A Month of Love – Striving for Prophetic Closeness

Let your diversity manifest the beauty that is within each of you. ~Habib Ali al Jifri, Toronto Grand Mawlid, Jan 1st 2014.

It’s the month of Rabi al Awwal, the month in the Islamic calendar when the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him was born. It’s a wonderful time to learn more about him, and to strive to improve one’s own character. Whether it’s reading a new (or old!) book, listening to audio lectures, sending blessings upon him, journaling, writing poetry, expressing yourself through other creative forms, there are so many ways to make this month one that is personally meaningful to you.

Last year I read two introductory accessible books about the Prophet that I found very beneficial:

a) Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time by Karen Armstrong
b) In the Footsteps of the Prophet, by Tariq Ramadan

Learning Goals, Jan 2014.

Learning Goals, Jan 2014.

Both books taught me about the beauty of the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him, and showed me ways to become a better person. This year my goal is to follow a podcast by the Qalam Institute about the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him by Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda, my teacher in Dallas and to follow a series through the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto called Embodied Light about the character of the Prophet. Instead of trying to listen to a certain amount of content, and trying to take copious notes, I’m going to strive instead for presence of heart when listening.  As I listen, during the month, I’m going to try to recite blessings on the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him, as a way to become more peaceful on the inside. I’m in a life stage of much transition and change, and in need of a spiritual tune-up, and I’m hoping a month of love will help strengthen my heart.

What are your goals for the month ahead? Share in the comments below, and if you are sharing your reflections online as you go through the month, please do email or use the hashtag #amonthoflove so others can join in your learning as well.

On Reading Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time by Karen Armstrong

The world needs bridge builders (Cambridge, UK)

The world needs bridge builders (Cambridge, UK)

Though wearing the hijab tends to bring (unwanted) questions about place of birth and ethnic origin, it does have the pleasant consequence of attracting questions about the Prophet Muhammad. Whether it is with coworkers at previous summer jobs, with roommates, or during grad school, genuine conversations with people trying to learn more about the Prophet are a joy, because they are an opportunity to share and strengthen my own love.

Yesterday to further my learning, I read Karen Armstrong’s book “Muhammad: A Prophet for our Time”. It’s a short, accessible text that focuses on select events instead of a comprehensive view of the Prophet’s life. At the outset, Armstrong explains that she wrote the book because most non-Muslims don’t know much about Islam, totally misunderstand the messenger and the message, and this has to change.  In a post 9/11 world Armstrong says, we need to strive for understanding and appreciation and declare to ourselves and others that bigotry and prejudice is unacceptable. If we have misconceptions, we need to make the decision to learn.

As a Muslim reading the book, it is neat to see a scholar describing the Prophet’s accomplishments and beauty, and how his life and commitment to peace, equity and social transformation holds lessons for our world today. I appreciate her work because unlike so many  authors who find themselves in the “Islam section” of bookstores and libraries she is striving to be a fair and respectful scholar, and doesn’t indulge in stereotypes. She respects and likes Islam, and that sentiment comes through in her writing.

And yet, the love that is missing makes a world of difference.  The book doesn’t convey the love Muslims have for the Prophet, how Islam has shaped civilizations and societies, and the details of his character that Muslims try to embody today. Compared to reading Tariq Ramadan’s book, a book that softened my heart and made me want to be a better urban planner, a better family member, a better citizen, and a better person overall, I felt distant from this book, and it wasn’t a book that engraved itself on my heart.

What I did learn however, is that the world needs more bridge-builders, more people who can explain their deep love and commitment to their ideals in a way that is understandable to others. When I was in undergrad preparing for a trip to the city of Makkah and Madinah, my roommate saw me poring over maps and books, realised that she really didn’t know much about Islam, and asked for material to learn more. In reply, I gave her one of my favourite books, a children’s book called “Tell Me about the Prophet Muhammad”, and we supplemented that text with long conversations about how the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him had impacted my own life. Reading Karen Armstrong’s book was a reminder that  we need to cultivate spaces and cities where this can happen more frequently, where we can be open about what we love and care about, feel comfortable to ask questions, and confident enough to challenge our own assumptions.

Role Models Remind Us of What One Person Can Achieve

  • Everything brings me back to compassion.
  • Role models remind us of what one person can achieve. Person who is compassionate draws people like a magnet. People were drawn to the Buddha. Anyone who puts in a regimen of compassion can become such a person (a person that people are drawn to).
  • Compassion is tough. It requires that you put yourself on the backburner. Socrates said that dialogue is about opening your heart and receiving dialogue.
  • Need to make place for another. Need to practice compassion all day and every day. It’s not that you do something and say, “that was my good deed for the day,” and then go back to living lives of spite and compassion.
  • Have to be able to have your own mind changed. Socrates said that at the point that you can say you know nothing, you are wise.
  • We act so omniscient. We say “she does this, because..” But in reality, you have no idea!
  • Mustn’t identify with your opinions, that is your ego speaking. Socrates told us to open our mind and listen to the other person. We need to empty our minds and forget what you think that you know. Go into dialogue willing to be changed. Fight for cause, but be willing to change your mind.
  • There is no good in speaking with spite and anger.
  • A spot of time is something you go back to and drink from. Similar with an unkind word.
  • To become a sage is hard work.

~Karen Armstrong, Toronto Reference Library, Jan 17th 2011

Inclusion is About Listening to Each Other’s Stories

On Friday night, I went to a TEDxToronto Salon titled “The Immigrant” at the Scadding Court Community Centre. And out of everything that happened that night, from the lovely discussion,the great speakers, the moving spoken word performances and the beautiful markets, it is Teresa Toten remark that inclusion is about telling and listening to each other’s stories that resonated with me the most.

Because it’s a beautiful answer. I spent Canada Day in Ottawa, and although the weekend was full of meeting interesting new people and catching up with old kindred spirits, it had a rough beginning. My train ride was 2 hours longer than expected, the bus downtown was stuck in traffic for ages, and when I finally crossed the road on that hot hot day to drop off my things, a jeep of people shouted out, “Hey! Hey you! Don’t you know you’re in Canada and it’s Canada Day? It’s not Halloween!”

For the rest of the evening and weekend, though the thought “I can’t believe someone didn’t like my pretty hijab!” remained, it was on the train ride home that I began to think about the experience more, and to wonder: when something negative happens, what causes one to either laugh about the experience or to feel less connected from those around them as a result? So much discussion about diverse communities centers on the idea that one must simply integrate and become part of the community in which they live, but what actually makes that experience possible? Is integration and involvement merely a one -sided responsibility?

On the train I realised that it is because I was able to share my story that  my weekend was salvaged. I spent Canada Day with the friends of a friend, and witnessed remarkable behaviour and understanding that day. Despite religions being different, I saw friends wait for others to finish praying, I heard friends listen carefully to what each other wanted to do and try to accommodate it, and received so much kindness during the day that the good I felt far outweighed any bad that had happened earlier.  The isolated incident in the jeep was categorised correctly in my mind, as simply an unfortunate, random thing that had occurred, and not representative of Ottawa as a whole.

In Karen Armstrong’s remarks at Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon earlier this year, she mentioned that before she passed away  the Mother Superior at her convent spoke to her and gave her encouraging words, and in the years afterwards when she found herself struggling, the memory of that incident was a comfort.  The point of the story was that your words and how you behave to someone stays with them long after the conversation between you is over, and you can have a deep impact on someone without even realizing it.

I agree. Without those ambassadors of Ottawa, my understanding of the city may have been different, but the point is true beyond visiting new places.  I ‘ve always had a strange talent for attracting questions in awkward places, and sometimes these inquiries are not made by kind questioners, (though that moment in Ottawa was probably the most explicitly Islamophobic moment I’ve ever experienced) but I’ve also always had incredible people around me. From parents, siblings, teachers, to mentors at work, roommates in university, and friends in undergrad and beyond, I’ve been blessed with people who have enriched my life tremendously through their behaviour, their listening and their attempts  to understand. Without people to help me cope with moments and questions I’d often rather live without, it might have been much harder to grow up as someone who cares about being engaged.

Similarly I think, the answer to building healthy inclusive communities lies with all of us. It is not simply up to some people to decide to feel included, it’s not about overcoming cultural or religious ideas, it’s about creating space for us to listen to each other so we all feel heard, and that our words have meaning. It’s about meeting each other halfway by stepping out of our respective comfort zone. We all need to help build communities where participation is valuable. We all need to be kind enough that it stays with people we encounter, regardless of anything else they come across.