Genesis 11:5

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


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.