This is going to be crunchy.

I have been reading a lot of articles about anger in activist communities and, on the one hand, I feel like there is clearly valid resistance within those communities to the racialized or gendered stereotypes of angry activists because it delegitimizes real feelings and dehumanizes people to paint everyone the same way. On the other hand, there is a repetitive declaration that people are going to be angry and people just need to deal with it which is also fair. The point is that people want their anger understood for what is at its roots, rather than seeing it as an essentialized manifestation of who they are. And that distinction is important. At the same time, it can and often does imply a dismissal of people who don’t appear angry enough, especially when those people are white, as a sign of their privilege or lack of ability to understand.

While I won’t ever dismiss the understandable and justified anger that runs through many different activist communities (because I believe it is rooted in love for humanity and outrage at injustice), an important thing to note for allies of Muslims and people working with Muslim activists is this: we are taught that anger is a natural response to injustice and can even motivate people to take appropriate action, but it has to be recognized that, first and foremost, we are guided by the Qur’an and the sunnah of prophet Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam to swallow our anger wherever possible. Not all Muslims follow this or follow it well, but the guidance is there.

As Muslims, we are taught to be patient, kind, and to offer excuses when we are treated poorly, even by people who are consciously Islamophobic and calling for our annihilation. We are called on to have respect for their humanity, even if they do not have respect for ours and even when forced to defend ourselves. This is not about dismissing or permitting their actions. It is the example and way of the best of teachers from our tradition: Prophet Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam – the one who would smile in the face of opposition, offer kindness while others pushed for hatred, and who was forgiving where it seemed impossible for others to forgive.

We are taught to not be continuously suspicious of others and to offer the benefit of the doubt and excuses for them when someone harms us, even intentionally, as long as it does violate the laws of Allah, which then calls for the enactment of justice. Even then, we can act with mercy. We are taught that when someone tarnishes the character of another in front of us (even if in the name of critical engagement or the correcting of behaviour), that we defend them and offer a multitude of reasons and examples for why that attitude about them is unacceptable. We are taught to guide them with patience and understanding. Yes, we are taught to do the unpaid, emotional labour that many activist groups reject.

We are taught that we must never suffer from a deficiency of trust in Allah. That He has brought the greatest of tyrants down and the greatest of oppressors to our Deen and way of life. He will protect us, in sha Allah, so we must hold steadfast our practice and not give up our piety in the face of how others seek justice for themselves.  This is our pious, God-conscious, love-based activism. Muslim activists must be understood on these terms. Our calls for justice will not and should not ever run contrary to the teachings of Allah and the way of Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam.

If you are working with Muslims and they just don’t seem angry enough for you, know that this is a religio-cultural difference between us that requires translation, understanding and respect. It should also be noted that this desire to understand and give the benefit of the doubt has to be applied to all Muslims whether they are Italian converts like me or born Muslims of colour. We are Muslim before all else. Even when you say we are not.

It does not mean you cannot come to us when you are angry – in fact, please do. Jarir ibn Abdullah relates that the Prophet Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam said: “Allah has no mercy for him who has no mercy for his fellows.” In our tradition, compassion and kindness should never be withheld for any reason. Caring for someone in their time of need never infringes on our right to receive compassion in turn. Another’s oppression does not take away from our own. We can all always be there for one another. This is the sunnah (way) of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.

It also does not mean we are not outraged or are not working for y/our justice. It just means that we are doing so the best ways we know how, according to our traditions and our teachers. We are taught to express and channel these feelings, even push them aside, in a manner than secular activist groups are not accustomed to, who can demand or posit anger as the social justice norm. Thinkpieces about being angry are fine but they are only one opinion or even just a few opinions.

Resisting our way of life as being too forgiving and too soft without seeking to understand where it comes from perpetuates the ignorance that we are all fighting together. Dismissing how we do things represents a dismissal of our right to exist, persist and resist according to Islam.

These accusations affect white Muslims and Muslims of colour differently. The former group can be perceived as privileged or playing into white supremacy by not being hard or rigid enough. The latter group, most detrimentally because of intersectionality and the heightened probability of being victims of lateral violence, can be seen as not yet awoken (and therefore useless and disposable) because of how they choose to treat their oppressors. Both of these are unacceptable and just because we are framed this way, does not mean that is who we are. It also must be understood that while Muslims learn from the communities we serve, we are not ultimately accountable to them. That ultimate accountability is reserved for Allah, Alone.

Finally, when someone says they are fighting for your justice and you see them doing so in the best ways they know how, it is the way of the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa salam to believe them. (And you don’t have to be Muslim to accept that.)

And Allah knows best.

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On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him): “A man said to the Prophet, ‘Give me advice.’ The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘Do not get angry.’ The man asked repeatedly and the Prophet answered each time, ‘Do not get angry.’”

قَالَ رَسُولُ اللٌّه يَا عَلِيُّ أُوصِيكَ بِوَصِيَّةِ فَاحْفَظْهَا فَلاَ تَزَالُ بِخَيْرٍ مَا حَفِظْتَ وَصِيَّتِـي. يَا عَلِيُّ مَنْ كَظُمَ غَيْظاً وَ هُوَ يَقْدِرُ عَلى إِمْضَائِهِ أَعْقَبَهُ اللٌّهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ أَمْناً وَإِيْمَاناً يَجِدُ طَعْمَهُ.

The Messenger of Allah (S) has said, “O’ ‘Ali! I advise you (in regards to something) with a piece of advice, so then safe-guard this as you shall never be devoid of goodness as long as you have safe-guarded my recommendation. O’ ‘Ali! Allah will grant the one who swallows his anger – while he is able to act out his rage – with protection and faith on the Day of Judgment whose pleasure the person will taste.”

One of the most famous narrations reported by Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, who said: “I was walking with the Messenger of Allah (saws), and he was wearing a Najraanee cloak with a rough collar. A Bedouin came and seized him roughly by the edge of his cloak, and I saw the marks left on his neck by the collar. Then the Bedouin ordered him to give him some of the wealth of Allaah that he had. The Prophet (PBUH) turned to him and smiled, then ordered that he should be given something”.

وَسَارِعُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ عَرْضُهَا السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالْأَرْضُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ فِي السَّرَّاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ وَالَّذِينَ إِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً أَوْ ظَلَمُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ ذَكَرُوا اللَّهَ فَاسْتَغْفَرُوا لِذُنُوبِهِمْ وَمَن يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَلَمْ يُصِرُّوا عَلَىٰ مَا فَعَلُوا وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ.

And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous. Who spend [in the cause of Allah ] during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allah loves the doers of good; And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves [by transgression], remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allah ? – and [who] do not persist in what they have done while they know. (Qur’an 3:133-135)


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

With the launch of Dolce and Gabbana’s haute couture hijabi line in January, many people are questioning the motivations behind such a move. This wouldn’t be the first western fashion group to launch a line aimed at garnering a chunk of some of the $266 billion spent by Muslims annually (a number expected to rise to $488 billion within 3 years). H&M also launched a campaign that was aimed at supplying hijab-wearing shoppers with modest and fashionable apparel. Dolce and Gabbana represent a much different market than H&M and are looking to tap into the haute-couture market of the gulf countries, where approximately 33% of the world’s haute couture purchases originate from.

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Hijab fashion is nothing new. Take five seconds to plug that into Youtube or a search engine and you will be inundated with videos of hijabi women from around the world saying “Salam Alaikum everyone! Today I have an amazing hijab fashion tutorial for you.” Usually these videos and blogs offer fashion tips and tricks for looking good while staying modest, ranging on the modesty scale from jeans and boyfriend sweaters, to all-out maxi dresses or fashion abayas.

Dolce and Gabbana are at the more modest end of the spectrum, coming up with a range of long flowing abayas and complementary head scarves with eye-popping accessories to boot. So if the hijab fashion market has always been around? What’s different? Why are some people questioning the motivations of the Sicilian designers? Is what they are doing an example of the now-infamous “cultural appropriation” or patriarchy or neo-colonialism (or all of the above) simply because they are non-Muslim, Western men?

I don’t think that such accusations are very productive or make a whole lot of sense. For me, what they are doing depends on their research. I’ll admit that so far they don’t have a great track record for research, especially considering that last summer, the designer duo scheduled an ultra-exclusive fashion show during Ramadan, meaning that many of their Middle Eastern/Muslim clients could not or would not attend. The faux-pas has stimulated the pair to learn more about Islamic religious practices though, and with such prominent names doing this research, especially while Islam is continually and perpetually under siege (that’s not up for discussion folks), I can’t argue with that kind of publicity.

And, in actually looking at their designs, I am floored by how stunning they are while being much more modest than most fashion hijab purports to be these days. They are obviously catering to the Gulf aesthetic taste for abayas and that’s great: they know their market and in the world of business, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. They aren’t forcing it down the throats of women and they aren’t necessarily dictating what those women should wear. In fact, hijabis around the world have been cobbling together modest outfits (let’s be honest about how many of you have about 5000 layers going on daily in an effort to make sure you’re just covered) from designer fashions and clothing labels not marketed towards them since…forever. And we’re all going to keep buying our scarves at the same store that hipsters do but instead of wrapping them around our necks ironically, they will be pinned to our heads. Suddenly, because someone decided to pitch something directly to us, it’s an issue? Frankly, I’d prefer if someone took us into consideration because I am getting really tired of wearing turtlenecks under everything because the sleeves are too short.

My first real concern comes from an Islamic perspective more than anything and centers on the ethics of the labour that went into making them. This, of course, is something that can be asked of everything Muslims wear. Are we dressing ourselves on the slave labour of others across the world? Are children being forced to make our clothes? As Muslims, believe it or not, these are important questions to be asking. We should not be supporting companies that partake in poor manufacturing processes or do not take care of their employees’ working conditions and pay. While the ethics behind a company’s manufacturing practices is not always clear, we should feel obligated to do the research necessary to make sure we are not unknowingly participating in the entrapment or forced servitude of other people. This is critical wherever manufacturing takes place and whoever is doing it. For Muslims who might not particularly care, it is important to note that clothing manufacturing dominates in places like China, Bangladesh, India, and Turkey – all countries that have large Muslim populations which could be directly affected by poor work conditions. Of course, it is the duty of the Muslim to care for all people in positions of injustice, not just other Muslims; however, if it takes imagining your little brother or sister chained to a sewing machine for 15 hours a day to wake some people up, then so be it. Theoretically, Dolce and Gabbana manufacture most of their clothing in Italy, however, some of their eyewear and accessory lines are made in China, and knockoffs abound from all over the world.

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Other issues have been raised by Muslims about the new line and others that will follow suit, including the fact that it’s too little too late – that after a lifetime of suffering because of wearing the hijab, the slight joy of it becoming a fashion statement does little to ease the trauma. While I don’t doubt that some women have felt that their modest Islamic dress has caused them untold suffering, whether from limited opportunities to outright physical violence, it doesn’t follow for me that if an industry suddenly starts to catch up on that fact that, hey, we’re women too and we like to present ourselves well to the world (indeed, looking good is part of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him) it is negated by the fact that they have operated in ignorance for so many years prior. Bring on the knowledge and understanding!

The claim that the move reeks of Western double standards (because people in the West don’t want women to wear hijab?) is also a gross conflation of a) the opinions of Westerners and b) the entire concept of the West. There are plenty of people who have zero issue with hijabi women choosing to wear a headscarf and modest dress every day and to presume otherwise is unproductive and accusatory. I have little patience for binaries (in case, you hadn’t already noticed). Sure, D&G might be more interested in tapping into a lucrative market, but there is something to be said for the fact that they even have the gall to try. It might have something to do with the fact that they are Sicilian and the gorgeous Italian island was colonized by Arabs for 200 years, but I’m a Calabrese (neighbouring province to Sicily) convert to Islam so I’m a bit biased when it comes to residual cultural DNA cropping into my vocabulary.

The final criticism that I want to address is an important one: the whiteness of the model used to photograph the abaya collection. The issue of this woman’s skin colour has come up more than I can count and while I do agree that Dolce and Gabbana missed a huge opportunity for intersectional visibility here, I don’t necessarily think it’s the worst thing to have happened. In fact, it actually goes against presumptions found within the Arab world itself: that Arabs are the truest Muslim because they come from the same tribes of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) and they know the language of the Qur’an, despite the fact that they only represent about 15% of the worldwide Muslim population. Having a white (or Italian?) hijabi Muslim also flies in the face of stereotypes lobbed against paler converts to Islam who get accused of converting only for marriage or of being Orientalist – pretenders who will never actually grasp the weight of their conversion by virtue of having come from the land of the great colonizers. For me, embodying my own peripheral intersectionality as an Italian convert from the West, I didn’t mind such a model, but I wouldn’t, obviously. And I suppose that’s just my privilege talking because it just so happens that some of my people (even though I hate nationalism) decided to represent some of my other people (ie. Muslims) – an overlap I never expected to happen.

Islamically speaking, the price tag is the real issue for me when it comes to buying modest, hijabi clothing from designers like Dolce and Gabbana, simply because it is the only part of the equation that is not modest. The collection has yet to be priced, but if it is anything like the rest of their designs, it is going to be substantial. To put this in perspective, the only floor-length maxi dress in the D&G 2016 collection is priced at $7070 US and a standard headscarf from the same collection is approximately $484 US. That’s a lot of dollars being spent on “modesty”. Money that could be better spent on charitable ventures, one’s own family or the general betterment of society.

For modest, fashionable hijab options, I recommend Modern Hejab and Afflatus Hijab.

 

For the past 5 months, I have been studying the Arabic language at the University of Alberta. This is not my first foray into the Arabic language: I have been enamoured with it for years, even before I converted to Islam. I have taken some online self-study classes, bought books at the local bookstore to teach myself, took a few private tutoring lessons and the like. I even lived in Morocco for three years where I picked up a significant and usable amount of Moroccan Arabic to survive taxi rides and trips to the enchanting Moroccan souk (market). Even though Moroccan Arabic stuck with me and is really the first language I can safely say I speak besides English (my strengths in French are reading and writing), darija as it is called, is quite far from the formal Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha, as it is known).

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Since I began my Master’s degree in History at the University of Alberta, I have had to focus on learning the Arabic language to further my research in Islamic-Jewish studies, particularly if I want to continue on and do a doctorate degree in a similar study area (which I do). As such, I enrolled in a couple of courses to learn Modern Standard Arabic and it has been an incredible experience, but for reasons that might surprise you, as they most certainly surprised me.

The Camaraderie: The last thing someone would expect when I tell them I am taking an Arabic class is that the class would be full of Arabs. Well, it is. I weaseled my way into the “heritage” class which is full of students who have grown up speaking the dialects of their parents but have little to no knowledge of formal Arabic or how to read and write it. There are three other non-heritage students in my class, each of whom I love dearly for various reasons, most significantly a kind of solidarity in the face of the madness of learning this language. Mainly the class is full of amazing, jovial people who are enjoying learning the language together. The class takes place at night, for two and a half hours, twice a week. Since the class is so long and at a weird time of day, we tend to get a bit delirious together especially when you add the complexities of Arabic grammar concepts to the mix. I have rarely had as much fun in a class as I do in this one, and I have to say that I actually miss the class when there are days between meetings. Part of this has to do with the fact that I am a convert to Islam and I don’t have much of a strong connection to the actual Muslim community even though I do a lot of activist work on behalf of that community. Most of my time, however, is spent with academics or family and both of those groups don’t necessarily overlap with Muslimness at all. The Arabic class, however, is full of Muslims and even though we don’t always mention much about our way of life (deen), just being in close proximity to people who have a similar religio-cultural context as you is more of a relief than I expected it to be. To not have to explain ever micro-action of your behaviour or character is refreshing, even though I normally relish in the opportunity to do so with people who may lack knowledge about Islam.

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Pages of Arabic: I regularly have moments of looking down at my homework or an exam I have just written, or even some extra writing I have done for my professor, and I have to marvel in awe at the fact that the entire page (in fact, pages upon pages) is written in Arabic. How is this even possible? How can I possibly understand what I have just written? And time does not cure the awe either. It just keeps getting more and more pronounced as my writing improves and expands. This used to happen to me when I was studying Greek and I think it is for no other reason than the alphabet is different. I genuinely feel like my brain is being rewired (and it is) because I am introducing an entire new set of meaningful symbols into my linguistic repertoire. And more than that, I can express myself with these symbols in ways that are affective for people who know and understand Arabic. I’m living part of my life in another language; I’m saturated by it. When you choose to express yourself in another language, it is not merely an act of translation. You are adopting and carrying the depths of meaning from that language into your self-expression, and with a rich language such as Arabic, where oceans of meaning are contained in one word or phrase, the expressions are almost limitless – especially when combined with those I have in English and French and Italian as well.

Egyptians are hilarious: This is not news to many people, especially not me. One of my best friends is Egyptian and his wit simply cannot be matched, so this is one cultural stereotype I am happy to uphold. My professor, Mai, is Egyptian and the stereotype holds true and strong for her as well. Her sense of humour is impeccable and she puts up with all sorts of class antics with a smile on her face and a laugh on her tongue. I have come to know a bit more about how Egyptian people view themselves through her (passionate, temperamental, hilarious, lovers of love and beauty, impatient, generous, kind, caring etc) even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to universalizing narratives about cultural systems. I am interested, however, in how individuals within that system talk about themselves and what stories they tell, and especially when this is done in good humour. Frankly, there is a kind of rapport between the heritage students and Mai that you don’t find in other classes and it reminds me of how my students were with me in Morocco – always trying to get away with no homework or leaving early, being trolls in general but respecting their professor to death at the end of the day. Her presence has only fuelled my unnatural obsession with the Arab world in general and the Egyptian world in particular, so I look forward to the day when I can visit the homeland and see these gorgeous stereotypes firsthand. I only hope I can touch a fraction of the language before then to make that experience really come to life.

Using different parts of my brain: It should come as no surprise that learning a new language messes with your head in a good way. You are forced to think about things in a completely different way, especially when the alphabet is something different than what you are accustomed to. Sometimes I find this process painful, especially during vocabulary lessons in class where it feels like every heritage speaker in the class knows everything and I can’t even remember how to spell the first word on the list; however, that kind of hyperventilating suffocation that I feel when learning Arabic is pure bliss. It’s the feeling of being on a precipice, about to tumble over an edge, head-first into the world unknown. It is the feeling of pushing your own boundaries of knowledge and existence, of unlocking worlds within worlds and breaking down our assumptions. I love this kind of ego-slay, especially when it is as humbling as learning Arabic is for me. This is exactly the kind of work that academia should be for people: the kind that makes the boundaries of who you think you are, and what you think your world is, ambiguous and blurry.

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Thinking in Arabic: When I am particularly immersed in my studies, which is a lot these days, I find myself thinking in Arabic. I will pass street signs written in English and imagine how I would spell such a thing in the Arabic alphabet. Or I will try to translate simple conversations or sentences to Arabic in my head. Sometimes, especially because of my visceral understanding of Moroccan Arabic and the fact that I am Muslim, I feel compelled to respond to situations in Arabic, uttering a Yallah or an Alhamdulilah wherever it fits. In Arabic there are just so many key words and phrases that encapsulate so much meaning in a tiny package that sometimes I find I am at a loss for words in English. It just doesn’t sound the same when you see a particularly beautiful sunrise and you say to yourself “All praise, glory and thanks are due to God Alone” when you can just say Subhana Allah instead.

Reading the Qur’an: On that note, my connection to Arabic is not only cultural in the sense that I love Arabic cultures but it is also cultural in the sense of religion. For those who do not know, Arabic is the language in which the holy book of Islam (the Qur’an) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him for all eternity). One incredible outcome of learning to read and write Arabic fluently is that I can now read the Qur’an in Arabic at a pace that is a lot faster than before (let’s be realistic, I could barely read 6 words every 2 minutes before). Even though Qur’anic Arabic is quite different than Modern Standard Arabic, many principles are the same and the same basic letters and sounds apply, even though there is an entire science behind reading the Qur’an (tajweed). The fact that I can read what I and other Muslims consider to the exact and direct word of Allah (God) in the language it was revealed lessens the temporal and spatial gap between myself and the Prophet Muhammad and brings me closer to my spiritual practice, even if I am slow in learning the meaning(s) of such words in their own context.

My journey with the Arabic language will be life-long and this is only just the beginning. There have been moments of real agony already where I feel like I will never touch the depths of meaning that I want to with the language, where I lose myself in its music, tinged with melancholia and sorrow that it is not my mother tongue as I fail to remember terms or pronunciation again and again. But there are successes along the same path, big successes, things that I could never imagine were possible like those pages full of words I can understand and feelings I can describe. And for now, that will have to be enough until the day when  I will fully memorize the Qur’an while internalizing its meaning and when my own Arabic poetry will roll flawlessly off my tongue, insha Allah.