Sunday, March 29, 2009

Caught in the Rain

What happens when determination overcomes logic?

For the last couple months, I have wanted to make it my habit to workout in the gym during the week, and then on Saturdays (when I typically do not have many obligations) to walk or hike out in the woods by Harris Lake--out in the backwater corner of the county. There's rarely many people there, and it's a nice place to just get out and breathe.

But over the last few weeks, I hadn't really made it out to the lake at all. So when I woke up yesterday morning, I decided that I really wanted to go. And since I hadn't spent as much time in the gym as I'd hoped, and didn't feel like going to the gym to make up for it, going for a nice long walk in the woods seemed like a good idea.

The only problem was that it was really cloudy and had been raining for the last several days. (Such persistent rain is uncommon here, something that really only happens in the springtime... I should've known better.) But since it wasn't actually raining, I thought that this Saturday would just be cloudy, and not rainy. So I got dressed--in addition to my headscarf my shirt had a hood in case it rained "a bit," and had on my boots on, ready for walking on slightly muddy lumpy terrain--and drove out to the lake.

And I started heading into the woods, intending to take the long trail, although I didn't have a map with me. And I went where I thought the trail was, dodging puddles which consumed the entire path, requiring me on many occasions to quit the path entirely, and on other places to walk on fallen trees to avoid mud and slush that would have swallowed my boots.

But I kept thinking that the further I got in, the less trouble I'd have on the trail, because fewer people would have gone in so far. But then, after about 20 minutes, it started raining. Turn around? Nah, I figured it would stop soon. So I kept going, and then I found the trail looping back on itself. (I clearly took a wrong turn.)

But then I had a decision--either to keep going further down the trail, or to head back. Thinking it wouldn't be raining for much longer, and since the rain was still pretty light, I decided to keep going. And the rain steadily got heavier and heavier. I came across a kind of shelter there on the trail--a board that had been erected describing the life cycle of a certain kind of tree. I stayed there a little while, since it had a sort of overhang on either side, under which I could stand without getting wet.

But after about 10 minutes of that, I realized that the rain wouldn't be letting up any time soon. So I had the choice to continue my hike anyway--suffering puddles that would only get worse, while getting soaked from the rain, as it would probably take me two hours more to go to that direction. Or, I could turn back and spend another 30 minutes in the rain but then be at my car.


I decided to turn back. It seemed easier dodging puddles on the way back, though. I snapped the picture above as I was almost back, showing the way most of the path was--just really muddy like that. I wish I'd gotten some pictures of the puddles spanning the whole trail but I wasn't about to head back into the woods by the time I thought of taking pictures. By then I was soaking wet from head to ankle (my feet weren't wet, thanks to my super-duper hiking boots.

Sometimes I think life is like that--like getting caught in the rain, stuck in the middle of the woods by yourself. You might find a place where you can be safe for a little while, but you can't stay there. You've got to extricate yourself somehow--and it might be unpleasant. But I can think of how much time I might have wasted not doing anything, just waiting for the rain to stop. I could've waited an hour, and it would still be raining. I would have had to leave eventually, and spend that 30-40 minutes walking in the rain to get to my car. Sometimes the tough-and-dirty route is the only way--and procastinating won't making it any easier, but will just waste your time.

Responsibility of Da'wah

In my last post, I mentioned that I had lost an opportunity to give da'wah, when I was seemingly mistaken for an Orthodox Christian woman from Russia. In hindsight, I think about how I should have told him that I was a Muslim, and taken the opportunity to mention something about Islam. And I didn't do that.

That made me remember something I learned at the Shepherd's Path seminar I attended in Maryland. The shaykh told us that the early companions of the Prophet (saws) all felt the responsibility of giving da'wah, the responsibility of working for Islam.

In my time as a Muslim, as I've tried to learn Islam and practice it the best i can, I've heard people comment that converts to Islam seem like "better" Muslims than those born Muslim. I don't really think it's true, but it is interesting that converts to Islam take such an active role in working for Islam that people even have this impression (assuming it's not true, but even if it is, how much more interesting?)

Just this past Friday, I heard the khateeb mention that something like 70% of converts to Islam learned Islam because of another convert. I don't know the source of that statistic, but it just seems even more interesting to me, showing that converts are taking such an active role in spreading Islam.

The analogy that comes to my mind then is that the early Companions, who had to embrace Islam from their previous practices, took up this responsibility of working for Islam. But so many generations later, that feeling of responsibility has dwindled--but so has knowledge about Islam, in the first place.

When a person decides to convert to Islam, in many cases that person has spent a long time studying the religion and deciding whether or not it makes sense, and whether he believes in it. And when he embraces the religion he is accepting its teachings, willfully. Maybe it's true that many people raised in the religion never learn the teachings of Islam, and never make a conscious decision to accept those teachings--so of course they don't feel any responsibility to spread them, or sometimes even adhere to them.

So maybe, if we want to raise a generation that is willing to take up the responsibility of working for Islam, then knowledge is the key?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

White Girl Alert

"Are you from Russia?"

I was minding my own business, working on a presentation for a critical design review I coming up tomorrow, examining graphical circuit outputs, while sitting at a booth. The question came out of nowhere, and I didn't realize he was talking to me. Then he repeated it, sort of stamping his foot to get my attention.

"Are you from Russia?"

Rather confused at such a weird question (although, by now it shouldn't be weird anymore), I stammered, "Excuse me?"

And he asks it again, slowly, because I'm quite possibly Russian and maybe I'm having difficulty understanding him. "Are--you--Russian?"

By this time I'm giving him a rather puzzled look, curious at how this conversation is bound to turn out. "No," I reply simply, without going into details. He is standing about 10 ft away--too far for me to engage in easy discussion.

He starts making motions around his head, "But you're wearing your scarf..." and then it strikes him, "Are you from B---..." He looks at his wife. "What's the name of that place that starts with a B?" I try to contain my laughter while he again looks at me and asks very slowly "Balkans? Are you from somewhere in the Balkans?"

"No," I reply again. I'm amused, not annoyed. He explains, while over-exaggerating his gestures, imitating tying something around his head--that the way I'm wearing my scarf looks very nice. ("Thanks.") But he wants to know how I learned how to tie it that way, since I'm not Eastern European.

I'm baffled, as if it is something complicated. I mean, I've had to show other ladies how to tie an oblong wrap-around scarf, but this is just a square piece, folded into a triangle, wrapped around my head, pinned under my chin, with the front pieces just sort of where ever they fall. Perhaps it was the color or style (olive and dark green with paisleys) that suggested to him I was Russian. I can't say, I've never been to Russia and don't know what he based his assumption on.

But clearly "American convert to Islam" wasn't the first thing he thought of! So I told him it was quite simple, I just pinned the fabric under my chin. That seemed to satisfy him--he left me alone after that.

Now the weird thing is that I haven't been able to find any Eastern European hijabs styled the way I was wearing mine. So what he was really going on about... I have no idea. I should have said, "No, sir, I am a Muslim convert! Would you like to learn about Islam?" But no. I'm a chicken. Opportunity lost.

I don't wanna go to Mexico no more more more

One big news story in the last couple of days has been the rising violence between Mexican drug cartels, and the smuggling of guns from the USA down across the border. Not knowing much about it in the first place, I wasn't really paying attention while listening to a story about it on NPR until suddenly the word 'Iraq' got thrown in, during a comparison of the number of deaths.

In the last year there have been more deaths (some 6000) because of this drug cartel violence than the last six years of military deaths (i.e., deaths of US military personnel, a number around 4250) in Iraq. (Link) That's just a totally bizarre comparison, if you ask me. One year vs six years, violence on side vs. violence on multiple sides. The point, I suppose, was to sensationalize the number of deaths because of the drug trade. I wonder how many people died in Iraq total, in the last year--not just "military deaths."

Another interesting thing about the story was someone who had been a drug trafficker earlier in his life was trying to explain the drug trade. The BBC World Service anchor asked him if he were made "Drug Czar" what would he do to tackle the drug problem. His solution? Make it all legal. People who propose that sort of answer really baffle me--drug addiction is a disease. It is a disease. And the more people that use a drug, the more become addicted. And the more available a drug is, the more people will use it. It opens up a whole new can of worms!

Now, forgetting all the talk about Mexico being a "failed state," it's worthwhile to point out the view that the rising violence is actually a sign of success in the crackdown on the drug trade. Do we really need to be reminded that Allah tells us in the Qur'an that the harm outweighs the benefit when it comes to intoxicants?

The users get addicted and sick, sometimes falling into poverty, which drains the state of resources to take care of them. They hurt themselves and their families. The sellers and transporters have to break various laws, even end up just fighting with each other to keep their business going. Is it any wonder that buying, selling, using, transporting, even growing and processing intoxicants (alcohol, and therefore all intoxicants, right?) is all prohibited for Muslims?

For the Converts...

Suhaib Webb is collecting common questions from converts to Islam, to be compiled and answered by scholars later on in a book. In case you haven't come across it yet, and have some questions you might like to include, check it out at his blog, where you can leave your questions in the comments, or email them to him for privacy.

Monday, March 23, 2009

But it's my name...!

I've yet to hear anyone give me a good reason for changing the name my parents gave me. But in the last few days, I've had two people boggle at my insistence on keeping it. Said one, "Next time I see you, I'll call you Ameenah." My response, quite naturally I think, was, "Why?"And to that he responded, "It is the name of Rasoolullah (saws)." Mm-hmmK. I knew that. But still I asked, "Why?" and I started to get a little bit defensive about my name, and what is so wrong with calling me by my given name?

Yusuf Islam changed his name from Cat Stevens. And I still think... so what? That was the choice of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, somebody who I am not. I've actually known a lot of people (especially people who converted decades ago) to change their names to something Arabic instead of keeping their given names. But I don't really understand why--is it really better to take an Arabic name, though my given name has no error in it?

I've always been sort of defensive about keeping my name, although I know that the Prophet (saws) used to change the names of some of his companions for various reasons. One lady with a name meaning 'Righteousness' had it changed to Zaynab, and a man whose name implied submission to an idol had his name changed as well. And one of my friends shares a name with a pagan goddess, so upon embracing Islam she opted to take the name of one of the Mothers of the Believers.

I understand that sometimes it can be better to change my name. But I'd still like to know what's wrong with my name--Amy? I have noticed that some people from certain cultures are more likely than others to press for name changes in converts, but not based on any proof. Seems more like a tradition.

So I maintain my position, that there's nothing wrong with it. It's how I am known and it keeps a strong relationship with my parents as well. I have no desire to change it, I can't imagine taking a name that would mean more to me than mine currently does. So why do people keep asking me to change it?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Da'wah Report

Yesterday morning I heard a story on the BBC World Service about HIV in Africa and the Catholic Church. You see, condoms are apparently a big no-no for Catholics. But this just recently made big news because the Pope was actually visiting Africa. To be honest, I wasn't really paying attention--the reporter was just asking some people what they thought about the Pope's visit, or about condom use. And interestingly enough, one person the reporter spoke to was a Muslim, and she asked him what he thought about the Pope's visit.

At first I thought that kind of strange, of all the people to ask, why ask a Muslim. But my ears really started perking up when I started to hear what the Muslim was saying!

You see, he didn't really start talking about the Pope, and he didn't start talking about condoms, and he didn't start talking about HIV/AIDS. He started by talking about Jesus. Muslims believe in Jesus, he said, and he explained what that meant, and how nobody could really be a Muslim without believing that Jesus was a prophet and messenger of God, born of a virgin.

I was immediately impressed. Do you know why? Because that is pretty much exactly how Muslims are instructed to approach Christians for dialogue. And the overall message of the Muslim (who you should not be surprised to learn was actually a local scholar of Islam) was basically that Muslims and Christians should pursue dialogue--and he started it by explaining the Muslim view on Jesus. Right there in an interview where he could have criticized the Pope (as many people have) or Catholic policy, or could have spoken about a lot of things, he chose to give da'wah, to be heard around the world bi idhnillah, talking about Jesus.

And how many people might have heard that report, who knew nothing about Islam, and now might be interested in learning a thing or two about Islam after hearing his explanation!

I mentioned above that this is how Muslims are taught to speak to Christians, by starting with similarities, and focusing on Jesus. This is a lesson we learn not just in the Qur'an but also through the Seerah. For instance, Surah Maryam talks about Mary and Jesus and the Muslim views about the virgin birth and the role of Jesus--topics very near to the heart of Christians. This was revealed before the migration of Muslims to Abyssinia, and when the Najashi (Christian king of Abyssinia) was told by an envoy from the Quraysh that the Muslims were disparaging Jesus. The Qurayshi was saying this to persuade the Najashi to let the Quraysh take these Muslims back to Mecca where they were being persecuted.

The first time the Najashi had asked the Muslims about their message, their spokesman Ja'far ibn Abi Talib explained that they had been a people who worshiped idols and who didn't slaughter their meat properly, that they had committed fornication and adultery, that they used to cut their relationship ties and harm people, until the Prophet Muhammad (saws) came and told them to worship One God. So right off the bat, Ja'far is explaining the similarities that these Muslims had with the Christians!

And when the Najashi asked the Muslims about Jesus, Ja'far wisely recited from Surah Maryam, explaining about the Muslim view of Jesus straight from the Qur'an. And do you know how the Najashi responded? By saying that the difference between Islam and Christianity wasn't any more than the width of a stick!

So there is a lesson here for those who want to give da'wah--from the Qur'an, from the Seerah, and also from the African shaykh who started off talking about Jesus when asked about the Pope. MaashaaAllaah!

On the other hand, there are the "da'wah techniques" of non-Muslims, like some evangelists from Liberty University. This article makes for pretty hilarious reading, thanks to Taiyyaba who put shared it in her reader for me to see.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More Pigs than People

One funny thing about North Carolina is that as it is one of the nation's foremost hog-farming states, there are supposedly more pigs than people. Gross, huh?

I was reminded of that nasty little tidbit yesterday when I found myself parking behind a F-150 with this sticker on his tailgate. To top it off, his license plate read PIGDCTR. He was showing American pride in pigs... which is rather disgusting, if you ask me.

Anyway, it got me thinking about some recent things I've read/heard about eating pork. As a Muslim, I understand that eating a pig is something which my Creator has commanded me not to do. Jews don't eat pigs either, at least not those who are observant of dietary restrictions. But of course Muslims and Jews are not the dominant population in North Carolina, where the most popular dish state-wide involves pork served with vinegar (BBQ), and large informally catered events often center around a whole pig being cooked on a spit (Pig-Pickin').

A friend of mine recently directed me to this NYT article, which describes what seems to be a relationship between hog-farming and developing a pretty nasty bacterial infection that's tough to get rid of. And just the other night my dad was telling me about a kind of brain tumor (that might actually have been an infection) caused by eating pork that wasn't properly cooked.

But Christians have remained adamant that eating pork isn't a problem so long as they cook it properly. Which makes this video pretty funny, a popular preacher advising his congregation (which fills what appears to be a football stadium) to avoid pork based on Biblical injunctions.

Now, again, as a Muslim I stay away from pork because Allah commanded it--but there's more than enough reason, isn't there, for everyone else to stay away from it too. Right?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Path of Shepherds

I've just had the opportunity (alhamdulillah!) to attend an Al-Maghrib double-weekend seminar on the two weekends either side of my spring break, this past weekend and the one before. The topic of the seminar was the Seerah, i.e., life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and it was called The Shepherd's Path. (Taught by Shaykh AbdulBary Yahya, may Allah protect him)

One thing we learned in the seminar was that all the prophets were shepherds, even Muhammad saws. And we learned some of the lessons that a person learns by being a shepherd. I found them interesting and profound, so I thought I would share these on my blog.

Basically there were six major lessons learned from being a shepherd.

Firstly, patience. Sometimes a flock doesn't want to go where they need to go, so the shepherd has to have patience while trying to lead them in the right direction. The Messengers (pbut) needed patience when trying to guide people to the truth, because people wouldn't necessarily accept it. Recal that Noah (pbuh) was preaching for 950 years with only a few people accepting his message.

Secondly, gentleness. This is because sheep especially are very gentle animals--it doesn't work to be harsh with them. Similarly, people are also turned off when someone is harsh or rude with them, so the Messengers (pbut) needed to learn how to be gentle.

Thirdly, being a shepherd allows one the opportunity to reflect on God's creation. Because the shepherd has to lead the flock away from cities and such so the animals can graze, he can look at the mountains and the valleys and the sky and think about the wonders of God's creation. This makes me think of Psalm 8 in the Bible which mentions the creation as demonstrative of the Majesty of our Lord.

Fourthly, the job of a shepherd is to bring the flock away from danger, without them knowing they are in danger. And that is basically what the Messengers (pbut) had to do--to guide mankind without the people really understanding the danger of neglecting their message. The shepherd is able to see danger before the flock can, and the Messengers (pbut) also had knowledge that we do not, because of revelation. There is a teaching from Muhammad (saws) that gives the example of someone having set a bonfire in the desert, and of insects (like moths) trying to jump into the fire because of the bright light, but he, the Messenger (saws) was trying to grab them all and keep them from jumping into the fire.

Fifthly, being a shepherd teaches responsibility. The shepherd has to answer to a higher authority (i.e., the owner of the sheep) if something bad happens to them.

And lastly, being a shepherd teaches the value of work. The Prophet Muhammad saws was working as a shepherd to help his uncle Abu Talib provide for the family. It wasn't exactly easy work, and the wages were typically low, but it was still a way for the shepherd to contribute to his family's livelihood or to earn some money for himself by working, as the job was typically most suited for young boys.

So overall being a shepherd was like training to be a leader and to be a teacher, giving the Messengers (pbut) the qualities they needed to preach the message. There is a lot we can learn from that, I think, to be a da'ee. These are the qualities that someone who wants to teach Islam and call people to Islam needs to have. Especially since we are trying to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, pbut, and the footsteps of our beloved Messenger, Muhammad saws.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Common Knowledge

I get some people who read my blog leaving comments sometimes wondering why Muslim men just can't control themselves from looking at women, exhibiting the supposed "restraint" of Western men. If you go read my post about a Grocery Store Ogre you'll see I pretty much disagree.

The issue tends to arise with the matter of covering--something I try to avoid discussing too much because it just seems over-blogged among Muslims. But the recent article about men seeing women in bikinis as objects is just too good fodder to pass up. (Check it out, if you missed it.) Now, obviously, Muslim women do not cover because of National Geographic, or because men's brains go haywire when they see too much skin. The reason Muslim women cover is (or should be) simply because Allah commanded them to.

This little bit of scientific "proof" that covering is by most standards a pretty good thing (especially if you're a woman). But it's hardly shocking (for most people, at least... I hope...)

For instance, I brought up this article when visiting my parents last night. I mentioned it casually while indicating that scientists had basically proven this little nugget--that men see women as objects when they are even near-naked. And then my dad burst out laughing, saying, "Men have known that for years!"

Well yeah. Any girl who has had a dad can tell you this much--daddies don't like their little girls going around without hardly any clothes on. And why? Because they know how men think! Obviously. For instance, I've heard some of my male relatives and coworkers complaining about Hannah Montana, for instance, and the way she dresses. They are concerned because they see their daughters trying to imitate her.

Now of course these men aren't Muslim so they don't see the issue quite the same way I do, or the natural and obvious solution to the problem. Because really, a command from God is even more motivation for proper dress than brain scans. But it seems to really ring true, in at least one way, how Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said at ISNA last year that Muslim women are the last hope for the women of this country.

I recall a few years ago, when taking a World Religions class online, one fellow student who sincerely hoped that Muslim women (whom she viewed undoubtedly as victims of oppression) would soon feel safe enough in America to remove their veils. I replied back to her that I actually hoped headscarves would soon become so ubiquitous they could be bought at Wal-Mart!

Now it's been only 2 years or so, but my hope has come true, hasn't it? These pictures I took at a local Wal-Mart just a few months ago. I've had friends tell me they've been buying scarves at Target as well. So there it is--you can buy headscarves (hijabs--these are not neck scarves though some people wear them that way) at Wal-Mart.