Ramadan Around the Globe Series:
SAUDI (MAKKAH) 2010
There is no better place for I’tikaaf during the last ten days of Ramadan than the Haram in Makkah. I truly miss those days. What better place do you need more than the hometown of Islam where the Qur’an was first revealed? The emotions and ecstasy experienced there are indescribable. It is one of those beautiful feelings which you cannot describe with words, you have to live it in order to see it and feel it. Although, I have done many I’tikaafs, alhamdulillah, in many different masajid in different places in the world, including the masjid of my beloved Rasulullah, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam in Madinah, but there were none like the experience of al-Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Masjid in Makkah, may Allah preserve it and protect it. The ambience there is just amazingly sensational.
As a student of the Islamic University of Madinah back in the early 1990’s, my colleagues and I were privileged to live in the city of Rasulullah salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam for a number of years. We were also privileged to only be four hours away from Makkah. Alhamdulillah, consequently we were able to visit Makkah for Umrah frequently and enjoy the sight of the Ka’bah every chance we could catch out of school days. I can never forget the sight of the beautiful sacred house, the Ka’bah and the enormous number of people of all colors and all walks of life going in circles around it. It was breathtaking.
One of the privileges we had back then was to take the last ten days of Ramadan off, and with an extra few days for the Eid we ended up with almost two weeks off. I remember how we used to start our planning ahead of time, because we knew that we would be leaving Madinah to go to Makkah. We used to spend most of the Ramadan hours, days and nights in the Masjid of Rasulullah salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam. Just thinking of who used to walk around in this same area 1400 years ago, and who used to spend his time in this place was electrifying.
When the last day of school was over, we rushed straight to Makkah for Umrah in order to make sure that we entered the Haram and our I’tikaaf before sunset. If you want your I’tikaaf of the last ten days of Ramadan to be counted for you, then you should be in the masjid right before the first night of the last ten nights start. That means just before sunset on the 20th day of Ramadan.
Regulations in the Haram in Makkah prohibit keeping any kind of luggage, suitcases, clothes or anything of the sort a traveler might need during his stay in the Masjid for I’tikaaf. You have to keep everything outside. This prohibition put limit on what we could really carry with us for the I’tikaaf. So we carried just two or three thoubs, the traditional Arab garb, shimagh or head cover which we also used as an eye cover so that we could get the feeling of dark night, one casual short sleeved thoub for the daily activities which also served as our pajamas, few number of underwear and t-shirts, general hygiene stuff and of course books to read. In the I’tikaaf in Makkah, you need to forget about the luxury of pillows and blankets, let alone a mattress or bed. You use the carpet as your bed and the ceiling as your cover. Well, we still used the stuff we had with us, we would pile them up to make a pillow, and then use the Ihram, the two white sheets, one for a mattress or a mat to be precise and one for a blanket.
With no lockers anywhere to keep your belongings safe and with millions of people, commuters and travelers from all over the world who come to visit for Umrah, keeping our stuff outside in the open was impossible for us, as there would be no way to keep all of your things for the duration of the I’tikaaf without losing them. So we had to smuggle them in, yes, smuggle them.
We first go back to the Haram right after we are done with our Umrah, as early as possible, to look around for a prime location. The Haram during the I’tikaaf season would be divided, unofficially of course, into small lots the size of a twin mattress each, just enough for you to lay down and get some sleep. A prime location meant a place in the corner far away from the traffic. Getting close to the balcony so you could overlook the beautiful sight of the Ka’bah and the Tawaf court, was nice in the beginning, but then as people start jumping all over you to enjoy watching the sight themselves, the location was no longer so prime.
If you couldn’t get a corner location, which was almost impossible, how many corners are there in a masjid, anyways, then you would look for the wall. Taking a wall site is good because it traps your items by the wall so they won’t go anywhere, and it also limits the traffic in that area. The third in the line of favorite locations was the side of one of the main and humongous pillars of the masjid. Although you would be surrounded by others all around you, but having one side of the cubic shaped pillars gives you the base of one side all for you. If you were unable to get any of these spots then you risk ending up in the middle of the crowd and that was never a good place to be during a long I’tikaaf.
It was like a ‘urf or common law among the dwellers of the Haram, that once you settle and unload your stuff in one location that it becomes yours until the end of the I’tikaaf or unless you abandon it and take your things out of that location. Everybody respected that. Well, almost because some visitors as they looked for a place to get their nap, acted like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” They just didn’t care and would go ahead and violate the rule. They would find themselves a comfy place that did not belong to them and go to sleep. It was not that big of a deal to us but overall, people still honored the rule and respected the privacy of others.
One more thing about prime locations at the Haram is that it’s better to stay on the first floor than the ground floor where most of the heavy traffic exists. You should also stay away from the escalators and the stairways which feed the area with more visitors. And last but not least, stay in a location where you can easily have an access to the bathrooms outside, believe me its one of the most important criteria of your search. It’s not easy to remember your location when the Haram looks all symmetrical and sometimes confusing, but after getting lost a few times, you’ll get there. GPS won’t work there either, therefore you have to rely on your photographic memory, if you have one of course.
Now, how did we get our stuff in? Well, we used to take turns in getting our things through the doors. One would be outside keeping all our stuff with him, another would stay at the location to make sure it is reserved and then the third would be making trips going back and forth to get his things carried in. We would stuff the small things in our pockets, clothes under the books and look for a diversion by going through the most crowded doors. And even if you get caught with your clothes hidden between the books, you could still look for another gate and get through. The funny part was carrying the thoubs in. Some of us used to put them on one on top of another and then take them off as we entered the Haram.
Of course, we do understand why the authorities didn’t allow clothes and luggage to be brought into the masjid because if this was allowed people would abuse the system. Nevertheless, during the last ten days of Ramadan there should be some tolerance because this is temporary and for I’tikaaf purposes only. These items are very important to help those who are in I’tikaaf to stay in good health and good shape. Before we left our spot, we would make sure to fold up our stuff and squeeze them towards the wall so that they would not get messed up while people were praying Taraweeh.
After we have taken care of our accommodations, we began searching around to locate two things. First, where the scholars would be giving their daily and evening classes, and second, where the food spreads were over which some scholars and students of knowledge, especially coming from other countries, would be breaking their fast. We later learned that most of these food spreads were located on the top level of the Haram facing the gutter of the Ka’bah known as “al-Mizaab.” Every time you go there, you will be blessed with one or two or even more scholars coming from different places around the world. On these food spreads, I had the opportunity to meet scholars from Egypt, ash-Sham, India, N. Africa and other areas as well.
On the sunset of the first night of the I’tikaaf, we would already be on the top level asking around to find out who was coming and where they would be breaking their fast. If we received the news about some scholars coming over, we would make sure the others got to know about it as well.
Iftar is usually made of the magnificent, lightly roasted Arabic coffee cooked with cardamom and some other flavors, served with fresh “rutab,” the moist and early stage of the dates. Dates come in different shapes and tastes and it would be a blessing if you were served some of the most expensive Qaseemi dates that grows in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, such as sukkari, maktoomi and khalas. With that comes yogurt and freshly baked bread. Now, Bismillah.
After Maghrib prayer, we go back to congregate around the shuyukh and scholars, to listen, learn, take notes and drink a fresh cup of tea made with ‘hasawi’ mint. That tea used to give the session a whole different flavor, literally.
Later on, we would start getting ready for Isha prayer and Taraweeh afterwards. The prayer in the Tawaf court would have been the best place to stand in salat. However, since we loved to attend the sessions of Sh. al-Uthaymeen rahimahullah after Taraweeh, we had to stay on the top floor and pray right next to his official seat. If you wanted to benefit from the Ilm of the sheikh, you would need to sit as close to him as possible. Thousands attended his sessions and coming after salat to look for a space meant that you would be sitting at least a hundred yards away from him. The place would be crowded with waves of people. I have seen some very dedicated students who would preserve their spot from Asr time, and I really admire them for their devotion to the knowledge.
In the early years, the sheikh used to start right after Taraweeh and finish when they start the Tahajjud at night, that was more than four hours. SubhanaAllah, I have no idea how he was able to keep his energy level during this time for the entire ten nights. In the later years, the sessions where cut short and lasted until one hour before the Tahajjud, and even then, it was still a very long session.
The sheikh used to start by commenting on some of the ayat recited in Salat at-Taraweeh that night for about 20-25 minutes and then the session would be opened to Q & A. SubhanaAllah, the amount of Ilm one was exposed to in such a short time was amazing. Even today, I still have some of the original notes that I’d taken over the years from these sessions.
When we finished the session, we would go out to get some food for our main Iftar meal. You know the custom there was to delay the main course until after Taraweeh, which I love and enjoy. The initial Iftar was nutritious, easy and not overwhelming so that you can survive during Salat at-Taraweeh, and once you’ve finished your salat, you get to eat your main meal.
Right after that, we used to start our own personal night activities which included reading and reviewing the Qur’an, praying more qiyam, reading books using this time for devotion and meditation and the best of all doing Tawaf, as many times as we were able, around the Ka’bah. There was no way you would get bored at the Haram because every second the scene changes and the experience is different.
We stayed up during the night waiting for Salat at-Tahajjud where eight more rak’as would be performed at a slower pace than the Taraweeh, until it was finished about an hour or so before Fajr time. After that, we would go to eat our modest suhoor which we had purchased earlier when we had our Iftaar and then we prepared ourselves for Fajr prayer.
Right after Fajr, Sheikh al-Uthaymeen rahimahullah used to have another session on the ground level for almost two hours. I sometimes felt extremely tired and very sleepy, but subhanaAllah, seeing the energy of the sheikh who was at my grandfather’s age doing what he doing would empower me again to stay until the end of the session.
Thereafter, we used to get back to our hiding places, our sleeping spots, and drop down like dead bodies. We stayed asleep for the rest of the morning until Dhuhr time when we awoke for Salat. We stayed up for a while and then went back to sleep taking a power nap so that we can stay up all night again. After all, there wouldn’t be much going on during that time, anyway. Even the halaqat and sessions of knowledge are scarce and they don’t start until after Asr. Sometimes we seized the opportunity to make a relatively easier Tawaf before we head to bed.
Once Asr time starts, our day officially starts with it. We joined the few halaqat scattered around and then it would be time to get ready for Maghrib. Sometimes, we did Tawaf before we went to the top level and other times, we just went into seclusion for reading and reviewing the Qur’an. As the time of Iftar approaches, our preparation for the night increased. Once the adhan for Maghrib is announced, a new evening begins.
The program continues the same for the rest of the month except for some occasional changes based on rising opportunities such as receiving guests or family and sometimes meeting new people and old friends. Subhana’Allah, even though the space in the Haram is so huge, and the number of people is so great, but it is still a small world. You always meet some old acquaintance, as if they fell from the sky. One year, I even met my own mother who decided at the last minute to come for Umrah with my father! We didn’t have cell phones back then and there was no way to send me a message about their arrival. It was a friend of mine who met my father and sent me to him.
Although, the entire season is special but two nights were the most special nights in the entire month of Ramadan, the night of the 27th and the 29th. At least that’s how people behaved on these two nights. The 27th is regarded as Laylatul Qadr, and the 29th is the night of Khatmul Qur’an, the completion of the recitation of the Qur’an. I remember when Sheikh as-Sudays used to pray the witr after finishing the Taraweeh and then he would pray the witr again after the Tahajjud, but then it was announced that the witr in the last ten nights would be performed only once after Tahajjud. And even this, was later changed to only after Taraweeh. Another year, the sheikh did not pray the Tahajjud and it was left for other shuyukh to lead but without praying witr at the end.
One of the most dramatic changes that I witnessed during those years of I’tikaaf was moving the Khatmul Qur’an to the night of the 27th. The Imam of al-Haram, announced using the loud speakers, which was unusual, that in order to receive the blessings of that night in particular they wanted to join the Khatmul Qur’an with what is regarded as Laylatul Qadr. Another reason for this change, was in order to help people, and the visitors in particular, to attend the completion of the Qur’an and then get a chance to travel back home and attend Eid day with their families.
This change created a very dangerous and hazardous situation in the Haram. After the change was announced, people came from all over the country and from the surrounding countries as well, just to witness that night. It was within driving distance for the most of them. The Haram, as huge as it appears, was overpopulated to the extent where people started praying on top of the walls on the top level exposing themselves to an extremely perilous situation. People filled every space you can think of and spaces you cannot even think of. The escalators crashed and the stairways were closed because people were trying to get to the upper levels as the gates to the lower levels were closed. The authorities tried to keep people out but visitors would push their way through. It was a very dangerous situation. In addition to this, once the Imam finished, people were trying to leave as early as possible and the situation almost caused stampedes all over the area of the Haram. The Imams of the Haram, realizing the danger, announced the following night that this combining of events would not happen again next year and that the Khatmul Qur’an would be restored back to the night of the 29th.
That year, when they moved the Khatmul Qur’an to the night of the 27th, the following two or three nights left of the month of Ramadan were the most peaceful nights of the month. Most of the visitors left and the Haram became almost empty. Overall, it was a one-of-a-kind experience that I was able to attend and witness.
I still remember one night when I had to leave quickly with a guest, a friend who was visiting with his mother for Umrah, and we had to go after Maghrib to get ourselves and his mother some food, it was impossible. People were like in a disaster zone, they were all trying to buy food. We didn’t know why it was so different that night but it appeared that they were getting ready for their journey after the Salat. We couldn’t get anything neither for his mother nor for ourselves, and when we tried to get back to the Haram the guards were already closing the doors to the upper levels and the escalators were all closed. I had to take him to some unknown paths, at least unknown to the common visitors, and then find our way up. To our surprise, there was no space at all. We had to wait until the Iqama was called and struggle to squeeze ourselves into the line even if we were standing somewhat sideways. It was an amazing and unforgettable night, which not too many people have had the good fortune to experience.
The blessings of the I’tikaaf are so many, and some of the lessons Imam Ibnul Qayyim, rahimahullah, suggested we learn from this experience are:
- It is a form of ‘Khalwa’ that is living in seclusion – to a certain extent – where you can focus on your nafs and personal Ibadah and worship.
- It is a chance to connect with the Divine subhanahu wa ta’ala because your focus is solely on pleasing Him and Him alone.
- It is a spiritual rehab and escape from the pressure of this life. You live a stress-free life for few days only for the sake of Allah.
- You learn to limit your interaction with people and increase your interaction with your own self. It is like a moment of ‘muhasaba‘ were you review your ‘amal -work- and check and balance your book of deeds.
- It is a chance to explore your potential and an opportunity to see how much you can really bear of the different acts of Ibadah you expose yourself to in such a very short time.
The last part of this experience for us was witnessing the Eid day. During the last night of Ramadan, everyone is in a high level of excitement in anticipation for the Eid announcement. If the next day was still Ramadan, then alhamdulillah, we would get to pray one more night of Taraweeh and Tahajjud and if Eid was the next day, then there would be an important thing to do before anything else. You had to run to your sleeping space and pick everything up with you, otherwise it would be swept out with everything on the floor. You see, during the last ten nights of Ramadan, other than the vacuum cleaners, the janitorial work would stop temporarily until the night of Eid. So right after Isha, in preparation for the Eid salat, the workers would start to take everything off the floor. Literally, everything. They sweep and wash and mop the floor of the entire Grand Masjid and then they place new carpet. Whatever is left down there will be piled up in one corner and you would be blessed if you can find anything of your own belongings.
SubhanaAllah, that night was one of the most depressing nights for us. After living for ten nights in the Haram, when it was full with people and full with duroos and activities, suddenly the hustle and bustle is gone and you are back to the reality of life. The place would be empty, absolutely empty. A temporary feeling of void would fill your heart and you would suddenly break into tears. At the end, you realize that you’re once again back on your own.
Once Salatul Eid is performed in a majestic ambience and atmosphere, in the Grand Masjid in Makkah, we headed straight to the bus station. We took a bus ride back to Madinah and returned with some unforgettable memories of I’tikaaf.
Ramadan 26, 1431 H.
September 5, 2010
The Spirituality Of Gratitude
The Quran tells the reader of the importance of gratitude in two ways. First, worship, which is the essence of the relationship between man and the Creator, is conditional to gratitude “and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship” (2:172). The verse suggests that in order for an individual to truly worship Allah then they must express gratitude to Allah and that an ungrateful individual cannot be a worshiper of Allah. The second verse states the following “And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (2:152). The Arabic word used, translated here as ‘deny,’ is kufr which linguistically means to cover up. The word was adopted by the Quran to refer to someone who rejects Allah after learning of Him. Both the linguistic and Quranic definitions are possibly meant in this verse and both arrive at the same conclusion. That is, the absence of gratitude is an indicator of one’s rejection of Allah; the question is how and why?
What Does Shukr Mean?
Understanding a Quranic concept begins with understanding the word chosen by the Quran. The word shukr is used throughout the Quran and is commonly translated as gratitude. From a purely linguistic definition, shukr is “the effect food has on the body of an animal” (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 200). What is meant here is that when an animal eats food it becomes heavier which has a clear and visible effect on the animal. Therefore, shukr is the manifestation of a blessing or blessings on the entirety of a person. From here, spiritualists understood the goal of shukr and added an extra element to the definition and that is the acknowledgment that those blessings are from Allah. Thus, the definition of shukr as an Islamic spiritual concept is “the manifestation of Allah’s blessings verbally through praise and acknowledgment; emotionally on the heart through witnessing the blessings and loving Allah; and physically through submission and servitude” (Ibid).
Based on this definition, the goal of shukr can be broken into five categories. First, gratitude that brings about the submission of the individual to his benefactor. In order for an act to be worthy of gratitude, the beneficiary must conclude that the benefactor’s action was done for the sake of the beneficiary – thus making the benefactor benevolent. In other words, the benefactor is not benefiting in the least (Emmons et al 2004 p. 62). When the individual recognizes his benefactor, Allah, as being completely independent of the individual and perfect in of himself, one concludes that the actions of the benefactor are purely in the best interest of the beneficiary resulting in the building of trust in Allah. The Quran utilizes this point multiple times explicitly stating that Allah has nothing to gain from the creations servitude nor does he lose anything from because of their disobedience (Q 2:255, 4:133, 35:15, 47:38). Through shukr, a person’s spirituality increases by recognizing Allah’s perfection and their own imperfection thus building the feeling of need for Allah and trust in him (Emmons et al 2002 p. 463).
Gratitude in Knowing That Allah Loves Us
The second category is love for the benefactor. Similar to the previous category, by identifying the motive of the benefactor one can better appreciate their favors. “Gratitude is fundamentally a moral affect with empathy at its foundation: In order to acknowledge the cost of the gift, the recipient must identity with the psychological state of the one who has provided it” (Emmons 2002 p. 461). That is, by recognizing Allah’s perfection one concludes that his blessings are entirely in the best interest of the beneficiary despite not bringing any return to Him. Thus, the Quran utilizes this concept repeatedly and to list a few, the Quran reminds the human reader that he created the human species directly with his two hands (38:75), he created them in the best physical and mental form (95:4), gave him nobility (17:70), commanded the angels to prostrate to him out of reverence (38:72-3), made him unique by giving him knowledge and language (2:31), exiled Satan who refused to revere him (7:13), allowed him into Paradise (7:19), forgave his mistake (2:37), designated angels to protect each individual (13:11) and supplicate Allah to forgive the believers (40:7-9), created an entire world that caters to his needs (2:29), among plenty of other blessings which express Allah’s love, care, and compassion of the human.
The remaining three categories revolve around the individual acting upon their gratitude by acknowledging them, praising Allah for them and using them in a manner acceptable to Allah. In order for gratitude to play a role in spirituality the blessings one enjoys must be utilized in a manner that connects them with Allah. Initially, one must acknowledge that all blessings are from him thus establishing a connection between the self and Allah. This is then elevated to where the individual views these blessings as more than inanimate objects but entities that serve a purpose. By doing this one begins to see and appreciate the wisdoms behind these created entities enlightening the individual to the Creators abilities and qualities. Finally, after recognizing the general and specific wisdoms behind each creation, one feels a greater sense of purpose, responsibility, and loyalty. That is, engaging the previous five categories establishes love for the benefactor (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 203). Observing the care and compassion of the benefactor for his creation establishes the feeling of loyalty towards the one who has cared for us as well as responsibility since He created everything with purpose.
Blessings Even in Hardship
One may interject by referring to the many individuals and societies that are plagued with hardships and do not have blessings to appreciate. No doubt this is a reality and the Quran address this indirectly. Upon analysis, one finds that the blessings which the Quran references and encourages the reader to appreciate are not wealth or health; rather, it is the sun, the moon, trees, and the natural world in general. Perhaps the reason for this is what shukr seeks to drive us towards. There are two things all these objects have in common (1) they are gifts given by Allah to all humans and all individuals enjoy them and (2) humans are dependent upon them. Everyone has access to the sun, no one can take it away, and we are critically dependent upon it. When the Quran draws our attention to these blessings, the reader should begin to appreciate the natural world at a different level and Surah an Nahl does precisely that. This chapter was likely revealed during the time of hijrah (immigration); a time when the companions lost everything – their homes, wealth, and tribes. The chapter works to counsel them by teaching them that the true blessings a person enjoys is all around them and no matter how much was taken from them, no one can take away the greater blessings of Allah.
In sum, these verses bring light to the crucial role shukr plays in faith. It serves as a means to better know Allah which can be achieved through a series of phases. First, the individual must search for the blessings which then leads to a shift in perspective from focusing on the wants to focusing on what is available. This leads to greater appreciation and recognition of the positives in one’s life allowing the person more optimism. Second, the person must link those blessings to the benefactor – Allah – which reveals many elements of who He is and His concern for His creation. Once this is internalized in the person’s hearts, its benefits begin to manifest itself on the person’s heart, mind, and body; it manifests itself in the form of love for Allah and submission to him. Shukr ultimately reveals the extent of Allah’s love and concern for the individual which therein strengthens the trust and love of the individual for Allah and ultimately their submission to Him.
Allah knows best.
Emmons, Robert A., and Charles M. Shelton. “Gratitude and the science of positive psychology.” Handbook of positive psychology 18 (2002): 459-471.
Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough, eds. The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Jawziyyah, Ibn Qayyim. madārij al-sālikīn bayn manāzil iyyāka naʿbud wa iyyāka nastaʿīn مدارج السالكين بين منازل إياك نعبد وإياك نستعين [The Levels of Spirituality between the Dynamics of “It is You Alone we Worship and it is You Alone we Seek Help From]. Cario: Hadith Publications, 2005.
 Islamically speaking, it is not befitting to claim that Allah has a psyche or that he can be analyzed psychologically.
Download a longer version of this article here: The Sprituality of Gratitude
When Faith Hurts: Do Good Deeds = Good Life?
Loving Allah and trusting the Wisdom and Purpose in everything He throws your way- even if it hurts. It is a time to learn.
The Messenger of Allah said that the faith in our hearts wears out the way our clothes wear out. Deterioration, maintenance, and renewal are part of the cycle. That’s life with all that hurts. That’s normal.
But what happens when that’s life, but life is not your normal? What happens when it feels like life isn’t normal, hasn’t been normal, and won’t be normal for a foreseeably long time? For some of us, refreshing faith becomes secondary to just keeping it.
It’s easier to say Alhamdulillah when you are happy. It’s harder when you’re not. That’s human nature though. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with what we teach about faith that can leave us unprepared for when Allah tests it. I believe that our discussions about faith tend to be overly simplistic. They revolve around a few basic concepts, and are more or less summed up with:
Faith = Happiness
Righteousness = Ease
Prayer = Problem Solved
Good Deeds Equals Good Life?
Basically, the TLDR is Good Deeds = The Good Life. None of these statements are technically untrue. The sweetness of faith is a joy that is beyond any other gratitude, for any other thing in this world. Righteousness in the sight of Allah will put you on the path to the good life in the afterlife. Making dua can be the solution to your problems. But when we say these things to people who have true faith but not happiness, or righteous behavior yet distressing hardship, we’re kind of implying that that either Islam is broken (because their prayers seem unanswered), or they are broken (because their prayers are undeserving of answers.) And neither of those is true either.
Allow me to elaborate. I think it’s safe to say that there is not a single parent who has not begged Allah to make their sick or disabled child well again. Yet, our Ummah still has sick and disabled children. Through history, people have begged Allah for a loved one’s life, and then buried them – so is prayer not equal to problem solved?
Many righteous people stand up, and are then ostracized for their faith. Many people speak truth in the face of a tyrant only to be punished for it. Many of us live with complete conviction, with unshakeable belief in the existence and wisdom and mercy of Allah, and still find ourselves unhappy and afraid of what He has willed for us.
Are We Broken?
No, but our spiritual education is. In order to fix it, we have to be upfront with each other. We have to admit that we can be happy with Allah and still find ourselves devastated by the tests He puts before us, because faith is not a protection from struggle.
Has anyone ever said this to you? Have you ever said this to anyone else?
No one ever told me. It was hard for me to learn that lesson on my own, when I pleaded with Allah to make my son’s autism go away, and it didn’t. Everyone told me –Make dua! The prayer of a mother for her child is special! Allah will never turn you down!
It was hard trying to make sense of what seemed like conflicting messages- that Allah knows best, but a mother’s prayer is always answered. It was even harder facing people who tried to reassure me of that, even when it obviously wasn’t working.
“Just make dua! Allah will respond!”
I’m sure people mean well. But it’s hard not to be offended. Either they assume I have never bothered to pray for my son, or they imply that there must be good reason why Allah’s not granting to my prayers. What they don’t consider is that allowing my test to persist – even if I don’t want it to- is also a valid response from Allah.
I have been told to think back in my life, and try to determine what sin caused my child’s disability, as if the only reason why Allah wouldn’t give me what I asked for was because I was so bad I didn’t deserve it. As if good deeds equaled the good life, and if my life wasn’t good, it’s because I hadn’t been good either.
Bad Things Happen to Good People
You can assume whatever you like about my character, but bad things do happen to good people, even when they pray. You can try your hardest and still fall short. You can pray your whole life for something that will never come to you. And strength of faith in that circumstance doesn’t mean living in a state of unfulfilled hope, it means accepting the wisdom in the test that Allah has decreed for you.
That’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it. When we talk about prayer and hope, we prefer to talk about Zakariyyah – who begged Allah for a child and was gifted with one long after anyone thought it even possible. But we also need to talk about Abu Talib.
The Prophet Muhammad was raised by his uncle Abu Talib, and in his mission to preach Islam he was protected by Abu Talib. But Abu Talib died without accepting Islam, was there something wrong with the Prophet, that Allah did not give him what he asked for? Was he not good enough? Did he not pray hard enough? Astaghfirullah, no. So if Prophets of God can ask for things and still not get them, why are we assuming otherwise for ourselves?
Making a Bargain with Allah
If we can understand that faith is not a contract for which we trade prayers for services, then maybe we can cope better when fate cannot be bargained with. Maybe it won’t have to hurt so bad – on spiritual level – when Allah withholds what we ask for, even when we asked for the “right” things in the right way and at all the right times.
Life is not simple. Faith is not simple. The will of Allah is not simple, no matter how much we want it to be, and when oversimplify it, we create a Muslim version of Prosperity Gospel without meaning to.
If you’ve never heard of it, prosperity gospel is a religious belief among some Christians that health and wealth and success are the will of God, and therefore faith, good deeds and charity increase one’s wellbeing. Have faith, and God will reward you in this life and the next. That’s nice. But it’s too simple. Because the belief that Good Deeds = The Good Life doesn’t explain how Ibraheem ’s father tried to have him burnt alive.
Yusuf ’s brothers left him for dead in the bottom of a well. He grew up a slave and spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Aasiya – the wife of the Pharoah – one of the four best women in the history of womankind – died from her husband’s torture.
Good people are not guaranteed good lives. Islam is what we need, not a system of practices that we use to fulfill our needs.
When we limit our understanding of faith to a simplistic, almost contractual relationship with Allah, then we can’t even explain the things that Allah Tested His own prophets with.
Nor can we understand, or even begin to cope with- what He Tests the rest of us with either. We have to be real in our talk about faith, because otherwise we set each other up for unrealistic expectations and lack of preparation for when we face hardship. Faith is not protection from hardship. Faith is part of hardship. And hardship is part of faith.
Allah asks us in the opening of Surah ‘Ankabut,
Do people think once they say, “We believe,” that they will be left without being put to the test? We certainly tested those before them. And ˹in this way˺ Allah will clearly distinguish between those who are truthful and those who are liars.
Allah says in Surah Baqarah, ayah 155: “And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of the fruits of your labor. But give glad tidings to those who are patient in adversity.
Allah Tests Everyone Differently
Allah tests each of us differently, but in every single case – every single time – a test is an invitation to success. Hardship is the process through which we prove ourselves. Experiencing it– and then drawing closer to Allah through it –is how faith is tested as well as strengthened.
If we can change how we perceive hardship, then we can also change how we perceive each other. On our cultural subconscious, we still see worldly failure as being equivalent to spiritual failure. So when we see people who are homeless, we assume fault. When we see people facing depression or divorce, we assume fault. We even look at refugees and victims and special needs children and we look for fault. Because if it’s that bad then it’s has to be someone’s fault, right?
Fault is how we place blame. Blame is how we know whose mistake it is. But the will of Allah is never a mistake, it’s a test. Instead of faulting each other for what Allah tests us with, we could respect each other for the struggles we all endure. We could see each other with more compassion for our challenges, and less aversion when Allah tests us with dealing each other.
So when you’ve done things the right way, but the right things aren’t happening. Or you’ve been charitable to others, and they’re being evil towards you. Or you’ve earned only halal, but haram- it’s been taken away from you, remember this- your faith is being tested. Allah tests those that He loves. When He raises the difficulty level, Allah is extending a direct invitation for you to climb higher.
So How Do We Succeed When Faced With Failure?
The first thing to do is redefine failure. There is only one true failure in this life, and that is dying on the wrong side of Siraat ul Mustaqeem, because if close your eyes and wake up in Jahannam, no success in this life can compensate for that.
I find that helpful to remember, when I fail to stay fit because I can’t exercise without hurting myself, when I fail to fast in Ramadan because it’s dangerous for me to do so- when I fail to discover a cure for my family’s personal assortment of medical issues through rigorous internet “research,” none of that is my failure either. And I can feel a lot of different ways about these situations, but I do not feel guilty- because it’s not my fault. And I do not feel bitter, because my test is my honor. Even when I do feel scared.
Being scared in not a failure either. Neither is being unemployed. Being unmarried is not a failure. Being childless is not a failure. Being divorced is not a failure. Nothing unpleasant or miserable or unexpected is a failure. It’s all just a test, and seeing it as a test means you have the state of mind to look for the correct answers.
Not even sin is failure, because as long as you are alive, your sin stands as an invitation to forgiveness. The bigger the sin, the greater the blessings of repenting from it. Everything that goes bad is the opening of the door for good. A major sin can be the first step on a journey that starts with repentance and moves you closer to Allah every day thereafter. Sin only becomes failure when it takes you farther away from Allah, rather than closer to him.
Jahannam is the Only Failure
Addiction is not a failure. Depression is not a failure. Poverty is not a failure. Jahannam is the only failure. Everything else is a gap in expectations.
You assumed you would have something, but it’s not written for you. You assumed you’d ask Allah for something and He’d give it to you, but what is that assumption based on again? That good deeds are the guarantee to the good life, and that prayer equals problem solved?
Allah has all the knowledge, Allah has the wisdom, Allah is the best of Planners – how are you assuming that your wishes supersede His will? Even when you put your wishes in the form of a prayer?
They don’t. It is absolutely true that Allah may choose to rewrite Qadr itself based on your prayers – but that’s still His choice. Allah has always, and will always be in control of this world. And that means your world too. If you still think you’re in control, you will find it really, really hard to cope the first time you realize you’re not.
When we understand that we don’t get to control what happens and what doesn’t, we can then release ourselves from the misplaced guilt of things going wrong. Lots of special needs parents struggle with guilt. I meet them often – and every single parent has asked the question- directly or indirectly-
What did I do for my child to deserve this?
Can you hear the presumption in there? That the parents were good, so why did something bad happen? They were expecting for good deeds to equal the good life.
There’s a second presumption in there too, that their life choices were a determining factor of what happened to their child. That is a presumption of control. And as long as you try to hold on to that presumption of control, there is the constant feeling of failure when it just doesn’t work the way you think it will.
I am not proposing that we lose hope in Allah and despair of His Mercy. I am in no way insinuating that Allah doesn’t hear every prayer, hasn’t counted every tear, and isn’t intimately aware of your pain and your challenges. Allah hears your prayers, and in His wisdom, sometimes he grants us exactly what we want. In His Wisdom, sometimes he grants us exactly what we need.
Even if we don’t see it.
Even if it scares us.
Even if it hurts us – because Allah has promised that He will never, ever break us.
Allah Tests Us in His Mercy
I am proposing that we put trust in the wisdom of Allah, and understand that when He tests us, that is part of his mercy, not a deviation from it. When He grants something to us, that is part of His mercy, and when he withholds something from us, that too is part of His Mercy, even if we don’t like it. Even when we ask Him to take it away.
The third thing I would like to propose, is that we correct our understanding of – Fa Inna Ma’Al usri yusraa, Inna Ma’al usri yusra.
So verily, definitely, for sure- with hardship there is ease. Again, Inna – for sure, with hardship there is ease.
I’m sure lots of you have said this to people you loved, or to yourself when you’re struggling with something and you’re just trying to get through it. But did you mean that this hardship will end, and then things will be good again? Like as soon as things have been hard for a while, Allah will make them easy again?
Would you believe that’s not really what that means? Ma’a means with, not after. With this hardship, there is ease. And maybe you’re like aww man, but I wanted the ease! I want the hardship to go away and Allah I’m ready for my ease now!
But that hardship, will bring you ease. Allah does not tell us what the ease will be, or when it will be- but He says it’s there, so trust Him. Even if you can’t see it right away, or in this life –it will become apparent.
I can tell you some of the ease I found with mine.
Learning When It Hurts
When my son was diagnosed with autism, my husband and I had to drop everything. We dropped our plans to save, to travel, and to live the charmed life of neurotypical parents whose only fears are that their children may grow up and NOT become Muslim doctors. We spent our earnings and our savings and our time and our nights and our tears and Alhamdulillah, we learned patience. We learned perspective. We learned compassion.
We really learned what we thought we already knew – about unconditional love and acceptance. We learned to be bigger than our fears, and smaller than our own egos. We learned to give and take help. We learn to accept what wisdom our cultures could offer us, and respectfully decline what did not. We learn to set boundaries and make rules that did justice by our children and our family, regardless of whether they were popular. With hardship comes ease.
When we couldn’t afford therapy for my son, my husband and I founded a not for profit organization in the UAE that provided it for my son and dozens of other people’s sons and daughters. Three and a half years ago I left that organization to seek better educational opportunities for my son here in the US, but it’s still running. The seed that our challenges planted has grown into something beyond us. With our hardship came ease for ourselves and others as well.
When I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, my health issues were upgraded from challenging to permanent. I had to rethink how I lived, how I planned, how I dressed, and even – my relationship with Allah. But if I had never been sick, I would never have started writing. When it hurt, I wrote. When I was scared, I wrote. When I was lonely, I wrote. And by and by the grindstone of fear and sickness and frustration sharpened my skills. Where I am today both spiritually and professionally – is actually a direct result of both autism and chronic illness. With hardship comes ease.
I don’t like my hardships, but I don’t have to. You don’t have to either. Being a good Muslim doesn’t always mean being a happy Muslim. It just means being Muslim, no matter the circumstances.
That means loving Allah and trusting the Wisdom and Purpose in everything He throws your way – even if not loving everything He throws your way. You may hate your circumstances, and you may not be able to do anything about them, but as long as you trust Allah and use your hardships to come closer to him, you cannot fail, even if this life, you feel as if you never really succeeded.
Faith Wears Out In Our hearts, The Way Our Cothes Wear Out on Our Bodies
The hardship that damages and stains us is Allah’s invitation to repair, renew, and refresh ourselves. Our test are an invitation, an opportunity, an obstacle – but not a punishment or divine cruelty. And when we know that those tests will come, and some may even stay, then we can be better prepared for it.
Trust Allah when He says that He does not burden any soul with more than it can bear. He told us so in Surah Baqarah Ayah 286. Remember that when you are afraid, and Allah will never cause your fear to destroy you. Take your fear to Allah, and He will strengthen you, and reward you for your bravery.
Remember that when you are in pain. Allah will never cause your pain to destroy you. Take your pain to Him, and He will soothe you and reward you for your patience. Take it all to Allah – the loneliness, the anxiety, the confusion. Do not assume that the only emotions a “good Muslim” takes to Allah are gratitude and happiness and awe. Take them all to Allah, uncertainty, disappointment, anger — and He will bless you in all of those states, and guide you to what is better for you in this life, and the next, even if it’s not what you expected.
The struggles in your life are a test, and whether you pass or fail is not determined on whether you conquer them, only on whether you endure them. Expect that they will come, because having faith is not protection from struggle. Faith is protection from being broken by the struggle.
I ask Allah to protect us all from hardship, but protect us in our hardships as well. I ask Allah to grant us peace from His peace, and strength from His strength, to patiently endure and grow through our endurance.
Do You Know These Heroes of Eid?
Ramadan is a time of sacrifice, and the Eid honors and celebrates the fulfillment of that sacrifice. But for many the hardships do not end.
Ramadan is a time of sacrifice, and the Eid honors and celebrates the fulfillment of that sacrifice. But for many the hardships do not end.
Between one million and three million Muslims are being detained in concentration camps in China, while masjids are being demolished and imams executed.
The Rohingya Muslims of Burma continue to suffer from terrible persecution. In one Rohingya refugee camp on the Burma / Bangladesh border there are half a million children. These children are banned by the Burmese authorities from attending school and are at risk of early marriage, child labor or being trafficked.
In the Central African Republic, the Muslim minority lives in daily fear of being killed, especially in the south.
The Palestinians continue to suffer after seventy years of occupation, with no end in sight.
Russian and Assad regime attacks on civilians continue in Syria, with the real possibility of an upcoming genocide in Idlib province.
In the midst of this all suffering, heroes abound. There’s Serikzhan Bilash of Kazakhstan, who has labored feverishly to document China’s internment of Muslims across the border. He urges those in his organization to continue their work, even as he himself has been arrested.
Those Rohingya children I mentioned in the refugee camp, banned from attending school? One 14-year-old Rohingya girl mentioned in the article has managed to enroll in school in Bangladesh. Her mother sold her food rations and borrowed money to create a fake Bangladeshi birth certificate, then paid a smuggler to take her daughter out of the camp. The girl herself says, “People hate the Rohingya here. I don’t tell people I am one… I have to lie about my identity to survive. Even though it’s a big struggle… I am able to study. There are hundreds of thousands of kids like me inside of the camps who are forced to marry off early…They have no opportunities.”
Also in that camp is 13-year-old Halim, who runs his own tutoring service, where he teaches more than 20 children. He says, “I am teaching them so they can do something for our nation. If they don’t learn anything, they can’t prosper in their life, as well as they can’t fight for the nation.”
In Palestine, let us not forget Razan al-Najjar, a 21-year-old volunteer paramedic from Gaza who was shot by an Israeli sniper on June 1, 2018, while tending to a tear gas victim. In her last Facebook post, the day before she was killed, she wrote, “Your conscience will be comforted as much as possible since God always knows your intention. #sleep_well Be good.”
In Syria, we have Dr. Omar Ibrahim, an Egyptian neurosurgeon who could probably be earning a hefty salary anywhere in the world, but instead labors under constant bombardment in the war-torn and half crushed city of Idlib. He’s been in Syria for five years and says, “I have no regrets about doing this work. Because I have passion for my work, and this work inspires me.”
A Religion of Heroes
Such stories are amazing, but they are not unique. There are countless heroes, and should that surprise us? Islam is a religion of heroes, and has always been so, going all the way back to its inception in Makkah, when the Prophet Muhammad (sws) drew around himself the weak and powerless, the slaves and foreigners. They were tortured, but did not surrender their new faith. Heroes.
Or, several years later, when the disbelievers of Arabia came in great numbers to wipe the Muslims off the face of the earth. The Muslims dug a great trench around Madinah, and held off the attackers under conditions of hunger and terrible cold, until – with Allah’s help – the siege was broken. Heroes.
So if you thought such heroes were a thing of the past, remember Serikzhan Bilash, the Rohingya girl, Halim, Razan al-Najjar, Dr. Omar Ibrahim and the untold, uncounted heroes like them. You may even know a few heroes personally. I do.
There’s my friend Karim, who works for an organization that sponsors Muslim orphans. He’s overworked and underpaid, and struggles to support his family and two children. He’s highly experienced and could earn more somewhere else. But he sticks with it because he believes in Islamic work.
I think also of my daughter’s homeroom teacher, sister Sharmeen. She’s an enthusiastic teacher who pushes the children to read, write and understand the roots of language. She does more than is required and is not appreciated as she should be. But once again, her passion drives her.
Persistence of Dua’
Our local Imam recently gave a khutbah about the importance of dua’. He said that Allah loves the dua’ that is persistent. Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allaah have mercy on him) said in al-Daa’ wa’l-Dawa’: “One of the most beneficial of remedies is persisting in dua’.”
So be persistent. Pray for our suffering Ummah, and pray for our heroes. And donate whatever you can spare to the organizations that work on their behalf.
My Ordinary Life
As for me, my life is ordinary. On the morning of Eid, I, my mother and my daughter Salma – who is twelve years old now – wake up early and put on our best clothes, inshaAllah. We get in the car and stop at Krispy Kreme donuts. I buy a box of a dozen to share with others after Salat al-Eid, and a few extras in a bag for our family, so we don’t have to wait in a long line and elbow people to snatch a cruller.
I pick up my cousin’s son, who does not have a car. We go downtown to the Fresno convention center and sit among a thousand other Muslims. We recite the Takbeerat al-Eid, praising Allah’s greatness. The Eid salat begins, then I strain to hear the khutbah as so many people begin chattering right away. Especially, the sisters. Sorry ladies, but it’s true :-)
I know, it all sounds a bit silly, but I’m excited. It’s a wonderful day. I see brothers that I haven’t seen since last year. Everyone is wearing their best outfits.
But it’s not about the donuts or the nice clothes. It is this feeling of sharing a connection with every Muslim around the world; a feeling of being part of something great.
When we return home, my mother makes cookies, and we put some decorations on the walls. Salma opens her presents, which this year are a new Switch game, a dartboard and a pearl necklace. It’s the first piece of real jewelry I’ve ever bought her. Buying it left me with $18 in my bank account, which means I predict a lot of Uber driving (my side job) in my near future. So I hope she likes it.
On such days, I thank Allah that I am alive to see another sunrise. Another day to strive to be a better Muslim and a better human being.
The Spirit of the Prophets
I also talk to Salma, as I do every year, about our Muslim brothers and sisters who are struggling all over the world, fighting for their freedom and their very survival. They don’t have pizza and donuts on Eid or pearl necklaces. Some are starving. Most have lost someone: a parent, a child, a sibling or a friend. Some have been utterly devastated.
Yet they are resolute. They have a deep strength that, like the well of Zamzam, never runs dry, SubhanAllah. They will not give up their hopes, their dreams or their faith, Allah willing.
These are the real heroes of Eid. I feel small next to them. They are the ones living the spirit of the Prophets and the Sahabah. They have made the greatest sacrifices, and are still striving, undaunted. They are living the words of Allah:
“Say: ‘Verily, my ṣalāh, my sacrifice, my living, and my dying are all for Allāh, the Lord of the ‘Alameen’” (6:162).
May Allah ease the hearts of all who are suffering, replace pain with comfort and joy, sickness with health, oppression with liberation, and tyranny with freedom. May Allah give them security, safety, comfort, victory, and Jannah.