Monday, January 26, 2009

Loving Leah

Last night I watched an interesting Hallmark film with my mom. It was about a woman from a Traditional (Orthodox) Jewish community (Leah) whose husband had passed away, and her husband's brother who was not observing Judaism at all. (He offered her an apple and a slice of cheese, saying that one of these must be kosher...)

The premise of the story is that when the husband dies, if he leaves no children, then his widow is supposed to be married to his brother in order to carry on his name. Despite being in some sort of relationship already, the brother decides that he actually wants to take this tradition, because to not take his husband's widow as a wife would seem like denying his brother's existence, something he didn't want to do.

So the widow agrees to move to Georgetown with her brother-in-law, though they insist on living as "roommates" instead of as husband and wife. Now, eventually the couple ends up falling in love and making a happy marriage, but there are a few things that I found interesting.

First of all, we can see how a woman who is not observant of the traditional practices regarding dress and modesty feels uncomfortable by wearing a short dress, while in a room of women wearing longer clothes. There was also a point made about the segregation of men and women at the funeral which might have seemed to some to be overkill. It looked to me, however, that an attempt was being made to show the Traditional Jewish community as being weird by being so "religious."

What ends up happening is that instead of bringing her new husband more towards faith, Leah actually ends up leaving many of her own customs behind. She decides to uncover her hair for instance, while shortening her skirts. She doesn't leave her faith entirely, but begins attending a Reform Temple (something that really upset her mother.)

I couldn't say for sure, but it seemed that there was a subtle message that it was better for her (according to the filmmakers) that she be less strict in her religious observation. Every time she encountered a new situation she would use religion as an excuse for her awkwardness. At times it was endearing and at times it was... obtuse.

I wonder why it is that Americans so love to see religious communities being assimilated into the mainstream. Why is it that religious observation is seen as oppressive and backwards? Overall that's what bothered me about the film.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Song for Gaza

WE WILL NOT GO DOWN (Song for Gaza)
(Composed by Michael Heart) Copyright 2009

A blinding flash of white light
Lit up the sky over Gaza tonight
People running for cover
Not knowing whether they’re dead or alive

They came with their tanks and their planes
With ravaging fiery flames
And nothing remains
Just a voice rising up in the smoky haze

We will not go down In the night, without a fight
You can burn up our mosques and our homes and our schools
But our spirit will never die
We will not go down
In Gaza tonight

Women and children alike
Murdered and massacred night after night
While the so-called leaders of countries afar
Debated on who’s wrong or right

But their powerless words were in vain
And the bombs fell down like acid rain
But through the tears and the blood and the pain
You can still hear that voice through the smoky haze

We will not go down
In the night, without a fight
You can burn up our mosques and our homes and our schools
But our spirit will never die We will not go down
In Gaza tonight

Composed by Michael Heart © 2009 -- The song can be downloaded at the composer's website. Please visit and show your support. He is requesting people donate to charities that can aid the Palestinians.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Good Times and Better Times

Sometimes life takes a turn for the worst--and things get rough for a while. But sometimes it takes a turn for the better or leave you pleasantly surprised. That's what happened to me a few months ago. And since then things have gotten steadily better.

But the absence of dramatic change does not diminish the incredible 'high' I feel right now. And still I know things are only looking up. You see, some time has passed since I met the man with whom I would like to spend the rest of my life, and it will be some time still before I get to do that (inshaaAllaah.) But where I am right now, things look awfully bright.

That is, things look bright and sparkly, especially in the direction of my left hand, adorned at present by a charming and elegant engagement ring! If you didn't notice the ring, my absurdly wide smile, now a near-constant fixture on my face, might have given away the sheer delight and elation I feel.

It's true that just being engaged makes me happy, and so does speaking to my fiance's family and knowing that they are as happy as I am, but what really tops it all off is knowing that Allah has put someone in my path (or I in someone else's path), and brought us together with nothing other than Islam. That more than anything else is what makes me feel so blessed.

Alhamdulillah. :-)

I'm engaged!

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Smell and Taste of Knowledge

Have you ever caught a whiff of something that smelled really tasty? Maybe walking down the mall past a Cinnabon store, or early in the morning while your mom cooks breakfast? Maybe a coworker's lunch while you're fasting? It can be frustrating at times, to be able to smell something you know you can't taste, especially when it smells so delicious that it makes your mouth start to water.

A few weeks ago I asked a person of some knowledge a question about Arabic grammar--and to be quite honest, I didn't understand his answer. I felt like I could smell it but not taste it. I kind of knew what it would take to try to understand it--I vaguely remembered hearing the terms before, although I couldn't quit reconstruct their meanings in order, in step with his explanation. But I did really want to understand. I felt like it was right there in front of me and I just couldn't grasp it. Like some sweet-smelling food that I just couldn't taste.

I think many Muslims are this way--that their experience with knowledge is only at that level where they are exposed to it. They can smell it, for instance, and get the gist of what it's about, but they don't really comprehend it. They can't taste it, chew it, and digest it--so they aren't able to really benefit from it.

But the more knowledge a person acquires, the more he is able to grasp. I've heard an example, about a book describing chess strategies were given to two groups of people, one being expert chess players, the others not knowing anything about chess. Now you might think that the second group, which has the most to learn regarding chess, would benefit the most. But really, it's the expert chess players who benefit most because they are able to understand what the book is talking about and apply the strategies described therein. Whereas the novices had no background to help them understand the material in the first place.

So when people take the path to acquire knowledge (and here I mean specifically knowledge about Islam), they start filling in the gaps little by little, and when they are presented with something new they can do more than just smell it. They can taste it. And they can chew it--by chew it, I mean they can think it over, ponder and reflect on what they have just been exposed to. And then they can digest it--and by digest it, I mean that they can take that knowledge and benefit from it, the same way that food nourishes the body. So they aren't just smelling it, they are actually able to benefit from it.

On the other hand, I think the average Muslim who goes to Jumu'ah khutbahs, and goes to conferences and seminars, really only gets to smell the knowledge. He can tell it's there, and he can appreciate it at a somewhat superficial level--and it can either attract him or repel him.

And then there are some people who have a little more knowledge who are able to taste it--and sometimes, you know what? I think they spit it out, and decide they don't want to benefit from it. And sometimes they will take it and reflect on it. They will consider it from all possible angles and perspectives, and try to grasp the fullest possible meaning of it. And then it can nourish them, spiritually, as they are able to completely digest and benefit from it.

So I could smell that knowledge, the answer to that Arabic grammar question. And I really want to taste it, instead! I want to reflect on it, and I want to benefit from it.

Oh my Lord, increase me in knowledge! And oh my Lord, let it benefit me.

Deficiency of Women?

A while ago I mentioned in passing a particular hadith which is often used by the enemies of Islam to suggest that women in Islam are deprived of essential humanity, as fully inferior beings. It is used to justify the erroneous (read: bogus) claim that Muslim women are "oppressed."

And without proper understanding, the hadith certainly can give someone that impression. For instance, early in my days as a Muslim, this particular hadith gave me a lot of trouble--it upset me immensely, and made me want to reject hadith altogether because it seemed so wholly unfair. The injustice was not in the hadith, however, but in my poor understanding of it.

Once the hadith became sufficiently explained to me, it became more beloved to me than many other ahadith. It also taught me some valuable lessons--to not impose my own standards on the deen of Allah when I am without knowledge, and to trust in the wisdom of Allah.

Since I mentioned the hadith (some time ago), I received a comment asking me to discuss the hadith a little bit more in depth, so I would like to do just that. I'm sure it's possible to look up a good explanation of the hadith from a real scholar, I just want to add a few things that I think are especially interesting about it.

So first let's examine the hadith--it is authentic, related by Bukhari in Book 6, Hadith 301 (if you want to look it up, I guess.) Here it is:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:

Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) on 'Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)."

They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle ?"

He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you."

The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?"

He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion."
So... it sounds almost like it's saying women are stupid and worthless in the religion. Almost. That's how it gets twisted anyway, but that's not what it says, and not even close to what it means.

The first interesting thing about this hadith, to me, is that the Prophet (saaws) is directing his statement specifically to a group of women. Imagine if the imam during a khutbah left the minbar and walked so he would stand just in front of the women--and gave them a special sermon, specifically for them. This hadith isn't so much a sermon, but is a statement directed exclusively to women, exhorting them to give in charity, and this is done while eliciting a fear of Hellfire. Basically, it reminds the women to give in charity to protect themselves from Hellfire.

Then he (saaws) mentions a shortage in the "intelligence" of women, and a shortage or deficiency in their religion. And that (in addition to the women being the majority in Hellfire part) is what sets people off, I think. So here the women are talking back to the Prophet (saaws)! Instead of seeing them bowing their heads in silence, we find them questioning his statement. They ask 'why?' and 'how come?' and 'what does that mean?' That itself is kind of beautiful to me, showing that the Prophet (saaws) was approachable and that the women were not afraid to speak to him, even to voice their concerns.

And in fact, their concerns are precisely the same as those which people today seem to have with the same statement. It sounds like an insult, after all. It's difficult to see in the translation the good-natured humor inherent in the statement, that it's almost like a joke. How can I say that? Because of the exaggerations and rhetorical devices.

But anyway, let's get to the two main claims--about a woman's intelligence and religion. The word for intelligence in this hadith is `aql which carries an important connotation. It's actually the word used for a rope used to hobble a camel to keep it from running away, so it has this connotation of tying something. Now maybe you're asking, what is supposed to be tied, with regard to intelligence? And the answer here is that a person must be able to tie his emotions, to control his emotions, to keep them from overpowering his judgment and his reason. So another way of saying that women have a shortage of 'aql is to say that women are emotional. Or, that they are more emotional than men, in general. I would like to find anyone to dispute that statement. It's so obvious, really. (And I'll add an interesting note, that Imam Al-Bukhari filed this hadith in the book entitled 'Menstrual Periods.' Ahem! Women being emotional? Ah, yes.)

So first we can see that the statement is not an insult at all, but it states merely a commonly accepted fact, in slightly different terms. It's also interesting that women do tend to be more emotional than men are, that they often make choices based on their feelings. It is not, however, a weakness, because without the immense emotional capability of women, how would they be able to raise children the way they do? So I would say it is a special quality of women, and that it is for the benefit of all mankind that men can think with more rationality and women with more emotion.

When it comes to the matter of a woman's religion, once again we must see what is being referred to--and again, this hadith is in the section on 'Menstrual Periods' for a reason. You see, women are actually excempt from performing prayers on days that they are menstruating. That exemption means that overall they will end up praying less often than men do. Not for any fault of their own, but that Allah has not required it of them. So in the end a woman will have a shortage (or deficiency) in the prayers she has performed (as she has to make up for fasts.) The man of course does not have that sort of exemption, but has to keep regular steady practice of these rituals. And even so could be led astray by these women. (That is also an example of an exaggeration, by the way.)

But what is the point of the hadith, let's remember? It is to remind the women to give in charity. Why? Because they are not the same as men--not physiologically, not emotionally, not mentally--and remember that women do not go and wage jihad either, not militarily. But women are also going to be held accountable for their actions--what they did in this life. And standing behind an excuse isn't the way to go.

So... give in charity.

That's why I think it's beautiful, that there is a lot going on and a lot to learn from it. It also helps me to remember when looking at Islam, to avoid the temptation to view it with the lens of modern feminism which in many cases does nothing at all to help the woman and only undermines the society as a whole. This hadith actually underscores the importance of women in the society, I think, the importance of women to hold fast to the religion as they will be held accountable for their actions just like men will be.

Bottom line? Give sadaqa!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hafidh of Harry Potter?

Over the break, one way I dealt with some of my extra time is to get into reading. At the moment, I'm nearly half-way through the Harry Potter series (which I had started before, but never finished.) I don't think I'm really close to being fanatical about the series at all, but I know plenty of people who are.

I know people who have read the entire series several times, over a dozen times even. They might read it every year. Everytime a new book comes out. I'm not talking about reading a single book here, but a series of books. One friend of mine even joked once that her daughter was "hafiz in Harry Potter" because she had read it so many times.

Can you imagine, if we read the Qur'an that often, that many times?

When my family gets together, a game we like to play is called Scene It? Basically it's a sort of board game with questions about different movies you must answer to progress around the board. Now there are themed Scene It? games, including a Harry Potter one, which is based on the first five Harry Potter films. (This is kind of sad and embarrassing to admit.) This year, it was the Harry Potter Scene It? my family played during holiday get-togethers. The game would ask players about the names of characters, some trivia about artifacts, and even some plot details.

Can you imagine if because of our enthusiasm from the Qur'an we knew all the stories in it? If we knew when the passages were revealed, and their relevance today?

Or do we as Muslims really prefer to open a book by J.K. Rowling, so she can remind us of Harry Potter? How can that be better than a book from the Lord of the Worlds, reminding us of His Mercy and His Glory, and of our meeting with Him?

And when you meet Him, would it really be better to have your mind full of the details of the life of an imaginary boy wizard, or full of the Qur'an?

I'd rather devote my memory to the Qur'an, and let it be a light for me on the Day of Judgment, when there might be no other light. May Allah make us among the ones who read His book, who understand it, and who act on it, and whose lives are enriched by it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

When is naptime?

I started school again on Wednesday, adjusting to a drastically new schedule. Okay, maybe it wasn't drastically new. My first class is at 8:30am, requiring that I leave my house by about 7:30 since I'll drive to a commuter lot, catch a bus, and walk the remainder of the way to school.

For the last few weeks, though, I haven't needed to leave my house until 9:30 (and frequently left much later than that!) to go to work. So it's a change of a few hours. I used to go back to sleep after praying fajr (waking up for fajr hasn't been a problem since putting my alarm in the bathroom. JAK to the brother who shared that tip.) Overall, I found that I was having to sleep for 8 or 9 hours some nights. That's a lot, especially if you realize that there are some Muslim scholars out there suggesting 6-7 is plenty. (That's for a certain group of people, btw, not everyone.)

So on Wednesday I woke up like I needed to and got moving. Class at 8:30, break. Class at 10:40, break for lunch. Class at 2:20, class at 3:50, ends at 5pm. So I go home, and prepare to go to the gym only to fall asleep before ever making it out the door.

A day full of classes (four senior engineering classes is what I'd consider "full!") and getting up the equivalent to two hours earlier (when I didn't fall asleep any earlier) was enough to make me need a nap. I fell asleep for several hours, further disruping my sleep schedule. Although, I didn't have to be up especially early the next day as I only had work.

The next day I set my G-chat away message to say "When is naptime?" ThoughFriday (when I had class again) it was a little easier and I was just incredibly tired by the time I got to bed.

But yesterday, a friend of mine saw my away message and shared with me a few tips on sleep and napping. I thought I'd share them with you, since she's probably too busy (writing a small book... ouch!)

First of all, let me introduce the concept of "positive sleep" which sort of energizes you, from which you wake feeling refreshed, and "negative sleep" which makes you groggy and disrupts your ability to sleep properly at night.

Since normal sleep time is at night (i.e., when it's dark,) that would be between isha salaat and fajr salaat. Sleeping during this time is obviously going to be positive sleep, but doesn't really need to be mentioned. After fajr, however, is not a good time. It is negative sleep, meaning you'll be more tired after sleeping then (mostly I've found that to be true) then you should be. Plus, after fajr is time with tremendous barakah in it--why waste all that by sleeping?

A good time to sleep, though, is after dhuhr. I remember hearing that it was traditional at the time of Muhammad for people to take a break at the height of the day for a short rest. And isn't such behavior customary in other parts of the world as well? (I've heard it is, though I can't say I speak from experience.)

Then after 'asr prayer is a bad time to nap--it's negative sleep. It will really mess you up--I've done it too many times. Even since high school, I got into the bad habit of taking a nap after coming home. After band days (I was in marching band) I'd be so exhausted that I just wanted to sleep. Unfortunately it's something that's stuck with me a while, getting real petered out by late afternoon. If you sleep after 'asr, you might have a hard time waking up for maghrib, and it will interfere with your ability to sleep properly, by getting to sleep on time, at night.

So if you're looking for naptime, after dhuhr is best. Think about setting an alarm so you don't sleep too late. And if you're still feeling sleepy at fajr time, before you crawl back in bed, think of all the things you could do, and plan to give yourself a 20-minute snooze after dhuhr instead of robbing yourself of early morning barakah.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Things I Learned in Engineering School

10. Phasors (1, 2, 3) are not guns on starships (i.e., phasers: 1, 2, 3.)

9. Cloaking devices (1, 2) are real (1, 2), but only work in 2-D; so no Harry Potter cloaks.

8. Rocket science is nothing more than applying Newton's Laws.

7. If you hold two pieces of polarized glass together, and block all the light by turning one 90 degrees.

6. Scotch tape clings to your hand after you rip it off the roll because the glue ripped electrons off the tape below it. About a nanoCoulomb of charge, that way.

5. For the artistically-impaired, spray-painting a bottle rocket is enough to collect points for aesthetics--as long as it's your school color.

4. Despite being in the Computer Science building, Port City Java does not employ programming tutors. (They sell coffee, not code.)

3. If you think you might have a question about the homework, follow your professor to his office after class. Otherwise you risk getting lost (and potentially locked) in the maze of offices upstairs.

2.You can tell what year a boy is in by his commitment to personal hygiene. When they are freshman, their hair begins to overgrow, apparently without mom to remind them to get a haircut. By sophomore year, they've stopped showering regularly since they need to make it to class on time after staying up all night playing playstation (or whatever.) By their junior year they have stopped shaving, abandoning all regard for their appearance. By their senior year, they start dressing more professionally, showering, shaving, and cutting their hair again, no doubt to impress potential employers at career fairs.

1. When a professor says "I think I have time...," before continuing his lesson, it means you're going to be late. Suck it up and deal with it.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Making Excuses for Others

It is really easy to criticize people we don't know--and for some reason, people at the mosque are prime targets. I think I know why--because they are at the mosque, maybe people assume they ought to be paragons of virtue. It's simply not the case, as people make mistakes. And when we don't fully understand them, we might jump to conclusions about their behavior.

I, for one, like to encourage people to be friendly and welcoming at the mosque, especially if they see someone who is new. That's because I have been new, and understand what it's like to not know where the bathrooms are, which direction is the qiblah, where the women pray or the location of the imam's office. So I try to make a conscious effort, if I see someone who looks like they don't know where they are, to try to be helpful, to give salaams and lead the way.

And I think I have also turned a hard eye towards people who were not helpful for one reason or another. And that wasn't fair of me, since I didn't know their situation exactly--how could I make assumptions about their intentions? I hope those people who I have criticized, even in my own thoughts, can forgive me.

Lately I see some people at my mosque, or in the general community, being criticized. And I think this time I would like to take their defense, in encouraging people to make excuses.

For example, I recently heard a story about a woman at the mosque for her marriage, and while standing in the hallway she offered salaams to over a dozen passing sisters, less than half of whom responded. The same sister visiting the mosque on another occasion remarked that while her husband was greeted by many brothers, no sisters came up to meet with her. Because of her experience, the woman began to feel like an outcast.

Let me say at first that I do feel bad for the sister, and wished someone had been around who could help her out, since she sounds like she needs a friend. And secondly, what I have written above is pretty much all I know of the story--I don't know whose it is, nor are the assumptions I describe below necessarily a part of it. I just want to use this as an example.

Reading the story, I felt it easy to assume first of all that the women to whom she offered salaams deliberately ignored her. Is it possible? Sure. Are other things possible as well? Yes. For instance, maybe the sisters didn't hear her; maybe they didn't see her or know she was greeting them (instead of someone else.) Maybe they didn't understand her greeting, or maybe they were afraid to respond because they don't speak any English and fear starting a conversation they can't maintain. So I would just like to avoid assuming the worst, and give the sisters some excuses, because we don't know the full story. How can we then criticize them?

I don't mean to say it's okay to ignore a person's salaams, not at all. But I am afraid that some people are being held up to certain unreasonable standards.

Here is another example--a person accused a particular sheikh of being rude when answering a question he had asked him. We might hear that and criticize the sheikh, who should know better and whose manners ought to be beyond reproach. But did we stop to consider all the circumstances? That the sheikh, for instance had just finished leading the taraweeh prayer. He had awoken early that morning to pray and eat something small before the time for fajr came in, and he had led the fajr salaah and then spent the day, while fasting, teaching his regular classes. Then as the time for iftar arrived he could only take a bite before leading the maghrib salaah and then eat only a tiny bit more before leading isha and taraweeh. And so, exhausted after such a day, he was a little bit short with a questioner--do we really have the right to criticize him?

I don't think so...

Of course, we should try to hold ourselves to the highest standards of conduct, but when we see failings in others, maybe it's better to excuse them, instead of criticizing?