Genesis 11:5

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. Genesis 11:5

Eid Al-Adha: What do you think about it?

Today is Eid, the celebration of the Prophet Ibrahim's (alayhi salaam) ultimate demonstration of obedience to Allah. Allah tells Ibrahim, the Father of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, to sacrifice his son dear son on the altar. In Christianity, the son is Isaac, born of Sarah. To most Muslims, the son is believed to be Abraham's first son Ismail, born of Hagar. In Al-Quran, the story is not told with very much detail or description. Nevertheless, the relentless obedience of Ibrahim to Allah is completely clear. And even more, in the Quranic version of the story, Ibrahim tells his son directly that he has been told in a dream to offer his son as a sacrifice. Ibrahim asks his son "What do you think about it?" (As-Saffat 37:102). This way, the readers see the complete submission and obedience of the son to be sacrificed, as well. He replies: "O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast." It was "when they had both submitted" (103) that they had fulfilled the commandment of God. 

Hajj 2011: If you cannot bow to pray, you say the prayers seated, without the motions. All Muslims are urged to visit Mecca for Hajj, an incredibly physically and spiritually challenging journey, at least once in their lives. Before embarking on Hajj, the Muslim must have paid all of their debts, and must ask forgiveness from all of their family and friends.
Yesterday was also the final day of Hajj. During Hajj the desperation of Hagar to care for her baby Ismail, when left alone in the desert without food and water is reenacted, as all of the pilgrims walk briskly back and forth between two mountains, just as she is believed to have done, searching for water. Now that many of my friends have had their own babies, and I've been able to peer into the world of motherhood, I can better imagine the pain that pierced Hagar's heart, as she longed to find the means to care for her child.

My Eid will be quiet, unlike that of many Muslims, who will celebrate by feasting with their families and friends. I'll most likely be working on job applications, and continue reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life has been of keen interest to me recently. I'm amazed that the comments and criticisms, which he offered about the United States government during the War in Vietnam, are still criticisms that Americans who love peace can still make today. In March of 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a lengthy speech about the war, saying:
America is a great nation,... [b]ut honesty impels me to admit that our power has often made us arrogant. We feel that our money can do anything. We arrogantly feel that we have some divine, messianic mission to police the whole world. We are arrogant in not allowing young nations to go through the same growing pains, turbulence and revolution that characterizes our history...
Sadly, this aspect of the American government has not changed since the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently my Aunt, whose emails that were based on lies about and misunderstandings of Islam inspired me to write this blog, accused me of "hating" my own country in response to my Facebook posts opposing war (in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq) and American and British Imperialism. I have not replied to her, but felt grieved in my heart for being so drastically misunderstood. How can I articulate the difference between "hating" my own country and despising the activities of my government? How can I so adamantly disdain the conduct of my country's leadership, but still be a proud American, still love the land where I was born and raised? I found this week that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conveyed this complexity most eloquently the same speech of 1967:
I oppose the war in Viet Nam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love.
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This week I also had the privilege of watching The Help in the cinema, seated beside my black manager from work. The story is of racism in Jackson, Mississippi, and is set in the 1960's. She encouraged me to read the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett, so that we could see the film together. (I highly recommend reading the novel first.) Ironically, I found myself weeping in my seat after the film, and my manager was trying to console me. Of course I'm ashamed of the history and prevalence of racism in the United States, but at that moment I was mostly mourning my upbringing. I was mourning the way that my father, who was raised himself by parents who considered themselves superior to black people, used to teach me to be racist as a young child. He criticised black people when they appeared on television, in shows or commercials, saying they should not be there. He told me plainly to trust white people and not black people. Worst of all, my father insisted that we move from Maryland and Pennsylvania in order to distance ourselves from the black members of my mother's side of the family. I was weeping for being deprived of close relationships with my nieces and nephews, because of racism.

How grateful I am that I've had the opportunity to reject racism in my own life, and that my father's was the last generation in our family to promote racist ideology.


When I was home in September of this year, I attended my grandmother's burial. Most interesting to me, was that two exceptionally kind and sensitive black men buried my grandmother at the cemetery. I found it incredibly profound that a woman who probably had some good relationships with black people, but still considered herself and her white family superior to blacks, was laid to rest by the most respectful of black hands. These two men tried to comfort our family in our grief. They were sensitive to our mourning process, and most encouragingly grieved with us saying: "God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good."


 Yesterday I found myself seated to the right of a heavyset white woman on the train. Her approximately 12-13 year old son was seated across from me, drawing in his sketch book. He had short, straight blonde hair, and was drinking a Fanta Orange soda before 10:00am. The woman told her son in a soft voice that he would have to close his book in a couple of stops, as they would have to leave the train soon. He lifted his head, furrowed his eyebrows and grunted that he can keep his book open for as long as he wants to. She said nothing. A few minutes later she tried to engage the boy in conversation, and chuckled out loud, having looked out of her window to observe a Subway, McDonalds and Burger King all on the same street. Again, the boy barked at her. Another minute later she asked him calmly to walk down to end of the train car to find whether there is a toilet there for her to use. Angry that she interrupted his sketching, he lifted his head again, looked her in the eye, and gruffly replied: "NO!" He seemed surprised that his mother would even think to inconvenience him so greatly. The child appeared quite thin, pale, and full of rage. Judging by the Fanta, I assumed that he is never told what to eat, and probably has not eaten a raw vegetable in years. 

I was grieved for this woman, and the abuse that her son was giving her. Children who are not controlled by their parents or raised with a sense of respect for elders can be extremely abusive and violent. I have seen young teenagers hit their elderly parents in the grocery stores here, let alone shouting at them. After this boy refused to find the toilet for his mother, I looked at her, trying to acknowledge that I recognised the disrespect, and that she deserved much better. This is one of those situations in which you want to tell the parent that they do not and perhaps should not remain in this abusive relationship. The woman made eye contact with me and scoffed herself, as if she felt the pain of his behaviour, but was not surprised. 


I put down my book, and looked her in the eyes. "I heard a story about a man who carried his mother on his back." "Oh my," she replied. "He carried his own mother on his back on a journey for hours and hours." Truly, this story was about a man who carried his elderly mother on his back during Hajj - he carried her for hours, taking her 7 times around the Ka'aba in Mecca. "At the end, he asked a wise man, 'Have I fulfilled her right? Have I repaid her now for everything that she has done for me?' The answer was: 'You have not fulfilled even one contraction of her labor.'" In truth, the man who carried his mother asked a companion of the Prophet Muhammad ( صـلى الله علـيه و سـلم ) the question, and it was his response to say that carrying his mother on his back for hours through crowds of thousands of people and in the desert heat did not equate to the effort of one contraction of labor.  I left the woman with that story, which profoundly illustrates how much our parents, particularly our mothers, deserve our utmost respect, for our entire lives and beyond.

A Place to Pray

On Saturday afternoon I was waiting for someone at the London Kings Cross St. Pancras Station. It was time to pray, and my guest was late, so I started to search for a prayer or quiet room in the station, as they have in the London Heathrow airport. When I saw that none of the signs direct to a prayer room, I searched for a person who I could ask, a member of staff who may know a place to pray. I walked around for over 20 minutes, probably, looking for someone to ask. I saw staff members, but none who I suspected would know. At one point I turned around to find behind me a brown member of Eurostar staff with a short, gray beard. He was talking on his mobile, but I interrupted him with my facial expression and stare, which indicated I had a question for him. He put the phone down momentarily. Excuse me, I said. Is there a place where I can pray? I did not necessarily look Muslim, especially since I was not wearing my hijab. He paused for a moment, assumedly to overcome the unexpectedness of my question. I did not assume that he was Muslim, but I had a feeling that he might know. There was a prayer room, but they closed it, he replied. But I will show you a place that you can pray. He did not scold me for not wearing hijab, and I was deeply grateful for that - I felt uncomfortable already for leaving it at home, having worn it all week to work. I followed the man, as he continued the conversation on his mobile. He halted the conversation another moment to ask me if I prayer mat, and at that time I assured him I had a cloth to pray on, and my prayer clothes. Eventually we arrived in a corner by a Staff Only door. It was not a separate room, but he said it was a quiet place, and no one would bother me there. He also showed me the direction to pray, and then I knew that he himself had probably prayed in the same place. I thanked him, and as he turned to leave he said "Allah bless you." I felt part of a wider community of Muslims, who pray and fast in unity. Staff came in an out of that door, and people were passing in the main corridor of the station, but no one disturbed me, and I felt happy to have found someone to help me, and to have prayed on time. I am grateful for the function of prayer as a reminder of Allah in Islam. I am thankful for the sense of urgency to pray.

Kindness on the Train

When you wear hijab, it's as if you have an automatic set of friends, an automatic community. On the street, I'm greeting strangers, because we're all Muslim! We know that we share much in common, by just being able to recognise each other. It happens at work with new staff, and in shops anywhere I go. Immediately we see the common hijab, or a distinct beard, and we know that we have support at hand, if we need it. At a time in my life when I'm feeling quite unstable and suffering great loss, having a smile brought to my face by the sense of community that I have wearing hijab goes a long way.

Last night coming home from work, the train was full, as usual. I was not surprised that there were no seats. But as the train took off, a man got up from his seat and welcomed me to it. I feel this man recognised my hijab, and felt respect for me. Perhaps he felt more a connection to me on a religious basis. I will never know if he would have done it otherwise. But the man was Indian, and I did not know whether he was Muslim. When he called to order a taxi and said his name was "Vishnu," I recognised that he was actually a Hindu man. I'm sure he is well-acquainted with Muslims, as Hindus and Muslims and Christians live side by side in India.
I felt so honoured to have a seat, and for it to have been offered to me so generously. Usually men just let women, even elderly ones, stand up clasping a rail somewhere to stay on their feet, while they sit comfortably. I was very, very grateful to the respect that this man showed me. I thanked him again when I was leaving the train, and he offered a small smile, as if it was nothing. Not to me.

Al-Istikhara

I'm not one to give up easily, to give up hope, that is. If there has been any value in the past week, it is that I've learned more about myself. I'm more confident now that I own my religious conviction. In other words, I'm not pursuing Islam to impress anyone, or for this person or that person. I'm humbled to become Muslim because I find great value in the spiritual disciplines inviting me to take refuge in Allah on a more than daily basis. I hope that the events of this week took place only to make this clearer to me, and evident to anyone around me who may questioned my motives for converting to Islam.


Not only have I seen more clearly than ever this week that my desire to be Muslim is not a passing phase, but I've also realised that I am where I am because I want to be. I am happy with my location in the scope of my entire life at this present moment. I am grateful for where I am.

I feel strength, but only in prayer. I find peace praying for those I love, trusting that Allah will answer our prayers in time. In the past week everything I thought I had, so much that I clung to slipped between my fingers, leaving my hands and heart empty. And I feel that the only reason I remain one piece, with some measure of hope fixed securely in my heart, is because I trust the guidance of Allah. 

The most terrifying prayer that I have ever prayer is Al-Istikhara, a prayer of guidance provided in Islam by the instruction of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). However much is the beauty of surrender and trust conveyed in Al-Istikhara, it is these same features that make me nervous. Must I really say that I know nothing? Must I really admit that my own vision is finite and extremely limited? Apparently, yes. 

Because in this admission, I am still able to maintain hope. This week was tragic because of earthly circumstances, something man-made that seems so daunting, there is no way for the human mind to conceive that these barriers can be overcome. But Salat Al-Istikhara, which I am praying daily, still gives me hope that even in the case that human obstacles block my way, if Allah chooses in grace and wisdom, Allah can miraculously remove those obstacles and carry out Allah's perfect will. All that I can do is wait and pray. I am therefore, doing everything that I can.

Oh Allah! I seek Your guidance by virtue of Your knowledge, and I seek ability by virtue of Your power, and I ask You of Your great bounty. You have power; I have none. And You know; I know not. You are the Knower of hidden things.

Oh Allah! If in Your knowledge, (this matter*) is good for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then ordain it for me, make it easy for me, and bless it for me. And if in Your knowledge, (this matter*) is bad for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then turn it away from me, and turn me away from it. And ordain for me the good wherever it may be, and make me content with it. 

* When making the du'a (prayer), the actual matter or decision should be mentioned instead of the words ("this matter").

Lastly, I should say that I do not feel that simply any challenge associated with a particular decision should be taken as an indication that it is not good for us. I believe that there are times that good choices in life are made easy for us when Allah grants us the strength that we need to endure and overcome. This is different from all barriers simply being eliminated. There are times when we walk like the Prophet Musa/Moses (peace be upon him) and the Children of Israel through the sea on dry ground, and there are times when we have to struggle, fight, walk through fire, to get where we need to go.

You are my best friend, You know too much

Yesterday I travelled with my mother to the Veteran's Cemetery in Maryland where my paternal grandfather is buried, himself a World War II Veteran. I cannot say that I am necessarily proud of my grandfather's participation in World War II, but I am not ashamed of him. Having never met him, I am more proud, for example, of knowing that my grandfather, himself a recovered alcoholic, led Alcoholics Anonymous groups that successfully sobered up many former alcoholics. Knowing the distress that alcohol has caused my nuclear and extended family made the Islamic prohibition of alcohol quite easy for me to incorporate into my life. I've never been drunk, never really wanted to be drunk. The instruction to abstain from alcohol is one of the few Islamic commands with an explanation. Allah says that there is "some benefit for people" in wine and gambling. But in this case, "their sin is greater than their benefit." Al-Baqarah 2:219)

Under a thick layer of gray clouds, in the cool wind of fall, we buried my grandmother with her husband. She was 82 years old. We share precisely the same name: first, middle and last. We buried my grandmother yesterday, on the same date that my father passed away seven years ago.


Thus, I reflect on loss. I reflect on the pain of losing people we love, the people who show us who we are, and where we come from. I reflect on the sense of connectedness I felt to history, the history of my family, the country, and the earth, when I gazed at the headstone of my grandfather and grandmother. I reflect on what it means to determine, based on our losses, where we are going next. I contemplate how easily life begins and ends, how easily we can return to dust. 

Today I face yet another loss, one that is private, and cannot be named here. Today I lose love, a dream. I don't know what to do with the photographs, and warm memories that still stir up happiness in my heart. I see myself in the photos and in my memories, as a genuinely happy young woman, who could not have asked for much more. I see a sincere young woman, who gave her heart fully and loyally. Sometimes these efforts are not rewarded. Sadly, sometimes something that appears to be good for us in our limited vision, may also be bad for us. In reference to the struggle to which Allah calls us, we are told 
But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah knows, while you know not. (Al-Baqarah 2:216)
Patsy Cline sings, "I've loved and lost again. Oh what a crazy world we're living in." That much I can say as well. But perhaps the most important part of this loss for me is the realisation that I have lost much, and also gained much. I have been inspired to pray. I have been inspired to love and care for my mother more, to give without inhibition. At this moment, I cannot comprehend how someone who has taught me so much about love and care, could at the same time be a source of pain.

When I was a child, and even a teenager, I would cry. Not even my mother could console me. She would say, "You are crying like you lost your best friend." Today I have to hold back tears. If they start, they won't stop. I know that. I must be strong, in the face of the loss of yet another September. Hope in Allah for the best, trust that Allah knows best, and joy that my faith is not wavering as a result of the deepest of losses holds me together.

O Allah, may it be a beneficial rain cloud : اللهم صيبا نافعا

The rain continues to pour, and we're expecting two more days of it. How frightening and difficult it has been travelling back and forth to Philly over the past couple of days.
اللهم حوالينا و لا علينا اللهم على الاكام و الظراب و بطون الاودية و منابت الشجر
O Allah, let the rain fall around us and not upon us, O Allah (let it fall) on the pastures, hills, valleys and the roots of trees.
I distinctly recall the heavy rain that fell at the time of my father's death in September, seven years ago. Just days ago my paternal grandmother passed away, and yet again the rain is falling, even more heavily than before. Tonight my mom and I rode back from Philadelphia together, and had the chance to talk. We could also say that the circumstances forced us to continue a conversation that we cannot ignore, the elephant in the backseat, if you please.
Sadly, my mother does not feel that she can be happy in life if her children are not Orthodox. I can only imagine how difficult it is for a parent to find that their children, who they raised with love and devotion, do not meet their expectations. The truth is that I am most grateful for every sacrifice that my mother has made throughout my entire life in order to care for me. I could not have asked for a better mother. Even now that she is disappointed in me, she still shows me love and affection, the kind of loyalty only a mother can demonstrate. With all of my heart I do not want to hurt her - I wish that I she would not feel as if she has failed as a mother, simply because my faith has grown beyond Christianity into Islam. 
I tried to articulate how ironic it is to me that the Islam that she disdains has challenged me to respect and honor her. I listen patiently and with sincere respect to her convictions: She believes wholeheartedly that Jesus Christ is the son of God who gave his life as a sacrifice for humanity, was crucified and resurrected in order to overcome death and offer salvation to the world. I know this set of beliefs through and through. I am not asking and will not ask her to change her beliefs, and still I am happy to attend the Orthodox Liturgy with her. But I tried to convey my current state.
At this point and time in my life, I cannot conceive of a loving God who allows his prophet, let alone his own son, to be humiliated and violently murdered. I question why our omnipotent God would have to depend on his son, or any other, in order to forgive the sins of humanity. My sense in Islam is that from the beginning of time, Allah has been fully capable of forgiving human beings individually and collectively:
To Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth. Whether you show what is within yourselves or conceal it, Allah will bring you to account for it. Then He will forgive whom He wills and punish whom He wills, and Allah is over all things competent. Surah al-Baqarah 2:284
Maybe I am wrong. I cannot be so proud as to assert that I have found absolute truth in Islam. Of course I believe that Islam is a totally valid faith, but still, in humility I recognise that I am on a spiritual journey, being led by the grace of God. Therefore, I asked my mother to continue praying for me, however she wishes. As part of the recitation of Al-Fatihah (see Right) 17 times daily throughout the 5 daily prayers, I pray that Allah will guide me to the Straight path. If I am asking and she is asking, I can only trust that if my belief in Islam is some mistake, that God will lead me out of it.
Meanwhile, I believe that Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) as the honored prophet of Allah constantly redirects the attention of his followers to God the Father. In John 14:28 Jesus says You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. I admit that Matthew, Mark, and Luke more consistently represent Jesus as a humble character who is the Son of Man. John is an exception to nearly every rule of the Gospels, and has a stronger agenda than the others to suggest that Jesus is a divine figure. When I read the Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I find countless examples of Jesus calling his followers to worship and submit to God alone. Jesus did not ask to be worshipped. He said that it is God in heaven who forgives (Mark 11:25), God in heaven who answers prayer (Matthew 7:11), God in heaven who is perfect and worthy to be worshipped (Matthew 5:48). Even more, it is Satan who attempts to bow down and worship Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus' adamant response in Matthew 4:10 is Away with you, Satan! for it is written,"Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." 
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to pray as follows:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. - Matthew 6:9-13 NRSV
It should be noted that at the moment Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray, he includes no instruction for prayers to be directed to him, nor instruction for worship of anyone but the one God in heaven. Below is the Lord's Prayer from Matthew again, with an English translation of Al-Fatihah running parallel. Al-Fatihah is the first Surah of Al-Quran and the Surah (verse) that is recited by Muslims before every rakat (prostration) during the 5 daily prayers. The consistency between the instruction of how to pray between the two prophets of God, Jesus and Muhammed (peace be upon him) are striking and most likely, not coincidental.
Photo property of AHMED ALMAHBUB
Our Father in heaven In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful hallowed be your name. [All] praise is [due] to Allah, Lord of the worlds - The Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Sovereign of the Day of Recompense/Judgment Give us this day our daily bread. It is You we worship and You we ask for help. And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors. Guide us to the straight path - And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.
At the core, I believe that the intention of the Lord's Prayer and Al-Fatihah are essentially the same: to worship the One God, Acknowledge Allah's ultimate authority over all of creation, Express our dependence on Allah, and ask for Allah to bestow forgiveness upon us out of his boundless mercy.
I'm grateful for the conversation with my mother this evening. If it is hope that she needs, I do not want her to lose hope in me, or her God. I am happy to have returned to a belief in God. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving, disciplines also found in Christianity, will only better my character,  if God wills ان شاء الله تعالى. Jesus promised in Matthew 7:15-20 that we will know false prophets by their fruits. The fruit of the Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) delivery of Al-Quran to the people from Allah is over 1 billion individuals who are commanded to pray, fast, respect the life and humanity of their neighbors, and give generously to all who ask. Oh Allah, may it be a beneficial rain cloud.

Being Muslim, Being Home

Islam is easy, I've been assured. And I agree - Islam has been made easy, for those who are sincere to practice it. Very recently the month-long fast of Ramadan came to a close for 2011. In Al-Quran, Allah makes clear that spiritual disciplines have not been established to make us suffer:
The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Quran, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey - then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful. - Surah Al-Baqarah 2:185
Often Muslims pray that Allah makes life easier for their brothers and sisters. We can pray this ourselves: My God, make my life easier for meربي سهل لي امري

This week when travelling back to the US from London, I wore hijab. I feel more comfortable concealing my hair from those who do not need to see it. Also, I sense greater solidarity with my local Muslim community when I am visibly Muslim. When I see a Muslim person, I know that I can approach them and receive kindness, and I want them to know the same of me. 

Wearing al-hijab was painless. It does not hurt me to cover my hair, nor to dress modestly. Neither does it hurt anyone else. To my surprise, I appeared to be the only Muslim on our extremely crowded plane. The mother and daughter who were seated beside me treated me very kindly. I did not sense animosity from others. At the border entering the US I was asked about my conversion to Islam, and I explained honestly. Surely, I would have not have been asked had I not been wearing hijab. Unfortunately, I was asked if I've travelled to any Arab countries. The border agent failed to consider that only 15% of Muslims are actually Arab. Nevertheless, I answered him without arguing.

My kind Muslim friends have told me several times that there is no need for me to make the hijab an urgent practice. I can ease my way into the practices of Islam, and find a good time for the habits to unfold. I know at the moment that my hijab may make my mother, in particular, feel uncomfortable. There is no need to increase her stress, and therefore, when I'm with her, I simply make an effort to dress modestly, without hijab. I admit that in the past I may have misunderstood the hijab, and also, wrongly assumed that Muslim women wear the covering against their will. Now knowing many Muslim women from all around the world, and being in the position myself, I understand the gladness and willingness with which many Muslim women dress modestly. Coverings for women are described in the Quran, but not with the same propensity as fundamental Islamic behaviours, such as belief in the one God, prayer, giving, respect for parents, and avoidance of illegal sexual intercourse.



Friends, I remind you of the greatest challenge that I will face at home for the next few days. The respect for parents that Islam mandates has risen high the bar for my conduct and posture toward my mother. I would have said before, with conviction, that I love my mother. But I'm starting to sense how little I demonstrated love for her in the past. 

Repeatedly throughout Al-Quran, the believer is instructed to worship only Allah, and in the same breath, commanded to care patiently for parents. Building on my previous post on the topic, one of many examples is as follows:
And [recall] when We took the covenant from the Children of Israel, [enjoining upon them], "Do not worship except Allah; and to parents do good and to relatives, orphans, and the needy. And speak to people good [words] and establish prayer and zakah." Then you turned away, except a few of you, and you were refusing. -Surah Al-Baqarah 2:83
Hand in hand with my belief in God must be complete respect toward my mother, kindness to relatives and those in need, and goodness to all people. Then prayers and generosity towards all in need. As I've learned, it is not appropriate to show even the slightest frustration towards my mother, whatever she asks, whatever I feel. I must respond to her with obedience and respect.

Shall I say that when I am following this instruction, I feel happier because she is happier. I feel that I have changed to the better. When she calls me to her from upstairs or downstairs, I count it an honor to respond, rather than whining at the request that I get up from whatever I am doing. Whatever she asks, I want to do. If she wants a cup of water, even if she tells me that she will get it herself, she deserves that I use the life that she has given me to bring sustenance to her right hand. Unlike the prior years of my life, I am making every effort to obey my mother, rather than seeking ways to ignore or evade her requests. She is happier when someone listens to her, and she deserves this small honor.

Unfortunately, I confess that in the time that I've been home, I have grown frustrated at times, and have not been strong enough to conceal it. I failed to keep my voice low to my mother, as it should be. Last night my mother, sister and I were stranded on the side of a Pennsylvania backroad over 70 miles from home, our exhaust system dragging on the asphalt beneath our car in the pouring rain, flash floods, and strong wind. We hardly knew where we were, or who to call for help. The confusion and lonely attempt to get home safely ourselves, without our father, without family friends near to us, went on for hours. At certain points, I could not control my anger at the situation, and finally I resorted to silence, perhaps the safest avenue in that situation. Thanks be to Allah, today is a new day, and I will make a new effort to treat my family well.

Ramadan, Don't Go

My heart sank and my eyes filled with tears last night on the underground when Ahmed told me that tomorrow is not Ramadan anymore. They sighted the moon in Saudi Arabia, so Sunday evening was the start of the Eid celebration. Sure, it's meant to be a time of gladness, but I found that I was not the only one sad to reach the end of Ramadan. Several of my friends replying to my Eid Mubarak texts saying that they were crying for the end of Ramadan, as well. This is a reaction that I was not expecting. Usually when people are fasting they eagerly await the end of their suffering. For example, many count down the days of Lent, eager to live normally again.

But Ramadan is a season in which the Muslim has the privilege of being even more constantly reminded of their religious identity, their membership in a global religious community, the importance of obedience to Allah, however absurd it seems to abstain from food and drink in the daylight hours, and eat and drink at night when the rest of the world is sleeping. Ramadan is a time of rewards and graciousness. We're rewarded for fasting. We're rewarded for praying. The breath of one who is fasting is like musk to Allah, we learn. We read and memorize the Quran intentionally, and with gladness. 

I did not expect Ramadan to have such a profound impact on me. I did not know how happy Ramadan would make me. I've been quite lonely this summer, with no friends in my immediate proximity. Sure, there are folks to chat with at work, and there's the odd phone call. This summer I've wandered open fields to pass the hours after work. 

The Beauty of My Own Solitude
Ramadan breathed life and purpose into my solitude. This was my first time fasting Ramadan, and the first time that I read the entire Quran. My friend Mahram told me that when you finish reading the entire Quran, you should pray afterwards, and whatever you pray will be answered. I prayed about marriage. I've observed several Muslim families over the past few years. I like to see Muslim husbands helping their wives with the home and children. I like to see how they provide for their families. I like to see how Muslim husbands go far out of their way to support their wives in their studies, educational goals, and careers. I like to see how Muslim parents raise their children seriously and with constant reference to the ethics and morals established in Islam. I wish for marriage and family and a good future.

I'm looking forward to Ramadan next year. I feel that I want to be Muslim, and maybe I already am. At least, I'm more Muslim than anything else. I'm afraid that if I say I am, I won't be able to live up to the commitment. I'm afraid that I won't be able to face my family, and family friends. I'm afraid that I won't be accepted if I want to wear hijab. I do want to, and try to when no one is looking.

I attended Taraweeh prayers at the University on Sunday evening, and by chance ended up in the front row of the congregational prayers. I learned later on that there's a reward for that too. When listening to the recitation of the Quran, I felt moved emotionally, moved to tears. It was beautiful. The recitation of the Quran truly does sound like a miraculous, divine message, something like a gift. I felt welcome, just as much a part of the congregation as the folks beside me who have been praying since they were children, Muslims from birth. 

I've experienced a wide variety of religious communities throughout my life. In the Church of God, I was probably grafted in much more easily because I am white and middle class. When I was with Mennonites, I often felt the cultural rift between us. Although I deeply admired the peace church tradition, hymn sings, intentional communities, and potlucks, a Greek American non-cultural Mennonite could not so easily feel welcome, despite all of the hospitable efforts that were made. In the Greek Orthodox church communities I encountered I was not quite Greek enough. But to any Muslim, black, white, Asian, Arab, European - I can be just as Muslim as they are. I am welcome, all are welcome.

We are all PALESTINIAN!

At the invitation of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, I attended the Stop the Occupation Al Quds day march in London. When I arrived at the assembly point outside of BBC Radio, I noticed the heavy police presence, and prayed under my breath that I was not attending a march that was expected to turn violent. Then, I looked to my right to find that a group of 40 Muslim men and women were bowed with their foreheads and noses to the pavement, praying Dhuhr. There was no need for me to worry that I would miss the prayer time and have to pray late when I returned home - I forgot that I would be joining a group of people who are all concerned with the prayer times, and who were also all fasting. I will post my photos in about a week's time, and the speeches from a number of exceptional individuals at the forefront of advocacy for the freedom of Palestine. For now, I would simply like to  capture the emotion of the event for me.

I prayed with the group, right there on the street. I felt that I could approach any person there with a need or question and be treated hospitably. This is probably the phenomenon of the sense of belonging when one joins the Muslim community, or any religious community, perhaps. We all took hold of placards and flags in preparation for the march - I began the march with a BOYCOTT ISRAEL placard and my pro-Palestine scarf draped over my shoulders. I ended the march also waving a Palestinian flag that some sisters sold to me en route to our final destination at Trafalgar Square. 

When I decided at the spur of the moment this morning to travel into the heart of London for the event, I told myself that this is one small effort that I can make for the suffering innocents of Palestine. To my surprise, I felt inspired calling out "Allahu Akbar - God is great!" with the group. This phrase is misunderstood by the masses, and I know how negatively I've perceived it in the past. What a negative connotation it has, in the media, and with people unfamiliar with Islam. But this phrase was the uniting force, at least for the Muslims there. We had Orthodox Jews and Christians  and non-religious people all together. I joined in "La illaha ilallah - There is no other God but Allah!" just feeling that this was an expression of our unity regarding the matter at hand.

 Quickly, I learned the calls and responses for the march. What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW! One - two - three - four - OCCUPATION NO MORE! Five - six - seven - eight ISRAEL IS A TERRORIST STATE! What does Zionism stand for? TERRORISM. Zionism! TERRORISM! From the river to the sea PALESTINE WILL BE FREE! In our hundred in our millions WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS! In our hundreds in our millions WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS! Free free PALESTINE! Free free PALESTINE!

As I marched with hundreds of people from numerous languages, creeds, backgrounds, and cultures, our protest became increasingly meaningful to me. I cried the slogans at the top of my voice - I wanted the bystanders to hear our message, and to become aware of the illegal occupation of Palestine. I felt in my heart that we were giving a voice to the voiceless. We were crying out for every innocent Palestinian who is a victim of the illegal regime of Israel, and its backers.

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I'll admit this was not my best moment to be captured on camera, but nonetheless!

We stopped at McDonalds and Starbucks and Boots (regarding the sale of Loreal products) shouting Mcdonalds SHAME ON YOU! McDonalds SHAME ON YOU! Starbucks SHAME ON YOU! Loreal SHAME ON YOU! Coca Cola SHAME ON YOU! Marks and Spencers SHAME ON YOU! All companies which we must boycott in protest of their funding of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Tears came to my eyes as we chanted, WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS! 

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I wanted to show my solidarity for innocent men, women and children in Palestine who are being massacred with the support of my own government. I write letters to my senators, and they reply saying that they make every effort to support our loyal ally Israel. How can they be so blind to the injustice that they are committing?

I learned the police were there to protect us, rather than vice versa. We were advised by the police and march organisers to travel to our respective stations in groups - just as last year, the English Defense League was prepared to violently attack the people who attended the peaceful, nonviolent march. How privileged we are to have the protection of the police as we march for Palestine, while Palestinians have no defense, not even in their own homes. I was very grateful for the presence and help of the Metropolitan Police who contained the march.

To Be a Good Child

A couple of days ago, Ahmed went to Riyadh with his mother. There were a few things that he wanted to do there, people he wanted to see. His mother told him the next morning that she wanted to go home. Knowing that his time in Riyadh was shorter than he expected, I asked Ahmed if he told his mother that he wanted to stay longer. He only said, "But she wanted to come home." I know that Ahmed was not conscious of it, but his response was a crystal clear example for me of the kind of respect that Islam demands children show to their parents. It would not even enter his mind to persuade his mother of something other than what she wanted.

Reading through Al-Quran, I notice that believers are repeatedly commanded to treat parents well, and often the commands go hand in hand with practicing the pillars of Islam, like praying five times daily and paying Zakat. The message of the Quran includes the good treatment of parents in descriptions of people who are truly Muslim.

The other night on Skype my mother said something that bothered me. I became angry and did not hide my anger. Immediately I regreted the tone I had taken and the words that I said in anger.  Curiously, there is more instruction in Al-Quran teaching children how to treat their parents, than there is to parents on how to raise their children. I was particularly struck by this guidance in Al-Quran regarding parents:
And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honour. And lower to them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say: "My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young." Your Lord knows best what is in your inner selves. If you are righteous, then, verily, He is Ever Most Forgiving to those who turn to Him again and again in obedience, and in repentance. Al-Isra 17:23-25
From the get-go, fulfilling our obligation to parents is linked directly to worship. The wording and order of the passage prompts me to consider my mother's age to be a privilege and blessing to me as a child - already, I cannot imagine who I would turn to without my mother there to speak with in good times and bad. Anticipating my upcoming visit home, I am internalizing this command to constantly speak respectfully and mercifully to my mother. Sadly enough, shouting is commonplace in our household, and I know that sometimes it will feel impossible to hold my tongue, or to just control my volume. But a Muslim child is not meant to even display frustration or anger towards their parents. If I write any more on the topic, I'll just quote Nouman Ali Khan from his teaching on Islam's requirement that we 'Be the Best to our Parents.' He explains that it does not matter what our parents say to us, or what volume or tone they assume, the child's voice and behavior must remain respectful and merciful. He suggests that when we are angry with our parents, we should go out of our way to do something kind for them. 

The ultimate example of the mercy we are required to offer parents is in Allah. Even in this short excerpt, Allah assures the believer that He is the source of mercy and forgiveness. Islam consistently calls believers to offer others forgiveness and mercy. Husbands and wives are told that the healthy, faithful marriage relationship is based on love and mercy. They couple is told to focus on the positive aspects of their spouse - getting hung up on small nuisances is foolishness. I've learned that Muslims make excuses for friends or neighbors who wrong them. If my friend arrives late for a meeting, before I get angry while watching minute after minute pass on my watch, I should make every excuse for their delay. Islam is full of practical, daily applications of mercy.

My mother does not approve of my interest in Islam, but Islamic teachings challenge me to treat her better than I ever have before. Up until now, I've mostly been soaking in Islamic concepts and instruction through conversations with friends, and by observing my local Muslim community. In this time I have learned to respect my mother more, and to be more generous to her. A few nights ago I woke up at 3am to pray Fajr and drink water before the fast began. My mother was struggling to make an online payment, so I offered to do it for her, after unsuccessfully leading her through the process over the phone. The next day at work, I felt like I was glowing. Although I had only a few hours of sleep, I felt that all of my energy grew out of my happiness at making one small thing easier for my mother. 


In Matthew 15 Jesus reminds the Pharisees and scribes that "God said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' In light of the Quranic teachings on the proper behavior of children, the words of Jesus here feel much heavier, and more serious than I ever sensed them before. His words reinforce the Islamic teaching that the person who disrespects their parents will not enter paradise; at the same time, respect for our parents in our pathway to paradise. Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman states that it's even an honor for our parent to step on our head, to have their foot above our head.

Just as we practice self-discipline in order to abstain from food and water during daylight hours in Ramadan, I have to be silent in moments when my impulse is to argue, debate, or speak a disrespectful word to my mother. Also, I feel that I must speak more respectfully of my late father - I admit not all of my memories are positive, but as Ali Khan points out, parents deserve our respect, regardless of how they treated us.

Pleasantly Surprised

My eyes are tired. Tired of being open, and tired of around 12 hours today in front of the computer screen. Nevertheless, I have to share at least a glimpse of what troubles and joys my heart this week. I like it when people ask me how 'the fast' or 'Ramadan' is going. The butchers in my local Halal Butcher shop ask me, and we all smile saying الحمد لله "Thanks be to God!" I don't mind when the couple of ladies at work ask me how the fast is going - I like to explain that I feel surprisingly well. How does my mouth not dry up by the 18th hour of fasting? And today I spoke with a dear friend all the way in Saudi Arabia, whose smile I could hear when I replied jubilantly to her questions about my Ramadan 2011. IN fact, when I came home from work today I found a huge box covered with layers of duct tape and Arabic shipping messages at the foot of the stairs with my name on it. I wouldn't let myself open it until after I showered and prayed Asr. Otherwise, I knew I would be so absorbed in the thoughtfulness of their gift that I would easily delay the prayer by one more hour than necessary.

They sent me two varieties of Riyadh dates, and in enormous quantities. I couldn't help but ask her in my thank you email and over the phone - How do you expect me to eat all of these? I'm worried that I am not generous enough to be Muslim. These people will give to you whatever you need that they have in a heartbeat without any hesitation, as if generosity is a natural reflex. I'm not really like that, yet. Maybe with a few people, but generally, I have to admit that I think generosity through a few times. If I were not in debt, would I be more generous? Zakat is strongly emphasised all year for Muslims, but particularly during Ramadan. From what I understand, due to my school loans, I am exempt. This is probably why debt and the charging of interest are not permissible in Islam to begin with.

It's nearly one in the morning and I'm munching on my cookies and drinking as much water as I can to rehydrate and saturate my body in preparation for tomorrow's fast. For the past few days I've been watching lectures regarding Islamic perspectives on Jesus Christ. As I mentioned before, even though I personally prefer the Muslim understanding of Jesus, I don't want to 'mistakenly' deny the Jesus I was raised to believe in. I still want to hear more explanations from Islamic scholars on the Christian belief in Christ's death and resurrection. But I've watched enough Ahmed Deedat this week to now have my Bible open on my desk. I hadn't open my Bible in months, but Muslim Deedat challenges his audience to open it. At some moments I felt like I was listening to Gordon Brubacher in a Boyer Hall classroom again. 

I read the book of Matthew and excerpts from John in one sitting. This is the first time I've read the Gospels since a great deal of Islamic study, and can I say that the Gospel, the words and stories of Jesus, felt clearer and more illuminated to me than ever before. I have some initial theories about how the Quran, which is not a book of stories, illuminated the message of Jesus. But for the moment, I am content to only begin to convey how pleased I am that rather than putting me off from the Bible, somehow Islam has drawn me closer to it.

Correction

Friends, I was wrong about something. There are definitely more than 30, what Christians would call "books" of the Quran. There are 114. I misunderstood one suggestion to read the Quran in 30 sections throughout the month of Ramadan, so as to have read it in full by the end of the month. Thus far I've memorized two more surahs (verses) of Al-Quran, and my modest goal is to memorize two more in the next two weeks. Over the past couple of days I've been listening to lectures by Nouman Ali Khan, found of Al-Bayyinah Institute. In his lectures on Divine Speech, he mentions several times that the Quran is promised to be easy to memorize - hundreds of thousands of Muslims all over the globe have memorized Al-Quran in Arabic from cover to cover. Ali Khan asserts that when a sincere individual aspires to learn and memorize the Quran, the divine intervenes to make the process easier.

I have no other explanation for why I've been able to to memorize passages of the Quran quite quickly - I don't remember being able to memorize Biblical passages without a lot of struggle. I read and listen to recitations of the Quran when I'm studying and memorizing, so that when I'm reciting them myself, I can hear the song and rhythm of the reciter in my memory.

I watched an interview with Ali Khan, in which he describes his transition from atheism to Islam. I have found his arguments regarding the miraculous character of the Quran quite intriguing. The questions tumbling around in my mind today pertain to the resurrection - why is it so necessary in Christianity, and nothing close to a matter of concern in Islam? Having once been a devout Christian, how have I managed to feel comfortable without a Christ who is crucified and resurrected? Knowing well the person I used to be, I can't help but fear at some moments that I'm betraying Christ, that I could be following the wolves in sheeps clothing who Jesus warned Christians of.

But today as I walked in the sun through the dried grass of wide open fields that have become my refuge these past two months, I decided that the Quran is clarifying my understanding of at a least a few of Christianity's intentions. I remembered how I felt three years ago; The Bible seemed to raise more questions than answers for me. Our theological discussions at Messiah College never came close to answering whether God is violent or not, if he would send his own son to be torture and killed. I couldn't find clear guidelines about relationships and marriage in the Bible. They may have been there in some form or another, but they were not clear enough for me. I was dismayed observing countless Christian clusters each devising their own interpretations of the text, their own denomination or definition of Christianity. Christians can't even agree on whether Jesus demanded non-violence or not.

The Quran is mysterious, and requires extensive study. At the same time, Islam is extremely practical and accessible. Since there are many rules and guidelines, some situations that may have seemed like gray areas to me in Christianity appear more black and white, whether I like it or not. I'm please that it's also true that stories of the prophets that seem to be told more thoroughly in the Bible, also help me conduct a more informed reading of the Quran.

When I sat down to write this post, the first sentence was going to be "I am so thirsty." It's true. At some points today I even forgot about food, and all I could wish for was water. For the past few hours all I've wanted is a sip. My bladder is completely empty. Now, 20 minutes before the time to break the fast, I'm feeling hunger pains again, along with terrible thirst. After I eat some dates and drink some water, I will pray: "The thirst is gone, the veins are moistened and the reward is confirmed, if Allah [Ta'ala] Wills."

Shock of Terror in London

Usually I read my book on the train ride home after work. But on Tuesday evening, I couldn't. Many staff members left work early on Tuesday, like me, in order to ensure a safe journey home, before the rioters hit our neck of the woods. All passengers on the platform and train were in sober moods; just a few were on their mobiles complaining to their friends or loved ones about where the senseless violence was kicking off next. Even in my London suburb there was a noticeably increased police presence, and the convenient stores that are always open shut early, most likely at the recommendation of the police. I sat in my room watching BBC news for hours of the evening, attempting to convey to my family at home the anger of the general British public at the unthinking youth who were waging war on the police, and on their own neighbors. How strange it was to witness citizens transforming into enemies of their own government and country en masse. 

I remembered the incredible Egyptian Revolution, which the world witnessed earlier this year, and the Tunisian Revolution. These are examples of masses of people gathering in an attempt to bring positive change to their homelands with as little violence as possible. Conversely, England has been a mad house. Youth (and adults!) who participated were incredibly amused by their ability to terrorize their fellow citizens by destroying valuable property and stealing for sport. The young people of the country have lost their sense of self-respect, and in turn, any sense of respect for others. They don't know hard work (At one point I thought they should take every offender out to a farm to put their energy to good use). Their parents are absent - or just as oblivious to the sins of theft, terrorism, and the destruction of another's property. Where is the moral compass of the society? The youth have no sense of having to answer to anyone but themselves. Many have said that they will continue to vandalize property and steal until they are caught - and even after "the police do nothing" to them. Perhaps any remnant of moral thinking in this nation remains with the grandparents of these youth, who were once exposed to at least some religious thinking, some consciousness of a higher power to answer to. 

I fear the self-destruction of society. But it is evident now that a people who completely lack any comprehension of what is right and what is wrong, will eventually destroy itself. This leads me to think that the sinners of Noah's time and of Lot's time, which I've just read about in Surat Hud of the Quran, may well have just destroyed themselves, without any assistance.

Unfortunately, I have had to postpone the aforementioned meal with the Eritrean family, due to the terror still lurking throughout London. Nevertheless, every day of Ramadan I learn something new.

Time to Fast

I do not intend to sound overly religious, or extreme. I admit that I am excited about everything new I'm learning, but I want to point out that this is my primary space for expressing an experience that is largely inward, underneath my skin, and mostly unspoken.

One colleague from work was asking me whether Muslims break the fast at sunset, or in accordance to another time or signal. She told me the time of the sunset, but the time for Iftar is 20-30 minutes later than that. The instruction in Al-Quran is as follows:
And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]. Then complete the fast until the night [i.e., sunset].

At one point in the conversation I found myself speaking in the first person plural, as if I were part of the Muslim community. It was as if I stepped back and heard myself saying that 'we start fasting' or 'we break the fast,' surprised at myself for considering myself part of Islam. On Wednesday evening I am invited to break the fast with an Eritrean family, and I'm quite looking forward to it. I've prepared a gift of dates from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and I am hoping to make a sweet treat to give the family as well. 

The Most-Merciful

Everything was going just fine with the fast, up until day four. I had to see a dentist on Thursday, and it turns out that I have to take a 5 day course of antibiotic for a some trouble with my gums. On Thursday evening I rang a Muslim woman who is also a General Practitioner in Colchester. I explained that I am fasting, but I have to take this antibiotic 3 times a day with food, which would interrupt my fast. She explained that Allah does not want us to suffer or to be in pain. Since I need the medicine, I should take it for 5 days and then resume the fast. I will then be able to make up the 5 missed days of fasting at another time in the year. She told me "Allah is Most-Merciful." Although I was very disappointed to break the fast, I suppose this is my chance to experience the tangible mercy and understanding of Allah during Ramadan.

Otherwise, I continue reading one "book" of the Quran per day, as there are 30 in total, and I learned recently that Muslims traditionally read one "book" of the Quran every day during Ramadan. These days my only comfort is found in prayer and Al-Quran. Relationships with my family and intimate friends feel unstable, along with my job situation. I feel at moments as if everything is falling apart, and I am powerless to hold it together. What would I do without belief that Allah is my Protector and Provider?

I spoke with my mother again about my conversion to Islam. She is so ashamed, and so disappointed. It must be painful for a parent who raises their child with a particular expectation, only to have their child drift far from it. I can't imagine how helpful it would be to have support from my family in this process. For a moment, my mother told me not to come home, if this were the case, but she did take it back in the end. I know she can't completely reject me, but her disapproval pains me very deeply. When everyone else abandons me, I know that my mother is most loyal. This is one instance in which Allah proves to be even more loyal than my own mother.

I Could Hear a Raindrop

This morning I overslept my 2:35am alarm until 3am, so I missed my chance to drink a few more cups of water just before the fast began. Nevertheless, the strength was given to me to keep the fast until 9:00pm this evening. At work my manager asked me if I would like a cup of tea, as she was going to make her own. I told her that I am fasting Ramadan. I could feel her disappointment that I am drawing closer to Islam; she was not successful at her attempt to make me a Jehovah's Witness. And with as much as she knows about Equal Opportunities in the workplace, she was critical of the Muslim's restriction from food and water for such a long period, particularly of water. I assured her that it is fine, and that I rehydrate after sundown. 

I did not feel overwhelmed, despite my manager's constant references to food. She loves to discuss recipes and memorable meals, and ironically today she seemed to dwell on the topic even more than usual. She munched on noisy fruits and snacks today - behind me I could hear her chewing her apple and other treats loudly. My stomach maintained a dull, empty ache throughout the whole day. She asked me why we can't eat food and drink water, and I tried to defend the exercise of self-discipline. 

Ramadan 2011 feels to me like a rite of passage to Islam. When I disclose to others that I am fasting, I have to explain my serious intent to convert to Islam, particularly at work, where I want to have a good reputation among my colleagues. Personally, knowing that Ramadan is one of Islam's five pillars leads me to consider it a challenge, which will reveal whether I have the stamina and self-discipline required by the faith.

I left work at 5 this evening, but arrived home 45 minutes later than usual due to late trains. The afternoon was hot, and my legs felt sore and weak, as I walked home. I took a refreshing shower, prayed Al-Dhuhr, studied Surat Al-Kursey, and decided to rest. When my alarm went off at 8:45pm, I thought it was morning, judging by the warm air drifting in my window, the birdsongs filling the air, and the look of the sky. The sun could just as well have been coming up, as going down. I was pleased to realise I had slept so soundly waiting for Al-Magrib. I got my dates, yoghurt, and water together on my desk waiting for 9:00pm. I washed in preparation for prayer. Minutes before the breaking of the fast, rain started to fall outside, exchanging the warm humidity for a refreshing cool breeze. My windows are still open now, and the rain is pouring heavily, with the meditative sound of a river rushing down a mountainside.

If only I could freely tell my family that I am fasting, and have their support. But since I don't, I have to conceal it, and constantly question my own convictions. I ask myself how I've gotten this far. When I first came to England, I could not even speak of God, especially not in relation to day to day life or activities. I had no religion, I only knew that my ties to Christianity had worn away, and Christianity raised more questions than answers for me. I also came to England with an interest in gaining a deeper of Islam through relationships with Muslim people, an opportunity that I had not had previously in the US. Before I left, someone commented that I would have to learn how to drink more alcohol if I planned to make friends in England. Even then, back in 2008 I remarked that this would not be necessary, because I would seek out good, Muslim friends. 

Some desire to be more politically aware, more religiously informed, more multi-culturally conscious translated into me seeking out Islam. I've learned a great deal about Indian and Hindu culture as well over these past few years, and about life all over the globe, but Islam drew me in quite uniquely, as if I could reconnect parts of who I was before religion completely let me down and lose hope. Can my family not be pleased that I will at least not live without religion, without any faith or spiritual discipline at all? 

Praying gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning when nothing else does, and gives structure and meaning to my day. Islam makes me feel more responsible about how I treat myself, and how I treat others. But I can hardly imagine having my family's approval.

There is a First for Everything

Today is the first day of my first fasted Ramadan. I've been looking forward to Ramadan, preparing inwardly and outwardly. I'm fasting because I have come to appreciate Islam more since this time last year, when I was praying, but not fasting. Plane ticket prices gave me serious reason to delay my trip home until September, God-willing landing me back in my mother's home the day after Ramadan. I scoped out shops local to Finsbury Park, ensuring I know from where I can replenish my date supply. I've thought through a fasting routine that will be fairly compatible with my 9-5 work schedule. I have not asked my employer to change my working hours for the fast, although they may be willing to do so if I'm finding work difficult. 

I will set my alarm every morning 10-15 minutes prior to prayer Al-Fajr, so that I can hydrate myself before the fasting begins with a couple glasses of water, and maybe a small final bite to eat. For tomorrow morning, I will set my alarm for 2:35am, giving me 11 minutes before the fast will begin. I will pray at 2:46am, and then return to sleep until I have to wake up for work. I am up and out of the door by 8:10am, consciously ignoring the jug of water on the table in my room, and I catch the 8:18am train. I ignore the sounds of spoons stirring the tea in surrounding mugs at work - on Friday of last week I brought home my mug and tea from work, to exlude the thought from my routine. I only think to myself that person down the hall has a yummy smelling lunch, and keep in mind that my chance will come after dark. I still take my 'lunch' break, but use the time to pray Al-Dhuhr, rest my eyes from the computer screen, work on memorizing one of the four Quranic passages that I intend to memorize this month, and go shopping for my evening meal. 

Today I felt hungry and thirsty, but I was not hurting. I had enough strength and energy to accomplish my required tasks at work, and I even stayed late without much trouble. I felt motivated to fast, and to pursue the self-discipline that Ramadan is able to teach. I want to be calm and patient with others, and hope to not to become short-tempered because I am hungry and thirsty. Today went well enough with the office to myself, and I hope that tomorrow will go just as well, even though my manager will be back to share the office with me.

I'm bewildered at how Islam can turn a life upside down, moving far beyond the reminders of Allah that the 5 daily prayers function as. Here are a billion or so of the world's people, eating and drinking at night when they would normally sleep, in fulfillment of one of Islam's pillars of faith. I'm telling you that I'm drinking water like a fish during these short hours of darkness. It won't be until 9pm tomorrow evening that I'll be able to sip water or consume food. Like last night, I feel nervous now that I will fail somehow tomorrow. I need to draw strength from someone beyond myself.

My sadness this Ramadan is that I'm honouring the ritual in solitude. Ramadan is a characteristically social event, with families and friends typically gathering every evening to break the fast and pray and eat together. It turns out that my housemate who I don't speak to very much is Muslim and is fasting, but we are not close. She is much younger than me, and we don't connect very well. I soak in the visible presence of Muslims who I see in my transit to and from work. I see hijabs and beards and recognize that they are fasting too, for the same reason that I am, and I feel more motivated to go on.

I have a limited budget, and I do not expect that I'll be able to travel to Colchester and break the fast with friends from the Islamic Society there, as I had hoped. The local shopkeepers do not scorn me for walking into their jobs without a dress reaching my shoes and my hair covered. Instead they greet me warmly "Asalaamu aleikum!" as if I am just as welcome into Islam as they are. I wish that one day I could achieve such a hospitable and nonjudgmental character. The butcher who sells me the Halal meat for my Greek dishes smiled widely at me today, and asked me how Ramadan is going. I smiled too, and thanked God it is going well. He and his colleagues call me "Sister." His shop was packed full of men and women, buying up meat and ingredients for their large family meals. I took home a half kilo of minced beef to pump some protein into my moussaka. Since I'm eating it alone, it should last me all week long.

It is common knowledge in Islam that the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) broke his fast with dates, and something comparable to yogurt. At 9:01pm this evening I clumsily sliced open the air tight package of dates from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and scrambled my fingers inside to catch one. I ate them slowly, and I didn't eat as many as I thought I would. When I eat them on the normal afternoon after coming home from work, I usually can hardly stop myself. These dates were the most delicious I've ever tasted, and I had to push myself to eat 5. How peculiar, after an entire day of fasting. I then enjoyed some Greek yogurt with honey, and gulped that down a little easier, since it was cool and I was very thirsty.

It was more than an hour after those dates and yogurt that I decided to enjoy a corn on the cob, and another hour still before I ate a piece of moussaka. Now I'm waiting for my peppermint tea to cool, and eyeing the Koulourakia (Greek cookies) that I baked last Friday evening. I was going to wait until 2:35am to indulge, but who can scarf down cookies after being woken from a deep sleep in the dead of night, knowing they need to rest up for a long day of work? I detect a good excuse to enjoy these cookies with my tea.

So far, the two main challenges that I'm struggling with relate to my current living arrangement, and losing sleep. First, I'm living with a young couple, their mother in law, and their baby. The kitchen is just beside the baby's room, so it's impossible for me to feel comfortable climbing up and down two flights of creaking stairs and tinkering around the kitchen while everyone, including the baby, is sleeping. Second, I'm tired. To drink up enough water and eat slowly I have to stay up late - maybe I'll lay down in my bed at 1:30am, to wake up briefly for 20 minutes, and then get back to sleep.

I will end this entry the way that I will end my day, with one of the passages that I wish to memorize this month, Surat Al-Kursey. The key line of this surat (verse) proclaims that Allah's seat extends over the heavens and earth. Scholars note that the Arabic word for seat used in this passage denotes a seat much more modest than the majestic throne of Allah. The Muslim stands in awe of how just the humble seat of Allah already engulfs the heavens and the earth. How much more, then, can we make of Allah's throne?

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The Call to Prayer

Sometimes, I feel terrible. I just want to hide from everyone, including myself. I can tell you this because I think that these feelings are common among us. Sometimes I'm ashamed of my body. I'm ashamed of myself. Every physical characteristic becomes a fault. Every characteristic of my personality becomes a weakness. Every other woman around me is gorgeous, fashionable, and perfect. And me, well, I just want to hide. I close my eyes and I want to disappear. How else to escape the shame I feel?

On Friday night, I felt this way. It's unpredictable. The feeling reminds me of how the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Japan. There's no time to run from it. There's not enough time to take refuge. The feelings just come, and I nearly drown in them, struggling to barely keep my head above water. That's all that I can do. There's no interrupting the whirlwind of shame. Of course, I don't want to talk to anyone. In those moments, I hate myself and my body. I can't forgive myself. I mutter apology after apology to God, without knowing what I'm apologising for, other than for being myself. Even worse, I'm so focused on myself, I cannot recognise or think of the needs and feelings of those around me. 

The sky is black, and I can see no stars. But as I stand in the dark on the Finsbury Park platform, waiting for my train home, something manages to break through my distress. Something completely surprising, unexpected, captivating. In the background of all of the thoughts in my mind, somewhere above the squealing sirens and roar of traffic, I hear a voice, a call, music. Immediately the voices in my mind are silenced, and I'm drawing near the song, spiritually and physically, trying to believe my ears, and follow them. Suddenly, I wonder, where am I? Am I hearing this, in London? No one else seems to notice, no one seems bothered.

Not only is the voice transporting me back to a summer night in Cyprus, when I heard a similar voice calling from a Turkish mosque in Nicosia, but so is the dark night sky, the cool wind, and the inescapable sense that I am alone. Yes, I'm moving in the right direction. The voice is becoming louder, and clearer. 

ALLAHU AKBAR I hear. And now, nothing else matters. The Call to Prayer accomplished its purpose. I've been reminded. I've been reminded of Allah. GOD IS GREAT. I BEAR WITNESS THAT THERE IS NO GOD BUT THE ONE GOD. I BEAR WITNESS THAT MUHAMMAD IS THE MESSENGER OF GOD. HURRY TO THE PRAYER (RISE UP TO PRAYER). Come to prayer, he sings, and I'm grateful for the reminder that however I feel about myself, whatever I have done and haven't done, doesn't matter; the shame fades into the distance.

In this moment, the Call to Prayer is a call to freedom from inward thinking, close-mindedness, self-centeredness and narrow vision. The call to prayer, the powerful words ALLAHU AKBAR, expand my horizons far beyond myself. No company joins me, but for a moment I forget my loneliness and cheer for solitude, quiet, and the chance to follow my own heart.

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