December 17, 2008

Les Poissons

Les poissons, les poissons
How I love les poissons
Love to chop and to serve little fish!
First I cut off their heads,
Then I pull out the bones
Ah mais oui, Ca c'est toujours delice!
Les poissons, les poissons
Hee hee hee, Hah hah hah!
With the cleaver I hack them in two
I pull out what's inside
And I serve it up fried
God, I love little fishes
Don't you?

Here's something for tempting the palate
Prepared in the classic technique
First you pound the fish flat with a mallet
Then you slash through the skin
Give the belly a slice
Then you rub some salt in
'Cause that makes it taste nice

Zut alors, I have missed one!

Sacre bleu, what is this?
How on earth could I miss
Such a sweet little succulent crab?
Quel dommage, what a loss!
Here we go in the sauce
Now some flour, I think, just a dab
Now I stuff you with bread
It won't hurt 'cause you're dead!
And you're certainly lucky you are
'Cause it's gonna be hot
In my big silver pot
Toodle loo, mon poisson
Au revoir!

credit: Disney's Little Mermaid, and a lengthy fever that has unlocked some unpleasant childhood memories

November 18, 2008

Tribute to the Pilgrims

In the last few weeks, I have been congratulated quite often for my recent marriage. Marriage certainly is a big step in life, and is worthy of celebration. But is it really that special, in comparison to other accomplishments in life?

My closest friend is leaving for Hajj in less than a week. Thinking about the journey he is about to undertake, I can't help but think that his journey, and that of every other pilgrim, is far more worthy of celebration than any marriage. We put so much emphasis on marriage, forgetting about the more important things in life.
  1. Hajj is mandatory (fardh), while marriage is sunnah. Completing Hajj is establishing a pillar of Islam; it is the very foundation of one's deen.
  2. Both marriage and Hajj are once-in-a-lifetime experiences for most people, but Hajj is such an experience that cleanses a person spiritually and can change a life completely. Generally, marriage will also change a person for the better, but it occasionally brings out the worst in people. There is no guarantee that marriage will provide the spiritual renewal that Hajj provides.
  3. Hajj is a privilege that very few get to experience. Assuming an average adult lifespan of seventy years, and an average of two million new pilgrims per year, approximately 140 million Muslims will go for Hajj during the life of an average person. This makes up only 10% of the entire Muslim population - meaning 90% of the Muslims of the world do not get such an opportunity. On the other hand, most people get married eventually, and it is not even something exclusive to Muslims. Most people get married eventually.
Of course, they are not mutually exclusive, so the pursuit of one should not prevent the other. Those who have experienced both are truly lucky. But we must not forget what a privilege the experience of Hajj is, and must confer the appropriate respect and honour to the Pilgrims. They are far more worthy of respect, and deserve all the recognition we can give them.

November 06, 2008

Passing Thought

I recently was thinking about what life might be like if we were unable to visualize thoughts in our minds. Imagine if we actually had to draw out our thoughts on paper in order to "see" them, or speak sounds to hear them. Our brains provide us with such a vivid canvas on which we can easily illustrate in two or three dimensions, internalized within ourselves. It also provides us with a stage in which we can animate anything or anyone in any way we want, and the orchestra to conjure up whatever audio we like.

What if we had these capacities taken away? Could we somehow still get by based only on what we perceive with our eyes and ears?

November 03, 2008

Prayers for Chachi

Please pray for my aunt, the mother of my cousin Nauman, who has recently been diagnosed with colon cancer. Unfortunately, cancer is nothing new to our family, but Allah has been merciful and has cured afflicted family members in the past; insha-Allah, this time will be no different.

Please convey your well-wishes to Nauman here.

October 13, 2008

Comfort of the Eyes

'O Our Lord', grant us from our wives and offspring, the comfort of our eyes, and make us the leaders of the pious. (25:74)

As of two days, the author of this blog is married.  This was not what he had in mind at all.

October 01, 2008

Motionless Journey II: All The Wrong Reasons

Usually, a person learns more from failure than from success. Without facing any challenges, a person tends to become complacent, and would be poorly prepared when their hopes are dashed and things eventually go awry. Failure is one of the greatest teachers in life, and it is something that we should not be ashamed of if it leads to personal growth.

At least, that's the spiel I gave to a job interviewer when, upon reviewing my university transcript and my disastrous Fall 2003 semester, he exclaimed, "what the hell happened here?!"

That same interviewer is now one of my current managers.

It wasn't just fluff I made up to gloss over one of my most difficult stretches of academia. It was something I always believed, perhaps as a defense mechanism against frustration. When things didn't go my way, I tried to generally find some lesson to derive out of those situations. That particular semester of university was almost a revelation for me, learning that the world doesn't end when things go poorly. Life goes on, and in fact, it almost certainly will get better.

You don't want to set yourself up for failure though just to get the lessons. You need to prepare and equip yourself for success, and take failure in stride. When it came to issues of my life and my future, I was always afraid that I'd have to hit a major emotional setback first in order to achieve my goals, so I always kept my emotions heavily guarded. On matters of such importance, I'd rather not learn things the hard way.

My first home after moving away from my family was a shared house with three other Muslim brothers. One of them, who left shortly after I moved in, became a very close friend very quickly. He had graduated from university a couple of years earlier, and had moved to Ottawa after leaving a great job in the city where he grew up and studied. He was part of a good family, had a good job, and was a hafiz to boot, and his welcoming personality made my own transition much easier. As he explained to me, however, his arrival in Ottawa was under less than ideal circumstances.

A failed marriage venture lead to his leaving his old city. In the past, he had been working with a young Muslim woman who was not particularly practicing, whose parents were vehemently opposed to any trace of religion entering their home. My roommate described her as the most beautiful girl in the office, adding that she was constantly teased by the older male coworkers. He was the only one who would give her due respect, warning her about what others were saying and visualizing behind her back. She was touched by his courtesy, and quickly began changing her life by adopting regular prayer and modesty in dress, much to the chagrin of her parents. The first day she came home from work wearing hijab, my friend narrated, she was subject to much verbal abuse by her father.

But she wanted to find a new home and a new family, and that hafiz at work seemed like the perfect candidate to share her life with. Talks began, and one day, the hafiz agreed to meet her parents at their home.

Upon seeing him, dressed in a black jalabiya and his long beard, the parents slammed the door. No way was this "mullah" going to marry their daughter.

They kept discussing, but her parents would not budge, and urged their daughter to leave that job and never to speak with that hafiz again. He did not want her to leave everything behind and break up her family, so he himself left the job and moved away. He kept in touch with her for some time, introducing her to other Muslim sisters in the area who could help her continue developing in Islam. But he recognized that there was no way he could envision a future with her, with a constant struggle between families and values. He needed to break away completely.

There was no happy ending to this story, per se. I lost touch with that roommate over time, so I don't know what happened to that young woman, though that roommate did eventually marry from back home. But as this story was being narrated to me eight years back, I made a number of mental notes about what to do and what to avoid should I find myself in the same situation. When it came to marriage, I was too afraid to learn from my own failed ventures; I wanted to learn from others instead.

As the years went by and I heard other, similar stories, I noticed a few recurring themes in the failed ventures. Usually, it came down to parents having conflicting values, or the prospective couple themselves being unable to reconcile petty differences. What put them together in the first place was usually quite a lengthy, and often dramatic, story.

And therein lies the rub, I thought. Nearly every failed engagement or failed marriage I have seen began with a long pre-engagement story. Often, people look for a story, because no one likes telling people at work that "my parents met her parents, and we spoke a few times, and decided to get married".

No, people want a story, a romantic adventure, a tale to tell their children about "how we met", perhaps even an entire theme for their blog. And often, it backfires, and the guy ends up marrying from back home to avoid "the hassle" (how offensive is that?) while the girl's parents lose all hope that anyone would ever marry her due to that one broken engagement or divorce. It's a terrible cycle that leaves families broken and divided, and the unfortunate victims in all this usually end up being the girls. They are stigmatized by a culture which fails to recognize their immense talents and capabilities.

On the other hand, most of the successful marriages I see are the result of a very formal and boring process. We even sarcastically call the initial meetings "interviews", likening the spouse search to the post-graduation job search. All the excitement is saved for after marriage, where the young couple learns to adapt to their new life together, building their relationship with exclusive commitment to each other. Of course, exceptions exist where things aren't as smooth, just as exceptions exist in the former case where couples complete their dramatic stories with beautiful marriages and cute children.

As was the case of my former roommate and a number of other stories I heard over the years, things went sour because of parents with all the wrong priorities, seeking marriage for their children for all the wrong reasons. In many of the more recent cases of failed engagements in my community, I was surprised no one else saw it coming; all the warning signs were clearly visible. But for parents who want wealthy husbands for their daughters, or those who want beautiful and fair-skinned wives for their sons, those signs often do not register.

We have been taught to judge compatibility based on a person's piety. But what does this actually mean? "Well, Allah has ordered men to provide for their families, so our future son-in-law must be a doctor, because he can provide the best, therefore he is the best in piety!" Or, "the Quran describes the women of Paradise as beautiful, and so beauty is part of deen! Beautiful and fair skinned and I never read anything in the Quran commanding hijab, why I know this one hijabi girl who you wouldn't believe the stories i heard blah blah blah ..." Um, not quite.

I never had much tolerance for that. If someone was inquiring about me, I wanted it to be for the right reasons. I remember being in Vancouver one day, receiving a phone call from some uncle in Toronto who clearly failed to recognize that there is a three hour time difference. A father to a daughter in her early 20s, he had spoken to my parents about my availability. But before properly introducing himself or even telling me so much as his daughter's name (which I never found out), he asked:

"So, what is your salary?"

I could have told him. Alhamdulillah, I do okay, but he had already turned me off. I sarcastically replied, "oh, it's somewhere in the five-figure range". He pressed further, but I had lost interest. He also encouraged me to pursue a Master's degree, because clearly I wasn't earning enough if I was not ready to divulge that information. I told him I was happy with the way my life is going, and don't see any need to change things considerably, particularly on the advice of someone who had never met me. It wasn't my best of moments, as I wasn't particularly polite, though perhaps the time of day affected my tone of voice. I never heard from him again, but he had already lost me long before I even said a word.

In retrospect, it didn't bother me much. I had been through much worse, and he certainly made my life easier by establishing his priorities from the outset. I should have thanked him for being so blunt.

A few weeks ago, I spent two hours driving between cities with one relative that I had never really spoken to very deeply before. He migrated to Canada from Pakistan in the early seventies, and married from Pakistan shortly thereafter. He told me the stories of his own marriage search, and it surprised me how similar his stories were to those I hear about here in Canada. I thought issues of marriage were so simple back then, but he taught me that it has always been this way, and perhaps it always will be. Now happily married for over thirty years with very cute grandchildren, he showed that things work out eventually if one goes in with the right intentions.

The right intentions. The right intentions are to obey the order of Allah and the tradition of the Prophet, peace be upon him, by choosing a companion to share one's life and afterlife with. So simple in concept, but in practice, we have introduced so many unnecessary complications that have made it one of most hotly-debated topics of our generation.

I touched on this topic before, when writing of Goldilocks last year. It was a direct response to incidents from only days before, and I still look upon it as one of my personal favourites from this blog. Unfortunately, Goldilocks did not fare too well, a fate I wrote as something of a personal warning. I learn more from failures than from success, so I figured I can just fictionalize the failures so I don't need to experience them myself. It turned out to be a good move.

I'll try to finish this sometime early next week, insha-Allah. Eid Mubarak, everyone!

September 19, 2008

Motionless Journey I: A Dawning Reality

I was always a bit naïve when it came to the way things worked in love and life. I was born and raised in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, but somehow felt that really, the society around me didn't tread too far away from our traditions of marriage and companionship. The process was a bit different, but the goals were ultimately the same.

I always assumed that what I saw on sitcoms, where characters would have a new girlfriend or boyfriend every week or two (or sometimes several in one episode), was purely fiction. Or, if not fiction, then more a product of American society, and not at all reflective of my image of pure, pristine Canada. A completely different world, I thought! In Canada, any relationship between a boy and a girl was just the precursor to marriage and traditional, suburban life. Kids, minivans, and problems that are solved in thirty minutes minus commercials.

I am not sure how I managed all those years being so aloof. What really went on around me, among my friends and classmates at the time, was quite far off from my understanding. Eventually, friends would confide in me with their stories, and I was quietly horrified by the clearly foolish decisions they made. I didn't understand how people could be so negligent of their own realities.

As I grew up and began living on my own, I became much more appreciative of the traditional rishta system of family and marriage; when executed in conjunction with the rest of Islamic principles, it actually worked. During my early university years, there was no pressure, and I was free from the stress that complex emotional relationships bring while navigating through my engineering degree. I understood that everything had a time, and my time was not soon. I didn't need to worry.

Of course, things changed, and MSA began consuming a good chunk of my time. And of course, late night discussions with fellow MSA brothers would invariably lead to discussions about marriage. The popular opinion was that the system was "broken" in North America, or that it was, at best, an unsolved problem. I observed with great curiosity as others took their steps on that path, many unsuccessfully. I kept myself comfortably distanced, making mental notes of every mistake I caught and every good idea I witnessed.

The stories I heard were not uncommon; issues with potential in-laws, conflicting ambitions, incompatible cultures, distance, et cetera. None of these seemed all that threatening to me, having heard much worse from my high school days. I didn't find the system to be broken, per se, as rarely did any of these incidents leave lasting emotional scars. In the entire journey, they were mere blips, frustrating only for those who expected instant results.

A broken system, in my mind, involved men and women scouting singles bars, drowning their inhibitions to score for a night, without much thought about the days or weeks after. A broken system makes "commitment" a bad word. A broken system involves suppressing your good conscience via intoxication or ignorance, letting animalistic desire take over. A broken system includes "relationship experts" who can't get their own act together, let alone advise others. Just by providing me the foresight and tools to avoid all this, I qualified our pseudo-Islamic-but-largely-cultural system, even in North America, as functional and credible.

I remember watching an episode of Frasier one day. The ongoing storyline in that series involved the infatuation of Frasier's brother Niles with the housekeeper Daphne. Eventually, Niles won the object of his affection, and at some point had this conversation with his brother:
Niles: I think we may be taking our relationship to the next level.

Frasier: Oh, my God, Niles! You're going to propose?

Niles: No, not that level, the level before that.

Frasier: You're going to ask her to move in with you?

Niles: One more level before that.

Frasier: Well, you're already dating...

Niles: No, that's two levels.

Frasier: Oh, for heaven's sake, just tell me!

Niles: Well, you know. We're going to... consummate our relationship.
According to this exchange, the sequence is as follows:
  1. Dating
  2. Consummation
  3. Living together
  4. Engagement / Marriage
The model is almost a complete reversal of the Islamic model. Thinking about all the stories I heard from friends and colleagues who attempted to exercise this model, it always struck me as stupid - as evidenced by a success rate that would barely qualify as a passing grade in the substandard Ontario school system.

I would have thought that, at some point, people would have re-evaluated this process and realized it needed tweaking. No high-performing business would maintain a business model that yielded such a high failure rate. In any productive society, the family is the most fundamental structure, and should thus be built on the most solid foundations. Exposing the family to this much risk is not enlightenment, it is simply poor planning.

When I think about the quality of most of the Muslim brothers and sisters I have known over the years, particularly those born and raised in the West, I can only conclude that the traditional system works reliably. These wonderful people I have known are the products of this system, and many have already established families of their own. Yes, we complain about the actual search for a spouse being difficult and convoluted, but this is only one stage in a much larger process. In the context of the lifetime influences this system has on us, we should feel extremely grateful. Life could have been so much more complicated.

The West introduced first generation Canadian Muslims like myself to a system which appeared liberating, exciting, and emotionally gratifying. In reality, it's not any of these things. It's much more of an unsolved problem than Muslim marriage in the West, inefficient and prone to failure. While things are not always perfect in every Muslim household, the traditional Muslim family structure is still something to cherish and be proud of. Certainly, things can always be improved, but nothing in life is easy; furthermore, if things were too easy, we would have no appreciation for it. The day we recognize how fortunate we are to have our convoluted system is the day our own journey becomes smoother.

The steps to achieving that realization, of course, are not always smooth in itself. A few stories in particular helped shape my understanding, and continue to help forge my path forward. To be eventually continued...

September 17, 2008

Geometry Lessons

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Diamond Shreddies, a product of the "latest advancements in cereal rotation technology". Last night, I received an e-mail from someone on the Diamond Shreddies marketing department about their latest press release.

Some noteworthy excerpts:
Records obtained from an unnamed Shreddies source reveal that not everyone supports Diamond Shreddies self-proclaimed geometric superiority.
"You are sending the wrong information to kids about geometric shapes," says one concerned parent, to whom The President of Shreddies responded: "You are partially correct, the true geometric name is Rhombus Shreddies, but unfortunately Rhombus failed miserably when tested against Diamond Shreddies in consumer groups."

Rhombus Shreddies sound delicious.

Further investigation revealed some complaints focused on the issue of product shape controls gone awry.
One consumer wrote "I purchased a box of the new Diamond Shreddies and only half were the diamond shape!"

I can relate. Sometimes, my Cheerios are Cheeriovals, and it drives me nuts.

September 10, 2008

Jar of Raisins

On the upcoming election: I love how in Canada, an election can be announced, campaigned, and settled within seven weeks, whereas our neighbours to the south have been in election mode for over a year and will continue to be for another few months. And the worst "scandals" in Canadian politics wouldn't even raise an eyebrow down there, amid all the prevailing stupidity.

Canadian politics are terribly boring, which is something we should all be thankful for.

On hockey and deciding: What on earth is Mats Sundin waiting for? If only he knew about istikhara.

On praying: When praying for something, one shouldn't ask for the means to an end; rather, ask for the end itself. If you are having financial difficulties, don't ask for lots of money; that money won't necessarily provide your solution, and may in fact bring about more difficulties. Simply ask for relief from your financial woes, and let Allah decide the means. If you're feeling sick or lonely, don't ask for a specific medicine or a specific companion; instead ask for relief from these afflictions, and insha-Allah, you will find what you need even if it is not what you expected.

Pompous uncles: This was supposed to be a post in itself, but just a few things have been on my mind of late. Often, Muslim scholars are often the subject of ridicule by uncles who think they know better. I have observed that, whenever an uncle begins to mock one of these scholars, he will switch over to English, as if speaking a Western language gives him more legitimacy in his tantrums. It is a sad reality that those scholars living in the West who are not well versed in English often get a bad rap, and are not taken seriously.

I understand the importance of speaking the local language, in order to be able to relate to the youth and the greater society. However, the inability to speak English should not detract from all the studies these scholars have pursued; what they have spent their lives learning is far more valuable than any basic language. It might take some time for them to integrate, but if we bear patiently and help them out, the community as a whole will prosper. Our 'ulema have a very high status according to many hadith, and we should appreciate that in its own right irrespective of language or background.

Furthermore, Muslim scholars are, by default, very studious individuals, and learning a simple language like English should not be a huge challenge for them. Many complained about a recent decision by a prominent local mosque to have an Arab government appoint their imam; the new imam speaks very little English right now, and I was among those who thought it was a poor decision. In retrospect, I realize that we should give him and all imported scholars a chance, and not let our pride in language get in the way of appreciating what they have accomplished; the language skills will come with time. I still find it bizarre that the decision came from a government, but that is a topic in itself.

On ignorance: Avoid it if you can.

Peace and Tranquility Descend Upon Them

Abu Hurairah and Abu Sa'id al-Khudri radhiAllahu'anhuma both bear witness that Nabi salAllahu'alayhi wa salam said, "There isn't a group of people who sit in the remembrance of Allah 'Azza wa jall, except that the angels surround this group with their wings, and Allah's Mercy covers them, and peace and tranquility descends upon them, and Allah mentions them in the gathering of angels."

August 29, 2008

Love and Hate

I have noticed that many non-Muslims assume that Muslims dread Ramadhan. Many believe that the idea of giving up food and water all day for thirty straight days is unbearable. Many probably think that most of us fast only "because we have to", and not out of a sincere desire for spiritual rectification and renewal.

So I decided to run a simple social experiment, and see how many Google results appear for the following strings: "I love Ramadan", and "I hate Ramadan".

Not surprisingly, the "I love Ramadan" crowd (approximately 900 results) outnumbered the "I hate Ramadan" crowd (approximately 90 results) by a fair margin. I was surprised, however, how few results were returned, seeing as how nearly every Muslim blog I've seen will have at least one post or one comment that discusses the joys of the blessed month. Alternately, "I love Islam" returns over 35,000 results, while only eight results appear for "I love Hajj".

Factoring in different spellings (Ramadhan versus Ramadan versus Ramzaan), the "love" crowd typically outnumbered the "hate" crowd by a 10-to-1 margin. Furthermore, many of the "I hate Ramadan" posts were prefixed with "Not that ...", as in "Not that I hate Ramadan, but ...", so even the "hate" results were not really negative.

So for all those naysayers, there you go: we sincerely love Ramadan. It is a joyous occasion for all, and we are all eagerly awaiting it's auspicious arrival. May we all take full advantage of it, insha-Allah.

August 28, 2008

Pre-Ramadhan Randomness

I have a lot to write these days, but have been under the weather for some time now. So for now, I will just link to the most recent edition of Muslim Link, which includes my first article there in over a year.

Muslim Link Ramadhan Issue
Original, unedited version

The front page article is mine, though unfortunately it went through a few edits that screwed up the grammar and wording. I'm tempted to volunteer regularly again as an editor because they certainly need the help, but have a few other requests that I need to respond to first. I need to learn to prioritize.

The following topics have been on my mind of late, and I'll probably write about at least one of these eventually, not sure which.
  • Condescending uncles and their derision for "mullahs".
  • Agreeing to disagree, in the light of the sunnah.
  • My take on all the marriage discussion around the blogosphere these days.
  • Jum'ah woes; responding to the recent imam controversies in Ottawa.
  • Why I strongly dislike 99% of the wedding speeches I keep hearing.
In the meantime, I might as well share some pictures from my trip to Banff earlier this year. I meant to post these up five months ago, but it kept slipping my mind. Enjoy!

July 31, 2008

Where is the future of knowledge?

A few weeks ago, as I was walking through the basement of my apartment building, I noticed this sitting in a corner normally used for dropping bulk garbage:

It was a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in perfect condition. Encyclopedias are not cheap, and the Britannica in particular is one of the more reputable ones. This edition was graced by many colour pictures on glossy pages, and must have cost the owner at least a thousand dollars when initially purchased.

Of course, it was from 1986. Since then, the world has changed significantly, and almost every article in those 24 volumes and several thousands of pages would be obsolete.

I remember elementary school and high school well. In elementary school, kindergarten to grade six in my home province, we used to do projects every once in a while about an animal or a country or a person. That meant going to both the school's library as well as the local municipal library, and spending hours searching through books and encyclopedias to find the information I needed. Then I would put it all together in one unified piece, load the pages into a duotang (do people still use duotangs?), and then submit it to my teacher. The research and consolidation was a lot of work, but it certainly helped me become a better writer and thinker.

I don't need to do any of this work anymore, and neither do those kids who are doing those same projects. I can see the rationale of that family that threw out their Encyclopedia set; they must have asked themselves, "will we or anyone else ever refer to this encyclopedia again?" There really is no reason to do so ever. The encyclopedia only serves an aesthetic purpose today, and offers nothing else of value.

In spite of the completely open nature of Wikipedia, it is surprisingly an extremely well managed resource. You may not get 100% accurate information every time, but what you get is usually of excellent quality regardless, even on the most obscure topics. At the same time, what guarantee do I have that Britannica was 100% accurate in it's heyday?

I originally planned on writing this when Google's Knol project first opened up to the public last week. Knol aims to distinguish itself from Wikipedia by putting more accountability on the content authors. Users are only expected to contribute "Knols" if they are authorities on their topic.

When I first started exploring Knol, there was no entry on Islam, and I thought I would contribute one lest it be scooped up by a so-called "experts" who interpret the faith according to their own whims and desires. A week later, there are no fewer than 34 articles about Islam, though many of them appear to be simple copy/pastes from Wikipedia articles or other websites. I haven't read anything particularly inflammatory yet, but Google's system here somehow seems more prone to bias and personal opinion.

I don't think Knol will catch on, mainly because the presentation is quite poor so far. Wikipedia is beautifully consistent, and makes finding the information I want much easier, whereas every Knol article appears to adopt it's own layout rules and writing style. But I'd still like to contribute some of my "expertise" somehow, but what topics (outside of twisted metaphors) can I be considered an "authority" in?

Whether Google succeeds or not, it is clear that the future of knowledge will not lie on paper. Books will always have their place, but bits of binary data flowing through the tubes of the Internet will serve as the records of our time for future historians studying life in the 21st century.

In the past, they said that "history is written by the winners." That statement is soon to be irrelevant. Going forward, history will be written by the people with flexible data plans.

July 21, 2008

A Complete Beginner's Guide to RSS

For those of you who are confused about RSS, I wrote a guide a few weeks ago for Unfortunately, some bizarre technical issues were preventing me from publishing it right away, so it was significantly delayed. It's up now, so head on over and have a look for yourself.

A Complete Beginner's Guide to RSS
The most common definition of RSS is “Really Simple Syndication”. Essentially, it is a standardized way of publishing frequently updated information. Many websites with frequently updated content will publish “RSS feeds” in order to alert readers whenever new material is posted...

June 27, 2008

WILTW4 – The Ottawa Terrorism Trial

Like most Muslims in Ottawa, my attention this week was largely focused on the trial of Momin Khawaja.  Momin was the first Canadian arrested under the post-9/11 Anti-Terrorism laws, back in March of 2004.  His whole family was detained by police that day, with one of his brothers picked up from home, another from our university, and his mother from a grocery store.  It was a calculated raid unlike any we had ever seen in this city, and the target was someone most of us knew personally.  After four years, during which Momin has been locked up in an Ottawa prison, his trial finally began this Monday.

It was a confusing time, those first few weeks after the arrests.  It shook the community to its core, forcing us out of our comfort zone and into a strange world of politics and conspiracy.  Many questions were raised, none answered.  We all thought it was a terrible mistake, and could not believe the accusations.  The family was a respectable one, prominent within their community and active at the local mosque.  But days after the arrests, their pictures were all over the newspapers alongside detailed diagrams of their neighbourhood showing the path that RCMP officers used to break into their home.  Days after the raid, the media had already smeared their name and proclaimed their guilt.  I can’t begin to imagine how difficult life has been for them since.

It still is a confusing time.  The trial began with the testimony of star witness Junaid Babar garnering the most attention.  Mr. Babar had already pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offences in the past, but has been testifying against others in an effort to lighten his sentence.  Five British Muslims have already been sentenced to life in prison on his testimony, being accused of plotting an attack against a London nightclub.  Momin is accused of having conspired with that group.

Reading the news has been rather surreal, seeing pictures of those parents that I had seen before at community events and mosque fundraisers, seeing our friends on television sharing their insight.  The names being thrown around as unwilling participants in the alleged plot are names I see on my MSA mailing list.  According to some of the testimony, “hockey” was used as a code-word for Paintball sessions in order to avoid suspicion; I’ve heard that corroborated by my own friends.  Even some blogs I’ve read in the past have strange connections to the testimony being published throughout the world.  It’s all very real and very local, and is equally as disturbing as it is frightening.

This is very different from the so-called “Toronto 18”, which is slowly being revealed as a complete sham of a case.  No, the Ottawa arrest and the subsequent trial is far more calculated, far more drastic, with deeper ramifications for the future of national security policy and the place of Muslims in Canadian society.

Nothing is proven, of course, and the trial has only begun; it is expected to run for several more months.  Undoubtedly, we will hear more testimony, more perspectives, and the overall picture will become clearer over time.  In the meantime, I can only hope and pray that all is resolved in a just and fair manner.

In-Line Comments and Moderation

I'm testing in-line comments in Blogger right now, which is a long overdue feature. The Captcha was really annoying with this in-line commenting, so I've gotten rid of it and enabled comment moderation instead. So don't think you're being censored, I'm just trying to make things less annoying.

June 19, 2008

What I Learned This Week – Part Three

It’s been raining all week.  Not exactly what one expects from the middle of June, but I actually enjoy the cool weather.  And of course, I learned something from it.

It always rains in England.  And I learned this week that I will not be going to England next month, as I had originally expected, due to some unfortunate bureaucracy.  I was looking forward to the trip, as a way to take a break from what has been a fairly tiresome routine for the last few months.  I suppose I had become too accustomed to the jetsetting lifestyle that took up most of my 2006-2007, and being grounded for so long has been somewhat frustrating.  All things considered, most people don’t get the enjoyment of travel nearly as much as I do, so I should consider myself thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, and not dwell on the opportunities I lost.

Back to the Future wasn’t exactly accurate.  My boss was worried about playing softball the other day due to the impending lightning storm, afraid that holding a metal bat would make him a prime target for being struck by a bolt of lightning.  That triggered a moment of inspiration for me; I remembered reading once that the CN Tower is struck by lightning nearly 50 times per year.  With a severe energy crisis, I thought to myself, can’t we harness that energy somehow? After all, it was certainly enough to generate 1.21 gigawatts to set off the Delorean back to 1985.  A very large capacitor could potentially (har har!) be charged by a lightning rod, and then trickle the current out to the local power grid.  Converting the CN Tower to a massive power station seemed brilliant, and somewhat practical.

Of course, I wasn’t the first person to think up the potential benefits of harnessing lightning.  A quick Google search lead to tonnes of material about why it isn’t really as practical as one might think.  The best article I read on the topic was this one, which concludes that even in the most ideal conditions, lightning will typically only generate enough electricity to power two households per month.  Still, it’s an interesting area of research, if one could simulate the conditions that cause lightning in the first place.  This article talks about a researcher trying to do exactly that.  I’ll keep my eyes open for any further research on the topic.

I still don’t like sand.  A colleague was suggesting I travel to Hawaii or Barbados using the remainder of my frequent flyer miles for a vacation I am planning for later this year.  But after passing by a beach volleyball court the other day, I quickly remembered how much I dislike the feeling of sand, especially wet sand.  If ever I wrote a personals ad, I would start it off with, “I hate long walks on the beach.”

June 13, 2008

What I Learned This Week – Part Two

The cryptic style of my first WILTW post wasn’t really what I was going for.  At the very least, I can be happy that it put some content on this site, but useless content is not much better than no content whatsoever.  So WILTW will instead focus on whatever lessons I managed to take out of the events of this week.

And yet, somehow, life goes on.  This could have been the punchline to one of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes strips of all time, but the panel that follows is just as memorable.

And yet, somehow, life goes on.

I was reminded of this comic a few times by a colleague who is a fantastic complainer, finding fault in every little thing, be it the weather, the cafeteria food, or the width of the hallway.  I usually find this sort of extreme pessimism somewhat amusing, but it’s actually pretty sad.  As one friend liked to often repeat, “people are dying!” and we are complaining about the most immaterial things.  I often find myself guilty of complaining about minor things as well.

It’s often hard to keep that larger perspective, to sympathize with the sufferings of the rest of the world and appreciate how truly lucky we actually are.  Sometimes, it’s just too depressing, and instead of instilling a sense of gratitude, we simply feel helpless and annoyed.  Thus, taking some time to reflect on our own happiness is a worthy endeavour once in a while.

What is the value of tradition? Apparently, it’s $2.5 million dollars.  That is the price that the CBC was unwilling to pay for continued use of the famous Hockey Night in Canada theme.  CTV was rather shrewd in picking it up right away, effectively usurping forty years of tradition and history.  It will be interesting to see how things play out next season, if that song alone can draw people away from CBC and to the rival networks.

Unfortunately, the hilarious Colbert segment on the fiasco was pulled from YouTube. 


There are some professions that just wouldn’t suit me.  I’ve learned this week that the following professions would not suit me at all:

  • Bus / Taxi Driver: I tend to take wrong turns way too often.  Plus, I don’t even like driving.
  • Collections Agent: This is ironic because my first summer job was in Collections, and I was quite good at it.  But I can’t seem to bring myself to ask for things back after lending to others.
  • Hitman: I wouldn’t even know where to begin here.
  • Chef: Cereal doesn’t count.
  • Judge / Police Man / Lawyer: I think I’d give people way too many chances if they seemed nice.


Other topics on my mind these days will hopefully come soon in the form of a more structured, better written post.  Until then, have a great weekend!

June 08, 2008

Fish story

I have a folder on my laptop in which I have a bunch of text files written when working offline. Some of them become eventual blog posts, but more often, I forget about them entirely until months later. This little piece was dated July 29th, 2007. I'm not sure what I was thinking when I wrote it, but perhaps it may resonate with someone somehow.

* * *

Pacific salmon
Swimming against the current
Don't you know?
The current won't shift
Passive, patient,
Calculating the flow
Take your time
You'll have your day.

Or another's.
Du jour, the special
Catch of the day
And a sandwich, a salad, a bed of rice.

Resist the tide.
Break the waves.
Though you may
Be eaten alive.

And challenge the fears that hold you back
And go down fighting, and not as snack.

June 05, 2008

What I Learned This Week - Part One

I have really had a hard time writing of late. I am not quite sure why, as I have had no shortage of thoughts, and an adequate amount of time. I think my problem has been that I've been writing mostly long posts of late, and have hesitated to write simple, thoughtful posts that reflected what was on my mind at the time.

I'd like to write a post at least once a week, even if it means having "filler". So I will try starting a simple series of posts about "what I learned this week". These posts might not contain much insight, but will serve as a repository for my own memories, and hopefully become a springboard for deeper insights.

So, what I learned this week, part one:
  1. A lot can happen in 35 seconds.

  2. But being one second late can be disastrous.

  3. Good character is of extreme importance to one's life and hereafter.

  4. The standard rules of respect and courtesy don't apply on crowded buses.

Update 2008.06.06: And within the last few minutes, I have learned something new. Now, lying awake, I am now wondering if it was all a case of mistaken identity.

April 22, 2008


They say hockey is a religion in Canada. It binds fans, amazes them, frustrates them, and gives them something to believe in when all else seems amiss. For many, it is the hope that keeps them optimistic through trials. It brings people from all walks of life together - the rich and the poor cheer side by side when their team wins, and sulk and complain together after losses. From those sitting in the luxury boxes, to those listening to the games on a borrowed radio, everyone shares the joy and pain together.

It is no wonder, then, that it is also plagued by a handful of overzealous fanatics who tarnish the good name of the game and it's fans. When the Habs finally put away the resilient Boston Bruins in the deciding seventh game last night, the "moderate" adherents celebrated by cheering through the streets. Millions of people throughout the province watched with joy as the fourth and fifth goals were scored to dash any chance of an improbable Bruin comeback. But for a few dozen alcohol-fueled hooligans, cheering was not enough.

And so they set aflame police cars, smashed windows of nearby stores, and caused over a half million dollars of damage throughout downtown Montreal in a senseless riot. Just like 1993, when the Habs last won the Stanley Cup. And 1994, in Vancouver. And probably in dozens of other cities for other sports with other passionate fans. In spite of the healthy competition and pure athleticism that define professional sports, it also brings out the worst in people.

Fans of a hockey team are always judged by their class. Every city likes to claim that it is home to the "classiest" fans, while all other teams are characterized by how "unclassy" their fans are. And now the entire hockey world is calling out the people of Montreal as classless, while Montrealers are arguing that the riots were isolated cases that do not truly represent the city of Montreal or the people that live there.

All this seems very familiar to me. The voice of the "true fans", the vast majority of them completely horrified by the barbarism that took place last night, is drowned out by a small number of idiots. And what else are others to think, when the images they see in the media are that of burning cars, smashed windows, and senseless yelling?

When the images in the media portray the same sort of violence and insanity in the Muslim world, it hurts over a billion people in a similar manner. We know what everyone is seeing in the media, and we know it doesn't represent our beliefs at all. But for all our efforts to clear our names, the next case of stupidity cancels out everything good that was said and done.

A few days earlier, in Boston, a Montrealer was beaten nearly to death for wearing a red jersey and being French. A couple of drunk Boston fans punched and kicked him to the ground, leaving him unconscious in a large pool of his own blood. Nearly killed for, essentially, his beliefs.

Some people criticize religion, based on what they observe in the media. They complain that it warps minds, kills reason, and incites hatred. What happened in Montreal, what happened in Boston last week - this was all that and more. Just like one wouldn't blame hockey in general for these ugly incidents, one can't blame religion in general for the ugly acts committed in it's name.

What can be blamed, however, is alcohol. It is that, and not hockey itself, that drives people to such idiocy. It is an unfortunate reality that beer is part of the hockey culture in Canada. One can't sit down and watch a game without being interrupted by a number of nonsensical beer commercials. It is like this with most professional sports, I'm sure, but I can't be bothered to check.

I absolutely hate smoking and cigarettes, and I fully support all the laws that seek to suppress it. Tobacco companies are forbidden from advertising on billboards and in television commercials, smokers are forced to pay extreme taxes to feed their habit, and even the cigarette boxes are required to contain graphic anti-smoking messages. But in spite of all this, I've never heard of anyone causing a half million dollars of damage due to the influence of cigarettes. I've never heard of someone beaten brutally due to the influence of cigarettes. I've never heard of someone cause a fatal car accident because of a tobacco overdose.

Alcohol has done all that, and more. And yet, it is not only a tolerated habit, it is celebrated. And it is somehow spared of any criticism when incidents like last night in Montreal, or last week in Boston, happen. Yes, these incidents are rare, but still much more common than violent religious fervour, which gets all the press.

Alhamdulillah that Islam has protected me from the habits that drive people to such foolishness. For all that critics argue against Islam and other religions, it is perhaps the only force that will protect us from the most fatal influences. New, Shiny, and Exciting!

The long awaited revamp is complete! I'm a little late in announcing it, but better late than never. In addition, the winners of the photo contest have also been announced, so take a look at the many excellent submissions.

Other new features:
  • Beautiful new layout courtesy of Shazia Mistry
  • New Multimedia content - the best of Muslim art and video
  • Podcast reviews
  • ...and more to come!

As always, you can contribute to by directing us to the best articles, videos, and audio content you find through your Internet journeys.


April 14, 2008

Why I Will Never Become a Sens Fan

In eight years in living in Ottawa as a big hockey fan, I have never liked the Ottawa Senators. Even through several relatively successful years, and a Stanley Cup run that came up just short last season, I never cheered for this team, or felt any inkling of excitement for their success. Even while my Habs missed the playoffs repeatedly, I could never bring myself to like the Sens in their stead.

I almost felt sympathy for them this year for enduring one of the most incredible collapses in hockey history, entering the playoffs as the underdog in a season they began with an astonishing thirteen straight wins. I wanted them to put up a fight against the Penguins, and maybe even advance to the second round. I wanted them to be at least somewhat competitive; I didn't want them to be completely embarrassed by Crosby, Hossa, Malkin, and the rest of the Pittsburgh team.

But they brought on the embarrassment themselves, with what must be the worst introduction to any sporting event in the history of the universe. I didn't like the Sens to begin with, but now I'm not sure I can ever like them, after this ridiculous performance.

I could hardly endure two minutes of this.

If you're going to do something incredibly stupid in front of twenty-thousand people, you should probably at least make sure your microphone is working properly and that your costume fits.

Whoever came up with that idea should be fired, and forced to eat Diamond Shreddies for a year. That might teach them a thing or two about marketing.

March 30, 2008

Plugs in my cereal

As is my somewhat usual Sunday routine, I went out for grocery shopping this morning. I don't usually look for my cereal to be fortified with irony, but I definitely must give credit to the marketing team at Post Cereals for the ironic absurdity that are Diamond Shreddies.

As I picked up a box of Crispix, I looked over at a little girl in the same aisle, pleading to her mother to pick up a box of Diamond Shreddies instead of the boring old regular Shreddies she had already picked up. I couldn't help but laugh at the brilliance of this marketing gimmick.

For those unaware of Shreddies, it is a fairly wholesome whole wheat breakfast cereal, square shaped, usually served in a bowl with milk. There are variations, such as Frosted Shreddies (not halal), and a chocolate variant. Some top it with fruit or honey.

According to the website, recent advances in cereal technology have allowed them to take Shreddies cereal to a whole new level of geometric superiority. Yes, cereal technology. And geometric superiority. These people are amazing.

That 45o degree rotation seduced the little girl, who beckoned her mother to select the rotationally advantaged cereal. The mother complied, and off they went down the aisle. The two cereals are exactly the same inside the box, but only one of them would have random consumers writing about them in their oft-neglected blogs.
One taste and you'll wonder how you've been so square for so long. Welcome to the 45th degree. Welcome to Diamond Shreddies country.

Yes, welcome to the 45th degree. Where I can actually write about cereal legitimately.

March 21, 2008

There's good in everything

We don't usually have control of our lives. We dictate a portion of it through our efforts and perseverance, but life has a way of throwing curves which none of us can anticipate, and which can't always be handled. Athletes, for example, might dedicate their whole lives to their sport, investing every moment toward being the best they can be - and then a serious injury befalls them, and everything they fought for is lost. It only takes a second, and their lives are changed forever. And all they have left are the memories and the lessons.

I've always believed that everything happens for a reason. The good, the bad, and everything in between: all circumstances help shape the people we become, paving the path in our miraculous journey that begins at birth. Not only does everything happen for a reason, but there is good in all that happens. Many may not agree, of course, with that last statement. What good, they ask, can be found in the circumstances that have driven people to poverty, war, and overall misery? One would have to dig very deep to find any reason for optimism. I don't have an answer, but just keep reminding myself that with hardship comes ease. Verily, with hardship comes ease.

Of course, we often have to make the good out of the worst situations; it doesn't always come automatically. And when it does, it is not normally apparent at the time - only in retrospect do we realize why things unfolded as they did. In my own life, one of the best things to happen to me was the direct result of what seemed like the opposite of all my aspirations. A disappointing failure and poor decision-making on my behalf lead to the most important and most memorable period of my personal growth. Such is life.

In the last two weeks, two minor trials befell me. The good in the first incident became apparent only hours after the incident. But a day removed from the second incident, I am struggling to identify why things happened as they did. It all seemed like bad news at the time, and still does. Only with that confidence that there is good in everything am I relating this incident now, so that I may revisit it later and look back upon the unnecessary pessimism of my past self.

* * *

It began when returning to my apartment in Ottawa after a weekend visit in Montreal. Fifteen minutes after leaving my parent's home, my car starting shaking violently, possibly due to ice and snow clogging the exhaust port. Uncomfortable with the drive and only minutes past the bridge off the island, I turned back towards Montreal to switch cars with my mother.

I dropped off my own car at home, grabbed the keys to the old Volkswagen Golf, and headed back towards Ottawa. It was a pleasant journey in that little car, even though I've driven the Ottawa/Montreal stretch hundreds of times. All was well as I approached my apartment building nearly two hours later.

I arrived at my building, and turned into the parking lot to enter the parking garage, the massive door still open from a car just ahead of me. I advanced my car through the door, and BAM! The whole car shook, the heavy garage door having dropped right on the car. Normally, sensors would dictate that the door remain open when any cars are in the vicinity, but on this occasion, perhaps due to the heavy snowfall throughout the weekend, something didn't click. After parking and exiting the car, I realized that the door hit me much harder than I thought, and the bike rack above the Golf was knocked right off, left outside on the other side of the garage door.

At first, I was extremely annoyed that within two hours of borrowing my mom's car, I already got into something of an accident, with some minor damage. I realized after, however, that if it were fate that a garage door would drop on my car, it was much better that it fall on the Golf with the bike rack, rather than my Cavalier with it's naked roof. The damage would have been much worse, and could have even resulted in personal injury. The bike rack, there to insulate the blow, was a blessing. Those minor car problems I encountered in my own car, forcing me to turn back and switch, may have helped me avoid a much bigger problem later on.

* * *

And two short weeks later, I was to return to Montreal. A long weekend, and an important one for me. I left work early Thursday afternoon in order to get a head start on my drive back.

I prayed my Zuhr prayer in the local musalla, where I spoke with the imam for a short while. It turned out that he was on his way to Montreal himself shortly, with a flight to catch to Bangladesh later that evening. He was scheduled to take the bus before 5pm, though he worried about having to pray his 'Asr prayer on the bus or at the bus station. He was reluctant to combine prayers when he didn't feel it was necessary to do so, so we decided to travel together in the newly rackless Golf. It was better for me as well, as I get terribly bored driving that 417 alone; all we needed to do was stop off at the Greyhound station to exchange the first segment of his Ottawa/Montreal Return ticket for a 25% refund, and we would be off.

We arrived at the bus station, which was busier than I had ever seen it in all the years I used to commute. I parked the car, while the imam waited in line to return his ticket. Fortunately for me, the spot I parked in happened to have 25 minutes left on the meter, so I thought I'd get out of the car and take a walk through the station. Bad idea. As the imam was approaching the end of the line, I returned to the car. Putting my keys in the ignition, I recited a quick prayer for travelling, and turned the key.

At least, I tried to.

The key wouldn't budge, no matter how hard I tried to turn it. I tried and tried, jiggling the key as much as I could, with no luck. The imam returned, sat down next to me with a smile, saying "challé": "let's go". "I have some bad news," I told him, as I continued my futile attempts at starting the car. He tried as well, to no avail.

It was almost 4:30pm by now, and after asking a number of friends and strangers if they had any ideas, we realized there was nothing we could do but send him back on the bus. He got back in line to buy a new one-way bus ticket to get back to Montreal, while I dropped to the back of the line for the bus itself, behind what seemed like over 200 people. The poor imam would not get a bus at 5pm, I was certain, given the rush at the station. So I waited for the bus with his luggage, while he waited in line to pay the full-fare, one-way ticket, which happened to be ineligible for student rates. After forking over the extra money, he returned to my place in line, and by 5:30pm, he was on a bus towards Montreal. Even if the bus sped down the highway with no traffic, he would be cutting it very close for his flight. Of course, he apologized profusely for all the trouble, though none of it was his fault. I realized, though, that if the roles had been reversed, I would be apologizing as well, in spite of having done nothing wrong per se.

I returned to my car, still stuck in the lot. My free 25 minutes was long gone, so I kept feeding the machine quarters until I had finally run out of both change and patience. The first few friends I called were unable to come and help, so I was waiting there alone. With no idea what do or what would happen in the next few hours, I considered calling my airline and cancelling my own flight that was scheduled for early the next day.

Finally, another friend arrived. Lucky for me, he was an owner of a new Jetta. The paperwork in his car included the new number for the Volkswagen roadside assistance number. I called, and after several levels of navigating the touchtone menu, I reached a customer service agent.

"I'm stuck in a parking lot of a bus station," I told them, "and my key won't turn. It was working just an hour ago, when I left to go to the bus station." I wanted to request a towtruck, thinking any attempts to start the car would be futile, as there seemed to be some significant mechanical problem. But as the agent explained what I should do, I figured I might as well entertain the suggestion.

"Press down on the break as hard as you can, while pushing the steering wheel to the right also as hard as you can", she said. "While doing this, try turning the key ... as hard as you can."

Like that would ever work, I thought. But I followed her instructions, the key not moving.. I kept pushing, and finally .. click, click, putt, putt, vroom - the car started! I couldn't believe it worked.

I thanked the Volkswagen agent and my friend, and decided that now, two hours after my planned departure, was no time to leave for Montreal; I would go home, pray, and leave later in the evening instead. I called the imam, who was still on the bus, to tell him that I made it out.

He was only half the distance to the airport, he told me. And he had his flight in just over an hour. He also lamented having to complete his prayer on the bus. There was little chance he would catch his flight. He told me, "everything happens for a reason; maybe this was a punishment for something, or it could be expiation for us. I was too tired to go to the mosque at fajr time this morning, so I prayed at home - maybe this was because of that." I have no idea. Maybe someday, I will look back on all this, and find some silver lining, but I felt no reason for optimism at the time.

I'm sitting on my own flight now, with no information as to whether the imam caught his flight. Perhaps this little test of patience was something I needed; perhaps I had become too confident with my extensive travel experience, and needed something to bring me back down to earth - both literally and figuratively. Maybe I needed that little challenge in order to prepare me for my own journey. Many would say it was all for naught; that sometimes, things just screw up, with no rhyme or reason, and there's simply nothing we can do about it.

Yet somehow, I know that all this happened for reason. And that there will be good in it, someday.

February 14, 2008

Never a dull moment

Poor Irrelevant Opinions doesn't get enough attention from me anymore. I had thought that I would be posting more often this year given my return to a normal work schedule, without the thousands of kilometres of weekly travel. However, the newfound free time has given me an opportunity to focus on a few side projects that I had been committed to, while writing, reading, and commenting on blog posts fell aside. Look for more information about those projects in the coming months.

Occasionally, I'll bookmark an interesting news article with the intent of writing a post about it. Unfortunately, I tend to forget about them until much later, at which point they are no longer relevant. Today, I happened to stumble upon this old article I had bookmarked about the Three Little Pigs, and Muslim sensitivity. Perfect material for me, really.

The gist of the article is that an adaption of the famous story was pulled from eligibility from a children's literature award for fear of offending Muslims. Not only that, but the book allegedly also offends builders, for as we all know, the pigs build houses of straw, wood, and brick. So if the people who are building houses are depicted as pigs, someone who builds houses for a living may get offended. Brilliant conclusion.

From the article:
The judges criticised the stereotyping in the story of the unfortunate pigs: "Is it true that all builders are cowboys, builders get their work blown down, and builders are like pigs?

Of course, nowhere in the article is a Muslim quoted, nor does anyone from the construction trade offer their insight on the matter.

Why, then, do these judges fear the repercussions of alienating Muslims and construction workers? And God forbid that there be a Muslim construction worker - he would probably go berserk.

The reality is that none of us really care. Pigs, in and of themselves, do not exactly offend most of us. They are the creation of Allah like every other animal. No, we will not eat them, and yes, we do consider them unclean. But they are on this earth for a reason, and surely serve some important purpose in the grand scheme of the universe.

As an open statement to the rest of the world: just ask; it will make you sound a lot less silly. I certainly appreciate your attempts to maintain equity and tolerance, but you should ask us before you tell us what does and does not offend us. You probably won't hear the same answer from every Muslim you ask, but only the most absurd amongst us would be offended by such a book.

Perhaps it was the silly cartoon controversy that put everyone on edge. As had happened with the Muslim world in the early years of this century, the rest of the world became more and more polarized in their attitude towards Muslims. There were those who would leave no verb unconjugated in ridiculing and cursing Muslims, and another camp that would adopt irrational measures to avoid offending us. Both camps often pretend to look for a middle ground, but ultimately come to conclusions that leave everyone unhappy.

Quebec has been in the spotlight for the last few months through the Reasonable Accommodation debates, in which politicians, panelists, and the public have argued over what that middle ground really is. It is unlikely that there will be some grandiose solution to all the problems, but it is perhaps a step in the right direction, with many prominent Muslims having their input heard. Nevertheless, even among Muslims, there is considerable disagreement. Having the hearts and minds of the participants unite on a consistent position is near impossible.

There are, however, some guiding principles that perhaps we can all agree on. First, the "golden rule" is always a good starting point: treat others as you'd like to be treated. Thus, if you do not want to suffer the ridicule of that which you hold dear, then do not ridicule that which others hold dear. If you want to uphold the dignity of your heritage, then let others uphold the dignity of theirs. If you want to protect your own values, expect that others will want to protect values of their own.

This alone is not enough, however. Another important principle is that one should never assume anything on behalf of another. Ask. Investigate. Learn. In a way, this can still fall into the ethics of the golden rule: if you don't want others to speak on your behalf, don't try speaking on behalf of others. Beyond that, though, we must humble ourselves to accepting that we don't have all of the answers on our own, and we need the input of others to form solid conclusions. Of course, swallowing one's pride is never an easy morsel.

A final fundamental principle involves fulfilling one's trusts. Keeping promises, honouring contracts, paying fair wages. If the fulfilment of trusts underlies all of the transactions and relationships between individuals in this country - whether they be immigrants or not, whether they be rich or poor, whatever colour - everyone will get their fair share, leaving no reason to complain. That is, of course, much easier said than done. But it needs to be said, regardless.

There are, of course, many other stories to discuss. The cartoons are back, an archbishop somewhere frightened Europe, a college meditation room sparked a vicious on-line hatefest... surely, there is never a dull moment in the depressing world of incriminating media coverage. Sure, we can try responding to each of these stories individually, protesting in the streets, and flooding the blogs and forums. Or we can simply adopt some common principles of ethics and morality, and leave a lasting impression within our spheres of influence.

Of course, none of this helps those poor construction workers. Oh well.

January 06, 2008

Imams are not the problem

Away on holidays last week, I never got around to reading the comments around my "To my neighbour" piece when it was featured on altmuslim. Upon finally reading them, I found much of the same sort of rhetoric that I am tired of reading, that "radical imams" here in the West are somehow condoning or even encouraging much of the extremism taking place. Regarding the Aqsa Parvez murder, one reader mentioned that "it happened because the culture, absolutely preached from the mosque [...] and exhorted on Canadian Islamic websites" forced her father to kill her out of shame and a twisted sense of honour.

I often hear about these phantom "Canadian Islamic websites", but no one ever actually tells us what they are. Certainly, I have read some rather extreme comments by Muslims on blogs and forums, but I have never read anything that comes even close to condoning this sort of behaviour on any legitimate Muslim Canadian website.

And the imams of our mosques certainly are not encouraging this. I have not prayed in every mosque, but I have been in a fairly unique position over the last few years to experience Friday prayers in many different mosques in many cities throughout North America. The Friday prayer is usually a fairly good vantage point by which to get a feel for a Muslim community, and I've never heard anything of the sort from any imam, anywhere.

If it were only non-Muslims railing against these "radical imams", I could forgive them; they're not the ones meeting these people every day and learning from them. But too often, I read Muslims writing about these imaginary imams, never citing any specific examples, but ranting about how they are perverting the religion for their own benefit. I've heard this even from some of my friends, who themselves could not offer any specific examples, falling instead into vague generalizations before conceding the point.

One reader of my article cited an article about an Iranian cleric who allegedly said that "unveiled women should die".
A top Muslim cleric in Iran, Hojatolislam Gholam Reza Hassani said on Wednesday that women in the country who do not wear the hijab should be killed.

“Women who do not respect the hijab and their husbands deserve to die,” said Hassani, who leads Friday prayers in the city of Urumieh, in Iranian Azerbaijan.

Aside from the fact that the article is uncited and a Google search about this supposed "top Muslim cleric" shows that his only other noteworthy statements involved a campaign to "arrest short-legged dogs", the crux of the matter is that this person does not speak for us or Canadian imams, nor does he have any influence upon matters in this country. If I were to cite some random Romanian priest making some ridiculous claim, would this have any influence on the Christians in Canada? No, and neither would an imam in Iran influence the overwhelming majority of Muslims here.

The complaints against our imams can be that they are sometimes boring; perhaps some of them are not with the times, or lack the knowledge of contemporary culture to resonate with the people. But to condone and encourage the sort of aggression that took the life of a sixteen year-old Muslimah? You would have to search very hard to find an imam who will justify that. If one is found, I am certain that those who follow him would be quick to condemn the statement, and remove him from his post if necessary.

The same people who criticize the imams also speak of the "madrassas" as sinister Islamic seminaries where children are brainwashed with political propaganda and dreams of martyrdom. Again, these allegations are always vague, with no specific examples. Madrassa is not a scary word, it simply means "place of learning". And if you were visiting one for the first time, I'm sure you'd be very much underwhelmed - most are run by kindly uncles teaching the Arabic alphabet (often, quite poorly) in their basement or on the mosque floor.

I am not denying that there may be Muslims out there who hold extremist views. I don't believe they are nearly as much of a threat as the media make them out to be, but there are certainly some Muslims with beliefs that contradict classical teachings, who have a more militant understanding of the religion's history. However, these people are mostly the ones who have pushed aside the scholars and imams, who have failed to heed their advice. They are the ones who went off on their own, ignoring what the imams are teaching, while getting their knowledge instead from shady websites and shadier personalities. It is often through the connection with imams and community leaders that many youth today have protected themselves from extremist thinking, by aligning themselves with classical scholarship rather than letting their own overzealous enthusiasm dictate their beliefs.

Sit with them. Learn from them. Hear them directly, rather than let others tell you what they say and think. Islamic scholarship is a vast discipline with awe-inspiring science and people behind it. Muslims believe that the legacy of the Prophets is knowledge, and that Islamic scholars are the inheritors; we have such people in our midst, a treasure which should not be taken lightly. We as Muslims should show how much we appreciate that, lest it be taken away from us. And I invite any non-Muslims to visit our scholars as well, and hear from them directly; most would be happy to meet you.

Many of the imams and scholars have given up a lot for their communities, asking for little in return, and yet we continue to blame them for all that ails us. And though the character assassination efforts will continue on, these individuals ultimately deserve our honour and respect. It's the least we can do.

January 02, 2008

The Anti-Qiblah

A few weeks ago, I learned of a neat website which uses the Google Maps API to identify the direction of Qiblah (prayer direction towards Mecca) from anywhere in the world. Naturally, I thought to use it to answer a question that has intrigued me for some time: what is the polar opposite of the Qiblah? That is, where in the world can one pray in any direction and still be praying towards Mecca in the shortest possible line? What are you praying toward if you're off by a full 180 degrees?

My cousin and I searched through the South Pacific until we found that specific point, using the Qibla Locator tool. While the exact polar opposite point fell in the middle of the ocean, a nearby island caught our attention. It was a ring-shaped island, quite unlike anything I had seen before.

View Larger Map

At the outset, the island appeared uninhabited. Google's satellite view did a remarkable job in allowing us to zoom into the details, and there were no immediate signs of human interference. But in those details, we noticed something quite unusual: the uniformity of the vegetation. Many of the trees were aligned in an odd grid pattern, almost as if they were replanted after being destroyed somehow.

Looking deeper along the northern perimeter of the ring, we did find some signs of human intervention. There appears to be some sort of helipad, and a few buildings scattered around it. The buildings were nestled perfectly within the grid of trees, leading me to believe that the same people who replanted all those trees have raised those buildings.

It turns out that there are a number of such islands along the South Pacific. The ring shape is a naturally occurring formation called an atoll, but the tree patterns are definitely not natural. I do wonder what is going on in this most remote of locations, furthest away from Mecca. Perhaps it is a nuclear testing site, where scientists are studying the effects of radiation on reforestation efforts. Or maybe they've genetically re-engineered dinosaurs, for the sake of building a massive theme park. Perhaps it is something far less sinister. Either way, it makes for some interesting speculation.

January 01, 2008

A study in contrasts

Three days ago. Miami Beach.

Today, my car.

It's good to be home. :)