Saturday, 25 August 2012

Al-Ghazali’s lessons on patience

 “Truly, God grants breezes in the days of your life. So place yourself in their way.”

I’ve been making my way through a few books that are part of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, a 40-part series regarded as one of the greatest works on Islamic spirituality, written by Islamic theologian-mystic Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali in the 11th and 12th centuries.
A few days ago, I started reading The Book of Patience and Thankfulness, hoping to benefit from Al-Ghazali’s gems of wisdom on how to bear burdens and grief with greater steadfastness and contentment. One can hardly pass 10 pages of Al-Ghazali’s words without being blown away by a precious jewel of insight that I am compelled to read and re-read several times in order to absorb its beauty and understand its applicability to my life.

Patience is considered to be half of faith according to Hadith, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace. I’ve found this to be true in my own spiritual journey of embracing Islam, which describes a state of mind where a believer strives to live in complete devotion to God by recognising and guiding daily activities around core principles. Aligning oneself with the divine enlivens a powerful spiritual balance that transcends circumstances, and makes natural activities of prayer, fasting, charity, remembrance of God and good deeds. Having faith in practice is not simply a belief, but an embodiment of a way of life. 

Attaining Islam for me has gone hand in hand with sharpening my patience, broadly describing the ability to maintain clarity and presence of mind in times of trial and consistently being thankful to God for the blessings He grants. This is no easy feat; I find the effort to attain patience to be a most difficult daily struggle. As humans, we’re often driven by our desire for success, love, wealth, praise, power, offspring, etc. When we desire a thing and it is not granted to us quickly, or is denied to us entirely, it can become a source of disappointment and despair.

It is at these times that honing our patience is most important. Al-Ghazali reminds us, by drawing on Quranic verses, Hadith and Biblical references, to place our trust in the Almighty and be content in times of trial, knowing “that the reward of those who endure patiently what befalls them is greater than the blessings of being spared a misfortune.”

I read the following excerpt last night and it has been whirling in my mind ever since because it reminded me that there is no time limit on patience.  There are certain blessings I pray each day for God to grant me, members of my family and friends. Some of these prayers have continued for months, if not years, in hopes that Allah, as God is referred to in Arabic, will bless a loved one relief from a disease, or a friend a new job after a long period of unemployment, or grant me a virtuous marriage.

“We do not know when God will make the means of sustenance easy,” writes Al-Ghazali. “We must empty the place (the heart) and wait for the descent of mercy at the appointed time. This is similar to preparing the earth, clearing it of weeds and sowing the seeds. And yet, all this will be to no avail without rain.

“The servant does not know when God will decree the means of rain, but he has confidence in the bounty of God and His mercy, as there has been no year without rain. So, in like manner, rarely will you pass a year, a month or a day without an attraction from God or one of His ‘breezes’. The servant must have a heart purified of the weeds of passion and he must sow the seeds of will (irada) and sincerity (ikhlas) and expose it to the blowing winds of mercy.”

I was moved by this excerpt and found it to be relevant because it reminded me, at a time I truly needed reminding, that I must trust God’s plan and have genuine faith in His benevolence. Only God knows what is good and right for us, and this includes knowing the right time for mercy to be granted. 

What is important is that we prepare ourselves for God’s mercy by strengthening our bond with Him and being sincerely content with the blessings He has ordained for us, as difficult as this may be with the multitude of distractions surrounding us. We should not, as it is so easy to do, become preoccupied with “worldly attachments and desires” and think ourselves self-sufficient. When we are driven by our desires for instant gratification, a veil shields us from true enlightenment and knowledge of God—the highest form of knowledge a human being can attain.

“All that you need is for desire to abate and the veils will lift, so that the lights of knowledge will shine forth from inside of the heart,” Al-Ghazali writes. “It is easier to draw water to the surface of the earth by digging canals than it is to bring it from a distant, lower place. As it is present in the heart yet forgotten through worldly preoccupations."

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The sweet traditions of Eid

The end of Ramadan is always bittersweet for me. I grow accustomed to the rhythm of the Islamic month of fasting – the slowdown in consumption and focus on prayer, empathy for the less fortunate, charity, gratitude, reflection and patience are all reinvigorating for the spirit. It’s a month I’ve participated in since my pre-teens and each year that I can remember, I’ve felt a tinge of disappointment on the final day, which always seems to arrive far quicker than I imagine it should.

This year I was on the verge of tears when the call to Maghrib prayer at sunset signalled the end of another meaningful Ramadan. As we enter Eid el-Fitr, the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, we’re meant to celebrate with our family and friends the conclusion of this auspicious month and express gratitude to the Almighty for our blessings.

Cultural traditions vary throughout the world but most countries will have special sweets, often prepared only during Eid, to help celebrate the occasion and give it a distinct flavour. 

This year, my sister and I are on our own so we thought we’d try to inspire our home with a bit of the fragrance of Eid by baking a couple of traditional Egyptian sweets, using recipes that my mom has followed for decades. Below are some photos of the rich, delicious desserts we baked today, including kahk, a rich cookie filled with a sticky mixture of ground nuts and honey, and ghorayiba, smooth butter cookies topped with almonds or cloves.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

10 Ways to Maintain Ramadan’s Spiritual Momentum

(This article was carried by the Huffington Post)

Many people identifying with the Islamic faith are aware of the unmistakable and inspiring spirit that characterises the month of Ramadan.

As we refrain from food and drink, which can become luxuries we unconsciously take for granted, greater time is spent in quiet concentration, reflection and prayer to God in an effort to de-clutter our minds and revitalise our faith. Since the entire month centres on expressions of worship, namely fasting, prayer, dispensing charity and better guiding our emotions, Ramadan offers a kind of spiritual reboot that helps us ‘force quit’ the numerous complications that muddle our minds. It invites Muslims to re-visit the source of their faith by sidelining various distractions and clearing up as much spiritual space as possible to nourish our relationship with the Almighty.

Islam is Arabic for Submission, or Complete Devotion, to God and can only be achieved through a human’s free will. It embodies a state of mind whereby consciousness of God, or Allah in Arabic, guides all of our actions. We integrate different acts of worship into everything we do, such that expressions of remembrance and gratitude to God become the goal of each activity. Submission places in a human’s grasp peace of mind. It offers a level of understanding that positions human experience within the greater design of existence; where all realities have divine input and purpose.

For most of my life, I was only anywhere near achieving this state of mind during the 30 days of the Holy Month of Ramadan. While I loved and believed in God, during the other 10 months of the Islamic year, my thoughts would turn to Him only at times of distress and I did very little to express gratitude.

A couple of years ago, I realised that my general avoidance of God was contradictory as it’s not possible to be partially faithful, so I endeavoured to nurture my bond with Him. In the process, I found the best way to achieve this was to carry aspects of Ramadan with me throughout the year.

During this auspicious month, we’re reminded of the tools to honour God throughout the year. Rather than reboot one time a year, consistent maintenance is good practice for the spirit and contributes to the productivity of our spiritual operating systems beyond Ramadan. Below I describe 10 ways I keep the spirit of Islam’s holiest month turned on all year long.

1) Praying on time, all the time
From the busier-than-usual prayer rooms and mosques, it is clear that Muslims spend more time praying during Ramadan than other times of the year. Regular prayer is the single-best way to continually renew my relationship with God, and keep consciousness of Him at the centre of my attention at all times. Islam ordainsfive prayers each day on believers, spanning from the crack of dawn until the dark of the night. Like everyone, I work and run errands, meet friends and family, cook, clean, shop and travel. But five times each day like clockwork I pull myself away from whatever activity I am doing to kneel in devotion to God in prayer. It is comforting to have this consistency in my life; it takes the sting out of a bad day and reminds me to be grateful on a good day.

2) Fasting regularly
The benefits of fasting regularly are applicable throughout the year, not only during Ramadan. The act of fasting for spiritual prowess makes us more conscious, not just of food habits but of how we think, behave, and interact through out the day. That consciousness of consumption encourages patience and carries through to how we communicate and handle our daily interactions and mishaps. I strive to fast from dawn to dusk at least one time each week on Mondays or Thursdays, a practice rooted in Prophetic teachings.
3) Giving generously
Other than zakat, an obligatory act of dedicating 2.5 percent of our assets each year to charity and often dispersed during Ramadan, I offer voluntary alms known as sadaqah, virtually every month. Charity is mentioned in lockstep with prayer throughout the Quran, which calls on believers to do both “regularly”. There are endless online charities and many people in need in our communities.  Giving to these causes privately and publicly is both a valuable practice in paying it forward and immensely rewarding on a personal level. Each time I give, I imagine that the wealth I am distributing first passes through the Hand of God. This helps me give with greater humility.
"Therefore do hold patience; a patience of beautiful contentment"
(Surah Al-Ma’arij (The ways of ascent), Holy Quran: 70:5)
4) Reading from the Book
During Ramadan, it is favourable to read Islam’s holy book from cover to cover. For the rest of the year, many of us may spend hours each week reading articles on politics, science, human rights or business, and peruse fiction and non-fiction books with fervour, while our copies of the Quran are left to gather dust. Translated as The Recitation in English, the Quran charts out the path individuals should take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the spectacles of modern life. These lessons that are always applicable so I try to read the Quran four times a year at least, which is feasible if I spend time quiet time reading it every few nights and on the weekends. Each time I read the holy book’s 114 chapters I take new and different points of wisdom from it.

5) Embracing family time
Ramadan draws families together as we meet for the meal to break the fast, known as Iftar, and gather in the early-morning hours for the pre-fasting meal Suhoor. Besides worshiping and loving God, Islam teaches that very little is more important than consistently acting toward ones parents with respect and warmth. There is a Hadith, or saying of the Last Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, that describes how ‘Heaven lies at the feet of your mother’. Well, my mother loves my foot massages, so I often joke that if Heaven lies there, imagine the reward I may get for massaging those feet. Remembering our bonds of kinship, and honouring them throughout the year in our unique ways, will always draw us nearer to God and gain His mercy.