Thursday, 31 March 2011

Rationalising faith

Last week, I had a brief Twitter exchange with a gentleman who politely defended the right to practice faith, but said faith to him was “simply a nice name”. In his view, proving something to be true is more challenging than having faith in something you cannot see. He mentioned how pharmaceutical companies produce verified, replicable data which prove drugs do what they claim. People, by contrast, place faith in beliefs even though they do not have the same type of proof. In most cases, they believe, according to him, only because even if they turn out to be wrong in the end, it would not matter after death. 

I agree that one should not blindly accept any ideology and we are, all too often, complacent about our beliefs. To be honest, I did not know how to respond other than to say that faith appeals to my rationality as well as my spirituality. My Islam (submission to God) came after a process of questioning, reading, thinking and discovering the truth.

While I did not respond adequately to this man’s curiosity and queries, his comments brought two things to mind. My three-and-a-half year old nephew Kareem sparked the first thought. Kareem adores documentaries about insects, his favourite topic in the world at the moment. When I was visiting Kareem in December, he had borrowed two documentaries from the library, one about bees and the other on ants. They were constantly playing on the family room television.

I became engrossed in watching these videos with my nephew and marvelled at the importance of females in colonies of ants and hives of bees. The primary function of male ants and bees involves mating, whereas the females run the show. I wasn’t aware that worker ants and bees – responsible for building and guarding the home, and collecting food – are female. Maybe it was something I had learned as a child and had since forgotten, but I was enthralled at this miracle of nature.

Photo from Alex Wild Photography
It happened that the same week, as I was reading the Holy Quran for the third time, I came to the verse entitled “The Ants” (Surah 27). It spoke of how Prophet Soloman was getting together his army and at one point in the verse an ant saw the army approaching. Prophet Soloman heard this ant warn other ants: "O ye ants, get into your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you (under foot) without knowing it." (27:018)

In the following line the Quran, referring to Soloman and the ant, reads, “So he smiled, amused at her speech,” and carries on from there. I was amazed that ants were referred to as feminine; the sex of worker ants was scientifically proven in the 17th-18th centuries from what I can gather from a bit of research. I had not noticed this on my first two readings of the Holy Book. Intrigued, I then went back to Surah 16 entitled “The Bees”, which I had read a week or so earlier, and realised the feminine verb form is also used to describe bees.

The Quran, which translates from Arabic as “The Recitation”, revealed by God to humankind 1,400 years ago, includes layer upon layer of truth and fact that one must uncover to understand. I believe God appeals to our rationality if we are willing to explore and listen to His messages and signs. In the Quran, it describes how God “has created every animal from water” (24:45); as well as how the Almighty formed “two bodies of flowing water, one sweet and palatable, and the other salty and bitter. And He has made between them a barrier and a forbidding partition.” (25:53)

Pacific Ocean meets Tasman Sea, courtesy Picasa web albums
God reveals that he created the night and the day, the sun and the moon, “all (celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course”. (21:33) So many realities and facts, even foetal development, are outlined in the Quran’s pages, many times in extraordinary detail:

"And certainly we did create humans from an extract of clay. Then we placed him as a drop of sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood.  Then out of that clot, We made a foetus lump. Then We made out of that lump bones, and clothed the bones with flesh.  Then We developed out of it another creature.  So blessed be Allah (God), the best to create!" (23:12-14)

This brings me to the second thought that came to mind: a video that my sister, a PhD-holding scientist who conducts research on stem cell trafficking, had sent me a number of months ago. It is a short speech by a scientist who, after 35 years of being an atheist, came to the realisation through his scientific research that everything in science and the universe is so perfectly formed that there must be a God – and only one God.

Monday, 21 March 2011

A prayer to keep

As state-sanctioned violence is inflicted on peaceful civilians across the Arab world, I repeatedly find myself overwhelmed with emotion. My stomach gets tangled in knots as I watch footage and read article after article about brutal crackdowns of protesters in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, among others. Hardening my emotions is difficult while people suffer severely as I sit in relative comfort, the troubles of my life dwarfed in their magnitude.

Prayer held in Tahrir square during Egyptian Revolution
Other than staying informed, which is crucial, I ask myself what we can do at times like this to offer support to people whose stories of repression, struggle and courage have moved us to tears. Over the past several weeks, I have donated to charities, including Islamic Relief, the Red Cross and International Medical Corps, hoping to assist those most affected in some small way. 

But as we circulate knowledge, and share thoughts and ideas on the current events transpiring in the region, we sometimes neglect the most powerful tool of all in helping those who are suffering: sincere prayer to God. In these days of fixation on mass media, prayers can easily be sidelined and underestimated as we are drawn into the vast influx of information on our Twitter and Facebook feeds. We often call on each other to say a prayer for those suffering, be they in Libya, Yemen or disaster-stricken Japan. But how often do we get down on our knees, silently focus our hearts and minds, bow down our heads and actually ask for His help?

Growing up, I always saw my mom, a devout lover of God, pray every one of the five daily prayers that God has enjoined from those who worship Him in Islam, an Arabic term meaning ‘submission to God’. There is not a time in my childhood in Canada that I remember her not waking up in the early hours of the morning to conduct the sunrise prayer. She always woke up automatically without an alarm or call to prayer. Yet she never compelled me or my sisters to pray – and I have great appreciation and admiration for her for leading by example rather than coercing us to do something that I believe would be meaningless unless it is done from the heart out of love and genuine dedication. She always strived to instil in us a love of God, and when I asked her to teach me how to perform the ritual prayers at the age of 15, she did so carefully and patiently. Prayers can become mechanical and meaningless if performed without presence of mind.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Unveiling the bride

It was reaching the moment the crowd of 2,000 attendees had been anticipating for more than two hours: the bride was about to be unveiled. I use the term ‘unveiled’ because she was literally uncovered from beneath what I can only describe as a gigantic circular curtain, in the shape of what looked like a four-layer cake decorated with ruffles and lace.

The background music was forceful; my sister said it reminded her of the theme music used during battle scenes in the movie Lord of the Rings. For some reason the intense tunes seemed an entirely appropriate way to capture the occasion, which was truly momentous at least for the families involved. One layer at a time the curtain rose from the floor of the podium situated in the centre of the giant exhibition hall where the wedding was held. An exquisitely dressed young Emirati bride of about 20 emerged from beneath the rising curtain, sitting on a small cream-coloured couch made for two, the sweeping train of her glittering wedding gown carefully placed on the floor around her.

My sister and I had arrived 45 minutes earlier at 10:30 p.m., about two hours late but just in time for the tail-end of a dinner comprising traditional Emirati and Asian cuisine consisting of briyani with mutton, chicken masala, a variety of grilled meats and a dish known as Harees, which has a thick porridge-like consistency combining wheat, meat and salt.

As the attendees finished dinner, munched on desserts and sipped Arabic coffee, the anticipation was evident. Everyone was eager to have their first glimpse of the bride at this women-only affair (that is, apart from the male Gulf Arab musician, whose name I did not catch, giving a live performance during dinner).

Traditional Emirati weddings are held in two ceremonies, the first for the groom, which I have heard typically involve a grand dinner party held within a week of the women’s gala. The men’s ceremony is supposedly much more basic, with festivities saved for the bride’s night. On this particular occasion, the groom’s bash took place the evening before.

In all Emirati weddings I have attended, toward the end of the women’s ceremony the groom comes into the hall, often with his father or another male member of the family, and walks across the stage toward his bride. They sit together briefly for photographs with close family and then the two depart to commence their lives together, often going home to a villa festooned with lights.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Revolution in perception: Egypt's women defy labels, demand rights

"Leave! Leave! Coward" (Carolyn Cole/LA Times)
Images of Egyptian women, many donning the Islamic headscarf known as ‘hijab’, forcefully demanding freedom, rights and the demise of the Hosni Mubarak regime poured into households across the world during Egypt’s revolution. As women stood alongside their brothers, husbands, friends and colleagues to knock down the foundations of a stagnant, repressive government, they also tore down walls of stereotypes that Arab women are passive, mute, repressed victims of a religion and culture that subordinate them.

I have always been enamoured and awed by the power of Egyptian women. My maternal grandmother raised eight children, four girls and four boys, on her own in Cairo after her husband passed away following a battle with prostrate cancer at just 40 years of age. My grandmother has always been an emblematic symbol of an Egyptian woman for me; I see reflections of her courageous spirit, strong character, unwavering faith in God and devotion to her family and neighbourhood in my mother and, more broadly, the women I encounter across Egyptian society. Women wield great economic and moral power in most Egyptian households. It takes only a trip to a traditional fruit and vegetable market to experience their influence first hand; souqs are usually operated by resolute and tenacious women who take charge of the sales, purchases and bargaining.

These are the impressions of Egypt’s women I grew up with, and it has been thrilling to watch the world capture a glimpse of this in the past month and a half. Female participation in the revolution was extensive: young university students seeking greater opportunities and an end to corruption stood alongside mothers of victims of state-sanctioned violence hunting for justice and thought leaders, such as renowned Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi.

It is my belief that the Egyptian revolution will come to represent a decisive shift in the narrative about the status of women in Arab and Islamic culture. In first week of the revolution in January, I forwarded this Facebook album, which amalgamates images of women in the Egyptian revolution, to friends across the world. The responses I received were immense. For a number of friends and acquaintances in Canada and the United States, the images challenged pre-conceived notions they had held about Arabs, and Muslim women in particular.

Women take part in anti-regime revolt (Felipe Trueba/EPA)
Yet Egyptian women, like their counterparts in other Arab countries, face an uphill battle against patriarchal laws and interpretations of faith which I believe have really clouded the exalted role women are granted by virtue of Islamic faith.

Egypt’s women working toward cementing greater rights and empowerment are planning a demonstration on March 8, dubbed the “Million Woman March”, to coincide with International Women’s Day.  Protest organisers seek to reinforce the role of women in Egypt’s revolution at a time when the government is listening to citizen concerns more than it has at any point in decades – and arguably in the past century.

These are some of the protesters’ demands:

 (Credit unknown)
* Abolition of absolute parental authority over women.
* Empowering women in political life.
* A new civil constitution.
* A new and civil personal status law.
* The immediate application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates women’s rights in addition to all other international agreements that Egypt signed on to; many of them are inactive and not applied.
* Rewriting all Egyptian laws to ensure equality for men and women.
* The abolition of all forms of political and social tutelage forced on Egyptian women.

While I am uncertain how these demands will play out, I believe this bold move will send a message that watershed transformation in Egypt should not be allowed to overlook the rights of women of all faiths.

Women pray at Cairo's Tahrir Sq (Credit unknown)
Women have a long way to go to be granted their God-given rights across the Arab world. Islam – a state of mind in which a believer submits her/himself to God – is frequently misconstrued as contrary to the rights of women. For me, this is one of the most-frustrating stereotypes I face as a Muslim woman. It is through embracing the message of God and submitting myself to His will in Islam that I, as a woman and a human being, have been able to attain true freedom.

The Quran, which literally translates from Arabic as ‘The Recitation’, is God’s gift to human beings, regardless of gender. God refers to men and women an equal number of times – in each case on 24 occasions – in the Holy Book and grants each human soul the chance to attain salvation through prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. I often notice in translations of the Quran from Arabic to English that the Arabic term “Naas” (meaning people) becomes “mankind” in the English version, which can detract from the beauty and equality of the message. God’s law speaks of the complementarity of women and men in their lives on this earth, and their equality in striving for eternal peace.

For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s (God’s) praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (Quran, 33:35)

I find great inspiration in the first human being to embrace Islam following the Prophet Muhammed , his first wife Khadija. A widow, Khadija managed her father’s business, fed and clothed the poor, and at the age of about 40, following the death of both of her parents, married Muhammed , who was then 25 and one of her employees.

"Christian + Muslim = Egyptian" Credit unknown
Khadija is regarded as one of history’s rare “perfect women” alongside Mariam, mother of Prophet Jesus. When I contextualise her story with examples of devout women I have encountered in my life – my mother, grandmother, and many women of the Jan. 25 revolution among them – it gives me great hope that Egyptian and Arab women have the strength of mind and character to insist that their rights be recognised and enshrined. Raising our voices at this pivotal point in Arab history is absolutely imperative.