Ejo #20 – A Few Thoughts On Islam (And What It Means To Be Muslim)

“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I will complain against that person on the Day of Judgement.”  So said the Prophet Mohammed, preaching tolerance, kindness and understanding towards us heretics.  It isn’t the picture most people have in their minds of the Islamic faith – and that is, perhaps, unfortunate.  The reason could be related to the rising number of acts of aggression against the western world, ostensibly in the name of Islam.  But as many Muslims would be at great pains to point out, these acts of terrorism strike against the very kernel of what it is to be a member of the Islamic faith.


I’m not religious in the least but I have always been curious about the concept. When I moved to Dubai I was able to learn a little bit about Islam.  I could probably write 20 ejos on the subject, but I won’t.  What I’d like to do is shed some light on a belief system and way of life that is sometimes shrouded in mystery, and quite often veiled by misinterpretation.  If I can bust just one myth or clear up one misconception for anyone that’ll make me happy.  I’m hardly an expert though; what follows is just a few personal observations backed up with a bit of research.


Let us begin.  The reason Muslims call their deity Allah is to differentiate him from other gods – it is the personal name of Islam’s one true god.  Whereas the word “god” can be pluralised and genderised, the word Allah cannot.  Allah is merciful and compassionate, and really just a very nice god indeed.  For instance, if you intend to do a bad deed and then don’t actually go through with it, he won’t hold it against you (even though, of course, he is fully aware that you did think about it).  It is only when you act on the intention that it counts against you.  Furthermore, if you truly regret what you did, the slate automatically wipes clean.  The simple act of repentance leads to Allah’s forgiveness.


Some people wonder about the importance of the Prophet Mohammed in the faith.  He was just one of many thousands of prophets, but Mohammed is the greatest of them all because he was the last prophet, the one that completed all of Allah’s revelations and sealed them together to create the teachings of Islam as they have been known, unaltered, for the last 1400 years.  He is second only to Allah in importance.


The word Muslim means “to submit” and Islam is based on its believers living out the will of Allah, as far as humanly possible.  It is founded on five pillars.  They are:

1) testimony of faith, i.e. accepting that there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.

2) praying five times a day;

3) Zakat, which is the giving back to the community of a certain amount of money, usually as a charitable donation;

4) fasting during Ramadan; and

5) pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once during a Muslim’s lifetime (for those who are physically and financially able).


The second pillar of Islam is prayer.  Muslims are required to pray five times a day– furthermore they must be “clean” when they do so.  A ritual ablution occurs before the prayer and this includes washing the face, arms and feet so as to be pure when presenting themselves to Allah.  To facilitate this in Dubai, every toilet (private and public) has a long hose and nozzle in it so that wherever they may find themselves at prayertime, a Muslim is able to wash in preparation.  It is also why, sometimes, when entering a bathroom after a Muslim you may find it absolutely soaking wet.  I guess in striving to become clean, it is sometimes necessary to create a mess.  You get used to it.


Zakat is the requirement to donate to charity or to give to those less fortunate. Muslims are obligated to give 2.5% of any income they’ve earned for the year which is surplus to their family’s requirements.  This is usually collected and distributed during Ramadan.


Ramadan is the month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims must fast – refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, having impure thoughts or engaging in sexual activity during daylight hours.  These sacrifices transcend physical discipline and bring the faster closer to Allah.  This year Ramadan has fallen during August, which happens to be the hottest time of year. Fasters have been going without food and water for up to 15 long hours a day, which as you can imagine is super difficult.  Hunger and thirst remind fasters of others who are less fortunate and who go hungry and thirsty everyday.  It also serves as a trigger to commune with Allah, to give thanks, and also to atone for any sins committed during the year.  It is an extremely important time of year for all Muslims.  To read more about Ramadan check out Ejo #9 – Ramadan In Dubai (What It Means And What To Expect).


As with all religions, some things are considered right, and others wrong.  “Halal”encompasses everything which is good (and thus permitted in the eyes of God), whereas “haram” describes the opposite – all which is harmful (and thus forbidden).  The word halal actually refers to a wide spectrum of things, but is most commonly used to describe meat that has been prepared in an approved way. A lot of animals these days are killed by electrocution – but this method is deemed haram by Muslims.  The animal suffers and so it is forbidden to eat its meat.  To be considered humane, the knife that will kill the animal must not be sharpened in front of it.  Animals should be killed quickly, and as comfortably as possible, and one animal must never witness the slaughter of another as this would frighten it, making the meat haram.  The animal should be well fed and watered despite the fact that it shall soon be lunch.


Intoxicants, such as alcohol, are considered haram – the reason being that alcohol decreases your ability to control your own mind and body.  There is an old Islamic fable: “A man was told to either rip up the Holy Quran, or murder a child, or bow in worship to an idol, or drink one cup of alcohol, or sleep with a woman.  He thought the least sinful thing to do was drink the cup, so he drank it.  Then he slept with the woman, killed the child, tore up the Quran and bowed in worship to the idol”.  Being a Muslim is all about controlling your impulses and you attain closeness to God when you restrain yourself from physical and mental urges.  Alcohol takes away all of that restraint, rendering one vulnerable to the temptations of the devil (and anyone who’s ever been drunk can surely attest to that – I know I can!).


The Quran clearly refers to men and women as being equal.  Oppression of women tends to be more culturally and nationalistically based, than theistically.  But often the culture fostering the oppression is so closely entwined in an Islamic identity it is difficult to separate the two.  Although women are thought of as being equal to men, the physical differences between them has been taken into account and because of this women have been granted the right of protection by (and from) men. One of the major components of Islam is modesty (for both sexes, albeit predominantly for women).  As such, men are required to not look upon women sexually and women are required to cover up in public.  Islam sees the covering up of a woman’s body as the opposite of female repression. Because it hides her womanliness they believe that it is really a form of female liberation, allowing her to be appreciated for her character and mind, and not just for her body.  Nowhere in the Quran or in the prophet’s messages does it state that women must cover their faces – to force a woman to do so (as the Taliban do in Afghanistan) goes against the very spirit of Islam.


Even with all this covering up though, occasionally a person might find themselves sexually aroused in a public place by a person who is not their spouse. Hey, it happens!  One of my favourite of prophet Mohammed’s recommendations is that, should this occur to you, you must immediately hurry home to your husband (or wife) and satisfy that sexual urge honourably.  Yipee!


While men and women are created equal, they most definitely have different roles to play in marriage and family life.  The husband is expected to provide for the family and the wife is expected to look after him and the household (including children when/if they have them).  This doesn’t mean a woman can’t go out and work if she wants to.  She can, but she must still fulfil her obligations at home too (what else is new, right?).  The role of housewife and mother is regarded as one of the most honourable occupations in Islam.  Staying home to raise a family garners the greatest respect from the community, because it is arguably one of the most difficult jobs to do.


Polygamy is permitted in Islam but not in the way most people imagine.  Men are allowed to marry up to only four women, and there are many restrictions.  For instance, a man can only marry another woman if he can afford to keep her in the same way he keeps his first wife; giving them the same amount of food, clothing, leisure, living space, time and compassion.  Plus, he actually needs the permission of his first wife in order to take another.  Theoretically, anyway.  Polygamy was sanctioned, initially, with the intention of providing security and a stable family life for the women left behind after the first Islamic war. Rather than leave the many widows and orphans to fend for themselves it was encouraged for families to give them a home – and since a woman and a man who are not married are forbidden from living under the same roof, marriage was the solution.  Today, however, women are able to support themselves.  This negates the requirement for a man to marry multiple women.  Governments look after those in need, providing welfare to ensure financial stability and security.  The burden of this responsibility has been removed from the man, however polygamy (of course) still occurs.


Well, that’s just a drop in the ocean.  If you have any questions about Islam please feel free to ask and I will try and get an informed answer from one of my Muslim colleagues.  Look out next month for another episode from The Misadventures Of Dangerous Doug.

Ejo #12 – Emirati National Dress: The Dishdash and The Abaya explained

I’m lucky enough to work with an Emirati who is extremely open and more than happy to answer pretty well any question about his country, culture and religion.  His name is Omran and over the last six months I’ve discussed many, many interesting things with him.  I’d really like to share some of what I’ve learnt with you.  Let me tell you about the national dress of Emirati men and women.  I’ll start with the men as there’s a lot less controversy about what they wear.


Arab men wear an ankle length, dress-like tunic (usually with long sleeves) which is called a khandoura.  It is also known as a dishdash which is a much cuter name, I think.  Contrary to popular belief the dishdash is not required to be worn by men for any religious reason.  It is more a traditional outfit of the region, which has been adopted because of its versatility in the desert climate.  It protects the wearer’s skin from direct sunlight while providing very good ventilation under the ‘skirt’.  And of course the white fabric reflects sunlight, keeping the wearer cooler.


But white wasn’t always the traditional colour of the khandoura.  Apparently in the olden days the dishdash used to be a more sandy coloured fabric – for rather obvious reasons.  Now that every household has easy access to dry cleaners and can buy bleach at the local supermarket, it has evolved into a very brilliant white outfit.  I am constantly amazed by how bright and clean their whites are.  I know for sure that if I wore a dishdash, it would have coffee stains on it before I even left the house in the morning.


It’s not actually decreed anywhere what colour a dishdash is supposed to be so you often see younger guys being a bit more adventurous.  I’ve seen navy and I’ve seen a kind of pale green.  And I’ve seen several shades of brown, from light cream to dark chocolate and even black (which looks rather smart in my opinion).  So while there is variety, I am yet to see anything too crazy or out there.  No pinks or purples, but they do apparently exist.  I’m also pretty sure that Burberry do a dishdash in their signature check.  I sure would love to see that.


Another way the Emirati dudes express themselves sartorially is with the headscarf, which is part of their traditional outfit.  You do occasionally see an Arab guy in a dishdash without the headscarf (known as a ghoutra – no it’s not a tea towel, though, yes, they do sometimes resemble kitchen linens), but more often than not they are worn together.  The black coil holding the ghoutra onto their heads is called an igal, and it’s sole purpose is to hold the scarf in place.


The ghoutra, you may have noticed, comes in a range of different colours and styles.  All Arabs can wear the white ghoutra (it’s kind of like wearing blue jeans, it’s a staple but it doesn’t really say anything about you).  But each country in the area also has their very own special check pattern in addition to that.  This can be compared to the Scottish clans each having their own tartan check.  It identifies the wearer as belonging to a certain tribe or place.  The Palestinian national check is a large black and white pattern (as worn by the late Yasser Arafat).  The UAE national ghoutra is a small-sized, red and white check.  Actually you’ve probably seen it.  It seemed to gain prominence last year worn as a scarf around the necks of pretty young things around the world.  I’m pretty sure I saw a picture of Elle Macpherson wearing one once.


In addition to the pattern on the ghoutra it may also be worn in several different styles depending on how the wearer feels that day or what image he wants to project.  He can just wear it flat across the head or he may pull one side of it over the top of his head, or even twist it at the back kind of like a loose, long braid.  And when he’s feeling sporty he can wrap it around his head, bedouin style, with all the loose ends tucked in.


A few people from back home have expressed interest in what is worn underneath the dishdash.  To be honest, I haven’t actually discussed this with Omran, though I’m pretty sure he’d be more than happy to chat to me about it.  Anyway, from my own observations it would appear that, at the very least, they wear a t-shirt or singlet (‘wifebeater’ for my American friends).  I’m pretty sure the dishdash has some kind of  extra fabric around the nether regions (kind of like a skirt) but as for whether or not they wear underpants, this has not been so easy to determine from my casual and furtive glances.  If I had to say I would probably guess that they go commando.  Which is an interesting though when you consider what would happen should a young man wearing a dishdash become unexpectedly aroused (as young men are wont to do).  I’ve never seen it happen so perhaps there is some form of undergarment being worn.  Who knows??  It’s fun to think about anyway.


OK, so onto the women.  As opposed to the men, who are wearing the dishdash because of where they’re from, the women wear their national dress because of the religion they believe in.  They are required by the Qur’an to cover up with a loose cloth (in the Middle East, this covering is known as an abaya, and the headscarf is known as a shela).  According to the good book, women are required to hide their ‘ornaments’ in public.  ‘Ornaments’ has been interpreted to mean a woman’s body and hair which is why they cover them up.  Unfortunately, the more extreme Muslims of the world have a tendency to take what the Qur’an says and then try to amplify it in the belief that Allah will think they are better Muslims.  In this case they have decreed that a woman’s ‘ornaments’ means the entire woman, thus forcing her to also cover her face and hands.  From what little I know, this is not actually correct in the eyes of Islam but it is what is sensationally distributed around the world, leading to misinformation.


Another misconception is that women are forced to wear the abaya in order to prevent Muslim men from being overcome with passion.  This is bollocks.  First of all (in Dubai at least), Muslim men are exposed to women’s body bits every day as most of the women here are expats.  Secondly, no-one forces the women to wear the abaya (again, I speak only for Dubai).  They are actually proud to wear it.  This is worth repeating (and I’m not exaggerating it or making it up).  They are proud to wear the abaya.  I’m telling you, if you saw a group of young Emirati women in the mall walk past you, their black robes swishing around them, you could only describe them as regal.  It actually gives them a power – because only they know what is underneath the robe.  And it’s not a power that only the observer imagines.  You can see that they are more than aware of it themselves.  It was wonderful to realise this when I first came here, because just like everyone else, I assumed that they were being oppressed by having to wear it.  Not so.


Plus, in recent years, particularly with younger women, it has become quite the fashion to decorate the abaya with all manner of shiny things – like sequins, glittery thread and even Swarovski crystals.  Funny how the garment that they are wearing to hide their ornaments is now covered in them.  But they are pretty, and it is big business.  Even the major designers are jumping on the bandwagon and designing the black robes.  Christian Dior, Chanel, Gucci.  They all make abayas and charge up to 30,000dhs for them (that’s about AUD$10,000).  So tell me, if you’re wearing a Dolce & Gabbana abaya, are you really being oppressed???


The original purpose of the abaya is to protect a woman’s modesty – I suppose this could be interpreted as meaning it is required in order to prevent a man’s uncontrollable lust???  I don’t know.  What I do know is that, according to Islam, only her husband has the right to see a woman’s body.  Perhaps I’m romanticising it but I think that’s kind of cool.  I certainly know that some days I would love to have the option of wrapping an abaya around myself and stepping out in the world with no-one being able to see what I’m wearing underneath.  Admittedly those are either ‘fat’ days when my jeans are a bit tight and I just want to go out in tracksuit pants, or when everything else I own is in the wash.


OK, that’s it for now.  I had a funny story to tell you (unrelated to dishdashes and abayas) but this has turned into quite a long ejo so I’ll save it for the next one.  I’m sure by then I’ll have more than just one funny story to tell.  I promise, promise, promise not to take three months before I write to you again.