Monday, August 17, 2015

Ramadan Khutbah

I want to talk today about Ramadan and fasting.  I know you are thinking, “One more Khutbah about Ramadan?  Please…”  But my focus is a little different this time.  I’d like to talk more specifically about our practice of fasting here in America, and how we can look to the history of our faith for “clues” about how we understand its meaning.

I will begin with a story about the journey of fasting in my own family.  I am taking the liberty, with my wife’s permission, of sharing her experience with this pillar of the faith over the years.  She has struggled with fasting since adopting Islam over thirty years ago.  Every year she has tried to fast, and it has been almost impossible for her to abstain from eating and drinking all day, especially in summer, with its 17-18 hours days.  She always felt discouraged and frustrated.  She would be almost incapacitated by dehydration.  Her body physiology was not used to the practice of abstaining, especially from water.  The challenge was not just physical, but also psychological.  The concept of fasting ran counter to everything she had always been taught about the need stay hydrated, especially in summer, and that eating small amounts of food every few hours was the best way to maintain energy and productivity.  On days when she had to work full time, she could not fast.  In spite of all that I encouraged her to fast to the best of her ability – not fast all day, drink water once or twice during the day – whatever she needed to do to get through and function.  She tried different ways over the years, but she always tried to fast.  And Alhamdulillah, to her surprise, she is finally able to fast all day, even in the summer. 

This journey is not unique to her.  We have to think of others who probably struggle with fasting like she has – other converts to Islam in America, children growing up, especially when they see that other people around them do not have to suffer like they do.  We should even think about other Muslims who decided to leave the faith for a time, but then come back to it, and who might find Islamic rituals difficult to follow, especially fasting and praying regularly.  We can go further and say that even for those of us who are used to fasting all our lives, we might find it challenging to keep the tradition while maintaining regular working hours, with everyone expecting us to perform “business as usual,” Ramadan or not.  Muslims in Islamic countries deal with the challenges of Ramadan by changing their life style and work expectations.  In Egypt, for example, no one is expected to do much during Ramadan.  For them, everything is “Baad il Eid,” which means, “After Eid.”  I wish we could do that here, but we cannot, and honestly, we should not.  I remember when I fasted Ramadan for the first time in America, I felt that I had never fasted before in Egypt.  It was so easy in Egypt.  No struggle, it was fun.  But here, having to work long the same long hours every day, it was a challenge.

This leads to the second part of my Khutbah.  Is there anything in the experience of the first Muslims that we can refer to, to inspire us through our challenges with fasting in America?  The concept of fasting in Ramadan as we now know it developed over time in Madinah.  When Prophet Muhammad, pbuh came to Madinah, he found that the Jews were fasting the day of Passover to celebrate the exodus of Prophet Mousa and his followers from Egypt.  He said, “Mousa is our prophet too,” so he decided to fast that day and asked his followers to fast as well.  Sometime during the first year in Madinah, Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad Ayat 183-184 of Surat Al-Baqara, asking the Muslims to fast three specific days –the 13th, 14th, and 15th days of every month.  (This later became a tradition of the Prophet for fasting outside of Ramadan.)  Allah also mentioned in these ayat that those who find it difficult to fast do not have to fast, and they could provide a meal to a needy person in Madinah instead.  The rule was general, without any limitations.  It was left up to each Muslim to decide for himself or herself whether or not they could fast.  Allah also mentioned that if someone was sick or traveling, they should not fast, and make up those days later, after Ramadan, whenever possible.

Sometime later, within the first two years in Madinah, Ayah 185 was revealed, asking the Muslims to fast the entire month of Ramadan.  The ayah confirmed to everyone that those who find it difficult should not exhaust themselves by fasting.
It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was first bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false.  Hence, whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast throughout it; but he that is ill, or on a journey, shall fast instead for the same number of other days.  God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship; but He desires that you complete the number of days required and that you extol God for His having guided you aright, and that you render your thanks unto Him. [2:185]

What a beautiful ayah – a beautiful concept.  Allah wants us to fast, but not to have hardship.  Why?  Because fasting, like all Islamic rituals, has a purpose.  The rituals are not just “Faraid,” - rules to be followed - they are pathways to Allah.  They are there to help us stay on that path.  Hardship might compromise that concept, making us focus more on getting through it at any price, with the risk of losing perspective.  It is worth pointing out here that “fasting” in Arabic - sawm - means literally “to abstain from something.”  For example, in Surat Maryam, God conveyed to Maryam that she should tell the people  
Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed to the Most Gracious; hence I may not speak today to any mortal.” [19:26]

When the Muslims began fasting in Madinah, they followed different rules from those we follow today – this was the third phase of fasting.  They ate at sunset.  They were allowed to eat and drink as long as they stayed awake, but if they went to sleep, they would not eat or drink until the next day at sunset.  Some of the commentators say that they believed that was the way the other people of the book, (Jews and Christians) fasted at that time, as Allah said in Ayah 183:
O You who have attained to faith!  Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God. [2:183]

Most of the Muslims went to sleep after they prayed Isha, especially when they prayed with the Prophet, in order to be able to get up early for Fajr prayer.  Some of the Muslims could not follow that rule, and were not strict in observing it (including, believe it or not, Omar ibn Khattab).  One day, one of the Prophet’s companions named Sarma ibn Malik, who was a farm worker, inspired another revelation regarding fasting.  He came home at the end of the day with some dates from the field where he worked.  He told his wife, “I do not want to eat dates tonight.  Dates have ‘burned my stomach.’   Take these dates and trade them for something warm to eat.”  He was too tired to stay awake, so he fell asleep.  When his wife came back she woke him up to eat, but he was afraid to, not wanting to violate the rule.  The next day he went to work.  At the end of the day, Prophet Muhammad saw him at the mosque and asked him “What happened to you, you look pale and sick.”  So Sarma ibn Malik told him what happened.  That night, Gibrael came to Prophet Muhammad with Ayah 187 from Surat Al-Baqara, revising the rule of fasting, telling the Muslims that they can eat and drink whenever they want from sunset to dawn.  What is more intriguing in this ayah (Al Baqara 187), is that Allah stated that He knew some of the Muslims were, literally, “cheating” (“takhtanouna anfusakum”).

Allah was not angry with them, but merciful.  He forgave them and lifted that hardship.  There is a wonderful story from the Seerah which illustrates this forgiveness as practiced by the Prophet.  A man came to Prophet Muhammad and said “I am burning in hellfire.  I intentionally broke my fast during the day yesterday.  What should I do?”  The Prophet waited for awhile, according to his companions, waiting for an answer from Allah (as was the case many times in Seerah).  Then he asked for the man to come back to him.  The Prophet had a good sense of humor as well.  He said, “Where is the man on fire?”  The man came back.  The Prophet then said, “Here is what you have to do.  Ask Allah for forgiveness, free a slave.”  The man answered, “I do not have any.”  The Prophet answered, “Then fast for two successive months.”  The man answered, “I cannot.”  The Prophet then said, “Then feed 60 needy people from Madinah.”  The man said, “I cannot.”  The Prophet waited a little bit.  Then a man came with a pot full of dates and gave them to the Prophet to give to the man as a Sadaqa (act of charity).  The Prophet gave it to him and said, “Find 60 needy people in Madinah and feed them these dates.”  The man finally said, “Prophet Muhammad, in this city I am poorer than anyone else.”  Prophet Muhammad laughed out loud and told him, “Go home and feed your family with these dates.”  Just like that.  No hardship, absolute forgiveness and mercy.  Prophet Muhammad understood this poor man’s good intention and solid faith, and never questioned it.

The last thing I want to mention is a fun and interesting fact.  If you think that fasting these past few years has been hard because Ramadan has been in the summer, I would say that it could have been worse.  Ramadan could have fallen during the summer every year.  Let me explain.  Ramadan, in Arabic, is from the root word “Ramada” which literally means “sizzling hot.”  Before Islam, in the time of Jahiliyya, Ramadan correlated with the middle of summer, when it was extremely hot in Makkah.  Before Islam, the Arabs used a lunisolar calendar, just like the Jewish calendar now.  They intercalated the calendar by adding three months every seven years (3, 6, 8) to make up the difference between the solar year and the lunar year.  They did that because it was to their advantage to correlate the months with the seasons.  The most important month for them was the season of Hajj, in the month of “Thor Al Hijja.”  They wanted Hajj to be in the fall season, after their summer trading journey to the north, which was the most important one. They wanted the trade season to precede the Hajj season so they would have goods to trade during Hajj, a big commercial event.  In the year 9 Hijra, Surah At-Tawba (#9) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, especially Ayah 37, where Allah prohibited the Muslims from doing any future intercalation.  Since then, the months of the Hijjra calendar rotate through the different seasons.  Ramadan now falls in summer, spring, winter and fall. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Worthy Adversary, Part 1 Origins

The title of my khutbah, is “A Worthy Adversary, Part 1 Rationale and Hypothesis’. This khutbah will launch a series of lectures along the same topic: Satan.

There are a lot of  people and characters mentioned in the Quran and we are often told, particularly in the case of prophets, that these historic or mythic figures are people to be emulated with respect to their virtue, perserverance, piety, et cet. One of the characters who is often mentioned in the Quran is Iblis or Shaitan. Sometimes it is not clear if these two entities are the same person. But in any case, I want to examine the adversary which is described in the Quran 15:26-46

“And certainly We created the human being out of earth mud or soft wet earth. And We created ones who are the spirits before from the fire of a burning wind. And mention when your Lord said to the angels: Truly I am One Who is Creator of the mortals out of earth mud of soft wet earth. That is when I shaped him and breathed into him of My Spirit. So fall down before him as ones who prostrate themselves. The angels prostrated themselves, one and all but Iblis. Iblis refused to be with the ones who prostrated themselves.
He said: O Iblis! What is with you that you are not with the ones who prostrate themselves?
Iblis said: I will not prostrate myself before a mortal whom You have created out of earth mud or soft wet earth.
(It was said): Go you forth from here, for truly you are accursed! And truly a curse will be upon you until the Day of Judgment.
Iblis said: O my Lord! Give me respite until the Day they are raised up.
He said: Then truly you are among the ones who are given respite until the Day of the known time.
Iblis said: My Lord! Because You have led me into error, I will certainly make the earth appear pleasing to them and I will lead them one and all into error, except Your servants among them, the ones who are devoted.
 He said: This is the straight path to Me. Truly as for My servants you will have no authority over them, but ones who are in error followed you. And truly hell has been promised to them all. It has seven doors. Then for every door, a set part is designated for them. Truly the ones who are Godfearing will be amidst gardens and springs. Enter them in peace as ones who are safe!” 15:26-46

My motivation for studying Iblis initially stemmed from the khutbah that AR was preparing. As we talked about it, the question arose of whether Iblis also had free will- did he choose not to bow before Adam after God told him to? And if Iblis did have free will, then well, then things get complicated. So, AR and I agreed that it would be best just not to talk about this topic and gloss over it.  Well, I’m now here to remove to gloss. I’m going to talk a lot about Iblis over the next khutbahs that I give. I will be drawing upon Peter Awn’s book Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology. I would have loved to have used Professor Awn’s book in a book club setting, but it is just not possible. This book is out of print and the copies which are available cost hundreds of dollars. With mortgage payments, college tuitions, and taxes, most of us are not going to spend that kind of money on a devil book. However, since I have university library privileges, I can share it with you here. So after the khutbah, if you want to talk more about anything, please let’s do that.  

I think it is important to have a good understanding of Iblis and Shaitan because although the Quran reassures us in 50:16 

“And certainly We have created the human being, We know what evil his soul whispers to him, We are nearer to him than the jugular vein.”
we are also told God has assigned every person-including prophets- their own personal shaitan; in 43:36-37

 “And whoever renders himself weak-sighted to the remembrance of The Merciful, We allot for him a satan so he is a comrade for him. And truly they bar them from the way, but they assume that they are ones who are truly guided. ” 

and 6:112 “And thus We have made an enemy for every Prophet, satans from among human kind and the jinn. Some of them reveal to some others ornamented sayings as a delusion. And if your Lord willed, they would not have accomplished it. So forsake them and what they devise.” 

So who is closer to you? How often do you listen to the quiet voice of your conscience? How often do you notice the blood pumping through your veins and arteries? How often are you tempted by whispers from the outside world? I’m guessing, you probably notice your blood pressure in times of extreme exercise or stress, and the whispers- probably, well, a lot. Even a walk through a shopping mall can be a trying.

Now one thing we tend to do as human beings, is even though we have parts of our personality that we do not like, instead of examining that in detail, we tend to push these ‘shadow aspects’ of ourselves into the corner and try to ignore them, convince ourselves they don’t exist. However, these shadows do exist, and we often, by not addressing them honestly, project these feelings of the shadow personality onto other people. As they saying goes, “He knows best the faults of another who has those own faults within himself.”

Iblis vows in Surah 15 to ‘lead them one and all into error except Your servants”  If we want to be of the servant of God, people who are not seduced by Iblis, then I think it would be prudent to understand some of the techniques employed by Shaitan so we don’t get led astray, so we are not seduced. I also feel that in studying the devil’s seduction tactics, we can discover a lot about our own soul (nafs) and personality. 

It is important to remember that some of the less desirable parts of our personality are helpful, even advantageous and good, in certain situations. And many times, these shadow parts of our selves arise to address specific needs in a particular environment.  For example, we may need the desire to flee in order to survive a tiger attack. Our desire to live and our fear of being killed is helping us survive in this situation. But what happens when there is no tiger, and we just keep imagining a tiger is there? We react as though there is a tiger, but the tiger is only in our imagination. The desire to flee and survive and the fear have now become a burden, maladaptive. Where once that desire helped us, now it has become a waste. If you are constantly trying to flee, then you can’t use your time and brains for other activities like gathering berries, storytelling, establishing science and culture. It is important to examine feelings and desires in order to make sure that we are making good choices and not simply following old patterns.

If we take a hard look at our own personalities, how much of our personality has been determined by our environment? How much of our personality have we deliberately chosen versus how much of it is left over from prior needs in an outdated or nor longer existing environment? When we react to something or someone, are we choosing to react that way or are we just letting past experience take over and run our response. And is that past experience appropriate to the current situation, or is it a reaction of extremes? A “Run from the tiger!!” – only there is no tiger before us, at best maybe a scrawny kitten.

With the Adam and Eve example, I believe the devil seduced them using Adam and Eve’s curiosity. Curiosity is useful, it helps us to explore our environment and gets us to take risks to learn new things. However, curiosity must be balanced with caution. This is just one of the laws of the universe. If you don’t balance your curiosity with caution, you will pay the consequences. Think of all those Jackass videos and reminders of “Kids, don’t try this at home.” Adam and Eve were curious- nothing wrong with that, but they did not balance their curiosity with caution.

Acquisition of knowledge and understanding is not an instant gratification scheme. It takes time, but if you are not willing to receive formal instruction to satisfy your curiosity, there are other ways to learn. As the Japanese proverb says, “Experience is an expensive school, but a fool will learn from no other.” Adam and Eve were too impatient to submit to God’s teaching, the devil offered them a ‘short-cut’, and our impatient ancestors were rewarded with the school of this world, the school of lived experience.

My working hypothesis in this khutbah series, is that Iblis seduces us by pushing our desires to extremes. Instead of keeping a balanced attitude, we are seduced into taking an extreme position. So I think its important to listen to the whispers of Shaitan, not shut them out, but listen to them and think about them and think about why they are so damnably seductive. What part of our personality finds the devil’s solution so comforting? I’m not saying do what Shaitan suggests, remember in everything you have a choice. You are the one who decides whether you want to cultivate your soul to become closer to God, or not. I’d like to use the analogy of a garden. In a garden, you have certain types of plants you want to enjoy- roses, petunias, daisies, phlox. But no matter how careful a gardener you are, there will always be weeds. You don’t want weeds to overwhelm your garden, then you won’t have the plants you want, and while many gardeners rip the weeds out instantly, those weeds can actually give you some valuable information about the quality of your garden soil that can help you grow your desired plants better. Depending on the kind of weed, you can tell whether your garden soil is impacted, or has too little calcium or too much potassium and so on. And let us not forget that the plant we call a ‘weed’ today, may once  have been a life-saving herbal remedy to our pioneer ancestors. Weeds have important information, but you need to be able to read them. Then you can rip out those weeds and wait for the next batch to come along, because believe me, there will always be another batch. So the same can be said for Shaitan’s whispers. Listen to them, analyze what they tell you about your desires, and then make the appropriate choices to cultivate your soul. The Quran says,
“and by the soul (nafs) and what shaped it and inspired it to its acting immorally and God-consciousness. He who makes it pure prospers. Surely is frustrated whoever seduced it.”  91: 8-10

Innal-laha  wa 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 blessings on him and salute him with a worthy greeting.

I want to expand on the origin stories of Iblis, some of which are mentioned in the Quran, and some which are not mentioned in the Quran but were very likely to have been heard in the Meccan and Medina communities, particularly among the Jewish and Christian tribes and traders. We know that people traded stories, bible tales, psalms, apocrypha (stories not found in the canonical texts, but which were preserved in the faith communities), tales of martyrs etc. For instance, the story of the sleepers in the cave discussed in Surah 18, is not mentioned in the New Testament at all. Different versions of this story, called the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, date to the late 5th century AD. The story was very popular among Syriac Christians, and spread to the West with Gregory of Tours late 6th-century bestseller, Glory of the Martyrs.

In the bible, the Old Testament Genesis story does not mention anything about the prostration command and Iblis’ downfall. However, two non-canonical texts, the Jewish work Vita Adae et Evae (written in Greek, probably around in first century CE) and the Christian Gospel of St. Bartholomew (dated to the fifth or late-fourth CE) share much in common with the Quranic Iblis-God-Adam confrontation.

The Vita Adae et Evae  relates how God breathed life into Adam and then God commanded Michael (the angel) to get all the angels in formation to worship His new creation. The Devil (diabolus) refused on the grounds that he was created earlier and his seniority should exempt him from bowing down. The Devil threatens to become a rival to God if God gets angry at him, and God condemns  the devil for his pride and disobedience. In revenge, the devil leads Adam and Eve astray.

In the Gospel of St. Bartholomew, the Devil is relating his life story to the saint. The devil reiterates that man was made from earth, and after Michael tells him to bow down, he refuses. In the Christian text, the devil’s excuse is not seniority, rather it is because he is made of fire and Adam lowly earth. The consequences are the same, the Devil is condemned by God, ejected from Paradise, and sets out on his plan for revenge.

There are also strands of pre-Islamic Arabic Gnosticism in the Iblis story. In Manichaean Gnosticism, the Fihrist of An-Nadim, calls the Manichaean Prince of Darkness “the Ancient Iblis” (Iblis Al-Qadim). However, it should be noted that the Manichaean missionaries used to equate a variety of devil characters into the Prince of Darkness moniker, depending on which audience they were addressing.

Iblis plays a major role in Gnostic myths preserved in Islamic religious literature. Some of these can still be found in the Isma’ili community as well as some Sufi sects. These are metaphysical myths which are based on a esoteric concepts of Intelligences over-reaching their bounds and a notion of cyclical time, wherein the revenge of Iblis upon Adam revolves around the tension between manifestation and occultatation (hiddenness) of God’s Truth. Basically, Iblis provokes Adam by telling him the people of this age should not remain in darkness, they need the truth, Adam is seduced into eating from the tree as an act of compassion, and reveals the secret to an unworthy age.  This theme is revisited in the writings of 13th century mystic, Farid ad-Din Attar.

In my next khutbah, I will explore other genres of Islamic religious literature to try and give more details on the mythic biography of Iblis in order to answer the question: Was Iblis an angel or jinn. Believe me, a lot of ink was spilled over this debate.  The genres which will be considered are Quran commentaries and collections of prophetic fables which range from the 9-16the centuries CE.  What are the major theological issues that discussions of Iblis bring out?

My final du’a is from 3: 191-193
Not in vain have You made them (heaven and earth). All praise be to you, O Lord, preserve us from the torment of Hell. Whoever, O Lord, should be cast into Hell shall be verily disgraced; and the sinners shall have none to help them. We have heard, O our Lord, the crier call inviting us to faith (saying) ‘Believe in your Lord’. O our Lord, to faith we have come, so forgive our trespasses, deliver us from sin, and grant us death with the just.
Rabbana ma khalaqta hadha batilan, subhanaka fa-qina ‘adhaban-nar. Rabbana innaka man tudkhilin-nara fa-qad akhqaytahu, wa ma liz-zalimina min ansar.
Rabbana innana sami’na munadiyan yunadi lil imani an aminu bi-Rabbikum fa-amanna, Rabbana faghfir lanan dhunubana wa kaffir ‘annna sayyiatina wa tawaffana ma’al-abrar. Rabbana wa atina ma wa’adta-na ‘ala russuli-ka wa la tukhzi-na yauma-l-qiyamati innaka latukhlifu-l-mi’ad. Ameen.

Quran translation: Laleh Bakhtiar The Sublime Quran, (Chicago: 2009) Kazi Publications, 2009

Satan's Tragedy and Redeption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology by Peter J. Awn, (Leiden:1983) E.J. Brill, in the series Studies in the History of Religions edited by M. Heerma van Voss, E J Sharpe and JZ Weblowsky. Vol XLIV