Monday, August 31, 2009

Bad News

Well today was rough at work - we started out the day with the horrible news that one of our students had committed suicide on Sunday. I had the young man as a student two years ago, as well as his older brother. This was a case where apparently no one saw it coming - numerous people saw and interacted with him even through the weekend up until hours before the fatal moment, and no one had a clue what he was going to do. Shortly before he did it, it is said that he wrote notes to some of his friends on Facebook essentially saying goodbye and asking forgiveness. He was an honors student, an athlete, from a stable home.

As a teacher, I just feel so sad, tired, and even angry. Having lived longer, I know that after dark days come better ones. When we are young (and yes, even at any age), especially in our teens, sometimes we can't see beyond the pain of the moment. What a hole has been created! I can't imagine what his parents are going through now, or his brother. What this does to so many people cannot be undone, but I am sure if he were able to step out of the moment to realize what he would be doing to others who loved him, not just to himself, he would wish to undo it. If he could see past the relationship troubles of teens to what his 20's or 30's might have been, I think he would wish to undo it. Anguish consumes all vision.

But we can't see the future, we can never know how many lives we touch and in what ways, and there are certain things that we can't take back. The finality of it is deafening. A book that was not fully written is closed, blank pages never to be filled. And thousands of other books are changed, a dark chapter added to their pages, at the loss of a student, son, brother, friend.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Month of Ramadhan Daily Duas 1-5

Day 1 Dua

Day 2 Dua

Day 3 Dua

Day 4 Dua

Day 5 Dua

Friday, August 21, 2009

Shahr Ramadhan Kareem!

In the name of Allah,
The Beneficent, The Merciful

Praise belongs to God who guided us to His praise
and placed us among the people of praise,
that we might be among the thankful for His beneficence
and that He might recompense us for that
with the recompense of the good-doers!

And praise belongs to God who
showed favour to us through His religion,
singled us out for His creed,
and directed us onto the roads of His beneficence,
in order that through His kindness we might travel upon them to His good pleasure,
a praise which He will accept from us and through which He will be pleased with us!

And praise belongs to God who appointed among those roads His month,
the month of Ramadan,
the month of fasting,
the month of submission,
the month of purity,
the month of putting to test,
the month of standing in prayer,
in which the Qur'an was sent down as guidance to the people,
and as clear signs of the Guidance and the Separator!

He clarified its excellence over other months
by the many sacred things and well-known excellencies which He placed therein,
for He made unlawful in it what He declared lawful in others to magnify it,
He prohibited foods and drinks in it to honour it,
and He appointed for it a clear time which
He (majestic and mighty is He) allows not to be set forward and accepts not to be placed behind.

Then He made one of its nights surpass the nights of a thousand months
and named it the Night of Decree;
in it the angels and the Spirit descend
by the leave of their Lord upon every command,
a peace constant in blessings
until the rising of the dawn
upon whomsoever He will of His servants
according to the decision He has made firm.

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
inspire us
with knowledge of its excellence,
veneration of its inviolability,
and caution against what Thou hast forbidden within it,
and help us to fast in it
by our restraining our limbs
from acts of disobedience toward Thee
and our employing them
in that which pleases Thee,
so that we lend not our ears to idle talk
and hurry not with our eyes to diversion,

we stretch not our hands toward the forbidden
and stride not with our feet toward the prohibited,
our bellies hold only what Thou hast made lawful
and our tongues speak only what Thou
hast exemplified,
we undertake nothing but what brings close to
Thy reward
and pursue nothing but what protects from
Thy punishment!
Then rid all of that from the false show of the false showers
and the fame seeking of the fame seekers,
lest we associate therein anything with Thee
or seek therein any object of desire but Thee!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
in it make us attend
to the appointed moments of the five prayers within
the bounds Thou hast set,
the obligations Thou hast decreed,
the duties Thou hast assigned,
and the times Thou hast specified;

and in the prayers make us alight in the station of
the keepers of their stations,
the guardians of their pillars,
their performers in their times,
as Thy servant and Thy messenger set down in his Sunna
(Thy blessings be upon him and his Household)
in their bowings, their prostrations, and all their
excellent acts,
with the most complete and ample ritual purity
and the most evident and intense humility!

Give us success in this month to
tighten our bonds of kin with devotion and gifts,
attend to our neighbours with bestowal and giving,
rid our possessions from claims,
purify them through paying the alms,
go back to him who has gone far from us,
treat justly him who has wronged us,
make peace with him who shows enmity toward us
(except him who is regarded as an enemy
in Thee and for Thee,
for he is the enemy whom we will not befriend,
the party whom we will not hold dear),

and seek nearness to Thee through blameless works
which will purify us from sins
and preserve us from renewing faults,
so that none of Thy angels will bring for Thee
the kinds of obedience and sorts of
unless they be less than what we bring!

O God,
I ask Thee by the right of this month
and by the right of him who worships Thee within it
from its beginning to the time of its passing,
whether angel Thou hast brought nigh to Thee,
prophet Thou hast sent,
or righteous servant Thou hast singled out,
that Thou bless Muhammad and his Household,
make us worthy of the generosity Thou hast promised
Thy friends,
make incumbent for us
what Thou hast made incumbent
for those who go to great lengths in obeying Thee,
and place us in the ranks of those
who deserve through Thy mercy the highest elevation!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
turn us aside from
deviation in professing Thy Unity,
falling short in magnifying Thee,
in Thy religion,
blindness toward Thy path,
heedlessness of Thy inviolability,
and being deceived by Thy enemy, the accursed Satan!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
and when in every night of this month's nights
Thou hast necks
which Thy pardon will release
and Thy forgiveness disregard,
place our necks among those necks
and place us among the best folk and companions
of this our month!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
efface our sins
along with the effacing of its crescent moon,
and make us pass forth from the ill effects of our acts
with the passing of its days,
until it leaves us behind,
while within it Thou hast purified us of offenses
and rid us of evil deeds!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
and should we go off to one side in this month,
set us aright;
should we swerve,
point us straight;
and should Thy enemy Satan enwrap us,
rescue us from him!

O God,
fill this month with our worship of Thee,
adorn its times with our obedience toward Thee,
help us during its daytime with its fast,
and in its night with prayer and pleading toward Thee,
humility toward Thee,
and lowliness before Thee,
so that its daytime may not bear witness
against our heedlessness,
nor its night against our neglect!

O God,
make us like this in the other months and days
as long as Thou givest us life,
and place us among Thy righteous servants,
those who shall inherit Paradise,
therein dwelling forever,
those who give what they give,
while their hearts quake,
that they are returning to their Lord
those who vie in good works,
outracing to them!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household
in every time, in all moments, and in every state,
to the number that Thou hast blessed whomsoever
Thou hast blessed
and to multiples of all that, through multiples
which none can count but Thee!
Surely Thou art Accomplisher of what Thou desirest.

A little humor (even though I've never been to taraweeh)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Urban Natural Beauty

Fellow teacher Ileana and I were walking downtown from a meeting site to our cars in a lot several blocks away when we came across this natural wonder, a miracle of beauty. A gorgeous snapdragon had somehow planted itself and bloomed from a tiny crack at the base of the utility pole for a walk/don't walk sign on a busy street corner (Cascade and Kiowa, I think). The bike lock was just lost or discarded by someone.

وَآيَةٌ لَّهُمُ الْأَرْضُ الْمَيْتَةُ أَحْيَيْنَاهَا وَأَخْرَجْنَا مِنْهَا حَبًّا فَمِنْهُ يَأْكُلُونَ {33}
[Shakir 36:33] And a sign to them is the dead earth: We give life to it and bring forth from it grain so they eat of it.

وَجَعَلْنَا فِيهَا جَنَّاتٍ مِن نَّخِيلٍ وَأَعْنَابٍ وَفَجَّرْنَا فِيهَا مِنْ الْعُيُونِ {34}
[Shakir 36:34] And We make therein gardens of palms and grapevines and We make springs to flow forth in it,

لِيَأْكُلُوا مِن ثَمَرِهِ وَمَا عَمِلَتْهُ أَيْدِيهِمْ أَفَلَا يَشْكُرُونَ {35}
[Shakir 36:35] That they may eat of the fruit thereof, and their hands did not make it; will they not then be grateful?

سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْأَزْوَاجَ كُلَّهَا مِمَّا تُنبِتُ الْأَرْضُ وَمِنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَمِمَّا لَا يَعْلَمُونَ {36}
[Shakir 36:36] Glory be to Him Who created pairs of all things, of what the earth grows, and of their kind and of what they do not know.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Power of Belief

Knowing the importance of faith and being curious what science might have to say about it, I came across the book The Biology of Belief by cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton. While this book has some science in it, I wouldn’t say it qualifies as a science book. Rather, it is Lipton explaining a process of personal transformation of his world view. Because of that, the book came across to me as a bit egocentric until the science became the focus of the story about 50 pages in. Also, in the early pages I was mildly annoyed by references to Gaia and Mother Nature, typical leftist anthropomorphism for explaining what science alone cannot explain, a pseudo-deity of science.

However, there was some scientific content in the book with interesting possible implications. First, Lipton gradually develops some of the ideas of the currently burgeoning field of epigenetics. Epigenetics is rewriting much of the theory of evolution and ideas of heredity. Many scientists and much of the public has come to believe over time that it is our DNA that determines much about us - from eye color, whether we will get a certain type of cancer, to propensity for depression and much more. What epigenetics tells us is that DNA is only a blueprint, but it is not the brain of a cell. You can take the nucleus that contains the DNA out of a cell and it still functions just fine for quite some time. It turns out that the real brain of a cell that it can’t live without at all is the cellular membrane. The cellular membrane is essentially the nervous system of the cell that acts as its senses of what is going on internally and externally to the cell and determines how the cell will respond to its environment. This process and some others determines what parts of the DNA are read, that is, which parts of the blueprint are activated and which are not. So, in the debate between nature vs. nurture, the pendulum has swung away from nature and predetermination back to nurture - that your environment has more to do with what happens to you than long believed. Amazingly, science is showing that it isn’t just your environment day-to-day, but the environment of your parents when you were conceived and carried in the womb, and even the environment of your parents and your parents’ parents back generations that can affect your life. As a simple example, a mouse containing a gene that makes her yellow colored, diabetic and obese will have offspring that also carry that gene and have the same traits. However, if the mouse is given vitamins and methyl during her lifetime, her offspring will be dark colored, not diabetic, and normal weight, even though they still carry the gene. The vitamins of the mother prevented the gene from being activated in her children. This can be true for humans, too. What your mother was doing before you were even thought of can influence whether you end up with certain cancers or other health problems, because the actions of your parents during their lives can influence whether certain genes you carry become activated in you during your life. On a similar note, stress in your environment and response to your environment can also influence the activation of genes. In other words, how you live and how you respond to stress trumps your genetic destiny in many cases.

The second major scientific concept that Lipton addresses is quantum physics. Some ideas from quantum mechanics tell us that at the inner atomic level, matter and energy are interchangeable. In reality, matter doesn’t quite really exist, it only seems to. At the tiniest levels we can measure, matter is really just a waving of energy, a wave with no substance. Atoms are empty space with vortices of energy that sometimes behave like particles, but that is simply a manifestation of the energy. Material substance does not really seem to exist, and what’s more, the energy that makes up everything often exists in indeterminate states - only observations force them into one state or another. So, things that behave like particles often do so simply because they are being observed (measured). There is really, in one manner of thinking, no substance to you at all - you are just empty space, but perhaps because you are being measured or observed, your atoms exist in a quantum state that behaves in a way that we sense as matter. Really, though, you are energy waves, as is every known thing in the universe. Quantum physics shows that energy interactions alone can have biological effects, giving possible credence to many ideas in eastern medicines about influencing the energy fields of the body for healing. Scientific studies have shown that much of our personality is not limited to the brain alone, but is actually in all the cells in our body. For example, emotions involve total body chemistry - in essence, all of your body’s cells can be said to “feel”, or chemically respond in some way, to what we call an emotion, not just your brain.

Single-celled organisms at times work together in communities for survival, and multi-cellular organisms are many cells working together for survival of the whole, with cells taking on specialized functions just like people living in cities do. Quantum physics tells us that even without touching, everything is interconnected - every cell, every atom, is all just waving energy of the same nothingness, and the waves all interact with each other to varying degree. So what happens in one part of your body can effect another part in unexpected ways, what happens to you can effect someone else, and so on. We are really all part of the same energy, we are all one, and our energies are not confined to our bodies.

The third major scientific idea is about how the body heals itself versus how pharmaceuticals affect the body. One of the miracles of life is that the same chemicals do different things in different places. Histamine in your body activates an inflammatory response to a poison, but only at the site of the poison. Histamine in your brain increases blood flow to the nervous tissue, enhancing your thinking and processing in a time of emergency. When your body needs something, it produces it where it is needed and nowhere else. But most drugs act all over your body, not in one place only. Antihistamines used to quell allergic reactions do not only act where the poison is in your body, but everywhere, including in your brain, dulling your senses and often making you drowsy. Most of the side effects of drugs occur because of this phenomenon of acting all over your body rather than in localized regions where they are needed. This is also a major cause of death - in fact a 2003 study concluded that such drug reactions and similar medical treatment complications were the leading cause of death in the United States, with drug reactions causing 300,000 U.S. deaths per year.

But, on the flip side of this story is how often no treatment ends up being a very good treatment - the story of the placebo effect. Drugs for treating depression (and all others) go through clinical trials before being approved for the general public. In these trials, some patients typically receive a placebo, that is, a pill that contains no medicine, while others receive the medicine. This is done so that the difference between no medicine and the medicine can be properly determined. However, in every trial, some of the people receiving the placebo get better even though they got no medicine. Many often report side effects the same as those known to be associated with the medicine, too. For the depression drugs, about half the studies studies have shown that the placebos actually performed as well as the drugs in terms of people reporting feeling better! This effect does not apply to drugs only - but to all medical treatment. One doctor did a study about knee surgery for osteoarthritis pain. Some of his patients had some material cut out of the knee, others had the knee washed out, and others had opening incisions but nothing done to the knee. The patients who had nothing done to the knee but thought they had, recovered just as well as the other patients. The actual surgical procedures in this study did nothing more for the patients than for those who had nothing done to them at all. People who were immobile before the surgery a year later were playing basketball and going skiing, when all that had been done to them is that a few incisions were made on the side of the knee to simulate that surgery was going to take place.

What this tells us is that people’s beliefs and expectations can be more important than actual treatment, (but it doesn’t negate the need for medicine and doctors altogether). If a person believes a procedure will cure him, in some cases that incontrovertible belief actually causes the cure. Similarly, the doctor’s expectations can matter more than the actual treatment, as well. One example of this was of a doctor who used hypnotic suggestion to cure warts. He was very confident that his procedure would work, and it did. But then he learned that his patient that he had treated for warts all over his chest actually didn’t have warts, but had a serious genetic condition. His confidence waned, and he was unable to get identical results for the sores on the rest of the patient’s body using the exact same procedures. He was eventually able to show that it was his confidence in the outcome that affected the results.

So what does all this, taken together, suggest? It suggests that our beliefs and our thought patterns most likely determine what happens to us more than anything else. Our beliefs can manipulate our response to the environment, and it is our response to the environment that has the most to do with determining our fates. It also tells us that we are all interconnected to everything and everyone and can thus influence and be influenced by anything and anyone, perhaps in ways we do not yet grasp scientifically. It further supports the supposition that a living body is just a manifestation of energy in a particular form, but is not necessarily the seat of consciousness or soul itself. Some people see at the heart of quantum mechanics and cellular biology incontrovertible evidence of God.

And what’s more, they see evidence of the potential power of belief and certainty. For example, when someone questioned the Imam (as) about why he did not rise up at that time. Later, a companion of the Imam (as) entered, and the Imam (as) told him to go enter the fire, and he did. After a time, the furnace was opened, and the man was sitting in the fire, totally unhurt. The questioner then realized he did not have the belief necessary to do what the companion had done, and neither did most people, and this is why the Imam (as) would not rise at that time. But if we think about that companion in the scientific context above, we might suggest that his power of belief that he would not be harmed or that he should trust his Imam (as) was strong enough to protect him, just as some people are cured by belief in medical procedures every day that should do nothing for them. Similarly, we might even suggest that if someone truly could understand and manipulate the energy that constitutes all of us at a quantum level, he could make the fire harmless. Indeed, at the ultimate level, the manipulation of the nothingness that somehow waves as energy could produce matter out of nothing or transform something completely, just as Qur’an says that ‘God says, Be, and it is (Kun faya kun)’, or as the Qur’an describes many miracles of transformation such as of Musa (as)’s staff. While science does not suggest to us how such things can be accomplished, it does suggest that they are indeed possible through mechanisms obeying the “natural laws”. Science is suggesting that through belief and our response to environment, we can change what happens to us and our offspring - our health, our happiness, even perhaps our afterlives.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Return to Modesty

Several months ago I happened upon a book title that caught my eye as I browsed online: A Return to Modesty - Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. A non-Muslim young woman writing a whole book promoting modesty? I was curious what she had to say. So, I added it to my wish list and received a copy just recently.

Shalit, writing this book nearly a decade ago now, referencing historical philosophical works, poetry and romance novels, personal experience, Jewish law, and countless stories comprising anecdotal evidence, dramatically presents a case that the sexual liberation of women (read: societal permission and encouragement for women and men to dress and behave promiscuously), rather than creating equality between the sexes, actually serves to victimize women by removing a system of modesty and honor that could protect them from wolfish men. She argues that the “independent” modern woman is really a woman who has been abandoned by her culture and family, especially her father, and left without guidance and protection in a dangerous world.

I, a Muslim woman of the West, am prepared to agree with her on many points and express a little gratitude for someone willing to make the case for modesty, but there are so many problems in her presentation that they seriously detract from her argument. The book is rife with unsupported and unfounded generalizations and conclusions. For example, a basic premise throughout the entire work is that the modesty of women and honor of men existed throughout history across time and space universally basically until the 1960’s sexual liberation movement. She operationally uses overly dramatic and generalized definitions of feminism and conservatism. Further, she fails to provide any evidence to support very strong claims that sex education in schools leads to sexual violence against girls, and that eating disorders and self-mutilation behavior of young women today is caused by girls’ inability to say “no” to boys about sex when they really want to, because they desire to please, and because their parents, rather than discouraging or prohibiting premarital sex, instead take them to Planned Parenthood to get birth control and let them go to hotels after prom with their boyfriends. Whether one wants to agree with her or not, she utterly fails to support her views.

Another major flaw of this work is that Shalit never defines modesty. It remains some vague, nebulous romantic novel ideal, but she neglects to address what actually constitutes modest dress and modest behavior. For a few pages, she brushes over the topic of different religious and cultural interpretations of modesty, such as how certain indigenous tribes that wear very little clothing still have manifestations of modesty, but she didn’t do her research well enough at least in the case of Islam, as she presents the impression that female modesty in Islam means covering the face and annihilating the physical identity of women, negating the female body. So a book supposedly all about the virtue of modesty never identifies what is modest and what isn’t. Rather, it seems the book is misnamed and isn’t so much about modesty as about sexual abstinence and innocence before marriage as the proposed solution to many of society’s ills, with “modesty” and “honor” as means to attain that goal.

The final problem with this work I want to address is that for a book about modesty, one that proposes that blushing embarrassment is a natural biological sexual morality warning signal that women (and men, too, to a lesser extent) ought not to ignore nor be encouraged to overcome, it is at times very explicit and unabashed in its language and anecdotal detail - enough to make one, well, ... blush. Whether that is truly necessary to properly support the thesis or not I’ll leave for others to decide, but it does create a dilemma. The people who are presumably the primary intended recipients of the message of Shalit’s book, the unmarried youth of teens and early adulthood, maybe should not be reading it. That means that her message is left to parents to pass to their children, if even they can get through it, or to the “already experienced” to reform themselves with, or simply that she contradicts her views that sex education promotes immorality by writing a book that does analogously the same thing - promotes modesty but is itself rather immodest. She begs the question if the only way to preserve innocence in youth is to first rob children of innocence through “education” doubly so: in her views and in writing the book itself.

Yet, the book is certainly not all bad. Much of her project is admirable and appealing, from a Muslim viewpoint. She successfully, at least in my opinion, demonstrates that men and women are indeed different and that ingraining in Western children from earliest ages that there are no differences between genders has had two disastrous effects: 1. the destruction of femininity, and 2. the cheapening of male-female relationships.

It seems every American girl these days is raised to believe that she can be anything - a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut, a wrestler, a boxer - anything, that is, as long as she is willing to behave and be treated just like a man. The movement to deny any special respect or dignity to the feminine is so extreme that even “ladies nights” at oil-changing stations that provided special discounts for women were deemed sexist and illegal. Many men fear to hold a door open for a woman because they might be chastised. And, over time, penalties for crimes against women have become increasingly less harsh as the idea of a special feminine right to sexual honor, dignity and privacy has eroded. Rape just doesn’t seem to be such an unthinkable crime as it perhaps once was, because there is a message that women are supposed to view sex in exactly the same ways as men living by their animalistic nature (as opposed to those men who live as true human beings), being able to avoid any special emotional attachment with partners and not viewing intimacy as something sacred and special. While many women at their cores have only one desire in this arena: a single, loving, devoted lifetime mate - they are often taught that such hopes are unliberated and unrealistic. Aside from pregnancy, then, is there nothing left to woman as uniquely hers? Is a woman supposed to be nothing but a man who can give birth? Is it really so wonderful for modern woman to be expected to do everything men do, or is it instead archaic and wrong if a woman still survives today who would rather not have to deal with the construction workers or fixing the car?

And what if a man (or even woman, for that matter) would rather not be bombarded with TV commercials about feminine products? These days, the erosion of anything sacred or mysterious about women, the ideal that men and women are “equal” being interpreted to mean they are the “same”, has also taken much of the anticipation and pleasure out of male-female relationships. Some colleges are so “coed” that men and women share the same bathrooms. To many people, there is nothing sexual about boys and girls wrestling against each other as a sanctioned school sport. Teenage boys and girls going camping together, sleeping in the same tents is mundane, as is cohabitating. Seeing, knowing, and touching the opposite sex is not special, it is normal, and as a result, we become desensitized. Sadly, this means the pleasure of marriage is diminished, and we - both men and women - are robbed of something wonderful. Numerous studies have repeatedly shown that people having the greatest pleasure are those who married young and stayed married to one person only, not those who have had serial relationships or hookups, yet those same people are often looked at as out of touch.

Shalit proposes a return to modest dress, to the idea of something mysterious and honored about femininity, and to true manliness as being protecting, supporting, honoring, and loving the feminine. In that, much of what she says is entirely in line with Islamic teachings, and the teachings of her Jewish roots. She gives women the suggestion that it is okay and even natural to hold out for a man who will really respect her and commit to her, and that this feminine restraint can promote commitment and honor in men.

This is apparently a radical idea, as are modesty and restraint in general, given the hostility she has received from some in response to this message, and the hostility that women who try to live modestly are regularly subjected to. Indeed, for a hijabi or any woman who chooses to conceal something of herself, she faces outrage from some, shaming from others, and a constant affront against her right to do so - hijab bans in France, Germany, Turkey, and Tunisia, restrictions or attempts at restrictions on hijab in sports in Canada, public schools in Oregon, courts in Georgia, etc. These affronts are not just attacks on Islam or Muslims, they are attacks on the female right to control access to her body and to control her interactions with men. A woman who wants modesty is belittled as unliberated, abused, unintelligent or confused. But I’m with Wendy. I think it is the other way around.