Sunday, March 29, 2015

For the Love of the Prophet

Wa ma nursilul-Mursalina
Illa mubashshirina wa mundhirin.
Faman amana wa aslaha fala khawfun alayhim
wa la hum yahzanun.  [6:48]
And We send [Our] message-bearers
 only as heralds of glad tidings and as warners: 
hence, all who believe and live righteously –
no fear need they have and neither shall they grieve.  [6:48]…

Innal-laha wa Ma-laa ikatahu yusalluna alan-Nabiyy.
Yaa ayyuhal-ladhina amanu sallualayhi wa sallimu taslima. [56]
Verily, God and His angels bless the Prophet:  [hence] O you who have attained to faith, bless him and give yourselves up [to his guidance] in utter self-surrender! [ 33:56]

Who was this Apostle of God?  More important, who is he for us, today?  Last Saturday I attended a Mawlid, a celebration of the Prophet, pbuh. 

The celebration of Mawlids goes back to the early days of Islam when some of the successors of the Companions of the Prophet began to hold sessions to honor the dignity and example of the Prophet through poetry and songs. Mawlid an-Nabi is now widely celebrated by Muslims of different sectarian backgrounds in many countries around the world.

The practice of celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is not universally approved, however. Muslim jurists and scholars have been debating the practice since its inception.  This is why the Mohammed Webb Foundation made a strategic decision when they held their first Mawlid years ago, not to have it on the Prophet’s birthday.  The debate continues in Chicagoland between Sufi – inspired Muslims and followers of the more Orthodox branches of Islam – Salafian, Maududian and Wahhabian groups.  Nonetheless, the tradition has taken root in the Muslim community here – more and more mosques and Islamic groups are hosting Mawlids.  Sufi-inspired traditions in Islam seem to be more compatible with Western cultural practice.  Mawlids seem to be here to stay, and in fact, new songs and poetry are being written that blend traditional qasidas – songs and poems - with western style music.  The performer at Webb’s Mawlid, Nader Khan shared one song adapted from the Shrek song, “Hallelujah,” now titled “Alhamdulillah,” among others.

Probably the most widely used traditional qasidas (ghazals in Urdu) came from, or were inspired by a collection commonly known as The Burda, by Shaykh al-Busairi, a 13th century Berber Sufi poet.  Nader Khan shared several of these songs of praise.  They are meant to be participatory – an exchange back and forth between singer and audience, until the rhythm and tones create a transcendental experience.  And the words are crafted to evoke transcendental emotion:
From “Aj sik mitraan” -
Today the yearning for the loved one is great indeed!
            Why is my heart saddened, like a reed (flute)?
            The desire is aflame, running through my veins!
            Why are my adoring eyes today dazzled by the beloved?
            His face is like the full moon, worthy of his regal stature!
            A radiant light shines on his brow
            His tresses are black, his eyes are intoxicating!
            Those dreamy eyes are full of the wine of love!

Hearing these words, and those in the other songs of supplication to and praise for the Prophet, I found myself transported back to my experience in Madinah last month, waiting to visit the “Rawdah,” the tomb of Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr and Umar.  The Rawdah is located in the Masjid An-Nabawi, the Prophet’s mosque.   This mosque sits over the site where Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Madinah once stood, and the homes of his wives.  Those simple mud huts are only a memory. The common prayer space of the Prophet and his followers has increased by many mutiples – it looks like several football fields could fit inside.  The site is now an expanse of marble floors and columns, lights and minarets, carved wood, and decorated arches and ceilings.  And it is now divided into men’s and women’s sections.  Since the Rawdah is located in the men’s section of the mosque, men can visit and pray there during most of the day.  

For women, the experience of visiting the Rawdah could be described as calculated to evoke the suffering of separation, and yearning for reunion with the beloved Prophet.  The women wait for the evening hours, after Aisha prayer.  They assemble in increasing throngs, pressed closer and closer together, immobilized, the old and the young with their children and babes in arms, searching each others’ faces for mercy as the minutes drag to hours, the crowd grows to the thousands, and the press increases.  Finally, when the carved wooden screens are opened to the massive expanse behind their walls, there is a merciless stampede… a torrent of frenzied anticipation released into the vacuum created by the pull of the Prophet’s promise.  Each and every soul in the horde rushes toward her salvation, invoking the blessed one who would understand her every pain and sorrow.  They pray before the Prophet’s bones, asking for forgiveness, expecting love.

References in the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad – God’s blessings and peace be upon him - speak of him as the Apostle of God, inspired with Revelation, who does not know what is beyond human perception, who follows only that which is revealed to him, who is only a messenger and a herald of glad tidings and a warner, who is not responsible for the conduct of his people, nor can he determine their fate, who is a human being, a mortal, like all the other prophets.  He was instructed to call people with wisdom and kindness, and not to grieve over the rejection of his message.  He was a blessing from God to all mankind, devoted to prayer, full of compassion and mercy.

The Prophet was instructed by revelation to say these things to his followers:

Surah 6:  Al-An’am
Say [O Prophet]:  ‘I do not say unto you, ‘God’s treasures are with me’; nor [do I say,] ‘I know the things that are beyond the reach of human perception’; nor do I say unto you, ‘Behold, I am an angel’:  I but follow what is revealed to me.”
Say:  “Can the blind and the seeing be deemed equal?”  Will you not, then, take thought?”  [50]

Surah 7:  Al-A’raf
Say [O Prophet}:  “It is not within my power to bring benefit to, or avert harm from, myself, except as God may please.  And if I knew that which is beyond the reach of human perception, abundant good fortune would surely have fallen to my lot, and no evil would ever have touched me.  I am nothing but a warner, and a herald of glad tidings unto people who will believe.”  [188]

Surah 38:  Sad
Say [O Prophet]:  “No reward whatever do I ask of you for this [message]; and I am not one of those who claim to be what they are not.  [86]  this [divine writ], behold, is no less than a reminder to all the worlds [87] – and you will most certainly grasp its purport after a lapse of time!”  [88]

It is easy to see why the orthodox followers of Islam do not approve of the Mawlid, or any excessive expressions of love for the Prophet.  The Prophet was not our Savior.  He was a messenger.  He may well have been “more beautiful than two moons could ever hope to be.”   We would expect a messenger of God to be beautiful, but he was a vehicle.  The Prophet was not meant to be the object of our fantasies, even if in our humanness we compensate for the disappointments in our lives by fantasizing.  We must forgive ourselves, and each other for doing so. 

Revelation enjoined the Muslims to follow “the middle way.”
And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you…. [2:143]

This passage, in Surat Al-Baqarah, follows an injunction to Ahl al-Kitab – those in Madinah who blindly followed the rigid rules of their ancestors, and could not see the truth that the Prophet was sharing with them.  This was when the Prophet was instructed to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah.  The middle way here means the path between orthodox rigidity on the one hand, and disbelief on the other (as demonstrated in the Prophet’s time by the kuffar).  When we think today about how to relate to the Prophet, we might do well to remember this passage... and shy away from the rigidity of orthodox interpretations that reject any celebration of the Prophet’s life on the one hand, and excessive emotionalism and fantasies on the other.

I was given a different perspective on the Prophet when I was in Madinah.  A vision came to me in my room beside the Prophet’s mosque, before I went to visit the Rawdah.  I was in that state between wake and sleep, where you are sure your dreams are real.  I was flying, in complete control of where I went.  A glorious feeling – the ability to swoop and soar over the land, bank and turn, control my altitude.  I flew over the landscape, and then I was flying up the minaret of a mosque.   I was not alone.  I found myself with a boy, about seven or eight years old.  He was riding on my back.  And he was bursting with wonder and delight and excited anticipation of the adventure that lay before us.  We flew above the stairs of the minaret, round and round, until we came out the top and into a brilliant light.  We were flying toward the Kaaba.  It’s sides were separating from each other, and rays of uncountable colors were shimmering through the seams from within, irridescent.   We flew right over the Kaaba, toward an even more brilliant horizon dancing in the distance, indescribably beautiful.  As I woke up I realized who he was.  He was the Prophet.  And since then I have carried the memory of his shared wonder and joy.  Whenever I feel discouraged or confused, all I need is to remember that feeling.  Al Hamdulillah, God gave me exactly what I needed.  May He grant such peace to all who so desire.

Laqad kana lakum fi Rasulil-lahi
uswatun hasanatul-liman-kana
yarjul-laha wal-Yawmal- Akhira
wa dhakaral-laha kathira. [33:21]
Verily in the Apostle of God you have
a good example for everyone who looks forward [with hope and awe]
to God and the Last Day
and remembers God unceasingly. [33:21]

Rabbana la tuzigh qulubana ba’da idh hadaitana wa hab lana min ladun-ka rahma, innaka antal wahhab.  [3:8]
Our Lord! Let not our hearts swerve from the truth after You have guided us and bestow on us the gift of Thy grace:  Verily, Thou art the [true] Giver of Gifts.  [3:8]

Friday, March 6, 2015

Sweet and Savory

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.

Al-hamdu lillah, Ahmaduhu Wa Assta’eenuh, Wa Asstahdeenhi, Wa Asstaghfiruh, Wa oominu Bihi Jalla wa ‘Ala va Laa Akfuruh.  Praise be to Allah; I praise Him and I seek His assistance. I believe in Him, the Exhalted, and I will not disbelieve Him.

The title of my khutbah today is “Sweet and Savory”.

I was recently looking through some old family photos and I came across a series of picture of my three younger brothers when they were boys. As I looked at these boyish faces holding puppies or showing off a garden harvest of beets and carrots, I realized that these little boys don’t exist anymore. They are men now. Although I may have some photographic proof and copious memories, these little boys are no longer here. Now sometimes one of my brothers will say or do something that reminds me of the little boy that once was, but even if I am mindful of that small boy, I must also keep in mind that I am dealing with a grown man. A man who has a history and relationships that have shaped him, and current concerns and worries that never troubled that chubby-cheeked 8 year old. 
The ability to look at people you love with different filters- the filter of the distant past, the not so distant past, the imagined future, and the present, reminded me of how I feel when I read Quran. I know that there is a historical context of the Quran, there is a long tradition of interpretation and scholarship associated with the text, and there is also the current knowledge and understanding that I, myself,  bring to a personal reading. I’d like to illustrate this process with a short Surah, #95, also known as At-Tīn, “The Fig”.

Surah 95 is an early Meccan surah. This means that it was one of the earliest surahs revealed to Prophet Muhammad, and the first people who heard it were probably not much more in number than the people in this room. During the early Meccan years, Islam was something that was being created and practiced by just a few people in the privacy of their homes.

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
Wat-tini waz-zaytun.
Wa Turi Sinin.
Wa hadhal-baladil- ‘amin.
Laqad khalaqnal ‘insana fil ‘ahsani taqwim.
Thumma radadnahu ‘asfala safilin.
‘Illal-ladhina ‘amanu wa ‘amilus-salihati falahum ‘ajrun ghayru mammnun.
Fama yukadhdhibuka ha’du biddin.
‘Alaysal-lahu bi ‘Ahkamil-hakimin.

The English translation is:
By the fig and the olive
By Mount Sinai,
By this ground inviolate
We created the human being in the highest station
Then brought him down lowest of the low
Except for those who keep faith and work justice
Theirs is a recompense unending.
What can give you the lie then about the reckoning?
Is not God the judge most wise?

The surah opens with an oath emphasizing contrasts, with objects and locations that would have been very familiar to the early Meccan audience. Figs and olives were staples foods for the Arabian Peninsula and all over Mediterranean. Sort of like the ‘peanut butter and jelly’ of middle America. Figs have been domesticated since the time of the Ancient Egyptians (between 4000-2700 BC) and the Romans had over two dozen varieties of figs with the finest fresh ones being an expensive delicacy while cheap ones were “food of the slaves”. Olives have been cultivated since the time of the ancient Greeks, are typically served in a salty brine, and can also be pressed to extract oil for cooking or for lamps. Mount Sinai, at the very bottom of the Sinai peninsula, is the mountain where Moses retreated to for forty days to receive the Mosaic laws from God. The inviolable ground, al-balad al-amīn, is most likely referring to the sacred territory around Mecca (the haram) where tribal war and other violent acts were forbidden. In a society rift with tribal warfare, the haram was a ‘safety zone’ where people could safely negotiate trade treaties, marriage contracts, and other necessities of communal life.

The middle of the surah emphasizes the human condition. Humans were created in an exalted position, but once on earth, should they make the wrong choices, they will be brought low. People who make good choices will be rewarded in the next life.

The surah ends with two questions. The first is “What can give you the lie then about the dīn?”  Dīn can mean either religion or reckoning, but at this point in the early Meccan period, the term is probably referring to a religious belief that has the component of accepting responsibility for one’s actions. The last question, a reminder of God’s wisdom at judging, is a reminder of the Day of Judgment, a moment of truth when each human’s life will be revealed with finality.

I think the middle of the surah and ending questions are fairly straightforward, and these themes are mentioned numerous times throughout the Quran. Instead, I’d like to focus on the oath part of this surah.

Classical commentators have argued that the reference to figs and olives is actually a metaphor for the religious teachings of Jesus, Mount Sinai is a symbol for Moses, and the ground inviolate is actually Mecca and the revelations Muhammad received. Thus, the oath is a reminder of the spiritual revelation legacy of Moses-Jesus-Mohammad.

My own reading of this oath is a bit different. When I read about the figs and olives, I am reminded of the very different biology of each of these plants. Fig trees cannot reproduce on their own. They require a particular species of wasp for fertilization. No wasp, no fig fruit. Olive trees aren’t as fussy about their pollinators, but they do require a very long time to reach maturation, about five to eight years before they bear their first olive, and up to 65-80 years for stable production. Olive trees are typically handed down within families. Because it takes olives such a long time to become mature fruit-bearing trees, the Greeks considered it an act of sacrilege and ruthlessness to destroy an enemy’s olive trees in time of war. We have two very different tasting fruits, which require for maturation either a helper-wasp or plenty of time. 

When I consider the differences between Mt Sinai and the haram of Mecca, I look at this as a metaphor of individual silent contemplation (Mt Sinai) versus the peaceful give and take of human interaction (al-balad al-amin). My overall approach to this oath is that God has given us different things (figs and olives) and different opportunities (isolation and socialization) in which to make our choices. If we can understand and appreciate the differences between these things and situations, then we will be able to make good choices. For example, if we understand the nature between figs and olives, then we might try making a figgy pudding but steer clear of attempting that olive pudding. And I would go further and say that we need both – the sweet of the fig, the savory of the olive or the quiet of isolation, the lively energy of discussion- in order to fully appreciate and be grateful for what God has given us.

Finally, in thinking about our future, we are often told that in the next life, in paradise, the righteous will be surrounded by orchards and fruits. These fruits are taken to mean, metaphorically, the fruition of one's good deeds. So it could be that there will be good deeds that you do that will see fruition right away, perhaps in your actions towards one particular person or project. And there may be other good deeds that you do which will take a lifetime, or even several lifetimes to see their ripened completion.


Al-Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen Wassalutu Wassalmu ‘Alakhairil Mursaleen; Muhammadin Al-Nabiyil  Ummiyee, wa ‘Ala alihi wa mahbihi Ajma’een.
Praise be to Allah, the lord of the universe; May the greeting and peace of Allah be upon the best Messenger, Muhammad, the unlettered Prophet; and upon His family and upon all of His companions.

There are many references to brotherhood in the Quran: Joseph and his many brothers, Musa and Harun, and of course, Cain and Abel. Unfortunately, there are no sisterhood examples I can give you from Quran. While Joseph and Musa were able to successfully navigate their brothers’ envy and incompetence, the failure of Cain and Abel to mediate their dispute became a warning to all mankind.
The Quran states in 5:30-32:

“But (Cain’s) mind imposed on him the killing of his brother, so he slew him and became one of the losers. Then Allah sent a raven scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother’s naked corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother’s naked corpse? And he became repentant. For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than man-slaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” (M. M. Pickthall translation)

Cain’s envy, and his deeper problem that of feeling inadequate, was not solved with Abel’s murder. These problems were simply transferred into different forms which were much harder to negotiate; guilt, remorse, and exile. Death does not solve anything, it simply mutates the problems into a different form.

Although there are examples from the life of Prophet Muhammad where he exiled, banished, or killed his enemies, when examined in historical context, these were measures of a last resort. The Prophet’s default, knee-jerk reaction was to be gentle and merciful. There are numerous examples in the hadith and sirah where he was criticized for being too lenient, too willing to listen, too eager to negotiate for peace and too generous to followers of questionable loyalty. When Muhammad emmigrated to the city of Medina, it was not as a triumphant warlord, it was as a mediator of disputes, a peace-maker.

We are all brothers and sisters to one another. This isn’t just some whoo-whoo religious talk, this relationship is ingrained into every cell in our body, in our DNA. We all come from that same Eve in Africa. Remember the warning of Cain and Abel, remember the forgiveness of Musa and Joseph, and reflect upon the example of mercy and gentleness of Muhammad.

“…whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”

I’d like to end my khutbah today with a du’a from 3:8:

Our Lord! Do not make our hearts deviate after You have guided us and bestow on us mercy. Truly You alone are the Giver.

Rabbana la tuzigh qulubana ba’da idh hadaitana wa hab lana min ladun-ka rahma, innaka antal wahhab. Ameen


“Approaching the Qur’an: the Early Revelations”, introduced and translated by Michael Sells (White Cloud Press, Ashland OR), 1999
“The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson, 2nd edition edited by Tom Jaine (Oxford University Press, Oxford) 2006
“The Message of the Qur’an” translated and explained by Muhammad Asad (The Book Foundation, England) 2008.