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.