Friday, December 9, 2016

Laying the Foundations

The title of my khutbah today is “Laying the Foundations“.

As we come into December, the end of the year as well as my birthday, is approaching. At this time, I try to reflect upon the past year by evaluating last year’s resolutions, and compiling my moral inventory. These are not easy tasks, in large part because they are uncomfortable. It is not easy to admit that I have failed to complete tasks or not been able to measure up to particular goals that I had in mind. Harder even still to admit that the same bad habits I vowed to change, have in fact persisted despite my efforts. So why put oneself through this kind of year end reckoning? Well, it can be satisfying if, in fact, I was actually able to change or complete something that I set out to do 12 months ago. My New Year’s resolutions tend to be about concrete material goals or improving relationships with people. My moral inventory is about looking at my own strengths and weaknesses. It is not about putting myself down, it’s more like figuring out what is in the emotional pantry. What’s on the shelf, what do you need more of, what should be pitched out. Kindness, introspection, what about that hasty temper and tendency to worry? These evaluations require work, but I think it is worth it because I hope that the mental exercise will force me to be less complacent. I often feel that when I become complacent I lose the ability to actively engage with the opportunities around me. I become spiritually "asleep". I hope that by understanding myself a bit better, I will be more open to the possibility of spiritual awakening. I define a spiritual awakening as a change in perspective which allows me to see my problems from a different point of view which then leads to actions that solve these problems in a manner which is in keeping with Quranic values. As I get older, and in particular as I see my parents age, I realize that solutions that may have been good options when I was younger, are no longer viable.  I am reminded of the Quranic verses,

“He whom We bring into old age, We reverse him in creation. Have ye no sense?” 36:68 (Pickthall translation)


“God is He who created you from weakness, then ordained strength after weakness, the ordained weakness and old age after strength.” 30:54 (Pickthall translation)

Our world changes over time. Just as there is a divine plan in the process of creation (ex. bringing a human being to life), there is also a divine plan in the decay of that creation (old age). If God has the power to create us and the power to cause us to decay, then, the Quran reminds us, God also has the power to resurrect us.

Along with the goals and personality assessments, the third essential component to build a foundation for receiving spiritual awakenings is cultivating an attitude of receptivity. This begins with gratitude. Every surah in the Quran reminds us to be grateful to God (I think. If you can find one that doesn’t mention gratitude or praise for God, please let me know).  Humans directly benefit from God’s creativity. These are some examples from Surah 36, Ya Sin:

“Have they not seen how We have created for them of Our handiwork the cattle, so that they are their owners. And have subdued them unto them, so that some of them they have for riding, some for food? Benefits and (divers) drinks have they from them. Will they not then give thanks?” 36:70-72 Pickthall translation.


“Doesn’t man comprehend that We have created him from a drop-and look! He finds himself with the power of reason and argument? And yet argues about Us and forgets his own creation, saying, Who can revive rotting bones to life?” 36:76-77 from Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an”


The last elements of a receptive attitude involve humility and hope. I must acknowledge that God can make anything happen; there is always room for a miracle or two. And in the middle of this hope, I must cultivate some humility: just because I can’t do something, doesn’t mean someone else can’t, especially if that someone is God. What I consider "impossible" is defined by my limited knowledge and power. God does not have these limitations. One of God’s biggest instruments of change, the really big stick, is time. In response to “Who can revive rotting bones to life?” the Quran instructs us

“Say: He who first created them will bring them back to life, as He knows all about all creatures. Even from the green trees He has given you fire, and you kindle flame from it.” 36: 78-79 from Sandow Birk’s “American Qur’an”.

There are (at least) two ways to interpret the green trees reference here, one which relates to time. First of all, those of you who are not fire-starters need to know that if you try and burn a green tree, you will only get smoke. The traditional way to interpret this verse is, according to Ibn Kathir, there is an exception to this green tree rule- the Markh and ‘Afar trees in western Arabia will produce fire if you rub two green branches together.  Another way to think about this ayah with reference to time, is that as the green tree ages, it is the old wood which is capable of the biggest fire. This apparently dead wood has tremendous energy, although you wouldn’t think that just by looking at it. Even today, the oil and gas we use to kindle our combustion engines are the products of green trees which have been transformed over millions of years.  This ayah reminds us there is always the possibility for the unexpected- exceptions to the rule or changes wrought by age.

All stages of life and death on this world are signs of God’s tremendous creative power.

“O mankind! If ye are in doubt concerning the Resurrection, then lo! We have created you from dust, then from a drop of seed, then a from a clot, then from a little lump of flesh shapely and shapeless, that We may make (it) clear for you. And We cause what We will to remain in the wombs for an appointed time, and afterward We bring you forth as infants, then (give you growth) that ye attain your full strength. And among you there is he who dieth (young) and among you there is he who is brought back to the most abject time of life, so that, after knowledge, he knoweth naught. And thou seest the earth barren, but when We send down water thereon, it doth thrill and swell and put forth every lovely kind (of growth)” 22:5 Pickthall translation

As 2016 draws to a close, I urge you to use this time to build a foundation for spiritual awakening. Maybe you can dredge up that old New Year’s resolution list, or look at your diary, Facebook page, personal blog, or checkbook. Where were you at (mentally, emotionally, physically) at this time last year? Did you accomplish the things you set out to do? Perhaps you found some goal or problem was much more complicated that you initially thought and left it undone. Perhaps the problem you dreaded facing turned out to be the most rewarding experience you had all year. Maybe you learned to set a few boundaries. Set aside time to make your moral inventory- what is in your personality pantry? What are you satisfied with and what would you like to change?

Whatever your goals for the next year, I pray that God will grant you the spiritual awakenings to make decisions which are most pleasing to Him.

“Is not He Who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like of them? Aye, that He is! For He is the All Wise Creator, but His Command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that He saith unto it: Be! And it is. Therefore glory be to Him in Whose hand is the dominion over all things! Unto Him you will be brought back.” 36:80-82. Amen

Friday, November 11, 2016

Names That You Have Named

The title of my khutbah today is “Names That You Have Named”. In full disclosure, I didn’t start writing this khutbah until after the election results. I didn’t know how much the election would affect me or my family. But on Tuesday night when we started watching the election results, I was uneasy. It was too close. I went to the Quran we keep on display and randomly flipped it open. It landed on Surah 12, Joseph, the part where Joseph is sent to prison for crimes he did not commit. I didn’t have the heart to read it.  We turned off the tv and went to bed, but that night I could not sleep. I tossed and turned, and my husband kept turning on his i-Pad to look at the latest vote count. Every time I woke up I said to myself, “We are screwed.” And at 6 am Wednesday morning, we learned that Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States in January.

What could I tell my children? They were upset and I was upset. My husband rose to the occasion and took the calming tone. He reassured them telling them we must look for the silver lining, that no one can predict the future. He said that Hillary Clinton would have had a hard time in a Republican packed Congress. Trump will not spend his time arguing, he will get things done. Maybe Trump will pass a budget and support more science, because Newt Grinich is his advisor and Grinich always liked science. Maybe Trump won’t be able to do all the things he said he would do during his election speeches.Maybe it won't be so bad. 

I couldn’t maintain my husband’s high road standard. I told my children that maybe Trump would have a stroke before he was inaugurated. We have had presidents that died in office, were assassinated, were removed because of scandal. Anything could happen because in the end, everything is in God’s hands.

Everything is in God’s hands. This is what the ayat in Joseph remind us,

“…and I have followed the creed of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. It had not been for us that we ascribe partners with God at all. That is from the grace of God to us and to humanity, but most of humanity give not thanks. O my two prison companions! Are ones that are different masters better or God, the One, The Omniscient? Those whom you worship other than He are nothing but names that you have named- you and your fathers for which God has not sent forth any authority. The determination is from God alone. He has commanded that you worship none but Him alone. That is the truth-loving way of life, but most of humanity knows not.“ 12:38-40

I had prayed to God about this election. I had asked him for Hillary to win. I had asked him for as many people as possible to turn out for the vote and be heard. But my prayers were not answered. If I ask God for something and He does not give it to me, then I must accept it. I must accept that God’s plan is better for me, only I cannot see it. And believe me, I am having a hard time seeing this one.

My family and I are afraid for the future of this country, and we are not alone in this. There is nothing that can be done for this anxiety, except to reach out to friends and to reach out to God. As much as we would like to think that we can control our future by electing the right government or eating the right foods or investing in the right assets or getting the right amount of steps, or studying or or or, the truth is we don’t control the outcome. We can only control our effort, our own behavior, our own attitudes and the rest is up to God.

Joseph was put into prison by people scheming for his ruin. He stayed there many years, but along the way, he made a few friends. I’m sure while he was in prison he wondered whether he would ever get out. I’m sure he had some very dark days. But in the end, Joseph used the skills that God had given him (dream interpretation), and eventually he was not only freed from prison, but he was elevated to a high status because of his gifts and skill. The story of Joseph teaches us to persevere, to use our skills, to cling to God in times of uncertainty.


When my brother was three he was unable to control his body temperature when he got a cold. Eventually he outgrew this, but at the onset of the slightest sign of inflammation, my brother would slip out of consciousness and start having seizures. I have persistent memories of my mother holding my brother helplessly as his whole body convulsed and twitched. The partial solution was to put him in an ice cold bath in order to bring down his body temperature. But in those moments as I looked at my brother in my mother’s lap, I really thought he was going to die. In the face of this uncontrollable chaos, my father tried to instill in me the importance of doing SOMETHING. My job was emptying the ice cubes into the bathtub.  Even if what you do can’t directly help the situation at hand, perhaps you can find something to do that will help in some small way. As I got older, I learned that the ‘some small way’ might be the contribution to my peace of mind.

Fast forward from ten year old self to much older self 2016. I am totally stressed out about the USA elections. There is very little I can do about this situation. I am only one voter. What can I do for my poor country? I decide that I will get out the vote. Encourage as many people as I can to vote, because I truly believe that Republicans only do well when voter turn out is low. I manned a  phone bank, I went door to door in neighborhoods. I only called people who were registered Democrats, trying to get them vote for Hillary. For the most part, people were polite or curt. No one screamed at me. I wasn’t murdered by a serial killer when I knocked on doors. And more importantly, at the end of that day, I felt good.

However, despite my best efforts, it wasn’t enough. Yes, the Illinois electoral votes went to Hillary Clinton, but my efforts weren’t enough. Just like my filling up a bathtub with ice cubes wasn’t going to stop my brother from seizing as his body raged with fever. These days, I feel like I have let my children down. What kind of world have I created for them? I have failed to protect them. But this 'failure' is actually an illusion on my part. I want to protect my children, but I am not in control. Their protection is in God's hands. I think a lot about Jacob and how he felt when he let his sons take Joseph out hunting and they returned empty handed. They told their father that Joseph had been eaten by wolves, when in actual fact they had abandoned their brother in a dried up well.

“And they brought about his long shirt with false blood. He (Jacob) said: ‘Nay, your souls enticed you with a command. Having patience is graceful. And it is God Whose help is being sought against what you allege.” 12: 18

What I would like to leave you with today is a reminder- just as Jacob could not see the larger plan that God had for Joseph, so we cannot see the larger plan that God has for this country. Now is the time to be graceful, to have patience, to seek refuge in God. The people of this country have named Donald Trump the ‘winner’, but this is the name that people confer upon other people. How long will this name last? If we look at our history and at past presidents, we know that this name will not last, that it will change, that it will be subject to the rigors of time, history and interpretation. The only name, the only brand, that truly counts, is the one that God confers upon us.

I’d like to end with a du’a from 2:286, last ayah of Al Baqara: Our Lord! Do not punish us if we forget or make a mistake. Our Lord! Do not load on us a severe test as You did burden on those before us. Our Lord! Do not impose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear; and pardon us and forgive us and have mercy on us, You are our Defender, so help us against the ungrateful people. Ameen.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Ready Pilgrim One

The title of my khutbah today is “Ready Pilgrim One”. This khutbah will be about hajj. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have never been on hajj. I’ve never gone on umrah. My knowledge about the pilgrimage is from second hand accounts and books, and perhaps even more importantly my spiritual imagination. I hope that in our discussion afterwards people who have actually been on hajj can offer a more heart-felt perspective.

 The title of my khutbah is derived from a popular fiction book, “Ready Player One”, which my sons had suggested I read because of the many 1980s references in the book. And yes, I did understand all these obscure references because that was the time of my adolescence and young adulthood. In a nutshell, the book is set in the near future, in a dystopian world where an unstable climate has wrecked catastrophic social change but where the best and brightest choose to spend all their time in an enormous virtual reality universe. This computer generated world is addictive, and when you add in a treasure hunt, people spend all their time tracking clues in a virtual galaxy. There is a brain drain. People would rather play characters in a fantasy world and pursue treasures rather than solve the tough problems of real world challenges. “Ready Player One” is the last message players see on their screen in the real world as they enter into the virtual world, and this message is a reference to the 1980s video arcade games (this message appearing after you had deposited your quarter into the machine but before the game started).

As I was reading the book, it reminded me of 1) how people choose to spend their leisure time and 2) how leisure time activities impact our economy, technological focus, and culture. I can think of no greater impact on our current culture than the influence of the smart phone and the connection to the internet. In our own time, the video game industry is a multi-billion dollar, global industry. Role playing games are particularly attractive to people. Unlike most games, such as chess or Monopoly, where the purpose is just to ‘win’, role playing games offer a sense of purpose by fulfilling the ‘destiny’ of a character. These virtual characters are often tailor-made by individual players, and represent a new opportunity to redefine the self.  Multi-player games offer the additional feature of fulfilling one’s individual purpose in the context of a group. In the modern era when many people lack a sense of connection to their real community, the virtual world offers belonging to a group as part of one’s purpose or destiny.

So how does any of this relate to hajj? In the dystopian novel, the main character Wade Watts is thinking about the old, role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. He says,

“In a way, those old role-playing games had been the first virtual-reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books.” p 66 Ready Player One

I would argue that before computers did virtual reality simulations, and before geeks played Dungeons & Dragons, mankind’s first virtual-reality simulations were religious pilgrimages. A religious pilgrimage can only be undertaken by people who are able to step away from the demands of their day-to-day life in order to fulfill a purpose. These pilgrimages involve traveling to a new location with companions. Everyone is asked to re-enact certain rituals, often taking actions which are reminiscent of a significant religious figure. In the case of hajj, pilgrims are asked to re-enact  events from the lives of Hajar and Ibrahim, as well as visit sites where Prophet Muhammad and his companions lived.

Two important aspects of video games and pilgrimages are the narrative and the actual playing/enactment. The narrative can be studied at length, long before the actual playing occurs. In fact, as Muslims, we study the narrative all our lives to prepare for hajj. We try to embody and implement the values which the narrative (as told in the Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah) impart to us. In video games there are different levels which correspond to skill sets and understanding of the game. As the player improves her skills, she advances in levels and encounters greater challenges. The same might be said of the Muslim believer, as she improves her religious knowledge and ethical practice, she will be confronted with greater moral and ethical challenges.

In  preparation for hajj, all pilgrims must make out a will, pay their debts, and make amends to friends and family. Time must be taken off work and travel plans established. This process is often likened to preparing for death, but it is also said that completion of hajj represents a rebirth or a new start. At the hajj, where old sins are forgiven, the pilgrim has an opportunity to redefine herself.
Once we come to the actual hajj, instead of virtual reality visors and haptic gloves, pilgrims wrap themselves in two pieces of plain white cloth and enter an ocean of similar white-shrouded people. It has been described as the Day of Judgment - no one can be recognized. Name, race, and social status are erased in a flood of white ihrams. Ali Shariati calls this “…a human show of Allah’s unity” (p 10, Hajj) Are you ready Pilgrim One? Labaika, Allahumma labaika! From here on out there are proscribed rituals, duas, and practice. Most of these steps are referred to only vaguely in the Quran. The precise number of prayers, circumambulation around the Kaaba, thrown stones, etc follows an oral tradition  which a tour guide will transmit to you, inshallah.

According to Muslim canon, Mecca was settled by Hajar and Ishmael, her son by Ibrahim. Hajar is not named in the Quran, but the Quran records Ibrahim’s speech in 14:37

“Our Lord, I have settled some of my children in a valley without crops near Your sacred House, our Lord, that they may keep up prayer: so make the hearts of some people fond of them, and provide them with fruits, that they may be grateful.”

Ibrahim returned to help Ishmael build the Kaaba.  The Quran says,

“And mention when We placed Abraham in the place of the House that you ascribe nothing as partners with Me and purify My House for the ones who circumambulate it and for the ones who are standing up and the ones who bow down and the ones who prostrate themselves. Announce to humanity the pilgrimage to Mecca. They will approach you on foot and on every thin camel. They will approach from every deep ravine that they may bear witness to what profits them and remember the Name of God on known days over whatever He has provided them from flocks of animals. Then eat of it and feed the ones who are in misery and the poor. After that let them finish their ritual uncleanliness and live up to their vows and circumambulate the Ancient House. That is what has been commanded!” 22:26-30

The Kaaba was a center of monotheistic worship and pilgrimage, but over the years the polytheistic pagans co-opted the site. Prophet Mohammad and his followers restored monotheistic worship and pilgrimage to Mecca. According to the Quran,

“And the announcement from God and His Messenger to humanity on the day of the greater pilgrimage to Mecca is that God is free from the ones who are polytheists and so is His Messenger….” 9:3

How the hajj rituals were developed and when they were developed is shrouded in mystery.

Hajar’s story primarily comes to us through the bible and local oral traditions. In some versions she is the abject Ethiopian slave girl of Sara, Ibrahim’s wife, who Sara ‘loans’ to her husband to produce an heir. In other versions Hajar is an Egyptian princess who sees the true worth of Abraham and willingly joins his household. There is no way to ‘prove’ which narrative is true, and the Quran is silent on the status of Hajar. We do know that during the sa’y portion of hajj (walking between the mountains of Safa and Marwa), pilgrims are told they embody Hajar’s search for water for herself and her child. At this stage in the narrative, Hajar is a single mother, abandoned by the father of her child. She has fallen through the safety net of custom, culture and law and must fend for herself and her child in the wilderness. She has only her thirst, her child, her determination and her faith in God. Why does God want us to remember lonely, abandoned Hajar?

The Quran says
“Truly Safa and Marwa are among the waymarks of God; so whoever makes the pilgrimage to Mecca to the House or visits the Kabah, then there is no blame on him that he walks quickly between the two; and whoever volunteers good, then truly God is One Who is Responsive, Knowing.” 2:158


The other religious figure we remember at hajj and Eid Al-Adha is Prophet Ibrahim. Unlike Hajar, there are many references to Ibrahim throughout the Quran. He is often portrayed as  rebellious monotheist in confrontation with his father and his community (2:258, 6:76-82, 9:114, 21:51-70), but he is also a generous host (11 69-74, 15:51-60), a critical thinker (6:76-79), has doubts about God’s plan for him (2:260), and asks forgiveness for his father (14:41) and the people of Lot (11:74) .The Quran says, “Truly Ibrahim was forbearing, sympathetic, one who turns in repentance.”(11:75). At the Kaaba one can see Ibrahim’s footprints as well as the black stone he and Ishmael used to build the Kaaba. The end of hajj culminates in the sacrifice of sheep in lieu of his child,

“So We gave him the good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached maturity endeavoring with him, he said: O my son! Truly I see while slumbering that I am sacrificing you. So look on what you have considered? He said: O my father! Accomplish whatever you are commanded. You shall find me, if God willed, of the ones who remain steadfast. Then when they had both submitted themselves and he had flung him on his brow We cried out to him: O Abraham! Surely you have established the dream as true. Thus truly We give recompense to the ones who are doers of good. Truly that was certainly a clear trial. And then We took ransom for him with a sublime slaughter and We left for him a good name with the later ones: Peace be upon Abraham!” 37: 101-108

Ibrahim is a man wrestling with his conscience and his sense of duty. He loves his son and he loves God, but he feels he is being put into a no-win situation. The Quran reminds us “It is not their meat, nor their blood that reach Allah. It is your piety that reaches Him.” (22: 37) If this is the case, then why does God want us to remember dutiful, conflicted Ibrahim?

The Quran encourages all Muslims to go on hajj and re-enact the steps of religious ancestors. The Quran states:

“Truly God loves the ones who are doers of good. And fulfill the pilgrimage to Mecca and the visit for God..” 2: 196

“…and to God is a duty on humanity of pilgrimage to the House in Mecca for whomever is able to travel the way to it…”3:97

Muslims make hajj to please God, but as with prayer, the benefit is to their own selves. The rituals of hajj have changed through the centuries, I am certain we do not make hajj the same way Prophet Ibrahim or Prophet Muhammad made their hajj, but we also make hajj different from our grandparents and even our parent. Technological advances, such as safe air travel, have made the pilgrimage to Mecca a very different experience and allowed millions more people to attend. Some customs, such as hunting in the vicinity of the haram (5:1-2, 5:94-96) have become obsolete. Hajj will continue to change as human beings change. Perhaps one day people will make a ‘virtual’ hajj with virtual reality visors and haptic gloves. I don’t know, but however we change pilgrimage I imagine we will try to retain the core elements: purpose, re-creation of the self, remembrance of the past and humility for the future.

Before I close, I would also like to add another perspective on pilgrimage that I recently read in “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce. Harold sets out on a walking pilgrimage across England, meeting various people along his path. His isn’t a religious pilgrimage, but it is concerned with spiritual healing.

"He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past."
- The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, p 107

My closing du’a is a portion of a much longer du’a that Ibrahim made 14:40-41;  “My Lord! Make me one who performs the formal prayer and from my offspring also. Our Lord! Receive my supplication. Our Lord! Forgive me and the ones who are my parents and the ones who believe on the Day the reckoning arises.” Amen.

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline, 2011 Crown Publishers, New York
“Hajj” by Ali Shariati, translated by Ali Behzadnia and Najla Denny, 1993 Evecina Cultural & Educational Foundation, 3rd edition
“The Sublime Quran” translation by Laleh Bakhtiar, 2009, 6th edition
“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce, 2012 Doubleday, London

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Meaning of the Pillars, Part I: Prayer

Yaa ‘ayyuhal-ladhina amanu idha nudiya lis-Salati miny-yawmil-Jumu’ati fas’aw ila dhikril-lahi wa dharul-bay. 
Dhalikum khayrul-lakum in-kuntum ta’lamun.  [62:9]

 O you who believe, when the call for Salah is proclaimed on Friday, hasten for the remembrance of Allah, and leave off business.  This is for your own good, if you but knew it.

In my last khutbah on Quran and the structure of Islam, I spoke of the transcendent universality of God/Allah, and how practicing the pillars of Islam is just one possible way of striving to connect with God.  But it is Our way – the way we have chosen, or inherited as Muslims.  So, in my next few khutbahs, I want to explore the meanings behind the way we practice our faith – the meaning in each of the pillars of Islam.  Today I will focus on prayer, and the discipline of prayer in Islam. 

I have struggled with the concept of discipline all my life.  I was born in 1953, which means that the later part of my childhood and my entire adolescence took place in the 1960s.  As you all know, this was the “Age of Rebellion.”  Moreover, I was raised in a Unitarian church, whose only real creed is to respect each individual’s unique path to and understanding of God.  I was therefore programmed, from a very early age, to inquire and question and investigate.  I was not focused on sticking to one thing and perfecting it, but rather on checking out as many alternative “things” (careers, religions, cultures, etc.) as possible to find the one “thing” that might really be worth the effort.  The positive outcome of this was open-mindedness.  The negative outcome was a deeply ingrained proclivity toward escapism.

Even after I converted to Islam, I was not disciplined at all about my prayer.  I loved God and believed in God, but I felt that, to be honest in my relationship with God meant that I should only pray “when the spirit moved me.”  I was not convinced in my heart that praying five times a day at specific times in a ritualized way was going to bring me closer to God.  I was programmed to resist the need for such “discipline” about my spiritual life.  I felt it should “flow naturally,” or it wouldn’t be real.  It took me more than twenty-five years to finally realize that my recognition of the value in different approaches to faith was blocking me from truly engaging with my own faith.  I had the love, but not the discipline.   And so I made a commitment to God, that I would pray five times a day for a year, as close as possible to the prescribed times, and see what would happen.  

But before I share what has happened, let me address the topic of discipline itself.  I don't know about you, but I was captivated by the coverage of the Olympics in Rio these past two weeks, especially by the performances that seemed to transcend the effort that so obviously goes into whatever sport is involved.  There are the obvious ones – Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Usain Bolt.  But the one that brought tears to my eyes was one that I had to look up on You Tube, because Dressage was not included in the televised lineup. 

Allow me a moment of digression if you will.  Dressage can best be described as “horse ballet.”  It is the only Olympic event that can claim Xenophon, the ancient Greek general and student of Socrates, as its first coach.  The sport’s ethical rational is “Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful.”  Dressage horses begin training at age four or five, and it takes five or six years of strength training before they can even begin to learn the most advanced movements:  the piaffe, jogging in place – “three quarters of a ton of moving muscle, feet rising and falling in the same four hoofprints;”  the passage, a slow prancing trot, the pirouette, a hand-brake turn, ideally executed in six to eight strides.   I encourage you to look up Dujardin Olympics -Dressage on You Tube and watch the free-style performance of Charlotte Dujardin riding Valegro.  Dujardin began riding at age three, and she has trained with Valegro for ten years.  They won the gold this year, and at the London Olympics.  In that video you see rider and horse moving as one - seamlessly - through the movements set to music.  It is the most amazing demonstration of the beauty of controlled power and grace you could hope to see.

One of the best books written about what it takes to be an Olympic champion is about another team that competed in another Olympics - the men's crew (rowing) team from Seattle who represented the U.S. at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Hitler’s Olympics.  These were men who grew up during the depression, dirt poor, most of whom had never set foot in a rowing skull before they arrived at university and tried out for the crew team so they could get their tuition covered.  They practiced in the rough water of the Pacific Ocean, often in frigid temperatures, for hours every day, their muscles screaming in pain.  But they had a coach who was relentless, and they were, each and every one of them, determined to succeed.  "The Boys in the Boat " focuses on one of those men, Joe Rantz, but it really is about the team as a whole.   The man who built their boats (skulls), George Pocock, was not only probably the best skull craftsman who ever lived, he was also an inspirational leader for them.  He understood them, and helped them work past their weaknesses.  Joe's biggest challenge was learning to trust.  George told him, "Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you've ever imagined.  Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars."

By the time they got to the Olympics, they had reached that level of precision, that level of disciplined unity.  They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly, as if on another plane, and it was beautiful.  They went on to win the gold in Berlin, while Hitler watched.  

No one gets to the Olympics without discipline.  In fact, no one achieves anything significant in life without discipline, be it in sports, music, dance, theater, medicine, academics, auto mechanics or accounting.  But those who reach the level of the sublime in their performance are the ones who also love what they do.  Joe Rantz and his crewmates learned, not just to trust each other, but to love each other.  Dujardin and Valegro – rider and horse - love each other.  And many of the other outstanding athletes at the games have talked about love of their sport, and their team members. 

Why should our spiritual life be any different?  

Hafizu alas-Salawati was-Salatil-wusta wa qumu lillahi qanitin [2:238]
Be ever mindful of prayers, and of praying in the most excellent way; and stand before God in devout obedience.

Qad aflahal-mu’minun.  Alladhina hum fi Salatihim khashi’un.
Wal-ladhina hum anil-laghwi mu’ridun.
Wal-ladhina hum liz-Zakati fa’ilun. [23:1-4]
Truly, to a happy state shall attain the believers:  those who humble themselves in their prayer, and who turn away from all that is frivolous, and who are intent on inner purity.

Wal-ladhina hum ala Salawatihim yuhafizun.  [23:9]
And who guard their prayers from all worldly intent

I don’t think I was wrong all those years when I was focused on loving God, rather than discipline.  I just wasn’t growing in my faith. 

In the past six years since I made the commitment to daily prayer, I have come to appreciate the structure that prayer gives me for reconnecting with God.  Allah communicated message this over and over in revelations to the Prophet.  Surah 2:45 says "seek help through patience and prayer.  It is indeed exacting, but not for those who are humble in their hearts."  Ayah 2:153 says, "O you who believe, seek help through patience and prayer.  Surely Allah is with those who are patient in adversity."  Surah 4:103 tells us that "Salah is tied up with time."  Surah 11:114 enjoins us to practice Salah at both ends of the day, and in the early hours of the night.  

We are reminded in other surahs as well, to praise Allah in the afternoon, before sunrise, before sunset, and that prayer at night is the most effective way to subdue one's base self. [73:1-8].  I have learned this one myself.  One of my biggest faults is that I am a worrier.  Worry can immobilize me, it makes me overeat, it makes me procrastinate, it robs me of joy and can make me hard to live with.  Praying five times a day has helped me control my worrying, and recognize how selfish it is.  This is just one of the ways prayer has helped me to become a better person.  But it wouldn’t work – my prayer wouldn’t work – if I just did it routinely, if I forgot what I was striving for - my love of God – reminding myself of the connection, and that God’s love for us is always there when we open ourselves to it.  Prayer is a discipline that, practiced with love, reaches toward the Sublime.

George Pocock, the rowing coach said "Harmony, balance, and rhythm.  They're the three things that stay with you your whole life.  Without them civilization is out of whack.  And that's why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life.  That's what he gets from rowing."

The ancient Greeks developed the art of Dressage based on the sacred precepts of “harmony,” “impulsion,” “self-carriage,” and “submission” - all so beautifully channeled by Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. 

Harmony, impulsion, self-carriage and balance, rhythm and submission  - what better way to describe the elements of our prayer – reciting, standing, bowing, prostrating, sitting, greeting.  We, in this room, are not and never will be Olympic athletes.  But as Muslims we have this gift - the challenge to practice a simple discipline every day of our lives – five opportunities every day to connect us to what is greater than ourselves. 

And praying together opens the door to trust, trust that we can strive together to turn our attention to what's important, and remind us of what is not, and give us the perspective and strength to face whatever comes our way in life with patience and grace… and just maybe, every once in awhile, to feel like we’re praying among the stars.  

Fa’idha qudiyatis-Salatu fantashiru fil-ardi
wab-taghu min-fadlil-lahi
 wadh-kurul-laha kathiral-la allakum tuflihun.

Then once the Salah is over, disperse in the land, and seek the grace of Allah, and remember Allah often, so that you may be successful. [62:10]

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Worthy Adversary Part 9, Putting Down Roots In this World

 Ramadan, at the very least, was a break from Iblis. But now that we have all returned to our normal schedules, guess who’s back? That’s right, you-know-who. In my previous khutbah, I discussed how the Suif world view envisioned Iblis’ involvement of mankind in both the physical (“Inna  ‘sh-Shayṭān yajrī min al-insān majrā ‘d-dam.”) as well as the psychological realms (nafs, and impulses-katir). For the Sufis, Shaytan was also clearly identifiable in the physical domain, and the title of my khutbah today is: Putting Down Roots in This World.

Ad-dunya, the world, is the term used to describe the exterior plane of Iblis. This is where Iblis operates. The connection between Iblis and the world is so closely intertwined that the Sufis often identify Iblis and ad-dunya as the same thing, as Al-Makki describes in his Qut al-qulub:

“The equivalent of the world is Iblis. God created him to set him apart and curse him, that He(God) might afflict him, and that he (Iblis) might afflict others, that He (God) might destroy him, and that he (Iblis) might destroy others.”

Because of this close identification of the world with Iblis, in Sufi literature you will find the world described as rotting carrion, a dead corpse with a dog (Iblis = dog) perched on top. God allows anyone who shows interest in this dead meat to become the minion of Iblis. Rumi borrows the dog motif, but compares Iblis to a vicious guard dog lying at the entrance of a Bedouin tent (the tent symbolizing God’s threshold), and this dog is waiting permission to pounce on a luckless stranger.

“O devil-dog, put (them) to the test, so that
   (you find out) how these people proceed along this Path.
Charge them , obstruct them, be watchful,
So (you will find out) who plays the woman with regard to uprightness and who the man.” –Mathnawi , Book 5 I. 2951-2952

The dog image may come from Quran 7:16-17, where Iblis asks God’s permission:

“Satan said: Because You have led me into error, certainly I will sit  in ambush for them (mankind) on Your straight path. After that I shall approach them from before them and from behind them and from their right and from their left, and You will not find many of them ones who are thankful. 7: 16-17.

Iblis leads humans away from the path of thankfulness and repentance. He prevents non-Muslims from finding their way to Islam by asking them, “How can you discard the faith of your fathers?” Iblis hinders the progress of people who would emigrate or engage in jihad by instilling doubt in their hearts, “How can you abandon the lands you know so well, or leave your women and property unprotected, vulnerable, ripe for rape and pillage?” – this according to both Al-Makki and Al-Ghazali.
In addition to the dog metaphor, Sufi literature is replete with the image of the hunter to signify Iblis, particularly a hunter who uses a net to trap his prey.  From Rumi,

“O distinguished fellow, commit no sin let you acquire a bad name,
If you are exalted and you sin, you become lowly,
Iblis has placed a snare on the road you travel;
Become not an evildoer lest you end up in the snare.”
-Rumi, Kulliyat-I Shams-I Tabrizi, ruba’i #1722

The hunter is sly, cunning, and stalks his victim such that the prey never sees the danger coming. Iblis is always present, patiently awaiting one careless misstep on the part of his victim. Once Iblis takes advantage of his prey’s mistake, Iblis drags him off to hell and everlasting torment.

For the Sufis, Iblis is constantly asking God for more deadly traps to ensnare men. His cry is “Grant me more!” (This may be derived from Quran 50:30 “On a Day when We will say to hell: are you full? And it will say: Are there more?”) Man’s desires, al-ahwa, provide copious material for creating new worldly idols to bind men in blind devotion to this world and block their path to God.
From Al-Makki:

There are some people who are in love with their passions, or with Iblis, the enemy of God, who urges them to greater ignorance and continued heedlessness of the love of God Most High.
Some of our learned men related that Abu Muhammad was chided for addressing everyone as “O Lover!” And I said to him, “this fellow is not a lover as you say.’ He whispered secretly in my ear, ‘This is no empty saying, whether the man be a believer or hypocrite. For if he is a believer, he is a lover of Almighty God, if he is a hypocrite, he is a lover of Iblis.’

External religious obligations are very important to Sufis, and this primacy is derived from their loyalty to the hadith traditions. The Sufis are concerned that Iblis will make people forgetful, hasty, confused or distracted in such a way that they perform religious or social actions that are not in keeping with hadith. The actions range from personal hygiene (ex. clean fingernails) to elaborate ritual prescriptions and du’a to proceed prayer, eating, drinking, sex, and other important activities. Iblis’ actions to undermine the act of prayer itself also worry Sufi theologians. They reiterate injunctions to guard against prayer interrupters (spirits or humans).

When it comes to sleep, Sufis are somewhat doubleminded about this process. On the one hand they are enthusiastic about all night prayers, vigils,etc, but on the other hand, they feel that dreams are important visionary experiences.  So while you have the hadith concerning the knotted cords and Iblis urinating in the ear of the man who sleeps all night which are found in many Sufi compilations, you have Sufis such as Al-Hujwiri who pointed out that deep sleep is a state of moral suspension where a Sufi performs neither good nor evil (his free will is temporarily non-functional). Therefore, some shaykhs do not consider sleep to be a time of heightened satanic activity. They believe that sleep has the potential for visionary activity and Iblis must wait for the waking state to resume his snaring activities.

Ibn Abbas said, “There is nothing more annoying to Iblis than the sleep of a sinner. Whenever the sinner falls asleep he says, “When will he be awake and get up so that he may defy God?”

Another Sufi concern based on hadith literature is the localization of discord (fitna) and sectarian disputes in the East, where the sun rises. Al-Makki asserts that innovation (bid’a) and divisiveness are the most destructive of sins because they harden the hearts of those who succumb to them, rendering them incapable of repentance, which then allows Iblis to manipulate them.

The final hadith theme which Sufis emphasize is honesty and uprightness in commercial transactions as well as warnings against greed. Merchants are warned to be vigilant against the corrupt bargains of Iblis. The merchant should neither be the first in the bazaar nor the last to leave because Satan was born and grew up in the bazaar, so please do not emulate Iblis’ childhood.

Discussions of commerce are used as an introduction to the more important topic of the effects of greed on mankind. Sufis firmly believe that the desire to acquire money, honor, and power lead to the oppression of the weak and helpless. Al-Makki warns that greed arises from love of the world, and love of the world is the pinnacle of sinfulness- remember the dog Iblis sitting on that pile of dead meat?

Al-Makki has a story, which if this seems familiar to you, it might be because you have read something similar in your British Literature class. Geoffrey Chaucer modified it in his “Canterbury Tales”, and there is it referred to as “The Pardoner’s Tale”. The theme of “Radix marlorum est cupiditas” or The Root of Evil is Greed, holds true for each version.

And We related one of the stories of Jesus- may peace be upon him!- that he was journeying with a group of his disciples and they came upon some gold strewn on the ground. He stopped before it and said, ‘This is deadly, beware of it.’ Then he and his companions continued on their way. However, three stayed behind on account of the gold. Two of them decided to hand over some of it to the third that he might go buy some delicacies for them from the nearest city. Then the enemy whispered to them, ‘Are you content that the money be split three ways? Kill this fellow and you can split the money in halves.’ So they resolved to kill him on his return. Satan, in the meantime, came to the third fellow and whispered to him, ‘Are you really content within yourself to take a third of the money? Kill the other two and all the money will be yours.’ Thereupon the fellow bought poison and put it in the food. When he returned to them, the two of them fell on him and killed him. Then they sat down to eat the food. When they finished, they dropped dead.
  Jesus returned from his journey and he saw them lying on the ground around the gold. The gold was still as it was. His companions were astonished and said, ‘What happened to these men?’ And he related to them this tale.

Sufis saw the desire for material goods and worldly power as blinding people to the spiritually protective value of poverty and asceticism. If humans agree to Satan’s demands as long as their appetites are fed, this satanic food will lodge in their throats and choke them to death.

“His straw will stick in your throat for many a year.
  What is this straw? Love of honor and wealth.
Wealth becomes a straw, O fickle one, when it bars
  The way of the water of life into your throat.
-Rumi Mathnawi Book 2, I 132-133

 Furthermore, lusting after wealth and power can soon degenerate into a lusting after blood, for one can feed one’s greed only at the expense of others. Oppression becomes a way of life.If we examine our own country we might ask ourselves how can we continue to support and finance a military-industrial complex if there is no one left to fight? In such a system, we must always find an enemy.

“Devour no one out of anger
Lest God’s anger devour you;
Rise above this desire for creatures’ blood,
Lest it come down upon your own head.
Then judgment will turn away from you,
Because that satanic whisper comes not into your heart.”
-Rumi, Kulliyat-I Shami-I Tabrizi #717

Love of excess is the essence of the world’s attractions. Iblis can take even innocent pleasures and transform what was a passing fancy into a compulsive addiction. Al-Muhasibi warns that even a simple glance can bring down the most pious Sufi.

“I heard Abu Sa’id Al-Kharraz say, ‘I saw Iblis in a dream and he was walking away from me. I said to him, ‘Come here!’ He answered, ‘What will I do with all of you? You have purified yourselves from the very thing I use to deceive people!’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He replied, ‘The world.’ As he moved away from me, he wheeled around and said, ‘Except that I still have one subtle allurement in store for you.’ I asked, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘The companionship of youths.’ And Abu Sa’id said, ‘There are few Sufis untainted by this.’

Despite all these pitfalls, Sufi writings do offer remedies to escape Iblis’ snares, typically linked with the sacred word. The four basic protections from Iblis are masjids, reading the Qur’an reflectively, prayer, and an ascetical perspective. The formula “I seek refuge in God from Satan the Stoned” is especially potent: God destroys 360 devils lodged in the heart of the believer. Iblis becomes so frustrated when he hears this that he begs holy men not to teach others this prayer. Even though Iblis offers not to oppose them in their way to perfection, few accept.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Evolving our understanding of Islam

There is a growing divide among second-generation American Muslims between those that are following convention and those that are leaving the religion. An alternative, organized, middle ground approach has yet to fill that vacuum. But I see the makings of it in this group, in this gathering. And I have been pursuing it by seeking an alternative perspective through science. Reading about the journeys of people who sought to integrate science with faith has helped me to find that middle ground.

One of the most influential scientists who struggled to reconcile his research with his faith was the natural historian Charles Darwin. Darwin figured out that all life evolves through descent with modified traits. Darwin’s studies revealed to him that life is not static, nor perfectly designed. Rather, it evolves over time. It is a constant work in progress.

Similarly, we are realizing that our understanding of Islam is not meant to be static, but to evolve over time. The most viable understanding of Islam will always be that which is best suited to its context. Our current context is naturally selecting an understanding of Islam that is more adaptable, inclusive, accommodating, and flexible. That is the inevitable direction of American society. Interpretations that are uninviting and harsh doom themselves for extinction.

Back in Darwin’s day, there was no such thing as natural history, which today is the study of the history of life on Earth. In the 1800s, there was natural philosophy (math and physics) and natural theology (understanding the Creator by studying creation).

One such theologian, William Paley, used the analogy that a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, just as the complexity of nature implies the existence of a Creator. In other words, nature is so complex that it could only have been designed by an intelligent deity.
Darwin borrowed the rhetoric of Paley’s “Grand Analogy” and turned it on its head: Artificial selection led to domesticated organisms, just as natural selection led to natural organisms.
In his seminal book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin introduced ideas that where heretical at the time. The most egregious idea to Victorian Society was that organisms are not created in perfect form, but rather, that they are descended from common ancestors.

Many people assume that, in light of his views, Darwin must have been an ardent atheist. This was not so: based on his collective writings, Darwin appeared to have retained spirituality throughout his life. But Darwin struggled with the seeming contradiction of his religious views with his scientific views. He was afraid of alienating himself from his wife, Emma, who was a devout Christian. Darwin also feared that his radical views would be spurned by society. He even sent apologies to his friends and colleagues in advance of them reading his manuscript.  His writing made statements that directly challenged the Bible – for example, by saying that “things are not created in a perfect form.” Darwin was not afraid of offending the Church, per say, but he was grappling with what all of this had to do with God.

In Darwin’s view, Nature is not benevolent and ordered with everything in its place. Rather, it is a constant struggle for survival – everything vying for its place, with no room for morality. But there is a balance that arises out of that struggle.

People often have trouble reconciling this reality with their beliefs. It seems incongruous with the perception that humans are above animals. The empirical truth is that we are animals. We are biological life forms with biological functions and needs. But we also have capacities that exceed those of any other life form that has evolved thus far. Those capacities are powerful, and they are balanced by their equal potential for creation and destruction.

I’d like to discuss another parallel that may shed some light on our current challenges. In the split between American Muslims who wish to preserve a conservative practice, and those that seek a more progressive and inclusive view, I see a parallel with the transition that Americans underwent over the course of the Civil War.

In the time before the Civil War, the predominant paradigm of thought in the Western world was metaphysical. It was entirely rooted in theology, idealism, and philosophy. The Civil War shook that foundation in America. Even among upper class society, the war compromised peoples’ acceptance of a world under God’s exclusive direction.

In his book The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand chronicles the erosion of metaphysics and its replacement with pragmatism, or the use of workable ideas to tackle workable problems, as the operative paradigm in America.

The thinkers that advanced this notion, Menand says, “believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals – that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and irreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability, but on their adaptability” (p. xi-xii).

Just as America did in the wake of the Civil War, American Muslim communities are currently experiencing a novel reality. Politics in the Middle East, and the United States’ involvement in the chaos, made American Muslims feel alienated in their society. The Internet created a tremendous gap between second-generation Millennials, who grew up in the US in the 21st century, and their parents, who grew up in another country, in another era, and who desperately seek to preserve something from that bygone life.

Even with so many old ideals shattered after the Civil War, new scientific discoveries were further challenging established notions in the late 19th century. When Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species, many people did not know how to react to his views in light of their long held theological perspective on their place in the world. Similarly, many American Muslims today are unsure of how to reconcile their beliefs with new advances in science.

Darwin’s theories became the foundation for the study of biology. But even Darwin’s views had to be reinterpreted over the years in light of new data. Darwin and others at the time understood that traits are heritable – that offspring resemble both parents – but no one knew anything about DNA back in the 19th century. Darwin’s explanation for the introduction of variation in traits was that the environment nebulously affects the reproductive system in a way that creates new variations of traits. This notion had no basis once we began to understand DNA and genetics.
There is an incredible tension between knowing that we cannot know everything and knowing that there must be certainty out there. But we can accept both.

One of the pragmatic ideas that arose in America after the Civil War was that even if we don’t understand something yet, we can be sure that there must be a law to explain it.
I think we can be just as pragmatic in our understanding of Islam. We can remind ourselves that we will never know everything, but be assured that Islam will always help us find answers. We submit to that reality, and put our faith in Allah. If we use our powers of observation and our capacity for pragmatism, we can ensure that a viable American variation of Islam will survive in generations of descendants to come.

The Quran frequently refers to natural phenomena, such as in this passage from Surat Ash-Shams (91, Ayat 1-6):
“I swear by the sun and its broad light/ and by the moon when it follows/ and by the day when it shows its brightness/ and by the night when it envelops/ and by the sky, and the One who built it/ and by the earth, and the one who spread it.”

I think that this passage would have resonated with Darwin himself. The language in his book, On the Origin of Species, reflects the same kind of reverence for nature, and even an acknowledgement of a divine connection to it:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."