Friday, November 27, 2009

Eid Mubarak - Hajj

Ten years ago, I was blessed to go for hajj. Unlike some people who think and prepare for a lifetime before going, my hajj came to me unanticipated. I had found Islam less than five years prior, and I was just out of college without any savings to spend on such a journey. Further, the very concept of hajj was alien - no one in my family had ever traveled out of the country - none of us even had passports - and my non-Muslim family had a very hard time with the whole idea, not understanding its purpose and finding the idea very frightening, potentially dangerous. All they could see was their daughter going off to the middle east with people they didn't know and so they were very worried. But I guess it was meant to be, because somehow everything worked out and I was soon in Saudi Arabia with millions of other pilgrims.

What follows are a few things from my hajj that have stayed with me a decade later.

1. I will never forget the feeling of tranquility and holiness around the Prophet's (saw) mosque and Janatul Baqi in Medina. The desolate, desecrated nature of the graves in Baqi was disconcordant with the holiness that permeated the air and earth in that place. Everyone in our caravan felt very much at home and thoughts of family, jobs, or anything back in North America never had room for entry - it was if a previous life had ended, we had all been reborn, and were living a new life, the real life, finally.

2. I met more Muslims and made more lasting connections on hajj than any other experience. Random Iranian Shia strangers would bestow gifts and kindnesses upon discovering a fellow Shia from another country - even though it was not their country, I often felt like I was being hosted by them, rather than the Saudis; it seemed to me more than it was their place even though they were journeyers like myself. The Saudis I met were excited to see an American, sure I had lots of money to spend that I was holding back on, and if they were Shia, were very cautious about showing any aspect of their belief. The people in my caravan took care of me - I would have been totally lost without their companionship and guidance, as many of them had performed hajj before and always seemed to know where to go and what to do next.

3. Before going for hajj, I had no particular emotional reaction to seeing images of the kaba; but when I actually saw it for the first time in person, I was in tears awestruck. I was just amazed to be there, so far from home, with millions of people from all over the world, and with physical structures that connected me to imams and prophets (as). I knew it was a gift and a miracle to be there.

4. I learned a level of patience and tolerance that I never even thought about before. I saw real poverty for the first time and remember thinking often about the throngs of people who had no accommodations and were just sleeping on the streets, even in dumpsters, and yet, like me, this was a journey of a life time for them, and they'd probably worked much harder to get there than I had. The poverty in Saudi Arabia outside of the main areas pilgrims frequented was stark in contrast to the sometimes gaudy excessiveness that sat right next to it. A pilgrim is not in control during hajj,he or she is just another drop in a sea, and learns to just wait, just endure, just exist, just feel, just be. While in one sense the journey is a very selfish one - one is striving to have this deed accepted and not wasted, you're very special, called there by God while many others were not able to make it - in another sense, the individuality fades away. You're not special on hajj, but rather you're totally unimportant and not unique from anyone else around you - you're focused on the Creator and the spiritual tasks with very little thought of the world, of comfort or discomfort.

5. I remember being really quite surprised to discover that Safa and Marwa were not mountains but smoothed small hills and under a roof at that. Incongruities and surprises like that happened constantly - one minute all would be holy and peaceful, the next you would be jarred by someone's hostility in the crowd, one sight would be as you expect, the next would be entirely different. While the haram was an amazing place, the most memorable experience for me in Mecca was the evening when several thousand Shias filled a plaza to perform Dua Kumayl, courageously organized by Iranian pilgrims. Saudi police in riot gear surrounded us, but the gathering began and ended without incident. Anything is possible with God, and nothing is possible without God - hajj showed me that repeatedly.

6. Coming home from hajj was the hardest part of the journey. Readjusting to normal life was very difficult, because it was like accepting a fake, two-dimensional reality after seeing the real, 3D HD world for the first time. But I could no more explain my physical and spiritual journey to my non-Muslim family than a land-dwelling animal could describe its world to a fish who lived confined to the depths of the sea. I didn't feel glad to be back, and while my parents were so relieved to have me back, I was not the same me that had left them. I discovered the real challenge of hajj came after it was over. When you're back in your ordinary, mundane life, can you hold on to the lessons, relationships, feelings, and spiritual gains outside of that focused, spiritually-charged environment? Or will you let the old you come back and take over?

If not everyone can go for hajj, perhaps everyone can create or find some spiritually-charged environment to be a humble pilgrim in now and then - a conference, a retreat, or a special prayer room in your home with guests that inspire you spiritually. I think we all need to be pilgrims from this world from time to time to help us not get lost in it.

Praise and thanks be to Allah swt.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Nice Family Day

My goofy nephew

The family, including my aunt and uncle, mom and dad, brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephew.

Nephew's photography warrants reaction.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

For Thanksgiving

An article I wrote for II a little while ago....

One of the best gifts Allah swt has granted mankind is the ability to feel and express gratitude. Being grateful at the most basic level is very simple and very beneficial. It is simple because it requires no special knowledge, skill, equipment, or preparation - anyone can access the gift of thankfulness. Yet most of us fall short of the mark in expressing due thanks for what others do, and probably all of us owe far more thanks to Allah swt than we even understand. However, improvement is also simple: just make it a practice to notice blessings and kindnesses, to think about them, and to honor them.

One reason gratitude is beneficial is because it improves relationships, - whether interpersonal or with our Creator. When we can feel and express appreciation for God's blessings or other's kindnesses, affection grows. But the personal benefits are also great; a thankful heart is a content and awed heart. Even in times and circumstances of hardship, we always have much to appreciate. When we acknowledge this, our burdens are easier to bear.

Imam Sadiq (as) wrote in Lantern of the Path, "With every breath you take, a thanksgiving is incumbent upon you, indeed, a thousand thanks or more. The lowest level of gratitude is to see that the blessing comes from Allah irrespective of the cause for it, and without the heart being attached to that cause. It consists of being satisfied with what is given; it means not disobeying Him with regard to His blessing, or opposing Him in any of His commands and prohibitions because of His blessing."

Our breathing comes without thought, and yet each breath is a blessing. The struggle for breath is an agony that we are usually spared thousands upon thousands of times without thanking for it. If the gift of breath is taken from us, we will die; breath is life. It is but one of countless examples of blessings from God we owe thanks for. At the very least, we should appreciate that it is a gift from God, be satisfied with the gift, and never use the gift of breath for anything opposing Allah swt. One could possibly say that if we truly wish to express gratitude for the gift of breath, we must never allow ourselves to purposely breathe in any haram substances and we must never use our breath to utter any lies, backbiting, or other haram speech. For even if we claim to feel gratitude, the proof of real thankfulness comes in our actions. If we are thankful for a gift, we will not be careless with it. If someone gave you a birthday present you really loved, you would use it with caution in order to protect it. Similarly, if we are truly grateful for the blessing of breath, we will use it with caution, too.

Imam Sadiq (as) continues:
"Be a grateful bondsman to Allah in every way, and you will find that Allah is a generous Lord in every way. If there were a way of worshipping Allah for His sincerest bondsman to follow more excellent than giving thanks at every instance, He would have ascribed to them the name of this worship above the rest of creation. Since there is no form of worship better than that, He has singled out this kind of worship from other kinds of worship, and has singled out those who practice this kind of worship, saying,

‎وَقَلِيلٌ مِّنْ عِبَادِيَ الشَّكُورُ

Very few of my servants are grateful. (34:13)"

Expressing thanks to God is a great form of worship, and at the minimum is part of our daily prayers. Allah swt has taught us that when we give thanks, blessings increase. Not only is this true about the blessings directly from God, but it applies for gratitude to the blessings of Allah swt that come from people as well. For example, a child who demonstrates true appreciation for Eid gifts or quality time spent with daddy inspires the giver to happily continue to give to that child, while a child who seems to take a gift for granted or does not seem to like or appreciate it may find the giver less generous in the future. God is not in need of our thanks and is not hurt in the least by our ingratitude, but gratitude enriches us immeasurably. "Allah is not in need of the obedience of His bondsmen, for He has the power to increase blessings forever. Therefore be a grateful bondsman to Allah, and in this manner you will see wonders." (Ibid.)

Even feeling and expressing gratitude is itself a merciful blessing from God.
"Complete thankfulness is to sincerely repent your inability to convey the least amount of gratitude, and expressing this by means of your sincere glorification of Allah. This is because fitting thanks is itself a blessing bestowed upon the bondsman for which he must also give thanks; it is of greater merit and of a higher state than the original blessing which caused him to respond with thanks in the first place. Therefore, every time one gives thanks one is obliged to give yet greater thanks, and so on ad infinitum, and this while absorbed in His blessings and unable to achieve the ultimate state of gratitude. For how can the bondsman match with gratitude the blessings of Allah, and when will he match his own action with Allah's while all along the bondsman is weak and has no power whatsoever, except from Allah?" (Ibid.)

The world would be a better place if we were more grateful to Allah swt and to others. Therefore, I would like to publicly thank God for His continued mercy toward me, and to thank my parents for their love. Those few words are not adequate at all, but should not be left unsaid. I invite readers to use the comments section to thank Allah swt and/or any person.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Mystery!

(If you're reading this on Facebook and not seeing anything, follow the link to the blog for The Mystery).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Math Day

I took some kids from my school down to CSU-Pueblo for a math competition today and our upperclassmen did very well. We lost to only one team and came home with a big trophy for the math bowl competition. In the individual written contest, we got a 2nd place, 5th place, and two honorable mentions - so all our upperclassmen placed. We did the best out of all the schools in our district that went down on the bus together to the competition.

On the way down to Pueblo, I saw something really neat - a whole herd of Elk in a field eating grass, just off the Interstate a few miles north of the PPIR (Pikes Peak International Raceway) track. I've never seen Elk at that low of an elevation before, and there were many of them - neato!

The pictures in this post were taken at the CSU-Pueblo Physics/Math building - they had some neat art reminiscent of Islamic tilings.
is pretty ill. I went to visit the person, and the teacher is getting the needed help but may be there awhile, probably not back to teaching for this semester. Prayers would be appreciated.

My district is looking at having to cut more than $10 million from an already bare-bones budget for next year - it is a little scary - I expect total salary freezes, layoffs, furloughs, cut programs, larger class sizes, no new textbooks or supplies, etc., even though many are already desperately needed.

Finally, Colorado Springs has a veritable Hooverville these days. Along Fountain Creek all the way from Motor City up to CC and probably other places beyond sight of the Interstate, are tents of homeless people who have set up semi-permanent/permanent camp. There were so many I couldn't count....