Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reflections from Umrah: Part 1 - Remembering Death

I went for umrah, an optional and "lesser" pilgrimage to Makkah (and Madina), Saudi Arabia, between January 4th and 13th, 2014, with a group of Muslims under the leadership of Imam Suhaib Webb, and Ella Collins Institute. Now that I am back, I will be sharing my reflections with everyone through this series, God willing.

The day before I left for umrah, I watched a series of YouTube reflections from the two holy mosques, Masjid al-Haram and Masjid al-Nabawi, by two of my favorite Islamic scholars, Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda and Brother AbdelRahman Murphy. I primarily wanted to get a taste of what it would be like to be in Makkah and Madina aside from the mental and spiritual preparation for the greatest journey of my life I was about to undertake. Despite the light and encouraging mood of all the videos, one of them caught my attention the most:
Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda had done a great job at visually capturing the awe one experiences while going around the Ka'aba in Makkah, especially from the rooftop. From above, one marvels at the breathtaking beauty of the ocean of humanity from all ethnicities and nationalities going round and round around the Ka'aba, never even stopping for a nano-second during the day except during the congregational prayers.
The Ka'aba, as captured by my camera one beautiful morning in Makkah
However, what grabbed my attention to this specific video was the fact narrated by Brother AbdelRahman that at the holy mosques, there was a funeral prayer EVERY single prayer, *five* times a day: not for one dead person but sometimes multiple, including children. Even though I had no trouble accepting this reality since I am sure a lot of people die in every big city of the world, I probably did not understand the magnitude of such an experience until I was physically in Makkah and Madina.

I had not offered a funeral prayer for a long time, maybe months, before I went for umrah. Our community, alhamdulillah, does not have that many funerals to begin with, not to mention that my work schedule doesn't really allow me to join the blessing of praying with the family and community of the dead. The first time I stood and joined a funeral prayer in Madina, I was shaken to the core when I heard the word, الاطفال. I shuddered because in my broken Arabic I had understood that there were at least three kids' dead bodies in the front rows of the mosque upon whom I was praying. It was not only a humbling experience but an intimidating one with the realization that God has given me life beyond childhood1 to acquire the double-edged sword of free will so that I could "choose" how to live my life and what state would I be ready to die and face my Creator.

As Muslims, we are supposed to remember death every single day of our lives because we believe that the life of this world is nothing more than what the Quran eloquently describes it to be:
ٱعْلَمُوٓا۟ أَنَّمَا ٱلْحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنْيَا لَعِبٌ وَلَهْوٌ وَزِينَةٌ وَتَفَاخُرٌۢ بَيْنَكُمْ وَتَكَاثُرٌ فِى ٱلْأَمْوَٰلِ وَٱلْأَوْلَٰدِ ۖ كَمَثَلِ غَيْثٍ أَعْجَبَ ٱلْكُفَّارَ نَبَاتُهُۥ ثُمَّ يَهِيجُ فَتَرَىٰهُ مُصْفَرًّا ثُمَّ يَكُونُ حُطَٰمًا ۖ وَفِى ٱلْءَاخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَغْفِرَةٌ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ وَرِضْوَٰنٌ ۚ وَمَا ٱلْحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنْيَآ إِلَّا مَتَٰعُ ٱلْغُرُورِ
"Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children, as the likeness of vegetation after rain, thereof the growth is pleasing to the tiller; afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow; then it becomes straw. But in the Hereafter (there is) a severe torment, and (there is) Forgiveness from God and (His) Good Pleasure, whereas the life of this world is only a deceiving enjoyment." - Quran 57:20

Since there is no denial that "every soul shall taste death (Quran 29:57)", death is an inevitability Muslim or non-Muslim, all submit to. With that being said, death was never as real until I was reminded of it through the funeral prayers, five times a day, in both Makkah and Madina. Out of the eight days I was in the two holy cities, only once did we not have a funeral and to my surprise, it rather seemed bizarre why no one had died within the 2-3 hours' window between the two prayers of that particular day! To be honest, I actually looked forward to praying a funeral prayer after every congregational prayer for the reality check of death, including the selfish reason of earning reward2. It was the latter sadistic realization that brought me back to reality upon which I immediately thanked God that no one had lost a loved one, or someone we prayed upon, within those hours. 

Madina was more powerful when it came to the reminder of death because of the placement of Jannat ul-Baqi', the cemetery right adjacent to Masjid al-Nabawi where almost 20,000 of Prophet Muhammad's family and companions are buried including common folk who die in Madina till this day. Unfortunately, women are not allowed in Baqi' despite the prayer of visiting the graveyards reaching us from the mouth of a woman.3 So, being the rebellious woman that I am, I would often go to one of the corners of Baqi' from where I could peek in, and sometimes, even chase a funeral procession and watch it go down the cemetery until I lost it in the distance. I liked going there in the peace of the night and would hold the bars of Baqi' and stare at the thousands of unmarked graves ahead of me. I would pray that may God make me and my generations like Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions (may God be pleased with all of them), most of who lay ahead of me. At times I would even force myself to imagine myself in a grave with one of my favorite ayahs4 of the Quran playing in my head:

الْمَالُ وَالْبَنُونَ زِينَةُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا ۖ وَالْبَاقِيَاتُ الصَّالِحَاتُ خَيْرٌ عِنْدَ رَبِّكَ ثَوَابًا وَخَيْرٌ أَمَلًا
Wealth and children are [but] adornment of the worldly life. But the enduring good deeds are better to your Lord for reward and better for [one's] hope. - Quran 18:46

Jannat ul-Baqi', Madina
As I prepared to leave Makkah, I was scared. I was scared that once I returned to the States, I would fall back into the heedlessness of life and no longer feel the spiritual high that I felt amidst these sacred places. I felt scared that the daily reminder of death would no longer be as strong once I returned, and as I clamored to fulfill the base desires of my body, I may even put the greater purpose of my life on the side. In this desperation, I ended up recording the audio of the dawn prayer on my last day in Makkah because I wanted to take away a part of the serenity that I felt in these mosques. As soon as I put my phone down for the recording, I broke down into a burst of tears when I realized that God had already answered one of my prayers because the famous Shaykh Sudais, who I had not heard since we came to Makkah, was leading the prayers. 

I wept with him while he led away the prayers. After two weeks of returning from Makkah, I now share the recording with you all in hopes that it intellectually, emotionally and spiritually blows you away like it blew me away:
Quran 75:20-40 - Shaykh Sudais, Makkah
(The translation of the ayahs in the recording above can be found here:

I now understand that what God wanted me to bring back from Makkah was indeed the reminder of death. And that, there is no escape from it. May He take our souls away when we're in a state of submission to Him and may He make the day our souls are reunited with Him the best day of our existence. Ameen.

كَلَّآ إِذَا بَلَغَتِ ٱلتَّرَاقِىَ
Nay, when (the soul) reaches to the collar bone (i.e. up to the throat in its exit), 
وَقِيلَ مَنْ ۜ رَاقٍ
And it will be said: "Who can cure him and save him from death?"
وَظَنَّ أَنَّهُ ٱلْفِرَاقُ
And he (the dying person) will conclude that it was (the time) of departing (death); 
وَٱلْتَفَّتِ ٱلسَّاقُ بِٱلسَّاقِ
And the leg will be joined with another leg (shrouded).
إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ يَوْمَئِذٍ ٱلْمَسَاقُ
The drive will be, on that Day, to your Lord!
- Quran 75: 26-30

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un. Surely we belong to God and to Him shall we return.

God willing, stay tuned for Part 2: Benefitting from the Scholars.
In the Islamic faith, we don't believe in original sin. A a child is born "sinless" and retains his/her free ticket to enter Paradise until he/she attains mental and physical maturity. Dying as a child can be a blessing for the child as well as his/her parents because not only does he/she go straight to Paradise, the child can also serve as a means of letting his/her parents into Paradise if they died in a state of servitude to God. 

Khabbab reported that he asked "O 'Abdullah Ibn 'Umar! Did you hear what Abu Hurairah says? He says that he heard Allah's Messenger, saying. 'Whoever leaves his house to attend a funeral prayer, offers funeral prayer, and then follows the funeral procession until the body is buried will receive two kerats of reward, each of which is like the mountain of Uhud. And whoever offers the funeral prayer and then leaves for home will get a reward like the mountain of Uhud" (Muslim). Ibn 'Umar sent Khabbab to 'Aishah asking her about the statement of Abu Hurairah. She said, "Abu Hurairah has told the truth." When Ibn ' Umar was informed about this he said, "We have indeed lost many a kerat."

One night the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) left his home in the middle of the night without telling his wife, Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), who lay next to him. Aisha followed him secretly to the graveyard and when he came home, he (peace be upon him said): 
"Gabriel came to me when you saw me. He called me and he concealed it from you. I responded to his call, but I too concealed it from you (for he did not come to you), as you were not fully dressed. I thought that you had gone to sleep, and I did not like to awaken you, fearing that you may be frightened. 
He (Gabriel) said: Your Lord has commanded you to go to the inhabitants of Baqi' (to those lying in the graves) and beg pardon for them. 
I said: Messenger of Allah, how should I pray for them (How should I beg forgiveness for them)? 
He said: Say, 'Peace be upon the inhabitants of this city (graveyard) from among the Believers and the Muslims, and may Allah have mercy on those who have gone ahead of us, and those who come later on, and we shall, God willing, join you.'"
- Sahih Muslim Book 004, Hadith Number 2127

Every verse in the Quran is called an "ayah" which can be literally translated to: proofs, evidence, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Two Cups of Tea

"The first time you share tea with a Balti [or a Pakistani], you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die."
- Haji Ali in Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson  
As I sip this cup of tea,
Am I permitted to reminisce 
About our two cups of tea?
Or is that choice taken away from me too
As you took away my cup of tea?

"Would you like to have a cup of tea?"
Yes please, with honey
Not sugar, if you may please.
If it is alright that I may sit with you
While we drink from our cups of tea?

I am making tea.
Anyone wants tea? Only one.
Then why create the fuss 
If we brew only two cups of tea?
Let us slowly savor 
Our two cups of tea.

One bag of tea
Makes two cups of tea.
"Because I like my tea light
And perhaps now, you and your company.
So it is alright that you  may sit with me
While we drink from our cups of tea."

First time. You are a stranger.
Second time. I am an honored guest.
Third time. We are family.
Infinith time? "Sorry, you should leave.
Forget me. Forget even your cup of tea."

And so it shall be.
Two forgotten cups of tea.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Welcome Home

"What are your upcoming travel plans in the near future?"
"My best friend is getting married insha'Allah in the summer. I can't even imagine missing her wedding!"
"Sidra, it will be beautiful to attend your friend's wedding together."

Broken promises. Joy. Shattered dreams. Hope. Anxiety. Contentment.
"I want to go home."
"Yay! You will be home in two days!"
"No! HOME. As in my apartment."

Claustrophobia. Freedom. Loss. Strength. Loneliness. Family. Fearlessness.
"Have you got married yet?"
"That is a personal question. I choose not to answer it."
"You have not changed. You're still the same feminist."
"Call it feminism or respect for one's privacy. I choose to call it latter."

Put together the frame. Stretch the canvas. Break it down. 
Stretch it again. Gesso it. Paint up. Paint down.
"I am getting treated for cancer. Stomach cancer."
"Are you alone here?"
"I lost my entire family. My daughter, my mother. Allah kareem [while pointing upwards]! Sigh!"
"I will keep you in my prayers."

Perspective. Humility. Gratitude. Istighfar. Home? No. Mosque.
Familiar faces. Shrink and hide. Salah. Shut your eyes. Listen. Focus.
إِنَّهُمْ يَكِيدُونَ كَيْدًا وَأَكِيدُ كَيْدًا
"Verily they are but plotting a plot. And I (too) am planning a plan." [Quran 86: 15-16]
Plethora of emotions. Acceptance. Insight. Submission. Surrender.
"I am planning a plan."
"I am planning a plan."

Hot tears streaking the face. Hands raised high. Forget. Disappear.
Head on the ground. Breathe. Let it out. Sob. It'll be OK.
Prayers for mercy. Prayers of thankfulness. 
Prayers for healing. Prayers to forgive. 
"Ya Allah! Build them a home in paradise."

Forgiveness. Patience. Forbearance. Faith. Tawakkul.
Silence. The last to remain. Look around. Say good-bye.
Make a final prayer. Wipe away the tears. Go! Walk up straight.
"Assalam-o-alaikum! Have a good night!"
"How are you going home?"
"On the train."
"I would have given you a ride but I still have half an hour here."
"JazakAllah khayr. Please don't worry. I will be fine. I do this all the time!"

Exchange smiles of reassurance, of kinship. Exit. 
Inhale the spring fragrance. Soak it in. The rain tingles the skin. The breeze caresses the cheeks.
Look up at the heavens. Admire the beauty of the clouds. 
He is watching. Feel His protection. Feel the love. He has a plan. Trust HIS plan.
Smile. Smile wide. Thank God. 
"He is indeed planning a plan."

Home-bound. Fragile. Handle with care. Welcome aboard. In the air. Touch down.
"Welcome home."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Let go

Go out tonight
And let the full moon wash away all your sorrows. 
Let the coolness of the ocean bathe your soul 
And the spring air energize your core. 
Let go.
Let go to feel and breathe
The ultimate climax of freedom.
Castle Island, MA

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Observing the Sunset

Watching the sunset is one of those priceless moments of life that I have now learned to appreciate more than ever. There is beauty in solitude and tranquility in nature. Amidst all that noise in the outer world, the more you look internally, the more you're surprised by the peace within. No wonder the Prophet pbuh spent days in the Cave of Hira. Imagine walking up and down at the mountain and watching sunrises and sunsets everyday, the orange light of the sun peaking at you in the cave, embracing you, warming you....and giving you hope! :)

SubhanAllah (Glory to God)!
"And from among His signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon..." -- Quran 41:37

Monday, March 11, 2013

Gratitude to My Parents

I was recently asked, "How was your parents' marriage?"

My response: "The best I have ever seen masha'Allah."

Today marks my parents' 25th wedding anniversary - a marriage based on true love, sincerity, loyalty, and respect. I am one of the luckiest people in the world to be raised by parents who taught me what it means to give unconditional love to one another even if you are polar opposites apart -- my mother is very outspoken and social like me whereas my father's the complete opposite: very private, reserved and often at times, quiet. They taught me the true meaning of "commitment" and showed me what it takes to make a marriage successful despite the multiple storms that try to knock it down.

Thank you Pappa, for being the best father and husband in the world. Thank you for battling for my mother and for marrying her despite all the resistance you and Mamma faced before marriage. Thank you for looking at her with the same love in your eyes that you had for her when you first married her. Thank you for being a real man and not giving in to the expectations of our society that expects men to be authoritative and hard especially towards their womenfolk. 

Thank you for being a friend, the only friend who understood me completely especially during these past few months when no one but you could feel my pain. Thank you for all those intimate conversations that are not typical father-daughter conversations and thank you for all your duas. Thank you for believing in me and for supporting me through my dreams when the whole world, including myself doubted me. Thank you for being the first love of my life. I am sure you're always going to be the first and the last!

Thank you Mamma, for taking all those blows and bruises for my father, for fighting for him before and after marriage especially as a woman in our society. Thank you for raising a strong daughter and fighter like yourself. Thank you for making all those sacrifices you have made for us and our father. Thank you for running the home so well as a single mother whose husband and oldest daughter left the country when real challenges entered our family life. Thank you for loving me and checking on me every single day of my life. Thank you for being one of my best friends with whom I can share anything in life - even details that I would hesitate to share with my closest friends. 

Thank you, both of you, for being an inspiration to all of us. Bhai, Farah, Hamza and I are indeed the luckiest to have you both as our parents. May Allah swt reunite us as a family with aafiyah in this world and the hereafter. Ameen.

Happy wedding anniversary! I love you!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Reconnecting with Two Long-forgotten Friends

"I drank the silence of God from a spring in the woods." -- Georg Trakl

The woods swayed around me. No longer quiet but loud. Not calm but raging. As if...they were angry. They were angry because I had forgotten their mother, Nature. I had forgotten them and their best friend, Silence. I stood amid their magnificence as the wind howled against us. Staring onto the horizon, holding on tightly to my mug of hibiscus tea. Head bowed, tears streaming down my face.

Defeated. Yet accomplished. Weak. Yet so strong.

I whispered meekly, "I am sorry."

Nature spoke, "God and I were there for you when you had no one. We embraced you all those times when you treaded over the fallen leaves in the woods, laid down at the river bank, gazed the full moon, and fell asleep on a pillow of flowers under the shade of the spring sun. We comforted your heart and supplied you serenity. How dare you replace us with (false) Attachment?"

I opened my mouth to say something but then shut it instantaneously. I really had nothing to offer in defense.

Silence broke its long-maintained silence, "I was your most favorite companion. Every single day of your life we both held hands together, especially in the dark hours when others are in bed. How could you forget those solitary walks under the night sky and the bike rides at sunrise when we'd be interfered by none? Am I not one of the major reasons why you want to live on a farm - away from the clutter and commotion of a city? How unfortunate that you even forgot to mention my importance in your life to Attachment?!"

I responded dejectedly, "I guess I got carried away when it entered my life. I wanted to converse and spend time with it so much so that I never realized when I started worshiping it. Sadly, that's how I lost you on the way, dear Silence. By God, it was never my intention to let you go. Sigh! He has indeed brought me down to my knees so that I can be reunited with Him and you. God has left me with no choice but to embrace you and Nature back in my life. I wish we didn't have to reconcile this way but I didn't wish for so many things either."

And that's when it hit me that today, it was indeed over. Today was the day to commemorate the parting. My shoulders sagged and fresh hot tears began to swell in my eyes.

It was at this particular moment that God interjected my bleak thoughts:
"Your Lord has neither forsaken you nor hated you. And indeed the Hereafter is better for you than the present (life of this world). And verily, your Lord will give you (all that is good) so that you shall be well-pleased." - Quran 93:3-5

The gold and silver linings of the clouds glowed brighter. The woods humbled and Silence regained its composure. Finally, a smile broke across my lips.

I said to Nature and Silence, "See guys! He doesn't hate me and I guess this is not the end. I know it seems like it, but it's really not! This day shall mark a new beginning for us, a new journey, a new love story. We won't let (false) Attachment ever destroy our relationship. I promise. There's hope. There's light. And most importantly: there is sincerity with the self and Allah swt.

رضيت بالله رباً، وبالإسلام ديناً، وبمحمد صلى الله عليه وسلم نبيا
I am content with Allah as my Lord, Islam as my religion and Muhammad (peace be upon him) as my messenger.

The whole world can leave me but as long as I am able to hold on to my Allah, my Islam, and my messenger, I am good. We all are good. As a matter of fact, that's all we need in life, don't we?"

Upon hearing this, Nature and Silence both smiled in agreement. Without saying a word, we all understood that there is a reason why God created us as a trio.

I bid farewell to the woods and steadily walked towards the bus. It was time to return to Boston. Better and stronger.

It was time to finally let go.

On the weekend of February 15h-17th I was blessed to be part of the MAS Boston Winter Retreat that took place in the beautiful Berkshires, MA. As one of the main leaders, I was not obligated to stick to a group, and hence ended up stealing quiet moments here and there to have multiple conversations like the one above with God, Nature and Silence. Instead of socializing with friends, some that I actually looked forward to seeing after a long time, I chose to either sip a cup of tea all by myself in the dining hall or squeeze in a moment with the woods. The greatest celebration of my reunion with Nature and Silence took place during the times when I made my late night rounds from one lodge to another in efforts to ensure that the sisters were all set. It was during those solitary moments that I would sing Dawud Wharnsby's Lullaby out loud and find comfort in the fact that I was the only one outdoors in those wee hours of the night when no one except God could hear or see me. 

I am glad that I was part of the retreat, I am glad for meeting and working with the lovely people I got to know because of the retreat, I am glad that God chose me for the leadership position, and I am glad that other things in life eventually happened the way they happened. Were it not for the darkest hour of the night, we would never appreciate the break of dawn. Indeed it is the break of dawn that leads to a new day and a new beginning. Alhamdulillah ala kulli Haal (all praise to Allah under any and all circumstances)! I can't be more blessed!