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In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Today was always a special day for me, ever since my university days. For three years of my life, I would have this day off, in fact. I would do nothing special on this day, but it was still nice not to have to attend any classes. Before I attended Marquette University, I had no idea that this special day even existed. Nevertheless, ever since that time, there is a special place in my heart for this day: the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Now, naturally, I had thought this day was about Christ (pbuh). Yet, I was surprised to learn that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was not about Christ, but rather his mother, Mary (pbuh). Her story is especially beautiful, as it is recounted in Scripture:

when a woman of [the House of] `Imran prayed: “O my Sustainer! Behold, unto Thee do I vow [the child] that is in, my womb, to be devoted to Thy service. Accept it, then, from me: verily, Thou alone art all-hearing, all-knowing!” But when she had given birth to the child, she said: “O my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female” – the while God had been fully aware of what she would give birth to, and the male is not like the female – “and I have named her Mary. And, verily, I seek Thy protection for her and her offspring against Satan, the accursed. And thereupon her Sustainer accepted the girl-child with goodly acceptance, and caused her to grow up in goodly growth…

It may surprise you that this story is not from the Bible, but rather the Qur’an (3:35-37). Indeed, the story of Jesus and his mother (peace be upon them) is in several places in the Qur’an, and the Virgin Mary, in fact, is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an. She is also the only woman to have an entire chapter of the Qur’an named after her.

That is why this day, December 8, is special for me. No, it is not a religious holiday for me. It is not a “Holy Day of Obligation” for me as a Muslim. Yet, that does not mean that the subject of this day, the Holy Virgin, is not very special to me. Indeed she is. In fact, the Qur’an sets up the example of the Virgin Mary as the model of what a true believer should be:

And [We have propounded yet another parable of God-consciousness in the story of] Mary, the daughter of Imran,// who guarded her chastity, whereupon We breathed of Our spirit into that [which was in her womb],// and who accepted the truth of her Sustainer’s words – and [thus,] of His revelations// – and was one of the truly devout. (66:12)

Indeed, I will be truly successful if I am just a fraction as good as the Virgin Mary. What’s more, in the verses I quoted above from Chapter 3, there is an alternative interpretation of the literal phrase, “and the male is not like the female.” According to the classical commentator Zamakshari, whose interpretation I share, this phrase actually means:

The male [child] which she had prayed for could not have been like the female which she was granted” – which implies that Mary’s excellence would go far beyond any hopes which her mother had ever entertained.

I like this meaning much more. I have said before, and I say again, that I pray the Lord God on High that I may enter His garden and be admitted into the company of the Prophets. And then, I hope to seek out the Virgin Mary, greet her emphatically, and kiss her hand. It would be the best gift the Lord could ever bestow.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

During these days, many of my patients, as they are leaving, tell me: “Er…Happy Holidays!” I know they mean well: they don’t want to offend me by saying “Merry Christmas.” But, I’m here to tell you: I would not be offended if you say to me: “Merry Christmas.”

I mean, that is a very nice thing to wish me: happiness on Christmas Day. No, I don’t celebrate Christmas…but that doesn’t mean that you can’t wish me happiness on Christmas Day. I would welcome such a wish, because, Christmas Day for me is so boring.

Nothing is open…nothing! A couple of years ago, I had to work on Christmas night, and I was looking for something to eat: nothing but the Muslim-owned Mediterranean restaurant was open. But, I didn’t want that food: I wanted Chinese food. But, all the Chinese restaurants were closed! I was totally devastated.

If the wishes of my patients for a “Merry Christmas” came true for me, I would find all restaurants open for business on Christmas night only for me, and if I go to any of them, they will give me food for free in gratitude for coming in on Christmas night. So, please, wish me a Merry Christmas, for God’s sake!

I see no problem for me as a Muslim wishing my Christian friends and neighbors “Merry Christmas” during Christmas season. The same goes for my Jewish friends and neighbors during Rosh Hashana. Once I told a patient, whom I knew to be Jewish, “Happy New Year.” She was quite surprised, and she said, “Happy New Year to you, too?” (Asking if I was Jewish). I said, “No, but I know it’s Rosh Hashana.” I knew she appreciated it, and that made me very happy.

We should do more of this sort of thing. If we each wish our neighbors a “Merry Christmas” during the Christmas season; a “Happy New Year” during Rosh Hashana; a “Happy Kwanzaa” during Kwanzaa; a “Happy Divali” during Divali; the bonds of our brotherhood and sisterhood will be all the stronger. The barriers of hate and fear will be destroyed. And our country will all the better for it.

So, to one and all, I say to you: Have a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous, Happy New Year.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! May everyone enjoy this day with their families. I am not going to go into the issue of whether Muslims should or should not celebrate Thanksgiving. For me, I have come to the conclusion that this cultural tradition does not contradict the principles of my faith.

Now, I may not sit and have a traditional American turkey dinner, but that is because I am first-generation American of Egyptian descent. Quite likely, I will have dinner with some Egyptian dishes (and probably turkey, also). Still, what is wrong with getting together on Thanksgiving? Nothing, as far as I am concerned.

Yet, let us all remember that, especially during these difficult times in our country’s history, there are a lot of people who are suffering. There are a lot of people who are out of work. There are a lot of people who will not get to enjoy a turkey dinner with “all the ‘fixins.” Yes, we should be thankful if we are not in their lot.

But, that cannot be the end of it. We have to try to help them. That is the essence of what it means to be truly thankful. Scripture says to us:

And [remember the time] when your Sustainer made [this promise] known: ‘If you are grateful [to Me], I shall most certainly give you more and more;but if you are ungrateful, verily, My chastisement will be severe indeed!” (14:7)

What better way to be grateful to the Lord than helping those who are less fortunate? Here in Chicago, a group of friends of mine – Muslims – have a turkey drive (http://www.sabeelpantry.org/turkeydrive.htm), during which they distribute 750 turkeys to needy families on the South Side of Chicago. I try to contribute something every single year. It is the very least I can do, in gratitude for the tremendous blessings I have been given.

I pray that everyone in our country, and in our world, can be thankful for something this Thanksgiving season. And I pray that each of us can try to help out those who need such help. That is the spirit of Thanksgiving. That is the true essence of what it means to be thankful.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

I was listening to one of my favorite programs, NPR’s Fresh Air, and the show was about the Nobel Prize in Physics, which was awarded to two teams of scientists who showed that the expansion of the Universe is actually accelerating. It is quite fascinating, and I encourage you to listen to the show.

Astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, who was interviewed in the show, said:

When we started getting results that showed that it was not slowing … [that] in fact it wasn’t slowing at all — it was speeding up — it was a pretty big shock. At the time, when you first get those results, it doesn’t worry you too much … because you know you haven’t finished doing the calibration. The more we did the calibration, the more the results didn’t go away.

He explained it this way:

It would be a little like throwing an apple up in the air and you would expect that it would be pulled back down due to gravity. What we were seeing was a little bit like throwing the apple up in the air and seeing it blast off into space.

These findings have led scientists to hypothesize that “empty space” is not empty at all:

The results of Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt’s research may suggest that the empty space in the universe isn’t really empty — that it might be filled with what scientists called dark energy. The dark energy, spread throughout the universe, is thought to be associated with all empty space and is somehow working against gravity to push the universe apart faster and faster.

You know, there has been so much that has been said and written about the conflict between religion and science. In the minds of many, I suspect, religion and science are polar opposites. I see it quite differently.

In the wonders of science, I see the wonders of God and His creative powers. When I was listening to the show, I could not help but remember this verse of the Qur’an:

AND IT IS We [God] who have built the universe with [Our creative] power; and, verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it. (51:47)

In that expanding Universe, in “them thar hills,” I see the Lord Our God.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful 

Today, the over 2 million pilgrims are now standing upon the plain of Arafat, fulfilling the most essential and important ritual of the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, which every able-bodied Muslim must perform once in his or her lifetime. I was blessed to perform the pilgrimage in 2003, and it was the most powerful experience of my entire life. I recount the pilgrimage in a diary here.

On Arafat, it is said, Adam and Eve were first reunited after their expulsion from the Garden. In this vast and flat plain, pilgrims stand before the Lord and beseech Him for forgiveness and mercy. I still remember this day as if it was yesterday. I could not stop the tears from flowing down my cheeks: I was in total awe of the Power and Majesty of the Lord and ashamed and horrified by the sins that I brought with me to that holy place. And the emotion of standing there before God – like I will on Judgment Day – was completely overwhelming.

Not only is the experience of Arafat humbling, but it is also cleansing, because after the sun sets, all of the pilgrim’s sins are forgiven. At that moment, the pilgrim is born anew. It is a promise from the Lord.

Yet, even after we go to the Hajj and stand on Arafat, we can still have our own Arafat moments wherever we may be. We don’t have to be on Arafat to stand before the Lord and ask His forgiveness. We don’t have to be on Arafat to beseech our Lord’s Beauty and Mercy. We don’t have to be on Arafat to tremble in our shame and humility before the Lord. Wherever we may be, the Shining, Beautiful Face of our Lord is always there. All we have to do is look and seek its radiant light.

And so, let us pledge to have our Arafat moments every single day.

Today, I am fasting, which is something Muslims who are not on the Hajj are encouraged to do, in solidarity with my brothers and sisters who are at Arafat today. I am very happy to do so, because of the beauty of the experience I had at Arafat. Every single day we live and breathe on this earth, we commit sins – despite the love of the Lord flowing upon us as a river of life-giving water. But, our own plains of Arafat are always there, and we can go there and ask His pardon at any time. So, let us do it. We will be all the better because of it.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

In 2002, I penned an article on this website about my belief about Halloween. At that time, I said that I will not participate in the activities surrounding Halloween:

Halloween is upon us, and scores of children dressed up as everything imaginable will soon hit the streets, going door-to-door for candy. This year my five-year-old daughter is old enough to go. Alas, I will not let her. This is not because I am afraid for her safety, or I do not want her to eat her body weight in candy (though these are legitimate concerns). My decision is based on Islamic principles.

Islam accepts the cultural traditions of a people as long as those traditions agree with Islamic values. Thus, blue jeans, baseball caps, hot dogs, and other quintessential American items are wholeheartedly accepted by Islam. I am perplexed when some American Muslims wear Arab dress and pass this off as “Islamic” attire. Nonsense. A pair of jeans and a T-shirt is as Islamic as it gets. A similar argument can be made about such holidays as Mother’s or Father’s Day. Honoring our parents is so strongly stressed in Islam; Muslims should have no problem commemorating such holidays.

And this is why I will not send my daughter trick or treating this year or any other year. Halloween honors Celtic and Roman gods. Islam is strictly monotheistic, and anything having to do with the worship of any other god besides the Most Holy One is out of the question.

Well, many things have happened to me since I typed those words: I have gotten a bit older, I have had more children, and my views on Halloween itself have softened quite a bit. In fact, for the past several years now, I have been trick-or-treating with my kids in the neighborhood, and we have been passing out candy to the children who come to our door.

First of all, not answering the door so as to “not participate” is really not neighborly at all. I did that one year, and it felt terrible. If I am truly to be godly, which I always strive to be, I must be a good neighbor. But, then I started to reflect over Halloween itself. Yes, it may have once been a Roman/Celtic festival…but in America today, it is a day when people have fun by dressing in costume and passing out candy to children. There is nothing religious to it at all, and that is why I will be walking around the block and saying, “Trick or Treat.”

No, I am not going to start celebrating Christmas, even though it can be argued that it has lost all religious significance. But, Halloween is really a cultural thing here in America, and I now feel that there is nothing wrong with taking part. Indeed, some may claim that I have “flip-flopped” or “sold out” be “more American.” I reject that completely.

I am an American: 100%. I am not ashamed of this at all. As an American, I participate in various cultural traditions if I want, such as Fourth of July or Memorial Day celebrations. One of these cultural traditions is Halloween, and because it is fun for both me and my children, I am going to participate. Nothing gruesome or grizzly…just nice, clean fun. This year, I am going as a Jedi Knight, one of the things I have always dreamed of being.

When I look back at what I wrote, I chuckle a bit, because I see the writing of a devout, but perhaps naive, former version of me. I have not lost any of my zeal for the Lord or, I hope, any of my devotion to Him. But, I have taken the advice of many of the commentators who chimed in on my article: “lighten up.” Indeed, I have done just that.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

I was totally taken aback by this news article:

Crosses in every room at Washingon D.C.’s Catholic University of America are a human rights violation that prevent Muslim students from praying. That’s the complaint to the Washington, D.C. Office of Human Rights filed by a professor from rival George Washington University across town. GWU Law School Professor John Banzhaf takes the Catholic institution to task for acting “probably with malice” against Muslim students in a 60-page complaint that cites ”offensive” Catholic imagery all over the Catholic school, which he says hinder Muslims from praying.

The first reaction that came to mind is: really?

The article elaborates further about the allegations:

He alleges that the university, “does not provide space – as other universities do – for the many daily prayers Muslim students must make, forcing them instead to find temporarily empty classrooms where they are often surrounded by Catholic symbols which are incongruous to their religion,” according to the Tower, Catholic University’s student newspaper.

Come on.

I attended Marquette University, and there were crosses everywhere…and I was never offended. Yes, the University was kind enough to offer us a space for our Friday prayers, but even if there wasn’t, we would have made do. And if there was a cross in the room, we would have prayed anyway. Currently, I practice in a Catholic hospital, and there are crosses hanging in every single room of the hospital. I am not the least offended. In fact, I have even prayed in the chapel of the hospital, with life-size Jesus’ hanging on crosses. No big deal.

For us as Muslims, the entire earth has been made a place of prayer for us…as long as it is clean and sanitary. If the time for prayer comes, and I happen to be in a Catholic church or chapel, with crosses everywhere, I simply face Mecca and pray. The cross does not diminish my prayer, and I am not offended by the symbol at all. And I think that the majority of Muslims feel the same way that I do.

God only knows what the real motivations of this lawsuit are. But, even if we disagree about the nature of Jesus and what happened at the time of his death/disappearance, if a Catholic university wants to hang crosses everywhere, that is its right. There could be crosses all over the place, and it should not offend Muslims in the least. If you don’t like the crosses, then don’t go to that university. You have no right to force the university to take down the crosses.

This sort of suit does nothing to help promote interfaith harmony and understanding. In a time when there are so many forces in our country that are trying to divide us on so many different lines, we should be working as faith communities to come together. The last thing we need is a silly lawsuit about crosses in a Catholic university.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful 

I recently received an email with the subject, “An Honest Question.” It read:

Dr. Hassaballa:

I have discovered your blog, and greatly appreciate what you say.  You seem very thoughtful, and I particularly applaud your condemnations of violence — even if your choice of words sometimes leaves me wondering exactly what you mean, or how complete the condemnation really is.  In any event, I have a well-meaning question (an honest one, no setup intended) about how far your view of egalitarianism between Christians and Muslims actually extends. 

In the current world political climate, I can envision a time when Muslims, through proselytizing or otherwise, might gain majorities in one or more of the current Western democracies.  In the event Muslims were to gain control of the American government — far-fetched, perhaps, but not an impossibility — how would my rights and freedoms as a Christian be affected?  For example, would a Muslim-controlled government preserve and ensure fully equal rights — of all kinds, including all religious expression, evangelization, activity, and speech — for Muslims and non-Muslims alike?  Or should the Christians expect some form of dhimmitude to be implemented, even if the majority views the resulting stratification as benevolent and merciful (which, I imagine, the impacted minority would not)?  In a related vien, would a Muslim-controlled government preserve and further the elevated position (i.e., with sharia clearly subordinated) of the current U.S. Constitution?

I agree that parts of the Qur’an seem to urge benevolence or mercy toward Christians — although other provisions seem to urge something quite different, and harmonizing the conflicting provisions is difficult at best.  What I don’t see anywhere, however, is a clear assurance of either (a) full equality for Christians,  or (b) at least a dhimmitude-like benevolence toward people not “of the book” (e.g., atheists) under any Qur’an-based Islamic rule.  That lack of clarity, plus history (at least since the 1300s or so), makes me think that that a Muslim rule would assure neither of these states; that Christians would find themselves as second-class citizens with fewer-than-equal rights; and that complete unbelievers, or apostate Muslims, should, perhaps, be concerned for their freedom or lives.   Am I wrong on any of this?  If so, please show me, if you can find the time. 

He then ended the message with: “I don’t want to fight, and am not interested in a debate, by email or otherwise.  I have no axe to grind.  I only seek truth and clarity, for my own information and use (and, perhaps, some peace of mind).”

To be honest, I was surprised by his question. I was not angry by any means, but just surprised at the fact that he would think that we Muslims have some sort of “hidden agenda.” But, I sensed that he was truly sincere in his questioning, and I truly appreciated that.

This was my response:

I appreciate your questions. I pray this finds you in the best of health and spirits. First, I am surprised by your wonder about my condemnations of violence. When I say “innocent” I mean just that: all non-combatants. I do not parse my words or mean something I don’t say. No “hidden meaning.” I have heard this before…and I am still surprised when people think that my definition of innocent is something other than innocent. I just want that to be clear.


As far as your question about Muslims in power…I don’t think that situation will ever occur. As an American, the law I follow is the U.S. Constitution. I am not waiting to supplant that law with “Sharia.” That is simply a fallacy that Islamophobes want you to believe. In fact, let me tell you this: America, the current Constitutional system, is the most “Islamic” government on the earth today. America follows Islam’s principles more than any other Muslim country on earth. I truly believe that. 

That is why I am so blessed to be an American Muslim. In a truly Islamic system, citizens are citizens, irrespective of their religion. Islam upholds freedom of religion and consciousness. In fact, I have learned that some classical Scholars consider the building of Churches in a Muslim country to be part of the maintenance of the earth. The way Islam has been presented by various so-called “Muslim” governments is quite distorted. 

Anyway, this is a very long and broad topic, but I just want to tell you…the overwhelming majority of American Muslims are nothing to fear. They care about and love this country as much as everyone else. 

Sorry it took me so long to respond…
Yours in His love, 
Hesham Hassaballa
He then replied:
Thank you for such a thoughtful, kind response.  I am glad that folks like you care enough to write, and email, about these very important issues.  I also respect your faith and obvious commitment to a way of peace. Thanks again.

He then gave me permission to write about it here. The most important point about this situation is the fact that we both reached out to each other to attain mutual understanding. He took the time to write to me and ask a sincere question on his part, and I took the time to respond to his question. And at the end, we both came away closer together, as both people of faith and brothers in country.

And herein lies the power: peaceful dialogue to understand one another. It is very likely that neither of us shall change our faith tradition, but the point of our discussion is not to convert, but to understand, to reach out to one another and learn about the feelings of the other. And both of us are all the stronger because of it.

I could imagine someone responding to such a question from a reader with disdain and anger, or simply ignore it altogether. But, then nothing good comes out of it. Indeed, there are some who reach out to me for no other purpose than to attack me and my faith. My only response to them is “Peace,” as the Qur’an commands:

“For, [true] servants of the Most Gracious are [only] they who walk gently on earth, and who, whenever the ignorant address them, reply with [words of] peace;” (25:63)

But for anyone who asks a sincere question, seeking only to gain understanding and mutual peace, my inbox is always open. And we will both be better because of it. I am truly grateful to the Precious Beloved for this man’s question, and if I am ever questioned again, I pray that the Lord grants me the wisdom to answer in the best possible manner.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

At long last, the battle for Libya appears to have been won. Today, Libyan dictator Moammar Ghaddafi was captured and killed, to the jubilation of Libyans everywhere. This man brutalized his people for so many years, and finally, they are free of his brutality.

I will not ask God to forgive this man – may the Lord deal with him as he deserves.

But, I will pray for the freedom and safety of the Libyan people. I pray that they live together in peace and brotherhood/sisterhood. I pray that prosperity finally be showered over their land. I pray that they are safe from any other extremist or barbarian that may want to prey upon them. May the Libyan people be free forever, and may no other brutal man terrorize them again.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

The sectarian violence that has gripped the land of my ancestors, Egypt, has been truly sickening to watch. The attacks on Christians and Christian churches in the past weeks are horrific, and they must be condemned. Not that my condemnation necessarily means much, but at least I – an American Muslim of Egyptian descent – have spoken out against it before God.

This internecine violence the world is currently witnessing is a totally new phenomenon in Egypt. Many of my relatives have grown up in Egypt and they all told me that this Muslim-Christian thing had never existed until after the Revolution. Egyptians always lived together in peace, not caring who is Christian and who is Muslim. One of my patients is an Egyptian Coptic Christian, and she just came back from Egypt, where she stayed at her Muslim friends’ homes and broke the Ramadan fast with them. This is the true spirit of the Egyptian people.

No doubt, there are some in each community who desires to see violence against the other. But, they are a tiny minority. Their rhetoric of violence and exclusion must also be condemned. But, what I can see – and it is clear as day – is that this interreligious violence is being  stoked by nefarious elements within society. And what I urge Egyptians – Christians and Muslims – to see through the aims of those who want Christians and Muslims to attack each other and resist it.

The governing Council must do everything within its power to protect all Egyptian citizens – Christians and Muslims alike. They must do everything within its power – within the rule of law – to stop those who want to attack fellow Egyptians simply because are Christians. Yet, more than this, I urge Egyptians – those with my very same ancestry – to remember who they are: Egyptians, citizens of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known.

This sort of violence is a stain upon our heritage as people of Egyptian descent.  This violence is beneath both Egypt and her people. The Egyptian people are better than this, and I urge them to remember this fact. And for those Muslims who think that Christians are to be attacked, I remind them that this is totally against everything for which Islam stands. Moreover, it is a direct affront to the directives of our beloved Prophet:

This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.

Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them.

Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.

No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.

Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet.

Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.

The Muslims are to fight for them.

If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their churches are to be respected.

They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.

No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).

Please see this for what it is: evil people trying to destroy all the good which the Revolution has brought by stoking violence between people who are actually brothers and sisters. Do not let the evil ones win.

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