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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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Faith in Nature

The Heart-Breaking Work of a Dervish

A section of the Wisconsin River winds through towering, 500 million-year-old rock formations composed layer upon layer of honey-coloured sandstone. Called the Upper Dells, the cliffs were cut by ancient glaciers. They’re remnants of a time when the continent was covered in desert.

Upper Dells, Wisconsin river. Photo by Dailah Merzaban
Upper Dells, Wisconsin River

During a boat tour meandering around the imposing cliffs and traversing dazzling river narrows, a few dear friends and I marvelled at the protruding rocks that cradle a several-mile stretch of the river. Our guide described how these Cambrian-period rocks are some of the oldest exposed bedrock on Earth, a testament to their strength and endurance. And yet the Dells are essentially created from sand, making them also among the softest rocks in existence. Being incredibly porous, they let water penetrate into them. This enables lush clusters of pine trees to grow supported by deeply embedded roots. The surface is also soft enough for swallows to burrow nests into the sides of the sandstone.

The incredible robustness of the Dells paradoxically relies on their delicacy and receptivity, a fitting analogy as I reflect on my journey as a dervish, or disciple, of Mevlevi sufism.

It’s been just over a year since I made a public commitment to the path that traces back to Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the greatest mystics and poets the world has ever known. This period has marked the most rigorous and transforming spiritual and psychological training I’ve ever undertaken. It’s complicated to describe the subtle realisations that unfold on a personal journey to attain nearness to God. What I can put into words is that, above all else, my heart has become more porous, receptive and tender.

The changes in me are both subtle and profound. Rather than simply dropping a pound in the cup of a homeless neighbour as I may have before, I’m more inclined to look them in the eye and ask how they are and what they need. Instead of finding fault in another I deem has wronged me, I pause before reacting to understand their vantage point, not judge them from mine. I’m more merciful with myself, tuning down that once roaring inner critic that constantly questioned my worthiness, intelligence and goodness.

Continue reading “The Heart-Breaking Work of a Dervish”

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Opening the door to surrender

Each time I open the door to leave my apartment, I recite three poignant yet simple Islamic phrases in a subtle whisper that’s only audible to me.

“Bismillah,” Arabic for “In the name of God,” I say in a quick breath as I rotate the lock to the right and grasp the door knob. I continue with “Tawakkul ‘ala Allah, “I place my complete trust and reliance in God,” as I step into the hallway and gently close the door. And “Laa Hawla Wa Laa Quwwata Il-la Bil-laah,” or “There is neither might nor power except with Allah,” glides along my tongue as I turn the key fasten the lock until, by God’s will, I return.

It takes about seven seconds to recite these lines before dashing to the elevator to rush to work, run an errand, attend a social gathering or take a trip to a grocery store. The words are modest for the richness and tremendous power they encompass when reflected upon. They embody the essence of surrendering to God, which is what Islam is principally about.

Open door, photo by Brad Montgomery

In the basic definition, a Muslim is one who consciously lives in a state of presence with the Divine. When the prefix `mu’ is attached to a verb of four or more letters in Arabic grammar, it changes the meaning from the action to the doer of that action. For example, the Arabic word “to teach” is “darris,” and a teacher, the one performing the act of instruction, is the “mudarris.”

A Muslim, then, is one who performs “slim,” or “surrender.” When I discovered this simple grammatical rule six years ago while studying my mother tongue for the first time in an academic setting, it provoked an understanding inside of me. I realized that to truly be Muslim rather than simply label myself such, I needed to really experiencesurrender to the Divine, and that meant God should be the focal point of my consciousness.

Continue reading “Opening the door to surrender”

My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog

About four months ago I started photographing some of my favourite things in the Dubai, and neighbouring areas, where I’ve lived for the past eight years. I took snapshots of locally available food items, unique restaurants and cultural and social spaces that have become dear to me over the years and, in the end, have made this place feel like home. I planned to compile the photos into a blog, along with a short description of each of my choices, to give others a glimpse into some of the valuable little discoveries that have enlivened my daily experience living in the UAE.

I didn’t realise when I started the creative process that by the time I actually got around to putting this blog together, I would be less than 10 days away from leaving Dubai indefinitely. This project ended up being more for me than anyone else – a way of capturing some of the fleeting colours and flavours of my daily life that are easy to take for granted, but that I will miss dearly when I move away early next month.

Continue reading “My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog”

Advice from a tree

I had one of those weeks where I felt like I was grappling for a moment of peace and there wasn’t one free for the taking. Under the weather and yet working until 8 p.m. each night dealing with a flood of news – including the sombre and irritating headlines coming out of Egypt with the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 popular revolt – it was tough to find a tranquil moment to pause.

Perhaps that’s why I’m having a tough time falling asleep tonight as I attempt to unwind for what I hope will be a rejuvenating weekend. Yet as I sit here sleepless, the labours and stress of the past five days have already faded, and what is sticking in my mind is the moment of calm that I did, indeed, find in the chaos.

During a 20-minute break the other day, I took a rare afternoon stroll around the complex of buildings near my office, passing by cafes and restaurants which were, as usual, teeming with professionals having lunch breaks or business meetings. With no appetite to mingle, I settled on a bench in the grassy field situated below the bustling bistros, a pretty palm tree by my side, to enjoy some pleasant afternoon sunshine. Continue reading “Advice from a tree”

10 Ways to Maintain Ramadan’s Spiritual Momentum

(This article was carried by the Huffington Post)

Many people identifying with the Islamic faith are aware of the unmistakable and inspiring spirit that characterises the month of Ramadan.

As we refrain from food and drink, which can become luxuries we unconsciously take for granted, greater time is spent in quiet concentration, reflection and prayer to God in an effort to de-clutter our minds and revitalise our faith. Since the entire month centres on expressions of worship, namely fasting, prayer, dispensing charity and better guiding our emotions, Ramadan offers a kind of spiritual reboot that helps us ‘force quit’ the numerous complications that muddle our minds. It invites Muslims to re-visit the source of their faith by sidelining various distractions and clearing up as much spiritual space as possible to nourish our relationship with the Almighty.

Islam is Arabic for Submission, or Complete Devotion, to God and can only be achieved through a human’s free will. It embodies a state of mind whereby consciousness of God, or Allah in Arabic, guides all of our actions. We integrate different acts of worship into everything we do, such that expressions of remembrance and gratitude to God become the goal of each activity. Submission places in a human’s grasp peace of mind. It offers a level of understanding that positions human experience within the greater design of existence; where all realities have divine input and purpose. Continue reading “10 Ways to Maintain Ramadan’s Spiritual Momentum”

A houseplant I named Hope

I woke up this morning and decided to name one of my houseplants Amal, the Arabic word meaning ‘hope’. This plant, a variety of yucca if I am not mistaken, has been nameless since the day I bought it from a moving sale more than six years ago. But today, I realised how much she deserved this designation.

For most of the last six years, Amal has seemed to be on her last legs. Her leaves would consistently wilt at the tips to a dry crisp or sometimes turn entirely yellow, even if I wasn’t over-watering it. Unable to re-generate, one leaf would die and another would not grow in its place, leaving the trunk unusually bare compared with when I bought it.

I tried various plant foods, all of which failed to give her a renewed lease on life. If I thought perhaps she was getting too much sun, I would move her to a more shady area of the apartment, and vice versa. Nothing seemed to work. If anything, the more attention I paid, the worse her condition would become. While my other houseplant has grown to become lush, this one seemed to remain limp, barely clinging onto life. She somehow managed to hobble her way through the years, dormant and unchanged unless to further deplete.

Continue reading “A houseplant I named Hope”

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)

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’.

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