah…and with that great power, comes great responsibility. We serve Allah by serving others. And we may need help. Most superheroes have sidekicks. You know, Batman and Robin. But that’s pure fiction. Let’s talk about what really happened. Musa and Harun (peace be upon them both). Isa (as) and his disciples. The Prophet (saws) and his companions…
Anse Tamara ended by quoting a poem that I will always remember inshAllah, “I did the best I could with what I knew and when I learned better, I did better.” Don’t let guilt from the past weigh you down and make you heavy, unable to proceed and derive joy in the remainder of your life. We all need joy in our lives to thrive. When you’re not happy, no one is happy. Spiritual development deals with our attitude. And our attitude plays a big part in whether we are a part of the victory and light of Islam…and this is what our intention should be in so many roles such as marrying and parenting. If not, there’s always time to intend and re-intend in our lives. As for me, I went to this weekend intensive intending to actualize more of my true superwoman powers and get a boost for a Ramadan that began with a resounding “no” for salah and siyam. I definitely believe that I left the retreat a better woman, wife, and mother than I arrived…as well as a more dedicated student and inspired writer. Alhamdulillah. But I pray that this translates into me consistently being a better servant to Allah, azza wa jal, first and foremost, all the time…anytime. Ramadan Mubarak!
*Quote taken from the Rabata.org website. You can still catch Anse Tamara’s program, “A Quest: Forgiveness, Fulfillment and Faith” live streaming or in person if you tap the right channels (women only!). The next stops on the tour are Bakersfield, CA; Seattle, WA; Columbus, OH; Chicago, IL; and Detroit, MI. Catch Anse Tamara before she goes, even if just from your homes! You won’t be disappointed! And it’s completely free!