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The Prophet and Secrets To A Good Death

Dr Muhammad Wajid Akhter

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The patient couldn’t speak now, but she motioned to my pen. I handed it to her with her own notes – a mistake in retrospect. I need not have worried as she was in no fit state to read. She scribbled on words that broke my heart.

“Doctor, I’m dying aren’t I?”

I whispered back “Yes.”

She nodded; a large tear fell down the side of her face. I tried hard to stop my own tears falling too.

I wasn’t emotional because she was dying, as a doctor you unfortunately get used to death very quickly. No, I was upset because of how she was dying. She was in pain, she was struggling to take breaths, and her family had not yet arrived in their own car as the ambulance had managed to cut through traffic and they hadn’t.

I held her hand as her breaths became shallower, only stepping away when her husband and children finally made it to her bedside just as she slipped away.

It’s difficult to argue that this was a good death. This lady had spent her last moments surrounded by strangers, in a cold and uncomfortable emergency room bed and with the cacophony of hospital equipment as the last sounds in her ears. Her relatives had to give rushed goodbyes.

A bad death

Scenes like this play out every single minute of every single day across the world. In fact, for something we’ve been doing since the beginning of time and despite all the advancements in medical science – the human race is remarkably bad at dying.

The odds are that most of us reading this article will pass away in a manner that leaves much to be desired. [1] We may be taken to a hospital even though there was little to no benefit in doing so, passing away in an ambulance or an emergency room with tubes stuck down our throats and needles in our arms while medics surround us decide what the next move will be and how they’ll break the news to our shocked families, even if all the signs had been pointing towards this for months or even years.

Death is difficult enough without the often-preventable complications that make it more painful and stressful than it needs to be. Even though we don’t talk about it much, there is such a thing as having a “good death.” [2]

What is a “good death”?

A “good death” – the very term seems like the ultimate oxymoron. After all, what can be good about death? It’s the ultimate in bad news. In fact, on a scale of bad things that can happen to someone, death seems likely to be the worst.

Yet, as anyone who has come across death on a regular basis will tell you, there are such things as good and bad deaths. An entire medical speciality called Palliative Care was created to facilitate the former.

From an Islamic perspective a good death is one in which the person dies with Allah being pleased with him or her, or engaged in an action or at a time that is considered pious. [3], [4] While we can never know who is in possession of divine favour, we do know that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mentioned certain times, modes and places of deaths as having special significance. For example, I remember vividly recalling that family members of Hujjaj, who died in the horrific tunnel collapse of 1990, were comforted by the fact that their relatives died on holy land whilst on the pilgrimage.

However, the commonly held Muslim view of a good death is lacking. It almost entirely revolves around the unknowable relationship between the deceased and Allah, while neglecting more practical temporal aspects. For the purposes of this essay, I want to explore the practical side of a “good death” and show that this is actually part of a neglected Prophetic tradition that we can and should revive.

A good death is described as any passing in which an individual dies as peacefully as possible, in accordance with their wishes and according to their own ethical, cultural or religious standards. [5] This includes dying free of pain, in a location of their preference (usually divided into one of the 3 H’s – home, hospital or hospice) and surrounded by their loved ones rather than medical and nursing staff.

It doesn’t sound complicated does it?

Yet, every single day, the majority of people die in just the opposite way.

So, how do we achieve a good death?

I went looking for inspiration from Islamic history and found answers hidden in plain sight. The clues are scattered throughout the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself, like scattered pearls of wisdom waiting for us to put them together into a coherent whole.

You can divide the steps required into 6 steps:

  1. Thinking and talking about death

There are many ways of achieving a good death, but they all have the same first step. We need to be prepared to think about it, but in a way that empowers rather than paralyzes us. We need to make it less of a taboo.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was the master of this. He used to think about death often and asked us to do the same, but was never accused of being morbid. He taught us, “Remember often, the destroyer of pleasures.” [6]

By bringing talking about death back into polite conversation and into the family life, we remove it from being solely the domain of the mosque and imam. It may mean taking the kids to a funeral or talking to your parents about the funeral arrangements for a recently departed grandparent. Whatever entry point you use, remembering death will help you plan about it.

  1. The warning shot

A warning shot is the first difficult discussion that people have about an impending death. This is when bad news is delivered in a step-wise process so that the impact is less severe on those affected.

Doctors are trained to do this by lowering the tone of their voice, getting the patient worried by asking if they would like to have someone there with them and to generally appear gravely concerned. We then impart the warning shot – usually something as simple as “I’m afraid I have bad news” – and give time for the patient to absorb this before delivering the bad news. [7]

This occurred quite obviously in retrospect with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) giving the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) several warning shots with increasing clarity that his ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) life was drawing to a close. First, Jibreel 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) went through the Quran with the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) twice instead of the usual once during their Ramadan reviews. Beyond this, Allah revealed that religion had been “perfected” thereby making the role of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) complete.

In turn, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) passed on these warning shots to us, his community at various opportunities including at Hajj Al Wida and in his khutbas at Masjid Nabawi.

Warning shots are important. They allow us to prepare for the worst-case scenario, rather than live in hope and find ourselves woefully unprepared when the time comes.

  1. Choosing where and how you would like to be cared for in your final illness

The location where one dies is obviously not something everyone has the luxury of choosing. However, for most natural deaths, this is something important and despite most people preferring to die at home, this is not achieved.

The sad truth is that, again, we will spend more time thinking about the hotel room that we stayed in 5 nights in during a holiday years ago than where we would like to see out our final days.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was concerned about where he would be during his final illness. He asked rhetorically, “Where shall I stay tomorrow?” multiple times until his wives understood that he wanted to choose where he wanted to stay rather than switching rooms every evening as was his usual custom. He chose for himself the room of Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) [8]

A good death isn’t necessarily a pain free one, but it certainly is one in which unnecessary suffering is avoided if the patient wishes. Again, the medical profession has advanced far enough that no one should suffer unduly in his or her final moments, but because patients are unaware as to what is available to them, they continue to suffer. [9]

  1. How should your funeral be conducted?

The rulings on Muslim funerals are fairly specific. So specific, in fact, that we make the mistake of thinking that there isn’t room for personalisation. There clearly is, even if it is limited. Everything from choosing whom you would like to lead your Janazah prayer, at which mosque and who should lower you into the ground can often give people a sense of peace and familiarity with a daunting reality.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) did the same. He had asked that his body be washed using water from the well of Ghars, presumably because he liked the sweet taste of the water there. Amr ibn Al As raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) asked to be buried with fragments of the Prophets ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) nails in his mouth and under his eyelids. Ottoman Sultans would occasionally be buried with pieces of the Kaaba kiswa on them.

As long as it remains within the boundaries of accepted tradition, it can be comforting to know that you had some say in how your funeral would be conducted.

  1. Where should you be buried?

This is an important decision and for most of us, it won’t matter much because – well, we won’t have to worry about it. However, there is a strong indication that where someone is buried does matter almost as much as where they lived in life. Many a necropolis has sprung up around the tomb of a pious man or a companion of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) like Jannat Al Mualla in Makkah, Eyup Sultan in Istanbul and Bab Al Saghir in Damascus. [10]

It was the cause of much consternation to the sahaaba that they did not know where to bury the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). The relief that was felt by all, when it was discovered that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) had mentioned to Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) that all Messengers are buried where they die, is palpable. Take a moment to reflect on that conversation. In a mark of how difficult the conversation is, even the Prophet (SAW) didn’t directly tell Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) where he would like to be buried, but instead made a general statement about all Prophets. This way, he got his point across to his close friend but minimised the heartache.

  1. How should your estate be divided after death?

Inheritance laws in Islam are strictly governed and regulated leaving limited scope for people to go wrong. But unfortunately, most Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, do not have formal wills written up. This means that their estates are at risk of being divided according to the law of the land they die in.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was concerned about what would happen to his estate after he died, but his estate was not just the physical objects he left behind. It included the spiritual legacy of the Islamic faith. Therefore, he repeatedly mentioned for Muslims to guard the prayer and to look after the ladies of their house. [11] Not only that, it was clear that he ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) went as far as he could towards nominating Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) to lead us after his death without actually commanding it.

While you should definitely prepare a will for your physical possessions, also consider your legacy beyond that. Who should educate your children? What advice do we have for them when they grow up? What should happen to our collection of books? Which charities would you like some of your endowments to go to and for what cause?

Your life is so much more than just the money and materials that gets divided up after you die. If you are lucky, those who survive you may try and keep your legacy alive. They would find it much easier if you gave them some directions beforehand.

Conclusion

In the end, the best way to attain a good death is to live a good life – a. A life that is lived in the service of others for the sake of Allah, a life in which there is real meaning and purpose and a life in which death is remembered.

As a Muslim, I know that a good death is one in which Allah is pleased with the person dying. As a doctor, I know a good death is one in which the patient is comfortable and surrounded by their family, not me. As a human being, I know a good death is one that comes after having added value to the lives of my fellow human beings. These are not mutually exclusive and the life of the Prophet (SAW) gives evidence for being able to combine all three.

As the old poem goes, we all have a rendezvous with death. Why not make it a good one?

By Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter

References:

[1] https://palliative.stanford.edu/home-hospice-home-care-of-the-dying-patient/where-do-americans-die/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15332418

[3] https://islamqa.info/en/10903

[4] http://seekershub.org/blog/2016/12/death-dying-ustadh-salman-younas/

[5] http://www.londonscn.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/eolc-good-death-definition-052015.pdf

[6] Sunan ibn Majah 4258

[7] https://reachmd.com/programs/perspectives-in-palliative-medicine/warning-shot-how-to-deliver-difficult-news/4713/

[8] Sahih Bukhari Volume 5 Book 57 Number 118

[9] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/02/death-in-america-is-getting-more-painful/385230/

[10] https://islamqa.info/en/20820

[11] http://www.alminbar.com/khutbaheng/dofp.htm#advices

WAJiD Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter - Doctor, Medical Tutor (Social Media, History & Medicine) - Islamic Historian - Founder of, and current board member to Charity Week for Orphans and needy children. www.charityweek.com - Council member, British Islamic Medical Association

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Raadiya Shardow

    September 3, 2017 at 1:29 AM

    This is a great reminder, Jazakumu Allahu Khairan!

  2. Avatar

    masood

    September 5, 2017 at 2:05 AM

    JazakAllah. very meaningful and nicely written

  3. Avatar

    Umm A

    September 6, 2017 at 10:56 PM

    Assalamualaikum dear brother. I am a critical care physician in the making and sometimes feel so conflicted about end-of-life conversations.

    As a Muslim, I’m not sure where the right balance lies between doing too much versus giving up too early.
    Here’s some specific issues I struggle with:
    1. When a decision is made to transition to “comfort care” based on a surrogate’s decision (most often guided by a physician’s suggestions) with the reason provided/justified via saying that “after all of this (cancer, critical illness, multiorgan dysfunction)”, there is a small chance that if the patient recovered, they’d be able to enjoy a quality of life comparable to pre-illness state.
    2. When patients are extubated and directly transitioned over to an opiate drip “to prevent discomfort” as a means of providing “palliative care”. Obviously at the first sign of any perceived discomfort, the drip rate is only titrated up. Sometimes I wonder whether they may actually wake up, breathe, recover or live long enough to speak to their loved ones if we didn’t hasten the dying process.

    I really struggle with this gray zone between providing palliation and escalating palliation based on perceived discomfort, the latter almost resembling euthanasia in my mind.

    I keep looking and find no good resources. Am I missing the Islamic take/literature on this?

    • WAJiD

      WAJiD

      September 7, 2017 at 6:57 PM

      Walaikum asalaam sister Umm A,

      JazakAllah khairun for your comment. I would like to preface my reply by saying I am not a Faqih.

      There are some books out there like “Muslim Medical Ethics” by Brockopp and “Islamic Biomedical Ethics” by Sachenida.

      However, your conflicted thoughts are not unique unfortunately.

      Islamic legal theory has simply not caught up with the modern world and the intricacies of most fields. Therefore issues like the Doctrine of Double Effect (which you allude to in your reply) has no widely accepted guidance that we can simply follow.

      This is sad, but it is also an opportunity as it means that someone who is thinking deeply on the issue can do research and postulate a reasonable answer for others to follow.

      • Avatar

        Umm A

        September 7, 2017 at 9:54 PM

        JazaakAllahu khayr brother for the reply and resources. Yes, I do know you’re not a faqih, but was wondering if I was missing out on some go-to resources.

        My fear is that of committing a grave sin while making these kinds of recommendations. It appears to me that the default “Muslim” response from my experiences and the minimal guidance/literature out there is to keep going until it’s obvious we’ve exhausted all means to prolong life. I’ve also found it quite progressive that there is actually a Masnoon dua that addresses the wish for death is when pain/suffering is unbearable.

        At the end of the day, yes, the decision per se is usually made by the family but what the care team says and how they say it can sway their thoughts and decisions so much.

        May Allah guide us all and please do post updates if you come across a new or hitherto undiscovered tome on this issue.

  4. Avatar

    Faruk Ahmed

    April 8, 2019 at 7:44 PM

    Assalamualaikum brother Wajid. This piece was forwarded by my wife. It has reflected how a believer should be prepared mentally about death though it’s hard. Are you a writer or a doctor? I haven’t seen many doctors writing something other than prescription let alone a great article like this.

    • WAJiD

      WAJiD

      April 9, 2019 at 11:26 AM

      JazakAllah khairun for your kind words br Faruk. I promise I am a Doctor and a writer haha.

      If you have any ideas of issues that need to be tackled or want to write yourself, MuslimMatters is always looking for new authors.

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#Life

How To Be Positive In Hard Times

Amina Malik, Guest Contributor

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How to be Positive

We all know that we should be grateful. And we definitely know that we should be certain that whatever happens is good for us as believers. However, when we are tested -as we inevitably are-, many of us crumble. Why is that? Why are we not able to ‘pass’ these tests, so to speak? Many of us after a tragedy become hapless, sad, depressed, angry, or bitter.

The essence lies in knowledge that is beneficial, and the best form of knowledge is that which an individual can apply to their day-to-day life on their own. Here are a few tips to increase your patience in hard times. Like building muscle at the gym, it takes time to exercise this habit, but becomes easier over time:

Manage Stress:

Unfortunately, stressful events are abundant in our lives. People under stress can find themselves falling into thinking errors. These thinking errors include -but are not limited to-: black and white thinking, mind-reading, self-criticism, negative filtering and catastrophizing. Together this can affect how we perceive reality. Next time you are tempted to make a catastrophe out of a situation, stop and ask your self two questions:

  • Is this really a big deal in the larger scheme of things?
  • Are there any positives in this situation?

Have a Realistic Perspective of Qadr:

Although it is part of our creed to believe in divine destiny, personal responsibility is still of importance and we cannot simply resign ourselves to fate; especially if we have some sort of influence over a situation.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Quran:

لَهُ مُعَقِّبَاتٌ مِّن بَيْنِ يَدَيْهِ وَمِنْ خَلْفِهِ يَحْفَظُونَهُ مِنْ أَمْرِ اللَّهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ ۗ وَإِذَا أَرَادَ اللَّهُ بِقَوْمٍ سُوءًا فَلَا مَرَدَّ لَهُ ۚ وَمَا لَهُم مِّن دُونِهِ مِن وَالٍ 

For each one are successive [angels] before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah. Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron. [Surah Ar-Ra’d;11]

This puts the responsibility on us to change ourselves. Notice the word, themselves. We are not responsible for events beyond our control. These events include the behavior of our spouses, the affinity of our children to the religion, the love in the hearts of people, the weather, the gender of our child (or how many we have), or even the amount of money we will earn in a lifetime -to name a few. Often we become stuck and focus on our conditions, rather than focusing on our own behavior.

Nourish Positive Thinking:

How to Be PositiveIn order to be able to have a wise and calculated response to life’s events, we must learn to interpret these events in a way that assign positive meaning to all. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is after all, how we perceive Him to be. Shaytan interferes with this process through waswaas (interjecting thoughts that are based on negativity and falsehood). His goal is for the Muslim to despair in Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy. The goal is not to be happy all the time; this is unrealistic. The goal is to think well of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as consistently as possible.

  • Create a list of what you are grateful to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) for daily.
  • Remind yourself everyday of the positive aspects of situations when your mind falls to default negative thinking. Self-criticism will will only encourage you to take full responsibility for negative life events and become depressed, or at the opposite end take no responsibility whatsoever; either mind-set does not help us improve our self.

Remind yourself as well as others of the benefits of Positivity:

  •  On an individual level, once we begin to think positive about ourselves and our life, we become optimistic. This positivity will then also effect our perception of others. We become more forgiving, over-looking, and patient with others when we can see the positives in any situation.
  • Increased rizk and feelings of well-being
  • Reduced likelihood of reacting in a negative way to life’s events; increased patience.
  • Increased likelihood of finding good opportunities in work, relationships and lifestyle.
  • Higher energy levels and motivation to take on acts of khayr and benefit.

10 Steps to Happiness!

Practice self-care as a daily routine:

Our bodies have rights on us. Our souls have rights on us. Our family has rights on us. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has rights on us. Often, when there is an imbalance in one area, our whole being can sense it. This creates anger and resentment towards those around us and life in general.

  • Take care of your body, feed it well and in moderation and exercise in a way that makes you feel relaxed.
  • Pray your prayers, read the Quran, maintain the rights Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and your own soul have on you.
  • Take care of your tongue by avoiding back-biting and complaining.
  • Take regular showers, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and wear clean clothes; even if you are at home.
  • Take care of your mind by doing dhikr as much as possible and letting go consciously of ruminating on situations.

A Powerful Dua for Happiness

Do not over-rely on your emotions:

Our emotions are a product of our thoughts. Our thoughts can be affected by slight changes in the environment such as the weather, or even whether or not we have eaten or slept well.

 

كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ 

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.” [Surah Al-Baqarah;216]

How To be PositiveUltimately, our perception can be manipulated by our thoughts, shaytan, and other factors. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is not limited in His perceptions due to stress, emotions, or circumstances and moods. Therefore, we should be humble to defer our judgements to Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) ever-lasting judgement. Far from naval gazing, the more we are aware of our internal perceptions, emotions, and motives, the more able we are to practice Islam in its full essence. Our forefathers understood this deeply, and would regularly engage in self-assessment which gives you a sense of understanding and control of your own thoughts, emotions and actions.

The Art of Overcoming Negativity

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#Culture

Go Visit Bosnia

Amad Abu Reem

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Visit Bosnia

I have been to 35 countries, from Japan and China in the Far East, to Mexico and Columbia in South America, to Egypt and Morocco in North Africa, and there has not been another trip that was as profound in so many ways as my last trip to Bosnia. Go Visit Bosnia.

Besides Bosnia’s natural beauty, affordability and hospitality, the enrichment that comes from learning about a different culture, its cuisines, its complicated politics, and a genocide not yet 25 years old, is one that turns tourism into an experience not easily forgotten.

To the last point, why do human beings travel? What is it about a new destination that is appealing to us? Fun can be achieved in your neck of the world, so why wander? There are those who live in picture-perfect Switzerland but love to travel to remote deserts of Africa or the beaches of Indonesia. That is because traveling through new lands is a human instinct—a yearning to experience different cultures, foods, and environments.

Moreover, there is nothing more precious in life than experiences. Those who have had a sudden onset of terminal disease at an early age have an important perspective from which we can all learn. Why? Because the knowledge that you are dying quickly ends any sense of immortality, and what truly matters is crystallized. When asked what is it that they cherished most in their lives, pretty much all of them mentioned how the satisfaction from experiences such as travel beats the enjoyment of material riches any day.

What is an experience? Is it a fun week at Disney? Is it an adventure-filled trek through mountains? Is it going to a place to learn a new language? Actually, all of them are experiences, and it is not just going to a new place, but it is what you make out of that travel. If it is just fun, games, and shopping, have you really enriched your own life? Or have you missed out?

So when we planned our trip to Bosnia, many in our circle were a bit surprised as Bosnia is not on most travelers’ bucket lists. Muslims generally have Turkey and Malaysia in their must-visits “halal trips”, but after my trip to Bosnia, I feel that all Muslim travelers should add Bosnia to their short-list. Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, but barely so with about 50% Muslims, 30% Serbian Orthodox Christian and 15% Croat Catholics. I know this concerns many people, so let me add that food is generally halal unless you are in a non-Muslim village. Your guide will ensure that.

However, let me add that Bosnia is not just good for Muslims (just as Turkey and Malaysia appeal to everyone); people of all faiths can enjoy from the enriching trip to Bosnia.

Our trip began with selecting a reliable tour operator. While people tend to skip operators, preferring to book directly, I firmly believe that a professional should organize your first trip to a relatively unknown destination. I can honestly say I would have missed 50% of the enrichment without the presence of Adi, a highly educated tour guide, who was such a pleasant and friendly person that we almost felt him part of the family. The tour company itself belongs to a friend who worked for a major international company, before moving to his motherland to become part of Bosnia’s success. At the end of this article, I am providing contacts with this tour company, which MuslimMatters is proud to have as its partner for any Balkan travel.

Travel Bosnia, Visit Bosnia

Coming to the trip, I am not going to describe it in the sequence of the itinerary, but just some of the wonderful places we visited and the memorable experiences. We had 10 days for the trip and I would say a minimum of one week is needed to barely enjoy what Bosnia has to offer. However, two weeks if available would make it less hectic and give more time to absorb most of what Bosnia has to offer.

Our trip started in Sarajevo, a beautiful city. Even though it’s Bosnia’s largest city, the population is around half a million. Remember Bosnia itself has a relatively small population of 3.5 million. An additional 2 million people in the Bosnian diaspora are spread throughout the world, mostly due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. We walked through the old town and heard amazing stories from our guide. Although I have never been to Jerusalem, I have seen its pictures and can see why many people refer to Sarajevo as the “little Jerusalem”. We heard the interesting story about the assassination of the Archduke of Austria in 1914 (the Austria-Hungarian empire controlled Bosnia at the time) and the beginning of World War 1. We visited the Ottoman bazaar, the City Hall, the Emperor’s Mosque, and many other interesting areas.

Sarajevo

Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a compact city on the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps. Its center has museums commemorating local history, including Sarajevo 1878–1918, which covers the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event that sparked World War I. Landmarks of the old quarter, Baš?aršija, include the Ottoman-era Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque.

Like most cities in Bosnia, a river flows right through the center of Sarajevo.

The magnificent building that houses Sarajevo City Hall is located in the city of Sarajevo. It was initially the largest and most representative building of the Austro-Hungarian period in Sarajevo and served as the city hall. During the siege of Sarajevo that lasted over 3 years, Serbs targeted this building, focusing on destroying a rich collection of books and manuscripts inside it, and it was essentially burned down. After years of reconstruction, the building was reopened on May 9, 2014.

As we were walking on the streets, I took a picture of a man sitting carefree on the bench near the garden. I found this man’s peaceful enjoyment of the weather fascinating. He was in his own world— eyes closed and smiling.

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As you go into the Old Town, you will find many shops like this one in the picture of metal-crafts. Bosnians have been historically folks with mastery in metal and wood crafts. One historic shop that still functions and has some fabulous wood pieces is shown in the pictures.

 

 

As you go through the city, you will find many graveyards as well, reminding everyone of the longest modern age siege of Sarajevo. One particular grim reminder is a memorial near the city center dedicated to the children who were killed during the war.

Visit Bosnia, SarajevoOur trip coincided with the annual somber anniversary of the beginning of the siege, April 5, 1992. Bouquets of flowers adorned the remembrance area.

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Another major graveyard (massive area) has graves of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and few Bosnian Croats (Catholics). They fought against each other with the oppressor by all accounts being the Serbs. Now they all lie together next to each other. The white tombstones are Muslims, the black ones Serbs. One pic shows a particular Serb person who lived 101 years, only to die in the first year of the war. Most of the tombstones indicated the year of death during 1992-95, the war years. Some of the white tombstones have “Sehid” written which means martyr. Interestingly, Serbs use Greek letters and other Bosnians Latin, so most signs are in both languages.

You can go up to a café in Hecco Deluxe Hotel, which is Sarajevo’s oldest “skyscraper” and just absorb a 360 view of the city.  I was able to take one picture that captured the signs of all three major religious groups in Bosnia, as labeled in the photo. However, this is also a reflection of a country divided with 3 presidents, one from each religious group. Remember that the massacres were conducted by mostly Bosnian Serbs (not Serbian Serbs) and at some point, the Bosnian Croats also backstabbed the Bosnian Muslims (for example by destroying the vital ottoman old bridge in Mostar). Croatia and Serbia were planning to divide Bosnia between themselves but the Bosnian Muslims held their own until finally, NATO stepped in. It remains shocking how genocide could happen in the 90s in the heart of Europe. And it says a lot about the hypocrisy of the “West” in general. Many Bosnian Muslims remain bitter about it and I find it amazing that despite living among their potential killers, no revenge attacks have taken place. The political situation remains stable but tenuous— extremely safe but one political crisis away from going downhill. However, everyone is war fatigued and in case of a crisis, most people intend to just leave the country than to fight again.

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A view from Hecco Deluxe Hotel, Bosnia

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In the old city, you will also find the famous Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that was built in the 16th century; it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans. A very interesting facet of the mosque is the clock tower. This is probably the only clock in the world that starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every day, a caretaker adjusts the time to reflect the actual hours. So whenever you look at it, you will know how many hours to Maghrib prayers!

Watering hole structure for stray cats and dogs

Another interesting feature and a reflection of the concern for animals is the watering hole structure set up for stray cats and dogs. It kind of looks like a toilet seat, with the purpose that an animal like a cat may climb the seat and drink from the small water reservoir that is constantly filled by the caretakers.

If you want to shop for normal stuff, there is the Sarajevo City Center (SCC). It has all the popular international brands, but what I found interesting is that the prices were in many cases even lower than American prices, which if you have been around, is quite rare. So if you are coming from the Middle East or Europe, definitely check this mall out.

Vrelo Bosne:

 

Just outside Sarajevo in the outskirts of the city, you a public park, featuring the spring of the River Bosna, at the foothills of the Mount Igman on the outskirts of Sarajevo. This beautiful park and the spring is a remarkable sight. It is a must see when you visit Bosnia. Crystal clear water allows you to see the entire waterbed. A beautiful white swan swam, followed by a couple of gorgeous ducks.

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Museum Tunnel of War:

This small museum showcases the tunnel that was built underneath the airport tarmac by Bosnian Muslims in order to carry food, supplies and even arms. It was called “Tunnel of Hope” and constructed between March and June 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo. While the Bosnian Serbs besieging the country were armed to the teeth with weapons from the ex-Yugoslavian army, an embargo of weapons was applied, essentially making Bosnian Muslims sitting ducks. Such was the treachery of the international community. This tunnel helped the Bosnian Muslims protect Sarajevo from total surrender. You can see the names of those killed here.

A truck driver on the “exit” side of the tunnel would then transport these supplies up and down some treacherous mountains. The driver’s wife is still alive and has a small shop that sells souvenirs—be sure to visit and buy some.

Blagaj

This is a village-town in the southeastern region of the Mostar basin. Here we relaxed and ate fresh fish at the source of the Buna River, right next to where the water sprung out from the mountains underneath a cave. This is one of those dining experiences where the scenery makes your food even more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.

Travnik

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This is a town and municipality and the administrative center of Central Bosnia Canton. It is situated about 50 miles west of Sarajevo. Historically, it was the capital city of the governors of Bosnia from 1699 to 1850, and has a cultural heritage dating from that period. Here you see a pre-Ottoman Fort (1300s) is still in great shape. It stands on top of the hill with mountains behind it so no one could enter the city without being spotted. The scenery from the top is also fantastic as seen in the picture. The oldest mosque of the city was built here. There were 20 mosques were built in the city, of which 17 survived to date.

Jajce

It is situated in the mountains; there is a beautiful countryside near the city, rivers such as the Vrbas and Pliva, lakes like Pliva Lake, which is also a popular destination for the local people and some tourists. This lake is called Brana in the local parlance. In 1527, Jajce became the last Bosnian town to fall to Ottoman rule, and you will see the gate to the city that fell to the Ottomans.  The 17-meter high Pliva waterfall was named one of the 12 most beautiful waterfalls in the world.

Mostar

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It is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. The Old Bridge stood for 427 years until the Croatian army destroyed it in an act of treachery in November 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened in July 2004 with support from various nations.

 

Mostar is a beautiful city. You can also shop here and like all of Bosnia, you will not be haggled or conned (something that has become a feature of doing business in Turkey, unfortunately). There is one large shop that sells bed-sheets, table covers, etc. owned by a guy from Kosovo. You will not miss it if you are going through the bazaar. That is worth buying if you like such stuff.

Not far from the Old Bridge, you can climb up a narrow staircase to a top of a mosque minaret and have another breath-taking view of the city and of the Old Bridge itself. The climb is not terribly difficult but may be a stretch for the elder.

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Mostar Old Bridge (1567) (UNESCO World Heritage List)

Olympic Mountains Bjelasnica

Bjelašnica is a mountain in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is found directly to the southwest of Sarajevo, bordering Mt. Igman.  Bjelašnica’s tallest peak, by which the whole mountain group got its name, rises to an elevation of 2067 meters (6782 feet). This is one of the resorts that hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. The main hotel here serves delicious food. If you are a skier, then the many mountains of Bosnia make for perfect (and very cheap) skiing options.

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Srebrenica

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Srebenica, Bosnia

Epicenter of the Bosnian genocide, where 8372 civilians were murdered as the world watched callously. This is a must when you visit Bosnia. The genocide museum houses stories and eyewitness accounts. It is in one part of a massive warehouse that used to be a factory for car batteries before it became the command post for the UN designated Dutch army, sent to protect the Bosnian Muslim civilians, but later turning into cowards who gave up thousands for slaughter.

We met a survivor whose to this date chokes as he recalls his escape, walking 60 miles sleepless, hungry to reach Bosnian territory. Shakes you to the core.

Till today, not all bodies have been found or identified. Some of the bodies were moved to secondary graves by the Serbs to hide evidence. The green posts are the discoveries between one July 11 anniversary to the next— to be converted to white tombstones.

 

This day trip by far was the most moving. A genocide that shook us 25 years ago, but that we only heard of, is brought to life here. The museum offers stories and footage of the genocide. The graveyard makes your heart sink.

Unfortunately, this genocide is mostly forgotten and is something that we must never forget. Just as visits to Auschwitz are important to remember the Holocaust, we must make Srebrenica a place to visit, such that it becomes a history that we must never forget.

Other places of interest (not all-inclusive by any means):

Woodcrafts in Konjic, Bosnia

On the way back from Mostar to Sarajevo, be sure to stop by Konjic where you can stop by a very old woodcarving shop that to this date provides fabulous woodcrafts.

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You can also stop by Sunny Land, a small park where you can ride an alpine roller coaster that kids (and adults) will definitely enjoy. A bit further from this location, you can see the remains of the bobsled structure, built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

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Our guide was The Bosnian Guide.

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Mindful or Mind-full? Going From AutoPilot to Aware

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Mindful

Modeling Mindfulness

Mindfull

“Remember that God knows what is in your souls, so be mindful of Him.”

[Sūrat al-Baqarah 2:235]

Mindful or Mind-full?

Ever felt frustrated when you were trying to talk to your spouse, your children, your students, or your youth group and they would just not pay attention? This is a prime example of being on autopilot and getting carried away without actually being aware of what is most important in the present moment.

A recent Harvard study shows that our minds are not present in the moment and wander about 47% of the time1. In a world of technology and continuous sensory overload, the lines between work and home, friends and family, necessity vs. purpose, world-centric vs. Allah-centric have become blurred. We are either living in the past or ruminating about the future, and in the process, we are forgetting to live, enjoy, cherish, and make the most of our present moments.

For parents, teachers, youth leaders, and anyone in the beautiful role of guiding, teaching, coaching, or mentoring others, we can make a huge difference by modeling Mindfulness ourselves. But where do we start? The answer is to go from autopilot to becoming aware.

Autopilot to Aware

Being on autopilot is when you are distracted in the present moment, where your mind is wandering into the past or the future, and you are less aware of yourself, surroundings, or others. Autopilot can actually be pretty helpful for your regular habits. Waking up, brushing your teeth, getting ready for your day, going to school or work – many of the things we do habitually every day can be done more seamlessly without having to think, and that is a good thing. But there are times when you have to learn to turn off your autopilot to become aware. But how?

Here is a Mindfulness tool that can be done in just a minute or two for you to become more aware.

Step 1: Breath as a Tool. Say Bismillah. Focus on your breath. See where you experience the breath – the breathing in and breathing out of your body. Is your breath stemming from your nostrils, your chest, or your stomach? Just bring your attention to your breath and relax and stay with it there for a few moments.

Step 2: Body as a Tool. Relax your body. We carry so many emotions in our bodies2. Our stress from the past or anticipation for the future sometimes finds its way into our necks, other times in our chest muscles or our backs. Pay attention to what emotions and sensations do you feel, and try to relax all parts of your body.

Step 3: Intention as a Tool. As you have centered your thoughts to the present moment through your breath and your body, ask yourself: “What is most important now? In this present moment?”

Just simply being aware makes us more mindful parents, teachers, youth and professionals – being aware makes us more Mindful of Allah SWT. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your mind and body and bring your attention to the present moment.

Mindful

Real Life in the Present Moment

You are an on-the-go parent: It has been a long day and you have to pick up the kids from school, but work is still pending. You’re picking up the kids from school, feeding them, and then shuffling everyone to their afterschool activities, be it Qur’an, softball, soccer, swimming, or the million other things that kids seem to have these days. You squeeze pending work in between drop-offs and pick-ups, and you function by living from one task to the next.

The Autopilot Impact: You’re getting a lot done, but are so engrossed in quickly moving your children along from one thing to another that you are unable to really cherish your time together.

The Mindfulness Suggestion: You can try to go from autopilot to awareness by focusing on your breath, paying attention to your emotions, and relaxing your body. As you do so, ask yourself: “What is most important now?” Make the intention to slow down, listen to the children more mindfully, and cherish and enjoy your time together.

You are a busy teacher: Last night you had to take all the grading home and spent two hours poring over students’ work. This morning, you woke up early to pick up some classroom supplies after dropping off your own kids to school. You’ve already had two cups of coffee and are trying to think through everything you have to do today. You like the idea of Mindfulness, living life in the present moment, and enjoying every day to its fullest, but your mind is not free to even enjoy the beautiful morning sunrise as you drive to school.

The Autopilot Impact: You want to listen and pay attention to every child’s needs, and enjoy the rewards of their growth, but you can’t. What’s more, you judge yourself for just trying to get through your activities for the day. You wish you could connect with your students better.

The Mindfulness Suggestion: Whenever you are stressed with an unpleasant parent or student interaction, think about breathing, relaxing your body, and asking what you need to focus on now. Try to do one thing at a time, and relax into what you’re doing.

You are an overstretched youth director: You are a role model. You have this major weekend event you are planning with the youth. Your budget is still pending from the board, you have to call all these people, have to get the graphics and remind everyone about the event, you have to visit all these masjids and MSAs to announce and remind people about the weekend.

This weekend’s theme is Living a Life of Purpose and you are super passionate about it. However, the whole week you have had a hard time remembering to even pray one Salah with focus. Instead, your mind has been preoccupied with all the endless planning for this weekend. You love what you do but you wonder how to also be mindful in your everyday worship while you are always prepping and planning engaging activities for the youth.

The Autopilot Impact: You enjoy shaping the youth but you are losing steam. You are always planning the next program and unable to focus on your own personal and spiritual development. It is difficult for you to pray even one salah without thinking about all the events and activities planned for that week.

The Mindfulness Suggestion: Get serious about taking some time for yourself. Know that becoming more mindful about your own prayers and self-development will also make you a better role model. Take a minute or two before every Salah to practice the simple, 3-Step Mindfulness Tool. You say Bismillah and breathe, focus your mind, and then relax your body. Empty your mind from everything else – what has past and what’s to come – and ask “What’s most important now?” to develop better focus in your Salah.

In Conclusion: Practice Simple but Solid Steps towards becoming more Mindful Muslims

Mindfulness is to open a window to let the Divine light in.

[Imam Al Ghazali]

Mindfulness gives us the ability to be aware. We can use Mindfulness tools to remember Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), refocus, renew our intentions, and engage with the present moment in a more effective and enjoyable way. Mindfulness also invites awareness of our potential negligence in being our best selves with both Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and His creation. To put it simply, being more aware of our selves can help us be better versions of our selves.

Mindfulness is both an art and a science, with brain and behavioral science research validating the importance of Mindfulness in improving our health, managing our stress, navigating our emotions, and positively impacting our lives3. In today’s modern and distracted world, let us treasure every tool that helps us center our attention on what matters the most.

  1. Bradt, Steve (2010). Wandering mind not a happy mind. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
  2. Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, Jari K. Hietanen (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. National Academy of Sciences. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111
  3. “What are the benefits of mindfulness,” American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx

To learn more about how to become mindful take the Define Course on Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence.

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