Dear readers, Assalamu aliakum (peace be with you)
I have not been able to blog for a long while. Travel and sickness prevented me from doing so. I wanted to fulfill a promise, and post here the text of a speech I delivered by God’s grace, at a local event celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Here is the text of the speech. I hope you will find it beneficial. May God’s peace and blessing be with you.
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
Subhahanallahi wa alhamdulillaahi wa la ilaha illallahu wa allahu akber
Allahumma salli ala sayyidina wa habeebina wa shafee’ina Muhammed wa ala a’ali Muhammed
I begin in the name of God, the most loving-gracious and the love giving
We praise Him, thank Him, exalt Him and we ask Him to shower His blessing upon His beloved, the messenger of God, Muhammed and upon the family of Muhammed for all time
Overview of Islam as a faith tradition – its purpose and method
The Arabic word, Islam, which literally means, ‘submission’ is closely related in lexicology to the Arabic word, ‘salam’, which means peace. Thus, Muslims (=‘those who are in a condition of being in Islam’) are people who have found peace by submitting their wills to the will of their Creator, God. The One and Only.
The Quran, is a text that has been miraculously preserved for 1400+ years since it was first revealed to the chosen one, Muhammed, the messenger of God, upon whom be peace. It is the foundational scripture for Muslims along with the hadith collections; which are meticulously researched and recorded sayings and reports of the behavior of the prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him. In the Quran, God, the exalted and high, says
وَمَا خَلَقۡتُ ٱلۡجِنَّ وَٱلۡإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعۡبُدُونِ
Wama khalaqtu aljinna wal-insailla liyaAAbudoon
“And I did not create the spirit-beings and the human-kind except that they worship me”
Therefore our purpose is to worship God. Worship entails that one make one’s desires completely in accordance to pleasing the one being worshipped. The Arabic word here translated as ‘worship’ comes from the root word ‘a’bada’ which literally means to adore, serve, venerate. To be in a state of what Muslims often term ‘slavehood’ as that denotes the complete surrender of one’s free-will, or to put in a term consonant with the times and Western tradition, to be a ‘devotee’.
As an example of how this philosophy is a foundation of Muslim thought, tradition and lifestyle- a Muslim name common for men is ‘Abdullah’, which means to be the ‘slave or devotee of God’. It is considered one of the best names to give one’s child. It was also the name of the father of Muhammed, the blessed messenger of God (peace be upon him). Therefore the concept of worshiping the one God predates the advent of the Quran as revelation (in the Quran, the first time the word ‘Muslim’ is used, is to refer to the prophet Abraham peace be upon him, who is called ‘Muslim’, i.e., one is complete obedience to God).
One who practices Islam, attempts to be in a constant state of service or slave-hood to his or her Maker. This is considered to be the only state that brings about complete peace in the heart, as the human being was created with the sole intention of worship and fulfilling the purpose of one’s creation brings a state of incredible serenity in the heart. Like a car functions best when it is used to get from A to B, as opposed to trying to sleep in it or some such, or a software will only run as it should when used for the purpose it was coded for, the human being also functions at a state of true well-being when he or she acts in accordance with the purpose of his or her creation. Being in this state of worship or slave-hood to God, means that one’s heart is at complete peace, rest and tranquility no matter what one’s external situation is, whether that of trial and hardship or that of plenty and ease. This is the state of the heart that Islam, when practiced as it should be, engenders in the practitioner.
Therefore many see Islam as a way of life rather than a religion. And the leader of this way, who exemplified it was the messenger of God, Muhammed peace be upon him. Muslims try to follow his example in every aspect of their lives as he was sent to teach how to ‘live’ the Quran. He was a father, a grandfather, a husband, a merchant, a shepherd, a leader, a statesman, a general…his life is extraordinary in that it included so many roles, and in all of this, he was always in complete submission to God. There is not an intimate detail of his life not recorded. All is available for Muslims to learn and try to implement. Thus, Muslims try to emulate in him in every respect, and may God’s best blessing be upon him and his family for all time.
In the Muslim way of life, everything is ruled by a code of whether it is permissible – halal in Arabic or impermissible – haram in Arabic. The halal is further categorized as ‘fard’ = obligatory, ‘mustahab’= recommended, ‘mubah’= neutral, and ‘makruh’ = disliked. In general the scholars say all matters are halal except for what is haram. I.e., everything is permissible, except for what is forbidden. Fasting in the month of Ramadan is a fard, it is an obligation upon one who practices Islam, and it is one of the main five pillars of the faith.
A careful and detailed study of all that is halal and haram in Islam (which I do not have time to go into here) will show that each of these injunctions are engineered to carry the slave closer to her or his maker, by acting to purify the self/heart of vices and adorning it with virtue. Thereby also building safe and wholesome communities where the beauty of humanity is cultivated and expressed. A well-known hadith of the beloved (peace be upon him) is “God is beautiful and He loves beauty”. So then how is a heart not beautiful/pure to know God, this is why the constant emphasis on purifying the heart via the Islamic code of life. On the civilizational level, the Arabic word for civilization, ‘Al-Hadara’ comes from an Arabic root word which means ‘to be present’. A sound strong lasting civilization is built upon the collective presence of the people with their Creator.
Ibn Khaldun, a famous Muslim historian of 14th century, in his analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations, spoke of the cyclical nature of Muslim civilization. When Muslims put God at the forefront and live the way of life with sincerity, the outcome is great, peaceful long-lasting civilizations. However this stage often equates with great wealth, which brings about laxity in spiritual and religious practice, resulting in the people forgetting God and going into a state of hedonism which then brings about the collapse of the civilization. Repentant, the people turn back to God, and God, the Most Merciful, always raises them up again. The Muslim world, it may be said, is at a very low-point on this cycle and we pray the Muslims will return to God and security and peace will re-enter Muslim lands.
Men and women in Islam
Let me now speak briefly about men and women in Islam, as this is a deeply misunderstood topic in the west. In the Islamic world view I have so far briefly outlined, if you have noticed nowhere has there been any mention of a difference in how men and women are viewed by the faith. The default state is equality of the sexes. The Quran speaks of Adam and Eve, who are ‘Aa-dam’ and ‘Hawwa’ in the Arabic rendering of the names as the first human beings. All Muslims consider them to be our parents and we consider Adam to be first prophet (peace be upon him).
God the most high, relates the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Quran and speaks of the eating of the ‘forbidden fruit’. In the Quranic narrative;
Quran 2: 35-36
وَقُلۡنَا يَـٰٓـَٔادَمُ ٱسۡكُنۡ أَنتَ وَزَوۡجُكَ ٱلۡجَنَّةَ وَكُلَا مِنۡهَا رَغَدًا حَيۡثُ شِئۡتُمَا وَلَا تَقۡرَبَا هَـٰذِهِ ٱلشَّجَرَةَ فَتَكُونَا مِنَ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ (٣٥) فَأَزَلَّهُمَا ٱلشَّيۡطَـٰنُ عَنۡہَا فَأَخۡرَجَهُمَا مِمَّا كَانَا فِيهِۖ وَقُلۡنَا ٱهۡبِطُواْ بَعۡضُكُمۡ لِبَعۡضٍ عَدُوٌّ۬ۖ وَلَكُمۡ فِى ٱلۡأَرۡضِ مُسۡتَقَرٌّ۬ وَمَتَـٰعٌ إِلَىٰ حِينٍ۬ (٣٦)
Yusuf Ali interpretation-
We said: “O Adam! dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden; and eat of the bountiful things therein as (where and when) ye will; but approach not this tree, or ye run into harm and transgression.
“Then did Satan make them slip from the (garden), and get them out of the state (of felicity) in which they had been. We said: “Get ye down, all (ye people), with enmity between yourselves. On earth will be your dwelling-place and your means of livelihood – for a time.”
Thus the blame is shared by both equally. However it is to be noted that interestingly, the instruction to not eat from the tree is specifically addressed only to Adam (peace be upon him).
In several other places, God establishes the equality of the sexes by His revealed word. For example, the Quran states that
وَلَا تَتَمَنَّوۡاْ مَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بِهِۦ بَعۡضَكُمۡ عَلَىٰ بَعۡضٍ۬ۚ لِّلرِّجَالِ نَصِيبٌ۬ مِّمَّا ٱڪۡتَسَبُواْۖ وَلِلنِّسَآءِ نَصِيبٌ۬ مِّمَّا ٱكۡتَسَبۡنَۚ وَسۡـَٔلُواْ ٱللَّهَ مِن فَضۡلِهِۦۤۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ ڪَانَ بِكُلِّ شَىۡءٍ عَلِيمً۬ا
Yusuf Ali Interpretation-
And in no wise covet those things in which Allah Hath bestowed His gifts More freely on some of you than on others: To men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn: But ask Allah of His bounty. For Allah hath full knowledge of all things.
This verse teaches that women and men bear individual responsibility over their actions, their incomes, their abilities and how they use them. Women have always had the facility to work in the Muslim world, in fact the first wife of the prophet (peace be upon him), who was also the first person to embrace Islam, was a successful businesswoman prior to her marriage with the prophet (peace be upon him). She is Khadija, and in the Muslim world the title ‘al-kubra’ is appended to her name, meaning ‘the great’, so we call her Khadija al-kubra (God be pleased with her). She employed him and struck by his honesty and truthfulness, proposed marriage to him. The first person martyred for the faith was also a woman, a freed African slave woman, Sumaiiya (God be pleased with her) who was tortured and killed by her former master due to her practice of Islam.
Therefore two of the greatest honors possible in any faith tradition belong to women in Islam, in addition to countless others that this essay would run into several dozen pages were I to research and list them.
Having said that, I will briefly mention a few notable points below;
To begin, the verse quoted above appears in a chapter called ‘An-Nisa’, ‘the women’. When a chapter in the Quran is named after something, it elevates and honors that which it is named after. Thus womankind is uniquely honored by God in the Quran. In the Muslim society Muhammed (peace be upon him) established, women were granted the right to inherit property (centuries before many other societies) completely overturning pre-Islamic Arab norms that saw women as rather ‘goods to be inherited’. Women spoke freely in the mosques and took part in the running of the state. Women even fought in wars, one noted companion of the beloved (peace be upon him), Nusaybah (may God be pleased with her), is celebrated for her defense of the prophet (peace be upon him) when he was under attack in the battle of Uhud. She was a famed archer and skilled with the sword. When Umar (God be pleased with him), the second caliph of Islam was governing a rapidly expanding Muslim state, he chose two women to be the first ‘controllers of the market place’ in both Mekkah and Medina. Nowadays that would be equal to running the IMF or being appointed Minister of Finance. In the present day Muslim world, women are involved in all spheres of governance and society. They are free to be what they want, and are under no pressure to work if they do not want to. Unfortunately the media has given a very distorted view of this matter. I do not gloss over the Muslim societies where there is blatant oppression of women, however that is due to the absence of Islam in its correctly interpreted form rather than due to its presence.
Therefore equality of the sexes has never been an issue in the Muslim tradition. Islam has recognized that women and men have unique strengths and weaknesses. Both genders need nurturing in an atmosphere of love and compassion. In the Muslim conceptualization of God, we consider God to be, in His essence, exalted above any likeness whether to an image, a form, or even a concept. As God teaches us;
Quran 42:11, part of the ayah
لَيۡسَ كَمِثۡلِهِۦ شَىۡءٌ۬ۖ
‘ There is nothing whatsoever like Him’
Since we can’t conceptualize God, we instead learn about God via His attributes, which we often call ‘his names’. These too, do not come to us from our own minds, but rather from revelation. They are attributive titles God has revealed about Himself in the Quran. For example, He refers to Himself as ‘The most Loving’ – Al Wadud, ‘The most mercifully compassionate’ – Ar Raheem, ‘The most kind’ – Ar Rauf, ‘The most wise’ – Al Hakeem, ‘the giver of life’ – Al Muhyiy, ‘the taker of life’ – Al Mumit, and so forth. In Islamic theology, God’s attributes are the same as His essence in nature. That is, there is nothing like unto Him in His being ‘Ar -Rauf’ for example. To elaborate, the kindness of God is not like human kindness, it is not bound by space and time as we are, it is limitless, needing no sustanence, having no beginning and no end, as God himself is limitless, needing no substance, having no beginning nor end.
While His attributes are limitless, via revelation we know of roughly 100 of them. Approximately half of them are considered ‘names of majesty’ or ‘ism jalal’ and the other half are ‘names of beauty’ or ‘ism jamal’. The scholars say that the ism jamal and ism jalal depict the essential feminine and the essential masculine qualities. Both need to be balanced in the world.
To end then, Islam as a way of life, aims to bring the practitioner, female and male, as individuals and as societies to that heart level of purity required to be fully cognizant of the beauty and majesty of God. It aims to free us of false attachments and remove idols in the heart, instead suffusing the heart with a complete attachment, in loving adoring surrender to the Creator. To become as our scholars say ‘A’damic’ human beings, like Adam (peace be upon him), true vicegerents of God on earth. The type of human being, the angels were commanded to bow down to.
The imperative to purify the heart
In surah As-Shams (the Sun) God says
Arabic is followed by transliteration and translation
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
In the name of God, the most loving-gracious and the love giving
By the Sun and his (glorious) splendour;
وَٱلۡقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَٮٰهَا
Walqamari itha talaha
By the Moon as she follows him;
وَٱلنَّہَارِ إِذَا جَلَّٮٰهَا
Wannahari itha jallaha
By the Day as it shows up (the Sun’s) glory;
وَٱلَّيۡلِ إِذَا يَغۡشَٮٰهَا
Wallayli itha yaghshaha
By the Night as it conceals it;
وَٱلسَّمَآءِ وَمَا بَنَٮٰهَا
Wassama-i wama banaha
By the Firmament and its (wonderful) structure;
وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَمَا طَحَٮٰهَا
Wal-ardi wama tahaha
By the Earth and its (wide) expanse:
وَنَفۡسٍ۬ وَمَا سَوَّٮٰهَا
Wanafsin wama sawwaha
By the Soul, and the proportion and order given to it
فَأَلۡهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقۡوَٮٰهَا
Faalhamaha fujooraha wataqwaha
And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right;-
قَدۡ أَفۡلَحَ مَن زَكَّٮٰهَا
Qad aflaha man zakkaha
Truly he succeeds that purifies it,
وَقَدۡ خَابَ مَن دَسَّٮٰهَا
Waqad khaba man dassaha
And he fails that corrupts it!
In our tradition, whenever God, the most High, the Exalted, swears by something it is a testament to the importance of the instruction to come. Here God, the Most High, the Loving, swears by 10 tremendous creations; the sun, the moon, the day, the night, the heavens, the earth, the soul, the order and proportion given to it, the enlightenment of the soul and the entities of right and of wrong, that the person who has corrupted his soul has indeed failed, while the person who has purified it has indeed succeeded. This suffices to impart the tremendous call to purify one’s heart, even though this concept is emphasized over and over again in the practices of the Islamic way of life.
The month of Ramadan is considered an honored guest and a great annual blessing. It is a time when the ‘gates of heaven are open and the devils are chained’. It is a time when Muslims are obligated to fast from dawn to dusk, not just restraining their physical appetites for food, drink and spousal relations but also learning to control and check the ailments of the heart such as tendencies to think bad thoughts about people, to gossip, backbite, slander etc. (all considered major sins in Islam) and to be hopeless or to despair (for how can one, who knows she or he has the protection of God, ever despair? Hopelessness according to our scholars, is a symptom of an ailment in the heart- namely, a faith that is too shallow )This enforced month of training is a much needed spiritual practice that exposes every Muslim, regardless of level of piety or religious knowledge, to a taste of the fruits of this self-discipline and training in purification. Other practices in Islam have the same goal. I will not elaborate on them due to a shortness of time but here mentioned some words specifically on Ramadan due to occasion.
In Surah Shams we read about the success of the one who purifies his soul and the failure of the one who corrupts it. What is this success and what is this failure? The success and failure is both in this world and in the hereafter.
Muslims do believe in a life after death and we believe in heaven and in hell. Heaven we say, is a place for the pure. And we say the life after death is not like this life. Things are sometimes known by their opposites. This life is fleeting, it will end for us all. In this present life, always one finds happiness mixed with sadness and joy mixed with sorrow. While in the hereafter, life is eternal and joy and sorrow are in pure states. Heaven being a place of pure joy and hell being a place of pure sorrow. The ultimate joy of heaven is the closeness one has to God, and for the Muslim, to finally be able to ‘see’ or ‘know’ or understand God (something beyond our created ability in this world), while the ultimate sorrow of hell is to be veiled or prevented from this state.
Those masters of Islamic spirituality who have married their external practices, such as the 5 times prayer, fasting, giving the mandatory annual charity (zakat) etc. to those internal heart stages these practices are meant to inculcate such as selflessness, generosity and purity, are able to therefore overcome the caprices of the ego and surrender it more deeply to the will, care and protection of God. The one who reaches this state of a heart which then is in true closeness to its maker, tastes paradise on earth. And that is, by the permission and grace of God, a mark of that person being one who will taste of paradise eternally.
This is then, the ultimate purpose of living an Islamic way of life – that one attain a level of purity during one’s lifetime befitting a return to that pure home, where we all came from; God’s great heaven. These sentiments are given in the most beautiful terms in the final verses of the chapter titled ‘Fajr’ or dawn, where God addresses such a righteous content serene human soul on the day of judgement thus ;
Quran 89: 28-30
Arabic is followed by transliteration and translation
أَيَّتُہَا ٱلنَّفۡسُ ٱلۡمُطۡمَٮِٕنَّةُ
Ya ayyatuha annafsualmutma-inna
(To the righteous soul will be said:) “O (thou) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction!
ٱرۡجِعِىٓ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً۬ مَّرۡضِيَّةً۬
IrjiAAee ila rabbiki radiyatanmardiyya
“Come back thou to thy Lord,- well pleased (thyself), and well-pleasing unto Him!
فَٱدۡخُلِى فِى عِبَـٰدِى
Fadkhulee fee AAibadee
“Enter thou, then, among My devotees!
“Yea, enter thou My Heaven!
May we all be of those who are blessed to hear these words on that day!