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.



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)


A prayer to keep

As state-sanctioned violence is inflicted on peaceful civilians across the Arab world, I repeatedly find myself overwhelmed with emotion. My stomach gets tangled in knots as I watch footage and read article after article about brutal crackdowns of protesters in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, among others. Hardening my emotions is difficult while people suffer severely as I sit in relative comfort, the troubles of my life dwarfed in their magnitude.
Prayer held in Tahrir square during Egyptian Revolution
Other than staying informed, which is crucial, I ask myself what we can do at times like this to offer support to people whose stories of repression, struggle and courage have moved us to tears. Over the past several weeks, I have donated to charities, including Islamic Relief, the Red Cross and International Medical Corps, hoping to assist those most affected in some small way. 
But as we circulate knowledge, and share thoughts and ideas on the current events transpiring in the region, we sometimes neglect the most powerful tool of all in helping those who are suffering: sincere prayer to God. In these days of fixation on mass media, prayers can easily be sidelined and underestimated as we are drawn into the vast influx of information on our Twitter and Facebook feeds. We often call on each other to say a prayer for those suffering, be they in Libya, Yemen or disaster-stricken Japan. But how often do we get down on our knees, silently focus our hearts and minds, bow down our heads and actually ask for His help?
Growing up, I always saw my mom, a devout lover of God, pray every one of the five daily prayers that God has enjoined from those who worship Him in Islam, an Arabic term meaning ‘submission to God’. There is not a time in my childhood in Canada that I remember her not waking up in the early hours of the morning to conduct the sunrise prayer. She always woke up automatically without an alarm or call to prayer. Yet she never compelled me or my sisters to pray – and I have great appreciation and admiration for her for leading by example rather than coercing us to do something that I believe would be meaningless unless it is done from the heart out of love and genuine dedication. She always strived to instil in us a love of God, and when I asked her to teach me how to perform the ritual prayers at the age of 15, she did so carefully and patiently. Prayers can become mechanical and meaningless if performed without presence of mind.
 After that, I went through phases of praying all five prayers, of praying some of the five, of praying all five in the evening, and even of not praying entirely. I could never find real peace of mind in the inconsistency of my faith. But something shifted for me last year. A series of events in my life leading up to the death of my father opened my eyes to my spiritual connection with God. I won’t go into detail about these here, but it was after this realisation that I first read the Holy Quran and began praying each prescribed prayer, as well as many optional prayers, consistently and, importantly, on time. For me, it was not praying five times each day that made me a Muslim. It was discovering that I am Muslim – that is, realising that my state of mind is one of submission to God – that made these prayers indispensible and enjoyable.
God calls on us to be steadfast in our prayers repeatedly in holy books. The opening surah (passage) of the Holy Quran is rich in its succinctness. Surah Al-Fatiha (The Opening) in seven concise verses encapsulates the love and mercy God offers to all human beings who turn to Him in belief and worship. In one line of that passage, God enjoins us to turn alone to Him in worship and to seek assistance from Him alone.  “It is you we worship and You we seek for help,” is a line from Al-Fatiha that always lingers on my tongue when I pray.  A Muslim observing the prescribed daily prayers will recite Al-Fatiha at least 17 times every 24 hours, and some will recite it more than double that number if they offer the optional prayers as well.
If God is most-certainly listening, then we should be asking for what is good and just for ourselves, those we hold dear in our lives, and human beings who are suffering anywhere. Dua’a is an Arabic term meaning supplications, which essentially involve asking God with a dedicated heart to fulfil your requests for yourself and others, so long as these pleas are righteous and legitimate. Prophet Muhammad is noted in Hadith (stories and narrations about his life) as having said: “There is nothing more dear to Allah (God) than a servant making dua’a to Him.” 
There are multitudes of prescribed, carefully  worded dua’a that can be recited for various purposes in our daily lives, although as long as our supplications come from the heart with genuineness, I truly believe we can ask God for His guidance and assistance in any way, any language, any time of the day or night. 
My favourite time to offer dua’a is before the sunrise prayer (Fajr). I wake up anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour before the Athan (call to prayer) to offer an optional prayer and then kneeling humbly with my hands cupped before me I give dua’a for my father who passed away last year (الله يرحمه /God bless his soul), my family members and close friends and anyone else who I feel may need God’s light to help them through a period of trial or suffering. For the past two months, this has included Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis fighting for freedom from repression and corruption, and Japanese struggling to come to terms with a natural disaster that has shaken the foundation of thousands of lives.
There is a peace and tranquillity of mind that I have at fajr that I do not feel with the same magnitude for the rest of the day. I have read a Hadith about how angels assemble at dawn around worshippers, and I trust this wholeheartedly because there is a sense of serenity and nearness to the divine in the early hours of the morning that is very difficult to articulate.
 “And the servants of the most gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, Peace! 
 Those who spend the night in adoration of their Lord prostrate and standing” 
Quran (25:63-64)
While I cannot claim to be an expert on faith, I am someone who has been drawn to an effort to uncover the layers of my spirituality and understand my connection with God. Whatever way you happen to pray, I hope that you will do so sincerely and not underestimate just how powerful it can be to turn our attention to God and collectively ask for His guidance and help. I believe God listened as protesters across Egypt stopped at every prayer, many of them five times each day, and collectively turned to God asking for Him to grant them patience and strength to defeat repression. And I believe that if each of us, together, prays for people who are suffering across the Arab world, and around the world, that He will hear our sincere wishes and answer them, by His grace.

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