October 30, 2005

Strength in Weakness

I wrote this just a couple of weeks before the October 8th earthquake, as it was to be included in the Ramadhan issue of Muslim Link. I was fortunate to get in touch with one sister from New Orleans to provide an Islamic perspective to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and referred to Baghdad Burning for the Iraqi perspective on Ramadhan. As I wrote this over a month ago, it might appear slightly outdated with emphasis put on Hurricane Katrina and not on the greater tragedies that have occurred since then, but this blog is called Irrelevant Opinions, so I suppose that's okay. The themes I touched upon for this article are better illustrated by the efforts of the Pakistani relief workers and the resilience of the victims, but here's my essay anyway (slightly edited from the published version.)

At first, it seemed like nothing. Ramadhan 1418 had just begun, and with it, the January temperature was unseasonably warm in Montreal. The winter break was coming to an end, so the students began preparing for school while others prepared themselves for returning to their various responsibilities. It was wonderful to begin the holy month of Ramadhan during the holiday season, since families could be together and share in the blessings that only that month could bring. The end of the holidays meant that most of the Ramadhan days would have to be spent in offices or classrooms, and perhaps the spirit of Ramadhan would be lost amid the hectic schedules.

No one expected the mild weather to cause as much havoc as it did. The rain came down innocently atop the trees and houses, but congregated there as ice; indeed, there were few sights more beautiful than those trees which appeared to be encased in glass, shining under the moonlight. Before long, branches of every tree became crystallized in a thick layer of frozen rainwater. Roofs of houses and cars collapsed under the weight of the ice, with the raindrops accumulating to become several inches thick. Trees that stood for hundreds of years succumbed to the ice, and came crashing down to the ground. And as trees all around the city fell victim to the drops of water, they took down large sections of the electrical infrastructure connecting the city. As each power line came down under the weight of nearby trees, another neighbourhood would fall into darkness.

Nearly the entire city was without power, and then a deep freeze fell upon the dimmed city. Temperatures dropped to twenty degrees below zero, and for the hundreds of thousands of residents accustomed to electrical heating, it became nearly impossible to live at home.

For Muslims, that Ramadhan quickly became unforgettable. Already accustomed to going without food and water for entire days, the experience became even more meaningful when other basic necessities were unavailable. Without light, heat, and electricity, families were forced to go about without the lavish meals and elaborate gatherings that generally accompany the breaking of the fast. In everything, simplicity and efficiency were the order of the day, and some of the deeper meanings of Ramadhan became apparent.

We prayed Tarawih prayer by candle light. Every worshipper stood listening to the words of the Quran wrapped in heavy ski jackets, multiple pairs of gloves and socks, toques, and even snowpants. Inside the prayer hall, temperatures were well below zero degrees, but somehow the beauty of the Quran transcended the extreme conditions, and the masjid remained full in spite of the extreme cold and darkness.

In the trying conditions, families came together, sharing whatever provisions they had. With schools and offices closed, it was perhaps the first time that entire families were able to break their fasts together. In the desperate circumstances, the beauty of Ramadhan was experienced fully.

In Ramadhan 1425, in the city of Baghdad, the circumstances were far worse. There was no end in sight to a war that had claimed the lives of thousands of Iraqis. Widespread chaos reigned throughout the country, and there no reason to believe that things would improve anytime soon.

One sister took her family to visit an aunt who had been stricken with depression due to the continuing occupation. At the time, the city of Fallujah was under heavy attack by occupation forces, thus many Fallujah residents fled to Baghdad. It was then that the sister met some relatives among the refugees. She had never met them before, but the war had brought them together in the home of her aunt. They broke their fast together solemnly, discussing the desperate situation. Among the refugees was a mother and some of her children; the father and one son did not make the trip. They stayed back in Fallujah to assist others in escaping the war-torn city, and had not been heard from in days.

It was Ramadhan, however, and the family from Fallujah vowed to remain patient. Abstaining from food and water was the least of their struggles; living under an occupation, with their family divided and without the means to communicate with them were much greater struggles than the traditional hardships associated with fasting. The families ate together and they cried together, while Muslims around the world prayed that their hardships come to an end.

For thousands of Muslims, this will be the first Ramadhan after being afflicted with the most devastating natural disaster in recent history. Countless Muslims died during the Tsunami crisis at the end of 2004, and over a million lost their homes and belongings. Many will never be able to rebuild their lives. For those who had lost homes and families, the hardships of Ramadhan would be insignificant in comparison. However, the qualities of patience, restraint and steadfastness that Ramadhan teaches are that much more important to those who have undergone such hardships. And in the midst of such overwhelming catastrophe, the most dedicated believers will always find courage in their losses and find strength in their weakness.

Today, the focus falls upon the southern United States, in the midst of the most destructive natural disaster in the nations history. Thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate their cities, and thousands more have lost homes and loved ones. In a nation known for its economic and military power and in a city known for its hedonism, the lessons to be learned are multiplied. Accustomed to its apparent invincibility, the devastation caused by the hurricanes will forever leave a stain on the nations pride.

For the sizable Muslim population living in New Orleans, the catastrophe and the consequent relief efforts have made the coming Ramadhan that much more meaningful. One sister, Kelly Izdihar Crosby of New Orleans, found renewed faith through her ordeal, summing up her feelings as follows.

“After facing the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and the ultimate failure of the relief efforts, I feel incredibly blessed that I am alive, happy and healthy. My faith in Allah Ta'ala has been strengthened, and since we had escaped from New Orleans to Atlanta, we have witnessed the sweetness and generousity of those who are sympathetic to our situation. I have seen an outpouring of generousity and sadaqa which reminds me of why Ramadan is so important.

“This year, when you fast, think about the people stranded behind in New Orleans, who were too poor to evacuate, and had nothing to eat for days. Praise Allah Ta'ala that you will probably break your fast with your loved ones, while many do not know where their next meal is coming. And give with a happy heart, as much as you can, for the pleasure of Allah. Allah will return it to you and reward you for your charity. Loan to Allah a beautiful loan. Thank Allah in your prayers this Ramadhan that you are in a clean home, in a dry land, with people who love you and all your possessions at your disposal. I am sad for my city, but thankful that we are safe in Allah's care.”

And we all must be thankful. We must always remind one another of the blessings bestowed upon us by Allah, lest the reminder come crashing down upon us again.

(Irrelevant Note: It would have really been nice if digital cameras were common back during the Ice Storm, because it was so incredibly beautiful and I'd have ice storm pics all over my desktop.)

October 22, 2005


Ramadhan is a particularly interesting time of year in the West because religious expression extends over the course of the whole day. As a result, questions will always arise in classrooms and workplaces, such as "Why aren't you coming out with us for lunch? How come you're leaving work at this time? Why are you never home in the evenings?"

Some answer with awkwardness or deliberation, and fail to provide good answers. Consequently, an excellent opportunity for educating people about Islam becomes lost. This feeling generally prevails when we develop a sense of disconnect from the lives and practices of non-Muslims; we feel that since we don't want to be involved with their activities, we don't them involved in our activities. Unfortunately, this only further alienates the community, and makes it harder for such opportunities to arise again in the future. This is a major problem within the Muslim community, and needs to change.

In the past, I've always been fairly up front regarding my beliefs and practices, but this year I wanted to take it a step further. Weeks before Ramadhan began, I started talking about it around the office, in elevators, and wherever else would I find myself. I work for a large consulting firm, and before Ramadhan began, my whole team knew about it and kept asking if it had begun yet.

So when it finally did, I was amazed when some of my non-Muslim colleagues expressed interest in fasting for a day themselves. I did not need to convince anyone or even encourage them, but of their own volition, they agreed to try it at least once. This was an opportunity not only to help others become more understanding of Muslims, but to engage them in a Muslim experience. To this end, I contacted the Ottawa Food Bank to turn this day of fasting into a charity event, where my whole team would fast, and others would contribute to a worthy cause in support of it. I was calling it Fast-a-thon, as the event was similar to ones organized by some MSA's with that name, but others called it Ramathon as an homage to the month of Ramadhan.

We set the day of fasting to be Wednesday, October 19th. I did not want the fasting to affect the productivity of my colleagues, so I told them that they could cheat if they really needed to, but they insisted on going through with it fully. On that day, they all woke up at 5:30am for an early meal, and then fasted from just before 6:00am to sunset at 6:14pm. They even avoided brushing their teeth during the hours of fasting, something many Muslims fail to do even though it is considered to be makruh, or undesirable. (See here.)

Two of them could not get by without at least water, so they drank throughout the course of the day. Even then, they strictly avoided any other drink entirely. The rest made the full fast until sunset. Most of them found it very difficult, with one wondering whether just licking an apple would break the fast. In the end, they made it through, and we broke our fast with dates and Timbits.

One noted, "It's strange we never see Faraz complaining about this."
Another replied, "Yeah, but he's got Allah."

Throughout the day, there was a buzz around the office, with everyone asking about the progress of the fast and the charity efforts; we had two donation boxes set up around the office and another at a client site. In the end, we raised just over 250$ for the Ottawa Food Bank, an impressive amount considering our rushed preparation. In spite of the fact that it was very difficult for most of the non-Muslim fasters, some were already talking about holding such an event next year with better preparation and more participation.

The Fastathon website expresses their vision as one of a nation as one that is not only accepting of Islam and Muslims, but one that is better because of them. This should be the vision of all Muslims living in North America. We tend to complain about injustice and intolerance and condemn whatever we find condemnable, but we have done very little to alleviate the problems. We lose ourselves in rhetoric, and our action falls short as a result. In the past, entire nations accepted Islam not because they were simply tolerant of it, but because they realized that society as a whole was better with Islam.

Huge thanks go out to CC, TT, TB, and JM for their patience, support, and dedication! And thanks to everyone else who helped out in supporting the event! I know at least some of you read this.

October 15, 2005

The Earthquake

I had been to Northern Pakistan a few years ago, and it really is the most beautiful place I have seen in my life. It was not uncommon to see mountains rooted in flowing streams of sparkling, cold spring water that you could drink right from the ground. Looking out any window was like looking at a beautiful painting.

Many of the people I met there were even more beautiful. They were some of the most humble, hospitable gentlemen I have ever met, and they treated us with so much respect and kindness. I imagine most of the areas I visited were heavily affected by the earthquake; I expect that those same people are now mourning and trying to salvage whatever they can of their possessions and food. On my way to that city, I recall driving alongside mountains for several hours on narrow, curvy roads - our driver kept freaking us out by taking the sharp turns at high speeds, with no barrier between the road and the cliff. I imagine that it must be incredibly difficult to bring food and supplies to those areas via those roads; hopefully there are enough helicopters to cover all the remote areas.

Human Concern International has begun their campaign, and so have a number of other organizations. It is Ramadhan, so let us all try to be charitable insha-Allah!

A few relevant links:

October 09, 2005

On Open Hearts and Empty Stomachs

As part of my ongoing laziness in writing new stuff, plus the fact that I'm busy with Ramadan, I've pulled out an old article I wrote. Originally published in the July 2005 issue of Muslim Link.

During the lifetime of Rasulullah SAW, generousity and self-sacrifice were common qualities. Numerous volumes have been written about the kindness of the companions of the Prophet SAW, and many scholars have spoken about their distinctive qualities. Today, however, we have reduced these inspiring episodes to mere stories that do not apply in modern life. But if one looks at these incidents in depth, one can appreciate their lessons more thoroughly, and recognize how far we have lagged behind.

One such incident was that of a Sahabi who volunteered to entertain a guest of Rasulullah SAW. The guest came to Rasulullah SAW complaining of hunger and distress, but the Prophet had no food available at the time. A man from among the Ansar of Madinah offered to take the guest, and brought him to his home. He informed his wife about his promise to feed the guest, though his wife informed him that there was only enough food in the house to feed the children.

The Sahabi had promised Rasulullah SAW that he would entertain the guest, and so he instructed his wife to put their children to sleep without food. With the children asleep, he sat the guest down and put out the lamp in a feigned effort to adjust it appropriately. With the lights out, he pretended to eat along, while feeding the guest with all the little that they had. The whole family went hungry so that the guest could enjoy the meal.

There are several lessons to take from this incident. First of all, it should be noted that the Sahabi did not know the guest. Today, we will often be ready to help our family and friends in need, but are unwilling to help a stranger, even though he may be Muslim and in greater need.

Another noteworthy point from this story was that the Sahabi did not even know whether he even had enough food for the guest, yet he was still not reluctant to offer his help. Nowadays, before we are willing to open our hearts, we check our wallets and our bank accounts, and then consult our calendars to see if we have time. We are willing to help out only when doing so will not inconvenience ourselves.

Things are changing, however. A number of local initiatives have done wonders to improve the condition of people around the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Poverty and hunger continue to be among the most significant afflictions in the Muslim world, but devoted members of the community are doing their part to assist those in need. The past year has seen local Muslims going hungry to raise money for food banks, fundraisers for disaster-stricken regions, and numerous campaigns to fight poverty.

The onus then lies on ourselves to stop waiting for the perfect opportunity when the conditions are favourable for helping, but rather give ourselves to the will of Allah SWT in any condition. Even if one can do little, no contribution is insignificant when done with the right intention. If we claim to be following the footsteps of our Prophet and his companions, we must recognize that those footsteps pushed forward even when the tides were pushing against them.

October 03, 2005

Reminder proves beneficial for the believers

Message of Ramadhan - alBalagh
Ramadan - The Muslim Reformer - Jamiyatul Ulama Canada
Sighting the Hilal - Jamiyatul Ulama Canada
Ramadan Warriors - Shaikh Muhammad alShareef

Narrated Abu Hurairah (RadhiAllahu'anh) : Allah's Messenger (Sallalaho'alayhi wa salam) said, "When any one of you is observing Saum (fasting) on a day, he should neither indulge in obscene language nor should he raise the voice; and if anyone reviles him or tries to quarrel with him, he should say 'I am observing fast.'" (Bukhari, Muslim)