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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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Knowledge & Rationality

My sharpened pencil

I’m taking part in an online exhibition called “Muslim Women’s Arts & Voices,” which is being organised by the San Francisco-based International Museum of Women and is set to launch in early 2013. Muslim women from around the world will be engaging in monthly workshops and discussions in different cities and contributing works of art/writing/poetry/photographs/video, etc, for the exhibition.

We had our first workshop in Sharjah, a city in the United Arab Emirates, earlier this week and I felt so enlivened and inspired by the richly diverse and talented women I met. We were asked to bring one object to represent our identity. I had jotted down some ideas on what I would like to say about myself — as well as the object I chose which was, simply, a sharpened pencil — prior to the workshop. Thought it would be relevant to share these here, too!

……………………………….

My name is Daliah Merzaban, I have Egyptian roots, I was born and raised in Canada and I’ve lived in the UAE for seven years working as a financial journalist, analyst and editor. In my current role, I’m an emerging markets editor at Bloomberg News covering finance in the Middle East and North Africa.

That’s my day job. But what I have become most passionate about in the past few years is uncovering the layers of my faith in God through Islamic spirituality, and I write about this journey on my blog, which I started almost two years ago, as well as for the Huffington Post.

For my object, I wasn’t very complex, I chose a pencil and the notepad that accompanies it. If I am to choose one thing that I have carried with me throughout my life it is this item: I’ve been a journalist since I was 17, and before that was always very interested in creative writing, poetry, short stories, from a very young age. So the written word is what I spend most of my very long hours in the office and my free time working with.

I also chose a pencil because before I truly embraced my Islam, I perceived faith as something I needed to enter into with my eyes closed, without rationale, analysis or intellect. To my surprise, as I have investigated Islamic teachings more thoroughly in the past three years, 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. For me, the pencil is a very simple representation of the acquisition of knowledge, which is a fundamental right for every human being.

In the Quran in Surah 96, God reveals to Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, a verse through the Angel Gabriel whereby he orders the Prophet to “Read!” Saying: “Your Lord is the Most-Bountiful One. Who taught by the pen. Taught man what he did not know.” I think these words underscore our responsibility as Muslims to acquiring knowledge to gain a more thorough understanding of our faith.

A pencil is not permanent, it needs to continue to be sharpened and it represents my understanding that I’m on a journey of discovery and I don’t have all the answers. I need to always keep an open mind, and a blank piece of paper in my notebook.

(Read about how studying Arabic reignited my love of pencils and the written word here)

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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.

Spirit of discovery

View of KAUST Beacon of Knowledge from campus library
 “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave” –Arabic wisdom
When my brother-in-law decided along with my sister to accept a faculty position to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), he referred to the campus as an ‘oasis for science in the desert’.
They and many other scientists and engineers in numerous disciplines were drawn by the idea of reviving scientific research in the Arab world, home to about 17% of the world’s Muslims.
KAUST is a modern, liberal enclosed campus community situated at the heart of Islam’s birthplace, just an hour from Makkah and three hours from Madinah, the two holiest cities in Islam. The location at first glance appeared peculiar, particularly since very little research and development occurs in the Middle East. The region has long suffered from a brain drain of top talent moving to the west to complete higher degrees and conduct world-class research.
In addition to this shortcoming, the desert bordering the Red Sea seemed an inappropriate backdrop against which to situate a university that strives to turn out high-calibre research and graduate scientists and engineers who are able to compete on the world stage, particularly since Saudi Arabia is regarded as among the most-conservative states the world.
Most of the KAUST campus is lined with date palms
Yet the project, while bearing numerous growing pains since its launch in late 2009, appears to be working. Scientists have set up world-class laboratories and hired first-rate researchers and post-doctoral fellows of numerous nationalities. They are conducting research in-house and through collaborations which should, in the coming years, produce meaningful results and hopefully be published in some top scientific journals.
‘The learned are the heirs of the Prophets’

If cultivated effectively, KAUST’s location could be viewed as quite ideal, as I would discover following a visit to the Museum of Science and Technology in Islam on the campus this week. The museum chronicles the accomplishments of pre-eminent Muslim scientists and scholars during the Islamic Golden Age spanning the seventh to 17th centuries.

Through numerous interactive multi-media displays, the museum introduces visitors to Muslim scholars who made pivotal contributions to physics, chemistry, engineering, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, pharmacology, life sciences, geology, architecture and material sciences. “It is evident from this museum that Muslim scholars laid the foundation for the Renaissance in Europe,” reads one sign in the museum.
Seeking to revive this vitality near the birthplace of Islam made a great deal more sense to me after touring this small but immensely engaging museum.

Islam, which literally means ‘submission to God’ in Arabic, is a faith that when properly practised encourages Muslims to strive for balance in their lives. They should pray regularly to the one Almighty God, fast frequently, do good deeds and give charity, be patient before all challenges and give gratitude to God for their blessings. They should also, very importantly, seek to think and reflect, and discover and dispense knowledge during their time in this world.

Research and discovery are complementary with these goals; Muslim scientists strive to uncover the secrets that only God knows, and in doing so bring good to humanity as a whole by discovering technologies and medicines that would benefit their communities.
 “The learned are the heirs of the Prophets,” reads one Hadith, saying of the Last Prophet , in words etched on the wall of the museum. “Those truly fear Allah (God), among His Servants, who have knowledge,” says another sign, quoting from the Holy Quran, itself full of numerous scientific truths.
The quest for knowledge is an essential part of faith

The skilfully designed museum underlines great Islamic inventions and discoveries, answers the question, ‘Why did science flourish in Islam’ and illustrates how Muslim scientists laid the foundations for some of the most-fundamental scientific principles.

Ibn al-Haitham (965-1039), for instance, pioneered the scientific method and his ‘Book of Optics’ (1011-1021) ranks alongside Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica as one of the most influential books in physics. He made crucial discoveries in mathematics, astronomy and optics.
It was Muslim mathematicians who introduced the concept of zero, the decimal point and Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) to mathematics. The numerals used widely by Arabic speakers today (٠.١.٢.٣.٤.٥.٦.٧.٨.٩) are actually Hindi numerals.

Muslim engineering genius Al-Jazari (1136-1206) invented five water-raising machines, and was the first engineer to introduce crankshafts, cog wheels, pistons and one-way clack valves into pumps. He also designed and made both the four-bolt lock and the combination lock. An impressive replica of Jazari’s Elephant Clock using water technology, along with an interactive description of how it works, is found in the museum.

Interactive display of the ways Islam promoted research and discovery
A touch-screen ‘human health’ wall displays the contributions of Muslim scientists to the study of human anatomy, physiology and epidemiology. The museum also features an interactive game that allows you to chart the travels of Ibn Battuta, one of history’s greatest explorers. Along with Muslim explorer Zheng He, Ibn Battuta’s travels were as extensive as those of more famous European explorers such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.
Replica of Al-Jazari’s genius water-powered Elephant Clock
Other brilliant Muslim scientists featured in the museum include:
Ibn Sina (980-1037), who wrote over 200 books on medicine, mineralogy, astronomy and mathematics, and identified over 700 drugs.
Jabin bin Hayyan (721-815), who made important contributions to chemistry that were translated into Latin and used extensively in Europe.
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), regarded as the forerunner of modern sociology and economics.
Umar al-Khayyam (1048-1131), who discovered methods for solving cubic equations “that would be intelligible to only the most advanced mathematicians 1,000 years later”.
Al-Zahrawi (936-1013), who’s 30-volume ‘Method of Medicine’ summarised all known information on medicine and medical treatments. The book was translated into Latin and used for teaching medicine in Europe for several centuries.
 
Water technology displayed at KAUST museum
KAUST’s main research buildings are named after many of these pre-eminent Islamic scholars.
Developing knowledge-driven economies in the Middle East that promote and encourage innovation and modernisation is crucial for the region’s economic future. While there is a long road ahead to make this a reality, reinvigorating the scientific spirit that is intrinsic in Islam is one way KAUST could help make this a reality.
 “Knowledge exists potentially in the human soul like the seed in the soil; through learning, that potential turns into reality”-Muslim Philosopher Al-Ghazali
Among the university’s missions is to reinvigorate the role of innovation
Fantastic interactive screen chronicles great Islamic inventions
Me next to the Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock replica
List of some of history’s greatest explorers
Wealth of language transfer from Arabic to English
Front view of the Elephant Clock
One of Islam’s great scientists
Arabic numerals, zero and decimal place introduced to mathematics by Muslim scholars
Interactive game charts travels of Ibn Battuta
In front of one of the key research buildings at KAUST
Many students and faculty ride bicycles on campus despite the heat
Gorgeous interior of the KAUST library. All the computers are Macs!
King Abdullah depicted using computer motherboard pieces & oil paint, KAUST library, Renaud Delorme


KAUST’s main mosque
Convinced harvesting dates partially funds the university. They’re everywhere!
And I mean everywhere..
Partial view of the Red Sea in residential area of KAUST

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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