Speed Date A Muslim
Islam came into existence 1400 years ago, withstood the rise and fall of empires and whole civilisations, and currently has 1.6 billion adherents. Centuries have elapsed since the first line of the Quran was unveiled to Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H.), who let the revelation wash over him, even as he quaked in terror before the Archangel Gabriel: “Read! Read in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher” [Quran 96:1] A humble, yet beautiful beginning…
Today, Islam and Muslims have been discussed and analysed by every layperson and expert. The biggest misunderstanding associated with Islam is that it is a culture, and not a religion - a misunderstanding that is further perpetuated when Muslims themselves start associating cultural practices (genital mutilation, dowry, subjugation of women) with Islam. Growing up in Pakistan and Malaysia, navigating the fine line between culture and religion caused me a fair amount of grief. I found it difficult to watch respected members of society engage in archaic and detrimental cultural practices in the name of Islam: as a child listening in on conversations between “aunties”, I remember the women once speaking about a particular woman shaming herself and her family by asking for a divorce. These women acknowledged the abusive nature of the marriage, but believed strongly that, at the expense of the physical and mental wellbeing of this particular woman, the divorce was to be shunned because it was 'against Islamic ideals'. I now know how untrue their thinking was.
As a Third Culture Kid who currently lives in Australia, subscribes to Australian values and is a proud Muslim, it hurts to watch Muslim youth give up on their religion for the sheer purpose of assimilating better into Australian society. I’ve also sat quietly through tiring conversations where friends have argued about how Islam is an outdated “culture” which doesn’t align with the Australian 'way of life', and that if I start 'relaxing a bit' by prescribing to local practices like drinking, it will somehow enable me to “fit in” better. It was in this concerning frame of mind that, a few months ago, I came across a novel event titillatingly titled “Speed Date A Muslim”.
The event is held at Moroccan Deli-cacy, a colourful and vibrant nook secreted on Lygon Street, in Melbourne. This is not what stands out when I walk in, for centre stage belongs to Hana Assafiri, the owner. Hana’s whole “vibe” is honest and gritty. She stands tall and projects her voice so that there is silence in the packed cafe. Her words and energy are electrifying, and she quotes scholars and poets with ease as she exhorts all those present to be brave, and extend the tough questions that are easier to ignore, but so necessary to ask. She courts controversy and demands engagement, but gently sets the boundaries of respect and sincerity. Muslims and non-Muslims are quickly and deftly arranged around each other, friends deliberately split apart and pushed out of their comfort zone. Within seconds, the stage is set.
Back to my state of mind: I attended the most recent event right after engaging in a heated dialogue with a dear friend of mine, centred around religion and culture. As if on some silent cue, the first question posed to me by a trio of soft-spoken, middle-aged women with eager faces, was about why Muslims found it so hard to let go of their cultural practices, namely, the five daily prayers, not drinking alcohol, eating halal meat and wearing the headscarf. One can imagine the furore caused when I clarified that the practices enumerated earlier were all religious as prescribed in the Quran, and not a product of the many cultures that Muslims all over the world belong to. While culture is malleable and evolutionary, religion for many Muslims is non-negotiable.
As understanding dawned on their faces, I felt a peace of mind in witnessing their acknowledgement, coupled with a sense of gratitude for platforms that allow these frank and honest conversations to occur - where one leaves feeling a sense of kinship that extends far beyond race and religion, and a cleansing sense of hope, which is a precious and elusive commodity in this day and age.
It is also important to emphasise the general mood at the café. While no controversial topic was off the table, people engaged in heated conversations while at the same time manifesting respect and empathy. The vibe was overwhelmingly positive, and one attendee summed things up quite well in the end by saying that “today gave me hope. There is hope for this country yet, there is hope for humanity…”
“Speed Date A Muslim” is just one of the many initiatives that have been galvanised in Australia by socially conscious people, who are not content with just being keyboard warriors or with the usual whinge-session with friends over coffee. There are great things happening in order to facilitate understanding, awareness and compassion. There are strengths in our differences, and rather than foster the rhetoric of “us vs them”, it is crucial in the current geopolitical climate that we acknowledge and celebrate events and initiatives such as “Speed date a Muslim”, when it’s all too easy to give in to anger and cynicism.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.” – Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi