Friday, September 12, 2014


Back to School, August 2014:
From Surah 10, Yunus (Jonah):
Huwal-ladhi ja’alash-shamsa diyaa-anw-wal-qamara nuranw-wa qaddarahu manazila lita lamu adadas-sinina wal-hisab.  Ma khalaqal-lahu dhalika illa bilhaqq.  Yufassilul- Ayati liqaw-miny-ya lamun [5]
Inna fikh-tilafil-layli wan-nahari wa me khalaqal-lahu fis-samawati wal-ardi la Ayatil-liqawminy-yattaqun. [6]
He it is who made the sun a radiant light and the moon a light reflected, and has determined for it phases so that you might know how to compute the years and to measure time.  None of this has God created without an inner truth.  Clearly does He spell out these messages unto people of knowledge:  [5]
For, verily, in the alternating of night and day, and in all that God has created in the heavens and on earth there are messages indeed for people who are conscious of Him [6]
In the summer of my 16th year, my family drove from Maryland to my  Uncle Juke’s house in Detroit.  Those were the days when Detroit was still a booming town, an exciting place to visit.  The auto industry  - Ford, GM, Chrysler – were unrivaled in producing cars for Americans.  Uncle Juke and Aunt Bunny would take us and my four cousins to on Boblo boat to Boblo Island, visit Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum and theater, and drive through a thriving downtown.  It was all very exciting for a bunch of farm kids.  But the excitement of that visit in the summer of 1969 went way beyond the attractions of Detroit.  In fact, it entered the realm of the surreal, when the unfathomable became a reality.  Even my Uncle Juke – whose expressive sense of joy and wonder in living made him the center of attention wherever he went – even Uncle Juke was rendered speechless by the events of that day,
July 20, 1969, the day the Apollo 11 mission landed two men on the moon.  We were glued to the television for hours, listening to Walter Cronkite try to give us the technical details of the various procedures involved – entering the moon’s orbit, the blackout period when the space capsule went behind the moon, the next day the transfer of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from the command module Columbia to the lunar module, the Eagle, the separation of the lunar module from the command module, descent toward the moon’s surface, and then holding our breath with – seemingly the rest of humankind while Armstrong tried to maneuver the lunar module to a safe landing amid a field of boulders while the fuel gage dropped and computer alarms were sounding.  And then we heard the words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here.  The Eagle has landed.” 
And then another long wait until finally, at 10:56 EST, Neil Armstrong, climbed down the Eagle’s ladder and said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
They left behind a plaque that said:
JULY 1969 A.D.

A later Apollo mission sent back pictures of earthrise from the surface of the moon that changed our image of ourselves forever. 
From Surah 21, Al-Ambiyaa (The Prophets)
Are, then, they who are bent on denying the truth not aware that the heavens and the earth were [once] one single entity, which We then parted asunder?  - and We made out of water every living thing?  Will they not then believe? [30]
And [are they not aware that] we have set up firm mountains on earth, lest it sway with them, and [that] We have appointed thereon broad paths, so that they might find their way, [31] and [that] We have set up the sky as a canopy well-secured?
And yet, they stubbornly turn away from the signs of this [creation], [32] and [fail to see that] it is He who has created the night and the day and the sun and the moon – all of them floating through space!  [33]

Eight years after Apollo 11, on September 5, 1977, a space probe was launched by NASA to study the outer Solar System. Operating for 36 years, 11 months and 9 days as of August 14, 2014, the Voyager 1 spacecraft and it’s sister craft Voyager 2 communicate with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and return data.
In 1990, Voyager 1 had completed its primary mission of studying the planets and was leaving the Solar System.  At the request of the famous astronomer Carl Sagan, NASA commanded it to turn it’s camera around and take a picture of the Earth across the great expanse of space.  This is that picture:
Carl Sagan wrote these words on observing that picture:

“That’s here, that’s home, that’s us.  On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, Thousands of arrogant religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer, every king and peasant every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every sinner in the history of our species, on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. 
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in a moment of glory and triumph they can become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. 
Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.  How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely spec in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that hope will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 
The earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.  Visit?  Yes.  Settle?  Not yet.  Like it or not, for the moment, the earth is where we make our stand. 
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, we thought anything could be possible.  We had such faith in the future of humankind, that progress toward a peaceful and self-sustaining existence for humankind on earth was not only possible, but our manifest destiny. 

But here we are, 45 years later, faced with seemingly intractable conflicts, uncompromising ideologies, battles over scarce resources, unrelenting depletion of the resources we have, and the prospect of wide-scale despoliation of the natural resources that sustain us.  We face the prospect that we have the power to make our planet uninhabitable – indeed it increasingly seems that we do not have the power not to do so. 

As Muslims, we are warned in the text we take as divine revelation, not to succumb to that fatalistic vision.  Our holy text reminds us that the universe holds signs for us, if we will only see them:

From Surah 16, The Bee:
Wa ‘alqa fil-ardi rawasiya an-tamida bikum wa anharanw-wa subulal-la ‘allakum tahtadun. [15]
Wa alamatinw-wa binnajmi hum yahtadun. [16]
And He has placed firm mountains on earth, lest it sway with you, and rivers and paths, so that you might find your way, [15]
As well as other means of orientation: for it is by the stars that men find their way. [16]

When that passage was revealed, it reminded the Arabs of how they used the stars to navigate their way across the deserts.  In our time it takes on a whole new meaning.  In August 2012 Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, the region between stars, filled with material ejected by the death of nearby stars millions of years ago.  It is now sending us information about that star stuff that is transforming our understanding of the universe.  Voyager is expected to continue its mission until 2025, when its generators will no longer supply enough power to operate any of its instruments.  We will indeed be learning new things, directly from the stars.  Maybe we can gain perspective, and find the wisdom to use this and knowledge we gain from other sources, to help us find new solutions to the challenges we face.
And so, as you contemplate going back to school this fall – or if you are an adult, contemplate how you will spend the extra time you have when your kids go back to school - think about what it means that Allah called us human beings “Vice-regents on Earth.”  Devote yourselves to study, open yourselves to exploring new ways of looking at things, and to the possibility of eventually finding new answers that can help us, in the words of Carl Sagan  “deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot.”

From Surah 7, Al-Araf
Inna Rabbakumul-lahul-ladhi khalaqas-samawati wal-arda fi sittati ayyamin-thummas-tawa alal ‘arshi.  Yugh-shil-laylan-nahara yatlubuhu hathithanw-wash-shamsa wal-qamara wan-nujuma musakhkharatim-bi’amrih.  Ala lahul-khalqu wal-amr.  Tabarakal-lahu Rabbul-alamin. [54]

Verily, your Sustainer is God, who has created the heavens and the earth in six aeons, and is established on the throne of His almightiness.  He covers the day with the night in swift pursuit, with the sun and the moon and the stars subservient to His command:  oh verily, His is all creation and all command.  Hallowed is God, the Sustainer of all the worlds.  [54]

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