Why I Write
Ask me why I write on any other day and the answer would be different. Probably it would simply be that I can’t not write. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about how I got this way. How did I come to value the written word this much?
If you read God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems, you know I’m not shy about criticizing harmful interpretations of Islam and Muslim culture. I’ve had a contentious, on-again, off-again relationship with the religion I grew up with. Yet, looking back, I can’t deny my Muslim upbringing played a huge role in why I write.
First, the First.
Growing up Muslim taught me that the absolute first word revealed of the Quran was “Read.” Now everyone from everyday Muslims to less than woke scholars, and everyday Islamophobes to an overgrown Cheeto has an opinion on what Islam is really about. I know from writing, that introductions are a great place to find topic sentences that sum up the overall deal. This is a translation of the first words revealed of the Quran:
Read in the name of your Lord who created.
Since everyone else feels comfy delivering opinions on what Islam is based on singular experiences and/or nitpicked verses, here’s mine: First and foremost, Islam is a religion where God says, Thou shalt be a nerd.
Masjid Basement Jihad and Gender-Questionable Virgins
I wanted to talk about jihad, but thanks to pop-media you can’t bring up the word without jokes about the virgins. To give you an idea of my thoughts on this, here’s an approximate conversation I had with my husband a few years ago (I apologize for the heterosexual, gender-binary assumptions in this conversation – we’re trying to do better now, I promise):
Me: So, do you really believe that there are 72 virgins waiting in heaven?
Husband: The hadith that references the number 72 is fake. The Quran just describes that the Hoor al-ainn exist in heaven.
Me: But what about the women who make it to heaven? Do we get busy with the whores too?
Husband: *shrugs* Hoor is a gender-neutral word, so women could get rewarded with male Hoor. The idea is that you get what you want.
Me: *sighs* It doesn’t really matter anyway. If the version of Islam where this heaven and the rules to get in exists, I’m probably going to hell anyway.
Husband: *takes my hand* Don’t say that. No one can say who Allah will be merciful to.
Me: *sighs* You’re right, I guess. It sounds like a lot of work, but if I do end up making it to heaven, I might as well give those 80 guys a try.
Husband: *looks grumpy*
To be clear, I respect the work of amazing Muslim feminist scholars (and anyone) working to undo centuries of patriarchal, heterosexual and gender binary interpretations in religion. But as you can gather from the above conversation, I’m personally less interested in theoretical justifications and rewards, and more interested in tools and concepts to help me and others actually live a good, happy life, however we define that.
Which brings me to the masjid basement where I first learned about jihad. You see, my first encounter with the word wasn’t death and destruction and ambiguously kinky sexual rewards. The teacher of our Saturday morning class introduced jihad as “struggle.” She taught us that the very first step in struggling against the challenges in life is to learn. That none of us are doing jihad if we aren’t educating ourselves.
As a teen who felt isolated and alone, books had always been my getaway. Having it affirmed that I wasn’t the only one struggling, that the world was hard and we were all struggling to cope, helped. What really made a difference, though, was realizing that retreating into books wasn’t a cowardly way out. Through my understanding of jihad, I could see consuming and envisioning different and new-to-me ways of being through words and ideas for what it was: a solid first step in the struggle to make things better.
Say It and See It Happen
In many places in the Quran the process of creation is outlined as: God said, “‘Be,’ and it is.” I’ve always wondered why God had to say, “Be.” Like, why couldn’t God blink, and poof, there Adam was. Or why wasn’t it hum and it was? Or you know if God really wanted to show off, it could have just been, “And it is.” Like God is that wicked-awesome that no preceding effort beyond will was required to create the universe.
I like to think that while any of the above are possible, the part about saying, “Be” is God sharing a bit of wisdom, showing us how this creation thing is done. In so many ways and in so many areas of life people do this. In business, we have missions and visions. In finance, we forecast and project. In sciences, we have hypotheses. In personal development, we have resolutions and goals. In interpersonal relationships, we use words and images to begin to understand lives that are drastically different realities from our own. In every area of our lives we take the step to first declare, define, target and shape what we are trying to create or recreate.
My Cheesy Truth
I know how corny this is going to sound, but because I believe so hard in the power of words, I’m going to put it out there as my mission and vision, what I forecast and project, my hypothesis, resolution and goal:
Writing is spiritual. It’s a process of seeing myself through my thoughts on the page. It’s identifying how I’ve been unconsciously shaped by family, religion, and society. It’s seeing what’s harming me, editing those out, and choosing how to shape myself going forward. It’s understanding how my understandings are harmful to others and authoring better ones. It’s healing and empowering. The process of writing is a struggle, no doubt, but one that makes me feel closest to the Creator. It fights being drawn into depression about the state of the world. Instead it makes me happy, and gives me hope.
I write because I need it to make sense of our world. To survive it. And I write young adult novels where I create possibilities of laughter, agency and power for a teen who keeps getting cornered into feeling like she has none, because if I could write something into being for our messed-up world, it would be happiness, resilience and hope.
About the Author
Ishara Deen, author of God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems, is also a copywriter and grad-school dropout. She did finish a Master’s degree in World Lit, but still prefers a good mystery, fantasy, or romance over “literature.” She’s a hobby-collecting nerd, the latest of which are archery and bass guitar, and her goal in life is to write and publish what scares her, because it’s likely to scare the people that put that fear in her even more.