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Dew Point

This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded way of life.

Month

March 2011

Rationalising faith

Last week, I had a brief Twitter exchange with a gentleman who politely defended the right to practice faith, but said faith to him was “simply a nice name”. In his view, proving something to be true is more challenging than having faith in something you cannot see. He mentioned how pharmaceutical companies produce verified, replicable data which prove drugs do what they claim. People, by contrast, place faith in beliefs even though they do not have the same type of proof. In most cases, they believe, according to him, only because even if they turn out to be wrong in the end, it would not matter after death.

I agree that one should not blindly accept any ideology and we are, all too often, complacent about our beliefs. To be honest, I did not know how to respond other than to say that faith appeals to my rationality as well as my spirituality. My Islam (submission to God) came after a process of questioning, reading, thinking and discovering the truth.

While I did not respond adequately to this man’s curiosity and queries, his comments brought two things to mind. My three-and-a-half year old nephew Kareem sparked the first thought. Kareem adores documentaries about insects, his favourite topic in the world at the moment. When I was visiting Kareem in December, he had borrowed two documentaries from the library, one about bees and the other on ants. They were constantly playing on the family room television.

I became engrossed in watching these videos with my nephew and marvelled at the importance of females in colonies of ants and hives of bees. The primary function of male ants and bees involves mating, whereas the females run the show. I wasn’t aware that worker ants and bees – responsible for building and guarding the home, and collecting food – are female. Maybe it was something I had learned as a child and had since forgotten, but I was enthralled at this miracle of nature.
Photo from Alex Wild Photography
It happened that the same week, as I was reading the Holy Quran for the third time, I came to the verse entitled “The Ants” (Surah 27). It spoke of how Prophet Soloman was getting together his army and at one point in the verse an ant saw the army approaching. Prophet Soloman heard this ant warn other ants: “O ye ants, get into your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you (under foot) without knowing it.” (27:018)
In the following line the Quran, referring to Soloman and the ant, reads, “So he smiled, amused at her speech,” and carries on from there. I was amazed that ants were referred to as feminine; the sex of worker ants was scientifically proven in the 17th-18th centuries from what I can gather from a bit of research. I had not noticed this on my first two readings of the Holy Book. Intrigued, I then went back to Surah 16 entitled “The Bees”, which I had read a week or so earlier, and realised the feminine verb form is also used to describe bees.
The Quran, which translates from Arabic as “The Recitation”, revealed by God to humankind 1,400 years ago, includes layer upon layer of truth and fact that one must uncover to understand. I believe God appeals to our rationality if we are willing to explore and listen to His messages and signs. In the Quran, it describes how God “has created every animal from water” (24:45); as well as how the Almighty formed “two bodies of flowing water, one sweet and palatable, and the other salty and bitter. And He has made between them a barrier and a forbidding partition.” (25:53)
Pacific Ocean meets Tasman Sea, courtesy Picasa web albums
God reveals that he created the night and the day, the sun and the moon, “all (celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course”. (21:33) So many realities and facts, even foetal development, are outlined in the Quran’s pages, many times in extraordinary detail:
“And certainly we did create humans from an extract of clay. Then we placed him as a drop of sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood.  Then out of that clot, We made a foetus lump. Then We made out of that lump bones, and clothed the bones with flesh.  Then We developed out of it another creature.  So blessed be Allah (God), the best to create!” (23:12-14)

This brings me to the second thought that came to mind: a video that my sister, a PhD-holding scientist who conducts research on stem cell trafficking, had sent me a number of months ago. It is a short speech by a scientist who, after 35 years of being an atheist, came to the realisation through his scientific research that everything in science and the universe is so perfectly formed that there must be a God – and only one God.

He superbly describes in the video below how, in the process of reading the Holy Quran, he discovered a scientific fact that he knew had only been discovered in the 20th century, and he realised that Prophet Muhammad was a messenger chosen by God to bring His message to the world. God appealed to this individual through science – through proven facts – which opened his mind to the possibilities in belief.

There are many references to the scientific miracles of the Quran, including on this website. In one example here, the Quranic verse about Iron is analysed to show how it contains information about many of the chemical elements that make up the Periodic Table.

I don’t think God leaves us without clues to how we can uncover the truth, but we must look for them and we have to, very importantly, have an open mind to the certainty of His existence to be able to begin to grasp these truths. The pharmaceutical-company-type seal of approval in favour of belief in God is something I now witness every day in everything, and I often find myself saying “Subhan’Allah/
سبحان الله, an Arabic phrase that roughly means “Glorious is God”. 

It is counter-intuitive for me to see the miracles of the world around us in animals, vegetation, weather patterns, human diversity, etc, and assume that they simply exist without being created by an Almighty force.
 
“Those who possess no knowledge say, ‘If only God could speak to us, or some miracle could come to us!’ Others before them have uttered similar utterances; their minds are similar. We do manifest the miracles for those who have attained certainty” (Quran, 2:118)
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A prayer to keep

As state-sanctioned violence is inflicted on peaceful civilians across the Arab world, I repeatedly find myself overwhelmed with emotion. My stomach gets tangled in knots as I watch footage and read article after article about brutal crackdowns of protesters in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, among others. Hardening my emotions is difficult while people suffer severely as I sit in relative comfort, the troubles of my life dwarfed in their magnitude.
Prayer held in Tahrir square during Egyptian Revolution
Other than staying informed, which is crucial, I ask myself what we can do at times like this to offer support to people whose stories of repression, struggle and courage have moved us to tears. Over the past several weeks, I have donated to charities, including Islamic Relief, the Red Cross and International Medical Corps, hoping to assist those most affected in some small way. 
But as we circulate knowledge, and share thoughts and ideas on the current events transpiring in the region, we sometimes neglect the most powerful tool of all in helping those who are suffering: sincere prayer to God. In these days of fixation on mass media, prayers can easily be sidelined and underestimated as we are drawn into the vast influx of information on our Twitter and Facebook feeds. We often call on each other to say a prayer for those suffering, be they in Libya, Yemen or disaster-stricken Japan. But how often do we get down on our knees, silently focus our hearts and minds, bow down our heads and actually ask for His help?
Growing up, I always saw my mom, a devout lover of God, pray every one of the five daily prayers that God has enjoined from those who worship Him in Islam, an Arabic term meaning ‘submission to God’. There is not a time in my childhood in Canada that I remember her not waking up in the early hours of the morning to conduct the sunrise prayer. She always woke up automatically without an alarm or call to prayer. Yet she never compelled me or my sisters to pray – and I have great appreciation and admiration for her for leading by example rather than coercing us to do something that I believe would be meaningless unless it is done from the heart out of love and genuine dedication. She always strived to instil in us a love of God, and when I asked her to teach me how to perform the ritual prayers at the age of 15, she did so carefully and patiently. Prayers can become mechanical and meaningless if performed without presence of mind.
 After that, I went through phases of praying all five prayers, of praying some of the five, of praying all five in the evening, and even of not praying entirely. I could never find real peace of mind in the inconsistency of my faith. But something shifted for me last year. A series of events in my life leading up to the death of my father opened my eyes to my spiritual connection with God. I won’t go into detail about these here, but it was after this realisation that I first read the Holy Quran and began praying each prescribed prayer, as well as many optional prayers, consistently and, importantly, on time. For me, it was not praying five times each day that made me a Muslim. It was discovering that I am Muslim – that is, realising that my state of mind is one of submission to God – that made these prayers indispensible and enjoyable.
God calls on us to be steadfast in our prayers repeatedly in holy books. The opening surah (passage) of the Holy Quran is rich in its succinctness. Surah Al-Fatiha (The Opening) in seven concise verses encapsulates the love and mercy God offers to all human beings who turn to Him in belief and worship. In one line of that passage, God enjoins us to turn alone to Him in worship and to seek assistance from Him alone.  “It is you we worship and You we seek for help,” is a line from Al-Fatiha that always lingers on my tongue when I pray.  A Muslim observing the prescribed daily prayers will recite Al-Fatiha at least 17 times every 24 hours, and some will recite it more than double that number if they offer the optional prayers as well.
If God is most-certainly listening, then we should be asking for what is good and just for ourselves, those we hold dear in our lives, and human beings who are suffering anywhere. Dua’a is an Arabic term meaning supplications, which essentially involve asking God with a dedicated heart to fulfil your requests for yourself and others, so long as these pleas are righteous and legitimate. Prophet Muhammad is noted in Hadith (stories and narrations about his life) as having said: “There is nothing more dear to Allah (God) than a servant making dua’a to Him.” 
There are multitudes of prescribed, carefully  worded dua’a that can be recited for various purposes in our daily lives, although as long as our supplications come from the heart with genuineness, I truly believe we can ask God for His guidance and assistance in any way, any language, any time of the day or night. 
My favourite time to offer dua’a is before the sunrise prayer (Fajr). I wake up anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour before the Athan (call to prayer) to offer an optional prayer and then kneeling humbly with my hands cupped before me I give dua’a for my father who passed away last year (الله يرحمه /God bless his soul), my family members and close friends and anyone else who I feel may need God’s light to help them through a period of trial or suffering. For the past two months, this has included Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis fighting for freedom from repression and corruption, and Japanese struggling to come to terms with a natural disaster that has shaken the foundation of thousands of lives.
There is a peace and tranquillity of mind that I have at fajr that I do not feel with the same magnitude for the rest of the day. I have read a Hadith about how angels assemble at dawn around worshippers, and I trust this wholeheartedly because there is a sense of serenity and nearness to the divine in the early hours of the morning that is very difficult to articulate.
 “And the servants of the most gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, Peace! 
 Those who spend the night in adoration of their Lord prostrate and standing” 
Quran (25:63-64)
While I cannot claim to be an expert on faith, I am someone who has been drawn to an effort to uncover the layers of my spirituality and understand my connection with God. Whatever way you happen to pray, I hope that you will do so sincerely and not underestimate just how powerful it can be to turn our attention to God and collectively ask for His guidance and help. I believe God listened as protesters across Egypt stopped at every prayer, many of them five times each day, and collectively turned to God asking for Him to grant them patience and strength to defeat repression. And I believe that if each of us, together, prays for people who are suffering across the Arab world, and around the world, that He will hear our sincere wishes and answer them, by His grace.

Unveiling the bride

It was reaching the moment the crowd of 2,000 attendees had been anticipating for more than two hours: the bride was about to be unveiled. I use the term ‘unveiled’ because she was literally uncovered from beneath what I can only describe as a gigantic circular curtain, in the shape of what looked like a four-layer cake decorated with ruffles and lace.

 
The background music was forceful; my sister said it reminded her of the theme music used during battle scenes in the movie Lord of the Rings. For some reason the intense tunes seemed an entirely appropriate way to capture the occasion, which was truly momentous at least for the families involved. One layer at a time the curtain rose from the floor of the podium situated in the centre of the giant exhibition hall where the wedding was held. An exquisitely dressed young Emirati bride of about 20 emerged from beneath the rising curtain, sitting on a small cream-coloured couch made for two, the sweeping train of her glittering wedding gown carefully placed on the floor around her.
 
My sister and I had arrived 45 minutes earlier at 10:30 p.m., about two hours late but just in time for the tail-end of a dinner comprising traditional Emirati and Asian cuisine consisting of briyani with mutton, chicken masala, a variety of grilled meats and a dish known as Harees, which has a thick porridge-like consistency combining wheat, meat and salt.
 
As the attendees finished dinner, munched on desserts and sipped Arabic coffee, the anticipation was evident. Everyone was eager to have their first glimpse of the bride at this women-only affair (that is, apart from the male Gulf Arab musician, whose name I did not catch, giving a live performance during dinner).
 
Traditional Emirati weddings are held in two ceremonies, the first for the groom, which I have heard typically involve a grand dinner party held within a week of the women’s gala. The men’s ceremony is supposedly much more basic, with festivities saved for the bride’s night. On this particular occasion, the groom’s bash took place the evening before.
 
In all Emirati weddings I have attended, toward the end of the women’s ceremony the groom comes into the hall, often with his father or another male member of the family, and walks across the stage toward his bride. They sit together briefly for photographs with close family and then the two depart to commence their lives together, often going home to a villa festooned with lights.
 
Over the past few years, I have attended a number of weddings for Emirati couples, including a group wedding where about 70 employees of a local bank tied the knot at a single ceremony paid for by the bank. Depending on the financial capabilities of the families, Emirati weddings vary in their size and ability to dazzle. There is one common thread that runs through all of them, however, and that is that I am always under-dressed. I stopped trying to dress appropriately for UAE weddings because no matter how hard I try, my wardrobe and hairstyle are simply too minimalist to fit in.
 
Many of the women look so glitzy and sensational they would put actresses on the Oscar Red Carpet to shame with their fabulous, colourful gowns  and the remarkable hairstyles they are able to accomplish with their unbelievably thick, long and lustrous black hair. (Masha’Allah) Others look too gaudy and flamboyant for my tastes, although again I imagine that to be very much like a night at the Oscar’s. At weddings, local women tend to let some of their guard down. I often find myself stunned at the size of the emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires dangling from their ears, on their necks and around their wrists. One can see small groups of young ladies dancing together on the stage, supposedly exhibiting their goods for potential mothers-in-law in a way they would not be able to on a daily basis.
 
This wedding last Friday, which was arranged by the families, was particularly extraordinary. I will refrain for naming the families involved for privacy reasons, although I can say that the bride and the groom were from two different emirates of the seven that comprise the UAE federation. We were prohibited from bringing in our mobile telephones to the extravaganza, and as the bride strutted her way across the stage, not a single camera flash could be seen from the crowd, other than that of the professional camerawoman hired to capture the affair.
 
So, back to the bride, because she’s the reason we were all there. Directly before the cake-shaped-curtain contraption was lifted from the floor, there was a performance that I must describe because it was so bizarre. Remember C-3P0, the shiny golden robot from Star Wars? The two performers who took to the stage looked like C-3P0, except wearing skirts shaped like metallic cones. The performers swayed to music similar to what I described earlier, appearing to glide across the stage, waving fans made of golden feathers in their hands.
 
Once their unusual 10-minute performance was complete, the bride emerged from beneath the curtain, adorned in a gown that glittered so immensely it was as though diamonds and crystals were stitched into every crevice of the dress, from the chest to below the knees. As the young bride made her way slowly down the catwalk, and all eyes in the room were glued to her, six assistants followed her to adjust the train, a daunting task requiring huge coordination to fix the heaps of fabric that trailed behind the bride for three metres or longer.  I cannot imagine how heavy the dress must have been. Yet, the petite bride smiled the entire time, her face and eyes beaming at her family, relatives and friends as she relished in the 20-minute spotlight that marked the beginning of the next chapter of her life.
 
At that point, I had joined a crowd gathered at the tip of the catwalk to get a closer glimpse of the dress, the hairdo, jewellery and makeup. I realised then that while the traditions may vary widely, a truly universal thread runs through virtually every wedding of every culture, in every part of the world: the wedding ceremony is the bride’s moment in time to steal the limelight and rejoice at one of her life’s milestone achievements. This bride, at least on the surface, certainly did radiate.

Revolution in perception: Egypt’s women defy labels, demand rights

“Leave! Leave! Coward” (Carolyn Cole/LA Times)
Images of Egyptian women, many donning the Islamic headscarf known as ‘hijab’, forcefully demanding freedom, rights and the demise of the Hosni Mubarak regime poured into households across the world during Egypt’s revolution. As women stood alongside their brothers, husbands, friends and colleagues to knock down the foundations of a stagnant, repressive government, they also tore down walls of stereotypes that Arab women are passive, mute, repressed victims of a religion and culture that subordinate them.
 
I have always been enamoured and awed by the power of Egyptian women. My maternal grandmother raised eight children, four girls and four boys, on her own in Cairo after her husband passed away following a battle with prostrate cancer at just 40 years of age. My grandmother has always been an emblematic symbol of an Egyptian woman for me; I see reflections of her courageous spirit, strong character, unwavering faith in God and devotion to her family and neighbourhood in my mother and, more broadly, the women I encounter across Egyptian society. Women wield great economic and moral power in most Egyptian households. It takes only a trip to a traditional fruit and vegetable market to experience their influence first hand; souqs are usually operated by resolute and tenacious women who take charge of the sales, purchases and bargaining.
 
These are the impressions of Egypt’s women I grew up with, and it has been thrilling to watch the world capture a glimpse of this in the past month and a half. Female participation in the revolution was extensive: young university students seeking greater opportunities and an end to corruption stood alongside mothers of victims of state-sanctioned violence hunting for justice and thought leaders, such as renowned Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi.
 
It is my belief that the Egyptian revolution will come to represent a decisive shift in the narrative about the status of women in Arab and Islamic culture. In first week of the revolution in January, I forwarded this Facebook album, which amalgamates images of women in the Egyptian revolution, to friends across the world. The responses I received were immense. For a number of friends and acquaintances in Canada and the United States, the images challenged pre-conceived notions they had held about Arabs, and Muslim women in particular.
 
Women take part in anti-regime revolt (Felipe Trueba/EPA)  
Yet Egyptian women, like their counterparts in other Arab countries, face an uphill battle against patriarchal laws and interpretations of faith which I believe have really clouded the exalted role women are granted by virtue of Islamic faith.
 
Egypt’s women working toward cementing greater rights and empowerment are planning a demonstration on March 8, dubbed the “Million Woman March”, to coincide with International Women’s Day.  Protest organisers seek to reinforce the role of women in Egypt’s revolution at a time when the government is listening to citizen concerns more than it has at any point in decades – and arguably in the past century.
 
These are some of the protesters’ demands:
 
 (Credit unknown)

* Abolition of absolute parental authority over women.

* Empowering women in political life.
* A new civil constitution.
* A new and civil personal status law.
* The immediate application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates women’s rights in addition to all other international agreements that Egypt signed on to; many of them are inactive and not applied.
* Rewriting all Egyptian laws to ensure equality for men and women.
* The abolition of all forms of political and social tutelage forced on Egyptian women.
 
While I am uncertain how these demands will play out, I believe this bold move will send a message that watershed transformation in Egypt should not be allowed to overlook the rights of women of all faiths.
 
Women pray at Cairo’s Tahrir Sq (Credit unknown)

Women have a long way to go to be granted their God-given rights across the Arab world. Islam – a state of mind in which a believer submits her/himself to God – is frequently misconstrued as contrary to the rights of women. For me, this is one of the most-frustrating stereotypes I face as a Muslim woman. It is through embracing the message of God and submitting myself to His will in Islam that I, as a woman and a human being, have been able to attain true freedom.

 
The Quran, which literally translates from Arabic as ‘The Recitation’, is God’s gift to human beings, regardless of gender. God refers to men and women an equal number of times – in each case on 24 occasions – in the Holy Book and grants each human soul the chance to attain salvation through prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. I often notice in translations of the Quran from Arabic to English that the Arabic term “Naas” (meaning people) becomes “mankind” in the English version, which can detract from the beauty and equality of the message. God’s law speaks of the complementarity of women and men in their lives on this earth, and their equality in striving for eternal peace.
 
For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s (God’s) praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (Quran, 33:35)
 
I find great inspiration in the first human being to embrace Islam following the Prophet Muhammed , his first wife Khadija. A widow, Khadija managed her father’s business, fed and clothed the poor, and at the age of about 40, following the death of both of her parents, married Muhammed , who was then 25 and one of her employees.
 
“Christian + Muslim = Egyptian” Credit unknown

Khadija is regarded as one of history’s rare “perfect women” alongside Mariam, mother of Prophet Jesus. When I contextualise her story with examples of devout women I have encountered in my life – my mother, grandmother, and many women of the Jan. 25 revolution among them – it gives me great hope that Egyptian and Arab women have the strength of mind and character to insist that their rights be recognised and enshrined. Raising our voices at this pivotal point in Arab history is absolutely imperative.

 

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