My Pilgrimage to Mecca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ramadan: My Greatest Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Overview of the Quran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ramadan – Month of the Quran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Horse, My Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go ahead, be free!

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Maryam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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