City of Brass

Ramadan is nigh!

Tonight is the new moon - 0% illumination

Tonight is the new moon – 0% illumination

The first fast is upon us – the one act of piety most associated with Ramadan. The spiritual and spiritual benefits of fasting get the most attention, but there is a third aspect that isn’t discussed as often: the cognitive benefits. A great article from Christianity Today generalizes the question to self-control:

Studies on self-control have boomed in the past two decades, and self-control is a really good thing to have. Research has found, for example, that people with more self-control live longer, are happier, get better grades, are less depressed, are more physically active, have lower resting heart rates, have less alcohol abuse, have more stable emotions, are more helpful to others, get better jobs, earn more money, have better marriages, are more faithful in marriage, and sleep better at night. But psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists aren’t just interested in self-control’s practical benefits. They want to know what it is, how it works, and why some people seem to be better at it than others.

Let’s start with definitions. Self-control regulates desires and impulses. It involves wanting to do one thing but choosing to do another. We substitute responses to a situation, like wanting to eat a bag of chips but instead picking up an apple. That definition may seem obvious, but thinking about self-control this way helps us avoid less accurate or more vague ways of thinking about self-control, like “being a good person.” We use self-control to regulate what we think, what we do, and even how we express our emotions. Willpower is the emotional and mental energy used to exert self-control.

The applicability of this research to fasting is obvious. The article explains that the broad concept is referred to in the literature as “ego depletion”. The article is more interested in the applicability of self control and ego depletion with respect to sin, but it equally applies to simple addiction and even everyday bad habits – or outright denial. Ramadan teaches us to exert self control against the most primal of our body’s needs – hunger. Well worth the long read!

My friend Haroon writes, in despair:

I think there is a Muslim world, there is meant to be an ummah, and that means we belong to each other. Not politically, but in a deeper, more profound sense. Which means we are responsible for each other.

And we will, especially where the ummah is made up of minorities, be blamed for each other’s actions. It is a terrible fact that right now the Middle East is split between an Iranian regime conducting a murderous war in Syria, killing even more than ISIS; ISIS itself; al-Qaeda; Hezbollah, and the entirely unjustifiable Saudi war on Yemen. What do all these actors have in common? They believe themselves to be Islamic. They call themselves Islamic. They claim to uphold God’s word and God’s values.

And what do they do?

Indiscriminately torture. Murder. Starve. Each and every one of them. For shame.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said a time would come to pass when Muslims would abandon Islam in droves, and the worst of people would be the most outwardly religious, and you have to wonder. Are we there yet?

And how much worse can it get?

I am not interested in people who demonize all of Islam; the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject this violence. Wholeheartedly. I am instead interested in why so many millions can accomplish so little.

I am also not interested in platitudes like “Islam is the solution”–as if every problem is religious; Islam is not the solution to a broken bone, nor is there one Islam, or one solution, to most of the world’s pressing challenges–or paeans to our golden age. It is nice that a thousand years ago we were advanced for our time, but what does that mean when we have young people who believe blowing themselves up and killing innocents around them is not just sanctioned by God. But cheered by Him?

Something more is called for. Not marches against terrorism; those are mere symbolic gestures. Something bigger is called for. Something grander and greater. Initiatives that seek to build institutions out of our common sentiments. Educational enterprises that seek to create leaders, build networks out of them, and amplify their voices and ideas until they drown out the ugliness around them. For the love of God stop building mosques. Build leaders.

Throughout history, there have been only two actors: the Chief acting unilaterally downwards, and the People acting en masse upwards. I hate to be cynical here but the Chiefs in the Islamic world have a vested interest in the status quo, and the People will not mobilize unless they have an animating ideal. We thought for a time that Freedom was sufficient an ideal for this, but the Arab Spring sputtered and died, and we now have such low expectations that the re-election of Rouhani is seen as some kind of victory when in fact all it does is preserve a status quo. Until the people of Islam themselves rise, nothing will change. I think the only possible solution is to remember that every Islamic people had a pre-Islamic cultural heritage. Perhaps an appeal to that heritage is what can overwhelm the cookie cutter Islam in a Box culture that is exported from Saudi on the authority of their possession of the Holy Sites. If people in Iran, in Syria, in Palestine, in Xinjiang, in Myanmar, in Yemen, in Nigeria, in Somalia, in the Congo, in Darfur… were to reclaim their identity – then we would see true change.

We have 10,000 years of history to draw on. Ten millenia of civilization, built upon fifty millenia of exploration and settlement. Every nation today (with the exception of China) is only a few centuries old at most. What endures is language, culture, writing, art. That is what each of us can do – reclaim our identities from the faceless and sterile vision of Islam that the hirabists proffer, and replace it with something truly alive.


As Ramadan approaches, I think the pull of the mosque becomes stronger. This is natural and expected and hardly evidence of any kind of hypocrisy on our part, as Muslims – we are human, and the entire point of Ramadan is to re-center our awareness for a brief time on Deen. Even if that re-centering is primarily logistical rather than spiritual, the process itself is piety.

For someone seeking out a mosque, it is helpful to know whether the approach to Islam of that mosque is in line with their own. Some level of disclosure about that approach by a mosque, ideally on their website, is needed so that seekers don’t waste time learning the hard way whether or not the congregation is a good fit.

Here’s a sample Mosque Disclosure by the Islamic Center of Southern California – obviously, not everyone will agree with all aspects of this, but that is the point. By publishing such Disclosures, mosques help the spiritual seekers find what they are looking for.


The sources of Islam are the Holy Quran and the non-controversially relayed (sahih) tradition of the seal of messengers, Muhammad (peace be upon him). Other traditions, man-made rules, cultural and ethnic behaviors are not infallible, and are not considered as sources of Islam.

Islam is the universal mercy of God. Muslims identify primarily as Muslims and not as a particular ethnic group, race, color, or tribe. No such exclusionary activities are allowed in the Center.

Arabic is taught as the language of the Holy Quran. The language of communication and activities at the Center is the language of the land, i.e. English.

Choosing a school of thought (mazhab) is a matter of personal preference, not a policy of the Center

The affairs of Muslims should be handled through consultation (shura), discipline and organization.

Men and women are equally encouraged to participate in the activities of the Center and equally responsible for their efforts.

The Center does not believe in segregation of the sexes to attain righteousness. Rather, righteousness is attained through modesty, decency, purity of heart, clarity of conscience, and the observance of the dictates of God and His apostle.

While advocating the codes and ethics of Islamic behavior, the Center believes there is no compulsion in religion. The role of the Center is to teach and remind, not to compel or judge.

Islam is a complete way of life. While social and political activism may be a part of this, the Center’s activities are focused upon and geared towards the interests of Islam and Muslims in America. Preoccupation by other countries’ politics leads only to division and chaos among Muslims in America and is contrary to the policies of the Center.


The Muslim community in the United States is comprised of an enriching mosaic of races, ethnicities, cultures, schools of thought, and ways of practicing Islam. Respecting that diversity, we also assert our identity as Americans who subscribe to the following:

We believe the values and principles found in the U.S. Constitution are in alignment with the eternal message of the Holy Quran, promoting mercy (21:107), justice (4:135), peace (8:61), human dignity (17:70), freedom (2:256), and equality for all (49:13).

We view the United States as our home.

We believe in a representative democracy as defined in the U.S. Constitution, which we believe is congruent with the Islamic concept of shura – a collective and consultative form of decision making.

We embrace the pluralism of our country, and are committed to constructively engaging in its religious, civic, economic, social, and overall betterment.

We enjoy those aspects of our nation’s culture that do not conflict with Islamic values, and avoid those which do.

We believe men and women should be equal participants in all activities and efforts.

I hope that by sharing this, other mosques are encouraged to post similar Disclosures, with the above serving as a useful template.

Yoda stumbles across religious conundrums

Yoda stumbles across religious conundrums

Islam and Judaism are very orthopraxic* religions – Muslims and Jews are commanded to DO a lot of things. Eating, praying, fasting, observing – and all the nuances of Shari’a and Halakha – the everyday actions of a Jew or Muslim are heavily influenced by the concepot of correct conduct, laden with religious meaning and symbolism.

Basically, the faith commands us to Do. However, within Do there are actually two commands: Do, and Do Not.

Perhaps I am atypical, but I would like to believe otherwise when I say that I tend to fall short of Doing all the things I am supposed to be Doing Not all the things I am not supposed to be doing. The question is, which is worse?

If we don’t do what we are commanded to Do – that is a lapse. It is usually a regression to our base behavior, a lack of discipline. For example: Praying is hard. Fasting is really hard. We are told to do these things and we doin’t always do them because we are watching Netflix or we want to sleep in or we are just feeling lazy.

However, when we do what we are commanded to Do Not, that is somewhat more serious, because it requires an active act of disobedience. We are not just engaging in a sin of omission, we are engaging in action that we know to be proscribed.

I have no moral or theological basis for this thought, but if there is a greater spiritual failing, logic tells me that it’s probably the case where I actively choose to act against proscription, rather than merely failing to act according to prescription.

I’m not trying to create a basis for rationalizing my failure to comply, here – but in the modern world, as we try to reconcile our beliefs with the constraints of our consciences, law, and modern culture, it seems that there is more room for compromise with respect to the command to Do versus the command to Do Not.

* Christianity, meanwhile, is more of an orthodoxic faith – the emphasis is on belief and ritual rather than action and conduct. These are of course merely broad generalizations.