June 06, 2013

Response to Fishtroller

The following is a response I wrote to an atheist who calls himself "Fishtroller01" over at Daily Kos. This guy is one of your militant atheists. Personally, after reading many of his comments on a number of religious diaries at DKos, I have a rather low opinion of this guy. Still, I decided to respond to one of his comments tonight, and am reproducing it here as it touches on a number of topics that this blog addresses.

So you based your life's perspective on one book?

I've based my moral and religious guidelines upon the Qur'an, yes. Believe it or not, I was once an atheist like you, but I realized the errors of my ways and changed directions. I put in four years of due diligence on the Qur'an after countless years of exploring (raised Catholic, read numerous Buddhist texts), but I've never regretted my decision to become a Muslim. That was my best decision ever.

Do you follow EVERY teaching in that book, or do you just pick and choose the ones that fit your modern conception of the world?

I'm not a "cafeteria Muslim," no. I follow everything in the Qur'an that applies to me to the best of my abilities.

If you do follow all the "guidance" written in that book, you have a problem because many of the teachings are immoral and/or contradict one another.

Now you see, this is where your incredible ignorance of the Qur'an and Islam begins to show. It's very obvious you've read little, if any, of the Qur'an; not that I'm surprised.

I won't go into the numerous times that this book promises hellfire and torture for unbelievers like me...

Yeah? So? His universe, His rules, His rewards and punishments. What makes you worthy of heaven? Your good looks? The minimum requirements, according to the Qur'an, are a belief in Him, a belief in the Day of Judgment, and good works. All three, not just one or two of three. Ignoring the third, how do you qualify? How have you earned the right to go to heaven? This is either/or, not multiple choice. There's no special dispensation simply because you object.

...but it also says that those who believe in the trinity are cursed to hell.

Actually, the Qur'an says nothing of the sort; in fact, several verses (2:62, 5:69) say the exact opposite. Islam is not one of those religions that says only "we" are saved. There's no guarantee a Muslim will be saved either. You have to earn heaven, remember?

Do you agree that women are possessions of men and that men are "a step above" women?

Women as "possessions of men" is the Orientalist view, not the Islamic view. Men a step above women? No, not part of Islam either. The Qur'an does says in part: "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means..." (4:34). But that doesn't mean men are a step above. Men and women in Islam have equal responsibilities. If anything many Muslim men think that Muslim women have it easier than they do.

Do you agree that homosexuality is unnatural and to be condemned?

The underlying theme in the Qur'an is that life is most important. This is not explicitly stated in the text, but can be deduced from the Qur'an's positions regarding various issues regarding life, death and health. Thus, to preserve life and promote healthy lifestyles, sex is forbidden in all cases except between married couples. Thus, premarital sex is haram, adultery is haram, fornication between any non-married person, regardless of gender, is haram. Likewise, all anal sex, even between husband and wife, is haram as well. In Islam, two men or two women may love each other, but the relationship must be platonic. To take the opposite position is unIslamic and promotes unhealthy lifestyles. A lot of people don't like to hear that, but that's their problem and, once again, they'll have to answer for it on the Day of Judgment.

Why didn't Jesus or Mohammed condemn slavery?

I won't speak for Jesus (pbuh), but I will say that while the Qur'an did not expressly prohibit slavery, it did encourage slave owners not only to free their slaves if the latter asked for it, but to pitch in money to the slave so as to make it easier for them. If you knew the history of Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions, you would know that they freed many of the slaves in that time. Try reading the story about Bilal for a good example.

Which in my view renders the texts increasingly useless and invalid.

Your loss. Good luck on the Day of Judgment.

May 30, 2013

Sawm

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Five Pillars of Islam. The first diary was about shahadah, the second about salat, and the third about zakat.

Sawm is the required fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan. During this lunar month, nothing may be eaten nor drunk from the break of dawn until sunset. Other prohibitions include no sexual activity nor any smoking. Sawm is the opposite of all the other pillars: with shahadah, salat, zakat and hajj, there is an activity to be performed; with sawm, no activity is done. Instead, while fasting during Ramadan, Muslims focus their day around spiritual matters, using the empty feeling in their stomachs to concentrate their minds.

The month of Ramadan has always been an important month for Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), before the first revelation, would retreat to a cave high up on a mountain near Makkah now known as Jabal an-Nur, the Mountain of Light, for prayer and contemplation. It was during the last third of the month of Ramadan that the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) came to Muhammad (pbuh) and revealed the first verses of the Qur'an on the Night of Power:

Read: In the name of thy Lord who createth, -
Createth man from a clot. -
Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, -
Who teacheth by the pen, -
Teacheth man that which he knew not. - (96:1-5)

While fasting was encouraged in the early Muslim community (and became a necessity during the Makkahn boycott of the Hashemites, when many Muslims went without food because the non-Muslims of Makkah wouldn't trade with the Banu Hashim clan), fasting during the month of Ramadan did not become obligatory until 2 A.H., the second year after the Muslims had moved to Madinah and the fourteenth year of the Prophet's (pbuh) mission:

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint,- (2:183)

Now, one of the unique features about Ramadan is that the month is not set to any particular season of the year. The Islamic calendar is a true lunar calendar in which no intercalary days or months are included to make the lunar calendar keep in time with the solar calendar. (Leap Day, February 29th, is an example of an intercalary day. Lunisolar calendars include intercalary days; examples include the Jewish, Chinese and Hindu calendars.) Thus, the Islamic calendar is about eleven days shorter than the solar year, making the Islamic calendar roll "forward." For example, my first Ramadan, back in 2000, began just after Thanksgiving and ended just after Christmas. This year, Ramadan begins on July 9th and ends on August 7th. In roughly 33 years, the Islamic calendar will reach the same point in a solar year.

Likewise, because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, this means the length of the month may be either 29 or 30 days. In most countries Ramadan starts and finishes based upon the sighting of the crescent moon after a new moon. Once the moon has been sighted, the month will start on the next day. (In a few countries, including Singapore, a calculation method is used. This method is controversial and stirs up debate among Muslims every year; however, in tropical climates, where sighting the moon can be problematic due to cloud cover, the calculation method works well.)

Moreover, because the Islamic calendar adjusts in comparison to the solar calendar, the length of the day in which a Muslim fasts also changes. This is partly due to the latitude at which a person lives and also due to the season. For myself, because I live very near the equator, the amount of time I fast daily is roughly 13 hours per day, regardless of the season. However, as the Islamic calendar moves closer to the summer solstice, Muslims at higher northern latitudes will face longer and longer hours (theoretically up to 24 hours if they lived above the Arctic Circle) and shorter and shorter hours if they live at the higher southern latitudes.

The time at which the fast ends daily is fairly straightforward: at sunset. However, when fasts should begin in the morning is not quite as clean cut. Especially here in Southeast Asia, we actually begin fasting ten minutes prior to the official start time, but what is the official start time? Most Muslims say that it is the break of dawn, meaning when the faintest glow of sunlight first appears in the morning sky. As the Qur'anic verse reads:

Permitted to you, on the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and ye are their garments. Allah knoweth what ye used to do secretly among yourselves; but He turned to you and forgave you; so now associate with them, and seek what Allah Hath ordained for you, and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast Till the night appears; but do not associate with your wives while ye are in retreat in the mosques. Those are Limits (set by) Allah: Approach not nigh thereto. Thus doth Allah make clear His Signs to men: that they may learn self-restraint. (2:187)

Should the highlighted section of the verse be taken literally or figuratively? Some of the earliest Muslims took the verse literally; however, it really should be taken figuratively:

When the verses were revealed, 'Until the white thread appears to you, distinct from the black thread,' I took two (hair) strings, one black and the other white, and kept them under my pillow and went on looking at them throughout the night but could not make anything out of it. So, the next morning I went to Allah's Apostle and told him the whole story. He explained to me, "That verse means the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the dawn." (Sahih Bukhari; Chapter 31, Fasting, No. 140)

Not everyone is required to fast during Ramadan; there are a number of exemptions. For example, women who are undergoing their menses are exempt. Young children are also exempt, although they must begin fasting by the time they reach puberty. (Actually, many children begin fasting during Ramadan much earlier than that; it's not uncommon for six and seven year olds to try to fast at least until lunch time.) Those who are ill or traveling a significant distance in a day (commuting doesn't count here) are also exempt, although all of these groups with the exception of the children must make up any days they miss fasting later in the year, up through the next Ramadan. For those who can fast but would only be able to do so "with difficulty" (2:184), i.e, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, or the elderly, they are given the option of either fasting or to feed an indigent person; if they feed the indigent then they are not required to fast. However, for everyone else, fasting is an obligation.

During Ramadan, prayers play a more prominent role during the month than they do the rest of the year. Not only do Muslims pray the five daily prayers (and their associated sunnah prayers), but there are also the nightly tarawih prayers. Tarawih prayers are like regular salat, the formal prayers, except that, instead of a maximum of four raka'at as performed in normal salat, tarawih prayers may be up to eight, twelve or twenty raka'at long. They are also frequently well-attended; in Singapore, tarawih is not only performed at mosques, but also in public spaces (known as void decks) in order to alleviate overcrowding. Tarawih prayers may also include a khutbah (sermon) and the reading of a juz of the Qur'an. (The Qur'an has been split up into 30 juz so that, having recited one juz every night, the entire Qur'an will have been recited during the month of Ramadan.)

Near the end of the month, Muslims are also required to pay a special type of zakat, known as Zakat al-Fitr. This is a small amount of money (frequently about $5 per person) that is collected so that the poorer members of the community may also be to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr. Zakat al-Fitr is obligatory on all Muslims (excepting those who would otherwise be recipients); however, it is not uncommon for the heads of households to pay the zakat on behalf of everyone in that household.

During Ramadan, Muslim communities often celebrate the month with various festivities. Middle Eastern countries are known for their soap operas that play each night during the month. In Singapore, we have an enormous bazaar that springs up in the Geylang Serai neighborhood. This bazaar will have on the order of 1000-1500 merchants setting up booths that sell a wide variety of products to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Most booths sell one of three basic types of products: food (for breaking the fast that evening), household products (to spruce up the home for the Eid visits to come; "spring cleaning" is normally done during Ramadan in Muslim homes), and clothing for Eid. While this is the commercial side of the month, it doesn't compare to the Christmas shopping season, especially in the US, as gift-giving is not normally done during Eid.

On the first day of the month after Ramadan (Shawwal 1), Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid ul-Fitr. This is one of the few days throughout the Islamic year where fasting is expressly prohibited. In the morning, many Muslims will attend Eid prayers. Because so many people turn out for these prayers, facilities other than mosques may be used to accommodate the turnout. For example, one year in Phoenix, I went to Eid prayers at the convention center; another time in Singapore Eid prayers for the neighborhood was held in the middle of a soccer field.

Once the Eid prayer is finished, people begin going to various homes to celebrate. In Singapore, the custom is go to the home of the most elderly relative first. Families normally wear a color-coordinated outfit, which makes for very colorful celebrations. At each home, various sweets will be served and possibly a meal (many will beg off on the meal if they've already eaten at someone else's home). This type of celebration will go on not only through the day of Eid, but for the remainder of the entire month of Shawwal, particularly on weekends. Considering the number of aunts, uncles and cousins my wife has, it's difficult to meet everyone (and have our own celebrations) within one month's time.

Although Ramadan is the only time during the Islamic year where fasting is required, many Muslims fast at other times of the year as well. After Eid ul-Fitr has passed, Muslims may encourage each other to fast an additional six days during the month of Shawwal (the six days do not need to be consecutive, as they are during Ramadan). Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar, is also a non-obligatory day of fasting; actually, Muslims normally fast two days at that time: either the 9th and 10th days of Muharram or the 10th and 11th. Finally, many Muslims fast two days of every week during the year, normally on Mondays and Thursdays.

For another diary I've written about Sawm, please see One Day in Ramadan.

April 27, 2013

Swine and Monkeys

One of my Facebook friends asked me to comment on several verses in the Qur'an that refer to some Jews turning into swine and monkeys. The verses in question are 2:65, 5:60 and 7:166:

And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: "Be ye apes, despised and rejected." (2:65)

Say: "Shall I point out to you something much worse than this, (as judged) by the treatment it received from Allah? those who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath, those of whom some He transformed into apes and swine, those who worshipped evil;- these are (many times) worse in rank, and far more astray from the even path!" (5:60)

When in their insolence they transgressed (all) prohibitions, We said to them: "Be ye apes, despised and rejected." (7:166)


Now, my friend had gotten the following comments about these verses on his Facebook wall:

Only one religion says that practitioners of the other two major religions are descendants of pigs and monkeys. Care to guess which one has that written in their holy.book?

The descendants of apes and pigs "comment" is a direct quote from the Koran. In three different verses of the Koran it is said Jews descended from pits and Christians from monkeys. The verses are 7:166, 2:65, 5:60...


So, my friend asked if I could shed some light on these verses. What follows is my reply:

The short answer is no, we do not believe that.

The long answer is that the Qur'an is referring to an incident where a village of Jews (the village of Aylah, on the shore of the Red Sea) broke their covenant of the sanctity of the Sabbath. Before the Sabbath would begin, the villagers would place nets, ropes and artificial pools of water for the purpose of fishing before the Sabbath. When the fish came in on Saturday as usual, they were caught in the ropes and nets. During the night, the Jews collected the fish after the Sabbath ended. In other words, although they were being "efficient," as we might think of it today, the Jews were still working on the Sabbath through the use of their nets, ropes, etc., when they should not have been. For that transgression they were punished by being turned into monkeys (the young) and swine (the old).

Now, several points:
* Not everyone in the village of Aylah suffered this fate, only those who had committed the transgression.
* Those who were transformed died three days later; during that brief time, they could not eat, drink or have offspring (so no modern Jews could possibly have descended from them).
* The Prophet Muhammad was asked if the current monkeys and swine were descended from those who were transformed. He said no, the animals had existed before then.
* The punishment was meant as an example to dissuade the neighboring villages from transgressing as those in Aylah had; thus, others outside the village would have known about the transformation.

The problem with people like your friend (and the other person) is that they rely solely upon a face-value "understanding" of the Qur'an when the real meaning is much, much deeper. There's a tremendous amount of context (historical, theological, linguistic) that most non-Muslims don't have the slightest clue exists as to explain the Qur'an. This is the trap your friend has fallen into. Now whether you or he agree with the above is up to you, but this is what orthodox Muslims believe.

March 25, 2013

Zakat

This is the third in a series of posts about the Five Pillars of Islam. The first diary was about shahadah, and the second about salat.

Zakat is the formal giving of charity in Islam. It is related to a similar concept, known as saudaqah. Saudaqah is the informal giving of charity that may be done at any time, in any amount, to any recipient. Zakat, however, is more regulated. While zakat may be given at any time of year, many Muslims try to pay their zakat during Ramadan, when spiritual rewards are greater than during the rest of the year. The amount of money (or other material goods being given as zakat) is more specific, and zakat tends to be given to institutions (mosques, foundations and other charities, and some government agencies) as opposed to individuals, which saudaqah is normally given to. Either way, the payment of charity is highly encouraged in Islam.

Indeed, the Qur'an stresses the need to practice regular charity; moreover, the payment of charity is linked to the practice of prayer. The following verse is one of over two dozen verses that encourage Muslims to both pray and give charity:

Those who believe, and do deeds of righteousness, and establish regular Prayers and regular charity, will have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:277)

In essence, the giving of charity on a regular basis is where the Muslim puts his or her faith in Allah (swt) into meaningful action. As mentioned in the previous essay, prayer (salat) is very important for a Muslim to engage in, but charity (zakat and saudaqah) is just as important. It is the Islamic example of the idiom, "putting your money where your mouth is."

However, not everyone is required to pay zakat. There are several key concepts that regulate what is "zakatable" and what is not. First, an asset that is zakatable must have been owned for at least one haul. A haul is one Islamic (lunar) year, or about 355 days. Secondly, the assets that are zakatable must have a value greater than the nisab. Nisab is equivalent to 85 grams of gold or 595 grams of silver. Because the values of these precious metals change on a daily basis, the value of the nisab will also change daily. (For example, today, as I write this, the nisab in Singapore dollars is $5,790; various Islamic websites will publish the daily nisab value so that Muslims can easily lookup this information instead of having to calculate it themselves.) As long as the value of the assets remains above the nisab for the entire haul, then zakat must be paid on the value of those assets.

The tricky part about zakat is in deciding which assets are zakatable; not every asset must be included. For the average city-dwelling Muslim, the number of zakatable asset classes is fairly limited. They normally include savings; certain monies received from or deposited into pension funds; stocks, mutual funds and other investments; gold, silver, and other jewelry; the surrender value on insurance policies (for that year, assuming the policy has been in force for over one haul); and any businesses owned by the Muslim in question. Generally speaking, the zakat owed for each of these asset classes is 2.5 percent; thus, if the Muslim had a total of $10,000 worth of zakatable assets, he or she would owe $250 for zakat.

If a Muslim makes his or her living by farming or mining, the methods for calculating zakat change. For example, if a farmer grows produce in a garden or orchard, the rate for zakat is ten percent if the garden or orchard receives its water through rainfall, nearby water channels (e.g., streams or rivers), or if the ground is naturally wet; however, if the land needs to be irrigated, then the rate is five percent. For farmers who raise livestock, the zakat owed depends upon the number and types of animals owned and their ages. For example, if a Muslim farmer owns forty sheep that are over one year in age, then one sheep would be owed as zakat. (The formulas for these types of calculations are somewhat complex, and will not be discussed in depth here.) For miners, the zakat rate is twenty percent of the value of all ores or precious metals that are excavated in the past lunar year.

On the other hand, there are a number of personal assets are never considered to be zakatable; these include personal items, clothing, furniture, computers, cars and homes. Now, for the latter three items listed above, as long as these items are for personal use, then they are not subject to zakat; however, if they are used for business purposes, then zakat must be paid on them. So, for example, if a family owns two homes, residing in one, but renting out the other, then the rental income derived from the property is zakatable.

Which leads to the next point: zakat is not an income tax, it is a tax on wealth. An equivalent secular tax would be a property tax. In this regard, zakat is a progressive tax in that the poorest members of society normally don't pay any zakat at all (although everyone, regardless of their income level, is still encouraged to pay saudaqah as the need arises). The wealthier the person is, the more zakat they are required to pay; there are no caps or limits as to what the wealthiest Muslims are obligated to pay.

Another point to consider is, where does the money go? The Qur'an gives some guidelines as to who can receive zakat money. The relevant verse is:

Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of Allah; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by Allah, and Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom. (9:60)

Thus, the Qur'an gives eight categories of people who are eligible to receive zakat monies. The first two categories, the poor (fakir) and the needy (miskin), are very similar to each other, but have slightly different definitions. The poor are those who may not have enough money for their basic needs, but the needy are those who have neither material possessions nor the means to earn a living, the truly indigent who, out of necessity, are forced to beg for their survival. (In Singapore, this category accounted for over one-third of all zakat monies distributed.)

The third category, those employed to administer the funds, are those employees of the agency that administers the zakat. The Qur'an recognizes that people legitimately work to collect, account for, and distribute the zakat monies, and they are eligible to receive wages from the zakat monies as opposed to volunteering to get the job done.

The fourth category, those whose hearts have been recently reconciled to the truth (i.e., recent reverts to Islam), is perhaps one group of people who don't receive very much zakat money in comparison to the other groups. Very rarely, in my experience, do Muslim organizations (especially in the US) give out any money to recent reverts. In my own case, I only received any money while here in Singapore, when I needed to prove that I was a Muslim in order to marry my wife, that I received a grand total of S$40. Certainly not enough money to become rich on. (To be honest, I was surprised I received any money at all; I certainly hadn't expected it!) I don't know of anyone who's reverted to Islam for the chance to receive zakat money.

The fifth and sixth categories, for those in bondage and in debt, is interpreted somewhat differently now than it used to be in the past. Many Muslim organizations now refer to "bondage" in terms of a lack of education. As a result, zakat monies are sometimes given in the form of scholarships, grants and bursaries, especially to those families with children who are already receiving zakat because of their poor economic status (fakir/miskin). Those who are in debt doesn't mean that they will help to relieve, for example, credit card balances, but that they might help to pay off utility balances or other bills of necessity that the person or family is unable to pay.

The seventh category, in the cause of Allah (swt), also has a more modern interpretation. Today, those funds are often used to pay for religious programs, mosque leadership and administration, school development and assistance, youth development and engagement, Islamic education, and community development.

The eighth and final category, for the wayfarer, is where zakat monies may be given to those travellers who are stranded. The aid given might include financial assistance and a plane ticket home, if necessary.

So, what benefits do Muslims receive for their giving of charity, whether it is zakat or saudaqah? The word zakah actually comes from the root zāy kāf wāw (ز ك و), which literally means "to purify." (There are actually 21 verses in the Qur'an where zāy kāf wāw is used as the verb to purify.) By giving zakat, a Muslim benefits by purifying both his or her own soul and his or her wealth. On the one hand, zakat purifies the soul by helping a person to overcome his or her selfishness, obsession with wealth, and any neglect of the poor. Likewise, giving zakat helps a Muslim the opportunity to cleanse their wealth of the taint it would acquire if it had not gone through the purification process of zakat. Muslims try to earn their incomes in a halal manner; however, people don't always do so. For example, not always giving a full effort at work (e.g., playing games on the computer when one should be working, to use a simple example). Giving zakat helps to purify the manner in which that wealth is earned.

The rewards a Muslim may receive for giving charity may also bring about significant rewards in either this life or in the hereafter. The Qur'an gives a parable that helps to explain just how much reward might be given, insha'allah:

The parable of those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah, is that of a grain (of corn); it grows seven ears, and each ear has a hundred grains. Allah gives manifold increase to whom He wills. And Allah is All-Sufficient for His creatures' needs, All-Knower. (2:261)

By giving zakat, Allah (swt) may reward us up to seven hundred fold, insha'allah, for the acts of charity we have done. Unlike in the so-called "Prosperity Gospel," though, there is no promise of riches in this life for having been charitable. The rewards may come entirely in the hereafter, insha'allah. What we try to acknowledge, however, is that all sustenance comes from Allah (swt), and that the rich are being tried on their ability (or inability) to pass on the sustenance due from them to weaker members of the community. Insha'allah, the rich will pass the test by paying the zakat they owe; otherwise, the punishment for failing to do so may be extremely severe:

Asma bint Yazid reported: "My aunt and I, while wearing gold bracelets, went to the Prophet. He asked: 'Did you pay their zakat?' She related that they had not. The Prophet said: 'Do you not fear that Allah will make you wear a bracelet of fire? Pay its zakat." (Ahmad, 6.461)

March 06, 2013

Salat

This is the second in a series of posts about the Five Pillars of Islam. The first diary, about shahadah, can be found here.

Salat (sing., salah) are the formal prayers that are required of Muslims five times per day. In addition to these required (fard) prayers, Muslims often perform additional prayers that are optional (sunnah); these latter prayers are not required, but Muslims are encouraged to do them.

Before any salah is performed, fard or sunnah, the person must be in a state of ritual purity. This is done through two different forms of ablutions known as ghusl and wudu. Ghusl is the full-body ablution that is performed less frequently than wudu. Ghusl is required under certain circumstances. For men, this is most commonly after sexual activity; for women, it includes after sexual activity, after menses, and after childbirth. Wudu, on the other hand, is normally done after certain bodily functions; for example, urination, defecation and passing gas. Because of the frequency of these bodily functions, it is not uncommon for Muslims to perform wudu several times a day. Both wudu and ghusl require various parts of the body to be washed in a prescribed order: both hands, a rinsing of the mouth, rinsing the insides of the nostrils (by snuffing up a small amount of water - especially helpful if one's had a recent bloody nose), washing the face, washing the forearms up to the elbows, rinsing the hair, washing the ears and, finally, washing the feet up to the ankles. For all of the above, with the exception of rinsing the hair, everything is performed three times (for the hair, one passes his or her wet hands over his or her hair once). For the hands, forearms, and feet, the right side is always washed first (three times), then the left side. Ghusl, on the other hand, is the same as wudu, except that the entire body, including all of one's hair, must be washed three times after the feet are done. Obviously, ghusl requires the use of a shower to perform, whereas wudu may be done at a footbath or even a sink.

Prior to every communal prayer is the adhan, or call to prayer. There are actually several different versions of the adhan, although the one most commonly used is the one non-Muslims may be most familiar with. This version of the adhan reads as follows in English (although it is always recited in Arabic):

God is most great, God is most great.
God is most great, God is most great.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that there is no god but God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
Hurry to prayer, hurry to prayer.
Hurry to success, hurry to success.
God is most great, God is most great.
No god but God!

For the dawn (fajr) prayer, an additional line is spoken after the second "hurry to success"; that is "Prayer is better than sleep, prayer is better than sleep."

After the adhan is recited, salah does not begin immediately, but people are usually given about five minutes to get to the prayer hall. When salah is about to begin, a second recitation of the adhan is done, called the iqama. The iqama is a shorter version of the adhan. It is essentially the adhan halved with the addition of "Stand for prayer, stand for prayer" added after "hurry to success." Once the iqama is said (in a normal voice, not in the sing-songy version that is most people are familiar with), the prayer will begin as soon as everyone is ready. (It should be noted that individuals doing their prayers alone do not have to recite the adhan or iqama, although to do so is sunnah (recommended but not obligatory). Small groups of Muslims praying together may also recite the iqama only, especially if the communal prayer for that time period has already been done.)

When the Muslim is ready to pray, either individually or collectively, he or she speaks quietly his or her niyat, the intention behind the prayer. In Islam, all deeds are judged by their intentions, and salat is no exception. Are you praying a fard prayer or a sunnah prayer? A special prayer (discussed below) or trying to make up for a prayer that was not done at an earlier time? And so, for the niyat, we will briefly state which prayer we are performing at that time.

To actually describe how salat is performed would take some time to do, so I'd rather put in a video that demonstrates the steps involved in performing salat (see below). However, several points should be made. First, due to the number of body postures involved, furniture is not normally used. (For those who need furniture, like the elderly or handicapped, salat may be done as much as possible either sitting or even lying down.) Secondly, each prayer is divided into a number of cycles, called raka'at (sing., raka'ah). Three of the five fard prayers involve four raka'at each, although the dawn prayer only has two and the evening prayer three. Sunnah prayers can be either two or four raka'at in length, two raka'at being the absolute minimum number for any prayer. Moreover, sunnah prayers may be done either before or after (or both) the fard prayers (with the exception of the dawn and late afternoon prayers, in which case no sunnah prayers are allowed after the fard prayer).


In addition to the sunnah prayers mentioned above (those that may be performed just before or after the fard prayer), there are a number of other sunnah prayers that may be done at different times of the day. For example, there is the witr prayer. Witr is a sunnah prayer that is performed at night after the Isha (night) prayer, before going to bed. Unlike the fard prayers, where there is a maximum of four raka'at, the witr prayer always has an odd number of raka'at, anywhere between one raka'ah and eleven raka'at. While witr is not fard, it is considered wajib (necessary) and is especially recommended for those Muslims who fear they may die in their sleep.

Other special prayers include Jumu'ah, Eid, the prayer for the mosque, and the prayer for the dead. Jumu'ah is the Friday congregational prayer held every week in the early afternoon. It is an obligatory prayer for men to attend, but optional for women. (Here in Singapore, women don't attend jumu'ah because there is literally no room for them at almost all mosques. In fact there's often no room for all of the men who attend jumu'ah. While most mosques here can normally hold several thousand people, the crowds of men frequently spill over outside the buildings.) Jumu'ah consists of a khutbah (sermon), followed by set prayers spoken by the imam, followed by a two raka'at salah.

Eid prayers are held early in the mornings of the two Eids, Eid ul Fitr (on the day after the end of Ramadan) and Eid al Adha (to commemorate the end of that year's Hajj). Because everyone in the Muslim community is encouraged to attend Eid prayers, these are frequently held in very large places where thousands of Muslims can be accommodated. As a result, I personally have done Eid prayers on the floor of a convention center and in the middle of a football field (while it was sprinkling), as well as other locations. Eid prayers are also a little unusual in that the salah happens before the khutbah, when it is normally the other way around.

The prayer for the mosque is normally done when one enters the prayer hall of a mosque. It is a two raka'at prayer one makes on behalf of the building. Muslims believe that on the Day of Judgment, everything, regardless of whether it is animate or not, will be given a voice to speak out its testimony for or against a person. (This includes body parts, such as one's eyes, ears, and skin; see the Qur'an, verses 41:19-23.) So Muslims pray for the mosque, which, insha'allah, will testify on behalf of those Muslims who have prayed at that place.

One other prayer to mention is that for the dead, Salat al-Janazah. The steps by which the funeral prayer is done is completely different from how regular salah is performed. However, what makes this prayer distinctive is that it is fard kifayah, meaning that there is a collective obligation upon all Muslims within a community to do this prayer upon the death of a fellow Muslim. This is not to say that all Muslims within a community must do this prayer when someone dies, but as long as some Muslims perform the prayer, then the collective obligation will have been fulfilled. If the body of the deceased is present, then the body will be placed in front of those Muslims performing the prayer; otherwise, the prayer may be performed elsewhere, such as at a mosque. (For my late father-in-law, we did his Salah al-Janazah in the living room of his home before we took him to be buried. For many Muslims who die in Singapore, a Salah al-Janazah is often performed after Jumu'ah has concluded. Personally, I often line up to perform the funeral prayer even though I may not have known the deceased, my thought being that I hope others will do the same for me when I die, insha'allah.)

Salat is very important in Islam. On the Day of Judgment, when every soul is assessed as to whether it should go to Jannah (heaven) or Jahannam (hell), the first thing to be judged will be the number of times a person has prayed:

Narrated Abu Huraira that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “First of the deeds for which a slave will be called to account (on the Day of Resurrection) will be his (obligatory) prayers. If they are complete (he has prospered and succeeded), otherwise Allah (swt) will say (to the angels): ‘See whether there are any (voluntary) prayers of My slave.’ If any, Allah (swt) will say: ‘Complete his obligatory prayers with them.’”

The number of times a prayer may be rewarded depends upon whether the prayer is done individually or collectively, and on the location. Let's say that one prayer done by an individual earns a reward of one unit. If one prayer is done by two or more persons together, the reward is 27 units. (The exact number rewarded for collective prayer varies from hadith to hadith, usually between 25 and 27, but the most commonly reported number seems to be 27. And God knows best.). However, should one pray at the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah, one prayer is equivalent to 1,000 prayers elsewhere; if the prayer is performed at al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, that prayer is equivalent to 100,000 prayers elsewhere. However, regardless of the number of rewards earned, it is always best to pray and often.

February 15, 2013

Shahadah

Recently, Ojibwa posted a diary at Daily Kos that looked at the Five Pillars of Islam. The descriptions for each of the five pillars were necessarily brief; however, I thought I would expand on each of the pillars in their own diaries. This diary focuses on the first pillar, the shahadah, or testament of faith.

Ash-hadu alah ilaha il-lal-llahu, wa ash-hadu annah Muhammad-ar rasullullah.
I testify that there is no god but God, and I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.

The shahadah consists of two statements uttered in a single sentence. The first statement, no god but God, is the Muslim's testification of pure monotheism. We attest that there is no person or thing that is worthy of worship other than God. There are not multiple gods, nor is there anyone or any thing that shares godhood with God. Thus, Muslims reject, for example, the concept of the Christian trinity and the Hindu/Buddhist pantheon of gods. Likewise, we reject the atheist's assertion that there is no god at all. There is only one God, solitary and unique (ahad). To believe in these other concepts is to commit shirk, the one unforgivable sin.

Say: He is Allah, the One!
Allah, the eternally Besought of all!
He begetteth not nor was begotten.
And there is none comparable unto Him.
- Surah Al-Ikhlas (The Unity), 112:1-4, Pickthall translation

The second statement, Muhammad is the Prophet of God, has several connotations that need to be considered. First is the face-value statement acknowledging Muhammad's (pbuh) prophethood. A Muslim could very easily acknowledge the other 24 named prophets (pbut) in the Qur'an in addition to all the thousands of unnamed prophets, and this would be stating the truth. But, by acknowledging Muhammad (pbuh) as a Prophet, we are binding ourselves as Muslims to obeying Islamic law and jurisprudence (shari'ah and fiqh, respectively) as best we can.

The shahadah occupies the first pillar of Islam because of its importance and the frequency with which it is said. In a normal day, a Muslim will recite the shahadah at least nine times throughout the course of the five required prayers; this does not count all the other optional prayers a Muslim may make on any given day. Nor does it count any other time the shahadah might be spoken for other reasons.

The shahadah is also important because it is the normal standard by which people are recognized by the Muslim community as a fellow Muslim. A new Muslim must recite the shahadah publicly (defined as in front of at least two other people) and they must do it with sincerity in their hearts. Simply reading or reciting the shahadah above will not make you a Muslim if you lack sincerity, nor will other Muslims recognize you as a Muslim if you do not say the shahadah at least once publicly. You might be a Muslim in your heart, but that does not necessarily mean public acceptance.


February 12, 2013

Islamic Manners


Some of the Lessons From the Qur'an That Apply to Our General Living:

1. Respect and honor all human beings irrespective of their religion, color, race, sex, language, status, property, birth, profession/job, and so on. [17:70]

2. Talk straight, to the point, without any ambiguity or deception. [33:70]

3. Choose best words to speak and say them in the best possible way. [17:53, 2:83]

4. Do not shout. Speak politely, keeping your voice low. [31:19]

5. Always speak the truth. Shun words that are deceitful and ostentatious. [22:30]

6. Do not confound truth with falsehood. [2:42]

7. Say with your mouth what is in your heart. [3:167]

8. Speak in a civilized manner in a language that is recognized by society and is commonly used. [4:5]

9. When you voice an opinion, be just, even if it is against a relative. [6:152]

10. Do not be a bragging boaster. [31:18]

11. Do not talk, listen or do anything vain. [23:3, 28:55]

12. Do not participate in any paltry. If you pass near a futile play, then pass by with dignity. [25:72]

13. If, unintentionally, any misconduct occurs by you, then correct yourself expeditiously. [3:134]

14. Do not be contemptuous or arrogant with people. [31:18]

15. Do not walk haughtily or with conceit. [17:37, 31:18]

16. Be moderate in thy pace. [31:19]

17. Walk with humility and sedateness. [25:63]

18. Keep your gazes lowered, devoid of any lecherous leers and salacious stares. [24:30-31, 40:19]

19. Do not backbite one another. [49:12]

20. Do not make mockery of others or ridicule others. [49:11]

21. Do not defame others. [49:11]

22. Do not insult others by nicknames. [49:11]

23. When you meet each other, offer good wishes and blessings for safety. One who conveys to you a message of safety and security and also when a courteous greeting is offered to you, meet it with a greeting still more courteous or (at least) of equal courtesy. [4:86]

-Mumtaz'

Note: I came across the above on Facebook and shared it on my wall, but have also decided to share it with a larger audience here. I've cleaned up the various typos, but have left everything else the same. I also did not check to see whether the Qur'anic ayat citations are correct. Otherwise... I hope you enjoyed this!

September 06, 2012

Camel Tracks

I had a recent discussion with an atheist, which has led to a new insight about the differences between atheists and Muslims (presumably this distinction could apply to a follower of any "Western" religion, but I'll approach this only from the perspective of Islam).

The difference is that an atheist is a literalist. They expect there to be proof of God's existence in such a way that there is no doubt in the atheist's mind. Ideally for them that proof would be tangible in nature and directly linked to God (as opposed to an indirect link, which would sow more confusion in their minds).

Muslims, on the other hand, tend to be more "metaphoralists," if there is such a word. The Qur'an, in and of itself, is a tangible, direct link to Allah (swt), which is proof enough for Muslims of His existence. But the Qur'an also has numerous verses that provide tangible evidence of His existence that are indirect; still, if one were to think more deeply upon these tangible proofs one might become convinced of His existence. The verses in question I refer to as the "nature verses," of which here are some:

It is He who sends down rain from the sky: from it ye drink, and out of it (grows) the vegetation on which ye feed your cattle. With it He produces for you corn, olives, date-palms, grapes and every kind of fruit: verily in this is a sign for those who give thought. He has made subject to you the Night and the Day; the sun and the moon; and the stars are in subjection by His Command: verily in this are Signs for men who are wise. And the things on this earth which He has multiplied in varying colors (and qualities): verily in this is a sign for men who celebrate the praises of Allah (in gratitude). It is He Who has made the sea subject, that ye may eat thereof flesh that is fresh and tender, and that ye may extract therefrom ornaments to wear; and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves, that ye may seek (thus) of the bounty of Allah and that ye may be grateful. And He has set up on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with you; and rivers and roads; that ye may guide yourselves; And marks and sign-posts; and by the stars (men) guide themselves. Is then He Who creates like one that creates not? Will ye not receive admonition?
(16:10-17)

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day,- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding,- Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth, (With the thought): "Our Lord! not for naught Hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire."
(3:190-91)

The key points to take away are that:

1) Natural phenomena are signs of Allah (swt). They are indirect evidence, but evidence nonetheless, for the existence of God. They are more than just the natural world that we see every day and take for granted.

2) It takes a person with a flexible mind, a person who can think deeply, to make the connection between the natural world and God. Notice what the Qur'an says in several of the verses above, that these are signs "...for those who give thought," "...for men who are wise," "...for men of understanding." Rather than being a religion of blind faith, Islam is a religion that asks its followers to think and contemplate. This is where I think atheists stumble. They have lost the ability to reason for themselves. They expect proofs from others instead of thinking for themselves.

To put the matter another way, the signs of God are like camel tracks in the sand. It is enough for the Muslim to see the tracks to know of the camel's existence. The atheist expects to see the camel in order to be satisfied of the proof, and blames the believer when the camel is never seen. But the tracks are proof enough, if only the atheist could recognize the tracks for what they really are.

3) Finally, the Qur'an points out to men of understanding who recognize that natural phenomena are signs of God's existence, that they would (or at least should) be grateful to Allah (swt) for what He has provided. Everything, and I mean everything, comes from Him, including our lives. But are most people grateful? Do they give Him the praise He deserves?

February 25, 2012

Principles and Foundations of the Islamic Economy

Khutbah from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS)
Originally published: 24 February 2012


Principles and Foundations of the Islamic Economy from the Perspective of Al-Quran and Sunnah of Rasulullah


Dear blessed congregation,

Let us strengthen our faith by performing what Allah has ordained and refraining from what He has prohibited. Let us stay true to the practices and guidance of Rasulullah (saw). May this bring us closer to the right path that is blessed by Allah (swt).

My beloved brothers,

In the past few weeks, much has been said on Rasulullah (saw) as a blessing to mankind. We reflect on this from the Sunnah of the Prophet which has transformed lives and spread exemplary character through good moral values.

On this note, let us ponder upon a hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah (ra):

“I have only been sent to perfect good manners.” Narrated by Imam Al-Bazzar.


Here, an exemplary manner or character encompasses man’s relationship with Allah (swt), with nature and towards ourselves, in the social, spiritual and even economic aspects.

It is no surprise that Islam emphasizes on morals and good character as a key element to overcome challenges in life. Moreover, the laws that Allah (swt) ordained are rooted in principles that we cannot defy – and this includes areas related to economics.

In the sirah of the Prophet, we can see how he held on strongly to moral principles and exemplary character, and it was not abandoned in Rasulullah’s economics transactions and trading activities within the community.

This is illustrated when the Prophet (saw) undertook trading deals on behalf of Sayyidatina Khadijah Binti Khuwailid (ra), where Rasulullah (saw) brought in large profits for the mission. This success was due to none other than the exemplary character of Rasulullah (saw) and his determination in doing trade.

Among the important principles in Islam that Rasulullah (saw) portrayed is being honest in everything that we do, including in economic engagements. Reiterating this, Rasulullah (saw) said:

“Allah blesses those who are charitable in their trade.” Narrated by Imam Bukhari.


That said, my dear brothers, we must know that the emphasis on morality does not mean that we have to reject the idea of a profitable business, or the potential benefits of such transactions to the economy in general.

In fact, this is the benefit of economic activity that Islam acknowledges. It lies in the balance between moral responsibility and material gains. We must bear in mind that, if morals are removed from economics, social balance will be threatened and eventually break down.

This will lead to unhealthy competition and feelings of distrust, when in fact the economic engagements and human interactions within should be on the basis of harmony, cooperation and compassion between one another. Therefore, Allah (swt) reminds us in Surah Al-Takaathur verse 1-2:

“The mutual rivalry (for piling up of worldly things) diverts you, until you visit the graves (until you die).”


My dear brothers,

Allah has created and preserved an economic system to His will, and the Al-Quran and Sunnah gives assurance to man including those who are associated in aspects of trading and the economy.

While Allah (swt) has commanded man to strive for his sustenance and wealth, let us be reminded that He is the All-Provider. Allah (swt) said in Surah Hud verse 6:

“And no (moving) living creature is there on earth but its provision is due from Allah. And He knows its dwelling place and its deposit. All is in a Clear Book – the Luh Mahfuz.”


This assurance by Allah does not at all mean that we should leave everything to fate without effort. Rather, it serves to instill a sense of confidence and peace, as well as faith in destiny when the prosperity we are hoping for does not materialize.

With this, man will not panic nor be demoralized, or even lose hope when their plan fails. Similarly, it reminds us to remember Allah and keep our arrogance in check, when provisions are bestowed upon us. This guarantee of provision by Allah should further motivate us to keep on trying despite multiple failures.

In emulating the exemplary character as propagated in Al-Quran and the Sunnah of Rasulullah (saw), let us pray for success in all that we do, as we seek His pleasure. Amin.

------------------

Glossary:
Amin: Amen.
Hadith: Reports on the sayings and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (saw) or what he witnessed and approved are called hadith (plural: ahadith). These are the real explanation, interpretation, and the living example of the Prophet (saw) for teachings of the Qur'an. His sayings are found in books called the hadith books. Some famous collectors of hadith are Imam Al-Bukhari, Imam Muslim, Imam An-Nasa'i, Imam Abu Dawood, Imam At-Tirmizi, and Imam Majah. There are many others.
Luh Mahfuz "Clear Record." "Human knowledge is subject to time, and is obliterated by time. Allah's knowledge is like a Record and endures forever. And His Record has a further quality which human records have not. The most permanent human record may be quite intelligible to those who make it but may be ambiguous to others and may become unintelligible with the progress of time, as happens almost invariably to the most enduring inscriptions from very anceint times: but in Allah's "Record" or knowledge there is no ambiguity, for it is independent of time, or place, or circumstances." Yusuf Ali, Footnote #1450 to verse 10:61.
(ra): Radiallhu Anhu, "May Allah be pleased with him." This phrase is commonly added after mentioning one of the companions of the Prophet (saw).
Rasulullah: The Prophet of God, Muhammad (saw).
(saw): These letters are abbreviations for the words “Salla Allahu ‘Alaihi Wa Sallam,” which means, “May the blessing and the peace of Allah be upon him.” When the name of Prophet Muhammad is mentioned, a Muslim is to respect him and invoke this statement of peace upon him.
Sirah: Biography; in this case, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).
Sunnah: In this context, the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).
(swt): These letters are abbreviations for the words of “Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala.” When the name of Almighty Allah is pronounced, a Muslim is to show his respect to Him by reciting this. The meaning of this statement is that Allah is purified of having partners or a son.

February 13, 2012

Basic Concepts Regarding Prayer and Worship in Islam

Recently I got into a discussion about the differences between prayer and worship in Islam, followed by an additional conversation about whether the concepts of "bless," "exalt" and "worship" in Islam were distinct. I've rearranged my commentary somewhat to improve the flow of thought in this brief essay.

Prayer itself is categorized into two forms within Islam: salah (pl. salat) and dua (pl. du'wat). The former is the formal, ritualized prayer that is performed five times per day, and is what non-Muslims see on the TV when they see Muslims praying. The latter, however, is perhaps even more commonplace. These are the prayers Muslims make under a wide variety of situations. For example, the prayer the proverbial student makes before doing a test is a dua.

Dua: informal and voluntary; salah: formal; may be either required (fard; the five daily prayers) or voluntary (sunnah).

Worship, on the other hand, encompasses both salat and du'wat but also includes other acts. I would define Islamic worship as any act or thought that is made with the intention of trying to please Allah (swt). Thus, working at one's job, farming, taking care of children, all could be considered a form of worship, the key being intention.

The question your post raises is whether bless, exalt, and worship are distinct.

In Islam these three concepts are semi-distinct. Worship I described above; it is a very broad concept and can encompass acts that might seem mundane to an outside observer.

With respect to "bless," most Muslims use this term (barakah) in a specific manner: that Allah (swt) blesses mankind. We do not refer to ourselves blessing Allah (swt), nor do Muslims bless each other. (The Wikipedia article will talk about barakah flowing from "saints" and other people and objects to those who seek barakah, but that is a Sufi concept to which I don't subscribe.)

The concept of "exalt" in Islam is a little ambiguous. First, most translators don't necessarily use "exalt" but "glorify." To glorify Allah (swt) may take several forms. One way is to do additional sunnah prayers (salah), especially at night (e.g., tahajjud, witr). Another way is to do what is known as tasbih, which comes from the same root as "glorify" (sin ba ha). Tasbih may be done at any time of day, but the "canonical form" (as mentioned in the Wikipedia article) is frequently done right after salah.

Now, when I said that the three are semi-distinct, to me, barakah is distinct from worship and glorifying, whereas to glorify Allah (swt) is a subset of the greater set of "worship."