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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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Rumi

Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi

The 2010 Hollywood celebrity fest chick-flick Valentine’s Day opens with Reed Bennett, a florist played by Ashton Kutscher, proposing marriage to Morley (Jessica Alba), as she wakes up on Feb. 14.

Evidently startled, Morley initially accepts, sending Reed on a joyful mission to let everyone know his sweetheart said “yes”! But his elation is short-lived. A few hours later Reed finds Morley in his apartment packing her bag as she hands back his ring and walks out on the relationship entirely.

Just then, as movie’s downtrodden protagonist leaves the scene, the narrator — a radio show host named “Romeo Midnight” — drops a word of wisdom that sounds a tinge sufi.

“It’s Romeo Midnight back again.
And if those topsy-turvy feelings have got you twisted inside out, think of the poet Rumi who 800 years ago said: `All we really want is love’s confusing joy.’
Amen, brother.”

 

When I watched this movie shortly after its release, I was bemused at the irony of hearing a 13th-century Islamic poet and scholar quoted in a cheesy American blockbuster seemingly unwittingly. A Persian poet of love, Rumi is often uprooted from his historical context and polished for resale for Western audiences who may not realize his object of affection isn’t a romantic love interest, but the Divine Beloved.

livlu-ghemaru-heart-of-steel
Heart of Steel, by Livlu Ghemaru

Rumi writes in a transcendent and inclusive way about love and loss, so his wide-reaching appeal isn’t surprising. Yet it can be frustrating to see him conspicuously taken out of context. Not only is he often divorced of the Islam, or Self Surrender, his poetry conveys, Rumi’s words can be used to propagate unrealistic ideals of how romantic love is the magic key to personal fulfilment and happily ever after.

I’ve certainly been swept up in these sentimental pursuits, especially in my 20s. My upbringing combined Egyptian influences and North American popular culture (Hollywood and Disney included), particularly in the late-1980s and 90s, both of which dictated I needed to find love, get married and have children to be whole.

Measured against these standards, I was a failure. Before 25, I’d broken off two engagements, and for many years after that my love life was one long dry spell punctured by a handful of dates and a couple of agonizing encounters with unrequited love. A resentful inner critic insisted I was to blame, and that persistent hollowness in my core could only be filled with romantic love, which I felt I couldn’t be worthy of; I couldn’t get the part. Continue reading “Translating Love’s Confusion: Hollywood and Misreading Rumi”

Spiritual Wisdom In A Treasure The Burglars Left Behind

In the heap of objects strewn across the dining room floor, I spotted a sterling silver sugar bowl that was part of a four-piece tea set my mom bought about three decades ago to entertain guests. I picked up the bowl with one hand, while using the other to rummage through the pile of papers, cloth napkins, tupperware and cutlery scattered beneath my feet. I was curious whether the rest of the silverware was somewhere in the mess left by the burglars.

When I couldn’t find it there, I turned my head toward the tall oak buffet beside me, whose contents had mostly been dispersed onto the carpet. Nestled in the corner of one cabinet, the tea pot, tray and cream pitcher lay untouched.

Broken glass
Shattered window, by Georg Slickers

The sight of them startled me. A thick layer of black film had formed on the surface of the silver, making it unrecognizable against the shimmering exterior in my memory. It was no wonder the burglars who ransacked our family home in Canada several weeks earlier had disregarded the ensemble as they hauled away several electronics, appliances and gadgets.

At that moment, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, crossed my mind. “There’s a polish for everything that takes away rust,” he said. “And the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”

That was perhaps the first time I’d considered this Hadith in a literal way. Acting on an impulse, I grabbed an old bottle of silver polish from the mess on the dining room floor and a soft sponge from under the kitchen sink, and started to vigorously rub the tea pot. I was determined to make it shine again like it did during my pre-teen years in Lethbridge and Calgary, when my mom would fill it with her favored Red Rose tea to serve to visitors alongside a slice of vanilla cake or syrup-drenched Egyptian basboosa.

Part of me was grateful for a distraction from the pangs of sadness I felt at seeing almost every corner of our four-bedroom family home turned upside down. After learning of the break in, my sister and I made the 10-hour plane journey from London to Vancouver to assess the damage. We found the contents and memorabilia contained in closets, cupboards and drawers sprawled over our maroon-colored carpets.

Yet I wasn’t mourning stolen possessions. The home I’d lived in as a student, and visited almost every year since moving away after university, just felt different. During those first few nights, each creak of the walls and squeak of the furnace would cause a stir inside me. I envisioned we were on the verge of another invasion of our privacy.

So as I hunched over the counter top removing years of residue from the silverware, part of me was nursing feelings of guilt for failing to safeguard our family sanctuary. We’d made it easy for the robbers, who shattered the window next to the front door and let themselves in when no one was in town.

There was another motivation, though, for my spontaneous urge to shine the silver. I was seeking reassurance that the polish would work when up against years of neglect visible on the surface.
Continue reading “Spiritual Wisdom In A Treasure The Burglars Left Behind”

Lessons on living from my late uncle

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

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

Sunrise in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Lessons on living from my late uncle”

Of Saints and Matchmakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking the Kaaba Within

I was fully aware that within seconds my body would be drawn into a mass of humanity unlike any other in the world. “Surrender to the experience,” I thought while stepping into the overflowing main courtyard surrounding the Kaaba. The barriers that divide us in our daily lives are lifted here at the seat of the holiest site of Islam.

No honorary titles or entitlements have worth or function, there’s no distinguishing based on whether you are a woman or man, whether your income bracket is high or low. Rather, the bracketing qualities that contain us outside–our nationality, ethnicity, age, or skin tone–are shed at the door. Wherever our outward journeys have started, we all walk barefoot inward into a single circle, devoid of these unnecessary parenthesis appended to our identities.

“The goal of all is the same” no matter what road we took to get here or what quarrels we fought on the way, Rumi writes in Fihi Ma Fihi, It is What It is.

kaaba-night

We are both universal and singular, each worshipper an equal soul before the Creator of all humankind and all being. Here we consciously move together in a unified mass, circling seven times around this stone cube as our prophets, peace and blessings be upon them, and our predecessors have for centuries. It’s become a timeless procession connecting us to the scattered cosmos. With the right kind of openness, the pilgrimage is a truly humbling, enchanting and purifying act of dedication to God, The Gracious One.

The ritual starts at the eastern corner, where the Black Stone is situated, a stone that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, said was blackened by the sins of humankind after descending from heaven as white as milk. I’ve certainly swerved from the path since I was last graced by the opportunity to visit the Holy City five years ago. My soul yearns now for nourishment as I circle the four corners of the central cube draped in black.

I yield my body to the crowd that surrounds me in every direction, letting it move my limbs. I’m here for my soul, after all, and as we give thanks and make prayers to the Infinitely Compassionate One, drawing our attention to the Kaaba as birds circle above us, I concede any claim to the personal space that I normally protect.

Sometimes I find my body being drawn inward with an uncontrollable force, and it is suddenly so close to the edge of the Kaaba I can almost touch it.
Continue reading “Seeking the Kaaba Within”

Everything is a blessing

For the past four years, every time I open the door to leave my apartment, I’ve almost consistently recited three poignant yet simple Islamic phrases in a subtle whisper that’s only audible to me.

“Bismillah” (In the name of God), I say in a quick breath as I rotate the lock to the right and grasp the door nob. 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” (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 the whole of 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 so simple for the richness and tremendous power they encompass when reflected upon.

They embody the essence of surrendering to God, which is what Islam is all about. When we say them, we are acknowledging that from the moment of utterance, we’re leaving it to the Gracious One to guide, protect and guard us. And by doing so, whatever happens during the course of the day becomes a reflection of that state of surrender, whether it is good or bad, easy or challenging, unpleasant or comforting, agonizing or healing.
Continue reading “Everything is a blessing”

Finding Islam with no time to spare

Sometimes my job makes me feel like a programmed machine. Working as an editor in a high-paced news wire environment means that when I say I work 10 hours or more each day, I mean that I dedicate 600+ minutes every day toward tasks that demand uninterrupted concentration and precision. It can be draining and quite frankly, mind numbing.

I often envision what I would rather be doing because, while I do gain fulfilment from my work and the success I’ve achieved over the years, it isn’t my passion. Writing on this blog is the closest I’ve come to discovering what my passion is. In the past 19 months, this page has given me a platform to express my discoveries of what it means to be Muslim in my very typical, often repetitive and banal daily routine. I strive to write in a simple, accessible manner, using the skills for expression that I gained as a journalist. I always wish I had greater time to dedicate to it. Continue reading “Finding Islam with no time to spare”

Fasting to feed the soul

Since Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, ended last year in September, I’ve tried to fast at least one time a week on Mondays or Thursdays. On these days, I will refrain from eating or drinking from the crack of dawn until sunset. In addition to performing regular prayers, I strive to be extra attentive of my emotions and how I react to annoyances that arise at work, in my personal life, or even while driving or shopping.

I get asked on occasion why I fast frequently outside the month of Ramadan. I usually hesitate to answer honestly to avoid sounding like an eccentric weirdo.

If I said in all honesty that I fast because it feeds my soul, a non-spiritual person is likely to be slightly discomfited, especially if I mention that my guardian angels present my good and bad deeds to God on Mondays and Thursdays so it is auspicious to fast on these days. This reasoning is particularly fazing and people are sometimes restrained in their reply, as if I am someone who still believes in Santa Claus or a childhood fantasy, and they don’t want to tell me it isn’t real.

Believing in angels and performing acts of worship for God are often perceived to be at odds with modern society rather than nurturing its balance. We are constantly persuaded to enjoy and live life through the value of ‘things’. By consuming, earning, buying, selling, indulging, owning and exchanging things we are pursuing a full life.  The concept of being rational and being spiritual are seen to be contradictory.

For me, it has only been since turning on my spiritual intuition in the past two years that I have been able to see life clearly and live a more balanced, fulfilled existence. Regular fasting, like regular prayer, has been crucial in helping me achieve equilibrium in my life.

When you’re full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba
When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
-Jalaluddin Rumi

While Ramadan is a time when all Muslims will refrain from food and drink for a month, we have the freedom individually to make fasting part of our spiritual routine throughout the year.

Fasting is about discipline and worship. It is something we can do exclusively for God as a symbol of gratitude and appreciation. It requires the development of patience, self-restraint and self-discipline. Like any art or skill, it is about practicing and refining an ability to do something well. Along with prayer, charity and good deeds, fasting allows us to feed and nourish our souls any time of the year.

“Deeds of people are presented (to God) on Mondays and Thursdays. So I like that my actions be presented while I am fasting,” the last Prophet, Muhammad ﷺ, is cited as having said.

I decided to try it out following Ramadan last year. After a number of weeks of fasting once or twice a week, it became part of my routine, like eating, exercise, socialising. My father passed away on the second day of Ramadan last August (God rest his soul/الله يرحمه), so I fast also with the hopes of benefitting his soul. I will often dedicate my fasts to him.

If a week passes and I have not fasted, I sense something essential is missing in my life. I’ve been able to fit worship into my routine; I keep a prayer outfit in my office, and plan business lunches around my fasting schedule.

When I became more conscious of my intrinsic connection with God, particularly after reading the Quran for the first time a little over a year ago, I found myself quite naturally wanting to do more to nurture my personal relationship with Him. I did not want to limit myself to remembering God only on Fridays, or being conscious of Him only during Ramadan. So I consistently began praying five times a day and fasting regularly. Each day we receive so many gifts and blessings from God, whether significant or subtle, so it is important also to give back that energy by devoting time each day to remembrance.

Ramadan begins in two weeks and I feel spiritually ready for it because I have kept my connection with God turned on every day of the past year. Ramadan is a rigorous spiritual exercise that means far more than refraining from food and drink, and gathering for meals with family and friends. That is the easy part for me. After a few days, most people are able to adjust to the fasting schedule quite well.

It is the other responsibilities that demand greater dedication. For instance, it is favourable to spend greater time in prayer, with many Muslims praying more than an hour longer than usual each day of Ramadan. Special and optional congregational prayers known as taraweeh take place each night of Ramadan and, over the month, the Quran is recited in its entirety.

We are also encouraged to read the Quran’s 114 chapters on our own during the month. Quran is an Arabic word meaning ‘The Recitation’, referring to the verses revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. The Last Prophet was literally asked to recite the words of God to humanity as a verification for those who deny the existence of the one Almighty God and a promise of redemption for believers.

Quranic lessons on prayer, giving ample charity, doing kind and righteous deeds, being patient, modest and humble, and remembering and being thankful for His blessings offer a beautiful, as well as encyclopaedic guide to living.

The first of these verses was revealed during the month of Ramadan, which is why the month is so important for Muslims, those who have submitted themselves to God. I am looking particularly forward to this Ramadan because I have devoted so much individual time in the past year to fasting and prayer. Ramadan is a time to share the same spiritual experience with the community.

There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
When you’re full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba. When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give it
to some illusion and lose your power,
but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast, like soldiers appearing
out of the ground, pennants flying above them.
A table descends to your tents,
Jesus’ table.
Expect to see it, when you fast, this table
spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages

-Jalaluddin Rumi

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