Trials and Tests

Once again, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  There are numerous reasons for my silence – the same reasons as always: too busy and too stressed from work and health problems (which inshAllah will get better soon).  But, on a related note, I wanted to cite a few verses of Quran which are constantly on my mind, especially during these trying times:

Do people think they will be left alone after saying, “We believe,” and not be tested?” (29:2)

“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits of your toil, but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity, “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return,” they are those on whom descend blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.”  (2:155-157)

I memorized the first verse when I first converted, as I knew that I would be facing a long, difficult journey ahead of me.  I realized from the beginning that I would be tested – and indeed, I have been. 

Too often, people look at trials and hardship as the result of God being unfair – in fact, some even leave religion altogether because they don’t understand how a fair God could allow such things to happen to innocent people.  Yet, what they fail to realize is that life in this world is not the end all, ultimate destination.  Rather, this life is a test for our placement in the eternal world of the hereafter; it is a transitory, temporary phase of existence.   

The reality is that our current life sucks.  It’s incredibly difficult.  For hard-working, sincere, “good” people, it’s usually even more miserable, with hardship after hardship; it seems they never manage to get a break.  For the careless and self-absorbed, they seem to get off easy; life is fun and effortless.  But actually, life in this world is like the kind of test in which you answer one question correctly and you are automatically upgraded to a harder question, and if you get it wrong, you’re downgraded to an easier question.  In the end, you get the score you deserve.  The only difference between this test and real life is that in life, God is there helping you along the way, showing you the steps to take, and in fact, giving you all the answers.  But some of us are arrogant and want to do it on our own.  Still others would rather not be taking a test at all and instead just play around and not take it seriously.  Yet the inescapable reality is that we all are in this test, whether we like it or not. 

Life tests come in all shapes and sizes.  As in the aforementioned verse, we can be tested with our financial security (hunger).  Or with the lives of those around us (family, friends) – or with our own lives.  Or with a loss of our possessions, or despite all our hard work and best intentions, being blocked at seemingly every turn.  In tests like these, some people put their faith in God and rely on Him more as they realize that their sustenance does not come from our material world, but from God alone.  Yet others turn away from God during hardship, blaming God and feeling sorry for themselves for being given such an unfair life. 

Tests can also come in the form of blessings and ease.  Not only does God want to reveal (to ourselves) how we react to hardship, but He also wants us to see how we respond when things are going well.  Some people are grateful and thank God continuously for the blessings He’s granted, while others forget God and attribute their success to themselves alone. 

Why do we have tests at all really?  Especially since God already knows the state of our hearts?  Well, even though a teacher can generally get an idea of how a student will do even from the very beginning of the class, the student still needs to go through the coursework and various assessments so that they will know that they got the grade they received because of their own actions.  Not because the teacher liked them or didn’t like them; rather, their grade is based on actual proof and evidence of their performance.  Likewise, on the Day of Judgment, when our final ‘grades’ are revealed, we will be unable to argue that it was unfair – our actions will be unfolded and replayed before our own eyes as clear proof.  We earned our final grade, fair and square.  And in fact, God is more merciful and loving than any teacher could ever be – He gives us numerous chances to start over despite how often or how badly we mess up, and He even went to all the trouble to give us all the answers via prophets and holy books.  So if we still end up getting a bad grade in the end, despite all the invaluable assistance and support we’ve been given all along the way, it is truly fully and thoroughly deserved. 

So if you find yourself in the midst of trials and are feeling particularly down about it all, cheer up.  God tests the believers.  The harder the test, the further along you are and the better shape you’re in.  Just like an athlete who must undergo an arduous, strenuous training regimen, or the MD student who faces rigorous, extensive testing of their knowledge and expertise, so must the believer pass through difficulty to make it to the final destination.  Of course, the testing period is extremely difficult, but the athlete, the MD student, and the believer keep striving forward because they know very well the wonderful reward that lies at the end.

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A Day of Thankfulness

I thank God for this precious gift of life, for the beauty and wonder of His majestic creation around me, and for the sustaining bond of family and loved ones, in spite of all their flaws.

I thank God for rending the veil of ignorance and blindness from my eyes, and allowing me to see the truth plainly and clearly, no matter how painful the truth is.  I am eternally thankful to God for guiding me to the right path, and for giving me the tools to find the truth in all things.

I am grateful for all the hardship and difficulty I face, as only through trial can I struggle and grow into a better person.

“God’s blessings are numerous, and my tongue is too weak to count them.  His favors are abundant and my understanding falls short of grasping them… I thank God for giving me the ability to thank Him – even my thanking requires thanksgiving” (Imam Ali ibn Hussein, from Sahife Sajjadiya).

I pray that on this day of thankfulness, we will reach out to those less fortunate than us, and share the overflowing blessings that have been undeservedly bestowed on us.  Look around at those near you; if everyone helped those in their close circles, no need for charity would ever exist.  “If any one of you finds your near ones in want or starvation, he should not desist in helping them” (Imam Ali, from Nahjul Balagha).

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! 

Health: Our Most Precious Possession

To follow up with the post I wrote a few weeks back regarding the hadith that details the conversation Prophet Muhammad (saws) had with his companion Abu Dharr,  I just wanted to include the second piece of advice given.  The last post dealt with taking advantage of youth before old age, whereas the second admonishment was to take advantage of one’s physical health before illness.

Certainly health is something we all take for granted except when we lose it.  The older we become, the more conscious we are of how our bodies simply aren’t responding the way they used to.  I’m sure many of the middle aged, older, and elderly may look back with regret at the careless way they lived their lives and the flippant attitude toward taking care of their health.  Some may even look at today’s youth and shudder at the careless, unconcerned approach they hold regarding their health, knowing full well that despite popular belief, no one will escape the reality of aging and the inescapable downward spiral of our health.

I know each time I’m sick, I am constantly thinking to myself that when I’m well again I’ll always be thankful for each second of my wellness, and will be conscious of every healthy moment.  Yet inevitably, after some time has passed since I begin to feel better, the memory of my resolution begins to fade and I struggle to make a conscious effort to remind myself of the phenomenal blessing God has given me of such good health and the full use of all my limbs.

SubhanAllah, on the days when I feel most down and depressed, I try to always remind myself of all the numerous blessings I’ve been given (physical as well as mental) – I’m sure there are countless others who would love to trade places with me in a heartbeat, despite all my overwhelming and obvious shortcomings and failures.   As Imam Ali (as) mentioned, whenever we start feeling badly, we should look at those less fortunate than us to remind ourselves of all the blessings God has given us, and to help us put our vision of ourselves back into perspective.

Fleeting Moments

Salam alaykum, may God’s peace and blessings be upon you all.  My sincere apologies; it has been quite some time since I’ve last posted!  Unfortunately, my job has not gotten any less stressful; I’m still as busy and overworked as ever, and I have not had a single chance to deal with my blog.  But, alhamdilulah, nevertheless I’m very thankful to have a job and, to finally have a few minutes to sit down and post something.

I listened to a very good Islamic lecture recently, given by Sheikh Ahmed Haneef, that discussed the issue of procrastination.  He describes procrastination as having two types: worldly procrastination and spiritual procrastination.  To kick off his lecture, he mentioned a very long hadith in which Prophet Muhammad (saws) gives in-depth advice to one of the companions, Abu Dharr.  Prophet Muhammad admonishes Abu Dharr to avoid procrastination in 5 specific areas.  Each of these areas is quite profound, so I’ll just mention the first:  we should take advantage of our youth before old age sets in.

Taking advantage of my youth is something I have thought about a great deal in the past few years.  I was startled to realize that upon reaching my long-held ideal age of 25, time doesn’t stop there – the days, months, and years only continue to come, seemingly at an ever-increasing speed.  Now in my late 20s, I’m looking back on my life and wishing I had done many things differently and that I had taken advantage of my youth and the numerous opportunities it afforded.  Of course I recognize that I am still young, and I see each day now as being very valuable and precious.  On the Day of Judgment, we will be asked to account for all of the time given to us in this life, so we shouldn’t spend it carelessly and thoughtlessly.  There are countless things that those of us still in our youth are capable of doing that we may not have the opportunity to do later.   Now, when I’m faced with a little bit of free time, I always try to fill it with important, meaningful, and necessary tasks as opposed to mindless and valueless activities.

Time is something constantly on my mind, as these days I never have enough of it.  I have to always monitor my activities by constantly pushing myself to move faster in order to get through everything each day.  The pressure of the clock as I go about each day is a constant reminder of the pressure of the rapid passing of the remaining days I have in this life.  With this perspective, each moment holds much more gravity and value than it ever did before.

As Imam Ali ibne Abu Talib (as) wisely states, “to miss an opportunity brings about grief,”  and that “opportunities pass by like clouds.”  Opportunities to make valuable use of our time present themselves only once, and only for a fleeting moment, just like the passing clouds.  Once the opportunity is gone, we are left with only the regret of not having acted differently, and the inescapable burden of knowing that we’ll never be able to go back and change it.  It’s gone forever.

Although difficult to imagine, our lives do not stretch on and on indefinitely.  On the contrary, our lives are short and our days are easily countable.  Each moment that passes us by brings us that much closer to our end, and to the day we stand before God to account for how we spent our time here on earth.  We should not look to this world only, but beyond what is directly in front of us to what lies after this world.

This world is merely a test in which we alone determine our hereafter.  So, for those still in their youth, don’t think of the future as some far-off, abstract notion that will happen “someday.”  No, the future is right around the corner, and your actions now will have a serious and lasting impact on your future circumstances.  Do not occupy yourself with inconsequential, meaningless things, but instead, strive to prepare yourself for your impending future and the hereafter.

Sheikh Ahmed Haneef’s lecture:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tohCv5VbUKI

In the Midst of Ramadhan

Salaam alaykum, peace and blessings to all, and my sincere apologies for not updating my blog in so long!  I’ve been buried at my job with the start of a new semester and am barely keeping up with all of my obligations as it is!  When I come home in the evening, usually right around iftar, I’ve got about 2ish hours to figure out what to eat, make it, eat it, and then do everything else I need to do before the next day begins.  So yes, I’m a bit frazzled!  On the weekends I just want to do NOTHING, and most certainly nothing that has to do with my computer!

Nevertheless, some of my Ramadhan goals are going smoothly, alhamdilulah.  I’ve been fairly successful at reading Quran almost every day during my lunch break, and on the days when I have to work through my lunch break, I just try to read more on the weekends to compensate for it.  I’m learning so much – I feel like I’m reading a completely different book than what I read before!  SubhanAllah, the Quran is truly an amazing book.  InshAllah I hope to begin sharing some of the passages that have really resonated with me with you all.

My goal of being more present-focused is working somewhat.  Mostly I’m just trying to survive my incredibly busy day, trying to get an impossible amount of work done in a short period of time, but I have been stopping myself every now and then to just be still, both physically and mentally, and carefully take in my whole environment and find something positive and uplifting.  I love nature, so mostly all it takes is looking out any nearby window. 🙂

Exercising while fasting has been a challenge, but I’m getting through it, day in and day out.  It’s hard to push myself as much as I’d like to when I have a parched, dry throat from a full day of teaching and from having an intense headache… But I am resolved to take the challenge and fight through it with whatever energy I have left, and I’m making it, alhamdilulah, with the strength of God.

My goal of focusing on akhlaq with students and colleagues is going semi-well – with students, I think I’m doing very well with remaining patient and kind, alhamdilulah (no matter how many times I’ve told them something and someone will inevitably STILL ask me cluelessly about what I just finished explaining).  With my colleagues, I’m not doing such a great job of going out of my way to be kind and helpful though, as I’m usually really tired (and incredibly parched) after teaching and just want to go to my office and focus on prepping for upcoming classes as furiously as possible.  I think fasting is also sapping all of my energy, because sometimes I can barely put two sentences together!  So, with my colleagues I’m being pleasant but pretty quiet.  Alhamdilulah, there are still two weeks left, so all is not lost – I still have time to step up my game somehow!

On to the more exciting part of the post (for me anyway): a verse of Quran that I’d like to share!

Those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah and then do not follow up what they have spent with reproaches and affronts, they shall have their reward near their Lord, and they will have fear, nor will they grieve.  An honorable word with pardon is better than a charity followed by affront.

(Quran 2: 262-263)

When I read this, I see wealth as meaning not only our money, but also anything that we can give.  So anytime we do anything for anyone else, it can be termed as charity.  What we are being told to avoid, however, is following up an act of charity with grumbling or reminding the other person of what we did for them and making them feel indebted or obligated in any way.

It sounds obvious, but in practical application it is not always so easy.  How many times in our lives have we gone out of our way to do something nice for someone, and they didn’t seem to appreciate it or even acknowledge it?  We then may feel compelled to point out what we’ve done in an annoyed or angry manner (or at least silently hold a grudge against them!) – yet in doing so, we’ve lost the benefit of performing the charity in the first place.  Other times we may do something so great for someone else that we (sometimes unwittingly) like to remind them of what we did, making them feel bad or as if we want them to pay us back for it.

God tells us to avoid all of this – once you perform an act of charity, it’s done.  We have to always bear in mind that we give charity for God’s sake, not for any particular person’s sake.  Our reward lies with God, and not with that person.  With this mindset, even if the other person responds negatively, it shouldn’t affect us as we didn’t do it solely for them in the first place!

I think this type of bad habit occurs frequently with family members or those closest to us.  Perhaps a husband seems to be unhappy with his wife for no apparent reason, and she decides to be charitable and let it go and respond positively instead of negatively.  Yet when he continues to berate her, she explodes and, as a weapon against him, points out each specific circumstance in which she was nice even though he was treating her so badly.  In doing so (becoming angry and using her acts of charity against him), her kind acts no longer hold any reward, because she was doing it in search of the reward and recognition of her husband, and not for God.  Further, any good that might have occurred from her initial charity would be completely undone (if not worsened) now that she has blown up in anger and used her charity as a weapon against him – and the situation will inevitably continue to spiral downward.

SubhanAllah, the meaning in this last phrase (an honorable word with pardon is better than charity with affront) is incredibly profound: it is not only referring generally to any situation in which someone has usurped our rights, but also specifically to a situation in which someone reacts negatively to our charity: to pardon them kindly – to simply let it go.




In Pursuit of Wisdom

As a child, my fervent prayer was always that God would give me wisdom.  Prophet Sulaiman (as), even in Christian tradition, is known for his phenomenal wisdom, so I often scoured the book of Proverbs (supposed to have been written by him), searching for something that would make me wiser.  I thought that if I prayed hard enough, I would wake up one day and suddenly have all the answers and have a poignant, succint comeback for everything… yet it never happened. 

Now, several years later, I have come to realize that back then, I had no concept of what wisdom even was.  And, I certainly had no ability to determine whether someone had wisdom or not.  So, without any idea of what wisdom was or how to recognize it, I lacked the clarity to understand how to attain it. 

Since converting to Islam, I have finally come to see what wisdom truly is, and am now able to recognize it, due to the Quran itself, and to the examples of the lives of the Prophet (saws) and his Ahl-Bait.  In fact, the main reason for being so attracted to Islam, aside from the Quran, was the incredible wisdom of Imam Ali (as).  I was so blown away by even the simplest utterances he spoke.  I had never even imagined or encountered such deep wisdom and insight.  Learning more about Imam Ali also helped me to learn more about the Prophet, because as the Prophet said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the gate.”  Imam Ali never spoke of his own – he merely reflected what he learned from the Prophet.  What a vast ocean of knowledge the Prophet then must have!

Discovering Imam Ali and his relationship to the Prophet helped me to finally understand an essential component to the path to gaining wisdom – knowledge.  Having knowledge does not make you wise, yet it is impossible to be wise without having any knowledge.  Therefore, a key ingredient to gaining wisdom is by acquiring knowledge. 

So then, what is knowledge?  The Prophet was once asked this very question.  He responded by saying that first, knowledge is to keep silent.  Next, it is to listen attentively.  Then, it is to remember.  Next, it is to act on upon what was learned, and finally, it is to teach others (Al-Majlisi, Bihar Al-Anwar, vol. 2 p. 28). 

So, then, we must first be quiet – to stop talking, to stop guessing and making conjectures and adding our opinions – we need to stop everything and be silent, putting aside our stereotypes, preconceived ideas, and biases.  Then we need to listen.  Search out those who are knowledgeable and listen to them – don’t try to compete with them or judge that which you still do not have full knowledge of.  Also keep in mind that knowledge can be gained from even the most unlikely sources, so we must keep an open mind to the fact that knowledge is not confined to one particular belief system or worldview.  Once we start to listen, we then need to remember.  Listening is useless if we don’t try to preserve the information in our own minds somehow, so that we can process it and begin to live by it and act upon it.  Finally, we need to teach others – but not before all the prior steps have been completed.  As Imam Ali said, “The one who teaches and instructs themselves is entitled to more esteem than one who teaches and instructs others.”  Without having knowledge deeply imbedded in our own minds, it is impossible to effectively teach others.

Wisdom entails gaining knowledge.  Wisdom involves being able to conceptualize and understand life experiences, which cannot be done without knowledge and guidance.   We all know people who have had a lot of difficult experiences in life, but on closer evaluation, we often find that these experiences are patterned – the person continually does the same actions (mistakes) over and over again.  So then, does their experience alone make them wise?  No – because they lack the tools to analyze their experiences and learn from them – knowledge. 

So why is it important to be knowledgeable anyway?  Knowledge helps you understand yourself.  The Prophet mentioned that understanding yourself is the path to coming closer to God.  When you become self-aware,  you can more accurately and objectively see yourself and how you fit into the world.  You can also understand the world around you.  You become more aware of your Creator – and more grateful, thankful, humbled,and submissive.  Things are no longer sheer black and white – you will begin to see the abundance of various shades of color in between.  Being able to see the various levels and complexities of the world around us helps us to accurately classify and categorize, and then use that information to guide our steps.  As long as we are armed with true knowledge and pure intentions, we will never go astray from the true path.

As Imam Ali stated, “Knowledge is better than wealth.  Knowledge guards you, while you have to guard the wealth.  Wealth decreases by spending, while knowledge multiples by spending” (Nahj al-Balagha p. 600). 

The pursuit of wisdom is a complex path that takes an entire lifetime to travel.  The key to its attainment is taking each part of the process step by step, carefully and thoroughly, with patience and sincere intention. 

“One who proceeds on a path in pursuit of knowledge, God makes him proceed therewith on a path to Paradise.” (Prophet Muhammad, Al-Kulayni, Al Kafi, vol. 1). 

http://www.al-islam.org/nutshell/files/knowledge.pdf

Sermons, letters, & sayings of Imam Ali (Nahj al-Balagha): http://www.al-islam.org/nahj/