Monday, 13 October 2014

The doubt essential to faith

Lesley Hazleton, a British-American author who wrote a profile of the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, gives a stimulating TED talk on the importance of doubt to acquiring faith. She points out that Muhammad's first reaction to his divine revelation was one of terror, uncertainty and conviction that it couldn't have been real.

This modest man who became an ardent advocate for social and economic justice in Arabia started his journey to Islam trembling with fear, overwhelmed by doubt, panic and disorientation. It was this visceral human reaction that "brought Muhammad alive" for Hazleton. Doubt, she says, is essential to faith. Without it, what's left is heartless conviction that risks devolving into dogmatism and fundamentalism. And absolutism, she rightly argues, is the opposite of faith.

"Real faith has no easy answers, it involves and ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling of issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt," according to Hazleton.

The 13-minute video brought my thoughts back five years to 2009, to the immense doubt that filled my mind in the months before I discovered Islam, a state of surrender to the Almighty.

Beleaguered by anger and despair over a series of personal and family struggles, I made a conscious decision to abandon my relationship with God. While I didn't stop believing that He existed, I was frustrated by the constant stream of obstacles and challenges that He had lined along on my path. Upset and full of uncertainty about my faith, I sought comfort and solace in books, physical exercises like swimming and friendships. These succeeded at provided distractions. Yet the underlying frustration and sadness in my heart lingered.

After eight months or so of rejecting His presence in my life, I found God pulling me toward Him. In spite of my best efforts to stop it, I was drawn to Him not again, but in many ways that I would discover, for the first time.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

A patient melody

“الصبر من كل الصبر أشتك مني”
"From all of (my) patience, Patience complained about me"
This is a lyric from a song that Egyptian singer and actress Laila Mourad performed in the 1948 film Anbar  (عنبر), which I watched last night with my mom. The poignant words caught my attention and I immediately made note of them. Laila's character Anbar begins to sing in a room in the basement of her home, where some relatives are holding her captive as they seek to track down her dying father’s hidden fortune. While a lot of the lyrical richness of rhyme and metaphor inherent to the Arabic language gets lost in translation, essentially Anbar is expressing that patience itself had grown impatient with all of the trials that she had endured while awaiting release from her current turmoil.

Laila Mourad

This melody unfolded for me in a moment where I could appreciate its poetry. I had been reflecting on the concept of patience a day earlier as I perused the final chapters of the Quran to complete my reading of the holy book for the month of Ramadan.

In verse 5 of Surah 70, Al Miraj (The Ways of Ascent), God advises us to "hold patience, a patience of beautiful contentment." My thoughts often linger after reading this line. The words are simple and beautiful, and yet attaining patience is often fraught with complexity and difficulty.

According to their wisdom, we should find joy in the trials that demand our patience and perseverance because these events are a test from God of our devotion and endurance. Being patient grudgingly isn't enough. Instead, we should strive to find happiness in the challenges that God presents us with, understanding that He doesn't place a burden on any soul greater than it has the ability to bear. Circumstances that we find to be unpleasant often carry great blessings for our souls and should be endured with insight and appreciation.

Accomplishing this is no easy feat. In the four years since I started actively seeking to live in Islam, a state of mind where one surrenders to the Almighty God, I have found honing a consistent state of calm and patience to be my biggest challenge.

It is easy on a daily basis to fall into the trap of feeling sorry for ourselves and complaining about the aspects of our personal and professional lives that aggravate us. Despite my best efforts to be patient, I am often confronted with moments of despair and frustration where I react with great self-pity and seek sympathy rather than express gratitude for my ability to endure. It’s also difficult to resist the urge to lose our tempers in the face of the deep injustices we are witnessing daily in places like Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria.

This is precisely why attaining true submission, or Islam, is a process that requires constant interaction with God, a meticulous consciousness of our words and actions, and self-reflection. We need to tackle each feeling of anxiety, anger and self-pity at the moment it occurs, and ponder and apply the concept of "beautiful patience" before reacting. This requires an incredible presence of mind that ultimately involves a lifelong journey of trial and error.

I have found that achieving genuine patience is absolutely essential to attaining Islam, a state of mind that is meant to promote tranquility and spiritual freedom. Without it, gestures from daily prayer to regular fasting and the giving of charity would be out of tune.

"If you are wholly perplexed and in straits, have patience, for patience is the key to joy," writes Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi saint and poet widely regarded as one of the greatest spiritual masters of Islam.

Anbar sang her sombre lyrics without realising that a few steps away, peering through a cleft in the door, was a listener. Anwar, played by actor Anwar Wagdi, took heed to her voice and like many love stories, fell in love with Anbar. In the hours that followed, he succeeded in saving his beloved from clutches of captivity.

Laila Mourad and Anwar Wagdi

The relief we are seeking may not occur quite so elegantly or in the form of someone else coming to the rescue. What's important to remember in our moments of despair is that patience doesn't have a time limit; God will answer our prayers at the time, place and manner that He wills. In the meantime, it is up to us to earnestly turn to the Almighty to help us endure and overcome each trial. When I remember to do this, He inspires me with a composure that lessens the burden and gives me the adequate perspective to regard it as a blessing rather than an affliction.
“Patience does not mean to passively endure. It means to be farsighted enough to trust the end result of a process. It means to look at the thorn and see the rose, to look at the night and see the dawn. Impatience means to be shortsighted as to not able to see the outcome. The lovers of God never runs out of patience, for they know that time is needed for the crescent moon to become full" - Rumi

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Living with less

I always had the impression that I was pretty good at spring-cleaning. Never had any qualms about throwing away bags full of the old papers and pamphlets, conference materials, note pads from previous work interviews, and business cards that had somehow accumulated in the drawers of my nightstands.

Opening up a closet teeming with clothes I mostly didn’t wear, I’d cart bag after bag, year after year, to the nearest charity drop off.  Once a neighbour in my Dubai apartment block was preparing a shipment of clothing for a charity. I contributed an entire suitcase full of suit jackets, pants, tops and skirts that had grown too big on me after losing a few kilos after undertaking an exercise program.

De-cluttering my apartment always left me with a sense of ease and relief. And yet, within a few months things would pile up again, requiring another round of maintenance.

Before leaving my, in retrospect, oversized one-bedroom apartment in Dubai last August, I trimmed down a lot of the, well, baggage I had accumulated over eight years, thinking I was taking adequate steps to prepare myself for the inevitably smaller space I would relocate to in London. Let’s just say I overestimated the size of my new home – and underestimated the amount of possessions I was lugging along with me to this vibrant city of tiny Victorian conversions.

About two hours into my house hunt in and around central London, I promptly flung the notion that I had mastered the art of living simply out the window. After choosing an apartment two weeks later about half the size of my place in Dubai, I waited in dread for the arrival of the truckload of furniture, clothing, books and other belongings that were making their way across the sea to squeeze into my new home.

The shipment arrived one morning in late September. I stood in the empty space that suddenly seemed much smaller than it did when I viewed it, and watched anxiously as the movers brought up one box after another. I number crunch on a daily basis, so I ever so anxiously realised it was mathematically impossible for everything to fit, but wasn’t quite sure at that moment what to do about it. All I did know was that I was about to play game of real life game of Tetris in my living room.

I didn’t win, and the first thing to go was the brown three-seater half-leather sofa I had purchased about four years earlier as part of a living room set that, at the time, barely filled the space in my generous seventh-floor living room. The couch didn’t even make it out of the moving truck; its seven-foot length and bulky shape made it too large to even toy with the idea of trying to navigate up the narrow staircase leading to the second-floor apartment. For the sake of this game, we can say it didn’t pass level one.

I would never label myself as extravagant, but I suppose having more space for so many years gave me the excuse to hold on to things and indulge in futile possessions. I wasn’t particularly attached to the sofa, can’t remember a time that I even sat on it.

Although my scenario is slightly cushier, I was reminded of a Hadith, or story of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, that Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Allah bless him and grant him peace, asked the Prophet why he slept on a matt made of palm fibers that left marks on his side, rather than opting for a more comfortable alternative.

“My relationship with this world is like that of a traveller on a hot summer’s day, who seeks shade under a tree for an hour, then moves on,” was the Prophet’s response.

My new home forced me to consider this idea more seriously. I needed to live more like a traveller, carrying less weight around, being more discerning about what I bring into my home, and not as tolerant of holding on to excess possessions. This challenge has become an extension of my spiritual journey, which in many ways involves consciously adopting changes in my lifestyle to introduce greater moderation and simplicity.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog

About four months ago I started photographing some of my favourite things in the Dubai, and neighbouring areas, where I’ve lived for the past eight years. I took snapshots of locally available food items, unique restaurants and cultural and social spaces that have become dear to me over the years and, in the end, have made this place feel like home. I planned to compile the photos into a blog, along with a short description of each of my choices, to give others a glimpse into some of the valuable little discoveries that have enlivened my daily experience living in the UAE.

I didn’t realise when I started the creative process that by the time I actually got around to putting this blog together, I would be less than 10 days away from leaving Dubai indefinitely. This project ended up being more for me than anyone else – a way of capturing some of the fleeting colours and flavours of my daily life that are easy to take for granted, but that I will miss dearly when I move away early next month.

The key reason it took me so long to write the blog, or any other for that matter, is that I’ve been channelling my energy and free time since late March into building my first-ever scrapbook. A dear colleague of mine left me with a book full of empty cardboard-coloured sheets before she moved to London in the spring, and suggested I make a scrapbook of my time in Dubai. An arts-and-crafts novice, I looked at the 60-odd blank pages with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and great enthusiasm. My mind started to whirl at random with the treasure chest of memories I could include in this book.

There were literally thousands of photos I’d taken over the years languishing in dormant files on my laptop and external hard drive, lost in an abyss of electronic memory, never to be printed or revisited. I immediately started sifting through the dozens of photo files to piece together a somewhat chronological tapestry of the past eight years. It was a daunting task. I must have visited the Digi Photo studio in Dubai Mall about 10 times and printed more than 250 photographs. Along with printed e-mails, letters, greeting cards and notes, business cards, tickets, logos, maps and other trinkets I’ve collected over the years, these pictures have since filled my Dubai scrapbook to the brim with a whirlwind of documented moments.

When I started my scrapbook in late March, I had no idea that within a month, I would also be planning a move to London to pursue a sudden opportunity within my company. The scrapbook I had started suddenly became much more meaningful and urgent. I endeavoured to complete it before I left, as a way of expressing gratitude and appreciation to the people, places and precious moments that have fundamentally moved me over the years. It’s now more than 90 percent complete, with just a couple of blank pages remaining to fill with those final moments that will round off this momentous chapter of my life.

Creating this book has been a labour of love that I’ve worked on quite obsessively in recent months, very often spending hours sitting with scissors, coloured paper, and double-sided tape as I diligently pieced together themed pages in a somewhat chronological order. As I flip through its pages now, my Dubai scrapbook provides an overview of the (four) jobs I’ve had since I moved to this city, the many colleagues I worked with, the business and leisure trips that I took, the precious friends I’ve made and the series of unforgettable experiences that will remain with me for years to come.

During the process of searching for material, I stumbled upon a letter I had written to God on my flight from Canada to Dubai in July 2005. I hadn’t seen that letter in almost eight years and I realised, quite miraculously, as I read the words that every wish and hope I had jotted down on that one-way trip, had since come true. That note is now tucked away in the front sleeve in my scrapbook, and serves as an unassuming introduction to the rich anthology of experiences that followed. I also dedicated a few pages to my late father, God bless his soul, who passed away three years ago, including a letter I wrote him after he passed away. His e-mails to me during my early years in Dubai, when he lived across the world in Vancouver, Canada, are dispersed throughout the book.

Now that my scrapbook project is near completion, and before I leave what has become a dear home for a new adventure in London, I thought I would finally take the time to share some of my favourite things in the UAE. I will hopefully have more time very soon to start writing about my evolving spiritual journey after a hiatus of many months. Sometimes along that journey it’s better to absorb and reflect than to emit.

15 of my favourite things in the UAE:

1) Marmum yogurt
I absolutely adore yogurt and one of my favourite things about Dubai is that it locally produces the best yogurt I have ever had. Hands down. I tried virtually every type of yogurt when I first moved to Dubai and Marmum was the clear winner very early on, boasting the perfect creamy consistency that I adore. It is especially good when combined with some honey and Muesli. I introduced Marmum yogurt to one of my closest friends a few years ago. Shortly afterward she admitted to buying giant tubs of the stuff and eating it like ice cream. I will definitely be missing that almost-daily dose of my favourite yogurt.

2) Modern Bakery
While we’re on the subject of food, I come to another of my favourite grocery-store picks. Living in the Middle East means that you will eat a good deal of pita bread and, after a process of trial and error, I always choose Modern Bakery variety brown and white pita loaves. The flavour is SO much better than all of the others, which tend to be too sweet an aftertaste for my palette. (The exception being the Carrefour bakery’s fresh, white pita bread, which is also amazingly good) A large brown Modern Bakery pita, heated on the stove top and eaten with the Al Marai variety of white cheese (in the blue package) and some black Syrian olives (from Union Coop) is a real treat.

3) Zabeel Park
Let’s take a (short) break from food and visit Zabeel Park. Long before the Dubai metro, this park in Bur Dubai offered one of the only bridges that enabled pedestrians to cross a busy Dubai highway. I often visited Zabeel for walks when I lived in Bur Dubai between 2005 and 2009, and enjoyed walking across the pedestrian bridge that connects to two sides of the park separated by the Sheikh Rashid highway. Since I hadn’t been to Zabeel in a few years, I went last week to capture a photo of the bridge, which proved to be an arduous task, particularly at 2 p.m. in mid-July. I admit it wasn’t as romantic as I remembered it. My sister and I were literally drenched in sweat and panting from (and cursing) the suffocating heat by the time we crossed it, and only managed to gather up enough energy for the return trip due to a miraculously cool breeze, some “accidental” walks into sprinklers, and a pretty tree with gorgeous white flowers.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

In her shoes

My piece for the International Museum of Women's Muslima exhibition was published today here. It was shortened slightly from the original, which I've included below.

In Her Shoes

I’ve been thinking about how she encouraged me to be myself.

There she was, a single mother of three, managing a family business that her late father had entrusted her with. She worked with such professionalism, poise and proficiency that the community of men surrounding her held her in high esteem. Known for her hard work and competence, she was also regarded as a symbol of compassion and devotion to God. A number of men, enamoured by her vitality and charm, attempted to court her. After two marriages left her widowed, she would consistently turn a cold shoulder to these suitors, not interested in forging another bond in matrimony.

Until, that is, she met him.

He entered her heart when she wasn’t expecting it could open again to enclose the intense sensations of love and admiration that were unexpectedly flourishing within her. There’s always one person, it seems, who has the potential to awaken feelings of affection and enliven our drab daily routines. She was 40, while he, at 25, was determined, trustworthy and beaming with the integrity, intellect and virtue she sought after but rarely encountered.

Inspired by her feelings of fondness, she decided to do what was most natural: she proposed marriage to this gentleman 15 years her junior. Taken aback and flattered, he enthusiastically accepted. What followed was a marriage teeming with mutual reverence, respect, love and support that brought four new lives into the world, all of them girls.

It was almost three years ago when I first came across this story – the story of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.

At the time, I was beginning to uncover the layers of my faith in God that, for most of my life I’d allowed to remain dormant, buried in the background of my consciousness. My faith languished as I actively pursued a career in journalism and sought successes I deemed to be incompatible with the rigorous demands of spiritual development. Five daily prayers, regular fasting, remembrance through repeated supplications, and periodic acts of charity would be too difficult and impractical to incorporate into a modern lifestyle that revolved around long hours in the office, household chores and engagements with family and friends.

Or so I imagined.

As my spiritual radar became activated, the very expressions of faith I had long ignored nestled into my daily schedule seamlessly. Islam, which refers to a state of mind whereby one strives to live in complete devotion to God, or Allah in Arabic, was, I discovered, natural and easy. Aligning daily routines around acts of worship to God, rather than attempting to append spiritual activity here and there where convenient, became the only logical way for me to attain a consistent state of peace of mind.

Khadija taught me these lessons on devotion more than any other human being.  She became my benchmark. By any measure in today’s world, she would embody the modern successful woman I’ve sought to become. We would commend her for the ambition that motivated her success, and for her ability to delicately balance this with qualities of compassion and maternal tenderness. We would applaud her for being so confident and audacious to propose marriage to a much younger man.

“Her chastity, dignity and elegance were virtues widely known and talked about,” writes Resit Haylamaz in a succinct biography on Khadija’s life, which describes her pivotal role in the Prophet’s journey to discovering Islam. “In today’s terms, she would be called an international businesswoman; she had many people working for her in different countries—in the Roman and Persian Empires as well as the Gassasina, Hira and Damascus regions.”

We would admire, too, Khadija’s unwavering faith in the one Almighty God at a time when the prevailing mainstream pressures surrounding her rejected this belief.  She was the very first person in history to embrace Islam. When Muhammad, the last of a line of prophets including Abraham and Jesus, peace be upon them, received his first divine revelation, he returned home agitated and fearful. Seeking the comfort of his wife, he asked her to cover him with a blanket.

As she embraced him, Khadija advised Muhammad to “persevere and be steadfast.” “By Him in whose hand is my soul, I believe that you are the prophet of this nation,” she said, offering her spouse what a complementary partner should: encouragement and solace in times of trial.

During their 25-year marriage, Khadija and Muhammad endured enormous hardship as the predominant tribe in Mecca, where they lived, opposed the development of Islam. Muslims were persecuted, trade with them was forbidden and, eventually, Khadija was forced to leave the city of her birth along with other believers. The couple, who endured the death of two young sons, were exiled and compelled to live in hunger and poverty. Khadija could have forsaken her husband in favour of wealth and a life of comfort. She chose instead to remain steadfast in the face of cultural pressures to conform and, in the end, one of Mecca’s wealthiest women left the world, at 65, from a starving community in exile.

Her firm faith inspired my quest to orient my life around actions that would help me attain spiritual maturity. Khadija’s example also strengthened my resolve in the face of often-inflexible cultural distortions of Islam. As I acquainted myself with the mother of believers, the barriers that I imagined were hindering my path, particularly as I crossed the age of 30 without marriage, crumbled.

I grew up in a household of women. As circumstances placed a good deal of  financial responsibility on me from a relatively young age, I ventured out into the world on my own to earn a living and carve a slice of success by employing the skills of writing, editing, researching and critical thinking God had given me. Along the way, I haven’t yet forged a bond strong enough to lead to marriage. As I embraced Islam, I realised that I didn’t need to regard this as a failure. God, after all, times each milestone with a precision and perfection that we simply cannot comprehend.

The seemingly impossible quest of trying to balance financial responsibilities toward my family with the demands of Arab culture that dictated I should marry young suddenly became achievable. Rather than denounce my circumstances for not conforming with social norms, I needed to turn off the surrounding noise and focus on accepting the path God had chosen for me: one that was uniquely mine, just as Khadija’s was uniquely her’s.

By embracing my faith, I’ve discovered how to separate myself from the emphasis society places materialism, consumerism, success and sex appeal to achieving lasting happiness. I’ve learned how to involve God intimately in each daily activity, knowing as we’re informed in the Holy Quran, that He is closer to me than my jugular vein. That my soul, too, is in His hands.

There is an intrinsic spiritual equality in the pages of the Quran, which charts out the path individuals take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the facade of modern life. God gives each human soul regardless of gender the chance to attain salvation through acts of prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. The simple, equalising and inherently rationale premise of Islam underscores its appeal to many women, including myself.

In Khadija’s example, and with God’s guidance, I have found more liberty in submitting myself to God in Islam than any feminist ideology, job title, self-help or how-to book, or piece of clothing could ever collectively even come close to giving me. Each day as I pray, and when I fast, give charity, and strive to apply qualities of virtue and consistency to all of my personal and professional relationships, Khadija, may God be pleased with her, is nestled in my heart. For me, she symbolises our potential as women to break through the mould our societies strive to dictate, and find fulfilment and meaning in the uniquely tailored trail God has fashioned for each one of us.