April 24, 2014

Meskel Square, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

Traffic lights? We don't need no stinkin' traffic lights! But, seriously, count the number of accidents in this video. it's exactly zero!

February 28, 2014


As those of us who live in Singapore know, we've gone for a month without rain, and our normally luxuriant lawns are all toasty brown now. At the grocery store, the cashier asked me, "Would you like anything else?" I thought for a moment, then said, "Yes, I'd like some rain, please. I prefer that the grass be green." She didn't say anything, but she did smile.

Update: I'm happy to report that Singapore began getting the rain we needed several weeks ago. We started getting rain again about nine or ten days after I originally wrote the above post. While the lawns have all returned to their usual emerald green color, the trees are very much hit-and-miss. Perhaps a quarter of all trees here suffered badly from the stress of having no water. (Dead leaves would fall from the trees like it was autumn in New England, a very unusual sight here in tropical Singapore.) While most of the dead leaves that can fall off have done so, there are still many trees with either dead limbs or the tree itself has died from the month-long drought. Those will need to be cut down and replaced eventually. I expect it will take some time, perhaps up to a year or so, before the last traces of this dry season disappear from sight.

October 29, 2013

August 25, 2013

Banu Islam

“I am a Muslim. I exist only to serve Allah (swt) and His creation.”

On the whole, humanity is rather immature. We are born this way and it normally takes us at least two decades, if not more, to reach a level of cognitive and behavioral maturity that is acceptable to ourselves and society. This level of maturity is taught to us through many means, one of which is the institution of religion. Most religions, including Islam, seek to mature humanity. In Islam, we Muslims mature through our submission to Allah (swt) by conforming to His rules and legislation, which is presented to us in the form of shari'ah. The rules and legislation by which we mature aren't onerous, but they do take a significant level of discipline and determination in order to be carried out successfully and consistently.

This "discipline and determination" is known to us as jihad. It is the greater jihad, the jihad by which we seek to control and contain our nafs, our ego. Those of us who are parents (and I am the father to a five-year-old daughter) see the need to control the nafs daily through our children. "Abah, I want this! Ibu, I want that!" As children get older, their desires become more sophisticated, but their maturity levels also increase as well, insha'allah. People usually get to a point where their material needs are met, but their maturity levels have also plateaued.

The problem is that these maturity levels may or may not have reached their full potential. Have each of us met that full level of maturity? For example, consider three types of behavior: drinking alcohol, gambling and tattooing. All three behaviors are considered both legal (usually) and acceptable within modern non-Muslim society. But even while these behaviors may be acceptable in non-Muslim society, they are considered unacceptable among Muslims.

Engaging in these behaviors are signs of immaturity. An immature person wastes his or her money on alcoholic drinks that can cause numerous individual and societal problems (let alone being a poison to one's body). Through gambling, an immature person wastes his or her money in the unlikely possibility of winning a large payoff. Through tattooing, an immature person "decorates" his or her body with art that is often regretted (and sometimes removed) later in life. A Muslim avoids these immature behaviors altogether, thus bypassing the pain these behaviors may cause to themselves and to others.

Instead of engaging in immature behaviors, the Muslim engages in mature behaviors, especially that of salat (prayer), sawm (fasting), and zakat (and saudaqah, the giving of charity). Each of these behaviors are not only mandated as part of the Five Pillars of Islam, but are of supreme importance for increasing and maintaining the maturity level of Muslims individually and as a society. Salat is of primary importance. It not only restores our focus on Allah (swt) throughout the day, but also helps us to remember (through the various surahs we recite in the individual rakah) what we need to do for society as a whole.

Sawm is similar to salat except that, instead of being an intellectual reminder, sawm is visceral. We feel the hunger that the less-fortunate undergo so that we may acutely understand their needs and be motivated to help society. And, whereas salat and sawm are reminders for action, zakat and saudaqah are the actions themselves, the actual giving of charity to the poor, either directly to those in need, or indirectly, to agencies who will help us distribute the charity to others.

It should be noted that the giving of zakat and, especially, saudaqah goes not only to other Muslims in need, but also to non-Muslims as well. Muslims must act as khalifa, guardians of the community and the environment, to help in the process of maturing humanity, whether the individuals are Muslims or not. In that respect we try to be like the tide, lifting all boats together. We are lifting not only our community but that of the non-Muslim community as well.

Ideally, our goal should be to strive to bring everyone up to the minimum levels (myself included) that are expected of all Muslims in Islam. There are probably very few people who don't fail in one aspect of Islam or another. Are we only meeting what is expected of us with regard to the five pillars (especially that of salat, sawm, and zakat/saudaqah) but of the other aspects of a Muslim lifestyle as well? For example, do we behave with the proper adab? Do we eat halal food consistently, especially in those places where halal food and drink is not so easily available? Do we cover ourselves properly, both men and women, and lower our gaze appropriately, both men and women? Do we minimize our exposure to the negative aspects of our culture (especially as broadcast through the media and entertainment industries)? Do we minimize our exposure to the negative aspects of our economy, such as with regard to interest and casino capitalism as a whole? (I realize this last part is extremely difficult given the pervasiveness of the global interest-based economy. Still, does one try?) Islam addresses all of these issues and provides solutions for the maturation of humanity, but do we listen and implement these solutions into our lives?

Just as parents set limits on their children's behavior, Islam has set limits on our behaviors. Some, the immature, may whine and complain about those limits (with a few going into outright rebellion and/or apostasy because their egos cannot handle those limitations). However, the majority of us understand how we benefit from such self-restraint. One has only to look at the troubles plaguing the non-Muslim world, created by their indulgence in various vices, to see what we can and do avoid: the loss of wealth through gambling or the purchase of alcohol and/or drugs, the increased chance of illnesses through the consumption of alcohol, drugs or other haram products, the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, especially through zina, the loss and heartbreak of families split apart after cases of adultery, and so on. Moreover, these limitations are lifelong. We do not "graduate" from the limitations once we reach a certain age. Most, if not all, of these limitations will remain with us until death.

What also makes matters difficult is that many of these limitations have little or no ability to be enforced externally; they must be enforced internally. For example, governments can and do enforce some Islamic limitations (even by secular governments) to one degree or another. The sale of alcohol might be restricted to certain hours or prohibited altogether; the sale of various drugs may be strictly regulated or prohibited, depending upon the substance, and so forth. But other Islamic limitations are not enforced by various governments except in certain select cases; for example, riba, zina and adultery. Thus, the individual is left to him- or herself to maintain the limitations. This is the reason for the greater jihad. Can we maintain our ability as individuals and as a society to reach our full potential?

I began to write this essay last December while vacationing in Japan and reading one of Frank Herbert's Dune novels. It is unfinished, from my perspective, and perhaps I will finish it in the future, insha'allah. A couple months ago, I came across another essay, Psychology, Islam & Self-Control, that says much of what I'm trying to say here. I recommend that you read that essay as well.

June 26, 2013

Bill Cosby: We Should Be More Like Muslims

This actually came out a couple weeks ago in the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post (no less).  Bill Cosby had written an op-ed that didn't seem to gather much notice (at least from what I could observe here in Singapore); however, Bill wrote two paragraphs near the very bottom of his essay that I thought were very interesting.  He wrote:

I’m a Christian. But Muslims are misunderstood. Intentionally misunderstood. We should all be more like them. They make sense, especially with their children. There is no other group like the Black Muslims, who put so much effort into teaching children the right things, they don’t smoke, they don’t drink or overindulge in alcohol, they protect their women, they command respect. And what do these other people do?

They complain about them, they criticize them. We’d be a better world if we emulated them. We don’t have to become black Muslims, but we can embrace the things that work.

Spot on, Bill!  (Although I do think it'd be better if more Americans embraced Islam anyway.)  But had more conservatives read these two paragraphs, I think we'd have seen more heads exploding. ;)

April 1, 2013

Wag the Dog?

This is purely speculation on my part, but based on news about North Korea I've read over the years, I can't help but feel that this picture shows who's really running the show in that country. It's not the boy (Kim Jong Un) sitting down, but the generals behind him. The tail wagging the dog.

March 22, 2013

Kick Ass Democracy

"Kick ass! If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!"
— George W. Bush, during a White House videoconference call, April 6, 2004

Gotta love the hypocrisy of the Shrub's "vision" of democracy. Americans were going to force democracy down the throats of Middle Eastern countries, like Iraq and Iran, and if they didn't like it, Americans were going to "kill them" and "wipe them out" rather than accept that there could be multiple points of view that (gasp) might be voted on to see what the people there wanted.

March 21, 2013

Creativity in Children

My four-year-old daughter appears to have entered her golden age of creativity. I frequently marvel at her artistic skills and her ability to see the potential uses for various mundane objects that can be turned into a piece of art. A check that needs to be deposited into a bank needs to be kept out of sight and, more importantly, out of reach of my daughter lest she turn that little piece of paper into a pretty yellow-and-white boat.

In addition to drawing, coloring and painting, all three of which my daughter enjoys doing as often as possible, she also uses other media for her creations. A number of empty tissue boxes lie stacked in the bedroom to be turned into rabbits, cats or, in one recent case, a "zoo" for animals made out of clay. A blue drinking straw cut into short pieces required a piece of string to be made into a bracelet. However, no string could be found so she cut a very thin strip of paper to be used as a replacement. After she had strung the pieces of straw, I taped the two ends of the paper together to finish the bracelet.

Of course, not everything my daughter does turns out for the best. Last week, she stuffed a small piece of purple crayon up her right nostril. Why? We have no idea. Fortunately, the ENT, after doing a thorough examination of my daughter's nose and sinuses, could find no piece of the crayon other than for purple stains. (We return tomorrow morning to the hospital for a follow-up exam, although I don't think we'll find anything at this time.). And just this afternoon, my daughter used her toothbrush on her feet, requiring that a new toothbrush be bought.

How do we lose this creative ability we had as children as we transition into adulthood? Is it because we realize the negative consequences from being too creative? (Now that my daughter knows how painful the nasal examination can be, will she ever put another piece of crayon up her nose again?) Or do we lose the time to be creative as homework begins to take up more of the playtime that was available to children before entering primary school? Regardless of the reason, I begin to realize that I need to enjoy watching my daughter's creative behavior while it's still in full bloom.

Update: I cross-posted this essay over at Daily Kos, where it was not only rescued (my sixth essay overall and the third in the past month and a half), but I also received a number of very nice comments there. Check it out!