Tugged by a Toddler


My 1-year old son kept trying to tug at my prayer scarf and attempted to remove it while I prayed. Ever the over-analyzer I wondered: “is my son a budding young Islamophobe? Is this a symbol for the worldly abode jealously tugging at the hearts of believers to distract them from God?”

No, he just wanted a hug, and a snack 🙂

Although motherhood and the PhD are not for the fainthearted, sometimes a toddler’s nonchalance is all that’s needed to give the cerebral side a break and to keep things light with the bigger things in perspective. Despite the hardships, I believe that motherhood gives us mental and spiritual advantage, and little children can provide for the most effective tarbiya. Being constantly tugged at, screamed at, interrupted, woken up in the middle of the night all while juggling teaching, degree requirements, university deadlines… with little to no help or support is definitely character-building, to put it mildly. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks for the hard knocks my little shaykhs!

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Hajj Certificate, 19th c



Printed certificates providing testimony that a person had performed the Hajj began to come into circulation around the middle of the 19th Century. This continued the existing practice of handwritten or partially block-printed versions. (See S. Aksoy & R. Milstein, ‘A Collection of 13th Century Illustrated Hajj Certificates’, in I. C. Schick (ed.), Ugur Derman Festschrift: papers presented on the occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, Istanbul 2000, pp. 101-134). Three types of certificate are known: those giving testimony that someone had complete the hajj; those mentioning that a person had performed it on someone’s behalf; and those bearing additional testimony that the grave of the Prophet in Medina had also been visited. The present lot is of the first type. Notice the surrounding maqamat/gates that corresponded to each Sunni legal school, where pilgrims could receive instruction. The Ka’aba was not only the oldest site of ritual worship on earth, but it was also a thriving center for the dissemination of knowledge for centuries.

St Augustine on Love and Understanding


rest tantum cognoscitur quantum diligutur– “one can understand something only to the extent that one loves it.”

May we love what we know, and know what we love.

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Hidden and Manifest Kingdoms



While perusing “In the Garden of Exegesis” “في رياض التفسير” by Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, the great West African arif and scholar, and arguably one of the biggest saints of the 20th century, I found the following interpretation to be striking. Its implications on how we understand power and authority in Islam from a mystical perspective are noteworthy, especially when talking about “the modern state”. He says: “المشهورين في بركة المستورين” (“The notorious ones are protected by the virtues of those unseen”)

قال الشيخ ابراهيم نياس ضمن تفسيره لهذه الآية )ص188/ج6( :
أنزل الله تبارك وتعالى سورتين كلاهما فتحها بقوله “تبارك” ومعناه كثرت خيراته أو تعالى تنزه عن صفات المحدثين.. الله تبارك وتعالى متصف بجميع صفاته اللائقة به ومنزه عن جميع صفات المحدثين، أولا : “تبارك الذي نزل القرءان على عبده” وهذه ” تبارك الذي بيده الملك”، فالعالم دائما تقوم فيه دولتان، دولة ظاهرة لأرباب الدول ودولة باطنة للمتمسكين بالقرءان لأن الله هو الملك الحق، وهو ظاهر وباطن، فظاهر مملكته للملوك وباطنها للعلماء ورثة الأنبياء خلفاء الله في الأرض، فكل دولة ظاهرة قائمة بقوة دولة باطنة، فأهل الدنيا مددهم وقوامهم يأتيهم من أهل الله، فالمشهورون في بركة المستورين.


“Allah Almighty revealed two chapters which were opened with the word “Exalted”, which means: His bounty has increased or is Mightier than the description of those who profess to describe Him. Allah Almighty is described by all His qualities that befit Him and He is loftier than the description of who profess to describe Him. First:”Exalted was the One who has revealed the Quran upon his servant (Muhammad).” And this, “Exalted is the One who wields dominion in his hand.” For the world always has two kingdoms established in it: a manifest kingdom for the lords of countries and a hidden kingdom for the those who hold fast to the Qur’an because Allah is the True King (possessor), as He is manifest and hidden. So the manifest of His kingdom is for the kings and its hidden kingdom belongs to the ulama, (the knowledgeable people) who are inheritors to the Prophets and are the vicegerents of Allah on earth. Hence every manifest kingdom survives on the strength of the hidden kingdom. So the people of the world get their power and privilege from the people of Allah. The notorious ones are protected by the virtues of those unseen.”

Other works such as Imam Tirmidhi’s work, Khitm al-Awliya,  the “Seal of the Saints” and many other works extol the virtues of sainthood, but I haven’t seen allusions to a “hidden country” and a “manifest one” anywhere else. Perhaps Shaykh Ibrahim was particularly influenced by the disenchanting contradictions of the Muslim nation state during the time and context in which he wrote this.

But what can be said about the righteous ones who also have political power in the modern state? I just finished reading The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam by Moin Azfarwhich narrates the fascinating history of Mughal and Safavid kings who were revered as spiritual guides and symbols of a  messianic reflection of God’s light on earth. In a more sober and modern context, what can be said about pious king Idris al-Sanusi of Libya, for example, who led anti-colonial campaigns and also headed the Sanusiya sufi order during his reign? Have decades of secular Arab leaders and the now more public animus towards political Islam obliterated any prospect for a unity between piety and power? Or will we only see this in a messianic, end-of-times scenario? Keeping the two in neat, separate spheres for now (the baraka of the pious vs. the rulers/ hidden vs. manifest kingdoms)  resonates more than ever today in the 21st century.

When all is done, لا حول ولا قوة إلى بالله – power belongs to God alone. Azad Bilgrami’s lines come to mind:

In the end, glory turns again to poverty; 

The rose’s crown turns into a beggar’s bowl. 


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Why Ihsan?


Reading and writing for leisure is a luxury not afforded to PhD students in the humanities, despite the fact that our bread-and-butter is supposedly that: reading and writing. Except as PhD students, we often do so at the dictates of our research, coursework or qualifying exams. The rare few among us are those whose work is simultaneously their leisurely escape, but even so,  there will always be a gnawing sense of guilt if and when we choose to write for purposes of other-than research, as it is implicitly deemed an act of “wasting”precious time. With that said, this blog is an attempt to chronicle my thought process as a PhD student in Islamic intellectual history, with the vision that observing the process is as important as the end goal itself; else, I fear that I may become a lifeless tumbleweed with no clarity or intention in my path or step. The pursuit of knowledge cannot and must not be aimless. It requires refinement, renewal, revision, humility and reassessment multiple times along the way. It also requires some soul and honesty, despite the harsh conditioning of academia that relegates us to becoming serious, hard nosed rationalists. And ultimately, it cannot be denied that the current political climate has capable researchers and academics of Islam stunted and muted. The mainstream rhetoric is under a stronghold of ignorance, fear mongering and the Tendency to Speak in Absolutes (what I like to call TSA, an unintentional ironic jab at the security apparatus that guards the entry ports to this great nation).

My informal blog Ihsanism is a play on the word “Islamism”, the word used to describe political Islam; one of the areas of my research that holds the intersection between ideology, Islam and modernity. Why Ihsan? It is one of the dimensions that constitutes the tripartite conception of what Islam is, according to the Hadith of Gabriel.  Ihsan is to “worship God as if one sees Him.” It is often used synonymously to mean the inner dimensions of knowledge, esotericism or Sufism. “Isms” as we all know, imply an ideology or organized political thought, hence, this space will be devoted to the fine barzakh (meeting place/limbo) between inner-dimensions of Islam, and the more mundane contemporary sphere and manifestations thereof, like culture, politics and gender.


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