Friday, 23 December 2011

Relief around the corner

(A version of this article was published by the Huffington Post)

Often when I get overwhelmed by circumstances in my life I imagine circling around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped emblem of Islam that stands in the centre court of the Great Mosque, Masjid Al Haram, in Mecca. Performing the short pilgrimage, known as umrah, involves as a first step walking seven times around the Kaaba, literally meaning “cube” to describe the approximate shape of the structure whose corners are positioned toward the four points of a compass.

I first visited the Kaaba during Ramadan three years ago. For my entire life, the stone edifice draped in an elaborate black-silk- and gold-embroidered cloth, or Kiswah, had seemed accessible only through images in books or the woven depictions of it on velvet prayer rugs. Muslims pray in the direction of the Kaaba regardless of where they are in the world. Always conscious of its importance, I couldn’t envisage seeing it before me and praying at its side.

The Kaaba during my first visit to Mecca in 2008
Standing in the hall of the Great Mosque, the Kaaba in immediate view for the first time, moved me to tears instantly. I arrived just after sunrise with my cousin and her son in earnest hopes we could get near enough to the Kaaba for me to lay my hands on this sanctuary that God had first instructed Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael, peace and blessings upon them, to erect in His honour. Muslims are drawn by the millions to Mecca in Ramadan to perform umrah, which carries the same excellence as the hajj pilgrammage if performed in the course of the month of fasting, according to Prophetic teachings.

The early-morning crowd was enormous and I worried it would be impossible to get near to the Kaaba. Yet we joined the mass trekking around it with relative ease, uttering phrases of appreciation to God, sending good wishes to Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, and asking God to answer some of our most-pressing prayers. During my first loop around the Kaaba I found myself standing close enough to touch it, and I placed my head on the surface in an awe-inspiring few moments, thankful God had ordained for me to be there.

But walking around the Kaaba wasn't always easy. Every so often our focus would be disrupted as we got caught in an indiscriminate crowd of people of all ages, nationalities and income levels. I was reminded then more than any point in my life that every human, regardless of social condition or gender, is equal before God. Each of us on the same journey, we are simply given different trials to test of our faith.

This congestion would generally form shortly before turning the eastern corner of the Kaaba where the sacred Black Stone is positioned. Participants tend to slow down to swarm around the celestial stone in hopes of touching or kissing it. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said the stone “descended from Paradise whiter than milk but the sins of the sons of Adam (human beings) made it black”. Even if you aren't waiting in the haphazard line-ups to touch the stone, it becomes difficult to move or catch a breath attempting to pass that corner.

It can be a tense experience both physically and mentally, giving us no choice other than to patiently focus entirely on our prayers and let the tightened crowd push us forward at its own pace. The obstruction would last for several minutes until all at once, as we passed the corner, the crowd would disperse and we would walk without difficulty again, eyes focused on the Kaaba's immaculate walls and the Quranic inscriptions embroidered in pure gold on the curtain enveloping it.

Over the course of going the rounds of the Kaaba, the same scenario – moving with ease and then getting caught in an inevitable jam – repeated itself several times with apparent exactitude. It struck me before I had finished the seven rounds that walking around the Kaaba was a lot like my journey through life up to that point. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Putting patience into practice

Egyptians queue to vote in parliamentary elections, Photo courtesy of Gloria Center
Watching footage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections last week gave me a well-timed lesson on patience and good manners. It was humbling to observe and read numerous reports showing people lined up by the thousands outside of voting stations to cast their ballots in Egypt’s first elections since the Jan. 25 uprising.

A considerable 62% of eligible voters participated in the election, many standing in line for six to eight hours or longer to cast their ballots. While I am usually patient in traffic jams, ticket and grocery line ups, I cannot recall ever having to queue that long for anything. It would surely nibble at my nerves, and yet many of Egypt’s lower-income citizens often get caught in long queues to perform basic tasks like buying bread or overpriced propane tanks.

The footage made me realise how impatient I can be at times with futile things, and how this impatience puts me at risk of speaking or reacting in an inconsiderate manner as I act swiftly without first reflecting on my choice of words.

Hours before watching footage of Egypt’s elections, I had an appointment to transfer my work visa to a new employer. I arrived slightly early to the meeting point, eager to finish the paperwork quickly to ensure I would be on time for a much-anticipated lunch gathering an hour and a half later with close friends, who were moving away the following day.

Then, five minutes before the scheduled appointment, someone from my previous employer’s office called to inform me that their representative was running late and he would arrive about an hour later than planned.

Since it was he who had initially decided on the appointment time, I impulsively snapped at the woman on the phone about how it was discourteous to call so soon before the appointment to reschedule, especially given that the rep from my new employer and I were there already. It irritated me that I had to re-organise my schedule due to someone else’s apparent negligence.

Yet, once the phone call had ended, I felt unsettled by how I had reacted. It troubled me that this woman and the representative I was about to meet would get the impression that I was unkind and abrupt. I had not even sought to find out why he would be late in order to put myself in his shoes before reacting. Instead of seeking to be understanding and tolerant, I was unsympathetic and impulsive.

Trying to live in a state of Islam, or submission to God, means that we should be mindful of God in every action we take. In the often narrow space between our judgement and reaction we can forget that God occupies the breath that connects these two acts. The Quran teaches us that God is closer to us than the jugular vein in our necks; He witnesses every word we say and every action we take.

I often try to imagine that I have an inbuilt filtration system to sift through my words before their heedless moment of departure, ensuring appropriate levels of consideration and fairness acceptable to God. This works much of the time, yet often, as with this phone call, I may hastily bypass this system to say something rashly—only to feel culpable moments later for uttering words soiled with some degree of insensitivity.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Banana cake with a nutella twist

I love bananas and I love Nutella and combining the two leads to sheer magic. While it is very difficult to imagine improving on Nutella, when you combine it with fresh cream, butter and icing sugar, and then spread this frosting atop a moist cake chock full of bananas and walnuts, the blend of flavours is simply mouth-watering.

For UAE National Day last Friday, December 2, I was invited to a barbeque hosted by a friend. I knew I wanted to bake a cake for the occasion but couldn’t decide which kind until I opened the freezer to find a handful of frozen brown bananas just waiting to be baked to perfection.

Banana cake tastes best when the bananas used in the recipe are really ripe: the browner the better. Whenever I have browning bananas left over that are too ripe to eat, I freeze them and then take them out to thaw for special occasions when a slice of banana-walnut cake is sure to please my guests, family, friends, colleagues—or sometimes just for me.

Banana-walnut cake

½ cup butter or margarine
¾ cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4-5 medium-sized, very ripe bananas
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon boiling water
½ cup chopped walnuts

Nutella butter-cream frosting
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups of icing sugar
2-3 tablespoons of fresh cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup of nutella

Saturday, 26 November 2011

“Do good – and throw it in the sea”

“What you give is what you get”, or some variation thereof, is one of the most-common expressions we encounter in our lives about the consequences of our actions. This idea gives the impression that when we act virtuously we get an equal helping of good in return, and accordingly, our acts of cruelty eventually “come back around” to bite us.

Yet the reward-punishment equation is not as simple as this expression may suggest because in fact, the recompense of our good deeds is far greater than the reprisal for our bad deeds.

Throughout the day, Muslims, those striving to live in submission to the one almighty God, will say “Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Raheem”, meaning “In the name of God, the Most-Gracious, Most-Merciful”. It is probably the most-common invocation for God that we utter, yet we may not always think over what these qualities of benevolence and compassion mean for us in our daily lives.

God is constantly willing to multiply the rewards we receive for the energy we focus toward performing good deeds— charity to those in need; kindness to family, friends, colleagues and strangers; honesty, loyalty and sincerity in our conduct; keeping promises and working hard.

As for our negative acts of cruelty, cheating, dishonesty and jealousy, God will limit the return of these actions to a degree that is strictly equal to the deed we did—no more, no less.

“Whoever does a good deed will be repaid tenfold, but those who do a bad deed will only be repaid with its equivalent and they shall not be wronged,” the Holy Quran informs us very clearly. (Quran, The cattle, 6:160)

Meaning “Recitation” in English, the Quran is a composition of God’s message to humanity charting out the path we should take to strive toward eternal peace. In its pages, we are repeatedly reminded about the importance of doing good deeds and acting with kindness and mercy. When we give in charity, for instance, we learn that our wealth will be multiplied and have greater “baraka” (blessing) in it.

Similarly, when we display kindness and mercy to our parents even in their old age, and when we pray sincerely and fast regularly with the goal of giving thanks to God for the blessings in our lives, we are promised innumerable benefits that will reach us in this life as well as, more importantly, the next life.

Sometimes it can be difficult to believe with sincerity that good deeds are generously rewarded because in our daily lives, there appears to be limited incentive to act in an unselfish way. When we do something good, we will quite frequently seek benefits and rewards with immediacy from our family members, spouses, friends, colleagues, etc. And yet when we feel these deeds have not been appreciated or reciprocated adequately, we can often feel devalued and frustrated.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Becoming spiritually punctual

(A version of this article was published in the Huffington Post)

Before I genuinely began to cultivate and nurture my relationship with God, I regarded the five daily prayers that Islam enjoins on believers as laborious. It seemed impractical to expect that I would be able to stop what I was doing during my busy work schedule to take time out and pray. 

Working as a news wire journalist, I was often spending upwards of 10 hours a day in the office or at conferences, interviews and meetings, barely able to make time for a lunch break. If I wasn’t working, my time was divided between house chores, errands, family and friends, and exercise. I was punctual with everything in my life, except that I was late five times a day.

Women praying at Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Mandy Merzaban photo
In my mind, it was not viable to expect that I could wake up before the crack of dawn to pray the early-morning prayer, fajr, otherwise I would be too tired to work effectively later that morning. It also seemed inefficient to interrupt my work meetings to pray duhr, the mid-day prayer, and asr, the afternoon prayer.

Making the sunset prayer maghrib was often a challenge because the window to pray is typically quite short and coincides with the time between finishing work, having dinner and returning home. So, in effect, the only prayer that was feasible for me to pray on time was isha, the evening prayer. For most of my life, thus, I would at best pray all five prayers in the evening, or skip prayers here and there to accommodate my immediate commitments.

Without realising it, my inconsistency and approach to praying trivialised the principle behind performing prayers throughout the day. I believed in God and loved Him, but on my own terms, not on the terms very clearly set out in the Quran and Prophetic teachings. Yet praying the five daily prayers, at their prescribed times, is the backbone of being a Muslim; we cannot stand upright in our faith without them. It is one of the essential practices that God has called on those who endeavour to live in Islam, a state of existence whereby a human strives to live in submission to God.

When I came to truly understand the importance of prayer, the realisation was both overwhelming and quick. It dawned on me that if I was not fulfilling this precondition, then I really could not claim to be Muslim. Even if I desired to have a solid connection with the Almighty I was not taking the necessary steps to do so. I promptly reoriented my life and it has now been a year and a half that I have not intentionally missed a prayer time, whether I am in the office, mall, grocery store, out with friends or travelling.

Looking back, I see how wrong I was about the impracticality of Islamic prayers, which are succinct and straightforward notwithstanding their resonance. When I moved from trying to fit prayers into my life to fitting my life around my prayer schedule, I instantly removed a great deal of clutter from my daily routine. Since regular prayer promotes emotional consistency and tranquillity, I began to eliminate excess negativity and cut down on unnecessary chitchat, helping me be more focused, productive and patient.

Over a short period of time, what amazed me was how easy and fluid the prayers became. Performing the early-morning prayer actually gave me a burst of energy during the day and, gradually, the prayers that I had initially perceived as cumbersome became an essential facet of my routine. With God’s help, I would find ways to make a prayer regardless of the hurdles. While in Canada for the summer, I would often catch duhr prayer in a department store fitting room, with the help of a handy Islamic prayer compass application on my Iphone.

“’Verily the soul becomes accustomed to what you accustom it to.’ That is to say: what you at first burden the soul with becomes nature to it in the end.”

Friday, 11 November 2011

Keeping balance when emotional headwinds hit

The pressures of our personal and professional lives are constantly in conflict and competition with our struggle to find reasonable balance, oftentimes forcing even the strongest among us to lose footing. Despite our best efforts, feeling unhinged, helpless and alone can somehow find a way to flood back into our day-to-day lives. Earlier this week, I gave into such emotions. After driving my sister, brother-in-law and two darling nephews to the airport following a visit for Eid holiday came such a moment.

For the 10 days they were in town, my one-bedroom apartment was bustling, becoming a pleasant cacophony of laughter, childish jokes, playful songs, home-cooked meals, YouTube videos and cartoons. As we found creative ways to comfortably host five adults, a four-year-old and a toddler in his terrible twos, we managed to find balance and pleasure in an organised form of chaos.

Then, in a quick flash the vacation was over and they returned home, leaving an impression of vacancy in my apartment that became more palpable. The series of concerns I had tried to put aside during the hectic and eventful holiday abruptly flooded my mind again, and I was beset by an unsettling mix of emotions stemming from the fresh residue of a heart break and looming professional anxiety. As much as I may recognise that I shouldn’t allow negative thoughts get the upper hand, I couldn’t help but wallow in a bit of self pity.

Having deep faith in God, I knew in the back of my mind that everything is as it should be; that destiny unfolds as God wills and that He harbours our best interests however long we feel we are waiting to know what they are. Truly believing this means any struggle we face should be embraced wholeheartedly with patience and continual acceptance.

But moving this understanding from the back of my mind to the front can be a struggle at times. It is human nature to often give in to emotions of sadness, anger and angst, although to live in a state of unbridled submission to God, or Islam in Arabic, would all but eliminate such unconstructive emotions.

So there I was, more irritable and grouchy than I should be given the immense blessings in my life, moping around my apartment for much of the following day even though I knew I shouldn’t be. I asked God after my daily prayers to fill me with patience and tranquillity and pull me out of my gloom.

Seek and you will find. Something I have learned in the course of discovering my faith is that if you ask for a moment of clarity, God will surely help you locate it.

On this particular day, that moment came in the late afternoon as I looked out my bedroom window to the sky and found a most-exquisite sunset in progress. Following a rare rainfall the night prior, the day had been oddly dim and cloudy for the arid desert climate. I stared intently through the window as the sun descended through a dense pattern of broken clouds that scattered its rays in multiple directions. Watching this brilliant prism of shattered light beating through crevices of clouds, I repeated to myself ‘Subhan’Allah’, or Glorious is God.

Friday, 28 October 2011

God’s answer key for sound decision-making

(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post)

The other day I was talking to my sister about an important decision I am on the verge of making. I have had to overcome a good deal of hesitation in trying to reach my final decision, although events have unfolded in a manner that is pushing me more and more in the direction of taking this next step.

Sensing my indecision, my sister replied with only one simple line: “Sometimes, we just have to follow the path God paves for us”. 

At that, the sequence of thoughts in my head paused for a moment and I found myself at ease. While my mind may wander at times in worry and uncertainty, it always comes back to this very simple lesson: God’s will will prevail. Whether we spend time fretting and worrying or not, we will find ourselves both drawn and pushed in directions we perhaps had not expected, and events will unfold exactly as they should.

It is easy to lose sight of this when we are standing at a crossroads, compelled to make important choices that will fundamentally change our lives. They could be decisions on whether to accept a job offer, move ahead with a marriage proposal, relocate, pursue a new business venture, make an investment or buy a home. Very often, these choices are not clear-cut and are weaved in personal sacrifice, loss and gain. Choosing a certain path may seem less desirable than we had expected good decisions would feel, sometimes precarious and fraught with uncertainty.

While weighing the pros and cons of these decisions, we will often do some soul searching and seek advice from family members, friends and colleagues. Yet I have found that as a Muslim, someone who is striving to live in submission to God, it is important not to underestimate the power of turning to the Almighty for guidance in decision-making, big and small.

While using reason and logic in determining what outcome is better for us, we must also involve God in all decisions through careful prayer and supplications. Muslims will often perform a special prayer for guidance, Salat al-Istikhara, to help us reach important decisions. When offering this prayer, we ask God to guide us to the right choice concerning any affair in life.

The prayer requires that I ask God with sincerity if the action I intend to do “is better for my religion and faith, for my life and end, for here (in this world) and the hereafter then make it destined for me and make it easy for me and then add blessings in it, for me.”

And alternatively, “if this action is bad for me, bad for my religion and faith, for my life and end, for here (in this world) and the hereafter then turn it away from me and turn me away from it and whatever is better for me, ordain that for me and then make me satisfied with it."

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Being single in good spirits

Sometimes I think about how different my life would be if I had gotten married at 23 years old.

At the time, nine years ago, I was engaged to my first love, and so love-struck that I failed to see in him any flaw and naively dismissed many warning signs of serious potential pitfalls facing our relationship.

While he was perhaps “suitable” within cultural standards, when I look back now he was undoubtedly an improper fit for me for so many reasons, and I am thankful to God that circumstances, however messy and piercingly painful they were, unfolded as they did and our relationship unravelled at the seams. Severing ties completely was a hard blow but a precisely necessary one.

I sincerely believe that if this marriage had proceeded, it would have distracted me from realising my full potential in numerous avenues in my life. With him I was never completely myself. I was constantly adapting to his needs, desires and objectives, playing a role as though it was truly my own. Rather than seeking a comfortable complementary bond with a partner who would support my personal and professional ambitions, I was almost exclusively positioning my life to furnish his own.

Suffering from a glaring wake up call, I faced the broken heart of my life after that relationship ended. Innumerable minutes in months were spent repetitively wondering what had gone wrong and what I could have done differently to have salvaged our relationship from oblivion. Regardless of how inexplicable the moment of departure was, and how many times I tried to rework this failed equation in my mind, it happened as it should have. It was only years later that I realised a good deal of these negative emotions that had arrested me stemmed from a lack of self confidence and deficiencies in my faith.

At that juncture I very quickly moved from the cusp of matrimony to being plunged into singlehood for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t that I was closed off to the idea of marriage, but I did not cross paths with a complementary companion.

So, rather than learning how to live well with another person, I was compelled to learn how to be happy on my own. This has turned out to be one of the most-precious and valuable lessons of my life. Achieving a sense of contentment with being alone has been no easy feat. It is often difficult, for women especially, to feel at ease while being single simply because of the tremendous familial and social pressures that impede the process of finding comfort alone.

Arab societies, like numerous others, glorify marriage as the only means for women to achieve fulfilment and happiness. Women are programmed to focus their happiness on securing and maintaining another person’s affection, regardless of whether they have realised peace within themselves beforehand. No matter what they may have accomplished professionally and socially, Arab women are too often pitied and deemed incomplete without a husband and kids.

What I have found in the past nine years since that ill-fated romance in my early 20s, and especially in the past few years, is that cultivating a deep sense of self is in some ways better realised alone. Developing a quiet, nuanced awareness of who I am has actually been the best way to prepare myself for marriage, if God wills that I find myself in this bond someday.

Spending a lot of time on my own has forced me to really understand my heart, built my confidence, recognise my beauty and talent and, most importantly, fortify my bond with God. The peace of mind that comes with striving to live in Islam, Arabic for submission to God, has tremendously boosted my sense of self and purpose.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Rare friends

Whenever I have a stopover at an airport, I get a sense of just how big the world is. Each is an international intersection where a myriad of people walk to and fro through its overcrowded terminals, wait at countless gates eager to board flights to numerous destinations. The vast majority of these are people I will never cross paths with again.

Perhaps because I have normally travelled alone on business and leisure trips in the past 10 years, these encounters often left me feeling acutely aware of how lonely the world can be. Despite the enormous size of the world population, the number of people who will enter and leave an imprint on our lives is strikingly small.

Starting from this perspective, I often marvel at the miracle of friendship.

Of all the people we meet, interact and work with over the years, only with a rare, select number will we forge sincere, lasting bonds. Even among individuals we identify as friends, there are only a few, if we are lucky, that we will connect with on a deep enough level to feel we can be completely ourselves.

In addition to my two sisters whom I adore, I also have a couple such friends—rare companions who are truly precious gems on the journey of life.

With these true friends we are able to spend every free minute if we had the ability, or we can go months without seeing them at no consequence to the comfort of a bond that springs right back to normal, as though not a moment had passed apart.

These are the friends who will stand by us during those dreadful, lousy periods when we are dealing with difficult workplaces, harrowing heartbreaks, complex family troubles, or are grappling with the surprise death of a parent. 

Such friends will open their homes to us during times of anguish, and somehow intuitively know when we need a boost of inspiration to invigorate our downtrodden spirits. At times they join us in hearty laughter, generously share in wholesome meals and humorous stories, while at times they linger in silence with us following a meaningful conversation. They help us pray, pray for us, and warmly congratulate and share joy in the trivial and exceptional successes that change our lives, even when it means our paths will be divided along the way.

I feel God’s immense blessing at the honour of having such remarkably rare friends in my life. The way we understand our connection is unspoken and subtle. Yet there is a clear mutual sense that although life will surely pull us in different directions, we will always actively seek ways to bridge the space between.

Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend is moving away from you
or coming back toward you.
–Jalaluddin Rumi, “My Worst Habit”

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Martial arts and the journey to Islam

Training at Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Seremban, Malaysia (Asma Faizal photo)
(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post and Illume Magazine)

A close friend introduced me to the idea that practicing martial arts has the potential to assist a Muslim in achieving a higher spiritual connection with God. Since I had always associated martial arts with Asiatic culture and Eastern religions such as Zen Buddhism, the connection with Islam did not immediately occur to me.

But after sitting in on one of my friend Imran’s Aikido and Karate classes at a dojo in the United Arab Emirates this month, the correlations began to unfold before my eyes. The mood was set when, just before starting two hours of rigorous and meticulous training, a number of students and the sensei assembled to pray Islam’s sunset prayer, known as maghrib.

Each technique they practised during the sessions that followed was precise, demanding mastery of the subtle movements of leg, arm, hand and back. Students of various backgrounds and faiths exhibited tremendous patience as they repeated these motions, striving to take any tiny step closer to precision of combat technique.
Basic Aikido movements. Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia (Asma Faizal photo)
Aikido, which originated in Japan, is typically done in pairs and practitioners learn to defend themselves while protecting their attackers from injury. Karate emphasises hard training and precise movement using a series of punches, kicks, and knee and elbow strikes.

While learning defensive fighting skills is the core purpose of training, interactions between students were remarkably cordial. A deep sense of equality filled the room; no matter how advanced in skill an apprentice, young or old, happened to be, s/he made an effort to enrich the experience of peers. Whether the belts they wore around their waists were black, brown, purple or white, everyone appeared to derive some value from the session.
Sensei Gerard Ratnam with Aikido student at Shudokan (Asma Faizal photo)
This was inspiring for me because of the commonalities I saw with Islam. Muslims at varying stages along the spiritual path share a common ambition: to forge an intimate bond with the one Almighty God. Islam embodies an undeviating path to peace of mind, attained by aligning one’s physical, mental, financial, family and community affairs to this primary goal, which we should help each other work toward.

For a martial artist, the journey of perfecting technique doesn’t end with a black belt, it demands continual dedication and training, Imran told me later than evening. “Karate is like a pot of boiling water, and constant training is the fire that keeps the water boiling,” he said, citing wisdom from a prominent Karate instructor that can underlie both martial arts and Islamic devotion.

The comment brought to mind the concept of Al Insan Al Kamil in Islamic theology, describing the perfect being who has achieved unity with God in mind, body and soul. Attaining this level of consciousness demands a series of traits, such as steadfastness (istiqamah), self-inventory (muhasabah), improvement (tahsin) and humility – each honed to perfection.

Such traits are at the heart of martial arts as well, although a practitioner need not be driven, as Imran is, by a desire to please God. There are, furthermore, a few martial arts practices that go against sharia which, for instance, discourages blows to the face and bowing to other human beings.
Sitting in seiza. Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia (Asma Faizal photo)
To bridge gaps inherent in some martial art forms and supplement his training, Imran added an exercise technique known as Senaman Tua, native to his homeland Malaysia, to his martial arts regimen. Most-easily understood as an Islamic form of yoga, Senaman Tua requires that in addition to physical development, students take a journey toward self-realisation.

One who trains in Senaman Tua will eventually have all the core skills to learn and master Silat, a martial art practised in Malaysia and Indonesia, rooted in Islam. The goal of each Silat practitioner is to improve their art for the sake of God, explained Mohd Nadzrin bin Abdul Wahab, Imran’s Senaman Tua instructor, who has offered Silat training in Malaysia since 2003.

Sensei Thamby Rajah, father of Malaysian Aikido, instructs Imran on Aikido technique (Asma Faizal)
“The basic idea behind silat is softness is strength,” said Nadzrin, 34. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Nadzrin was drawn into Silat after seeing how Islam was woven into each lesson of his first guru, Muhammad Radzi Haji Hanafi. “Every other word” he uttered was an Islamic principle, related Nadzrin.

Silat teaches practitioners that they should dedicate their whole self, mind, body and soul to the intention of performing the art for the sake of God in order for the goal to be worthwhile. Apprentices should strive to be truthful, keep promises, and act with strong conviction without disrespecting their parents and teachers.

“Every martial technique depends on a preset, pre-thought movement of the human body,” explained Nadzrin, who has written extensively on Silat on a series of blogs. “A possible stumbling block to spiritual development is the practitioner's ascribing of his development or prowess to himself ... Thus, we are taught in Silat that all gerak (movement) belongs to Allah, The Mover, in every sense of the word.”
Children at play, Shudokan Aikido Dojo, Malaysia (Asma Faizal)
While certain varieties of Silat became controversial because they deviated from Islam, most Silat styles in Malaysia are sharia-compliant, he said. Some schools, meanwhile, have modified techniques used in other martial arts like Aikido and Taekwondo to ensure they comply with Islam by, for instance, including bows that do not reach the level of sujud, prostration in Islamic prayer. Silat and Senaman Tua styles are now offered in many countries, including the United States, Europe, South Africa, Canada and Singapore.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Finding relief in grief

For the past year up until a few months ago, I was incredibly eager to quit my job. I came to a critical point where I couldn’t wait for a new opportunity to present itself that would relieve the various frustrations I perceived in my work environment.

The thought of quitting on a whim crossed my mind on several occasions, but I always came back to my senses with the help of family and friends, and knowing such a move would be utterly illogical, professionally and financially, given the state of the global economy.

During the course of daily prayers, I would ask God to ease the tensions and fill my heart with patience to be able to handle whatever annoyances arose until He deemed it the right time for me to leave. In my free time, I kept myself busy writing for my blog, studying Arabic and starting to passively search for a new job. I was able to find a balance in my life and appreciate the job security that maintained it. Yet, impatience continued to gnaw at me regularly; I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and annoyed.

Then the scenario that was furthest from my mind unfolded. For reasons that were beyond my control, and quite out of the blue, my position was cut in July as part of a restructuring that involved phasing out the research function of bank where I have worked for the past two years.

Just like that, all of the stresses that had at times consumed my mind faded into thin air, as though they never existed. They were replaced with a new focus: what I would do next.

Office cubicle photo courtesy, Flickr
So I thought: isn’t this how things always turn out? I recalled previous job stresses, difficult bosses, failed love stories, illnesses and familial pressures that had at one time or another provoked me to spend hours in anguish and annoyance. Then, when things had smoothed over, these issues barely crossed my mind again.

I remembered a story about a woman named Aisha Gouverneur described in the book “Women in Sufism: A Hidden Treasure”, by Camille Adams Helminski of the Threshold Society. This was the first book I read last year while attempting to understand and build a renewed bond with God. The writings and stories of female Sufi mystic poets, scholars and saints in this anthology affected me profoundly.

Aisha , a seventh-generation Kentuckian, reminded me a lot of myself: an ambitious, modern woman with “inexhaustible energy and activities” who sought to understand the spirit of her faith. At one point in her life, Aisha became paralysed and in a matter of weeks was “completely unable to move”. Over time, she came to accept and endure her condition, later found to be Guiallane-Barre syndrome, and says she was able to “bear it patiently and with equanimity”.

“But,” Aisha continues. “I did not love it; that was the key.”

I paused after reading that line because I did not understand why enduring a hardship patiently was not enough. After all, why would someone love to be ill or struggling? I certainly did not love the frustrations of my job, even if I was willing to bear with them as a test of my patience. Intrigued, I read on.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Faith in nature

Dubai sunset in photo I took in 2007
(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post)

For the past few weeks, I have been home as the setting sun gleams through the window of my northwest-facing flat in potent shades of red and orange, before swiftly descending beneath the rim of the Arabian Gulf somewhat visible in the distance. I’ll usually be cooking dinner at this time but find myself drawn to stand for a few minutes at the kitchen window to watch the sun’s retreat. At the crisp moment the sky dims, the call to prayer becomes audible only faintly beyond monotonous clamour of traffic rushing by on the highway below.

While I have always held some appreciation for the nature around me, one consequence of my endeavour to enrich my relationship with God is that I have become incredibly more receptive to the beauty and divine precision inherent in nature than I was before. Like many people, I tended to take for granted God’s pivotal role in creation and directing the flow of events in everyday life. We often attribute the mechanisms of nature to indistinct concepts like Mother Nature, assuming the circle and cycles of life somehow simply exist without reflecting on why they exist.

Before I truly embraced my Islam, an Arabic term meaning submission to God, I perceived faith as something we needed to enter into eyes closed, without rationale, analysis or intellect. To my surprise as I investigated Islamic teachings more thoroughly, I realised that it was through the acquisition of knowledge and use of reason and logic that certainty of God’s existence becomes most palpable. 
Arabian Gulf waters sparkle under late afternoon sun in Dubai, Mamzar beach
While reading the Quran I was struck by the number of times God asks us to seek wisdom, use our reason and look at evidence in nature and history in order to grow deeper in faith. In virtually every verse we are called upon to ponder its divine messages. The best of believers are not those who blindly submit, but rather “those who reflect” (45:13), “those who use their reason” (2:164), “those who consider” (13:3), “those who have knowledge” (35:28), and so on.

The perfect balance of nature is described superbly in the Quran, which I read in full for the first time last year. We learn that watching, reflecting on and understanding nature are among the principal ways to gain certainty in God’s signs and be receptive to His message to humanity.

Geese flock onto grassy field in Richmond, BC; Mandy Merzaban photo
There is an order to things in nature: birds glide through the sky and make their homes in trees as ants structure their productive communities on or near the ground. Leaves flutter in the wind, change colour and disintegrate into the ground, and the ground appears stationary until it shakes to remind us of our fragility. The clouds converge and disperse, the rain falls and stops, the sun rises and sets according to a meticulously balanced system that can only be divinely weaved. All of the world’s vegetation and animal life are constantly obedient to Him; that is, except for humans, who often lose their connection with Allah, the Arabic word for the Almighty God.

In the creation of the heavens and of the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the ships that sail the ocean bearing cargoes beneficial to man; in the water which God sends down from the sky and with which he revives the earth after its death, scattering over it all kinds of animals; in the courses of the winds, and in the clouds pressed into service between earth and sky, there are indeed signs for people who use their reason. 
(Quran, 2:164)

People of various faiths who are spiritually in tune with God experience glimpses of the Divine in everything. I recall marvelling to learn that the Quran refers to ants and bees as feminine; science proved that worker ants and bees are female only about ten centuries later. I was amazed further when I came to verses describing how animals are created out of water, bodies of the world’s sweet and salt waters are separated with a partition, the sun and the moon glide in orbits, the foetus develops in distinct stages, and much more.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Sweet reward

My mom's basbousa recipe below:)
Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the Islamic month of fasting, is all about consuming sweets. Well, at least that’s what I grew up believing –and I have happily upheld this tradition up to today. After a month of fasting from sunrise until sunset, which tends to constrict your appetite, pastries, sweets and cookies are served up in large quantities during the three days of Eid al-Fitr (the festival of breaking the fast). The best part is, after cutting down consumption during Ramadan, I don’t feel guilty about devouring these rich, sweet, buttery desserts.

There are so many varieties of sweets served across the Arab world during Eid. Kahk (or maamoul) is a particular favourite in Egypt and other countries: small pastries stuffed with dates, walnuts or pistachios and doused in powdered sugar. Ghorayebah biscuits, baklava and kunafeh (a Middle Eastern pastry made from a vermicelli-like pastry) are other crowd favourites.

During Eid, extended family members generally visit one another to congratulate each other on a successful Ramadan and pass along Eid greetings. These sweets, often bought at bakeries, will be served as part of the celebrations.

Apart from my sister, I haven't any family or extended family in town this year. Hence, we have no major socialising events to attend. I suppose because of this, it slipped my mind to stock up on pastries at the end of Ramadan. I woke up this morning realising there wasn't a traditional sweet in the house to help us celebrate.

So I pulled out my handy compilation of mom’s dessert recipes and decided to make basbousa, a sweet pastry made from semolina and coconut and drizzled in syrup. While I have had this recipe on file for years, today was the first time I tried to make it on my own.

The basbousa turned out quite well (I ate two portions before dinner). As usually occurs when I try one of my mom’s recipes, however, the basbousa wasn't quite the same as when she makes it. This never fails. I can follow my mom’s main course or dessert recipes to a tee and yet they will always turn out a little off, as though her touch triggers a latent flavour in every dish that cannot be replicated by anyone else.
In any case, the basbousa is still yummy enough to share, so I’ve included the recipe below for those interested in indulging in some guilt-free dessert consumption this Eid.

While Ramadan is over, many Muslims will continue to fast with less frequency in Shawwal, the lunar month that follows Ramadan on the Islamic calendar. Eid is declared once the sighting of a new moon marks the start of Shawwal. There are said to be spiritual benefits for fasting six days during the month of Shawwal, following the Eid celebration. Fasting outside of Ramadan is one way to help carry the spirit of the month through the year, which I elaborated on in July in my blog entry, ‘Fasting to Feed the Soul’.

A joyous Eid to all and happy eating!

My mom’s basbousa


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wheatlets (semolina)
1 cup coconut
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup butter or margarine, melted

¼ cup to ½ cup yogurt


1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla powder
Juice from ¼ of a lemon, freshly squeezed

1) Preheat oven to 180C.

2) Prepare the syrup. Combine sugar, water and vanilla powder in a saucepan at high heat. Bring to a boil and then simmer for five minutes to form a syrup. Leave to cool.

3) Mix together flour, wheatlets, coconut and baking powder in medium bowl. Fold in butter and mix until well-combined. Add yogurt to mixture and combine until batter is smooth.

4) Spread the mixture into greased large circular or rectangular baking dish and pat down until it is evenly spread across the pan. (I used two square baking dishes this time, but would have preferred making it in one larger pan)

Take a sharp knife and slice cake into diamond or square shapes. Arrange almonds on top so that each cut slice will hold an almond.

5) Bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

6) Remove cake from oven and immediately pour the syrup over the cake while it is still in the baking dish. Allow basbousa to absorb the syrup and cool down before removing from tray and serving.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The night of a thousand months

Photo courtesy of VickyTH, Flickr
(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post)

From seconds to years to millennia, time is a fluid concept in Islam that I often puzzle over. During the final 10 days of Ramadan falls a night that the Quran describes as being ‘better than 1,000 months’, which would translate into 83.3 years in modern time measurement. In essence, belief in the power of one evening is worth more than a well-lived lifetime.

Laylat Al Qadr, the Night of Power or Destiny, is the climax of the Islamic month of fasting, commemorating the night when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, received his first divine revelation through the Archangel Gabriel in 610 AD. These revelations continued for more than two decades and form the Quran, meaning ‘Recitation’ in English, which is a composition of God’s message to humanity.

Many Muslims around the world will spend Laylat Al Qadr in prayer and quiet reflection, some secluding themselves in mosques in devotion to God, hoping to seek the unparalleled benefit of a night when sincere worshippers are forgiven all sins and angels descend on earth.

Last year, while visiting Cairo, I strived for the first time to participate in Laylat Al Qadr, most-widely believed to fall on the 27th night of Ramadan, although many scholars concur it could fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the final 10 days.

Determined not to have the night to pass me by, I spent these five odd-numbered nights awake until the break of dawn, in prayer, reading passages from the Quran, offering duaa (supplications) for family and friends, and trying to grasp how one brief night could hold such immense energy and power. After all, 83.3 years is more than the average human life expectancy for citizens of most countries in the world. How could one night be greater than an entire lifetime?

To begin to comprehend this idea, I turned to the Quran, in which God continually calls on us to regard our perception of time as relative and flexible rather than linear and constant. For instance, the word for ‘day’ in Arabic is ‘youm’, which in everyday usage refers to the 24-hour period of a day. But in the Quran, the explanation of youm is much broader, referring to long periods of time, eras or epochs of indefinite lengths, rather than a single day measured by the rotation of the earth on its axis.

“A Day with your Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning,” the Quran says in one reference to how humans would grasp the length of a day in the Hereafter. (Quran, 22:47) When God says He “created the heavens and the earth in six days” (7:54), He is referring to six stages of development, rather than six 24-hour days.

Setting aside the ideas of time we have grown comfortable with in everyday life re-arranges how we evaluate the passage of time and helps us begin to grasp the concept of eternity. We realise that while daily living on earth may seem to us to be long, in the end when we reflect back, our time here will appear momentary. Once all is said and done, people will perceive that they had stayed on earth for “a day or part of a day” (23: 112-114) or “not longer than an hour of a day” (10:45), according to the holy book.

Knowing that the journey of life is brief when compared with eternity, spiritually aware Muslims--those who live in Islam, the Arabic word meaning ‘submission’ to God --become more conscious and attentive of our actions, seeking to pray, fast, give charity and treat those around us with kindness, respect and justice.

Trying to catch Laylat Al Qadr sincerely is, I presume, about attaining a spiritual connection with God that transcends units of time. For an evening, we have a chance to traverse the world's limitations to where time is incalculable--where the value in a moment of connection is so unfathomably rich that it surpasses the length of a person's worldly existence.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Bustle of bees

We have a gorgeous tree in our backyard that blooms in late summer, bearing clusters of soft pink hibiscus flowers whose funnel-shaped petals are accentuated by bright-red centres. A cream-coloured pistil protrudes from the centre of each flower, attracting bees from around the neighbourhood eager to collect pollen and nectar, which forms the sugar source for honey.

The flowers began opening up last week and since then many bees have been busying themselves pollinating the flowers. Watching the bees move about the tree this lovely sunny August afternoon, I thought I would take some photographs of these extraordinary miracles of nature.

God enjoins us continually in the Quran to pause and reflect on the miracles of nature to gain certainty in His signs. It really is quite remarkable what you can witness in nature if you just pay attention.

Your Lord inspired the bee, saying, ‘Make your homes in the mountains, in the trees, and also in the structures which humans erect.

Then feed on every kind of fruit, and follow the trodden paths of your Lord.’ From its belly comes a drink with different colours which provides healing for humankind. Indeed, in this there is a sign for people who give thought.
(Quran, Bees, 16: 68-69)

For another post on the miracles of nature, read my piece ‘Finding spirit in a school field’.