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."