Forgiveness and Respect

Although I’ve written on this subject before, I find myself still continuing to regularly grapple with forgiveness and respect – for myself. 

Earlier today a friend posted something from a Christian site that I found to be very powerful and true for all of us, regardless of religion – or lack thereof.  It stated:

“true respect for another comes from self respect. True love for another comes from self love.   True forgiveness for another comes from self forgiveness.” 

How true this is.  We can’t actually connect to others or have any impact on others until we first deal with ourselves.  Jesus (as) is reported to have said in the Bible that we must take the plank of wood out of our own eye before we can comment on the speck of dust in another person’s eye.  But, in order to begin that process, we must first see ourselves honestly.  Prophet Muhammad (saws) said the one who knows himself knows God.  What does that mean?  It essentially means that knowing yourself opens the door to understanding the world around you and all that is in it.  You must truly know yourself before you can know others, and most certainly before you can truly know God.   

My friend also commented that she found the advice timely as she had been “beating (herself) up” over some past sins that God had long forgiven.  Her thoughts resonated with me because I often do the same thing.  Past sins and mistakes sometimes come hurtling back, hitting me like a runaway train, paralyzing me with shame, fear, and self-loathing, leaving me incredulous that I could have ever done such a thing. 

Yet I often wonder what role our past sins and mistakes should have in our lives.  We should not forget them altogether, because then we may not remember the pain and anguish we suffered through the experience, and the important lessons learned may quickly fade.  We may also find ourselves back in the same place again because we failed to keep in mind the small, seemingly inconsequential steps we took initially that eventually brought us to that horrid place.  Yet in contrast, if we always think about our past sins, we may render ourselves unable to pick ourselves up and move on, paralyzed by the shame and self-hatred.  In essence, we can’t forget our past but we also can’t get lost in it.  It’s a difficult balance to maintain.  

Further, if we lose ourselves in our past sins, we’ll be unable to forgive ourselves, which means we won’t be able to love ourselves, and certainly not respect ourselves.  And if we can’t do that, we will have great difficulty in doing that with others in a way that feels genuine and real to the other person.     Yet, if we easily forget our past and dismiss it quickly, self forgiveness, love, and respect may be shallow, and perhaps not even a conscious process, which may eventually lead to not being aware that we’ve messed up in the first place.  Our ethics with others may be superficial as well; fleeting, changing, insincere.  We will quickly find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over, either wondering why it keeps happening, or perhaps simply accepting it as an uncontrollable way of life, part of our personality or environment.  And eventually, some may become completely unaware that they’ve done something wrong, and others may even begin to boldy defend their actions as something good.  

As human beings, we have a tendency to block out the bad things and remember only the good.  Think back to your own childhood or to any fond memory.  Chances are, it’s a warming, glowing, positive memory – with nothing negative clouding the view.  In fact, maybe someday you’ll look back on this moment in time right now with fondness, completely forgetting all the hardship and agony you may currently be facing!  So, it appears that we should actually make concerted efforts to remember the shameful, sinful things we’ve done and struggle retain what it felt like and how we got there – because otherwise… we’ll quickly forget. 

A careful balance is necessary though, because if we go too far, it will be difficult to hold our heads up high, speak with any confidence, or even feel worthy to have friends or other relationships.  Ali ibn Abu Talib (as) encouraged us to look at those less fortunate than us.  This doesn’t mean only financially, but in all other aspects as well.  If you keep your sights set on the big picture, you’ll have a more accurate view of yourself and how you fit in with the world around you.  Chances are, you aren’t that bad.  And even if, in the worst case, you ARE that bad, more than likely you aren’t bad in EVERYTHING in your life.  You probably have something not so bad, or perhaps…. even something good. 

You might think that you’re the only one you know with this particular situation so you have no one less fortunate to look to, but in that case, I would suggest looking online!  There are forums on every possible subject imaginable in which people, strengthened by the anonymity the internet provides, share their stories and experiences with more honesty and detail than they ever would in real life.  Reading the accounts of others is eye-opening.  If you still don’t find someone in a worse situation than you, at the very least you’ll find someone who is similar to you, which helps to make you feel not so alone, and – not so bad. 

So, we can’t forget what we’ve done… but we can’t let it destroy ourselves either.  As Hussain ibn Ali aptly stated, “Moderation is wisdom.”  And so it is.  Balance, moderation… this is the wisest – yet most difficult – path.

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

Staying the Moderate Course

One of the challenges of living a balanced and healthy life is to constantly stay in the middle in all things – to not fall into the extremes of too much or too little.  Sometimes I find myself feeling satisfaction that I’m staying balanced in one area, but then have to remind myself to look at everything else in my life as inevitably something else is slipping into extremes!  It’s a constant struggle, which is what jihad is all about.  Prophet Muhammad (saws) told us that the struggle with the self is the greater jihad (jihad al akbar), as it is a constantly, daily condition that every single human being, rich or poor, powerful or insignificant, young or old, must face.  No one is immune and no one can escape it.

The Quran also reminds us to stay away from extremes:

“O you who have faith!  Do not prohibit the good things that Allah has made lawful to you, and do not transgress.” (5:87).

This is something incredibly important to remember as we look at the state of the world around us, particularly in so-called ‘Islamic’ countries and even in certain Muslim groups.  When I was a non-Muslim, I often wondered why on earth people in some of these countries would follow Islam after all the numerous oppressive restrictions it places on its adherents.  What I know now is that this severe restriction is not from Islam, but is from those who transgress the bounds of Islam by prohibiting the good things God has allowed for us!  In fact, the things that actually are prohibited have been expressly articulated in the Quran and by the Prophet, and constitute the exceptions, not the rule.  Everything is allowed except what has been specifically addressed.

Too often we make our lives too difficult in our zeal to please God, in an attempt to forsake everything for the hereafter.  Yet, God did not ask us to live a life of asceticism or extreme denial and hardship.  Rather, the true test lies in fully participating in life while balancing the very difficult tightrope of moderation.  Anyone who has tried to lose weight will know that it is much more difficult to stay away from sweets when you have cookies and cake in your kitchen as opposed to when you have no food in the house whatsoever!  Likewise, forcing yourself to have restraint and live life by partaking in only what you need and not going to excess is much harder than getting rid of everything altogether!  For instance, it’s hard to balance having a spouse and children with your relationship with God – it’s much easier to reject marriage and lock yourself up in a convent in order to devote your life to God.  Some people may not go to such extremes as committing themselves to celibacy, and may get married and have families – yet will devote all their time to furthering the cause of Islam while neglecting their relationships with their families at home!

Rather, our challenge is to avoid going too far as some groups have done by banning things altogether, or by giving up and going off the edge and doing things too much!  Instead, we must strive to enjoy the wonderful life God has given us by staying within the healthy parameters of moderation.

The Importance of Good Manners in Debate

When discussing issues that are emotional and close to one’s heart, it is often difficult to accept what other people are saying without becoming overly emotional, upset, or angry.  Because of this, Americans often avoid discussing potentially heated issues such as politics and religion.  In fact, it is a well-known cardinal rule that those two subjects are entirely off-limits at parties and social events (particularly when people are drinking because physical fights inevitably ensue!).

Yet, who knows the nature of humankind best but our Creator Himself?  God knows very well how easily upset we can become when discussing beliefs, which is why He instructed on how to do exactly that:

“Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and have disputations with them in the best manner; surely your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He knows best those who follow the right way. (Quran chapter 16 verse 125). 

In other words, we are instructed to discuss our beliefs with wisdom and good encouragement (as opposed to sarcasm or criticism), doing so with the utmost of good manners.  It is not our job to convince them or change their minds, as God Himself only knows those who will listen to truth and follow it, or who will reject it and turn away.  Our task is only to speak the truth with good manners.  We should never engage in personal attacks (i.e. “I can’t believe how stupid you are to believe that!”), nor disparage their belief system (“What kind of idiotic, illogical belief is that?!”).  If we stoop to such behavior, the other person will automatically become defensive and immediately stop listening.  Good manners, encouragement, and wisdom are the keys to opening a person’s heart.  Yet, in the end, even if you do everything you can, the other person still may not respond the way you’d like them to.  Thus, we must remember that what is in the other person’s heart and mind is between that person and God alone.  

When I hear this verse, I am reminded of when I first heard the truth of Islam.  I still persisted in arguing against it and pushing my own stated beliefs, but deep inside… I was listening.  When I was alone throughout the day or laying awake at night, I was mentally replaying what I had heard, considering and reflecting on it.  Externally, no one would have guessed that the truth was having an impact on me, because I was stubborn and steadfastly defending my views.  Anyone interacting with me would have easily thought to themselves that there was no hope – I was too brainwashed, too senseless, too close-minded, too stubborn to let go of what I had been raised to believe was right.  Yet God knew what was actually happening inside my heart.  It is only He who guides us to the truth, and no one else. 

When we are faced with someone who seems so close-minded and refuses to listen, just remember that despite all their blustering and fury, inside they just may be listening.  And even if they aren’t listening now, they may remember what you’ve said much later down the road, and begin to reflect on it.  Only God knows the path an individual will take.  I heard a beautiful hadith of Prophet Muhammad (saws) the other day that made tears come to my eyes:

“The number of paths to God is equal to the number of human souls.” 

SubhanAllah (glory to God).  There is no one prescribed, set path that we all must robotically follow.  No, God has designed it so that we each find the truth in the timing that is best for us.  Perhaps one person finds the truth early on – and it is better for them.  Yet someone else may find the truth much later, and it is better for them – because they had many lessons to learn and experiences to pass through before they were ready.  My own path has been incredibly unique, and in retrospect I know that each step was crucial to taking me to where I am today.  Alhamdilulah (praise God).

Some Advice for American Mosques

So… today while I was running on the treadmill, since it was overlooking a large gymnasium, I was passing the time by watching a scrimmage basketball game.  My mind began wandering and I began thinking about how churches are so efficiently organized, as so many of them have organized basketball teams, softball teams, volleyball teams, and so on.  They provide an essential aspect of life for the community: social connectivity.

The mosques I’ve been to in the US seem to be very disorganized, with ethnic in-fighting causing overwhelming disunity.  I even visited the largest mosque in North America, and felt very disappointed by the disorganization, lack of decent sound equipment, and overall disrespect by those listening to the lecture.  I had a very hard time hearing the speaker because I was surrounded by chattering women, with kids running up and down the aisles.  When the lecture finished, everyone began pushing and shoving in order to get outside; it was a frightening experience!  This mosque probably had several hundred people in attendance, but I’ve been to churches equally as big, if not bigger, and never have I seen pushing and shoving!!

I’ve often wished that mosques would just take a look at how churches are organized and run in the US, and follow suit.  Why not, after all?  If they are doing something that works, why not model your organization after it?  Churches are extremely well-run and provide an important social function in the lives of many Americans.  Growing up in church, I can personally attest to the fact that a lot of people go to church and church events, not because they’re particularly religious, but because they enjoy connecting with others in a clean environment, having their physical, spiritual, social needs met, and giving back to the community as well by donating their time and specific skills when needed.

Unfortunately, in the US, people are so isolated and distant from each other that their social outlets are confined to only certain situations: bars/clubs/parties, work (which has limitations), or church.  People who don’t go to church, but don’t want to participate in the club scene (such as Muslims), are highly ostracized and separated from the society at large as they have no way to integrate and connect with other people.

This is why I think it is imperative for mosques to step up and provide a social support system similar to what the church provides for so many Americans.

First, what mosques should do is address the physical needs of Muslims: have two fully functioning fitness facilities for both the women and the men – and don’t skimp on the equipment for the women (particularly the cardio equipment)!  Giving the men a place to exercise that is free from the distraction of half naked women would be a refreshing alternative from the regular gyms.  Providing women with a secure place to work out and being able to wear whatever they like will help women to branch out physically and not be inhibited due to the requirements of modesty.  I exercise in a fitness facility 5x a week, and I can tell you that wearing pants, long sleeves, and covering my hair while running at a brisk speed for lengthy period of time is HOT AND HARD.  If mosques provided such services for their members, it would fulfill a huge need.

Once a mosque has a fitness facility, they could even branch out by addressing both the physical and social needs of its members by beginning intramural teams that could play against other church or community teams (often cities have an intramural league in which various organizations like churches, businesses, a group of friends, and so on form a team and sign up to play).  The mosque could even have a women’s volleyball team (I would totally play on that) and work on interfaith outreach by inviting other churches to start women’s only volleyball teams, and have the other teams come to the mosque for games so that the Muslim women’s modesty could be ensured.  The opposing teams could sign a waiver or something stating that they would respect the modesty of the women by having only females in attendance, no cameras, no taking pictures, etc.

In this way, people in the community could have a chance to see real Muslim women (and men) up close and personal, and see that they’re real people after all.  It would be a great way of spreading a positive image of Islam by breaking down the barriers of isolation many Muslims tend to put up.

Further, churches often have classes and various groups for people to be involved in that address their spiritual (and social) and mental needs.  The last church I attended had a divorce care class, a widow/widower class, a young married class (discussing the many common issues newly married couples face), an unemployed class (they talked about networking, interviewing, shared job tips, and helped one another commiserate), men’s classes, women’s classes, a parenting class (parents of small kids, parents of teens, etc.), a single’s class, a senior citizen class, and so on.  Each class was run sort of like group counseling (so there was a lot of discussion and participation of group members) and teaching integrated with the Biblical perspective all combined.  A mosque could have English classes (as do some churches), as well as Arabic classes (a HUGE need for reverts), basic Islam classes, interfaith classes in which they learn about various other faith traditions, and so on.

The sheikh or imam of the mosque doesn’t have to singlehandedly run all the classes, but he could oversee everything and have the class leaders appointed on a volunteer basis (and then of course, meet regularly with the leaders and ensure appropriate material is being used and so on).  In churches, getting volunteers has never seemed to be a problem in my experience, as people are eager to give their particular skills in service to God.

As many churches do, the mosque could also provide individual counseling services for individuals facing difficulty in their lives and want a trusted, Islamic perspective on the matter.  Finding qualified individuals to volunteer a little bit of their time would not be difficult – or the mosque could pay a few people to come in part time to offer their services (and maybe charge a minimal fee, like $5 or 10$ or something).  The mosque could also have a publicly available list of Muslim professionals in the area in a variety of fields so that members could get the Islamic-based services they need.

Other basic things: child care (to circumvent kids running rampantly during lectures and reduce the women chatting and hanging out instead of listening), and hey, how about a BULLETIN so that the members know what the lecture or activity is even about, and what time things are happening, who the speaker is, what is going on during the week in terms of activities and classes, last week’s attendance, how much people gave last week, and this year to date, and how much the mosque still needs and so on…

The proposal I had worked out in my mind as I was running was far more detailed than this, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Plus, it’s just my own fantasy after all, since I’m not in charge of a mosque (nor am I near one), I don’t have a large amount of money to donate to such a cause, and it may be too big a task for many of the ethnic Muslims to leave their sadly un-Islamic cultural practices at the door and come together to start to effect true change by first serving the local ummah, which will secondly have inevitable positive effects on the community at large.  People will see the Muslims being more active, more visible, a positive force, and people may be curious and come participate in some of the activities offered, just as many people do with church activities.

Well hey, here’s an idea: perhaps all of us reverts should get together and make our own mosque!  Unfortunately, many of us are so spread out that it would be hard… but not impossible.  InshAllah such a dream could be realized someday, and Allahu alim – God knows best.

Prayer for Seeking Refuge from Sins of the Self

Prophet Muhammad (saws) often said that the greatest jihad is the jihad an-nafs, the struggle with the self.  None of us, from the very poorest to the richest and most famous, can escape the trial and torment of struggling with ourselves, trying to stay on the middle, moderate path, attempting to avoid slipping into extremes of too much or too little.

A supplication (prayer) I often read is one by Imam Ali bin Hussain, otherwise known as Imam Zain al-Abideen (‘the best of worshippers’) and Imam as-Sajjad, or the ‘prostrating imam’.  Although this particular supplication is not lengthy, each word is so eloquently put that I could not say it better myself, nor could I come even remotely close to doing so, mashAllah.  Each word is so powerful and meaningful, and each phrase speaks exactly to situations I constantly find myself fighting against.

Supplication for Seeking Refuge

O God,
I seek refuge in Thee from the agitation of craving,
the violence of wrath,
the domination of envy,
the frailty of patience, the lack of contentment,
surliness of character,
urgency of passion,
the disposition to vehemence,

following caprice,
opposing guidance,
the sleep of heedlessness,
undertaking the toilsome,
preferring falsehood over truth,
persisting in sin,
making little of disobedience,
making much of obedience,

vying with the wealthy,
disparaging the poor,
guarding badly over those in our hands,
failing to thank those who have done good to us,

aiding a wrongdoer,
abandoning someone troubled,
wanting what is not rightfully ours,
and speaking about knowledge without knowing.

We seek refuge in Thee from harboring dishonesty toward anyone, being pleased with our works, and stretching out our expectations.

We seek refuge in Thee from
ill-mindedness,
looking down on the small,
Satan’s gaining mastery over us,
time’s afflicting us,
and the sovereign’s oppressing us.

We seek refuge in Thee from acting with prodigality and not having sufficiency.

We seek refuge in Thee from the gloating of enemies, indigent need for equals, living in hardship, and dying without readiness.

We seek refuge in Thee from
the most dreadful remorse,
the greatest affliction,
the most wretched wretchedness,
the evil end to the journey,
the deprivation of reward,
and the advent of punishment.

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household and through Thy mercy, give to me refuge from all of that, and to all the faithful, both men and women!

O Most Merciful of the merciful!

Other supplications of Imam Ali bin Hussain can be found here:

http://www.duas.org/sajjadiya/sajjadiya.htm