Friday, February 22, 2008

Moon 2.0

Another X-prize. Yay! For those of you who don't know, I was studying aerospace engineering until a few years ago, and the concept of flight inside and most especially outside the atmosphere has fascinated and intrigued me for a long time.

Several years ago, the X Prize foundation proposed a project to encourage private sector aerospace research. Most aerospace development hitherto has been predominantly government funded--often related to Defense programs. The goal was to build and successfully launch a spaceship--a reusable manned aircraft capable of reaching an altitude of about 62 miles, the "border" of space, so to speak, the edge of the atmosphere. No government funding allowed. The prize was $10 million, and was awarded in 2004 for SpaceShipOne, which some of you may have heard about. It became known as the Ansari X-Prize though, thanks to a donation from the Ansari family. (Recall Anousheh Ansari--the first Muslim woman in space!)

There have been a couple other boring X-prizes... for cleaner automobiles and a human genome project, but now there is another space race--to the moon. The goal is to send a robot to the moon which will go for a drive and send some pictures back home. Developing a space program has to begin a certain way... starting with achieving a particular altitude, then orbit. Launching to the moon has, in the past, been a two-phase trip which goes to orbit and then launches from orbit to the moon. This X-Prize is being funded by... Google! So now it's called the Google Lunar X-Prize.

Anyway, here's hoping that this X-prize sparks new development in the aerospace industry--more than super-maneuverable jets and missiles.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Learning the Hard Way

I had originally planned this post a few weeks ago and never fleshed it out. I was thinking about a recent lesson I had learned (the hard way) that ultimately made me even more grateful to Allah and aware of His mercy. But in fact, compared to an even more recent lesson that hit me just today, it pales in comparison. So I will be writing about the more profound and more recent of the two.

You see, I have hurt someone, someone that I care about very much. Not for any good reason either, and not because I was hurt, but just out of careless arrogance. You know that nobody will enter Paradise who has an atom's weight of arrogance in his heart? Anyway, I suppose if anyone acts rudely towards others, as I have on many occasions, it doesn't make an impact to hurt a stranger's feelings. But that same behavior directed towards a closer friend? And when that friend points out the gross wickedness inherent in that behavior, the problem seems ever so much more acute.

And that happened. I suppose one conclusion someone might draw, looking from the outside in, is that I didn't care for that person's feelings anyway, respect his opinion, or in fact even respect him. But that's not the case, for this is someone who I respect over everyone else.

And my very poor behavior revealed a much deeper problem--the filth on my heart. There is an organ in the body which, if it is sound and pure, the entire body will be pure, but if it is corrupted, then the body becomes corrupted as well. And that organ of course, is the heart.

So what was the lesson? That my heart, far from being pure, was corrupted, sullying my intentions and my deeds. That is a hard lesson to learn. It is easy to think about how someone else might be corrupted, how someone else might have the wrong intention... so much harder to point our fingers at ourselves and ask, "What is wrong with me?" And even if you can ask, it's still not easy to believe the answer.

But for me, there is no escaping it. And as if the lesson weren't brutal enough, the consequences of it are severe, costing me the truest friendship I've known. Hard times can bring us closer to Allah, and I am grateful for that as I beg and plead to the Turner of the Hearts, to the Forgiver, to turn my heart towards His deen, towards obedience to Him, and to forgive me and have mercy on me.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Poison called Anger

It's deadly. It makes you weak. It burns in your veins until you let it erupt--spewing evil on everyone around you. I'm not angry... but I wonder why I get angry sometimes. The Prophet (saws) said that a strong man was one who could control his anger. So it must not be easy--must take real nerve and determination to keep it in check and maintain patience.

My inspiration for this post comes from a lecture set I've been listening to. I'm going through it the second time--this time taking notes so it sinks in better. It's a Muhammad Alshareef class, Fiqh Ad-Da'wah, subtitled Guiding to Allah By the Book. In fact, I'm so full of "inspiration" right now I could probably write for days. Alhamdulillah.

I thought that the lectures would be how-to of da'wah, dos and don'ts of talking about Islam. There is some of that... but the more I listen to it, the more the real magnitude of the message strikes me. The instructor gives many examples, and analogies, to help explain the points he make. In fact, if you're not paying attention it might seem that it's only just examples and analogies. One story he tells really hit me today--I guess I heard it at just the right time.

He talks about how he was in this Hajj Group when he lived in Saudi Arabia (he studied at the University of Medina, btw) for taking Americans on Hajj. And he explained some 'IBM' thing that maybe my readers in KSA might understand. Basically, that when you go somewhere to have something done you often here "inshaaAllah bukrah ma'lesh" (sorry if I mutilated it!) And that apparently means something like "come back tomorrow" and "forgive us." And he said after getting used to that, it takes a long stretch of hearing "inshaaAllah bukrah" to really get angry.

But he noticed that the Americans in this Hajj group were always so angry. For example, when someone would come and sit in their tent, and they would want to fight for their tent so it wasn't overtaken, to fight for their space, while he would just be inclined to go find somewhere else to sit. And then described how he'd have to hide almost, afraid that the guy would be so angry at him for not helping defend the tent.

And someone remarked about how calm he was, and not getting angry (and also, the person who was helping him, another student in Saudi I presume). A few years later, he moves to Maryland, and then goes back on Hajj after being there for a year. And while making tawaf he says someone pushed him, and he says he became so angry about people pushing in the Haram and having to teach them and will they ever learn, etc. And he described it like a poison.

Basically he said that the anger had just accumulated in him over that year, finally coming out at that trigger. And he referred to it as "snap anger" and "trigger anger," like it has just built up to a point where just pushing a button (metaphorically) causes the person to erupt in anger.

Now, I don't know what it is about America that might cause this to happen. Something about the way of life that slowly poisons us. If any of you have seen the Princess Bride, you might recall how Westley has to overcome this Vizzini person who is supposedly a genius (though we have good reason to doubt this.) And in their duel of wits, Westley places poison into a glass of wine and his opponent has to discover which. It turns out that Westley poisons both--as he has spent several years acquiring a tolerance to the poison. Which is kind of the opposite of what I'm talking about. But here's what I was thinking... I want to be more patient. How can I develop more patience? Practice by little bits? That is the antidote.

So just like Westley would probably take small doses of the poison over a period of several years, his body would develop a resistance to the small amounts. So when it had to handle the larger dose, it was ready. Here is a thought, then. The solution is not to just avoid things that make us angry, really, because in reality there will always be something which comes to us to spark that fire. The answer is to be patient with the small things--keep anger in check when it is very low. Acknowledge it, control it. And then, when faced with even greater calamities, instead of getting angry, we will have practiced being patient, so patience will come more naturally to us than anger.

Just like when the brother was in Saudi Arabia, and kept hearing "inshaaAllah bukrah," he was developing his patience, and tolerance, and things which caused his American brothers to erupt just bounced off him.

I ask Allah to give me patience, increase me in patience, and give me strength to control my anger.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sacrifice for Islam? (pt 1)

This past weekend I was asked to prepare a talk about sacrifice. I was also asked to write an article for a monthly newspaper on a topic of my choice. Since school is a burden and on top of that I'm spending a lot of time working for the da'wah committee at the masjid, I have decided to simplify my life somewhat by writing the article about sacrifice as well, so I can put the same things into it.

The idea behind the topic, I think, stems from the fact I have converted to Islam, embraced a new religion and in so doing have given up or sacrificed some features of my old way of life. To help me gather my thoughts I'm going to try inshaaAllah to make notes on my blog--notes on sacrifice, to help me write the article and the speech inshaaAllah.

I have thought of making a list of actual things I've had to give up, but everything seems to fit into another category. I mean, I could say I've had to give up bacon or pepperoni, but that is not nearly as weighty as the rift in my family, and giving up my work breaks for prayer is rewarding enough to not seem to be a sacrifice. And in fact, it's hard to look back at my life and say it was better. So I don't feel like I've sacrificed much at all, because the quality of my life overall has improved. The things that I did give up just seem so petty and irrelevant, and many things that I wouldn't wish back even if I could.

And then I think about the muhajireen--they had to give up everything they had in leaving Mecca, a far greater sacrifice than I've made.

So I'm still not sure where to begin exactly with this idea of sacrifice... anyone else have any ideas?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Playing with the Boys

When I was growing up, I played mostly with my little brother. My sisters were much older and not interesting in playing really, when I was little. When I was 8 or 9, I remember we (family) got a fussball table. And so I played fussball probably more than an average kid might (unless he had one too). Last week I went to dinner at one sister's house with some friends, and the hostess had two children. A girl, 6, and boy, 5. The TV was on most of the time and the girl would watch it fairly intently. The boy would run around some then sit and watch, then run around some more... very hyper.

For one reason or another, I just thought this kid was hilarious. And so, somehow I ended up playing fussball with him on a little miniature fussball table during the prayer (I wasn't praying...). And we were nearly evenly matched... but he would take away my points if I scored too many times in a row. That wasn't "fair" apparently. Anyway, it was probably more fun for me to play fussball with him than to talk to the other sisters.

This isn't the first time that's happened... in fact, I went to a wedding last summer and spent a large portion of the "dancing" time (where the sisters were taking off scarves and dancing around to loud obnoxious music) in another room, playing fussball with a 10-yr old. He hadn't ever played before so it wasn't really a fair contest. But still--was I being anti-social, to prefer to play with a little boy instead of talking (or dancing) with women my age?

I remember one time playing Lego's with my nephew on the kitchen floor, tickle-fighting with my other nephew. I used to play with my nieces, now they're 8 and preoccupied with trying to act 16. But even then, one would play with her Barbie dolls. Sorry but I got pretty bored with that... but I could play with Lego's for hours

This doesn't bother me that much, to forego the conversations of my family or friends (which for the most part tend to be pretty shallow anyway) to even more simple talk ("Do you have a red one?") with the kids. And this is odd, because for a long time I wouldn't have described myself as someone who gets along well with kids or who even like kids. That's because as soon as they start crying... I'm gone.

At any rate, I start thinking about how I actually do like doing these things, and it makes me want some kids of my own. Scary, huh?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

How to Become a Believer - Shahaadatayn

The Arabic I learned from Bayyinah,, tells me that Shahaadatayn is the dual form of the word Shahaadah. In other words, it means "Two Shahadahs" as we might say in English. This is to say

1. Ashhadu anlaa ilaaha illa Allah,
2. wa ashhadu anna Muhammadan 'abduhu wa rasooluh.

In English, this means

1. I bear witness that there is no god except Allah
2 and I bear witness that Muhammad is His slave and messenger.

When a person says this, understanding what it means, and believing it in their heart, they are for all practical purposes a believer. Yes, yes, this is "the shahaadah" that people say to convert to Islam... but when somebody says this, we are at that moment obligated to treat them as a Muslim. A serious sentence, then!

Belief begins with this simple statement. We do not need to have full knowledge and belief about all Allah's attributes, angels, prophets, scripture, the last day or divine decree. Just understanding that Allah is our Lord and our God (and only Allah) and that Muhammad is His messenger and accept that.

And in fact we have examples from some Sahaba, that the Prophet Muhammad saws spoke to them, explained that there is no god except Allah and that he, Muhammad, had been given revelation. After this, and some recitation from the Qur'an, Abu Bakr (ra) embraced Islam.

In my class on aqeedah, this was something nice and simple to talk about--how easy it is to become a Muslim. To become a believer takes only these things. (I should mention that to negate them in any way, or to negate other pillars of faith, to reject the pillars of Islam, that would be an act of kufr...) But we don't have to be experts at theology to be Muslim. We don't have to take courses and classes and such to learn enough Islam to believe in it. Only this small bit.

And if we can convey that to people, perhaps the simplicity of it might be attractive? Not sure, but I liked learning it.