Basic Concepts of the Quran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Therapeutic Effects of Ramadan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Pilgrimage to Mecca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ramadan: My Greatest Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Overview of the Quran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ramadan – Month of the Quran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Horse, My Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go ahead, be free!

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Maryam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 🙂

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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