Ihram – Hajj chronicles 1

Dear readers, Assalamu alaikum warahmatullah (peace be with you and God’s blessing)

Alhamdulillah (=thanks and praise to God), I am safely returned to Vancouver after successfully having performed all the rituals of Hajj. I pray my Hajj is accepted and that of all the hujjaj (=pilgrims). I pray also that all who lost their lives in the tragic accidents and events of this Hajj are elevated by it to ‘shuhada’ (=literally those who witness, often translated as martyrs, meaning those who are elevated to a very close state in/with the Divine presence, certainly their place in heaven assured), and I pray for strength, forbearance and fortitude for their families and friends.

Though none in our group was affected, we had a tent-mate from a different group who lost a relative that day…so the tragedy was brought close. Also close due to proximity and the near misses we ourselves had. But I will leave talking about this for later…the Hajj is such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with so much it teaches, so much you learn about yourself and about people, about humanity and human nature, about the Divine presence and about life, that it is hard to find any words to synthesize one’s thoughts and emotions accurately. Therefore I thought to try to write a series of shorter articles, that each focus on a ritual or aspect of the Hajj and this way try to communicate some of what this journey is about, to my dear readers.

I will begin with the ‘Ihram’ (=pilgrim state, meaning both the dress and the demeanour a pilgrim must enter into in order to perform the Hajj. the word comes from the root word – ‘harama’, which carries the meaning of sanctuary. The grand mosque in Makkah is called the ‘haram’ meaning sanctuary, and in the way of life that is Islam, all things forbidden to a practitioner are called ‘haraam’ which though often translated to mean ‘forbidden’ actually means something more akin to ‘protection’). Ihram for men is that they wear two white untailored pieces of cloth and nothing else. Ihram for women is that they wear clothes that cover their ‘awrah’ (all except the face and hands, interestingly in the Hajj, women who wear a face-veil are required to remove it), and that it be un-figure revealing and in sombre shades, preferably white. Ihram for both includes, that hair and nails cannot be cut in that state, no perfume or any sort can be used, and that any act of intimacy is disallowed. Finally once in the Ihram state, one is not allowed to harm anything – one cannot pluck a leaf from a tree, nor step on an insect, and therefore of course, one is not allowed to harm another human being in any way or form – no pushing, shoving, no yelling, loosing one’s temper etc. One is also encouraged not to talk about worldly things…so the pilgrim focuses their thoughts and speech on being in dhikr (=remembrance, remembering God, being conscious of the Divine presence at all times), reciting Quran, contemplation, sending blessings upon the blessed beloved messenger of God, Muhammed (peace be upon him) while in Ihram.

The dress, the state one enters, the sacred places one is in, and unchanged rituals practiced since the time the prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) instituted the Hajj, and the fact that one is doing this in unison with millions of other human beings from all around the world and all walks of life, combine to make it a powerful state where one is helped abundantly to go ‘into ihram’. Others who have made the Hajj told me you forget everything else but where you are, what you are doing, and who you are going to, i.e., the final return to the Divine. I didn’t understand it, until I was in it. And it is true, no matter what is going on around one, you do forget everything else. Family, home, the work you left behind, all fade away and you feel a strong connection to humanity – a connection running through thousands of years, all the way to father Abraham (peace be upon him). You feel his greatness, his purity of worship of the One God, and the tremendousness of his faith. You are both crushed by it and elevated by it. You feel the strongest sense of gratitude to Abraham (in Arabic, ‘Ibraheem’, peace be upon him) and an immense sense of strength and guidance coming from him, through our beloved Muhammed (his heir and the final messenger, peace and blessing of God be upon him), and you feel that all of life has fallen into place. You feel the strongest connection to God, you feel the fragile nature of your own life, and the immensity of the Divine presence, and yet at the same time, you catch a glimpse of the greatness it is to be human and you are grateful and humbled by that.

Once in the ihram state, the pilgrims also constantly chant aloud ‘the talbiya’ – it too a chant that has not changed even by a syllable since the time of Muhammed (peace be upon him) who taught it to us. I don’t know if it was sung before then. It goes like this;

“labbayk, Allahumma labbayk

labbayka, la sharikalaka labbayk

inna al-hamda, wa al-ni’amtha,

laka wa al-Mulk. lasharikalak”

= ‘Here I am O God, here I am (answering your call)

Here I am, No partner do you have, Here I am

Verily, all praise belongs to You, verily, all good comes from You

And Your’s is the Dominion/Creation/Sovereignity/Ownership of all. No partner do You have’

We chant this non-stop through all the days and nights we are in Ihram, wherever we are. It is a very moving experience, when the chant begins, first in the plane, as all pilgrims chant it aloud once we pass over the ‘miqaat’ (=literally rondezvous point, it is the place where once you cross it, now you are in the pilgrim state), and then in the bus as we travel from one point to the other, then as we are walking, sometimes all of us seated in our tent, or you hear refrains from people sitting in solitary contemplation or walking alone. So I heard this call, and made it, from the bottom of my heart all those days I was in Ihram (about 8 or 9 totally) and I miss that state very much.

There are five ‘miqaat’ that Muhammed (peace be upon him) set out for us. kaartje miqaat

They mark the points where pilgrims from all around the world are allowed to enter ‘Ihram. And they are positioned around the holy sights where the Hajj take place. When we first flew into the port city of Jeddah, (from where we took a bus to Makkah), our plane flew over the miqaat of ‘Yalamlam’ to the South of Makkah. The pilot makes an announcement that we are so many minutes away from the miqat, and once over it, we all make the intention out aloud that ‘O God, here I am to do the Hajj for You’ and then we have entered the state of ihram. We begin the talbiya then. It is awesome when the whole plane erupts into chanting talbiya! So we have done all the physical acts of Ihram (wearing the special clothes etc) before we board the plane, and we then ‘enter the state of ihram’ when we make this intention. Now, until we complete all the rights of Hajj, we are not allowed to remove the ihram.

In the way we did the Hajj, we entered into Ihram twice, first to perform the lesser pilgrimage, called ‘umrah’ and then on the 4th of dhul Hijja (Islamic 12th month of the year, Hajj takes place from 8th to 13th of dhul Hijja) to perform the Hajj. We entered into Ihram on the 4th of dhul Hijja from the miqaat north of Makkah, called Dhul Hulaifa. It is very close to the city of Madinah, where Muhammed (peace be upon him) spent the latter portion of his life. It is from this miqat that Muhammed (peace be upon him) entered his ihram when he performed his Hajj. So we were blessed to follow in his footsteps.

Dhul Hulaifa is about 450 km north of Makkah, and so the blessed prophet and his companions (God be pleased with them all) would have been in ihram a long time, as they went on foot from Madinah to Makkah. We traced the route, but traveling by bus. Nevertheless it was a beautiful feeling, to go along that same road. I was blessed to take the recommended shower before wearing the ihram, and then offer two units of voluntary ‘salat’ in the mosque of the prophet (peace be upon him), where he is now buried, in the city of Madinah, and then to go from their to Dhul Hulaifa where I ‘entered the state’ of Ihram. From this point onwards my Hajj had begun.

I will leave you with some pictures, inshaAllah more to follow in the days to come. It is now exactly two weeks since we left the tent city of Mina. Hard to believe, but glad I can finally begin to update this blog. Alhamdulillah!

One of the entrances to the prophet's mosque in Madinah, 'Masjid al-Nabawi'. The second holiest place for Muslims, after Makkah. No photographs are allowed inside. It is the most beautiful, serene, peaceful mosque I have ever been in. The feeling of 'rahma' (=love, mercy, compassion, kindness) there is palpable.
One of the entrances to the prophet’s mosque in Madinah, ‘Masjid al-Nabawi’. The second holiest place for Muslims, after Makkah. No photographs are allowed inside. It is the most beautiful, serene, peaceful mosque I have ever been in. The feeling of ‘rahma’ (=love, mercy, compassion, kindness) there is palpable.
The courtyard of Masjid Al-Nabawi, bustling just after a salat. The awnings unfold and retract as per the weather.. it is very beautiful to be under those large white canvas canopies, like you are in a cool date plantations with the palm trees shading you from the sun
The courtyard of Masjid Al-Nabawi, bustling just after a salat. The awnings unfold and retract as per the weather.. it is very beautiful to be under those large white canvas canopies, like you are in a cool date plantations with the palm trees shading you from the sun
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The courtyard of the prophet’s mosque in Madina, ‘masjid al-Nabawi’, before dawn on the day we left on the Hajj
Just after dawn, I have changed into my Ihram and ready to go.
Just after dawn, I have changed into my Ihram and ready to go.
The mosque in Dhul Khulaifa, where we made the intention and entered the pilgrim state
The mosque in Dhul Khulaifa, where we made the intention and entered the pilgrim state

Finally, here is a rendition of the talbiya I love, from an artist who is close to my heart – Dawud Wharnsby, a Canadian folk singer, very gifted. He captures the ‘feel’ of the talbiya in a very beautiful way. The way the talbiya is chanted at the start is how it is done during the Hajj. The group leader will begin, and we follow.

Hajj

My dearest sisters and brothers,

Alhamdulillah I have some of the best news a Muslim is ever blessed to share – yours truly has been invited to make the Hajj. Alhamdulillah! This great news has kept me very busy, as you can imagine, there are several preparations and arrangements to make. My Muslims sisters and brothers will know what this means. For my dear non-Muslim readers, I wish I had time to write more about it. But I leave in the morning and at least I want to gather a few links here before I leave.

So here are a few choice links for both my Muslim and non-Muslim readers. For the former, a beautiful expounding on the internal and external dimensions of this great obligation the One who made us has placed upon us, by a dear teacher, and a well-known guide of this day and age – Sheikh Mokhtar Maghroui (his physics PhD background often comes out in his talks, and I particularly love that :))

And for my non-Muslim readers, a few selected documentaries made by reputable sources. They are not Muslim sources, so the material, though watered down, is God willing easier to understand. And as a scientist – I prefer to share for my non-Muslim readers, from non-Muslim sources – to eliminate ‘ascertainment bias’ as we say. Forgive me if this often means deeper meanings are not communicated. But this post gathers from all sources, so you are free to chose what to enjoy!

Sh. Mokhtar on inner and outer dimensions of Hajj. As a personal preference, I think the inner takes precedence over the outer (think about the Meccan period coming before the Medinan period in the lifetime of our beloved, sallalaahu alaihi wasallam…), though both are important. I will therefore link the inner dimensions first and then outer dimensions as good ‘adab’ (=etiquette). I am sorry I can’t translate the beautiful and exalted du’a (=supplications/prayers) Sh. Mokhtar starts and ends with. He does often translate the Arabic words he uses in-between.

And a series of lesser-known tastefully made documentaries on the Hajj

Finally my dear readers, I ask that you pray for me for an accepted Hajj (from my Muslim readers) and that you forgive me if there have been any errors on this blog in what I’ve written or communicated. May God accept from me and guide me!

Peace be with you all

Ramadan Mubarak!

Assalamu alaikum dear readers, peace be with you,

I haven’t been able to blog at all since this beautiful and precious month began. And now we are in day 18 already! Trying very hard to hang on to this amazing time…but it goes so quickly. We say about Ramadan, ‘The days are glorious and the nights are magnificent’!

So for my Muslim readers – let’s make the most of the last ten days which we will soon enter. The honored guest now with us, needs to be treated with the most reverence and love we can show her before she departs our company, inshaAllah (God willing) to return to us next year. I blogged this last year about the special significance of the last ten days, sharing the link again. It’s called ‘looking for laylathul Qadr’

And two more old posts on laylatul Qadr…they bring back nice memories. On this one, yes this year too, my same jasmine plants that gave me nary a bud the whole year burst into bloom with the arrival of Ramadan. And then this magnificent du’a for these special nights (for my non-Muslim readers, du’a is usually what people understand to mean by ‘prayer’…it is a sincerely spoken supplication to God)

I saw this nice clip on CTV news and since it is so rare that the media reports any nice thing about Muslims (I am seriously considering a page just to capture news items that don’t paint Muslims as terrorists or what not – For example, I am not sure how much people know that a mosque group raised 5000$ in one day to help a Catholic church that had been vandalized, or that Nigerian Muslims last christmas linked hands and stood in front of church on christmas eve to prevent any ‘Boko haram’ types attacking the congregation insde, or about the crazy person who was arrested a few weeks ago in a US airport for carrying a machete in his bag – only after he killed a security guard (God rest the soul of this security guard and help his family) – he was not Muslim, imagine the news coverage if he was!!, and I can go on. But I will stop now, it is Ramadan), here it is.

To end as they say in Indonesia –
” it is as if one’s life is a series of Ramadans, with only a moment passing between them”

How strange it is, that with no food and no water, I feel more alive than when I am satiated. As our spiritual masters teach us, it is because now the stomach is shrunken and the heart has room to breathe! The heart is alive and so you feel more alive than at other times. Thanks and praise to God for giving us Ramadan.

Here is the clip. Unfortunately I can’t embed it. Please click here

Many flavours of Qasida Burdah

Assalamu alaikum (peace be with you) dear readers,

We are almost at the end of Sha’ban and Ramadan almost any day now! (O Allah give us life to meet Ramadan!!) -surely the excitement, anticipation and preparation grows every hour. But still a few days left where the focus is also on sending salawat upon the prophet (peace be upon him), so as promised here is continuing the clips of the many flavours of the Burdah, as a way to introduce the diversity of the musical tradition in Islam. Please see last post for introduction to the Burdah

 

A recent version of a classical/traditional style of singing it using only voice. The burdah starts at about sec 24 mark…it’s only a small part of it of course. I love the collage of images in the video, and a translation of the lyrics is given in English.

 

This given in a Yemeni style, it opens with a famous verse in the Quran, where God commands the believers to send prayers upon His chosen messenger (peace be upon him). Quran 33:56-

33:56

Transliteration

Inna Allaha wamalaikatahu yusalloonaAAala annabiyyi ya ayyuha allatheenaamanoo salloo AAalayhi wasallimoo tasleema

English interpretation by Shakir – Surely Allah and His angels bless the Prophet; O you who believe! call for (Divine) blessings on him and salute him with a (becoming) salutation.

This a traditional way it is sung in India and Pakistan. Part of it is sung in Urdu, being the translation of the Arabic into Urdu

 

This by the famous ‘Fez singers’ – a traditional group of singers in Morocco, who have been singing in this style for centuries…the style is handed down father to son and so on. This is the version I listen to the most 🙂

 

Something more colourful, a recent version by Pakistani artist, Maya Khan…very soothing to hear it from a female voice. She intersperses prayers in Urdu as well.

 

This is a version in Arabic, English and Turkish sung by a Turkish choir – it is actually a rendition by the well known nasheed artist Mahar Zain

 

And a very popular video in the Muslim world, by Turkish artist Mesut Kurtis. He too is singing a part of the Burdah. The video depicts a scene from the past – seafaring traders… a scene that must have been quite common in the Muslim world a few centuries ago.

 

There are more, but that will give you a taste to its popularity. To end, a long version with a video showing clips from an old movie of the life of the blessed beloved, peace be upon him. I am not sure which film it is, but it may be ‘The Message’ (?). As per Muslim rules, the prophet (peace be upon him) and his close family members are not shown on screen in person. Where he is, is always inferred by the scene.

 

“Maula ya salli wasallim da’iman a’badan, ala habeebika khairi khalki kulli himi” (=O God send your blessings and peace forever and ceaselessly, upon your beloved the best of creation that ever was)

The month of Sha’ban and Qasida Burdah

Assalamu alaikum, peace be upon you my dear readers,

With the new moon reported last week, we have entered the month of Sha’ban, the 8th month in the Islamic calendar and the month preceeding the month of months- Ramadan, whose arrival all Muslims around the world are counting the days to eagerly. We make the du’a (=supplication, a prayer) “O Allah grant us to meet Ramadan” (meaning ‘prolong our life so we can meet Ramadan’) since roughly about the 3rd month of the year, i.e., during the six months before Ramadan. The rest of the year, i.e., the six months following Ramadan, we make the du’a “O Allah accept all our worship during Ramadan (our fasting and special salat=prayers, charity and hosting family and friends and so on). This was the habit of the prophet Muhammed (peace and blessing of God be upon him) and of his companions (God be pleased with them all) and so we follow his example in this as we try to in every other aspect of our lives. So you can imagine now that Ramadan is almost around the corner, the frequency with which Muslims make this prayer increases exponentially 🙂

The month of Sha’ban is sandwiched between Ramadan and Rajab, which is the month we just exited. Rajab is considered one of the four sacred months. These four months were a  time when warring was forbidden in the Arabian peninsula since before the time of the prophet (peace and blessing of God be upon him) and Islam upheld that tradition. The other three months are the 11th, 12th and 1st months of the year, traditionally the time when the pilgrims for the Hajj pilgrimage would be traveling to Mecca, perform the pilgrimage (which happens in the 12th month) and return. You can imagine, had tribal war been allowed during that time, the pilgrimage would not happen – hence the importance of them being ‘sacred’. Rajab stands alone and therefore is given a great deal of importance.

Ramadan is actually not one of the four ‘sacred’ months. It is however one of the holiest of the year, and unlike the other four, whose sacredness predates the time of the beloved messenger (peace be upon him), its status as the month of fasting was instituted by the messenger (peace be upon him). It is the month in which the Quran was first revealed. More on Ramadan in the coming weeks inshaAllah (God willing). There is so much information available online on Ramadan, I am not sure I need to write a post. Here is a good link gathering a lot of information in one place (I haven’t read all the information there, but the site is generally reliable).

It is said that Rajab is the month of God, Sha’ban the month of the messenger of God (peace be upon him) and Ramadan the month of his community! Rajab is generally a time Muslims spend a lot of time in reflection and ‘returning’ to God, then in the month of Sha’ban there is an emphasis on sending prayers upon Muhammed. We call this salawat and I gathered some types of salawat in this post. Of course ‘salawat’ can be done without any music, and done alone as many of us do.

In that post, I introduced some forms of salawat. Here I want to introduce a ‘salawat’ so famous in the Muslim world, I doubt there are many Muslims who have not heard it. They may not know what they heard (such is the sad state of Muslims divorce from their tradition and heritage – due to a large part to a catastrophic period of colonial subjugation – but I am digressing), but they would have heard it! It has been rendered into every musical form contained in the vastly diverse Muslim world, sung in so many different languages in so many corners of the world. It is the famous ‘Qasida Burdah’

Qasida (=elegiac/laudatory poem) Burdah, or ‘The poem of the cloak’ was written by a great scholar – Imam Buseeri (raheemahullah alai = God have mercy upon him), who lived in Egypt in the 13th century CE which would be 6th century AH (=After Hijri). The real name of the publication is “Al-Kawakib Al-Durriyya Fi Madh Khayr Al-Bariyya” (=The Brilliant Stars in Praising the Best of Mankind), but the poem has come to be most known as simply ‘Al-Burdah’ (=the cloak) or the ‘Qasida Burdah’. I could go on a long time about both Imam Busiri and Qasida Burdah, but I will limit myself to telling you about why the poem’s popular name is what it is. It is said Imam Busiri suffered a grave illness and was paralyzed for a long time. No doctors could cure him. He wrote this poem as way of praying to God, by praising the beloved of God, His final messenger, Muhammed (upon whom be God’s peace and blessing). One night he saw the prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) appear to him in a dream and convey his pleasure with the poem – the blessed prophet took his cloak and put it on Imam Busiri. The next day Imam Busiri (rah) was miraculously cured and his paralysis lifted. Hence the naming of the poem by the populace, and the name that stuck. Beautiful detail about Qasid Burdah can be found here and audio of the recitation of it in entirety with translation.  I will quote a few sentences from there below;

It reached unsurpassed fame, where it was taught, copied, distributed, recited, transcribed on mosque walls, memorized, commented on, studied, and considered required reading by countless scholars. The Burda was engraved on the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, where it adorned the walls for centuries before being erased by people who could not comprehend it. There is still one line left that has not been removed: “He is the beloved, whose intercession is hoped for….to overrun every terrible horror” (on the day of resurrection)

The poem is usually given as ~300 lines arranged in 10 sections, and each verse ends with the letter ‘meem’. In Arabic poetic forms this is called a ‘meemiya’. I want to collect several renderings of Qasida Burdah to introduce the variety in the Muslim world, but this post is too long already. And I have just found a wonderful interview online with the author of the best English translation of Qasida Burdah currently available, and a person I am honored to say I have studied briefly with.

So below is an interview with and a recent ‘recital’ of the Burdah by the western world’s well known scholar Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, also known as Dr. Tim Winter, professor of Islamic studies at Cambridge University (and one of my favouritest scholars – such a purely scholarly soul in every sense of the word. If you ever have the time youtube one of his talks, I promise you, you won’t be bored!). He sings in an ‘olde English’ style I grew up with and love. I don’t know the technical term for it though.

In this interview, he beautifully explains the traditional Muslim civilization’s celebration of poetry and the qasida tradition as well as the metaphysical realities to do with Quranic recitation.

And his rendition of it in ‘olde English’, which I love

Stay tuned for future posts with other renditions of the Qasida Burdah ‘bi ithnillahi ta’ala’ (= with the permission of God, the most high).

God’s blessing be with you.

Spring in Vancouver

There are those who are said to *know* God, who we call ‘a’rifeen-billah’ (=those who *know* God). Of course it is not possible to ever *know* God according to Muslim theology, at least not in this realm (what will happen in the next realm Muslim theologians prefer not to talk about as it delves into the area of speculative knowledge. It is preferable to stay within the bounds of logical and revealed knowledge). Because to say one knows means one has encompassed a complete meaning and if something can be encompassed that would logically imply that something has been bounded or a limited. Now if something were bound or limited it would not be completely able, for its ability would be limited. And that whose ability is limited cannot be Divine. Because the definition of Divine naturally implies no limitation. The Divine is not limited or bound in anyway, the power of the Divine is not limited or encompassed by anything. Completely able, the unsustained sustainer of all…the uncaused cause, the Divine is not like the creation, for, in whatever way you like to ponder upon whatever part of the creation, you will come across a limit in it. So we say, the Creator is not like the creation. Things are often ‘known’ by their opposites… so pondering upon the creation gives us a *glimpse* in to the Creator. So when I say *know* I say it with these caveats in place.

The ‘knowledge’ the a’rifeen-billah have is yet only a minutae of knowledge, that too a gift from the Divine, and an atom in comparison to infinity…

So it is said by the a’rifeen-billah that were the human heart to be unveiled to the true nature of Divine beauty, it would burst out of sheer ecstasy! These beautiful spring days in Vancouver, it is easy to understand why it is so said…for surely the beauty we are blessed to witness all around us takes our breath away. If so much can be unveiled in such a short time that is so breathtaking, then who can even imagine the Divine, who is ‘Al-Jamal’!

Al-Jamal means ‘The Beautiful’, it is one of the *names* or attributes of God, and the attributes of Allah (=God, Allah is preferred by Muslims to use as a term as it is devoid of gender-connotations, exalted be God from such) are of the same nature as Allah’s essence – meaning they are unlimited and unsustained but sustain all. So then imagine that Beauty! The Beautiful! Subhahanallah (=Glory be to God)

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Peace be with you my dear readers, and may you also be blessed to witness great beauty in your lives

Synopsis – the heart in Islam

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”

Quran 51:56

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

Quran 4:32

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

Quran 91:1-10,

Arabic is followed by transliteration and translation

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

In the name of God, the most loving-gracious and the love giving

وَٱلشَّمۡسِ وَضُحَٮٰهَا

Washshamsi waduhaha

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!

وَٱدۡخُلِى جَنَّتِى

Wadkhulee jannatee

“Yea, enter thou My Heaven!

 

May we all be of those who are blessed to hear these words on that day!

 

 

Islam as Religion

In one of the best known and most authentic ahadith (=narrations of the blessed beloved, peace be upon him), known as the ‘hadith Jibra’eel’ (=Gabriel narration), the archangel Jibraeel (peace be upon him) visits the blessed beloved and questions him about three facets of the religion of Islam.

“While we were one day sitting with the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), there appeared before us a man dressed in extremely white clothes and with very black hair. No traces of journeying were visible on him, and none of us knew him. He sat down close by the Prophet (peace be upon him), rested his knee against his thighs, and said, “O Muhammad! Inform me about Islam.”

The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “Islam is that you should testify that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger, that you should perform salah, pay the Zakah, fast during Ramadan, and perform Hajj to the House, if you are able to do so.”

The man said, “You have spoken truly.” We were astonished at his questioning him (the Messenger) and telling him that he was right, but he went on to say, “Inform me about iman.”

He (the Messenger of Allah) answered, “It is that you believe in Allah and His angels and His Books and His Messengers and in the Last Day, and in qadar (fate), both in its good and in its evil aspects.” He said, “You have spoken truly.”

Then he (the man) said, “Inform me about Ihsan.” He (the Messenger of Allah) answered, “It is that you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet (know that) He sees you.”

He said, “Inform me about the Hour.” He (the Messenger of Allah) said, “About that, the one questioned knows no more than the questioner.” So he said, “Well, inform me about the signs thereof.” He said, They are that the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress, that you will see the barefooted, naked, destitute, the herdsmen of the sheep (competing with each other) in raising lofty buildings. Thereupon the man went of. I waited a while, and then he (the Messenger of Allah) said, “O Umar, do you know who that questioner was?” I replied, “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said, “That was Jibril (the Angel Gabriel). He came to teach you your religion.”

It was narrated on the authority of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), and recorded in Muslim.

These three facets; Islam, Iman and Ihsan, together make up the whole of the practice of the religion. We say about these three words, that used separately each can be used in place of the other – i.e., Islam (=practice), Iman (=faith), ihsan (=excellence or beauty of practice/faith) can singly denote the meaning of all three, the statement ‘a person has iman’ also means that person has islam and ihsan by default – but used together, each word has a specific meaning.  E.g., saying “you’re iman is strong” can be taken to also mean ‘you are a strong muslim’ or ‘your practice of the deen has ihsan’, but if you say “you’re iman is strong and you have ihsan” that means the person has a strong faith and excellence in character and personality.

Therefore the statement, ‘a person has islam, iman and ihsan’ here denotes a distinct meaning for each word; islam means the ritual practices and jurisprudence determining the lifestyle of a practioner of the religion, iman means the faith or beliefs of that person, and ihsan denotes a higher state of perfection where the practioner is able to marry perfect faith to perfect practice. I.e., he or she feels with the heart, what occurs on the limbs.

Under this schema, Islam is usually the domain of study of  ‘fiqh’ = jurisprudence… or law, Iman the domain of study of ‘aqeeda’ = creed, and Ihsan the domain of study of ‘tazkeeya’ or ‘tasawwuf’ = purification of the soul, or mysticism.

God willing as this blog evolves more and more will be covered on the above three aspects, especially the last, which is has been considered the pinnacle and adornment of the religion – Ihsan or Islamic Mysticism.

But suffice to say now, that sadly in today’s Muslim world we see a polarization between those who lean too much toward the external practices devoid of any internal meaning, epitomized by the puritanical ‘wahhabi’ school of thought – those of strict fiqh. And on the opposite pole are those who lean so deeply toward the internal, that they forget to practices islam, the people who have unfortunately been called ‘sufis’ (a great insult to the term, as true sufis are the most conscientious about practicing Islam in all its dimensions), who focus so much on belief in God, they may disregard it’s pillars such as prayer etc.

It is marrying the two, that Ihsan is achieved… excellence is in marrying the faith to practice. By doing this the Muslim is able to be as the prophet, peace be upon him was, truly of the world, but truly other-wordly, at all times.

This is the great beauty and challenge of Islam, which does not promote a priestly class, does not encourage ascetism, but calls upon on its practitioners to be completely with God at all times, while being totally in the world serving humanity and all of creation, at all times.

On this note I will end with the prayer that God enable us all to be like this. Completely able to give and receive and fulfill all the immense potential of the creation we are, by, for, from and through God.

Peace be upon you all. Assalamu alaikum.