An Enigmatic Smile

One of the companions of Prophet Muhammad said, “I haven’t seen anyone smile more often than the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him.”  With that, one would assume he was particularly cheerful, since smiling usually is an expression of happiness, pleasure, joy or amusement.  We take that for granted.  But, knowing about Prophet Muhammad’s life, I find his smile a bit mysterious.

Muhammad never knew his father, since he died before he was born.  His mother died when he was six – old enough to remember his loss for the rest of his life.  Handed over to his paternal grandfather, he grieved his passing just two years later.  He then settled with a poor uncle, working as a shepherd to earn his keep.  Later, he built a family with Khadija and had six children.  The two boys died as toddlers.  His wife of 25 years died and then, one by one, three of his daughters died, leaving him with only the youngest, Fatima.  How, after so much loss, can one continue to smile?  And not just to smile, but to smile more than anyone else?

Muhammad, peace be upon him, was known as the Messenger of God.  His duty was to convey the divine revelation to his people in Mecca and, by extension, to all mankind.  He was also charged with explaining and practically demonstrating the teachings of the Quran to his followers, which might not be overly difficult in ordinary circumstances.  However, doing that in the midst of ridicule, slander, assault and attempts on his life added weight to his burden.  Eventually, he fled his hometown a refugee, finding asylum in Medina.  The experience would make even the most resilient of people downcast and bitter.  And yet he smiled more than any of his people.

After finding refuge in Medina, Muhammad, peace be upon him, was able to build a community on the teachings of the Quran.  It is here where he should have finally enjoyed the fruits of his labor in a society of peaceful followers.  But he experienced betrayal and intrigue from the hypocrites in Medina and outright attack from the bullies of Mecca.  In one conflict after another, he defended his people from brutality, robbery and annihilation, joining the heat of battle without exception.  He was always on guard, always negotiating peace, always working for stability so that he could fulfill his mission. Most men would have been plagued with worry, anxiety and fear.  Yet he smiled.

His ability to hold his head high despite growing up as a poor orphan, to be happy even though he lost nearly his entire family, to carry on despite fierce opposition and brutal confrontation, and to smile throughout – to the extent that his followers said he smiled more than anybody else – confounds me.  Where did he get his strength?

It must have been from prayer.

In spite of his heavy responsibilities, Muhammad, peace be upon him, always found time to pray.  He welcomed, even waited for, the five times a day he would gather his people and lead them in prayer.  He told the muezzin, “O Bilal, call for prayer – give us comfort by it.”  When the people went home to sleep, he went home to pray, sometimes standing the whole night in devotion and supplication.  He often cried in his prayers to the extent that he would wet his beard and even the mat he prostrated on.

His heart must have been broken with loneliness, trampled with brutality, stretched to bursting with fear.  With that swollen, aching heart, he stood for prayer in front of his Lord, where he found a soothing presence.  In that embrace, he unloaded the weight of the world from his back and cleared the sadness of tragedy from his heart until he met calm emptiness, stillness, quiet exhaustion. Then, from the Grace of God, the vacuum filled with Light!  His heart swelled anew with courage and strength, peace and optimism – even joy.  He overflowed with divine Love, which made him to his companions “more beautiful than the full moon.”  With the effects of prayer obvious in his countenance, he was able to meet everyone with an encouraging word, a charitable gesture and a warm, genuine smile.

I can see him in my mind’s eye — radiant, beautiful, smiling.  May the peace and blessings of God be upon him.

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Singled Out from the Crowd

The teacher walked into the classroom with a big smile as I and my 20-odd classmates waited to hear our final marks.  We had spent the term memorizing 20 pages of the Quran.  Every Wednesday, the teacher called students one by one at random, recited a verse from within a 2-page section, and evaluated our ability to continue reciting by heart from that point, with perfect pronunciation of the letters and their accompanying qualities such as elision, nasalization, and vowel elongation.  Being a foreigner among native Arab students, I avoided the teacher’s attention by sitting on the periphery of the classroom, out of her line of vision, hoping she would call on me last.  It worked, because as she walked in, she looked to the center of the room.

“Because of your hard work and good hearts, I’ve decided to give each of you a full mark!” she exclaimed.  The students were delighted, and blessed her for her generosity, but I sat annoyed in my corner seat.  That’s not fair, I thought.  I knew I wasn’t the best student in class, nor was I the worst.  I wasn’t happy with the extra points and would rather have gotten the 80% I deserved.  I felt the better students were cheated, and the poorer students were deceived.  I felt invisible and, although I had sought it throughout the term, suddenly I was resentful.  Why did it bother me when I clearly stood to benefit from the teacher’s blanket decision?

The dissimilarity between two verses in the Quran provided a clue.  The first is “And those who were conscious of their Lord will be urged on in crowds towards Paradise until, when they reach it, they shall find its gates wide open, and its keepers will say to them, ‘Peace be upon you! You have done well!  So enter to stay forever!’” (39:73)  I hope to be of those led into Paradise amongst a crowd, where there will be an air of excitement and joyful anticipation, of mutual congratulations and camaraderie. But perhaps, despite the relief and thrill of the moment, I would feel just one of the masses: overlooked, insignificant and invisible in the crowd.

The second verse sets a different scene: “and every one of them will appear before Him (God) on Resurrection Day alone” (19:95).  The prospect of being alone with God, presumably to review my earthly record of thoughts, words and deeds, was my Quran-memorizing-test anxiety multiplied by a million. The immediate reaction is dread, self-doubt, and the desire to be invisible, to get lost in the crowd, to be waved on toward my destiny without being singled out.

Which is better, I wondered:  to be in the periphery and benefit from God’s overarching forgiveness and generosity to the crowd?  Or to sit in the examination seat in His focused attention and scrutiny as I stutter my way through?  Why does it matter as long as I achieve a passing grade?

It matters to me.  It matters that I am seen, faults and all.  It matters that God would take the time to look me in the eye, address me by name, listen to my voice, acknowledge my struggle, soothe my nerves, and allow me all the time I need to answer the questions on the test.  It matters that I am singled out from the crowd, chosen for a brief encounter with God, whose presence I have sought for so long.  Even if my mistakes are called out, it doesn’t matter, because it means He was paying attention.  It means I wasn’t invisible. It means I mattered, even just a little, to Him.

I pray that the day I meet God will be my best day ever, and that my meeting alone with Him, after a lifetime of focus and practice, will get me the passing mark.  And I would not foolishly object if He, in His overarching generosity, said, “Full mark!” despite my mistakes.  Afterwards, it would be nice to join my colleagues from Life on Earth for a graduation party, and to walk in crowds toward the open doors of Paradise.  It’s where I’ll know how special it is to be singled out from the crowd.

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The Transformative Power of Ramadan

The Transformative Power of Ramadan

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Al-Fatiha

When we meet someone new, we usually introduce ourselves with our name and a relevant role.  “Hello, my name is Teresa.  I’m Salem’s mother.”

Likewise, when God sent His message, the Quran, He began with an appropriate introduction:  His name, His title and His role.  “In the name of Allah, the Continually Merciful, the Especially Merciful.  All praise is for Allah, Lord of the Universe, the Continually Merciful, the Especially Merciful.…”

People use many words to refer to Lord of the Universe such as God, the Great Spirit, the Divine, the Deity, the Higher Power, Nature, and so on; the list is endless if we consider the nomenclature for God in different languages.  It may not be incorrect to use these words, but they are descriptions of Him – titles we humans have conceived to identify him.  However, the Lord of the Universe introduced Himself with His name, getting quite personal with the reader.  My name is Allah.  And in case the reader is apprehensive about being addressed by the Lord of the Universe, He immediately adds “the Continually Merciful, the Especially Merciful.”   Now the reader is at ease.  Any images of an angry, vengeful or chastising Lord are overshadowed by His use of the word merciful four times in the first ten words of His message.

After introducing himself by His name and describing His prominent quality of ongoing and exceptional mercy, God shares with us His title:  Lord of the Worlds.  While the word lord in contemporary English denotes a superior ruler, leader or officer, its meaning in the Quranic context must be examined in light of the Arabic word used, Rabb, which is commonly translated as Lord.  The word Rabb in the Semitic languages can mean nourisher, one who provides the means of sustenance, one who raises or teaches another, one who serves as master over another and, of course, God.  In the Quranic context, the meaning combines these concepts to denote one who sustains and leads something through developmental stages so that it can attain its full stature or perfection.   The title Allah uses for Himself is “Lord of the Worlds,” or of all beings, is followed again by the double qualifier — the Continually Merciful, the Especially Merciful.  Not only is Allah He who nourishes, guides and develops us, He does so with continual and exceptional mercy.

The verses continue:  “King (or Owner) of Judgment Day.”  Just when we’re getting comfortable with the idea of a merciful Lord, Allah shares another of His titles with the reader.  Suddenly the reader is jolted from a complacent existence under the provision and guidance of a continually and especially merciful Lord to a Day of Judgment, over which Allah, the King, will preside.  The phrase implies not only an afterlife but also a trial.   The reader becomes anxious.  Judgment?  How will we be judged?  What is the criteria of success?  What will happen next?  The reader is dazed, or at least should be.  At this point, there is a pause, and Allah invites the reader to respond.  What should he say?

What does one say upon meeting the Lord of the Worlds and the King of Judgment Day?  Common rules of etiquette between people do not necessarily apply.  One would naturally be at a loss for words.  So Allah provides the appropriate response:  “It is You we worship and it is You we ask for help.  Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked your anger or of those who are astray.

With this suggested response from the reader, Allah indirectly makes few points.  First, the reader should acknowledge Allah as the Lord, both in the sense of the only deity to be worshiped and of a benefactor whose assistance should be sought.  Second, the appropriate request should be offered in the collective sense, not a personal one, which would smack of selfishness; we are responding to the Lord as a community.  Third, it is on Judgment Day that the community will be divided into those who have been favored by Allah, those who have evoked His anger, and those who have been lost.  Fourth, there is hope:  there is a straight path that leads the envious position of being favored by Allah on Judgment Day.  The suggested response is a request for guidance that, in turn, anticipates a reply.

It is given in the following verses.  This is the Book [of Allah]; there is no doubt about it. It is guidance for Godfearing (or God-conscious) people…” (2:2).  Ever generous, the Lord sent 600 full pages of guidance, His message to the human community, which is known as the Quran.  It thoroughly introduces the Creator to its reader and shows us how He manifests His love for us.

In response to that Divine Love, it befits us to behave in certain ways, and the Quran outlines how to express our love to Allah in return.  Impossible to achieve by thought and emotion alone, showing love for Allah must be expressed more concretely in a particular context.  The context, as we know, is life on earth, in communities, in daily interactions with others.  As individuals and as a community, we express our love for God by acts of devotion to Him and by showing mercy to one another.

The Quran shows the path to love.

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Taking Control

It is not unusual to sometimes feel overwhelmed by the many responsibilities of modern life – family needs, work schedules, social commitments, and the pressure to develop professionally or face obsolescence.   It’s also not uncommon to lack focus because of the many forces that take our attention in different directions, such as the constant notifications of our social media accounts, the allure of online entertainment, the boredom that drives us to local attractions, and our own physical needs for food, enjoyment and rest.  All of these pressures and distractions weigh us down, making it difficult to  sift out our goals, focus on achieving them, and build the life we dream of.

Fasting the month of Ramadan, in addition to being an act of worship and a gesture of gratitude for divine guidance, is a way to regain control of our lives.  There are three levels of fasting.  The basic level of fasting is to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and intimacy during daylight hours.  To do this for an entire month proves to us that no physical pleasure can control us; in fact, we take control of the food, the sugar, the nicotine, the caffeine, the sex.  We prove to ourselves that we can control our impulses and regulate the physical demands of human life.  This is not a small thing.  And there’s more.

The second level of fasting is to abstain from saying what shouldn’t be said and seeing what shouldn’t be seen.  We refrain from expressing anger, sharing gossip, telling little lies, and watching violence, gore and sexual content on our screens.  We realize that having control over our stomachs is insignificant if we can’t take control of our tongues, ears and eyes.  Exercising that kind of discipline for a month shields us from the problems we often bring upon ourselves when we say or do something spontaneously in reaction to others without pausing to consider the effects, or when we regularly experience what taints our best selves.  The second level of fasting empowers us to regulate the social and recreational aspects of our lives.  That is not a small thing!  But there’s more.

The third level of fasting is to resist what is useless, negative and mundane and replace it with what is constructive, positive and beneficial.  It’s like cleaning your closet – getting rid of the clothes that are outdated, ill-fitting, worn out, or useless.  Likewise, we purge our minds from old mindsets that hold us back, from ugly attitudes that accentuate our flaws, from excuses that keep us from being our best selves and from worthless clutter that crowds our minds.  This naturally extends to activities, as we reevaluate how we spend our time and whether it contributes to our ultimate success and happiness.

If we apply the three levels of fasting and really focus on the physical, social and mental benefits, we will finish the month possessing the tools we need to stay in control of our lives.  We will be able to control our bodies and minds, and we can focus our energy on achieving what really matters. We emerge from this annual training with enhanced feelings of autonomy and self-determination, greater belief in our potential for goodness and meaning, and powerful tools to help us meet our goals for the coming year.  And when we falter and forfeit some of that control, Ramadan will revisit soon enough to reinforce its valuable lessons.

But before we credit ourselves with too much strength, autonomy, and potential, let’s take a moment to look at the source of this beautiful month.  Our Creator, who knows inside out, has ordained this fast as a way to express our gratitude and become more conscious of Him.  Practicing  the three levels of fasting give us the clarity, strength and incentive to stay focused on the terminal point of this journey called life, which is standing before our Creator with our record in hand.  It is here – when our deeds, words and thoughts are on display – that we will be thankful for Ramadan, when we learned to take control.

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Islam in a Nutshell

The essence of Islam can be found in a single statement, the “kalimah,” which embodies both its doctrine and practice.  We hear this statement five times a day from the minarets:  “There is no god except Allah and Muhammad is His messenger.”  Any true religion should offer sound doctrine and clear practice, and this simple statement sums it up.

The doctrine is that our Creator – the Lord of the universe – is the only one deserving of our worship; all matters of faith revolve around that.  To understand the significance of this statement, consider Islamic art – the geometric, symmetric, and possibly infinite continuation of lines, curves and patterns – which always begins with a single point on a page or canvas.  It is from this point that a line or circle is first drawn, and from which a beautiful work of art takes shape.  Without that point of reference, without the consideration that each line and curve originated from that point, and without respect for the relation that every intersecting point has with the original one, the whole pattern will be imperfect, unbalanced and eventually unrecognizable.

Islam, as the inspiration for this beautiful art form, is identical in that it, too, has as its epicenter a single point from which every thought, intention, action and hope begins.  That point of reference is God. When someone makes God the single reference point in his life, from which all expression originates, his life can be one of both precision and beauty, of discipline and creativity.   In Islamic art, the original point is simply a dot on a page.  In Islam, a single, unique God is the focal point, around which all of life revolves.

The second part of the statement instructs us of the practice of Islam: that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is God’s messenger, a man whose role was to convey the message and implement it in all spheres of human conduct.  Thus, he is a role model for humankind.  He is the teacher with textbook in hand, and his role was to apply the teachings of the Book, answering the questions of his students along the way.

Not only did Muhammad (peace be upon him) relate God’s Word to the world, he answered, with his sayings and conduct, one of the most important questions ever asked:  “How are we supposed to live?”  He provided guidance in all matters of life, whether in the home, on the job, in the marketplace, or on the battlefield.  He interacted with men and women, young and old, friends and foes.  He taught us how to manage personal relationships and international treaties.  He taught us to be fully human, yet quintessentially spiritual.

The simple statement, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger” is a profound concept that sums up the thought and practice of a true Muslim.  It is the vision, mission, objective and benchmark of life, all in one.

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Basic Concepts of the Quran

Summarized excerpts from the book by Mawlana Abul Kalam Azad (edited by Syed Abdul-Latif), first published in 1958; published by the Islamic Book Trust in 2003.  ISBN 983-9154-49-4.  118 pages.

The Quran is simple and direct, imparting a message that need not be considered obscure or mysterious.  Although its meanings are layered and deep, it is the clear and direct messages to which we should pay the most attention.  What follows is an introduction to the Quran in general and to surat al-Fatiha in particular.

There are four qualities attributed to God in surat al-Fatiha:  1) that He is the Rabb, or the one who cares for, nourishes, provides for and “raises” us much like a loving parent; 2) that He is merciful and this care reaches all beings, and is always in the spirit of mercy, despite our perceptions of our experiences; 3) that, as an aspect of mercy, He dispenses justice, if not on earth than eventually on Judgment Day; 4) He offers guidance (huda) in various ways (including instinct, senses, reason and revelation) so that we can grow spiritually, enjoy His favor and avoid His anger.

Belief in the existence of God is ingrained in human nature, and man’s concept of God naturally assumes Oneness or Unity as well as Omniscience and Omnipotence.  From the time of Adam, who understood this primordial truth, man retrogressed, perhaps due to his inability to comprehend the Absolute transcendental (non-physical) nature of God.  Relating the qualities of humans or other creatures to God (personifying God) and image worship ensued.  However, the highest that the human intellect can achieve is to think of God abstractly, without any symbolic aid – the transcendental view; it is this view that the Quran endorses and emphasizes:  “There is nothing like Him.” (41:11 and 112:4)  While the Quran mentions many attributes of God (as adjectives), these do not lead to physical incarnations or symbolic representation.

The Quran mentions many prophets of God who came to restore the primordial faith in the One and Only God.  Most followers failed to draw the line between the teacher and the teaching, eventually becoming excessively devoted to God’s messengers (rather than to God who sent them) and even attributing divinity to them.  However, the testimony of faith in Islam continuously reminds us that “there is no God except Allah (the God) and Muhammad is his servant and messenger.”  By repeating this statement, we can never hail Muhammad as God or His incarnation, and by extension, all prophets of God.  This statement simplifies religion to the utmost, making true faith accessible to all, and putting an end to arguments about the divinity of creatures and, especially, of God’s messengers.

Just as the primordial concept of the Creator – a single God – was the natural understanding of early man, so was the concept of a single human community.  It is inconceivable that Adam and Eve, or the earliest communities, considered themselves as anything but a single community. Only after they focused on their differences that the concept of “otherness” was born.  The Quran says, “People were one community… (2:213) Because of the multitude of prophets who came to mankind over the centuries, there are bound to be differences in the minutia of daily life. These differences, however, should not divide mankind.  The human population should remain a single community.

The Quran is uncompromising regarding the unitary and transcendental concept of God.  It also endorses a single community and is opposed to “otherness” or groupism.  Furthermore, the Quran guides the reader in the proper treatment of others.  The foremost command in this regard is not to become divided:  “He has prescribed for you the religion which He enjoined upon Noah and which We revealed to you (O Muhammad), and which We enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus, commanding, “Establish this religion and do not be divided regarding it.” (42:11).   Every sort of groupism, such as sexism or racism, is against this command.  Any paradigm other than what supports a unified, egalitarian human community is groupism of some sort and not the universal way of God.

Some people accept the message of unity of God and unity of man, and the Quran offers them guidance for the most upright life.  Others reject it and to them it is said, “There is no compulsion in religion.”  The Quran encourages tolerance towards people who believe differently: “to your religion and to me mine” (109).  Those who believe in God and live righteously should never look down on others who are yet to be guided.  Just as God provides for and guides all His creatures to their purpose and potential, He will according to His wisdom, offer guidance to people according to their aptitudes and readiness.  Guidance is an ongoing process for each of us.

But there is a third group that deliberately and violently oppose and persecute those who believe.  It would be a disservice to humanity to leave the third group’s hostility unchallenged, because it would uphold wickedness or cruelty.  So in order for mercy to prevail, there must be the presence of justice. It is the duty of all people to oppose those who sow discord among people; however, within the right to justice is the recommendation for forbearance, forgiveness and magnanimity.  But those who insist on oppression and the corruption of God’s way will eventually meet justice.

One aspect of justice is the law of causation, which results in man’s punishment or reward in this life and the next.  Every thought, feeling and action produces a result appropriate to it, and that is its recompense – reward or punishment.   The law of causation often results in unpleasant happenings that man may mistakenly assign to divine displeasure.  The afflicted may sooner or later realize that they were, in fact, an aspect of Divine mercy; that which exposes blockages on the path of perfection, alerts him when he goes out of bounds, makes him aware of his poor decisions, and helps him restore the necessary balance so he can get back on the straight path.  But for he who resists guidance in these cases, the force may increase (which is further evidence of God’s mercy) or he may be left off the path entirely.  The latter should not assume that he will escape justice, which will be complete in the next life.  “He who does right – it is for himself, and he who does evil – it is for himself.  And your Lord will not deal unfairly with his servants.” (41:46)

The Quran asserts that salvation is the result of devotion to God and righteous living.  Just as the laws of nature regulate and sustain the universe, there is a spiritual law to govern the life of man, and this law is one and the same for everyone.  This “straight way” (the Deen) is belief in the Unity of God and righteous living.  The Quran says, “…They who set their face toward God and do what is right – their reward is with their Lord…” (2:105-106).  “Whosever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right shall have their reward with their Lord…” (2:59).   “By time, man is in loss except those who believe (in one God) and do good works, and enjoin truth and enjoin patience” (103).  Therefore the two key conditions of salvation are devotion to the one true God and righteous living.

The straight way, which is the object of guidance asked for in Surat al-Fatiha, is the way of conformity or surrender to the laws of life fixed by God.  There has been no variation in that way throughout time, despite variances according to era, climate, culture, etc. The primary aim of this spiritual law of life or the way of God, the Deen, is to preserve the unity of mankind and not to serve as a force for disunity.   Rather it should inspire the feeling of fellowship between one and another and facilitate community life bound by the common tie of devotion to God.  This is the central principle for the unification of the human race.

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Therapeutic Effects of Ramadan

Modern life, which is characterized by computerization, communication, and globalization, has made work easier and given us more leisure options, but has also contributed to mental and social problems.  “Modern man” is often characterized by lack of purpose, distraction, low stamina, isolation, loss of community involvement, decreased empathy, and general depression.  Given the busy schedules that we often feel we have little control over, it’s hard to make major lifestyle changes.  But our Creator has prescribed a treatment for whatever social, emotional or personal challenge we face in life – it is called Ramadan.

Feeling a lack of purpose in your life?  Fast the month of Ramadan.  Nobody would undertake such a long and difficult commitment without a reason, whether or religious conviction, health benefits, personal challenge, or solidarity with Muslims.  The Quran says, “Fasting has been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you so that you may learn God-consciousness” (2:183).  If you sincerely fast, observing the restrictions on food, drink and marital intimacy in daylight hours, you will develop a strong sense purpose – which for most is to obey and worship Almighty God.  You will also become a more sincere person, since fasting cannot really be observed by another person – only you and God.  Ramadan is the perfect time to ask, “What is the purpose of my existence?”

Most people nowadays are distracted due to busy schedules, incessant phone messages and emails, and the demands of media for our attention.  We lack focus and can hardly finish one task from start to finish without distractions.  Some people cannot even eat a meal without their phones nearby so they can check WhatsApp messages.   If this describes you, I recommend fasting the month of Ramadan, which will eliminate at least one major distraction in our lives – eating – during daylight hours, which will increase productivity and focus on other activities.  And then, when the meal is finally served after sunset, I guarantee you will put your phone away so you can enjoy your breakfast.

We generally have less physical strength and lower stamina than our parents and grandparents had at our age, due to our sedentary lifestyles and the prevalence of desk jobs.  Fasting Ramadan will improve your fortitude and determination; how else would you be able to refrain from satisfying your basic needs and desires for such long periods?  How else would you be able to ignore hunger, thirst and fatigue while you carry on with life’s usual demands?  Ramadan is a perfect time to show yourself what you’re capable of.  You will find a self-disciplined, patient, flexible and resilient person.

Another byproduct of our modern lifestyles is isolation. Families are often separated and must resort to social media to keep in touch.  Social media has enabled us to have friends from around the world that we meet in virtual spaces.  However, this has had a negative impact on the “in-person” relationships with those around us, with many people preferring to relate to others through their phones.  Ramadan helps this situation because there are many communal meals, whether at home, in mosques, or special gatherings for social groups.  In addition, the extra attention on prayer brings neighbors together in the mosques daily, which builds stronger communities.  Finally, zakat ul-fitr, or the pre-holiday charity, requires us to reach out to someone less fortunate in the spirit of sharing and celebration.

Modern life can sometimes lead to apathy, which is caring little for others, and a sense of entitlement, which is overestimating your rights.  Feeling the hunger and thirst of fasting makes you keenly aware of the blessing of food and clean water in your life, and more aware of the fact that many people do not have what you will promptly consider a luxury.  Feeling the deprivations of the poor is a wonderful lesson in empathy and compassion, one that is never forgotten after fasting the month of Ramadan, and which makes it so much easier to share our resources with the disadvantaged.

Finally, all the above symptoms of the modern man lead to depression, which is common today.  Fasting Ramadan is a way to start overcoming depression because it has several positive results simultaneously:  a renewed sense of purpose, realizing your personal strength, increased involvement with others, awareness of blessings that you formally took for granted, taking control of yourself through managing your needs, desires and thoughts, and drawing closer to your Creator and the Provider of all your needs.

Fasting the month of Ramadan definitely has its benefits in this life, especially in the modern age.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg, because there are well-researched medical benefits as well as deeply personal spiritual blessings, not to mention the promised rewards that ensue in the Hereafter.  The total benefits of fasting are known only to God, who says in the Quran, “… and it is better for you to fast, if you only knew” (2:184).

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My Pilgrimage to Mecca

An estimated three million people gathered in the holy city of Mecca in April 1997 to visit the first house of worship on earth, the Kaaba, which was built by Abraham in ancient history, and which has continued to be the center of worship for the monotheistic religion of Islam.  I was one of those three million pilgrims performing the rites of hajj, or pilgrimage.  Awe and humility filled my heart and soul as I witnessed pilgrims from every nation of the world gather to worship God, seek His forgiveness, and renew their commitment to Him.  People of all races and cultures stood silent in perfect concentric rows during congregational prayer.  Both the rich and the poor stood before God, supplicating with outstretched hands, and people of all ages and abilities strove their utmost to perfect their worship.  I cannot express the humility and gratitude I felt to be among the Muslims in Mecca.

The Hajj rites not only remind Muslims of their ties to the prophet Abraham, but also of their ultimate death and return to God.  As I began my pilgrimage, I put all worldly concerns out of my mind and prayed, in the words of Muhammad (p), “At Your service O Lord, at Your service.  There is no god but You.  All praise, goodness and authority are Yours.  There is no god but You.”

The essence of Hajj is spending the day on the plain of Arafat near Mecca.  It is said that on this day God descends to the lowest heaven and says, “Behold my servants who come tired and dusty in search of my mercy,” and that He answers the prayers of His supplicants this day.  Naturally, the whole day was spent in worship, prayers, and meditation.  The hope of His presence, the longing for nearness to Him, and the promise of His Mercy were fuel for the heart and soul.  Furtive glances at my watch reminded me how short a day can be and how precious time really is.  As the sun set, I left Arafat, regretting that the day had ended so soon and longing for an eternal home in His presence.

After sunset we preceded to Muzdallifa to rest before completing the Hajj the next day.  There we collected pebbles, which we would later cast at the three pillars erected to symbolize Satan.  This rite originates with Abraham who, on at least three separate occasions, confronted Satan, who sought to tempt him and lead him away from obedience to God.  On one such occasion, Abraham understood God’s wish for him to take his wife Hagar and infant son Ishmael to the barren, unpopulated valley of Mecca and leave them there.  He did so and, as he walked away, Satan tempted him to return for them.  Unflinching in faith, Abraham cast stones at Satan to drive him away.  On another occasion, Abraham saw in a dream that he was to sacrifice his young son and understood that it was a command from God, a test of faith.  Both Abraham and Ishmael were willing to obey, but Satan tried to tempt them.  They cast stones at him to drive him away.  As Ibrahim placed the knife at his son’s throat, a sheep appeared out of nowhere, and Abraham knew that it was sent as a substitute; he had proven his faith and his obedience.  Thus, after casting pebbles at the pillars, the pilgrim sacrifices a sheep or other animal and distributes its meat to the poor, which is symbolic of faith, obedience and charity.

To complete our Hajj, we visited the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to perform seven circumambulations of the Kaaba, which resemble – on an atomic level – the motions of electrons around the nucleus, and – on an astronomic level – the planets revolving around the sun.  Our revolutions around the House of God, like the prayer of Abraham and Ishmael as they built it, impressed upon me the purpose of life:  “Our Lord, accept this service from us and make us Muslims, bowing to Thy will, and of our progeny a people bowing to Thy will.”  We then walked seven times between the ancient hillocks of Safa and Marwa as Hagar did after being abandoned in the valley.  She ran in frantic search for water for her infant son from one hill to the other until, after the seventh time, water sprang up at her son’s feet.  The underground spring, called Zamzam, has quenched the thirst of innumerable worshippers ever since.  We often drank from that spring with prayers for health and strength, for the prophet Muhammad said that in Zamzam water is both nutrition and healing power.  With our Hajj complete, we thanked God for the opportunity and the means to fulfill our obligations to Him and prayed for His acceptance of our effort.

The rites of Hajj replaced mere intellectual comprehension of religious history with the experience of sharing faith and practice with our ancient fathers.  I developed profound respect and affection for Abraham and his family, and I felt immense pride in being one of his faith –  true monotheism.  As millions of Muslims gathered on those days in worship, I felt a brotherhood that renewed my faith in the worldwide Muslim community and inspired hope for our future.  Thus, the pilgrimage linked the past to the present and, through me and my fellow pilgrims, both ancient and future generations of Muslims were bound in faith and brotherhood.

A few images of Hajj are carved in my memory.  An old man, smaller and thinner than I, brushed against me as we pressed through the crowded corridor on the way to the Sacred Mosque.  He turned and implored, “Forgive me, pilgrim.”  Tears welled in my eyes as I forced a smile.  He had done nothing to offend me.  Being young and strong, I could only feel shame as he asked me for forgiveness.  I remember him often and as God to bless him.

And then there was Shaima, a beautiful woman from Turkey, who stopped me in the market one morning and asked in broken English where I was from.  She gave me a book and said, “hadiya,” the Arabic word for gift.  I was astounded by the feeling that this woman was my sister and my friend because of our faith and by the fact that the language of the Quran was our means of communication.  My husband and I later met her husband, a member of the Turkish parliament, and learned that they have three children.  They asked us to pray for them.  That’s all I know of Shaima from Turkey, yet I feel an affinity with her that is symbolic of my affinity with all true Muslims around the world – one people who worship one God and mold their lives around faith and obedience, resulting in similar lifestyles and a common language.

The pilgrims who slept on the cool marble floors of the mosque were at the mercy of the thousands of Muslims who passed around and over them as they rested.  I marveled at the confidence with which they slept and the care that was taken by the passersby not to disturb them.  The kindness and mutual respect that I witnessed was overwhelming.  I wished the Muslim nation would always be so tolerant and unified.

The birds that flew around the Kaaba were a source of wonder.  There were those that flew low and fast over the heads of worshippers as they circumambulated the Kaaba; twice I felt a puff of wind from their wings as they sped past me.  And there were those that soared high above the mosque in effortless flight.  I wondered at their purpose and their mode of worship, for the Quran says that every kind of creation has its own form of worship.

An account of my pilgrimage would not be complete without a mention of the pain I endured for most of those ten days and many days before the Hajj.  A misaligned spinal column and a resulting pinched nerve cause considerable pain in my right shoulder and arm.  Sitting and standing for long periods exacerbated the problem, something that cannot be avoided during Hajj.  A veteran of back pain, I prayed for relief and bore it patiently with the belief that whatever happens to a believer is good for him.  As the pain worsened, I grew desperate and, feeling totally defeated by pain, I surrendered to what God had chosen for me.  I repeated again and again, “Over everything He has decreed.  We belong to Him, to Him we are returning, and He can do whatever He likes with us.”  It was then that I realized that if I could accept pain with faith, then I could accept everything else He has chosen for me:  the color of my eyes, the color of my skin, my birthplace, my parents, my siblings, my ailments, my children, my provision, my life span, and my place of death.  How many aspects of our lives have we no choice over, yet of which we still disapprove?  How can we find faults with what God has chosen for us in His infinite knowledge, wisdom and love?  How do we dare to be ungrateful?  Through the pain I realized a valuable lesson in acceptance and trust.  It was only then that the pain finally subsided.

Coming home was a challenge.  To be a guest in God’s house for ten days and to have dedicated and intimate dialog with Him for this period was a mercy, a comfort and an immense honor.  It was a thirst quenched for a brief while.  To come home was to replace the shackles of daily life on earth:   distractions, temptations, hard work, fatigue.  It took days to muster the resolve I needed to continue living and working to the utmost of my ability with faith in life after death, faith in eternity, and hope for my return to His love and mercy, this time with no end.  As I returned to my earthly responsibilities, I prayed, “At Your service, O Lord, at Your service.  There is no god but You.  All praise, goodness and authority are Yours.  There is no god but You.”

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Ramadan: My Greatest Teacher

If Ramadan was a person, she would be the toughest teacher you ever had – the one who had strict rules, gave lots of homework, and drilled you until she was sure you understood the lessons she was trying to teach.  Or Ramadan would be your coach who made you train hard, demanding more of you than you thought you could handle, challenging you every day until you mastered the moves or continually beat your previous times.  These are the people who not only believed in the value of what they taught, but even more so, they believed in your capacity for achievement and growth.  They worked you hard because they wanted you to succeed.  They didn’t just want you to pass their test or win the race, they wanted to change you forever – to transform you into a confident, disciplined and ambitious person.  They wanted you to win.  These are the people we feared, obeyed, respected, and eventually loved.  These are the people who impacted our lives in untold ways, making us our best selves.  We vaguely remember the grueling work and pain of their ways, but we will never forget what we learned about ourselves and how they made us feel.

Similar in every way, Ramadan has been my greatest teacher and coach.   Ramadan has returned every year to remind me what I need to do to succeed, and to prove to me that I can do it.  In the early years, it was about submitting my will to my Creator’s will.  I fasted because the Quran said, “Those of you who see the month shall fast.” (2:185).  It was hard, very hard.  But I did it.  Year after year, I fulfilled the requirements. But Ramadan wasn’t satisfied with mere compliance.  There was much more to learn.

I could have cheated.  Nobody could have known for sure if I was really fasting.  But I didn’t, and that’s when fasting honed my sincerity and integrity.  If I were fasting for the people, to fit in or meet social or cultural expectations, I would have cheated all those times when I missed suhoor and started my fast on an empty stomach.  It was those days when my sincerity was tested.  The Quran says, “Fasting has been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you so that you may be God-conscious” (2:183).  My awareness of God and sincerity to Him increased because of that great teacher, Ramadan.

The lessons spilled over into other areas of my life too.  As I raised the children, pursued my Ph.D., and learned how to recite the Quran, I relied on the self-discipline, focus and motivation that Ramadan instilled in me.  I knew that if I could fast for an entire month in summer while those around me snacked on ice-cream and quenched their summer thirst, I could do anything – with God’s help.

“It’s not all about you!” said Ramadan.  She taught me to think of others, those who thirst for clean water and hunger for regular meals – those who fast not by choice, but because there just isn’t enough.  Ramadan taught me to recognize hunger and thirst in others, which is easier when you yourself have experienced it.  She taught me to respond to those in need with the compassion of one who has suffered from privation and longing, even if only for a few hours at a time.  Ramadan taught me that we are responsible for one another, and that one person can make a difference in the life of another.

My teacher is persistent, preparing lessons for me after decades under her direction.  Just when I get comfortable in my routine, Ramadan comes and destroys it, just to prove to me that in flexibility there is strength.  Occasionally she challenges my complaints that I’m sick and proves to me that fasting does more good than harm, and that my health improves when I fast.  She laughs when I say I’m getting old because she knows that fasting gets easier with age.  Always there to challenge my attitudes, Ramadan keeps me both grounded in reality and open to the possibility of transformation.

For great teachers like Ramadan, I am immensely grateful.  Grateful that I signed up, and that her tough ways and annual recurrence didn’t allow me to forget a single lesson.  Grateful that my understanding of God, self and others has expanded over time.  Grateful that I could do it.  However, entwined with my gratitude is a sense of humility.  God Almighty extended the opportunity to me – I’ll call it a scholarship – to learn under the great teacher Ramadan.  It is His immense kindness and generosity that singled me out from the masses of humanity to answer His call.  It is a humbling feeling to be chosen for such an advanced educational course, and even more humbling to know that each one of us has been invited.  For all the opportunities that Ramadan promises, it would be silly to refuse.

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An Overview of the Quran

The Quran is the most recent holy scripture and, according to it, the last to ever come.  It is also the only scripture that is intact in the original language.  It is regarded by Muslims as the Speech of God that was revealed through Muhammad over a period of 23 years to him, his contemporaries, those who believe, and to all of humankind.  The main topics in the Quran, presented in 600 Arabic pages, relate mainly to faith, deeds, and the ramifications of our choices in these spheres.

While the Quran’s verses cover various topics throughout, there seem to be three main sections that prompt us to 1) adopt the basic faith as well as the basic deeds required by our Creator and needed for our salvation, 2) develop deep faith in God and awareness of the unseen world, and 3) refine and perfect our character and behavior in light of eventual consequences.

In the first third of the Quran, the chapters and verses are long, and the sentence structure is simple and clear. The material is very detailed, it contains a lot of rules, and it often relates to the community as a whole; it is telling communities how to live.  This section contains the longest verse – which is about documenting debts and trade transactions.

The first third is first and foremost a call to pure monotheistic faith. It declares in very clear terms that there is only one God, the Creator of all.  It asks rhetorical questions and presents many arguments to rectify the beliefs of the “People of the Book” or Jews and Christians, as well as polytheists, animists and atheists.  The Quran insists that Allah, our Creator, is a single and unique deity that deserves our undivided devotion.  It criticizes those who blindly follow tradition, superstitions and man-made religious laws and rituals.  It declares that the religion that has always been taught by prophets and messengers throughout time is Islam, or submission to the Creator of all.  The reader is instructed to: “Say, ‘We have believed in Allah and what has been revealed to us and what has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Descendants and what was given to Moses and Jesus and what was given to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.’’’ (2:136) One of the last revealed verses is positioned in this section:  “Today I completed your religion for you and I have perfected My favor on you, and I am satisfied with Islam as a religion for you.” (5:3)  It also outlines the main acts of worship in Islam:  strict monotheistic belief, prayer, fasting,  charity and pilgrimage.

The other main subject of the first third is laying the groundwork for building an Islamic community.  It includes instructions related to marriage and family life, diet, spending including interest and debts, caring for vulnerable sectors of society, inheritance, polygyny and divorce.  It emphasizes justice and moderation.  This section also discusses principles of war and peace, including peace and defense treaties, treason, and jihad – removing obstacles to justice and peace.  Not only does this section present guidelines for the well-being of society and peaceful coexistence, it also relates the fate of nations due to their moral choices.

This first third of the Quran is a clear answer to the short supplication that comprises the first chapter, which asks the Lord of the Worlds to “show us the straight way, the way of those upon whom you have bestowed Your Grace….”  The criteria of receiving this grace is given:  “And whosoever obeys Allah and the Messenger, then they will be in the company of those on whom Allah has bestowed His Grace….” (4:69)   “…And whosoever obeys Allah and His Messenger will be admitted to Gardens under which rivers flow (in Paradise), to abide therein, and that will be the great success.” (4:13)  Given the subject matter in the first third, the Holy Quran is a guide to true monotheistic doctrine and an indispensable manual for personal and communal life.

The second third of the Quran focuses more on natural, historic and spiritual phenomena that build faith in God’s power, control and wisdom.  The main topics in this section include divine scripture, Allah’s Lordship, Allah’s right to worship, prophets, angels, resurrection, Heaven and Hell, destiny or fate, natural phenomena, miracles, parables, and descriptions of the truly faithful servants of God.   All this leads the reader to contemplation, wonder and introspection.

Almost every chapter in the second third begin with mentioning that the Quran originated from the Creator of all things.  The section expresses repeatedly that among his attributes is that He has knowledge of everything, seen and unseen, He is the provider for all His creation, His has bestowed favors and blessings to humanity, He has power over all affairs of the universe, He has the ability to give life and cause death, and He can resurrect and recreate as He wills.

Many chapters in this section convey detailed stories of various prophets and their peoples.  Chapter 21 states the message of all prophets: “Not an apostle did We send before you with this inspiration sent by us to him – that there is no god but I so worship and serve Me” (25).  The surah also says that each prophet was sent to his people whereas Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was sent to all mankind (107).

The Quran draws attention to natural phenomena such as the origin of the universe and the significance of water in creation, (21:30),the creation and development of the embryo (23:14), the properties of milk and honey (16:66,69), the underground structure and purpose of mountains (16:15), the language of ants and birds (27), deep seas and interior waves, barriers between fresh and salty water (24:40, 25:53) lightening, and sleep (30), all of which point to a Single Creator and Lord of the universe.  Among the familiar things of this world, an unseen reality is also described, including angels, devils, Paradise and Hellfire, thing we realize are not beyond the ability of an all-powerful Creator.

The purpose of life and the fate of mankind is clearly indicated as well.  We are to expect trials and tribulations as a means of testing our faith:  “Do men imagine they will be left (at ease) because they say ‘We believe’ and will not be tested?” (29:2).  After being tested in many ways, “Everyone shall taste death, and We try you with evil and with good, and to Us you will be returned” (21:35).  All of us, regardless of our expectations, will stand before our Lord for judgment to determine whether we deserve reward or punishment:  “And We place the scales of justice for the Day of Resurrection, so no soul will be treated unjustly at all. And if there is [even] the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it forth. And sufficient are We as accountant” (21:46).   The mention of a Hellfire and a Paradise is included repeatedly in this important section.

The middle third of the Quran also mentions many miracles, such the story of Mohammad’s night journey to Jerusalem and ascension to the Heavens, the story of several youth who slept for 300 years.  It describes the miracles of Moses – the  staff, his hand, the Red Sea – as well of those of Jesus, including his immaculate conception and his ability to  cure the sick and raise the dead, all by God’s permission.  Whether awe-inspiring miracles or seemingly everyday occurrences, the verses in the Quran point to a single, omnipotent deity.

All of these subjects, which range from history to the Hereafter, from natural phenomena to nature-defying miracles, from the purpose of this life to what awaits us in the next, develop our faith, help us perform the duties entrusted to us by God and lead us to make better choices for more perfect behavior.

The chapters and verses in the last third of the Quran are shorter than previous sections.  The sentence structure grows increasingly short, terse, and powerful, with rich vocabulary and more obvious rhythm and rhyme than previous sections.  The intensity of expression lends a sense of urgency to the text and evokes strong emotions like awe, humility, tension, fear, anxiety, hope and longing.

Like the first third of the Quran, this part has prescriptions for the faithful, but they usually describe personal behavior rather than family, commercial or military law. For example, chapter 49 forbids slandering others, looking down on others, spying on one another, backbiting, defamation and suspicion.  Many verses urge us to refine and perfect our character and behavior, such as “Repel the evil deed with one that is better, then he between whom and you there was enmity will become as though a dear friend.” (41:34).

Many verses in this section remind us of God’s justice and our eventual judgment before him, such as “No bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burdens.” (53:38) “On that day you will be exposed; not a secret of yours will be hidden.” (69:18).  It presents in no unclear terms that there is indeed a punishment for ingrates, unrepentant sinners and those heedless of God’s warnings.  One particular verse is repeated ten times in a single short chapter:  “Woe to the rejecters that day!” (77).  But some people will be spared:  “Shall we treat those who believe and do good works as those who spread corruption in the earth; or shall we treat the pious as the wicked?” (38:29).  Complementary verses then describe the relief and joy of an easy reckoning as well as the reward for firm faith and righteous work.

As the reader progresses through the last third of the Quran, strong language starkly contrasts the destinies of the good believers and the rejecters of faith with graphic descriptions of the Hereafter – Paradise and Hellfire – evoking dread, fear and terror of Allah’s wrath as much as desire and longing for His forgiveness, acceptance and reward.  The vivid descriptions of the consequences of evil or good conduct prepare the reader to make the choice between right and wrong.  He finds himself resolving to seek forgiveness, mend his ways and seek God’s pleasure through sincere faith and good deeds.

The conclusion of the Quran offers a first step and a clear direction for the reader.  He is commanded to “Say: “He is Allah, [who is] One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge.  He neither begets nor is born, Nor is there to Him any equivalent.”  This chapter (112) is the essence of monotheistic belief that is reiterated throughout the Quran and which the reader should be convinced of by this point.  The command is now to say it and believe it with all one’s heart.  This short chapter is followed by two equally short chapters that are supplications asking the Creator to protect one from both external and internal evil,  fitting supplications to conclude the Quran.

Traditionally, when one completes a reading of the Quran, he immediately starts again with the first chapter, a prayer that asks to “show us the straight way, the way of those upon whom you have bestowed Your Grace….”  The Quran, as the answer to that prayer, is a book that every person should hold dear for the clear path it illuminates.  As chapter 73 verse 19 says, “Indeed, this is a reminder.  Let him who will, then, choose a way unto his Lord.”

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Ramadan – Month of the Quran

The first verses of the Holy Quran were revealed in Ramadan, 1448 lunar years ago (610 AD).  During the course of 23 years, Prophet Muhammad received Quranic verses as spoken addresses from the Creator – the Quran is considered the speech of God in the Arabic language.  Prophet Muhammad then recited the verses so that they could be memorized verbatim, and they were also recorded in writing.  Before he died, Prophet Muhammad specified the order of verses and the division of chapters, according to divine instruction.  The original Quran is still preserved until today with precise pronunciation, with the Arabic language developing  to represent it phonetically.

The Quran is addressed to all mankind.  Sometimes Muhammad is specifically addressed with instructions such as “They ask you about… Say [to them]…”  Muhammad is also encouraged and sometimes gently reproached in the Quran.  Believers are addressed with specific instructions on how to achieve both temporal and eternal success.  And mankind in general is addressed with invitations to believe in God and mold life around that belief, and they are informed of the consequences of accepting or rejecting God’s invitation.

The Quran’s purpose is to inform people of a reality beyond their five senses and their perceptions of space and time, and to teach moral lessons and develop spirituality.  With the additional perspective it offers, the Quran also invites people to adopt a lifestyle that ensures ultimate happiness and success.   Finally, through stories and instruction, it describes the beliefs and practices that are essential to achieve that state.

The verses of the Quran were revealed to address particular situations, to relate historical information and to codify Islamic law.  Common subjects are descriptions of God, stories of prophets, descriptions of believers and disbelievers, promises of God’s rewards, especially Paradise, warnings about consequences for rebellion toward God, including Hellfire, instructions for personal conduct, guidelines for familial and social relations, and a framework for international relations.

Being an oral revelation first and foremost, devout Muslims learn how to recite the holy scripture as it was revealed.   Verbatim memorization is common and care is taken to reproduce the exact pronunciation and vocal duration of each letter.  Arabic is a rich language, and words of the Quran have great depth and breadth; therefore, they also study the meaning of the words, verses and chapters, and there are encyclopedic works of this nature.  In addition, Muslims study the occasions of revelation, the relation of the holy text to prophetic traditions, and the application of principles by renowned scholars and rulers.  The study of the Quran develops moral reasoning and spirituality first and foremost, as well as thought processes of logic, sequencing, deduction, intuition, assimilation and abstraction.  Reciting and memorizing it develops memory, enunciation and self-expression.

The printed Quran is revered as a holy book and is treated with respect.  It is not considered casual reading or handled like an ordinary book.  There is only one version of the Quran, and careful measures are taken that prints and reprints of the Quran in Arabic are authenticated by authoritative bodies for accuracy. Since the Quran is an Arabic-language literary masterpiece both technically and aesthetically, it is impossible to portray its rhythm, rhyme, depth of denotation and subtlety of connotation in another language.   There are many translations of the Quran, but we cannot call a translation “the Quran” but only an approximation of the meaning of the Quran.  The best English translations have the accompanying original text in Arabic so that it can be consulted.

Since Ramadan is the month of the Quran, everyone should have their copy handy and complete reading it in this holy month.

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My Horse, My Teacher

At the age of 50 I was introduced to horses.  I was certainly at a crossroads in my life in many ways and I was a bit unsure of myself as I adapted to both new and diminishing roles.  I was uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life and felt increasingly frustrated with feelings of aimlessness.  There is a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  And so a horse appeared.

Genelli was a 23-year old mare with a saintly personality.  Under the direction of her owner Noelle, she had been giving rides to autistic children for ten years, the training for which made her calm in sometimes stressful situations, focused in spite of conflicting messages (between rider and leader), safe in every situation and a delight for anyone who came in contact with her.  I began assisting Noelle with the rides and afterwards often had a chance to do some groundwork with Genelli.  I learned basic skills in handling a horse through Parelli’s Seven Games facilitated by  Noelle’s instruction and Genelli’s patient willingness.  But more importantly, Genelli allowed me to befriend her and she reassured me many times that I am an affectionate and loving person, something that, due to a difficult childhood, I always doubted.  The affection I felt towards her was mirrored back with the message, “You know well how to love.”  She made sure I understood that before, due to a tragic accident, my time with Genelli was cut short and she was put to rest.  I will always remember her as a mirror of love.

BusyBee replaced Genelli  for the autistic riding program.  This 23-year old mare lacked the self-mastery and finesse that Genelli had, instead displaying a somewhat stubborn, moody disposition.  Shortly after leasing her for more intensive work, I was introduced by my friend and partner Noelle to Carol Resnick’s  seven Waterhole Rituals, which are based on the daily ceremonies and rituals that wild horses display in their natural environment.  With them as our guide, Noelle and I planned interactions between horse and human to reinforce appropriate behavior in BusyBee and  develop the strong bond necessary for disciplined performance.  The seven Rituals not only enhanced our understanding of each other but also gave me insight into the natural disposition of a noble animal and an opportunity to correct and refine my own.

The first ritual communicates peace by sharing territory with a horse in a non-threatening way, which is the basis for a strong bond.  The horse starts to relax and will probably show some curiosity about the human in shared space.  The second ritual demonstrates respect by accommodating your horse’s response to your approach to greet him.  The ritual builds trust as you prove to him you have no hidden agenda;  you merely wish to say hello – if he is ready.  The third ritual develops a horse’s awareness of you in shared territory and establishes you as a potential leader.  By gently herding him away from a pile of food, you develop the horses’ connection between you and both his territory and food.  The fourth ritual increases the horse’s focus on you.  This is done by abruptly moving him away from his food whenever he stops paying attention to you.  As long as he shows awareness of your position in shared territory, he is left to graze in peace.  The fifth ritual enables you to lead your horse from behind, which results in him moving left, right or forward depending on your position and energy level behind him.  By the time your horse is ready for the next ritual, there will be a strong bond built on trust, focus and cooperation.  The sixth ritual asks for partnership as you invite your horse to walk alongside you at liberty.  If the connection is strong, your horse will companion walk; however, you must maintain a leadership position and not allow your horse to start leading you!  Finally, the seventh ritual culminates with your horse following your directives to move or stop at the speed you request and to come to you when asked, a without a halter, bridle or rope.  When this is accomplished, you and your horse are ready to work together in true harmony – this is called the dance.   The rituals are generally sequential but you should be ready to reinforce any of the responses by revisiting the appropriate ritual when necessary.

Helping me learn the rituals was Noelle, who is much more experienced and with a passion for horses like no other.  She would give me a summary of what to do, and then sit on the sidelines and watch.  When I made a mistake she would shout “No!” and immediately correct me or jump in the paddock to show me the right way.  Little by little, I began to see results with BusyBee.  Within a few sessions, she was more relaxed, compliant and engaged.  But each time I started a new ritual, she would get confused, worried and frustrated – or at least that’s what I sensed.  I could practically hear her shouting, “What do you WANT from me?”  and then I realized that the voice was my own.  A voice not to Noelle, my patient instructor, but to God.  Just like BusyBee, I saw myself amidst change, adopting new roles, losing old patterns, and establishing better ways to share space and communicate. I was trying hard and learning fast but, like BusyBee, I could not understand where all this was going.

It dawned on me that BusyBee was my teacher as much as I was hers.  She was trying to teach me how to be, and how to be with God.  I began to see how God works with us, leading us to greater awareness and willingness until we are in true harmony with Him.  First by showing us His territory – this beautiful planet that is His and that He allows us to inhabit.  Then by building trust in Him through His favors and by allowing us to approach Him or retreat.  He also periodically establishes His authority by taking some of “our” territory – making us realize that He is entitled our attention.  With time and experience, we learn to focus on Him, and when we forget, He reminds us that we must be alert and heedful.  That’s exactly where I was — aware of His presence in my life and willing to follow His lead.  But lately, I had been feeling imbalanced, lost, confused about which direction to go and bewildered about the whole process.

Sensing the same in BusyBee, I wanted to reassure her that everything is going to be OK.  She needn’t worry about her role, the future, or what tasks lie ahead.  Her only job was to trust me, to focus on me and to show a willingness to be lead from behind.  And that’s what I must do too.  Once I consistently accept God’s leadership and walk every step with my focus and intention on Him, I will be living from a place of true harmony, as we were all meant to live.

I don’t need to know where I am going – I just need to be ready for the dance.

 

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Freedom

Freedom is such a powerful word.   But what does it imply?  Freedom from something or freedom to do something?    It could mean different things to different people, but the dictionary defines it as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.   So it means both freedom from hindrance and freedom to think, speak and act.

The fact is that everyone is free – that’s the way God made us.  We are free to think as we like.  We are free to speak as we like.  And we are free to act – within the limits of our human ability – as we like.  It’s the consequences of saying and doing what we want that worry us.  We think that if we face unpleasant consequences for saying or doing what we like, we are not free.  So what people really want when they long for freedom is freedom from consequences

Freedom to say and do everything you want without facing any unpleasant consequences is unrealistic because it disregards others’ rights and contradicts justice. The reality is that our actions bear consequences. Nevertheless, having freedom and avoiding unpleasant consequences IS possible. You just have to want pleasant consequences enough to freely choose the things that make them possible!  Actually, most of us practice this in our daily lives.  For example, we want to have good health and to avoid the possibility of certain diseases, so we freely adopt healthy eating habits to achieve that.  We are all free to eat junk food and smoke cigarettes but we choose not to do it because we are planning ahead for more comfortable outcomes.

God helps us to make good and wholesome choices, whether they are physical, social or spiritual. For example, when we do something healthy, we feel good – like taking a brisk walk in the morning.  When we do a good deed for another person, we feel happy even though we may have exerted effort or given up something we value.  Even when we do something personal and unnoticed by others – such as a prayer in the depths of the night – we feel good.  God has helped us by hardwiring us to feel happy when we freely make good choices.

Many times we make choices not knowing if the outcome is going to make us happy or not.  But to take some of the guesswork out of making lifestyle decisions, God has given us a lot of advice on what works and what doesn’t. For example, if we look in the Quran, we find a lot of prescriptions – for example, for prayer, charity and forbearance – as well as a lot of prohibitions – from intoxicants, gossip and indecency, to name a few.  God promises that “Whenever guidance from Me comes to you – then for those who follow My guidance, they shall not fear nor shall they grieve.” (3:38) This promise encourages us to follow a path which is perhaps less obvious and more difficult at times.  The devout Muslim does his best to follow God’s advice because he knows that it will bring him happiness – if not immediately, then eventually.

But sometimes, even though we make all the right choices, we face unpleasant, unhappy situations.  For example, we can get a disease even though we eat well, exercise and don’t smoke.  Is that fair?  And how can we feel free when something like that happens?  Actually, we are still free — free to choose our response.  We can freely choose not to be overwhelmed by emotional pain such as anger or despair. We can freely choose patience and trust in God, because we know that He is the one in charge of this universe, that He does things for our benefit, and that He doesn’t make mistakes.  We can look at God’s promise for the future also as instructions for the present:  “…those who follow My guidance, they shall not fear nor shall they grieve.” (3:38)  So not only does a free person make good choices that help him avoid unpleasant consequences, he also chooses to be happy, even when life is difficult. 

Many people don’t understand that.  When they see a Muslim happily choosing a lifestyle that seems to them restrictive or uncomfortable, they think that he is ignorant, oppressed or forced to act that way. They forget that every person is free.  A Muslim will freely choose to follow God’s guidance and ignore the disapproval of others since he knows that God is the ultimate judge. The devout Muslim feels answerable, first and foremost, to God, which frees him from many things: from concern over the judgment of others, from bad choices that end in misery, and from distress over things beyond his control. 

Everybody wants the freedom to seek pleasure and happiness without facing unpleasant consequences, and the Muslim does too. But his approach to achieving that is different; he carefully and deliberately exercises his freedom by choosing good thoughts and doing good deeds, focusing on God as his judge.  This approach is a long term plan whose gradual implementation is satisfying and rewarding.  Each small achievement is gratifying in itself and is a step on the path toward the ultimate happiness. It is the path that bestows true freedom, cultivates deep contentment, and surprises you with an exhilarating sense of happiness.

Go ahead, be free!

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Maryam

Maryam, or Mary, Mother of Jesus, is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran.  Her story is quite detailed, starting from when her mother dedicated the baby in her womb to the service of the temple (3:35).  It tells how Zachariah became her sponsor (3:44), how she grew in purity (3:37), and that she guarded her chastity (19:20).  It records the conversation between her and the angel who gave her the news of a child she would immaculately conceive (3:45), and how he would be a prophet of God sent to the Children of Israel (61:6).  It describes her in labor (19:23), and the reaction of her astonished community when she brought her baby Jesus to them (19:27).  The Quran says she was an upholder of truth (66:12)and chosen over all the women of the world (3:42).

The story of Maryam is truly inspiring, but there is one phrase spoken by her that, although sounding quite ordinary, has had a deep impression on me.  Chapter 3 describes a scene where Zachariah enters her prayer chamber and finds that she has “provision.”  Exegeses describe the provision as out-of-season fruits, which would have been near-miraculous in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.  So Zachariah asks her, “From where is this?”  And she replies (in verse 37), “It is from God.  He provides for whom He wills without account.”  These wise words inspired Zachariah to ask God for a son, who would also be “out of season” due to the fact that Zachariah and his barren wife were quite old.  Their son is John the Baptist, but that’s another story.

I find Maryam’s answer to the question, “From where is this?” quite interesting.  Most people probably would have said, “The neighbor sent it to me” or “A caravan has just arrived from Yemen” or “I bought it this morning from the farmers’ market.”  Although any answer would satisfy the most curious person, it didn’t satisfy her.  She was so devout and so wise that she could see beyond the obvious and the circumstantial – she could see the Truth.  So she answered, “It is from God.”  And it doesn’t really matter if the provision she referred to had a mysterious origin or not.  Even if Zachariah found her with her usual meal and asked, “From where is this?” I imagine she would have answered, “It is from God” because it is the truth.  The Quran says, “Whatever good has come to you, it is from God” (4:79).

We should respond as wisely as Maryam when asked about our blessings.  Imagine if someone asked you, I love your glasses!  Where did you get them? and you said, “They are from God!”  Or You look so young!  How do you do it?  And you replied, “It’s from God!”  Or  You have a lovely home.  “Thanks to God! It is from Him.”  Or  What’s for dinner?  “Steak and potatoes from God.”  That’s the outlook that Maryam had:  appreciative, humble, insightful.  Look around and start counting your blessings – from the cup of tea beside you, to the warm blanket on your bed, to the car in the driveway.   If it’s good, it’s from God.

And if it’s not good, it’s from you.   The Quran says, “Whatever good has come to you, it is from God, and whatever harm has stricken you, it is from yourself” (4:79).  Sometimes God allows something seemingly bad to happen to alert us to mistakes we are making so that we correct our actions and reform (see 30:41).  Sometimes God allows bad things to happen so that we turn to Him sincerely and forsake other “gods” to whom we may have wrongly ascribed power.  Sometimes we need hard times to make us more humble and receptive to spiritual guidance.  God says, “And it may be that you dislike something while it is good for you, and it may be that you love something while it is bad for you.  And God knows while you do not know!” (2:216).  So even a calamity can be a blessing in disguise for he who benefits from it by turning to his Creator for solace and support.  Whatever happens, we should be receptive to the good in it and count it as a blessing.

If we perceive all events in our lives as good for us – either as a source of enjoyment from God or a means of improving ourselves and growing closer to our Creator – then we can never count our blessings because they are innumerable.  In fact, the Quran proclaims that if you attempt to count the blessings of God, you could never enumerate even a single one (16:18), reminding us of the multifaceted goodness in a single blessing.  (Most English translations don’t express the Arabic meaning correctly, perhaps due to the seeming incongruence between blessings and single one.)  Certainly we don’t deserve such continuous generosity, and we can never repay God for His care.  But we can acknowledge God as the source of all good, thank Him for His blessings, and uphold the truth when we understand it.  We can adopt the insight and wisdom of Maryam, chosen above all the women of the world, who said about a meal, “It is from God.”    God’s amazing response to our appreciation is this:  “If you give thanks, I will give you more” (14:7).  As Maryam rightfully concluded, “He provides for whom He wills without account.”

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