Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Matchmaker Extraordinaire

As a novice matchmaker (I can't believe I'm turning into one of those aunties!), I was baffled by the response one mother gave to a pretty straight-forward question.

"Is your daughter religious?" I asked.

"Well," the mom responded. "She's very spiritual."

Since I usually hear religiosity classified (albeit vaguely) as conservative, moderate or liberal, I had no clue where "spiritual" fell on that scale.

What does spiritual even mean? Influenced as we are by the popular culture around us--where more people are trying to find meaning and upliftment in life through nature, music, arts, meditations, social work or even self-help gurus--most of us don't even know the Islamic definition of spirituality.

Spirituality in Islam is attaining qurb or proximity to God by growing in awareness of God, His names and His attributes. God the All-Merciful, who is eager for His servants to achieve this nearness to Him, clearly laid out the path that goes straight to Him and instructed us to stay on it by fulfilling our religious duties and avoiding all sins, which, by the way, is the [Click here:] "Best deed in Ramadan," according to Prophet Muhammad (S).

"The best way to achieve spirituality is to begin total obedience of God and His Prophet (S) without question, without hesitation, without entertaining any doubt," says scholar Bashir Rahim. "This is the beginning of the journey."

God: "As for those who strive in Us We surely guide them to Our paths and verily God is with those who do right." (Quran 29:69)

It was through this wholehearted obedience of God that Maryam, one of the four perfect women of all times, achieved her heightened spirituality.  To attest to her spiritual success, God relates that Maryam conversed with angels, enjoyed heaven-sent food and even conceived a baby (Prophet Jesus) via a miracle.

"And (God set forth the example for those who believe) of Maryam, the daughter of  Imran, who guarded her chastity, so We blew into it through Our Angel, and she believed in the words of her Lord and His Scriptures and was of the devoutly obedient." (66: 12)

Obedience to God includes following his instructions not only in our personal lives but also in fulfilling our social and political obligations to Him. Many mistakenly associate spirituality with seclusion from politics and government, but Imam Khomeini, one of the most celebrated mystics of our time, successfully led Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and showed the world that spirituality and striving for social justice go hand-in-hand.

Imam Khomeini's mystical verses:

"Oh my Beloved! After witnessing Your Infinite Beauty I become entangled.
Seeing the manifestation of Your Glory I become saturated with joy and ecstasy."

While my matchmaking efforts above were a flop, I was much encouraged when a young man I set up recently called me "matchmaker extraordinaire." 

I must admit that was one week before his wedding. I'll ask him again one year later, and, God willing, his opinion will be the same.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why We Fast

There's a downside to hiring a babysitter who's a neat freak.

"Why didn't you ever organize our room like this?" my six-year-old asked me after spending an afternoon last week cleaning her closet out with the sitter, who taught my girls how to fold clothes "like they do in the stores."

"Well, that's what Ramadan is for," I told her as I inspected her drawers, where the socks were surprisingly rolled up, lined up and color-coordinated. "We are supposed to spend the month working on putting everything in its own place."

While "putting everything in its own place," or adl in Arabic, is not usually on most people's agenda for Ramadan (like supererogatory prayers, Quran recitations and supplications are), it is precisely what we are supposed to practice to gain the most out of this blessed month.

God says: "O you who are commited to God, fasting has been declared a mandatory service upon you as it has been declared a mandatory service upon those before you so that you may acquire taqwa (God-consciousness)...." (Quran 2: 183)

And later: "See to it that adl is done because it is closest in proximity to taqwa (God-consciousness)." (5: 8)

It was Ali, the husband of Fatima, one of the four perfect women of all times, who defined adl, usually translated as justice, as "putting everything in its own place," both in the personal as well as socio-political-economic settings.

"Adl means giving every possessor of right his due," explained cleric Murtaza Mutahhari. "So everyone should get all of his due, such as equality before law, economic equality, racial equality, liberty and due of property."

Muslims are supposed to fast all day this month to heighten their awareness of God the Almighty as well as the world around them. The hunger pangs we feel should not only help us relate to or donate to the poor and disenfranchised around the world, but it should also compel us to do something to systematically bring more balance, equality, non-discrimination and rights to others as is their due.

"Let's understand why there is imbalance in the world," says scholar Salim Yusufali. "Why is it that we have the 99% and the 1%?"

Last weekend a group gathered in front of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto to protest America's support of the brutal Saudi regime, which in early July arrested, imprisoned and tortured one of its scholars for speaking out against injustice.

"You are living the spirit of Ramadan by being actively present in the field," Zafar Bangash, imam of the Islamic Society of York Region mosque told the crowd.

It's by no coincidence that Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution, in 1979 declared the last Friday of Ramadan as Al-Quds Day in solidarity with all the oppressed people of the world, especially the Palestinians suffering at the hands of the Zionist regime.

Millions of people around the world--of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds--continue to hold rallies on that date to protest the oppression around them, and we should encourage our communities to also do their parts to "put everything in its rightful place."

But first I have to figure out whose socks are whose and which drawers they belong in....

Friday, July 20, 2012

Khutbaaz (Sermons)

Below you will find summaries of Friday prayer sermons given this month that encourage people to oppose systems of oppression and establish social justice. Why? See my post: Preaching Justice.

"Discovering One's Social Self This Ramadan"
By Imam Muhammad Asi of the Islamic Center of Washington
Friday, July 27, 2012

Those fasting in this blessed month can reach proximity to God only after realizing their place within the social world around them.

"This month of Ramadan is an opportunity in which a larger opportunity presents itself," Imam Muhammad Asi told his congregation. "Fasting as an individual is one thing. Fasting as an individual in the body of millions of other individuals who are fasting in the same time frame is another thing."

We fast because it is al-haqq, which can be translated into that which is the truth, just, legal and a right, but we can only attain that haqq "with the activation of our minds," Asi said.

First, Muslims must reflect upon their inner selves, and through the discipline, determination and will power that fasting teaches "take charge of internal tendencies (desires, urges, emotions) that otherwise could run amok."

"Some of the meanings of al-haqq in this month of fasting are to have you probe the universe inside of you," Asi said.

But we cannot stop there. We must also examine our place in relation to those around us.

"The observation of this fast should also take you into the dimension of your social self," Asi extorted. "This is another region in which you dwell."

Asi said we can do this by pondering upon the supplication we utter when we break our fast:

"O God, I fasted for You and I believe in You and I break my fast with Your sustenance."

"Ask yourself when you break your fast at the end of the day (when some end up eating three meals in one), 'How come you have some of it (food) and other people don't have any of it or a portion of it or much of it?'" Asi said.

"Is God unjust? He wants to give some people more and others less? Is this the haqq that we understand God with or is it (poverty, hunger, starvation) a function of our determination and procedures?" he asked.

"If it (imbalance in the world) belongs to us, we have to set it in the right direction," and fasting should provide us with the determination to do so, said Asi, who is author of The Ascendant Quran, the first tafsir (exegesis) written directly into English.

"If you do this--and not many who are fasting in Ramadan do any of this although it is a requirement--God is there to say to you:"

"I am with you! I am near to you! I am in close proximity to you and I am inside of you!" (Quran: 2: 186)

Asi said God is telling us, "Here I am! Can you see me? Can you hear me? Can you detect me?"

"Call upon me and I will answer you." (40: 60)

Click here to listen to Imam Asi's complete sermon.
"We Need Thinking Minds"
By Imam Muhammad Asi of the Islamic Center of Washington
Friday, July 20, 2012

If we stay on top of our game during this holy month of Ramadan, we should end up more aware and better prepared to battle the social problems of this world.

"It is true we are supposed to fast in Ramadan," said Imam Muhammad Asi during his Friday prayer sermon. "But that doesn't mean we close our eyes and play ostrich. This Ramadan should sensitize us to the social pollution around us."

Muslims should keep tabs on developments in the political world, such as the appointment Thursday of former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan (a CIA asset by his own accounts, according to Asi) as Saudi Arabia's new intelligence chief. Bandar was ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005, when he was named head of Saudi's newly created National Security Council.

"We need thinking minds," said Asi. "It is the absent mind that has been dogging us for so many years. We need minds that are present, that are aware of what is happening."

Asi offered other insights and tips for Ramadan:

  • The month is supposed to begin and end with the visualization of the crescent, according to a narration of Prophet Muhammad (S).
  • Muslims should spend generously in this month like the Prophet (S) did.
  • Those who are fasting must abstain from bad words, arguments and backbiting.
"Words break the fast," Asi said. 

While we cannot discuss people's private lives, Asi said we can and should discuss the public lives of those holding power and making decisions.

"Social character has to be in the public eye in Ramadan and outside Ramadan," he explained.

Lastly, Asi reminded us that the Quran, which was revealed in this blessed month, delivers more meanings in Ramadan.

"The Quran is more accessible in Ramadan because of the transformations within ourselves," said Asi, who is author of The Ascendant Quran, the first tafsir (exegesis) written directly into English. "We are free from the dunya (the lower materialistic world), no longer under pressures of our bodies and their demands."

Click here to listen to Imam Asi's complete sermon.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Preaching Justice

A Friday sermon I attended curbside on an oppressively hot day earlier this month turned out to be a long-sought breath of fresh air.

That's because the imam (leader) of this make-shift mosque--on the footpath of Washington's Embassy Row--articulated the pressing political, social and ethical issues of the day in a captivating sermon (khutbah in Arabic) replete with deep analysis as well as practical solutions extracted from the Quran and traditions of Prophet Muhammad (S).

Touching upon a cornucopia of current events, from the the coup in Paraguay to drone attacks across the Muslim world to the recent East coast electrical power surge, Imam Afeef Khan, standing bare-headed and dry-mouthed under the scorching sun, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on taghut, unjust systems of power that produce oppressive leaders.

"The prophetic mission of all the prophets and of all revelation was in part to come up with a holistic program whereby the people could reverse the effects of taghut in their societies," Khan said.

To spread awareness in society, every Friday during congregational afternoon prayers a weekly sermon must be given by the imam, who should be a righteous and just person. The imam has clear goals he must meet in his address:

"It is necessary for the speaker to take the most advantage of whatever is possible in the sermons in reforming souls and familiarizing people with the important issues," says scholar Naser Makarem Shirazi. "(He should) advise them of their duties and obligations in face of these issues and warn them of the strategies of the enemies and their agents."

But most sermons in mosques around the world do none of the above. That's because  when corrupt leaders wrestled away power in early Islamic history, the sermon lost its activist role and became a mouthpiece for the illegitimate rulers. They hijacked the talks and used them to instead denounce those calling for justice, specifically the family of Fatima, one of the four perfect women of all times.

"For full 90 years, from Sind in India to Asia Minor and Andalucia in Spain, Ali and the children of Fatima were cursed from every pulpit in every mosque after every Friday sermon," wrote Indian historian M. Shibli in his book about the Prophet (S).

While the vilification has thankfully stopped, sermons in most mosques across the world never regained their original purpose of actively opposing taghut and promoting social justice. A recent study conducted in America of 50 mosques over three years found that most imams talk about basic, unsophisticated topics and that "purely political themes are virtually nonexistent in khutbahs."

Such mosques, which refuse to follow the leadership of the Prophet (S) in all ways--including striving to establish social justice--are clearly condemned in the Quran.

"Never set foot in such a place! Only a house of worship founded from the very first day upon God-consciousness is worthy of thy setting foot therein--[a house of worship] wherein there are men desirous of growing in purity: for God loves all who purify themselves." (9: 108)

But there is hope. We saw the power of sermons last year in Egypt's Tahrir Square, where revolutionary fervor was renewed every Friday thanks to imams finally calling for change and representative government.

With most of the world buried in socio-economic-political miseries, the time is now ripe to pressure our local imams to do their jobs and bring to the public sphere Quran-based solutions that will make this world a better place for all.

For now, I will be posting sermons from imams already doing that. God-willing, every weekend you will be able to find short summaries and links on my blog under "Khutbaaz."