August 28, 2010

One Day in Ramadan

Earlier this month, I had been asked to provide an insider's perspective on Ramadan. That person had written:

I would like to know more about Ramadan ... I mean I could look it up in Wikipedia ... However, I would like to know not only about the event itself, but the event and the event [sic] from a more personal view.

This diary tries to present a small glimpse into the Ramadan experience.

4:30 a.m. - The alarm goes off to wake my wife and I up to start the new day. We eat some breakfast, take our respective sets of pills, then brush our teeth. The break of dawn doesn't begin until 5:45, but we stop all eating and drinking ten minutes earlier to make sure that, by 5:45, any remaining food or liquid in our mouths will have been swallowed.

This is my eleventh Ramadan; the first time I fasted for Ramadan was back in 2000. I had reverted to Islam only a few months earlier so, when I approached some friends at the mosque and asked them how I should prepare for fasting, they correctly advised me, "You don't." There is no correct way to prepare for fasting; you just plunge ahead and do it. The first four days of my fast were excruciatingly painful. My stomach had never gone through a full day without any food. On the fifth day, my stomach started to understand that there was not going to be any meals until supper, so the hunger pains began to let up. However, I still dealt with the issue of thirst, especially for the next nine days or so, when I ultimately discovered that the best thing to do was to keep my mouth shut, literally. Talk as little as possible (not always possible for a teacher), and breathe primarily through my nose. After that, fasting became easier. That first year, I lost a lot of weight, forcing me to buy a new, smaller belt during the middle of the month.

Fasting is about depriving one's self of some of the basic physiological necessities of life. But when one doesn't feel any hunger pangs or thirstiness during Ramadan, as I rarely do anymore, other issues come to the forefront. In recent years, I have begun to notice "themes" during Ramadan, spiritual lessons regarding different subjects that have tied into Ramadan. Ramadan is a time when there is an emphasis on feeling empathy for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. In the last few years I had had some relatively minor health issues to deal with during Ramadan (severe head aches toward the end of the day, and sticky mucus at the back of my sinuses that gave me some difficulty in breathing early in the morning). These discomforts have reminded me of those people who have little or no access to health care, something that perhaps some people take for granted, but an issue that can become the focal point of other people's lives. This year's theme has centered around family, as I suspected it would. With the sudden passing of my father-in-law earlier this year, my wife's family has worked to give more emotional support to some of the family members who have taken the loss of "Abah" the hardest.

One aspect about Ramadan that many non-Muslims don't grasp is the close connection there is between fasting and zakat, the giving of charity, which is another pillar of Islam. The two are closely connected in that both are about purification. Fasting helps to purify the body, while zakat helps to purify one's wealth. In Islam, income and wealth need to be "pure," meaning that the source or manner in which the wealth and income has been obtained must be halal. Muslims often work through moral quandaries in deciding whether to take certain jobs: Can she work as a cashier when the grocery store sells pork and alcohol? Can he work in a hotel that is attached to a casino? Can she become a teller at a bank that relies upon interest for its primary source of revenue? To help purify that money, Muslims donate some of their personal wealth each year to help the poor.* In Singapore, it is not uncommon to see people or even businesses donating food to the poor as part of their effort to give charity. (The most common food given away here is rice porridge with chicken; however, one year, I walked through a shopping center where a business was about to give out fried chickens to a long queue of people who were waiting to take some home for their dinner that night. That was one of the few times recently where I grew hungry during the day - the smell of all that chicken was very strong.)

In many countries with significant Muslim populations, the month of Ramadan has become commercialized although, at least here in Singapore, that degree of commercialization is nowhere near the level of the American Christmas season. Some countries increase the number of cooking shows and "crazy soap operas" on television (as an Internet friend living in the UAE put it). In Singapore, the commercial side of Ramadan means shopping in the Malay Village section of Geylang and Sims Roads. The difference between the Christmas and Ramadan shopping seasons, though, is that Muslim shoppers aren't necessarily looking for gifts to give. In Singapore, at least, gifts are only given to children during the Eid festivities, and the gifts are almost always some money. (I was shocked when, last year, my wife's grandmother gave me a gift of money for Eid; money, if it is given to adults, is almost always for older relatives, like parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, who may be living on fixed incomes.) Instead, Muslim shoppers normally buy merchandise to prepare their families and their homes for Eid. Thus, apparel like color-coordinated Baju Melayus for men and Baju Kurungs for women, home furnishings (curtains, cushion covers, rugs, etc.), and all sorts of traditional cookies are some of the most popular items sold at the Ramadan markets.

But ultimately, Ramadan is a religious observance, in which mosques become a little more crowded for all of the prayers other than the Friday noon congregational prayer (which remains consistently full year-round). In Singapore, evening tarawih prayers are often conducted at housing block void decks because there is not enough space in the mosques to accommodate everyone who wishes to perform them. Religious talks are often given publicly, some of which are broadcast on television, as well as Qur'an recital competitions. The hope of every Muslim during Ramadan is that each of their daily fasts are accepted by Allah (swt), in addition to all of the good deeds that they may have performed.

7:12 p.m. - I had actually fallen asleep on the bed late in the afternoon when my wife rushed into the bedroom. "Wake up! The adhan is playing!" she said as she handed me a glass of Coke Zero (not the traditional drink to break one's fast with ;) ). I swallowed a little bit of the pop while giving a prayer of thanks for having made it through another day in Ramadan. A few minutes later, my wife and I ate our dinner for the evening.

* The percentage varies depending upon the type of asset that is "zakatable," but for most Muslims who live in cities, the percentage tends to be 2.5%. Also, various assets are subject to zakat, while others are not, such as family homes. The calculations to determine zakat can become rather complex, depending upon what the person owns. BTW, zakat is a wealth tax, not an income tax.

Update: I am pleased to say that this essay has received some recognition on a few major websites. On Street Prophets, where it was originally published, the essay was immediately promoted to the Front Page. On Daily Kos, the essay was one out of only seven diaries "rescued" by the DKos volunteers. (Rescued diaries, for those who don't know, are those diaries that did not make the "Recommended List" but are deemed an overlooked "must read" essay; at DKos, it's a very high honor to have one's diary rescued as it too is mentioned on the Front Page.)

August 24, 2010

Preaching the Qur'an in Church

Larry Reimer, a minister of the United Church of Gainesville, Florida, has decided to use selected verses from the Qur'an to preach in a sermon against the proposed Qur'an burning by the Dove World Outreach Center, also of Gainesville. His attitude is, "If they can burn it, we can read it." (Read the full story here.) Several other ministers have said they will join Reimer in preaching from the Qur'an as their way of protesting the Qur'an burning.

I had been thinking about what surahs and/or verses these ministers might use in their sermons. On the one hand, I'd want something that a Christian audience could well relate to but also something that provides some foundation for trying to understand Islam (such as could be provided in 10-15 minutes). If I had a lot of time, I'd be tempted to discuss Surah Yusuf, which is the story of the Prophet Joseph (pbuh). The Qur'anic text closely follows that of the Bible and would be a familiar story to a Christian audience; alas, it would probably take too long to cover, even in a very abbreviated manner.

So, keeping things short and to the point, I would first use Surah Al-Fatihah (#1), using the Pickthall translation, which I think is more powerful in its impact:

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
The Beneficent, the Merciful.
Owner of the Day of Judgment,
Thee (alone) we worship; Thee alone we ask for help.
Show us the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou hast favored; Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

This surah has been rightly compared to the Lord's Prayer, and is the most important surah in the Qur'an, bar none. At least one author has written an entire book on this one surah alone. The remainder of the Qur'an is, in essence, a response, an answer to this surah. Each Muslim, if he or she does all five prayers required, will have recited this surah at least seventeen times each day.

The second surah I would use is Surah Al-Iklas (#112), "The Unity":

Say: He is Allah, the One!
Allah, the eternally Besought of all!
He begetteth not nor was begotten.
And there is none comparable unto Him.

At a mere four verses, this surah is not quite the shortest surah in the Qur'an, but it is probably the second-most important, after al-Fatihah. It has been described as being equivalent to one-third of the Qur'an because of its focus on Allah (swt) and the Islamic concept of Tauhid, strict monotheism.

I would wrap up the sermon with a longer passage, an excerpt from Surah Mariam (#19:16-35):

Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East.

She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.

She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (God) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear God."

He said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son.

She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"

He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed."

So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.

And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!"

But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee;

"And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.

"So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, 'I have vowed a fast to (God) Most Gracious, and this day will I not enter into talk with any human being'"

At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought!

"O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!"

But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?"

He said: "I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet;

"And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live;

"(He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable;

"So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)"!

Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.

It is not befitting to (the majesty of) God that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be", and it is.

[All of this post, except for the first paragraph, was originally published at Street Prophets: A Call to Progressive Christian Ministries: Read the Qur'an on 9/12.]

August 21, 2010

Mosques and Suraus

There has been some discussion on the Internet regarding the Park 51 community center (aka the "Ground Zero Mosque") as to whether the prayer space in the community center will be a mosque or not. This question has devolved into one even more basic: what is the difference between a mosque and a prayer space, such as one might find in a building that is not considered to be a mosque? This is my answer:

The distinction is somewhat hazy, but there is some distinction between mosques and other places in which we Muslims pray. Generally speaking, mosques are capable of holding more than 40 people (the minimum number of Muslims required for jumu'ah, the Friday congregational prayers), have a mihrab (the central niche that points the direction toward Makkah) and minbar (the pulpit from which the sermon is spoken from during jumu'ah), and normally performs all prayers with an imam present, including jumu'ah.

Here in SE Asia, we call a non-mosque facility a surau. A surau differs from a mosque in that it usually cannot fit 40 or more people in the facility*, may or may not have a mihrab, never has a minbar, and has no imams attached to the facility. They are used only for individual prayers and never for congregational prayers. (If two or more people happen to be at the surau at the same time, they may choose to pray together, but that's not considered congregational prayer.)

The Park51 facility may or may not be a mosque; it would at the very least be a surau. The key question from a Muslim perspective is, will jumu'ah be done there with the imam physically present? If yes, then it would be a mosque; if no, then it's only a surau.

* I've used several suraus over the years, the smallest of which was located in an Ikea store here in Singapore. That surau was big enough to fit in four people praying together at the absolute maximum.

August 18, 2010

The False Hope for "Reform Islam"

I came across a recent comment in which a person at Street Prophets wrote about their hope for a "reform" Islam that would be on a par with reform Judaism. the following is my response to that comment:

I hate to break this to you, but there will be no "reform" Islam anytime in the foreseeable future, insha'allah. The so-called "progressive" Muslim movement reached its peak in the early 2000s before self-imploding; their leaders were too full of ego to be able to work with each other, and they were never taken seriously (in fact, completely rejected by) the orthodox Muslim community. No group has ever taken their place, and they have no significant web presence.

A few weeks ago, in a report by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (Jordan), entitled "The 500 Most Influential Muslims - 2010," the authors broke down the worldwide Muslim population by both doctrine and ideology. The ideological divisions are as follows: Traditional Islam, Islamic Fundamentalism, and Islamic Modernism. The authors described Islamic Modernism as follows:

Islamic modernism is a reform movement started by politically-minded urbanites with scant knowledge of traditional Islam. These people had witnessed and studied Western technology and socio-political ideas, and realized that the Islamic world was being left behind technologically by the West and had become too weak to stand up to it. They blamed this weakness on what they saw as ‘traditional Islam,’ which they thought held them back and was not ‘progressive’ enough. They thus called for a complete overhaul of Islam, including — or rather in particular — Islamic law (sharia) and doctrine (aqida). Islamic modernism remains popularly an object of derision and ridicule, and is scorned by traditional Muslims and fundamentalists alike.

Of the three groups, Islamic Modernists make up the smallest percentage worldwide, at 1%. Traditional Islam come in at 96%, and Islamic Fundamentalists at 3%. (The Sufis, called "Mystic Brotherhoods" in the report, are classified (correctly) under Traditional Islam.) The Modernists have no standing to influence the Muslim community, whether in the US or any other country.

If you want to encourage the positive aspects of Islam, you must deal with orthodox Muslims. This is not simply a case of conceit or real politik, it is simple fact as verified through academic studies. A recent study (January 2010) by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina (Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans [pdf]) found that, rather than increasing radicalization, mosque membership actually helped to reduce radicalization by working on community building. Moreover, that

"This research reinforces the generally accepted observation that Muslim-Americans with a strong, traditional religious training are far less likely to radicalize than those without such training."

Likewise, a 2008 study published by the Harvard Kennedy School (Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam's Global Gathering ) found that:

...participation in the Hajj increases observance of global Islamic practices such as prayer and fasting while decreasing participation in localized practices and beliefs such as the use of amulets and dowry. It increases belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic sects and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. Increased unity within the Islamic world is not accompanied by antipathy toward non-Muslims. Instead, Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions.

So don't waste your time pining away for "reform" Islam; it is we orthodox Muslims whom you must talk with.

August 6, 2010

Darth Schwarzenegger

A humorous "recasting" of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars. NSFW (profanity).