Thursday, April 28, 2011

Diary of an Activist

When my four-year-old remained stuck in her terrible twos, I bought her a journal to get her to right some of her wrongs.

After climbing into bed, she'd hand me her green monkey notebook and sparkly pencil and dictate while I wrote and illustrated. Here is an entry from March 12 of that year:

Good: Cleaned toy room by myself!
Bad: Made faces at Apa (older sister in Urdu)  >:(   :-?   :{

As it turns out, she shouldn't have been the only one keeping a diary.

Prophet Muhammad (S) said: "One never acquires piety unless he self-scrutinizes his own deeds--a scrutiny much more severe than the auditing of accounts between two business associates."

"When you lay down at night and you're tossing and you're turning and you're trying to find that good spot on your pillow, stop and ask yourself, 'What have I done today?'" says scholar-in-training Asad Jafri.

God urges us to evaluate and correct our actions now--while we still have time--because it'll be too late on the final Day of Accounting.

"And the Book (of Deeds) will be placed (before you); and thou wilt see the sinful in great terror because of what is (recorded) therein; they will say, 'Ah! woe to us! what a Book is this! It leaves out nothing small or great, but takes account thereof!' They will find all that they did, placed before them: And not one will thy Lord treat with injustice." (Quran 18:49)

Self-accounting involves three steps: 1) reminding ourselves and our body parts every morning to do good and shun bad, 2) supervising our intentions, thoughts and actions throughout the day, and 3) reviewing it all at night. Before falling asleep, we thank God for the positive things we have done and beg His forgiveness for the negative, promising not to repeat our lapses, God willing.

One of the added benefits of practicing self-scrutiny is the ability to successfully collaborate with those around us, particularly those God-fearing individuals committed to promoting truth and justice on earth. We are able to look past the weaknesses, mistakes and differences of others and keep our eyes on collectively reaching our goals.

"As we search for faults within us, we become tolerant of the faults of others," Jafri says.

Hasan, the eldest son of Ali and Fatima (one of the four perfect women), shows us that tolerance can go along way. A man from Syria who had a grudge against Ali said he saw a beautiful and tranquil person while visiting Medina. When he found out he was the son of Ali, he became jealous and "let out a flood of abuses and slander."

"After I had finished abusing him, he asked me if I was a stranger, to which I replied in the affirmative. Then he asked me to go along with him and said he would arrange a place for me to stay if I didn't have one, and that if I didn't have money, he would help me out. Also, if I was needy he would make me self-sufficient. When I had separated from him there was no one on earth who was more beloved to me than Hasan ibn Ali."

It is only through tolerance and unity around truth that true freedom can emerge. As Imam Khomeini said to a group of women shortly after the revolution:

"Stand together all of you, all of you must stick together. You play an important role in this movement." 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Gossip Girl

Maybe it's because I couldn't vow to lick the toilet bowl every time I did it (like a friend of mine did), but I was never able to completely kick the habit of backbiting.

Sure, a stern reminder from a teacher, speaker or scholar that backbiting (gheebah in Arabic) is like eating my dead brother's flesh often renewed my resolve to quit. But it usually only lasted until the next juicy phone call.

Recently, however, I've been roused anew after realizing that--unless I stop this vice pronto--I will most certainly be in the hole on Judgment Day.

Prophet Muhammad (S) warned: Backbiting affects a person's religion and does away with good deeds faster than fire consuming wood.

Consider: A man entered heaven and was shown his mansion, the recompense for building a mosque on earth. When he allowed that he had never done such a thing, he was told the person who built the mosque talked about him behind his back so he got his reward.

Not only do we deplete good deeds by backbiting, but we also nullify future ones. God does not accept, for example, for forty days the prayers of one who backbites.

Gheebah often lingers in our conversations because we're not sure what it all includes.

Prophet Muhammad (S) defined it simply: "Backbiting is remembering your brother in a way he dislikes."

This includes negative references (even if accurate, nonverbal or implied) to someone's physical appearance, character or even the skeletons in their closet.

"Some people say, 'Well, I can say it on his face,'" says scholar Abbas Ayleya. "Whether you have that negative courage to say the thing in the face of the person is not the point. The point is whether he would feel bad about it or not."

Repeating other people's gossip puts us in the same boat as the backbiter.

Zain-ul-Abideen, grandson of Fatima (one of the four perfect women), was told by his companion that someone was saying horrible things about him. He responded that the backbiter had shot the arrow and missed but his friend had picked it up and made sure it hit its target.  

Finally, listening to it--especially if we're egging conversations on with exclamations like "Really?!" and "AstaghfirAllah!" (I seek forgiveness from God)--is also backbiting.

Those of us well-experienced in bad-mouthing others need not quit altogether, though. God actually obligates us to reveal the wrongs of people in certain cases, such as inspiring opposition to oppressors.

Indeed, it was through the sermons of Zainab, the eloquent daughter of Fatima and survivor of the Battle of Kerbala, that people learned about the atrocities committed against the family of the Prophet (S) and turned against the rulers.

I end with this supplication of Zain-ul-Abideen:

"O God, bless Muhammad and his Household,
adorn me with the adornment of the righteous,
and clothe me in the ornaments of the God-fearing, through
...speaking the truth, though it be painful,
making little of the good in my words and my deeds, though it be much
and making much of the evil in my words and my deeds, though it be little!"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Movers and Shakers

Not too long ago a modestly-clad woman and her similarly-dressed daughter were sitting minding their own business at a community dinner in my hometown.

Another guest--this one bling-blinged out--approached the elder and queried: "How are you going to get your daughter married when she is so covered up?"

"God will take care of her," the mother replied with a polite smile.

That same night, my mom (who overheard this conversation) suggested the girl to a friend of hers with a highly eligible bachelor son. Six months later the couple was married!

Every time I think of this story I am awed by the mother's firm faith and reliance on God (tawakal in Arabic), and God's speedy delivery.

God repeatedly instructs us to lean on Him, and not ourselves or others, for everything, including material possessions, guidance, help, security and success in this world and the Hereafter.

"As for those who fear Allah, He (ever) prepares a way out. And He provides for him from (sources) he never could imagine. And if any one puts his trust in Allah, sufficient is Allah for him." (Quran 65:2-3)

"If people had those kinds of values our lives would be easy because we are connected to the limitless power of Allah instead of relying on our limited resources," says scholar Abbas Ayleya.

God commends the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus and one of the four perfect women, for actualizing perfect tawakal. Mary remained obedient, devout and reliant on God through thick and thin. Even when she became pregnant, alone and tormented by her community, her tawakal did not waver. Indeed, throughout her life God afforded her the best of provisions.

"Every time that he (Prophet Zachariah) entered (her) chamber to see her, he found her supplied with sustenance. He said: "O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?" She said: "From Allah: for Allah provides sustenance to whom He pleases, without measure." (Quran 3:37)

Of course, reliance on God does not mean sitting idly in anticipation. While we must firmly believe that God will fulfill our legitimate needs,  we need to demonstrate our trust in Him by actively moving towards our goals using all the lawful means available.

Prophet Muhammad (S) said:

"Tawakal means that you should tie the camel with a rope and say that you have trust in Allah that he will protect your camel. You should not have confidence in the rope only because many a camel is stolen with the rope. But neither should you neglect the rope because tying the rope is a part of tawakal."

Those struggling to alleviate oppression and suffering around the world need to take a cue from Mary, who remained reliant on God during the most painful of times: the birth of baby Jesus. As a result, God provided her with pure water and fresh, ripe dates from out of nowhere.

But even Mary's dates did not fall into her lap. She first had to obey God's instructions: Shake the trunk of the palm tree!

If peace and justice seekers continue to shake things up as well, everyone will enjoy the fruits of their labor, God-willing. If they fall short of reaching their goals, those with tawakal will thank God for giving them the opportunity to try.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hopping Mad

"Why aren't you like Ruby?" my preschooler recently asked me after watching a cartoon starring a bunch of bunnies. "She never gets mad at her little brother Max, even when he misbehaves." [Translation from Urdu]

This question was jarring, especially coming from someone who's collected books like When Sophie Gets Angry and Angeryella as well-deserved gifts from me.

But it did provoke reflection.

Irritation, short-temperedness and outbursts that stem from our ego, desires and worldly comforts  (I'm assuming tirades over spilled orange juice fall in this category.) must be checked.  God says he loves those who control their anger and promises them vast rewards in the Hereafter. (Quran 3:134)

Unrestrained anger, on the other hand, is considered highly toxic. Prophet Muhammad (S) warns, "Anger destroys the piety of a person as vinegar destroys honey."

The good news is rising rage can be nipped in the bud. Tantrum-throwing Princess Angeryella learns how from a wise man in my daughter's storybook. He offers nine tips including changing positions (standing to sitting to lying down), performing ablution, drinking water and even eating grapes! Gently touching the relative you are upset with also dissipates anger.

Nonetheless, we mustn't completely extinguish our ability to see red. That's because anger, if sprung from pure intentions and channelled properly, motivates us to rise up against oppression and injustice.   A song written in support of the Bahraini uprising, for example, is entitled "Revolution of Anger."

"Some people don't know how to get angry. They don't know how to stand up for themselves," says scholar Usama Abdul-Ghani. "What I want is that my anger be governed by the laws of God and by my intellect. That will lead me to being brave."

Among those who mastered the appropriate use of anger was Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad (S) and one of the four perfect women of all times. She didn't get upset out of self-interest but only when God's laws were violated. Prophet (S) declared: "Whoever angers Fatima, angers me," and, "Surely, Allah is angered when you [Fatima] are angered, and is pleased at your pleasure."

When her father's enemies threw camel intestines on his back one day during prayer, five-year-old Fatima became furious. She ran to remove the rubbish with her bare hands and then scolded the perpetrators.

Most people wouldn't have the guts to do that--including Max's sister Ruby, who may not be so perfect after all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Patience Now!

The other day my husband called to say tornadoes were in the forecast and I assumed  he wanted me to go pick the kids up early from school.

But he had other pressing concerns. "Can you bring the hibiscus plants in from the patio?" asked the voice at the other end. "The winds might knock them over." [Translation from Urdu]

My husband's enduring commitment to his greeneries, despite my initial reservations about turning our home into a greenhouse (and taunts that his orchids were not showing any signs of bloom), is inspiring now that it's springtime and we're enjoying the fruits of his labor.

As a bonus, gardening cultivates the virtue of patience (sabr in Arabic) according to Ali,  the husband of Fatima (one of the four perfect women) and a orchard grower himself. Now that's something we could use more of around our house!

God has promised success to those who practice sabr:

"O you who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy; vie in such perseverance; strengthen each other; and fear Allah; that you may prosper." (Quran 3:200)

And doom for those who don't.

"By the time! Verily man is in loss! Except such as have faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in mutual teaching of truth and of patience and constancy." (Quran 103: 1-3)

Unfortunately, few people understand the true meaning of sabr, according to scholar Abbas Ayleya.

"People think sabr means we become patient and we just stay silent and quiet and tolerate and do nothing," Ayleya says. "Actually, sabr is the resilience and patience that you exercise when you are performing your duties and you continue to do your duties regardless of the resistance you face."

Indeed, every Prophet of God has bequeathed his successor the following advice: "Stand for the truth and be patient, even if it is bitter and inconvenient."

Sabr must be exercised during tests and turmoils, in obeying Allah's orders and in avoiding sins.

Asiya (one of the four perfect women) is a paragon of sabr. She remained a firm devotee of God despite being married to the ruthless Pharoah of Egypt who tortured her for her beliefs.

"And Allah set forth, as an example to those who believe the wife of Pharoah: behold she said: 'O my Lord! build for me, in nearness to Thee, a mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharoah and his doings, and save me from those that do wrong!" (Quran 66:11)

The fearless people of the Middle East and Africa who continue their demands despite tear gas, bullets and other persecutions are living examples of those practicing sabr. Young Fatima, whose father was killed in Bahrain last month, was immediately back on the streets inspiring others onwards:

"I want to deliver my words to the entire world," she cried. "I am strong and brave, that's what my father always said. Now I have become braver and braver thanks to my father."

Monday, April 11, 2011

More Than Two Cents Worth

Though startling at first, unsolicited advice from a stranger can sometimes be a lifelong guiding post.

I vividly remember when I was 12 and at a week-long summer camp outside Chicago. It was lecture-time and a boy sitting in the grass nearby flicked a nickel at me. Annoyed, I flicked it back and an impromptu game of carrom ensued.

Unbeknown to me, his mother was sitting behind me and I got a one-sentence counsel afterwards: "Girls do not take gifts from stranger boys."

As wise as she was (I got the fuller meaning of her statement as I matured.), that God-conscious woman was fulfilling an important duty that is generally ignored: enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong (amr bil maruf wa nahi anil munkar in Arabic).

Throughout history God has stressed the utmost importance of this obligation. For example, God revealed to Prophet Shoaib that He was unfurling punishment on his nation of 100,000, 40,000 of whom were sinners. When Shoaib asked why the 60,000 good-doers were also included in the retribution, God said it's because they witnessed the wrongs taking place but did not oppose them, according to scholar Abbas Ayleya.

Prophet Muhammad (S) picturized the devastating affects of shirking this duty:

"The world is like a ship and mankind its passengers. The welfare of all depends upon the safe conduct of each. If anyone is found making a hole on the side of a ship, he must be stopped."

In another saying the Prophet (S) warned that if people stop encouraging good and opposing evil eventually a time will come when evil is being encouraged and good opposed!

Taking on this responsibility requires thick skin and a commitment to public welfare over personal feelings (when you're told to MYOB), relationships (The "cool" crowd may not want you hanging around as much.) and perhaps material comforts.

"When you see something wrong, you correct it and in the process of correcting it you may suffer, you may lose something. But that loss is regained because that loss is what makes the fundamental basis for change in society," says religious expert Dr. Ahmed Hanif.

Scholars say the trick to skirting resistance is to present your advise as if you were giving a gift.

"It doesn't have to be in your face. It has to be something based on love, loving your fellow human being and wanting for him or her what you want for yourself," says Hanif.

The sons of Fatima (one of our four perfect women) demonstrated this skill beautifully when encountering an elderly man improperly performing his ablution. To avoid offending him, young Hasan and Hussain pretended they were competing to see who does his ablution better and asked him to be the judge. The man understood and was overwhelmed by their gentle ways.

It was again Fatima's children (sons and daughters) who showed us that we must also stop the evil of the oppressive and corrupt power structures. In a sermon given before his departure to Kerbala, where he was killed opposing the rule of Yazid, Hussain said his mission was to revive amr bil maruf wa nahi anil munkar as required by God.

"There should always be among you some people who invite to what is good and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. They alone will attain true success." (Quran 3:104)

Women's role in the socio-polical dimensions of exhorting good/protesting evil is central, according to Imam Khomeini. Hundreds of women fainted when coming to meet the Imam after the overthrow of the Shah and someone suggested banning them.

Here was Imam Khomeini's reply:

"Do you think that my announcements or your speeches have removed the Shah?! It is these very women that have removed the Shah. Treat them with honor."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Look and See

One of the most humbling and eye-opening points in my life was the day I helped elect Barack Obama despite going to the polls to vote for Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney.

Voter's remorse set in even before the results were in. While at the time I chalked up my last-minute change of heart to many things, including too many hours spent with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, I diagnosed my real problem later. I had been long on hope but short on insight (baseerat in Arabic).

Those endowed with baseerat, or the ability to see what's really going on, don't get confused and overwhelmed like I did. They can always see black and white where others see gray.

Those lacking baseerat, on the other hand, find themselves easily led astray, especially when bombarded by mixed messages from the media, family/friends and even religious leaders/organizations.

God warns us in the Quran against falling in the latter camp: "... they have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear; they are as cattle, nay, they are in worse errors; these are the heedless ones." (7:179)

Scholar-in-training Asad Jafri explains baseerat further:"Allah has bestowed inside the human being two sets of visions, eyesight and insight, the sight of the eyes and the sight of the soul within those eyes. The eye of the soul is known as baseerat and it is the only tool needed and required to fight today's fitna [disunity and confusion] and corruption."

To develop baseerat within ourselves we must first get rid of ignorance (ask questions, read, ponder, contemplate!) and doubt about our religion (ask questions, read, ponder, contemplate!). Then we have to work on increasing our taqwa (God-consciousness) and piety.

God says: "Surely those who guard (against evil), when a visitation from the Shaitan (devil) afflicts them they become mindful, then lo! they see."

Khadija, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (S), displayed impeccable baseerat throughout her life. Even in the Time of Ignorance she was a monotheist and known as the "Pure One." She never got confused, caught up or led astray. Most importantly, she had the insight to marry Prophet Muhammad (S) even though her friends were discouraging her from "marrying a poor, orphaned young man and lowering her personal status."

Indeed, we all need the baseerat of Khadija these days so we too can distinguish truth from falsehood and recognize, support and join those amongst us leading humanity towards peace, justice and prosperity for all.

According to twentieth century Muslim philosopher and poet Allama Iqbal, our future depends on it:

Khudaya, arzoo meri yahee hai
Mera noor-e-baseerat aam karde

Translation from Urdu:
God, it is my wish
that you make my light of baseerat
widespread among the masses

Monday, April 4, 2011

Friends of a Feather

My disparate choice of friends throughout life is reflected in my on-again, off-again relationship with my hijab, (now on-again, all praise is due to God).

I put my head covering on thanks to a girl I befriended on the bus in high school and took it off under the influence of my MSA friends in college (long story). The miscellaneous hijab tightenings and relaxings in between also correlate to the people I hung out with, whether at school, on the job or in the community.

As impressionable as I was, I should have heeded the advice of Prophet Muhammad (S): “Man is influenced by the faith of his friends. Therefore, be careful of whom you associate with.”

But it's not too late. Even as adults we need to make sure we are surrounding ourselves with people who bring us closer to God before it is too late:

"On the Day when the unjust will bite their hands (regretfully) saying, would that we had taken a way with the Messenger. Would that we had not been friends with so and so. He led us away from the true guidance after it had come to us...." (25:28-29)

As Zara Syed says on "Muslims of all ages are falling victim to decreasing piety levels as a result of having bad company. If you feel like an ugly duckling while practicing Islam around your friends, there is something extremely wrong with your friendship."

There are clear instructions on keeping away from those people who are openly flouting God's orders. According to hadith qudsi, God addresses the Prophet (S) and says: "Oh Ahmed, it is not the case that everyone who says he loves Me loves Me until he runs away from the sinner in a thorough running away."

In fact, many Muslims tell Allah daily in Arabic that they "alienate and forsake him who disobeys You" during dua qunoot in Isha prayer. Unfortunately, they don't understand what they are saying and end up lying to Allah over and over again.

Some of the negative affects of unnecessarily associating with those heedless of God include: hypocricy, hard-heartedness, lack of humility before God and forgetting our own faults, according to scholar Usama Abdul-Ghani.

"We want to associate with others who remind us of Allah. People who are strong enough so that even if they see us committing sin or making a mistake, these people will come to us and remind us of our duties," Abdul-Ghani advises.

Once we make good friends, we need to keep them. Here are some friendship rights that need to be observed according to Imam Zain-ul-Abideen, the great grandson of Prophet Muhammad (S):

"The right of the companion is that you act as his companion with bounty and in fairness. You honor him as he honors you, and you do not let him be the first to act with generosity. If he is first, you repay him. You wish for him as he wishes for you, and you restrain him from any act of disobedience he might attempt. Be a mercy for him and not a chastisement. And there is no strength save in God."

We can learn from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad (S), how to be a good friend. Her son Hasan said he observed his mother praying from night to dawn and never heard her supplicate for herself. When he asked her why, here was her reply:

"My dear son! First come your neighbors and friends, then your home, then yourself!"

Those of us committed to emulating women like Fatima must strive to move our friendships beyond the usual phone gabbing/texting, power shopping or elaborate Saturday night dinnering. We must develop our friendships into vehicles for collectively getting closer to God, God willing, whether it is through education, charity work or political action.

As Imam Khomeini says: "Strive to purify your character and to make your friends do likewise. Strive so that you react to the outrages committed against you." (March 12, 1985)