Monday, January 23, 2012

Winner Takes All

I've always had a competitive streak, but I didn't know how fierce it could get until our eldest daughter joined her elementary school basketball team.

"Stop her!"

"Block her!!"

"That's right, take that ball away from her!!!"

That's me on Saturday mornings, cheerleading from the bleachers where I sit perched at the edge of my seat, flanked by my husband and two younger ones (who know better than to talk to me during game time!) The games can get pretty intense and--surprise, surprise--my daughter quite aggressive.

I was fine with that until that competitiveness started dribbling off the court and into our life in all sorts of unexpected ways. Suffice it to say, shortly into the season I knew I needed to get my daughter (as well as myself) coached on the proper role of competitiveness as outlined by God, who calls this life of ours "play and amusement." (Quran 57:20)

The spirit of mutual rivalry is essential for human struggle and progress, and it can inspire supreme achievements as long as it is channelled the correct way. That way is by competing with others to attain higher values and perform good deeds for the pleasure of God. Indeed, scoring points with God is the only way to bring lasting success in this world and the eternal Hereafter.

God says: "Compete with each other in good action," (2: 148) and "Strive (as in a race) in all virtues." (5: 48)

Ali, the husband of Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times) called this life a "competition ground," and Hussain, their son, advised: "O People! Do compete in good deeds and haste in grabbing good chances. By delaying good deeds you reduce their value."

"When you compete in goodness then what happens?" asks scholar Muhammad Baig. "You are not trying to put down the other. You gain what you gain and he will gain what he gains. Everyone wins."

God equips us with many blessings (such as health, wealth, children, intelligence, skills) to help us achieve great things. But most of us get caught up in competing over those tools and forget our end goal: striving to please and get nearer to God.

"Rivalry for worldly gain distracts you, until you visit your graves. Indeed, you shall know. Again, you shall certainly come to know." (102:1-4)

"It's like spending your whole time on the court fighting with each other over who has more and better balls, uniforms and shoes," I told my daughter, "and forgetting to use them to score baskets."

Unfortunately, we live in an era where insatiable greed for amassing more and more material wealth for self-pleasure has reached epic proportions.

"Those who today have set a part of the world on fire, who spill blood and who kill, do this because they are competing with each other in looting the nations of the world and swallowing their wealth and the products of their labor, and in bringing the weak and underdeveloped countries under their domination and control," said Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

There are, however, many burgeoning movements focused on creating a more just and peaceful world, where people compete with each other in doing good instead of collecting goods. But they have their work cut out for them.

"We have to know how the game is played," says Imam Abdul Alim Musa of Masjid Al-Islam in Washington. "We gotta get big, we gotta get better organized. We have to gain more wealth and power, not to buy a new car or fly around the world to some resort but to use the power and position to stop" oppression.

All things said, there is one competition I wouldn't mind bringing into our house: To ease the other's burdens, the late scholar Allama Tabatabai and his wife "always used to try and compete in carrying out household chores before each other," according to their daughter Najma Sadat Tabatabai.

Now losing this game wouldn't be so bad....

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Remember-ring Death (Part 2)

...Continued from Remember-ring Death (Part 1)

"There's a dance party going on in there," my husband announced as the five of us huddled in the hotel stairwell.

"What?!" Now it was my turn to be confused.

Just then the door to the lobby flew open again. Dressed in pjs and robes, a couple two steps ahead of us gave us the all clear as they headed back to their room. Two smoke machines at the New Year's Eve party, they told us, had triggered a false alarm.

What a relief!!! We turned the troops around and headed back upstairs, laughing at our rattled selves the whole way there. The punchline came as we approached our room and realized the sounds we had mistaken for an evacuation had come from a party (with lots of noisy revelers, thud-thud dance music and aromatic food) next door.

But later that night, I couldn't fall sleep. Death suddenly seemed more real and...lurking. I was haunted by this thought: What if death really had been on the other side of the door that night? Truth is, I wasn't ready to meet my Lord.

"The death from which you shrink will surely meet you, and afterward you will be returned unto the Knower of the invisible and the visible, and He will tell you what you used to do." (Quran 62:8)

Our relationship with death is, in fact, a barometer of our faith. Those of us who fail to perform our duties to God and repeatedly fall into sin are afraid of death and want to see it delayed.

"You have ruined and destroyed your Hereafter and instead have made habitable the present life," said Hussain, son of Fatima (one of the four perfect women of all times). "So you do not like the transfer from an inhabited and comfortable place to a ruined and destroyed one."

On the other hand, those who truly believe that this life is temporary stay focused on preparing for death--one of the fifty stations on the way to our permanent abode--and embrace it when it arrives.

"Anybody who has concrete, unshakeable faith in God will always love death and their meeting with God," says scholar Abbas Ayleya.

Like Fatima did. Right before Prophet Muhammad (S) passed away he whispered some words to her. Fatima: "First my father told me that he was going to die. When I heard this, I began to cry. Then he informed me that I would be the very first to meet him in heaven, and that too, very soon. When I heard this, I was very happy, and I smiled."

To cultivate this positive attitude towards death, we must strengthen our faith in God through four means: reflection, remembrance, sound knowledge and good deeds, according to Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

"Remember death often," the Prophet (S) instructed.

Only with this understanding of death can we stay fearlessly committed to truth, peace and justice, especially in these times of tanks, tear gas and rubber (or even live) bullets. Indeed, this is the mindset of brave activists everywhere following the footsteps of Hussain, who once said: "I don't see death but prosperity and living with tyrants nothing but disgust and disgrace."

O God,
Bless Muhammad and his household,
Appoint for us from among the righteous works a work
through which we will feel the homecoming to Thee as slow
and crave a quick joining with Thee,
so that death may be
our intimate abode with which we are intimate,
our familiar place toward which we yearn,
and our next of kin whose coming we love!

(Supplication of Zain-ul-Abideen, grandson of Fatima)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Remember-ring Death (Part 1)

For my family, the New Year started off with a screeching buzz instead of a bang.

"What's that sound?" I asked my husband after being startled awake in a hotel room just past midnight.

"Your alarm," he answered, ever-ready to slam my alarm clock, which he claims emits noises all night.

I sat up to listen more closely. 

The wailing drone continued. Outside our room, I heard much commotion and a repeated thud that sounded like feet pounding stairs. 

"It's the fire alarm!" I cried, jumping out of bed.

Quickly, we scurried around the room waking the kids, stuffing them into their shoes and jackets and collecting this, that and the other. Only after I announced, "I smell smoke," did we finally book it to the door.

That's when we realized our ten-year-old was missing. 

We found her standing in front of the bathroom sink, dazed and thoroughly confused. "Isn't it Fajr time (daily prayer before sunrise)?" she asked.

Leading her out the door, we fled down the hall and took the now empty stairway down four flights. We must be the last people evacuating, I thought anxiously as images of the collapsing World Trade Center towers kept playing in my head (despite having read a million times that it wasn't the fires that did them in).

When we reached the lobby level, my husband cracked the door ajar but then shut it back immediately and said:

To be continued....