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Common Word, Common Lord

Common Word, Common Lord

My Hajj

 

This is the Ka’bah, the central shrine in Mecca.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

The decision was almost totally spontaneous: my wife and I simply looked at each other and said, “Let’s go to the Hajj this year.” That set in motion a series of events that culminated in the most powerful spiritual experience of my entire life. That was back in the fall of 2002; yet, the memories and feelings of the Hajj which took place in Februray 2003 are as fresh as if they had happened yesterday.

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In the coming days and weeks, Muslim pilgrims – like me  all those years ago – are descending upon the Arabian peninsula to perform the annual Hajj, or pilgrimmage to the holy city of Mecca. It is a trip that every able bodied Muslim man and woman must perform once in his or her lifetime. It is a living re-enactment of the ancient drama of Abraham, Hagar, and their son Ishmael. I will recount my Hajj experience here on my blog, so you can get a taste of the awesome experience that millions of Muslims have each and every year in Mecca.

Back in the Fall of 2002, there were a lot of things that needed to fall into place for my wife and I to go: we had to get babysitters for our two children; I had to get coverage at work; we had to find a travel agency that will take us. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and before we knew it, we were on our way to Frankfurt, Germany on the first leg of our trip to the holy city of Mecca. After we arrived in Germany, we prepared to go to Mecca, and we got dressed in the ihram, or the ceremonial dress of the pilgrim.

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The ihram consists of two white and unstitched cloths with which we wrap ourselves (it is a little different for women). It the ultimate equalizer, as prince and pauper look totally alike. In this garb, we are stripped of our worldly rank and status and return to God and His House as servants and worshippers – nothing more, nothing less. In the plane, we started chanting the greeting that pilgrims since the time of Abraham have chanted as they approached the Holy House: “Here we are, O Lord! He we are, Here we are! There is no rival unto You!”

Our path to Mecca first took us to Jedda, where the all the pilgrims must first stop and get processed by the Hajj authorities. And there we learned the first lesson of the Hajj: patience. Everything in Jedda moved very, very slowly. We waited at least 12 hours for the buses that will take us Mecca. But, the wait was well worth it because, at the end of the wait, was the thing we all longed to see for our entire lives: the Ka’bah, the shrine – built by Abaraham himself – dedicated to the One God.

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As the bus drove closer to the Ka’bah, I was struck by how “normal” Mecca seemed. It was like any other ancient city of the Middle East: dusty, cramped, and full of narrow streets and alleyways. It looked a lot like Cairo, to which I had been a few times before. But then, almost coming out of nowhere, I saw it: the Grand Mosque which held the Ka’bah. The mosque was the most beautiful I had ever seen. It seemed to glow, even though it was in the middle of the day. From where the bus was, I couldn’t see the shrine itself, and that only enhanced my anticipation and eagerness to go and see it.

My wife and I left our baggage at the hotel at which we were staying and almost ran to the Grand Mosque. And then, I saw it: the Ka’bah. The black cube stood there in front of my eyes, and I was struck with tremendous awe. Tears were streaming down my face as I walked closer to the shrine, praying to God for His grace and mercy the entire time.

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It was so very beautiful, and it literally took my breath away. This was the thing to which I turned five times a day for decades; this was the thing which the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael built; this was the thing around which the Prophet Muhammad had walked all those years ago. And it was right before me, being my companion as I walked around the shrine – in the tradition of the Prophet Abraham – seven times in a counterclockwise direction. This is called the tawaf, and it is the special way in which this shrine is greeted.

After I finished my circumambulation, I walked seven times between the two hillocks of Safa and Marwa – just like Hagar did centuries ago – and finished my ‘Umra, or lesser pilgrimmage. It is not a requirement of the Hajj, but since we were already there – several days before the actual Hajj was to begin – we figured, “Why not?” Once we finished these rituals, I went back to the hotel and proceeded to shave my head as a symbol of my servanthood to God. It hurt…and bled, a lot.

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Yet, despite this, the whole experience was awesome, and we spent several days thereafter in Mecca as “tourists”: eating, shopping, and praying in the holiest spot on earth for Muslims. Yet, for all the greatness of those days, the things we were about to experience were even greater.

To be continued…

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Lamenting the Children of Abraham

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

The angry and, sadly, often violent protests that have erupted in several Muslim countries in response to the anti-Muslim video that surfaced on the Internet has left me terribly saddened. First, it always bothers me when I read or hear about or see the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) being maligned and attacked in a very vicious manner.

Yet, I get the same disquiet when any Prophet of God – Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Noah, or others – is maligned or attacked. Yes, people are free to say and believe what they want, but that doesn’t mean I have to either like it or be silent about it. Yet, I am very upset at the fact that seemingly devout Muslims reacted violently to the film: attacking the Embassy in Egypt and Yemen; attacking KFC and Hardees restaurants in other countries. I mean, come on, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would never condone such violence, even if it is out of love for him.

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Throughout his ministry, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was attacked, maligned, and mocked. Yet, he never reacted violently or told his followers to do so. His response was kindness and compassion, and it was this kindness and compassion that eventually won over his most bitter enemies. He was only following the commands of God in the Quran:

But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou [evil] with something that is better and lo! he between whom and thyself was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend! (41:34)

That is the example we should follow as Muslims. Yet, sadly – and for a variety of social, economic, and political reasons, as well as a sheer lack of faith – some Muslims frequently do not follow the Prophet’s example.

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Having said that, however, it is to be noted that the Muslim protesters that garner the headlines are a very small minority. For example, in Cairo – out of more than 9 million people – a few hundred protesters at best attacked the US Embassy. The TV cameras may have made it seem that the entire city came out – like during the Revolution – but it did not. The few do not, and must not, reflect upon the whole, just as the filmmaker who produced the anti-Islam film does not represent America or her people.

It has since surfaced that the filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is an Egyptian Coptic Christian who apparently deceived the actors into thinking they were filming a “desert action” film, and not an anti-Islam diatribe. And this made me reflect, and lament, over the frequent tension and enmity between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Why?

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We are all children of Abraham, the blessed Patriarch from whom all of the Hebrew Prophets and our Prophet Muhammad is descended. We all worship the same God, the God of Abraham. No, Christians and Jews may not accept the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a Prophet. But, that is fine. They are free to choose whatever faith they want. We Muslims accept, love, honor, and revere Jesus, Moses, and all the Prophets of God, peace be upon them all.

All we ask is that we respect our Prophets and not attack and malign them: all of our Prophets, not just the Prophet Muhammad. And, truly, this should not be so difficult, given the extensive commonalities between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Yet, all too often, we children of Abraham forget these commonalities and focus on the differences, seeking conflict because of them. Why?

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The Quran says this:

Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Compete, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (4:48)

It is part of God’s plan that there will be different faiths and different spiritual paths. What does God want us to do? He wants us to compete: not in the number of converts; not in the number of conflicts; not in the number of times we attack or malign each other’s holy Prophets (which Muslims would never do). No, He wants us to compete in doing good for the sake of all.

Why can’t we heed the call of God?

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Not Worth It At All

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

It has been sought out for time immemorial: the key to long life. Legends have spoken about a Fountain of Youth, but such a fountain has been elusive. More recently, however, there has been talk about calorie restriction as the key to living longer. Studies have been conducted, and there was some promise:

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The idea that a low-calorie diet would extend life originated in the 1930s with a study of laboratory rats. But it was not until the 1980s that the theory took off. Scientists reported that in species as diverse as yeast, flies, worms and mice, eating less meant living longer. And, in mice at least, a low-calorie diet also meant less cancer. It was not known whether the same thing would hold true in humans, and no one expected such a study would ever be done. It would take decades to get an answer, to say nothing of the expense and difficulty of getting people to be randomly assigned to starve themselves or not.

Researchers concluded the best way to test the hypothesis would be through the monkey studies at the University of Wisconsin and the National Institute on Aging, although the animals would have to be followed for decades.

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Now, the major study that was started in 1987 has been completed, and the results are in: calorie restriction did not prolong life. The results of the study were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature:

For 25 years, the rhesus monkeys were kept semi-starved, lean and hungry. The males’ weights were so low they were the equivalent of a 6-foot-tall man who tipped the scales at just 120 to 133 pounds. The hope was that if the monkeys lived longer, healthier lives by eating a lot less, then maybe people, their evolutionary cousins, would, too. Some scientists, anticipating such benefits, began severely restricting their own diets.

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The results of this major, long-awaited study, which began in 1987, are finally in. But it did not bring the vindication calorie restriction enthusiasts had anticipated. It turns out the skinny monkeys did not live any longer than those kept at more normal weights. Some lab test results improved, but only in monkeys put on the diet when they were old. The causes of death — cancer, heart disease — were the same in both the underfed and the normally fed monkeys.

Lab test results showed lower levels of cholesterol and blood sugar in the male monkeys that started eating 30 percent fewer calories in old age, but not in the females. Males and females that were put on the diet when they were old had lower levels of triglycerides, which are linked to heart disease risk. Monkeys put on the diet when they were young or middle-aged did not get the same benefits, though they had less cancer. But the bottom line was that the monkeys that ate less did not live any longer than those that ate normally.

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When I first heard of the idea that practically starving oneself may be the key to living a long life, I said to myself: Why? Why would I want to deprive myself of one of the greatest things God has given us (especially after Ramadan) – food and drink – in order to live longer on this earth? Especially on this earth?

Now, I don’t believe in living one’s life with a death wish. I have lived through some very dark days, but I never considered suicide. God forbid. But, that doesn’t mean that I would go to extremes  – like starving myself – to live longer. Life and death are in God’s hands, not ours.

Of course, I know – as a doctor – that if someone lives a very unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, eating an unhealty diet, drinking to excess, etc.), it is likely that this person would live a shorter life than the average lifespan of an American. Yet, for that person, his or her lifespan is his or her lifespan.

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If it is in God’s plan for that person to live 80 years, despite being totally unhealthy, then that person will live to be 80 years old. Conversely, even if someone lives the most healthy life possible, if it is God’s will that he will die at age 24, like my cousin, then that is the life that he will live.

I often joke by saying this: “I would rather die six months earlier than I would normally have and eat my ________.” And I would fill in that blank with a variety of things: Taco Bell (yes, Taco Bell), chocolate cake, cheesecake, frozen custard, etc. That point is: we should live a life of moderation.

Live as healthy as possible, because it will make it more likely that we will avoid the scourge of disease. Yet, it is ok to enjoy an indulgence (by this I mean desserts or potato chips…) every once in a while, to make life fun and lively. But, I don’t think we should go to extremes (like starving ourselves) in order to live longer. That’s because I believe there is a life and a world after this one.

And in that life, I will be with my Beloved forever. Starving myself to stay here longer is just not worth it.

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An End of Ramadan Prayer

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

“We made it.”

Those were the first words of my Friday sermon yesterday. At long last – very, very long last – the month of Ramadan ends today. And although I did enjoy the prayers and the special time I had with the Book of God, the fasting did take its toll. And thus, I make this prayer as the hours slip away towards the end of the month:

Precious, Beautiful, Beloved Lord my God!
Precious, Beautiful Beloved One in Whose Hands rests my soul!
Precious, Beautiful Beloved One Without Whose Grace I would be dead and gone!
Lord, I have tried my best to be faithful to Your call to fast the days of Ramadan.

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I know that I should have been so full of glee for the opportunity to fast.
But, as only You would know best, I did have some dread out of my own weakness.
And so, Precious Beloved Lord, please forgive me for that weakness in my soul.

Precious Beloved! Forgive me for all the times that I grimaced in discomfort for having to fast.
Forgive me for all the times that I did not fast with a complete and total smile on my face.
Forgive me for all the times that I yearned for the month of fasting to finish and finish quickly.

Precious Beloved Lord! Please accept my fast, even though it is defiled by my human weakness.
Please accept my reading of your Holy Word so that I pass the time remembering You in Your Majestic Glory.
Please accept the times I prayed the night vigil for Your sake, trying to get closer to Your Alighted Face.
Please accept my acts of kindness, forgiveness, and forbearance during this month and for the rest of the year.

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Precious Beloved Lord! Please take me into Your Presence when my time has come.
Please accept me as I am: weak and pathetic, unworthy of all the bounty which You have bestowed upon me.
Lord, please, do not stop the blessings you have sent my way. Nay, Beloved, increase those blessings day by day.
Please extend the glorious blessings that this month of Ramadan has throughout the rest of my days
And, please, Lord save me from Your terrible punishment both here on earth and in the hereafter.

In Your Most Holy Name I do ask these things, Beloved Lord. Amen.

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