June 1, 2108
Assalam alaykum dearest Beloved
I write this letter to you, because it breaks my heart that anyone would feel deprived or punished by the loving action of God in their life. It breaks my heart that we could think in such a destructive way of our Lord, laboring under the harmful belief that He would exclude us from good, or strike us with a state that has no spiritual meaning, or decree upon us with a disconnection from Him – and once a month at that! What kind of a view do we have of God if that is the kind of action we ascribe to Him? What kind of a God are we turning Him, Most High, into?
There is another reason I am writing this letter: it’s because I have been blessed to have women teachers, who modeled to me a state of confidence in God, a sure and certain knowledge that they are loved by Him…and it is this knowledge that is the most important of all. There is a particular sentence my Teacher uttered, almost twenty years ago when I first met her, which changed my life then, and has become the foundation and guiding light ever since. She had listened to my story, of seeking guidance, and she said to me: God would not have brought you all the way here to disappoint you. That is not the God I know.
That last sentence struck me like nothing else ever had: it told me two things – that it was possible to ‘know’ God and not just believe things you were told about Him; and that it was possible to be confident in His Goodness.
This understanding that my Beloved Teacher offered me is what made me first start to question the modern female Muslim culture of negative feelings towards menstruation – particularly the feeling that we are deprived of the opportunity to worship at this time.
My Teacher, God bless her, taught us that the time when you are menstruating is not a disconnection. It is in fact the opposite: a time of great connection to God.
Your time of menstruation is a time of intense dhikr (remembrance of your connection to the One), meditation, contemplation, and prayer. My friend’s Shaykh (Spiritual Guide) actually calls this time: deep prayer.
This time of menstruation is an amazing time for internal spiritual openings and blessings from our Lord.
Traditionally, this time was a time for spiritual women to seek retreat from engagement with people and to tend to their souls while nourishing and supporting the important processes being undertaken in their bodies during this time.
And what a time! What a strange thing it is that in our era we as women are expected to behave just as we would at any other time of the month, when in fact all sorts of things are going on inside us, different hormones being released, muscles that normally are not used being brought into action – sometimes with the effect of pain in the form of cramps – as well as the presence of fatigue. Our Lord does not treat us as if it is just any other time…He takes special care of us at this time, leaning towards us with a kind of tenderness that no one else experiences. How blessed we are, that we as women experience this attention and affection once a month…
Our Loving Lord, having created this state for us to experience, invites us to learn how to be compassionate to ourselves at this time, by showing us His Compassion: we are asked to rest from the strict routine of Salah – the ritual meditation at specific times of the day – and to eat and drink even during the time when others are fasting. By this loving tenderness He shows us, He is inviting us to learn how to be tender to ourselves as well as others, in times of need and weakness. If only the world could learn from God. As much as we think that our workplaces and so-called progressive contexts in the modern ‘western’ world are gender neutral or respecful of women, the reality is that male colleagues often grumble when women express a need to leave work early, or show signs of fatigue at this time of their cycle. Certainly, some women – and sometimes depending on their age – feel little physical or emotional impact during their periods; as a younger woman, I was in this category. I have come to appreciate more and more, as I age, God’s wisdom and His care for me, care I at many points did not even think to give my own self. There is a goodness in resting, not just in measurable productivity.
The Creator says: they ask you about menstruation. Tell them: It is a time of vulnerability for women, so give them their space during this time
(Surat al Baqara: Chapter 2: Verse 222)
When I get my period, I hear these beautiful Words of my Lord, and am comforted to know that my vulnerability and need for quiet, are seen by God and known to Him, and not mere fabrications of my mind; I am given Permission by Him to take some space away from my normal interactions – as wonderful as they are. It is based on this concept, in fact, that so many of our Teachers consider the time of menstruation a natural opportunity for retreat, deep prayer, and seclusion for a woman.
This retreat time opens the door for a new level of connection with our Creator, ever more profound…in part because we are not reliant on actions such as the active Salah, the reading of Quran, and fasting – forced to realize our connection to Him is far beyond actions, not ‘doing’ but “being.” This is a great gift to women – every month we must realize that our relationship with Him, and His Love and Care for us, go far beyond the deeds we so often become dependent upon. We realize that it is not our actions that define our relationship to Him, that we are with Him, and belong to Him, and exist by Him, in all our states. This lesson is a lesson all Muslims must come to absorb, and how privileged women are that we are brought to its realization on a regular basis.
With every breath, worship Him.
We are also drawn closer to God through tafakkur (contemplation): reflect on the fact that this time of menstruation emphasises and underlines our deep connection to Him through His Attribute “Al Khaliq” – since our wombs are the human manifestation of His Creative Power, and where creation takes place in the human realm. Our periods remind us of this amazing choice of God, to select our wombs as the host for His creation to take physical form, before entering this life.
Even if we never have children, we are invited to remember the creative power that is in us, as well as the nurturing power. As many of you know, the name for our womb, part of the reproductive organs that are involved in this menstruation – in Arabic the name is rahm, which comes directly from God’s Names: ArRahman, ArRaheem – the Creator of Love, the Creator of relationships (these bonds that are the result of our starting points in certain wombs, and their starting points in other wombs…this vast network of human relations that emerge from the womb); the One Who loves His creation unconditionally, the One Who is Closer to us than our closest relative. What an honour, to be reminded of how much we are loved by Him, and also how we are vessels for His Love for others to reach them…that we have that in us – to nurture and transmit His love to others. How can we do that if we feel neglected by Him – when in reality He loves us so much! If we keep thinking He does not, we will never be able to fulfil our role in this life – of drinking deeply from that love and then passing it around to others!
Letting Go and Letting God
Menstruation is a time of vulnerability and as such, is a beautiful invitation to embrace our dependence on our Lord and Caretaker. A woman at this time may feel more tired, and many women feel pain. These are opportunities to lean into His Strength and His Healing and Relieving Power. Personally, in my exhaustion and physical weakness at this time, as intense as the fatigue of fasting and more, I find myself observing the sweetness of this weakness, for it is in such contrast to His Capacity. I know this is a gift from Him, and rather than resist, I let go of all my guilt for not being able to conquer every task others are doing, and rest in His Grace, in the safety of His Care. He does not need me to be a superwoman, everything is under His management, and hasn’t it always been? I come out from this state with that renewed conviction that even when I am feeling the strength of my limbs, it is still the case that He is truly the One in control. I imagine if we got used to this interplay of strength and power in ourselves, it would not be such a shock to our psyches when we age, or fall sick…and God knows best.
We become witnesses during this time to the work of God in our own beings, our own physical, emotional, and mental states. We are asked to give in to the mystery of that work – we don’t get to be the ones who schedule in our period – nor can we time its ending…what a unique opportunity to learn acceptance, submission, and recognition that it is not we who are in control, but He. We don’t even control our own bodies. Isn’t it wonderful that this natural process remains unpredictable and uncontrollable by humans? Seen this way, it is a reason to celebrate the elusive beauty of God’s ways – that even our modern obsession with control have not been able to pin down. What is this monthly period but a manifestation of His Unfathomable Power and our utter bewilderment. If we allowed ourselves to stand in awe at this time, this time would become one of the most elevating experiences of our spiritual life.
As women of these modern times, we have been conditioned to believe that we don’t deserve to be treated in any special way, with any kind of accommodations, for the fact that we are women. Modernity has tried to erase the beautiful differences between us and men – except for when these differences can be made to serve material ends such as the objectification of our bodies or the harnessing of our buying power with regard to beauty products and clothing. Perhaps this conditioning to not receive special care for being women is what stops us from recognizing when God is giving us that special care. Think of what God says to our Lady Mary, as she is going through labour: eat, and drink, and be comforted! Isn’t this what He is saying to you and me, when He asks us to eat and drink, instead of fast, during this time of menstruation or post-natal bleeding? Isn’t this comfort exactly what He is ensuring we have, on a physical plane, when He insists that we need not push our bodies at this time?
I fast when You ask me to fast
and I eat when You ask me to eat
I reach for You
in whatever way
You would have me pray
Because it was never about what I do
or don’t do
It is, and has always been,
only about You
Your love, may I never misconstrue!
May I seek to regard You
more than I regard what I do or don’t do
A heightened state
The hormones God causes to shift inside us during our menstruation are the perfect shaking-up we need, liberating certain emotions and giving them the opportunity to flow more readily, and this sets the perfect scene for the tears we are able to more easily shed, during our dua (supplications) and dhikr, while on our period. Let us use this increased emotional sensitivity to connect to our Creator and to the Beloved, peace be upon him, and cry out of longing for him – he who lovingly taught our Lady Aisha that having our period is one of the states God wrote for all the daughters of Adam, and nothing to be sad or distraught over.
Indeed, make good use of that emotional capacity to reach new places in your journey of love. One of our pious ancestors, Lady Aisha al-Ba’uniyya wrote her whole Mawlid (love poem about the life of the Prophet peace be upon him) during this time – when she was on her period.
But why can’t we do the Salah!
The heart of the Salah – its most important element – is the prostration. And it is the action we are not to do while menstruating. We should not make this movement that belongs to the Salah, while we may stand and do other movements found in the Salah. A friend of mine recently shed light on this: after she had her baby, her yoga instructor told her not to do a yoga position that is very similar to the prostration of the Salah, explaining that this position was harmful to the uterus when the uterus was in a state of bleeding – whether from postnatal bleeding or period. What a gift it was to me to learn this – God always guides us for our own best interest and care.
We know that when we are reciting a Verse of Quran and we are not able to do the prostration that is called for in a Verse of prostration – for example we are driving and not able to make the movement, the replacement for it is to recite
subhanAllah, alhamdulilah, la ilaha il Allah, Allahu Akbar
Now listen to this:
Our Lady Aisha, God be pleased with her, asked the Noble Sage Muhammad, peace be upon him, how to stay fully connected during this time and he, peace be upon him, told her to recite
subhanAllah, alhamdulilah, la ilaha il Allah, Allahu Akbar at each Salah time.
This recitation can be seen as a replacement for the prostration…. How marvelous this Guidance is!
As you know, one of the ways we lose out on blessings is when we get used to them, and stop thanking for them. We are so blessed as women that for a temporary time, we are given these days of not engaging in the Salah – not because we have walked away from it, but because God has asked us to not engage in it. If this brings feelings of missing the Salah and longing for it, and being joyful when we are able to engage in it again after our period, then what a blessing…what a great great gift – when separation makes the heart grow fonder.
We must never allow ourselves to feel negativity, as if we are somehow deprived of a connection to God during this time, or ‘impure.’ The notion of impurity at this time, in particular, is completely contrary to the teaching of the Prophet peace be upon him who countered it thorugh the way he brought his wives even closer to him during their periods, and while he was in a state of worship: he recited Quran resting his noble head upon the lap of his wife Maymuna during this time. Ideas that associate menstruation with some kind of metaphysical diminishment of the purity and goodness of a woman come from other religious traditions, and we should be careful of their negative impact upon us and our relationship to our selves, and the Creator Who made us as we are: perfectly put together.
I used to say, when I had my period, ‘ma alayyi as-salah‘ (the Salah is not a duty upon me at this time) – a technical expression that speaks in terms of jurisprudence. Shaykh Hamdi taught me a new way of describing myself at that time: ‘ana fi-salah‘ (I am in a state of Salah), because the Beloved Guide, peace be upon him, said: whoever prays a Salah prayer and then waits with longing for the next one to come, in order to pray it, is in Salah the whole time. May your period be this beautiful waiting, with love and longing, so that you are always in Salah.