Ramadhan Mubarak!

Salaam alaykum and Ramadhan mubarak to all my brothers and sisters in Islam!  I pray that Allah will make the long hours of fasting easy for you and give you strength to get through these long, hot summer days (for those of you in the northern hemisphere!). 

Ramadhan is a month in which we abstain from food and water to not only purify ourselves physically, but also to constantly remind ourselves to work toward purifying ourselves spiritually.  In light of that, I have some goals in mind for this month that have become apparent to me recently.

Goal 1: Speak up with a smile. 

I’ve recently been mulling over my concept of “being nice” and have concluded that perhaps my definition is incorrect.  Since childhood, thoroughly ingrained into my mentality is the Christian standpoint of “turn the other cheek” and “if someone takes your cloak, give him your shirt also” (Matthew 5:39-40), and therefore now instinctually don’t defend myself or stand up for myself when dealing with others – instead, I just let it go.  But, what happens over and over again is that people, acting on instinct, respond by just running right over me and crossing boundaries without hesitation.  I’ve realized that as social – and imperfect – creatures, we are constantly bumping up against each other, so it is completely natural to bump back in order to maintain your position and standing with everyone around you.  If you offer no resistance when bumped, and instead easily fall down, people will simply step right over you and continue bumping into everyone else.  Thus, naturally – and Islamically – we need to assert ourselves and hold firm when others push up against us.  Islam is very specific about upholding the rights of God, of ourselves, and of others.  We must uphold our own rights.  If we don’t, no one else will.  Someone once told me that a mo’min (a believer) might let it go the first time something happens, but not the second time (which falls in line with the English saying “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”).  In reading the Quran and listening to lectures, I’ve been noticing that indeed it is true – prophets and upright companions were regularly met with resistance and would usually SAY something in response.  They weren’t rude, they didn’t have an attitude, they calmly spoke the truth.  Essentially, my concept of being nice or polite is simply ignoring and avoiding conflict.  Defending myself and pushing back is not something I ever associated with religion or as something “good”; I associated it with being dramatic, concerned with trivial matters, and rude.  Thus, my current project is attempting to change my mental definition and actively put it into practice.  Assert myself, speak up – but with a nice facial expression and calm tone of voice.  I need to gracefully look after my rights, while taking care not to tread on the rights of others –  A delicate balance which requires great attention and skill. 

Goal 2: Use good words

As a Christian, I would never utter swear words or even the words that represent swear words – my family was very strict about this (for instance, we also couldn’t say crap, heck, or dang), so even in college I continued to refrain from bad language.  Despite prolonged, humorous attempts from friends to get me to say some of the less offensive words, I refused.  Yet, due to linguistic awareness (that words are given power and meaning by the society that uses them and are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but are simply means of expression) and the decreasing grip that Christianity had on my life, I began letting some of these words in.  Yet as Muslims, we too should refrain from using offensive words and should keep our speech clean and uplifting to others.  If we use certain words, people automatically associate certain qualities or characteristics to us that we wouldn’t want to be known for, and we certainly wouldn’t want people connecting those associations with our religion!  So, while I still don’t use such words around others – mostly to myself – I still want to make a concerted effort to get rid of them and replace them with something more fitting and appropriate to who I am. 

I’ve thought about adding a few more goals, but I think these two will be more than enough to keep me occupied!  It’s easy to type something out, but much harder to act on it every single moment of every single day.  I pray that God will help me in my efforts to improve myself, and that He will help all of you as well to work toward self-improvement and giving to others during this blessed month.

For more on specific rights in Islam: http://www.iec-md.org/IECE/religious/treatise_on_rights.html

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.

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.




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).

Hadith for Saturday, March 20th

Bismillah arrahman arraheem,

I have decided that in addition to writing lengthier posts (such as the series on intercultural marriage and other topics), I will also post hadiths with a brief explanation periodically, as doing so takes much less time and is something I can do throughout the week.  It usually takes a lot of time and mental effort to write the longer posts, so in lieu of going for a few weeks at a time when I’m too busy to post, doing smaller, more manageable posts in the meantime might be a good solution to keeping my blog still active.  So, I’ll post hadith that I particularly like, as well as expand my knowledge by finding new ones as well. 

“Uncover your secret only to one who is nobler in faith than you, and thus you will find nobility.  If you do this, you will find well-being.”  -Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path.

The message of this hadith is essentially that if you have a problem or issue in your life, it is unwise to discuss it with others at random.  Instead, you should think carefully before opening up to anyone, and consider that person’s position in relation to yours.  Is this someone who could really understand your situation?  Is this someone who has a great deal of knowledge about the religion?  Someone who is wise and experienced? 

For example, if your car is making strange noises, you wouldn’t tell the cashier in a grocery store about your situation – the clerk may be sympathetic, but they are unable to actually help you.  In fact, if they do attempt to advise you, they may even give you misleading or incorrect advice.  Instead, if you are having an issue with your car, you would go to a mechanic and ask an expert. 

Likewise, if you are dealing with a specific issue in your life, be cautious in revealing it to others; only reveal your issue to someone who is in a higher position to advise you.  Disclosing your problems to others thoughtlessly can cause a host of other problems.  Others may give you poor or false advice.  They may turn around and gossip about you behind your back.  They may misunderstand your situation, or they may use it against you.  Others’ perceptions of you may change as well – perhaps they previously saw you in a certain way, but may subsequently attribute all sorts of other assumptions to you when they find out that you are dealing with a certain situation. 

A common issue that comes up frequently is when a female having an issue in her relationship confides in her close female friends.  The friends provide sympathy, perhaps may comment on what they would do in that particular situation, and will typically always side with the female.  Yet, when the issue is resolved later, the female will move on in her relationship while her friends still retain a bad image of her partner, and may begin to give suggestions based on that negative image – even to the point of suggesting that the female end her relationship.  Thus, the friends, while trying to be helpful and sympathetic, will subsequently have a negative impression of the partner that is unlikely to change since they aren’t directly involved in the situation and likely don’t hear about the partner’s positive attributes as much as they hear about his negative aspects.

Instead, the woman in this situation may be better off talking to a professional or someone who she deems to be experienced in this particular area about her relationship issues.  She could also talk to a religious leader, who also has training and religious knowledge of how best to deal with the situation.  Both of these individuals are unlikely to hold a grudge, gossip about the other person, or allow this particular situation to inappropriately color their perception of the other person. 

One thing to note is that Imam as-Sadiq mentioned specifically talking to someone who is higher in faith than you.  In Islam, this is by far the best option, as someone more advanced in Islamic faith and knowledge will have a well-rounded knowledge of life and the human experience in general, due to the wisdom and incredible knowledge available from the Quran, the Prophet, and his family.  This person will not only be able to speak to your situation, but they will also give you advice grounded in the religion.  Someone who is merely experienced in a certain area but not in religion may be able to understand your situation, but may not give you Islamically sound advice, and may lead you in the wrong direction. 

This particular hadith has made a huge impact on my own life.  I used to have the attitude that my life is an open book and I have no secrets and nothing to be ashamed of – so I would talk to anyone about practically anything in my life.  After converting to Islam, I realized the folly in such an attitude, because I noticed that sometimes some people would start to treat me differently or not respect me as much, and at one point several vicious rumors had started about me that were based on what I had said but had been exaggerated to the extent of being untrue and very hurtful.  So while it relieved some stress initially to get my problems off my chest, in the long run the effects were quite deleterious and damaging.  I would have been better off holding my tongue and seeking out someone who is in a better position to understand my particular situation and who can offer sound advice.