Two revelations

last puzzle piece going in

During the span of 23 years, Allah revealed the entire Quran bit-by-bit through His angel Gabriel to the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in response to circumstances at the time or to specific questions that were posed.

But why was the Quran revealed in stages?  Did God make it up as He went along?

Actually the book already existed in its complete form in the Highest Heaven since the beginning of Time.  This is why Allah mentions in Surah Al Qadr (97:1) that He revealed the entire Quran in the night of Decree (Qadr): “Indeed! We sent the Quran down in the Night of Decree.”  Here, He is referring to the first revelation – when it descended from the Preserved Tablet (al Lawh al Mahfooz) in the highest heaven, to the House of Honor (Bayt al ‘Izzah) in the lowest heaven.  Then, the second revelation – which occurred over a period of 23 years – is when it was brought from the lowest heaven to the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) through the Angel Gabriel.

Had the entire book descended all at once, Muslims would never have gained a context for the verses, nor would they have had someone to interpret for them what was meant.  The Quran would have been a puzzle, open to anyone’s interpretation.  Instead, the verses were explained as they were revealed.  But how was this possible?

When Allah gave the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) the words of the Quran, He also inspired him with a deep understanding of what those verses meant and how to convey them to others.  As Allah says in the Quran (16:44): “And I revealed to you the Reminder (Qur’aan) in order that you explain to the people what was revealed to them.” This is why the Sunnah is inseparable from Islam.  The Sunnah explains, clarifies, exemplifies, and specifies the Quran.

If Allah had merely conveyed the words without explaining them, the Quran would have been little more than a riddle, a jumble of symbols, malleable as putty in the hands of anyone who wanted to manipulate it.  In fact, even today, extremists and Islamophobes attempt to do just that, and they are counting on our collective ignorance in order to do it.

How can we take back the true understanding of our faith?  What is the methodology for interpreting the Quran?

Reboot

power button

At some point we’ve all been there.

Whether we were born Muslim or are new to the faith, at some point we start to doubt ourselves, and we start to doubt our faith.  Is God real?  Is religion a scam?  Is Islam still relevant?  It’s no wonder when we consider all the forces of doubt weighing on us.

The rise of atheism, extremism, and Islamophobia, combined with the internal pressures of our own culture(s), can create a crisis of faith with seemingly no escape.  We doubt not only Islam but all religion, and even God Himself.

When I worked on the Help Desk at the corporate office for a large electronics retailer, our go-to solution for every problem was: “Reboot your computer”.  Back then, computers crashed all the time. These were the days of Windows 3.1, with the shiny new Windows ‘95 right on the horizon.

Does your life need a reboot?

Are you overwhelmed with all the challenges of being a Muslim today?  Not quite sure you measure up? Desperately looking for the reset button?

As long as you are alive, God hasn’t given up on you.  As long as you are still here, there is a way.   You just have to be willing to put in the effort.  It will get easier.  But you must take the first step.

“What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.”

– Samuel Johnson

Religion and culture

spices

When I interviewed Mr. Shalabi, an award-winning charter school principal for our MAP (Muslims for American Progress) research study at ISPU (the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding), he shared with me an interesting finding from his dissertation research.

Entitled “The Identity Crisis of Arab American Students in American Public Schools”, he shared that students who tried to fit in by completely shedding their cultural and religious identity were prone to low self-esteem, which translated into poor academic performance.  Similarly, students who clung to their own culture and resisted any integration were isolated and were equally prone to low self-esteem which therefore limited their academic progress.  Only those students who were able to blend both cultures – remaining proud of their own heritage but able and willing to assimilate selected aspects of their new culture – had the best self-esteem and academic progress.

This issue of religion versus culture is an important one in the Muslim experience today.  This issue affects not only American or Western Muslims, but Muslims throughout the world.  We struggle to reconcile our culture – or cultures – with our religion. Sometimes when push comes to shove, we deny or distance ourselves from one or the other.  Oftentimes it’s difficult to tell which is which.

The one thing we know for sure is that Islam is a universal religion meant for all times and places – but our cultural baggage may not be.  We may be holding on to certain aspects of our culture, assuming these are an integral part of Islam when in fact they may not be.  This is not to say that we should disown our culture.  Our language, our history, and our heritage – even our clothing and cuisine  – each represents a vital part of who we are, and we should be proud to own that.  But should we ever put our culture ahead of our obedience to God?  Or does faith come first?

 

Grasping for guidance

question mark

The whole world is grasping for guidance.  Self-help books are selling at an all-time high.

People are seeking advice on everything from how to be a better person, to how to be successful in business, how to improve our relationships, and how to achieve optimal health.  As Muslims we should always be striving to improve ourselves in every area of our lives.  But sometimes in all our searching, we forget the timeless wisdom of our own faith.

What do people really need to know about Islam?  Not just to fill a gap in their knowledge, but to truly appreciate it in their hearts and minds, so much so that they turn to it for guidance in all areas of their lives?

Some have tried to help us by attempting to summarize the entirety of Islam – starting with the five pillars of Islam, the six pillars of eman, and so on.

But people are tired of being taught the same basics over and over again.

Some try by reminding us why we need to fear Allah.

It’s not that we shouldn’t fear Him – He deserves our reverence, our awe – but it’s not a starting point.

Some try by reminding us about all the do’s and don’ts.

Those are important too, but again they are not a starting point.  They come later, once faith is firmly established in the heart.

What if there was a way to understand the fundamental structures that define all of Islam?  Not an explanation of the beliefs, laws, and moral code, but the foundational principles from which the beliefs, laws, and moral code are derived?

There is a way.  That way is the Islamic sciences.

Already Beautiful

flower

Sometimes in our feverish attempt to defend our faith, we forget that Islam is already beautiful.  It is already perfect, because it is Divinely ordained.  To change anything that is already perfect can only bring about its imperfection.

When we stick to the authentic method of interpreting the texts of Islam, we will leave with one finding:  that Islam is balanced.  It is neither overly focused on outer actions, not solely focused with achieving a certain inner state, but rather values both.

Some stress the importance of rigidly adhering to the ritual aspects of our faith, but routinely ignore the inner work.  And others place all their emphasis on the inner work, and routinely dismiss the importance of rituals such as prayer and fasting in the attempt to just get us to be “better people”.  Actually one reinforces and informs the other.

If we really do have a strong moral compass then it will show in our actions.  If we do the outer actions correctly, then they will develop us internally:

Testimony of faith is intended to develop sincerity

Prayer is intended to develop discipline

Charity is intended to develop generosity

Fasting is intended to develop self-control

Hajj is intended to develop patience

We owe worship to God alone.  But we also owe care and concern for our fellow humans – not just Muslims but all people – and nature as well.  As Muslims, we believe all living things – both animate and inanimate – worship God.

We also practice care and concern for ourselves, as our bodies have a right over us.  Islam is not a monastic faith:   we fast but we also eat, we stay up to pray in the night but we also sleep, we spend in charity but we also fulfill our own needs.

WHICH ONE IS MOST IMPORTANT?

They are all important.

From non-acceptance to acceptance

cropped-green-forest-and-clouds-website-header.jpgMy friend just shared with me these writings from renowned 13th century scholar and poet Jalaluddin Rumi…

What Is Poison ?
He Replied With A Beautiful Answer – Anything Which Is More Than Our Necessity Is Poison. It May Be Power, Wealth, Hunger, Ego, Greed, Laziness, Love, Ambition, Hate Or Anything.

What Is Fear ?
Non Acceptance Of Uncertainty.
If We Accept That Uncertainty, It Becomes Adventure.

What Is Envy ?
Non Acceptance Of Good In Others, If We Accept That Good, It Becomes Inspiration.

What Is Anger ?
Non Acceptance Of Things Which Are Beyond Our Control.
If We Accept, It Becomes Tolerance.

What Is Hatred ?
Non Acceptance Of a Person As He Is. If We Accept the Person Unconditionally, It Becomes Love. 

What beautiful insights.  Rumi is saying that all of these negative thought patterns originate with non-acceptance.  In fact even the first one – poison – can be seen as non-acceptance of necessary limits.

Many of us may believe that these harmful thought patterns are to be obliterated, or at least suppressed.  But what it seems Rumi is suggesting is that by simply changing our perspective, from non-acceptance to acceptance, we can shift the harmful thoughts into beneficial ones.

So from fear we can shift into adventure, from envy to inspiration, from anger to tolerance, from hatred to love.  In other words the negative attitudes are not problematic in and of themselves, if we only choose to sit with them, and bring a spirit of mindfulness and acceptance to them.

Islam means submission.  Isn’t submission the same as acceptance?  Was the answer to our greatest agonies – fear, envy, anger, hatred – right under our noses all along?

 

Cultivating mindfulness

mindfulness

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn

How many of us are really aware of our own thinking?  How many of us are aware of the implications of our thinking in the different areas of our lives, including our faith?

In the absence of mindfulness, we become vulnerable to our egos.  Our egos serve as a native defense mechanism designed to protect our vested interests.  But what do our egos have to do with understanding Islam?  Isn’t it merely our ignorance that is holding us back?

While it is true that ignorance – lack of knowledge – holds us back when it comes to understanding any subject, when it comes to a highly charged subject – a subject in which we have a vested interest in seeing things a certain way – sometimes it is our egos and not our ignorance that pose the greatest threat.

In order to gain some insight, we can begin to develop certain traits:

  • Intellectual humility – How much do I really understand about this complex and controversial subject? Do I have all the answers, or just partial answers?  Could there be entire realms of knowledge which I don’t even know exist?
  • Intellectual autonomy – To what extent has my thinking in the past been a mere reflection of the thinking of the groups to which I belong, void of any independent analysis on my part? Will I continue to passively follow the thinking of the groups to which I belong, or will I think for myself?
  • Intellectual perseverance – How often in the past have I been unwilling to invest in learning about Islam? To what extent was I willing to dismiss or even fail to seek out well-reasoned explanations for this grossly-misunderstood faith?  Will I give up my pursuit for true understanding if I face some obstacles along the way?

This journey is a lifelong pursuit, so don’t be worried if some of your answers surprise you.  Perhaps for now, simply notice your reactions, in an open and non-judgmental way.

 

Education in the critical faculty

i agree

“The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators … They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.” -William Graham Sumner

This quote perfectly sums up the art and science of critical thinking. It comes from a book I was reading as part of my professional development as a business analyst at the corporate office of a large healthcare company.

You might wonder, how does critical thinking relate to Islam?

The Islamic sciences are rooted in critical thinking.  As Muslims we should develop our critical faculties, so that we are not interpreting Islam according to our own whims but rather according to the rigorous, evidence-based models established by scholars throughout the centuries.

Nowadays we are quick to use logic and reasoning to dismiss long-held traditional interpretations of Islam. Why not use reason to uphold them instead?

The Rise of the Religious “None’s”

eye

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
– Henri Bergson, French Philosopher and Educator

According to the Pew Research Center, the fastest growing religion in America today is “None”; that is, no religion.  The religiously unaffiliated, or “None’s” now make up 19% of the U.S. adult population.  The religious None’s include those who don’t identify with any religion, as well as those who identify as atheists, and those who identify as agnostics.  Self-identified atheists make up only 3% of the U.S. population.  However the actual percentage of those with atheist beliefs is 9%.  This number includes those who identify with a religion, yet say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit.

Are people leaving faith because they don’t see any evidence for it?  Or are people failing to see the evidence because they lack faith?

The heart filters what we see with the mind.  Seeing is not believing.  Rather, believing is seeing.

Being a lifelong learner

abc

As a graduate student in Educational Technology, we were reminded over and over again about the importance of lifelong learning – especially in the 21st century.  We learned that learning never ends, especially in our technologically driven world where change is the only constant.

I wholeheartedly agree.

We ought to learn as much as we can about technology, our professions, relationships… even our hobbies.

But this notion of being a lifelong learner extends beyond our worldly pursuits, to include our religious and spiritual endeavors as well.

The field of Islamic sciences is so vast. The ocean of knowledge is so deep.  Today, let us begin this sacred journey of knowledge, hope, and renewal.

Bismillah…

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