Monday, June 14, 2010

Of pens and names

Friday June 11, 2010

VIEW: Of pens and names —Dr Mahjabeen Islam

The written word, in the hands of the majority, can achieve what partisan governments or extremist ideologies cannot, especially when it can be transported across the world in the blink of an eye

I write because it gives me a high. If, in the process, some cobwebs in the reader’s mind and mine can be cleared, it is just an added bonus. “How can you be an addictionist, you do not drink or do drugs!” said an outraged colleague when he found out that I was practising as one. Amused, I reminded him that a doctor did not have to suffer all the diseases that they treated; after all, a nun-obstetrician delivered my first child. Just as with addictive substances such as alcohol, narcotics and cocaine, not only do I get a rush after writing an article, I go back for more. The only difference is that the readers’ feedback takes the process from a personal issue to a micro-step towards changing mindsets.

How we interact with one another is very directly related, I believe, to how we were raised. Certain hot-button phrases in recent articles and the heavily Muslim premise of others have triggered a barrage of e-mails from my Indian friends. There are some that are courteous, the majority, however, spews hate and calls my Prophet (PBUH) and me names. I will never forget one of them: it was so packed with expletives that I broke out in a sweat.

I try to acknowledge all my e-mails, especially from the readers of my articles, but when the rhetoric and the venom are terminal, they hit the trash folder. There are some articles that seem to hit the reader’s sweet spot. And then the appreciative deluge hits. And when the article is about sensitive socio-political issues, my gratification is deep.

One learns the depth and beauty of certain issues that are addressed in Islam only by close personal experience. God swears by the pen in Surah Qalam (68:1): “By the pen and what the angels write in the records of men,” and then in the beautiful Surah Alaq (96:4) “Read for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught man the use of the pen — taught man what he did not know.” And in the most majestic of ways that only the Quran can, Surah Luqman (31:27) showcases God’s infinite glory: “And if all the trees on earth were pens and the sea were ink, with seven more seas yet added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted, for verily God is Almighty, Wise.”

The Quran, combined with the famous Hadith, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr,” underscores the importance of knowledge and the written word and develops the concept of “jihad of the pen”. A pervasive misunderstanding is equating jihad with battle when that is the minor jihad. Jihad-ul-Akbar or the greater jihad is that against the nafs or one’s baser instincts. And jihad of the pen has a unique place in targeting the epicentre of all actions — the mind.

With the internet revolution and disseminating articles and messages of peace and sanity, it is possible to break even steel webs of the mind. Sometimes it seems that Chicken Little was right and the sky is falling down. Especially in Pakistan. Or on Pakistan, perhaps. Collectively the citizens of the world are operating at such a high stress level that we fail to realise that the movements of any stripe that aim to destroy and reign do not have the support of the mass of humanity, the majority of which scrapes to make both ends meet.

It behoves those that write and read to have virtual and actual discussions about the plethora of issues that affect us, be they local, national or international. At the risk of annoying the recipient, send your friends and family articles that pique your interest, write letters to the editor of the local paper for it is only when these solos combine to form a chorus that envelops the world that there can be a global citizen protest when travesties occur. And worldwide kudos for acts of courage and compassion.

The UN has lost its credibility; multiple resolutions remain un-implemented, while others are passed by governments that have hijacked the entire process and are not representative of the sentiment of their own people. The written word, in the hands of the majority, can achieve what partisan governments or extremist ideologies cannot, especially when it can be transported across the world in the blink of an eye.

My last name of course has had issues. My first name has been no exception. A great fan of Persian poetry, my father, God bless his soul, decided on a tongue twister. And it has taken its toll on tongues indeed. Soon after arrival in the US, I was introduced to a car saleslady: “This is Mahjabeen.” “Magic Beans?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide. Friends in my residency programme remind me of that and intermittently call me that till today. To most non-Pakistani Americans, the word ‘Mahjabeen’ causes silence or stuttering. Some friends, in typical American style, have taken it upon themselves to shorten it to “Marge”. Arabs do not realise that the name is Mah, which means moon and Jabeen, which means forehead; they change it to ‘Muhhajabeen’, meaning one that observes hijab. And I fail on both counts — wrong meaning, no hijab.

I did observe hijab for nine months a few years ago. But my vanity got the better of me, so that jihad against my nafs clearly failed.

I was complaining about the massacre of ‘Mahjabeen’ one day and an Indian Gujarati lady said, ever so sweetly, “I do not see what the problem is with pronouncing your name, MayZabeen!”

In 1996, I was to be introduced to a large gathering and an elderly Arab gentleman confronted by having to pronounce my name, hesitated and then said, “And this is Mujahideen Islam!” I was a bit discomfited then but feel now that maybe there is one jihad I can try to do. In my own small way — jihad of the pen.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be reached at