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.

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.