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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.

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Death and Remembrance

Lessons on living from my late uncle

Turning on a tune by Egyptian legend Abdel Halim Hafez, my sister Mandy handed her iPod to Uncle Hoda and gestured him to place the headphones over his ears. Seconds later, an expression combining astonishment and glee came over his face while listening to a melody that must have taken him back at least three decades. Our uncle laughed and sang along to the words of “Gana El Hawa, the Love Came to Us,” while swaying his head from side to side, fully mesmerized in enjoyment of the moment.

If there’s anything that I will always treasure about my Uncle Hoda, who passed away last month following a battle with cancer, God bless his soul, it is that he was among only a small number of people that I’ve encountered who lived for the present.

Sunrise in Egypt

I imagine it was Uncle Hoda’s deep connection with God that enabled him to embody this state of being. He spoke with great reverence of the Divine, and the love that sprang from that bond was contagious. Positivity and optimism radiated from him; whenever he entered a room, it was with the lightness and calmness of a person who was content with the joys and patient with the challenges of his life.

As my two sisters and I reminisced in our Whatsapp chat room about our beloved maternal uncle in the days following his passing, we alternated between tears and laughter. I was struck at how profoundly he had affected each of us, given we lived far apart most of our lives, Uncle Hoda in Egypt and us in a scattering of cities around North America, the Arabian Gulf and Europe.

It was joyous to reunite with our uncle during summer holidays, the distresses of our childhood dissolving away in his playful presence. He was consistently ready to offer a smile, which would make his small eyes almost disappear beneath his bushy eyebrows. Whether he was getting us to hum and sing along to the latest Egyptian pop song or sending us into an endless round of giggles during an afternoon drive around Cairo by swerving his car to the right and left in a zigzag pattern, Uncle Hoda always made us feel like the centre of his attention.

As I got older, the ease with which our beloved uncle yielded to the flow of life was deeply inspiring for my spiritual journey. He would constantly seek divert attention away from himself to calm the often-frayed nerves of his siblings.

When a car accident took our beloved uncle to within a hair’s breadth of death 16 years ago, I remember how on emerging from his coma, Uncle Hoda would downplay his pain to calm his rattled and restless sisters. Even as he battled the painful side effects of treatments for pancreatic cancer this summer, our uncle tried to reassure our worried mom that the symptoms were bearable and he was infinitely content with whatever God willed.

Continue reading “Lessons on living from my late uncle”

Of Saints and Matchmakers

As I was growing up, Islam’s benevolent female saints existed in my imagination as otherworldly matchmakers.

Common features of my family’s infrequent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt were visits to mosques enclosing the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Nafisa, two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who have come to be regarded as Cairo’s patron saints, may God grant them peace and blessings. My mother, often with her sisters who lived in smaller cities along the Suez Canal, would arrange mini pilgrimages to these grand Cairene mosques for a single purpose: to pray for suitable partners for their unmarried children.

SAYYIDAZAINABCAIRO
Female worshippers gather around Sayyida Zainab’s mausoleum in Cairo

Amidst weeps and whispers, they would gather around the mausoleums of these saints offering earnest prayers to rescue their single daughters and sons from the matrimonial side lines. From beyond the divide between this world and the next, these venerable women of faith would intimately identify with the anguish of being the mother of an unwed child and act as intermediaries with God in removing the obstacles blocking the perfect partner from springing forth – at least that was the hope of my female kin.

While my own memories of these visits are vague and likely layered by personal accounts relayed by my mother over the years, the urgency placed on marriage left me feeling perplexed. The more I found myself becoming the focal point of the prayers, the more frustrating and painful these pilgrimages became.

By my mid- and then late 20s, the cultural pressures to wed young and my inability to make it happen inadvertently alienated me from faith, and obscured my view of the spiritual significance and prowess of these female saints. My only encounters with them were a manifestation of socio-culture pressures that dictate a woman’s value lies solely in her success as a wife and mother, a line of thinking that left me jaded and confined rather than empowered by their presence. Continue reading “Of Saints and Matchmakers”

Sitting in Tuleries

My late father never visited Paris. Yet for me he is always here. Back in July 2010 during my first visit to this magnificent city, I called my father while sitting in Tuileries, the beautifully manicured gardens situated beside the Louvre.

What I didn’t know then was that we were having our last proper conversation before my dad passed away, suddenly, four weeks later. That bright and warm summer afternoon would be the final time he was alive for me.

Continue reading “Sitting in Tuleries”

My mother’s sister

One of my fondest memories of my maternal auntie Sanaa, who passed away yesterday, was observing as she and mom embraced, giggled and gossiped as they sat together upon reuniting following a separation of several years. You couldn’t interrupt their joy and intent focus on one another. It was as though I wasn’t in the room as they sat on my aunt’s bed holding hands and bursting into uproarious laughter, literally, every five minutes. Continue reading “My mother’s sister”

In loving memory

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

One of my favourite pastimes while visiting British Columbia during my summer holiday is taking morning strolls down the meandering gravel trail that stretches alongside the Fraser River situated about 10 minutes from our house in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, Canada.

A walk along the pathway in the early morning isn’t particularly elaborate; its beauty is much more unassuming and steeped in nostalgia. The gravel path glides along an untrimmed shoreline of marshes, scattered clusters of wildflowers and trees both drooped and willowy. A backdrop of sounds combine the crunch of the gravel, singing birds, lapping waves, the occasional seaplane landing and the imbued silence and freshness of the open air. On the river’s edge, one may find a man sitting on one of the rocks or wooden logs resting against the slanted cliff of the waterbody, his fishing rod dunked into the freshwater in hopes of catching a Pacific salmon, trout or flounder. A family of ducks, meanwhile, may be gliding its way across the water nearby.

An elderly couple may be standing at the edge of the riverbank, performing tai chi as the water behind them stretches out into the Pacific Ocean in the distance. When the skies are clear, as they often are in July, it can be difficult to distinguish the horizon where the blue of the ocean ends and the sky begins. The couple will remain intently engaged in their martial art as residents pass by, alone or in pairs, jogging, walking or cycling across the multi-kilometre trail that stretches much of the length of the city. Almost everyone is ready to greet with a friendly ‘good morning’.

This winding ecological trail is evidently teeming with life, and yet across the length of it are reminders about death embedded on a sequence of wooden benches situated all along the pathway, overlooking the waterfront. Continue reading “In loving memory”

Remembering my quirky uncle

“What can you do when you live in a zoo?”

My sister sent this phrase to me in a text message today, reminding me of a line one of my uncles would often say to make light of life’s ups and downs. Never take anything too seriously always seemed to be the philosophy which guided his life, for better or – as was often the case – for worse.

My sisters and I exchanged memories of our maternal uncle Adel throughout the afternoon after learning this morning that he had passed away (الله يرحمه/God rest his soul). It was a tough and emotional day coming to grips with the idea that I wouldn’t see my uncle again during this life.

Continue reading “Remembering my quirky uncle”

The night of a thousand months

 

Photo courtesy of VickyTH, Flickr

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

From seconds to years to millennia, time is a fluid concept in Islam that I often puzzle over. During the final 10 days of Ramadan falls a night that the Quran describes as being ‘better than 1,000 months’, which would translate into 83.3 years in modern time measurement. In essence, belief in the power of one evening is worth more than a well-lived lifetime.

Laylat Al Qadr, the Night of Power or Destiny, is the climax of the Islamic month of fasting, commemorating the night when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, received his first divine revelation through the Archangel Gabriel in 610 AD. These revelations continued for more than two decades and form the Quran, meaning ‘Recitation’ in English, which is a composition of God’s message to humanity.

Many Muslims around the world will spend Laylat Al Qadr in prayer and quiet reflection, some secluding themselves in mosques in devotion to God, hoping to seek the unparalleled benefit of a night when sincere worshippers are forgiven all sins and angels descend on earth.

Last year, while visiting Cairo, I strived for the first time to participate in Laylat Al Qadr, most-widely believed to fall on the 27th night of Ramadan, although many scholars concur it could fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the final 10 days.

Determined not to have the night to pass me by, I spent these five odd-numbered nights awake until the break of dawn, in prayer, reading passages from the Quran, offering duaa (supplications) for family and friends, and trying to grasp how one brief night could hold such immense energy and power. After all, 83.3 years is more than the average human life expectancy for citizens of most countries in the world. How could one night be greater than an entire lifetime?

To begin to comprehend this idea, I turned to the Quran, in which God continually calls on us to regard our perception of time as relative and flexible rather than linear and constant. For instance, the word for ‘day’ in Arabic is ‘youm’, which in everyday usage refers to the 24-hour period of a day. But in the Quran, the explanation of youm is much broader, referring to long periods of time, eras or epochs of indefinite lengths, rather than a single day measured by the rotation of the earth on its axis.

“A Day with your Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning,” the Quran says in one reference to how humans would grasp the length of a day in the Hereafter. (Quran, 22:47) When God says He “created the heavens and the earth in six days” (7:54), He is referring to six stages of development, rather than six 24-hour days.

Setting aside the ideas of time we have grown comfortable with in everyday life re-arranges how we evaluate the passage of time and helps us begin to grasp the concept of eternity. We realise that while daily living on earth may seem to us to be long, in the end when we reflect back, our time here will appear momentary. Once all is said and done, people will perceive that they had stayed on earth for “a day or part of a day” (23: 112-114) or “not longer than an hour of a day” (10:45), according to the holy book.

Knowing that the journey of life is brief when compared with eternity, spiritually aware Muslims–those who live in Islam, the Arabic word meaning ‘submission’ to God –become more conscious and attentive of our actions, seeking to pray, fast, give charity and treat those around us with kindness, respect and justice.

Trying to catch Laylat Al Qadr sincerely is, I presume, about attaining a spiritual connection with God that transcends units of time. For an evening, we have a chance to traverse the world’s limitations to where time is incalculable–where the value in a moment of connection is so unfathomably rich that it surpasses the length of a person’s worldly existence.

 
Minarets by night at Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, Saudi Arabia

According to one Hadith, a saying of the last prophet, “whoever establishes prayers on the Night of Power out of sincere faith and hoping to attain God’s rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven”. It was on this night that Angel Gabriel asked Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to ‘read’. Being illiterate, Muhammad responded that he could not. After repeating the request and receiving the same response, Angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad the following verse:

Read! In the name of the Lord, who created:
Created man out of a clot [of blood].
Read! Your Lord is the Most-Bountiful One
Who taught by the pen
Taught man what he did not know.
(Quran 96: 1-5)

What I love about this verse is the emphasis God places on acquiring knowledge in order to uncover and understand His miracles. Sometimes this demands that we challenge pre-conceived notions of reality in order to become more receptive to the possibilities of living in submission.

After spending most of my life sleeping through Laylat Al Qadr, last year I tried my best to witness it. In the few months prior, I had made a conscious effort to deepen my connection with God. In the process, I discovered that prayer in the early morning prior to fajr, the first of Islam’s five daily prayers that takes place before sunrise, can be particularly tranquil and comforting.

In the dark of night before the sun rises and when most people are asleep, I am able to clear my thoughts, focus and meditate more so than I can at other times of the day. My daily spiritual routine would now be incomplete if I am not awake to hear the call to fajr prayer, which ends with the simple-yet-captivating line, “prayer is better than sleep”.

On Laylat Al Qadr, this energy and nearness to God that I get a glimpse of just before fajr is magnified and stretched over an entire night of intense prayer, reflection and remembrance. That is why year after year, many Muslims will seek the night where worship carries the weight of 1,000 months. Even if we can’t fully grasp how this is possible, we have a chance to nurture a formidable spiritual connection with God.

Gifts for my late father on his birthday

For the first time in my life, I won’t be able to wish my dad a happy birthday on June 13.
He passed away last August quite suddenly at 64. I wasn’t sure how I would feel when his birthday came around this year. After all, for every year of my life, my dad’s birthday fell on the same week as Father’s Day and two days before my own birthday. I suppose it is natural to sense there is something missing this week.
I remember one of my dear friends called me the day after he passed last Ramadan. Her father had died several years earlier and she spoke of how it had taken a number of years for her to fully come to terms with his death. She eventually found comfort in the idea that her father is her ‘wasta’ in Heaven. Wasta is an Arabic term that refers to people who are connections with clout, able to get you favourable treatment, usually in government offices.
She put a smile on my face when she said that; it was one of a number of ideas that brought me comfort in the first few days of separation.
I continue to get teary eyed when I speak of specific memories we shared, browse through old photographs or hear a sappy song. Sometimes I will cry deeply when I am up in the early morning giving dua’a (supplications) for my dad before the dawn prayer, fajr. There are ever-present thoughts that I could have done and said more during his life.
Yet I surprised myself and many people I know by how calm I was after my dad’s death. My faith in God helped me rationalise, accept and even rejoice at his passing. I know that may sound strange, but it makes perfect sense when you embrace the concept that death is the most-important point along the journey of life. If a person has lived a virtuous life and espouses sincere belief in God and His message, death is a time to celebrate the soul’s reunion with its Creator. Rumi articulates this better than I ever could:
Our death is our wedding with eternity.
What is the secret? God is One.
The sunlight splits when entering the windows of the house.
This multiplicity exists in the cluster of grapes;
It is not in the juice made from the grapes.
For he who is living in the Light of God,
The death of the carnal soul is a blessing.
(Excerpt from a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, Mystic Odes 833)
Through my faith, it has been possible for me to continue having a meaningful relationship with my father. I certainly spend a great deal more time thinking of and praying for him now than I did during his life.
It was surrendering to Islam, the Arabic term meaning ‘submission to God’, that helped me soften the blow of my father’s passing. There are so many gifts we can continue to give to our loved ones once they have departed from this world. The more I delve into my submission, the more I uncover new layers of this that I had been unaware of.
We have the power as children to seek favour for our parents with God. A person’s soul, when separated from the body, remains in a state known as Barzakh, the interval between death and the Day of Judgement. According to tradition, God opens a window for the righteous that brings Heaven into sight when they enter Barzakh.
The last Prophet, Muhammad , said of the deceased: “When a person dies, his actions come to an end, except in one of three ways: A continuing act of charity, a useful contribution to knowledge, or a righteous child who prays for him.”
When I first heard of this Hadith from my brother-in-law the day of my father’s death, it brought me instant comfort. I immediately incorporated dua’a for my father after every prayer. Since I pray five times every day, this means I have been able to keep remembrance of my father frequent and consistent in my daily routine.
When we give dua’a, we ask God with a dedicated heart to fulfil our righteous and legitimate requests for ourselves and others. I ask God to forgive my father for any wrong action, to grant him peace and serenity, to elevate him in the ranks of Paradise, to bless his soul.

We learn from Hadith, sayings of the Last Prophet , that our dua’a reach our loved ones. When the deceased receives dua’a from the living, “he becomes so delighted it as if he has something better than everything on this earth. Certainly, Allah (God) confers reward on people in the grave equal to the mountains.”

Imagine that. Just by praying for your parent’s soul, this gift reaches his/her soul and is so valuable to them that it renders the entire world and their lives in it insignificant in comparison.
Another Hadith speaks of how God will elevate the ranks of some believers in Paradise on the Day of Judgement, based on the actions of their children. The parent will ask of God ‘How did I get this high rank?’, and God will say, ‘Your children prayed for your forgiveness, and it is due to the dua’a of your children that I have granted you this position’.
Other than prayer, I have done my best to offer gifts to my father in the form of charity, acts of worship and fasting. Muslims are obliged to provide 2.5% of their income and assets each year to charity, although this is a minimum. Charity should whenever possible be given throughout the year, particularly so at times when God brings us abundant wealth. Since my father’s death, I find myself constantly looking for a new way to give charity, knowing that doing so will benefit not only me, but my father. When I can, I ask the recipient to say a prayer for him.
There are other gifts we as children can give as well. Last December, I performed an umrah, a short pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah, on behalf of my father, something he did not have a chance to do during his life.
I also continue to read chapters from the Quran daily that are beneficial for the deceased, and I fast regularly apart from the month of Ramadan with the intention of providing some benefit to my dad as well as myself. I typically fast on Mondays or Thursdays, which are blessed days to fast because, as the Last Prophet  ﷺsaid, “Deeds of people are presented (to God) on Mondays and Thursdays. So I like that my actions be presented while I am fasting.”
Given the sheer magnitude of gifts we can send our parent’s way after they have died, I suppose I have found very little time for grief. Instead of grieving I am giving generously and graciously to my father’s soul whenever I can. Every time I do something to honour the memory of my dad, I imagine the gift reaching his soul and bringing him peace.

So, on this first June 13 that he hasn’t been here, I will commemorate my dad’s life with extra prayers and wishes for his soul to find peace. I hope that if you have read this, you might also send a good wish to God on his behalf.

“Indeed, we belong to God and to Him we shall surely return” (Quran: 2:156)

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