faith

A slice of humble pie

A short while ago,  I ‘uber pooled’ a taxi with a stranger. I have done this a few times when I couldn’t justify getting a taxi home, beyond feeling just a bit lazy. This time a lady jumped in to the back with me and promptly greeted me with the muslim salutation ‘peace be  upon you’.

Strangely, despite being a very private person, there are times when I am happy to share elements of my life freely with others. On the most part however, I keep my deepest hopes and dreams to myself.  This lady, upon us setting off in the car to our respective destinations, began to tell me about her life. How she was mixed race, how she only discovered faith in her later years, how she is trying to maintain a good relationship with her Trump loving mother, how she was married multiple times and finally how she is currently in court, fighting for the right of her son to attend a faith school, despite her ex-husband’s objections. She turned to me and told me her son’s name and asked me to pray and make dua that the court case goes well. I promised her I would.

I don’t know how the court case went and I probably wouldn’t recognise the woman if I was to pass her by in the street again. But this lady’s attitude taught me something: humility.

Some people may think that this lady telling her life story might be lonely or too talkative or to relate to the social media craze we live in now was ”oversharing’. I saw something else. I saw someone who was humble enough to confide to an absolute stranger her biggest concerns in life at the time and ask for help in the form of a prayer, and at the same time strong in her self to know that her sharing didn’t make her weaker in the eyes of the other person. There is a prophetic saying (hadith) that ‘the dua of a muslim for his brother in his absence is responded to’. 

This struck a cord with me, particularly because I wondered how often I ask loved ones to pray for me or to help me. I wondered if this was because I felt I never needed to do so because in the Islamic tradition, there is no need for an intermediary to communicate your feelings and prayers to God. I realised, that perhaps a part of it too was because I don’t like to admit when I am in need. To open myself in this way would feel too overwhelming and would indicate that I am not as self-sufficient (bar God) as I aspire to be.

It is one thing to only rely on God and to call on only Him for relief, and quite another to not seek dua or help from others due to a lack of humility.

And so, any prayer and good vibes you can send my way would be humbly and graciously received <3.

I ask for God’s abundant mercy and blessings to be showered in your life and that you may see both joys and hardships as only beautiful things.

Ameen.

 

 

 

 

Good company

I (re) learnt something important. Friends are not individuals you love and cherish because they share the same interests as you, the same faith or even the same aspirations. You are inclined towards them because they understand your values, respect your hopes and dreams (and the inconsistency with which it might change), know the importance that something may play in your life and support you towards it, especially when you falter.

I have a beautiful ornament at home that a friend gifted me with from at least 7 years ago. It is a jewellery holder in the form of two hands together with palms facing  upwards, similar to how hands look while in Muslim prayer. I cherish this gift, not only because it is both practical and lovely, but also because my friend (who does not share my faith) brought it because it reminded her of the Muslim form of prayer and she thought I too would like it because of that.

Another instance is more recent, of recent travels with another school friend. Muslims who are practicing, pray 5 times a day and while travelling, I sometimes found it difficult to make some of my prayers on time. After a while, my friend questioned me on my ill timing, and with every excuse I gave, she found a rebuttal for it. From that day onwards while travelling, her words inspired me to persevere harder to make my prayers on time.

These experiences, alongside others make me think of the importance of good company and companionship. Each person in a friendship is able to remain true to themselves, feel comfortable around one another, and support the other in living a meaningful and wholesome life that is right for them, as well as holding them to account when they fall short of living out their own values.

The things you own, end up owning you

When I read in the news that New Zealand Rugby player Sonny Bill Williams gifted his gold medal to a young star struck fan, I was in awe. While in this state of wonderment, I thought back to an incident earlier in the year at a friend’s wedding, where a display of cupcakes were slowly diminishing, and a few friends and I were tasked with bringing some back to the table. In our race to the cake stand, a couple of young girls also made their way, but were too slow. I watched their little eyes widen and their hands open in hope that someone would take mercy. Luckily, my moral compass wasn’t to be tested as a friend sacrificed her cupcakes and handed them to the kids. I did wonder though, and hoped that had said friend not been there, I would have done the same.

So a cupcake is not a gold medal, I realise. But the sense of giving and source of generosity is one and the same. How much are you willing to give to others, and does what you give depend only on what you have or want to give? For instance time, money and material possessions: most people are happy to give their old sweater to charity and to offer their bus seat to an old man. What about giving their new statement ring to a friend who commented that they liked it or while in a rush to catch the next train, stop to help the just landed tourists find their hotel? Or a more common example, fully turn to face your colleague who has walked by your desk to ask a question, instead of replying while continuing to type into the keyboard due to lack of time.

Generosity is a quality that I think can be fostered, but only consciously so. Consciously (but genuinely) saying a kind thing, consciously smiling, consciously taking the time and focus to speak to loved ones, consciously giving things away that you yourself would be happy to receive and consciously moving away from joy in material possession and towards appreciation in lived moments and experiences instead.

I remembered an occasion years ago one summer in Morocco, aged 7, looking everywhere for a favourite jumper of mine with no indication of its whereabouts from my mother. That day, a family outing led us face to face with a young girl of similar age from the neighbourhood. My sister thought to be helpful and state what I was thinking myself; that my top had been found…but was now owned and being worn by someone else. I wish at the time, I had been graceful at the situation, that my favourite top could now be someone else’s favourite item, that the feeling of giving is gifting enough and that everything is replaceable; a top, a gold medal, a cupcake.

Gossip girl and jammie dodgers

I learnt the hard way that backbiting was wrong early on in life. Sat on the doorstep of my aunt’s house in Morocco one sweltering summer; munching on a jammie dodger, my younger cousin and I were discussing matters attuned to a 7 and 8 year old’s line of thinking. Two girls of similar age walked past us who I had recognised from the local farm next to my grandparent’s house.

Not yet out of earshot, my cousin, deep in focus extracting the jam from her biscuit, said a mean word or two, somewhat to the effect of ‘who does she think she is?’, and then a moment of pure terror shot through my spine as the girl, with strong muscle built from working the farms turned around…and looked at me.

I should probably mention appearance here before I continue. My cousin was cute and chubby, with a look of innocence permeated on her little cherub face.

I on the other hand was tall, skinny and hadn’t quite figured out how to smile. I only thought to relax my facial muscles when in my teenage years; a friend admitted the reason for befriending me was that I looked like a bully who could protect her. Anyway I digress.

The girl edged towards me, with eyes firmly locked in mine and asked me what I had said. I tried to look over at my cousin, but found her still busy extracting the jam from her dodger. As I meekly whispered that I had said nothing; her eyes glanced towards my prized possession on my wrist; a watch with a dolphin icon as the dial. She firmly gripped my arm, looked at the watch, back at me and then the watch, before mercifully deciding ‘only because it would be rude’. She dropped my arm and walked off into the distance.

My cousin, who seemed completed unphased by the near theft of my watch and that I was blamed for her action, had now finished her biscuit and was about to make another comment. I don’t quite remember what I did, but I would like to think I momentarily clasped my hand over her chubby little face and muffled her speech.

I think back to this event a lot; it’s a good example of just how pointless talking about others is, and how a number of things can result from meaningless chatter- hurt feelings, conflict, confusion, unfair assumptions, ill feeling towards others and good time wasted that could be better spent, like thinking up different filling ingredients for jammie dodgers (my cousin and I could have been on to a winning invention).**

Spreading rumours, backbiting, slander and thinking ill of others is vilified in most societies, and yet it can be a real struggle to tread what can sometimes be a very delicate line. The Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) once asked his companions what backbiting is and said it is ‘saying something about your brother that he dislikes’. Someone then asked, “What if what I say about my brother is true?” The Prophet responded ‘If what you say is true then you have backbitten about him, and if it is not true, then you have slandered him’.

While a number of sins that we engage in may be private and we are ashamed of them, the sin of ill speech, ill thought and encouraging ill thought in others is shared with company. It can sometimes be so subtle, that we don’t even notice we are doing it. In a society where information about a person is readily available, and sometimes actively shared; it is also very easy for assumptions to be made about a person and their character based on very minute details. While not technically backbiting, not thinking the best of our fellow humans and not making 70 excuses for them all contribute towards a heart that does not wither at the point that someone is talked about, for good reason or none. God tells us in the Quran ‘Do not follow blindly what you know not to be true: ears, eyes and heart you will be questioned about all these’ (17:36). In an age where a video is released or an argument ensues between individuals, and we all flock to our timelines and phones to criticize, belittle or shame one another- are we prepared to be questioned about that which we thought to be true or considered so significant as to have an opinion on it?

Is it worth it? To make a comment about some else; a celebrity or politician or next door neighbour enters us into a dark abyss ready to assume a position of arrogance unknowingly, similar to a black ant on a black stone on a dark night. ‘Believers, no one group of men should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another…Believers, avoid making too many assumptions- some assumptions are sinful- and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs: would any of you like to eat the flesh of your dead brother? No you would hate it. So be mindful of God’ (49:11-12).

God likens speaking badly of our fellow human being as though we are eating their flesh-just consider the savagery and brutality of that act, and how it is achieved in gossiping form. The final part of the verse ‘so be mindful of God’ is telling. If we are truly conscious of God, we have no need or matter to be meddling into the affairs of others, or making judgements or speaking unnecessarily. This state of consciousness is also important in not relaying to an individual if we have heard someone speak ill of them so as to not cause conflict as well as not listening to ill conversation even if we are not participating.

In essence we should be working towards having no interest in the private matters of others, unless it is to help them grow and with that comes context and approach, for instance privately advising a person with kind and sincere words.

Trying to navigate myself towards this path of ‘thinking and assuming good’ needs action, and this journey needs reminders:

  • Try and have good intentions when meeting company.
  • Before speaking, ask yourself three questions: ‘ Is this true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’
  • Ask loved ones to remind you when you edge near the slippery slope of ill speech.
  • Politely change the subject if conversation is negative and targeted at a person not present.
  • Politely ask the person speaking if the topic of discussion is not backbiting/ slander?
  • Momentarily walk away from a large group busy in negative discussion.
  • Unfollow a person on social media whose updates may bother you and therefore increase your ill thought of them.

A while ago, I found my watch with the dolphin icon as a dial, and I recounted the story, and how perhaps had we not started on a wrong foot, that little girl from the local farm may have ended up a friend, or a third partner in what could have become an alternative jammie dodger enterprise.

** As this post relates to talking about others, I feel a disclaimer as to including the story about my cousin and I is necessary. I have included the anecdote as it is a story that I feel I can learn from and hope others can too. The fact that the incident refers to us as children whose actions are not accounted for was a deciding factor for inclusion.

Gratitude by a train station

God sends lessons in the subtlest of ways.

As a disclaimer, in Islamic tradition, it is advised that you don’t share any deeds you do in the aim to remain sincere that your efforts are purely for God and not to enhance one’s dignity and status in the eyes of the people. However I share this story in the hope it benefits, more over than any action on my part.

After walking to the station from work one evening, I passed a young homeless man who asked each passer-by for change. As I walked past, I heard his same request and ignored it to which he wished me a ‘good evening anyway’. After a minute or so, I hesitated entering the station, and decided to return back. I could see that there were two men who were surrounding the young man but had left by the time I approached him. As I knelt and contributed to his collection, a short conversation ensued that I hope to always recall. He spoke softly as he told me this:

‘Those two men were taking the mickey out of me, and I thought could this night get any worse… And then you came’.

I wished him well and hoped that things will get better and I departed with tears in my eyes, and tears in his.

As I headed back to the station, I recalled a quote I had read that Nouman Ali Khan had once said in a lecture ‘When you find yourself in a position to help someone, be happy because Allah is answering that person’s prayer through you.’

The conversation was touching, not because of what I had said or done, but because God had put me in a position through His Mercy and Grace to help another human being and likewise inspired that young homeless man to stir much needed humility and gratitude in me. Because at that moment, God had helped us both.

May we never forget that is the poor and needy that the beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) wishes to be resurrected with on the Day of Judgement. The Prophet said (Al Tirmidhi): “O God, grant me life as a poor man, cause me to die as a poor man and resurrect me in the company of the poor.” His wife asked him why he said that, and he replied: “Because the poor will enter Paradise before the rich. Do not turn away a poor man even if all you can give is half a date. If you love the poor and bring them near you God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.”.

Othman bin Affan (ra) is thought to have said “‘Your charity is not accepted until you believe ‘I need the reward more than the beggar needs the money'”.

Sometimes this reward is granted in this life as well as hopefully in the hereafter. It can sometimes come in the form of a humble reminder from a grateful young man asking for change by a train station.

The pursuit of humble knees

Multitasking has its perils. While trying to text and walk down a flight of stairs, I fell over.  To be honest, it wasn’t dramatic. I only missed one step, I didn’t have the embarrassment of pitiful onlookers and the only real damage, was that to my purse, as I was holding coins and I heard them tumble slowly but surely down the sharp metal rails to a point of no return. My knee does hurt though, the last time I remember my knee hurting as much was when I fell into a thorn bush at age nine.  Cycling also has its perils. I still have this vivid memory because a thorn was unknowingly lodged into my knee for about two weeks until one boring day, I daringly squeezed said knee and lo and behold, a thorn literally jumped out…any way I digress.

The reason I momentarily relived my knee to floor impact was because prayer motions are currently not as second nature as before. Bowing and prostration are a bit uncomfortable, but I persist knowing that I will be back in full form in a day or so.

But this got me thinking about how grateful I should be at being able to physically submit to God in prayer.  This post is not about establishing prayer itself, though of course it is related, but rather about the often under appreciated value of the prayer positions themselves (when performed with sincerity) and what they signify.

How many people are unable to pray physically, or need the aid of a chair? While circumstance such as age or illness renders prayer that does not include all the physical positions still acceptable and fulfilling, how many people wish they could go back in time and perform prayer as they once did, healthy or young?

I had recently finished reading Malcolm X’s autobiography and thought about the section where he speaks about initially finding it impossible to bend his knees in submission to God.  He says in Chapter 4 ‘the hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying… bending my knees to pray-that act- well, that took me a week…. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up’.  

I don’t think I had necessarily considered just how significant the prostration position is, but the story about the creation of mankind clarifies this importance whereby God instructed the angels and Iblis to prostrate to Adam, as a form of honouring man and in turn an act of worship through obedience to God’s command.  Iblis refused to prostrate, claiming himself superior to man, leading to his ultimate demise.  This was an act of not only disobedience on the part of Iblis, but also arrogance.

(Allah) said: “O Iblis! What prevents you from prostrating yourself to one whom I have created with Both My Hands. Are you too proud or are you one of the high exalted” . Iblis said: “I am better than he. You created me from fire, and You created him from clay.” Surah Saad 75-76.

When Muslims prostrate in prayer, they willingly submit to God, putting their best part of their selves on the ground, the lowest point possible. This act is not just in heart or mindless action but is a sincere demonstration of their humility before God. Prostration not only signifies humility but also gratitude. There are 15 verses in the Quran where an additional prostration is required. One verse that indicates this importance of gratitude and humility is in Surah Al Sajdah: 15: ‘Only they believe in Our messages who, when they are reminded of them, fall down prostrate and celebrate the praise of their Lord, and they are not proud’.

The importance of these positions is also such that the Prophet said, “The worst thief is he who steals from his prayer.” His companions asked, “O Messenger of Allah, how does he steal from his prayer?” He said, “He does not perfect its ruku and sujud” and he recommended that each movement must last at least the time that it takes for the bones to settle (Ibn Khuzaymah).

So while my knee may have survived thorn bushes and stair wells, I pray it will also aid me in seeking humility and gratitude.

On kindness

I was told of a story recently of a young woman who taught in Thailand for a little while. She was teaching little street children who don’t have homes and lessons would take place under a bridge. One day, the young woman had her flip flops stolen and she arrived ready for class shoe less  One child, touched by the fact that his teacher had no shoes, took off his own broken sandals and lovingly gave them to her.

Kindness, oh how much we all need it. This little deprived boy had nothing, except his kindness and broken sandals to give. If only he knew that this world is full of people whose pockets are full and hearts are empty. It is us who are truly deprived.

In the Merchant of Venice, Portia says “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”. This line has such strong spiritual connotations. Mercy, in the Islamic sense is a word that encompasses much more than just the characteristic of being merciful; but to be kind, to be compassionate, to be understanding, to acknowledge and validate someone’s pain and not to deny it. It indeed does bless the person receiving mercy and the one giving it.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him- pbuh) tells us that ‘The Merciful One shows mercy to those who are themselves merciful (to others). So show mercy to whatever is on earth, then He who is in heaven will show mercy to you’ (Tirmidhi).

Our presence in this world involves interaction with others. Our presence is powerful in more ways than we think. How we act towards another human being matters, even how we present ourselves can have such impact, such influence that can unintentionally affect the other person in such an intense manner.

One day on her lunch break, my mum in her 30’s and still living in Casablanca, was waiting to cross at a traffic light. She says she still remembers to this day how a young woman in a head scarf (hijab) dressed in all white stopped her car at the lights. My mum was so completely overwhelmed with how this woman looked as her face appeared to radiate such ‘noor’, light and serenity, and she seemed to look so completely at peace. After that same encounter that day, my mum decided to research more into her faith and wear hijab. It was as though God had sent that woman to my mum at that point as a source of inspiration. That woman, until the final day will never know how her unintentional presence and seemingly ordinary daily routine affected someone else so profoundly and positively.

Similarly, and I share this anecdote with the hope it benefits, I once watched a friend, still new in her faith performing ablution (wudu) in a shopping mall toilet completely oblivious to others around her. Prior to that day, I would never perform wudu anywhere but at home justifying that my clothes would get wet and I would get all flustered. My friend, again doesn’t know just how much her behaviour and general character positively helped someone else spiritually. While she was still learning about Islam, she was actually teaching someone else the beauty of it; true faith is about how you act, and not only what you think.

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said ‘shall I tell you who are the best among you? The best of you are those who when seen are a means of God being brought to mind’ (Tirmidhi). This hadith reminds me of my maternal grandfather. My strongest memory consists of him coming up the stairs after saying his prayers and a whole entourage of grandchildren running to greet him at the stairs as soon as we would hear the gentle thud of his cane against the tile floor. We would do this every day for each of the prayers and would race each other in a bid to kiss his hand in greeting first; literally swarming around him, and exclaiming in Arabic; ‘I’m first’, ‘I’m second’, ‘I’m third’ and so forth (a good eight of us or so at that time). He would chuckle with such happiness and even now eleven years later, his gentle laugh still rings in my ear and inspires me at moments when I need it most. May God rest his soul; even though he has departed, his kindness and softness still teaches me that these characteristics are actually strengths in an often cold and harsh world.

We each have a role to play in this world; David Niven says that ‘nothing would be the same if you did not exist. Every place you have ever been and everyone you have ever spoken to would be different without you. We are all connected; and we are all affected by the decisions and even the existence of those around us’. We have to ask ourselves, what source of benefit are we to bring to the world? A smile, a kind word, an offer of help, a shoulder to cry on, and a prayer can all immediately change the perspective of a person- what a gift to give.

Hafez’s poem alludes to the wonder that we are all capable of, and how these acts are actually blessed from the Light above- ‘How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being. Otherwise, we all remain too frightened’.

So let us give with all our hearts; a Thai street child taught me you don’t need much to awaken joy, and yet it can mean everything.