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Breath of Life

Life is a series of breaths, the first being the unexpected inhale and the last being the anxious exhale.  But even before we are born into the world, breath defines us.  Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that when the fetus is 120 days old, a soul is breathed into him, making him suddenly distinct from a mere lump of flesh.  God said that our father Adam was fashioned from clay and “then We breathed into him” and he came to life.  Our bodies need breath to survive, and that which defines our true selves – our soul – is none less than a breath from God. 

I didn’t understand the significance of this until 2020.  The Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally changed how we communicate, work, socialize, shop and experience the world.  For me personally, the lockdown followed retiring from paid employment, leaving my last volunteer position, and living in an empty nest.  For months, like many others, I was trapped in my house and, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I got stuck in my head.  I realized it was a mess.

Like junk stacked in corners of a dusty attic, my thoughts needed to be disentangled, examined, sorted.  I could have avoided the work ahead because the disarray was tucked away, conveniently ignored or forgotten.  But 2020 sent me deeper and deeper into my mind, where I found many questions.  Who am I?  Where do I belong?  What do I want to do?  What is important, if anything?  I didn’t like the dark space I occupied but there was no escape.  And so I faced the dusty recesses of my mind, forced to process the relics and junk packed away in my mental space.

I experienced a recurring theme in my dreams during this period.  It revolved around preparing meals for others, and ended in frustration and failure – burnt or undercooked food, missing ingredients, frantic deadlines, double bookings, unhappy guests.  I laughed it off at first.  But the final dream in this sequence was the key to one of the boxes marked “childhood.”  In the dream, I had bought a handful of orphans each a happy meal.  But to my dismay, they complained about the taste and nutritional value, and were clearly unhappy with what I thought was a great idea.  The dream took me to the memory of cooking meals for my younger siblings.  I was ten when my father abandoned us and when my mother took a second job, leaving six kids at home to depend on themselves.  Despite my young age, I often cooked for my siblings, dreaming up recipes with the poor quality and limited food staples from the pantry.  Suddenly I realized how that experience impacted the next fifty years of my life and that it was time to let it go.  I needed to stop blaming myself for things out of my control and for what is not my responsibility to begin with.  I needed to remove the burden of accountability for the wellbeing of others from my shoulders and remember what childhood feels like.  It would take some time to reconcile my passion for and anxieties about food and hospitality, but at least one box was opened.

Memories from childhood turned into memories of my own children, who have grown and moved away.  There was both sadness and relief when I finally admitted to myself that they no longer need me; in fact, I realized that nobody really needs me.  A long forgotten sense of freedom and possibility surfaced at times, teasing me to consider a fresh start.  It was exhilarating to think that my husband and I could embark on a new adventure together.  But among the daydreams were those where I was alone.  So I had to reassess my roles as wife, mother, homemaker.  Certainly these roles defined me in the past but, like outgrown shoes, they now felt uncomfortable and outdated.  Feelings of irrelevance and confinement made me face a question I had to ask and a decision I had to make.  In the attic of my mind, I decided to dust off the old photos, frame them and proudly display them, to remind me of what has been important in my life and to inspire me to find new ways to add value to my idea of family.  We may not need each other, but we love each other.  No adventure, no opportunity, no freedom could replace what I have cultivated over forty years of loving-no-matter-what.  I chose my family.

But I knew I needed something more.  I’ve always had many interests and have worked hard most of my life.  My last position as associate professor at a teachers’ college gradually felt routine, unfulfilling, and futile.  Feeling boxed in a job that was never a good fit for my skill set, I retired early.  My long-standing volunteer work as manager of an NGO kept me busy for a while, but a shortage of essential support from senior officials made me increasingly discouraged and cynical.  I decided to leave and give myself time to figure out what next.  Having literally nothing to do – apart from daily routines – was difficult because I have always kept myself extremely busy.  But the pause was needed.  It gave me time to disengage from my professional identity, and space to discover interests from a more genuine place.  It was hard to resist the urge to follow the path that my education and experience laid out for me.  I had to force myself to stay in the present moment and wait for a question, an interest, a project or a passion to surface.  It took months to unearth what I enjoy and to give myself permission to pursue what makes me feel authentic and alive.  I know if I commit to developing my passions and answering my calling, work will manifest.  But even if it doesn’t, the sense of purpose and accomplishment I get from doing the things I love and doing them well will satisfy me.  Being authentically me will be enough.

But who is the authentic me?  The question, “Who am I?” was hardest of all.  I looked at all the versions of myself packed away in my mind’s attic.  The ten-year-old homemaker.  The troubled teen.  The young mother.  Wife.  Teacher.  Volunteer.  Grandmother.  What defines me?  Who was I before I became all that?  How does my perception of myself affect how people perceive me and treat me?  What destiny have I made for myself and what power do I have to change it?  Who can I become?  And, more importantly, who do I want to become?  I was looking into a mirror, seeing myself but not sure I knew the person looking back at me.  The gaze penetrated my soul and demanded answers.  It wouldn’t let me turn away.

During this time of soul-searching, I received an email advertising an online course in spiritual healing.  Trusting the coincidence and needing some emotional relief, I enrolled.  The course mentor, Ihsan, [1]  taught about the natural psycho-spiritual state of innocence, joy and love, and the inevitable episodes of trauma that are designed to help us grow emotionally and spiritually.  I learned about the effects of unhealed trauma and ways to restore balance, peace and harmony.  He encouraged deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation as a way to tap into the Divine Presence, where we can experience true beauty and love.  The course helped me in many ways.  Most helpful were the guided meditations that urged me to “remember…. remember who you are…”  It was exactly what I had wondered.  “… a servant of the Divine… a Divine breath…” 

All this time I’ve been searching for God, and I found Him in me.

And so, before and beyond all my labels, titles, positions and duties, I remembered my source in God, His breath breathed into my tiny body, and eventually a breath my body will exhale as I make my return journey to my Maker.  Now I’m sure of who I am.  And now that I know myself, I know everyone.  We are all, essentially, a breath from God; we are from Him, we belong to Him, and we are returning to Him.  In the meantime, I will do my best to honor the privilege of my existence and implication of my origin.  I will respect myself, and strive to be whole and wholesome, loving and loved, tender and joyful.  I will honor all living things, since they, too, house that divine breath.  I will stay conscious of my source and my destination and, in between, during this sojourn on earth, I will do my best to stay true to my essence, to always be, first and foremost, a breath of God. 

When I leave my bodily dwelling and return to God, I hope that I am recognized as belonging to Him, deemed worthy of His presence, welcomed home at last. 

[1] https://www.ihsanalexander.com/

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The Sea

I walked on the shore
To gaze at the sea.
Then one still morn
My reflection I saw.
A drop of water!
A miniature ocean
From the great sea of Love.

I inched toward the water
It pulled me in!
I fell, resistance gone
Tumbling, flailing, overcome.
Too much to bear
My flesh immerged
In the ocean of God.

I swam back to the shore
Yet the water was near.
My limbs dripped wet,
The waves I could hear.
Vast, indescribable,
immeasurably sweet,
This love, gift from my Lord.

My soul keeps spilling
This water in me.
Salty tears overflowing
Offered back to the sea.
Immersed in God’s presence
I have all that I need,
My love for God, and His for me.

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Jesus in the Quran

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Finding Peace

One of the most difficult times of my life was after the birth of my fourth child, when I suffered from severe post-partum depression.  Like many kinds of hardship that leave us broken open, healing involved a process of deep reflection, reevaluation, and recommitment.  It was a slow and painful process but I worked through my perception of self, my choices in life and my relations with others.  While struggling forward amidst heavy responsibilities and a weak support network, I eventually reached a state of peace and contentment.

My friend Janet, unknowingly, helped me through this painful period of my life when she gifted me with a set of 30 cassette tapes – the entire Quran, audible, one verse at time, first in Arabic then in English. During my drive time, which amounted then to almost three hours a day, I played the tapes.  Knowing absolutely no classical Arabic when I started, I concentrated on the words to match the meanings between languages.  After two years of daily lessons, I understood enough to switch to the only-Arabic recitation of the Quran, and continued learning for another year as I drove and then researched at home the new vocabulary.  Eventually, I could understand fairly well the eloquent expressions of God’s speech to man, and I was able to listen to the entire Quran at least once a month.  This process transformed me.

When I listen to the Quran, God talks to me.  He tells me how to live well, He describes Paradise, He teaches me little prayers, He tells me that He hears and knows everything in my heart.  He tells me that He is merciful and kind to all creation, and that He helps and supports particularly those who believe in Him and treat others well.  He teaches me, through stories of prophets, how I should approach life and how He chooses the very best for us, even if it meant prison for Joseph, exile for Abraham, and false accusations for Mary.

I came to the realization that He chose everything for me because it was best for me.  I often used to think that if only I had been given more opportunities as a child, I could have been such a better person.  But then I realized how my childhood made me strong, so it was good.  Now I accept that everything I go through is carefully measured so that I can be my best self.  When I am suffering, I ask, “What am I supposed to learn?” hoping that enlightenment will lessen the pain.  Sometimes it means I have to change.  Sometimes it means I have to forgive.  Sometimes it means I have to stand up with confidence and self-worth and be counted.  Some things I may never know.  But I stopped questioning God.

I stopped doubting God’s love and now I am sure of it.  I feel it, and I can tap into it when I need to.  Often I can stop the confusion to feel the embrace of my Creator, and experience His mercy and His limitless gifts.  I know that if I don’t feel God’s love, it is because I have turned away from it, and I can just as easily turn again towards it, and recharge my soul with His love.  It is so overwhelming sometimes, and it makes every created thing pale in comparison – they are shadows compared to the True Reality of God.

When I feel that warm embrace, and the security and confidence that I am being cared for in the best of ways, I can enjoy the smallest of things.  I find more joy in my desert surroundings now than I ever did living on the shores of Lake Michigan, because now I feel God’s love in it all.  For example, when I saw a tiny flower growing out of a thin crack in desert rock, I felt it was created just for me to enjoy – what other purpose did it have?  In that moment, I felt God was smiling at me, and I could not help smiling back.

When I remember the dark days of my depression, I feel sad for a moment.  But then I realize how much I grew from that experience, how much more I empathize with others’ struggles, and how I much more appreciate the smallest of miracles in everyday life.  In many ways, depression was the beginning of the best days of my life.  Having been at my lowest point, rising up was the only path available.  Having been broken open, turning to my heart’s Creator was the only way to mend.  I learned, with certainty, that with hardship is ease.  And I finally found peace.

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Discovering the Quran

My first Quran was the 1934 translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.  With English and Arabic text side by side, plus ample commentary, it was a good introduction to the Muslims’ holy book.  However, I didn’t find it an easy read.  I could not get a sense for its structure, and the verses seemed unorganized and fragmented.  I struggled to complete reading its 114 chapters with over 6000 verses and felt, at the end, that I needed to start over again.  So I found a different translation and started over.  The new translation was different from Ali’s literary style, and featured only the English text, which made it difficult to cross-reference a verse or phrase with an Arabic speaker.  By the time I finished reading the last verse, I realized that the Quran was not like any other book.  Being of divine origin, it naturally exceeds human conceptions of organization and begs to be read, studied, reflected upon and discussed. 

There are dozens of translations of the Quran, and each translator brings to light the meanings he understood through his research and experience.  The more translations I read, the more frustrated I became.  Wanting to both understand its meaning more deeply and experience the oral recitations in Arabic, I decided to study the single Arabic version available – the original words of God dutifully preserved since its revelation 1450 years ago.  I undertook my study in stages.  My first goal was to get a gist of the meaning so that I could follow the Arabic recitation in the mosque or over the radio.  Having accomplished that, I studied the words, one by one, and penciled in my translation on the pages.  By then, I had a fair understanding of the basic meaning in Arabic.  My next goal was to read the Arabic text and so I would listen to recordings while moving my finger along the Arabic script, which was later followed by the study and practice of pronunciation.   After years of study, I had surpassed my original goal and was able to understand, read and recite the Quran.

My experience with the Arabic Quran was vastly different from the English translations I had read.  The Quran is an Arabic-language literary masterpiece both technically and aesthetically, making it impossible to translate the rhythm, rhyme, depth of denotation and subtlety of connotation.  The oral recitation is deeply moving, often bringing the listener to tears for its beauty and impact.  With regular reading, I began to experience a pattern of different emotions as I progressed through the Quran.  The first third is tiring to me and demands my focused attention to detail.  The second third is easier to read and appeals to my philosophical, contemplative nature.  Gradually, the text becomes more powerful.  The sentence structure grows increasingly short and terse, the vocabulary more rich, the rhyme more obvious.  The intensity of expression lends a sense of urgency to the text and evokes strong emotions like awe, humility, tension, anxiety, hope and longing.  My turbulent emotions peak near the end, which is followed by a calm resolution that stems from three commands that set me again on a clear and tranquil path.  This pattern of emotions intrigued me, which led me to a more in-depth study of the Quran’s subject matter.

The first third has long chapters and long verses, but the structure is simple and clear.  It is first and foremost a call to pure monotheistic faith and declares in very clear terms that there is only one God, the Creator of all.  It outlines the main acts of worship – strict monotheistic belief, prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage – and gives a blueprint for building an Islamic community.  It includes instructions related to marriage and family life, diet, spending, inheritance, and caring for vulnerable sectors of society.  It emphasizes justice and moderation.  This section also discusses principles of war and peace, peace and defense treaties, and jihad, which is the ongoing struggle to remove obstacles to justice and peace.  The first third is an indispensable handbook for balanced personal and communal life.

The second third of the Quran seems to focus more on natural, historic and spiritual phenomena that build faith in God’s power, control and wisdom.  My attention was drawn 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) lightning, 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, things we realize are not beyond the ability of an all-powerful Creator.  Here the purpose of our earthly life is outlined – a test of faith and deed – and the inevitability of judgment and recompense is emphasized.

This section 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.  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, call me to faith and goodness. 

The last third of the Quran, like the first, has prescriptions for the faithful but they lean toward personal behavior rather than family, commercial or military matters.  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, and remind us of God’s justice, which manifests when we face the consequence of our own choices.  Key verses are “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) and  “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 describe in alternation the punishment of ingrates, unrepentant sinners and those heedless of God’s warnings, and the relief and reward of those with firm faith and wholesome work.  Descriptions of Paradise are particularly enticing.

When I read the Quran as a whole, I am taken on both a rational and emotional journey that is not unlike the experience of a being engrossed in a skillfully crafted novel, or a beautifully orchestrated symphony, or a brilliantly produced film.  The integrity, meaning and nuance of the verses impact me each time in similar ways and yet differently, depending on my frame of mind or current events in my life.  Awestruck at its brilliance and beauty, I am thankful for the privilege of my journey with the Quran.  Every step on the path, whether reading a translation of the meanings, or delving into a dictionary in painstaking study, or donning headphones for enraptured listening, is an experience with the Divine Speech.  I have found nothing in life as enriching, as satisfying, as beautiful.  It’s the discovery of a lifetime.

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The concept of “home” has always been a big issue in our house.  The children grew up among American, German, Egyptian and Kuwaiti cultures, making them what is known as “third-culture kids” or TCKs.  This special breed of people, having spent significant parts of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents’ cultures, develop a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any.  Our kids grew up as international travelers and cultural chameleons.  They were bilingual, adaptable, mature, with an international orientation and cross-cultural skills.  But every coin has two sides, and I discovered, eventually, that my kids often felt rootless, insecure, off-balance and unsure of where “home” was.  

One of the most difficult questions TCKs are asked is, “Where are you from?”  Most people automatically and confidently answer this benign question, but for a TCK, it is a conundrum.  So we would joke at home about how to answer the question:  just pick one culture that most closely resembles the one who asked; say I’m from everywhere and nowhere; say I’m from planet earth; ask so how much time do you have?  We would laugh and let off steam but, eventually, the conversation turned serious.  We had to come to terms with the question that would trouble us our entire lives.

To put their experience in context, I told them that many prophets had trans-cultural experiences, including Abraham, Lot, Moses, Joseph, Jesus and Muhammad.  Prophets Abraham, Lot and Muhammad left their corrupt and polytheistic homelands to establish residence where they could worship the Creator undisturbed.  Moses, a true TCK, toggled between Egyptian and Israeli cultures until he finally left Egyptian civilization for life in the wilderness with the Israelites.  Joseph, an Arab boy sold into slavery in Egypt, undoubtedly experienced homesickness and a feeling of isolation in new surroundings.  And Jesus, who fled his birthplace with his mother and Joseph to escape discovery and possible slaughter by King Herod[1], was, essentially, homeless for some time.  The experiences of these great prophets, we surmised, most certainly gave them qualities of patience, tolerance and self-reliance, as well as mindsets that were inclusive, compassionate and charitable.

We discussed Muhammad’s advice to “be as a traveler” since this life is like “resting under the shade of a tree.”  And we agreed that Paradise is our real home – God willing – in the sense that the Garden of Eden was the original residence of Adam and Eve before they were sent to earth, “a place of settlement and provision for a time” (2:36).  The Quran reminded us that, “this worldly life is only (temporary) enjoyment and, indeed, the Hereafter – that is the (permanent) settlement” (40:39).  The discussion around the prophets and the transient nature of life on earth was helpful, but it didn’t solve the need we all had to be able to identify home – not our dwelling place or location, but a place of identity and belonging.

I made a list of what home meant to me:  the place where I belong, where I’m known, where I am welcome, where I’m comfortable to be me.  It is a place where I’m not afraid to speak up, where I am accepted for who I am, where I can cry uncontrollably and laugh with all my heart.  It is a place of forgiveness.  Home is a familiar place where I share history and I am involved in shaping a common destiny.  It’s where I experience togetherness and solidarity.  It is where I invest myself, feel empowered to reach a potential, and am valuable to someone, at least.  As I realized what home meant to me, I understood what it must mean to my own children too, and hoped that they would always find home in my presence.

Since TCKs are known to find belonging in relationships rather than locations, I knew that my role as a mother was important.  I had to dig deeper into my conception of home to the idea of mother, perhaps the central and most significant presence in the home.  To mother is to affirm someone by letting him know it’s OK to be him, as he is, that it’s OK to have needs, and to take love and care from others.  To mother is to care for someone enough to give him what is good for him, not just what feels good to him.  It is to care about his well-being and to let him know he can depend on you no matter what.  A mother is something solid to lean on and something soft to fall on.  To mother is to say, in words and deeds, that you are special the way nobody else can be, and that you are loved, no matter what is or was, or will be or will not be. 

Would I ever live up to this concept of mother?  Would I be able to provide that sacred place called home?

My children have grown and moved away to build families of their own – another generation of TCKs in a world that thrives on interconnectedness and cross-border movement.  Like typical adult TCKs, they adapt quickly to new environments and are comfortable as outsiders.  I hope they feel at home everywhere, because home is essentially a place of self-acceptance and self-worth, a place of shared values and aspirations.  I hope that they are surrounded with motherly love that communicates acceptance, affirmation, and delight in the uniqueness of who they are and who they are becoming.  And I hope that they extend to all they meet the prophets’ gifts of compassion and inclusion.  If so, I’ll know that, wherever they are, they’ll be home.  

[1] According to Matthew 2:13-23

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I’ll never forget that kiss – an unexpected display of affection from Busybee.  I had leased her to improve my equestrian skills and with the hope of training her for a therapy program for autistic children.  But she had a bad reputation.  Her owner had given up on her, saying she was moody and not fit for riding.  She became agitated when mounted, often refused commands, and was generally unpredictable.  I was told that her previous owners were rough with her and punished her harshly when she didn’t perform well.  But she was the only horse available, so I took her under my care.

I could feel her dissatisfaction and mistrust from the beginning.  Just walking her around the equestrian club was a challenge.  Not wanting to follow my lead, she decided she would dominate the walks and lead me around.  She would yank at the rope, quicken her pace ahead of me, and veer off the path I set.  Testing my limits, she would often balk, occasionally rear and once dealt me a swift kick to my leg during a walk.  It was hard to maintain my composure, to meet her unpredictable moods with firm yet calm resolve, and to consistently treat her with respect and loving care – characteristics I had hoped to instill in her so that she could be a reliable therapy horse. 

Work continued week after week and, like her owner, I almost gave up.  But after each session, no matter how frustrating it was, I would stroke her affectionately, sympathizing with her early trauma and acknowledging her dignity and worthiness for love.  Then, as I stroked her flank one day, she suddenly turned to me and kissed me!  From that day, she transformed into a willing trainee and became everything I had hoped she could be.  As a therapy horse, she was composed, compliant, reliable and, most importantly, safe for the autistic riders that fidgeted on her back, day after day.

My experience with a horse provided insight into people who behave with suspicion, insult or hostility.  I believe that people hurt others because they themselves are hurting.  I don’t need to know the details of their lives to sense their underlying pain or shortage of love.  If I can look beyond their hurtful and aggressive words and deeds and react instead to a troubled soul or a broken heart, I can more easily choose compassion and kindness.  When I am tempted to react to belligerent people with similar belligerence, I hear the Quranic advice, “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike.  Repel (evil) by that which is better, and then the one between you and him is enmity will become as though he was a devoted friend” (41:34).  Overriding my gut reaction to retaliate, and deliberately choosing a wholesome and positive response, takes self-control, confidence and patience.  A measured response is not always easy. 

The Quran supplements its advice to reply to evil with good with a qualifier:  “But none attains to this except those who are patient, steadfast…” (41:35).  The verse reminds me that I should not expect an immediate positive response to a single act of kindness.  I will need to forgive and be kind repeatedly and consistently to prove to the offender that I value him.  Having dignity, I must dignify others, even when they are vulgar.  And just as I wish to be treated with honor, I should honor others, even if they make themselves seem unworthy of it.   How could I hope for forgiveness if I myself cannot forgive?

Eventually, love pays off.  Busybee’s kiss was a sign that kindness had mended her heart.  She told me she was ready to love in return and since then she has touched autistic children in ways I cannot fully understand.  But seeing them riding Busybee, smiling brightly, I realized that she had become the therapy horse of my dream, with more to give than I ever imagined.  Most of all, she taught me that patient kindness will eventually triumph and then will carry forward in untold ways.

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Unconditional Love

If love is a sublime and sought after emotion, then it follows that unconditional love is even more lofty and desired.  We seek love because it is enjoyable, affirming, exhilarating. We usually love others for their positive traits – their outlook on life, their ethics and sense of purpose, their enthusiasm and dedication, their honesty and courage, their sensitivity and passion.   A lover will compliment their beauty, appreciate their virtues, affirm their worth, and enjoy making them happy. But there is much more to love.  As Viktor Frankl so eloquently said,

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.  No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.  By his love, he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized.  Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities.  By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

Unconditional love begins when we see others in their totality, the good and the bad.  It delights in the good but, although it forgives the bad, it cannot accept complacency.  Unconditional love manifests in the presence of vulnerability and imperfection, and is both tested and proven in episodes of confrontation, opposition or rejection.  The unconditional lover will risk honesty, which will inevitably hurt you.  He wants to make you see, to dare you to new experiences, to open you to change, to push you to the limit of your growth.  He wants to uncover what is meaningful and important for your life, what will make you a better person, what will lead you to your ultimate potential.   This expression of unconditional love is risky, because not all of us are ready to accept true love.  We will often feel hurt, betrayed, painfully unloved.  In fact, we may avoid unconditional love because it portends discomfort, change, hard work.  It challenges us and tires us.

Love, particularly unconditional love, are gifts to lovers in earthly life, celestial gifts that must have an origin in God. His love for us is evident, and revealed in the gifts of life itself, the physical, mental and emotional capacities we enjoy, the beauty within and around us, and the mystical and spiritual aspirations that lead us to greater awareness of Him.  We are naturally inclined to sense God’s love and respond to it with gratitude and yearning.  We seek God’s love and acknowledge it, especially when we are satisfied, pleased.  And we yearn for unconditional love, yet we don’t understand what it means.

Yes, God is Kind, God is Love. He is Grand, Good, Eternal.  He describes Himself as Holy, Compassionate, Merciful.  We implore his Gentleness, Generosity and Forgiveness.  We claim to love God.  Yes, loving this God is easy, and we are willing to love at this level.  But God is also Truthful, a Guide who allows distress to afflict His creation, the Lover who sees our potential, who is not satisfied with mediocrity.  Are we ready for the Truthful to assess our soul?  For the Guide to lead us to and through our vulnerabilities?  For the growth envisioned by unconditional Love?

When we are subjected to childhood traumas over which we have no control, when we experience failure and privation despite our best efforts, when we suffer physical pain and material loss in our fight against injustice, when we are afflicted with natural disasters or life-threatening illness that turn our lives upside down, we blame God, doubting His love.  We want love but not unconditional love.  We forget that the unconditional lover is not satisfied with the outcome of a pampered life, that which stunts our growth and cripples us.  He sees our potential and propels us toward its realization.  Or perhaps he sees our contradictions and tries to purge our hearts of insincerity.  The unconditional lover will forever challenge our status quo, will prompt our growth, will provide us with the means to flourish.

To perceive and accept unconditional love – that which transforms and elevates you – necessitates a degree of patience and trust.  Prophet Muhammad said, “When God loves a people He subjects them to trials, so whoever is content, then for him is pleasure…”   The Quran confirms it: And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.’  Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided”  (2:155-157).  If you accept God’s unconditional love, you will be vulnerable to Him and accept His will, even that which hurts, that which perplexes you.  Loving unconditionally will make you putty in His Hand, the mighty Hand that shapes you in turn with tenderness and force, with abundance and privation, with that which makes you whole and that which breaks you.  He will periodically knock on your heart to crack its fragile shell and give it space to grow.  Then, if you meet the tapping with indifference or avoidance, He will insist with greater and greater intensity, until He breaks your hardness and a new heart emerges, pliant in the Hand of its Maker.  Are you ready for the unconditional, nurturing love of God in this moment?  When He heats you in fire then forges your shape like a blacksmith, will you yield to Him or will you rebuke Him, question His wisdom, rebel against His will?

To love God conditionally is to accept His gifts and thank Him when life goes according to plan, but to ignore Him when called, question Him when dismayed, rebuke Him when disappointed, rebel against Him when challenged.  To reject God’s love is to turn away from and avoid what is good for your soul, what expands and elevates it.  To distance yourself from the varying expressions of His love is to become stagnant, numb and lifeless.

To love God unconditionally means to follow Him.  It means to love all that is from Him, to seek it, embrace it, and submit to it with total acceptance, without blame.  Although loving God will challenge you, and may cause some discomfort from time to time, you won’t retreat.  You will look beyond any inconvenience, even before the trial of true love begins, and fix your sight on the face of the Beloved. The lover will trust the Beloved with a trust due to none other than Him, saying, “Ask what You will.  I am yours.”

Our primordial selves are open to the delights of love.  Our mature selves are open to the challenges of unconditional love.  With insight, we recognize it when we experience growth after painful or traumatic episodes, and may even be grateful for the truths it revealed or the personal strengths it nurtured.  But if we are to move beyond our selfishness on the receiving end of love, and become a lover as well, we must accept the implications of unconditional loving —  appreciation of how God manifests His unconditional love for us, and then loving Him, unconditionally, in return.

We are called to believe in God, to reflect on life, and to comply with His will. The Quran says, “Whoever believes, it is for his own good and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm” (96:104) and that the heedless are those who “have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear”  (7:179).  “If Allah touches you with hurt, there is none who can remove it but He.  If He designs some benefit for you, there is none who can keep back His favor… Truth has reached you from your Lord.  Those who receive guidance do so for the good of their own souls and those who stray do so to their own loss… Follow (the Quran that) is revealed to you and be patient and constant…” (10:107-109).

With our limited knowledge and experience, we can’t fully understand God’s will, but with complete trust in our Creator, we can accept it, embrace it.  When we love God unconditionally, we will seek His guidance and then consciously and faithfully follow it.  We will fulfill His prescriptions and avoid His prohibitions.  We will be pleased with the Word of God that guides us to our greatest potential and the Hand of God that shapes us into our best selves.  We will be able to accept the mysteries of our lives –the unavoidable trauma, pain and want – as being part of the process that makes us who we are, who we were meant to be.   We will become resilient to mental, spiritual and physical challenges, resourceful and strong in the face of adversity, perceptive to others’ suffering, compassionate and responsive to their needs, daring against injustice, trusting in ultimate good.

With total submission to a loving and beloved Lord, we can find a place of peace and stability, a place where trauma, pain and want no longer prevail.  We can find a place of love, exquisite in breadth and depth and, if we surrender to it – to the unconditional Love of our Maker, we will be blessed with His pleasure, abundance and infinite mercy.  In our search for this place of love, both in this life and the next, we can only ask God to help us respond to His love with total submission – to offer to our Beloved our own unconditional love.

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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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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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