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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

September 2011

Martial arts and the journey to Islam

 

Training at Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Seremban, Malaysia (Asma Faizal photo)

(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post and Illume Magazine)

A close friend introduced me to the idea that practicing martial arts has the potential to assist a Muslim in achieving a higher spiritual connection with God. Since I had always associated martial arts with Asiatic culture and Eastern religions such as Zen Buddhism, the connection with Islam did not immediately occur to me.

But after sitting in on one of my friend Imran’s Aikido and Karate classes at a dojo in the United Arab Emirates this month, the correlations began to unfold before my eyes. The mood was set when, just before starting two hours of rigorous and meticulous training, a number of students and the sensei assembled to pray Islam’s sunset prayer, known as maghrib.

Each technique they practised during the sessions that followed was precise, demanding mastery of the subtle movements of leg, arm, hand and back. Students of various backgrounds and faiths exhibited tremendous patience as they repeated these motions, striving to take any tiny step closer to precision of combat technique.

 

Basic Aikido movements. Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia (Asma Faizal photo)

Aikido, which originated in Japan, is typically done in pairs and practitioners learn to defend themselves while protecting their attackers from injury. Karate emphasises hard training and precise movement using a series of punches, kicks, and knee and elbow strikes.

While learning defensive fighting skills is the core purpose of training, interactions between students were remarkably cordial. A deep sense of equality filled the room; no matter how advanced in skill an apprentice, young or old, happened to be, s/he made an effort to enrich the experience of peers. Whether the belts they wore around their waists were black, brown, purple or white, everyone appeared to derive some value from the session.

 

Sensei Gerard Ratnam with Aikido student at Shudokan (Asma Faizal photo)

This was inspiring for me because of the commonalities I saw with Islam. Muslims at varying stages along the spiritual path share a common ambition: to forge an intimate bond with the one Almighty God. Islam embodies an undeviating path to peace of mind, attained by aligning one’s physical, mental, financial, family and community affairs to this primary goal, which we should help each other work toward.

For a martial artist, the journey of perfecting technique doesn’t end with a black belt, it demands continual dedication and training, Imran told me later than evening. “Karate is like a pot of boiling water, and constant training is the fire that keeps the water boiling,” he said, citing wisdom from a prominent Karate instructor that can underlie both martial arts and Islamic devotion.

The comment brought to mind the concept of Al Insan Al Kamil in Islamic theology, describing the perfect being who has achieved unity with God in mind, body and soul. Attaining this level of consciousness demands a series of traits, such as steadfastness (istiqamah), self-inventory (muhasabah), improvement (tahsin) and humility – each honed to perfection.

Such traits are at the heart of martial arts as well, although a practitioner need not be driven, as Imran is, by a desire to please God. There are, furthermore, a few martial arts practices that go against sharia which, for instance, discourages blows to the face and bowing to other human beings.

 
Sitting in seiza. Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia (Asma Faizal photo)

To bridge gaps inherent in some martial art forms and supplement his training, Imran added an exercise technique known as Senaman Tua, native to his homeland Malaysia, to his martial arts regimen. Most-easily understood as an Islamic form of yoga, Senaman Tua requires that in addition to physical development, students take a journey toward self-realisation.

One who trains in Senaman Tua will eventually have all the core skills to learn and master Silat, a martial art practised in Malaysia and Indonesia, rooted in Islam. The goal of each Silat practitioner is to improve their art for the sake of God, explained Mohd Nadzrin bin Abdul Wahab, Imran’s Senaman Tua instructor, who has offered Silat training in Malaysia since 2003.

 

Sensei Thamby Rajah, father of Malaysian Aikido, instructs Imran on Aikido technique (Asma Faizal)

“The basic idea behind silat is softness is strength,” said Nadzrin, 34. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Nadzrin was drawn into Silat after seeing how Islam was woven into each lesson of his first guru, Muhammad Radzi Haji Hanafi. “Every other word” he uttered was an Islamic principle, related Nadzrin.

Silat teaches practitioners that they should dedicate their whole self, mind, body and soul to the intention of performing the art for the sake of God in order for the goal to be worthwhile. Apprentices should strive to be truthful, keep promises, and act with strong conviction without disrespecting their parents and teachers.

“Every martial technique depends on a preset, pre-thought movement of the human body,” explained Nadzrin, who has written extensively on Silat on a series of blogs. “A possible stumbling block to spiritual development is the practitioner’s ascribing of his development or prowess to himself … Thus, we are taught in Silat that all gerak (movement) belongs to Allah, The Mover, in every sense of the word.”

 
Children at play, Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia (Asma Faizal)

While certain varieties of Silat became controversial because they deviated from Islam, most Silat styles in Malaysia are sharia-compliant, he said. Some schools, meanwhile, have modified techniques used in other martial arts like Aikido and Taekwondo to ensure they comply with Islam by, for instance, including bows that do not reach the level of sujud, prostration in Islamic prayer. Silat and Senaman Tua styles are now offered in many countries, including the United States, Europe, South Africa, Canada and Singapore.

Yet Silat on its own is no replacement for a Muslim’s intellectual training in religion. It is rare to find instructors who are also qualified religious scholars, which had been commonplace between the 11th-19th centuries, Nadzrin said.

“I have discovered that the only way to learn Islam is to learn Islam directly, not going through the goggles of a martial art. Some martial arts teachers aren’t qualified to teach or misrepresent it. However, in martial arts, you get to see the practice of Islam in muamalat (interactions),” he said.

Islam, Arabic for ‘submission to God’, embodies an entire lifestyle whereby followers integrate acts of worship into everything they do, such that expressions of gratitude to God become the goal of each activity, even beyond the five daily prayers.

In the area of fitness, we are encouraged to live in a healthy, beneficial way, consistently keeping our egos and impulses in check. In one Hadith, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised Muslims: “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse-riding”.

 

International students gather for Karate seminar in Kerala, India (Shuto Uchi – Knife hand strike) (Asma Faizal photo)

Martial arts help people attain these goals, according to Nadzrin, because with proper training they encourage alignment and coordination between mind and body. He said participants gain many benefits, including equilibrium, muscular strength, stamina, cardiovascular maintenance, hormonal balance, improved kinesthesis and their senses become more receptive.

When a Muslim’s body is healthy and fit, s/he is better equipped to, for instance, apply greater focus in prayer. In this context, one’s pursuit of fitness is not driven by a desire to feed one’s vanity and ego by attaining a toned figure or buff muscles, but rather to strengthen one’s body to be better able to practise faith.

Reflecting back to Imran’s training, I am impressed at how the mastery of combat techniques actually moves martial artists away from negative energies like anger and closer to the serenity inherent to the Islamic state of mind.

“Martial arts teach us awareness,” said Imran. “The more we train, the more aware we become. The more aware we become, the less likely we would get involved in a situation of conflict. So ironically, the more we train, the less use we will have for our violent techniques. We attain peace.”

 
Training at Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Seremban, Malaysia (Asma Faizal photo)
 
Students gather for global Karate seminar in Kerala, India (Shuto Uke – Knife hand block) (Asma Faizal photo)

Special thank you to Asma Faizal for sharing photographs for this piece.

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Finding relief in grief

For the past year up until a few months ago, I was incredibly eager to quit my job. I came to a critical point where I couldn’t wait for a new opportunity to present itself that would relieve the various frustrations I perceived in my work environment.

The thought of quitting on a whim crossed my mind on several occasions, but I always came back to my senses with the help of family and friends, and knowing such a move would be utterly illogical, professionally and financially, given the state of the global economy.

During the course of daily prayers, I would ask God to ease the tensions and fill my heart with patience to be able to handle whatever annoyances arose until He deemed it the right time for me to leave. In my free time, I kept myself busy writing for my blog, studying Arabic and starting to passively search for a new job. I was able to find a balance in my life and appreciate the job security that maintained it. Yet, impatience continued to gnaw at me regularly; I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and annoyed.

Then the scenario that was furthest from my mind unfolded. For reasons that were beyond my control, and quite out of the blue, my position was cut in July as part of a restructuring that involved phasing out the research function of bank where I have worked for the past two years.

Just like that, all of the stresses that had at times consumed my mind faded into thin air, as though they never existed. They were replaced with a new focus: what I would do next.

 

Office cubicle photo courtesy, Flickr

So I thought: isn’t this how things always turn out? I recalled previous job stresses, difficult bosses, failed love stories, illnesses and familial pressures that had at one time or another provoked me to spend hours in anguish and annoyance. Then, when things had smoothed over, these issues barely crossed my mind again.

I remembered a story about a woman named Aisha Gouverneur described in the book “Women in Sufism: A Hidden Treasure”, by Camille Adams Helminski of the Threshold Society. This was the first book I read last year while attempting to understand and build a renewed bond with God. The writings and stories of female Sufi mystic poets, scholars and saints in this anthology affected me profoundly.

Aisha , a seventh-generation Kentuckian, reminded me a lot of myself: an ambitious, modern woman with “inexhaustible energy and activities” who sought to understand the spirit of her faith. At one point in her life, Aisha became paralysed and in a matter of weeks was “completely unable to move”. Over time, she came to accept and endure her condition, later found to be Guiallane-Barre syndrome, and says she was able to “bear it patiently and with equanimity”.

“But,” Aisha continues. “I did not love it; that was the key.”

I paused after reading that line because I did not understand why enduring a hardship patiently was not enough. After all, why would someone love to be ill or struggling? I certainly did not love the frustrations of my job, even if I was willing to bear with them as a test of my patience. Intrigued, I read on.

Months into being paralysed, Aisha was asked to give a talk, and she chose to discuss Islamic explanations for why illness afflicts people. The main lesson she found was that “illness is an opportunity, if not complained about, to purify one’s Being.” I have paraphrased what she said next to many friends and family members in the past year because it describes superbly the energy that enticed me to the Islamic state of mind. She said:

“I realised, as I was giving this lecture, why Muslims always say, ‘All praise is due to God’ whenever they are asked how they are and especially in adversity. I, too, realised that I was overwhelmingly blessed to be given ‘this,’ not a broken finger, but the full trial. And suddenly I loved my illness; I thought, ‘God thought I was up to this!’ And when I loved it, it was like flowing with the Divine Will — my fingers started to move, and then bit by bit, [the paralysis] came undone. So it showed me very clearly: love your trials, welcome them, really say Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), Hallelujah, for every trial you are offered, because in them is the greatest benefit.” (Women in Sufism, 258-9)

Hallelujah indeed. If Aisha could learn to love being paralysed, then I should surely be able to love challenges, some small, some big, that God offers me, rather than allowing them to torment me.

To internalise the idea that God places no burden on us greater than our ability to bear, as the Quran teaches, requires that we regard our struggles as opportunities to strengthen our souls. Patience on its own is not enough; it is appreciating the blessing of the trial itself that reinforces our faith.

The bigger the challenge, the stronger our souls have the potential to become. That should, in a situation of perfect faith, lead us be glad when we are tested rather than grumble about the difficultly of the test. I cannot say I apply this principle fully in my life, as my continual struggle to accept even small work annoyances illustrates, but that is my goal and I am trying my best to work toward it.

In the Quran, God informs us, “Surely, with every hardship there is ease”. (Quran, 94:5) He chooses here to say with rather than after, which would change the meaning entirely. At the same instant that something happens that could potentially entice stress or anguish, we can find relief. We can learn to love our grief when we see that trials and blessings are the same side of the same coin.

Faith in nature

 
Dubai sunset in photo I took in 2007

(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post)

For the past few weeks, I have been home as the setting sun gleams through the window of my northwest-facing flat in potent shades of red and orange, before swiftly descending beneath the rim of the Arabian Gulf somewhat visible in the distance. I’ll usually be cooking dinner at this time but find myself drawn to stand for a few minutes at the kitchen window to watch the sun’s retreat. At the crisp moment the sky dims, the call to prayer becomes audible only faintly beyond monotonous clamour of traffic rushing by on the highway below.

While I have always held some appreciation for the nature around me, one consequence of my endeavour to enrich my relationship with God is that I have become incredibly more receptive to the beauty and divine precision inherent in nature than I was before. Like many people, I tended to take for granted God’s pivotal role in creation and directing the flow of events in everyday life. We often attribute the mechanisms of nature to indistinct concepts like Mother Nature, assuming the circle and cycles of life somehow simply exist without reflecting on why they exist.

Before I truly embraced my Islam, an Arabic term meaning submission to God, I perceived faith as something we needed to enter into eyes closed, without rationale, analysis or intellect. To my surprise as I investigated Islamic teachings more thoroughly, I realised that it was through the acquisition of knowledge and use of reason and logic that certainty of God’s existence becomes most palpable.

 

Arabian Gulf waters sparkle under late afternoon sun in Dubai, Mamzar beach

While reading the Quran I was struck by the number of times God asks us to seek wisdom, use our reason and look at evidence in nature and history in order to grow deeper in faith. In virtually every verse we are called upon to ponder its divine messages. The best of believers are not those who blindly submit, but rather “those who reflect” (45:13), “those who use their reason” (2:164), “those who consider” (13:3), “those who have knowledge” (35:28), and so on.

The perfect balance of nature is described superbly in the Quran, which I read in full for the first time last year. We learn that watching, reflecting on and understanding nature are among the principal ways to gain certainty in God’s signs and be receptive to His message to humanity.

 
Geese flock onto grassy field in Richmond, BC; Mandy Merzaban photo

There is an order to things in nature: birds glide through the sky and make their homes in trees as ants structure their productive communities on or near the ground. Leaves flutter in the wind, change colour and disintegrate into the ground, and the ground appears stationary until it shakes to remind us of our fragility. The clouds converge and disperse, the rain falls and stops, the sun rises and sets according to a meticulously balanced system that can only be divinely weaved. All of the world’s vegetation and animal life are constantly obedient to Him; that is, except for humans, who often lose their connection with Allah, the Arabic word for the Almighty God.

In the creation of the heavens and of the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the ships that sail the ocean bearing cargoes beneficial to man; in the water which God sends down from the sky and with which he revives the earth after its death, scattering over it all kinds of animals; in the courses of the winds, and in the clouds pressed into service between earth and sky, there are indeed signs for people who use their reason.  (Quran, 2:164)

People of various faiths who are spiritually in tune with God experience glimpses of the Divine in everything. I recall marvelling to learn that the Quran refers to ants and bees as feminine; science proved that worker ants and bees are female only about ten centuries later. I was amazed further when I came to verses describing how animals are created out of water, bodies of the world’s sweet and salt waters are separated with a partition, the sun and the moon glide in orbits, the foetus develops in distinct stages, and much more.

Having faith requires that we reflect on what we read in the holy books and in messages relayed by the great prophets. I find it counterintuitive to observe animals, vegetation, weather patterns, human diversity, etc, and assume that they simply exist without having been sprung into being by an Almighty force. Once you gain certainty, you accept that while you may not have all of the answers, research and discovery will uncover God’s secrets in nature over time.

 

Autumn leaves prepare to fall as geese gather in field; Mandy Merzaban photo

About a year ago, research findings based on new computer simulations showed how the parting of the Red Sea, described in the Bible and the Quran, could have been caused by strong winds, enabling Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, to cross with fleeing Israelites before the waters engulfed the Pharaoh’s soldiers.

Other discoveries of modern science lend credibility to more routine teachings embedded in holy books and prophetic wisdom.

A friend recently related a Hadith, or saying of the last Prophet, where Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised that if a fly is to touch the surface of your food or drink, you should submerge it completely rather than trying to shoo it away. I was initially repulsed at the thought, until I learned the wisdom behind it. The reason, according to the Prophet, was that, “under one of its wings there is venom and under another there is its antidote”.

 

Vast desert dunes in the United Arab Emirates

This Hadith alludes to two things. The first—that flies can carry disease-causing pathogens triggering such ailments as typhoid, cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis—was discovered only centuries after this Hadith. It was only in the late 19th century that germ theory, the idea that microorganisms cause many diseases, became a fundamental tenet of modern medicine.

The second, that flies produce their own antibiotics, has come to light in recent research, such as a widely cited study by bioscientists in Australia this past decade. They hope confirmation of this could lead to better treatment for human infections.

I believe God appeals to our rationality if we are willing to explore and listen to His messages and signs, with an open mind. Discovering my faith has led me to be more receptive to the signs that were under my nose all the time. Now even witnessing something as commonplace as the daily setting of the sun prompts me to utter “Subhan’Allah”, an Arabic phrase roughly meaning “Glorious is God”.

 
Photo taken during an afternoon December stroll in a central Dubai park

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