Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The wealth of charity

(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post
Ramadan starts next week, which means it is time for me to cleanse my pocketbook. No, I’m not planning to embark on any shopping sprees during the Islamic month of fasting. But I do intend to spend a lot more money than I would in other months of the year.

At one point every year, Muslims are obliged to purify their wealth by calculating 2.5% of their assets – including money in bank accounts, shares, investments, pensions, gold, etc – and giving it to those less fortunate.

This is known as zakat, often loosely translated from Arabic as ‘charity’, which should go toward helping orphans and the poor, as well as assisting people in debt, suffering from illness or facing numerous other financial struggles. Zakat, one of the pillars of being Muslim, represents the minimum amount of charity that each individual is obliged to give as a virtuous human being who considers the welfare of others. In this sense, everyone is in a position to pay forward a standard amount of their wealth and everyone is credited for doing so whether affluent or not. 

Like many Muslims, I determine my zakat at beginning of the month of Ramadan, and strive to pay it before the month ends. Ramadan is a great time to cleanse our wealth since we are already focused on purifying our bodies and thoughts. When reading the Quran, the significance of zakat appears to be equal to prayer as an expression of faith. The two are often mentioned simultaneously in the symmetrical rhythm of the Holy Book’s verses.

"It is righteousness to believe in God, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book, and the Prophets; to give of your substance, out of love for Him, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; to be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity..."
Quran 2:177

In the past, if I offered a couple hundred dollars each year to charities I felt I was doing enough as a young, middle-class professional, with a number of financial commitments of my own. I did not follow any formula, and when I started to properly calculate zakat, I realised that I tended to give much less than I should.

The 2.5% minimum is a small enough sum not to place a major dent in your savings, but large enough to make a difference. For every $10,000 of your assets, for instance, you should filter out $250 each year to purify this wealth and give it to those in need.

So, if you have $50,000 in savings, the zakat you owe is $1,250, and if you have $100,000 you should pay no less than $2,500, and so on. The more wealth you acquire, the greater your responsibility becomes. Someone with $100 million must pay $2.5 million of it every year to charity.

There are rules in giving zakat. For instance, it is important to give priority to relatives and members of your community in need, which is why I will focus on giving my zakat in Egypt.

To understand the concept of zakat properly, you first must abandon the idea that the money in your bank account belongs to you. All of our money and possessions are temporary and in a sense function as tools of our worldly existence. Each of these tools belongs to God and He has entrusted us with these resources in order to examine how we will distribute, divide and share them. Once I embraced this concept, I understood why paying zakat is so crucial. It is God’s way of ensuring the adequate re-distribution of the wealth He has placed in our possession. It has the ability to balance disparities between people and possessions; as every single person has equal access to God in all moments, there should be no barrier preventing individual assets that belong to God from flowing between people.

I suppose it is something like the process of diffusion, which describes the spread of particles from regions of higher concentration to regions of lower concentration; zakat is a process that should become natural for a Muslim in order to promote a greater equilibrium in the world through a just distribution of wealth. 

I like to think of humans as God’s agents or ambassadors on earth. We are here to make choices that represent Him and one of our foremost duties is to be very sure that the tools He bestows are continually distributed as blessings for others. So even if we have only a little savings, it is our duty to contribute our share to the grand formula.

Disparities in wealth distribution occur when too many of us take full ownership of our assets, sometimes taking on unsustainable debts in order to gratify our desires, which can skew the balance out of favour for those less fortunate.

Realising that the money in my possession belongs to God has helped me spend it more wisely and give more generously. It also has the power to change your motivation for earning money. As you become more successful and wealthy, you become an agent with a wider reach to re-distribute.

Other than zakat, which is obligatory, people can also offer voluntary alms known as sadaqah. Virtually every month of the past year I’ve been motivated to give sadaqah to help families struggling in Egypt, Yemen and Libya due to political instability, people devastated by a tsunami in Japan or the heart-breaking famine in Somalia.

Living in Dubai, I often come across young men separated from their families in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan or India who are struggling on very small wages to provide for families that, in many cases, they haven’t seen in years. If you stop and listen to their stories, you find many reasons to give generously.

Embracing Islam, which describes a state of mind in which a person lives in submission to God, has turned on my sensors and me made more aware of my duties toward my community. Being charitable has also shown me that the proverb ‘the more you give the more you get’ is absolutely true.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Blueberries, cherries and lots of muffins

Berry selection at a farmer's market in Richmond, British Columbia

I went blueberry picking this week with my mom for the first time in years. There are numerous berry farms about a ten-minute drive from our house in Richmond, British Columbia. When I was in high school, we were leasing a house not far from where we live now that had three large blueberry bushes in the backyard. I used to spend hours in the summer months collecting the blueberries once they had ripened. We would freeze bags of them in our large deep freezer and pull them out throughout the year to bake muffins and cakes. I also love eating blueberries on their own, either fresh or frozen.

Me picking blueberries
The rain and cloudy weather this year has delayed the peak of blueberry season, which usually happens in July. This year, blueberry-picking season is likely to peak in early August, according to the owner of the farm we visited. Nonetheless, we were able to collect about one and a half kilograms of big, plump, sweet berries. How better to enjoy fresh blueberries than in big blueberry muffins? I share a great recipe below.

While we’re on the subject of delicious muffins, I also have to share a fabulous cherry bran muffin recipe that I tried last week after a neighbour gave us a basket full of fresh dark red cherries picked from a tree in his back yard. I replaced raisins with cherries in a recipe I found on Allrecipes.com. The muffins are incredibly soft and moist, and so healthy and delicious. Really great for breakfast.

Enjoy these great summer-time treats!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Fasting to feed the soul

Since Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, ended last year in September, I’ve tried to fast at least one time a week on Mondays or Thursdays. On these days, I will refrain from eating or drinking from the crack of dawn until sunset. In addition to performing regular prayers, I strive to be extra attentive of my emotions and how I react to annoyances that arise at work, in my personal life, or even while driving or shopping.

I get asked on occasion why I fast frequently outside the month of Ramadan. I usually hesitate to answer honestly to avoid sounding like an eccentric weirdo.

If I said in all honesty that I fast because it feeds my soul, a non-spiritual person is likely to be slightly discomfited, especially if I mention that my guardian angels present my good and bad deeds to God on Mondays and Thursdays so it is auspicious to fast on these days. This reasoning is particularly fazing and people are sometimes restrained in their reply, as if I am someone who still believes in Santa Claus or a childhood fantasy, and they don't want to tell me it isn't real.

Believing in angels and performing acts of worship for God are often perceived to be at odds with modern society rather than nurturing its balance. We are constantly persuaded to enjoy and live life through the value of 'things'. By consuming, earning, buying, selling, indulging, owning and exchanging things we are pursuing a full life.  The concept of being rational and being spiritual are seen to be contradictory.

For me, it has only been since turning on my spiritual intuition in the past two years that I have been able to see life clearly and live a more balanced, fulfilled existence. Regular fasting, like regular prayer, has been crucial in helping me achieve equilibrium in my life.

When you're full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba
When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.

-Jalaluddin Rumi

While Ramadan is a time when all Muslims will refrain from food and drink for a month, we have the freedom individually to make fasting part of our spiritual routine throughout the year.
Fasting is about discipline and worship. It is something we can do exclusively for God as a symbol of gratitude and appreciation. It requires the development of patience, self-restraint and self-discipline. Like any art or skill, it is about practicing and refining an ability to do something well. Along with prayer, charity and good deeds, fasting allows us to feed and nourish our souls any time of the year.

“Deeds of people are presented (to God) on Mondays and Thursdays. So I like that my actions be presented while I am fasting,” the last Prophet, Muhammad , is cited as having said.

I decided to try it out following Ramadan last year. After a number of weeks of fasting once or twice a week, it became part of my routine, like eating, exercise, socialising. My father passed away on the second day of Ramadan last August (God rest his soul/الله يرحمه), so I fast also with the hopes of benefitting his soul. I will often dedicate my fasts to him.

If a week passes and I have not fasted, I sense something essential is missing in my life. I’ve been able to fit worship into my routine; I keep a prayer outfit in my office, and plan business lunches around my fasting schedule.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Walking amid wildflowers

This past week, I've been absorbing the beauty of nature around me in British Columbia. Sometimes spending time away from home helps you appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. I've been away for two years.

During my walks and while cycling, I have been astounded by the number of varieities of wild flowers that bloom in parks, along the river banks and in the grassy fields. Below is a photo gallery of some of these flowers, which I will build on in the coming weeks.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Finding spirit in a school field

Just steps away from the front door of our house in Richmond, British Columbia there is a giant grass field surrounded by trees that have grown tall and dense over the decades. The field is situated between an elementary and high school and is used extensively by students playing soccer or the American variety of football.

When it is not raining outside, residents of the neighbourhood walk their dogs along the pathway encircling the field, which on one side extends toward the Fraser River.

The other day I decided to go for a brisk walk around the field to get a bit of exercise. It had been raining all morning, but by late afternoon the rain had stopped and while clusters of clouds continued to dominate the sky, patches of blue sky and sunshine began to appear. The air was as crisp and cool as I imagine it should be on a perfect spring day, although it is July. A rainy day is never far away in Vancouver. Only a day earlier the sun was beaming hot and not a cloud could be seen in the sky.

It was perfect weather to be outdoors, especially so for me. I spend most of the year in a desert climate in the United Arab Emirates, so it is always a treat to soak in the fresh breeze, rich colours and lushness of nature when I am visiting my hometown.

As I began my quiet walk along the paved pathway, I quickly increased momentum, tightening my leg muscles and swinging my arms back and forth in sequence. I paced my breath, inhaling and exhaling evenly as my attention focused on the leaves of the trees swaying slightly in the breeze. 

While my body moved rhythmically, I expected my mind to wander in a dozen different directions, as often happens when I go for a walk alone. Thoughts of work, responsibilities, family issues, relationships and other troubles flood my mind in no particular order and often simultaneously. Generally when I exercise I enjoy listening to music in order to stay focused, but on this occasion I did not have my Ipod with me.

But for some reason my mind did not wander. Instead, as I watched the clouds peaking through the leaves and absorbed the colours and sounds of nature around me, I found myself starting to pray.

I hadn’t planned on praying, it just happened suddenly and naturally. Under my breath, I began reciting some verses of the Holy Quran that I have memorised, some shorter, some longer. Reading from the Quran in Arabic is melodic; each verse has a perfect, poetic rhythm to it that is sometimes lost in translation. As I circled around the field, my body and thoughts moved to steady beat, leaving me feeling light and at ease.

In the Quran, God makes numerous references to how nature is in perfect balance and all the world’s vegetation and animal life – apart from humans – are constantly obedient to Him. Nature operates exactly as the Almighty ordains, the birds glide through the sky and make their homes in trees, which sway in the wind in perfect rhythm. The clouds move apart and together, the rain falls and stops, the sun rises and sets according to a divine order.

Humans, on the other hand, often lose their connection with Allah, the Arabic word for God, and fail to grasp His presence in every corner of every neighbourhood in the world. One who is spiritually Muslim, who has surrendered her/his self to God, experiences glimpses of the Divine in everything.

"Do you not realise that everything in the heavens and earth prostrates to Allah (God): the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals? So do many human beings.”
(Quran, The Pilgrimage, 22:18)

I suppose in some small way as I walked, prayed and paid attention to the trees, grass, sky, clouds, birds, bunny rabbits, raccoons, bugs and occasional dragon fly and butterfly, my motions became part of the rhythm of nature that would have been drowned out if I had a song blasting in my ear. I felt peace of mind and had a dumb smile on my face that must have puzzled the occasional person jogging past me or walking a dog.

About 30 minutes into my walk, I recalled the last time I had felt that same sense of focus of mind and unexpected closeness with God. It was two months ago, when I was on the other side of the world – literally – visiting the Enlightened City, Madinah, in Saudi Arabia. Madinah is the site of the mosque and burial spot of the Last Prophet, Muhammad .

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Bread baked with love

Just a few days into my summer holiday, and my mom is baking bread for one of our neighbours whose family is visiting Denmark this week. She is always up well before 8 a.m. on these days because baking bread is a several-step process and each one demands time and patience.

Throughout my life, my mom always baked bread at home: traditional Egyptian white and brown pita bread, bagels, buns and rolls. She was born with a flair for baking; never picking up a cook book yet somehow instinctively knowing how much of each ingredient to use in cakes, cookies and pastries.

When she first moved to Canada from Egypt, mom was troubled to find that most of the bread sold in grocery stores and bakeries contained lard of pig fat, often used as shortening, which Muslims are forbidden from eating. Growing up in a majority Muslim country she never had to concern herself with the ingredients of basic food items like bread. But in Canada, many freshly baked and packaged breads and biscuits contained lard, which she had no intention of starting to consume.

So as a practicing Muslim, she decided to start baking bread at home.

This week, as she knelt over the big plastic mixing basin she has always used to firmly knead together flour, milk, salt and yeast, I asked her how she learned to bake bread. She responded intuitively in Arabic, ‘life taught me ya Daliah’.

My mom often gives that response when she is unable to pin down exactly how events transpired. In this case, it is completely true. She did not learn from any book or person how to bake bread, she just followed her instincts in the kitchen and reacted to the needs of her family. In addition to avoiding store-bought baked goods containing lard, baking at home helped her save a good deal of money as my father finished his university studies and struggled to start his career.

As a child, my mom would watch her mother prepare the dough for traditional Egyptian pita bread. Then she and her sisters would take the uncooked loaves to an open fire-powered oven in the neighbourhood for baking. I suppose watching her mom bake bread somehow sparked her talent, but my mom learned how to bake many varieties of bread all on her own. She often experimented with new varieties using milk instead of water, adding raisins, sesame seeds or spices.

My favourite bread is my mom’s classic brown pita bread made with white and whole wheat flour, which is especially irresistible when drizzled with butter as soon as it comes out of the oven. My mom bakes dozens of loaves at a time and freezes them so they can be consumed for many weeks.

I cannot imagine baking bread myself. The process is quite daunting and requires a great deal of elbow grease and patience. After vigorously kneading together flour, fresh yeast, salt and milk, mom covers the large heap of dough with several thick clothes to allow it to rise.

After about an hour, she takes hand-sized pieces of dough and rolls them into balls, setting them on the counter and covering them for an hour or so until they rise further.

Depending on the type of bread, she will roll out the dough into a flat circular shape if she is baking pita bread. Otherwise, she’ll mould each small mound of dough into rectangular buns or bagels. These are placed in oven pans and then covered again to allow them to rise once more before baking.

The scent of freshly baked bread is something that consistently reminds me of home, which is why waking up to find my mom diligently kneading dough this week was a delight because I haven’t been to our home in Canada for two years. When she visits me or my sisters she doesn’t bake bread; it is one of her routines only when she is in her kitchen.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Painting a moment of my history

Painting by Mandy Merzaban, Oil on Canvas, 2011
I received the greatest birthday present of my life last week. My younger sister re-created a moment of my childhood in a painting depicting me as a baby celebrating my first birthday with my mom and elder sister. The three of us are kneeling before the living room table of our apartment in a suburb of Toronto, Canada. My mom had covered the table with a selection of fruits and pastries placed carefully upon a table cloth, which she always did when we had guests over.

It is a painting rich in colour, detail and memory. For much of my childhood we had this bright, flower-print red couch with two matching side chairs bought when my parents first immigrated to Canada from Egypt in the late 1970s. My father was completing his Master’s degree in electrical engineering and my parents were living in a small apartment in Ontario, where they had their first two daughters.

The couch was my mom’s first furniture purchase after marriage and she recalls being very excited with it. As we moved from one city to another with my dad’s changes in employment, my sisters and I wore down that couch, which my parents gave away about 10 years the birthday party depicted here. But in this painting, it was still brand new, much like I was at the time.  

It was wonderful to watch my younger sister recreate this moment on a canvas with oil paints, paying attention to many intricate details – my mom’s lovely features and thick auburn hair wrapped in a braided bun on the side of her head, the table cloth that appears in many photographs through the years and is still stored in a dining room cabinet.

Rather than being tucked away in a photo album that is rarely opened, this moment of family history will now be framed and hung in my own living room to become part of my present and future.