Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eid brings a sense of loss

Posted from Spirit 21.

Anticipating the first coffee of Eid, and the pleasure and sadness it brings
This is my weekly newspaper column at The National, in anticipation of Eid this week.
Eid celebrations will be taking place around the Muslim world this week. It’s a time, rightly or wrongly, of indulgence and pleasure: fine clothes, good food, high-fat, high-carbohydrate sweets. It’s a day when the spiritual focus of the previous 30 days is mostly forgotten, even though Eid is supposed to be a celebration of spiritual renewal, a cleansing of sins and of a fresh start.

Dear cappuccino, let me count the ways I love you
I confess that although I aim to uphold this sacred meaning of Eid, I’m not immune to engaging once more in the pursuit of pleasure in the daytime. The first exciting thing about the day of Eid for me is my morning cup of coffee. Its consumption is a celebratory ritual. My husband and I will usually go to our favourite cafe and breathlessly order a cappuccino, excited at its return to us after 30 days of daytime exile.
The cappuccino – above other kinds of coffee – offers us the opportunity for a beautifully decorated reintroduction to the flavourful morning shot of caffeine. The froth is elegantly smoothed over, like the icing on a birthday cake, and freshly ground cocoa is sprinkled on it in the shape of a pretty heart or coffee bean.
We normally stare at the coffee, then at each other, then back at the coffee. After a month of absence, our hearts have grown fonder, and we are enraptured by the return of the beloved. Lifting the coffee cup to my lips after a month of daytime separation, I experience the reunion of lost lovers.
Even now as I write this in anticipation of Eid morning, I feel mixed emotions about my longing for that first sip of coffee. The shiver of delight as the first warm drops slide down my throat. The disappointment in myself that, having given up coffee for a month, I should so easily return to my (mild) addiction. The sadness at the loss of Ramadan’s intense spirituality.
What my cappuccino also reminds me of is the distinction that each human being faces between the pursuit of contentment and the pursuit of pleasure. These are clearly different things, although at times we may confuse them. Pleasures need not be shameful or sinful. My coffee is neither, and gives me intense pleasure, and pleasure is rightly a part of the human experience. But as the coffee warms my mouth, I can’t help but recall the preceding month of Ramadan where it was the pursuit of contentment that was paramount.
Contentment is a funny beast. Talking of its pursuit is perverse – you cannot chase it, rather it must come to you. Sometimes you don’t know you were contented till the moment has passed. That is the essence of Ramadan. The emptiness of the belly, the lightheadedness of the body, when first experienced, feel like physical torture. But slowly – and often in hindsight – we learn to identify that the absence of pleasure has created a space and a stillness that allows contentment to settle, despite its elusiveness.
Rumi says: “There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire.”
Eid is a day of transition where we learn to reintroduce the pursuit of pleasure into our daylight hours. Will I still be able to hold on to the slippery creature that is contentment? I’ll let you know after I’ve enjoyed my first cup of coffee.

The Nature of Knowing God

Science is a human exercise in making sense of that which exists through the use of reasoning and gathering evidence. The scientific process is generally agreed to be one of positing of a conjecture, gathering and analyzing evidence to test the conjecture, and then drawing a conclusion about the conjecture based upon that evidence. The nature of conclusion that can be drawn from this process has some limitations. Some limitations arise from the methods of gathering evidence. For example, if the evidence is gathered from a study on 100 people, there are limitations on how far any conclusions can be said to apply to other individuals outside those 100 people in the study. Yet, since testing every person is impossible and ridiculous, guidelines are developed from probability theory to make a prediction about how well the study results might apply to other individuals, and decisions are made based on that prediction. This prediction in reality is one that is rarely if ever testable - we do not have means to know if the prediction is right or wrong, but we must act on it anyway. Limitations arise due to the psychology of the scientific process as well - even scientists, trying to be objective, are more likely to report, publish and be swayed by evidence that conforms to their existing beliefs.

Limitations also arise due to the nature of evidence itself. Consider the example of planetary motion. Most people may laugh today at the idea that the Sun moves around the Earth instead of vice versa. Yet, it is not such an unreasonable idea given the evidence that most people understand and have access to even today let alone in the past. When a human looks to the sky, it certainly appears as if the Sun is rising in the East and setting in the West and thus moving around the Earth. And, if a person lives his life under such a belief, his quality of life or ability to function and thrive are unlikely to be affected. Yet today's world would not be as it is if we as a society still held such a belief. A person might think that the Sun's motion around the Earth is a "fact" because it seems so obviously true given the evidence. In reality, it is not a fact, but is instead a conception or explanation that humans constructed in order to make sense of that of which exists. At some point, people made some observations that are at dissonance with this "fact". Eventually, as more observations were made and more evidence was gathered, the preponderance of evidence no longer seemed to support the conception that the Sun moves around the Earth and so most people changed their conception to a new idea that does seem to be in accord with the evidence - the Earth revolves around the Sun. Yet, this construct is not conclusively proven "fact", either. That is, it is impossible to absolutely and completely be certain that there might not be some other explanation for what is observed or that some evidence in the future might not come to light that would again lead to a further revision of our conception of planetary motion. Even interplanetary travel and imaging is not 100% proof of our conception. One might say that it is extremely powerful evidence against the former conception, and the current conception is in accord with the evidence much better, but we do not know for sure that future evidence might not modify our conceptions even further.

Actually, we rather hope that there will be further revisions to our conceptions, because increased and refined sense-making of what exists tends to have benefits. As we learn more, we are able to do things such as send craft to other planets, treat diseases, and communicate with each other across vast distances nearly instantaneously. Science provides models, and models are very useful even if they might not ever be 100% correct, or even if we can never truly know just how correct they are. We do not prove things in science, per se. We make a decision to believe or adopt a certain model to explain things and operate by, given a preponderance of evidence one way or another.

Even outside of the realm of formal science, people constantly engage in the act of sense-making in order to function. If we see a shadow, we naturally seek an explanation for the shadow. Barring an "obvious" or "natural" explanation, we tend to make up explanations, such as an unseen person, or even a creature made of shadow, or a ghost. Once we adopt such a conception, whenever we see a similar shadow, we interpret it as evidence in support of what we believe, even if it might not really be evidence in favor. The shadow is just continuing to be whatever it is, but we are interpreting it as evidence in support of what we believe or have decided it is. This psychology extends well beyond the physical realm and plays into everything we do, such as politics. Once someone develops a political belief, such as "Obama is a good leader", he or she will interpret events as supporting that conception the vast majority of the time, while someone else with the belief "the Tea Party is right" will interpret the very same evidence in favor of his own belief. It will take extraordinary evidence to cause someone to change his established conception, and in some cases no matter the strength of evidence, he will not change. This kind of sense-making, although sometimes faulty, is key to our survival, because it allows us to make decisions such as avoiding something that sounds like the rattle of a rattlesnake even though we haven't actually seen the snake.

A skeptic is someone who demands a higher threshold of evidence than most people in order to firmly adopt a conception. A skeptic will look for alternative explanations for events, especially in cases when a "natural" explanation does not seem to be at hand. Just exactly what is "natural" and what isn't, however, is in itself a construct that is determined by many factors such as education, culture, history, personality, and more. Generally speaking, it is wise to be a skeptic and to demand a high threshold of evidence. This critical thinking improves the societal process of sense-making and can prevent victimization from intentional deception or misguidance. For example, skepticism and the scientific process has enabled us to learn that what people may be inclined to interpret as a paranormal ability for fortune-telling can be accomplished through skillful employment of flattery, double-headed statements, vagueness, interpreting body language and facial expressions, redirection, misdirection, and so on. Even someone who genuinely believes in his own ability to tell fortunes may subconsciously employ these techniques. Further, we have learned that so far, no tested example of fortune-telling could be shown to not be explainable by these means. Similarly, other paranormal phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, telekinesis, talking to the dead or spirits, seeing ghosts, hypnotism or mind control, and prophecy can be shown to have "natural" explanations, and no examples that could not be explained "naturally" have come to light in tested conditions. (If you have interest in this area, you might enjoy reading Paranormality by the famous British skeptic Richard Wiseman.)

Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable to reject these phenomena as paranormal, but it must also be understood that science has no means of proving that every single instance of any of these phenomena can be explained "naturally". That is, just because 1000 instances of some type of event can be explained a certain way, one cannot know absolutely that the 1001st instance will be the same. However, we call it "likely" that the 1001st instance will be like the others and "reasonable" to adopt a construct or belief and behavior in accordance with the 1000 known instances.

As we have seen so far, all of our constructs, even those we typically consider "facts", are really things that we have simply decided to believe, usually based on interpretation of evidence of some kind. No construct or belief is proven or disproven by science or any other means, but its likeliness can in some cases be gauged and we are often comfortable saying evidence is so convincing as to enable us to reject certain ideas with a sense of "certainty". All of these constructs we develop constitute one kind of knowing. But, many people claim that there is another type of knowing, one that might be compared to one of recognition rather than one of learning. This second type of knowing, if it exists, is not so easily tested. This cognizance or recognition knowledge is cited in matters of religion such as the existence of God or the soul. Religious texts or scholars may say that people cognize God. But if one wants to test the existence of God or soul or life after death, no one has come up with a way to do so.

What we can do is test what people claim is evidence of any of these. If someone claims that an Out of Body Experience (OBE) is evidence of the soul, we can scientifically investigate OBEs to search for a "natural" explanation for them. And, we should not be surprised to find a "natural" explanation if we have the appropriate tools, conditions, and means to carry out appropriate tests. But, whatever results we get tell us nothing about the soul, but only about OBEs. If OBEs have a natural explanation, this does not prove or disprove the existence of the soul. And if OBEs do not have a natural explanation, this also does not prove or disprove the existence of the soul. Neither result provides any evidence either way about the soul, but may only serve to advise people that the phenomenon of OBEs does not prove the existence of soul (which could have been concluded without conducting the studies anyway.) But we must also say that the fact that OBEs may be naturally explained does not even prove that OBEs have nothing to do with the soul, either.

Muslims believe, according to the Qur'an, that God creates through His "wish" (mashiah). Some things or events are created directly, in which case the Qur'an uses first person singular "I" in describing the Conductor of the action. But generally, things or events are created through means or causes, and the Qur'an uses the plural "We" to indicate the Conductor. Thus, we expect what we observe in our existence to have explanations, to make sense, and to have natural causes, because that is the nature of their creation or existence. So, a Muslim should believe as skeptics do, that "paranormal" phenomena most likely have natural causes that we can gather evidence about and learn from and that can aid in our sense-making of the existence. We should not expect "paranormal" phenomena to prove the existence of things that fall into the realm of recognition knowledge rather than testable knowledge. Yet, the Qur'an is made of and speaks often of a large variety of ayahs, or signs, of things that fall into the recognition category. These signs aid in recognition and some people may interpret some of them as "evidence", but as we have already seen, science cannot speak to this one way or the other.

This is indeed a discomfiting situation for the particularly hard core skeptic, because his high standard of evidence that he prefers to operate by and which usually serves him exceedingly well is not functional or usable for decision making for recognition knowledge, if it is exists. Many atheists reject God and whatever else must be cognized rather than learned because they decide that if is untestable it cannot exist, or they mistakenly believe that tests involving "paranormal" phenomena disprove God if the results suggest "natural" explanations.

In conclusion, critical thinking and reasoning are essential tools of sense-making that advance society. The scientific process develops our understanding and level of functioning in this existence. However, not all types of questions can satisfactorily be answered through this method, even though many wish it were so. Every thing we think we "know" is really a decision to adopt a certain construct or belief. In every day life, people routinely adopt some constructs as "true" even though they are improbable in light of evidence, but skeptics tend to demand higher probability for certain constructs. In the case of the learning type of knowledge, scientific reasoning helps us choose useful constructs. In the case of recognition knowledge, ayahs or signs can guide what we believe but scientific process is of little use. If you believe in God, you know Him through recognition.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ramadan : The Spring Season of Hearts

 In the name of Allah the most Merciful Beneficent

Ramadan : The Spring Season of Hearts

"O you who believe! fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard (against evil). "(2:183)

The blessed month of mercy and forgiveness is once again back in our life. The purpose of this great month and fasting which is prescribed in it is to make us guard against evil and receive guidance from Allah. This glorious month is the period when holy Quran was revealed. Fasting makes our hearts pliant and soft which become capable to receive the guidance. As the different seasons have different effects on the fertility of the soil, so is case of our souls. We see that soil become most fertile and most productive in the spring season. The water which falls from the sky revive the earth and make it fertile. The spring time is the best time to sow seeds as due to greater fertility and producing capacity of earth we'll get good results. Likewise our hearts show different moods in different periods of a year. Some times we feel dead from inside, no word of guidance however may be very wise seem to affect us. Our hearts simply do not incline to listening truth. Sometimes we perceive a little softness and we response to guidance. But the period of holy month of Ramadan in the spring time of our hearts, we incline more towards Our Creator, and response best to guidance. The holy Quran compares the condition of hearts to that of rocks: "Then your hearts hardened after that, so that they were like rocks, rather worse in hardness; and surely there are some rocks from which streams burst forth, and surely there are some of them which split asunder so water issues out of them, and surely there are some of them which fall down for fear of Allah, and Allah is not at all heedless of what you do. "(Holy Quran, 2:74) The human heart which is capable of receiving divine guidance sometimes become header than rocks that even rocks shake in the fear of Allah but sometimes human heart become harder. The holy month of Ramadan creates an environment of spirituality in which even the most deviated ones return to remembrance of Allah and their hearts become pliant to listening to few words of guidance.

This great month is one of the roads to Allah. Man the weary traveler when treads on this road finds peace and tranquility and is drawn near to His Creator. The month revives his soul and reconnects him with His Maker Lord. Imam Sajjad beautifully recites in Sahifa Sajjadia:

"And praise belongs to God who
showed favour to us through His religion,
singled us out for His creed,
and directed us onto the roads of His beneficence,
in order that through His kindness we might travel upon them
to His good pleasure,
a praise which He will accept from us
and through which He will be pleased with us!

And praise belongs to God who appointed among those roads His month,
the month of Ramadan,
the month of fasting,
the month of submission,
the month of purity,
the month of putting to test,
the month of standing in prayer,
in which the Qur'an was sent down as guidance to the people,
and as clear signs of the Guidance and the Separator!
The holy Quran says "And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and most surely it is a hard thing except for the humble ones (2:45)" According to several traditions the patience in this verse refers to fasting. In this way the fasting becomes a medium to receive His assistance. Because fasting purifies from inside and creates piety. The Holy Prophet (s) says "If people understood what good there was in the month of Ramadhan, they would have liked that it last for a year."
The guidance and peity is core of fasting and if we are failing in this then we are deserving for this statement of Imam Ali(AS) :"Many persons get nothing out of their fasts but hunger and thirst, many more get nothing out of their night prayers but exertions and sleepless nights. "
Definitely the blessings of this month exceed our understandings and the utmost of them is revival of souls to receive guidance.

May Allah make us receive the blessings of this great month and guide us on the right path!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

30 mosques in 30 days

This is a blog project by some Muslims who travel the country during the month of Ramadan to meet Muslims and break fast with them, etc. This is the second time they have done the project and are going to new places. They started out in Alaska this year.

Below is a post from last Wednesday: WE ARE ALL RELATED
by Aman Ali

Basheer pointed to his gleaming skin and said the no-facial hair stereotype about Native Americans is true.

“Open up a history book and you’re not going to see Geronimo or Sitting Bull with a beard or nothin’” he said.

“Wow, I think you’re probably the least hairiest Muslim I’ve ever met,” I quipped back.

Basheer Butcher is a full-blooded Native American that converted to Islam in 2001. He hails from the Sioux tribe and grew up on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. He now lives in Sioux Falls and is active in the Muslim community here of about 3,000 people.

We chatted at length by kicking back on some stones in front of a gaping waterfall in a nearby park. He said he may have abandoned certain traditions in his culture when he embraced Islam, but becoming Muslim actually strengthened his Native American identity.

“A lot of virtues in Native American culture are very similar to values in Islam like sincerity, courage, wisdom and generosity,” he said. “My whole life I was searching for this connection with God and with Islam I felt like I finally found it.”

Basheer has a towering physique and a distinguishable face that looks like it was chiseled from stone. He wears a soothing sandlewood cologne and speaks with a gentle tone that brought comfort to my senses in more ways than one. When he began opening up about his life, he often reflected with brief pauses before he spoke giving me the impression it’s been a rocky journey to get to where he is today.

Basheer’s birth name is Louis Butcher Jr. and his family name is High Elk. Growing up on a Sioux reservation, he had a rough upbringing and was in search for divine answers to understand what he was dealing with.

“My father was an alcoholic and my parents got divorced when I was really young,” he said. “I had a lot of anger and feelings of resentment because I couldn’t make sense of anything.”

He also had his own demons. He battled with alcoholism and got into fights on the reservation that landed him in and out of jail. He said he never felt much of a connection with many of his Native American spiritual traditions like sweat lodges, a ritual where you ask tribe leaders to pray to spirits on behalf of you.

“I never understood why did I have to tell someone to talk to the spirits or God for me,” he said. “Why can’t I connect to God directly? My whole life that’s what I was seeking.”

He left the reservation at age 31 and moved to a small town in South Dakota called Rapid City. That’s where he met a co-worker that embraced Islam. Basheer was intrigued and in 2001 began researching the religion.

9/11 happened in midst of his studying of Islam and I asked if that tragedy altered his views of the religion.

“I already had my mind made up about being Muslim when 9/11 occurred,” he said. “I saw what was going on with the backlash and how Muslims were getting attacked. Going through what my people have gone through for the past 250 years in this country and seeing what the Muslims were going through, I felt that connection.”

Basheer’s family speaks Lakota, a Native American language that uses many throat sounds found in Arabic. He shared with me a Lakota proverb that helped lead him on his journey to Islam.

“In Lakota, we have a saying – Mitaku Oyasin,” he said. “It means ‘We are all related’.”

Through God, he said, he felt more connected to humanity and the environment. It was the connection he had been seeking his whole life. His family wasn’t upset with him leaving behind his Native American spiritual traditions, especially his grandmother.

“When I became Muslim, my grandmother told me a Lakota proverb – Taku oyagagmi hantas ihab ichuwo,” he said writing down the proverb on my notepad. “That means ‘If you don’t understand something, then leave it.’”

I drove Basheer home to his apartment at night and we passed by a Native American woman that seemed to be drunk as she stumbled down a sidewalk. Basheer’s face began to ache looking at the window before he quickly turned away.

“Alcoholism is one of the biggest problems Native Americans face anywhere,” he said. “A lot of people deal with their issues by turning to alcohol. Before I was Muslim I had a problem with it. Inshallah (God willing) I will never have to live that life again. It took my father’s life when he was 41 years old and it took my mother’s life in a fatal car accident when she was 36 years old. Being a Muslim and trying hard to be a good Muslim made a big change in my life.”

He may not practice many Native American customs he grew up on, but Basheer emphasized he doesn’t look down on his peers for doing them.

“Everyone has their own sense of a higher power whether it be a connection to God or spirits,” he said.

This year marks 10 years since Basheer has been Muslim. Given his tumultuous past, I asked him where he thinks he’d be today if he wasn’t Muslim. It was a heavy question for him to process and he looked away and took in a few deep breaths before he answered.

“You know, that’s something that’s always in the back of my mind but I try to keep things in a positive perspective,” he said. “Allah has blessed me and I’m always trying to do something good and focus on change in my life.”

“It’s always a worry for me to slip and go back to my old ways,” he added. “But as a believer in God, our faith is always going to go up and down. It’s always important to keep that in perspective to avoid going astray.”

With Islam in his life, I asked him if he has been able to find the answers he was seeking when he began longing for his connection to God as a child.

“Everything happens by Allah’s will,” he said. “All the things I experienced, they happened for a reason and made me the person I am today. There is a connection to everything in this world through Allah.”

Our conversation ended there and I drive away and get a phone call from a friend in New York. I’m quickly pulled out of the spiritual high I was on talking to Basheer to deal with some petty drama my friend had dropped on me. While on the phone, I scratch my nose and notice Basheer’s sandlewood scent is still on my hand. I’m reminded about the connections I have to people in this world and to roll my eyes at my friend’s problem would be rolling my eyes at God’s beauty. I immediately give my friend the time of day he deserves.

Basheer is right, we are all related.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Somalia Aid Appeal

CAI Special Bulletin

SOS Somalia:

You may have read or heard of the horrible draught and hunger situation in Somalia. There is a desperate Muslim community on the Somalia - Kenya border that is literally dying of hunger as I write this appeal; some UN reports claim 10 children dying every day. Able adults, who fast have nothing to break their fasts with, not even stale bread. Comfort Aid International (CAI) is organizing the distribution of food grains to these hapless people as soon as possible, perhaps as early as middle of August. This will be done through a very reputable local humanitarian organization to areas not currently served by various international NGO's; I will, insha'Allah, personally distribute this food in the affected areas.

CAI has allocated US$30,000 towards this project and will do more insha'Allah, funding permitting. I appeal to every one of you 8,000 plus people getting this appeal - please help in this desperate situation. Even if you give just $5 each, we will collect $40,000. There is no admin cost here, zero; a donor is underwriting all non-food related costs. All funds collected will be used to purchase food, except for about US$1,000 in total diesel costs to ferry the food from Nairobi to the distress area, and I will personally supervise the distribution of food grains, insha'Allah.

I am fully cognizant we have just concluded our Ramadhan Iftaar drive but this is serious stuff that needs our united efforts. Remember, Allah (S) will not hold us responsible for not changing such situations, but he will certainly hold us firmly responsible for not trying. Please, please help and help me in propagating this appeal for me.

Jazaak'Allah and Allah bless,

Yusuf Yusufali

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Politics of the Muslim Conscience

In the year 2011, word poverty has become a shameful term by all means and measurements. As a collective race, we have become desensitized to the suffering of others, particularly those who due to centuries of merciless neocolonialism have been rendered silent victims of hunger, famine, and deprivation of basic human necessities. However, this jargon is not welcomed, because the suffering of others has never been a hidden secret; subsequently, stating it serves little purpose. Perhaps approaching the disturbing state of world's empathy, or lack thereof, is better completed by considering the numbers.

At this present moment, the world's 1.5 billion Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan, and the majority of us is fasting from dawn to sunset. There are 12.4 million human beings, just like you and me, on the brink of starvation in Africa at this present moment. In Somalia alone, 3.5 million of the 7.5 million citizens in the country are in need of immediate assistance to prevent starvation and death due to drought and famine. In the past 90 days, nearly 30,000 children in Somalia have died due to malnutrition. You see, we have a choice in fasting; the starving Muslim children in Africa do not. Their death is preventable because it is not the drought that has killed them, but our collective apathy and botched ideology that has disconnected us from other human beings.

It would be wise to acknowledge there are obstacles that may prevent aid from reaching each and every one of the millions in the Horn of Africa that are suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis in generations including security and systematic corruption. However, this does not free us from the burden of at least caring or making others aware of the situation. It is disappointing we have embarked upon the holy month without relating to the poor in a meaningful way.

This begs the question: what's the point of fasting? Islam facilitates the institution of fasting as a means of allowing us to fill our hearts with mercy towards the less fortunate. Imam al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) further explains the social benefits of fasting, "God made fasting obligatory so that the rich and the poor are made equal. If there were no fasting, the rich would never experience the feeling of hunger that would make them have mercy on the poor, for whenever the rich desire something they are able to acquire it. Thus God desired to place His servants on the same level, and that the rich experience hunger and pain so that they have compassion for the weak and have mercy on the hungry." (Mahajjah al-Bayda)

Islam rejects the notion of detachment and ignorance we seem to have misled ourselves into concerning the famine in Africa. Why does our community vehemently push for certain countries and nationalities to gain freedom and have human rights while neglecting our duty towards those suffering in Africa? The politics of awareness and picking our causes is colored by race and class bias. Famine in Africa has never been a particularly popular topics in our mosques, centers, or rallies. Naturally, there are those among the Muslim world that will fight fiercely to maintain the current status quo towards human rights and political causes Muslims should uptake. How is it the same individuals rally us to their cause by quoting the Prophet's famous tradition, "Who does not concern himself with the affairs of the Muslims is not a Muslim" are nowhere to be found when it's time to discuss the man-made tragedy in Somalia and Ethiopia? The crisis engulfing Africa today and 20 years ago deserves our attention just as much as Palestine and Bahrain do. Our hypocrisy in this regard is glaringly disappointing and facilitates the slow and painful death of thousands due to hunger.

A novel approach to denying our responsibility by some Muslims is to claim ignorance of the famine by stating the United Nations declared the famine in July 2011, and that this has not given us much time to react and organize relief efforts. Unfortunately, these same individuals should consider saving themselves a certain level of embarrassment by realizing that the FEWS Network (Famine Early Warning Systems Network), set up after the 1985 famine, forecast stated eight months that this year's drought would be the worst witnessed in 60 years. Basically, the world knew for eight months what was coming and didn't seem too eager to act. Perhaps we weren't convinced and needed to see pictures of children dying from hunger and unable to fight off the flies surrounding them in order to be convinced. Time is running out, and even in a best case scenario, the crisis will worsen.

Islam has placed upon each and every one of us a responsibility towards the starving children in Ethiopia and Somalia. The Holy Qur'an is clear in setting forth our duty towards the poverty stricken, "And (as for) the believing men and the believing women, they are guardians of each other; they enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, and obey God and His Messenger; (as for) these, God will show mercy to them; surely God is Mighty, Wise." (9:71) It is hoped that in this holy month, we as individuals, religious leaders, and Muslims are able to fulfill our duty towards our brothers and sisters who are deprived of clean water and a simple meal for their families. It is unacceptable to delude ourselves into further believing that our obligation towards Muslims and human beings in general is defined by race or skin color.

Readers who are interested in making a financial contribution to assist in the East African relief effort are encouraged to visit Comfort Aid International.

Source: Huda Jawad at Islamic Insights

Saturday, August 6, 2011

How do we eat?

Food, glorious food!
But is it just about the food? When we are concerned about our eating habits and diet plans, it usually has to do with what we should consume, in which proportions, whether or not our body's nutritional needs are being met, etc. Whilst this is indeed important to learn, practice, and maintain, we must not allow our eating to become mindless beyond this point. For along with what we should eat there is a whole other dimension of how we should be eating. Let us explore some of the teachings of our Infallible Guides (peace be upon them all) with respect to this, making efforts within ourselves to transform mindless eating into mindful eating.

Time of Eating

If we only ever ate to satisfy hunger, the time of meals and snacks would not be such an issue. The problem arises when we turn to food on a daily basis not just to appease hunger, but for comfort, enjoyment, stress relief, and as a medium to socialize. Yet we must realize that these emotional tendencies need to be controlled and altered, and replaced with a mental attitude that will not only help our body but also our true selves, our nafs (soul).

Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has said, "A person who would like the food to not cause him harm should not eat until his bowels are clear and he feels very hungry. When he begins to eat, he should recite 'Bismillah'. The food should be chewed, and when there is a little bit of hunger left to be appeased, he should stop eating." Indeed Allah says in the Qur'an, " and drink, and be not extravagant" (7:31) and the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has said, "We are a people who do not eat until we feel hungry, and when we eat we do not satiate ourselves (we do not eat excessively)." A very simple narration of the Prophet that we can always keep in mind: "Eat when you desire and stop while you still desire." (Bihar al-Anwar)

It is recommended to eat early in the morning, go without food for the whole day, and eat again for the second time after Isha prayers. If this is too difficult, it is a good idea to eat only fruits between breakfast and dinner. According to a reliable tradition, the nephew of Shahab went to Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) complaining of stomach ache and the heaviness of bowels. The Imam asked him to eat only twice a day – day and night – for Allah has said the same in the praise of food in Heaven: "For those whose abode is Heaven, they will get their food already prepared both times, morning and evening." (19:62)

It is highly discouraged to eat in the state of Janabat, yet the rigidity of this is relaxed if one performs Wudhu or washes the hands, gargles, and puts water in the nose, or simply washes the hands and face and gargles. Traditions state if this direction is neglected, one may suffer from the disease of white spots.

Quantity of Food

There are numerous traditions that warn of the consequences of excessive eating and inform us of the benefits of hunger and eating in small quantities. The Prophet has said that a man whose consumption of food is little has a healthy stomach and a pure heart, and a man whose food is plenty has a sickly stomach and a hard heart. (Tanbih al- Khawatir) Further warning us against excessive food, he has said it poisons the heart with hardness, slows the limbs in performing acts of obedience, and blocks the souls from hearing counsel. (Bihar al-Anwar)

Imam Ali said that overeating is the greatest aid to acts of disobedience, and that when the stomach is filled with even permissible food, the heart becomes blind to goodness. (Ghurar al-Hikam)

On the night of Mer'aj (the Prophet's heavenly ascension), the Prophet asked, "O Allah, what is the outcome of hunger?" He said, "Wisdom, protection of the heart, drawing closer to Me, lasting sorrow, less burden on the people, telling the truth, and lack of concern whether one lives in wealth or poverty." (Ibid)

General Recommended Acts

According to Imam Hasan (peace be upon him), every Muslim should keep 12 points in mind regarding food. Four are compulsory, four are recommended, and four pertain to general manners:

The compulsory

To know one's Giver
To know that all we have is from God and be satisfied with the food He gives
To say "Bismillah"
To thank Allah
The recommended

To wash one's hands before eating
To sit by keeping one's weight to the left side
To eat with at least three fingers
To lick the fingers
The general manners

To eat the food placed before one
To take small morsels
To chew the food
Not to look at others' faces while eating (Wasael al-Shi'aah)
Other Recommended Acts

To eat with the right hand whilst sitting on the knees.
To wash the hands before and after eating, and not to dry them with a towel. Numerous traditions state that if a person wants his house to be blessed, he should wash his hands before every meal. This also prevents poverty and body pains.
Having a little salt before and after each meal. This has countless benefits; it is narrated that the Holy Prophet asked Imam Ali to do this, for a man who takes salt before and after meals is saved from 70 types of curses, a major one being leprosy. Imam Baqir (peace be upon him) has also said regarding salt: "It is the cure for 70 diseases, if people would know the advantages of salt they would not use any other cure except salt."
General Discouraged Acts

To eat while walking, except when forced, as per the tradition of Imam Sadiq
To take very hot food, but if one does, (s)he should not cool it by blowing on it; rather it should be allowed to cool itself.
To eat while lying or relaxing; however, there is no harm in resting on the left hand while eating.
To eat alone. It is recommended to eat with one's servants and slaves, sitting on the ground.
To leave plates uncovered. Imam al-Sadiq said, "Do not leave your plates uncovered, for Satan spits on uncovered plates and takes from them what he wants." (Mustadrak al-Wasail)
Supplications at the Time of Eating

According to the Holy Prophet, when food is served, thousands of angels descend from heaven and surround the food. For those who start their food with "Bismillah", the angels pray to God to send His blessings on them, increase their daily bread, and order Shaitan to leave them alone, as he is the one who broke the law of God; thus, he cannot join them. After having eaten, for those who say "Alhamdulillah", the angels say these people are the thanks-givers, as they have thanked God for the good food He has given them. If they do not say "Bismillah" while eating, they invite Shaitan to have food with them, and if they do not say "Alhamdulillah" after their meal, the angels remark these people are those who are not satisfied with what good food God has given them, for they have forgotten to thank God for the blessing; as such, they are cursed.

Imam Ali has said one should remember Almighty Allah whilst eating and should not talk too much, as the food is a blessing from Him, and when one consumes that blessing, it is time to praise and thank Him.

According to Imam Sadiq, "While drinking water, whoever remembers Imam Hussain and his family members, and invoke the removal of Allah's Mercy from his murderers and tormentors, 100,000 good deeds will be written in his record, 100,000 sins will be forgiven, he will be elevated 100,000 times, and he will be rewarded to the extent as though he has freed 100,000 slaves in the name of God, and on the Day of Judgment Allah will look towards his welfare."

He furthers says it is better for one to recite the following while drinking water: "May Allah shower His blessings on Hussain and his family members and his companions. May He remove his Mercy from the murderers of Hussain and his enemies."

Unless otherwise referenced, narrations in this article are taken from Allama Majlisi's book Tahdhib ul-Islam.

Source: article by Farah Masood, posted at Islamic Insights.