Thursday, December 13, 2007

What is our problem?

Either we ask too much, or we don't ask at all. We can't seem to find a balance. A friend who's been having trouble praying at work (and losing her values) was talking to me, and she said, "you know, it'll be great if you can get a degree from Harvard. That way, you'll have no problems at all".
Had it not been towards the end of our conversation, I would have lashed out a defensive, in a positive style.
I said to her, "inshallah I won't have problems even otherwise", and I know she had a skeptical look on her face.

I spent 5 years in Toronto. I can't say that I didn't face challenges with practicing Islam, but I can say for sure that there wasn't a problem that didn't have a solution. One of the best examples was the way I was able to handle the issue of praying during exams especially in winter with the help of the MSA, some students with like minds and my faculty. There were professors who said no to me on my face. Others asked me to make a "silent" prayer at my desk, and so on. But in every situation, I did not miss a prayer because of conflict with exam timings. There were times when the exam ended at 4:30pm. With Maghrib setting in at 4:40pm, that gave us less than 10 minutes to get through the crowd and find a spot to pray, and then open our fasts. This was a situation when we weren't accommodated because of our own oversight of approaching the faculty too close to exams.
The best arrangement I found was praying right outside the door, with a TA watching me, as well as the students inside the room. We would take turns. I always carried a compass on me so I always knew the direction of the Qiblah). And sometimes, some of the brothers who availed of these opportunities even did a jama'a in low voices during the exam!

So, why do we lose out? Why does my friend think that a degree from Harvard will pave way for me in the most difficult of times which I might face because I come across as a visible Muslim?

Being a visible Muslim
A person can use any situation to their advantage, or disadvantage. Most people tend to feel weak and wary as soon as they're faced with a difficult situation that compromises their beliefs. As a visible Muslim, instinctively I want to be able to portray a good image because I know that Islam is the right way, and by opening up people to Islam, I'm introducing them to a better way of life. Now, I might have a degree from Harvard, but people will first see me as a Muslim always because I don't think for the rest of my life I intend to walk around with the degree stuck to me. So much for the degree.

It's important to be in a mindset that hijab is great, and my hijab will help me. I still remember my first year in Canada. I was new to the hijab and didn't know how to pin it properly, but I never failed to notice the way guys differentiated in their treatment towards me and towards other girls. I was always given more respect. This same "respect" can be very easily labelled as "cold shoulder" by other people. In their efforts to "integrate", especially girls, they often forget that it's better not to be associated with people of the opposite gender if they are not able to respect you.
In particular, I remember a guy called Trevor. A classmate decided to study at my place, and in the hallway, we ran into him. I'm not sure how, but the conversation steered towards the topic of the reality of hellfire. Trevor resolved to become a better person.

It is so much easier for people to ask me what I'd like rather than for me to tell them, and being a visible Muslim makes it so much easier. I worked as a student assistant for a quadriplegic student for a summer and we became really good friends. I never needed to mention that I'm a Muslim to him. He once invited me to his party, and left me a very long voice mail message before he began his preparation. He wanted to know if I had any dietary restrictions, and then chanted off a list of ingredients in the different food items he was planning to use, and, "do you eat onions?".

It's true that you'll not always people who are accommodating and friendly. Sometimes my friend and I ventured to go jogging in the mornings. And at one time, someone did shout something awful at her. This incident was easy to ignore. What's not easy to ignore is the case of my friend, who's colleague with whom she shared her office, told her not to pray there because she felt uncomfortable. Even that situation has a solution.

Another friend, 19 year old revert to Islam, simply couldn't get herself to wear the hijab because she worked at a jewellery store. Everyday her story was the same- She felt horrible about the way she dressed, but she needed the job.

What a lot of people fail to understand that, when you place your values and religious responsibilities before everything else, Allah (swt) raises the ranks of such people in a very different way. They don't necessarily have to become CEOs or begin earning 6 digit salaries (there are examples of such people as well) but at least their hearts and minds do not possess the guilt that comes with selling out their values.

For sure if you want prosperity, you will achieve it through hard work, whether you wear the hijab/keep a beard or not. The comparison doesn't exist because you cannot compare the position of a person in this world, with his position with Allah (swt).

Perspective & creativity
We might think that Islam is foreign to most people around us in Western societies, and a scary religion as well. Yet, the bigger reality of this life is that there are millions of people groping in the darkness, looking for a guiding light. People in search of inner peace because nothing in their search, nothing else has satisfied them. So many people who are thirsty for the truth, but they just don't know that it all lies in Islam, because it's not within human comprehension to view the major benefits of being a Muslim right away. I'm still growing in my faith and discovering new paths.

My exposure hasn't been too wide, but I feel that we can always find a solution if we don't blow things out of proportion. There were people who would insist that if they want to pray during an exam, it has to be in a separate room on a "clean" floor. I found that to be so unnecessary. I wish in our training system we introduce a course titled "Foresightedness". Everything has to be done in steps. What is the bigger goal? Every time I walked into the registrar's office with the intention of making arrangements to pray during my exam, the thought that if I succeed, it's going to make it easier for Muslim students after me, was always there. So, stop being selfish.
Our salah is so beautiful that it has no attachments to material requirements. It is so pure that even with hundreds of eyes on you, you can pray if you really want to.

Also, if we weren't accommodated for, it was because we didn't ask for it early enough. There's hardly anything in life that wont go well if you don't plan it well. And planning ahead is an important part of the creative process.
The decision in this case, to allow students to pray, is not taken by just one person, but rather, it's propagated up/down several levels because they also have to choose the best possible solution. Don't forget to thank them later. Little gestures like these really go a long way. It's so easy for us to be aggressive and create so much drama every time something goes wrong in our community, but we are not quick and constant in our relationships with others.

When I was working as a research assistant on campus, in my lunch breaks, I would run downstairs to the Alumni office and help them prepare for the upcoming alumni dinner for those who graduated in the 40s and 50s. I would barely have 20-30 minutes because I had to eat and pray as well. However, this was an excellent opportunity to network (because I was hoping I'd be allowed to attend the dinner!) at the same time, I had made a place for myself that people would remember. To explain further, I did quite mundane tasks such as photocopying and cutting out old class pictures and sticking them up on boards, or making phone calls for RSVPs. But in that little time I had, I maintained a great relationship with the employees working in that office. One lady was from Cyprus and she told me about how in Cyprus, there's a major focus on family values. It was raining heavily one day and she decided to drop me to my place (I had to leave my bike on campus).

The problem does not lie in asking for time off for Friday prayers when you negotiate your job offer. The problem lies in how you ask for it. There are several factors operating at different levels. Study the person you are going to ask. Know your workplace. Prepare your case well, don't just blurt it out. Make an impressive statement about yourself. Be friendly. And my most important advice would be, ask for what you need after you have created a relationship of trust with your colleagues and immediate managers.

I've been to several fundraising events in Muslim communities- fundraising dinners for their own organisation, relief, masjid, etc. And over the years, I've seen a great improvement the way the it's done. We cannot expect to do things in the same way for the rest of our lives and expect impact in our society. Look at what children do in order to earn a few bucks- car wash, painting, window cleaning, etc. This work requires a lot of creativity.
I've seen congregations dwindle because of the mosque's fundraising techniques. Being creative is in other words, growing with society.

There was a time when mosques did not have loud speaker systems, and now they do (after much fiqh debate of course). Creativity is key. Be different. If you're asking for something, ask in the best possible manner. Definitely it is your right, but when you are setting a precedence, excellence and creativity are key.

I had worked at a startup company for a really short time and there was a really cool Muslim guy in his late 30s who had a prayer mat in his drawer. He showed me the room where he used to pray- a room full of pipes and cleaning supplies. He had an amazing attitude towards dealing with his religion. He had started working there a week before me, and I remember on one Friday, he walks into the CEO's office and goes, "Hey Daniel, I'm stepping out for an hour for the prayer. Will see you later. Have a great lunch."

If you feel troubled by asking for religious accommodation, then trouble is what you will get. Again, I'll stress that I'm not perfect. I faced problems and several times I made decisions that affected me adversely. And at the end, I always reminded myself, I need to be stronger.

Jumping at delusive opportunities
We have an interesting habit of rejoicing at small "successes" and then forgetting all about it. Just because someone asked me about whether their list of ingredients is halal, does not mean I'm calling up the guy and telling him I'm coming over with a Qur'an for him and start preaching Islam.
We really know how to torture people with our ways of communicating our very profound thoughts on Islam without checking if the other person is listening or even cares.
Islam is best spread by action. Get your own act right before you start preaching. We so easily forget that action is not just salah (in public) or making a grand statement of not drinking alcohol, but action is also your honesty, your hard work, your demeanor, your professionalism, and very importantly- your outlook and your treatment of others!

Note: This post was originally titled, "The trouble with not wearing Hijab".


Junoon said...

Upon a polite request for prayer time during exam, following is the response of a professor (an ex US military):

If you can pray at 2:00 then there's an easy solution. We stagger the starts of the exam so that everybody doesn't hit the server at the same time. I think GSB is one of the ones that starts at 2:05. If so, then you can go in, set up whatever you want to on your computer, leave at 2 and be back at 2:05. If you take an extra minute, no problem we can give you the extra time because you wouldn't have seen the exam yet and a TA doesn't have to watch you.

If GSB is one of the labs that starts at 2, we can still do that and give you the extra 6 minutes, or however long you need.

You'd just have to check in with the TA, who I will notify in advance of what's going on, so he can give you the extra time. Policy is, if you show up late, you can't get extra time. So you'd need to be at the room, ready to take the exam, then step out to pray, so it's not like you're just showing up for the exam late.

Will that work?

Ken Schultz

Humairah Irfan said...

Well, not bad, considering the fact that it takes 40 seconds to pray one rakat.

But in this situation, the prayer didn't fall in the middle? I'd be interested to know what his response was say you had to pray @ 4 instead, after you viewed the exam.

sheepoo said...

OK. I have my 2 cents here.
For the last 4 years or so we have been praying at work in our cars or in different conference rooms, if one was available. Of course, we had people entering these rooms finding us praying and not knowing what to do :-)
However, as you have so rightly said, Allah (swt) has made a way out of us. The HR people think that praying in cars or conference room is definitely a bad idea nad now they have given us a dedicated prayer room, where we are having regular jama'h. They even had it cleaned up for us!. All it needed was just asking them for a spare room and they went out of their way to help us (NOTE: There is no muslim working in HR at my workplace)

So, yes, where there is a will there is a way. You just have to work for it and put your faith in Allah (swt) and things will always work out for you

Jazak Allah!

Humairah Irfan said...

I've prayed in an elevator, but never in a car. How do you do it?? Pray sitting?
[My favourite are the parking lot and seemingly empty corners of malls..hehe]

At work, I would pray in the conference room as well, or in the stairwell. But Alhamdulillah, I had access to 4 different prayer spaces since each of the 4 hospitals downtown had a chapel/prayer room.
Someone had told me she prayed in her boss' office, because there was no other place! He'd just walk out whenever she needed.
So it's true- Trust can go a long way!

Faraz said...

This is a very insightful post.

All of your points are helpful. I think the key thing is to set a precedent early on in any professional relationship about what your expectations are. If you're shy at the beginning, it makes it much harder later on. But if you're upfront, right from the interview, everything gets easier afterwards.

You're right in that taking that first step makes it easier for everyone else who comes after. I just started at a new client site this week, and was elated to see that there was another Muslim also on his first day on my team. He's new to the city altogether, and had no idea how things worked around here. But since the two of us were together, it made things significantly easier for both of us in securing a room. Then, an old friend of mine from TO shows up at the same office! And now we have three-person jam'aahs for almost every prayer alhamdulillah. :)

Humairah Irfan said...

Jazakallah khair Faraz.
There's a lot of power in the congregation. If you're the only Muslim today, tomorrow there will be more :)

You're right about setting the precedence early on- That's extremely important. Inshallah I want to research ways of overcoming the shyness. I've personally hesitated several times.

My project manager was from another sect and I don't think I ever saw him pray or fast. I always went up to him first with the intention of making him understand what I need to do, because at least he doesn't need explanations. And he was great. You put a person in a position of authority and they respond to you accordingly.

That's another issue a lot of people face. A friend was telling me once that when he tried to ask for something, the supervisor said, "well, Zayd is a Muslim and he's been here longer than you, he never asked for this."

And I think to solve that issue, get Zayd on your side first.

sheepoo said...

Yes. I pray sitting in the car when I cannot find another place :-)

Jazak Allah!