Oh Happy Misery!

This is a now a very un-topical rant I wrote some years ago, on the 17th April 2014. Once it was out of my system I decided against posting it as my blood pressure had returned to normal and saner bloggers had expressed my feelings in calm, considered words without resorting to excessive exclamation marks. I found and read it again and thought…meh, I’ll stick it up anyway. You have been warned.

Oh Happy Misery!

The predictable kerfuffle over the British Muslim Happy video isn’t a Puritan vs Liberal debate, although they are the loudest critics and cheerleaders. This storm in a chai cup is yet another example of how we struggle to cope with diversity in the deen, at both ends of the spectrum.

And reactionary religious tyranny isn’t reserved for the nutters, the liberals can be terribly illiberal when it comes to traditional Islamic practice too. Before I wade in, here’s the video for those who want to see what the fuss is about:

Happy British Muslims video

Most of us don’t fit neatly into either the Puritan/Hardline/Fundamentalist or Liberal /Moderate/Progressive camp. We fall somewhere in-between, but when there’s a bunfight we’re expected to pick sides. As a member of the Squeezed In-Betweeners, I protest! This tug of war over who owns The Real Islam is tiresome, repetitive and takes up energy better spent elsewhere. This is an appeal to the internet warriors (and trolls) of both camps.

Underlying Fears

There is a valid reason why unorthodoxy amongst Muslims provokes the reaction it does. A watering down of Islamic principles and pick-and-choose methodology makes us uneasy because we value tradition, respect authoritative scholarship and hold fast to the sunnah. The orthodox mainstream will always be suspicious of the fringes – whether they’re progressive happy-clappers or hate-fuelled takfirists. But we seem to have developed an auto-immune disorder where our defences are turned on ourselves and we can’t tell kooky friend from crazy foe.

Many Paths of Deen

Let us agree that the Ummah is a diverse family – a multitude of tribes and nations with individual souls setting out on the Great Road Trip of Life. Every Muslim has a unique spiritual journey closely connected to their particular soul. There are high roads, low roads, six-lane motorways, trails in the wilderness, and no two are exactly alike. We move along our own potholed paths, dodging roadkill and miles of traffic cones. Own it! Live it! Love it! Just don’t expect the rest of the world to follow you down it, because they’ve got their own path to walk with their God-given feet & soul. Islam is one deen and one Ummah, but believers travel down many Paths of Deen. The Ummah is meant to be a supportive collective, but instead it’s busy attacking itself like a starving cannibal on a high protein diet.

Everyone’s a sinner, baby

Having acknowledged our uniqueness let’s also admit that we’re all human, imperfect works in progress. If you secretly reckon you’re more angelic than Adamic, you’re in real trouble. If you were halal-audited, you’d realise that you’re not superior to your neighbour, you simply sin differently. Your status with Allah is unknown. You are not the owner of The True Path of Deen.

Universal message with nuanced parameters

There’s a hadith where the Prophet (saw), referring to Allah’s mercy, advises someone not to attempt to constrain something vaster than he can imagine. I feel that way about Islam. We all cut our dress from its cloth, but some try to force everyone to wear the exact same garment, no matter their shape, size or personal inclinations. We forget that there is an amazing amount of Islamic cloth available, even if some of it is not patterned to your taste.

Target audience

I’m not exactly a hip young thing and had never heard of the rather excitable Mr Pharrell, so I guess I’m not the intended audience for this video made by a bunch of young British Muslims. I didn’t care for the last video to shake the Muslim interwebs, ‘Somewhere in America’, so I wondered if this one would resonate or create dissonance. Turns out it was a bit of both.

I couldn’t help smiling through the upbeat, goofy thing with all those zany kids and giggling couples mucking about. I loved the humour, energy, creativity and positivity of it, but yeah, I raised an eyebrow at some of the ladies’ jigginess. Just a couple of moments, mind you. Most of them were restrained public groovers, but one or two evidently couldn’t/didn’t want to turn the volume down on their jiggy.

Now let me be clear, I am a lady who jigs. Yessir, we like to move-it move-it…but we tend to do it in private, or in all-female company. That’s just how I roll on my path. But I’m not going to condemn jiggier ladies to the hottest dimensions of hell for breaching Minaretmuse-approved modesty limits. Heck no! The world need not dance to my spiritual tune. I am not the Pied Piper on the Path of Deen, and gentle reader, neither are you…so put the flute down and step away!

If this video neither speaks to you, about you or for you, that’s okay because it was evidently never meant for you. Leave it to qualified scholars to spell out fiqh positions; respectfully explain why this video is not your cuppa; then let people walk their path without the draught from your finger-wagging throwing them off their stride.

Conversely, if the video made your heart dance in joy, recognition & grooviness, remember that liberality allows space for dissent, and dissent based on traditional Islamic scholarship is not extremist but mainstream. You’re happy on your creative, evolving cultural fringe, hangin’ with the cool kids and pushing the boundaries, but that’s not everyone’s cup of skinny flat white. Not everyone with misgivings, shaking their heads at your project is a killjoy-stuffed-shirt-humourless-party-pooper. There are legitimate differences of opinion on your creative outpouring, so when these criticisms are respectfully or sincerely expressed, don’t seek to de-legitimise and demonise them as extremist fundamentalist nutters. That’s a sly way of playing to the Islamophobic Good Muslim-Bad Muslim tropes you’d normally decry. Accept that you’re not universally appealing and that opposing opinions are perfectly valid, and keep ‘happying’ on your way. Ignore the real screeching nutters – they’re barely capable of coherent expression let alone able to acknowledge a different point of view.

Getting Holier than Thou Atop your High Camel

Many of the objections I’ve come across fall under this category, which is standard issue plank-in-thine-own-eye stuff. Let me answer a few:

I only listen to adhaans and Qur’aan. May Allaah protect me from defiling my eyes & ears with such stuff! My happiness is in conforming to Qur’aan and Sunnah, not in frivolous pop froth!

Ameen to that brother or sister! Now go on your righteous way without feeling obliged to scour every possibly offensive sight and sound off the face of the Earth. Like I’ve said before, if someone was to halal-audit your life I reckon they’d find you sinning differently, but sinning all the same. But that’s okay because we’re all on a journey, although you might want to tackle that nafs of yours which is over-inflating in pride at its superiority over these deviants. No-one is force-feeding you this stuff, so go find something that helps you grow closer to Allah instead.

This Pharrell dude is a filth-monger, implicated in XYZ filth-mongering, and you are promoting his filth-infested music. FIIIIILTH!

Okay, I admit I’m going to have to take your word for it, as I’ve no idea who Mr Pharrell is. I defer to your greater knowledge, but this video is not an endorsement of the man, everything he stands for and all his earthly works forever-and-ever-ameen. Yes, it adds fuel to the fleeting faddy phenomenon of Happy songs, but we didn’t start that fire. Nor is any intelligent human in danger of thinking Mr Pharrell & all his works are now Muslim-approved, halal youth-fodder.

Watching the video again, I find there’s a sweet innocence to it, despite my doubts about the jigging. From the little bopping kids to the cute couples to the mischievous old man in the street, it’s all sugar-coated fairy fluff and far from depraved or filthy. The filth is in your own mind – better go make brain ghusl.

Consider the social and political implications! It’s projecting and normalising liberal constructions; displaying a dis-empowering internalisation of orientalist discourse, while the underlying narratives are reinforcing systems of neo-colonialism.

All that in four minutes huh? Internet memes & viral videos exist as whimsical short-lived creatures that give brief entertainment in their mayfly-esque lives. #Happy videos were trending so this light-hearted little contribution was thrown into the mix. This is not a great cultural work whose impact will echo down the generations, so let’s keep it in context. There’s nothing paradigm-shaking about a happy-clappy song video. We really ought to reserve academic post-mortems and intellectualising for more weighty cultural productions – like Ms.Marvel comics.

It’s bringing Muslims/Islam into disrepute! Have they no shame?

Muslims around the world are doing a lot (oh a heck of a lot!) of things that are distorting and deflecting the light of Islam from casting its beautiful radiance into the hearts of our fellow humans. Bopping to pop music isn’t going to register in the top 500 Ummah Crimes Against Humanity.

On the contrary, judging by media reaction so far, the video seems to be providing a rare opportunity to depict Muslims as humans rather than villains. It’s a welcome break from the usual unrelentingly negative press.

As for shame, you or I may not approve of aspects or even all of this video, but the people in it strike me as very respectable folk indeed. Especially the kids. They are on their own path, so if there’s any shame to be cast it’s shame on anyone who judges their character and sincerity. Don’t make me ‘Astaghfirullah’ you!

It’s encouraging youth culture, pop music, clubs and partying! Our parents’ generation would never have dreamed of such a thing.

It may be that in your world all the Muslim youth are immersed in Islamic study & worship from dawn ’til dusk, and never put a foot wrong. In which case, rest easy because they’ll never see this video. Meanwhile, over in my neck of the woods the reality is much less angelic and a lot more earthly.

Your parents may have been models of Islamic restraint and dignity, mash’Allah, but this is not the reality of the societies our youth are growing up in. Muslim youth, burdened with the consequences of the crimes of preceding generations, are growing up viewed with suspicion and mistrust. It is alienating, disheartening and plainly unjust. This video isn’t an encouragement to the dark arts, it’s saying be Muslim & be happy despite what others think of you. This is how the video producers put it:

“This video is to show the world despite the negative press, stereotypes and discrimination we are burdened with we should respond with smiles and joy, not anger.”

It’s a plot to manipulate Muslims into assimilating. They’re dancing to their Western Puppet Master’s tune, displaying an inferiority complex in imitating the K…non-Muslims! Why are they so desperate to fit in and put a palatable face on for the world to accept them?

Appropriation is not assimilation, and for many of us, this is our culture. When you judge Brit Muslims for being terribly Western, you forget that we aren’t mimicking, we truly are from the Wild Wild West. You could cynically conclude that someone who comes to the UK from elsewhere and completely jettisons their culture to adopt local ways must have an inferiority complex. But what of those of us born here, or raised with hybrid cultures, fusing bits from here and ‘back home’? It isn’t some hip-cool modern accessory. It was our context from birth, and like all cultures it contains the good, the bad and the ugly. As we grow we sift, select and re-invent, and end up with sub-cultures and counter-cultures of our own – just like the rest of the Ummah. For better or worse, this is the soil that nurtured (or stunted) our growth as Muslims and from where we set out on our spiritual paths with its dust still on our shoes.

Besides, there isn’t a single normative global Muslim culture. Popular culture in Arab and South Asian lands isn’t exactly immersed in holiness. If you’re looking for folk who’ve fallen victim to the annihilating forces of assimilation and the wicked spell of conformity there are plenty to be found in pubs, clubs, gambling dens and bars everywhere. But be slow to judge those guys too as they’re still on their journey, and many a saint began as a sinner in this hare & tortoise race we call life.

But is it permitted?

There are differences of opinion about music and dancing in Islam. Where there are valid differences of opinion, it is silly to say “That’s not from Islam!” when it evidently is – just not from your edited slice of it. Choose your own Path of Deen and let others do the same within the wide spectrum of the permissible. If you cannot appreciate the wisdom and beauty in diversity of opinion, at least have a gracious and humble adab towards it.

Even when there is consensus on a matter, if some Muslims happen to adopt a contrary view it doesn’t make them an existential threat to the deen. Islam is bigger than that. Clarify your position, if appropriate, and leave it be. There’s more than one scholar in this video, so it comes with a sort of built-in approval, even if you don’t subscribe to their opinions. Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad (the one with the ‘I’m Happy’ sign) has issued the following statement about it:

“I’m delighted to see the outcome of the Happy British Muslims video, which has unlocked a remarkable tide of goodwill around the world, and significantly tilted the image of Muslims among many sceptics. Islamophobes must be grinding their teeth to see Muslims of different races and age-groups united by happiness. No-one will produce a Sharia argument against jumping for joy! I look forward to working with The Honesty Policy on future productions.”

I’d really like to hear Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad’s breakdown of his position on public jigging, but if he prefers to reserve his energy for higher matters I completely understand.

In His Hands

None of us owns the True Islam. It is a multi-dimensional message designed to reach every human soul, in every time and place, and call them home to their Lord. The halal and the haraam, the forgiven and the damned, are ultimately decided by Allah, not you or I, or our favourite Shaykh.

Let’s have some humility before the Creator and *actual* Owner of absolutely everything. We ought to be beyond-careful we don’t end up trespassing on Allah’s prerogative & usurping His authority in our misplaced zeal for a homogeneity that has never existed in Islam and probably never will.  And that is more important than any of our opinions on these bopping, jigging, happy Muslims.

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