Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks.

This week I was invited to a multi faith thanksgiving celebration at our local church. The pastor there began by singing what I would call a highly devotional piece known as “It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, please won't you be neighbor etc” reminiscent of our our dear Brother Imam Mr Rogers. I say this because our tradition tells us to value our families. If we do not value blood, how will we ever value othes? In Surah Baqara Ayah it says in ayah 27 not to sever the bonds that Allah has commanded to be tied? There is a hadeeth that says do not go three days without speaking to a relative and if you go one year, it is like taking a life. So how far out does that extend? To our immediate family, extended? To the family of humanity?

This is Thanksgiving week, a time when we traditionally gather with family, sometimes in a room with people we have not seen or wanted to see for a while. Perhaps we are part of blended families, divorced families and so on. There are jokes about how we have to brace ourselves for this type of events etc.

Many families have the tradition of going around the dinner table and asking what we are thankful for. Even though my children cringe audibly, I continue this ritual to this day. Sometimes it is hard to find things to be thankful for. Sometimes we have had very difficult years. We are reminded to look at those worse off than us and so we listen out for the voices of Gaza, Pakistan,Syria, Ferguson and so on. How do we make sense of any of this. How can we thankful when there is so much suffering and tragedy in the world? One of my children responded that they were thankful they did not have to live the life of an African American teen in the Southern states. I had no response to this.

There will always be unanswered questions. The Quran begins with أ ل م
letters whose significance we don't know. So that means that we must immediately and consistently submit to the fact that there are things we will never understand. However, I think more is required of us. We ARE the priveleged ones. We are thankfully not being tortured. We are in a land where we ARE being accepted despite everything. We are fortunate. We have access to the media, to being civically engaged, to being vocal. We can alert people to causes and so on.

(There is a Turkish vase on the table)

Islamic art is known for its patterns and symmetry. I believe this is mirrored in the teachings of Islam too. For instance, here are two hadeeth:

Whoever suffers an injury done to him and forgives (the person responsible), Allah will raise his status to a higher degree and remove one of his sins.' (Sunan At-Tirmidhî)

The Prophet said: 'Whoever does not thank people (for their favors) has not thanked Allah (properly), Mighty and Glorious is He!' (Musnad Ahmad, Sunan At-Tirmidhî)

What happens to you on Earth will be mirrored in the hereafter. How you treat people is how Allah will treat you.Now this gratitude thing. We are taught that the word shukr in Arabic highly important. It is considered a highly spiritual state in Sufi traditions. What does gratitude involve ? Well it includes recognizing our blessings, naturally. What about when we have been wronged, what then? We are taught to forgive, that it will set us free, that it is better for our souls and so on. I believe this. But if it were only all that simple.

We know the stories of the Prophet where he was able to forgive people who wished him harm, the woman who threw garbage in front of him. The woman he helped carry her belongings and who criticized him all the way and never told her who he was and so on. Ultimately, the very person who killed his beloved Uncle Hamza.

I think the Seerah stories we hear often portray our Prophet as somoene who just went around forgiving people because he had some super human forgiveness powers. Well maybe he did. But we are taught that he was human too. Which one was it? We have to remember the Prophet was also the strongest, savviest military leader anyone had known. Think more powerful than Kevin Costner in Braveheart, or Gengis Khan huffing and puffing around with Mongols. How does a person who can be such an aggressive warrior find it in himself to forgive such offences?

I think there are a few things that go on in the pardoning process. Recently I read an article about somoene who was being put in a position where they had to constantly interact with a verbal abuser. They asked the Rabbi what they should do about this. I wondered what advice I would give such a person.

First of all, yes we have the right to protect ourselves if required. But if we avoid the person who has harmed us, we have given our power to them. Therefore it takes that warrior's soul to actually forgive someone. To be be able to be soft and tender, we need to make our insides strong. That symmetry again. Also in war, you look at the big picture. If you look at how war works, it is 90% strategy. At the Battle of Uhud, the Muslims were told to be on high ground to be able to have a more effective vantage point. It is all about wider outcome and long term vision.

Therefore, I am sure that the Prophet was not unaffected by things that happened to him, I think it was that he had that sense of strong self worth of course, was far above pettiness etc, knew that nothing that others said defined him, knew that Allah was with him that was all that mattered.

Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.” (Quran 7:199)

But he also knew that he had to look at a broader spectrum. By not being able to overlook others' faults, he would not have been able to achieve a fraction of what he did. The killing of his uncle did affect him and he was unable to speak to Hind who carried this out. As an aside,  that inner struggle of his makes me feel even closer to him and makes me understand what is really humanly possible. We always have to be looking at a wider perspective. This vase contains symmetry and intricacy within its designs but the artist's overarching goal was probably to create a stunning piece of art.

Rabbi ‘j’alni muqima’s-salati wa min thurriyati. Rabbana wa taqabbal du’a.Rabbana ‘ghfirli wa li walidayya walil-Mu’minina yawma yaqumul-Hisab.
My Lord! Make me keep up prayer, and my off-spring too. Our Lord! Accept the prayer.  Our Lord!Forgive me and my parents and the ones who believe on the day that the reckoning will be taken.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Tracing the Paths

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.
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.

The title of my khutbah today is “Tracing the Paths”.

The subject of my khutbah is my struggle with shari’ah because when I hear the word shari’ah I have this instantaneous gag reflex. So, I am struggling to find a better definition for myself, and this khutbah is a reflection of my personal struggle.

My struggle started with a definition of shari’ah that really made me think and ponder.  Shireen Hunter defined shari’ah as “the path of life that it has traced.” (p 291 Reformist Voices of Islam). Her definition is in contrast to fiqh, “Islamic law as produced by Islamic scholars”. Part of my problem is that I have always conflated the two, but they are actually distinct.

What is a path of life that has been traced? Many people use the analogy of a river. If your life is the water and the path your life takes is the river, then eventually all rivers lead to the ocean, or all lives/souls lead to God.  Which river you choose to go down has certain consequences.  When you have well defined river banks, it is obvious which way you will flow.  But if the banks are too constrictive, the water may become stagnant or flow underground, or if the water exceeds the bodrders of the riverbanks, floods over the land, then chaos and destruction can result. This is why some Islamic scholars, such as Muhammad Khatami, have said that “Islam totally rejects fascism while it offers a critique of liberalism.”

I think the argument against fascism example is pretty self-evident, but I would like to expand on this notion of a ‘critique of liberalism.’, well, I would actually call it libertarianism, but whatever you want to call it, the idea is of having complete freedom to do whatever you want. I would argue, that this kind of freedom is not always a true freedom. Let me give a personal example to illustrate this point.

Right now I have a cousin who is dying of liver failure caused by decades of alcohol abuse. He lives in a society where he has the freedom to drink alcohol, he had a choice whether or not to drink, and he drank. He had a choice whether or not to get help, and he chose not to fight his addiction. Yes, he had the freedom to make his choices, to make bad choices, but in the end, did these choices give him freedom? He hasn’t had a driver’s liscence for thirty years, his daughter won’t see him, he hasn’t held a job and the only cure for his liver disease is a liver transplant, which he absolutely cannot get because he shows no sign of sincere rehabilitation, so he won’t get on the transplant list.  He has been free to choose addiction, but has addiction given him freedom? To me, no it hasn’t.

It sounds paradoxical, but sometimes following rules which appear restrictive can actually help you achieve true freedom.  I’m not saying this very eloquently, so I will quote from Wendell Barry who wrote a beautiful essay on marriage and poetry.

Barry argues that marriage and poetry are both bound by particular ‘forms’,  poetry by the restriction of meter and rhyme, marriage by the vows you take. He says:

“In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.” (from Poetry and Marriage: the use of old forms)
Just to get back to the topic of shari’ah, I’m trying to make the argument that these ‘forms’ are like paths, the same paths or rule sets as ‘shari’ah’.  The first surah that starts the Qur’an is called, “Al-Fatiha” – the Opening. The Qur’an is giving us the invitation to open our hearts to its poetry and to experience it. But what will we be opening ourselves up to?

Barry writes:
“The second aspect of these forms is an opening, a generosity, toward possibility. The forms acknowledge that good is possible; they hope for it, await it, and prepare its welcome — though they dare not require it. These two aspects are inseparable. To forsake the way is to forsake the possibility. To give up the form is to abandon the hope.”

In Al-Fatihah, the Muslim is asking for God’s guidance, not demanding guidance, but hoping for it. Once you accept the path, then there will be some restrictions placed on you. However,  when you follow those rules some pretty interesting things can happen.

Barry says: “It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.    
     In this way the keeping of the form instructs us… The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness, that dried skull, suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. It was expectation that would have kept us where we were.”

Sometimes, we do not always choose what is best for us. We have expectations that may not be realistic or healthy. We work towards goals or ideals, that often when realized, leave us feeling hollow. How many times have you found it was the unexpected surprise or circumstance that gave you the most joy? As it says in the Qur’an, “God is the best of schemers.”

Given human nature, we don’t always follow rules or good advice. We make mistakes, sometimes very bad mistakes. Wendell Barry writes:
Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different lives-within the one life of their troth and household — periodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to “feel together,” to “be of the same mind.” Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives."  
Failure happens, rules get broken. Sometimes there is forgiveness, sometimes not. But I believe, as Louise Erdrich says in her book “The Round House”, "The only thing that God can do, and does all the time, is to draw good from every evil situation."


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 look at the Qur’an as a source of guidance. There are rules, but some of these rules are eternal and some of them are bound to a particular society at a particular time and place. Just as in a marriage, you might have certain expectations for who is going to be the breadwinner, and that might be true for a while, but things can change and roles can change in a marriage. What is important to look at is what are some of the consequences that these different paths will take.

So for instance, what are we to make of the Qur’anic injunction that  “a woman’s testimony is only worth half of a man’s.” What happens in a society, or a marriage for that matter, when women have no say in the justice system? What happens in a society when certain people are privileged over others because of their class rank, race, or gender? What happens to a society where class, race, and gender are irrelevant to the justice system, where all are treated equally under the law?

This Quran’ic surah has problems for Muslim societies. What are we to make of hadith that are narrated by women, particularly hadith that then go on to form components of Muslim law, fiqh? Are we only to accept hadith if they are narrated by two women? Furthermore, what are we to do with female judges? Must their opinions be signed off by a male judge? There have been well respected and eminent female judges during the early years of Islam and their opinions stood firm and were not disputed. I will only mention two today Amrah bint Abdur Rahman and Umm al-Darda. Both of these women are Tabi’een, or Successors, the name for the generation that came after the Companions of the Prophet.

Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was a student of Ayesha bint Abu Bakr, and a specialist in hadith as well as giving respected opinions in law. The Umayyad Caliph, Umar bin Abdul Aziz said, “No one remains alive who is more learned in the Hadith of Aisha than Amrah.”  Another example of the respect accorded to Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was once a judge in Medina ruled in a case involving a Christian thief who had stolen something. The judge had ordered that his hand to be severed. When Amrah bint Abdur Rahman heard of this decision, she immediately told one of her students to tell the judge that he cannot severe the man’s hand because he had stolen something whose value was less than a single gold coin (dinar). As soon as the judge heard what Amrah had said, he ordered that the man be released, unharmed. He did not question her authority, nor did he seek a second opinion from other scholars, who were quite numerous . This incident is recorded in the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik, and this ruling is also his opinion in such cases.

The second female jurist I want to mention is Umm al-Darda, also of the Successors generation who lived in Damascus and Jerusalem in the seventh century. Her husband, Abu Darda, was a companion to the Prophet. Umm al Darda lectured in the male section of the mosque, and was a teacher to many students, including the caliph of Damascus. One story I like about her is narrated by Ibrahim ibn Abalah. He said that a man came to Umm Al Darda and reported to her that someone had criticized her in front of the caliph. Her reply was, “If we are rebuked for something that is not found in us, then very often we are also praised for something that in not in us.”

Both Amrah bint Abdur Rahman and Umm Al Darda were well respected scholars of hadith and law, whose opinions set legal precedents. Their authority was not questioned because of their gender, their intelligence and wisdom was recognized and valued by their communities.

Shari’ah is the path our lives trace in accordance with our religion’s injunctions and guidance. Our choices and their consequences create a record which we will be judged upon by God on the Day of Judgment. But we must keep in mind that these rules and guidance must be tempered to the context of the times in which we are living and must never violate the eternal message of Islam: the respect for justice, mercy and human dignity.

Our Lord! Pour down patience on us, and make our steps firm and assist us against the folk, the ones who are ungrateful (2:250)

Rabbana afrigh ‘alayna sabran wa thabbit aqdamana wansurna ‘alal-ghawmil kafirin.


Friday, November 7, 2014

You're Invited

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

Wa ash-hadu an la ilaha Illal lahu, wahdahu la sharika lahu, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadin ‘abduhu was rasooluhu al-Mustafa.

I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah; the One who has no partner. And I bear witness that Muhammad is the servant of Allah and His messenger who was chosen by Allah.

Al-Hamdu Lillahli-lathi Anzala Ala ‘abdihil kitaba wa lam yaj’al lahu ‘iwaja.

Praise be to the One (Allah) Who revealed the book to His servant and did not make any distortion to it.

The title of my khutbah is “You’re invited.”

A few weeks ago, I was on the internet reading some of my favorite blogs and one person had suggested that everyone try to write one ‘devotional’ poem every day for a week. So after writing for six days about autumn leaves and pumpkins and the coming of winter, I decided I hadn’t really written a proper ‘devotional’ poem. What in my religious tradition was I ‘devoted’ to?  It only took me a few seconds before I had the answer, and then a few more minutes before I got the poem. See if you can guess what it is from my poem:

The best magic is mind-reading
For this amazing feat, I require two things:
One- a pen with which I will write
Two- my reader who will decipher my words.
There you have it ladies and gentlemen!
The ability to read minds of all persons
Living or dead
As long as they
The pen.

This poem is really a homage to the first words that were ever revealed to our Prophet, as recorded in 96: 1-5:
Iqra bismi Rabbikal-lathi khalaq. Khalaqal ‘insana min ‘alaq. Iqra’ wa Rbbukal- ‘Akram. ‘Allathi ‘allama bilqalam. ‘Allaml-‘insana ma lam ya’lam.

“Read in the name of thy Sustainer,  who has created man out of  a germ cell. Read for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know.”

Now, given that the Prophet was illiterate, was the first word “read”? Some people translate the word as “Recite”, but the problem with ‘recite’ is that you can recite something without understanding what it is you are saying. A parrot can recite. The reason people use the word ‘read’ is because reading has the intentionality of trying to understand that which you have been given to read. The reader is trying to make a mental connection to the author.

God has given human beings the remarkable capacity to understand the minds of other human beings through reading .We can read books (if we can translate their languages into our own), of people who lived thousands of years ago, like Sappho or Plato or Buddha or Lao-Tze. Humans can construct vast networks of knowledge and information and pass these on to future generations. If I want to know whether Rumi missed his friend, or what Charles Dickens was concerned about, or what Sigmund Freud dreamed about or how Emily Dickenson felt about that spider on her wall, all I have to do is pick up one of their books and start reading. This is an amazing gift. The ability to produce and transmit our ideas to other humans has led to amazing advances in technology and science.

Now in the case of the Qur’an, we have a very special author. Although the Qur’an is just one of His books, His creation is not limited to books, His creation of all elements of the natural world surround and sustain us. The Qur’an says of God’s authorship:

18:109 "Say: if all the sea were ink for my Sustainer’s words, the sea would indeed be exhausted ere my Sustainer’s words are exhausted! And (thus it would be) if We were to add to it sea upon sea."

As well as
31:27 "And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea (were ink) with seven (more) seas yet added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for verily God is almighty, wise."

When I think about the symbols of different religions, I look at them as invitations to contemplation as well as types of action. In Hinduism there is the symbol of the dancing Shiva-it is hard to be complacent and self-satisfied when someone asks you to dance. In Christianity, there is the symbol of the Cross- self sacrifice and redemption in service to others. In Islam, I think that our symbol is the invitation, “Read!”

When I look around this room and I see you, I know that all of you read, some of you are even in book clubs, some of you are book sellers and writers. I know that you have helped your children learn how to read, and you have modeled reading behavior to your children by reading to them. You have all been faithfully practicing your Islam, so praise God for that blessing, for these opportunities that you have been given.


Innal-la ha was malaaikatahu yussalloona Alan-nabiy.  Yaa aiyuhal latheena aamanoo, salloo alaihi, wa sallimoo tassleema.

Lo! Allah and His angels shower blessings on the prophet. O you who believe! Ask blessing on him and salute him with a worthy greeting.

Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala alee Muhammad kama sallaita ‘ala Ibrahim wa ‘ala alee Ibrahim.

O Allah! Send Your greeting upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad in as much as You sent your greeting upon Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim.

Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah, may God be pleased with her, was one of the Companions of the Prophet and a frequent guest in his home. Her real name was Layla, she converted in Mecca, and later migrated to Medina. Ash-Shifa refers to her ability to heal others. Umar ibn Al-Khattab appointed her administrative officer of the marketplace. She was also his advisor before she died.

Perhaps the most important contribution Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah made to Islam is she taught the Prophet’s wife, Hafsa, how to read and write. Ash-Shifa was well versed in traditional healing, ‘rquyal al-namlah’. She asked the Prophet whether it would be permissible to use this method of healing, and he responded by telling her :“Teach Hafsa the ruqyal al-namlah like you taught her how to write.” (Dawud, Book 28, 3878)

Why is this important? Because Hafsah collected all the ayat of Quran, written down on scraps of paper or animal skins. Ruqayya Khan has called Hafsa the first editor of the Quran.

 There is a hadith that Umar ibn al-Khattab consulted Hafsa when there were disputes about the Quran:

Abu l-Aad related [that] ‘Urwa b. al-Zūbayr said, “People differed over the recitation of ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of Book . . . ’[Q 98: 1], so ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb came to Hafṣa, [bringing] with [him a scrap of] leather (adīm). He said: When the Messenger of God comes to you, ask him to teach you ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book’ . . . and tell him to write it for you on this [scrap of] leather. She did [this], and he [i.e., Muḥammad] wrote it for her. This reading became public and widespread [’āmma].sw

In one Islamic tradition, when Caliph Uthman wanted to compile all the surahs of the Quran into one book, or mushaf, he asked Hafsa for her collection of Quranic ‘sheets’. She only agreed to hand  over her documents to him if he promised to give them back. He agreed to her conditions. After her death, Hafsa’s Quranic sheets were destroyed by the governor of Medina, Marwan ibn Hakam.

I would like to conclude with the words of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father and first president of Pakistan, who said, “No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world: one is the sword and the other is the pen.  There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.”  (speech given 25 March 1940, Islamia College for Women).

I would like to add that if you are a woman in command of a pen, then you are one of the most powerful forces in the world. Use your power wisely!

My concluding du’a is from 3:191-194:

"O our Sustainer! Thou hast not created (aught of) this without meaning and purpose. Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Keep us safe then, from suffering through fire. O our Sustainer! Whomsoever Thou shalt commit to the fire, him, verily wilt Thou have bought to disgrace, and such evildoers will have none to succor them. O our Sustainer! Behold, we heard a voice inviting us unto faith ‘Believe in your Sustainer’- and so we came to believe. O our Sustainer! Forgive us, then, our sins, and efface our bad deeds, and let us die the death of the truly virtuous. And O our Sustainer, grant us that which Thou has promised us through Thy apostles, and disgrace us not of the Resurrection Day. Thou never failest to fulfill Thy promise."

Rabbana ma khalaqta hadha batilan, subhanaka faqina ‘adhaban-nar. Rabbana innaka man tudkhilin-nara faqad ‘akhqaytahah. Wa ma liz-zalimina min ‘ansar.
Rabbana innana sami’na munadiyany- yunadi lil imani ‘an ‘aminu bi-Rabbikum fa’amanna. Rabbana faghfir lanan dhunubana wa kaffir ‘annna sayyi’atina wa tawaffana ma’al-abrar. Rabbana wa atina ma wa’attana ‘ala Russulika wa la tukhzina yaum-al-qiyamah. Innaka la tukhlifu-l-mi’ad.

Quran translation = Muhammad Asad “The Message of the Qur’an”.

“Did a Woman Edit the Qur’an: Hafsa’s famed Codex” by Ruqayyah Khan, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Feb 2014

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tips- Famous Muslim Women

Think about incorporating stories of famous Muslim women in your next khutbah.

There is a growing collection of these stories to be found at the Women's Initiative in Spirituality and Equality website, under the Muslim Women Past and Present section (follow link).

Once you have a name, start a Google search and begin to research some inspiring Muslim women.

Happy researching!