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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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Everyday miracles

Keeping balance when emotional headwinds hit

The pressures of our personal and professional lives are constantly in conflict and competition with our struggle to find reasonable balance, oftentimes forcing even the strongest among us to lose footing. Despite our best efforts, feeling unhinged, helpless and alone can somehow find a way to flood back into our day-to-day lives. Earlier this week, I gave into such emotions. After driving my sister, brother-in-law and two darling nephews to the airport following a visit for Eid holiday came such a moment.

For the 10 days they were in town, my one-bedroom apartment was bustling, becoming a pleasant cacophony of laughter, childish jokes, playful songs, home-cooked meals, YouTube videos and cartoons. As we found creative ways to comfortably host five adults, a four-year-old and a toddler in his terrible twos, we managed to find balance and pleasure in an organised form of chaos.

Then, in a quick flash the vacation was over and they returned home, leaving an impression of vacancy in my apartment that became more palpable. The series of concerns I had tried to put aside during the hectic and eventful holiday abruptly flooded my mind again, and I was beset by an unsettling mix of emotions stemming from the fresh residue of a heart break and looming professional anxiety. As much as I may recognise that I shouldn’t allow negative thoughts get the upper hand, I couldn’t help but wallow in a bit of self pity.

Having deep faith in God, I knew in the back of my mind that everything is as it should be; that destiny unfolds as God wills and that He harbours our best interests however long we feel we are waiting to know what they are. Truly believing this means any struggle we face should be embraced wholeheartedly with patience and continual acceptance.

But moving this understanding from the back of my mind to the front can be a struggle at times. It is human nature to often give in to emotions of sadness, anger and angst, although to live in a state of unbridled submission to God, or Islam in Arabic, would all but eliminate such unconstructive emotions.

So there I was, more irritable and grouchy than I should be given the immense blessings in my life, moping around my apartment for much of the following day even though I knew I shouldn’t be. I asked God after my daily prayers to fill me with patience and tranquillity and pull me out of my gloom.

Seek and you will find. Something I have learned in the course of discovering my faith is that if you ask for a moment of clarity, God will surely help you locate it.

On this particular day, that moment came in the late afternoon as I looked out my bedroom window to the sky and found a most-exquisite sunset in progress. Following a rare rainfall the night prior, the day had been oddly dim and cloudy for the arid desert climate. I stared intently through the window as the sun descended through a dense pattern of broken clouds that scattered its rays in multiple directions. Watching this brilliant prism of shattered light beating through crevices of clouds, I repeated to myself ‘Subhan’Allah’, or Glorious is God.

As I stood there for about 10 minutes, rush of calm came over me. It was as though I was the only person in the world looking at the sunset; that somehow God had reserved a quiet moment like this for me so I could pause and realise that everything in my life that I was worrying about was as it should be, despite the uncertainty and sorrow I may be feeling. I seized the opportunity to move positive thoughts of my struggles to the forefront of my mind, and bury the negativity that had been weighing me down.  For the rest of the evening, I felt light and content.

“It is He who sent down tranquillity into the hearts of the believers, to add faith to their faith,” reads the Holy Quran (48:4). “The forces of the heavens and the earth belong to Him. He is all-knowing and all-wise”.

Sometimes we need only a little push to make an effort to take the lessons embedded in the Quran and Hadith to heart, implement them in our lives and apply them to our struggles. My lesson that day was that even when my emotions get the better of me, I must trust God sincerely. Even in sadness, I must surrender to the idea that every step in our lives is a blessing, no matter how painful it may be.

Living in submission is not always easy; I constantly feel as though my faith is a work in progress and there are always multitudes of ways I could improve. Remembering that God is with us at all times—closer than the jugular vein in our necks as the Quran teaches us—is the best way to help us tackle our innermost fears and struggles.

When we remember Him, we are better positioned to recognise the blessings in everything that befalls us. Worry and sadness may be an inevitable part of life, but the burden they level can be lightened tremendously if we make small efforts to draw nearer to God and be receptive to the gifts He grants us each day rather than dwelling on the difficulties.

“Whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the strong hand-hold that will never break. God is all-hearing and all-knowing. God is the patron of the faithful. He leads them from darkness to light.” (Quran; 2:256-7)

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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

Bustle of bees

We have a gorgeous tree in our backyard that blooms in late summer, bearing clusters of soft pink hibiscus flowers whose funnel-shaped petals are accentuated by bright-red centres. A cream-coloured pistil protrudes from the centre of each flower, attracting bees from around the neighbourhood eager to collect pollen and nectar, which forms the sugar source for honey.

The flowers began opening up last week and since then many bees have been busying themselves pollinating the flowers. Watching the bees move about the tree this lovely sunny August afternoon, I thought I would take some photographs of these extraordinary miracles of nature.

God enjoins us continually in the Quran to pause and reflect on the miracles of nature to gain certainty in His signs. It really is quite remarkable what you can witness in nature if you just pay attention.

Your Lord inspired the bee, saying, ‘Make your homes in the mountains, in the trees, and also in the structures which humans erect.

Then feed on every kind of fruit, and follow the trodden paths of your Lord.’ From its belly comes a drink with different colours which provides healing for humankind. Indeed, in this there is a sign for people who give thought. (Quran, Bees, 16: 68-69)

For another post on the miracles of nature, read my piece ‘Finding spirit in a school field’.

Walking amid wildflowers

This past week, I’ve been absorbing the beauty of nature around me in British Columbia. Sometimes spending time away from home helps you appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. I’ve been away for two years.

During my walks and while cycling, I have been astounded by the number of varieities of wild flowers that bloom in parks, along the river banks and in the grassy fields. Below is a photo gallery of some of these flowers, which I will build on in the coming weeks.

Finding spirit in a school field

Just steps away from the front door of our house in Richmond, British Columbia there is a giant grass field surrounded by trees that have grown tall and dense over the decades. The field is situated between an elementary and high school and is used extensively by students playing soccer or the American variety of football.

When it is not raining outside, residents of the neighbourhood walk their dogs along the pathway encircling the field, which on one side extends toward the Fraser River.

The other day I decided to go for a brisk walk around the field to get a bit of exercise.
It had been raining all morning, but by late afternoon the rain had stopped and while clusters of clouds continued to dominate the sky, patches of blue sky and sunshine began to appear. The air was as crisp and cool as I imagine it should be on a perfect spring day, although it is July. A rainy day is never far away in Vancouver. Only a day earlier the sun was beaming hot and not a cloud could be seen in the sky.

It was perfect weather to be outdoors, especially so for me. I spend most of the year in a desert climate in the United Arab Emirates, so it is always a treat to soak in the fresh breeze, rich colours and lushness of nature when I am visiting my hometown.

As I began my quiet walk along the paved pathway, I quickly increased momentum, tightening my leg muscles and swinging my arms back and forth in sequence. I paced my breath, inhaling and exhaling evenly as my attention focused on the leaves of the trees swaying slightly in the breeze.

While my body moved rhythmically, I expected my mind to wander in a dozen different directions, as often happens when I go for a walk alone. Thoughts of work, responsibilities, family issues, relationships and other troubles flood my mind in no particular order and often simultaneously. Generally when I exercise I enjoy listening to music in order to stay focused, but on this occasion I did not have my Ipod with me.

But for some reason my mind did not wander. Instead, as I watched the clouds peaking through the leaves and absorbed the colours and sounds of nature around me, I found myself starting to pray.

I hadn’t planned on praying, it just happened suddenly and naturally. Under my breath, I began reciting some verses of the Holy Quran that I have memorised, some shorter, some longer. Reading from the Quran in Arabic is melodic; each verse has a perfect, poetic rhythm to it that is sometimes lost in translation. As I circled around the field, my body and thoughts moved to steady beat, leaving me feeling light and at ease.

In the Quran, God makes numerous references to how nature is in perfect balance and all the world’s vegetation and animal life – apart from humans – are constantly obedient to Him. Nature operates exactly as the Almighty ordains, the birds glide through the sky and make their homes in trees, which sway in the wind in perfect rhythm. The clouds move apart and together, the rain falls and stops, the sun rises and sets according to a divine order.

Humans, on the other hand, often lose their connection with Allah, the Arabic word for God, and fail to grasp His presence in every corner of every neighbourhood in the world. One who is spiritually Muslim, who has surrendered her/his self to God, experiences glimpses of the Divine in everything.
“Do you not realise that everything in the heavens and earth prostrates to Allah (God): the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals? So do many human beings.”

(Quran, The Pilgrimage, 22:18)

I suppose in some small way as I walked, prayed and paid attention to the trees, grass, sky, clouds, birds, bunny rabbits, raccoons, bugs and occasional dragon fly and butterfly, my motions became part of the rhythm of nature that would have been drowned out if I had a song blasting in my ear. I felt peace of mind and had a dumb smile on my face that must have puzzled the occasional person jogging past me or walking a dog.

About 30 minutes into my walk, I recalled the last time I had felt that same sense of focus of mind and unexpected closeness with God. It was two months ago, when I was on the other side of the world – literally – visiting the Enlightened City, Madinah, in Saudi Arabia. Madinah is the site of the mosque and burial spot of the Last Prophet, Muhammad .

I had written then about my visit to Madinah. Praying in the Prophet’s Mosque is akin to meditating for me because I was able to clear my thoughts of everything and concentrate my energies on worshipping God. One feels the love of God all around in Madinah, where millions of Muslims visit each year to pray in this blessed city.

On the surface, Madinah and the school field outside my house in Richmond have nothing in common. Madinah is in the middle of the desert; everywhere you turn is a shade of beige or brown. But Madinah literally means the Radiant or Enlightened City in Arabic because of its crucial role in the enabling God to share His guidelines to human beings through Prophet Muhammad , the last in a long line of prophets. The Divine presence in Madinah is, not surprisingly, intense.

Where I am walking now is about as far as you can get in distance and time zones from Madinah. There patches of lush green grass and areas where the sun has caused it to yellow or brown. The grass is full of dandelions, weeds and clovers, most with three leaves. On the trees, the leaves vary from dark green to light green to reddish-purple. The sky is a deep light blue and the clouds are as white as milk. There are no holy sites nearby me here in the Lower Mainland, no calls to prayer can be heard nor mosques found within walking distance.

But walking in the field near my house, close to the school where I once studied, I also felt His immense power and proximity in the exquisite nature around me.

That for me is the beauty of submission to God (Islam). We have the intellectual capacity as humans to feel and react to God’s presence and see and interpret His miracles anywhere. If we are willing to pay attention to the language of our surroundings we can become more receptive to His quiet answers wherever we are.

Is He not best who made the earth a stable ground and placed within it rivers and made for it firmly set mountains and placed between the two seas (sweet and salty) a barrier? Can there be another god besides God?
No, but most of them do not know.
(Quran, The Ant, 27:61)

Crossing paths with a Hoopoe bird

Hoopoe (Arabic, Hudhud) bird, in United Arab Emirates

I encountered an extraordinary bird on the way to work this morning which brought me a great deal of joy as well as new, unexpected layers of knowledge.

As May turns the page to welcome June, Dubai’s scorching heat is becoming more and more intolerable. With each passing day I try to dash a bit more quickly from the large gravel parking lot where I park my car to the office tower across the street where I work.

But today, as I was hurrying into the small grass field in between the parking lot and the road, I was stopped in my tracks abruptly by a pretty bird strutting in front of me on the ground. It was busying itself looking for worms and insects and I was taken aback by its beauty, especially the prominent crest of orange and black feathers on its head. I had not come across this graceful, majestic bird before.
It was all alone, as was I, so I pulled out my phone and started photographing the bird as it pranced through the grass and around the date palms, from which are starting to fall dates that have not yet ripened. The bird had beautiful black-and-white striped wings and a peachy coloured breast. She did not seem bothered at all by my presence and carried on with her business for about a minute. She was very beautiful.
The Hoopoe bird is a central character in one Quranic chapter
I decided to share a photo of this exotic bird on Twitter later that morning, and very shortly afterward a friend of mine told me it was called the Hoopoe (or Hudhud in Arabic). She said seeing the photo evoked memories of her childhood in Egypt. Then, a couple of people I hadn’t met or spoken to before (which something I love about Twitter) began sharing details about the Hoopoe’s history and legacy with me that I had not been aware of.

The Hoopoe is mentioned in the Holy Quran in reference to how it brought an important message to Prophet Suleiman in the Chapter (Surah) known as Al Naml (The Ants). I had read that surah and was aware of Prophet Suleiman’s ability to communicate with animals and insects, but I had not paid particular attention before to the type of bird. King Suleiman’s army consisted of men birds and jinn (spirits).

In this Surah, the Hoopoe has a central role in the story of King Suleiman and the Queen of Sheba, an area believed to be in modern-day Yemen. Noticing the absence of the Hoopoe in his army one day, Prophet Suleiman inquired where the bird was.

The Hoopoe returned shortly after and, upon being instructed to give a clear reason for its absence, the bird relays important news from Sheba.  “Indeed, I found [there] a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne,” reads the Quran (27:23). “I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah (God), and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [His] way, so they are not guided,” the bird continues in the pages of the Holy Book. (27:24)


Prophet Suleiman asks the Hoopoe to deliver a letter to the Queen, enjoining her and her followers to submit to God in Islam. Later, the Queen visits Jerusalem to see Prophet Suleiman. She arrives at the palace and mistakes the luminous glass flooring for a body of water. Lifting her dress to cross, she discovers it is glass, not water. Taken aback, the Queen repents to God shortly after, declaring herself a Muslim (i.e. one who has submitted herself to God).

In light of this event, the Hoopoe is known for its powers of observation and intelligence; it was able to decipher the lack of faith among the people of Sheba and relay this message to a prophet. In an epic poem known as “The Conference of the Birds” written by a Persian Sufi mystic in the 12th century, meanwhile, the Hoopoe guides a group of 30 birds on a journey much as would a Sufi master lead disciples to enlightenment.

Learning these rich facts from peers on Twitter reminded me about the importance of pausing at times to observe the beauty and miracles of nature; you never know what you may miss if you rush past too quickly. I certainly was not expecting to cross paths with such a splendid bird. Sharing these moments with others, meanwhile, adds to their beauty and etches them more meticulously in our memories.
“Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of the sky? Nothing holds them up but the power of God. Verily in this are signs for those who believe.”  (Quran, 16:79)

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