Friday, 4 November 2016

Lessons on living from my late uncle

Turning on a tune by Egyptian legend Abdel Halim Hafez, my sister Mandy handed her iPod to Uncle Hoda and gestured him to place the headphones over his ears. Seconds later, an expression combining astonishment and glee came over his face while listening to a melody that must have taken him back at least three decades. Our uncle laughed and sang along to the words of “Gana El Hawa, the Love Came to Us,” while swaying his head from side to side, fully mesmerized in enjoyment of the moment.

If there’s anything that I will always treasure about my Uncle Hoda, who passed away last month following a battle with cancer, God bless his soul, it is that he was among only a small number of people that I’ve encountered who lived for the present.

I imagine it was Uncle Hoda’s deep connection with God that enabled him to embody this state of being. He spoke with great reverence of the Divine, and the love that sprang from that bond was contagious. Positivity and optimism radiated from him; whenever he entered a room, it was with the lightness and calmness of a person who was content with the joys and patient with the challenges of his life.

As my two sisters and I reminisced in our Whatsapp chat room about our beloved maternal uncle in the days following his passing, we alternated between tears and laughter. I was struck at how profoundly he had affected each of us, given we lived far apart most of our lives, Uncle Hoda in Egypt and us in a scattering of cities around North America, the Arabian Gulf and Europe.

It was joyous to reunite with our uncle during summer holidays, the distresses of our childhood dissolving away in his playful presence. He was consistently ready to offer a smile, which would make his small eyes almost disappear beneath his bushy eyebrows. Whether he was getting us to hum and sing along to the latest Egyptian pop song or sending us into an endless round of giggles during an afternoon drive around Cairo by swerving his car to the right and left in a zigzag pattern, Uncle Hoda always made us feel like the centre of his attention.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Forgiving my reflection

Sufi stories and poetry often allude to mirrors. Not the ones that immediately come to mind which we look at each day to see the outer image we project to the world. Rather, they refer to inner reflections that enable us to see our true nature. Sometimes this happens when we encounter a different perspective of ourselves revealed in another person’s heart and, through this, come to better understand the presence of God within us.

The image I saw glaring back at me that evening a few weeks ago was one I quickly turned away from on account of its unpleasantness.

Candle’s reflection, by Andreas Kusumahadi
Someone I cared for deeply, and who reciprocated this affection, spoke in anger and anguish of how they felt hurt by my actions. My instant reaction was to refute the criticisms outright to myself. I didn’t deserve these words, my injured ego protested. The comments delivered in fury simply could not be true since they were a far cry from the compassion, honesty and kindness I was striving to embody.

It’s at moments like this when I’m shaken by an interaction with a loved one, friend, colleague or even a stranger that I feel compelled to spend time in silent contemplation to reflect on the words that were exchanged and the events that unfolded.

In his poetry, Rumi describes how it is through the wound that the light of truth enters us. “Don’t turn your head,” he says in his Masnavi, an epic Sufi poem conveying a message of Divine love and unity. “Keep looking at that bandaged place.”

Monday, 22 August 2016

A Smile's Worth

He smiled at me, revealing a row of impeccable pearly white teeth. I’m not normally moved by a grin to stop in my tracks, but on this occasion a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, God grant him peace and blessings, flashed in my mind on how smiling at a fellow human being is an act of charity. 

Since stumbling on this Hadith several years ago, I've become more receptive to how I share and respond to the simple gestures of kindness I encounter. In that moment, the young man’s vibrant smile and welcoming demeanour felt like a gift that I should acknowledge. 

So I stopped, and we briefly exchanged niceties about how wonderful it was to be outside on an especially sunny August afternoon in London. He was a street fundraiser and I had willingly entered his open-air office, the door quickly closing behind me. 
Photo by Andreea-Elena Dragomir
I imagined this gentleman, whose name I soon learned was Dale, spent much of that afternoon on the busy intersection in London's financial district, trying to attract the attention of the streams of well-paid professionals leaving their offices, in hopes a handful of us would agree to donate to a cause that would no doubt be a worthy one. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Opening the Door to Surrender

Each time I open the door to leave my apartment, I recite three poignant yet simple Islamic phrases in a subtle whisper that’s only audible to me.
“Bismillah,” Arabic for “In the name of God,” I say in a quick breath as I rotate the lock to the right and grasp the door knob. 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,” or “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 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 modest for the richness and tremendous power they encompass when reflected upon. They embody the essence of surrendering to God, which is what Islam is principally about.
Open door, photo by Brad Montgomery
Open door, photo by Brad Montgomery
In the basic definition, a Muslim is one who consciously lives in a state of presence with the Divine. When the prefix `mu’ is attached to a verb of four or more letters in Arabic grammar, it changes the meaning from the action to the doer of that action. For example, the Arabic word “to teach” is “darris,” and a teacher, the one performing the act of instruction, is the “mudarris.”
Muslim, then, is one who performs “slim,” or “surrender.” When I discovered this simple grammatical rule six years ago while studying my mother tongue for the first time in an academic setting, it provoked an understanding inside of me. I realized that to truly be Muslim rather than simply label myself such, I needed to really experiencesurrender to the Divine, and that meant God should be the focal point of my consciousness.
At the time, I couldn’t have been further from this state of being. God rarely crossed my mind. While I believed the Divine existed, I would only turn to His/Her help when I was struggling to find a new job to escape clashes with a cantankerous boss I couldn’t see eye to eye with, or cope with a broken heart after a failed relationship, or pray for a loved one who had fallen ill or passed. Thoughts of the Almighty would flicker then quickly recede to the backburner of my mind once these desperations were resolved.
It dawned on me then that my faith lacked the depth and sincerity that comes when a human being is mindful enough to accept and be grateful for the blessings of life at all times, whether the circumstances are easy and difficult.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, once described how“wonderful” a sincere believer’s circumstances are: If something good happens to her she expresses gratitude, and this is a blessing. When something negative occurs, she bears it with patience, and this too is a blessing.
Aspiring to draw nearer to this genuine form of Self Surrender, I started to infuse my daily routine with zikr – repeated acts of remembrance recited silently or aloud – until they became habitual.

Friday, 1 July 2016

The night of a thousand months

In the name of God, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Infinitely Merciful
We sent it (the Quran) down on the Night of Destiny
And what will make you comprehend what the Night of Destiny is?
The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months
On that night, the angels and the Spirit come down by the permission of their Lord with His decrees for all matters
It is all peace till the break of dawn
(Quran, The Night of Destiny, Surah 97)
During Ramadan, my perceptions of time somehow become more magnified.
At the onset of the Islamic holy month, the 30 days of fasting that lie ahead look lengthy and daunting, especially now as they coincide with the Summer Solstice and many Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere refrain from food and drink for 18 hours or longer. Yet even as we endure some of longest days of fasting of our lifetimes, Ramadan has once again hurried by and I find myself embarking on the sprint through the final 10 days. As the finish line comes into view, I can’t help but wish that it was further afield to give me more time to extract spiritual benefits from the month.
laylat al qadr foto
Mosque by moonlight, (Photo courtesy of Vicky TH)
With little room to scale back my working hours, I rely on evenings and weekends to dedicate more energy to prayer and reflection, Quranic readings, Sufi remembrance and meditation, and the giving of zakat, a redistribution of 2.5 percent of my wealth to the less fortunate. Carving out the hours needed for these acts of worship means I spend less time resting my head on my pillow and more on my prayer mat. 
There is something pliable about the passage of time while fasting. Every second and minute tends to become more palpable when I’m craving a 10 a.m. caffeine fix to get me through then next wave of conference calls and news story pitches, only to look up at the clock and realize there’s another 11 hours and 24 minutes until Iftar, the meal to break the fast at sunset.

In this way, my perception of human time is heightened. Yet Ramadan also encourages me to perceive the expanse of eternity. One of the final nights of Ramadan is Laylat Al Qadr, or the Night of Destiny, described in the Quran as being “better than 1,000 months.”
While the 27th night of Ramadan is said to commemorate the historic night when Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, received his first Divine revelation in 610 AD, there’s also the belief that Laylat Al Qadr comes once in a year, most possibly during Ramadan, and most likely during the last ten nights of the month on one of the odd numbered nights.
It can be puzzling to think that a few hours in the tranquil evening stillness could hold such immense power as to encompass 1,000 months, the equivalent of 83.3 years. That’s more than the average human life expectancy in most countries. How could one night of spiritual reflection fathomably be greater than an entire lifetime?
Minaret at night
Mosque by moonlight, (Photo courtesy of Vicky TH)
To begin to comprehend this idea, I turn to the Quran, where God appears to call on me to regard my perception of time as relative and flexible rather than linear and constant. For instance, the word for day in Arabic is youm, which I often think of as a 24-hour period. Butyoum in the Quran refers to eras or epochs of indefinite lengths, rather than a single day measured by the rotation of the earth on its axis. The earth, then, was created in six periods, not necessarily six 24-hour days.
“A Day with your Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning,” the Holy Book says of how humans will conceive the length of a day when they reach the Hereafter. While our lives in this world may seem extensive to our intellect, when we return to our Creator, we will regard our time here as spanning merely “a day or part of a day.”
After first reading the Quran six years ago and realizing how transitory this journey of life truly is, my receptivity to God became amplified. I started to dwell less on the daily agitations that once consumed my thoughts, realizing how miniscule they were in the grander scheme of eternity. I’ve sought to be more conscious and attentive of my actions, prioritizing prayers, fasting and charity, while striving to treat those around me with kindness, respect and fairness.
For me, participating in Laylat al Qadr is about attaining a spiritual connection with the Divine that transcends well-ingrained notions of units of time. Many Muslims will spend the night in prayer and quiet reflection, some secluding themselves in mosques for the last 10 days hoping to seek the unparalleled benefit of a night when sincere worshippers are forgiven all sins and angels descend on earth.
In many ways, the first 20 days of Ramadan prepare me to be receptive to this possibility. Fasting forces me to confront my vulnerabilities and attachments to the ego. Pangs of hunger and thirst improve mindfulness; beyond the emptiness of my belly, I seek something within myself that isn’t starved in the same way, something that at other times of the year can get muffled behind consumption and external comforts.
“Fasting is meditation of the body, just as meditation is fasting of the mind,” writes Shaikh Kabir Helminski. “Hunger,” he says, “reduces the need for sleep and increases wakefulness. Eating our fill hardens the heart, while hunger opens the heart and increases detachment from material concerns. We become more free of needs, qualified by God’s name, the Self-Sustaining, Al Qayyum.”
While Prophet Muhammad continued to receive revelations for more than two decades after the momentous first Divine exhortation to “Read,” the beautiful messages contained in the Quran will always trace back to Laylat Al Qadr.
More than 1,400 years later we’re still invited to taste a hint of the sweetness of that momentous evening. For me, seeking to participate in it is a chance to traverse the world’s limitations to where time is incalculable and endless: where a moment of connection with the Divine Reality is so unfathomably rich that it surpasses lifetimes.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Of Saints and Matchmakers

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Seeking the Kaaba Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 February 2016

Between 33 Beads

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

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

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

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

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

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