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."

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Sitting in Tuileries

My late father never visited Paris. Yet for me he is always here. Back in July 2010 during my first visit to this magnificent city, I called my father while sitting in Tuileries, the beautifully manicured gardens situated beside the Louvre.

What I didn't know then was that we were having our last proper conversation before my dad passed away, suddenly, four weeks later. That bright and warm summer afternoon would be the final time he was alive for me.

God has, miraculously, blessed me with the ability to visit Paris numerous times since then. I have walked through Tuileries, pictured here yesterday, in every season. Whether summer, winter, spring or autumn, I sense my father's presence as I stroll across this elegant garden. Each time I have paused for a moment of reflection and remembrance. Al Fatihah, the opening verse of the Holy Quran, I have read for my father's soul.

While the details of our conversation are now a faint memory, the nearness that I sense to my father in this garden on which he never tread remains timelessly poignant.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Praying before payrolls

On the first Friday of every month, U.S. non-farm payrolls data are released at 8:30 a.m. in New York or, for me in London, 1:30 p.m. This influential economic indicator outlines the health of the U.S. jobs market and, depending on whether the results are weak or strong, they can send asset prices across the world -- from currencies to stocks, bonds, and commodities like gold -- either rallying or sliding.

Since my job at a real-time news wire involves covering financial markets in EMEA emerging countries, the figures on U.S. job creation and unemployment inevitably unleash a period of frenzy in my office as we rush to report on the repercussions for riskier developing-nation assets from Russia to Turkey.

This past Friday, I panicked as I looked at the clock in the lower right-hand corner of the oversized monitor in front of me to find it was 1:14 p.m. Just 16 minutes to payrolls -- 16 minutes -- and I hadn't yet prayed the noon prayer, known as duhr, because I'd gotten caught up writing and editing a series of stories virtually non-stop since arriving nearly six hours earlier.

Quickly doing the math in my head, I realized that if I didn't seize that moment and rush to pray, the next window of opportunity wouldn't open until about 2 p.m. By then, the afternoon prayer, asr, would have just started.

"I need to pray before payrolls," I said anxiously to myself, fully aware of how absurd and contradictory that statement sounded. If I waited even two minutes longer, I wouldn't get back in time for the release. I swiftly called a courteous colleague and asked him to look over and publish the story I was almost finished editing, while I scurried off to my company's quiet room, where people break away for a calm moment to pray, meditate or be alone.

I admit, it wasn't the most attentive or mindful prayer I've ever prayed. I typically prefer to spend 20 minutes for the duhr to give me time to perform optional prayers that require extending my focus. Yet speeding up my spiritual breaks is often unavoidable in the autumn and winter. The days become so short that Islam's five prayers draw nearer together, with the duhrasr and maghrib prayer at sunset falling during working hours. Whereas in the summer I have about five hours for duhr, by the start of winter in mid-December, when the sunset is earliest, the gap between noon and afternoon worship drops to less than two hours.

Luckily for me, Islamic prayers are succinct and straightforward nothwithstanding their resonance; what really matters is maintaining presence of mind in the performance than the length of time spent in worship.

At its best and most beautiful, this presence is like being pulled into a long embrace with the one you love most 
and where all your thoughts align to absorb the present moment. Imagine never having to be separated from this being by illness, travel or even death, and you can begin to uncover how warm and enduring this embrace can be. It isn't so much a physical encounter, even though my body will at times experience a sensation comparable to being covered in goosebumps. It's more like entering a tranquil mental state of incredible peace.

Whatever chaos may be swirling around me, in the presence of God I find myself 
in an incredible stillness. I feel the inspiration and privilege of being graced by His light and guidance. My spirit is lifted, and for those moments, the troubles, trials and demands of life are cast aside and I understand with clarity and certainty that whatever reality is here and now is exactly where He wants me to be, so I am able to face them with greater patience.

Prayer time isn't always quite so profound in a back room at the end of a silent office corridor. Sometimes presence is more akin to the quick peck on the cheek that you give your mom, sibling, partner or child prior to darting out the door. You let them know in a simple yet thoughtful way that you love them above and beyond the mad rush of modern life that is about to sweep you away. It is these gentle moments of sharing, the little touches, that bring warmth to their hearts and let them know you truly care.

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.