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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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Patience

Putting patience into practice

Egyptians queue to vote in parliamentary elections, Photo courtesy of Gloria Center

Watching footage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections last week gave me a well-timed lesson on patience and good manners. It was humbling to observe and read numerous reports showing people lined up by the thousands outside of voting stations to cast their ballots in Egypt’s first elections since the Jan. 25 uprising.

A considerable 62% of eligible voters participated in the election, many standing in line for six to eight hours or longer to cast their ballots. While I am usually patient in traffic jams, ticket and grocery line ups, I cannot recall ever having to queue that long for anything. It would surely nibble at my nerves, and yet many of Egypt’s lower-income citizens often get caught in long queues to perform basic tasks like buying bread or overpriced propane tanks.

The footage made me realise how impatient I can be at times with futile things, and how this impatience puts me at risk of speaking or reacting in an inconsiderate manner as I act swiftly without first reflecting on my choice of words. Continue reading “Putting patience into practice”

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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)

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.

Finding relief in grief

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

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

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

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

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

 

Office cubicle photo courtesy, Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing on judgement

If you scratch the surface of any person’s life, you will find a story worth telling. This story will most definitely include chapters on the hardship and adversity this person has faced, and describe the lessons they drew from these events. Periods of dilemma will generally be followed by moments of joy, relief and comfort, with each story tailored specifically to the individual.

For many of us, the trials of our lives will lead us to build, break and restore our relationship with God, sometimes earlier in life, sometimes later and sometimes much later. Neither of these scenarios is necessarily superior to the others. The pace at which each person shapes this relationship is different and so are the ways s/he expresses it.

I have spent much of my life until recently in a superficial relationship with God. It wasn’t until I reflected on the feeble condition of that bond that I understood the value in restoring it. Observation turned into resolve and I found myself seeking to revive a sincere bond with God through Islamic methodology: dedicated prayer, fasting, patience, charity and acts remembrance. My expressions of faith went from acts that mirrored faithfulness to a way of life that embodied it.

I believe God sets each of us on a distinctive spiritual journey, fraught with its own challenges, setbacks and chances to seek forgiveness and find redemption. He informs us in the Quran that on no soul does He place a burden greater than it can bear.

By virtue of this, it is impossible to judge the depth of any person’s intimate connection with God at any given time. We especially cannot judge someone’s faith by its ‘cover’ so to speak, although this happens all of the time. We often cast judgement on people, or are ourselves judged, based on external appearance: the words we speak, our clothing choices, the rituals we perform, the frequency of our attendance at communal acts of worship. All of our external dealings, words, behaviours and choices should not be a basis of judgement of something that is by nature quiet and private.

I recently came across the story of Moses (عليه السلام) and the Shepherd, described in the work of 13th-century Muslim poet and Sufi mystic Rumi. It portrays the risks of endeavouring to cast judgement on another’s faith.

A version of this story is superbly woven into the book, The Forty Rules of Love, by Turkish author Elif Shafak, which I read this summer. Shafak’s book draws parallels between two stories, one ancient and one modern: that of Rumi’s encounter with his spiritual mentor, Shams of Tabriz, a whirling dervish; and that of a middle-aged American housewife whose life is transformed when she begins corresponding with a sufi, Aziz Zahara, whose novel she is reading for a literary agent.

————–

“One day Moses was walking in the mountains on his own when he saw a shepherd in the distance. The man was on his knees with his hands spread out to the sky, praying. Moses was delighted. But when he got closer, he was equally stunned to hear the shepherd’s prayer.

“Oh, my beloved God, I love Thee more than Thou can know. I will do anything for Thee, just say the word. Even if Thou asked me to slaughter the fattest sheep in my flock in Thy name, I would do so without hesitation. Thou would roast it and put its tail fat in Thy rice to make it more tasty”.

Moses inched toward the Shepherd listening attentively.

“Afterward I would wash Thy feet and clean Thine ears and pick Thy lice for Thee. That is how much I love Thee.”

Having heard enough, Moses interrupted the shepherd, yelling “Stop, you ignorant man!  What do you think you are doing? Do you think God eats rice? Do you think God has feet for you to wash?  This is not prayer. It is sheer blasphemy.”

Dazed and ashamed, the shepherd apologised repeatedly and promised to pray as decent people did.  Moses taught him several prayers that afternoon. Then he went on his way, utterly pleased with himself.

But that night Moses heard a voice. It was God’s.

“Oh Moses, what have you done? You scolded that poor shepherd and failed to realise how dear he was to Me. He might not be saying the right things in the right way, but he was sincere. His heart was pure and his intentions good. I was pleased with him. His words might have been blasphemy to your ears, but to Me they were sweet blasphemy.”

Moses immediately understood his mistake. The next day, early in the morning, he went back to the mountains to see the shepherd. He found him praying again, except this time he was praying in the way he had been instructed. In his determination to get the prayer right, he was stammering, bereft of the excitement and passion of his earlier prayer. Regretting what he had done to him, Moses patted the shepherd’s back and said, “My friend, I was wrong. Please forgive me. Keep praying in your own way. That is more precious to God’s eyes”.

The shepherd was astonished to hear this, but even deeper was his relief. Nevertheless, he did not want to go back to his old prayers. Neither did he abide by the formal prayers that Moses had taught him. He had now found a new way of communicating with God. Though satisfied and blessed in his naive devotion, he was now past that stage–beyond his sweet blasphemy.

 “So you see, don’t judge the way other people connect to God,” concluded Shams.”To each his own way and his own prayer. God does not take us at our word. He looks deep into our hearts. It is not the ceremonies or rituals that make a difference, but whether our hearts are sufficiently pure or not.”

(The Forty Rules of Love, Pg. 51-52)

——————

Casting judgement on another’s faith, intention or sincerity is exceptionally dangerous and places us in a potentially precarious position before God. One supremely sincere prayer or supplication offered by an individual who has endured tremendous struggle patiently could very well be more cherished by God than a 1,000 offered by another person who has been granted greater ease in life. We simply cannot know—and any attempt to judge another’s faith is therefore futile.

We should thus always strive to encourage each other to discover our distinct spiritual connection with God in a way that brings us comfort because this will foster sincerity in gestures of faith. This encouragement and tolerance is an extension of faith, and it is important to ardently avoid placing judgements that would risk damaging our own good intentions.

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ once conveyed the story of a person who presumed to judge another’s faith by saying: ‘By God, God will not forgive So-and-so”. “At this God the Almighty said: ‘Who is he who swears by Me that I will not forgive So-and-so? Verily, I have forgiven So-and-so and have nullified your (own good) deeds,” the prophet continued.

It is important to remember when we find ourselves casting judgement on another that sincerity is infinitely more important than any ritual or external display of faith we can put on. Since each person has very specific circumstances that shape the plot of their personal journey, it is impossible for any individual to have enough perspective and understanding to judge another’s faith fairly and accurately. The depth of our genuineness cannot be fully manifested in words, clothes or acts that may sound and look different from person to person. It can be judged by God alone.

Remembering to remember

The other day I was chatting with a friend about Ramadan, and he asked me how I would characterise zikr, a term that comes up frequently in the Quran which expresses the idea of ‘remembrance of God’. We need not be sitting in a dark, quiet room in a meditative state, to be mindful of and remember God, my friend quite rightly stated.

At the time, I was sitting with my mom in the family room in our family home. As I browsed the web, she was intently watching an Oprah show re-run, which she likes to do for afternoon breaks on weekdays. A few minutes later without warning, my mom kissed the palm of her right hand and then clenched her fist lightly to kiss the tops of her fingers curled into her palm, her eyes still fixed on the television screen. She did the same with her left hand and then mumbled a short phrase of gratitude to God under her breath for something.

My mom has periodically performed the same gesture during the day throughout my life, usually when something she sees on TV or in her surroundings causes her to realise and appreciate the blessings in her life. She’ll stop momentarily to give thanks for the home she owns, the food in the fridge, her health, the peacefulness of her surroundings and the peace of mind this has afforded her. While taking in a daily dose of talk shows, my mom’s very honest act of remembrance displays how easy it is to be mindful and conscious of God at any time.

Whether we are watching television, cooking, cleaning, working, exercising, driving, shopping, or socialising, we can take a minute to ponder how at that moment, we have a great deal of blessings to be grateful for. That is how I define zikr; it is the act of being mindful of God continually throughout our days so that we attain a state of consciousness where we are continually aware of His presence.

Regardless of the uncertainties and challenges we may face at any given time – and there will always be something – zikr as a continual practice allows us to maintain enough perspective to identify the blessings we already have so that we are not overshadowed by the misgivings, doubts, problems and complex dilemmas that we will inevitably encounter.

“There is a polish for everything that takes away rust; and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”

This is a Hadith among the collection of sayings of the Last Prophet, Muhammad ﷺ, which succinctly describes the power of heedful remembrance of God. When something is polished, light shines through it or reflects off of it more radiantly than when it is stained or soiled. Having consciousness of God throughout the day helps you regulate your emotions and reduce the impact of negativity which can cloud your mind and darken your heart.

I think it is relevant to note that I am writing this entry on what I would call an ‘off day’ for me. I woke up this morning with a mind consumed by apprehension due to a series of uncertainties in my life. Three weeks ago, I found out I would need to start searching for a new job because my current contract would not be renewed due to downsizing. This among other anxieties both related and unrelated began to swirl in my head.

What zikr does for me is it sieves and refines the enormity of my dilemmas so that I am not swallowed by them. Self pity is inevitable, but within the routine of remembrance my sojourn in utter discontent is far shorter. By practicing zikr, I am forced to identify at many points of the day what I am thankful for, and by virtue of this I can get right back to enjoying the blessings of this moment rather than dwelling on difficulties that are destined and unavoidable. Remembering God and being appreciative of our blessings, whether substantial or subtle, becomes part of our habit and routine.

One of the triggers for me in discovering how to live in submission to God (Islam) was hearing a sufi sheikh say, “Don’t try to fit God into your life. Make your life revolve around God.” I was attending the sheikh’s weekly sermon for the first time, on invitation of a friend. I don’t typically enjoy sitting through religious sermons, but his simple words struck me, and I made a note of them on my BlackBerry.

The phrase lingered in my mind for days, waking me up to the fact that I was so far from doing that; God rarely crossed my mind. Many of us are accustomed to thinking about God when things in our lives get rough or we’re faced with a moment of desperation that compels us to reflect. Once circumstances ease, however, thoughts of God often return to the backburner of our minds. Zikr involves carrying that remembrance we are so good at when we are suffering to times when things are going well.

The point of zikr is to draw our attention back to God throughout the day so that we don’t get too caught up in the facade that daily life proves to be, in good times and in bad.

It can be spoken or silently expressed in the heart. You may hear a Muslim say or repeat “la illa ha il Allah”, meaning “there is no God but God”, which flows smoothly off the tongue and is designed to draw one’s attention back to the Divine so that we can reflect and be grateful.

‘Subhan’Allah’, which means ‘Glorious is God’, we will say or repeat when we witness a miracle of nature or are reacting to a turn of events that shows the inherent destiny of things.

‘Allahu Akbar’, or ‘God is the Greatest’, is said frequently to acknowledge His Glory and the view that He has a Hand in everything that happens in our daily lives.

‘Alhamdulillah’, or ‘All praise is due to God’, is a common method of expressing gratitude for all of life’s twists and turns, knowing that they are all tests and blessings.

‘Astaghfirullah’ is an Arabic phrase meaning “I ask God forgiveness”. When something or someone agitates us and we feel we have reacted too harshly, Astaghfirullah enables us to express that we are aware of our mistakes and ask for forgiveness then and there.

The simple yet rich line that begins the Quran is also recited regularly. ‘Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem’, “In the Name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful”, is said before eating, getting out of bed, working, travelling, preparing for a public speech—anything. Sometimes I say it before turning a corner while driving.

My friend was perfectly right. You don’t need to be in a state of meditation or prayer to remember God; you can do that at any time and anywhere. Practicing zikr disciplines our thoughts and enables us to exude the positivity and peace that God intends for us.

“They are those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of God—surely in the remembrance of God hearts can find comfort” (13:28)

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)

Finding patience in real time

“Truly the human being was created very impatient” (Quran, 70:19)

I was never very good at patience. It is easy to say that you understand the virtue of enduring periods of misfortune and dilemma calmly, but much more difficult to actually put that into practice. There have been numerous times in my life when impatience distracted me from finding contentment in the moment at hand. Yet once things had smoothed over, I realised why circumstances came together as they did and why I should have been more patient.
Among the times I failed most at being patient was when at 25, I moved back to Canada following almost two years of working in Egypt as a journalist. I had gained a lot of acclaim during my time in Cairo, but working in the bustling Egyptian capital as a single woman living alone made my mom terribly uneasy. The society was conservative and people talk, meddle and judge, she would say – and she tended to be right about such things.
Finally heeding her appeals, I moved back to Vancouver. It was springtime and ambitious as I was, I immediately began emailing my resume to media outlets searching for a job. In the months that followed, I must have mailed hundreds of resumes and written dozens of cover letters for summer internships and jobs in Canada and the United States. But to no avail; if it wasn’t for the odd rejection, I received no response at all.
Doors would appear to open only to slam shut halfway. At one point, I travelled to Washington DC on my own expense to interview for a job at Dow Jones Newswires. They ended up hiring someone locally. I applied for a graduate training programme at Reuters, and they also turned me down (the same day), as did a number of summer media internships in Canada that year.
It was a miserable feeling. My frustration, worries and anxieties were building. My mind would turn to Egypt, to the great interviews, immensely interesting articles and full days of reporting and writing. About four months into the job hunt, I took a retail job at a women’s clothing store in order to earn some cash as I attempted desperately to jumpstart my career.
My mom would beseech me to be patient, words that rung hollow in my wilful head. I suppose I felt I was entitled to a good job after the hard work I had put into my career beginning in university. The idea that God would open the right door at the right time did not resonate.
“Therefore do hold patience; a patience of beautiful contentment”
(Surah Al-Ma’arij (The ways of ascent), Holy Quran: 70:5)

During this period of limbo, my mom and I would go almost daily for morning walks along the river not far from our home. In order to distract my attention from the fruitless job hunt, she began teaching me chapters (surahs) from the Holy Quran, which I would memorise and recite back to her. I was not necessarily internalising the divine lessons on life and faith embedded in these chapters, but it was a welcome distraction.

A couple of years prior my cousin in Egypt had died suddenly at the age of 17 (God bless her soul/الله يرحمها). When I had visited her grave, one of my paternal aunts shoved a small pamphlet of Quranic verses under my nose and told me to recite a chapter known as Surah Yasin, which is important to read once someone has passed away. I could not read Arabic well, nor did I know that surah by heart, so I was left staring blankly at the booklet and, feeling quite embarrassed, mumbled a self-made prayer under my breath. During our walks along the river, I had my mom teach me the 83 verses (ayat) of Yasin. After each walk, I would circle around the school field in front of our house until I had memorised the section, which I would then recite for my parents.

The process took a bit of the edge off of my misery, but impatient I remained. I wanted a job immediately. It took more than 10 months before I was able to find a mediocre position as a copy editor for a small-scale media outlet. The job was dreadfully dull and started at 6 a.m. – definitely not what I had envisioned.
So I kept applying for work elsewhere until all at once my luck shifted. Just over a year after returning to Canada, I was accepted into an Ivy League journalism masters programme and shortly after, offered a job to help start up a new newspaper in Dubai. Things fell into place after that.
I opted for the job, unable to afford the degree expenses. And after less than a year in Dubai, numerous employment offers started finding me. I accepted one from Reuters, which left me feeling a bit astounded that a company that had rejected my application for a trainee position two years earlier was now eager to offer me a full-time job.

Nothing truly does happen before it’s time, I thought. Difficult times just make the next good thing that rotates into your life more worthwhile.

Yet the turn in fortune did not miraculously lead me to become a patient person. It was easy to apply patience to my past, to see how every struggle and triumph fit together perfectly in the divine plan. But being patient with the present and future was another matter entirely. I often remained impatient with work, relationships, family and financial struggles.

In Islam, there is a core idea that one should strive to stay on the ‘Straight Path’. My struggle with patience was something like trying to walk on this path backwards. Walking backwards is not natural: you wobble, trip and cannot keep to a straight line. You don’t have perspective because you focus on the past and judge your current circumstances by how you deem things ‘should be’, rather than realising that circumstances just ‘are’.

Susan Hefuna’s “Patience is Beautiful”, Barjeel Art Foundation collection
That is why patience is essential to Islam, an Arabic term that means ‘submission to God’. Prayer, fasting, righteous deeds and charity are incomplete without genuine patience.
 
“Be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing.” (Quran 2:177)
Last year, in the midst of dealing with another struggle life threw my way, the idea of applying patience now, in real time, suddenly made sense. We can put as much hard work and effort as we can muster into our goals, but we should not pre-judge the outcome. Destiny will unfold as God wills and we don’t always know what chain of events would be best for us. The natural state of the human mind is to be in submission to God; embracing this, I welcomed an undesired outcome and moved on, trusting that God knew best.
Since then, I have tried as much as possible to internalise the idea that every step we take is exactly as it was meant to be. This helped me turn around and walk forward on that Path, applying patience to my present and future in a way I had never been able to before. I became patient in real time. What is the point of worrying now when I will only rationalise later why I shouldn’t have worried?
Looking back at that year of foolish anxiety at 25, all I recall now are the walks I took with my mom. I was pleased to able to recite Surah Yasin when my uncle passed away the following year, when another died two years after that, and when I lost my father last year (الله يرحمهم/God bless their souls).  Standing with my sisters at the side of his grave, I read Yasin aloud in my broken Arabic accent, in the presence of the aunt who had asked me to do so for my cousin many years earlier. That break before what has become years of uninterrupted and hectic work ended up giving me much greater value than any job would have.

We can’t always understand immediately why events unfold as they do. But that is why patience is one of God’s greatest tests of our faith. Patience is trusting unequivocally in the midst of a tough struggle that within it, a great blessing is concealing itself.

 
“God puts no burden on any person beyond what He has given him.
After a difficulty, God will soon grant relief.” (Quran 65:7)

I look forward to your comments!

Calling home

Our home, photo by Mandy Merzaban

This is our family home in Richmond, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver, captured in a photo my younger sister shared with me yesterday upon arriving home with our mom. My sisters and I have not been home for almost two years, the 24-hour travel time and 12-hour time difference discouraging frequent visits. This was among the first images I saw of the fresh coat of paint, new front door and outdoor lamps my mother picked out last year. Celebrating the fact that we had paid off the mortgage for this house a year prior, she decided to renovate the exterior, which had become rundown after more than two decades with limited repair.

How we came to own this house was a something of a miracle, one of those events in life that enhances your faith in God-granted destiny.
It was, initially, the home of a close high school friend of my older sister. Her family had rented the house for years. I remember visiting it the day of my sister’s high school graduation party. Before heading downtown for the banquet, my sister, dressed in an elegant fuchsia-coloured party dress, and her girlfriends had assembled in the backyard of this friend’s home decked in their gowns to take some photographs on a sunny afternoon in June 1996, two years after we had moved to Richmond.
At the time, we were renting a small bungalow about a 15-minute drive away and I recall that day my mom admiring the two-storey house with its well-groomed backyard and rose bushes, quaint wooden kitchen, modest-yet-charming family room, and pleasing separate living and dining rooms. She wished to God she could own such a home someday.
Renting properties was a nuisance we had gotten all too used to. The houses were typically over-priced and poorly maintained. Leasing a house often places you at the whim of a landlord who could decide at any time he wanted to sell the unit for a profit, leaving a parent scrambling to find a new abode in the middle of the school year. Yet buying a property in the mid-1990s in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia was a bit like seeking a castle in Spain for the average middle-class family. Property prices were soaring and supply was sparse.
My mom, tenacious as she is, must have gone through five or six real estate agents trying to find the perfect home to buy: the right place for the right price was her motto. I recall once we made an offer on a recently renovated 30-year-old traditional house with a flat roof on “Mortfield Road” in Richmond. The home’s new decor was impressive and the price, while slightly above our range, was reasonable enough to warrant consideration. In the end, we backed out because of the roof – the rationale being that in a city that rains for what feels like two-thirds of the year, it is probably better to live in a house with a slanted roof so the water does not accumulate on top. I have no idea if any architectural justification supports that assumption. Personally, I was more uneasy about the French word for “death” (Mort) embedded in the name of the street. I did not want to live on ‘death field’.
The neighbourhood at a distance

We had several other near hits in the following years, but circumstances were consistently not in our favour, and transactions would not go through sometimes for the oddest reasons. One house we quite liked until we learned there was an easement on the property which gave the municipality the right of use over part of the land. That made us uneasy. Another time we found a lovely, almost-brand-new and spacious house in a new neighbourhood a ways out of the city centre. On the verge of sealing the deal, we decided against it after a property assessor examined it to find the home was erected at a slant, not horizontal as it should be. We couldn’t very well buy a crooked house now could we?

We even looked at several new town-homes and condominiums that were built in the early- to mid-1990s. My mom was never convinced: they were too pricey for the size and quality of finishing, she would say. Her hesitation proved to be a colossal blessing in the end. In the following years, as a result of poor design and shoddy building, many of these units came to suffer from what became known as “leaky condo syndrome”: a catastrophic failure of the building envelope that enables rainwater to penetrate the envelope and cause rot and mould. Many people lost their savings and their health as they endeavoured to repair the damage.
Welcome in, photo by Mandy Merzaban

So yes, amid all of these mishaps, when my mom saw this charming home of her daughter’s friend in 1996 she was enamoured. Across the street was a gigantic grass field with an elementary and high school just a few minutes walk apart. The neighbourhood was well-manicured, each house was unique yet complementary in its design, and area was quiet, albeit for the ringing of the school bells to indicate the start of the school day, recess, lunch and the end of the day. The street was called “Sapphire Place” in a neighbourhood full of culdesacs named after jewels. It was a 10-minute walk to the river. The home of my mom’s dreams so to speak, and the place that became her benchmark for what to look for in her house hunt.

In the following year, our own bungalow was starting to show signs of mould on and around the ceiling, leading us to start passively searching for something new to rent, having all but given up on the prospect of buying as property prices continued to mount.
Then it happened as these things often do, quite out of the blue. My sister learned that the family of her friend with the charming house on Sapphire Place was moving to another nearby suburb. Their landlord was about to start looking for a new tenant. Needless to say, my mom jumped at the chance to move into the place she had fallen in love with about two years prior. The landlord did not even raise the rent.
It was, however, still a rental – and leasing was far from owning. The carpets were in dire need of changing, as were the bathrooms, tiles, roof, etc. But we were pleased. It became the place that drew us closer together. My younger sister went to the schools across the street, my father worked nearby, and myself and my elder sister went to and fro to university each day.
Migratory rest spot, photo by Mandy Merzaban, Nov. 2007
A couple of years later we came to the moment that every tenant dreads. Our landlord was liquidating some of his real estate holdings in the Vancouver area and decided to sell the house on Sapphire Place. His asking price was $50,000 more than the top price we could afford. Money was a bit tight at the time as my father was between jobs. So, yet again, we found ourselves in a quandary. We were finally in the perfect home for us, yet unable to stay.
Or so we thought.
Photo by Mandy Merzaban

Several potential buyers came and went in early 2001, not too impressed with the lack of renovations on the 22-year-old home. As the months went by, property prices declined, fast approaching their lowest level in years. The landlord kept reducing the asking price, first by $10,000, then $20,000. Meanwhile, the municipality’s valuation of the home was spot on with what we were able to pay — $50,000 below the landlord’s initial asking price.

In the end, he caved and sold it to us for exactly that. When I look back, all I can say is subhan’Allah (glorious is God). Property prices in the Vancouver area have risen by leaps and bounds since that trough of 2001. Shortly after, we changed the carpets and tiles, painted the walls, replaced the roof, renovated the bathrooms and it became exactly as my mom had pictured it several years before.
When something is destined for you, you may attempt to go down other routes and alternate pathways – but you will find yourself circling right back to that road, standing before a home you had only dreamt of a few years before. And this time around the “sold” sign positioned on the front lawn is for you and not someone else.
Photo by Mandy Merzaban

We still had a substantial mortgage to worry about. But that’s the thing with destiny, God facilitates a way to make it work out. With God’s blessings and a good deal of hard work, we were able to pool together enough money in the following eight years to pay off the mortgage two summers ago, a year before my father passed away (God bless his soul). He treasured our home immensely. I know when I next visit, God willing this summer, I will feel remnants of his presence in every room, despite the redecorations.

We laboured, searched and waited patiently for our house, but now all of us work literally on the other side of the world, packaging a bit of home with us everywhere we go. Very little ties us to Canada’s West Coast except for this property. We have on occasion entertained thoughts of selling our house. But something always stops us. I guess it’s that feeling of security, that feeling that this house was a gift placed in our possession so that in the years to come we always have a base where we truly feel, well, at home.

——
Look forward to your comments!

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