One of the areas that always need mending, improvement, and nourishment is how we relate to our sisters in the community. Somewhere in the body of sisterhood there is coughing and sniffing; sometimes fevers run high and sometimes there are chills. And so, in the darker months of the year, let us turn our attention to the ailments that we can remedy. There are many points of interest among women: one of these is how differently we behave in a friendship than men.
It’s that time of the year again: deep in the heart of this dark and brutal winter, people are making resolutions to turn their lives around in the New Year. Personally, I’ve found that these lists and goals are effective for approximately three weeks. By the time winter melts into spring, the intentions and excitement of those resolutions fizzle out and are replaced by the common distractions of the Dunya and our daily habits. And so, we must constantly resolve to check and improve ourselves at each point. (Bothers, this is why we carry mirrors with ourselves everywhere we go!)
One of the areas that always need improvement, mending, and nourishment is how we relate to our sisters in the community. Somewhere in the body of sisterhood there is coughing and sniffing; sometimes fevers run high and sometimes there are chills. And so, in the darker months of the year, let us turn our attention to the ailments that we can remedy. There are many points of interest among women: one of these is how differently we behave in a friendship than men. Usually, we notice more details, read between the lines as though it were the actual script, and rely more on intimate conversations. We have different strengths and weakness than men. On a positive note, we can be very tender in the support and inspiration we give each other, and this enriches our lives in a way that other relationships can’t replicate. Recent studies suggest that the positive interaction we have with our girlfriends can help us through tough situations like illness, natural disasters, and even help to extend our lives. For instance, a 2006 study of 3,000 nurses diagnosed with breast cancer found that the women without 10 or more friends were four times as likely to die from their illness as those who had their friends. Pretty powerful stuff.
Now let’s take this a step further by considering the impact of Islam on the friends we keep in our circles. Islam directs us to have good akhlaq, to be people of good upstanding character: honest and trustworthy, encouraging our friends to do good things, and to stay away from the negative that would distance us from our Lord. Ultimately, this good akhlaq and taqwa prevents physical and spiritual suffering. Hopefully we can look at our circle of friends and acquaintances and find people who truly inspire us. In their presence, we feel warm and fuzzy: we don’t worry that we are doing something wrong, that we are being judged, or that we are somehow low or significant. They usually inquire after our health, our families, and make us feel like we have a home with them, that we belong to them and are a part of them. One of the women I am thinking of (a grandmother with twinkling eyes and boundless energy) kisses my hand and says she misses my good energy when I am not around. Others I know offer their council for advice, and if I ever need them, I know that my secrets are safe there. Still others open their homes, offer to cook the best, and encourage me to have taqwa, consciousness of Allah, in the truest sense of the word. Just being around them, I know that we are better together.
Not every relationship is like this: not every woman is on the same level. We are each on our own separate but parallel journey to reach Allah. In order to do so, we must first come to know ourselves, the true self that is hidden under all these various fears, emotions, attachments to the ego and the Dunya. We all have our own character flaws, weak spots, breaking points. We all interpret Islam differently and practice on different to different degrees. Sometimes we are disappointed in each other; sometimes we can strengthen and inspire each other. It’s the end goal that can bring us together and let us maintain beautiful friendships that will be cherished in the eyes of Allah. Everything else is in flux as we constantly re-examine the world, then re-examine ourselves. Without reflecting on our inner works, our own thoughts, deeds, and intentions, we cannot move forward in a positive and constructive way, and cannot build the strong ties we need with out sisters to have flourishing friendships and strong communities.
The coughing, sniffing, fever, and chills I mentioned earlier are all real: we backbite, feel hurt, become furious, and turn the cold shoulder on our friends – sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes out of pure emotionalism, and lack of both foresight and insight. We’re human, and when we are left to our own devices without any divine guidance, this is to be expected. But the Qur’an and the examples of the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him and his progeny) urge us to use reflection to remedy all these situations, so that before we rush to judge a friend, or rage about them to another friend, we consider what Allah wants from us, what is noble and good.
One of the paradoxes I’ve observed is that often, when we observe something we dislike in others, our negative reactions end up being more unfavorable in the eyes of Allah than the fault we observed in the first place. And unfortunately, there are ample opportunities and occasions to find fault in our sisters: Hijab is one of those topics since there is such a wide variety of personal styles and interpretations of modesty, regardless of the official rulings of a Marja. We may judge women who wear makeup, wear a lot of makeup, have a bit of hair showing, who have their scarves pulled all the way down, who pull off the “sexy Hijabi” look, who only wear black, who show their feet outside, who make little efforts to groom themselves, who are so ordinate they could be mistaken for bride from Dubai, who wear skin-tight clothes all the time, who are always wearing something floor-length and flowing, and the list continues. Whatever your preference or understanding of Hijab, you could choose a woman from the categories above and have various adverse reactions against her: sometimes we judge them, backbite about them, show false friendliness, or make no efforts at kindness at all. If we are ever in a position to judge, that would mean that we are superior in some way, no? That we would show the higher ground, have superior Akhlaq and morals, and lead the way in graciousness. We would in turn be respectful, smile, choose to be polite but upfront, and choose to not attack someone’s character in their absence. In short, we would offer support and encouragement toward the good, instead of being guided by a false sense of superiority and encouraging dissent and distance. Hijab is only one example of things that can separate people in a community, but the reactions we have to Hijab are similar to reactions we have about other topics. If we find fault with a friend, whether we are right or wrong in diagnosing that fault, we must be cautious in how we react to it. If not, we fall pray to far worse crimes of arrogance and neglecting sincerity in our own intentions.
How we feel about Hijab in the community is a big deal because our commonalities create fellowship and bring us closer. But in cases where friends choose to wear it differently, or not at all, Hijabis are forced to reconsider its original purpose: Hijab can become a mechanical operation, or it can be done with tremendous purpose everyday. If we rush to judge others who choose to wear it loosely or not at all without considering our own motives and daily intentions, we fail to be true to ourselves, and instead we seek refuge in judging others. Please note that I am not saying to ignore something with moral significance; rather, we must first make sure that we are doing something right before we rush to correct others. The double standards that emerge in our communities are unfortunate results that weaken us and hinder friendships.
Every person in our life at the present is there for a reason; we have either something to give them or a lesson to learn from them, or both. When we realize the true value of our friendships, we will work harder to make them healthy, free of falsehood and stress. Through self-reflection, we can correct our own habits and bring ourselves and our friends closer to Allah. There are few things more satisfying to my heart than envisioning the sisters I love so much being with me in the presence of Allah once we leave this world. And so, I strive to replace habits that create weak friendships with those that will build stronger and lasing ones. Let us refrain from harboring ill feelings, judging, and backbiting. Instead, let us be more proactive, upfront, and honest (without being brutal, mind you) and encourage through good example and kind words. I will end with an excellent reminder from the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali (peace be upon him), who said:
“The felicity of this and the next world lie in two things: firstly, keeping secrets; and secondly, friendship with the good. And the miseries of this and the next world are summed up in two things: firstly, divulging secrets; and secondly, friendship with wicked persons.” (al-Ikhtisas)
I pray that we all find ourselves in circles of light as we seek to improve ourselves in our friendships and bring our strength to the Ummah through incredible sisterhood. And while you’re firing up your social bonds, here’s some chicken soup to fire up the taste buds and immune system too (best served with a few great friends on a chilly evening):
Million Dollar Soup
(An actual chicken soup recipe to die-for; serves 20.)
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley
4-6 boneless chicken breasts
2 large yellow onions
1 head cauliflower
1 can sweet corn
3 large potatoes
1 bunch celery
6 large carrots
2 cups pasta
2 Tbspn oil
2 cans cream of mushroom soup (halal when it doesn’t contain ‘natural flavors’)
1 pint half and half
1 cup whole milk
1 generous tablespoon garlic powder
2-3 teaspoons turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
Dice all vegetables very fine so you can get a little bit of everything in each spoonful.
Heat oil. Sauté onions until golden with salt and pepper.
Add enough water to cook all the chicken, and boil until the chicken is cooked. Remove the chicken breasts and let them cool. (Once cooled off completely, shred into tiny pieces by hand.)
In the meantime, add the spices. Keep the temperature on high and add the rest of the veggies to your chicken broth, in this order:
-celery (cook 10 minutes)
-carrots and cauliflower (cook 5 minutes)
-potatoes (cook 5 minutes)
-corn, parsley, and pasta (cook until pasta is done)
Once everything is cooked, reduce heat to low. Wait for the water to stop boiling, and add cream of mushroom soup, milk, and half and half. Add the chicken pieces. Let all the flavors meld together on low for 30 minutes or more.