Hope this beautiful spring day finds you well and your families in good health. It has long been on my mind to introduce you to the immense wealth of female scholarship and role models, the Islamic tradition abounds in.
The fact that many, including many Muslims themselves, are unaware of this rich heritage is a sad testament to the dearth of sound knowledge and/or access to the same, in the modern world.
In an older post, I introduce the three foundational aspects that make up the religion of Islam; Islam (practice), Iman (belief) and Ihsan (excellence/beauty). Each of these branches has its own ‘Imams’ or great leaders, so great is their contribution to each of the domains, that all Muslims recognize them and know them to be the foremost in their sphere.
For example, every Sunni Muslim knows the four Imams of fiqh (=jurisprudence, or law), which deals with the external practices, or ‘Islam’, in this way of life. They are Ibn Hanbal, Abu Hanifa, Shafi’i and Malik, (raheemahullah alaihum, God’s mercy upon them all). I will explain more about this later God willing, but in short, they each founded a ‘school of thought’ that laid principles of law that govern the practices of Islam.
What is less well known among Sunni Muslims of today is that each of the other two branches also has ‘Imams’. For Iman (or creed/theology), they are; Imam Maturidi, and Ash’ari (God’s mercy upon both). And for Ihsan, considered the pinnacle and adornment of this religion, they include Abu Talib Al Makki, Junaid of Baghdad, and Raabia of Basra, about whom this post will be.
Raabia is a great saint of Islam. Islam too recognizes saints, but they are not the same as commonly thought of when one brings to mind saints of the Christian tradition, so more about this later God willing.
Raabia, a woman, reached such an exalted state in her ‘knowing’ of God, that she became a teacher and mentor for some of those who went on to become among the foremost scholars of our tradition, especially in the domain of Ihsan. It is from their accounts that we know what we know of her. She is unique in that she left no known written works, but her ‘name’ is recognized by almost all Muslims, a testament to the impression she made. She lived ~1200 years ago.
Rabia (Allah’s mercy upon her) lived in Basra, in present day Iraq, she would have been born in the first hundred years or so after the death of the blessed beloved (peace be upon him). An account of her life is given by Farid ud-Din Attar in ‘Thadhkirat al-Awliyaa (=Memorial of the Friends of God), the author of the famous ‘Conference of the Birds’. She was a devoted worshipper and great lover of God, so much so that stories of her piety, and ascetism, have become a part of ‘common Muslim lore’.
She was a contemporary of a number of prominent scholars of Ihsan such as; Hasan Al Basri, Sufyan ibn Sa’id ath-Thawri, Shu’ba ibn al-Hajjaj to name a few. These great scholars are reported to have sought her advice on legal matters as well as on spiritual matters. Some accounts of these encounters are collected by the 11th century famous Sufi scholar ‘as-Sulami’ in his ‘Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta’ Abbidat as Sufiyyat’ (translated recently as ‘Early Sufi Women’ by Rkia Cornell, Fons Vitae publishers), some of which I reproduce here;
“Sufyan ath-Thawri said about Rabia’, “take me to the mentor. For when I am apart from her, I can find no solace”, when he entered her abode, Sufyan raised his hand and said, “O God, grant me safety!” At this, Rabi’a wept. “What makes you weep?” he asked. “You caused me to weep,” she replied. “How?” he asked. She answered, “Have you not learned that true safety from the world is to abandon all that is in it? So how can you ask such a thing while you are still soiled with the world?”. In another account it was reported by Shayban al-Ubulli who said ‘I heard Rabi’a say: “For everything there is a fruit, and the fruit of the knowledge of God is in orienting oneself toward God at all times”. Also on his authority it is related Rabi’a said “I ask God’s forgiveness for my lack of truthfulness in saying, ‘I ask God’s forgiveness.’” In another narration, it is recorded that a scholar said in her presence “He who persists in knocking at the door will have it opened for him”. “the door is already open,” she replied. “But the question is: who wishes to enter it?””
She attained the highest state a practitioner of Islam aspires to, to become an ‘a’rif’ or ‘one who knows God’, a gnostic. Though strict with herself and a great renouncer of the world (thus embodying a basic Islamic ethos, that one is firm on oneself, but compassionate and magnanimous with others…a concept many Muslims seem to like to apply in the opposite direction these days – that is, being firm in judging others but lax with themselves!), her greatest contributions to Islam, is her teaching of the concept of ‘Divine love’.
This was a time when Muslims were overcome with extreme awe of God, it is said, to the extent, some of the early Sufis were scared to lift a finger lest God disproves, she showed that God’s love is to be sought for the sake of God himself, rather than to worship Him out of fear of punishment or desire for reward.
It is important to recount the time early in our history when men and women learned and taught one another – Hasan Al-Basri famously stated ‘I once spent a whole day and a night in Rabi’a’s company and never once did it cross my mind that she was a woman and I was a man’ – and it is related Rabi’a said – ‘once Hasan Al Basri visited me and so enraptured were we in talking about God that I forgot what I was cooking and it burned to a crisp’ – may these times come back to us.
Indeed, it is vital we reacquaint ourselves with such immense gnostics and teachers in our faith, especially those who are women, who taught us the all important practice of Ihsan, without which Islam can become an empty shell.
Giants such as Rabia’, so long left in the margin of scholarly enterprise, but so important for us to know today. And may God grant us a strong love for them so we follow in their footsteps, thus bridging our ‘islam’ and ‘iman’ to come to ‘ihsan’, and thereby taste the fullness and joy of what it means to be a Muslim.
Farid ud-Din Attar’s praise for her:
“No, she wasn’t a single woman, But a hundred men over: Robed in the quintessence of pain, From foot to face, immersed in the Truth, Effaced in the radiance of God, And liberated from all superfluous excess.”
In the ‘Conference of the Birds’
“That noble recluse who dwelled behind the cloisters of God’s elect, a matron of sanctity beneath sincerity’s veil, on fire with love, totally consumed with yearning, arduously enraptured by God’s proximity, that apostle of Mary’s purity, acknowledged by all men was Rabia al-Adawiya, God’s mercy rest upon her.”
In the ‘Memoirs of the Saints’
Two poems from Rabia (Allah’s mercy upon her)
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart. Speech is born out of longing, True description from the real taste. The one who tastes, knows; the one who explains, lies. How can you describe the true form of Something In whose presence you are blotted out? And in whose being you still exist? And who lives as a sign for your journey?
I have two ways of loving You: A selfish one And another way that is worthy of You. In my selfish love, I remember You and You alone. In that other love, You lift the veil And let me feast my eyes on Your Living Face.
May God ennoble her face, shower His light upon her grave and grant her the highest station in paradise, and may we be blessed to drink from her light and learn from her wisdom.
She is reported to have lived her last days in Jerusalem, and while the exact site is disputed, there is some evidence she was buried on the Mount of Olives. The site is just adjacent to where the chapel of the ascension is, isn’t that a beautiful sign.
I had the great honour to visit her resting site and pay my respects. It has been in the trust of a Palestinian family for centuries, whose door one knocks on to request the key to visit the tomb. A young member of the family accompanied me and indeed what a gladness to see a modern day teenager carrying on the family duty. Captions on the photos below will explain more God willing.
Peace be with you all
How it looks from the street, the family needs to open the gate
The courtyard of the little mosque right next to the chapel of the ascension. The door to the family’s home (who guard her tomb) is here
Inside the little mosque
On the wall of the old mosque. An ancient and beautiful prayer
Once inside one descends
looking up from the tomb
The tomb is located here, a little alcove for prayer and seclusion
How it looks from the street, the family needs to open the gate
The courtyard of the little mosque right next to the chapel of the ascension. The door to the family’s home (who guard her tomb) is here
Inside the little mosque
On the wall of the old mosque. An ancient and beautiful prayer
Dear Readers, Assalaamu alaikum (=peace be with you all),
I hope you are all very well. In today’s world, it is something indeed to be thankful for if you are in relative peace and prosperity, able to sit in a secure place and read this. So trusting, that your reading this is proof of the same, we give thanks and continue.
Maryam (=Mary), along with Fathima, is one of the most common names for girls in the Muslim world, a testimony to the depth of love professed for her. She is given the title Al-Siddiqah (pronounced ‘as-SiddiqaH’, and meaning ‘the truthful one, or the sincere one’. It means someone who is pure, sincere, trustworthy and never lies). It is a high honorific given to only a few, and the titling of Maryam appears first in the Quran, therefore, the title upon her is bestowed directly from God, and is a mighty word.
Ma almaseehu ibnu maryama illarasoolun qad khalat min qablihi arrusulu waommuhu siddeeqatunkana ya/kulani attaAAamaonthur kayfa nubayyinu lahumu al-ayatithumma onthur anna yu/fakoon
English Interpretation by Shakir –
The Messiah, son of Marium is but a messenger; messengers before him have indeed passed away; and his mother was a truthful woman; they both used to eat food. See how We make the communications clear to them, then behold, how they are turned away.
Her story is one all us Muslim women constantly draw strength from. The task assigned to her – a virgin birth – was tremendous, extremely difficult and one in which she would have no human being to help her. There is no Joseph in the Muslim narration, no one who is by her side as she delivers, except her Creator. There is no man around who will help or honor her as she faces pregnancy at a very young age. Having being orphaned at a young age, she is looked after by her guardian the prophet Zachariah (peace be upon him), however when she is informed that she is to bear a blessed virgin birth, she herself makes the difficult choice to move away from him, in order to save his good name, recognizing that there is no thing he can do to save her or himself from slander once news of her pregnancy is known. This is an example of her deep wisdom, and her extreme strength of character, peace be upon her. These are some of the qualities we Muslim women absorb from her station and presence.Her story resembles the narrative of that of our brothers and sisters, the Christians, in many ways, and there are also certain notable differences. In a commendation of a academic book ‘Mary, the blessed virgin of Islam’ by Professor Aliah Schleifer (which I link here), praise is given to the work by Christian clergy, who say, it contributes useful information to the Christian narrative and therefore useful to all to read.
Among the commonalities, the most important is the virgin birth. Among the differences that are most striking is the manner in which she gave birth, which I mentioned above. A second point, Muslims commentators on the Quran will draw attention to is the story of the birth of Maryam herself. The lady Hannah (=Anne in English), her mother a devout woman, dedicated her child-to-be-born, to the service of God in the Jewish temple. This is given in the 3rd Surah in the Quran, called A’li Imran (=the tribe or people of Joachim…who is Maryam’s father). The important point is that she delivered a female child! and this was strange as only boys served in the temple.
So from the beginning we see that there is a male bias in society, and God counters this by honoring and elevating a girl.
When a woman of Imran said: My Lord! surely I vow to Thee what is in my womb, to be devoted (to Thy service); accept therefore from me, surely Thou art the Hearing, the Knowing.
So when she brought forth, she said: My Lord! Surely I have brought it forth a female– and Allah knew best what she brought forth– and the male is not like the female, and I have named it Marium, and I commend her and her offspring into Thy protection from the accursed Shaitan.
So her Lord accepted her with a good acceptance and made her grow up a good growing, and gave her into the charge of Zakariya; whenever Zakariya entered the sanctuary to (see) her, he found with her food. He said: O Marium! whence comes this to you? She said: It is from Allah. Surely Allah gives to whom He pleases without measure.
The above verses also show how lovingly God protected and nurtured the upbringing of this ‘chosen daughter’.
The second difference is the delivery itself. The Quran gives the delivery scene is terms strikingly revealing for ancient times. They are intimately related. It is mentioned how the labor pains were so great, that this great lady, Maryam (peace be upon her), chosen and purified and strengthened, was still driven crazy by it, and cried out wishing to be dead rather than bear this.
I especially find this narration very touching. It is nothing like what a man would write of a labour scene – one can imagine a man would gloss it over, be too shy to even mention it, or if very magnanimous, may cloak the mother in a saintly halo during the birth. There is none of this, there is very raw, very personal, very great – PAIN. I guess any woman who has gone through a natural delivery will say, ‘yep, that’s what it is’. Nothing reduces from the greatness of motherhood, of course, but biology is the way it is.
I am not sure if it is different or not, but it is her baby, the blessed beloved Isa (=Jesus), peace be upon him, who defends her honor, speaking miraculously as a baby. Indeed, even during the birth itself according to one way of reading the Quranic text.
This beautiful part of the story is given in Surah 19 of the Quran. The chapter or Surah, is titled ‘Maryam’, and in Quranic recitation, the language of the Surah is known to be among the highest in musicality and is very beautiful to be listened to – its recitation.
The link is below. There is a great deal of rhyme and rhythm and most verses end with the sound ‘aiyyah’. It’s too much to copy the Quranic text refering to the scene here, but it comes between verses 20 to 29 in chapter 19. The part mentioned above, is from about min 4 to 6 in the video.
Recently there is a beautiful movie released on youtube made based on the Quranic narration on the story of Maryam, peace be upon her. I hope you can watch it. It is beautifully done and will provide much lost insight into this gentle, pious, sincere and completely honest lady, who the entire Muslim world honors, and deeply reveres. I do not think the scene of her delivery is done justice too and its a bit different from the Quranic interpretation I am used to, but then again, it is hard to do justice to, and likely the director (God bless him) is male :).
It is the last movie I watched with my beloved mother, who I call ‘Mumsy’. She had many qualities that remind me of Maryam – her gentleness and absolute honesty among them. As the anniversary of her death approaches (may God elevate her soul and make her grave among the gardens of the gardens of paradise, and join us to her swiftly in his highest heaven), I think of Maryam and so wanted to share the movie.
It is long, but well worth the watching. It does nicely capture the patriarchical attitudes in society then (which we still fight today), and which the Quranic narrative draws attention to. We watched the original Farsi version with English subtitles, but I am linking one dubbed in English (its strange watching Middle Easterners speak in English, but maybe easier for you my dear readers). I suggest you make yourself a nice cup of tea and sit down to this, this beautiful long weekend in Canada, and wherever else you may be.
Dear Readers, Assalamu alaikum, peace be with you,
Hope you are all well.
On this last day before the start of the blessed month of Ramadan (crescentwatch estimates a good chance of sighting the new crescent on the night of Friday May 26th, heralding the lunar month of Ramadan tonight in many parts of the world – hope you will go out to ‘sight’ the moon tonight!), I want to highlight Imam Abdullah bin Alawi Al Haddad (d 1719 CA), who many consider the mujaddid of the 12th Islamic century.
The mujaddid (=renewer), is a title given to a person who Muslims believe renews the faith. The muhaddid is said to be born once in 100 years and by his presence and teaching the message of Muhammed (peace be upon him) is renewed and continued. We are now in the 15th Islamic century, and while some have speculated as to who the present day mujaddid is, it is not for me to relay here who it may be.
The knowledge of the mujaddid is taught in a famous hadith (=narration) from the beloved, the messenger of God (peace be upon him)
“Allah will raise for this community at the end of every hundred years the one who will renovate its religion for it.”
— Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), recorded in SunanAbu Dawood, Book 37: Kitab al-Malahim [Battles], Hadith Number 4278
It is not always only one mujaddid, some centuries there are more than one. The mujaddid attains a stature in the tradition that is unquestioned and generally leaves behind a vast corpus of spiritual and other texts or a body of very famous students who become masters in their own right. As I mentioned in a previous post, they are often leaders who are shunned by or feared by the Islamic political leadership of the time, as they do often ‘call out’ sultans and qaadis (=magistrates) etc. Often they are persecuted by the ruling elite, as has been the case for so many of the great scholars in our tradition. The torture the founders of the four sunni schools of legal jurisprudence; Imam Malik, Ahmed, Shaafi’ and Hanafi is well known in the Muslim world.
In fact the present day descendants of Imam Haddad, who represent one of the oldest unbroken lineages of sound Islamic scholarship in the Sunni tradition, and who still call the city of Tarim in Yemen their home, were and are often still persecuted. If I recall correctly, Imam Habib Omar’s (who is the present day leader of the ‘Alawi scholars, who take their name from Imam Haddad) grandfather himself a great scholar, was tied to a vehicle and dragged through the streets of Yemen not too many years ago by the government of that time, and I believe his father was asked to appear before some government agency and ‘disappeared’ thereafter. So this is nothing new, sadly.
Spiritual Islam has always been attacked by ‘political islam’, constantly seeking to divide Muslims along sectarian lines and use the religion for power-grabbing. In fact, if we Muslims would stop listening to political leadership and start studying the religion we will find little difference among Sunni and Shias, and much that is the same. On those lines, I have often found it striking in my travels to the old Muslim Sunni cities, how deeply a love for the prophet’s family – his beloved daughter, Fathim Al-Zahra (= the resplendent one), her husband, Imam Ali, karamallahu wajha (=may God ennoble his face), Imams Hassan and Hussain – is evinced. For example, in old Morocco, the doorknobs are often shaped after a delicate female hand – said to be the ‘hand of Fathima’, that bringer of gentleness, healing and repose. Here is an image below, the lion’s head may represent Imam Ali who is considered a great warrior in our tradition…karamallahu wajha
Imam Haddad himself is a descendant of this blessed couple, his lineage below (from www.muwasala.org, where you can read more of the Alawi scholars) Each time you read ‘bin’ think ‘son of’ – it’s like ‘Mc’ in the Scotts traditions:
He is al-Imam al-Habib `Abdullah bin `Alawi bin Muhammad bin Ahmad bin `Abdullah bin Muhammad bin `Alawi bin Ahmad “al-Haddad” bin Abu Bakr bin Ahmad bin Muhammad bin `Abdullah bin Ahmad bin `Abd al-Rahman bin `Alawi `Amm al-Faqih (uncle of al-Faqih al-Muqaddam), bin Muhammad Sahib Mirbat, bin `Ali Khali` Qasam, bin `Alawi, bin Muhammad Sahib al-Sawma`ah, bin `Alawi, bin `Ubaydullah, bin al-Imam al-Muhajir il-Allah Ahmad, bin ` Isa, bin Muhammad al-Naqib, bin `Ali al-`Uraydi, bin Ja`far al-Sadiq, bin Muhammad al-Baqir, bin `Ali Zayn al-`Abidin, bin Husayn al-Sibt, bin `Ali bin Abi Talib and Fatimah al-Zahra’, the daughter of our Master Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets ﷺ.
The Imam’s diwan (=usually used to mean ‘throne’, or ‘government’ or ‘seat’ as in politcal seat ..’Sultan’s diwan’ etc… but here used to mean generally a collection of poetry. For scholars, a diwan generally means their collection of artistic works, often poetry, as all great sunni scholars were great poets), became very popular and a number of his compositions are still sung today. By the way, the presence of a diwan of poetry itself, speaks volumes to the types of people true scholars really are – very much aligned to the spiritual inner workings of man – which all true poetry speaks directly to.
I would like to write of his scholarly works, of which, a very small but profound volume, I had the honor to study. But it would be too much here, so I will continue with his diwan. Among his many poems, one especially ‘Qad kafani i’lmu Rabbi’ (=My Lord’s knowledge has sufficed me) I adore, and the words in it, I can relate directly to, MashaAllah! (by God’s grace).
Here it is, with translation!
Many of his poems are sung, and you can find whole volumes of them sung by Indonesian Munshidas (=female singer of devotional music) on Youtube. The Alawi scholars have a great following in Indonesia/Malaysia/Singapore, where they are a major cause for the spread of Islam – again testifying to the falsity of the claim that Islam was spread by the sword – the largest Muslim population exists in Indonesia and certainly Islam only went there through scholars and merchants, the same is true for Western Africa, Central Asia, China… etc.
Ya Allah. Send down Your mercy by Your gaze That will cure all my ailments in me
Oh my friend! Oh my friend! Don’t you be anxious and burdened Leave everything to fate and you will be praised and rewarded And be servants who accept what has been decreed by His Lord, which He has fashioned And reject you not the decree of Allah, The Lord of the Throne
Be those who are patient and grateful May you be successful and victorious And be amongst those who have the secrets That is, those who have hearts of light Pure from filth; Pristine and refined
This world is dejected, And the life of this world is insignificant, and life is short And no one has greed for the world, except those who are blind No intellect; that if he is of intellect he will reflect
Reflecting that this world does not last And the sorrows are aplenty And wealth is scarce Hence, blessed is he, so blessed is he who is cautious of the world And divorced himself from it, and prepares himself to obey Allah
Oh my eyes! Pour from you tears that descend For a lover who had been sent
He was with us and now he has gone Our hearts have become saddened at his departure
But suffice for me, Allah That all things will return to You And nothing lasts but You May Allah pour down His mercy to the occupants of Basshar And He is pleasured by them and sent glad tidings
There exists our masters and teachers Our family and those whom we love And they remain in our hearts They reside in places where the dusts smelt a sweet fragrance
A resting place for the best of humanity They are the leaders of mankind In loving them there is happiness How blessed are those who visit them with sincerity And comes with awareness, so all his wishes will be facilitated.
Finally, as the ‘dawn’ of Ramadan of 1438 (Islamic year) is a few hours away, and as it is a month of great re-union with the Quran, family and all things delightful in our tradition, and as it is my first time to experience Ramadan living in a Muslim country (! – dear Readers, I moved to Qatar, so if any of you are here, do reach out! 🙂 ), I likely will not reblog to post my wishes for Ramadan unless I do it now.
So Ramadan Mubarak to all my dear readers, of all faiths, backgrounds, creeds and places – I wish you all a month of peace, blessing, generosity, re-connection with your inner soul and great harmony. May God, bring you all peace and prosperity and heal all our many wounds and bring peace to all countries at war, and especially bless and protect our children.
I will end with the Quran, as Ramadan is the month of the Quran. Here is a recitation from the very famous Qaari (=reciter of Quran), Sheikh Abdul Basit Abdul Samad – a great of the greats, Allah irhamhu (=God have mercy on his soul). He is reciting many verses from many different surahs (=’chapters’ roughly). I will not say which ones in order not to be tedious. The translation is given. He is reciting in the slow style, and using ‘makams’, which I blogged about before and here. I don’t know enough to say which makamaath he uses, but the effect is very beautiful mashaallah.
Continuing on the musical tradition in Islam, a topic I posted before on here where the Quran is recited musically, and here introducing the genre called ‘salawat’, I want to talk today about another form of singing that is common. And that is the singing of du’a. Du’a (=supplication) is more akin to prayer as the word in understood in English. And Muslims often ‘recite’ or you could say ‘sing’ their prayers. Often invoking the Divine by what we call the Asma ul Husna, the names of beauty, while so doing.
Before I begin though, it may be a good idea to re-iterate something I mentioned before, WRT to the status of music in the Islamic tradition. Islam, as anyone who practices it will know, is a way of life rather than a religion per se. Yes, we have religious institutes and scholars etc., but they are not ‘instituted’ nor ‘ordained’ in anyway. Institutions grow out of a community coming together to formalize one, and scholars are born out of their learning and productivity. Both, gain and maintain credibility only as per their acceptance by the Muslim populace. Now, there certainly are state-sponsored scholars and institutions in the Muslim world, but traditionally these have not been held in as high an esteem as those out of government regulation. For there is well known maxim in the Muslim world that goes;
“The best of rulers are those at the doorsteps of scholars, and the worst of scholars are those at the doorsteps of rulers.”
I have digressed, so I will come back to my post. Suffice to say to wrap up the above that now you can surmise what ordinary Muslims think of scholars who are on a government payroll (!).
I wanted to re-iterate that there is a difference of opinion on the status of music in the Muslim life. I blogged it about in detail here. In a nutshell, a variety of opinions are present, from scholars who frown on any form of music except the human voice, to those who allow the use of any type of instrument. All, though, emphasize that the content of the music itself must be beautiful, i.e., engendering God consciousness. Needless to say, lewdity, vulgarity and narcissism etc are not considered allowable. One of the most common and well known sayings of the prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) is
God is beautiful and loves beauty
Divine beauty is a topic of extensive discourse in the Muslim tradition. See here for an informative series on it by Jinan Yousuf. From that blog, a saying from another very well known scholar of yore, Ibn Al-Qayyim (raheemahullah alai) who said,
“And it is enough to realize Allah’s Beauty when we know that every internal and external beauty in this life and the next are created by Him, so what of the beauty of their Creator?”
And indeed, all of creation is beautiful, including the wonder of sound. A miraculous method to know the Divine. Music is after all, mathematics in motion, and is not mathematics the language that can capture the concept of infinity, which is a window to understanding the Divine.
Imam Ghazali (raheemahullah alai = God have merciful love upon him), the only scholar in the Sunni Muslim tradition who is given the title ‘hujjathul Islam’ (=the proof of Islam), lived close to a thousand years ago and faced many of the same problems the Muslims of today are facing – an overly puritanical view of Islam, focused on exoteric practice, on one end that threatens to suck out all the joy of life, and on the other an overly lax view, that focuses only on the esoteric and so may lead to a loss of all the practice that makes up the Islamic way of life. His life story is well worth getting to know and inshaAllah I will blog on that sometime.
Imam Ghazali was asked what his opinion was on music from the more conservative camp (yes, this question was asked even a thousand years ago!), and he replied that if music were a bad thing, God would not have created the beautiful bird song!
So all that said, I can continue to post on the myriad musical genres present in the Muslim world and variety of sound and style they capture. For this post, I want to end by posting a few videos of one of the most favourite recitations or ‘songs’ as it may be more suitably translated to a western audience, is that of singing the 99 ‘names’ of God. The Asma Allah (Names of God), also often called Asma Al-Husna (Names of Perfection/Beauty/Goodness)
God is not limited in any way and so also the names of God are unlimited, but we definitely know of 99 (some give different numbers..) that have been revealed in the Quran or have been taught by the prophet (peace be upon him). They capture Muslim theology in totality, and are sung in various forms and recited and invoked during prayers as well. My beloved grandmother, would sing them to me as a baby to put me to sleep, using a form of their recitation that is very beautiful. It is called ‘du’a jameelah’ (the prayer of beauty)
I won’t go into theology here, but in brief according to the Muslim belief; God is one (indivisible), without partner (does not have any likeness – nothing is like him. We use ‘him’, but God is beyond any concept of gender and is not male and not female), is unlimited (therefore does not change, as change implies moving from one state to another and this implies limits as states have limits), without beginning and without end (i.e., beyond the concept of time). And there is more, but I am not a scholar so I will stop 🙂
These ideas are captured in the 99 names which when analyzed, roughly divide as half being feminine in their essence – these are termed the names of beauty, or ‘jamal’, and half being masculine in their essence – these are termed the names of majesty, or ‘jalal’. For example, Al-Lateef (= The Gentle, Subtle, Delicate) would be ‘jamali’ (=of beauty), and Al-Adl (=The Just) would be ‘jalali’ (=of majesty).
Many are the renditions of the Asma Allah. I will give some below.
Here is du’a jameelah. May Allah increase and bless my beloved grandmother for each and every breath she expended singing the du’a jameelah to me, and may God increase the times I get to sing it to her.
Here is a modern rendering of the Asma Allah, by Sami Yusuf, perhaps the modern Muslim world’s best known traditional artist. He has received numerous accolades for his brand of music that builds bridges among the east and west including an honorary doctorate, he has served as an ambassador for the World Food Program, and is a household name in the Muslim world. His version is a modification of the traditional Asma Allah du’a.
Here is a cover of the above, by a young lady who God has blessed with an amazing voice, and also placed her in city where she may benefit from all the resources needed to develop and train that voice. What makes her unique is that she is very much trained in the ‘western’ style of singing, so it is very sweet to hear her sing traditional pieces. Her name is Saida Muhamedjan, which has a beautiful meaning (Saida = happiness, Muhammedjan = the beloved of Muhammed, or one who loves Muhammed I think). She is Tatar, and lives in Kazan in Russia. The Tatars are predominantly Muslim, and part of the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. I think you will enjoy her rendition. There is a bit of interference on the audio, I hope it won’t distract. May God preserve, protect and elevate her. Her sweet voice has helped me through many a difficult moment in life, and inshaAllah (=God willing) I must blog more about her and Tartar culture sometime.
Here is a more tradition version, here the entire Asma Allah are recited, and as the video gives the meanings of the names in English, I thought you would find it enlightening. This is how we would usually recite it at gatherings. As usual for all du’a, we end with asking God to send his choicest blessings on the beloved, Muhammed (peace be upon him), though the translation is not quite accurate at that part.
And finally the same traditional version again, from a Ilma Plojovic, a very talented munshidah (= a lady who sings songs religious in nature), may God increase and protect her. I shall leave you with this.
Continuing from the last post, where I talk about the tajweed method of recitation, here is more about the ‘maqamaat’ (=the stations). The maqamaat refer to the classical Arabic system of Music; similar to the Raga system in eastern music, a ‘maqam’ (=station, plural is maqamaat), refers to a “a set of notes with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development” as best defined by www.maqamworld.com.
In my last post, I mentioned that once the rules of tajweed are correctly implemented, the melody by which one recites Quran is completely improvised and up to the individual. Usually this just flows naturally and is not thought of. However, students of Quranic tajweed are advised to listen to ‘quraa’ (=reciters, plural of ‘qaari’=one who is specialized in Quranic recitation), who recite with as less melody as possible. Shaikh Khalil Husary of Egypt, God have mercy of him, is one of the best known in this genre and the ‘go-to’ sheikh for any student to listen to. A sample of Shaikh Husary reciting is below, mashaAllah impeccable tajweed!
Great qurra, have and do employ maqamat to beautify their recitation. There is a difference of opinion among the scholars about this practice; some consider it not permitted, others allow it but dislike it, others consider it part of the general Islamic teaching to recite the Quran beautifully. As in all things the principle is the hadith ‘verily, actions are by intentions’, and the important thing is to maintain sincerity about connecting with God, when reciting or listening to Quranic recitation. This is an excellent post about how maqamat play into beautiful recitation
Shaikh Mustafa Ismail (rahimahullah = God have mercy on his soul), is considered one of the greatest of the Qurra. He is known for his unique style, employing many maqamaat as he chose. He never formally trained in Arabic classical music. Many it is said, have tried to follow him, but none have come close. He was the official reciter for Egyptian radio, and requested his program slot be many hours long, as he would take hours to complete – often the entire night.
One of his ‘listeners’ (those who regularly attend recitations and listen, are known to greatly improve a reciter, as they become the best critiques and offer the most judicious advice, a bit like the peer review system for the academics out there :)) is Ahmed Mustafa Kamal. Sh. Mustafa Kamal, subsequently taught many a younger generation in the style of Sh. Mustafa Ismail, in the video below, he is reciting along with a young student of his, the qariyah Sumayya Edeb, while touring Turkey. It is beautiful to watch how he gently mentors her style. And to those who understand what is being recited, the beautification incorporated by sensitive recitation greatly impacts the heart. 🙂
A biography of some very famous names of qurra in the Muslim world is here…Abdul-Basit Abdul Samad, Minshawi, Husary…these names are as familiar to Muslims as the names ‘Bach’, ‘Mozart’ and ‘Bethoven’ are familiar to the English speaking world. The most famous qurra are from Egypt, no surprise as in the classical Muslim world a famous adage goes; ‘The Quran was revealed in Mecca, it is written in Turkey (old posts about this here) and recited in Egypt‘, meaning the art of calligraphy reached its pinnacle in Turkey, and the art of its recitation its pinnacle in Egypt.
Different maqams are said to evoke different moods/emotions (more here), and in the Muslim world, the call to prayer or ‘adhan’ can also be found rendered using different maqamat…more about that in another post inshaallah (=God willing). Common maqamat are; rast, nahawand, hijazi, bayati…
I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into a very important aspect of Muslim culture. Below some select videos.
Peace be with you all
Shaikh Mustafa Ismail reciting verses from Chapter ‘Joseph’, which tells the story of the prophet Joseph (Yusuf in Arabic), peace be upon him
Shaikh Khalil al-Husary, reciting from chapter 4, Surah Nisa (The Women): verses 105-109
Shaikh Ahmed Mustafa Kamal with his protege, Sumaiya Edeb, reciting the opening chapter of the Quran, Surah Fatiha, I think on a Turkish TV program. At the end of the recitation, the call is made ‘al-fatiha’, signalling for all listening to recite the chapter to themselves, which you will see the audience do.
Dear readers, Assalamu alaikum (peace be with you)!
What a long time it has been since I last posted, my apologies. The past few months have been a period of transition as I prepare to move from one country to another. The state of my beloved mother, who suffers from a rare type of cancer, has also worsened, please keep her in your du’a (=prayer) my dear sisters and brothers. May whatever she is undergoing be a source of healing, purification and elevation of her state in this world and the hereafter! ameen.
وعنه أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم الله عليه وسلم صلى الله عليه وسلم ، دخل علي أعرأبي يعوده وكان إذا دخل علي من يعوده قال: “لا بأس، طهور إن شاء الله” ((رواه البخاري)).
Ibn ‘Abbas (May Allah be pleased with them) reported: The Prophet (ﷺ) visited a bedouin who was sick. Whenever he visited an ailing person, he would say, “La ba’sa, tahurun in sha’ Allah [No harm, (it will be a) purification, Allah willing].” [Al-Bukhari, book 7, hadith 907]
In the meantime, many an idea to share has come and hopefully, won’t be gone! Here is beginning with the first one; I want to introduce you to the ‘tajweed’ (=’elocution’ the rules governing the correct pronounciation of Quranic sounds/Arabic) and to the ‘maqamaath’ (=’stations’) of recitation.
The Quran, as you may know, means ‘recitation’ roughly. It comes from a root word ‘qira’a’ which means to ‘recite’ or ‘read’, composed of the three letters, ‘qaf’, ‘ra’, ‘alif’. I have spoken about the Arabic root word/letter system before. It is a fascinating mathematical model, that coagulates meanings based upon sound and the structures in which they are organized; incredibly mathematical. You can read more here, and from that source, meanings of the term ‘Quran’ below;
Therefore, in the preservation of the Quran, not only the original language (i.e., classical Arabic or ‘fus-ha’), but also the specific way by which the beloved messenger of God, Muhammed (peace be upon him), used to recite/pronounce the sounds, has been meticulously preserved.
The method of authentic pronounciation is called ‘tajweed’. There are ten authentic ‘qira’a’, or recitations that can be traced back to the beloved (peace be upon him). They differ in small details, that apply to a very small percentage of text. For example, the word ‘malik’ in the first chapter, in verse three, can be authentically read as ‘malik’ or ‘maalik’, when reciting. Reading it as ‘maleek’ is not allowed, as it is not a method the beloved (peace be upon him) ever used.
This is a lengthy topic, that those who are specialized in the arts of recitation among the Islamic sciences, will know volumes about. So I will stop, hopefully by giving you an idea of a topic likely very unfamiliar to western understanding. Nevertheless, to end by saying the rules of tajweed are extremely exacting and the tajweed teachers known to be among the most strict! (cute video here of a little boy mimicking his tajweed teacher, that went viral in Muslim circles 😀 – reminds me of all the hours I’ve spent trying to get the back of my tongue to raise to elocute ‘ra’…can’t be a flat tongue!)
The documentary is woven around the annual ‘Quranic recitation’ competitions, that are global affairs, and where competitors from all around the world gather. The Quran (meaning the Quran in Arabic, in any other language, Muslims don’t consider it the Quran, but only a human interpretation of its meanings) is the only text known to be preserved without any change since the time it was first revealed. It’s preservation, is not in books or recordings, but in the hearts of people. Muslims do consider the Quran a living miracle, and the greatest of the miracles given to the prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him).
[By dedicating one’s life to its memorization and transmission, it has been preserved for us for close to 1.5 millenia. Muslims believe, that once the Quran is erased from the hearts of people, that that would be a major sign of the coming of the end of humanity.]
InshaAllah I will continue soon on the maqaamath, this post has become too long so I will stop now, leaving you with a taste for Quran recited in tajweed, this is verse 190-194 of the third chapter in the Quran, called ‘A’li-Imran’ (=’the people/tribe/family of Imran’, to whom belongs the blessed Mary, peace be upon her). Recited by Qariah (=’female reciter’, title given to one specializing in tajweed recitation) Hajjar Boosuq of Morocco.
Qariah Hajjar will repeat many times, phrases or sections of verses. I will give the translation and transliteration of the verses below, so you may try to follow her along as she takes you through the meanings. She begins with the ‘basmallah’, the traditional opening for Quranic recitation; ‘audhu billahi min ash-shaytaan ar-rajeem/ bismillah ar-rahman ar-raheem'(=I seek refuge with God from the accursed satan/ In the name of God, the most loving/kind, the most gracious/merciful/loving…hard to translate the basmallah!), and ends with saying ‘al-fatiha’, which means the audience is asked to recite to themselves, the opening chapter of the Quran called ‘al-fatiha’ (=the opening). The interpretation in English is by Shakir.
It is about 10 mins long, I highly recommend good quality earphones, and to close your eyes when listening. In Islamic spirituality, it is the hearing that is the sense that is most closely connected to the heart (not the sight), hence the Quran is fundamentally an oral transmission, and thus transmitted from ‘heart to heart’🙂
Inna fee khalqi assamawatiwal-ardi wakhtilafi allayli wannaharilaayatin li-olee al-albab [3:190] Most surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day there are signs for men who understand.
Allatheena yathkuroona Allahaqiyaman waquAAoodan waAAala junoobihimwayatafakkaroona fee khalqi assamawati wal-ardirabbana ma khalaqta hatha batilan subhanakafaqina AAathaba annar. [3:191] Those who remember God standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord! Thou hast not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee; save us then from the chastisement of the fire:
Rabbana innaka man tudkhili annarafaqad akhzaytahu wama liththalimeenamin ansar [3:192] Our Lord! surely whomsoever Thou makest enter the fire, him Thou hast indeed brought to disgrace, and there shall be no helpers for the unjust:
Rabbana innana samiAAnamunadiyan yunadee lil-eemani an aminoobirabbikum faamanna rabbana faghfirlana thunoobana wakaffir AAannasayyi-atina watawaffana maAAa al-abrar
[3:193] Our Lord! surely we have heard a preacher calling to the faith, saying: Believe in your Lord, so we did believe; Our Lord! forgive us therefore our faults, and cover our evil deeds and make us die with the righteous.
Rabbana waatina mawaAAadtana AAala rusulika wala tukhzinayawma alqiyamati innaka la tukhlifu almeeAAad
[ 3:194] Our Lord! and grant us what Thou hast promised us by Thy messengers; and disgrace us not on the day of resurrection; surely Thou dost not fail to perform the promise.
Dear Readers, Assalamu alaikum, peace be with you.
It has been a long while since I last blogged, and many big commitments have kept me away. Inshaallah I hope and plan to resume to blog regularly soon, especially as I am yet to finish the series on Hajj, and on ‘music in Islam‘. Additionally, this is a special time of the year, as we are in the month of Rajab, and fast counting down the days to Ramadan.
Rajab, the 7th month in the lunar Islamic calendar is a sacred month. One of the four designated sacred months, when, since pre-Islamic times, rivalrly and tribal skirmishes were forbidden in the Arabian peninsula. The other three months are Dhul Qa’ada, Dhul Hijja and Muhammed (the 11th, 12th and 1st months respectively), they come consequetively and are a time for pilgrimage (the Hajj takes place in Dhul Hijja =’to whom Hajj belongs’/belonging to Hajj) and has been protected as a time when pilgrims could travel freely, without fear of tribal attack, for at least 3ooo years in Arabia.
In this sacred time, though, I have sad news I have to share; the beloved father of Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, David Hanson, returned to his Lord a few days ago. When we hear of a death, we repeat the Quranic verse ‘inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon’ = To God we belong (from Him we came) and to God we return. He lived a good life and died a peaceful death. God bless his soul and grant him the highest heaven.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is one of the greatest living scholars of our time. He has influenced thousands of Muslims especially in the English speaking world and works tirelessly to bridge gaps of understanding and revive the lost knowledge of the Muslim world. His sister, Elizabeth Hanson, penned this beautiful article on their father’s passing here, called ‘dying in America’. I hope you will read it, she offers poignant insight on the Western culture’s reluctance to speak about death. Growing up in the East, death was as much a part of life as birth was, and somehow, this brings a lot of balance and peace in how one goes through the ups and downs of life. God knows best. But without death, how would we understand life?
I will copy-paste Sh. Hamza’s short announcement from his website, sandala.org below; and a publicly shared photograph of his father as a lad. I am happy to know Sh. Hamza and his son washed and shrouded the body. This is an important part of the burial rites of a Muslim, and a deeply meaningful last rite family members perform for their loved one. A global Quran recitation, called a ‘khatm’ (=completion) is organized for David Hanson. For the Muslims reading, I hope you will be able to participate, and we do many khatms of the entire Quran for this beautiful soul. Please read ‘fathiha’ for him now.
My father, David Hanson, passed away at 8:00 p.m. on the 16th of April, 2016 at the age of 89. He left the world in a good state. He was born into great wealth and advantage, and was afforded an excellent education. At the age of 17, he volunteered to join the Air Force at the height of World War II and served for four years.
He was a good father, and the single most well-read person in the Western canon I have ever met. The Huntington Library gave him a small cubicle, where he carried on his work on Elizabethan manuscripts. My last conversations with him were about the Liberal Arts, of which he was a life-long student. He lived with me on and off for the last few years and remained independent until the last few weeks of his life.
During his stay with us, he always joined in prayer with my family. A few weeks ago, he said the shahadah with his physician, Dr. Asad Tarsin, and requested that he be buried as a Muslim. I washed his body with my son and two close friends yesterday. We will bury him this morning. I want to thank everyone who has extended condolences to me and my family. I would ask simply for a prayer for his salvation.
My apologies for the delay in continuing the series. The difficult world events (our prayers for those tragically affected by them, and also prayers for peace and for true justice that which can only be foundation for lasting peace) and many other pressing concerns kept me away from posting more on this series.
To continue, Hajj proper began on the 8th of Dhul Hijjah, the 22nd of September 2015 CE, with our arrival to take up our positions in the valley of Muna, or ‘Mina’. There is a vast tent city in Mina, that lays empty all year, except for the 5 days of Hajj (8th – 13th of Dhul Hijjah). During this time, it fills up with all the pilgrims – usually about 3-4 million, though much less, at just over 2 million this year. Then the ‘tent city’ comes to life – as much as there are pilgrims in every nook and crevice and corner where there is a spare bit of ground to lie/walk/sit/sleep on, there are also tea vendors and snack sellers and first aid stations and so forth.
The valley of Mina is I think about 2 million square feet in total, so you can imagine the density of people during the Hajj. Unfortunately nowadays, this density has meant it is almost impossible to feel the natural surrounding. However, the clear bright ‘bigger than life’ dessert sky always impedes into one’s consciousness, and the barren rocky mountains that surround the valley are often visible…these at least, no government has been able to alter (!) and give one a glimpse of what it must have been for the great prophet Abraham (=Ibraheem, peace be upon him), when he was there. And indeed what it must have been for every generation of pilgrim who camped there since the time of Muhammed (peace be upon him)’s pilgrimage.
Muhammed (peace be upon him) who taught us how to perform the Hajj, banned the building of any permanent abode in Mina, saying that the valley’s pristine purity must be left untouched. I was reflecting on my own destiny, that I was destined to be there in 2015 or 1437 in the Hijri calendar, i.e., 1427 years after the blessed beloved messenger of God Muhammed (peace be upon him) performed his pilgrimage. And I was reflecting that pilgrims who had performed Hajj a mere 30 odd years ago, would still have enjoyed that pristine dessert, up until the time so many changes have been put in place.
Nevertheless the experience played out by my own destiny brings profound impacts as well. If one is not as acutely impacted by the natural surrounding, one certainly is by the incredible *number* of people – by the crush of humanity, by the sheer magnitude of it, by the vastness of the differences in peoples represented there… and by the unique leveling the Hajj is able to bring about among us all. Truly it is ‘a great leveler’, perhaps the greatest leveler humanity ever is able to experience.
The only obligation for us on the 8th of Dhul Hijja is that we stay in Mina. What we do while we are there is up to us. Needless to say, almost all were keen to soak up the golden opportunity and try not to waste any time in idleness-curiosities/chatter/distraction etc (not always easy, but that is part of the training/lessons of the Hajj!), but spend as much time in prayer/meditation/remembrance (=dhikr, a core practice in Islamic spirituality, where the person goes into a state of trying to remember God, and his or her own origin) etc.
And indeed many were in contemplation. What a great place and what great fodder for contemplation! Contemplation (=fikr, a practice as importance as dhikr and equally emphasized in Islamic spirituality, means to contemplate all the creation so as to understand what it all means – it is to seek the Creator in the created, see here for more detail on this essential, nay, fundamental Islamic practice so often neglected by modern Muslims), is highly emphasized in the Quran, where Allah (=God), subhahana ta’ala (most sublime and exalted) constantly asks the human being to think. ‘Do you not think?’, ‘Can you not see?’, ‘Do you not contemplate the heavens and the earth?’ asks God of mankind in the Quran, and praises those who engage in fikr;
They reflect on the creation of the heavens and Earth (3:190)
The prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), in an authentic narration said ‘an hour’s contemplation is better than seventy years worship‘ (please see here for sources of the hadith, and here and here for useful articles, including on Huffpost, the well titled – Thinking is an act of worship in Islam, on fikr or ‘tafakkur (=to be engaged in contemplation) in Islam). Below is a quote defining tafakkur by Islamic scholarship, from the same post, with thanks to Imam Abdullah Antepli chaplain of Duke University;
to think on a subject deeply, systematically, and in great detail. In The Islamic context, it signifies reflection, which is the human heart’s light, the spirit’s nourishment, the essence of knowledge, and the heart and light of the Islamic way of life. Reflection is the light in the heart that allows the believer to discern what is good and evil, beneficial and harmful, beautiful and ugly. Again, it is through reflection that the universe becomes a book to read and study, and the verses of the Qur’an disclose their deeper meanings and secrets more clearly. Without reflection, the heart is darkened, the spirit is dysfunctional, and Islam is lived at such a superficial level that it is devoid of meaning and profundity.
Indeed then what wisdom to bring all the world together to this little valley, full of the rich treasures of history and heritage, the legacy and the footsteps of that giant of humanity, Abraham (peace be upon him), the vast dessert sky above and a sea of white-clad pilgrim equalled-humanity below, and then be told all we need to do is be there. So what deep oceans of knowledge and as we say ‘openings’ to reflect upon. It was a time and place where contemplation is almost forced upon one. It would be a great loss indeed, for the one who missed out.
As we are taught, the greatest ‘fikr’ is to contemplate on oneself, on who one is, where one came from and where one is going. And indeed the beloved messenger taught us (peace be upon him), by words and example to often engage in fikr. “If the servant knows himself, he knows his Lord” = ‘man arafa nafsahu faqad ‘arafa Rabbahu’ in Arabic (attributed to as-Suyuti, Mawardi, Al-Jarrahi, and Yahya b. Mu’adh ar-Razi. –taken from this post).
Dear readers, Assalamu alaikum warahmatullah (peace be with you and the blessing of God),
To continue from the previous post, we reached Makkah after a day’s travel from Madinah. In the time of the prophet (peace be upon him), traveling on foot, this journey would have taken about a week. And what a journey it must have been, to be all together in ‘ihram’ (=sanctified pilgrim state, see previous post for detail) along with the blessed beloved messenger of God, Muhammed (peace be upon him) and making that long walk (it was encouraged, and still is, to walk as much as possible during the Hajj) chanting the talbiya together.
When we arrived in Makkah, we performed the ‘umrah’ (=visitation, the lesser pilgrimage). Performing Umrah can be done at any time of year, but it too like Hajj, requires that one be in ihram. There are three methods to perform Hajj, which I won’t go into now. Suffice to say, one of them is Hajj Qiraan. This is the Hajj the blessed prophet (peace be upon him) performed and the one we chose to do (the other two methods may be considered easier). It is where you perform an umrah as soon as you enter Makkah and then remain in your ihram waiting till the 8th of Dhul Hijjah to begin the rights of the Hajj.
It was the night of the 4th of Dhul Hijja when we entered Makkah. Umrah can be completed in a few hours and so we performed this before the 8th of dhul Hijja with ease. An umrah entails two main rituals and some minor ones. The main ones are that you ‘circumambulate’ (- a terrible English word translators have been fond of using for the right called ‘tawaf’ in Arabic. It means ‘circling’ (!), so I will just say to circle or stick to tawaf) the ‘ka’ba’, the cube shaped structure that is the holiest place for all Muslims. It is a structure built by the prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) and venerated for centuries from way before the time of Muhammed (peace be upon him), as a place for pilgrimage, as a ‘house of God’.
Indeed many of the rights of the Hajj are closely linked to the establishment of Makkah as a place of habitation. In the Quran, and in the Bible, the valley of what is present day Makkah, where the ‘ka’ba’ (=literally meaning cube, it is cube shaped…we say the mathematical ratios of the sides have significance in how we understand the Divine. Also, the four corners of the ‘ka’ba’ point to the four directions; north, south, east and west) is, is referred to by the more ancient name ‘Bakkah’
إِنَّ أَوَّلَ بَيتٍ وُضِعَ لِلنّاسِ لَلَّذي بِبَكَّةَ مُبارَكًا وَهُدًى لِلعالَمينَ
ʾinna ʾawwala baytin wuḍiʿa li-n-nāsi la-lladhī bi-bakkata mubārakan wa-hudan li-l-ʿālamīna
Indeed the first house to be set up for mankind is the one at Bakkah, blessed and a guidance for all nations.
The Biblical reference is Psalms 84. , though there is difference of opinion among Biblical scholars as to whether this is present day Makkah or not.
Makkah or Bakkah was a nondescript location in the stark and barren Arabian dessert. Abraham (peace be upon him) was commanded to leave his wife Hagar (=’Hajara’ in Arabic. Arabic, along with Hebrew, are still existent languages that are closely related to the ancient Sumerian or Syriac languages that it is likely Abraham peace be upon him, spoke. Certainly Arabic is closely connected to Aramaic, the language the blessed Isa (Jesus), peace be upon him, may have spoken). I find it interesting that her name is so linguisticaly similar to the word ‘Hajj’. The meaning of ‘Hajara’ is ‘to be independent/not in need of anyone/to avoid others’ (root word used in Quran 73:10), and indeed what an apt description of the strength and courage of our mother Hajara (and indeed of the pilgrim state itself). She is, in my opinon, one of the bravest women of all time, with a faith as giant as that of her husband.
According to Muslim scholarly tradition when Abraham (peace be upon him) left Hajara and her little baby in the dessert and turned to go, Hajara ran after him questioning him as to what he was doing. She is supposed to have asked him several times ‘Ya Ibraheem (=O Abraham), what are you doing, are you leaving us in this barren place…’ (I put this in my own words). Abraham (peace be upon him) did not reply, but walked on. We know that the prophets (peace be upon them) are the best of humanity, chosen to be messengers, due to their strength of character, their moral uprightness and their vast compassion and wisdom
[the Quranic narrative and Muslim scholarly tradition does not allow any blemish of character attributed to a prophet – male or female – many Muslims hold Mariam, the blessed virgin Mary, as a prophet. How can we look up to them, take them as role models or follow them otherwise? In general Muslim tradition holds that prophethood is too heavy a weight to be placed upon female shoulders by a loving God, so they are predominantly male. However the great female leaders in our tradition, are highly revered, and are our role models in every sense of the term. They are our mothers, peace be upon them all. The prophets (peace be upon them all) were the most tested of mankind, all of them without exception were driven out by their people and faced untold persecution. In Muslim tradition all of their endings though are good and every story has a ‘happy ending’. This is what Muslims believe also in respect of the blessed Isa (=Jesus), peace be upon him, and Muslims look forward to his return and then a happy ending. Something most non-Muslims are surprised by]
..So it is impossible Abraham (peace be upon him) would do something so cruel- a complete antithesis to what a loving husband would do, and certainly to the actions expected of a prophet of God. So Hajara (peace be upon her) followed him, asking him this and he did not reply. She finally asked him ‘Ya Ibraheem, is it your Lord that commands you do this?’, at this, Ibraheem (peace be upon him), still did not turn around…but stopped, and nodded his head. (I often think, that had he turned his head and looked at his wife and baby, his resolve would have failed him. Surrounded by the harshness and barrenness of the dessert of Makkah, this feeling was deeply re-enforced). ..When Hajara (peace be upon her) realized this, then she said ‘Go, Abraham, our Lord will not forsake us’. Her strength and faith still takes my breath away! ..He left. In sometime, her baby, also destined to be a prophet, Ismael (=Ishma’el) began to cry. She must have run out of milk by this time. A desperate mother…she ran seven times between two hillocks called Safa and Marwa located about 400m apart, scanning the horizon for anyone and shouting for help. Her struggle is forever honored by God, as a central right of the Hajj. It is also a central right of the Umrah. On the seventh trip, she comes back to where she had placed her dying baby and finds by him water was spouting from the ground. She shouted ‘zam zam’ (=’stop,stop/hold it, hold it’, basically not wanting the water to run off into the dessert sand) and quickly fashioned earth around the spout to collect the water. The water saves her baby and herself. Soon after a passing trade caravan stops by. And now, where there is water in the dessert, people settle, and soon the town/city of Makkah is born.
That water is still there, it is called ‘zamzam water‘, it tastes very different as it has a unique mineral composition. It is a small well that has been supplying water to all of Makkah for centuries. Muslims believe this is a miracle. The water is found everywhere in Makkah, not just in the grand mosque, it is supplied to all the hotels for pilgrims to drink and also trucked to the Masjid Nabawi in Madinah. Muslims know the healing properties of ‘zamzam water’ well, and it is a prized drink among us. There is a Zamzam studies and research center, part of the Saudi Geological Society, worth checking out. It is interesting that the Bible contains a story that has several similarities with the Muslim tradition (Genesis 16:3), though there are several differences as well.
Here is a picture of the old well, that is now in a Musuem. Nowadays, the entrance is not open to the public – due to fears of overcrowding perhaps.
According to Muslim traditin, Abraham returned often to visit this branch of his family, now settled and living in Makkah. On one of those visits, he (peace be upon him), along with Ishma’el (peace be upon him), built the ka’aba. And during another visit he (peace be upon him) was ordered to sacrifice his son. Muslim scholars differ as to whether the son was Ishma’el or Is-haaq (=Isaac), peace upon them both. The stronger opinion is that it is Is-haaq actually, though most Muslims don’t know this. More about this story later – it is a central part of the Hajj, but not the Umrah.
To get back to the chronicles, the Umrah consists of two main rights – the tawaf(=circling) and the Sa’i’ (=struggle). These are done consecutively and one symbolizes one has completed them by cutting a lock of one’s hair after which one can ‘exit the ihram‘. As we were doing the Umrah as part of Hajj Qiraan, we remained in Ihram after the Umrah.
The tawaf is performed as seven circles, and during each one the pilgrim goes around the ka’ba anti-clockwise. This motion (you’ll see it on TV if you’ve watched anything to do with the Haram – the grand mosque in Makkah), we say mirrors the motion of the planets around the sun (planets orbit anti-clockwise). And there are other meanings and intentions. More about this in other posts inshaallah (=God willing).
After the tawaf, the next major rite of the umrah is the ‘Sa’ii’ (=literally ‘hardship’ or struggle). The Sa’ii is our going in the footsteps of our mother Hajara, when she made that desperate search for water. We walk in her footsteps, between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa. Each time, when we ascend a hillock we too pause and pray for help. Safa and Marwa used to be outside the mosque in the time of the prophet (peace be upon him), now the grand mosque is so large it has absorbed what used to be the city of Makkah in the time of the prophet (peace be upon him), and therefor both Safa and Marwa are now within the mosque complex.
As in the Tawaf, several prayers are made during this walk, and there are spiritual meanings and intentions too much to go into here. But the Sa’i is a very special rite for one reason – it symbolizes the desperate search of a mother for help for her dying child. It is the epitome of the love, faith and courage of a woman and celebration of motherhood.
There is a section of the Sa’ii, where it is required that men run. This is required of men, but not of women pilgrims. This is the way the blessed beloved, Muhammed (peace be upon him) taught us. When we were beginning the Sa’ii our group leader told us that our mother Hajara had run for all of womankind so women were excused, but now the men must run! I loved that, and truly it was very emotional to witness men from all countries of the world, all walks of life, all ages…yes even the very old.. running in the footsteps of our beloved mother Hajara.
The Sa’ii is not too easy to do, even now, with all the air-conditioning and the smooth marble. What then, when it was done in the open, under the dessert sun. Up until about 60 years ago, it was still like that – one performed in the open and could climb the hillock of Safa and Marwa. Now, one can climb Marwa but Safa is enclosed behind glass. It is nevertheless powerful to be there, knowing Hajara was here, and so many who have honored her search, by running in her footsteps, over the centuries. Indeed, including the blessed beloved Muhammed (peace be upon him).
Safa and Marwa have been honored by mention by name in the Quran, where Allah subhahana ta’aala (=exalted and high), calls them from among the ‘signs’ of Allah. That is a great honor indeed, and should not be taken lightly. We recite these verses whenever we are on the hillocks, while doing the Sa’ii.
Transliteration – Inna alssafa waalmarwata min shaAAairi Allahi faman hajja albayta awi iAAtamara fala junaha AAalayhi an yattawwafa bihimawaman tatawwaAAa khayran fainna Allaha shakirun AAaleemun
Translation – [Hence,] behold, As-Safa and Al-Marwah are among the symbols/monuments set up by God; and thus, no wrong does he who, having come to the Temple on pilgrimage (i.e., Hajj) or on a pious visit (i.e., Umrah), strides to and fro between these two: for, if one does more good than he is bound to do-behold, God is responsive to gratitude, all-knowing.
Below are pictures, and also a documentary of the Hajj of a beloved scholar of Islam in the Western tradition – Dr. Martin Lings (Allah irhamhu, God have mercy on his soul). An Englishman who wrote a masterful biography of the blessed beloved Muhammed (peace be upon him), an authority on Shakespeare, and a Muslim spiritual luminary. If you watch this, you will see the purity of his soul shine through in the way he speaks. He made the Hajj in 1948 and again in the seventies. It is very impressive to hear his experiences.
In 1948 the hillocks of Safa and Marwa were as they had been for centuries, and he is one of the very few native English speakers who must have made the Hajj when the Sa’ii could still be done that way. He says of the transformation ‘I find it very hard to forgive the Saudi’s ‘… for how they have covered up half the hillocks and marbled/built over the sand track between them. How I wish it had not been done so. But as Dr. Lings says at the end of this documentary, “the baraka is unchanged”.
‘Baraka’ is another Arabic word hard to translate – roughly it means ‘blessing’. Indeed the immense spiritual gifts that come of being there, of walking in those footsteps and being a pilgrim, that has not changed. Indeed, the closeness to the Divine and to the giant spiritual role models, fathers and mothers of humankind, that has not changed.
And the documentary, I hope you can watch it…beautiful footage of the Sa’ii in 1948, and going by boat to do Hajj.