Thursday, May 28, 2015

Teaching your Child How to Read

Reading is a skill that is highly praised in Islam.  The Prophet (p) praised reading, along with his companions.  Of course they would because Islam is a very text heavy religion.  Not as much as Judaism, but certainly more than Christianity. 

To be a Muslim who is knowledgeable and sincere, one must read both the Qur'an and hadiths.  On top of that, the books that tell us how to be a Muslim are many, such as works of fiqh, prayer manuals, etc.  A Muslim is a reader by nature.

So how do you ensure that your children become readers?  After all, they need this skill for when they are on their own and do the proverbial 'seeking of knowledge' both in a secular and a religious setting.  Imagine your child as a middle aged adult on their own.  I know it's hard to do, especially is your child(ren) are small, but just try.

They are sitting in their living room, after a long day of work, and they have to do something to occupy their time.  Their kids are playing.  The spouse is off doing something.  There is a quiet moment.  Do you imagine your child looking over at a bookshelf?  Do you dare hope it would be filled with books, especially religious ones?  Will he or she raise their hand and pull out a Qur'an?  A hadith book?  A book of fiqh or Islamic poetry?

I think we would all be pleased if they took a book and started to read, but is that the reality for most Muslims, of any age?  Does your average Muslim (or non-Muslim for that matter) read anything anymore, ever?  Sadly, no.  But there are still those who do, and there will be those in the future who will still want to, even if digital devices are hanging from our ears like lanterns!

So what tools does a reader need?  How do you develop a love of reading in a child.  Being a good reader is also a prerequisite for being a good writer, as well.  Do we have a plan to help our children become lifelong lovers of the printed page (or ebook)?

I know there's a lot of books on the subject, but only people who read themselves can benefit from them.  What about people who are so busy in life that they just need simple strategies?  I didn't have time to read books about building literacy in children when my child was small.  What did I do?

I say this because alhumdulillah, my child developed a love of reading.  He doesn't always read all the time these days, for teenage years are times of distraction, but when he was young he read all the time and even now he likes books and will read them in his free time when the fancy strikes him.

For the curious minds out there, this is what I did, and it was all haphazard at the time, but the results were exactly the best I could have hoped for.  I will lay out the timetable in bullet points below.

  • About 1-2 years old: We had little board books like Kipper and Dr. Seuss and the like, many with tactile touching zones built into the pages.  Not one or two, but about ten or so that we would 'read' to him, letting him touch the pages to engage in the story.  "Kipper and the Egg" was his favorite.

  • About 2-4 years old.  We used a lot of Dr. Seuss, but also Richard Scary books.  These two in combination were incredibly awesome.  We started letting him watch Kipper videos, which I highly recommend.  Barney made an appearance too, but he didn't seem to prefer them too much.  He did like old episodes of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

  • About 4-6 years old: This is the time of more Dr. Seuss, Bernstein Bears, Emman Reading series and miscellaneous similarly sized and themed books.  We also began to introduce him to comic books.  Classic comic books from the 1960s and 1970s.  Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, The Beagle Boys, the Chipmunks, etc).  We also started to take him to Barnes and Noble Booksellers starting about the age of five or so to let him pick out books.  Adam's World Islamic videos began to make the rounds in our TV along with Jay Jay the Jet Plane.  We built up some computer skills by using Blues Clues video games for PC such as Blues Art Time and such, which were very, very educational.  He liked Blues Clues as a show too.

  • About 6-9 years old:  He was addicted to the comics and would read them all the time.  We never used those crazy superhero comics - only the animal character ones. (Gold Key, Hanna Barbara, etc) His vocabulary expanded exponentially because the older comics are from a more literate time in America. Eeman Reading series books were still in use. We also introduced him to Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck, which fascinated him and gave us great opportunities to discuss wealth and greed in the world.  Thomas the Tank Engine videos and books also made an appearance.  Our kid never really liked going to the library, because the book selection was old and never rotated, so we continued the bookstore.  We would sit for hours in the kids section reading the books on the carpet, and he would select 2-3 we could buy and read at home.  He liked Ripley's Believe it or Not books and some science books with cool graphics.  He also became addicted to Peanuts and Charlie Brown comics, along with Sad Sack, Hagar the Horrible, Denis the Menace, Curious George, Winnie the Pooh, etc...

  • About 10-12 years old: we let him have free reign in the bookstore.  He liked Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (at the low end) to Judy Blume books.  Geronimo Stilson held his interest for a short time, but he seemed to prefer to move towards chapter books.  He liked the Popeye comic anthologies, the golden book comic anthologies and the Pink Panther comics.  I made a conscious effort to steer him away from Archie comics, due to their racy nature.  For some reason he also started liking Charlie Brown videos.  As for computer activities, he liked Spore and the simple, cutesy games on the Wii like Scribblenauts, etc.  We did limit his video game time greatly, and kept 'thinking' games in his reach, rather than mindless ones.  Sometimes we took him to the movies to see thoughtful movies, such as "The Bridge to Terabithia."  There were not really any Islamically-themed books for him at this age, and curiously enough, I couldn't get him to read the adventure stories I wrote.  He thought they were too close to 'dad' and by this age kids want to pull away from their parents.  (Sniff. Sniff.)

  • These days he reads books far above his grade level.  Like most parents of Muslim kids raised here, it's tough to find 'Islamic' books he will read, but I keep plenty around and he knows they are important.  He has read some books by Muslim authors, though only the mainstream ones that talk about immigrant issues.  My hope is that when he is older and more mature, he will migrate to some of the more core 'religious' books.  At least he will have the built-in understanding that reading is an option for his leisure time.  He no longer plays any video games, which is good because our aim was to only use educational or cute things to get him computer skills.  He sees movies sometimes, but he seeks out 'brainy' movies, alhumdulilah, considering the alternatives.
So this is the general story of how we helped the progression of our young reader.  You might have noticed a common theme: we used materials, books, videos and such that were basically pre-year 2000.  Anything produced in modern times is just nuts and has little educational value.  SpongeBob Squarepants and Nick or Disney Kids shows are just awful and even immoral.  Most books for little kids now push some very unconventional ideas ("My Two Mommies," anyone?)  And apps for tablets and computers are way too fast and dumbed down.

The older materials were produced when this country still had some standards of innocence for young people.  You can buy the comics in lots on Ebay!  If I had any other little children I would follow a similar progression.  Inshallah, you will find what works for you. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Islamic Movement Today

The Islamic movement in the West has undergone radical changes in the last 25 years since I've been a part of it.  In the 'old days,' it was all about da'wah.  Back in the 90's we largely confined ourselves to handing out pamphlets, holding book table giveaways and hosting 'Christian/Muslim' debates.

We had a few Islamic magazines that tried to present an Islamic worldview.  We had conferences with much less political talk than we have nowadays.  We tried our best to get youth groups in operation and build masjids and Islamic schools.

It seems with the new realities today that our priorities and methodologies have changed.  We seem to be building fewer masjids and schools.  We also don't seem to be doing as much face-to-face contact.  I don't remember the last time I heard about a good old fashioned debate.

A lot of what we seem to be doing is damage control.  This or that terrible thing happened in this or that foreign land.  Uh oh, time to roll out the people who will try to explain that the Islamic religion should not be blamed for the mostly politically-motivated activities of people who have been brutalized for decades by outside forces.

I know a lot of believers have cocooned themselves, because it gets truly tiring to always have to defend your religion to people who are being told they should blame it for every bad thing.  The likes of Pamela Gellar et al who have made their careers at sensationalizing criticism of Islam and Muslims is getting really old now.

What is hard to get people to understand is that the turmoil in the Middle East goes all the way back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  The French and British made unnatural borders and left illegitimate political structures when they withdrew from the area.  They broke promises made to the Arabs who helped them in World War I and left behind a checkerboard of cobbled-together 'nations.'

The final stab in the heart was in allowing a Western colony to be established in the Holy Land.  Israel was not the creation of the people of Moses, but of European extremists (Zionists) who wanted to create a safe haven for their people even though it meant taking land and rights away from others.  (Didn't Hitler say he needed to take land and rights from others to make his own people safe and prosperous?)

The Zionists (who were largely NOT religious Jews) came in with Euro-style secular organization and through political double-dealing, manipulation and ultimately superior motivation and technology, defeated the Arabs in their own newly minted statelets.  The Arabs didn't stand a chance.

The point is that this unnatural creation, which needed then and still needs today untold trillions of dollars of support from the outside world, was like a supreme insult against the Arabs and also ultimately was a source of injustice against the native population of the Holy Land.

In short, the Arabs were enraged and to this day want that wrong righted.  Of course, in the West the narrative is falsely flipped on its head.  We are always told about the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust, and then we fast forward to the 'land without a people for a people without a land' boondoggle.  Oh yeah?  There were hundreds of thousands of people ALREADY living there, many of whom were driven away by force, by Israel's own (modern) admission.

Those people and their descendants are still suffering the loss today, and even in modern times the Israeli government continues to routinely confiscate more land and do more horrible things.  Oh, but the media here largely ignores it, or justifies it by saying those Arabs are bad.  They do this whenever the Arabs try to fight for their rights, especially violently.

The narrative is always: look what those terrorist Arabs did, now Israel has to RESPOND to it.  The truth is never shown, that Israel does the bad things first and then the enraged Arabs rise up to riot, etc.  Take for example the big "Gaza War" that happened in 2013, when Israel was pounding the concentration camp known as the Gaza Strip.  It "all started" because some Arabs killed three Israeli young men who were out traveling the roads.  What really happened was two weeks prior to that event, two young Arab men were killed by extremist Jews, and this caused the Arabs to seek revenge.

But again, we were treated to the idea that Israel was minding its own business when the Arabs did something bad 'first.'  I remember back in the late 80s and early 90s when Israel had a policy of breaking the bones of Arab protestors who threw stones.  Some of those incidents were caught on camera, of soldiers grabbing teenage boys during protests and violently breaking their arms.  It was all presented like this: "If those violent Arabs would just stop protesting and doing bad things, then poor Israel wouldn't be forced to 'defend' itself.  It is a 'rough' neighborhood you know!"

I think you get the point of my rant.  What outsiders did to the sleepy Middle East after World War I set the stage for endless conflict today.  There was no 'Islamic extremism' in 1920, 1930, 1940 even into the 1970s.  Any Arab resistance was largely secular in nature.

Why is it all about the religion now?

Put simply, so much meddling by foreign powers - supporting the dictators, the West taking Israel's side in all things right or wrong, the failure of secular resistance leaders to make things better and finally the corruption of all the governments from one end of the Middle East to the other.  Religious people got fed up and one used-to-be brand of Islam - Salafi teachings - seemed to offer a way to get revenge and build a new order.

The Salafi mindset is rigid and sees the world completely in terms of black and white, right and wrong, 'correct' and 'incorrect.' There are no nuances allowed.  No grey areas.  No compromises or differing opinions.  This is what separates it from the 'mainstream' Sunni trends that have remained fairly constant since Islam began.

So this brand of Islam, which mostly began in the 1700s, but whose roots really go back to the Kharajites (early purists from a few decades after the Prophet's passing) has given people a new channel to vent their anger and frustration.  It provides a path and offers salvation both in this life and in the next.  It is uncompromising, as I mentioned before, so opposition to it can and must be eliminated (by killing usually), and this is demonstrated by their liberal use of bullets to solve their problems, even if traditional Islam would forbid their extreme acts of brutality.

Unfortunately, this gives us 'regular' mainstream believers a bad name.  Critics of Islam take verses from the Qur'an that are meant to rally the believers to fight against enemies that MADE WAR ON THEM FIRST, and then they juxtapose them on the violent acts of extremists and say with glee, "See!  Islam by itself is naturally violent!"

Those knuckleheads then ignore that their very own holy books could be treated in exactly the same way (and often are by atheists who attack them).  We could look at some wacko Christian cult and say, "Look!  That's what Christianity is about!"  The history of Christian actions against Jews for the last 1500 years could be used to say their religion is just awful and prone to genocide.  Ah, but the critics have an agenda, and they keep the focus on us.

Writers have pointed out that the Islamic State or ISIS is at its core the remnants of Saddam Hussein's secular Republican Guard.  I don't know if that's true, but I do know an extreme form of the Salafi brand of Islam is its guiding core.  Like the Kharajites that preceded them, there are only absolutes.  They attack everything and anyone and their leader Baghdadi even came out and said, "Islam is the religion of War."

In our da'wah in the past, we always said that Islam was the religion of Peace.  Everyone in the movement from the 80's and 90's can recall countless speeches, articles and face-to-face contacts where we always espoused this truth.  Now, whenever we hear the news, all we get are statements such as, "U.S. bombed Islamic State targets..."  Talk about a daily downer. 

So here we are.  We want to live as good Muslims. We want our kids to feel good about being a Muslim.  We want an Islamic State like the ones we read about in the history books, you know, tolerant, wise, merciful and all that, not like what extremists have brought us.  We want to do da'wah and share the good news of Allah's mercy, but at every turn we have the usual external enemies of Islam walking hand-in-hand with extremists from within Islam, who are making our religion seem something other than what it truly is.  We are taking it on both sides of our collective faces!

The noble Prophet (p) - we hold him up as an example of wisdom, justice, fairness and yes - MERCY.  Yet we are thwarted from promoting this message both from within and without.  Thus, many Muslims are disheartened and confused.  Many young people hide being Muslim or abandon it. Women drop the hijab.  Men are afraid to talk to people about their faith.

Due to historical problems beyond our control, we are made to feel ashamed of our faith and constantly are on the defensive.  It is wrong, because our faith is beautiful, yet our lives today are what they are.  Our current situation is bleak, but not impossible.

In my next article, I will try to offer some insight into how we may be able to turn this around.  Inshallah we can survive these dark times.  The Muslims who lived in the Middle East during the Mongol invasions had it far worse than we do today.  They survived.  Inshallah so shall we.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Givers or Takers?

I was thinking the other day about all the changes in the world during my lifetime.  Such musings come and go the older we get as we realize that we have indeed lived through great upheavals and times of transition. 

I grew up during the tail end of the Cold War, and nuclear annihilation was a constant if unspoken part of life.  We all went about our business and ignored willfully or actually that someone, somewhere could push a red button and the whole world would be reduced to a pile of ash.

The Cold War is over, but a new round of even more unpredictable dangers is on the table, and we continue to ignore these frightening new realities.  I often marvel over how so many people get sucked into the vapid lifestyle of music, parties and wasteful living, but then I realize that they don't know what to do with themselves besides.

The Qur'an tells us that if people were to be punished as they deserved, Allah wouldn't leave even a single living thing on the surface of the earth.  For those who open their eyes, this is not a harsh or unfair statement.  There is so much injustice and pain caused by our species that it boggles the mind.

Human activity is like genocide against the plants and animals of the world.  What we do to each other is equally bad.  Many people say, "Well yes, there is a lot of suffering in the world, but I'm not doing anything wrong!"

Yet when we scratch the surface, we find we are all complicit in the evil.  Do we live in houses made of wood?  Which forests (and all the millions of animals) were cut down to build that house?  Do we drive cars or use buses or subways?  Which environments have been decimated, polluted and raped to get all the natural resources that go into those things?

Do we wear clothes even?  Which sweatshop workers have been beaten, worked half to death and treated unjustly so we could find 'a bargain' at the store?  Do we eat?  Which animals were raised in torturous conditions and killed through fear and brutality?  I often think about the remake of the movie, "War of the Worlds."  It has a series of scenes that show the aliens hunting down humans and killing them for food in gruesome ways.  Hey, we kill some 90 billion animals a year just like that!

"Oh," someone says.  "I'm a vegetarian!  I eat only organic!  I wear cotton only!  I ride a bike!"  It doesn't matter what we do or how unobtrusive we try to make our existence.  The sewers we use discharge pollutants far and wide.  The plants we eat are grown with fertilizers that pollute watersheds everywhere, killing trillions of organisms.  The products we buy were made in places that pollute, exploit and consume.  Even the very beds we sleep in were produced by destroying the habitat of some creature or another.

Is that justice?  We sometimes hear about this or that refugee crisis, and we're confronted with images of starving children and helpless civilians without hope.  Besides the terrible nature of those situations, do we realize how many animal species we do that very thing to, all in the name of our superiority?

The truth is, we are an invasive species.  We are the super predators.  We kill and destroy and ruin no matter what we do, and the greed and shortcomings of our species causes us to turn on each other equally as well.

I am not saying we have no right to live.  All creatures have the right to exist.  It is a paradox that life requires fuel, and fuel - unless it comes directly from the sun - must be gotten from other life forms around us.  Even any plant and animal species will try to outcompete those around it.  It's natural and part of the struggle to survive and pass on one's genes. 

What I am saying is that we are wasteful, greedy and ignorant of our impact on the earth.  We cannot burn through our resources, our fellow life forms and our energy sources like they will last forever.  They won't.  I read recently that there is only about twenty year's worth of easily mineable gold in the world.  I was dumbfounded.  Twenty years?  For coal they say we have 300 years.  For oil maybe a hundred years or so.  As far as extinctions of life forms, they say that 90% of all life on earth will be rendered extinct (through human exploitation) in less than a hundred years!

What will people 500 years from now do for energy or food?  A thousand years from now?  Ten thousand?  Are we literally hollowing out the only home our species has?

The Prophet Muhammad (p) lived a very frugal lifestyle.  He hardly ever ate any meat products.  He warned we could waste water even if we did wudu in a river.  He praised planting trees.  He counseled people not to seek more and more.  Even though he could have filled his house (and those of his wives) with every material good and comfort, he owned only a blanket, a reed mat, a bowl and a few items of clothing.  His wives also lived in similar frugality.

What of our own homes, filled with stupid things as they are?  How many knickknacks do we have?  How many closets and shelves and boxes do we have filled with stuff we neither need nor use?  We talk of simple living, but we are buried in the latest gadgets, mountains of clothes and enough furniture for three households!  I could go on, but you get the point.

We all swim in the sea of life, and when we die we are supposed to come out of the water and walk upon the shore of eternal life.  Abu Darda, a famous companion, was once asked why he had few possessions.  He answered that the climb towards heaven was a difficult one, and that he wanted to be light for that journey.

Are we literally walking through life like a magnet?  Are we collecting to ourselves every useless thing?  How can we swim to the shore if we are struggling under piles of junk?  How many plants, forests, animals and environments have to be destroyed for our whims and false illusions about what is important?

I often wonder about the desire to acquire endless 'things.'  Not too long ago I saw a shiny new sports car pull up at a stoplight, and was amazed to see a very old lady driving it.  She must have loved how fancy and splendorous her hotrod was.  Then the thought hit me: she is old, but the illusion of 'new' things is giving her a sense of permanence.

It was almost as if her life was screaming, "I'm about to die, but if I surround myself with the wealth and shiny things of this world, how can I die?  Look at all this I have to take care of!"

Do people accumulate to distract themselves from the end of their lives?  Was religion created to give our brains a way to cope with the horrors of death?  I don't know for sure.  What I can say is that people in general, and Muslims in particular, need to simplify their lives.  We need to stop wasting and appreciate the little things.

The Prophet said that we only have the right to food, shelter and clothing.  Truly, everything else is superfluous.  If we want to rise to the level of the best of creation and avoid the truth of the damning judgment of Allah, then we need to get our priorities straight.

I'm not saying Islam requires us to be poor and have nothing.  All the Sahaba had various degrees of 'stuff' in their homes.  They had jobs.  They built lives, but they generally didn't overdo it anywhere near the way most people do in the world.  We need to learn to scale back our wasteful ways.

Begin to really look at what you have, why you have it and how it contributes to your life.  If you see a lot of things you don't need in your house or life, then beware the Day of Judgment where we will be asked about our blessings in life and how we used them.

Have a garage sale!  Refrain from buying unnecessary things all the time.  Ask yourself before you buy, "Do I really need this?"  Simplify your life for the climb to heaven.  Don't drown under the weight of things that bring you no benefit.

Do you need strength to change your mindset?  Watch a few episodes of "Hoarders" to set your mind straight!

Inshallah, we can improve ourselves and alleviate some of the suffering caused by our presence.  May Allah give us all the wisdom and motivation to make positive changes so we can be the world's 'caretakers' that we were meant to be, rather than the destroyers we can no longer afford to be.  Ameen.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Prophet Cartoon Contest and a Hidden Agenda

A few days ago there was a shooting at a 'free speech' event involving purposeful cartoon caricaturing of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.  The organizers, including the shrill anti-Muslim campaigner Pamela Geller, tried to say all they innocently wanted was to promote free speech by making a point about a subject that angers some people.

Besides the fact that they were, in fact, engaging in bullying (if you know something offends someone, but then you shove it in their faces anyway just because you can, that's bullying,) we have to ask ourselves what their real purpose was.  Of course, some Muslims were offended, and a couple of men went on a shooting spree.

While I do not condone solving every problem with a gun, one cannot help but wonder if this is what the organizers wanted.  It's pretty obvious that making fun of the Islamic Prophet will make some people over-react and even get violent.  Since the 'conference' now we have the U.S. government and talk show personalities adamantly asserting that "ISIS is in America now!"

It didn't help that ISIS claimed responsibility, even though it's publicly doubted by the experts that ISIS was involved.  Anyway, the damage is done.  The average clueless American is now convinced that ISIS is hiding in their neighborhood, ready to behead the infidels.  This fear plays into the hands of certain people who have made it their mission to make people hate Muslims.  After all, it distracts from their own misdeeds here and in the Middle East.  Ah, but that's an old story.

Getting back to the so-called 'free speech' conference, one wonders why they wanted to focus so bad on making fun of the religious figure of one certain religion.  Wouldn't it have been more pertinent in the local American context for them to make a stand for 'free speech' and have a contest involving the use of the "N" word?"  They could chant it, write it in cartoons and declare they are taking back a word that has been made forbidden for them.

Ah, but they would never do it.  With a straight face they would say that 'hate speech' is rightfully banned, while ignoring the fact that they have no right to define what is hurtful to others, or to deny what offends others.  They wouldn't chant the 'N' word because African Americans find it offensive, but they will mock the prophet of Islam in drawings, not caring that Muslims find it offensive.

They would never have a conference to declare the Holocaust a hoax for the sake of free speech, or publicly insult and make fun of Moses or Jewish stereotypes.  They would never have a 'swastika drawing' contest because those things would insult Jews.

They wouldn't organize a conference to make fun of Hindu beliefs or gods, nor would they make a conference to defend the right to make fun of Asians, stereotypes about Asians.  How about a slant-eyed drawing cartoon contest?  They would never do it because they would be banished from every professional forum and probably lose their jobs.

So if the defenders of 'free speech' willingly limit their speech so as not to offend EVERYONE else in the world (Jews, African-Americans, etc) why do they feel they can and should do the ONE THING that makes ALL Muslims angry?  Because, as I wrote before, they are bullying and they have an agenda to provoke us to make people hate us EVEN MORE.  That is hate speech par excellence. 

We Muslims are over a barrel and getting the worst treatment and most disrespect simply because people who have been messing with the Muslim world since 1919 don't want to answer for their culpability in doing misdeeds on a massive scale.  Are a lot of people in the Middle East seething with anger, even going nuts and doing horrible things?  Yes, they are, but instead of looking at the geo-political CRIMES that have been committed by Western powers there, evil people are saying, "Oh look, it's just their religion that makes them crazy."

There is so much injustice in this world that it is mind-boggling.  From parents who oppress their children to nations that invade others either in fact or in spirit - this is a crazy messed up world.  As Muslims we are tested as never before, and it seems the challenges just get worse and worse. 

Take heart!  The Prophet told us we would have times where to be a believer would be like holding a hot coal!  With craziness coming out of the Middle East rooted in decades of oppression and foreign meddling, backward cultural practices being equated with Islam and an array of ingenious bullies trying to drag our noble religion in the mud, we must remember that Allah promised us that He is in control, and that His way of life will triumph, no matter how much evil people dislike it.

Stay on the path!  Do good to others and make it your example.  Speak truth in the face of tyranny.  Take solace in prayer and du'a.  Show the world Islam is a force for good, nobility and charity.  Continue to set your eyes on the prize and be prepared to talk down those who go to extremes whether they are Muslims or not.  We can weather this crisis.  The Mongol invasions destroyed half the Muslim world, and we bounced back.  Maintain the faith, and look to your Lord and pray for wisdom.  Ameen!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How to Prepare for Both Worlds when One of Them Seems Overwhelming

Time teaches many lessons to us.  We don’t always know what they are, being preoccupied in our busy lives as we find ourselves most of the time, but we can contemplate the truth of our lives in those moments of somber reflection and rest that we sometimes snatch from the jaws of obligation - when the opportunity arises, that is.  Many of us work all the time and feel we don’t have a moment’s rest, but if we grasp at those quiet times we can recollect what has happened – and is happening – and try to make sense of the meaning of it all.     

One of the lessons I often think about these days is the idea of constant change.  My grandmother, who is still alive, was born into a world where planes and airports hardly existed.  Cars as a technology were only 20 years old and only a wealthy few had them.  Computers, cell phones, robots – even huge grocery stores and malls did not exist either.  So what is she to make of all the changes over the last 80 or so years of life?  Does she yearn for the ‘good ‘ole days?’  Does she feel that life was better ‘before?’  Strangely, I also find myself comparing my own ‘good ‘ole days’ to the modern world.  Do you feel life was better when you were younger?

The Prophet Muhammad (p) once remarked that a person was not fully mature until they reached forty years of age.  I can attest to a change in my own thinking that occurred after that milestone.  When I was in my 20s and 30s I felt I knew a lot of things, and as I look back now I realize that I might have had facts, but the wisdom to make sense of them was still undeveloped.  Even further, I understand enough now to realize that when I am in my 50s, 60s and beyond, I will look back on these days and feel the same about them as I feel about my younger years now.  The Qur’an exhorts us to respect our elders for a reason!

Years ago I used to read the newspaper every day.  I was literally a sponge eagerly soaking up every tidbit of news – hoping to create a store of knowledge I could use to better manage my own world and rise in the worlds of others.  Then a few years ago I realized something profound: the news never changes.  For example, back in the late 1980s as a young man I would read stories about the conflicts in the Middle East, but in the 90s – it was the same types of stories!  In the first decade of the 2000s - the same thing.  Now in the second decade of the new millennium, nothing seems to have changed!   Whether it’s about the economy, other parts of the world, politicians, celebrities, sports – again, like the ancient saying goes: ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’

So here we are now, in the so-called ‘modern world.’  Are things so different?  Twenty years from now this time period here will seem quaint and na├»ve, and people living in the future will be the lords of the new ‘modern world.’  Events seem to move rapidly, and indeed in a global economy and network you see ripples traveling faster than how the world used to be just 30-40 years ago.  I personally feel this is a dangerous time for all, but as a person of faith I realize that living in a world where we each get only a small number of years to live – every day is ‘dangerous’ to each of us.  You never know what tomorrow will bring.  I sometimes smile when I hear people emphatically looking for the ‘Signs of the Last Day,’ as if they want to be released from the mundane world in a great and overwhelming Event.  I smile because it seems that those people forget their own impending ‘last day’ which is their last day of life.  That is more likely to happen to each of us than the angels descending from the clouds.  Better to focus on we have control over, rather than on what we have no control over.

Even that is difficult in a busy and fast-changing world.  I know from personal experience that when you combine a busy personal and work life with concerns about politics, religion and the economy, that it can all seem so overwhelming.  How can I work sixty hours a week and then be involved with community activities?  How can I try to control political actions or make sense of events far away when I’m worried about paying my electric bill or feeding my family?  These concerns are valid, though the great danger is in letting them overwhelm us and make us feel powerless.  The Qur’an tells us to, “Act as you are able.”  So what power do we have to offer?  What can we do in a wider context?

To begin with, as the Qur’an teaches, we all began from nothing –and now look at us!  We are strong, capable, versatile and have some level of power over others, even if it is seemingly only a little.  Indeed, the head of a household makes the major decisions, a boss dictates what his workers do, a teacher directs his or her students, an employee has a measure of control over what the customer will receive and in what manner they will get it – even an older child has power over a younger one.  The main point to consider is that from a helpless baby we have grown and have possibilities to act regardless of the level or scale.

We all have our beginnings somewhere, and as we rise we have no choice but to become holders of responsibility.  As the Qur’an says, “(He created you) so that He could test (you in order to bring out) which of you is most noble in conduct.”  

Our purpose in life is not to pay the electric bill, though we have to do it.  We were not created to open a store or drive a taxi or make the best foods for our family – though we have to do those things.  We were created with the obligation to work, but that is not why we’re here.

There are duties to perform for our survival, and then there are the responsibilities we have to our Creator that will benefit us both in this life and in the next.  When we internalize that reality, then we no longer become slaves to our jobs, our career goals, our studies or our families.  We take care of those things in the best way we can because they are a part of life, but our focus is on a higher goal, on a spiritual level, realizing that no matter what we do in this uncertain world, we are not meant to live here forever.

We can build the best business ever, but our hands will weaken and then crumble to dust and it will be sold or closed by others when we are no longer here.  So what was the point if all that blood, sweat and tears?  We can take pride in our large families and use them to gain influence in the community, but what happens to that influence when we pass?  As Prophet Zachariah exclaimed, “I’m worried about what my relatives will do after me…”

We can travel all over the world to seek our fortune, but we still cannot escape dying in the land where we are meant to die.  We must get an education, but our brains are destined to deteriorate until we ‘know nothing after having known much,’ as the Qur’an warns.

But can we live our lives in a comfortable and responsible way by doing nothing and relying on fate to bring us what we are destined?  Of course not, and the Prophet Muhammad (p) was once quoted as saying that those who think like that, “Do not understand the teachings of Muhammad.”  Strive, work hard, make progress – but never forget the true goal of life!  As Allah said:

“Those who believed (in Allah), who migrated and who struggled in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives – they are valuable in the sight of Allah, and they are the ones who will be successful.   Their Lord has given them the good news of mercy from His Own Self, of His satisfaction and of gardens filled with everlasting delights that will (be theirs) forever!    They will live within them for all time, and with Allah are the greatest rewards!  (9:20-22)

When you free yourself from the notion that your job, your family, your schooling and other worldly things are the sole purpose of your life, then you can put them in context.  We have to do them, and to do them well is a form of ‘ebadah, or worship.  So we can energize ourselves at work realizing we are pleasing our Lord when we do a good job.  We can add sweetness to our home life when we understand that it is an opportunity to show love, mercy and understanding to please our Lord – suddenly all those hadiths and ayahs about loving the family make sense!  When we study in school we can do it with the understanding that Allah loves for us to be educated and rewards us for it!

The context is the key!  Know why you are doing something, then it no longer becomes toil, heartless busy work or a source of temptations to do bad deeds.  Think of the business owner who does not focus on Allah and his purpose in life, and who is tempted to cheat to make more money.  His or her only focus is that the business is the purpose of their life, and so to make it better by any means necessary is acceptable.  Or consider the young man or woman who gets married only thinking of ‘family alliances’ or status.  If marriage only means that, then love, honesty and shared faith mean nothing – surely a recipe for long term unhappiness!

We must put our life’s activities in proper context.  Then it is no longer drudgery.  We no longer need to long for the ‘good ‘ole days’ because every day is a chance to please our Lord and improve ourselves spiritually, mentally and emotionally.  Even setbacks and hardships become easier to handle, though they still hurt – but at least we realize the tests are also a source of reward and growth.  The Muslim is an optimist, not a pessimist. 

So how can we get involved in things beyond our own busy lives?  When we put our lives in context, and see the true meaning of what our purpose is, then it becomes easier to go to the masjid, to get involved in affairs that can improve the lives of others.  We are on this earth for a set number of days, and our purpose is to build our character, our faith and our understanding so that we are worthy of something beautiful and eternal after our short life is over. 

Those who deny this are doomed to small lives of heartache and pain – the world is full of examples of those who are miserable, lost in their own delusions.  Let the light of eman illuminate your daily struggles, and you never have to worry about getting lost in the dark.  May Allah make it easy on us to make small changes in our lives that can add up to more happiness both today and in the next life.  Ameen!



Sunday, May 3, 2015

Islam and Police Brutality

The recent explosion in anger against the continued over-reactions of policemen towards the people they are supposed to protect is giving a lot of people pause for thought.  Are the police more brutal now than before?  Are the police departments of this nation filled with racists?  Is there more crime than ever before?

I don't have the answers to those questions, but I know that as a white man, I was once threatened by a white cop with being shot.  My offense?  Speeding on a state highway.  He pulled me and my friends over and literally ran up to my car window, reached in, pulled the keys out of my ignition and said, "If you move, I'll shoot you!"

Needless to say, we were scared.  We were all high school students returning home late at night from a day at an amusement park.  At first the cop wanted us to pay a speeding ticket for something like $200, payable to him in cash.  When we protested we didn't have that much, he asked us how much we had.  When we pooled together $50, he wrote a ticket for $50 worth of penalties.

That was my initiation into the world of the police.  I learned to be wary around 'police types' later in life, when I encountered an off-duty cop at my martial arts school.  He began taking lessons about a year after I had joined this particular school.  From the get-go he was rude, aggressive and overly eager to 'throw' the newer students around.  Even though I had more technical skill than he did, I also avoided partnering up with him for the drills because he seemed to love to strong arm people into the wall!  He was a latino cop, and in a short time he came to be a menace on the training room floor.

Later on, about four years ago I was stopped by a pair of black cops for no justifiable reason and given a traffic ticket.  I protested (politely, of course) that I didn't do anything wrong, but they literally just laughed at me and said I could plead not guilty and take it up with a judge if I wanted to.  I was incensed, but knew I was without options. 

My latest incident was with a white cop again.  I was coming off the highway onto an offramp, and slowing down, but he decided to pull me over for speeding anyway.  Despite my courteous behavior, he gave me a speeding ticket - and inflate the miles per hour over!  He was being a real jerk for no reason.  He even smirked when he handed the ticket over to me.

So my experience with police forces of any race has largely been negative.  What am I saying?  Police officers can be aggressive, and are probably under a lot of stress.  Are all cops that way?  No.  I have an uncle who is a cop and he's very peaceful and reasonable, although he works in a lazy suburb.  In urban areas it might be different.  I can only imagine what it must be like for people living in areas where crime is rampant.  The police are probably more aggressive and on edge.  I don't know what can be done about it.  The filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted the other day that he wants all police disarmed until new cops can be hired.  I don't know if that would work, but it speaks to the depths of the frustration.

All this recent protesting and rioting and racial finger-pointing just got me to thinking more about Islam's answer to the problem of racial mistrust.  The Qur'an's answer is simple: "Indeed, We created you into nations and tribes so you can get to know one another."  Then the Qur'an tells us that the best amongst us is the one who has the most taqwa, or awareness of Allah in our hearts.

The people running around in anger, whether police, innocent bystanders, criminals, community members, observers - they are all acting without spiritual guidance and without an anchor in the teachings of the Lord of the Heavens.  The Qur'an asks the unbelievers, "Will you take (this message) as a joke?" 

In a world going crazy, spiritual solutions seem to be the only thing not tried by anyone.  Sadly, it's the only solution that can work.  All other things have failed.   I think we as Muslims, despite the tremendously bad public relations nightmare we are saddled with out of the Middle East, need to go on a spiritual offensive.  We need to get out in the public space and promote our message of healing, racial reconciliation, guidance and clean leaving.

It's so easy to go into a cocoon.  Every time some extremist organization does something bad, we wince in pain and try to hide that much more.  The only thing that will bring is continued shame and the loss of our children to the faith.  When Christian Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in Northern Ireland for religious differences, their coreligionists in other lands didn't feel ashamed or personally guilty.  When Catholic Croats and Serbian Orthodox Christians were bloodletting, those religions didn't cocoon. 

Yes, we have a tremendous problem because the media here has an anti-Muslim agenda and they are doing it well, but that is the time to become more creative.  For example, some anti-Muslim groups in NYC have been putting misquotes or out-of-context quotes from the Qur'an on subway advertisements to make us all look like homicidal maniacs.  What about a Muslim group putting up an ad that has some Old Testament quote about killing babies or shaming women with the tagline: "Don't like it?  Is it out-of-context?  This is what they are doing with quotes from the Qur'an too!"

Or what about Muslim marches for peace or hospitals named, "The Islamic Medical Center" because don't we have a gazillion "Jewish," "Catholic," and other religiously named institutions that tell people "this" religion has a component of mercy and healing?  There are so many ways to act.  We just need to be more creative so people see we are not all the same and that our religion is nothing like what is happening in the Middle East - an aberration that exists because the Western world has been BOMBING that part of the world and supporting evil dictators and corruption there for four generations!  Of course, the people are gonna' get crazy over there.

The Founding Fathers of this nation got hot and bothered over issues much less than that, and they started a revolution that lasted for almost a decade!  We need to let people know that what the shrill alarmists are saying is not the religion we follow, and at the same time we need to get our own house in order over here where we have some influence.  So many of the problems in the Muslim community in the West are a result of a lack of education and sincerity.

The tasks look larger than life, but no one individual has to do them all.  Some Muslims are already working for this or that niche.  If you cannot join them, at least support them financially.  Spread the word!  If there is a good youth program over there, tell people.  If there is a homeless shelter run by Muslims, donate.  If there is a budding scholar who inspires, support him or her.  In short, we can repair this damage our reputation has suffered.

This country needs the kind of healing we can provide.  Cops and the community will always have tension, but if we can provide a workable framework for at least helping people to eliminate race as a flashpoint, then we will have contributed greatly.  May Allah help us focus on the good, emerge from our shells and do something to show our Lord we are not afraid of the words and insults of others.  May He bless us in our efforts and give us strength in the darkest of times.  Ameen!