Friday, December 30, 2011

Breaking Bad Habits

I've always scrutinized newly arrived pilgrims closely, expecting to spot signs of major spiritual transformation in them now that they'd completed their once-in-a-lifetime duty of hajj. Imagine my disappointment this year when I saw none---while looking at myself in the mirror.

A big part of me wishfully thought I'd return from Mecca a completely changed person, having sworn off all bad habits and resolved to adopt new ones after my past sins had been forgiven, God willing. But my sudden renunciation didn't last, at least not for long once I returned to the grind of the real world.

Like me, most people are unable to change all at one go so must take a longer, more gradual route to self-purification. Indeed, we are all obliged to cleanse ourselves from immoral characteristics and animal instincts and replace them with superior spiritual virtues, even if it is one step at a time.

God clearly tells us: "Successful is the one who is able to change his/her bad habits. And a failure is the one who is unable to change his/her bad habits." (Quran 91:9-10)

"A human being's life is nothing but  a set of habits," says lecturer Muhammad Kazmi.

It was to teach us how to perfect ourselves and gain closeness to Him that God sent mankind prophet after prophet, each guiding his people to overcome selfish whims and passions through reason, self-building and refinement.

"I was appointed to the prophethood so that I may accomplish the important task of moral perfection in human souls," Prophet Muhammad (S) said.

Prophet Moses (foster son of Asiya, one of the four perfect women of all times) showed us that no matter how rotten our ways, change is always possible. On his first encounter with Pharaoh, Moses asked him: "Are you interested in reforming yourself?" (79:19)

"As long as the soul remains in this world of change and transition, it is subject to time and renewal; and as long as it is associated with matter and potentiality, the human being can change all dispositions and transform them into their opposites," according to Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Scholars list top five bad habits that must be stamped out: 1) jealousy, 2) arrogance, 3) love of self, 4) stinginess and 5) greed.

Just as these unwanted traits become engrained in our personalities unless we are vigilant, so too do they get entrenched in our societies if they are not resisted.  Indeed, there are many oppressive systems, traditions and norms in place all over the world that need our collective effort to root out.

While the world is waking up to these historic injustices, we must not neglect to reform  those inner habits that oppress our souls. Indeed, "God changes not the condition of a people until they change what is related to their own conduct and behavior." (13: 11)

No doubt, it's silly to talk about changing the world when we can't bring the slightest changes in ourselves, like kicking an unhealthy addiction to peanut butter cookies (from Aldi). Must add that to my list of resolutions...right after finishing my midnight snack.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Food for Thought

It sounds like a paradox, but I learned the true meaning of giving from someone I donated to last week.

Our local Occupy movement coincidentally began their day-and-night encampment protesting corruption on the same day as Ashura, which marks the brutal slaying of Prophet Muhammad's (S) family in their fight against injustice. To honor both, I decided to bring the protestors some breakfast.
The weather was nasty that morning: cold and drizzly. As I approached the protest site, I could see police cars positioned around the encampment. Yellow caution tape stretched across the stairs leading up to the plaza where sat two nylon tents zipped up tight and plastered with messages. "You and I are the 99%," read one.
In front of those tents stood just one person, a lanky fellow named Ben sporting glasses, a beard and a big grin. (His comrades were in class or at work.) He helped me get a case of bottled water from my car, we exchanged a few words and then I left.
As I drove away in the rain, I spotted Ben again, left alone to carry the protest on. That's when I had a watershed moment: Ben was sacrificing his safety, sleep and comfort so things can get better for everybody, I thought, weeping bitterly. That's what real giving is about--not my sacks of snacks!
"Generosity is not giving me that which I need more than you do," says poet Khalil Gibran. "But it is giving me that which you need more than I do."
I had just seen a glimpse of a majestic and sublime characteristic--called ethaar in Arabic--that all of us must inculcate in ourselves. It involves cheerfully sacrificing our own acute necessities to prioritize the needs of others for the sake of God. Ethaar is found in the most sincere followers of Prophet Muhammad (S) and is the very grounds for their elevated status in the next life, according to scholar Muhammad Baig.
A person who manifests ethaar makes "sacrifices for the needy because with his sensitive heart, which feels the pain of others, he can relish the world's bounties only when there exists not a single man oppressed by need," says cleric Murtaza Mutahhari.
It is this selfless giving that Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times) and her family demonstrated for three consecutive days when they gave away their only food to beggars knocking on their door at the time of fast breaking. God was so pleased with their altruism that He revealed the following verses:
"And they give food out of love for Him to the poor and the orphan and the captive. We only feed you for God's sake; we desire from you neither reward nor thanks." (Quran 76: 8-9)
Indeed, it was Fatima's son Hussain who grew up to sacrifice his wealth, family and even life to fight the system oppressing his society. He showed us that when the going gets tough, it's only the selfless souls who get going and bring value to the struggle. On his way to Kerbala, for example, Hussain met a man who offered him his horse but not himself. Hussain told him he needed neither.
For women like myself, charity begins at home, as our first (but not only) responsibility is to bring peace, comfort and happiness to our families, even if it requires making personal sacrifices. God knows how difficult this can be so He sweetened the deal by offering paradise (with no accountability) to women who are able to do so.

This includes putting up with our husbands' grumpiness and bad moods, according to the Prophet (S).

Hmmm, relatively speaking, camping out in the rain is looking more and more like a walk in the park....

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Travelling Sisterhood

I gave my girls a clear warning before leaving them with my mother for our hajj pilgrimage. 

"Don't let me hear, 'They fought the whole time!' first thing when I get back," I told them. (Thankfully, they weren't able to catch " my poor mom had to," which I mumbled under my breath.)

Being close in age and tight in space while growing up, we four sisters certainly had more than our fair share of fights, I regret to admit.  It didn't take much to light a spark: a sweater borrowed without even asking!, whose turn it was to vacuum, who first called "Sitting in the middle!" of the backseat of the Oldsmobile station wagon. All such points were incendiary in our household. 

Sibling rivalry is, unfortunately, a fact of life in most homes, even when parents mete out just treatment. God acknowledges this in the examples of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Prophet Adam, as well as in the "most beautiful of stories" of Prophet Joseph, who was thrown into a well by his older brothers and then sold into slavery. 

"[Joseph said]...'after Satan had sown discord between me and my brothers.'" [Quran 12: 100]

If left unchecked, this rivalry can eventually tear a family of grown adults apart, especially once inheritance (of position, power, or wealth) comes into play. How many siblings have sworn one another off over claims to their parents' property, even if it's only a shack out in Timbuktu!?

Scholars say the root of such conflict is an unhealthy attachment and love for this world. It can manifest itself in seven ways:

1. lust for women/men
2. coveting this world
3. love for position
4. love for comfort
5. love to be superior
6. love of speech
7. love of wealth

To avoid such situations, we must constantly keep God and our eventual return to Him top of mind.

Prophet Muhammad (S) showed us how God reigns supreme through the way he treated his foster siblings. When his sister came to visit, the Prophet (S) exhibited much happiness, rolling out a rug and asking her to sit and converse with him. He did not, however, go as far when his brother stopped by.

The Prophet (S) explained that his sister deserved more love and regard because she was more dutiful to her parents (in obedience to God).

One of the most beautiful examples of unconditional love for a sibling purely for the sake of God was the example of Zainab with her older brother Hussain, both children of Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times).

"Zainab's life was directly connected with the life of Imam Hussain," says scholar Abbas Ayleya. "This has been witnessed since day one of her birth."

As a baby, when she couldn't be consoled by her mother, Zainab would quiet down while held in the arms of big brother Hussain. A few years later when their mother died, it was Zainab who took on the role of a mother to her brothers and father, as did Fatima to Prophet (S) years ago.

Having witnessed many injustices throughout her life, Zainab stuck with Hussain through thick and thin, jumping at the opportunity to assist him on his mission to oppose a tyrannical regime.

Here's how she petitioned her husband to let her go:

"My mother did not leave me behind to watch from afar as recreation the day when my brother is all alone, surrounded by enemies with no friend or supporter. You know that for fifty-five years my brother and I have never been separated." 

In Kerbala, anguished Zainab watched with pride as her sons, nephews and brother fought valiantly to save Islam until the bitter end, demonstrating that though she loved Hussain dearly, her love for God was far greater. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

End the Silence on Ashura

Open Letter to the Silent Majority

It will break my heart if I have to sit through another typical Ashura gathering.

That's why I've decided to write this letter appealing for full disclosure and impartiality from scholars lecturing at most mosques around the world. (Readers, please forward this to a relevant Islamic center near you!)

At many of these commemorations, much time is spent relating how God blessed a string of noble prophets on Ashura, the 10th day of the sacred month of Muharram, as they spread the Divine message on earth. But little to no time is given to discuss the Ashura event that safeguarded this same message from corruption after the era of the prophets came to an end.

This event was the sacrifice of Hussain, the grandson of the final Prophet Muhammad (S) and son of Fatima (one of the four perfect women), a courageous soul who stood up against an illegitimate regime to save God's rule from the clutches of tyranny, corruption and oppression. As poet Allama Iqbal wrote:

"The story of the Kabah is unfortunate, simple and colorful
It began with Ishmael and ended with Hussain."

So, respected scholars, when you remind us this week that on the 10th of Muharram:
  • Adam was forgiven after his exile, remember to talk about Hussain as he is chief of the youth of those eternal gardens of Paradise.
  • Noah was rescued on the ark, remember to talk about Hussain as his family was likened to that ship of salvation. Prophet (S): "Whoever embarked on it was saved, and whoever turned away from it perished."
  • Moses defeated Pharoah, remember to talk about Hussain as he resisted the pharoah of his time with faith, nobility and valor. Hussain: "I have not come out with the intention of violence and rebellion or in obedience to my passions, and it is not my object to create mischief on the earth or to opress anyone. My only object is to reform the affairs of the Muslim nation and to act according to the conduct of my father and grandfather."
  • Jacob was reunited with his son Joseph, remember to talk about Hussain as he lost on this day his young sons, including a thirsty baby pierced by an arrow in the neck while being cradled in his arms.
  • Abraham was protected from the fire, remember to talk about Hussain as he was left the last man standing "under the blazing sun, on the parched land and against the stiffing heat of Arabia," in the words of historian Washington Irving.
Now, don't stop short. Continue the narrative by reminding us what our own Prophet Muhammad (S) did on this fateful day. With dust on his head and dust in his beard, he was the first to propagate the plight of Hussain, the grandchild he once cuddled in his lap and rode on his back.

"I have just been at the slaying of al-Hussain," he told his wife Umm Salamah in a dream of hers, according to her tearful narration [Tirmidhi].

Respected scholars, I ask you to disseminate the story of Hussain far and wide--not for the sake of historical truth or inclusiveness--but because it is the sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet (S) and exactly what the world needs right now!

People in all corners of the globe are finally wising up to the injustices being committed against them.  It is from Hussain they can learn how a small cadre of people dedicated to truth, peace and justice can undertake a successful struggle against tyrannical regimes with wide-reaching control.

"Let humanity awaken and every tribe will claim Hussain for their own," predicts poet Josh Malihabadi.

The rest, as they say, will be history.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lingering Hellos and Long Good-byes

I had to eat my words after assuring my daughters I would pray for everything on the wish lists they were drawing up for our hajj pilgrimage.

"How do you spell 'sister'?" came the voice of my six-year-old, who was crouched over the kitchen table with a pen and paper.

"What?!" I exclaimed. "You already have two sisters! What do you want a another one for?"

The next time I handled those lists I was sitting cross-legged in the courtyard of Medina's Masjid Nabawi (mosque and burial place of Prophet Muhammad (S)). It was here, in full view of the parrot green dome of the original mosque, that I found the most serene, calming and reverent of spaces.

This corridor seemed to attract the most passionate visitors of the Prophet (S), those who had waited a long time, came from afar and were determined to stay awhile, though the mosque's religious police insisted on shooing people away, expecting them to drop off their salaams to the Prophet (S) with the haste and indifference of a mail carrier.

Behind me, a large group of Turks sat in a circle and chanted a chorus of melodious praises of the Prophet (S).  Nearby, an Indo-Pak man stood barefoot, head bowed while facing the mosque, tears streaming down his black beard. Another whispered: "Ya Nabi, Salaam Alaika...."

"God and His angels send blessings on the Prophet: O ye who believe! Send ye blessings on him and salute him with all respect." (Quran 33: 56)

Indeed, the Prophet (S) promises to personally hear those "who invoke blessings upon me by my grave," and also encouraged us to be generous and expansive with our words.

Don't utter "batar salawat," (curtailed invocations) he warned. "Say: 'O Allah, send blessings on Muhammad and the family of Muhammad."

The Prophet's (S) own daughter Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times) used to visit her father's grave frequently and is recorded to have said: "We have missed you the way parched land misses the rainfall!"

As the crowd burgeoned, the religious police appeared, calling "Namaz! Namaz!" and ushering us to the prayer areas though congregational prayer time was still aways off.

One reached for my book of supplications. "No!" I chided, tucking it back into my travel pouch. Few people moved.

Then came the uniformed security officials afoot. It was only after they started driving their SUVs into the crowds that people began dispersing.

To avoid a possible "bloody confrontation" one day, scholar Muhammad al-Asi proposes "a body of credible Islamic scholars be assigned the responsibility of regulating the Islamic activities pertinent to Mecca and Medina." That's "provided that they are not employed by any government, they are not getting orders from any authorities and they try their best to administer these areas in fulfillment of the Quran and the Sunnah."

One soft-spoken hajji from Uzbekistan, not more than 20 years of age, wearing a green vest and cap and flanked by his group's elderly women, calmly protested to the police. After failing to negotiate more time, he took the women aside, debriefed them and gently led them to nearby Janat ul-Baqi, where many of the Prophet's (S) loved ones are buried.

As I gathered my belongings, I couldn't help but utter a heartfelt supplication to God to bless us all with children--whether boys or girls--who grow up to have the courage, passion and good manners of that Uzbeki lover of RasulAllah (S).

Saying farewell is tough--I do exclaim!
Farewell to the Prophet, the friend of the Lord!
Farewell to the four graves abandoned behind bars!
Farewell to you, O Land all Divine! 
(Translated excerpt of the Farsi Farewell Medina)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Hajj: Eat, Pray But Love Not?

Is it sacriligious that I had a run-in with our group scholar, and that too in Mina, the Valley of Love?

Our stay in Mina punctuated the end of a two-week pilgrimage trip that allowed us to bathe in God's Majestic Power and Glory in the sacred lands while bonding with fellow Muslims (3,000,000!) from around the world through worshipping together, weeping together and just being together, all while imploring God's forgiveness, guidance and ultimate pleasure.

"And proclaim among men the pilgrimage: they will come to you on foot and every lean animal, coming from every remote path." (Quran 22:27)

Forced literally "shoulder-to-shoulder" throughout, the need for "personal space" was slowly replaced with feelings of love, compassion and sympathy for others--regardless of ethnicity, language and social class--accompanying us on this journey called life.

For me, our equality before God was most pronounced during the sai or to-and-fro between the two mountains of Safa and Marwa. I got choked up every time the green light approached and all the male hajjis (no matter how rich, important or powerful back home), donned in two simple cloths, picked up their trot in emulation of Hagar, the wife of Prophet Abraham and great grandmother of Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times). Hagar had done the same in search of water for her dying baby thousands of years ago.

This hustle was in obedience to the Almighty who continually reminds His guests of the elevated status of a black, African, slave woman for acquiring what truly counts: piety, God-consciousness and absolute trust in her Lord. Follow her footsteps! God commands.

It was with such thoughts and feelings that hajjis land in the Valley of Mina, where they're required to encamp for the last two to three days of their pilgrimage.

"Now at the termination of hajj do not disperse, do not return to your home country," says Ali Shariati in his book Hajj: Reflections on Its Rituals. "We should sit and discuss our pains, needs, difficulties and ideals with our fellow-sympathizers...who have gathered from all parts of the world with the warmth of the same love, having been illuminated with the same faith."

Imam Khamanei, the Supreme Leader in Iran, echoed this sentiment in his annual message to hajj pilgrims earlier this month:

"It will be worthy of the hajj pilgrims at this great assembly of the Islamic Ummah to address the most important issues of the Islamic world. The uprisings and revolutions in some important Islamic countries are at the head of these issues. The events that have taken place in the Islamic world in the interval between the previous and present hajj pilgrimages can change the destiny of the Islamic Ummah, and they forbode a bright future accompanied with dignity and progress, material and spiritual."

But the scholars accompanying our group had other things in mind. Eat, pray and relax, they exhorted anticlimactically. I gleaned little that was coherent, inspiring or moving from their post-congregational prayer speeches. Needless to say, there was absolutely no mention of standing up for the oppressed or fighting injustice.

"The way the rulers of Arabia run Mecca and Medina and the network of masjids (mosques) they have all around the world, they want you--when you go to Mecca or to a masjid--to leave your mind outside," says scholar Muhammad al-Asi, author of The Ascendant Quran.

At the end of one sermon too many, I went up to the speaker and asked him to shed light on what we American-Muslims can do to participate in the movement for justice and equality upon returning home. "I am not American," was his reply. Then tell us about Tahrir Square (He was Egyptian.), I pleaded.

Red-faced and walking away, he pointed to the mic and told me to go tell people to protest if that is what I was after.

Little did he know that I had a mic of my own in my backpack: a pen. Returning to my room, I found a piece of paper (my four-year old's drawing of what she wanted me to pray for: a new swing set), turned it over and scribbled in black ink:

Peace and Justice

and pinned it to the back of my abaya (overcoat).

The note provoked vibrant conversations but I was humbled to find it was too little, too late for my esteemed Canadian sisters who were already standing up for justice right then and there. When they found  the camp's Indonesian sisters sleeping on the bathroom floor one morning, they protested to the organizers and raised $1,100 Saudi Riyals to distribute to these workers.

They knew what Shariati meant when he said: "This is not the end of the work. It is the beginning."

Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Together

A picture is supposed to say a thousand words. (Regardless, it will have to do. I'm short on time...should be buying sleeping bags right now for our upcoming hajj pilgrimage, God willing!)

There are a few additional words, though, I'd like to share, and they come from those whom we can't afford to ignore.

God: "Let there arise from you a group of people inviting what is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong; these are the ones who will be successful." (Quran 3:113)

"O believers, be maintainers of social justice, bearers of witness for God's sake, even though it be against yourselves, or [your] parents or kinsfolk, whether the man be rich or poor, God is over and above them [in preference]. Therefore don't follow your base desires, lest you deviate, and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely God is aware of what you do." (Quran 4: 135)

Prophet Muhammad (S): "A moment of justice is better than seventy years of worship in which you keep fasts and pass the nights in prayers and worship of God."

Ali (husband of Fatima, one of the four perfect women): "To render relief to the distressed and to help the oppressed makes amends for great sins."

Zainab (daughter of Fatima) to the leadership after it killed nearly all the men in the Prophet's (S) family for standing up to corruption and oppression: "Your ideas are unstable! Your government is transitory! While I find speaking to you of no value, I find scolding you to be great!"

Ali Shariati (in his book Hajj: Reflections on Its Rituals): "Now that you are standing in Abraham's position and are going to play his role, live like him, be the architect of the Kabah of your faith. Rescue your people from the lagoon of their life. Re-breathe life into their bodies that are numb and dead from the suffering of oppression and the darkness of ignorance. Encourage them to stand on their feet and give them direction."

Lastly, Imam Khomeini (leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran): "This movement rose from the soul of the masses, the soul of the ordinary men and women, and just as the men entered the arena, so too did  the esteemed ladies. Indeed, one must say that they played a greater part in this movement than the men; they made more effort. For when the ladies take action, it spurs the men on."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Night of Power: You Snooze, You Lose

I had to bite my tongue recently while listening to a friend discuss her love life, or more accurately, lack thereof.

After lamenting at length about being single at her age, she concluded by putting the blame squarely on God:

"It will happen when God wants it to happen."

Unfortunately, we often shirk responsibility for our own actions--in my friend's case, rejecting many decent proposals in her youth--because of a misunderstanding of the concepts of fate and destiny (qada and qadir in Arabic).

While God's will rules supreme and He has predetermined some aspects of our lives, He has also given us freedom to make our own choices and, as such, choose our own adventures. This free will applies to seven parts of our bodies used to fulfill divine duties and earn rewards: eyes, ears, tongue, two hands, two feet, private parts and stomach, according to scholar Abbas Ayleya.

"We have shown man the path of truth and the path of falsehood; he may choose either the path of guidance and offer thanks, or choose the path of ingratitude." (Quran 76:3)

Ali, husband of Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times), was resting in the shade of a broken wall when he suddenly rose and moved to another one.

"Are you fleeing what God has destined?" he was asked.

"Yes," he said. "I flee from one destiny to another."

Every year on the Night of Power (Laylatul Qadr in Arabic, which occurs in this month of Ramadan), God closes the books on our actions of the previous year while determining the upper and lower bounds of those in the next one, according to some traditions.

In His Generosity and Hospitality, He invites us (by making this one night better than a thousand months) to spend it with Him, seeking forgiveness for the past and asking for the best (such as goodness, righteousness, blessings and opportunities) in the year to come.

"[God is saying] I am inviting you inside the room so you can be part of what is being decided for you," says scholar Muhammad Baig. "How can someone sleep when their life is being decided?"

Ali said: "Fatima never allowed anybody to sleep on that night." She served little food and prepared to stay up. "Indeed, deprived is someone who is deprived from the goodness of this night," she said.

Some of the recommended acts of Laylatul Qadr include:

1) Taking a religious bath (ghusl in Arabic) before Maghrib prayers
2) Performing 100 cycles (rakat) of prayers (making up for missed ones)
3) Reciting chapters of the Quran, such as The Romans, Smoke and Spider
4) Devoting an hour to gaining religious knowledge
5) Making heartfelt supplications

Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, urged women to not only actively pave their own destinies but also those of their nations.

"We want women to attain the high rank of true humanity," he said. "Women must have a say in the fundamental destiny of the[eir] country."

Indeed, activist and poet Allama Iqbal challenges us to take the world of future possibilities to another level (translated from Urdu below):

Khudi ko kar baland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle
Khuda bande se ye pooche bata teri raza kia hai

Exalt yourself so high that before issuing each decree of fate
God Himself will ask you, His Servant, 'Tell me, What is your wish?'
Dear Readers,
I will be taking a three-month 'sabbatical' from my blog to devote time to upcoming obligations. Thank you for your attention and see you when I get back, God willing!
Salina Khan

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Popping the Questions

I knew it was time to find another mosque one Ramadan season when I got chewed out for asking a few questions.

For weeks the mosque's resident scholar-in-training had been reiterating the importance of sighting the moon to mark the beginning of the month, even suggesting we take our kids hiking to search for it. As that time approached, however, mosque officials announced the first day of the holy month before we even got a chance to look for the new crescent.

When I emailed the lecturer for an explanation, he not only failed to give me a satisfactory reply but also instructed me not to query him again!

God, on the other hand, encourages us to be inquisitive and ask questions of religious scholars (ulema in Arabic) to gain a deeper understanding of our religion in our journey to nearness to Him. Ulema must listen to our questions respectfully and answer them logically and rationally (and with composure, forbearance and openness) to prove the truthfulness of Islam, as scholars say themselves. Indeed, God's religion is one of logic, based on argument and proof.

"Then ask those who know about that which you do not know." (Quran 16:43)

And Prophet Muhammad (S) said: "Knowledge is a locked closet whose key is the question."

Both Fatima (one of the four perfect women) and her husband Ali demonstrated the importance of Q&A and set the example for ulema of all times. Ali used to say: "Ask me before you lose me!"

A woman who asked Fatima ten questions one after another about prayers stopped and apologized for inconveniencing the daughter of the Prophet (S).

Fatima's response: "Ask me what you do not know...I have been hired by God to get wages which if the space between the earth and the sky is filled with pearls [the wages] would still be more than that for each question I may answer you."

Scholars who provide illumination and true guidance--unadulterated by materialism, desires, tradition or public pressure--are invaluable and considered "the inheritors of the prophets."

"The virtue of a scholar to a worshipper is similar to the virtue of a moon when it is full to the rest of the stars," according to Muhammad (S).

True ulema exhibit three attributes: 1) sufficient knowledge, 2) piety (act on their knowledge) and 3) insight (correct understanding of the concepts of religion), according to scholar Abbas Ayleya.

"I don't believe in being naive when it comes to ulema," says scholar Usama Abdul-Ghani. " I don't believe in following  just anybody."

Not only do the pious scholars provide guidance regarding individual obligations but they also actively lead people to fulfill social and political duties to God, most notably fighting injustice. They never support oppressors nor remain silent regarding their atrocities.

"The religious scholars of Egypt should fulfill their historic role in the uprising of the people of Egypt," Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, advised the ulema, particularly those at Al-Azhar University, earlier this year.

While I cherish my right to ask questions (I'm a journalist after all!), I can also be a crank when the tables get turned. I'm almost afraid to ask: Does the must-answer-all-questions rule also apply to mothers with little ones that have inquiring minds that want to know and know...?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Best Deed in Ramadan

One of my daughters recently developed a satellite-ish delay between my requests and her responses that flirts dangerously close to my boiling point.

Example: "Please take your feet off the table."







Her lingering over such slight orders thoroughly perplexed me until I started thinking about God and my own on-and-off obedience to Him in all matters of life. How many times do we procrastinate, if not outright ignore, our religious obligations (both big and small) to the Lord of the Universe?

We do this eventhough God demands obedience for our own good, so we can purify ourselves to reach nearness to Him. Only by exchanging our own desires, wants and opinions for those of God Almighty can we achieve the humility and eagerness needed to constantly rush to His submission.

God reminds us to obey Him (as well as his Last Messenger Muhammad (S) and those vested with authority) repeatedly in the Quran. While addressing Maryam (one of the four perfect women), God says: "O Maryam! Keep to obedience to your Lord and humble yourself." (3: 43)

"The true slave of God Almighty is he for whom the obedience and love of God becomes sweet," according to Prophet Muhammad (S).

In this holy month of Ramadan, believers world over dedicate themselves to worshipping their Lord day and night through fasting, prayers, Quran recitations, etc. While such prayers and devotional practices are highly recommended, ibadat (Arabic word for worship) also includes wholehearted obedience.

After the Prophet completed his sermon on the virtues of Ramadan, Ali, the husband of Fatima (another one of the four perfect women), says he stood up and asked:

"O Prophet of God! What is the best deed of this month?"

The Prophet (S) replied: "O Abul Hasan! The best deed of this month is abstinence from that which is forbidden by God, the Mighty, the Glorious."

Upon seeing the new crescent of Ramadan, Zain ul Abideen (whose epithet means Best of the Worshippers), grandson of Fatima and Ali, would address the moon as the "obedient creature" who is "prompt toward His will."

This Ramadan protestors in Muslim countries are expected to pour into the streets again to demand peace and justice as part of their social obligations to God. They will do so despite ongoing repression, torture and the edicts of pseudo-scholars commanding obedience to tyrants by misquoting the Quran.

"With obedience there's love and with love there's sacrifice," says lecturer Hanif Mohammed. "And if you don't have these things you can never have success."

Activist and poet Allama Iqbal sums up the superiority of obedience to God in the following Urdu couplet (with English translation):

"Wo aik sajda jesay tu garan samajhta hai
Hazar sajdu se deta hai aadmi ku najat"

"The bowing (before God) that you despise
Is such that it will free from bowing down before thousands."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grateful Head

My mother often recounted the following rags-to-riches story while we were growing up, especially when one of us was experiencing a rather thankless moment.

A relative of hers, she would say, grew up in a modest household and married into one of similar means. Yet, whenever she got something she liked--no matter how small or seemingly insignificant--she would fall into prostration to God, sincerely thanking Him for his favors.

The punchline: Eventually, God blessed her and her family with so much it exceeded their wildest dreams.

Indeed, God has promised: ''If you are thankful I will surely give you more, but if you are ungrateful my punishment is terrible indeed." (Quran 14: 7)

Being grateful to God is an important duty that must be expressed through our heart (awe, humility, love), tongue (praise, glorification) and body parts (obedience). A truly thankful person (shakir in Arabic) is one who recognizes the blessings of God and uses these bounties for the purposes intended by Him.

God is especially pleased when His servants thank Him in the prostrating position, with humility, tears and their foreheads pressed to the earth. It is highly encouraged to perform a prostration of thanksgiving after every mandatory prayer, thanking God for the opportunity to complete the prayers as well as for all His other bounties.

To the angels witnessing such a prostrating soul God says: "I too must thank him as he has done, grant him prosperity by My grace and treat him with My great mercy on the Day of Judgment."

Ali, the husband of Fatima (one of the four perfect women) was among those most often seen prostrating in gratitude to God. The best of worship, he said, is "worship out of thanksgiving to Him."

Shy at first, Ali asked his cousin Prophet Muhammad (S) for Fatima's hand in marriage and his request was accepted. On the day of the wedding, Ali again proposed in front of witnesses but not before praising God and thanking Him profusely. As soon as the ceremony was complete, the first thing he and the Prophet (S) did was prostrate in gratitude to their Lord.

"God blesses us with blessings throughout our life," says scholar Hamza Sodagar. "The way we treat these blessings makes a difference whether [they] will persist or God will take them away from us. If we are thankful practically--not just in words--then God gives us more."

Thank God, we are finally witnessing a global awakening and movement to correct the injustices being committed around the world. In order to sustain this blessing, everyone must do their part to fight oppression and corruption wherever they live and in whichever form they find it.

Thirty years ago, Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, said:

"It is hoped that women in the other Islamic countries will take lesson from the miraculous change that has occurred  in the Iranian women as a result of the great Islamic revolution, and will strive to reform their society and bring freedom and independence to their countries."

That time has surely arrived. Let's use it before we lose it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

All Work & No Play?

I'm known as a lurker at dinner parties in our town.

Often sighted slipping into the toy room/bedroom/basement (or wherever else the kids have been relegated to), I'm there to check out what's keeping the kids amused.

And rightfully so. I've run into everything from tickling uncles (not funny!) to videos of Indian love songs (played on theater-size screens!) and have learned that most people's opinions can't be trusted when it comes to determining appropriate entertainment.

That's because a lot of people take God out of the equation when it comes to determining how to enjoy their down time. In actuality, God has put forth clear guidelines on recreational activities, a part of life He deems indispensable.

"Enjoy yourselves and be playful," encouraged Prophet Muhammad (S), "for I despise that roughness should be seen in your religion."

A believer's day is supposed to be divided into four (not necessarily equal) parts:
1) Worship (prayers, supplications, Quran recitation, etc.)
2) Securing one's livelihood, school, housework
3) Spending time in the company of good friends
4) Enjoying legitimate pleasures

"You have to do things that are fun as well," says scholar Salim Yusufali. "If you don't do that you won't be successful (in the other aspects of your life)."

We are supposed to engage in recreation which gives true pleasure to the heart and soul as well as to the body. This means the activities should be permissible by God, done in moderation and preserve our remembrance of Him.

"O my people! This life of the world is only a (passing) enjoyment, and surely the Hereafter is the abode to settle." (Quran 40:39)

Despite their tremendous obligations and responsibilities, the Prophet (S) and Ali,  the husband of Fatima (one of the four perfect women), made time for light-hearted conversation.

The two were sitting together eating dates one day when the Prophet (S) started placing his pits in the plate in front of Ali. When they finished, the Prophet (S) said [paraphrased], Let's see who was hungrier.

Realizing the jest, Ali countered [paraphrased]: The one who ate his stones along with his dates!

"Moderate amusements are a sort of voluntary worship," said eleventh century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, "because they cause freshness of the body and enthusiasm for the spirit for carrying out the [obligations]."

Imam Khomeini, the great leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, once reprimanded his great-grandchild for studying on a holiday. "You will not get anywhere because at the time of recreation you must be at leisure." He added: "I did not substitute one hour of recreation for studies, nor one hour of studies for recreation.

My kids, on the other hand, have been playing on the computer for a while now. Time to go check on them....

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heart's Content

To escape their mind-altering effects, I recently cancelled subscriptions to home decorating magazines on the advice of a close friend.

That's because after leafing through glossy pages showcasing trendy homes, I invariably found my own rooms intolerably outdated and unfinished!

I had admittedly fallen hook, line and sinker for the profiteers enticing me to forever embellish, replace and upgrade my perfectly good furnishings. By giving glimpses into the homes of the rich and famous, advertisers provoke dissatisfaction and embroil the unsuspecting in never-ending pursuits for more.

But God has warned us against such diversions away from His remembrance. He directs us towards simplicity and contentment (ridha in Arabic), encouraging us to rise above materialism to climb to closeness to Him.

Successful are those "who are content with the transient world in that amount which will remove the hunger and clothe the nakedness (the bare necessities of life)," according to Prophet Muhammad (S). "Their (true) wealth lies in that which will make them reach the next life."

Indeed, true satisfaction comes from pleasing God by obeying and serving Him in this world. The attribute of ridha involves synchronizing our likes and dislikes to those of God and being content with his decree.

"There's an emptiness inside the human being longing for that amazing company [with God he] once enjoyed," says lecturer Nouman Ali Khan. "You can fill it with anything else and it will be depleted."

God awaits those who achieve such contentment:

"(To the righteous soul will be said:) O soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction! Come back to your Lord, well-pleased and well-pleasing to Him! Enter, then, among my Devotees! Yea, enter my heaven!" (Quran 89: 27-30)

Fatima, one of the four perfect women, was also known as Radhia (the one who is satisfied) because of her wholehearted attachment to God. Prophet Muhammad (S) often repeated "the contentment of Fatima is my contentment" and "God is satisfied with her contentment" to encourage people to follow his daughter's lead.

Pitying her hands and shoulders calloused from hard labor, Fatima's husband Ali took her to the Prophet (S) one day to request a servant. When the Prophet (S) suggested prayers instead, Fatima responded: "I am content with whatever God and his Prophet will."

Contentment should not be confused with complacency, however. Like Fatima, we must also stand up and express dissatisfaction when God's laws are being violated. The determined people of Egypt, for example, are back on the streets like they were during the "Winter of Discontent" to demand real peace and justice and not just a semblance of it.

Last month, that same friend and I rode together to visit an artsy pal of ours with an amazingly modern new place. Not surprisingly, we ended up discussing all the way home how worn out, uncomfortable, etc. our own sofas were and even set a date to go shopping for new ones.

For sure, we need to axe such rendezvous (as we did our magazines) until further introspection.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Power Presence

At weekend get-togethers with family friends while growing up, one child would be conspicuously missing from our kids corner.

Osman*, around age 12, would be hanging out with the aunties, peppering them with questions about religious rulings, ever so wary about understanding and following God's orders exactamento.

While we dismissed him then as a worry wart who missed out on the fun, I now look back in awe at his attempts to adopt piety (taqwa in Arabic) as early as in his tween years.

Taqwa is a fundamental virtue that involves awareness of God's ever-present power, a keeness to please Him by following His instructions while keeping vigil against violating His commands. When strengthened, it serves as a precaution, prevention and protection against spiritual maladies--such as unbridled passions and desires--that can obstruct the soul's path to nearness to God.

"But the best of provisions is taqwa, so fear Me, O you who are wise." (Quran 2:197)

Taqwa is so important that God mentioned it more than 200 times in the Quran, declaring in one verse that only those who have taqwa can benefit and receive guidance from this Holy Book. (2: 2)

"O People! Have taqwa of God as is worthy of Him," Prophet Muhammad (S) urged. "Strive in gaining his pleasure. Have certainty that the world is temporal and the next life is everlasting."

There are four types of taqwa, according to some scholars. Abstaining from the 1) prohibited, 2) doubtful, 3) permissable (as a precaution) and 4) anything nonreligious to avoid wasting time.

Maryam (one of the four perfect women) achieved such strong taqwa that God sent the Archangel Gabriel to visit and converse with her while she worshipped in seclusion.  When first startled by the appearance of the angel (who came in human form), she quickly reminded him of God's omnipresence.

"I seek refuge from you in God, Most Gracious. Come not near if you have taqwa." (19: 18)

Indeed, she embodied traits found in the muttaqeen (Arabic for those with taqwa) including an attachment to the Unseen, commitment to prayers and generous distribution of wealth and possessions.

For global peace and justice, more people need to recognize God's power presence as did Maryam and submit to His authority. We need to realize that God's power rules supreme and must not be intimidated by those who try to secure dominance by oppressing others.

"It's not enough if you understand this meaning [of taqwa] by yourself," says Muhammad al-Asi, author of The Ascendant Quran, the first explanation (tafsir) of the Holy Book written directly in English. "This understanding of taqwa has to become a public feature."

I was recently visiting Osman's sister when he called to discuss the beef sold at their local butcher. A lengthy discussion of what the cows are fed, how they are treated and in which manner they are sacrificed ensued.

Some things never change. In this case, that's a good thing.
* name has been changed to protect privacy

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Bended Knee

I will never forget what a thirteen-year-old said to me in the basement of an inner city party hall.

"I looooove to pray!" she exclaimed as the call to prayer went off during a community function. "I love to spread out my prayer rug and pray, don't you?"

I must not have shared her passion or else her words wouldn't have made such an indelible mark in my memory. I was ten then and loved to watch Smurfs on Saturday mornings and play kickball during recess. But to pray five times a day (salat in Arabic)? That was something I did (or tried to do) because I was supposed to.

Forward to today. Those of us still not feeling the love like we ought to--despite years of going through the motions--need to drastically improve our prayers to attain its true benefits.

Prayers, which were taught to Prophet Muhammad (S) in its current form during his ascension to heaven (miraj in Arabic), are a means for a believer to soar to proximity to God. If they are performed with understanding, concentration and attention, prayers transform an individual and transport him/her to true monotheism and closeness to God's pleasure.

"The prayer is a standard of Islam," the Prophet (S) said. "Whoever loves prayers and observes their timings, limits and methods is a true believer." Indeed, prayers are the most important of the religious acts and if they are accepted by God so will all the other acts of worship and vice versa.

To boost the level of our prayers, we should:
  • Pray on time. "If a person prays the obligatory prayers at the beginning of its time and does not attain lofty stations, he should spit in my face," said one esteemed scholar.
  • Understand the meanings of its recitations and movements.
  • Perform supererogatory prayers in seclusion (away from distractions) and while fresh and alert.
  • Detach ourselves (but not abstain) from the material pleasures of this world to avoid flights of ideas during prayers. Those who are able to focus on God throughout the day should have no problem keeping their attention on Him during prayers.
"Successful indeed are the believers who are reverent during their prayers." (Quran 23:1-2)

To reinforce the idea that all our acts should lead us to Him, God obligated adherence to prayers even in the most dangerous and fearful of times.

Hussain, the son of Fatima (one of the perfect women of all times), coupled salat and resistance forever  on the plains of Kerbala, where he and most male members of the Prophet's (S) family were killed protesting tyranny and corruption.

When apprised of the enemy's plan to attack, Hussain asked his brother to "obtain extension of time from them until tomorrow morning so that tonight we may offer prayers to God. God knows that I love to offer prayers, to recite the Quran, to make supplications and to ask His forgiveness."

"Imam Hussain instilled the Quranic culture and ideology of salat in the entire Ummah [Islamic nation] for all times to come," says scholar Abbas Ayleya.

Eventually, Hussain lost all his comrades and was the last man standing, horrifically wounded from head to toe. But when he heard the call to Asr prayer, he returned his sword to its sheath, slid down from his horse and rested his forehead in prostration on the burning sand.

There he uttered his last words: "O, All Merciful Lord of the Universe, accept the humble sacrifice of Hussain!"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Finding Mr. Right(eous)

I probably wouldn't have married my husband had I not inadvertently tuned in to a conservative talk radio station a few weeks before we met.

The host's advice to women on how to find Mr. Right caught my ear. Make a list of three qualities essential in your future spouse, he said, and seriously consider anyone you meet who has those traits. 

That seemed like a novel idea considering I (and many other single girls around me) had spent years rejecting proposals for random things ("We didn't click!" "He doesn't have a sense of humor!" "What a FOB!"*).  Having gotten mixed messages from American, Bollywood and our traditional cultures, many of us were a mess when it came to figuring out who to marry successfully and how to go about doing it.

Had we worked within God's clear guidelines on spouse selection, we could have saved ourselves and our parents much undue hardship.

Like everything else in life, we are supposed to get married to bring us closer to God.

"And they say: 'Our Lord, let our spouses and our children be a source of joy for us, and keep us in the forefront of the righteous." (Quran 25:74)

"You marry one another with the intention that I will try to bring this person to Paradise with me," says scholar Usama Abdul-Ghani.

Prophet Muhammad (S) taught us not only to have a standard but also what that standard should be. 

"It is binding upon you to have a religious spouse," he said.

"A man who marries a person for the sake of her wealth, God leaves him in his own condition," according to the Prophet (S). "One who marries her (only) for her beauty, will find in her things he dislikes (unpleasing manners). God will gather up all these things for one who marries her for the sake of her faith (religiousness)."

While religiousness is the most important criterion, we are also supposed to consider a propective's good  nature, compatibility, decent family, reasoning ability and physical and mental health.

The Prophet's (S) daughter Fatima Zahra (one of the four perfect women) and her husband Ali revealed their basis for valuing one another in the following exchange. 

The day after their wedding, the Prophet (S) came to visit them and inquired of Ali: "How do you find your spouse?"

"I found Zahra as the best help in worshipping God Almighty," Ali replied.

The Prophet asked Fatima the same question and she said: "He is the best husband."

Spouse selection is not left to personal choice only because the decision's effects are so widespread. When we choose a spouse we are also selecting the father/mother of our future children.

"Islam aims to perfect man even before he is born, before his parents marry, by stating what kind of spouse a man and a woman should choose," says Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. "Why does it do this? Because the husband and wife are the origin of the individual(s) and Islam wants these individuals, who are to be handed over to society, to be religious individuals."

To further help ensure that a girl (who's tying the knot for the first time) is marrying the right person, God has mandated that she make this decision under the guidance and with the permission (not rubber stamp) of no other than her own father. 

For those single or married, poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi sums up our end goal beautifully:

"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourselves that you have built against it."
*FOB--Fresh Off the Boat, reference to recent immigrants

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On a Wing and a Prayer

I learned hope from an elderly woman who's been praying for a grandson for more than a quarter century and continues to do so though none of her daughters-in-law are spring chicks any more.

While she loves and adores her slew of granddaughters (Praise be to God), she emphatically remains hopeful that, well, one of these days she'll finally be buying blue, God willing.

Despite the odds, hope can take her a long way.

"Whatever hope you attach to God," says scholar Abbas Ayleya, "God will do according to your hopes, God willing."

To illustrate the power of hope, God shares the sincere and secret supplication of Prophet Zachariah, the 99-year-old uncle of Maryam (one of the four perfect women):

"My Lord! Surely, my bones are weakened and my head flares with hoariness and my Lord! I have never been unsuccessful in my prayer to thee: And surely I fear my cousins after me, and my wife is barren, therefore grant me from Thyself an heir who would inherit me and inherit from the children of Jacob, and make him, my Lord, one in whom Thou art well-pleased.'" (Quran 19:4)

God responds: "O Zachariah! We give you good news of a boy whose name shall be Yahya (John in English). We have not made before anyone his equal." (19:7)

Likened to the two wings of a bird, hope in God's Mercy must be balanced in our hearts with equal fear of His displeasure and punishment if we want to soar to nearness to Him. Too much hope invites false security and continued disobedience while excess fear leads to despair, which scholars say is the second greatest sin after shirk (associating others with God).

"Surely, none despairs of God's mercy except the unbelieving people." (12:87)

After tolerating decades of brutal oppression, people around the world are waking up to renewed hope in a peaceful and just future. Indeed, their great expectation of God's promised deliverance inspires many to struggle onwards.

Later this month, for example, an American boat carrying thousands of letters of friendship with Palestinians is set to sail to Gaza to protest Israel's siege and blockade. The boat is aptly named "Audacity of Hope."

To the young Bahraini protestors facing horrific suppression, Sami Yusuf's ditty "I am Your Hope" gives much encouragement.

You are the hope for our globe,
Don't give up nor despair,
There's nothing you can't repair,
You can change this world to a better world 
With your souls, with your souls,

Do not harm me, I am your truth,
Don't kill me for I'm your youth,
I am your hope, I am your truth,
I'm your faith, I'm your youth

"We cannot live without hope because hope is intrinsic to human nature," said Roy Berkenbosch of King's University College at a conference on Islamophobia and the Politics of Fear last month. "It is life lived leaning into the future. It is life tilted toward tomorrow, expecting what is today is not equal to what is tomorrow."

I wonder if the elderly lady has heard the latest news: a distant relative of hers is expecting a baby in her granny years!! That's sure to keep her hope alive!  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Locks of Love

My five-year-old threw me for a curve the other day when she apologized for a fit she had a year ago when checking herself out in a beauty shop mirror.

"Remember when I was crying because the hairdresser didn't make my hair long when I went in for a haircut?" she asked sheepishly. "Awww, I'm sorry for that!"

Grabbing her in a bear hug, I marveled at her ability to realize the absurdity of her demand, feel remorse for causing me trouble and then offer a heartfelt apology.

At the same time, I couldn't help but reflect--especially in this sacred month of Rajab, which is associated with seeking forgiveness from God--on our duty to repent for all the sins we have commited.

God says: "And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord," (Quran 3:132) and "But those who do wrong but repent thereafter and (truly) believe,--verily thy Lord is thereafter Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful." (7: 153)

While striving to perfect ourselves on our journey to nearness to God, we are bound to make mistakes and get off course. In His Infinite Mercy, God offers us tawba (Arabic word for repentance which literally means "turn or return from one thing to another") as a U-turn to get back on the straight path to Him.

Like alerts on a navigation system, it is God who first turns to us by reminding us that we have erred. To those who heed His warning and do tawba, "He opens His arms," says scholar Hamza Sodagar. Indeed, God loves repentance and rewards those who do it by giving them abundance in this world and converting their bad deeds into good deeds for the Hereafter. 

To be accepted, tawba must include remorseful repentance over the past, firm determination not to repeat offenses, discharging the rights of people previously ignored and fulfillment of obligatory acts left undone.

"A sincere repenter never sins again as the milk drawn from the breast never can go back to its source," says Prophet Muhammad (S).

The sooner tawba is done the better.

"The springtime for tawba is the time of youth when the sins are fewer, the inner darkness of the heart incomplete, the conditions of tawba easier and their fulfillment less difficult," said Imam Khomeini, scholar and architect of the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

Of course, to up our chances of being forgiven by God we must liberally pardon those who wrong us.

Hussain, the son of Fatima (one of the four perfect women), demonstrated magnanimous clemency on the plains of Kerbala, where he and most male members of the Prophet's (S) family were killed while opposing the unjust ruler Yazid. At the eleventh hour, Hur, a high-ranking commander in Yazid's army, came to Hussain's tent and asked: "Is my repentance acceptable?"

Hussain said: "Hur! I have already forgiven you. Your mother named you Hur, which means free. You are free in this world and the Hereafter." Then Hussain added: "I consider you to be my honored guest."

Indeed, to be able to truly reform societies lost and heading in the wrong direction like Hussain did, we must continuously do tawba to rid ourselves of the oppressive sins that lead us astray.

Lately, my daughter's been fussing because her straight hair won't curl up into ringlets (like her friend's wavy locks do) when I pull it into ponytails.

I suppose I'll have to ride it out until she has another aha! moment.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Miss Manners

Perched high up on a sofa in our family room earlier this year, it was my preschooler who first noticed the check mark on her progress report as she carefully perused it.

"What does this say?" she asked, pointing to the text next to the tick mark.

"It says your manners--things like saying please and thank you--need improvement," I told her, embarrassed by what I was reading over her shoulder.

Indeed, perfecting our akhlaq (Arabic term for ethics, morals and manners) is a work in progress, and this was a good reminder that our family needed to pay more attention to ours!

God declares Prophet Muhammad (S) as the epitome of impeccable akhlaq when he says to him: "Certainly, you are upon the best morals." (Quran 68:4)

Based on the personality of the Prophet (S), there are four main aspects of akhlaq we must focus on: wisdom, chastity, valour and justice. Other qualities (48 in number), such as piety, patience, generosity and humility, are branches of these four merits.

Our salvation depends on whether or not we develop these moral attributes.

"If there is someone who is bad in his morals, God does not accept his [repentance] because this type of person comes out of one sin and enters another," says scholar Abbas Ayleya.

The Prophet's (S) daughter Fatima--whose name comes from the Arabic word for "the one who is kept away from evil and bad character"--is a female role model of ideal akhlaq as she always took the highest moral ground, even on her big day.

The Prophet (S) had gotten a new dress made for her wedding when a beggar knocked on the door asking for old clothes. Fatima remembered the Quranic verse (3:92), "By no means shall ye attain righteousness unless ye give (freely) of that which ye love (prefer)," and gave away her new one. Overwhelmed by his daughter's generosity, the father of the bride wept upon hearing this.

"I have never seen anyone resemble the Prophet (S) in his way of dealing with people or character more than Fatima," the Prophet's (S) wife Aisha said.

The "Supplication for Noble Moral Traits" (expressed by Fatima's grandson Zain-ul-Abideen) describes some of the characteristics we need to aspire to:

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household
and point me straight to
resist him who is dishonest toward me with good counsel,
repay him who separates from me with gentle devotion,
reward him who deprives me with free giving,
recompense him who cuts me off with joining,
oppose him who slanders me with excellent mention
give thanks to good and shut my eyes to evil!

As difficult as it seems, those of us aiming to emulate women like Fatima must cultivate such traits in ourselves, our children and our societies.

Imam Khomeini, (about whom an associate once said, "He wasn't negligent on even a single point of akhlaq,") strived to implement ethics on a broader scale through the Islamic  Revolution of Iran and encouraged women to do their part.

"The ladies must act on their social and religious duties and protect public morality," he said, "and in doing so carry out their social and political activities."

Understandably, I was over the moon two weeks ago when my daughter brought home an award for "Good Manners" on her final day of preschool.

My celebration was cut short, however, when her sister got whiff of the accolade.

"I'm surprised," she said to her little sister's face. "I'm very surprised."

Like I said, good akhlaq is a work in progress, especially in our house.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Child's Prayer

I had to peel my five-year-old off the floor last week when she was a-screamin' and a-hollerin' because she was "mad at God."

Apparently, she had gone into our bedroom, rolled out the prayer mat and asked God for a swimming pool in our backyard.

Then when she peeked outside and there was no pool (or signs of its imminent arrival), she threw a huge fit of disappointment.

It was clearly time to school her in the dynamics of dua (Arabic term for supplication to God).

"And your Lord says, 'Call upon me, I will answer your prayer.'" (Quran 40:6) 
God urges us to constantly go to Him for all our needs, wants and fixes to problems. He loves for us to be humble, realize our neediness and willfully depend on Him as the Ultimate Source for everything, whether material or spiritual.

He draws our attention to Asiya, the wife of Pharoah and one of the four pefect women of all times. Despite all the wealth, power and status in the world, she remains humble throughout her life, supplicating to God for "nearness to Thee" until her last breath.

Indeed, God always responds to our legitimate requests though we may not realize it. He either answers our prayers in this world, applies them to avert impending problems or saves the rewards for the Hereafter.

Some ettiquettes of supplication:

  • Expect miracles. "It's true that you can't unscramble eggs," says scholar Usama Abdul-Ghani. "But God can take scrambled eggs and make a great omelette."
  • Aim for the stars. Prophet Muhammad (S) encouraged us to think big in the way of a female follower of Prophet Moses (foster son of Asiya). When Moses approached this woman for some information, she demanded he first ask God to give her the same station as him in heaven. He did and her wish was granted.
  • Include all, big and small. God said: "O Moses! Ask me for everything, even the mending of your shoelace."
Of course, supplications to God must be accompanied by obedience to Him and full-force efforts to "create the grounds for the prayers to be answered," says Abdul-Ghani.

Invocations for peace and justice in this world, for example, must be matched by struggle against oppression. Activist and poet Allama Iqbal expresses this tenet beautifully in "A Child's Prayer." Here's an excerpt (translated from Urdu):

"My longing comes to my lips as a supplication of mine,
O God, may like the candle be the life of mine,

May the world's darkness disappear through the life of mine,
May every place light up with the sparkling life of mine."

At the end of the day, says Abdul-Ghani, we must trust in God's decree and timing while still expecting our request to be "at the door."

I held off on sharing that last bit with my daughter, though. If she decided to literally check the door, we'd be back to square one.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's All Relative

On top of the trunk loads of gifts we receive after visiting family, we often get another windfall: our wishes come true.

About a year ago, for example, I desperately wanted my daughter to learn our Holy Book but could neither find a local tutor nor make the time to teach her myself.

A few days after returning from seeing relatives--where my guilt trip got guiltier after a cousin asked about my kids' Quran progress--came the solution. Intending to call a neighbor, I accidently dialed an acquaintance with the same name who went on to tell me about her brother's new online Quran tutoring service!

Mere serendipity?

I think not. I'm convinced that referral was a godsend for our weekend efforts at silat-ar-rahm, an Arabic term for loving, sympathizing with and doing good to relatives (other than dependents).

Silat-ar-rahm is a serious obligation and can be expressed in many ways, such as supporting, helping or visiting our blood relatives (near and far) and in-laws.*

"Man is not given the reward of any good work sooner than that of silat-ar-rahm," according to Ali, husband of Fatima (one of the four perfect women).

Rewards in this world for silat-ar-rahm include a longer life, increased sustenance, a prosperous home and family and the easement of death pangs.

Fatima's great-grandson Jafar Sadiq demonstrated the utmost importance of silat-ar-rahm on his deathbed. While coming in and out of consciousness he told his slave girl Salimah to give his relative Hasan 70 dinar.

Salimah said: "You are bequeathing to a man [Hasan] who had attacked you with a knife and wanted to kill you?"

Jafar Sadiq said: "Do you not want me to be among those whom God has praised for 'joining the relationship'? (Quran 13:21)

O Salimah, verily God created Paradise and made its scent pleasant and its scent reaches up to the distance of two thousand years. But the person who disobeys his parents or severs relationships will not smell its scent."

Indeed, strengthening family ties for the pleasure of God provides support for the individual and a network for fulfilling social obligations.

"Struggle is a multi-generational task," says lecturer Sheikh Nooruddin.

Fatima's son Hussain provided the ultimate example of how one family's collective commitment to truth and justice can revolutionize society. When Hussain undertook his mission to Kerbala to protest an oppressive regime, his kinfolk-- the old and the young, the men and the women--joined him.

That, in fact, was the secret to his success.

"If Hussain had fought to quench his worldly desires...then I do not understand why his sister, wife and children accompanied him," said nineteenth century writer Charles Dickens. "It stands to reason, therefore, that he sacrificed for Islam."
*As a side, silat-ar-rahm does not sanctify participating in activities in which God's laws are violated, even if they are hosted by family members.