When dependence is good

All my life I’ve tried to be independent – independent in the sense of relying on myself as much as possible to get things done.  As an American, I have been acculturated to value independence as a positive aspect of a strong character.  In addition, my early experiences through the filter of childhood and adolescence taught me to depend on no one, thereby avoiding the crushing realization that in a moment of need I would not find someone I could trust, someone dependable.

As a Muslim, however, I am taught to depend on God.  There are many verses in the Quran that urge the reader to trust and depend on God, such as, “To God belongs the unseen of the heavens and the earth  and every matter shall be returned to Him.  So worship Him and rely on Him.  Your Lord is not unaware of what you do” (11:123).  “If God helps you, no one can defeat you.  If He forsakes you, who can help you besides Him?  So upon God should the believers rely” (3:160).  “Say, ‘Sufficient for me is God.  There is no god but Him.  I have put my trust in Him.  He is the Lord of the Magnificent Throne” (9:129).   “And (He will) provide for him from where he has never conceived. Whoever relies on God – He will suffice him…. (65:3).

I have read the verses many times and, on an intellectual level, I understand them, agree with them, and try to apply them.  I have tried to trust God and depend on Him.  I thought I did.  But every now and then I find myself in a corner, or in grave need, and the verses come to mind.  I hear a gentle message:  “Trust Me.”  And I realize then that I haven’t really been trusting God at all, nor have I been depending on Him.  At least not enough.

Can we trust someone spontaneously?  Or is it something that develops over time?  How do we develop trust in someone?  How long should it take?

In my experience, it takes a long time to trust someone and depend on them – it may take years.  It seems to me that there are different variables in the formula of trust, and the variables should be tested under different conditions to determine their strength or value.  One of the variables is knowledge, and a second one is wisdom.  For example, I wonder if the doctor I confide in with my health concerns has enough knowledge to diagnose the problem and enough wisdom to prescribe the right treatment for me.  Another variable is ability – does the person I am attempting to depend on have the resources, whether tangible or intangible, to support me in my time of need?   The fourth and most important variable is compassion.  I must be convinced that the person I want to trust really cares about me and is intent on thoughtfully providing the exact kind and amount of support I need.  Considering these variables, it seems that depending on someone else can be risky.

However, depending on God should be different.  Although I realize that God is perfect and should not be rated against any manmade criteria, I have had to remind myself of how He deserves my immediate and absolute trust in and dependence on Him.  For one, His knowledge is incomparable.  He knows EVERYTHING!!  –about every cell in my body, about every thought that crosses my mind, about every force in the universe that impacts my life.  I don’t need to describe or explain anything to Him.  Secondly, His ability is absolute.  “He is, over all things, Able” (2:20).  “When He decrees a matter, He says, ‘Be’ and it is!” (3:47).  So I never need to worry that He can’t do something or that it would be hard for Him.  With this knowledge I shouldn’t be impatient or dissatisfied, because not only is God completely in charge of every situation, He is also perfectly wise.  I can rest assured that He knows what He’s doing and that He never makes mistakes.  In fact, being God makes him automatically very deliberate and precise with His acts. With this analysis, it gets easier and easier to trust God and depend on Him for every big and little thing.  And it should be enough.  But there’s more.  He cares about me.  He cares about us.  He describes Himself as “Lord of the Universe, the entirely Merciful, the especially Merciful.”  The word Lord (or rabb in Arabic) has the connotation of one who shelters, nourishes, protects, provides, educates, and shapes us.  God says that He is “closer to [each] one than his jugular vein” (50:16) and that His mercy encompasses all things (7:156).  Particularly for believers who do good, but not exclusively, He is Gentle, Loving, Forbearing, three of many qualities that He uses to describe Himself.  And especially for the believers He promises His help:  “For helping the believers is ever incumbent upon Us” (30:47).

So the variables in the trust formula are optimal for trusting God wholeheartedly and depending on Him utterly.  What stops us?  What stopped me?

For one, I was under the impression that I was knowledgeable and capable enough to be fairly independent and self-reliant.  (That’s not a bad thing if we express gratitude to God for the knowledge and ability whose wellspring is in Him.)  But suddenly I faced a situation that was absolutely out of my control, that I was unable to understand, and that exposed my extreme vulnerability.  I faced myself and all my limitations.  Emotionally, I was brought to my knees.  It is times like these, when we are desperate and frightened, that we call on God.   This time, I thought, I’m going to really trust God, really depend on Him.  And I did.  Whenever worries nagged me, I said, Trust.  When my strength waned, I said, Depend on Him.  As the situation got more complicated, I did not let worries take over.  Trust!!

He didn’t let me down.  For the first time in my life, I felt an amazing, loving, supportive Presence by my side.  Several small occurrences, although appearing ordinary and coincidental to an outsider, proved to me that He meant what He said: “And (He will) provide for him from where he has never conceived. Whoever relies on God – He will suffice him ….” (65:3).  I know He’s been there all the while, but I never leaned enough to feel His strong support.  Now I know that I won’t fall down when I lean toward Him.

Having experienced God’s promise of support – which has evoked a prolonged feeling that cannot be described in words – I have changed.  Never have dependence and neediness felt so good.  By relying on God, I have no doubt that my prayer will be heard, no fear that my need will go unmet, and no crushing feeling that the responsibility is mine and mine alone.   What took me so long to trust my Creator’s knowledge, ability and care, and to rely on Him absolutely?   Having turned a corner, my advice to you is to follow me.  You won’t regret it – trust me 🙂

Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Do you remember a song performed by Aretha Franklin entitled “Respect”?  It begins with “What you want… baby, I got.  What you need, you know I’ve got it.  All I’m askin’ is for a little respect…R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Find out what it means to me!”  The song is generally interpreted as a being about respect between genders and especially for women, but considering that it was written in the United States in 1965, composed by black artist Otis Redding, and sung by a black performer, the piece could be about race relations as well.  Whatever the case, the powerful song that asks for a little respect has become a classic.

Respect as a concept is highly valued in today’s world.  It is comprised of both an attitude of appreciation toward another as well as specific conduct that honors the other.  Respect is politically correct, and anyone would agree that upright citizens respect each other.  Because some people need reminders and a little help, there is a group to advocate respect for just about every sector of society there is.  We are told to respect the opposite sex, the unborn child, the homosexual, the handicapped, the mentally ill.  We are reminded that everyone has rights, including children, the dying, people of every race and creed, and even animals.  We are expected to respect the environment, the dead, and the right of others to eat and shop in a smoke-free environment.  Respect is so important, that we have learned to respect the mere concept of respect.

We would be exemplary citizens if we respected all the things we are expected to respect.  And we would know what to do because we know the universal adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  But how would we express the ultimate respect – respect for God? Unfortunately, applying the “do unto others” rule doesn’t apply to our relationship with God because He is unlike us – He is God.

It is my guess that many people who practice respect for all others have overlooked God, perhaps because He doesn’t publicize others’ poor treatment of Him in the media or file lawsuits.   If there was a group that promoted and protected the rights of God for our respect, what would they teach us?   First, they would have to expose the reality of how we treat God in order to bring attention to the severity of the problem.  They would show us that we overlook, trivialize, marginalize, ignore and even deny the very existence of God.  They would probably bring to light some of God’s positive qualities so that we can appreciate Him more:  His omniscience, omnipotence, generosity, forbearance and forgiveness.  They would show proof of His goodness, such as the presence of so much beauty on earth, how He provides water and grows food for seven billion people and countless animals, and how He protects the inhabitants of this fragile planet in innumerable ways. And they would expose the fact that in spite of all that, many people mistrust Him, bad-mouth Him, and offend Him regularly, showing gross disrespect.

Perhaps after being educated by this group, we would be more inclined to respect God.  But if we really want to respect God we should try to know how He wants to be respected – which attitudes and conduct does he expect from us?  We can find many clues in the Quran.

Those who respect God show gratitude:   “God brought you out of your mothers’ wombs knowing nothing at all, and gave you hearing, sight and hearts so that perhaps you would show thanks.” (16:78)  “We have established you firmly on the earth and granted you your livelihood in it.  What little thanks you give!” (7:10) “Eat of the good things We have provided for you and give thanks to God…” (2:172)   “God shows favor to mankind but most of them are not thankful.” (10:60)  “Why should God punish you if you are thankful and believe?…” (4:147)

Those who respect God remember Him:  “Mankind!  Remember God’s blessing to you.  Is there any creator other than God providing for you from heaven and earth?…” (35:3).  “Remember your Lord in yourself humbly and fearfully… Do not be one of the unaware” (7:205). “(Believers are those) who remember God, standing, sitting and lying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth…” (3:191).  “Remember the Name of your Lord, and devote yourself to Him completely” (73:8). “O you who believe!  Remember God much!” (33:41).

Those who respect God pray to Him:  “Perform prayer and give alms and bow with those who bow.” (2:43)  “Seek help in steadfastness and prayer.  But that is a very hard thing, except for the humble.” (2:45)  “The prayer is prescribed for the believers at specific times.” (4:103)  “Believers are those who safeguard their prayers.” (23:9)

Those who respect God worship none but Him:  “Worship God and do not associate anything with Him…” (4:36).  “We sent no messenger before you without revealing to him: ‘There is no god but Me, so worship Me.’” (21:25)  “The Jews say, ‘Ezra is the son of God’ and the Christians say, ‘Jesus is the son of God’… they have taken their rabbis and priests as lords besides God, and also the Messiah, son of Mary.  Yet they were commanded to worship only one God. There is no god but Him! Glory be to Him above anything they associate with Him!” (9:30-31)

Why is it so easy for some people to respect every person, regardless of his worthiness of respect, yet it is so hard to respect their Creator who asks for so little in return for so much?.  Respect isn’t something we offer to God, but rather something that belongs to Him already.  So will we give Him what is rightfully His?  Or will we overlook, trivialize, marginalize, ignore and deny Him? What is the respect we owe God?  He told us: “I am Allah.  There is no god but Me, so worship Me and perform prayer to remember Me.” (20:14)

So sing along with me:  What you want… baby, He’s got.  What you need… you know He’s got it.  All He’s askin’ is for a little respect … R-E-S-P-E-C-T… Find out what it means to Him!

Posted in Articles | 1 Comment

A Short History of Religion

Following is a sequence of events that seem to logically explain the diversity in religions today and the differences in religious scriptures.    With this model, we can see that the diversity and differences are to be expected, and we can more easily guess which of the religions and scriptures are erroneous.  Most importantly, this logical sequence of events points us in the right direction if we are interested to follow God’s true religion.

1. First, God, who created us, must have introduced Himself to us. Otherwise we wouldn’t know that He created us, and we wouldn’t know about Him.  Feeling the existence of God could occur through natural inclination, but a more explicit introduction is likely to clear all doubts.  God would most likely tell us about Himself, and we should assume that He is perfect in every way (by definition of a god).

2. After introducing Himself to us, God probably shared His purpose in creating us, since naturally he did not create us without purpose (otherwise he would not be perfect).  This purpose should be related in a clear and decisive message.  If God sent a message like, “I created you for a specific purpose…” then it is logical that we are expected to fulfill the will of God by doing what he expects of us.

3.  The message would be most reliable if it came in the words of God.  We would appreciate to hear it directly from Him, not paraphrased from a secondary source.  These words should be preserved so they can be shared. It makes sense that they would be recorded in a way so that people can access it, i.e. in writing or sound recording.  A book is most likely.

4.  The one who heard or received the words of God must have been selected by God because of his reliability to relay the message accurately.  He would probably also be charged with interpreting the message for those who may not understand, and demonstrating it practically if needed.  Ideally, he should be named by God as His messenger in His words.

5.  The message should be for all people.  It is not only universal but also practicable for people of different abilities, education, and environments.  It should not contradict scientifically advanced people/societies nor be too complicated for primitive people/societies.

6.  The message should be meaningful and useful both on the personal and communal levels.  It should guide the individual and society in life, in order to fulfill the stated purpose.  The guidance would most likely be in the form of directives, prohibitions and laws, and together they would describe an interrelated, harmonious system of life that meets the needs of all sectors of society.

7.  The message should explain the consequences of implementing or neglecting it (otherwise, what is the point in sending a message?).  It should present clear and meaningful warnings and promises, and explain the mechanism for judging one’s success or failure. The rewards should naturally be attractive incentives and the warnings strong deterrents, otherwise there would be no reason to fulfill the purpose of life (doing God’s will) and follow the guidance offered, which would belittle God and His wisdom, authority and power.

8.  With the part of God and the messenger complete, it is up to the people to apply the message.  Over time, the message would likely have been misunderstood, neglected, lost or even intentionally altered to suit certain individuals.  And so it is conceivable that God communicated with many messengers throughout time out of necessity to remind us of His message to us.  However, all true messages from God would necessarily be compatible in describing God and stating the purpose of our creation, even though the context or cultural and environmental interpretation could vary.

9.  This leads us to the conclusion that the most ancient messages are likely to have been the most corrupted through time.   Therefore, it is logical that the most recent message is also the closest to the truth, as it would have been sent to replace the previously corrupted messages.  The most recent message may even have descriptions of the previous, now corrupted, messages, and would both correct misinformation and alert the reader not to be misled by them.

This, to me, is really simple and logical.  It answers so  many questions and points the direction for discovering the truth.   If you want a head start in your search, consider these verses from the Quran.  “You receive the Quran directly from the One (God) who is All-Wise, All-Knowing” (27:6); “And We (God) have not sent down the Book to you (Muhammad) except that you may explain clearly to them those things about which they differ, and a guidance and mercy to people who believe” (16:64);  and “We have given all kinds of examples to people in this Quran so that hopefully they will pay heed” (39:27).

Posted in Articles | 1 Comment

Would You Have Followed Jesus?

We all know the Bible stories about Jesus, his birth, his miracles, and how he was persecuted.  Did you ever close your eyes and imagine you were there?  Let’s imagine together.  We are Jews who follow the Book of Moses – the Torah – which is centuries old.  Not many people are familiar with the contents of the Torah, and the rabbis of the day study it and preach it, but do not really practice it or judge by it. They change God’s laws to suit their whims, they exploit the people by appealing to their spirituality in order to collect tithes (which they themselves consume) and they have little positive influence in the general population.  That part is easy to imagine because it is familiar.

Now imagine you heard a friend or neighbor talking about someone who claims to be sent by God.  His name is Jesus.  He claims that he came to uphold the law of Moses, the foremost of which is “There is no god but God.  Love Him with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  (This is the first commandment).  But while he says he upholds Moses’ law, he also introduces some new legislation which, he says, eases some restrictions of Mosaic law.  He appeals to the common man because he talks about brotherhood, love, kindness and mercy, yet he annoys the rabbis and officials because he also talks about justice and equality before God and man, which threatens their status and the benefits of power.

So you are an average Jew, and you hear the talk and the many rumors about this so-called prophet.  You see that the community is very unsettled about his claims and while some people support him (usually the poor and weak), many people despise him.  The most powerful people in your society start a smear campaign to degrade him and diminish his influence.  Many people are vehement in their hatred, even though they never actually met him, heard his sermons or read the scripture he brought.  You noticed that those who support and follow him are cautious, not wishing to draw attention to themselves in case they, too, would be persecuted as Jesus was.

Now comes the question you must think about – would you have followed Jesus?  You probably are thinking Yes! Of course!  Perhaps because you are a Christian.  But if you really want to know what your reaction would have been if you were an average Jew who heard about a new so-called prophet who was supported by some and hated by others, then just consider your reaction to Muhammad.   Like Jesus, he claimed he was sent by God with a message.  Like Jesus, he said he upholds the previous scripture, but was sent to clarify and demonstrate God’s law.  Like Jesus, he was followed by the poor and weak and, like Jesus, he was feared and hated by the powerful in his community.

What position would you have taken in Jesus’ day?  It’s probably the same position you have taken in response to Muhammad’s message.  And that’s the answer to the question.

Posted in Articles | 1 Comment

Hajj: A Spiritual Journey to Mecca

Hajj is an annual event that falls in the last month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar with the Ka’bah in Mecca as the central gathering place.  Roughly a 15 meter cube, it is not a temple, church, or shrine, but the physical axis of the Muslim world, a focal point said to be the first building ever consecrated to the worship of God.  Upon seeing the Ka’bah for the first time, Muhammad Asad, an Austrian Muslim,  said,  “There it stood, almost a perfect cube … entirely covered with black brocade, a quiet island in the middle of the vast quadrangle of the mosque: much quieter than any other work of architecture anywhere in the world. It would almost appear that he who first built the Ka’bah—for since the time of Abraham the original structure has been rebuilt several times in the same shape—wanted to create a parable of man’s humility before God. The builder knew that no beauty of architectural rhythm and no perfection of line, however great, could ever do justice to the idea of God: and so he confined himself to the simplest three-dimensional form imaginable—a cube of stone.”   Although Muslims pray toward the Ka’bah five times a day, the worship of God is the Muslim’s central focus.  There are indications in the prophetic traditions that the Ka’bah was first built by Adam and that Abraham restored the house on its original foundations.  The Quran says,  “And remember when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house…” (2:127).   It has been rebuilt several times in the same place and shape since Abraham’s time.

Abraham is the founding father of the hajj.  God ordered him to “proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to you on foot and mounted on every kind of camel, lean on account of journey through deep and distant mountain highways.” (22:27) The Quran describes Abraham as a monotheist:   “As for me, I have set myself, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to the [one true] God.” (6:97)  It also describes him as a Muslim, or one who submits to the will of the One God: “When his Lord said to him, ‘Submit!’ he promptly responded, “I have submitted to the Lord of the Universe.” (2:131)

The Quran also records Abraham’s prayer:  “ ‘Our Lord! Raise up in their midst a messenger from among them who shall recite to them your revelations… you are All Powerful and All Wise.’” (2:129)  Centuries later, Muhammad was born from the descendants of Abraham and proclaimed Islam, or submission to God, the same religion that Abraham practiced.  With Allah’s command, Muhammad revived the hajj by restoring its pure foundations and eliminating the pagan idols and customs that gradually defiled it.

Major Rites of the Hajj

There are several rites of the hajj, including circumambulation of the Ka’bah, which commemorates the way Abraham and Ishmael carried out the God’s order to do so as a token of their gratitude that they were asked to construct such a significant and sacred house of worship.  Jogging between the hills of As-Safaa and Al-Marwa commemorates Hagar’s  desperate search for water for her thirsty child as she courageously accepted God’s command that she and her son settle alone in the barren valley of Bacca (later called Mecca).  Drinking from the well of Zamzam, which was first provided for Hagar and her son, acknowledges God’s generous blessing for life-giving water.  A day of prayer on the plain of Arafah is the most significant rite of Hajj, as Prophet Muhammad said.  He gave his last sermon from this location, which was attended by almost 100,000 Muslims. He reconfirmed the importance of equality, justice, tolerance and peace with all mankind, and confirmed the sanctity of honor, property and life.  This location is also said to be the place of Abraham’s intended sacrifice.

To commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, an animal is slaughtered by each pilgrim and the meat is distributed to the poor. The Quran relates the origin of this rite:  “[Abraham] said, ‘O my son!  I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you.  So what do you think?’  He [Ishmael] said, ‘O my father,  do that which you are commanded.  If God so wills, you shall find me of the patient.’   So when they had both submitted their wills [to God], and he laid him prostrate on his forehead [for sacrifice], We called out to him, ‘O  Abraham!  You have indeed fulfilled your vision!”  Thus do we reward the righteous.’  And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice. And We left [this reminder] for him among generations in later times.”  (37:102-107).

Finally, the pilgrim confronts evil for three consecutive days by stoning three pillars erected to symbolize Satan, whom the Quran warns against: “…Satan is to man an avowed enemy!” (12:5)  He said, “…I will lie in wait for them on Your Straight Path.  Then I will assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left…” (7:17)  Stoning the symbolic pillars is physical act of rejecting, fighting and disabling evil forces that undermine faith.  It commemorates Abraham’s resistance of Satan’s attempts at three different places to dissuade him from carrying out God’s command; Abraham pelted Satan with stones to ward off temptation.  It also reminds us that fighting evil is an ongoing process, not an event.

Spiritual Growth

The Hajj enables one to put worldly interests aside – work, family, friends, entertainment – for  a spiritual retreat.  It provides a chance to refocus on the higher purpose of life:  devotion to God in all things.  A Muslim connects with other Muslims in the current Muslim “ummah;”  it is the largest annual international peace conference, with representatives from every country of the world.  It has been described as a physical world wide web.   A Muslim also connects through time with Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael, whose acts are the bases for the pilgrimage rites, and with Muhammad, who restored pure monotheistic worship from Mecca.  More than 2 million people of all races, classes and nations gather together in the valley of Mecca, where distinctions among people vanish, giving one a sense of equality with all others.  Patience, tolerance and brotherhood develop  as each pilgrim experiences the exertion and sentiments of the other.   Temporary loss of residence, everyday comforts, familiar company and personal items make one grateful for these provisions in daily life.  Having the opportunity to participate in the pilgrimage makes one feel complete in his duty to God, since the Quran says, “Due to God from the people is pilgrimage to the House” (3:96-97).  Finally, the great gathering, the dress of white shrouds, and the masses’ pleas for forgiveness draws one’s   attention to his own death, resurrection  and standing before God on Judgment Day.

Some people’s perception of life is forever changed after the hajj.  Personally, I thought about the meaning of life and the scene of thousands of people circumambulating the Ka’bah reminded of the atomic level of the electrons circling around the nucleus, as well as the astronomic level of the planets revolving around the sun.  In both, there is a center reference point.   And it struck me that THIS is the meaning of life: to keep God as my reference point, to keep my actions and thoughts revolving around Him and, like Abraham, to devote myself to the one Lord of the universe.

The Hajj re-establishes God as the focus of life.

Posted in Articles | 1 Comment

Ramadan

Ramadan is like spring cleaning to me: an annual ritual that results in the cleansing of the body, the airing out of the mind, and the beautification of the soul. It provides the opportunity for reorganization and fine tuning of the soul that is needed periodically to remind us of our roles and responsibilities and to commit to a fresh start in our faith. Even though it’s been more than 30 years since my first Ramadan, I still gain new insights and lessons each year.

In a purely physical sense, fasting provides an opportunity to quit or at least interrupt unhealthy habits. Caffeine, sugar and nicotine cannot be consumed throughout the day as is the habit of many people. When fasting ends at sunset, the body craves plenty of liquids and a nutritious and balanced meal. By the end of Ramadan I usually have accomplished a healthy weight loss and improved eating habits. However, compared to the spiritual benefits of Ramadan, this is insignificant.

My first fasts of Ramadan were more an exercise in obedience than anything else. Being a new experience and in the summer months as well, fasting was a hardship that I endured because it was required by my new faith. The Quran, which was first revealed in the month of Ramadan, instructs, “O you who believe! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you that you might attain piety.” (2:183) As required for every adult Muslim, I abstained from all physical satisfaction during the hours of fasting: food, drink, smoking and sexual intimacy from the break of dawn until sunset every day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

My first Ramadan at age 19 was difficult as I did not have the benefit of early training as my own children now do. It was a new experience to me and I was not used to denying myself anything, especially food and water, nor was I raised with fasting being a social norm or expectation. However, I firmly believed in the authenticity of the Quran as God’s word and the role of Muhammad as God’s messenger. I reasoned that if I believed in this, then I must also accept everything prescribed and prohibited for the Muslim by these two sources. I didn’t necessarily understand the reason for everything, but like a child obeying his wise and loving parents, I did not question God’s authority. So fasting to me was an act of obedience, making it also an act of worship, since I acknowledged an order or will more important than my own. If accepting that God’s will is more important than my own is the first step towards piety, then I achieved that much.

For my obedience, I am promised forgiveness and rewards in the Hereafter. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan with full consciousness of his faith and a sense of accountability will have all his previous sins forgiven.” It is also said that God rewards every good act from ten to 700 times but He is especially generous regarding the fast. God says, “The reward of the fast is different; it is observed for Me alone, therefore I shall Myself give its reward, for the faster restrains himself from food and other desires only for My sake.” To me this is real faith: adopting a lifestyle that most certainly entails some sort of sacrifice because of a belief in something for which there is no physical proof or agreed certainty. Faith is believing in something more than the here and now, even though it has never been recorded as a physical reality.

Although forgiveness and rewards were certainly enough incentive for me, as I became an experienced faster I began to understand some of the more immediate benefits that a month of physical restraint can bring. When one abstains from satisfying the most basic needs and powerful urges of life all day, each day for an entire month, both in public and in private, one develops a level of patience and self-discipline that cannot be achieved easily in any other way. Many, many times, I have told myself, “If I can fast an entire month in summer, I can do this too.” Indeed, many of our challenges in life are easy compared with the hardship of fasting in summertime, so they, too, can be met with resolve, patience and faith.

I later learned that fasting requires abstinence not only from physical pleasures but also from non-constructive or harmful actions, words and thoughts. The latter is harder to achieve than the former, but without it, the fast is absolutely useless. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) warned that “God has no need for the hunger and thirst of the person who does not restrain from vain talk and evil conduct while fasting,” and “Some gain nothing from the fast but hunger and thirst, and nothing from the night prayers except wakefulness.”

Physically, the faster suffers mainly from hunger and thirst in the first part of the month. Once the body is accustomed to the change, only thirst remains a problem, especially on the hot summer days. Ramadan is unique in that it provides an opportunity for every Muslim, regardless of his economic status, to have a first-hand experience of how it feels to be hungry and thirsty for hours on end. One can only become more empathetic and compassionate towards the poor and disadvantaged, and more thankful for the blessings we enjoy every day. No matter how simple the breakfast meal is at the end of a long day, I feel so fortunate to have to something to eat. As I begin my meal, I pray, “O Lord, for You I have fasted and with your provision I break my fast.”

Some common side effects of fasting are headaches, lethargy and insomnia, although some people report increased levels of clarity and energy during fasting. After years of practice, I experience little discomfort. Actually, fasting in the physical sense is quite easy if you are certain that you will have a meal at the end of the day. There are other challenges for the one who fasts correctly, and they are the mental and emotional restraint from anything sinful. While we can easily ignore hunger, it is more difficult to refrain from meaningless talk and activity, and to ignore anger and frustration when our patience runs thin or when offended by someone. In Ramadan, the Muslim redoubles his efforts to avoid raising his voice or indulging in gossip or idleness, and repents when he slips into error.

It is said that by knowing yourself you can know your Lord. Ramadan is an opportunity to learn more about both. When I try my best to avoid every kind of sinfulness, I become painfully aware of my seemingly incorrigible weaknesses. Even with total concentration and the best of intentions, it is impossible to have perfect conduct and pure thoughts. Acknowledgement of that fact reminds me of a necessary humility and increases my reverence for God who is not only perfect but also compassionate, appreciative and forgiving.

In addition to developing patience and emotional restraint, fasting improves self-discipline and sincerity. When fasting, one has several opportunities throughout the day to satisfy his needs while at the same time maintaining an appearance of adherence o the faith. But when I resist the temptation throughout the day to break my fast, my God-consciousness increases. The fast heightens my awareness of God’s presence and my own need for guidance as I constantly try to discipline my careless nature. I must prove my sincerity with no other authority to check my behavior. I must find the will to obey and the discipline to carry through with my convictions. In this sense, fasting for a month is training for year-long sincerity and discipline.

Once my physical and emotional self was brought under control and well-disciplined for the annual fast I began to experience the real benefits of Ramadan. This is the airing of the mind. When the Muslim is less bothered by the distraction of eating, drinking and casual socializing in his daily schedule, there is more time for worship and fruitful work. I feel Ramadan is a time for spiritual renewal, study and meditation, prayer and increased charity, and not an excuse for over-indulgence in the delicacies of evening feasts and the distractions of excessive social visits. The aim of fasting is not to encourage some sort of asceticism or to develop in the Muslim the habit of swinging between the two extremes of self-denial and over-indulgence. Rather, fasting ideally promotes physical moderation and discipline on the one hand, and spiritual focus and growth on the other. In Ramadan and year round, we should be able to focus on spiritual growth while partaking of both physical and social pleasures.

As I grow older, fasting has taught me about flexibility and resilience. Just when I start thinking that I need a particular diet, schedule and routine to be most productive, Ramadan comes along to challenge me, and I find that I can change my entire day, losing all my routines, and still be productive if not more productive. Although there are obviously exemptions for those for whom fasting is unadvisable for medical reasons, occasionally, I get sick in Ramadan and have, until now, been able to continue to fast. I am always amazed at my resilience. The strength of the human body and spirit is extraordinary when we have faith, sincerity and determination.

Another benefit of Ramadan is the sense of belonging that one achieves. Ramadan is a phenomenon of a worldwide spirit of unity and brotherhood that no other religious or secular concept has achieved. The whole Muslim society, numbering about 2 billion around the world today, joins together in the same duty in the same manner for the same period of time for the same motives to the same end. Ramadan has a spirit that transcends boundaries and national identity. It is an observance of physical restraint for the sake of spiritual growth. Fasting was also prescribed for the followers of prophets before Muhammad as is stated in the Quran (2:183): “O you who believe! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, that you might attain piety.” My sense of belonging and purpose increases when I contemplate the course of fasting among the faithful throughout the history of the world.

While the most obvious feature of Ramadan is the fast, there are several extraordinary forms of worship and charity that are recommended as well. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to recite the whole Quran during the month of Ramadan, and many Muslims try to achieve the same. At 600 pages, the Quran can be completed if one commits himself to read 20 pages a day. Many people offer additional prayers every evening at home or in the mosque, especially during the last ten nights of Ramadan, when Muslims anticipate the “night of glory” which is the anniversary of the first Quranic revelation, said to be worth a thousand months in merit (Quran 97:1-5). Some people seclude themselves in the mosque for part or all of the last ten days and nights of Ramadan to devote themselves completely to prayer, study and meditation. Others perform pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of the first revelation and the first house of worship on earth — the Kaaba.

Muslims are also extra-charitable during the month in many ways, especially by offering food to relatives, friends and the needy. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that “whoever feeds a fasting person has the same reward as him, yet without the reward of the fasting person being diminished.” Many Muslims sponsor daily meals for the poor in their communities or beyond their borders, which promotes positive relations and helps close the gap between the rich and poor.

Charity is required from every Muslim in Ramadan, the minimum being to give the worth of a day’s food to the poor near the end of Ramadan; this is called “alms for the feast” and ensures that everyone has the means to celebrate Eid, or the three-day feast that marks the end of Ramadan. It is a special time of congratulations, socialization and charity. In all the celebration, however, I have often sensed an underlying sadness. But in light of the physical, emotional, social and spiritual benefits of Ramadan that I have experienced over the years, I understand why people look forward to a month of fasting and why they are so sad to see it end. The real celebration is not when the fast is complete; it begins on the first day and lasts throughout the month.

Ramadan is a month to celebrate God’s guidance and generous provision. It is a month rich with kindness, compassion, tolerance and brotherhood. it is a month that, by depriving the body, enriches the soul.

Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

The Muslim’s Journey through Life

Our journey in life is never alone.  Each of us has a mother, and each is born into a family.  In Islam, the journey through life is intrinsically woven into family life.  It is within the family structure that the journey of life takes shape.  And it is in the Quran and prophetic traditions that the Muslim finds guidance for family life.  The Quran, which outlines moral and legal rights and responsibilities among family members, presents a methodology for safeguarding the family group and, within it, each family member.

The Muslim’s journey begins before he is born.  As a fetus, he is protected from the dangers of  intoxicants and harmful food substances (as prohibited for all Muslims in the Quran).  In addition, his mother is entitled by her husband for full maintenance and financial support, which protects her from the exhaustion of working long hours outside of the home unnecessarily.   Even the child’s right to exist is made clear in the Quran:  “Do not kill your children because of poverty” (6:151) or “in dread of poverty” (17:31).

The new arrival is born pure and sinless, in a natural state that is “hardwired to believe.”   Upon birth, his father or someone else attending his birth whispers his faith in his ear:  “There is no god except One God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” His birth is festive occasion marked with charity from his family and a communal meal sponsored by his father.  Prophet Muhammad advised against giving a child a name with a negative connotation, preferring pleasant names with good meanings.  The Quran acknowledges the child’s right to know his father and lineage, even if he is in the care of foster parents: “Call them by their fathers’ names…” (33:5)

Care of the infant continues through the care of the mother, who is guaranteed full maintenance throughout her marriage, and especially in the period of breastfeeding, which extends up to two years.  During this stage, parents should agree on major decisions regarding their children, such as weaning and day care options.

The first seven years of a Muslim’s life are characterized by affection and education through play.  Muhammad (p) said that “He does not belong to us who does not show mercy to our children…” (Tirmidi 1279).  During the first seven years, his interaction with parents and elders also gives him training in social relations, which are characterized by respect.   In the event of divorce, custody is usually given to the mother; however, the child remains the financial responsibility of the father.  If the child is orphaned, the paternal relatives are responsible for his upbringing.

The second seven years of a Muslim’s life are characterized by formal education, which continues throughout his life.   Prophet Muhammad said that seeking knowledge is an obligation of every Muslim (Tirmidi 74).  Therefore, in addition to general education, the child’s spirit is trained through prayer, which he gradually learns and performs until it is a well-ingrained habit.   His body is trained through a gradual implementation of the fast of Ramadan, which develops self-discipline, will-power over temptation, and physical fortitude.  His mind is trained through memorizing the Quran, which not only gives him the foundations of faith and language, but also primes his mind for knowledge recall and retention.  By the age of ten years, the child is prepared for adulthood – he is instructed to perform the five daily prayers regularly, he is separated from siblings to sleep and he is expected to respect the privacy of family members by asking permission before entering a closed room.

At puberty, the Muslim is considered an adult and bears moral responsibility for his deeds.  At this time, he is responsible for maintaining the prayer, fasting in Ramadan, being modest in his or her clothing, and increasing personal hygiene.   He is also a candidate for marriage.  The Quran encourages marriage:  “[They should] marry…God will enrich them of his bounty.  Those who can’t find the means to marry should be abstinent until God enriches them…” (24:33)  Marriage is neither a sacrament nor a simple civil contract, but with aspects of both.  There are regulations that increase the likelihood of a successful relationship (such as parental approval for a previously unmarried bride, and a material gift from the groom which indicates his ability to support her financially).  The husband is responsible to provide for and guide the family, and the wife is responsible to protect the husband’s property and his exclusive rights to her sexuality.  Both are responsible for the upbringing of children and maintenance of the home.  In the case of irreconcilable differences, divorce is permitted.

Parenthood brings both responsibility and rights.  The Quran says,  “Worship God and be good to your parents.” (17:23)  Therefore, they are to be treated with respect and deference.  Generally, they should be obeyed unless they ask for something illegal or immoral.

The Quran mentions the age of 40 as an age of maturity: “… when he attains full maturity and reaches forty years of age…” (46:15)  By this time, he would have experienced many challenges of life, which help to develop his character.  The Quran says, “You will surely be tested in your possessions and yourselves.” (3:186)  The Muslim strives to follow the Quran’s guidance and Prophet Muhammad’s example, knowing that  “Whoever does good work, whether male or female, while he is a believer, We will surely cause him to live a good life…” (16:97)  “And whoever turns away from My remembrance – indeed, he will have a difficult life…” (20:124).

Although not family, neighbors are to be treated as good as family.  Prophet Muhammad asked, “Do you know what the rights of a neighbor are?  “Do you know what the rights of a neighbor are?  If a neighbor seeks your help, extend it to him. If a neighbor asks you for a loan, lend him.  If your neighbor becomes poor, then help him financially and attend to his poverty if you can. If your neighbor becomes ill, then visit him. If your neighbor is happy on certain gain, then congratulate him. If your neighbor is suffering a calamity, then offer him condolences. If your neighbor dies, then attend his funeral. Do not raise your building over his building, so that he would have no sun exposure or wind passage.  Do not bother your neighbor with the smell of your cooking, unless you intend to offer him some.” (Tabrani 101).

When a person reaches old age, he has a special status in the community.   The Prophet (peace nbe upon him) said, “He does not belong to us who does not show mercy to our children and respect to our elderly” (Tirmidi 1279).  The Quran is particular about the care of parents:  “We have  enjoined everyone to look after his parents…” (31:14)  “We have instructed man to be kind to his parents…” (46:15)  “… when they attain old age…never say to them ‘uff’ nor scold either of them.  Speak to them gently.  Serve them with tenderness and humility…” (17:23-25)

Old age is the harbinger of death.  While on his deathbed, the Muslim’s family members help him to repeat his testimony of faith: “There is no god except One God, and Muhammad is His messenger.”  Burial is usually the same day after washing the body, wrapping it in cloth and saying the funeral prayer.  After debts are settled, wealth is automatically divided among surviving family members according to Quranic law.   Up to one third of one’s wealth can be bequeathed to those not automatically covered in the inheritance laws.

The Muslim continues to live on in his legacy.  Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that the believer’s deeds stop at death except in three cases:  ongoing charity, a legacy of knowledge and a righteous child who prays for him.

Even though his earthly life has ended, a new life is just beginning.  The Quran says that “On (Judgment) Day, all people shall come from their graves in diverse multitudes to be shown their deeds.  So whoever has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it” (99:6-8).   His destiny, at this point, is in God’s hands.

Posted in Articles | 1 Comment