Ramadan Chats with Neryssa #4 : Jihad Part 1

The word ‘jihad’ tends to stir negative emotions among non-Muslims as it is often associated with terrorism.

A lot of people assume that the meaning of the word jihad involves war and Muslims attacking people, and this assumption is often cultivated by most mainstream media and some religious extremists (who really if compared to the more than 1 billion muslims in the world, make up less than 1 percent of the whole Muslim population).

That’s not what jihad means. Jihad does not involve terrorism, military acts, or violence.

The word ‘jihad’ is the Arabic word for ‘struggle’, and in an Islamic context, it is defined as the struggle as a Muslim.

In Islam, there are two forms of jihad, a ‘lesser Jihad’ and a ‘greater Jihad’.

‘Lesser Jihad’ involves the external struggle of holding onto your faith as a Muslim when you’re facing oppression or injustice; especially if said oppression or injustice happens simply because you’re a Muslim.

For example, when I was 18, I applied for a job at a few retail stores in Malaysia and ended up being told that if I wanted the job, I had to compromise with my religious beliefs and take off my headscarf. The fact that I didn’t choose to compromise and still held on to what I believed in is a form of jihad.

‘Greater Jihad’ involves the internal struggle within oneself, in particular the spiritual struggle one has with oneself when it comes to being a good Muslim. Where ‘lesser jihad’ involves you holding onto your faith when facing others, ‘greater jihad’ involves holding onto your faith when facing yourself.

Any form of struggle that you have especially the ones that involve you struggling against your inner demons and flaws is a form of ‘greater jihad’.

A man who is an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking and does whatever he can to stop even though it’s a huge struggle; that’s ‘jihad’.

Someone who chooses to start praying consistently even though waking up for morning prayers is such a difficult task for them; that’s ‘jihad’.

My mother choosing to cover herself and wear a scarf around her head even though it led to her being disconnected from some of the people in her life; that’s ‘jihad’.

A person with depression or anxiety or any form of illness that involves battling their inner demons even though it’s not an easy thing to do; that’s ‘jihad’.

Pride and arrogance is frowned upon in Islam. We are always encouraged to be humble for it is with humility that we will be able to accept our flaws and work towards improving them.

It is so so easy to point out the wrongdoings of others, but it’s not as easy to point out our own. Too often do we let our pride get in the way of seeing our own flaws and mistakes (because let’s face it, no one likes to admit, let alone think that they did something wrong).

But if we want to improve as a person and make things right, we must first acknowledge what is wrong with ourselves in the first place. And of course finding out and acknowledging what is wrong with ourselves is easier said than done which is why even the simple act of attempting to recognise and improve our own weaknesses is a form of jihad.

Ramadan Chats with Neryssa #3 : Fasting in Ramadan

Muslims fast during the month of ‘Ramadan’, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The act of fasting starts from sunrise to sunset, and during that period we are not permitted to eat or drink. Fasting is compulsory once a person reaches puberty but you are exempted if you are old and sick. Children are encouraged to learn how to fast and this is done by easing them into it slowly such as having them fast for a few days during the fasting month, or by having them fast for half a day*

But the act of fasting isn’t really about abstaining yourself from eating or drinking during the day. It’s about self-control and is more about abstaining yourself from committing sin such as backbiting, being unkind to others, letting out anger get the best of us etcetera. If one can control themselves to not impulsively eat or drink which is a core basic need, then they will be able to control themselves from acting in a negative manner.

The fasting month is a month where we ‘cleanse’ ourselves (and when I say ‘cleanse’, I don’t mean the detox kind). It’s a month where we focus on leaving behind our bad habits and form good habits for us to practice the rest of the year because during the month of Ramadan, we are encouraged to do more good deeds and improve ourselves not just between ourselves and God, but with His creations as well.

Of course the aim of fasting in this context isn’t be a perfect Muslim or human being (because no one is perfect and human beings are prone to making errors). The aim here is to be a better version of yourself.

Fasting sounds like a big deal and if I had a penny for every time someone looks at me disbelief because ‘You can’t even drink?’, I would be richer than Bill Gates. But really, if you think about it, fasting is something practiced by other religions other than Islam. Christians fast during ‘Lent’. Buddhists and Hindus fast as well.

Fasting for less than a day isn’t actually a horrible thing because it lets you take a step back and focus on yourself and your values, and helps you be grateful for being able to at least eat in the end. There are so many people, especially children, who are in poverty who go on for much longer than that without eating or drinking.

You are not going to die for not eating for less than a day. Instead of focusing on the hours you spend not eating or drinking, you learn to focus on fasting from another angle and that is the fact that at the end of the day, you will still be able to eat and drink which is a privilege that not many have.

 

 

*My parents did this with me. I was a mischievous child though and sometimes I ‘forgot’ that I was fasting and only remembered after taking a sip of water. After that I would assume that my fast wasn’t valid anymore and continued to eat and drink.

Ramadan Chats with Neryssa #2 : Allahu Akbar

Some of you may know that Muslims call God “Allah”. Nouman Ali Khan, a Muslim speaker who studied the Quran along with Modern Standard, Classical, and Quranic Arabic, explains the linguistic origins of the word Allah in this video here. There are two major scholarly opinions. Either Allah is a compound of al (the) and ilah (god) or it is a unique word not derived from any other word.

Allah has a lot of names such as “The Most Merciful”, “The Most Gracious”, “The All-Knowing” etc. Despite the many names we may call our Creator, we essentially believe that there is only One.

So what does Allahu Akbar mean?

There are certain phrases that Muslims use to praise God,

 

  1. Alhamdulillah (Pronounced: Al-hamd-doo-lee-lah)

“Praise be to Allah.”

  1. SubhanAllah (Pronounced: Su-ba-han Al-lah)

“Glory to God”

  1. Allahu Akbar (Pronounced: Al-lah hoo-ak-bar)

“God is [the] greatest”

These three praises are usually uttered whenever Muslims are in awe. Whenever we are reminded of Allah’s greatness (for example, when we see a beautiful or magnificent view and marvel at the fact that Allah created the beauty before us. Or when we come across a scientific fact and are reminded of how powerful and great Allah is for creating science and a wide range of knowledge that keeps on expanding), we recite at least one of the above praises.

The praises are innocent and are supposed to be used in a peaceful, innocent, and humbling context. However and unfortunately , Muslim extremists and the way some mainstream media demonises Muslims has led to praises such as “Allahu Akbar” to have negative connotations.

When really in actual fact, they are not only recited to praise Allah and to remember His greatness, but to humble ourselves as well. Too often do we think too highly of ourselves to a point that we become arrogant. Which is why it is important to remind ourselves that no matter how highly we may perceive ourselves or someone, Allah is without a doubt much greater; greatest even.

 

On another note:

There was once an issue in Malaysia in regards to using the word ‘Allah’ in the Malay translation of the Bible, and it sparked a lot of debate. Although I do understand the reason why it was seen as okay since Allah is the word for God and the Christians in Arab countries use the word ‘Allah’/’Ilah’ in their translation of the Bible, I also understand why using it may spark confusion.

Just like there’s Classical English and the modern English language that we use today, the same applies to every other language, Arabic included. There’s Quranic Arabic, Classical Arabic, and the modern Arabic language that is used today. And just like how you would be able to distinguish the level of English language used when you compare Shakespeare with a book like Harry Potter, those who really know and speak Arabic would be able to differentiate the Quran with an Arabic translation of the bible. The same can’t be applied in Malaysia.

The Malay translation of both the Bible and the Quran use modern-day Malay. Therefore if someone were to read either one, they wouldn’t be able to know which text is from which scripture unless they double checked beforehand (which would be such a hassle and is highly unlikely since it’s not like we fact check every single thing we read anyway).

Ramadan Chats with Neryssa #1 : My Hijab Story

In this post I will tell you my story of when I first started wearing the headscarf and becoming a practicing Muslim around 4 years ago. The definition of the word‘Hijab’ (Hee-jahb) will be clarified in one of my future posts.

I used to not be fond of the headscarf. Prior to four years ago, I wore tank tops and shorts and I didn’t really know how to pray. Once in a while my dad would ask me to pray and I did NOT like it at all. I’d see Muslim women covered from head to toe and I would sneer at them and wonder “Isn’t it hot wearing the headscarf?” “Why is she covering her pretty hair” and so on. I found the headscarf oppressive.

Boy was I ignorant.

Flash forward to when I was 15/16. I was pretty narrow-minded, and neither was I the best person in existence (I’m still not but I like to think that I’ve grown to be better than who I was before). I did my best to impress the people I surrounded myself with even if it meant sacrificing someone else’s happiness. I took pride in some of the unkind things I’ve done. I did my best to live up to the expectations of some of my peers that I forget to be myself. The thoughts and opinions of others meant so much to me.

That along with other factors that I shan’t mention kept building up and it only made my mental health worse. In a way, my life then was like a game of Jenga, ready to topple at any moment.

And that moment came.  Something happened and my parents and I found that or at least felt like we were alone. There were people who did abandon us in our time of need. Change happened. And it didn’t seem like a good one.

But the thing about change is, it’s neither bad or good; only needed.

My life had to change.

It had to crumble.

I had to fall in order to rise as a better person than I was before.

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My parents and I turned to religion and I began my journey as a practicing Muslim. And about a year later, I started wearing the headscarf.

My mental health still fluctuates. I still sin here and there. Wearing the headscarf and practicing my religion did not make me a perfect person.

But the headscarf that I once deemed as oppressive actually liberated me. In a world where women are objectified, wearing the headscarf prevented people from judging me for my body and my ‘sex appeal’ and made them focus on my face and thoughts instead. The headscarf wasn’t my barrier to the rest of the world. In fact, it helped me embrace myself as I am to face the world.

Ever since I started my headscarf journey, the most common question that I get asked is “Isn’t it hot wearing that all the time?” And my answer would always be no each time.

Because to me, if a piece of cloth around my head can hinder me from doing something properly, then I’m just not trying hard enough.

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Disclaimer:

  • I am not a scholar so deeper topics such as the ones about sharia law, as well as things you may see that are related to the culture of the ethnic group practicing the religion rather than the actual religion itself may not be answered. The last thing I want is to spread the wrong information )
  • Also the aim of this project is merely to clarify and reduce misunderstandings people may have about the religion and reduce Islamophobia. It’s not a place to start a debate about religion. You don’t have to agree with what I believe in to respect my beliefs, and the same applies vice versa. And like I said, I’m not a scholar and I’m still learning so I’m not the best person to debate about religion with )
  • When I mentioned that I used to not wear the headscarf and wore really revealing clothes, I am not shaming any woman whosoever who don’t cover up. Although in Islam women (and MEN) are obliged to dress modestly, the way you’re dressed doesn’t fully represent who you are as a Muslim (because there are people who cover up BUT act unkind).
  • My aim here isn’t to convert anyone. The role of a Muslim isn’t to convert people because Islam doesn’t approve of forcing people to convert and share your beliefs. My aim here is merely to educate and spread the knowledge (because the role of a Muslim is merely to educate which is something the religion encourages).

 

R.AGE Internship

From December 2017 to January 2018, I did a two month internship at a Malaysian news organisation called R.AGE, a investigative journalism digital news platform that focuses on niche social issues and targets urban youth in Malaysia. Some of the projects carried out by R.AGE include Student/Trafficked, a project that centres around students who come to Malaysia and end up being exploited; and  Predator in My Phone which focuses on pedophilia and child sexual grooming that is done through chat apps.

 

The following videos are videos that I helped work on for some of the projects carried out by R.AGE

  1. Student/Trafficked

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2. Stand Together Campaign

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3. R.AGE Documentary: Code for Change

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