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Friday, November 27, 2009

Abraham: father of all nations, a goodly model


There is for you an excellent example (to follow) in Abraham and those with him..[Qur'an 60:4]

'Eid Ul-Ad-haa, Imams and orators worldwide undoubtedly mentioned the story of the sacrifice, as given in scripture, wherein Abraham was ready to take the life of his son in response to a vision interpreted to have been from God. Another theme usually explored is when he left his son and Hagar [Hajar] in the desert to fend for themselves. This particular narrative has it that during the process of searching for water for her infant son, Hagar ran bath and forth seven times, and at the end, almost in a miracle fashion, the well appears. Indeed, Muslims re enact this event during the Hajj [Pilgrimage] at the Safa and Marwa trails [which has now been included in the complex of the Masjid Al-Haraam], the well itself still giving water, known as ZamZam water.[Ft.1]

Yet, there is something to be said of other aspects of the life of Abraham, who is called in the scripture of the Jews and the Christians "father of all nations" [ Genesis 17:5].

Origins of Abraham

Called Ibrahim in Arabic, tradition has it that he was born in Southern Iraq, although there does exist other places, in Northern Iraq, Turkey and even Sicily. Regardless of where he was born, eventually he found his ways to such diverse places as Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia. Sites in all those places, not the least of which is the Ka'bah at Makkah, are associated with him.

Is there a lesson in these sites?

The Qur'an tells us a very interesting observation, one which should be associated with Abraham, but also with seekers of truth and guidance in all times, places and among all peoples.

"Have they not traveled in the land so that their hearts will come to understand, or that their ears will come to hear?"[ Qur'an 22:46]


Travel is very important, for the sake of religious or spiritual knowledge. This is something that seems to have been universally recognized, when we notice adherents of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, going forth from country to country to study with respected spiritual figures. Reading books, or even studying at a local university, are all wonderful acts, acts which can produce blessings and appropriate information, but nothing can beat leaving the comforts of one's home and family for the sake of attaining knowledge.

The journey itself is a learning experience, be it meeting interesting people at airports, or having some time in isolation while in transit to deeply contemplate the pressing concerns of the body, soul and mind.

Whatever one thinks of Abraham, the towering figure in the three monotheistic traditions, this aspect of his existence cannot be denied. This is, of course, especially true for the Muslim, the reader of the Qur'an.

This author has done, and continues to, much traveling, and the above mentioned Quranic verse is very true. Many times we cannot process the information or insight someone gives us [or that we read in a book, magazine or website] until we have the same, or a similar experience, or a set of experiences.

So, on this occasion of 'Eid ul-Ad-haa[ft.2], let us try to emulate the goodly model present in Ibrahim ['Alayhis salaam]. Attain whatever knowledge we can from our scholars, books and websites. But always be prepared to learn something from one's one experiences, or the experiences of other people. There is much insight to be gained from travels of this nature.

Role of the Qur'an

The word Qur'an itself means a reading, a recital. It has the sense of "something put together piece by piece, part by part." This is a very appropriate name, as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad [Sall-Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam] slowly, over a period of twenty-three years.

The Qur'an serves many roles, but for the sake of this article, we want to emphasis that it serves as a guide to make its reader a bit more sophisticated, well-rounded, knowledgeable. It is an undeniable fact that it can be speaking of theology for several verses, and then turn to a completely different subject such as war or marriage.

Those with broad knowledge in various fields, who have lived and traveled in many places, learning languages and cultures alien to their native backround, can appreciate such a guide as the Qur'an.

In issues not addressed in the Qur'an, God allows us to figure it out on our own, we can access some guidance or precedent in the reliable sources about the Prophet Muhammad [the last Prophet, and universal messenger], we can access guidance [or perhaps assistance is a better word] from our collectives experiences present in our culture, our personal reading of the situation [as well as our reading of the goal of religion] to ascertain the proper way to proceed.

In any case, all of that comes from having a broad experience, an open mind, open ears and open heart.

The Qur'an is very suitable for our guidance because we, like the last book of Allah itself, have been put together piece by piece, part by part. We are born as babies and absorb everything while growing up. Our parents and societies give us the foundation and much assistance, but there are times when we will have to learn lessons on our own, because our own mistakes will teach us how to act in the future. Our own actions will be suitable to serve as precedent, and each time that occurs, as far as the Qur'an goes, we can come to appreciate, nay, understand, texts better. It will grow in meaning for us.



Endnotes

[1] This author has examined in great detail the Qur'anic presentation of Abraham's story of the sacrifice in the work The Languuge of Revelation [pg. 237 "Abraham"]. To obtain, go to www.arifinimports.com

[2] The significance of the 'Eid-Ul Ad-haa occasion has been addressed in a lecture and Q & A session called "The story and sacrifice", available for free at www.esnips.com/web/shamsuddinwsStuff.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Enhancement: the goal of Islam

"The best of you in [the days of] Islam is also the best of you in the days of ignorance" [Hadeeth, related in Bukhari, Al Adab al Mufrad 7: 71:129]


There is a great emphasis on change in today's world. It's a powerful word that everyone uses. The winning slogan in [then] Presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign was his assertion "Don't tell me we can't change."

For those who have a distrust of Islam and Muslims, change is something to fear. They assert that when people accept Islam, they "change" into candidates for violence. At the very least, when dietary practices, dress and even names are altered by Muslim converts, these folks express fears even about those changes. I can recall reading online a statement that all who accept Islam freely "must have mental problems."

Muslim writers and leaders often adopt quite the opposite approach. They are quick to say "Actions must change." This or that "must change"!

Certainly all of this is in the eye of the beholder. We hope to examine a bit the foundation of Islamic practice, as found in four of the five pillars [ the first pillar will not be examined in this post, however we do recommend reading Shamsuddinwaheed.blogspot.com/2008/10/only-one-god-forgotten-aspects-of.html]

The best of you in Islam was also the best during the period without Islam

The Hadeeth quoted at the beginning of this post shows us that Islam is not [by necessity, anyways] about change. It is about enhancement. Its distinguishing characteristics are the pillars of Islamic practice, and it will be seen that all of them serve to emphasis- in some fashion or another- various morals, ethics and practical benefit, they are not without meaning.


Salaah
Offered a minimum of five times daily [dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening], it is described by the Qur'an itself as having the ability to "restrain from hateful, shameful activity" [Q 29:45]. Apparently, a person who offers the Salaah with full awareness and consciousness will be less likely to enter into activities that are illicit, immoral or otherwise harmful. There is no coercion involved here. No fear of the police or of vigilantes. The person's awareness of God is enhanced by connecting with the Divine reality by the method of Salaah, a connection or awareness not easily dismissed or forgotten. In addition to this, there are some other benefits as well;

[A] Discipline: Salaah is to be observed at stated times, if offered at other times, it is considered "late" and not having the same merit or blessing as when performed at the stated times. If a Muslim can have the discipline to offer prayers five times daily, which also involves physical preparations [i.e. being in a clean state and making Wudoo' [ablution] beforehand], then he or she can have the discipline for any secular pursuit in life as well. A Muslim conscious of praying "on time" will also be "on time" for work, completing study/work tasks in a timely manner.

[B] Education: In Salaah, we mainly recite the Qur'an. This is very powerful, especially in congregation [Jamaa'ah][ft.1], when the prayer leader [Imam] recites texts that may be unfamiliar to the ones praying behind him. The Qur'an speaks to many subjects, and actually integrates seemingly unrelated subjects, so the prayers act as a sort of learning session, making the Musalli [the one praying] learn, become more well rounded. This is especially true of the Taraweeh prayers, offered in the evenings during Ramadan, wherein the entire Qur'an is often recited.[ft.2]

[C] Feeling of brotherhood

Much like the Hajj, Salaah is an equalizer. Rich and poor, black and White, all standing shoulder to shoulder, performing the same actions, reciting the same texts, the same rituals in the same language. In fact, there are several narrations in the Hadeeth literature which has the Prophet Muhammad instructing that there should be no gap between the praying people, because Satan can take advantage of that. Meaning, it's something that brings people close, whereas Satan seeks to divide.

Zakaah


The spiritual an societal benefits of paying 2 1/2% of one's wealth are obvious.

The offerings given for the sake of God are [meant] only for the poor and the needy, and those who are in charge thereof, and those whose hearts are to be won over, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage, and [for] those who are over burdened with debts, and [for every struggle] in God's cause, and [for] the wayfarer: [this is] an ordinance from God - and God is all-knowing, wise.[ Q 9:60, Muhammad Asad translation]


In an Islamic society, this can be collected as a tax and distributed according to he guidelines of the above Qur'anic text. In a Non-Muslim society, the Zakaah is usually given to Mosques or organizations who then distribute it according to the guidelines of the above verse. I believe it's especially meaningful to pay Zakaat while living in a Non-Muslim environment, because it makes the Muslim think, contemplate on who and what is most deserving of these funds.

Zakaah has the meaning of purification. Islam teaches that all personal wealth, even when legally and morally acquired, has a societal due. Hoarding is something not looked on favorably in the spiritual realm. The Bible reports Jesus, upon whom be peace, as saying
Sell your posessions and give to the poor…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.“ Luke 12:22-34.


The distribution of Zakaah goes a long way in combating starvation, famine and the like. In addition to this, Zakaah funds can be used to address societal needs as well, such as education. Resources dedicated to this purpose are generally given the name Sadaqah Jareeyah [perpetual charity].

Funds that exceed the minimum requirements, called Sadaqah, are also given during times not generally considered. The Qur'an gives a "remedy" to personal transgressions by engaging one's wealth in Sadaqah. Below is a verse speaking about Dhihaar, a divorce practice observed by the Pre-Islamic Arabs in which a woman was denied both marital rights as well as the right to seek another marriage, leaving her in a limbo. Now, the Qur'an outlawed this practice, and gives the following guidelines to those Muslims who had done this.

And those [men] who pronounced Dhihaar to their wives and recant their declaration, they must [A] Free a captive before touching each other. This is what you are admonished to do, and Allah is aware of your actions. So, those who do not find [the means to free a captive] should [B] Fast two months before touching each other. Those unable to do that should [C] feed sixty poor people [Sitteena Miskeena]..."{ Q 58:3-4}


Thus, Islam joins personal salvation with societal development and assistance.

Siyaam-Fasting

The Qur'an [2:183-185] tells Muslims to fast in the daylight hours of the lunar month of Ramadan. Fasting encourages us to be more conscious of the struggles others face to even eat once a day, thus, encouraging us to be charitable and distribute food to the needy.

Fasting is also a discipline building exercise. It should teach us to give up excess waste, junk food, cigarettes, vain talk, and strengthen personal morals. All of this and more can be found in the Quranic statement regarding the purpose of fasting, given in the words La'allakum Tattaqoon [So that perhaps you will gain Taqwa. Q 2:185]. The word La'alla shows us that there is a possibility of failure in accomplishing this goal, which is why we are to fast again and again. The Qur'an mandates the Ramadan fast, but we can also engage in voluntary fasting, to build up our morals, and above all the main thrust of Taqwa, to become closer to God.


Hajj



This is the last, and arguably a conditional pillar of Islamic practice, in the sense that one is obligated to make the pilgrimage to the site of the Ka'bah, built by Abraham and his son for the purpose of worshiping God, when financial and physical means are available. The Ka'bah is located in Makkah, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

During Hajj, we are once again made equals. The White seamless wraps, called the Ihram, does not allow that one's financial or education status be recognized. The King and the pauper both endure the same struggles, performing the same rituals, and each learning something, be it about others and their needs, or of a personal nature, that they were suppose to learn. This is why we have a tradition in Islam, attributed to no greater a figure than the Prophet Muhammad himself, upon whom be peace and blessings, that a successful Hajj [pilgrimage] wipes out prior sins, a person is renewed, pure as if a new born baby.

A recent study shows that returning pilgrims are 22% more likely to see Non-Muslims as equals, twice as likely to condemn terrorism, and 8% more likely to hope their daughters would adopt professional careers. [ "Muslim pilgrimage; a journey towards Tolerance?" Think; the magazine of Case Western Reserve University, Fall/Winter 2009 edition, page 18]

Conclusion

The foundation of Islamic practice is one that places emphasis on personal development, enlightenment, charity, sobriety and every other good characteristic. Islam is wrongly associated with violence and criminal activity. The recent death of a Detroit Imam, Luqman Abdullah, and the arrest of several of his supporters has once again brought the idea that Islam and criminality are linked to the public. One charge alleges that Abdullah gave legitimacy to theft, on the grounds that as long as they prayed and the thefts "benefits Islam", it was legitimate. Given the public works and reputation of the deceased Abdullah, the charges are very suspect, but nonetheless in terms of what Islam teaches, it's pillars hold up people's hearts and minds to always be conscious of Allah, of one's personal responsibilities and societal responsibilities.

Islam is a tool from God that can enlighten all who wish it, who actively seek it. This does not mean we will become monks, nor does it require that we give up enjoyment in life or comforts. It simply means that we train, that we refine the goodness that is present in the hearts of all humanity, utilize that goodness, apply it in both a systematic and random manner. Random acts of violence can become random acts of kindness.


Footnotes

[1] Congregational prayers are highly preferred, especially the obligatory ones, which can be done in a Mosque or with a group anywhere. One Hadeeth describes it as being "twenty-seven times greater than prayer alone." [ Bukhari, 10:30]

[2] The Shi'ah Muslims do not follow this practice, instead, their tradition places emphasis on individual prayer at night [in contrast to communal]. They do, however, gather together in Mosques to read the Qur'an together in the nights of the Ramadan month.