This is my submission to The Madina, in which people were asked to submit a creative work on the general theme of Islamic Values.
Be the captain of the ship,
Mustafa, my chosen one,
My expert guide.
Look how the caravan of civilization
Has been ambushed.
Fools are everywhere in charge.
Do not practice solitude like Jesus.
Be in the assembly,
And take charge of it.
So you should live most naturally out in public
And be a communal teacher of souls.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all.
We are in the Prophet’s Spring, Rabi’ al-Awwal, the blessed month in which it is reported that the Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wa salam, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) was born, in which he arrived in Madina after his migration (hijrah) and in which he passed away. In many ways it is ‘his’ month, a time when we increase in our remembrance of him, his life and teachings, and in our prayers upon him (salAllahu alayhi wa salam). Mercy to the worlds, lover of God, brother of men… who manifest every noble quality in his life and on his limbs, who was the best of character, and was sent but to perfect character – this is our beloved Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam).
It is in this same month we find our hearts shaken by the slaughter of innocent men, women and children in Syria as a brutal regime desperately grasps at its fleeting hold on power. This is not the first time we have witnessed injustice and cruelty on the world scene, but it is the latest and most blatant example of such brutality, of deeds done by people who evidently have no fear of God, and the viciousness to which some will go for their own ends.
In the face of such ugliness, The Prophet’s beauty (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) and the beauty of his teachings are only more resplendent. His unwavering sense of God-consciousness, truth, justice, forgiveness, and kindness, the values he lived his whole life seeking to impart, only become clearer and more distinguished in the face of such wrongs. We can also hold fast to a sense of hope that colors the Prophet’s life (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) and deeds. Even when he encountered some of the worst of the life of this world and the worst of human nature, his belief in his Lord was constant, his faith luminous. With the weightiness of the prophetic mission, a life replete with tribulation and difficulty, and his community facing some of the worst of oppression and bloodshed, he (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) never lost himself in despair, but instead saw suffering through the lens of one who believes in Allah and knows that everything that happens is within His knowledge and from His wisdom. We see a hopefulness, a confidence in Allah’s plan, that brighter days were coming soon and that this ummah (community) has a future, by God’s leave. Instead of giving up, we see a lifetime of constant work and sacrifice in the way of God.
In this month we find ourselves in the refreshing spring of his (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) remembrance, contemplating the temperate winds of his devotion, the beauty of each blossom of his teachings in full bloom for us to admire and take in. Every small act of goodness, refined character, and God-consciousness is a reflection of his teachings (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) and the values he imparted. May we be hopeful people who know that the darkest hour always comes before the dawn, and who seek to imbue his teachings (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) in our lives and selves down to the marrow of our bones. Ameen.
The Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) taught me the value of…
Brotherhood and Sisterhood Across Race, Class or Color
My little son with some neighborhood children in Cairo. The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught, “You are all as equal as the tooth of a comb”, and that “God does not look at your faces or bodies, but at your hearts.” (Tirmidhi)
Standing for Justice
My father at a protest. In an FBI entrapment case which ensnared two members of the Albany Muslim community, my Dad was one of the very few of the older generation to step forward in support of the brothers who were prosecuted and their families. I really have never been prouder of him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was a pillar of justice and stood with the oppressed.
Showing Love and Mercy for the Young
My son Ibrahim on his first day of life. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “He is not from us who does not show mercy to young children nor honor the elderly.” (Tirmidhi)
A woman supplicates at Masjid Muhammad Ali, Cairo. The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught that remembrance of God brings life and light to the spiritual heart and said, “What purifies and polishes the heart is remembrance of God.” (Bayhaqi)
Helping One Another
Cousins helping each other face new adventures. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ” If anyone fulfills his brother’s needs, Allah will fulfill his needs; if one relieves him of his troubles, Allah will relieve his troubles on the Day of Resurrection…” (Bukhari and Muslim)
A lovely pool in a rose garden in Texas. The Prophet peace be upon him said, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” (Muslim)
Walking the Path to a Greater Destination
Mother and son reflecting on their journey. The Prophet (peace be upon him) advised us to live in this life “like a wayfarer or traveler” (Bukhari), to remember the transient nature of this world and strive to make our time, energy and efforts a path to a better place by God’s leave.
(Poetry by Rumi and Emily Dickinson, respectively)
One of the blessings of living in Cairo, a place where history seems to have left its mark everywhere one looks, is that it is home to many of the graves of notable righteous people, distinguished worshipers and scholars of Islamic history. It is an entirely different experience to read or hear about a person of the past and their incredible knowledge or devotion, and to stand at the foot of their grave. The first is cerebral; the second, a visceral, personal experience that forges a connection that is difficult to express. In some ways it bring life to a tradition that may seem static, and make real and tangible what seems abstract and elusive. It is also sobering to consider what great heights such people reached and how far we may have left to climb.
A few steps down from the masjid of Imam Shafi`i in Old Cairo lies the grave of one of his teachers, Waki` ibn Jarrah. His name is familiar to many of us through the famous lines of Imam Shafi`i:
شَكَوْتُ إلَى وَكِيعٍ سُوءَ حِفْظِي فَأرْشَدَنِي إلَى تَرْكِ المعَاصي
وَأخْبَرَنِي بأَنَّ العِلْمَ نُورٌ ونورُ الله لايؤتى لعاصي
I complained to Waki’ about my poor memory:
“Give up your sins!” was his advice to me;
“For knowledge is a light from Divinity,
and the Light of God is veiled by iniquity.”
It is said that Imam Shafi`i was walking in the street one day when an inadvertent glance caused him to glimpse a woman’s shin, exposed by the wind as she was passing by. This momentary, seemingly negligible glance had its effect on his mind and heart, which led him to seek guidance from his teacher and resulted in these lines of poetry and profound wisdom.
Such a story seems almost incredulous in our times, when our senses are overwhelmed by a seemingly never-ending array of spiritually harmful things, often indulged in consciously.
In the Qasidat al-Burda Imam al-Busiri counsels,
واستفرغ الدمع من عين قد امتلأت من المحارم والزم حمية الندم
Pour out tears from those eyes that have become filled
With forbidden sights, and hold fast to remorse as a guard (against returning to sin).
My teacher pointed out the beautiful imagery of the language of this couplet, and the contrast of emptiness and fullness, the words chosen likening our eyes to actual physical containers or vessels. In these lines Imam Busiri counsels us to empty and pour out, by way of tears of regret and repentance, these vessels we have filled up with the forbidden, just as if they were physical vessels that we have consciously filled with impurity, that need to be emptied and cleansed.
We must ask ourselves, what have we filled our eyes with? And how can Divine light settle in a place that is filled to the brim with other things?
May Allah help us to heed Waki`’s advice to his student, honor us with light, and keep our spiritual gazes fixed on Him. Ameen.
We jumped out of a microbus and into a frenzy of people and traffic. This was Maydan Sayyida ‘Aisha, or Sayyida ‘Aisha Square. It lies partially under a bridge and is basically a hub from which you can find a bus to just about any part of Cairo. It’s located in front of the historic masjid in which a descendant of Imam ‘Ali, Sayyida ‘Aisha, is buried, which is where it gets its name.
As we got off our bus we found ourselves immediately caught in the hustle of traffic moving in seemingly every direction. Microbuses cruised by with drivers hanging out their windows shouting out destinations for potential customers – “Abbasiya! Abbasiya!” – as people of all sorts navigated through the crowds, or sat or stood behind tables selling their wares. Businessmen walked by with briefcases, and young men with slicked back hair and narrow jeans waited around for someone or something. An old woman in dusty clothing balanced a large plastic package on her head as she walked, her eyes barely visible in her sun-weathered face. A well-dressed man effortlessly carried a toddler in one arm as he talked on his cell phone and walked rapidly away, with the little boy trying to look everywhere at once. A teenage girl in a glitter-bedecked jilbab tottered by in clunky heels, her nails painted a cherry-red to match her lipstick. I spotted a young boy weaving his way through the crowd, his hands full of a silver tray with small glasses of hot tea with the steam still pouring out.
Crowded, noisy and dusty, tables are set up along the curb with all kinds of things for sale. I saw fruits in neat piles, the bruises carefully turned away from buyers’ eyes, with little wooden signs poking out listing the price. An old man sold men’s shoes, each pair perfectly aligned in his little space of street, with one shoe angled over the other. He adjusted one just so as the young man at the table alongside him smoked with bored eyes and an attitude of wanting to be somewhere else. The cheap cotton shirts the young man sold were stylish in that British punk way, but with indecipherable English phrases on them. They were proudly displayed on two mannequins set up wearing jeans and with bandannas wrapped around the bottom half of their faces, like they just walked away from protests at the G8 Summit.
One family sat on flipped over crates next to their humble table of wares, eating something out of unfolded aluminum foil, taking turns drinking from a water bottle with the label long-since worn off. They were in their own world, in comfortable conversation, and didn’t even blink at the chaos and noise around them.
It’s memories like these that I think I will take back with me to the U.S., that some years from now I’m sure will shake loose, like a long forgotten quarter at the bottom of a coat pocket. While waiting sedately at a traffic light in suburbia or inspecting another perfect apple at a soulless grocery store I’ll remember the microbus driver who snarled at one passenger to get off, and then kindly told an old woman, ‘Take your time momma’ as she got on; the man with his sibha selling fruit, in his own world as traffic sped crazily by him, or the horse that I stared at wide-eyed, kept behind a little fence inches away from busy traffic, looking back at me just as perplexed with me as I was with him. Over well tended pavement I will remember the dust and the dirt of this square and this bit of Cairo life, and in the quiet I’m sure I’ll recall the crazy Arab pop music ringing in my ears as I got on the next bus, zoomed through traffic, and prayed for a safe arrival home.
In following the recent events in Libya I found myself thinking about what dramatic and strange times we live in. A dictator who lived his entire life beyond the reach of law or morality – who was possibly the richest person on earth – was killed in the most humiliating of manners for the world to see. Even with the innumerable resources and wealth he possessed he was unable to elude death and his ultimate, inescapable accountability before God. This is certainly a sign and a lesson for those who reflect.
Another, just as critical lesson can be learned from the actions of those who captured him. While it may be true that the Arab Spring cannot truly blossom until the choking weeds of oppression and corruption are removed, the deeds that were done to this man in the last moments of his life, and to his body after he died, cannot be justified.
It is understandable that emotions are running high – but to be frank, that is too often our defense and our excuse, one we fall into as individuals and as a worldwide community. From an over-zealous correction of a new Muslim’s mistake to the burning down of buildings over offensive cartoons – running on emotion, desiring immediate change, and hastily acting without consideration of consequence or even religious sanction is a deep and serious spiritual problem from which we are clearly suffering, and that is manifest in myriad ways.
Yes, emotions run high – but this world is filled with things that evoke emotion, and our lifetime from birth to death is a collection of emotional moments of good and bad, victory and loss, successes and disappointments. Our goal as Muslims is to make all things within ourselves, including our emotions, subject to an ubudiyyah – a loving surrender and submission to God Most High. Our hearts are susceptible to being moved and to change and flip flop with the currents that such feelings bring (The word for heart in Arabic, qalb, is even derived from the act of turning and constantly changing) – but we ask God to give us thabaat, steadfastness on the truth and on His deen and to make that our steady and constant guide through the sometimes murky currents and overwhelming waves of this life.
We saw in Libya – as we do in many other places in the world today – the power of emotions, and the real need each and every one of us has to beseech God for His constant help and guidance in dealing with them.
Those who engage in contrived plans to target airports and the like in the West also do so out of a deep sense of emotion: when our brothers and sisters are suffering, they argue, we too suffer. When we see them in various places across the world impoverished, under occupation, facing military aggression or under the stifling yokes of other forms of oppression, some deep part of them is touched, they argue, and is moved to act.
However what must be understood is that the heat of such emotions must be tempered by the teachings of our faith, by calm deliberation, and by a mind and heart cognizant of Allah and His All-Seeing, All-Knowing nature. There is a desperation that colors these acts of vigilante ‘justice’ – a grasping at vengeance that belies a faith in a higher power, and knowledge that there are things that are beyond us and our abilities. To think that one must take justice into one’s own hands no matter what the cost is arrogating to oneself more than what God asks of us. It also fails to take into consideration that everything that happens does so within God’s knowledge and will, that there is wisdom in everything He decrees, and His final judgment in the Hereafter will set aright any wrong, however small, that was committed in this life.
Would that the Libyan fighters had taken the example of Ali, who, when an adversary in battle spit in his face, stepped away from killing him out of fear for his intentions and said, “My struggle is for God and not for any personal sense of vengeance.”
Would that those vulnerable youth whose hearts burn for the oppressed shun the video-game like rhetoric of forces of good and evil, and instead roll up their sleeves to work on a long-term, strategic course of positive action, in complete accord with the teachings of our deen, that would bring real and lasting change to the local and then the world scene.
How easy to get tripped up in emotion and fall into the moment, and how much harder to sublimate that emotion or efface it entirely for a greater good, a higher calling, and a God-conscious sense of accountability. This is certainly not as exciting a battle, but this quieter, and at times more bitter struggle for the sake of God is what is real, true, and noble. This is the good fight, and not lashing out of emotion with the gilded coating of doing something ‘for the Muslims’ or ‘fisabilillah’ (in the way of God). This is what is meant in the text that is attributed to the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam), that on returning from battle he said, ‘we are going from the lesser jihad to a greater one’ – referring to the everyday battle with one’s lower self, and its emotions, desires, drives and clawing needs.
We can and should be passionate people – who believe strongly in the truth and work diligently for good. But as the luminary Imam al-Ghazali said: be sure you are riding the horse and not that the horse is riding you. Meaning, make sure that you are harnessing your feelings and passions, and using them as motivation in your positive efforts, and not that your lower self is blindly leading you to the broken path of His disobedience and ultimately, His displeasure. Let us be passionate, but not emotional – galvanized by our feelings but not blinded and misled by them.
May He, the Most High, bless us with maturity, calmness, wisdom, and strength and courage to work for good, for His sake alone. May He grant us the cool breeze of thabaat, firmness on truth and justice, even in the heat of anger or emotion. May He keep our hearts firmly on His faith. Ameen.
It has been close to four years since the first time I stepped foot in Egypt. I remember the culture shock I experienced when first encountering Cairo after our relatively simple, traditional lifestyle in our little corner of Damascus. Here was an urban explosion of people, pollution and noise, modernity and history, poverty and wealth, all layered one on top of the other, sandwiched between a scorching sun and desert dust. Women in the most colorful hijab ensembles I have ever seen, some elegant and some outrageous; donkey carts and Mercedes benzes equally vying for space in the insane bumper to bumper traffic; masjids, maqams, and remarkable sites of history scattered in the rough of urban sprawl and twenty million people living out their lives.
In Damascus, it was unseemly for women to be brash and loud in public. Here, women fought toe to toe with men for space on the microbus or service at the local store. Here, you put on a tough, no-nonsense skin to make sure you got where you wanted to go with your personal rights and money in tact; there, an innate sense of courtesy had not given way to the pressures of congested urban living, and a grinding poverty that made people feel that there was never enough to go around.
In Egypt, men wore beards, thaubs and showed other overt signs of religiosity on their person, things that were for the most part subdued among Syrian men (We used to joke that you could ironically tell the foreign brothers by their traditional Arab clothes.) While we saw poverty in Damascus it was not in the overwhelming numbers one sees here, with countless people living in abject destitution or close to it. And somehow the contrast between the rich and the poor here is all the more striking, with the doorman’s shack-like home just one floor below a wealthy family’s sumptuous home, the luxury car cruising right by the man in his donkey cart asking for biqya (garbage that can be reused or remade into something else), and the little boys begging at the doors of fancy Western restaurants.
In Cairo some buy groceries from the souqs as we did in Damascus, but many buy them from 24-hour grocery stores, stocked not only with local produce but expensive imported goods that I remember longing for in Syria, which we had to specially request for someone to bring from trips back home or to neighboring Lebanon. Instead of saying eh (which means ‘yes’ or ‘yeah’ in the Syrian dialect) Egyptians say ah, and eh actually means ‘what?’ – which can lead to some confusing conversations in the first few weeks and months, when you think you are answering in the affirmative when asked something but are actually just replying with another question.
In many ways Cairo is an amplified, intensified version of every other city I’ve seen. It is a universe all its own – an urban jungle with character and history, a city that is capricious and passionate. While I would personify Damascus as an elegant woman, dignified in her old age, Cairo is a rough and ready brawler with a heart of gold, an intriguing past and a sharp and appealing personality. Damascus has a sweetness; Cairo, a spice.
People often ask me if I prefer Damascus to Cairo. It is a difficult question to answer. There are times when a memory will come to me, clear and sharp, that will make me long for my time in Syria – walking through the courtyard of the Ummayad Mosque, shoes in hand, in the soft glow of twilight; connecting deeply with one of the sisters in my class with no shared language between us but our struggling Arabic; walking gleefully home from my Quran teacher’s house in Rukn ad-Deen, happy and relieved that I did well in my lesson. Sweets in a small bowl on a shopkeeper’s counter with a little sign that says ‘Sweeten your mouth with prayers on the Prophet’ (salAllahu alayhi wa salam). And even silly things like the exact ridiculous tune of the Suzuki trucks when they used to back up. I miss these things, and I miss that special time when one first embarks on an adventure, a new chapter in life, and aspires to be more than what one already is. The first steps one takes on a path towards enlightenment and knowledge are fragile and precious, like the first time a small bird spreads its wings towards the heavens, seeking to take its first flight.
But Cairo also has a uniqueness, a specialness, that can be found — it can be found in the dignified comportment of the Azhari scholar, wearing his red cap and white turban and the long raiment of scholars; in the recitation of the local qari who, in classical mujawwad style, makes you feel the words of the Quran until your heart shivers with it; in the maqams of scholars of old, and those who visit them with a yearning to walk in their footsteps; and in the shared conversations of students over mint tea, with more books than furniture in the simple rooms in which they live.
Every place has the potential for beautiful memories, and to be the background scene set for the defining moments of one’s life. I feel blessed for experiencing Shaam, and further for living in Umm al-Dunya for these last few years – I just pray that when I return home, the experiences and memories I have gathered will not just be interesting tidbits for conversation, but have helped shape me for the better, and for the betterment of those around me.
N.B.: I’ve discussed Damascus through the lens of memory, and did not mention anything about the current situation there. Please keep the people of Syria in your prayers, as well as the oppressed everywhere.
You are closer to me than my own two sides, a Divinely apportioned piece of my very existence, sometimes dark and sometimes alight. You’re with me everywhere I go, a fixed companion, running so deep sometimes that I don’t know where you end and I begin. You can be a seat of spiritual happiness for the one who possesses you; brimming with a light no other vessel can contain, seeing beyond seeing. And at other times – and in truth, that’s most of the time with me, dear Heart – you can be the very opposite. At those times, you are the hardest company for me to keep.
Bit by bit it started, all by my own doing: weaknesses and heedlessness, blind indulgence and conscious ignorance, brazenly sinning while turning a blind eye to the spiritual illnesses developing within. One sin after another I committed, until you became almost unrecognizable beneath the layers of darkness building up inside. And I kept committing sins even when the pleasure was gone, just because the habit was so deeply fixed. Even when the sweetness became bitter, and the initial charm of the deeds I was committing became stale and repugnant, I continued, seeking to dull the ever-growing pain inside without too much introspection. “A cup I drank to taste its pleasure, and then another to chase its pain.”
I filled you with all manners of worldly things, but the aching and emptiness would not abate. Somehow, I deluded myself into thinking that the wounds would heal by these methods, and that the inner damage – self-inflicted – would somehow come to be repaired on its own. And I forced myself not to care. I lost something so precious when I lost you, dear Heart, beneath the darkness of sins and the choking hold of worldly attachments. I was a tightly closed shell whose pearl had somehow slipped away.
I found myself with pain running so deep, habits so ingrained, a path so steep before me… and heart-less, in the truest meaning of that word. It was hard for me to see a way to turn back. But it’s there: I’ve found it, and it’s time.
I’ve come to realize my absolute need for Allah, down to my very core, and to see where I’ve gone wrong. How foolish to think that a spiritual vessel like you would be satisfied with less than His remembrance. You have taught me the truth of my existence: that without connection to Him, without the happiness of knowing Him and being true to Him, one will feel a painful emptiness, a sorrow, that cannot be filled with anything else.
I’m ready to strip away empty promises and convoluted excuses. I want to walk on this path upright, penitent, aware of my faults but constantly seeking a way back to Him. I need you with me dear Heart, and I pray it’s not too late. I’ll try my best to heal your wounds, and scrub away to your polished core, by His permission, through worship, His remembrance and His aid. The path ahead is not an easy one, and I know I’ll make mistakes, but I hope you’ll keep my company as we travel this road, the road of repentance, together. I will do right by you, God-willing, and you in turn, I pray, will help me reach His nearness.