Observations and lessons from Makkah (The Bond)

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of the Islamic Society of Kingston’s newsletter, The Bond.

March 14, 2014 – Al-Masjid al-Haram, Makkah: There was once a time when there was nothing here – no clock tower, no hotels, no cool marble I’m sitting on, no people and not even the Ka’bah, fitted with a beautiful black gold-embroidered cloth, that stands in front of me now.

Then known as the valley of Bakkah, it was an empty, desolate land where the most sacred spot on earth was marked with a stick in the ground or a small mound of dirt.

Allah says in the Qur’an:

3:96“Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for mankind was that at Bakkah – blessed and a guidance for the worlds.” (Qur’an 3:96)

The spot where the Ka’bah stands today was designated as a sanctified spot since the time of Prophet Adam (peace be upon him). Centuries later, Allah commanded Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) to leave his wife and infant son here all alone, which he did.

His wife, Hajarah, scrambled to find water as little baby Isma’il cried after their few provisions ran out and her breasts ran dry. She went from the hilltop of Safa to the hilltop of Marwa looking for water or any help. After seven trips, she noticed water by her baby. She wanted to protect the water from flowing away, so she asked it to stop (“zam, zam!”).

Water brought birds to the area. A caravan passing behind the mountains saw birds flying above. The presence of birds indicated the presence of people, which meant there would be water, or at the very least, it meant there was water even if there were no people. People eventually began settling in the area and the village of Makkah was born.

Birds fly above the Ka’bah today, as they did soon after Zam Zam water sprung from the ground at the time of Hajarah and Isma’il (peace be upon them). Today, they also fly over and around the many construction cranes working on a massive expansion project.

Prophets Ibrahim and Isma’il (peace be upon them) rebuilt the Ka’bah as the primary structure built for the worship of Allah. For some time, it fell prey to idol-worship with 360 idols present inside. During the conquest of Makkah, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) purified it and re-established the oneness of Allah at the sacred site.

This is a place of immense divine mercy and blessings. One obligatory prayer offered here carries the reward of 100,000 prayers. Similarly, sins committed here also carry a heavier burden.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of worshipers circumambulate the Ka’bah in sets of seven rounds around the rectangular brick structure 24 hours a day. People supplicate, cry, remember Allah and unleash their emotions as they pray to Him.

As the athan (call to prayer) is called, the words proclaiming the greatness and oneness of Allah can be heard far and wide with a beautiful echo coming off the mountains a few seconds later. During congregational prayers, there is complete silence, apart from the occasional cough, even with millions of worshippers.

The vast diversity found here reminds us about the universality of Islam. Our faith is about submitting to Allah and literally everyone is welcome to join and excel in building their relationship with Allah.

In front of me right now, thousands of people are passing by – men, women and children – from all over the world. There is neither any hierarchy nor any divisions. Anyone – regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or social status – can get close to the Ka’bah, touch it and pray in front of it. Allah is for everyone and we are all Allah’s. It is a real demonstration of the equality of human beings in front of Allah.

One growing distraction here is the prevalence of electronic devices. Numerous people can be seen taking selfies and posing for photos, making videos and chatting on cell phones. Cell phones can be heard going off with wacky ringtones. This disrupts the spirituality and peace of the location and serves as a distraction. Instead of focusing on Allah and linking with Him, one often thinks of the best spots to take pictures and the best shot that’ll get the most likes and retweets on social media. This seemed like an insignificant matter to me at first but it’s only when I tried resisting the urge to take pictures myself when I realized the negative effect it was having on my focus and spirituality.

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Signs outside al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah prohibit cameras among other things, but the prohibition on photography is seldom enforced, if ever.

Saudi Arabia is often criticized for many things, perhaps legitimately, but one must admit that their effort in managing both holy sites in their country and the millions of pilgrims that they draw – equivalent to holding multiple Super Bowls five times a day – is nothing but commendable. Allah has blessed them with wealth and they have been very generous to the holy sites and to the guests of Allah. May Allah reward them for their good and guide them to correct any mistakes they have made or are making now.

This time, I have three take-home messages from my visit:

1) Being a true Muslim (one who submits to Allah) requires sacrifice, as illustrated by Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), who was given the title of “Friend of Allah.” Becoming closer to Allah requires even more sacrifice. Let’s reflect on the things and habits we love and enjoy most. Which ones should we sacrifice for Allah so that we can attain His pleasure?

2) We must strive to cast our prejudices and biases aside and be fair with everyone. Allah is fair and just, and we too desire fairness from Him and everyone else. Let’s try to treat all people with honour and respect, regardless of their race, skin colour or language.

3) The building towards which we have been commanded to pray from anywhere in the world, the Ka’bah, is very simple. The requirements for salah (prayer) are also very minimal and it can be offered anywhere on earth. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had a choice to live a life of wealth and luxury, but instead he chose simplicity. This indicates to us that Allah likes simplicity and thus we should also strive to adopt a simple lifestyle. Doing so will automatically keep us away from many of the things that can cause heedlessness and have a negative effect on our connection with Allah.

May Allah enable all of us to visit this sacred land again and again. May He accept the deeds and prayers of all those who are here. Ameen.

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Opinion: When death is near (Winnipeg Free Press)

The following article was published in the Winnipeg Free Press in a collection of articles discussing assisted suicide from faith-based perspectives.

By Sikander Hashmi

“Do not kill yourselves: for verily God is to you Most Merciful.” (Qur’an – 4:29)

It is commonly understood that when we were born, we had no choice but to become a citizen of this world. We didn’t get a chance to choose our parents or birthplace either. But if entering this world was not of our choosing, do we have the choice to decide when we leave it?

From an Islamic perspective, the answer to this question lies in understanding the purpose of our lives. The Qur’an states that God created life and death to “try you which of you is best in conduct.” (67:2) Our life, along with everything it brings, is a test, the beginning and end of which is God’s domain.

This test takes different forms for each individual. Some are blessed while others are less fortunate. Each individual faces difficulties of varying degrees, featuring different types of challenges. Yet, the rules of the test are the same: Exert patience when facing difficulties and be grateful for all of God’s favours upon you.

Ultimately, the Islamic belief is that God — who is the Most Compassionate and Most Just — will never try a person beyond their endurance. Any perceived injustice will be rectified in the afterlife. And since God is the Most Merciful and the Most Wise, Muslims believe that any pain and affliction endured patiently will bring blessings, rewards and forgiveness in the afterlife.

Muslims also believe that the time and place of death for each individual has been predetermined by God, as stated in the Qur’an. From the Islamic point of view, suicide is seen as encroaching upon God’s sole right to decide how, when and where one’s test is to end and the soul is to transition into the next life — a decision only God knows best about. That’s why the Qur’an states, “Do not kill yourselves: for verily God is to you Most Merciful.” (4:29).

Some may see death as a relief from ongoing suffering in some circumstances. In such cases, Prophetic guidance advises Muslims to make a qualified supplication: “O God, keep me alive as long as life is better for me and let me die if death is better for me.” Muslims believe that all supplications made to God will be answered, unless God has something better planned. This belief empowers Muslims to put their trust in God’s plans.

For a person or state institution to kill another person, even with the latter’s consent, is even more insidious than suicide. Life is sanctified and taking it only permissible in limited circumstances, as stated in the Qur’an. Assisted suicide, in this view, is classified as murder.

However, actively taking a life (or assisting in doing so) is not the same as letting nature run its course. For example, Islamic guidelines allow for life-support to be withheld and even withdrawn in cases where doctors agree the medical situation is hopeless. This leaves the decision for causing death up to God.

In other words, from an Islamic perspective, the act of euthanasia is unacceptable. Legalizing assisted suicide may seem like an acceptable solution to end suffering. It may even lessen the burden on the health-care system. Yet, this solution may very well end up bringing suffering to many others — one that may be so distressing and silent that its true extent may remain unknown for a very long time.

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Embracing the strangeness of Islam (The Bond)

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of the Islamic Society of Kingston’s newsletter, The Bond.

One of the things I enjoy about my work is the opportunity I have to interact with the children in our community, especially during our evening classes.

I recently asked our older students, mostly between grades 4 and 7, to write about three things related to Islam or Muslims (including beliefs and practices) that they are most shy or embarrassed to mention to their non-Muslim friends and classmates.

The most common ones were belief in one Allah, dietary restrictions and hijab. Coming to the masjid, studying Qur’an and guidelines on gender interaction also made the list.

One of the reasons why our children are reluctant to talk about these and other Islamic teachings is because they are seen as being different and strange in our society today. Some of our children may already be so deeply influenced by the prevailing winds of secularism and the encouragement to follow one’s desires – and at their tender ages, it really doesn’t take much to influence them – that they may already be seeing Islamic teachings as being strange.

This phenomenon of Muslims becoming alien to Islam is not limited to children. Even as adults, we sometimes come across teachings, sayings of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and perhaps even verses of the Holy Qur’an (the actual words of Allah) that appear strange to us. This could be due to our lack of understanding, the extent to which we have become used to non-Islamic norms, or simply due to the lack of strength and conviction in our iman (faith).

In the past, the teachings presented by the Prophets of Allah (peace be upon them all) were received with suspicious and unfamiliarity by many. After all, they went against society’s norms at the time and people were generally more comfortable holding on to the status quo, likely because they were used to it, it seemed easier and it allowed them to do what they pleased.

Referring to the idol worshipers of Arabia who were opposed to the message of Islam, Allah says:

They follow not except assumption and what [their] souls desire, and there has already come to them from their Lord guidance.” [Qur’an – 53:23]

When Prophet Shu’aib (peace be upon him) preached the message of Allah to the people of Madyan:

They said, ‘O Shu‘aib, does your Salah (prayer) command you that we should forsake what our fathers used to worship or that we should not deal with our wealth as we please? You pretend to be the only man of wisdom and guidance.’” [Qur’an – 11:87]

And:

They said, ‘O Shu‘aib, we do not understand much of what you say, and, in fact, we see you are weak among us.’” [Qur’an – 11:87]

Even the final Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) faced a similar attitude from the disbelievers of Makkah:

But they wonder that a warner has come to them from among themselves; so the disbelievers said, ‘This is something strange. Is it when we die and become dust (that we will be brought to life again?) That is a return, far (from understanding).” [Qur’an – 50:2-3]

The worship of idols, female infanticide and the consumption of alcohol were deeply established customs of Arabian society in the period of ignorance before the advent of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Eradicating them was strange. Yet, the believers were able to shun these then-popular practices due to the strength of their faith and the understanding that “Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) know best,” as they would often say.

Even in the few instances where the believers were reluctant to embrace an order of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) based on seemingly sound reasons, they immediately relented when they realized the importance of following the command of Allah and the instructions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Allah says:

It is not open for a believing man or a believing woman, once Allah and His messenger have decided a thing, that they should have a choice about their matter; and whoever disobeys Allah and His messenger, he indeed gets off the track, falling into an open error.” [Qur’an – 33:36]

True believers know that Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) are the ultimate source of Truth and Wisdom. For them, the words of Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) are supreme, even if we, as human beings, aren’t always able to understand the wisdom behind them. After all, human wisdom and understanding are of no match to Allah’s Wisdom and Knowledge.

When it comes to applying the guidance of Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), there can be legitimate differences of opinion and interpretation. In that case, the true believer always turns to those with knowledge and taqwa (God-consciousness and piety), who have inherited knowledge of Qur’an and Prophetic traditions, and whose demeanour most closely resembles that of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the description of the believers and the pious in the Qur’an.

Islam, its teachings and its followers may be seen as strange today, but this should not come as a surprise. After all, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) has said:

Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” [Recorded by Muslim]

Yes, Islamic teachings are seen as strange and the Muslims who act upon them are considered to be strangers. However, we must not be afraid of being associated with strangeness, as there will definitely be goodness in being associated with the strangeness of Islam, insha’Allah!

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Opinion: Christmas greetings not offensive (Kingston Whig-Standard)

By Sikander Hashmi

KINGSTON – “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings!”

T’is the season of these greetings, although they’re not always received in the spirit of positivity that they are usually given in.

It is commonly believed that some people (the minority) are supposedly offended by the mere mention of Christmas, while many others (who celebrate Christmas) feel like they’re having to change their ways because of over-demanding newcomers.

But just because someone doesn’t want to include Christmas in their greetings doesn’t necessarily mean that they mean disrespect. Likewise, if someone offers Christmas greetings to those who don’t celebrate the holiday, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trying to impose their beliefs on others.

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Framework for a balanced Islamic approach to holidays & celebrations (The Bond)

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of the Islamic Society of Kingston’s newsletter, The Bond.

Is trick-or-treating prohibited? Can we offer Christmas greetings and exchange gifts?

These are some of the recurring questions we face as minorities living in a Christian-turned-secular society. With a number of holidays and occasions being celebrated in Canada around the year, such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Canada Day, should we Muslims be celebrating them like most of our fellow citizens? Or do we need to shun them altogether? Is there a middle ground?

Like most other issues, this is a debatable topic and a diversity of views can be found within the Muslim community. In an attempt to navigate our way through this issue, we should start off by exploring some of the principles of our faith.

First of all, one of the qualities of Allah is that he is tayyib (pure) and therefore accepts and likes only that which is pure. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said:

“Verily Allah the Exalted is pure. He does not accept but that which is pure.” [Recorded by Muslim]

Scholars of hadith explain that this means that any action that is spoiled with incorrect elements is unacceptable to Allah. This tells us that any actions that we do must be pure in every way, including the origins of the action or practice, the way it is done, the intention behind it and its consequences and effects.

Truth and falsehood cannot mix. If Muslims are believers in the truth, then there should be no room for falsehood, including actions based on false beliefs, in any part of their lives.

Allah has stated in the Qur’an, “And say, Truth has come, and falsehood has departed. Indeed is falsehood, [by nature], ever bound to depart.” [Qur’an – 17:81]

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has also stated that:

“Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” [Recorded by Abu Dawood]

And:

“He is not one of us who imitates other than us. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians.” [Recorded by Tirmidhi]

These ahadith highlight the importance of establishing and maintaining a strong Islamic identity. Muslims and their practices should be clearly distinct from those of other faiths to limit the potential for confusion, especially as time goes on and the chances of innovations and inappropriate changes creeping into the faith increases – something that we have been warned about by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). If Muslims imitate practices that are exclusive to people of other faiths or that are rooted in their faith traditions, they will be considered by Allah to be like the followers of those faiths and will be judged by Him accordingly.

At the same time, we know that there is no dislike or prohibition in consuming foods or wearing clothes that meet the guidelines of what is halal (permitted), even if they are part of a non-Islamic culture but not associated with any particular faith. In fact, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is known to have worn clothing from non-Muslim lands. The food of the People of the Book that meets halal guidelines is also permissible.

All of this indicates to us that Islam is not against cultural practices as long as they:

  • Are not exclusive to or rooted in other faith traditions;
  • Do not contain elements of falsehood, especially practices based on false beliefs;
  • Do not include, promote or lead to anything that goes against Islamic teachings;
  • Are not seen by Muslims as being a part of Islam now and do not carry the risk of being seen as a part of Islam in the future.

If any of the above are found associated with a holiday or custom, then it should not be practiced by Muslims.

When we study the holidays and occasions celebrated in our society today, we find them to be of three types:

  1. Holidays that are known to be religious in nature, such as Christmas and Easter.
  2. Holidays that originated from religious beliefs and practices, but are now seen mainly as cultural occasions, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (in Quebec).
  3. Holidays that are not based on any religious beliefs or practices, such as Canada Day, Victoria Day, Father’s Day and Family Day.

Based on the guidelines discussed earlier, the first category of holidays clearly should not be celebrated by Muslims. The question remains though: Is it appropriate to exchange gifts with people of other faiths on their religious celebrations and to greet them with their customary greetings, such as “Merry Christmas”?

Many scholars take the position that if Muslims know that a religious celebration is based on falsehood, it is not appropriate to take part in it or to give it legitimacy in any way, even by giving or receiving gifts on the occasion or offering associated greetings. Others state that gift-giving is Islamically encouraged, so gifts can be accepted but gifts should be given at another time so as not to take part in the celebration. As far as greetings go, some say that if the people of other faiths are known to give greetings to Muslims on their holidays, the Muslims should respond in kind or in a better way, as per the Qur’anic teaching regarding greetings. Some others argue that there is nothing wrong with such greetings as they are merely verbal courtesies practiced socially, with very little religious meaning, if any, and can help in maintaining peaceful relations between faith communities.

Regarding the second category of holidays that began with religious roots but are now seen as being mainly cultural rather than religious, the safer route is to avoid them altogether, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has stated:

“The halal (permissible) is clear and the haram (prohibited) is clear, and between them are matters unclear that are unknown to most people. Whoever is wary of these unclear matters has absolved his religion and honour. And whoever indulges in them has indulged in the haram.” [Recorded by Bukhari & Muslim]

While they may appear harmless today, the fact remains that these holidays were once a part of the religious traditions of others. By taking part, it could be said that one is imitating the people of those times when these holidays were truly celebrated for religious reasons. However, the matter is debatable and it can be argued that one is only taking part in cultural customs associated with the holidays today. In this case, care must be taken though that the customs do not include, promote or lead to anything that goes against Islamic teachings. For example, it can be said that begging others (for candy or anything else) and dressing up as evil characters during Halloween go against the Islamic values of uprightness, decency, goodness and self-reliance.

Undoubtedly, there is immense pressure on our children during the celebration of “fun” holidays, such as Halloween. Some parents look for appropriate alternatives, which has led to “Halaloween” being coined as a term for offering Muslim children an alternative to Halloween. Halaloween normally refers to a party and distribution of candy at home or at the masjid, on or around the date of Halloween.

While the effort to offer Islamically appropriate alternatives is very much commendable, the practice of merely Islamicizing the celebrations of other faiths, especially at the same time as the original celebration, is fraught with danger. If such practices take hold and are not explained to children properly, they have the potential to morph into new “Islamic” celebrations a few generations later. In this case, perhaps it would be somewhat better to just take part, in a limited way, in the original celebration without attempting to Islamicize it, while at the same time, educating children about its history and issues surrounding it from an Islamic perspective. At least this way, children will not be under the impression that it is a celebration that can be made into an Islamic practice.

Finally, the holidays that are not in any way associated with religious beliefs can be celebrated, provided one does not indulge in and does not promote anything that goes against Islamic teachings and does not consider the celebrations to be a part of Islam. For example, celebrating Canada Day and feeling conceitful pride in being a Canadian or wasting money on things that bring no real benefit (such as firecrackers) would be inappropriate. Similarly, considering Father’s Day to be an Islamic celebration or to make it the only day when Muslims respect their fathers, to the exclusion of other days, would also be incorrect.

As Canadian Muslims, we must maintain a balance between being protective about our faith and beliefs while being sociable with our fellow citizens and integrating positively with Canadian society. One of the beautiful things about our country is that everyone here is entitled to freedom of religion, belief, thought, opinion and expression. No Canadian is forced to celebrate holidays or practice customs that go against their beliefs.

It is clear though that these are complex issues and there will undoubtedly continue to be a diversity of views within Islamic scholarship and the Muslim community. May Allah guide us towards the truth and enable us to please Him always, as only He knows best.

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