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