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  It’s like cleaning your closet – getting rid of the clothes that are outdated, ill-fitting, worn out, or useless.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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