Day 6- Sharing Ramadan With Your Neighbors

In homes and mosques across Orange County, Muslim Americans are celebrating a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset in celebration of Ramadan.

…and so reads the July 30, 2011 article in the OC Register regarding the beginning of Ramadan.  My colleague at CAIR Los Angeles worked hard to get community members, identify story leads and pitch a story to various newspapers in the Greater Los Angeles area to get a story out like this.  Often times all it takes if for you to sit down and create a pitch, contact your local newspaper or reporter and all of a sudden you get a front page story in your local newspaper.  Not everything becomes a front page story, not everything becomes a story.  But if you try than most likely you will get some sort of direction, some connection in the local media along with potential brownie points in the future if there is some story and a need arises for a Muslim person to make a comment.  This, however, is not limited to just American Muslim community.  It’s for everyone who cares to interact with the media.

We complain about the media for one reason or another, but at the end of the day, journalism is a profession with its own guidelines and work styles.  If you can bring yourself to understand it then you can utilize its potential.  However, if you try to “change” it then you wont get really far.

When a Pew Study in 2003 suggests that 40% of Americans believe that “Islam is a violent religion” it’s no joke that we got our work cut out for us.  Worse, in 2010 another Pew Study suggested that 25% of those surveyed believed that a local community can block the construction of Mosque should be startling to all Americans, but especially American Muslims.  The question is what does this mean for us?

Well the answer lies in the 2010 Pew Study where 55% of those surveyed say they do not know very much (30%) or know nothing at all (25%) about the Muslim religion and its practices; 35% say they know some about the religion while just 9% say they know a great deal.  The vast majority of those surveyed know next to nothing about Islam and their feelings toward Islam are largely that it is a “violent religion”.  Of those surveyed 41% responded that they did not personally KNOW a Muslim.

If these 41% had a oppurtunity to KNOW a Muslim, would they be able to have favorable views of Islam?  Most likely yes.  The problem is we dont go about getting to share our religion with others, we dont humanize our religion and we focus too much on the Haram and the ritual.  The Prophet SAW lead by example, it was his character and his practices that lead to others other him changing and becoming Muslim.  While I do not advocate for conversion to Islam, because in honesty everyone one person we celebrate coming to Islam, at least two Muslims leave or find Islam less attractive.  But I do advocate is a dawah that focuses on showing people what we as American Muslims are all about.  The OC Register article is a GREAT first step, but we got to do more. Each one of us has to serve that role as a ambassador of American Islam.  I say American Islam because I believe it is here in America where we have such a breadth of diversity in Islamic opinion that no one group can monopolize the face of Islam.

I encourage you all to learn how to play that role.  First you can check out this guide that CAIR has put out on how to share Ramadan with others.  If you need help you can always call your local CAIR chapter to get advice, if there is no chapter close to you feel free to call CAIR National or the CAIR Los Angeles office (714-776-1847).  And I know I already have touted the Islamic Institute of Orange County in a previous post, but they are having an event tomorrow to train community members on how to do media work and public speaking around Ramadan, so please attend!

Day 5- A Community That Eats Together

In Tirmidhi, Zaid ibn Khalid Juhni reported that the Prophet SAW said “He who provides for the breaking of the fast of another person earns the same merit as the one who was observing the fast, diminishing in any way the reward of the latter.  In the Muwatta of Imam Malik it is narrated that he heard that a beggar asked Aisha RA, the wife of the Prophet SAW, for something while she was fasting and there was only a loaf of bread in her house. She said to her servant, “Give it to him.” The servant protested, “You will not have anything to break your fast with.” Aisha RA repeated, “Give it to him,” so she did so.

While I was in San Diego attending UCSD I remember that at school and at the Islamic Center of San Diego there would be nightly iftar dinners.  The idea was to provide a oppurtunity to those who were able to pay for the food to have the ability to feed those who needed food, to provide a communal atmosphere in the masjid and to serve as a place to unite the community and strengthen people’s bonds with one another.  I find that those were some of the most exciting memories from my UCSD experience during Ramadan while I was a student.

I was new to the community and these dinners during Ramadan gave me a chance to meet the local community, to establish ties with the members there, to find ways to help and also become part of the community so I could not only get the benefit of the meal but also find ways to apply my skills and talents to benefit the San Diego community.  Being a bachelor in Orange County and having worked for CAIR Los Angeles, I spent many of my iftars going to various events and often times hoping for just two nights of solitary iftars that were silent and simple, without suit and tie, with a couch and TV.

Now that I am leaving CAIR I find myself wondering what will happen for the rest of Ramadan.  I look around and see that mosques can not afford to pay for regular nightly iftar dinners.  To host one iftar at a masjid like the Islamic Institute of Orange County costs $3,000.  During the current economic instability it must be difficult to stomach such costs when the community is giving less generously.  But the heart of our religion is to give, and while I feel that I am a bit biased when it comes to this request as I am the one who would most likely benefit from these community iftars, they are really important during this economic hardship, more than they were when we lived in a time of plenty.

There are more people who are jobless, there are more people who cannot put a full dinner on their table and there are people who fast not out of religious obligation, but rather because they are incapable of obtaining food.  I urge you to support your community by investing in this basic ideal.  We should be able to provide that loaf of bread even if it is all we have, like Aisha RA instructed.  We will not be any less without it, in fact, that act will be as if we have benefited from the fast of that person as well as our own fast, along with the benefit of providing for someone during this blessed month of Ramadan.

Day 4- Boy Watch Your Tongue

 “You know that m-BLEEP. He can’t BLEEP, BLEEP, BLEEEEEEEEP”- you ever been in one of those conversations?  Yeh, I admit, I get angry and I use curse words.  My vocabularly is pretty decent so I should be able to exchange out those words for things like “poopy fart” or “smacktacular” or “cool beans”.  The thing is words matter.  The way our vocabulary functions says a lot about who we are as individuals and also as a collective society.  Words were so important in the time of the Prophet SAW that when Omar RA heard the Quran he became Muslim.  He heard the words of the Quran, like so many others, that it compelled him to believe.  That hasn’t changed today.  Our language establishes boundaries and barriars to access.  But outside of a societal norm, I learned that our words and language are so critical to our spirituality that our actions, such as fasting, can be  nullified if we do not appropriately observe restraint.

In a hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah (RA) that the Prophet (SAW) said “When any of you is observing Saum (fasting) on a day, he should neither indulge in obscene language nor should he raise their voice; and if anyone reviles him or tries to qurarrel with him he should say: “I am observing fast.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

We learn that fasting is not just about refraining from food, drink and sex, but also we are prohibited from improper language.  Meaning we shouldnt be abusive towards others, we should not talk about obscene things or acts, nor should we use vile language, to talk idely or foolishly, to partake in gossip or backbitting.  Plus from this second hadith we understand that the Prophet SAW felt that if we couldn’t refrain from such behavior, then there was no purpose to our fasting: “If one does not eschew lies and false conduct, Allah has no need that he should abstain from his food and his drink.” (Bukhari)

Without getting all weird on everyone, I want to focus on why it is important to watch what we say.  If we all accept the idea that we are what we eat, then it applies to other facets of our lives.  We are who the people around us make us out to be.  What we spend our time listening to influences us.  What we place on a pedestal defines what we strive for in our lives.  The same is true for the things that we say and spend our time thinking about.  Imam Al-Jawziyya says that there are three types of hearts- healthy, sick and dead.  The dead heart is one that is incapable of self control.  The dead heart is ignorant of it self and those around it.  It is drunk in its own fancies, impulses and fleeting pleasures.  I would say a dead heart is much like a heart stuck on nihilism and anarchy, but I may be going to far.

Allah says in the Quran “The day on which neither wealth nor sons will be of any use, except for whoever brings to Allah a sound heart.” (26: 88-89)- a sick and healthy heart are ones that have the ability to be considered a “sound heart”.    A sick heart is one that has life in it along with sickness.  The one that dominates this heart is where this person will go, fleeting from goodness to evil.  It is a heart in need of balance- for while it loves God, it also pursues its pleasures and cravings for lust.  This heart listens to two callers- Allah on one side and the whisperings of the devil on the other.  For those struggling against this balance, there is no better way to begin to control oneself then to begin controlling ones tongue and ones thoughts.  This is not about being politically correct, this is much more than that.  The action of self control is to understand the freedom that we all have but to apply responsibilty toward that freedom.  So for the rest of this Ramadan excercise self restraint and control your tongue and thoughts.

Day 3- All You Need is a Lil’bit o’Spirutuality

Ramadan is all about spirituality.  Getting your spiritual connection on.  Dialing up the good Lord and checking in.  But, why on God’s green Earth would you treat Ramadan like it was some circus.  Like you got a date on your social calender all 30 days of Ramadan.  I understand what being popular means, it’s not lost to me, but when it comes time to getting your prayer on, come on.  Tune the world out and tune in to the God-connection.

I was at two mosques this past week where I just got this horrible feeling like the whole prayer thing was an after thought.  People coming and going in waves as the prayer continued.   Children running around like the carnival was in town.  Women chattering away and the men were no better.  I realize that Ramadan for me is not the festive environment as much as it is the ability to really get my engine cleaned out so the spirituality is flowing through out me.  It’s that one month of time I need to really hone in on some good practices to try to get me through the year.  I can’t do that with all the distractions I notice at the masjid.  I realize that while its compulsory to be part of the larger community- our prayers are communal, we are encouraged to share our food, have a masjid as our central point of communal activity that all of this doesnt mean quantity is whats best.  In fact its the opposite.  Give me a small group of people who know how to behave and go about their business, who are serious about getting their Ramadan on without harassing others, I will take that community in a heart beat over the larger 1000+ mosques around the county.

The time we have in Ramadan is so critical.  Surah Al Baqarah says “It was in the month of Ramadan in which the Quran was first bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false.   Hence whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast throughout it” (2:185).  But prior to this verse, in Surah Al Baqarah Allah says “Oh you who have attained to faith!  Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God” (2:183)

That verse literally tells us what we need to be attaining from Ramadan- higher level of God Consciousness.  To attain this higher degree of spirituality it requires Muslims to purify our souls.  This process is about self-discipline, to exercise upon oneself a sense of control, structure and greater existence beyond ones own selfish needs.  I could go on about what God Consciousness means, but there are entire books written on this topic, for all intents and purposes, I find that what I need during this month to achieve a higher degree of God-consciousness is to stay away from the circus, to give myself the personal space to pray, to make supplications, to reflect.  I feel that one cannot do that when there are so many people around, everyone busy talking or kids out of control.  Our masjids should be places where we encourage each other to achieve a higher sense of God Consciousness, so try hard to follow an etiquettie during this Ramadan to help your brothers and sisters focus in on the benefits of Ramadan.

Day 2- Iftari’ed Out

That feeling you get where you eat to much food, that was me today.  I stood next to a group of older men whose digestive process included burping while we prayed the late night prayer.  The late night prayer- or Taraweeh- are these extra prayers that Muslims pray during the month of Ramadan.  Ramadan, as a Muslim month is sacred for many reasons, primarily it is the month that Quran, Islam’s holy text, was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW).  The month is significant not just in our fasting during this time period, but because our fasting is a voluntary obligation observed between ourselves and God, which heightens the sense of spirituality experienced during Ramadan.

Prayers, reading the Quran, not eating, eating, meeting friends, making supplications- all these things become part of our daily spirituality more than anytime of the year.  So when I stood next to these men during prayers smelling their acidic breath along with the dinner they had (often times biryani) I felt sick to my stomach.  It didnt help that I also splurged on dinner as well, to the point that it hurt when I stood up for prayers.  I felt like I was a pregnant woman, needing to waddle over to a chair to sit down and catch my breath.  I mean who does that?

Well I did that.  The ramifications of my actions were quite clear.  My spiritual experience focused on the chicken I was trying to digest in my stomach and not all over the prayer carpet or the peopel praying around me.  If I want to fine tune my connection with God during this Ramadan, I realized after prayers yesterday that I need to better understand the Prophetic example of fasting, more specifically for eating.  What does it mean to eat enough?

I know that last night I had gone above and beyond “eating enough”.  No man should feel the way I do and the way I felt was gluttonous- like a stuffed pig ready for the Christmas table.

To feel like that is a sin.  According to the Prophet SAW “the human being has never filled a container worse than his stomach.”  Al Ghazzali in his “Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Ilya-ulum al-din) had a special section titled “On the Treatment of the Lust of the Stomach and the Sexual Organs” where he suggests that the source of lust is to be found in the stomach.  Adam AS ate from the apple tree because of his desire to eat from the fruit and ever since then his descendents have fallen prey to that weakness over and over again.

Prophet SAW recognized that, suggesting that to give our stomach control over our mind was to allow ourselves to fall into sin, while controlling our stomach was a means of controlling our ability to fall into the trap of sins.  In another hadith the Prophet SAW was asked “who is the most superior person? SAW replied “He who eats little, laughs little, and is content with his breeches”- I dont know about the last two, but its clear that eating less was better than eating until your filled.  In fact the second part of the hadith related above continued with “It will be sufficient for the son of Adam to satisfy his hunger with a few bites to strengthen his backbone.  If he must eat his fill then he should allow for one third food, one-third water, and one-third air.”

From that I get the One-Third rule for eating sufficiently.  Remember that from this hadith the Prophet SAW gives us 3 categories- necessary, sufficient and supplementary.  Necessary is eating what you would need to eat in order to not die.  Sufficient is defined in the hadith as eating “a few bites to strengthen the backbone”- meaning you preserve your body, give it sustenance and nourishment to allow it to do the work it needs to do, so you don’t fall over backwards when doing your work.  And supplementary ON THOSE SPECIAL OCCASIONS- which for us today it seems like its EVERY FREAKING DAY- we should eat 1/3 substance, 1/3 water and leave the last 1/3 for breathing room so we all don’t look like we got ourselves 4 months pregnant.

Speaking to special occasions, I fear that part of our lose of humanity stems from our ability to constantly live in a time of plenty.  Where we have access to all sorts of food, meats at all times, fruits that don’t grow during the winter.  Imam Ibn Qayyim al Jawziyaa states that “this case becomes more harmful when it becomes a habit” where we indulge ourselves not occasionally in delicious foods that are rich in fat and calories.  Surah Al Araf states “and eat and drink, but waste not by extravagance, certainly Allah likes not Al-Musrifun (those who waste by extravagance)” (7:31).   I am so saddened to know that people are dying from hunger and starving in East Africa while I eat my body into a fit of indigestion.

There truly is a hikma (wisdom) in the teachings of the Prophet SAW which is what I frame Day 2’s reflection on.  I will work hard to implement the 1/3 rule throughout Ramadan and beyond.

Day 1- Fasting Without a Choice

Today was the first day of Ramadan.  I am always surprised by how quick Ramadan comes, and goes.  But this particular year- most probably the next four or five years- Ramadan will be difficult.  Todays fast was approximately 14 hours.  Fasting for Muslims requires forgoing food and water through out the day from sunrise to sunset.  While fasting today I realized how difficult it was for me to function at one point, where the hunger and thirst made me lethargic and incompetent, all the while the need for me to accomplish my tasks was ever-present.  All I wanted was some water to quench the thirst, some sweet morsel combination of sugar and carbohydrates to get my body and mind functioning again.  Without either my default was to lie down on the ground and just cease thinking and slowly breath until the hours passed away.

Yet my fasting was nothing.  It was an insignificant test.  There are millions around the world who are fasting without a choice.  They go days without food, get by with small amounts of water, which in most likelihood is unclean and unsafe to drink.  There are people who have to steal food, who have to dig through rubbish to find rotten food, or to pick at scraps off the ground in order to eat.

While I choose to fast, I sit in the luxury of air-conditioned rooms, in the privilege of driving from location to location, with the ability to earn an income to pay for my food and most likely to through large portions of it away without a second thought.  I can sip on water that is safe to drink, that is as cold as the water found in the Arctic regions.  So it was with a guilty heart that I admitted to everyone that this first day of fasting was difficult.  It was gruelling and inconvenient.  Fasting today was a burden.

But I am willing to take on this burden, because its truly a blessing that God has not tested me with hunger and thirst that is without choice.  God has given me the ability and the privilege to not lack in those things.  But with this blessing comes a great responsiblity and often times we all get caught up with all the freedoms we have, the privilege we forget we have access to, neglecting that all of this comes with a question that will be asked of us on the day of Judgement by God: what is it that you did with your youth?  Your wealth?  Your status?  Your life?

I reflect back on this first day of Ramadan and fasting  to remind myself of the Hadith of the Prophet SAW, as found in Bukhari, “None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.”

Currently a famine is ravaging East Africa Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea.  Experts believe that it will be much worse than the Sahel Drought that affected East Africa during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  A man said in a news article on the first day of Ramadan, “today is the first day of Ramadan, but we have been fasting for the past seven days trying to walk toward food and shelter.”

The ability to eat a date, to drink water, to have shade is an immense blessing.  We here have an obligation to help others, especially when they are our brothers and sisters in Islam.  I urge you all to donate to Islamic Relief, which is working hard to provide food and water to those making it across the Somalia border into Kenya and its surrounding countries.

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