Friday, September 26, 2014

Acceptance and Rejection

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.
Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim

Ahmaduhu subhanahu wa Ta’ala wa ashkurhu wa Huwa Ahlul-Hamdi wath-thana.

I praise Him (Allah) the Exalted One and the High and I thank Him. It is He who deserves the praise and gratitude.

Man yahdillahu fa huwal muhtad, wa man yudlill falan tajida lahu waliyan murshida.
Anyone who has been guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided, you will never find a guardian to guide him.

Wa ash-hadu an la ilaha illallah, wahdau la sharika lah, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadin ‘abduhu wa rasooluh.

I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah, the only One without partner; and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and His messenger.

The title of my khutbah today is: Acceptance and Rejection

Acceptance- we all want it, fear we won’t get it. Greatest success in the next phase of our existence will be to have God’s acceptance. From surah 9:72: God has promised the believers, both men and women, Gardens graced with flowing streams where they will remain; good, peaceful homes in Gardens of lasting bliss; and –greatest of all- God’s good pleasure. That is the supreme triumph.

We know that God knows all our secrets, He will judge us based on our actions and our intentions, and He understands our history in its totality. He knows why we do what we do. And despite all of our secrets, we have the possibility of not only forgiveness, but acceptance. That is a huge success!

In front of God we have no privacy, but why do we value privacy from humans? Some privacy is socially conditioned, most of us tend not to have bowel movements in front of our peers, even though a bowel movement is completely healthy. Beyond the basic human needs, other privacy issues center around secrets we keep about ourselves We assume that God, with His patience, mercy, and All-Knowingness will understand these secrets, but we assume that our peers who lack these qualities will not extend to us the same understanding. We keep secrets because we fear losing acceptance of our peers.

As social animals, humans seek out a certain amount of group acceptance, depending on personality. But living in this life, we are all bound to come across rejection. Some more than others.
Rejection is tough. Think about the times you have been rejected-utterly. A compliment you didn’t get, a piece of work that went ignored or flat out rejected, a relationship that floundered. We are often angered by rejection, and particularly as women, we tend to transform that anger into depression. It is very easy to get depressed about rejection. Two surahs to combat rejection: Ad- Ḑuḥa The Bright Morning Hours and Ash-Sharh The Expansion of the Heart

These surahs were revealed in Mecca, when the Prophet was in a precarious position. The Quranic translator Marmaduke Pickthall notes in his prolog to this Ad- Ḑuḥa,

“There was an interval during which the Prophet received no revelation and the idolators mocked him saying: Allah of whom we used to hear so much, has forsaken poor Muhammad and now hates him.: Then came this revelation .The Prophet had been a leading citizen of Mecca until he received his call. Now he was regarded as a madman. He was a man near fifty, and the prophecy in this Surah that “the future will be better than the past” must have seemed absurd to those who heard it. Yet the latter portion of the Prophet’s life, the last ten years, is the most wonderful record of success in human history.”

This surah is called Aḍ-Ḑuḥa, and the Quranic translator Muhammad Asad notes:
“The expression ‘bright morning hours’ apparently symbolizes the few and widely spaced periods of happiness in human life, as constrasted with the much greater length of ‘the night when it grows still and dark’ ie. The extened periods of sorrow or suffer that, as a rule, overshadow man’s existence in this world. The further implication is that, as sure as morning follows night, God’s mercy is bound to lighten every suffering, either in this world or the world to come.

Another thing I like about both these surahs is there is a lot of interaction here. God is asking the believer a question, and it is up to the believer to provide the answer herself. Lots of questions in these surahs, trying to keep the believer mindful.

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Reheem
Waḍ- Ḑuḥa
Wal-layli ‘idha saja
Mā wadda ‘aka Rabbuka wa ma qalā
Wa lal’Ākhiratu khayrullaka minal-‘ūtā
Wa lasawfa yu’ṭika Rabbuka fatarḍā.
‘Alam yajidka yahiman-fa’āwā.
Wa wajadaka ḍaallan-fahadā.
Wa wajadaka ‘āa’ilan-fa aghnā.
Fa’ammal-yatina falā taqhar.
Wa ‘ammassāa ‘ila falā tanhar.
Wa ‘ammā bini’mati Rabbika faḥaddith.

The English translation is:
By the morning light and by the night when it grows still, you Lord has not forsaken you nor does He hate you. And the future will be better for you than the past, your Lord is sure to give you so much that you will be well satisfied. Did He not find you an orphan and shelter you? Did He not find you lost and guide you? Did He not find you in need and make you self-sufficient?

   So do not be harsh with the orphan and do not chide the one who asks for help, talk about the blessings of your Lord.

The Surah that was revealed right after this one is called Ash-Sharh, which some translate as the Opening of the Heart, or Solace, or Relief. It appears to be a continuation, and some scholars of the first century even regarded it as one big surah! I look at it as a second tool to help me out of the rejection depression mode.

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
‘Alam nashraḥ laka ṣadrak.
Wa waḍa’nā ‘anka wizrak.
Alladhil ‘anqaḍa ẓahrak.
Wa rafā’na lada dhikrak.
Fa’inna ma’al-usri yusrā.
‘Inna ma’al-usri yusrā.
Fa’idhā faraghta fan-ṣah.
Wa ‘ila Rabbika farghab.

English Translation : Did we not relieve your heart for you, and remove the burden that weighed so heavily on your back, and raise your reputation high? So truly where there is hardship, there is also ease. Truly where there is hardship, there is also ease. The moment you are freed (of this burden) continue to work and turn to your Lord for everything.

The message in each is God will not reject us if we are believers. Our families, our friends, our spouses, children, community may reject us and this is never easy, but God will not. God can give us complete acceptance, as long as we follow a few basic rules.


Wa barik ‘ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala ‘alee Muhammad kama barakta ‘ala Ibrahim wa ‘ala alee Ibrahim. Fil ‘alameena innaka Hameedun Majid.

Send Your blessing upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad in as much as you blessed Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim. You are the Majestic in the whole universe.

I think this whole give and take of acceptance and rejection, the whole ebb and flow of life is succinctly put in Surah Al Balad, The City, which I am not going to read in Arabic because I think we have both suffered enough.

This is the English translation by Haleem: I swear by this city, and you are an inhabitant of this city, by parent and offspring, that We have created man for toil and trial. Does he think that no one will have power over him? I have squandered great wealth, he says. Does he think no one observes him? Did We not give him eyes, a tongue, lips, and point out to him the two clear ways of good and evil? Yet he has not attempted the steep path. What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion. Those who do this will be on the right-hand side, but those who disbelieve in Our revelations will be on the left-hand side, and the Fire will close in on them.

Then I decided to do my own translation, based on multiple translations, because I had a lot of images in my head when I read this. This is my attempt at a more pictoral description of the surah:

You live here, in this place,
this neighborhood, this community
surrounded by other human beings
young and old, the families,
the generations, the grandparents and
the grandchildren. All of you belong.

The begging man sings softly,
"Once I built a railroad, made it run..."
You had it all and lost it all, was anyone
paying attention? Do you think your story's
been lost? Who remembers?
Where will you find your audience?
look in the mirror and you'll find you
eyes, ears, and lips of
a storyteller, the complete package.

Tell us of the paths you chose.
Tell us whether you tried to summit.
Tell us about the Ascent.
The Ascent you say? It is not
what you think it is, not what it appears.
To hope when there is not hope
To persevere when it is easier to give up
To speak when it is easier to be silent
To be kind when it is easy to remain apathetic
To follow the small voice when surrounded by loud demands.
Those who climb will be remembered.
And those who never bothered to walk the path
will hang their heads with regret and remorse.

My closing dua is from surah 7: 23   It is in the context of Adam and Eve’s reply to God after God asks them Why did they eat from the tree and why couldn’t they remember Satan was their enemy. All too often we tend to dwell in the anger and depression resulting from rejection. Don’t let yourself fall into this pit. You have tools, the Quran gives you tools, use them wisely.
Our Lord! We have been done wrong to ourselves, and if You do not forgive us, and have mercy on us, we shall certainly lost.

Rabbana zalamna anfusana, wa in lam taghfir lana wa tarhamna la-nakunanna minal-khasirin.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Write Now.

When I grow up I want to be a writer. This is something I've been telling people for decades. I'm not sure when I'll finally feel like I've grown up. Writing gets put on the back burner every time something more critical arises.Recently in a burst of creative energy, I sent some stories out and soon landed my very first paid gig. Now it was a whopping $35 which is probably just enough money for me to buy a single issue, send it to my mother and have enough cash left over for half an ice cream. But it's my first showbiz dollar.

We turn on the news and Muslims get as much coverage as the Kardashians or the Duggars i.e.- too much.  When I hear about ISIS or the corrupt nature of politics in Pakistan, my mind goes into this spiral of despair. The way to solve it is through education but how will you educate the masses. No, it's through population control but how do you solve that. Every time I hear about, tragedies, wars, deaths, injustice, despot regimes, I rant and rave and find all kinds of pseudo solutions in my head. I have mental arguments,endless text and email exchanges. How are we supposed to prove to the world that Muslims are peaceful and normal in the light of what's going on in the world.

In Surah Tawbah ayah 51 Allah  Says 'Nothing will happen to us except what God has decreed for us: He is our protector  and on God let the Believers put their trust."

Hard to take in but everything that's happening is from Allah. The good, the bad, the monstrously ugly.
Every single thing in life is a test. So really it is about not the fact that it's happening but how we will react to it, with grace, compassion, intelligence and also IF we will react to it. Often the issues are so overwhelming we don't know how to address them so we do nothing.  Also one of the challenges of this day and age is that we find ourselves unmoved by the greatest of tragedies such as racism or homelessness.So then it hits me last of all. Allah wants us to use our gifts, whatever they might be. A talent for art, debate, baking.

Fa bi ayee aal ee rabi kuma thu kazziban. Which of Allah's favors shall you deny.  Many people are familiar with this surah, Surah Rahman and the line that is repeated rythmically throughout. Apart from favors like our health and Nature's manifest bounties, I think Allah is talking about a wide variety of gifts. It could be the talent of being a good listener or it could be some sort of leadership role.

For one person it is to go into local politics, for another it is to be the best school principal or teacher, doctor or Avon representative?
For some of us it is writing. It's a passion. For me, It's proof that God exists because through it I know joy and peace and satisfaction.  Now I'm not saying I'm necessarily a GOOD writer. If I were I'd be published all over the place and have no time to give this khutbah because I'd be preparing for my next interview with Charlie Rose or to host Saturday Night Live.

Well I was waiting for the issue of Azizah to finally come through and it didn't. I was promised that it would be at the beginning of the year so I sent a polite enquiry. I knew it was too good to be true. They had changed their mind and found a real author to replace my story and had uncovered me as a grammarless impostor. I received an immediate response that there had been some delays. I pondered that this was Islamic journalsim, it was a miracle this mag was still going. Funding issues, distribution challenges.  I would just have to bide my time.

Then someone forwarded me a link. The Editor of Azizah was very ill, had cancer. It put everything in perspective and I stopped pining about my tale, stopped thinking about my potential fame and wondered how I would feel if that suddenly happened.  Of course it would be devastating. As mothers and wives and daughters we play so many different roles. Apart from dealing with the usual health and family issues, a thought came peeking through the gloom like rays of sunlight in a dark and cloudy sky. What if one had never realized a dream, never tried to do the one thing one was passionate about? I began writing and submitting to magazines manically after that.

Last Friday I turned on the computer and read the words Inna lillahee which I have begun to dread now. Who was it everyone was talking about? It was the editor of Azizah, Tayyibah Taylor  and there were tales of how she had been this glamorous, inspirational speaker, how she had encouraged writers all over the world. Just the fact that a print journal still had funding was extraordinary but the fact that an African American woman had run it all these years was definitely an accomplishment. Hundreds of tributes came through on the facebook twitter world, her funeral was actually going to be livestreamed- that's how much of a following she had. In the last few months she had been most courageous and even tried to raise some awareness about her particular disease.

I did feel sad for Tayyibah Taylor who died within such a short time of being diagnosed. I turned on my laptop thinking I would write a couple of lines of condolences to the valiant editors who had kept things going. My son walked into the room, had just returned from college and handed me the mail. He was holding this in his hand. My story was in it. I almost choked at the irony. The very day I found out the editor had died, I get to see my story in print. What was God trying to tell me? 

I like to think there are no coincidences, that there are signs for those who think.  And it hit me. No I did not know this editor very well but what happened to her could happen to any of us. Our lives are too short, our time too valuable to waste. I think at that moment God was sayin. Yes, people come and go. But legacies can be made. Tayyibah left a legacy of a magazine- whether it continues or not is immaterial. It was HER life's work for which she will always be remembered. And our stories live on, whatever work one does will surely not be in vain.

This week our book club discussed the extrarordinary life and work of Iqbal. One of the poet philosopher turned politician's main beliefs was that democracy should be all consuming. That a universal will should be taken into account. Pundits have been discussing what his views would have been on the current situation in Pakistan. Then  I began to wonder last night on what his opinion might have been on this week's referendum in Scotland. Would it be truly possible or practical to employ the will of the people, for instance.  Iqbal died decades ago but his life's work may never be forgotten. Each one of us has a legacy. Each one of us can cultivate a Voltairian garden. Whether it's being the best neighbor we can be or curing a disease, we have a duty to pursue it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Prophet's Wives and the Relevance of Quran

On Saturday March 8, 2014 an unfortunate Muslim scholar named Abu Eesa posted some comments online that set off a heated exchange.  It was International Women’s Day, and he made what he later claimed was meant to be a sarcastic joke.  He said it was OK to have an International Women’s Day because the other 364 days of the year still belonged to the men. 

A lot of Muslim women (and not a few men) got very upset about this and let him know it.  His response was not apologetic, at least not at first, and the criticism began to fly, fast and furious.  I don’t need to go into the details of who said what and who said what back.  The part that interested me the most was that this became such an issue, an offhand comment that ignited a firestorm of emotional response.

The fact of the matter is, this issue of equal rights between men and women in Islam is a really raw issue.  People on one side of the issue feel that huge injustices are being perpetrated against half of humanity in the name of Islam.  People on the other side feel that the whole issue has been blown way out of proportion, and that those who do so are a threat to the religion.  Our poor imam tried to make a joke about the issue itself, and perhaps he now sorely regrets it.

I feel for him, in a way.  But I also side with those who argue that equality between men and women in Islam is not an issue that has been overblown, and is one that has not been satisfactorily confronted and put to rest.  I myself have struggled with it mightily for the past three decades.  And that struggle has brought me face to face with my need to understand the nature of Quran and the history of its revelation.

Let me start by saying that God/Allah surely has an exquisite sense of humor.  I was a confirmed feminist when God guided me to Islam.  I was committed to following my own path, convinced that no man was going to tell me how to run my life.  Of course, I eventually ran up against the realization that this was not really making me happy, and that was about the time I started reading about Islam.  To make a long story short, I got intrigued, and then I got hooked, and then I met a man who felt like destiny, and married him.  Then I started going to the mosques, and I’m sure that’s when God started having a really good time with me.

“Really God?”  I asked myself.  “Really?  This is the path I’m supposed to take now?  First, the Holy Book is in a language that is about as impenetrable to me as they get.  And reading it in translation is not much help.  And I can’t pray beside my husband in our house of worship?  And what is it with women I don’t know pulling my scarf over my hair for me if any of it shows; women arguing about whether their skirts should touch the ground – is it worse to show some ankle or allow your skirt to get dirty?  Arguing that a curtain at least, but preferably a wall, should separate them from the men?” 

“And what about this history?  You say in the Quran, the Holy Book, that men and women are equal, but that men are allowed to have four wives?  Yeah, I know you say IF the man can treat them all equally, and since that is impossible we should know that really means men can only have one wife.  But why say men can have four wives in the first place?  And what about the Prophet who brought us this religion?  He had 12 wives, nine at the same time plus a concubine at one point?  And he married one of them when he was 52 and she was nine?  Ya Allah, I know feminism and independence didn’t have all the answers I needed, but What, exactly, am I supposed to do with all this?”  [Now, I have to interject here, before you start wondering about me – I do not believe God talks to me – these are imaginary conversations…]

No one at the mosques could answer these questions to my satisfaction.  And when I tried to talk about them with my husband, they were not perceived as questions, they were felt as attacks.  We stopped going to the mosques, and silently agreed to put a hiatus on searching for the answers, for the sake of our marriage and our peace.  We kept our faith, and trusted that eventually God would illuminate our path.  Almost 30 years have passed, and we have a daughter with whom we have tried to share the beauty of Islam, without resolving these contradictions.  They have not gone away.  But now at least now I know that we are not the only ones who believe in the prophecy of Mohammad, but struggle to make sense of it all. 

I do believe that we are meant to struggle with, and not run away from the contradictions in our faith.

Iqra bismi Rabbikal-ladhi khalaq.
Read in the name of your Sustainer who has created
Khalaqal-insana min alaq.
Created humankind out of a germ-cell.
Iqra wa Rabbukal-Akram.
Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One.
Alladhi allama bilqalam.
Who has taught humankind the use of the pen.
Allamal-insana ma lam ya’lam.
Taught humankind what they did not know. [96:1-5]

The first instruction from Allah to the prophet was to read – to learn. 

And so, I have set about trying to read and learn as much as I can, and to reflect, as Allah says so many times in Quran, on creation and on the revelation:

Inna fi dhalika la ‘Ayatil-liqawminy-yatafakarun.
Verily, in all this there are messages indeed for people who think. [13:3, etc.]

And so, I give myself the challenge to think.  But what can I think about the many passages in Quran that sound so oppressive of women to my ingrained feminist sensibilities?  There are many examples, but let’s focus on just one, Surah At-Tahrim (Prohibition)  66:1-5:

O Prophet!  Why do you, out of a desire to please one or another of your wives, impose on yourself a prohibition of something God has made lawful to you?
But God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace: God has already allowed you the breaking and forgiveness of those of your oaths that run counter to that which is right and just: for God is your lord Supreme, and is alone all-knowing, truly wise.

And so! The Prophet told something in confidence to one of his wives; and when she then divulged it, and God made this known to him, he acquainted others with part of it, and left out part of it.  And as soon as he let her know it, she asked, “Who has told you this?”  He replied, ‘The All-Knowing, the All-Aware has told me.’”

Say [to them[ O Prophet:  ‘Would that you two turn unto God in repentance, for the hearts of both of you have swerved [from what is right]!  And if you uphold each other against him [who is God’s message-bearer, know that] God himself is his Protector, and [that] therefore, Gabriel, and all the righteous among the believers, and all the [other] angels will come to his aid.’
O wives of the prophet!  Were he to divorce any of you, his Sustainer might well give him in your stead spouses better than you – women who surrender themselves unto God, who truly believe, devoutly obey His will, turn unto Him in repentance, worship Him alone, and go on and on [seeking His goodly acceptance] – be they women previously married or virgins. [66:1-5]

There are a couple of different stories (Hadith) related to these ayat, which were revealed toward the end of the Prophet’s life, in Madinah, when he was living with nine wives.  He would spend his nights rotating between them, so that each of them had an equal amount of time with him.   He had just been given the gift of a Christian woman from Egypt, Mariah.  She was not a wife, but an amah - a concubine.  One story, according to At Tabari (based on about 10 different narrations), says that the Prophet spent time alone with her in the room of his wife Hafsa (who was the daughter of Umar), in fact, in Hafsa’s bed.  This was on a day that should have been his turn with Aisha (the daughter of Abu Bakr).  The Prophet told Hafsa, so this narration goes, not to tell anyone (i.e., the other wives) about it.  Now Aisha and Hafsa, being daughters of the Prophet’s closest companions, tended to feel somewhat more entitled than the Prophet’s other wives.  This was especially true of Aisha, who had never had any husband except the Prophet.  (All his other wives were either widows or divorced when he married them.)  Hafsa was angry, and so she told Aisha what had happened.   Aisha got jealous, and confronted the Prophet about what he had done.

In Bukhari & Muslim’s version of this story, another of the Prophet’s wives, Zainab, had been given some honey by members of her family.  She shared it with the Prophet when he stayed with her, and he liked it very much.  Hafsa and Aisha were jealous that Zainab had something for him that they could not give him, and so they conspired together to tell him that the honey made his breath smell bad, and they did not like to smell it when he came from Zainab.

Whichever version is true, whatever the cause, the Prophet decided to stay away from all his wives for a month, and took to sleeping in the mosque. 

I read these ayat and reflect on them, and I read the Hadith.  And then I turn back to my imagined conversation with God. 

“Really God?  You told the Prophet that it was not OK for him to deny himself the pleasure of something You had provided for him – be it honey, or an amah – or whatever – just because it led to jealousy and bad behavior in two of his wives, when either of these two scenarios stems from the fundamental inequality and unfairness of one man having multiple wives when they can each have only one husband?  And then you go on to tell him to reprimand the wives and tell them that he could divorce them and marry others who would be better than them?  How, exactly, does that fit with what you said many times about men and women being equal?  I really, truly want to understand this!”

And then I imagine God, bemused and ever patient, trying to explain it through my 21st century western, liberally educated, democratically fixated and sanctimoniously liberated sensibility. 

“Look,” God says to me.  “You’ve read about how those people were living when I decided to intervene and make Mohammad my last Prophet.  They were a mess – burying infant girls, having children willy-nilly with no regard for their parentage or welfare – thinking that man-made statues could intervene to bend my will for them.  I had to intervene, to correct their misperceptions.  And I had to do it in a way that they would understand.  I had to use their language, although of course in the process I raised their course language to a level of Divine beauty and grace.  And I had to reach them through the culture they were in.  I had to talk to them in the male voice, through a male, because they – neither the men nor the women - would not have taken a female voice seriously at that point in their development.   But don’t forget that I sent the message to Mohammed when he was happily married to a woman who was up to sharing the burden of the prophecy – Khadija.  Without her faith and love and support, he could not have withstood the force of my revelation.  He would have gone mad.  It took both of them together to bear its weight.  And when her days came to an end, he could not have gone on without the support of many women.  In fact, it took a whole team of women supporting him once the Muslims were living in community in Madinah, to counterbalance all those testosterone-driven male followers.  Women felt that need in him, and they felt the power of his personality and the miracle of the prophecy, and they were drawn to him.  And the only respectable and constructive way that women could be with a man who was not an immediate family member in that culture was by being married to him.  None of those women married the Prophet against her will.  They all knew they would have to share him, but it was worth it to them just to have him for one or two nights a month, and to have the privilege of helping him serve Allah.  Allowing so many women to marry the Prophet was a mercy to them as much as to him.  They all accepted the terms.  He, and they, managed amazingly well, of course sustained by My Grace.  But even the Prophet’s wives were human, and they got jealous in the end.  I had to remind them of the bargain they had made with Me – they got to be married to the Prophet as long as they were faithful to Me and supportive of the Prophet and his role.” 

“And,” God continues, “you cannot disregard the other message I sent through him, the standard for marriage for all time – that a man could not have more than one wife if the first did not agree.  And I allowed for the frailties of human relationships by setting standards for divorce that were designed for that time, when men had full responsibility for the support of women and children.”

But what, I’m still thinking in this hypothetical conversation with Allah, what about Aisha?  What about a child being married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather?  “First of all,” God smiles benevolently in my imagination, “that was a different time, when the norm was that girls were married at puberty.  Aisha knew the Prophet because he was a friend of her father.  He was kind and beautiful, and she loved and trusted him.  She was also destined for the role she played.  Her young, bright, and absorbent mind soaked up the words of My revelations, and she kept vivid memories of all that happened around her.  She carried those memories and shared them with the community for the rest of her life, helping to pass along the ayat and the chronicle of events for future generations.” 

This is just one example of the imaginary conversations I’ve had with God, but that’s enough for now.  I continue to reflect, and I continue to be humbled.  I remember another passage of Quran, that came later on in the process of revelation, after the Muslims had migrated from Makkah to Madinah and established a community.  Allah offered us a challenge:

Alladhi ja ‘ala lakumul-arda
firashanw-was-samaa ‘a binaa ‘nw-wa anzala minas-samaa ‘i
maa anfa akhraja bihi minath-thamarati
rizqal-lakum: fala taj ‘alu lillahi
andadanw-wa antum ta’lamun.
And if you doubt any part of what We have bestowed from on high, step by step, upon Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah of similar merit, and call upon any other God to bear witness for you – if what you say is true!
Wa in-kuntum fi raybim-mimma nazzalna
 ala ‘abdina fat u bisuratim-mim-mithlihi
wad- u shuhadaa akum-min-dunil-lahi
in-kuntum sadiqin. 
Fa ‘il-lam taf ‘alu wa lan-taf alu
fattaaun-naral-lati waquduhan-nasu
wal-hijaratu ‘u ‘iddat lilkafirin.
And if you cannot do it – and most certainly you cannot do it – then be conscious of the fire whose fuel is human beings and stones which awaits all who deny the truth!

God gave us our imagination, and here is telling us to use it – challenging us.  It is sometimes not easy to discern the truth in revelations that came from God through a language not native to us, to a culture so radically different from our own.  The challenge of it never ceases to push me to re-examine the assumptions of my own time and place, and the limitations of my own native language.  And the exercise continues to exhilarate me – the reality of this text, this record that we have of a time in history when the Divine manifested through a single human being and guided him and his community, from military matters to the most personal issues.  

Descended to their level, to the level of their imperfect human understandings and social structures, and gave them a new sense of direction, a new way forward.  This was not an exercise in setting unrealistic standards. The real miracle of revelation was that it touched their lives so intimately, wove itself into the fabric of their daily activities.... gave them a path, a guide to change their behavior that was not so radically different as to be impossible for them to follow.  

Now we are at a different time and place, living with a different language in a different culture.  Does that make the Quran no longer relevant?  None of us here believe that - we all still feel its power.  But we also know that many of the details of Prophet Mohammad's time and culture no longer apply to us today.  I cannot relate to being one of two, never mind many wives.  And God revealed that I don't have to.  What I can understand from Surat at-Tahrim is that it is wrong to be deceitful because I feel hurt by someone's behavior.  And I can understand my responsibility to do what I can to make life peaceful for my husband, and his responsibility to do the same for me.  I can learn from these ayat, even though the circumstances they describe do not pertain to me.  

And so I continue to sort through the details in Quran, and the literature of Sunnah and Hadith, to discern the broader messages that still apply.  This is my jihad.

Allahuma Ihdina ila tareek issalam

May God guide us all, and grant us peace.

Through the Ages

Inna Rabbakumul-lahu-ladhi khalaqas-samawati wal-arda fi sittati ayyamin
-thummas-tawa alal-arshi- yugh-shil-laylan-nahar
Yugh-shil-laylan-nahara yatlubuhu hathithanw-wash-shamsa wal-qamara wan-nujuma musakhkharatim-bi amrih.
Ala lahul-khalqu wal-amr.
Tabarakal-lahu Rabbul-alamin.

From Surah 7:  Al-Araf, (The Faculty of Discernment): Ayah 54

Verily, your Sustainer is God who has created the heavens and the earth in six aeons and is established on the throne of His almightiness.  He covers the day with night in swift pursuit, with the sun and the moon and the stars subservient to His command:  oh verily, His is all creation and all command.  Hallowed is God, the Sustainer of all the worlds!  [54]

Last week we saw, and touched, and stood on the evidence of six aeons of God’s creation.  A most remarkable thing.  In trying to convey that experience, I am reminded of the scene in the movie “Contact,” when the astronomer Ellie has come back from her journey to the stars to commune with other beings, and she is trying to explain the experience to the audience at a Congressional hearing.  She says “I wish I could convey the wonder – how incredibly beautiful - and how tiny and precious we all are in this overwhelmingly vast universe.”

Quran says, in Surah 17, Al-Israa (The Night Journey):

The seven heavens extol Allah’s limitless glory, and the earth, and all that they may contain; and there is not a single thing but extols Allah’s limitless glory and praise:  but you fail to grasp the manner of their glorifying Allah.”  [44]

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and walking through the cliffs at Zion National Park, and looking over the unbelievably beautiful vistas at Bryce Canyon and Arches and Canyonlands; I wished everyone could experience that glory.

When I found reference to six aeons of earth’s creation in Quran, I was not surprised.  There have been five mass extinction events in the history of life on earth, each of which wiped out at least 50% of all existing life.  (And, by the way, many more minor extinctions.)  We are now living in the sixth aeon, or era to use the scientific term.  And the record of all those eras is exposed in the cliffs of those canyons.

This, in a nutshell, is how it happened.  Starting about 70 million years ago, a huge reservoir of magma deep beneath the earth’s surface pushed the surface of the earth up thousands of feet higher than the surrounding area.  This area is now known as the Colorado Plateau, and it covers most of the state of Utah, and parts of Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado.  Some of the magma escaped to the surface through volcanos, which created mountains in different parts of the plateau.  Rain from those mountains collected in rivers, especially the Colorado River, which over time carved through the layers of rock, creating geographical features that are unique in the world.  By the time the Colorado River reached the area of the Grand Canyon, (an area as big as the state of Delaware), over millions of years it carved through layers and layers of rock – rock that had been deposited in layers over 1.7 billion years.  Now, the lowest layers of the canyon expose the oldest rock, rock that was the exposed surface of the earth 1.7 billion years ago, and is know as the Vishnu group (named after the Hindu God).  Because of the erosion that happened at the top layers of the Grand Canyon, when we stood at the top of the cliffs we were standing on rock that dated back to the Permian period, about 250 million years ago.  The mass extinction that happened at the end of that period has been nicknamed The Great Dying, because 96% of species alive at that time died out. All life on Earth today is descended from the 4% of species that survived it.

And when we looked into the canyon, one mile down, and ten miles across, we could see the stratification – the layers upon layers of different kinds of rock – each layer is the deposits that were laid down and solidified as more layers were deposited on top of them.  And each layer was a different climate, a different environment.  There before us were the petrified remnants of forest environments, tropical environments, oceans, savannahs and deserts – era after era, layer after layer.  Each layer contains fossilized remnants of the now extinct life forms that lived in them.  Yes, of course dinosaurs, which lived before the last mass extinction event.  But also the remants of life forms even stranger - trilobites, brachiopods and graptolites from the Ordovician-Silurian era, and so many more.  All representatives of the more than 99% of all the life that has ever existed on earth, that is now extinct.   All part of the many worlds Allah has created over time (and that’s just the ones we know about on this planet)!


Ud’u Rabbakum tadarru anw-wa khufyah.  Innahu la yuhibbul-mu tadin.

Surah 7:  Al-Araf (The Faculty of Discernment):
Call unto your Sustainer humbly, and in the secrecy of your hearts.  Verily, He loves not those who transgress the bounds of what is right: [55] hence, do not spread corruption on earth after it has been so well ordered.  And call unto Him with fear and longing:  verily, God’s grace is ever near unto the doers of good!  [56]

The enormity and beauty of the vistas, and the history spread before us at the Grand Canyon and the rest literally took my breath away:  that and the heights.  I am a person with a healthy fear – bordering on phobia – of  heights.  And this trip was ALL about heights.  So my sense of exhilaration in seeing these marvels was at least in part due to the intense stimulation of that part of my brain that triggers the sense of danger.  I was never at ease standing on the edges of those cliffs, looking 6, 7, 10 thousand feet down, or driving on narrows roads with steep inclines, sharp curves, drops thousands of feet and many times without guard rails.  And this brings me to the second way in which this trip was an intense spiritual experience for me.  I did call unto God most humbly, that whole week, with fear and longing.  I prayed a lot.  And I thought a lot about the power of prayer.  Did I believe that God was hearing my prayers and answering them, keeping us all safe?  Or was my praying just a way to calm me down – a mantra on which to focus?  My own answer to those questions is yes to both, followed by another question – does it really matter which is the case?  Revelation teaches us to pray.  How it works – well, I guess that is for God to know and for us, a matter of faith. 

But I can tell you that God had given me a sign two weeks before we drove through those parks, a sign that sustained me through my fear and nervousness.  When we were driving back into Lincoln, Nebraska at midnight in Sara’s car, after picking Osama up from the airport for her graduation the next day, I was dozing in the back seat and I had a vivid memory – of a car accident I’d had with her years before, that was serious, but we were not injured, Al Hamdulillah.  And I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and protection, like God was telling me “I protected you then, and I will protect you now.”  And right after that a 19 year old girl in a pickup truck turned right in front of us and we crashed into her.  And as I heard Sara swear and slam on the brakes, I felt as if God had enveloped us all in a protective “zone,” and even before we crashed I knew we would be OK. 

And the memory of that almost supernatural feeling – that sense of protection – stayed with me and sustained me against my own fears on the edges of those cliffs, and especially the last day of the trip as we drove toward the airport in Denver, over the Rocky Mountains, through rain and snow and intense fog.  And I thought about the enormity of God’s aeons and the evolution of the earth and the mass extinctions, and the wonder of this miniscule amount of time that humans have been on earth, in comparison, and the miracle of the Creation of all that, and the miracle of the Creation of one little person, each little person in the mass of humanity.

As it says it Surah 50 Qaf, Ayah 16:
Now, Verily, it is We who have created humans, and We know what their innermost self whispers within them:  for we are closer to them than their neck veins. [16]

And Surah Al-Araf continues:
And Allah it is who sends forth the winds as a glad tiding of His coming grace – so that, when they have brought heavy clouds, We may drive them towards dead land and cause thereby water to descend; and by this means do We cause all manner of fruit to come forth.  Even thus shall We cause the dead to come forth:  [and this] you ought to keep in mind.  [57]  As for the good land, its vegetation comes forth [in abundance] by its Sustainer’s leave, whereas from the bad it comes forth but poorly.
Thus do We give many facets to Our messages [for the benefit of] people who are grateful!  [58]

Ocean to forest to savannah to desert follow one after the other, all buried, era after era, to the rise of a plateau, and mountains, and the carving of rivers and erosion, and exposure of the levels of creation, observed finally by the eyes of a person, fueled by blood through a neck vein, to a brain created to strive to comprehend and give thanks for it all.

Allahu Akbar, Alhamdulillah.