Trading Places Shaykha Halima Assalaam Alaykum. Thank you very much for inviting me to speak here. I think before I even start, that if there are questions, please feel free just to ask straight away, you don’t have to wait until I am finished, I can go on forever! It might never be the case, but if there is something you want to know, or something that you want me to explain, then just give me a sign and ask me your question. And thank you Mira for reminding me, because this set up reminded me very much of the early days when I came once a year and we had study circles, sitting on the floor, somewhere in some community centre in some building, wherever we could find the space. And I think that I strongly believe that if you have the intention to learn, and you have a teacher, then you will find the place and you will find the time and that’s how it works. And that is how it worked in the early days, at the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, and his companions and his next generation. They didn’t wait for a school or a college to open, but they just used what they had. They used the mosque, and they used their own homes and so they went on studying. So as for today, I’m not sure how the announcement came across. I had some conflicting impressions, as it says ‘Trading Places’, it sounds almost like “you go there and I go there. I sit there, and she comes here instead.” I find that a bit problematic. And then also it introduced me as revert or a convert or something like that. I’m not what people usually understand by a typical convert or revert, and for the simple reason that I never went into one direction, then went into another. That’s how it sometimes happens, I go off into one way, I think that this is the right way, and suddenly I come to a conclusion that I should move in the other way. It could be people who are not Muslims, they hear about Islam, they are impressed and then they suddenly decide it’s the right thing for them and they chose their path as Islam. Or it could also happen to Muslims, who are born into a tradition, and nobody really knew about it and they grew up without really knowing very much or caring very much, they reach a stage in their life and they then decide to become more knowledgeable about Islam. This is not what happened to me; rather I have always been a very naughty girl in a sense. I used to question everything, and I remember one thing: Mira said they had lots of questions and they wanted to have answers, but then there was also this type of thing where they wondered, “may I ask this question?” because they were brought up, maybe by the parents or the teachers, not to ask so many questions. I always was a naughty girl, and I used to question everything, and I learned because I wanted to know rather than because I was taught. I didn’t wait until I was taught; I will tell you more about that in a minute. And I interacted with a variety of people, I met a variety of people because I was curious; I wanted to know more about them, and I wanted to know more about what people think. And perhaps it helps you for me to tell you a bit more a about myself. In fact I’m a first generation Muslim and my family is Protestant on my mother’s side, and Catholic on my father’s side. So my closest relationship when I was a very young kid was with my Protestant grandfather, who was a Protestant Minister. He was one of these very knowledgeable, warm people who are also, at the same time, able to listen and to then respond on the level that the questions were asked. Then there was my father’s mother, she was a very warm-hearted Catholic woman, not very educated but
very warm hearted, and she had a good mind. It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t educated very much, her brain worked and her heart worked. But there was something wrong as well, there was something in the atmosphere because these two groups of Protestants and Catholics didn’t really get along with each other, and there was a lot of tension and undertones. Each group thought that they were the only ones, and the rest of the world is rejected. I felt at a very young age that there was something wrong there, because if there is one God, and God is merciful and just, it cant just be a matter of coincidence, who is going this way and who is going that way, especially if both people are trying to find access to God. So I was very, very young, too young even to remember how young I was. I felt more than I knew that something was wrong, and I decided to explore. Besides that, I am from Germany, which means that after the Second World War, and people call me Shaykha because I’m old, I’m old enough to remember that it was right after the war, there were things in German history that the adults if they talked about it at all, they talked about it in whispers, and only if they thought that we weren’t listening. So there was something else that got me going, and this was the point at which I started, as a kid, to explore the world. So by the age of four, and that is what I remember, I taught myself reading and writing. And there is one key experience that I want to share with you because I asked people “what does this letter mean? What does this mean?” So you see this little round circle, and I asked my mother what it is, and my mother said: “That’s an o.” In the evening I asked my father, and my father was a scientist, and he promptly said, “That’s a zero.” So what is right, and what is wrong? I found this experience very unsettling but at the same time, I found it fascinating that two things that are different can be true, depending on which way you look at it. That is one of the key experiences that kept me going through my life. So from then on I started to read books, and I was never deterred by the fact that I didn’t immediately understand. Of course, I got the book and if it’s from my father’s or my grandfather’s bookcase then I don’t immediately understand what it means, but I read it anyway. Some of the things I understood, then I started thinking based on that, and I would understand later on. When I was eight I read the complete German translation of the bible, because I wanted to know what it says. I found amazing things, and I found things that I found very interesting. Also I liked to read travel books and dreamt about countries that I was going to visit once I was grown up. Some of these dreams have come true in the meantime, more than true. I have been to many different countries, but this was something that I was interested in as well as religion and religions. And I read about various religions, and I was impressed by the truth and wisdom that came across in any religion. I started to write notes in a little book; I had a notebook where I wrote wise quotations from all sorts of religions. At the same time, the more I was appalled by the religious controversies. For example in school, I had to go to a Protestant school, there was a border fence between the schoolyard of the Protestant school and the schoolyard of the Catholic school. And that was the place where people used to fight, the Protestants and the Catholics, when I was a kid. Ok it’s now fifty something years ago but that is what happened there, and I found it was just kids. Couldn’t they at least behave in an appropriate way; if you believe in God you behave accordingly don’t you? Couldn’t they be a bit considerate or be a bit polite and not use all these nasty words? And what if they both have a point, like with the ‘o’ and the ‘zero’ depending on which side you look at it? That was my
background when I was a kid. I soon became aware then in the course of time that my religious views that gradually emerged when I started thinking, that they were quite different from those that people around me had. That was when we learned, when we had religious education in school and I noticed that in what was going on, for me, God was invisible and certainly not like in the pictures that we had in our picture books sometimes: an old man in the sky with a beard. I didn’t think that this could be God. And from this there were stories, and from the stories I learnt that in the past God had sent specific teachers to teach humanity about God and about how people should live together and be models for people. I was quite sure as a kid that God listens to prayers, He doesn’t immediately respond, and you know all of you, that sometimes you pray for something, you pray very hard, you pray very long, you have seen there is no answer. But at least I knew that He was the one who would listen even if people wouldn’t listen at all. Then I was sure that God was just, God is merciful and loving and He is just. God could punish me for bad actions in order to give me some insight, or He could forgive me, and He would reward me for something good I do, and He might make up for anything that I had missed or that I couldn’t achieve. I felt sometimes that He is watching me, God knows me better than I know myself, I didn’t like that at all, but at the same time I felt comforted that he understood me, in any case, and that I could turn directly to God with my problems. In contrast (this was my private theology when I was a kid) but then I came across religious ideas that I couldn’t agree with, and one was of course in some other religions where they have several gods, that I couldn’t make sense of. Or Hinduism, the cast system is something that I found deeply unjust that you have to stick to one particular role in your life and that you couldn’t go on and do something else. But also amongst the things that I couldn’t agree with was the idea, the way it came across in those days, or the way it was brought across, that Jesus died for our sins. I told you initially that I was a naughty girl, and when I was punished and it was just, I could accept that, if I got away with that I was happy. If I was forgiven that was fine, but if somebody else was punished I couldn’t live with that. If somebody innocent was punished or suspected for what I did, no, I would go and say I did it. I say that this does not make sense, if God is merciful and just, then this doesn’t make sense to me. And also later on I found that talking about Jesus as being God’s son or that people imagine God as a man in the sky, I never accepted this, and so I never went along with these ideas. I never was ready to believe anything that didn’t make sense oneway or the other. So, naughty enough! Instead I discovered that my private theology that I told you about; the idea of one God and about God’s Messengers and things like that, came across most clearly in the texts from Islamic sources. I told you about the notebook; these passages that I quoted from all sorts of sources, most of them turned out to be from Islamic sources. And I understood that Islam literally means ‘surrendering to God’ and that is what I wanted. That is what I was doing anyway, it was in my attitude: faith in the one God and all His messengers. That is what my way was. I didn’t have much opportunity to discuss my ideas with anyone, except for a very few classmates, and at some point sometimes with my Catholic grandmother until she died. But the rest was a process of reading and thinking and praying until I was thirteen, and when I was thirteen years old, I was sure that I was actually a Muslim, and I was ready for the formal consequences, because you have take your formal
consequences whatever you are in reality, and you have to adapt that to the outward reality as well. So I knew that this would be very difficult for my parents to digest, therefore I decided not to tell them initially, until I was older. But then my mother found out; she read my diary notes. If you have kids make sure you never read their diary notes, it is a very, very painful thing for children, even if you are afraid that there is something going on there, it is a very painful experience. And the following years were not easy for any of us in the family. I don’t want to go into details; I want to respect my mother and father like everybody is supposed to do. In school, as the only Muslim far and wide, I was given the choice in religious education of Catholic, Protestant or free time. Free time I always found boring, I found it more interesting to learn more about the two of them. I didn’t have the chance, nowadays we have privileges: we have mosques, we have classes, and we have study circles. I couldn’t dream of that! I was the only Muslim far and wide. There was no mosque, there was nobody to ask. There were books sometimes to read between the lines, there were not even books about Islam. My spiritual and intellectual first language is English, because the first books that I came across were in English. That was the Qur’an translation of Mohammed Yusuf Ali, and there were the very first translations of the Qur’an and of the Sound Hadiths of Bukhari, and books like that. That was in English, not to dream of having any such thing in German. But when I was a teenager, I was also quite clear about what I wanted to study because if I wanted to know something, then I wanted to know it properly. I wanted to study Islamic theology and Law. I wasn’t even sure, you have all these ideas, you have all these prejudices, and it could be possible that this does not work for women. It could be, from what you hear in the media. And it was then, people knew even less than now. Nowadays you question that, and look things up in the Internet, and you can find out the truth. But then, you were dependent on what you know. I didn’t think that it was possible for women, but that didn’t put me off, if it wasn’t possible for women, then I would be the first to say. You see how naughty I am?! Do you feel sorry for inviting me, for giving you all these naughty examples? What I wanted to show you is that my journey to Islam and once in Islam, is more like a continuous journey. And not like going this way and that way, but starting and following my nose and the guidance of course from above. So of course there are a number of temporary camps in my life but never a kind of permanent home in a way, neither geographically, nor spiritually or intellectually. So I moved from one place to the other, and I didn’t really have the experience to move from one permanent home to another one. I have travelled and I have lived in quite a number of countries, including several Muslim ones. For familial reasons, study purposes or just for discovery, and after all didn’t the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, say that ‘whoever travels in search of knowledge is in God’s path.’ So it is not surprising that I can relate to people on the move as well as fellow travellers most easily. One of my favourite prayers is of course ‘Ihdana assirat al mustaqeem’ or ‘guide us on the straight path.’ Because that is what we need, step by step guidance. In a way I found out that travelling or migrating is a central theme in Islam. The Qur’an mentions examples like Abraham, peace upon him, who left his father and his home and spent his life travelling. That is what the Muslim idea is, it goes back to the tradition of Abraham, and this is what we follow, as a kind of set path. Or there is Moses and the children of Israel who left the Egyptian slavery, and spent forty years
in the desert travelling. And I think if we read the stories in the Qur’an they are somehow related to our own personal lives, we can have a life like Abraham, travelling, travelling and searching. Or we can maybe have a life experience like Moses, who having grown up in a tense situation then getting out of the situation, started travelling until he reached the Promised Land. Or we can have an experience like the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, who left Mecca and migrated to Medina with all the persecution that he suffered, with the move to Medina, and then got a completely new chance to build something up. It’s no coincidence that the Islamic calendar is calculated after the Hijra (the migration from Mecca to Medina). So the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, points out the importance of migration, physically or metaphorically, as leaving what is bad for something that is better. You don’t have to move from London to Hong Kong, you can leave the bad thing that you are doing and you will go to something better, in your home, in the same place; you don’t have to travel for that. But nobody said that travelling is easy, or moving or migrating is easy. Its not like going on holiday, travelling in the physical and the intellectual sense is demanding. You have to get out of your comfortable habits, and you are then confronted with completely new perspectives, and completely new challenges, and you get completely new insights and the world looks different. For some people it feels like the world breaks down, or breaks into pieces, and they have to reconstruct a completely new world. In the case of geographical migration, there may be relief from poverty. People come from a country where it is very difficult to find work, or even something to eat, and then they come from persecution, people that have to run away from political problems and they have to move to different countries as refugees. But then you might come to a new situation, there are new chances, but there are also new challenges. There might be discrimination, there might be xenophobia; people don’t like newcomers from outside. So there may be fear of the unknown, you are getting out of what you know, what you are used to and you are coming to what is going to happen to you in this new situation. There is sadness, people who migrate from one place to another, they leave their friends, their family, there is a lot of sadness, are they going to see them again? Even the age nowadays of Internet, and where everybody has a mobile phone and everyone can get in touch with everyone apparently. But still it’s not the same, even if you can travel easily, just a couple of hours on the plane and you are in a completely different country, and a completely different continent, but it’s not the same. There can also be anger, for people who are compelled to leave. I can be very angry at this political situation that forced me to leave my home, forced me to leave my family and drove me out, so to speak, there can be a lot of anger. If I have a chance I might get it all back, but it is something natural for people to fear. So I tell you one thing: it is completely natural to have these emotions. We sometimes say, “yes Inshallah, al hamdulillah, praise be to God under all circumstances.” We don’t give away how we really feel, we normally have patience and patience and patience, but sometimes deep underneath there is sadness, there is fear, there is anger, and it is perfectly legitimate. If we look up the stories in the Qur’an, for example, you remember Joseph, the son of Jacob, when his brothers put him in the well, and he was sold into slavery. Then when they went home to Jacob, they told their father that he
was eaten by a wolf, and the father was sad, and he said, “It’s beautiful patience.” Yes, beautiful patience because he was so sad; there are stories that say that he cried until he was almost blind. And he was a prophetic figure, he wasn’t just anyone, he wasn’t just Ali from next door. Or for example, when Mary was pregnant; imagine being pregnant, and you don’t have the support of your family, you don’t have the support of your husband, and she went out and went to the palm tree, and she held to the tree and said, “I wish I were dead and long forgotten.” This was Mary, she is such an ideal person, and everyone points her out as the ideal, and she says such a terrible thing “I wish I were dead and long forgotten,” God forgive. But this is natural, when you are in this situation, it is quite natural to say that, and God knows anyway, so you might as well say it, you might as well say it and you might as well cry! Or other examples, I don’t think I have to go on! Or Moses for example, he came out and he saw some injustice, he saw some of these Egyptian slave-masters hitting a slave, and he was up in arms. Like Mira sometimes is when she sees some social injustice, “something must be done about it!” and he said, “something must be done about it, I’ll help you oppressed one.” And he started supporting him, he hit the Egyptian, the slave-master and he died. So that was anger, and the anger was problematic, Moses saw what happened and he said “that is shaytan’s (the devil) interference.” And he asked for forgiveness. And it was only when he got the news that he was forgiven that he said that “now, since I have been forgiven this, I shall never again support anything or anyone unjust, or unjustly.” So this is all natural personal behaviour, and all that we have on the spiritual path is not to get rid of these emotions, if we are training in the spiritual path, we are not training to get rid of these emotions. What we learn is to be aware of them, and to control them and to make the best of them. Imam al Ghazali wrote a whole volume on how to control anger, and the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, said “you are aware of the anger, and then you do something to control it, not to let it go all over the place, like a burning flame to set the house on fire. But if you stand, you sit down, and if you sit you lie down; close to the ground.” Anger comes from fire, and fire is necessary to cook food, and for light, but only when it’s under control. You have to control it. But the earth is cool, it is the opposite, you get in touch with the earth and then you can control your anger. Once it is under control, then you can think about what to do next, this is an injustice; slavery in Egypt was an injustice. And Moses, peace be upon him, saw this as an injustice, but reacting as he did, could have done more damage. If you react like that you can get yourself into trouble, and your whole group of people into trouble. You have to think of something efficient. But that can only be done if your anger is there, but under control; there is no fire. And then you make plans to get rid of the roots of the evil. And so this goes with any other emotions, impulses and drives, for example greed, greed for food. Everybody of course is hungry, that’s legitimate, if you weren’t eating you wouldn’t be alive. But you don’t follow these impulses, and that’s what fasting is there for in Ramadan, you learn to control yourself. You wait and you tell the children, when they start “I’m hungry, I’m hungry.” You tell them to wait until the mealtime, when they are old enough to understand. Then they learn the patience that is necessary to get there. The dangerous thing is that if we deny these things, and they are there anyway and I know many people who deny that they are afraid, and especially, sorry brothers, men. They are trained systematically, and mothers please don’t train your boys to pretend they are not afraid if they are. Because that can be really dangerous: A person who is
afraid, and keeps it covered, cheating himself that he is not afraid, you don’t have to admit it to everybody, you don’t have to say you are afraid, but you have to know yourself that this is a situation of which I am afraid, for this and that reason. So you have to admit this. And now you can think, and rely a lot on Allah to help you in this situation, and then you can do something. But if you deny it, it works like a pressure cooker; you close it and the heat and the pressure build up inside, and then you open it and it explodes. I now many people who deny that they are afraid of something, and this turns into aggression. Very often Imam al Ghazali speaks about ‘tauba’ (repentance) and ‘tauba’ can be one of the other different matters. For example, I did something that is wrong, I learned from it and next time I wont do it again. That is a simple case. But then it can also be a change of lifestyle, a change to something else. I think that is something that I did four years ago, I changed my eating habits, and I lost seven stone. If you do such a thing, giving up smoking for some people, they feel like they are really giving something up. All the time they think of something that they gave up, and that makes it very hard. In fact if you look at society and our way of thinking, I felt that, very often, people focus on what they don’t have, what they miss, what they didn’t get, what they have been deprived of, what they left and what they have been separated from. And that makes life pretty hard. I suggest that you change your perspective; you look at the things you left that you left for a purpose and I say that I know why I gave up eating this and that all the time, I eat it occasionally know, and I eat something healthy now. And then I look at what I gained from that, I tell you, I’m sixty now and I feel like thirty. Back four years ago, when I would walk up the stairs I would be gasping, so now I focus on that and I feel very happy I did it. I don’t think about chocolate all the time, I think about going up the stairs, travelling, meeting people, and having fun. There is nothing wrong with having fun in religion, you have fun and you say “al hamdulillah.” There are people that think that religion is very serious, and everything that is fun is ‘haram’. But it’s not like that; there are perfectly legitimate things that are fun and not ‘haram’. But they are there for us to just say “al hamdulillah” and to enjoy life. I sometimes feel that it is just a matter of us turning our faces a bit to another perspective. Like the difference between an optimist and a pessimist, you give the person half a glass of water, and the pessimist will say it’s half empty, and the optimist will say it’s half full. It’s the same glass of water, depending on which way you look at it. I don’t want to keep you much longer, I want to encourage questions. But I tell you one thing that I keep teaching people when I teach the ‘tasbih’. I say to do 33 times ‘al hamdulillah’ and think every time what you have got to say ‘al hamdulillah’ for. Try that. Try that on a miserable day when you are depressed, try to find 33 things that you can say ‘al hamdulillah’ for. And immediately the world looks different, and you feel more able to cope with the things that you don’t have and the things that you miss. Lets just say thanks and praise be to God.
Published on Dec 24, 2010
Trading Places I didn’t have much opportunity to discuss my ideas with anyone, except for a very few classmates, and at some point sometimes...