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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Mental & Spiritual Heath: An Islamic Perspective

( Note: The following is an edited version of my presentation at this month's spirituality session. The participants all had-at q& a time- very insightful observations, and while initially we planned on posting the entire recording on the internet, we decided this format would be better, as it would allow for more sustained thinking and discussion, plus the core of the presentation is best preserved in this format. The wording has been edited to reflect a written article, rather than repeating verbatim the presentation. )


Questioning or having doubts on one's faith/Islam

There are a number of issues, that range from theoretical, historical, as well as practical, which can cause doubts in one's faith. It has to be mentioned that personal problems and mental stress can likewise influence this situation, but that is admittedly not always the case.

Some examples include doubts about the existence of God ( Almighty Allah), theory of evolution, role of women in the texts as well as within the community, having difficulties observing the Ramadan fast, lack of benefit from prayer ( Salaah), Muslim community politics, terrorism and so forth.

I admit these diverse subjects, and others like them, can be very complex, and simply doing internet searches will often only add to the confusion, in light of the contradictory answers out there.

On the subjects mentioned above, there are answers to be found within the Qur'an and Sunnah, but sometimes we either can't find the answers or we don't understand properly those answers.

There are some steps we have to take in order to deal with those issues which we struggle with. Those steps are

[1] Consult trusted authorities

The Qur'an says "So ask the people of knowledge, if you do not know" ( Q 16:43 among other verses). The meaning of this teaching is that one has to consult an authority, a person whose knowledge on that particular subject is trustworthy, who understands not only the subject but who understands your own unique backround and situation.

This is the way we do with our medical doctors. Usually we have our own doctors, a general practitioner or family doctor, a person we have a personal relation with, who understands all of our medical history, and who will deal with us in a trustworthy manner, who will safeguard our medical information, who will give us advice in a succinct fashion.

The same should be applied to issues of faith. The person giving the answer should know what he/she is talking about, they should understand how to give that information, they should be sure to give accurate and succinct information.

We place emphasis on having a trustworthy tie to the one you are asking information from, contrasting to simply looking on the internet for an answer. The internet is a platform which often has untrustworthy and unreliable assertions, particularly on Islamic subjects.

[2] Engage more in worship ( 'Ibaadah)

The power of prayer is universally recognized, in particular we have to emphasis communal prayer, as well as engaging more in personal invocation and supplication to Allah ('Azza wa Jall). The Prophet Muhammad     صلى الله عليه وسلم         says "The hand of Allah is over the community"(ft.1). He is also famously reported to have said that prayer in congregation is twenty-seven times more virtuous than prayer alone. We emphasis the Friday prayer (Salaat Al Jumu'ah), as well as Fajr, Maghrib and 'Ishaa prayers, because in those prayers, the Imam is reciting the Quranic texts aloud. The recitation of the Qur'an, aloud, in worship of God, has an affect. It not only touches the soul, but prayer in congregation also creates ties of brotherhood which has no replica in any other worldly example. In other words, "community" and all that goes with it really does strengthen faith.

[3] Recognize that we have limitations to our understanding and comprehension

There are things, subjects and items which we will not always be able to get a complete understanding . That does not negate it's authenticity or importance. The Qur'an describes itself as a guide for the God-aware, who have qualities which include being "those who believe in the unseen"( Q 2: 3). The "unseen" (Ghayb) include things such as angels and Jinn, and even God! It is true that popular culture depicts all of these in some fashion, but the majority of those depictions are baseless, even if those depictions enter into the religious literature. (ft.2)

(4) Invoke Allah via du'aa

One of the salient features of Ramadan for most of us is Salaat At-Taraweeh. The Imam recites long Quranic passages, and typically offers Salaat Al-Witr, which has therein the Du'aa Al-Qunoot(ft.3).

I strongly recommend increasing in making du'aa. The supplications you make don't have any particular rules ( contrasting to the more formal salaah). They can be done at any time, place, in any language or format. The Prophet Muhammad ( peace and blessings of Allah be on him) says that du'aa is the core of worship. He also says that it is the "weapon of the believer" and is actually worship in and of itself.(ft.4).

We have in the Qur'an and hadeeth literature many supplications, which we can invoke God with. Those supplications not only are useful for invoking God, but they are useful in creating good feelings and in teaching us morals to be both internalized and expressed within the public life.


Mental Health Issues

There are many factors which create mental health issues, both internal as well as being created by external factors. Indeed, even watching the news on television can create stress. Spiritual doubts can be because of this as well, however we must emphasis that that is not always the case.

The external factors can include things beyond our control, such as societal breakdown due to war and economic hardships. Personal failures, legal issues, etc.

Recently we have had the suicide of a famous celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain. His decision to end his own life led to a flurry of discussions in the media on mental health issues, depression and suicide. Indeed, the Muslim community worldwide was shocked at the June 9th suicide at the Haram (Makkah Al-Mukarramah, the Masjid Al-Haram). Perhaps getting less attention, yet another person did the same less than a week later ( for which, see here) 

There are taboos against seeking out medical help, but those taboos are misplaced. If a person has to take certain medicines to deal with depression, to seek out therapy and the like, that is precisely what they have to do.


While the medical aspect has to be stated, we would also like to be considered the spiritual aspect. The Qur'an states "Say: it { Qur'an} is- for those with faith-  a guide and a healing" ( Q 41:44). It begins with Imaan, the spiritual foundation which recognizes the existence and power presence of Allah. If we have faith in God, that faith will be a help in whatever issues we are facing.

The ayah referenced above describes the Qur'an as "a guide" . This means that the Qur'an is a roadmap, a GPS of sorts. It does NOT tell us every single address, but it tells us in general what behavior to embrace and what behavior to   avoid. It has commands and prohibitions that are not arbitrary, they are for our long-term benefit.  In that sense, it is a "worldly guidance". But it is also a "religious guidance" in the sense that it tells us the religious truths that we are to be aware of, such as that God alone deserves worship, that the hereafter is true, that Allah has indeed sent prophets, etc.

So the worldly and the religious guidance both provide a broad protection. The follower of the Qur'an not only understands God-concept in a correct form, but he or she should also- as a consequence- have a healthy life, following what the Qur'an says.

Using the Qur'an to heal

The verse ( 41:44) also says it is a "healing" (shifaa). The process of healing happens at many levels, but I am suggesting here that the process of healing can be helped along by reciting the Qur'an, whatever Soorah or verses you know, and simply listening to its recitation. Youtube is a wonderful resource in terms of having beautiful voices reciting the words of Allah. It is true that Prophet Muhammad puts emphasis on particular texts ( such as Ayatul Kursiyy and the last three Soorahs of the Qur'an) but any other verses and texts work as well.

In dealing with depression, or with other mental stresses, please remember the Prophet Muhammad.  The Qur'an says about him

"Indeed, you have in the Messenger of God, a goodly model, for any who has hope in Allah, the final day, and contemplate on Allah much." ( Q 33:21).

In other words, if you feel all is hopeless, remember the Prophet. Allah- in essence- says "Look at MY Rasool".  The life of Muhammad was filled with turmoils. His mother died when he was six, and his father before his birth. At critical times, important people such as his wife (Khadijah) and uncle ('Abdul Muttalib) died. All of his children , with one exception (Fatimah), preceded him in death. This does not even take into consideration the various plots and enmity of the disbelievers after he began preaching the Quranic message.

Yet, he did not become bitter. It did not warp or damage him. He lived a healthy life. He forgave his enemies, and even did the funeral prayer (Salaat Al Janazah) for the leader of the hypocrites. His wives and children, the children of his followers, his community, all loved him and he them. There are so many examples of all of this, but the point is that the Prophet- by Allah's help and guidance, ultimately overcame his turmoils.

I would recommend taking a look at the chapters which make up the last section of the Qur'an. Many of them are Allah's communication to the Prophet in times of grief.

Among them are Soorah Ash sharh (chapter 94) and Ad-Duhaa ( chapter 93). Read the entirety of those short Soorahs, and try to recite them when feeling down.

Other ways to maintain mental and spiritual health include having goodly company, avoiding the company of the hateful and jealous types, community service ( such as feeding people), charity work and reconnecting to nature, such as trips to the beach, the park, cleaning one's living spaces, making them look pleasant. These are proven to be very effective.




Footnotes

(1) Another version of this hadeeth is "The hand of Allah is with the community". This version is more quoted in today's discourse, because of the presence of "with (Ma'a) " as opposed to" 'Alaa (Upon)". This writer prefers the version quoted, and pays no heed to the supposed theological problems with the term "upon". After all, the Qur'an uses the same sort of  expression "The  hand of Allah is over their hands "[Yadullahi Fawqa Aydeehim]. ( Q 48:10). None should see these terms in literal, physical fashion, so we need not be bothered with the debate over which preposition is appropriate, as both convey the same meaning, that God's help and guidance is for those who seek him.

(2) By "religious literature" we refer to some of the commentaries, particularly those penned in the middle ages, which may include fanciful legends to explain things in the Qur'an.  As a general principle, the Qur'an is very clear and does a wonderful job of self-explanation.

(3) The usage of Du'aa Qunoot varies according to the school of jurisprudence. The Shafi'ee school uses it in Fajr prayers as well as Witr prayer, but only on the last ten nights of Ramadan. The Hanafis recite it in Witr prayers, but so do silently (Sirri). The other Sunni schools recite it in Witr aloud (Jahri), and the Shiites recite Qunoot in every prayer. The word Qunoot basically means devotion and sincerity. Although tradition has ascribed the term Qunoot to a couple of beautiful Prophetic supplications, in fact any du'aa can be used, and indeed, many Imams do recite other Quranic supplications, supplications from the hadeeth literature and even of their own. All of the schools have their arguments and justifications for their practice , and- in my view- deserve respect.

(4) The hadeeth alluded to says "Du'aa is in fact worship" {Ad-du'aa u, Huwal Ibaadah).

Friday, May 18, 2018

Does Islam sanction slavery?

Introduction

There are a number of issues that are raised by detractors and sincere questioners alike, among them being the institution of slavery, in particular sex slavery. In recent years, the emergence of ISIS and BOKO HARAM in Nigeria  ( whose leadership actually declared themselves loyal to ISIS), and their actions of kidnapping  girls and reportedly selling them on the open market has led to this particular question being asked once again raised in the world stage.


The answers that are typically given are either incorrect, over-simplified, or simply misrepresented, without depth both theologically and historically.

This is understandable when we consider that as a term, slavery has been universally outlawed and not practiced on the world stage for a long time, as well as a natural aversion to images of oppression that comes from the areas where these activities are taking place.

ISIS themselves presented a long document defending their taking Yazidi and Shiite  girls as slaves, replete with references to Islamic texts. As if this was not bad enough, in more recent times migrants from a number of African countries, seeking to work in Europe, have been captured in war-torn Libya by groups who have been filmed beating, torturing, extorting for ransom and actually selling as slaves has rightly caused an outrage.

With these realities in mind, let us look at the Islamic texts and history.


Slavery as a social institution during Prophet Muhammad's time

It is undeniable that for a good portion of human history, slavery in some forms has existed. It did exist in Arabia in the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.  Slavery, in much of the world's history, would happen in a number of ways, such as  (1) Enemies captured during conflict. (2) Debts. (3) As punishment for certain crimes.

It is also to be noted that the Quranic revelation acknowledged the presence of this institute, and sought to deal with it in a number of ways.

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.(Q 2:177, Saheeh International translation).

There are other verses which has a similar message of freeing of slaves as an expiation for certain incorrect actions(Ft.1), but in the above verse we see the emancipation of slaves as a demonstration of virtue. Thus, the Prophet (Sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and the early Muslims were known to purchase slaves from their owners in order to free them.

In the Prophet's final address, he says "feed and clothe them (your slaves) as you feed and clothe yourselves".



The words of the above ahadeeth, if practiced, actually put an end to slavery practically.

We do not claim that this actually happened on a massive scale after the Prophet's death. Indeed, it is our view that many of the Islamic principles enshrined in the Qur'an and Prophetic tradition were in fact never fully crystallized(2), nonetheless the point is that throughout the Qur'an itself, we find that it preaches a religion that seeks to remove harm and oppression, and it is this reason that it had such wide appeal(3). 

Slavery in Muslim history

As an institution, slavery was not eliminated, and would occur largely in the ways described in the introduction, in particular through the process of war and debt. Yet, this institution did not prevent social advancement. Slaves actually became the rulers in places such as Egypt and India.

One narration attributed to the Prophet states "If a maimed slave is appointed leader, and he conducts your affairs according to the Book of Allah, obey him.( Saheeh Muslim, 20:4533).

Slavery in Muslim jurisprudence (Fiqh)

There are a number of rules associated with slavery. Indeed, the discussions are extremely lengthy, and often uses examples that are related to owning and regulating slaves.

Slaves could negotiate their way to freedom by agreeing upon a contract, in which after payment, he was freed. A woman who gives birth to the child of the master( known as Umm Al Walad)  is automatically freed, even hitting a slave could win the latter's freedom, according to some authorities.

Slaves themselves, according to the jurists, had almost the same rights as the free. One rather pointed 
example is that of marriage. Maliki jurisprudence allows for a slave to have four wives, whereas other madhaahib allowed only two.

This sort of debate shows us that the lives of slaves in Muslim control was nothing like the chattel slavery of the Western hemisphere, to which we are so accustomed to knowing about.


Sex slavery

It is our view that this aspect is the most misunderstood aspect of this topic, in part because of the presence of the Arabic term in the Qur'an known as  Milk-ul-Yameen, which is typically translated into English  as "right hand possessed" or even "handmaid". Even among Muslims whose first language is Arabic, this term is understood to reference a woman captured and sold to a buyer.

It is sometimes said that the Prophet himself had a harem (Arabic "Hareem"), filled with captured women, to serve him at his whims. The Prophet, upon whom be peace and blessings, certainly had wives, but he lived in an extremely humble manner, so much so that the Qur'an itself mentions his wives complaining about this, and they are given a choice to divorce the Prophet or to stay with him in such a living situation ( Q 33: 28-29).

Linguistically, Milk Ul Yameen {Malakat Aymaanakum often in the Quranic phraseology} refers to those whose maintenance and livelihood are largely dependent upon one person. Perhaps a person who does not have family support, because of being a foreigner in a strange land, or financial hardships, or other reasons. Such a person in such a situation needs a solution to their problems.

The Qur'an uses the term in both intimate and non intimate contexts. It appears in the context of working in a household ( 24:58 and 33:55- the latter speaking of malakat aymaanahunna, for women) .

It seems to be a sort of relationship that is not socially seen as the same level as that of a wife, yet treated as an equal relationship in the Qur'an itself ( 4:3, 24, 25 23:6, and other places).

So, it should be seen that Milk Ul Yameen is not a slave, at least not as conceptualized according to the Qur'an, but rather a relationship that is similar to the marriage relationship.

Islam does not teach or allow rape, murder, kidnapping, exploitation and mistreatment of others. Indeed, even if one were to concede that Milk ul yameen meant a slave, the Qur'an itself says Milkulyameen is to be treated well ( Q 4:36) . One other text even says that female and male slaves alike should be sought out as marriage partners if they are found to have righteous character ( 24:32).

If people indeed transgress bounds and commit crimes against other human beings, they will be accountable before Allah for that.

Islam is a faith that has a very realistic approach to life and the issues one encounters therein. It is nice to give charity occasionally to an orphan or a widow, but the best solution is the long-term or permanent solution. Solutions are not only financial, but they also are found within emotional, physical, and family support. The Quranic term Milk Ul Yameen is one of those solutions, but in no way should it be mistaken for slavery.


Endnotes
[1] Freeing of slaves as an expiation for certain wrong acts are found in many places in the Qur'an, such as 5:89, 24:33, 58:3 and 90:13. With regards to Q 2:177, I think another application for the term "liberation of one in bondage"(Fir Riqaab) is funding an education.

[2] One important example is that of Shuraa, or consultation as necessary for governing. The Qur'an (42:38) has this as next to religious rituals, yet while we have understood the ritual of Salaah and spending in charity, yet, unfortunately, much of our history has been filled with dictators, some of whom even saw themselves as "God's shadow on Earth".

[3] Slaves counted as among the earliest followers of the Prophet, but more importantly is that the Islamic message of worship of God and brotherhood of man, as well as universal justice. The Qur'an  even says that it is necessary to stand for justice, even if it runs counter to family ( 4:135)





Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Remarks at the Divine Feminine gathering

[Note: The following is an edited version of my remarks at the MFC organized monthly gathering, held Sunday May 13, 2018 at Trinity Episcopal Church. ]

Good evening:

In terms of the theological aspect of this subject, the religion of Islam has a very clear and straightforward teaching. The ninth century Sunni Islamic theologian named Abu Ja'far Ahmad b. Muhammad At-Tahawi, better known simply as Imam Tahawi writes " Indeed, God is one, without partner, nothing is like him, nothing is beyond his power, He is eternal, without a beginning point, everlasting, without end...nothing occurs except what He wills, He does not resemble the creation, He lives and dies not, self-supporting who sleeps not, He creates and is never in need.." ['Aqeedat At-Tahawiyyah]


The contemporary discussions surrounding the phraseology and particular  pronouns to use for The Divine Reality have no Islamic equivalent. While it is true that God is referred to as "He", it is also true that the use of such pronouns does not imply natural gender. Muslim scholars also understand the name "Allah" as being the the unique name of the Divine, and thus do not view Allah has being neither male nor female."Allah" is unique and unparalleled.

Human cultures universally have associated the feminine with characteristics such as Nurturing, Loving, Patient, Beautiful, and Forgiving. Those attributes are certainly known within Islam as being among the 99 names of Allah. Also worth noting is that contrary to popular belief, Islam at it's core demands respect for women.  One of the chapters of the Qur'an is called "Women", and both genders have the same spiritual potentials.  Prophet Muhammad tells us that "Paradise lies under the feet of mothers"- a good narration in light of mother's day.

The Qur'an speaks of God throughout the text, among them are

"He is Allah, besides whom none deserves worship but Him. The one who knows the unseen and the seen, He is the Merciful, The Compassionate. He is Allah, Besides whom none deserves worship but Him, The Sovereign, The Sacred, The Source of Peace, The Protector, The Mighty, The Powerful, ..." [Q 59:22-23]

"Say: He is Allah alone, Allah the Eternal. He does not give birth to any, nor was He given birth to, and there is nothing like Him." [Q 112:1-4].

Thank you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Al-Faatihah: It's relevance to modern life

This lecture examines the first chapter of the Qur'an, the main prayer text within Islam. It includes some issues such as grammatical explanations, prayer within the New Testament, and the worldview Al-Faatihah should create.

Comments and discussion are welcome.



Al-Faatihah: It's relevance to modern life

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Being Successful In Life: A Quranic Perspective




Introduction

Today's world has largely accepted the notion that ''success" is determined by the amount of items and cash one has been able to acquire. In fact, most institutions of learning, sciences, and social building are built upon this premise. This has also infiltrated the realm of religion, the most relevant example being within the Christian community, which has a theological movement therein known as The Gospel Of Prosperity. (#1)

These assertions are not meant to convey an idea that mankind needs to become wandering ascetics, in the tradition of Buddhist monks in Thailand and other places. Indeed, if anything, the Qur'an teaches us a balanced perspective when it comes to the acquisition of material comforts. We need only quote two  Quranic  references:

"Say: Who has eternally forbidden (Harrama) God's pleasant (things)  which He has produced for his servants, as well as that which is wholesome from His (own) provision? Say: They are for those who believe, in this life, as well as [being manifested ] specially on the Day of Resurrection. Thus, We (Allah) explain signs to a people of knowledge." ( Q 7:32)

 Our Lord! Give on us that which is pleasant in this life, as well as that which is pleasant in the after-life, and protect us from the punishment of the fire ( Q 2:201).

The latter is a supplication (du'aa) to be made, invoking Allah. It also provides us with evidence of a balanced worldview advocated by Islamic teachings.

What constitutes success?

The Qur'an is very clear that there is this life as well as the life to come. They are related and- in a sense- codependent upon each other, and that connection can often create some misunderstandings in terms of how we approach and understand the Qur'an. One particular Soorah which is the victim of this is Soorah Al Qaari'ah [Chapter 101].

It does talk about the Judgement day, as does chapters which are in the same general location in the Quranic codex. Yet it also speaks of something else entirely, related yet different from the afterlife and from the day of Judgement.

Repeatedly, the Qur'an tells us of scales, by which actions will be weighed on the day of Judgement. However, it is also has impact here in this very life. Carefully read the following verses from Soorah Al-Qaari'ah.

 
"Therefore, those whose scale is heavy, for him is a happy existence" ( Q 101:6-7).

We understand that these scales are to be heavy with worship, charity and fasting, but we also should understand that the scales should be heavy with positive and productive initiatives.  We are talking beyond simply political and economic power, rather, we are talking about things such as the cultivation of good character, deeds, knowledge, understanding, compassion and trustworthiness.

The only way the scale can be heavy is when these acts of cultivation are done on a regular basis. Allah says here in these verses that such who engage in this will be blessed with a sense of satisfaction in this life, as well as to be expected in the life to come.

This is summarized elsewhere in the Qur'an as "Alas, in the remembrance of Allah, hearts find contentment" ( Q 13:28).

In other words, recalling God's blessings to you, as well as his own attributes- in the here and now can bring forth the benefit of a happy life in the hear and now. That awareness and understanding translates practically in the cultivation of good personal ethics, actions and ultimately satisfaction.

Success's opposite

"And those whose scales are light, then his 'refuge' is whims " ( Q 101:8-9).


These two verses have to be read alongside vv.6-7 as mentioned above. These verses here show us that satisfaction has not been achieved by such folks. They are discontented, so they seek to attain contentment/happiness by making their goal or their refuge in whims. This is captured very well in the expression Fa-Ummuhu Haawiyah.(#2)

Haawiya is from Hawaa, which means whims, lusts, and the like. In other words, it is speaking to the narcissistic personalities,   people whose only goals are the satisfaction of their egos [an eternal hunger, which is actually never satisfied] and the trappings of materialism and all that glitters.

"And what will teach you about [the reality of ] whims?  It is [actually] a blazing fire" ( Q 101:10-11)










While it is clear that an afterlife exists, which has categories we know of as paradise ( Jannah) and Hell (Jahannam), it should also be clear that the foundations of that are manifested here in this life. The personality whose focus is only on ego and control is never secure. That personality hates and actually is likewise hated by others, yet does not care. That personality attains power and yields it in with destructive results.

The Qur'an phrases it in this fashion:

"Have you not observed the one who takes his whims [Hawaahu] as his object of worship? God has made such most astray, upon His own knowledge ( of that character's inner realities) placed a seal on his hearing, heart, and has veiled his vision..." ( Q 45:23).

In short, success is happiness, doing good, positive attitudes and inner-cultivation. If we can remember that and work on that, we will naturally fall out of the orbit of those who don't have that same interest, and, thus, be protected from their harm.

If we see the qualities of the hell-bound in our own thinking and actions, that should inspire us to BE BETTER, to aspire to change.

That can happen, with God's help as well as our own efforts ( Q 13: 11)

Endnotes

[1]  The Gospel Of Prosperity is essentially a movement within American Christianity which places emphasis on material things as evidence that God has blessed you. This writer recalls attending a panel discussion at a University, in which a Pastor who follows this ideology spoke against charity! The historical development of this concept is too complex to explain in a footnote, but it is important to know that many of the famous Televangelists adhere to this thinking. For a summary of the historical development of this trend, see https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/prosperity-gospel-born-in-the-usa/.

[2] "Umm" can mean "mother", "source" as well as "refuge". In other  words, here the Qur'an is telling us that the whole goal of those seemingly hell-bound is their Hawaa. The phraseology in Arabic is very profound, and admittedly I find it difficult to translate the same feeling into written English.