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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ramadan Al-Mubaarak: thoughts on the fasting month


The above Arabic title stems from the traditional greeting "Blessed Ramadan" [Ramadan Mubaarak]. Certainly even the most non-observant Muslim finds the month of Ramadan to be one of great joy, laughter and family gatherings. Perhaps its cultural impact can be compared to the feelings Americans, even Non-Christians, have during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

We are always questioned by our colleagues on the type of fasting, the motivations behind it, and finally "How can you do it?". It is seen as an exercise in futility,unnecessary hardship and outright ridiculous by many people. It is my hope to share some useful information on this institution found in Islam.


Fasting

We abstain from food, drink and sexual contact during the daylight for a month-long period. This is an obligation on every Muslim, with exceptions for the ill, those who cannot survive without consuming something [such as diabetics], and a few others. The Qur'an gives the following command regarding the fast [called Siyaam in Arabic] as well as the reason behind its legislation;

O you who believe, fasting is ordained for you, as it was on those before you, so that perhaps you will become [more] God-respecting [La'allakoom Tattaqoon][2:183]


The focus is on Taqwaa, a word that is very hard to translate with just one or two English semi-equivalents. It is usually rendered as piety, however as a word, piety is very limiting. Taqwaa carries the meaning of respect, fear, duty, responsibilities, and caution.

Fasting is a very private form of worship, in the sense that a person can easily hide the fact he is not fasting, and just as equally hide the fact that he is fasting.

So, we see why the fasting has been ordained.


The traditional practices

In order to be able to function through the day, we are encouraged to have a meal before dawn, when the fasting officially starts. This breakfast is called Suhoor [Sehri in Urdu]. At sunset, when the fasting period ends, a snack of dates [or some other fruits and vegetables] precedes the dinner. Eating dates is not an obligation, but it has entered our practice on the basis of the Prophet Muhammad's manner of breaking the fast. The dinner itself is usually called Iftar.


As the Qur'an's first revelation to the Prophet [upon whom be peace] occurred in Ramadan , we also generally make it our business to read the entire Qur'an in the month. Besides that, people offer prayers more, and give more in charity.


Effect of fasting

One must understand that fasting in Ramadan is not for diet reasons, to follow some hype, rather the motivations are spiritual. Reading the Qur'an while fasting makes us re-examine our lives in light of what God instructs us. We are to avoid even those things we knowingly engage in, such as gossip, arguments, backbiting, immoral surroundings [that can be found in Television, Music etc..] lust and the like.

Fasting with consciousness makes the person a better human being. It also makes him spiritually stronger, which can influence the physical strength as well, even though the intake of food/drink has been limited. Muslim history is full of victories on the battlefield happening during that month.

That is what I want this year, to be able to gain from reading the Qur'an while fasting, to strengthen morals and get rid of any vices. To engage in an honest self-assessment. May Allah give us all the same. Ameen!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The words of Allah are inexhaustible



“Say: If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, surely the sea would be depleted before the words of My Lord would be depleted, even if we brought [another sea] like it for its aid.” {Qur’an 18:109}

This verse, along with a similarly worded statement in 31:27, which speaks of seven oceans being depleted before Allah’s words would become exhausted, is among the most beautiful expressions found in the Qur’an. Certainly there are many lessons that can be taken from this text, but for the sake of this brief composition we hope to focus on this; everyone and everything in creation is a ‘word of Allah’!

Every ‘word’ has a unique set of characteristics, just as every single hand has finger patterns that cannot be found in another person [i.e. fingerprints]. In this sense, no single ‘word’ has superiority over another. All of them come together to express the power, existence, and grandeur of the Sustainer of the universe. Perhaps a better analogy would be that of a book, any document or position paper. Many people become intrigued with the number of times a single word or phrase appears therein, while overlooking the clear intent or message the author attempts to convey throughout the entire text. Such an approach does a bit of a disservice to the text as well as its composer.
In saying that all humans, prophets and non-prophets, Muslim and Non-Muslim, and that all things in the creation, the trees, the animals, the sun, the moon, are ‘words of Allah’, it becomes important to qualify this assertion. To accomplish this, we have to examine the context in which the Qur’anic text under discussion is given. Immediately after the verse under discussion, we read

“Say [O Prophet!]: I am a man similar to yourselves [the only real difference being] inspiration has come to me, that your object of worship is really [suppose to be] the one [and only deity] [Ilaahukum, ilaahun waahidun.]].[Q 18:110]



While the ‘words’ in the form of prophets and scripture has ceased ‘writing’ [as the Qur’an itself is the final scripture, and its recipient Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah is the final prophet], the ‘words’ in the form of personal spiritual strength, intuitive knowledge, teachers and the like will continue throughout time. After all, we ask Allah’s guidance every day in Salaah. We do not invoke him in a vacuum, nor is he absent from the word [Na’oodhoo Billaah!] If such was the case, prayers and supplications would be useless.


“Allah does not communicate with man, except by inspiration [wahy], or from behind a barrier [Hijaaban] or by sending a messenger, to convey to him what he [Allah] wills. Surely, he is the most high, the wise” [Q 42:51].





Thus, the communication from Allah is continuous, and comes in various ways. In the same vein, we come to understand the phrases “spirit” and “word” [4:171 etc...] in reference to Jesus Christ. Christians hold the view that he, upon whom be peace, was ‘the word of God’ in a sense that he was unique, leading to the supposition that he was Divine. It is true that the Qur’an has dealt with that idea repeatedly, but the use of the phrase “a word from him” shows us that Allah seeks to convey, in a polite and subtle manner, the fact that while he was indeed unique in many ways, he was still a creation of Allah, not sharing divinity. To put all one’s eggs in one basket, or in this case, one word, and then exaggerating the position of that word, is quite damaging spiritually. A person’s religion or spiritual life becomes dependent on an individual or a set of individuals, which can lead to exploitation, fraud, and even mental slavery! So, when dealing with the idea that Jesus [or anyone else] is Divine, remember that the position of Jesus in the sight of Allah is similar to that of Adam. He had no physical parents as far as we understand, but that does not make him divine! It makes him an object created by Allah.


The Qur’an is the word of Allah, having the final say on all theological and spiritual issues [Q 25:1]. Its very nature is such that reading it always provides some new insight or guidance, regardless of the number of times it has been read in the past. It is the ultimate scripture in many ways, not just because it is the final book. It is suitable for a guide for all people, at all times and situations. It is because of the Qur’an that we come to understand the position of ‘words’ in this world.

Such realizations give spiritual freedom, and allow us to be able to call a spade a spade. It creates a basis for making better decisions in all parts of life, to be just and fair not only to our selves, but indeed to all others as well, regardless of their religious label or skin color. May Allah make us able to read and understand his words correctly, and to translate those words into practical results! Ameen!