Water

وَهُوَ الَّذِي أَرْسَلَ الرِّيَاحَ بُشْرًا بَيْنَ يَدَيْ رَحْمَتِهِ وَأَنزَلْنَا مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً طَهُورًا

لِّنُحْيِيَ بِهِ بَلْدَةً مَّيْتًا وَنُسْقِيَهُ مِمَّا خَلَقْنَا أَنْعَامًا وَأَنَاسِيَّ كَثِيرًا

[Al-Furqan: 48-49]

It is He who sends the winds as heralds of good news before His Mercy. We send down pure [purifying] water from the sky. (48)

So that We can revive a dead land with it, and We give it as a drink to many animals and people We have created. (49).

[Trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem with addition from Pickthall]

“Bad farming”

A couple of years ago, someone who should know better-someone I should feel encouraged and not criticized by- looked at my messy garden and called it “bad farming”. 

This hurt me and has unfortunately stuck with me ever since.

It’s true that my garden is often a mess.  I’m not always prompt at weeding, staking, tying, and general maintenance.  Plus. my overall gardening abilities are in their early stages of development and the result is that things grow out of control.  

My humble garden is a triumph for me.  I’d tried and failed in the past to establish a functional garden.  It was something I had always wanted to enjoy and be good at. Along with bread making, it is a task I have revisited several times throughout my life in an effort to succeed and find the joy I know is waiting for me.  And after a number of failed attempts, I finally found it!

Even in its messy state, when I look at the garden, it makes me happy just to know that I’m trying.  It makes me feel alive, moving, and growing.

There is an addictive quality to planting seeds and watching them grow into large plants, and then to watch those plants provide you with food.  Eating something you grew yourself is miraculous and special in a way that even your local CSA or farmer’s market can’t touch.

Here’s the thing:  This miracle is provided, in most cases, even when we don’t do everything “right” or “perfectly”.  My “bad farming” has provided us with our family’s entire tomato needs from August through October every year for the past 3 years.  And it has given me a feeling of competence and blessing that has evaded me for so long.

My “bad farming” is a miracle, a blessing, and an experience I savor every summer.  It is a reminder that I can still learn things, do things, and find joy in places I thought were closed off to me.  A reminder that even at 40 years old I am still growing and becoming and I am good and worthy of all the miracles that come with growth.

Red-faced

I’ve never been a makeup wearer so I have been able to keenly observe the changes in my face over the years.

When I look at pictures of myself when I was young my face looks fresh, flat, light, and smooth. 

In recent years my face has suddenly developed a bright red glare.  The dermatologist tells me it’s rosacea. I’m not 100% convinced it’s not an autoimmune disease rash.  My blood work is inconclusive. I have lots of symptoms but nothing diagnosable. So I push forward in life- with pain, with exhaustion, with odd symptoms, and with a bright red face. 

There is some speculation that autoimmune diseases tend to pop up in middle aged women due to stress.  If you’re stressed, the body produces a lot of cortisol and iif your body is producing a lot of cortisol, eventually it convinces your body that something needs to be fought back against, so it mounts an immune response against nothing which becomes an immune response against itself.

The red face, the butterfly rashes, the slapped-face look, seem to speak of the internal workings of so many of our middle aged bodies and hearts:  We are burning internally, a constant simmering rage at all that is wrong with the world, all that is wrong with us, and all that went wrong in our lives. 

We are also bleeding internally from so much heartbreak and loss and grief and grinding exhaustion.  Our hearts gave and gave and gave until the hands bled from the strain.

There is a huge temptation to get out the makeup to cover up that red face, but as I’ve never worn makeup before and I find the entire concept of makeup to be boring and annoying, I’m not starting. 

So I go forward with my red face. 

I go forward 

Moving Water

There is something about moving water that uniquely stirs and soothes the human mind and soul.

Civilizations were built next to moving bodies of water:  rivers, the ocean… in school we were taught that this was for utilitarian purposes like transportation and trade but maybe it was really for something more: an innate, spiritual, human need.  

In fiqh studies one learns that the acts of wudu and ghusl and istinja must be done with “flowing” water, not simply water that touches.

In his book “Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Styles” M.A.S. Abdel Haleem points out in his chapter on Water in the Qur’an that the water in jannah is always described as flowing, never stagnant.  

In Maine, the house we stayed in had no TV, radio, or WiFi.  It was at the end of the street nestled in the woods on a small cliff overlooking the river, situated out on a point stretching into a large saltwater marsh where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  In addition to being a moving river, it was also affected by the ocean tides so there were times of high and low tides when the river grew larger or smaller and the mud flats covered with small white snails and inhabited by underground clams were exposed or submerged.

We also spent considerable time at the nearby beach on the ocean, at both high and low tides; watching the waves in times of calm and times of wind; during rising, setting, and Noontime sun; on rocks and on beach sand; in solitude and alongside tourists, or locals walking dogs; pure and empty, and with sailboats and lobster boats anchored nearby.  We even watched a large group of baby ducks ride the waves.

Moving water demands your attention.  When it captures you, you no longer miss or feel the need to pick up your phone or turn on the TV.  It may seem like there is nothing that changes about the non-stop flow of a river or the ebb and flow of the ocean but it only takes a few seconds for shadows, glints of light, changing currents, newly revealed rocks or shapes underneath, a leaf, a stick, a handful of flower petals, a bird, a new wave, a gentle lapping sound, a gust of wind, a bubble, or a receding or creeping shoreline to direct you to something new and intriguing.

Moving water is addictive in a way that soothes rather than drains.  Like the flowing water of a wudu or a ghusl, it has a way of softening the gaze, purifying the mind, whispering to the soul, and cooling the heart.

I have seen many attempts to capture these effects with tabletop fountains or artificial ponds with sprayers attached to pumps.  I suppose these are better than nothing but they are nothing in comparison to a real river or ocean.

Perhaps the cure to what ails us is found in the very thing that Allah has told us is an integral part of the beauty and mercy of Jannah.  Perhaps we need to spend more time alongside rivers, streams, and oceans.


Horses: Abundant in the Remembrance of God

عن معاذ بن أنس ، عن رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم : أنه مر على قوم وهم وقوف على دواب لهم ورواحل ، فقال لهم : ” اركبوها سالمة ، ودعوها سالمة ، ولا تتخذوها كراسي لأحاديثكم في الطرق والأسواق ، فرب مركوبة خير من راكبها ، وأكثر ذكرا لله – تبارك وتعالى – منه” . رواه أحمد ، وإسناده حسن .

“On the authority of Mu`adh ibn Anas, from the Prophet (S) that he (S) passed by some people sitting on their riding animals and he (S) said to them: ‘ride them safely and leave them safely and do not take them as chairs for your conversations in the streets and in the markets. It may be that the one that is ridden is better than the one riding it and more abundant in remembrance of God Most High than him (the rider)’. -Narrated by Ahmad and its isnad is Hasan

Wrinkles in my Prayer Rug

The books of Fiqh I’ve studied so far generally mention at some point that it’s considered makrūh (disliked) to try to smooth out the ground or remove rocks and otherwise pure dirt or inconveniences from the place where one will pray salāh. This is explained as ensuring one’s humility.

These days we rarely pray on such “raw” ground. We are used to praying on perfectly smoothed manmade surfaces designed for our comfort. However, I do notice that my prayer rug gets wrinkled up a lot, just in the place where I need to make sajda. Usually I flatten out the rug before I pray. And sometimes I forget. And sometimes it gets this way after I’ve started. I’ve also noticed that in a crowded masjid in Ramadan, I somehow end up making sajdah on someone’s purse strap.

And I think to myself that there is an āya (a sign) to me in this. A sign to bear inconveniences. A sign to recall that they could be-and are not- so much more.

A sign to stay humble. A sign to me that my standing here is not by my own power and goodness, nor on my own terms, but instead my standing here is a GIFT, a privilege that I have done nothing to deserve but have been graciously, generously blessed with.

A sign about my life, and the need to face the wrinkles that come. To recognize obstacles and inconveniences and things going wrong as signs for me to learn from. To recognize the wrinkles in my nafs that are preventing me from entering this sajda completely.

This salah is a gift. This place is a gift. Any obstacles or inconveniences I face on this road are gifts. I need them. I have to gratefully accept them and feel their imprint upon me.

*****

For a practical article on inconveniences in the masjid in Ramadan, here is an excellent piece by Ustadha Shazia Ahmad called “Ramadan and Ruffled Feathers”

Ramadan and Ruffled Feathers

Moonsighting

Ramadan is here! Or almost here!  Or… What?

This is the time of year that Muslims often jokingly (or not) call “Moonfighting”. Some people get intensely involved in the debate over the moonsighting and have very strong opinions about the right way to do it. Some people get very upset about the fact that different communities or countries are starting and ending Ramadan at different times and wish that everyone could start and end on the same day.   


Instead of starting Ramadan with stress and anger, I hope to provide a different perspective that will help make this time feel better for us, ease confusion, and actually strengthen our faith.  


Let’s imagine for a moment that Ramadan was determined by the Gregorian (solar) calendar and it was always in December, like Christmas. We would always know exactly which day Ramadan was starting and ending. No more disagreements about the moon.


But what else would happen?


Here in North America it would always be in the winter and our days would always be very short and our nights very long. Fasting would be much easier than it is now and we would have long nights to eat and eat… and eat some more. We would never experience the long fasting days of the summer and we would never experience the short nights that force us to be more mindful about our eating.  When Ramadan falls in the summer we have to be more careful about healthy eating, and learn to “eat to live” instead of “live to eat.”


The idea of fasting in the short, cool days of winter sounds great, but what would Ramadan be like if it was always during the cold and snowy time of year?  Getting to the masjid in some places would always be difficult or impossible due to severe weather, ice, wind, and dangerously cold temperatures. We’d have to shovel snow and struggle to keep warm while fasting. It could get expensive to light and heat buildings during the long nights.   This would have been especially true in the days before electricity existed. Think also about trying to get water or take care of your animals when everything is frozen, or have sufficient food for iftar when nothing is growing and food is scarce!


Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, in places like Australia, Ramadan would always be in the summer. They would never get a break from the long summer days of fasting or the rush to eat and pray in the short nights. It would always be hot. Water might be scarce.  We know from our recent experience how difficult this is.


There’s more… Meanwhile, in another part of the world, Ramadan would always be during the harvest season. Year after year without a break the people of that country would have to face the burden of bringing in their harvest while fasting.


And in yet another part of the world, Ramadan would always be during a season known for difficult weather such as monsoons or hurricanes. Year after year without a break the people of that land would have to face disasters while fasting, and they would struggle to observe Ramadan and Eid in joyful and spiritually enriching ways because the time would often be cut short by crisis.  


Our religion’s observances on the lunar calendar are a very powerful proof of Islam. Allah designed Islam for all times, all people, and all places on a spherical globe with a Northern Hemisphere and a Southern Hemisphere and an immense variety of communities with different climates, lifestyles, needs, and challenges.   


The lunar calendar means that our spiritual year (“liturgical calendar” as its called in religious studies) moves backwards by about 11 days each year, and in the span of about 30 years we have experienced our religious observances and our sacred times in every season. Each individual can experience all of the seasonal variations as many as 2 or 3 times if Allah grants us a long life.  


Don’t worry about when is the “right time” or the “right way” to start and end Ramadan. It’s okay if people start and end at different times. It’s not our job to determine the right opinion, it’s only our job to follow the local community that we will be praying and fasting with. In fiqh, the principle in this matter is that the leaders of the community take on this responsibility for the congregation and as long as we are following the community our Ramadan is valid and we are rewarded.


Islam is the Truth. Islam is the final revelation given to the world, and everyone in it until the end of time. This is what we should understand from the moonsighting and the lunar calendar. Every aspect of our religion, with its points of ease and points of challenge, are signs and opportunities for us.

So relax, enjoy this time, and reflect on its incredible blessings.  Ramadan Mubarak!

The Places We Pray

Sometimes I pray in our home prayer room. 

It is a place of colorful prayer rugs each with a history known only to our family, including ones that belong to family members who have passed on and whose rugs give us a reminder to make du`aa for them and also a reminder that we, too, will join their ranks. Every prayer could be our last.

There are prayer scarves in drawers,but also draped over chairs, dropped on floors… and I don’t care because their presence here and there tells me that someone has been praying. There is calligraphy on the walls, there are beadsin a bowl, and a spiral-bound Qur’an on a stand.

This space is our declaration that prayer is important in this home. It is where we hear each other recite the Qur’anand shake each other’s hands when we are finished. It constantly calls us to remembrance andgoodness and peace.

Sometimes I pray in my bedroom prayer space.

It is a dark, quiet, small corner. I keep a small, child-size prayer rug there to mark the spot but it is otherwise unremarkable and unembellished. It is the place I pray when I am ill or overwhelmed or need the seclusion that mothers so often lack but so desperately need. This is the only place I can crumble into the floor in secret tears and utter defeat before Allah to ask for His help. This is often the only place I can linger after my prayer because it is in the far end of my home where nobody thinks to look for me right away.

Sometimes I pray in my local mosque.

I have a lot of issues with this place. It has not always been easy for me to attend but I have pushed forward for the sake of my children if nothing else. Having lived part of my life in a community with no mosque at all I know it is ablessing to have one . There is new carpet and new leadership which gives me hope. It is a familiar second home to me even withthe struggles and imperfections. The carpet, the walls, the tiles, the voice of the imam, the way he leads theprayer, the voice of the man who gives the adhaan and their unique styles of recitation are all “old friends” even if they’re not YouTube stars or my preferred recitation style or even using correct tajweed.

I remind myself to look around at jumu`ah and appreciate all the women in the room- to make note of the myriad ethnicities, ages, languages, educational backgrounds, and life histories thatstand with me. Islam is for all times,all people, and all places! I absorb the colors and styles, and yes even the varying levels of practice because all that matters in this moment is that we came to the masjid right now and brought with us the seed of faith in our hearts to be nurtured. I know that every single person I look at is struggling in secret in some way and I marvel at the great and awesome miracle it is that we have come together in this space.

I make du`aa for the guidance and peaceof each and every person present but especially the children and hope thatsomething in my du`aa’ will stay with them and protect them as they grow.  And that they will grow up surrounded by happy memories of worship and love and their hearts will always find rest inthe remembrance of God and in the masjid. I find secret acts of charity to perform in the masjid that will benefit the community and I try to see and recognize acts of kindness and goodness in those around me. 

Sometimes I pray in the mosques in nearby towns that I don’t attend frequently.

It’s a blessing to have so many mosques in my area. Even though I’m often unable to attend other mosques regularly, I still have the great privilege of having access to them when I am out shopping or at an appointment, or when there is a special event being held, such as a wedding or an aqiqa. There are mosques that I tend to end up in more than others so they become third and fourth and fifth spiritual homes for me beyond my local mosque.

Some of them are set up different from my local mosque.  My local mosque has a wall between the men’s section and the women’s section but some of my favorite mosques to visit don’t have one at all. It’s important to me to take my daughters to those places so they know that walls and barriers aren’t necessary.

Sometimes the mosques we visit have a different ethnic makeup than our local one. We become more familiar with our fellow Muslims and aware of the diversity and blessing of the way Islam brings us together.

Again, no matter where we go we always have a home among the believers and the remembrance of Allah.

In Ramadan I turn my living room into a mosque for women.

In the last ten nights of Ramadan my local mosque becomes an overcrowded and overwhelming space for me and my daughters, especially when some of us have health issues to deal with.  So some years ago I realized that I could pray at home but still have a congregation to join me and I started inviting friends for a quiet, focused, all-women congregation.  I lead the prayer or invite friends who are also qualified reciters to lead. 

It’s a rare opportunity to enjoy hearing the Qur’an in the voices of other women, through the hearts of my female friends.  We sit together and read du`aas in English afterwards because our local mosque doesn’t offer this.  We have snacks, ask questions, share challenges and successes.  And we build quiet, sweet memories with our sisters. 


Sometimes I pray in the homes of my Muslim friends.

Other people have their own prayer rugs with their own histories.  It’s a different sensory experience, as they feel and smell different from my prayer rugs. Most people I know don’t seem to have a designated prayer space like I have but I enjoy the privilege and blessing of praying in another person’s home.   It grants me an opportunity to pray with people I might not normally get to pray with as well. 

Sometimes I pray at my parents’ home.  They are not Muslim. 

They have a designated room where we can pray- a guest bedroom, and we have a drawer in the dresser full of prayer rugs and prayer clothes. The prayer rug I keep in their home is the first prayer rug I ever had, 27 years ago.  Again, we bring the blessing of prayer and angels and dhikr to a place that would not otherwise have it.  My parents even remind my kids to pray when they are visiting and I pray that some day they will pray with them. 

Sometimes we go on a road trip and we map out all the mosques on our route and make a point to visit new communities on the way. 

It’s always part of the trip, just as important as the trip itself.  I do research before we leave and because we sometimes can’t get into the first mosque we try, we have backup plans.  We can rest and refresh ourselves both body and soul in a safe space that feels like a familiar “home” on the road.   We learn that no matter where we are, we can find other Muslims.   No matter where we are, we recite the same Qur’an and pray the same way.  Our true home is always with Allah and His Messenger and the Ummah. 

Sometimes I pray at the barn.

It is reported in Sahih Muslim that the Prophet (S) used to pray in the sheep corrals before the masjid was built in Madina, and remember that the spot for that masjid was chosen by his (S) camel.  In fact, if you think about it, animals have been present near praying Muslims for most of history. 

If the prayer time comes and I won’t be home in time, I spread a paper towel, a clean blanket, an empty feed bag, a saddle pad, a jacket, or anything clean in a corner and I pray in the barn with the cats looking in on me curiously and the rooster crowing and the horses sniffing and chewing on hay.  When I was a teenager, I prayed in the tack room, and I even had a cat jump down on my back as I was making sujud! 

But I don’t pray here only out of necessity or fear of missing the prayer time- the barn isn’t mine and the owner isn’t Muslim, but I have made that space a place of prayer and invited angels and the blessings that come in the Unseen world to the property.  It is a protection and a blessing for me and for her, and for all of our beloved horses. 

I believe it’s important to combine the things I love in the dunya with worship and remembrance.  Not only to “turn all of my actions into acts of worship” as the cliché goes but to go further and color my entire world with remembrance.  I want to connect all of the things I love it in some way with God and give them a sort of spiritual pedigree of their own.  I have been building Sully’s spiritual pedigree by memorizing Qur’an when I am with him.  He will forever be connected to Surat Hud, and Surat Hud will forever remind me of the smell of hay, leather, and horses and the tranquility of watching Sully eat his alfalfa while I memorize Qur’an on a stool or a bench nearby. 

Sometimes I have to pray in a stairwell, corridor, dressing room, parking lot, airplane cabin, sidewalk…

The Prophet (S) said in a number of narrations that the whole earth has been made pure for salah and even dirt has been made pure for us to use in the absence of water. Even though our required salah is a formal ritual, Islam is distinguished from other traditions in that our ritual is designed to be done anywhere.  We don’t need a specially consecrated space in order to perform it.

The fact that it is an obligation upon us within certain time frames means we design our lives, our time, our movements from place to place based on our salah.  We again sprinkle the places we frequent with the barakah of being a prayer space and the presence of angels.  And we again develop associations and memories in our minds between places and remembrance of Allah that would not have existed otherwise.  Instead of the classroom or the library or the office or the mall being only a “secular” place, a materialist place, a functional place they now take on extra, higher, meaning. 

Sometimes I pray in the grass or the woods.

We often think of this as an aesthetic, Instagram-worthy spiritual experience. And it can be- the beauty and serenity of the natural world is unmatched by anything we humans can build and it can help us to be thankful and focused. As modern people we spend so much of our time in manmade spaces that we often forget that we are not the architects of our world.

And when we pray outdoors, we are reminded of this not only by beauty and serenity but also by challenges.  The ground is uneven.  There are rocks and dirt in our way.  In fact many of the books of fiqh I’ve studied have mentioned that it is makruh (disliked) to smooth our prostration surface deliberately because praying on a bumpy natural surface helps to increase humility.  Also, have you ever gotten grass up your nose or been crawled on by a bug while praying?  Or realized that there is an ever-so-slight downhill orientation to your chosen spot? 

The Prophet (S) said that “The entire earth has been made sacred and pure and a mosque for me.” [Muslim]

The places we pray are many. There are limitless blessings in all of them, both hidden and apparent.    It is a human need and instinct to connect to God in any time or place.  It is inhuman, inhumane, and even illogical to claim that there are parts of the world that are somehow off limits for all or some of us to engage in worship, remembrance, and to seek the blessings of the time and place.   Break down the barriers to worship- self-imposed and otherwise- and seek the blessings that come from seeing the whole world as place of prayer. 

On the desire for spiritual milkshakes

Acadia National Park, Maine on a cold, foggy day in May 2017.

On the path of spiritual development, we often think we are not “feeling” anything because, deep down, what we really want is to feel like we are “all that” in front of Allah. We expect to experience spiritual fireworks and a feeling that we have “arrived”. When we don’t feel that way, we decide that we have failed, and that we should give up trying.

The goal of drawing nearer to Allah isn’t to experience fireworks. The outcome won’t be climbing mountains and flying with the stars- the outcome will be seeing deeper into the closest, simplest things and realizing that the thing we needed most was right in front of us after all.

Do you not see that when you are fasting, you spend the day craving brownies and lasagna and halal bacon cheeseburgers and milkshakes, but when you have completed the fasting day, the veil is lifted from your eyes and you realize that all you ever really wanted was a simple sip of humble, pure, water?

So stop expecting triple milkshakes with whipped cream, hot fudge, sprinkles, and a cherry on top as the reward for your attempts to draw nearer to Allah. Allah will reward you with the joy of simple, pure water- and He will make it more beloved to you than all the milkshakes in the world.