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'Seeing for Ourselves': A call for inner reflection while tackling injustice

In her honest reflections, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan invites readers on a spiritual journey of self-accounting, helping us to think about how we see ourselves and want to be seen
The author Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (Hajar Press)
The author Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (Hajar Press)

I read Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s latest work, Seeing for Ourselves: And Even Stranger Possibilities, on a flight one week after Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza initiated Al-Aqsa Flood Operation last October.

Since then, we have seen Israel murder more than 30,000 civilians in Gaza, shut off the water and food supplies and carry out - what has been argued in the International Court of Justice - a genocide. In light of Israel's ongoing genocidal attack on Gaza, this book could not have come at a more opportune time.

Over the last year, I had been thinking a great deal about my own work and some of the gaps in my writing, where perhaps I had missed something that was needed.

I had also re-read my 2018 book, A Virtue of Disobedience, (for which Suhaiymah penned a wonderful poem) to think through the contours of how my own work was deficient. As a book on activism, it focused a great deal on taking meaning from the ethics of the Quran and the Prophetic tradition on how we engage with injustice in the world. Yet I had somehow lost sight of what that meant when we turn that same gaze onto ourselves.

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Suhaiymah corrects this deficiency by highlighting directly what had been missed: “In focusing on the gazes upon me, I had neglected to seriously consider the gaze that at other times I professed was the most prominent and crucial in my life: the gaze of God.”

In Seeing for Ourselves, Suhaiymah has written a book that gently encourages muhasiba, a self-accounting of sorts, by helping us to think about how we see and think of ourselves in the sight of Allah.

And what better time is there to engage in such inner reflection than during the holy month of Ramadan, a time of deeper spiritual contemplation and discipline that centres our relationship with God above all else?

Suhaiymah's book is, ultimately, a study on tawhid, a central tenet of Islam, and what it means to truly situate the Oneness of God in our daily lives by being aware of His ever-presence.

To see and be seen

But how does this work in a world of neoliberal-based-metric-making where the worth of anything is determined by tangible and measurable markers? To write yourself in the world or to speak a truth requires some degree of acknowledgement of that outward expression, one that validates its acceptance as "valuable".

Suhaiymah knows that it is a trap of secular modernity that “the value of a book is in its reception”, and so is determined to make apparent that the intention with which she writes is for the All-Seeing alone - the approval of others be damned. This position is not just reflected in the final product but is a recurring theme in the book. She states that the process of writing in an imagination can exist unencumbered by expectation: “Let me write honestly. Let me write remembering that it will never mean as much to anybody else as it will to me. Let me write without legacy. Let me write hoping not to be held accountable.”

This course of self-correcting is applied in seemingly disparate spaces of Suhaiymah's own production. Yes, writing prose, poetry, speaking publicly, entering into debates, etc, all require reconfiguring, but what of relationships?

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Even here, we follow her words in a process of humbling, where her relationship with her Nani is recalibrated due to being “embarrassed by the arrogance of my assumption that I am doing her a favour in seeing her. She never needed me to.” Rather, Suhaiymah allows us to see why developing and documenting her relationship with her grandmother felt so important; it was based on “a desire to see myself in context”.

The way Muslims are seen is completely outside of their own agency and their motivations are rarely considered

There are layers to seeing that exist within the pages of the book that straddle the entire range of the Arabic verb sha-ha-da, to witness. It is to witness yourself, to witness others, and to be witnessed - except such sight can carry tints of bias. In a chapter titled "Nothing can put you off doing a PhD like attending academic conferences", Suhaiymah describes a circular room of academics studying Islam and Muslims. They appear to be looking, she observes, not with us or at themselves “but at us”. There is an objectification that accompanies this form of sight, in which you can only ever truly exist according to the preconceived tints that colour their sight.

Suhaiymah describes how her attendance at this gathering was encouraged as if having a proverbial seat at the table would eventually lead to some land of milk and honey, but she refuses to allow notions of "civility" to restrict her critique of such spaces:

“Some of us don’t set our sights on piecemeal reforms. Some of us can’t legitimise a room in which there are people who want to strip us of our citizenship or detain us without charge. I am not willing to sit at a table where my humanity is in question. And besides, the table exists not because the case against it has not been made, but because it has beneficiaries. The table is a box of the worst kind: the table is a cage.”

Living in the West, we can see with our own eyes the systems and structures that cage us through the very notion of the table - a table that invites you to sit but feeds you from the flesh of your own brothers and sisters around the world. So when Suhaiymah finds herself inside the building of one of the largest media corporations in the world, her knowledge of what this institution means allows for a fleeting thought.

"What if?" she wonders. What if she were to pull the fire alarm, empty the building completely, and then detonate it to the ground, providing that no one would be harmed? She reflects: “The symbolic and actual destruction of a narrative arm of western imperialism would be powerful.”

But then her thoughts quickly turn to how rapidly her act would be rewritten by another arm of the same violent media structures that exist elsewhere. The way Muslims are seen is completely outside of their own agency and their motivations are rarely considered. “I think about what types of ostracism and alienation lead people to participate in armed struggle to begin with. I think about how difficult armed struggle must be when unarmed struggle is made so wearisome,” she observes.

These questions particularly resonate today as Palestinian resistance has captured the world's attention and opened the eyes of millions of international observers to the true nature of the settler-colonial-Zionist-apartheid project that is Israel. That context cannot be seen because the sight of those who are in positions of power has been skewed to never seeing us as human. These frustrations spill one after another in Suhaiymah’s prose:

“I want my sorrow to be a headline. I want our deaths to be devastating. I want the world to stop. I don’t want positive representation, I want tyrants on their knees, I want yawm al-qiyamah [the Day of Judgement]. I want more than IPSO [Independent Press Standards Organisation] apologies. I want the Channel to dry up. I want our siblings to stride through the seas and claim what’s theirs. I want them to take it all back. I want homes unburied by rubble. I want the shrapnel reconstituted into a body of metal never to touch a baby’s skin. I want torsos with no memory of being pushed against car bonnets. I want the journalists jobless. I want economic losses.”

Seeing ourselves

In Seeing for Ourselves, Suhaiymah's honest reflections always circle back to God. Since none other can ever truly know her, she resolves: "All I have to do is that which brings me closer to my Maker, who sees the full context of me." But what happens when God sees the full extent of us? Suhaiymah thinks back on her participation in a 2019 boycott of a literary festival and asks whether her “ego was not stoked by the approval of our boycott in the gazes that I place my own pedestal?”

This question hit me heavily and transported me back to a moment when I felt I had let Suhaiymah down myself. In 2020, I Refuse to Condemn, an anthology I edited, received a great deal of hate from the right-wing media prior to its publication. That period felt like war. We were fighting for the book's publication against the forces of suppression yet still hoped for its "success". 

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In the week that it was released, one of the book's contributors, Tarek Younis, was attacked online by a white academic who demanded he condemn an act of violence in France - ironic given the subject of our book.

Soon after, Suhaiymah was contacted by the media. She was made a target because of her association with me and the other co-writers. At that moment, success looked like going to war with everyone publicly, and so I gave her some poor advice that, fortunately, she did not listen to: to enter the fray on my terms. It was to charge in with the kind of reckless abandon that was my go-to position at the time.

I didn’t see Suhaiymah, my friend - someone who trusted me. I only saw that whipping up further controversy would lead to more book sales, which would ultimately hurt the very people who were trying to hurt us - through their narrative of success. What I thought was success, however, was only ego and a burning desire to "win". But did I win before Allah? I doubt it.

And so, we return to the central theme of the book. How do we see, how are we seen, and who do we see for? Suhaiymah’s short yet stunning book reminds us that seeing outside of Allah’s sight is a path that is fraught with danger to ourselves. Our lives cannot be truly meaningful until we can see the state of our own hearts.

I’m reminded of a story the Prophet Muhammad narrated about a man who dies on the battlefield as a martyr and is later brought before Allah on the Day of Judgement. The man is asked for what reason he died, to which he replies that it was for His sake. Allah then informs the man that he lied and had in fact died in hopes that others would speak of his bravery after death. The man is then flung into the hellfire, a miserable end to a violent death.

Suhaiymah claims a few times in the book that she is not an Islamic scholar. That might well be true, but this is a work that will save many of us who have at times lost our way in tackling the problems of our societies. The process of being and witnessing is a constant one, and so having such reminders becomes a necessary form of course correction.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Dr Asim Qureshi is the research director at CAGE, a UK-based advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror. He has a background in International Law and is author of the book "Rules of the Game" and "A Virtue of Disobedience".
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