This past Ramadan I attended a weekend-long Muslim social bonanza in New York City. I was away from my family for the summer, so it was wonderful to find a spirit of community in such a big city. But by the time the weekend was over, I felt like I had a major hangover. Being around Muslims for such a concentrated time can be both contagiously exciting and claustrophobic all at once— it was like another ISNA convention (and yes, that is the real reason why Tariq Ramadan boycotted #ClubISNA). I was not alone on this sentiment. Running on fumes from a sleepless night and an undigested suhoor/sehri pancake baby growing in our bellies, my friend— the one driving us all home— shut off the old Kanye West Graduation album blasting from her stereo, looked out at the road, and asked, “Why is it that all Muslims know how to do is b*tch about marriage and relationships… ALL THE TIME?”
But really though— why?
As Muslims we are conditioned to understand the fulfillment of marriage as encompassing of half of our faith. And if the analogy of the car works here, with regard to issues of love and companionship, it often feels like both as individuals in the car and as a collective community— the vehicle itself (much like this sentence)— we don’t really know where we’re going. Or, rather, we might have an idea of the promised destination, but no clue as to how or when we’ll get there.
We end up taking various detours and U-turns; we sometimes run into potholes and dead- ends; some of us take the highway/freeway/fast-lane for the conventional A-Z engagement and marriage, while others drive slow or prefer local roads, taking the time to figure it all out. You might spend too much time driving down one road and then realize, “Sh*t I should have taken the left turn on that fork instead of right, screw you Apple Maps!” Others are on Tinder while driving, swiping left like they are God’s gift to womankind. Yeah. You. You piece of sh*t. You should watch where you’re driving. Someone could get hurt.
There’s a ton of uncertainty when it comes to these matters— and they are paramount, because these are the matters of the heart— and as a community we’re like a newborn giraffe, wobbling our way through uncharted territory.
And so we sail into these turbulent waters and learn to navigate on our own, trying everything from Muslim matchmaking sites to speed-dating events. We might don a keffiyyeh and do our best Syrian/Palestinian/anti-war activist impression to get all the girls; or we could try dating within ‘halal’ boundaries. It’s funny, since we’re the community that talks up a big game about how Muslims invented the tools (the astrolabe, algebra, and so on) that Christopher Columbus used to chart his accidental path to the New World. Yet when it comes to helping young people fulfill half of their faith, we’re like, “Inshallah, just don’t have sex in college, and inshallah if he’s a good Muslim doctor inshallah. Now, go order me another f*cking mimosa.”
What happens when the water gets choppy, or the waves pull us under? We know we’re often dealing with the unpredictable, and, as a community of faith, we’re taught to trust in God. But this conviction is only half of the deal. The other side is human prerogative— the worship that it is to be living mindfully. Knowing the reality, it’s important to make sure that we can weather what comes, internally. What we should realize is that we each have different levels of mental fortitude, varying capacities to dealing with stress, and different stages of emotional awareness and maturity.
That same weekend in New York, a close friend of mine found herself hitting a figurative pothole in the road— and it shook her up. As I listened to her, standing on the sidewalk at 3 AM, watching taxis float by like incessant thoughts and memories, I looked down at my stomach impregnated by God-knows-how-many pancakes I had wolfed down for suhoor. I thought to myself, “Damn it, I’ve got to drag my ass to the gym tomorrow.” And that’s when it hit me. I realized then and there, that I wasn’t doing enough planks. Not planks as in the abdominal workout, mind you. Rather, the emotional planks that strengthen my core as a human being.
The core is what keeps everything together. In the gym, it’s what prevents you from getting a back injury while lifting weights. And, regardless of how strongly one is naturally built or the thickness of one’s bones, a weak core is a one-way ticket to a painful injury. Similarly, no matter how much one has been through— how thick one’s skin is, or how naturally composed one can be— a misstep just deep enough, a breakup just hard enough, words just barbed enough, or sexual, emotional, and spiritual isolation just long enough can ravage the soul. This is why, as emotional beings, we need to kick our own ass sometimes.
What is an example of an emotional plank? It can be a daily routine, discipline, and so on— going to the gym, a lengthy run, cooking, eating healthy, increasing your productivity or keeping up with and savoring the daily prayers. It can be recreational, a hobby, an outlet— art, music, literature, long drives at night, meditation, journaling, blogging, going to a halaqa, or socializing. It can be unique, bespoke, quirky: what matters is that it’s you focusing on your self. The emotional plank can be difficult and unappealing sometimes— it can be you sitting down, charting priorities, excavating deep thoughts or painful feelings, crying, maintaining a daily planner, getting rid of the junk food in your house, having a friend call you in the morning to remind you of the gym or to pray Fajr, physically moving locations or changing jobs, cutting off toxic relationships and friendships, or spending less time on social media. The emotional plank is, above all, you taking ownership and accountability. It’s about respecting and being true to one’s self. It also means spending less time trying to find the right person, changing for anyone, or getting all whipped up when every new girl or guy comes along and thinking they’re “The One.”
The idea of the plank is that you have to hold it, as long as you possibly can. It’s not easy. But the result is a stronger core. When the going gets tough, or you feel like the person you’re in a relationship with is being immature or has too many “red flags”, or if you’re not finding potential partners— no problem. You have no reservations with being single, taking the emotional blow, or, quite the opposite, telling someone you have a crush on how you truly feel, because everything you do with a strong core comes from an empowered, rather than desperate, standpoint. The emotional plank is an extension of why God prescribes fasting upon His believers— it builds character and mental fortitude. It’s the thing that stops you from texting your ex because you miss them or because you’re bored. I’m looking at you, Drake. It’s the ability to control a situation—making the conscientious call to let certain people into your life and to what degree— and not have it control you.
Once upon a time, I thought I had found my soulmate. When that episode ended, the result was an emotional implosion— I had built my sense of groundedness, confidence, and purpose around another, and when this girl wasn’t in the picture, the foundation crumbled. I learned to rebuild myself in the image and substance that I desired, but that was after learning the hard lesson that— before I would ever be able to love someone, be in a relationship, to give of myself— I had to love myself, commit to my success and well-being, and build from within.
And I’m constantly working on that six-pack, one plank at a time.
Adham Sahloul is a 2 Chainz aficionado and gastronomy bon vivant, in that he takes basic Instagram pictures of his food. He also studies international relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Deciding that physical living is “too mainstream”, he exists in suspended animation on Twitter, at @AdhamSahloul
This post is a feature of the altM/Ishqr partnership.