Common Word, Common Lord

Common Word, Common Lord

A Special Day I Don’t Celebrate

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.

“Er…Happy Holidays!”

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.

Let’s Remember Each Other This Thanksgiving

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 “Them Thar Hills,” I See God

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.

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