Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Mawlid:a Season of Thanks and Celebration

27 February 2010

Only a tentative peace held in those first days after the opening at Mecca. The Quraysh tribe had submitted to the Prophet without bloodshed, but the air was still tense with uncertainty. While some members of the vanquished city explored the depths of their subconscious confidence in the integrity of Mohammed, others licked wounds of defeated pride. A lasting closure would have to wait until the defeated of today would be rallied together with the victors in one single community of purpose at Taif; but that was still days away.

Fadalah ibn Umayr, a young man from Mecca, was planning to kill the Prophet. Through stealth, he would wait for his opening as he followed closely behind him while circling the Kaabah. He was so close to his target that he could smell the perfumed perspiration of the Prophet. He was confident in his purpose, until, in one quick moment the Prophet turned to him, face to face, and said, “Is that Fadalah?” “Yes,” he replied, “it is Fadalah, O Messenger of Allah.”

“What were you saying to yourself just now?” “Nothing,” he replied, “I was only remembering Allah.” The Prophet smiled, saying: “Ask Allah to forgive you,” and he placed his hand on the young man’s chest. In that instance he was overcome with a feeling of calm and serenity.

Fadalah would say: “Until that point there was no one on the face of the Earth more hated to me than Mohammed, until he lifted his hand from my breast. After that there remained nothing in the creation of God more beloved to me than him.”

Everyone longs for that peace of heart and mind; that serenity that was found by Fadalah. We seek comfort in others, the friends we keep, sometimes even strangers. But what attracts us to others, what enables us to find a healing solace in their company, is the refractions of the character traits of Mohammed within them.

It is a belief held by Muslims that Mohammed is the model of the completed human being and the standard for beauty in character and conduct.

The biographical genre of “Shama’il” enumerate 12 primary traits of the Prophet Mohammed; forbearance, generosity, forgiveness, courage, modesty, humility, honesty, patience, dignity, fairness, trustworthiness and compassion. Ever wonder what it takes to be a saint? These are the qualities that draw us like moths to the flame of friendship, love and confidence. They are the refractions of that first resplendent source. They inspire, illumine, enthuse, and instill hope.

It is these qualities that the Prophet brought that we celebrate this month. Our consciousness of the Divine and comprehension of the meanings of His eternal speech only come to us through the conduit of Mohammed. And it is for this that we give thanks.

When his companions were asked by the Ethiopian king what their Prophet teaches, they responded: “We were uneducated, devoted to hollow idols, we consumed illicit food, we were involved in corruption, we damaged our relationships with family, and the strong among us would abuse the weak among us.” They continued saying that he taught them to devote themselves to Allah, who is timeless and eternal, and to leave the false idols of their past. “He enjoined us to be honest, to be dutiful to our family ties, leave corrupt practices.” No sooner did they finish, than tears were seen in the king’s eyes. Did he recognise the echoes of these states of affairs in his own society as we inevitably do in ours? Was he heartened by the clarity and simplicity of the message? We can only know what it can mean for us. Today though, we celebrate.


Stop at the End and Be Safe

20 February 2010

Only after more than 10 years of dedication to perfecting the Arabic language have I learned the secret that has saved generations of modern Arabs from all the trouble, “sakkin taslam” – or, “just stop at the end and you’ll be safe”.

Arabic words famously have four movements of declension on the last letter of every word called a “harakah”. These “movements” indicate the grammatical position of the word and very often affect the meaning and import of its usage. It is no easy assignment and getting it right is the sine qua non of Arabic oratory. Or shall I say it is more like the basic door pass that gets you in the room; unless you have other credentials that can facilitate an exception.

I recently had the honour of witnessing a very prominently placed minister of a key Arab state deliver a speech among other similarly placed global dignitaries at an international conference. Applying the “insider’s rule” he did not make a single effort to place a movement on the end of a word except three times, where he tragically failed on each attempt.

For 358 million people in the world, Arabic is their mother tongue; but for 1.57 billion people – 23 per cent of the world’s population – it is a sacred language. Ranked among Aramaic, Sanskrit and Hebrew, it holds a venerated place among the adherents of the world’s great religions and the scholars who study them.

The online resource, Wikipedia, states that: “Once a language becomes associated with religious worship, its believers often ascribe virtues to the language of worship that they would not give to their native tongues. In the case of sacred texts, there is a justified fear of losing authenticity and accuracy. The sacred language is typically vested with a solemnity and dignity that the vernacular lacks. Consequently, the training of clergy in the use of the sacred language becomes an important cultural investment.”

This ascription includes the status of “dead languages”. So what then of a living language like Arabic? Without sufficient “cultural investment” like that indicated above, we may very well be hammering the final nail in its coffin.

For the believer, Arabic transcends time and space. It is the timeless speech of the Divine Essence. Through it we are able to participate in eternal meaning. It carries with it a grace and blessing accessible to both those who understand its meaning and those who do not.

As for its meaning, it is expressive and rich in its flow; and is illustrative to a great degree of precision. Its beauty inspires and lifts the soul when coupled with timeless meaning and spiritual illumination. In Muslim theology it precedes the existence of the world and only flourished therein to be the vessel of communication between the sacred and profane, with the mission to uplift the human spirit and facilitate its ascent.

Seventeen per cent of the Muslim world has been given a head start, in that it was serendipitously bestowed access to the language by circumstances of birth. But along with the benefit of head starts comes the onus of responsibility for stewardship and safekeeping. It is at once election as well as accountability.

As for me, it is too late to retrain myself to purposely stop at the end of every word without follow through to grammatical declension and literary flow. It seems like a great deal of effort and trifle just to cut corners. Why not just do it right the first time?

Where Religion and Civil Society Meet

13 February 2010

The US-Islamic World Forum – held this weekend in Qatar – will once again explore the nature and possibilities of the power dynamics between these two entities, one a nation state, the other, ostensibly a religion.

However “Islamic”, or its place holder, “Muslim”, has come to mean more of a region than anything more meaningful.

As a region, “Islamic” would embrace the Christian, the atheist, the Jewish, the Marxist and the non-committed. Adding to the stickiness of the proposition is the prevalence of Islam in regions not designated “Islamic”. Albania and Bosnia are soundly European. Spain was a Muslim country for 700 years. And yes, the US itself has been witnessing its second wave of indigenisation since the turn of the 20th century; the US ambassador to the Philippines converted in 1888 and continued to advocate the Muslim faith among New York’s elite society until his death in 1916. Muslim “buffalo soldiers” fought with the Union army during the 1861-1865 American Civil War.

This weekend’s conference will explore among other things, possibilities for strengthening civil society and non-governmental efforts to fill the “human development” gaps left by beleaguered or otherwise distracted governments.

But what, if anything, has religion to do with this? Quality of life services are socially inclusive and universally perfected by international NGOs that transcend, in their technique, any religious affiliation. It is a shared knowledge, a common effort, and an inclusive pursuit.

So has the utility of religion in the equation been reduced to no more than one among several policy facilitators? Has religion been reduced to an opiate for steering masses with this particular fix?

Here is a case for an expanded consideration that may not have been lost on all the organisers. Barbiturates and intoxicants are forbidden in Islam because of their propensity to cloud the mind, whereas Islam unflinchingly calls for the enhancement and sharpening of the rational faculty.

The contribution that theological reasoning makes to civil society and human development initiatives is unique in its three dimensional approach.

Man is a whole as body, mind, and soul; not body alone. Being is material, spiritual and divine; not material alone.

The effective value-add of theological reasoning to human development initiatives turns upon five themes: First, it brings sense to the confusion stemming from the displacement of the human condition in an alienating modernity.

Second, it assesses the ordering of material and circumstantial priorities in light of an authentic Islamic worldview.

Third, it provides doctrinal grounding for fundamental human development objectives.

Fourth, it can facilitate, advocate and encourage helpful and constructive behaviours for good global citizenship and environmental consciousness.

Fifth, it can potentially contribute to the development of an integrated, engaged and participatory Muslim identity for the 21st century.

Returning to the motif of the opiate. The Muslim poet said: “Our wine is the wine of meaning; it is permissible and not unlawful.” The difference between the wine of the world is that it dulls the senses and shackles you to the ground. But the wine of paradise sharpens the mind and lifts you out of the petty, the mundane, and the unidimensional. It gives life to the life of the mind, to the life of the spirit, and not merely to the life of body alone. It is 360 degrees, in three dimensions, it is whole, and it is vibrant.

Some Thoughts in Praise of Idealism

06 February 2010

Is not marriage an open question, when it is alleged, from the beginning of the world, that such as are in the institution wish to get out, and such as are out wish to get in?” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Sometimes it was worth all the disadvantages of marriage just to have that one friend in an indifferent world.” – Erica Jong

Ideal: 1. the idea of something that is perfect; something that one hopes to attain; 2. a model of excellence or perfection of a kind; 3. one having no equal.

Idealism: 1. a tendency to live according to some standard of perfection, or pursuit of high and noble goals; 2. romanticism; 3. elevated ideals or conduct; the quality of believing that ideals should be pursued; 4. high-mindedness, noble-mindedness; 5. a theory that ultimate reality lies in a realm transcending phenomena; 6. the practice of forming ideals or living under their influence; 7. the practice or habit of giving or attributing ideal form or character to things; 8. treatment of things in art or literature according to ideal standards or patterns; 9. as opposed to realism.

Realism provides us with the cold unembellished facts of our circumstances, the raw data. But it is insufficient alone to move us from one set of circumstances into a more vibrant, more fulfilling, more inspiring existence.

Ideals provide us with just that moving inspiration. They formulate a set of objectives towards which our actions and efforts are directed and given meaning. They inform the criteria by which we calibrate the useful and the useless, as well as the meaningful and the meaningless.

When it comes to marriage, people enter into this institution to achieve an array of possible goals; to make one’s contribution to the survival of the species, to secure a retirement plan, to bag that trophy husband, to please one’s parents, to secure one’s chastity, to tether the object of one’s desire, or to “settle down” and pursue the ideal of “stability”. There are marriages of convenience, marriages of the heart, marriages of the head, marriages of alliance, and marriages of immigration.

These objectives however, can all be categorised as either material or physical. But marriage also has its spiritual objectives. The Islamic tradition offers three: uns, tuma’ninah, and sakinah.

According to al Fayruzabadi, uns is the opposite of loneliness. We could translate it as intimacy and friendship. From it comes spiritual comfort. The Quran says of one’s spouse, “they are like garments for you and you are as garments for them”. The purpose of clothing is to protect us from the elements and to cover our shortcomings.

Peacefulness, reassurance, calmness, trust, and confidence can all describe the meaning of “tuma’ninah”. The Prophet Mohammed had this in his first wife Khadijah; Ali and Fatimah had it in one another. Emotional safety and support is what makes a house a home.

But serenity and tranquillity, this is what Allah has made the intrinsic purpose of the marriage bond. It is called “sakinah”. “And from His signs is that He has made for you spouses from your very selves that you might find tranquillity in them.”

Each of us can reflect on the degree to which, “I am the source of these meanings for my significant other”. Each of us can reflect on the objectives for which “I entered into this bond of marriage”; as well as the potentially inspiring objectives that will, “define the future of my relationship”.