Sister Maryam is the author of a number of Islamic books, both in written and audio formats. Her latest book is called When Wings Expand and explores how a Muslim copes with hardship and loss. We caught up with Sister Maryam to find out more about her work, her latest book and, of course, practical tips for emotional productivity!
Assalam alaikum Sister Maryam. Thank you for taking the time to be with us. To begin with, please tell us a little more about yourself and your work.
I have committed myself to writing vivid and reliable narrations of Qur’anic and traditional Islamic stories. I say vivid because I want people to feel the reality of the events, and reliable because one of the miracles of Islam is that its knowledge has been preserved in the miracle of the Glorious Qur’an and by meticulous scholarship such as the world has never seen. Having grown up a Christian, I developed the habit of ‘If you don’t know, make it up.’ That kind of thing may be necessary in traditions where the knowledge has been lost, but that is not the case with Islam and the Qur’an alhamdulillah, and in fact Allah has promised it never will become the case. So verifying everything becomes crucial.
What motivated you to write When Wings Expand and what is the story about?
Initially what motivated me to write was a desire to revisit some things I myself had lived. Later, on suggestions from an editor the story took on journal form and began to include some of the nitty-gritty of the grieving process, which I had not touched in the original story and without which the story was trivial and unsatisfying. But before I could set about developing those parts I had to get to the bottom of some of my own grief work, so the process took a bit of time, new reading, and lots of soul-searching. The book is about how fully and conscientiously practicing Muslims see and deal with their losses.
How does a productive Muslim cope with hardship and loss?
Hardship and loss are essential ingredients of life and longing for a life without them is folly. They are tremendous opportunities to hone our capacity to submit ourselves utterly to the One Who created us, for our very reality depends entirely on this supreme universal eternal reality. But that is easiest to forget when we are on “Easy Street.” Being faced with hardship and loss is a great gift, whereby we can slowly progress towards the moment-to-moment realization that it is Allah living us, not the other way around, may He shower us with His generosity and advance us along that path to Him.
What practical tips can you share with our readers who are struggling to be productive due to the emotional obstacles they face?
The first thing I would say is that I am not a scholar or a spiritual guide, so all I can share with you is my personal experience and what I am learning from my teachers. What I have found is that the crucial productivity, the only one that will matter in the grave, is serving Allah. By that I mean fulfilling our responsibilities to Him as He Himself has asked, not as we would prefer. There are particular things He has asked for: the five pillars, to begin with, the closest of which is probably the 5x prayer. This has to become part of our very sinews so that missing it just becomes unthinkable, and we need to take great care about all the other things that are required of us as well.
We must constantly be scanning our lives and working to get rid of harams great: like non-halal meat, which deadens the heart, and interest, which incites the wrath of Allah, and harams which can seem small: like gossip, backbiting, lying, ingratitude, inappropriate dress and behaviours, and believing we have power of our own. We must practice constantly remembering Him and declaring our utter neediness to Him. When all that is coming into place, and it can be a slow process, then the other productivity begins to come, the one that is His gift to us. Well actually everything is His gift to us. But you can see how, if the required things are hanging undone, we have little to expect in the way of other gifts. When required things hang undone we feel drained of a sense of well-being and peace. The required things sincerely done for the sake of Allah fill us with contentment and often joy, though that is not why we do them. We do them to show gratitude to Him, and to affirm that we know nothing and can do nothing and that He exists, and we exist only through Him.
What this all boils down to is a shift of focus from our own little emotionally stormy teacups to the wider picture: that we have been created to praise Allah and submit to Him and if we do that work, absolutely nothing will be lacking in us, not in this world or the next. Let me tell you about two friends of mine who took hold of this work for all they were worth. Later they both contracted cancer and died. But listen. One died on a Thursday night, the most mubarak of times, and was buried the next day, Juma’a, the most mubarak of days, with 3000 people praying for her at her funeral, all of them there for the Juma’a. The other, when he learned his cancer would likely kill him, said, “If this is gonna kill me then let me die in Madina Munawara.” This man had friends who helped that become a reality. He died and had his funeral in the Prophet’s Mosque, can you imagine such an honor as that? What do our emotional turmoils mean stacked up next to that? I tell myself, “Girl, get a life!”
Masha Allah you have many years of experience as an author and you even produce your own audio books. What is your advice to the budding Islamic story writers out there?
The first focus, as I said before, is Allah. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all else will be added to you.” If one is feeling the urge to write, one should know there is a great need for Muslim writers who are willing to write from a place of authenticity and commitment to Truth. I think it is really important to recognize that Islam is the only religion which has been preserved, by the most astonishing traditions of scholarship the world has ever seen. Its Book, the Majestic Qur’an, was memorized by many people within a very few years of its revelation, and transferred to marks on a surface while the people who had memorized it were still alive, in a language that is still living and spoken to this day. Nothing else like this exists on this planet. The sayings and doings of the one Allah had destined as the receiver of this message, Muhammad, may Allah bless him and give him peace, have been painstakingly recorded and preserved by the same kind of scholarship. Islam is a religion of knowledge, so anyone who wants to write of it must start from there, and Allah is the Knower of all things and the One to whom we must turn for everything.
I would point out that the publishing industry is not in good hands at the moment. For the first time in human history vast numbers of people are reading the most astonishingly virulent poison, where there are no lines drawn between fantasy and reality, no lines drawn between good and evil, and the very idea of humanity is severely deranged. Books like this garner reviews in the thousands, each with dozens of comments. So whatever any of us can do to provide alternatives is so important. We have all grown up severely entrenched in the paradigm that allowed such things to happen, and don’t even know that that is often diametrically opposed to the Islamic paradigm. So the work is critical, and needs to be done with the greatest care.
On the practical level, writing means one thing: filling up a blank space with letters, and this can’t be done while out visiting or adventuring or daydreaming or even doing research. It can only be done in solitude sitting in a chair. That’s the bottom line. It’s easy for all kinds of things to happen but somehow that ultra simple thing can be the hardest thing to do.
About the Author:
Mehded Maryam Sinclair lives, writes, teaches, studies, and narrates authentic Islamic material in Amman Jordan. She is a grandmother of 6 children, four of whom live in Amman and two in Vermont. In April, Mehded will be touring the UK and Scotland narrating events from the life of Prophet Musa [as] in her carefully researched and validated work, The Fall of the Tyrant. For more information, email her at [email protected].
When Wings Expand is brought to you by Kube Publishing.