Monday, 30 May 2016

Of Saints and Matchmakers

As I was growing up, Islam’s benevolent female saints existed in my imagination as otherworldly matchmakers. 

Common features of my family’s infrequent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt were visits to mosques enclosing the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Nafisa, two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who have come to be regarded as Cairo’s patron saints, may God grant them peace and blessings. My mother, often with her sisters who lived in smaller cities along the Suez Canal, would arrange mini pilgrimages to these grand Cairene mosques for a single purpose: to pray for suitable partners for their unmarried children. 
Female worshippers gather around Sayyida Zainab’s mausoleum in Cairo

Amidst weeps and whispers, they would gather around the mausoleums of these saints offering earnest prayers to rescue their single daughters and sons from the matrimonial side lines. From beyond the divide between this world and the next, these venerable women of faith would intimately identify with the anguish of being the mother of an unwed child and act as intermediaries with God in removing the obstacles blocking the perfect partner from springing forth – at least that was the hope of my female kin.

While my own memories of these visits are vague and likely layered by personal accounts relayed by my mother over the years, the urgency placed on marriage left me feeling perplexed. The more I found myself becoming the focal point of the prayers, the more frustrating and painful these pilgrimages became.

By my mid- and then late 20s, the cultural pressures to wed young and my inability to make it happen 
inadvertently alienated me from faith, and obscured my view of the spiritual significance and prowess of these female saints. My only encounters with them were a manifestation of socio-culture pressures that dictate a woman’s value lies solely in her success as a wife and mother, a line of thinking that left me jaded and confined rather than empowered by their presence.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Seeking the Kaaba Within


I was fully aware that within seconds my body would be drawn into a mass of humanity unlike any other in the world. “Surrender to the experience,” I thought while stepping into the overflowing main courtyard surrounding the Kaaba. The barriers that divide us in our daily lives are lifted here at the seat of the holiest site of Islam.

No honorary titles or entitlements have worth or function, there’s no distinguishing based on whether you are a woman or man, whether your income bracket is high or low. Rather, the bracketing qualities that contain us outside–our nationality, ethnicity, age, or skin tone–are shed at the door. Wherever our outward journeys have started, we all walk barefoot inward into a single circle, devoid of these unnecessary parenthesis appended to our identities.

“The goal of all is the same” no matter what road we took to get here or what quarrels we fought on the way, Rumi writes in Fihi Ma Fihi, It is What It is.

We are both universal and singular, each worshipper an equal soul before the Creator of all humankind and all being. Here we consciously move together in a unified mass, circling seven times around this stone cube as our prophets, peace and blessings be upon them, and our predecessors have for centuries. It’s become a timeless procession connecting us to the scattered cosmos. With the right kind of openness, the pilgrimage is a truly humbling, enchanting and purifying act of dedication to God, The Gracious One.

The ritual starts at the eastern corner, where the Black Stone is situated, a stone that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, said was blackened by the sins of humankind after descending from heaven as white as milk. I’ve certainly swerved from the path since I was last graced by the opportunity to visit the Holy City five years ago. My soul yearns now for nourishment as I circle the four corners of the central cube draped in black.

I yield my body to the crowd that surrounds me in every direction, letting it move my limbs. I’m here for my soul, after all, and as we give thanks and make prayers to the Infinitely Compassionate One, drawing our attention to the Kaaba as birds circle above us, I concede any claim to the personal space that I normally protect.

Sometimes I find my body being drawn inward with an uncontrollable force, and it is suddenly so close to the edge of the Kaaba I can almost touch it.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Between 33 Beads

My glossy burgundy subha had been dangling there for weeks, unused, upon the embroidered cushion resting casually against the Malaysian wood chair in my living room.

The prayer beads were almost camouflaged as they nestled into the tawny-coloured pillow cover I purchased during a trip to Istanbul six years ago, the image of a traditional Turkish tunic woven upon it in numerous shades of brown, gold, red and grey. It was almost camouflaged. But mostly just overlooked.

I knew it was there, after all, for that is where I always placed the subha once I'd finished with it following a early-morning or late-night period of worship. Gliding each of the 33 beads slowly and methodically along the string with my index finger and thumb, I would repeat some poignant devotion between each click of a bead: one of the 99 Glorious Names of God, or a Quranic verse, or a phrase of sufi remembrance, all in an earnest effort to draw my attention to the Divine.

Yet supplications, as important as they are in maintaining a consistent state of peace of mind and presence in Islam, are all too often left to fall by the wayside as I get swept up in my life.

I find excuses for being too busy to do more than my daily prayers, and too distracted to remember that dhikr, a form of devotion involving repeated acts of remembrance recited in silence or out loud, is just as important to sustaining a well-rounded spiritual routine.

For as many times as I may neglect them, though, those beads always lure me back, usually when a circumstance of life reminds me of my fragility.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Everything is a blessing

For the past four years, every time I open the door to leave my apartment, I've almost consistently recited three poignant yet simple Islamic phrases in a subtle whisper that's only audible to me.

"Bismillah" (In the name of God), I say in a quick breath as I rotate the lock to the right and grasp the door nob. I continue with
"Tawakkul ‘ala Allah" (I place my complete trust and reliance in God), as I step into the hallway and gently close the door. And "Laa Hawla Wa Laa Quwwata Il-la Bil-laah" (There is neither might nor power except with Allah) glides along my tongue as I turn the key fasten the lock until, by God's will, I return.

It takes the whole of about seven seconds to recite these lines before dashing to the elevator to rush to work, run an errand, attend a social gathering or take a trip to a grocery store. The words are so simple for the richness and tremendous power they encompass when reflected upon.

They embody the essence of surrendering to God, which is what Islam is all about. When we say them, we are acknowledging that from the moment of utterance, we're leaving it to the Gracious One to guide, protect and guard us. And by doing so, whatever happens during the course of the day becomes a reflection of that state of surrender, whether it is good or bad, easy or challenging, unpleasant or comforting, agonizing or healing.

Everything becomes a blessing. While it is hard to imagine and accept the heartbreak, illness, loneliness, professional struggles and relationship setbacks that dot our paths as anything more than torment and nuisances, these trials enclose gifts.

There's a stunning and thought-provoking Hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, where he describes how "wonderful" a sincere believer's affairs are because, ultimately, that person accepts with the certainty and the trust of all of her being that the good and bad occurrences of her life are two sides of the same coin. I will paraphrase and elaborate on this Hadith here.

For this person, this true believer, when something good happens to her, she bubbles over with thankfulness. She doesn't lose sight of God's role in granting her this gift. Rather, she acknowledges genuinely that He is the Source of it. Perhaps the relief that she finds at her fingertips follows a period of immense disappointment, the kind that drains your vitality and challenges your hope and faith. Or maybe the joy comes to her during a period of relative peace and harmony in her life, the very time when it becomes easy to dismiss remembrance of God. In either scenario, the believer's response is to appreciate the gift with humble gratitude to Her Creator. This is a blessing.

For the same person, when something burdensome befalls her, as will inevitably happen, she bears it on her shoulders and perseveres. She carries the heartbreak, loss, loneliness, illness, anguish with delight, embodying the patience of "beautiful contentment" that the Quran refers to. That patience isn't reluctant, but willing. It is full of pleasure because she understands and exemplifies another message that radiates throughout the Holy Book: that God will place no burden on a soul greater than it can bear. The more daunting the burden He lays on her, the stronger He regards her soul. So, rather than get filled with resentment, this believer is glad. She smells the rose while grasping its thorny stem. She knows with certainty in her heart that while the clouds may be blocking the sun from view, its brilliant unmatched Light is there all the same. Her state of patient being and acceptance is a blessing.
"Therefore do hold patience, a patience of beautiful contentment," Quran, Surah 70-5, The Ways of Ascent

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Light Upon Light


In the moments before I first learned of the darkness unfolding in Paris on Friday, I was sitting in a circle of light.

Some fellow seekers and I were seated as we often are on Friday evening, pondering on the path of those yearning for closeness and presence with God.

On this particular occasion, we were discussing a passage of Islamic poet Rumi's Masnavi called Veils of Light.

Each rich line reminded me of what drew me to this path of Islam in the first place: a crystal clear moment of understanding in 2010 when I first encountered that Light. When the first veil was lifted, revealing a love that transformed how I would perceive everything from that moment.

We seekers will often squint, blocking the light from coming through, as we endure the trials and tribulations that life hands to all of us. But there it is, shining in once we gain the strength to open our eyes again.

This Light doesn't blind us despite its brightness, it transforms our vision and allows us to see the next step on the path more clearly. This Light does not bring darkness. It brings mercy, compassion and justice. 


This Light does not harm another soul, for harming one would be as damaging as harming all, as the Quran teaches. It forces us, rather, to look within and battle our own demon, the ego that prevents us from seeing the Light.

A wise, humble and loving Shaikh speaking on Islamic extremism to an audience gathered at a London church in September described political Islam as "collective egoism: nafs (ego) magnified on a social scale."